Now that 2014 has officially been put to bed I figure there couldn’t be a better time to take a moment to share my favorite records of the year.
Make no mistake, these aren’t the only records I dug this year. And this list is in no way supposed to cover every record that dropped during the last 12 months. These are only the joints that I listened to the most as the calendar fell away. There are a lot of other dope records out there. And there are a ton of records that I just didn’t have the opportunity to check out.
With that out of the way, here are my Top 10 (Plus 1) records of 2014, presented in alphabetical order!
Armand Hammer ‘Race Music’ Backwoodz Studioz
Elucid and billy woods’ ‘Race Music’ technically dropped at the tail end of 2013, but I stayed listening to it throughout 2014, so I’m adding it to this list as my official plus one. The title should clue you in that ‘Race Music’ was on some serious shit, examining Black nationalist politics, racism, poverty, the realities of modern urban life, under-discussed Black history, voodoo, and tons of other shit, in raw, lyrically complex fashion. If Run the Jewels occupied the “New School Public Enemy” slot this year (which they did, see below) then Armand Hammer were 2014’s answer to XCLAN by way of Company Flow. Their ‘Furtive Movements’ EP, which dropped in ’14, was just as dope, and kept the duo in rotation year-round.
Atmosphere ‘Southsiders’ Rhymesayers Entertainment
Twenty years and seven albums deep in the game and emcee Slug and beatmaker Ant are still capable of surprising even us longtime listeners. ‘Southsiders’ went back to basics in a serious way after several albums where the duo experimented with live musicians. The beats were simple but melodic, relying on classic boom bap drums, samples, and scratches, while the rhymes remained uncomplicated and emotional. Cuts like “Kanye West” and “Mrs. Interpret” stood out amongst this collection of bangers. The Eyedea dedication “Flicker” will break heartstrings for anybody who was a fan of the dearly-departed wordsmith. Only “Bitter”, with its sing-songy, Eminem-ish hook, disappointed. The rest of the record was head-nodding satisfaction
Busdriver ‘Perfect Hair’ Lex
In some ways ‘Perfect Hair’ was Busdriver’s attempt at making one of those “sensitive guy talking about his relationships” kind of albums that Wheelchair Jimmy has built his Rap career on. Luckily in the hands of ‘Driver that shit comes off less like a cornball move than a creative masterclass from an emcee whose history goes back to the legendary Good Life Cafe, who was a founding member of Project Blowed, and who has led one of the most artful crews of lyricists and beatmakers Los Angeles has ever produced in the Hellfyre Club. Granted, ‘Perfect Hair’ not all “Drake for smart guys”. ‘Driver explores other shit, like race, economics, popular culture (including Hip-Hop of course), in addition to his own personal shortcomings. As such, there’s a chance ‘Perfect Hair’ is his easiest LP to digest. For some reason that made him even more dangerous on the microphone though, since detractors couldn’t just write him off as a wordy weirdo who’s too difficult and “out there” to understand. And the fact that the future-leaning bass-intensive production seemed aimed at the trunk (of your flying car) just made it that much more listenable, even to casual ears.
Clipping ‘CLPPNG’ Sub Pop
This Los Angeles trio was probably just as notable for the visually adventurous video clips that went along with their singles as they were for their experimental but unquestionably trunk-rattling take on traditional Southern California street Rap. It’s supposed to be on some experimental “Noise Rap” shit, but anyone expecting a replacement Death Grips got something more like a Good Life/Project Blowed-influenced take on post-gangsta Rap music with production by a New Millennium Bobcat circa LL Cool J’s ‘Bigger & Deffer’ instead. Blending old-school certified boom, futuristic flavored electronics, focused lyricism, and dose of “noise”, ‘CLPPNG’ proved that Clipping could easily fall in with the new vanguard of Giants of Rap that includes Run the Jewels, Shabazz Palaces, Hellfyre Club, and their ilk.
The Koreatown Oddity ‘200 Tree Rings’ New Los Angeles
He wears a mask like MF DOOM but rhymes like a Blowdian. He’s an actor and comedian but his rap album is on a year end list. Dude is an enigma, wrapped in dope beats, inside of a wolf mask. He deals with some surprisingly tense subjects for a guy in a wolf mask, but does so with the sense of humor and whimsy you’d expect from a guy in a wolf mask. I’m kind of at a loss as to what to say about dude. He’s pretty fucking mysterious in general but opens up in very personal ways when he’s on the microphone. He’ll also bust your shit. And he’s got some really fucking dope beats. I listened to this shit a lot this year.
Open Mike Eagle ‘Dark Comedy’ Mello Musik Group
Over the last few years native Chicagoan turned Los Angelino Open Mike Eagle has consistently released some of my favorite Hip-Hop LPs. His newest record, ‘Dark Comedy’, continues in that tradition of excellence, as well as that of his crew, the Hellfyre Club, comprised of world-class talents like Busdriver, Nocando, milo, and KAIL, amongst others. He deftly deconstructed emcee braggadocio (“We the best, mostly. Sometimes the freshest rhymers. We the tightest, kinda. Respect my qualifiers.”) like a modern-day De La Soul while injecting commentary on racial politics, Jazz jokes, a critique of ‘LOST’, and a ton of humor on “Qualifiers”. Comedian Hannibal Burress joined him to give valuable life advice (though none of it was “Don’t get hit in the head and left for dead in the forest by a former prostitute”) over electronic buzzing and knocking drum programming on the funny-as-fuck “Doug Stamper”. While “Very Much Money (Ice King Dream)”, which laments our societies refusal to acknowledge the “marketability” of people’s real skills and abilities in its blind adherence to the tenets of capitalism via subtle harmony over a synthesized dreamscape, just might be the records crowning achievement.
Run the Jewels ‘Run the Jewels 2’ Mass Appeal
If you would’ve told me when I bought Company Flow’s ‘Funcrusherplus’ cassette back in the day that in the next millennium group frontman El-P would form a duo called Run the Jewels with a former Outkast sideman named Killer Mike which would kinda sorta be 2014’s answer to Public Enemy I would’ve slapped the shit out of you. But here we are twenty years later and not only is that exactly what we’re looking at, but the group in question has released a sophomore album via a “label” owned by Nas, and that album is pretty much universally being praised as the album of the fucking year! I’m inclined to agree with popular opinion on this one. ‘Run the Jewels 2’ is still getting crazy plays from me. The record is unapologetically raw, unembarrassedly intelligent, and ear-fatigue-inducingly bass heavy. It’s what anybody who’s been listening to Rap music since the ’80s expects a Rap record to be. And the kids love it too! I witnessed this first hand when I had the opportunity to peep their totally unbridled live show in Boston in November. As long as there’s a Run the Jewels you should feel free to tell anybody who says “Hip-Hop is Dead” to shut their fucking mouth.
ScHoolboy Q ‘Oxymoron’ TDE
I kinda can’t believe ScHoolboy Q made my list while his crewmate Ab-Soul came up short. Back in 2012, when Q’s ‘Habits & Contradictions’ and Soul’s ‘Control System’ were in-stores the situation would have been the exact opposite. But what can I say? ‘These Days…’ didn’t hit me the same way ‘Control System’ did, and ‘Oxymoron’ appealed to me in ways that ‘Habits’ just couldn’t manage to. The beats are better this time, and there’s far more gun-talk than dick-talk and bitch-talk on this outing. I mean, I never understood dudes who like listening to other dudes rap about their dicks. Or women who like listening to dudes rap about how they’re gonna turn them into prostitutes. Luckily ‘Oxymoron’ is far more concerned with some “gangsta” shit than all that. The song “Gangsta” itself sounds like some West Coast Wu-Tang shit in a year where I couldn’t even tell you what Wu-Tang sounds like any more. “Hoover Street” finds Q painting a picture of inner-city nihilism with his words that I had previously not thought him capable of. After listening to ‘Oxymoron’ I even found it difficult to take issue with all of the self-congratulatory “man of the year” declarations of the Chromatics-sampling first single.
Serengeti ‘Kenny Dennis III’ Joyful Noise
‘Kenny Dennis III’ may be the strangest entry in Chicago Rap veteran Dave Cohn’s ever-growing oeuvre. It’s also a surprisingly satisfying addition to the increasingly convoluted narrative that is his epic Rap-Opera following the ups & downs of his most well known character, Chicago everyman Kenny Dennis. Much of the album is made up of comedic skits featuring Anders “Ders” Holmes of ‘Workaholics’ fame (whose totally fictional connection to Kenny was first brought to light on 2013’s ‘Kenny Dennis LP’) recounting a failed tour he and Kenny embarked on as a new millennium Hip-House duo called PERFECTO!, over unbelievably raw beats from producer Odd Nosdam. The rest of the album features a suite of songs built around more traditional structures which follow Kenny’s downward spiral into Benzedrine addiction and a “party guy” lifestyle. Nosdam’s production is stellar throughout, and ‘Geti himself provides almost nonstop quotables and catch-phrases, whether in rhyme form or via his ad-libs to Ders’ storytelling. ‘Kenny Dennis III’ may be the oddest record on this list, but it may be the best as well, as it easily became one of my most listened to, and most enjoyed, albums of the year.
Shabazz Palaces ‘Lese Majesty’ Sub Pop
Any time I recommend Shabazz Palaces to old heads who were fans of group frontman Ishmael Butler’s first project, ’90s bohemien Rap trio Digable Planets, they inevitably balk at the suggestion. They claim it’s too “far out”, that they don’t “get it”, or that it’s just “too futuristic” for their tastes. I call bullshit on this. Okay, I get it, you’re a diehard breakbeat, boom-bap drum, jazzy loop fanatic. But you claim you ride hard for Digable Planets. Did you actually listen to them? Did you get a feel for their politics? Did you understand why they were going back and sampling those Jazz records in the first place? Or were you just wrapped up in the surface trappings of their aesthetic? I think the last one probably applies, because if you can’t hear the Digable in Shabazz Palaces, you’ve got to be deaf. Or just a hater who doesn’t want to hear anything “new”. Shabazz’s primitive Afro-futurism (synthesizers, 808 drum kicks, kalimbas, and hand-drums) is the flip-side of Digables retro-space-age Black-hipster Revolutionary cool-cat schtick (slicker this year jargon, beatnick coffe-houses, Jazz loops, and Black Panthers). And it’s packed with enough allusions to voudou shamanism and space-(both outer and inner)-travel to make Ishmael Reed and Octavia Butler proud.
Your Old Droog ‘Your Old Droog EP’ Mass Appeal
If you thought Your Old Droog was Nas you’re a fuckin’ dummy. If you’re mad because dude sounds sort of like Nas, well, you’re probably not listening hard enough, and you’re a BIG fuckin’ dummy. Yeah, the kid’s got a signature lisp in the grand tradition of Nas, and before him Kool G Rap. And he definitely rhymes from a street perspective, like the two aforementioned greats. But that’s really where the similarities end. His content is far more reminiscent of a Big L or Big Pun. His rhymes are more punchline focused than Nas’ have been since “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”. His ear for beats is fucking stellar. And while he certainly has a conversational style, he’s also got far too nice a sense of humor to get caught up in the self-seriousness of a “One Love” or (god forbid) “Hate Me Now”. In that respect he strikes me as a very post-MF DOOM sort of rapper. As such, he should fit in perfectly with New School NY emcees like Mr. MFN eXquire, Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$, and a few others who have the potential to do great things for Hip-Hop from the artforms birthplace in the years to come.
Shout out to Ab-Soul, Blockhead, Blu, Blueprint, Caribou, Cities Aviv, Chromeo, Dag Savage, The Doppelgangaz, Ennui, FKA twigs, Flying Lotus, Freddie Gibbs, Hail Mary Mallon, Helado Negro, Hellfyre Club, Homeboy Sandman, How to Dress Well, Jeremiah Jae, KOOL AD, Lakutis, Lee Fields, Little Dragon, Mac Demarco, Metronomy, milo, MNDSGN, Mono/Poly, Bishop Nehru, Noah 23, Nocando, Pyramid Vritra, RATKING, Roc Marciano, The Roots, Sage Francis, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Sysiphus, Step Brothers, Teen, Timber Timbre, Tobacco, tUnE-yArDs, Young Fathers, and other non-alphabetically listed artists who released records I listened to regularly last year.
2015, here I come!