Top 10 Hip Hop Albums of 2013

December 18, 2013

This is the second of my genre-specific lists; you can read my picks for the “Top 10 Metal Albums of the year here. My overall “Top 10 Albums of the Year” list can be found by clicking here. Coming soon I will post my “Top 25 Songs of 2013” as well as my picks for the “Top 10 Films of 2013.”

I mentioned in my Metal post that I would be linking to a few related observational pieces about Metal, specifically concerning Metal and religious/philosophical viewpoints as well as Metal tropes and lyrical/imagery commentary. I think a few similar Hip Hop pieces are in order; I realize that I saddle hip hop with more expectation regarding lyrical content and approach than I do many other genres. This has a lot to do with how gender and race issues move so blatantly to the forefront with the repetitive use of certain epithets in hip hop, but it also has to do with the often strict divide between “conscious” rappers who offer social commentary in their music and “popular” (or in certain eras/genres “gangsta”) rappers who forgo such “seriousness.” I am far from the first to ponder these issues, but I feel it’s time to revisit them from my own perspective since it likely affects the way I pick/place particular albums.

Once again, for those who read my blog but could care less about my pop-culture end-of-year lists, I will be beginning a new series of posts on “Evolutionary Theology” in January.

Now on to my picks for the year’s best hip hop albums. This is the first year since I’ve been doing these posts in which not a single hip hop album made my overall Top 10 Albums list; last year Kendrick Lamar placed high and once a hip hop album ranked number 1 (Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers). I was disappointed by much of what I heard in Hip Hop this year; particularly by Eminem’s latest, but his was hardly the only disappointment. Even the albums on the back half of this list have many things about them which disappoint me, but there was also enough about them that I enjoyed that they still placed in my top 10.  Read on and see what you think.

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10) MIA – Matagani

MIA remains one of the most creative voices in all of popular music; her work is global, world Hip Hop. It has long become clear she is not the “visionary” her strongest fans projected her as upon the release of her terrific Kala album years ago, but despite the growing number of detractors she’s had with each record which has followed that first hype-fest, she has remained a strong artist; I thought Maya was far better than many gave it credit for and ranked it with my best album picks the year it came out. But here on Matagani  there are several under-whelming and half-cooked moments. The things that are enjoyable about MIA are still found beneath and around the less than great moments; “Bad Girls” is still one of her best singles ever, finally finding its way onto an album here. There are many other good moments to be found as well,  though no whole song quite lives up to that particular single. I’m waiting though, because I think another (or a a few) great album(s) are waiting for us somewhere in her brain.

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9) Jay-Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail

For all of the hype this album garnered pre-release, and considering it comes from arguably the best (technical) rapper of all time, Magna Carta…is highly under-whelming. If Jay-Z wasn’t so ridiculously talented this would not even be a listenable album in many ways. No one that actually listens to hip hop can possibly relate to Jay in his 1-percenter art-collecting boasts, but that’s beside the point; hip hop fans have been listening to un-relatable personas for decades now. But the fact that he just phones it in on tracks like “Crown” is annoying. Enough complaints; this is in fact placing on my list here, so why? Because of a song like “Heaven”; it actually shows Jay daring to say some things that matter and in doing so over top of a great sample and a decent hook he makes one of the best songs of the year. Then there’s “Picasso Baby” which overflows with those things none of us can relate to but since it is done over such a great beat and features Jay rhyming at the top of his game it garners a pardon and becomes a great track. There are enough good moments on this record that make it worth listening to even when too much of it is indeed mediocre in comparison with his prior work.

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8) Kanye West – Yeezus

Now talk about an artist not phoning it in; hate it or love it, it is undeniable that Kanye West is a creative force with a unique vision and that he is an artist that takes his work seriously. I will admit that I do not love this album, however. I am blown away by the massive amount of love it is receiving, getting top praise from everyone from Rolling Stone to Christian Century ( ! ) in year-end lists. I almost didn’t include it here but I realize a lot of that is because the artist I loved who made the all-time debut classic The College Drop-Out has been slowly disappearing with every new album and transforming into the artist and persona presented here in full on Yeezus. Yet in the end, I had to include it here if for no reason other than its sheer ambition. Despite everything, Kanye is ambitous and he is willing to take risks. He’s also a consummate producer; this is a dark, challenging, intense record in every aspect of its production yet it sounds terrific. It’s the lyrics and the content here that I find beneath Kanye’s talent and intelligence and the only way to excuse that in full is by assuming this is some sort of meta-critique on fame, greed, sex and society. I think a lot of people are making that assumption but I’m not sure that we should truly be so presumptuous. There is plenty here to love and hate and it’s compelling through and through. “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” are undeniable tracks.

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7) Pusha T – My Name is My Name

Kanye again; that is, Kanye produced this record. Pusha T was 1/2 of the coke-rap Miami classic duo Clipse and now that his  brother No Malice has found religion and feels uncomfortable making the kind of nihilistic street menacing tunes the group was famous for, Pusha T continues that line of work as a solo artist. Under Kanye’s production there is a shift in sound for Pusha, but it suits him. After a series of decent mixtapes, My Name is My Name displays a full-set of polished songs which are over-the-top in content and theme yet are delivered in an under-stated and grimy manner.

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6) Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

Chance the Rapper is crazy; that’s the best way of describing his work, rhymes, voice, beats, and album. Nothing sounded like this album. This is the first truly “millennial” hip hop voice I think we’ve heard thus far. Chance claims in interviews he may never release an actual official “album” (“what are those anyway,” he said in a recent Rolling Stone interview). This 13 track mixtape plays like free flow jazz hip hop for the internet generation. He’s fast, holding his own even with his guest the fast-rap champ Twista on the terrific smoke-cloud hit “Cocoa Butter Kisses.” That song and the lust meditation-dissection “Lost” are two of the best hip hop songs of the entire year, and they’re far from the only great songs on this thing. This may have been the most original and creative hip hop work of the year–no one sounded like this on any other album this year (or in any recent year really–he certainly has his own voice).

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5) J Cole – Born Sinner

Cole is interesting in that he seems to always be straddling the backpacker/in the club tight-wire; he’s smart enough to be a “conscious rapper,” but such a fan of classic mainstream hip hop that he seems to push himself to the middle of the lane sometimes. He also hasn’t learned from, say, Eminem’s mistakes on slurs and “controversy”–opening this album with a line in “Villuminati” that throws out “faggot” a few times (not to mention “retards”) and then saying he did so to encourage a discussion in hip hop on homophobia seems to be a bit odd to say the least. Cole is very talented and his first major mixtape hit “Lights Please” (repackaged on his solid official label debut) made me an instant fan and follower of all of his subsequent work. Every time I’m let down by some of his missteps, I’m brought back by some of his highlights–sometimes this occurs over the course of the same song, as is often the case on the tracks here. There are some great catchy songs here and Cole is a truly good rapper; there are brilliant moments that bubble up on many of the songs and throughout much of the bonus material for this album as well. I’m still waiting for his true potential and intelligence to come across in full on an entire album however.

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4) Kevin Gates – The Luca Brasi Story

For the past few years, most of the best hip hop has come out completely free in the form of digital mixtapes. The internet has exploded that old standby of hip hop and expanded and enhanced it; where once a mixtape consisted primarily of an up-start rapper hijacking the beats of current hit songs to rhyme in a mostly unfocused manner to simply show off their technical skills and had to be tracked down on cassette or cheap burnt CDs at barber shops and flea markets, the internet has transformed mixtapes into often label worthy work that serves as debut work for new artists, lavished with quality production and released for free to build hype. Mixtapes also serve as a way to sustain a career between official releases or to serve as experimental forays of already established artists, and this current list showcases some of the variety this form of distribution  now allows. Gates also had a studio release this year, months after Luca Brasi, but it is this mixtape which has remained in my rotation all year. There are certainly some clunkers in this rather lengthy work, but the highlights are really good highlights. “Paper Chasers” is the best sing-songy gangsta rap song since 50’s first album; “Neon Lights” is a late night woozy stunner. His nod to the teen vamp love of “Twilight” showcases his versatility and willingness to pull influence from the unlikeliest of places. And last on tape but certainly not least, the hype-worthy understated acapella storytelling of “IHOP” fully displays his promise and talent.

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3) Drake – Nothing Was the Same

Drake continues to establish himself as the mainstream’s current defining young hip hop artist. “Started From the Bottom” is ridiculously simple yet also ridiculously catchy. It’s also a bit misleading considering that Drake jumped directly from a hit Canadian teen melodrama to hip hop superstar status practically straight out of the gate, but this third official full-length is chock full of hip hop pop little matched by any of his direct competitors. He’s more emo than any hip hop figure in radio’s history, fully willing to open his mind and heart to every listener, detailing his personal relationship, fame, and social struggles more than even “Cleaning Out My Closet” era Eminem. But from the chorus-less “Tuscan Leather” to the 3AM earworm “Wu-Tang Forever”, as well as the Kanye-esque “Worst Behavior”, this is one strong set of songs, perhaps his strongest yet. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is the cherry on top; a full on synth-pop song released in a year full of eighties dance reinterpretations–Drake make’s one of the best of that batch. Just turn the album off after the closing action of the Jay-Z team-up “Pound Cake/Paris Morton 2”;  the bonus tracks (like “All Me” featuring the less than mediocre Big Sean and 2 Chainz in braggadocios consumption at its absolute worst) are simply Drake over-staying his welcome  when ending it on time showcases him on top.

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2) Black Milk – No Poison No Paradise

I have only very recently discovered Black Milk. Had I had this record all year long and absorbed it a bit more it very likely may have been number 1 here on this list and perhaps placed in my overall Top 10 Albums of 2013 list. On my number 1 pick directly ahead, I name one of that duo the best current combination beatmaker-rapper; Black Milk could very well contest that title, so perhaps I should call it a tie. Because production wise, this is a flawless album; and rhyme wise, Milk has a terrific flow, great rhymes, and an enjoyable voice. This is a fine collection of songs as well, one that runs the emotional and conceptual gamut; from Biggie-like storytelling (“Codes and Cabfare”) head-nodders (“Interpret Sabotage”) street-church meditations (“Sunday’s Best”) and get-down seductions (“Parallels”). A lot of these are slow-burning tracks that need to be repeated a few times to truly be absorbed but they are well worth the time that takes. Like everything else on my hip hop list this year, there are (at least for me) occasionally disappointing lyrics in that someone who seems so wholly capable of saying important things also falls victim to some of the content cliches and language of modern hip hop, but this is a fine work nonetheless.

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1) Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels

So last year, two of the best hip hop albums to be released came from Killler Mike (his R.A.P. Music) and El-P (his Cancer4Cure). El-P produced both albums, and it seems like they realized that his production pairs perfectly with Killer Mike’s rhymes; not only that, they also rhyme together on tracks exceedingly well. My vote goes to El-P for current best combination beatmaker-rapper, and Killer Mike continues to manifest the persona of socially conscious yet unapologetic gangster that the 2pacs of yesteryear established as hip hop archetypes. Mike and El are simply a great pair, and thus they’ve formed this “Run the Jewels” duo. Their first record under the new moniker is this self-titled album which they gave away for free this summer. It’s a great, quick, fun hip hop record with the best production and rhymes found on anything (I at least) heard all year long. It lacks the fiery DP meets early Ice Cube political furor of Mike’s best tracks; the lyrical focus of this album seem to be mainly over-the-top imaginary capers, braggadocios swaggering, and simply chaotic wordplay. There are hints (perhaps doses?) of the outside the concerns of the mainstream mentality that both Mike and El-P maintain, and guests like Big Boi drop in to fill out the tracks; all in all this is a more than solid record that was just shy of cracking into my overall Top 10 Albums of 2013 list.

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2 Responses to “Top 10 Hip Hop Albums of 2013”

  1. […] I mentioned in my 10 Best Hip Hop Albums of 2013 post, “Paper Chasers” is simply the best sing-songy gangsta rap track since the first (and […]

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