Friday, August 12, 2016

The Best Hip-Hop Songs of 2016 (so far)

First and foremost, this list is entirely subjective. When I say that these are the "best" songs of 2016, I only mean that these are my favourites. I have made no attempt to represent the full spectrum of hip-hop music (if that is even possible), and if indeed it is indicative of any wider trends within the genre, I can assure you it's entirely coincidental. If you disagree with any of my choices or my explanations, go write your own fucking list. I understand that halfway through August is hardly a convenient juncture for this type of list, but whatever. So, without further ado, I present...

The Best 25 26* Hip-Hop Songs of 2016 (so far)  

(I only picked each lead artist once, but a few artists do show up on multiple occasions thanks to guest features. I half cheated, but it's my list and I'll do what I want.)

Not everybody sounds good over Madlib beats - the producer imbues all of his work with a slippery quality, the very real possibility of everything unravelling constantly looming in the background. The beat for this song, hand-stitched with does-it-work-or-doesn't-it Ghostface sample, feels like a cliche rickety wooden minecart, perhaps a little amateurish and certainly not entirely stable, but still fun as fuck and undeniably the work of somebody who has been doing this shit for years. But, as I said at the start, not everybody sounds good over Madlib beats - so, what began life as an enjoyable, if slightly clumsy Kanye/Kendrick collaboration is turned into something coherent and downright dangerous by Freddie Gibbs, a man who has proven time and time again that he sounds fucking great over Madlib beats. Freddie Gibbs might be the best rapper, bar-for-bar, in the world today, and he makes light work of a beat that threatened to trip up two very good rappers (well, one very good rapper and Kanye West). I felt guilty including a remix in this list, so this can sit in the honourable mentions pile. With Gibbs currently in Austria facing charges of rape, it might be the last substantial song we hear from him for a while.

The most notable feature of Kevin Gates' big-selling major label debut Islah was just how poppy it was. Whilst Gates has always had a slew of killer melodic choruses to offset his stream-of-consciousness gutter tales, Islah saw him doubling down on his sing-song hooks and massive, anthemic beats (see popular singles '2 Phones' and 'Really Really'). It worked, both commercially and artistically, and though I definitely don't love Islah as much as I loved The Luca Brasi Story it carries an undeniable power in its often extremely catchy songs. That said, the song that I find myself coming back to most from the album is probably its most downbeat, slight moment, a T-Pain-recalling rapper-turnt-sanger attempt at cloud rap. Its lyrics don't really address anything, and its beat would sound strange in any club. It's trap as mood music, and only Kevin Gates could pull it off this successfully. Like much of the rest of its mother album, it will get stuck in your head, and what it lacks in substance or bonecrushing impact it more than makes up for in sheer catchiness and pure vibes.

Boogie has dropped a few loosies this year, presumable largely culled from a mixtape we should hear before the end of 2016. My favourite is this downcast, string- and rain-drenched slice of real talk and paranoia. Boogie is at the stage where he is now in complete control of his rapping - before, he felt like he was trying to find his voice, switching between his high-pitched, post-Kendrick freakouts and something far more grounded (both in terms of implication and in terms of baritone), but here he lands midway between the two, and sounds like nobody except himself. He posits himself as a beacon of substance in a time of fleeting, viral, fifteen-minutes rappers, but never explicitly says so, which is the first step to avoiding the dreaded Hepatitis KRS, and he's part of an ever expanding cache of really fucking good West Coast rappers who come from the street and are able to comment on it without sounding patronising (sorry, Kendrick). More songs as good as this, and the next tape is gonna sit very comfortably near the top of my 2016 favourites. 

I feel a little stupid about putting any song from Curren$y and Alchemist's excellent The Carrollton Heist on this list, because the whole album is something of a mood piece, an extremely solid album whose main function is to cultivate a vibe, not serve as an exhibition of memorable moments. It is supposed to be consumed in a smokey haze, allowing each song to blend into the next, an admirable case against society's ADHD listening habits in 2016. Of course, that doesn't mean that it isn't home to some fucking great songs. Common logic (well, various things I've seen on blogs and hip-hop forums) suggests that 'Fat Albert' should be the song picked here, largely because it contains Lil Wayne's best verse in, I dunno, three? four? years, but as a song I prefer this one, built on snaking, '70s film soundtrack keyboards and moving forward at a snail's pace, perfect for two stoners like Spitta and Bronson to let their vivid imagery unfurl across. Still, one song doesn't make up for the fact that the entire project should be consumed from front to back - so, y'know, go and do that.

I'll be honest: I haven't listened to DJ Khaled's latest album/bloated audio Rolodex, and I have no intention of doing so. But I can only thank him for giving Nas a solo track, because I love Nas and I miss Nas and it's always great to hear new Nas music. Here, he basically does exactly what Nas has done since about 2000, rapping with a very clean flow about how great he is at rapping, with overt nods to the world's problems popping up throughout. It's also great to hear Nas actually tackle a more modern beat with confidence and competence, given what an uncomfortable clusterfuck his 'March Madness' freestyle was. Of course, the beat is kept grounded in the past with that Fugees sample (which provides another link to classic Nas tropes via Salaam Remi), and the mix of old and new works surprisingly well. If you're well versed in big, anthemic, "Nas is back!" singles, this shit should feel pretty fucking familiar right now, and it certainly isn't on the same level as 'Nas Is Like' or 'Made You Look' (not least because neither of those songs featured a human meme shouting inanities such as "classic shit", "timeless", or "forever" over the outro), but it's still great to hear a Nas banger in 2016.

Kyleon's latest mixtape, Blessed to Raise Hell, is entirely lacking in the necessary fun quota that made 2013's Lean On Me such a huge success, but he's still one of the coldest rappers in the South, and he is still loyal to that classic, slow, Houston bounce, so the project isn't without its merits (naturally). One such merit is this ridiculously gully minor posse cut, which features one of my all-time favourite hook men and two of my all-time favourite rappers. There's depth to this Blaxploitation-referencing beat, which could easily have been found on one of Pimp C's old hard drives, and three very talented rappers with three very different styles get to say some very mean-sounding things over the top. Props in particular to Styles P, not just for being perhaps the most consistently gritty rapper of all time, but for a memorable opening salvo that really sets the scene and lets the listener know exactly what to expect ("concentrate on the money, we need a large amount of it, the dollar bills is real but niggas is getting counterfeit" - ouch).

The undoubted centrepiece of DJ Quik and Problem's frustratingly uneven Rosecrans EP, this ten-minute, two-part epic perhaps mostly serves to highlight the paucity of great ideas found elsewhere on that release when heard in context, but really shines when taken in isolation. DJ Quik might not be the only producer who can meld lush g-funk with 8-bit arcade synths, but he's the only one who can do it with this much swagger and elegance. Seriously, at one point around halfway through he goes on an extended keyboard solo - the only time you'll see that phrase used in this list - which makes it sound like Keith Jarrett is trapped inside a Mario game, and if that doesn't appeal to you then you're a fucking philistine. Problem is Problem, and you barely realise he's there (another issue which marred the EP), but DJ Quik drops a reliably entertaining and conversational verse, whilst Shy Carter comes correct with brash, summery hook. But for a song which is two thirds instrumental, this track is all about the beat(s), and I can safely say that in that regard this is the best song on the list.

A pleasant surprise from Nocando, in which he actually manages to craft a fully-realised song that is both technically admirable and hella enjoyable, a combination he's too often struggled with over the course of his post-battle career. This song has the same paranoid, claustrophobic vibe that permeated fellow Californians YG and ScHoolboy Q's respective albums this year - there's obviously something in the water out West at the moment. Whilst everybody here brings their A-game, the real stars are Cam & China, who deliver the sort of utterly ferocious verses that are quickly turning them into personal favourites (and extra kudos for the genuinely shocking opening line: "ex niggas hate me, pussy so good wanna rape me"). I'm not going to comment on the ongoing breakdown in communication between former Hellfyre major players, because I don't know enough about it, but it certainly isn't an indication of picking sides that there's a Nocan song on this list but nothing from Open Mike Eagle, whose collaborative LP with British producer Paul White is consistently fantastic (and still in my top five rap albums of the year) but doesn't necessarily feature an easy standout song which would fit snugly onto a list such as this; this, on the other hand, is obviously the sort of song that does.

I have some serious issues with ScHoolboy's Blank Face LP - it's too long, too many stretches are muddy and indistinct, and it features at least a couple of songs that are completely out of step with the vibe created by the rest of the record. Overall, it's his most competent release, with its beats having a greater depth than ever before and Q's rapping becoming ever more specific and vivid, but in terms of sheer likeability it falls far short of Habits & Contradictions. It's fair to say that it's woefully short on memorable moments, too, but not so in the case of 'Groovy Tony', one of the album's two clear standouts (the other being 'Dope Dealer'; there's a pattern here). For a start, I love the neo-horrorcore beat deployed here, including that vaguely ominous, high-pitched, quasi-industrial whirring noise in the background; it's just fucking great. Then there's Q's flow, which is both catchy and yet borderline psychotic, perhaps the greatest example of just how good a rapper Q has become on the album. But, mostly, there's that Jadakiss verse. Whilst Jada's constant claims that he's one of the top five greatest rappers ever is utterly laughable (it's arguable whether he's even the greatest rapper in The LOX), he is still a visceral, exciting, immediately recognisable, very fucking good rapper. 'Dope Dealer' was the other possible choice for this slot. Why? Earl motherfuckin' Stevens. When the best two songs on your album can largely put their success down to their features, you fucked up. (This is a little unfair. I still really like Blank Face. I just expected more.) 

It might not be a great album, but Clams Casino's 32 Levels is surely one of the weirdest major label debuts ever made. Seriously, this album came out on Columbia Records; not some fucking specialist subsidiary label, but the Columbia Records, otherwise known as home to Adele, Beyonce, Pharrell, and the cast of Glee. His last for-purchase release was a Boards of Canada-esque concept EP on the electronic indie label Tri Angle. Here is a producer with an experimental, decidedly niche sound, collaborating with some experimental, decidedly niche singers and rappers, and it's on the same record label that's prepping the new Celine Dion album. The music industry has officially gone insane. To add to that, its lead single is essentially just a Lil B song. If you'd have asked me five years ago what Lil B's chances of ever having a single out on Columbia Records were, I'd have said that they were similar to GG Allin's. Of course, it makes sense that Clams would turn to Lil B, given that he essentially owes him his career. Whilst Lil B is probably the antithesis of rappity-rapping, he also isn't the talentless, monotonous, charisma-void some people make him out to be (not all the time, anyway). Here, he's super focused, and puts in some very competent verses - bonus points awarded for rhyming "Mardi Gras" with "autobahn" - over a pretty great (though noticeably more high-budget) Clams beat. This isn't 'I'm God', but very little is. It's still the best Lil B single I've heard in a long time, and that's more than enough to earn it a place on this list.

By his own recent, exceptionally high standards, Young Thug has had something of an underwhelming year. Perhaps it was inevitable; how long can somebody remain unpredictable?, and especially when that somebody puts out as much music as Young Thug does. I'm Up was slight and really rather disappointing, and other loosies that have appeared have been much of a muchness. It's difficult to know whether his style is growing stale, or whether his audience have just gotten used to his tricks, but that special something appears to be missing (see also: Future). That doesn't mean, however, that he isn't still capable of utterly inspired moments of near-genius. Case in point: 'Gangster Shit'. This has all the hallmarks of a Thugger classic - its spaced-out, tastefully restrained trap beat is the sort of thing that feels absolutely made for the idiosyncratic yelps and warbled melodies that are his trademark, and his semi-nonsensical non-sequiturs are out in full force ("Did you pray today? Did you have a baby? You got ventilation?"). It also, vitally, retains a sense of controlled chaos that is so integral to all of the best Young Thug songs, a simmering tension whereby you never know exactly where he's going to take his elastic flow next. In an environment where his presence is beginning to feel familiar to most listeners, it's reassuring to know that he can still, if not quite surprise, then at least excite.

Few artists in any genre, let alone rappers, are quite as adept at articulating existential melancholy as Isaiah Rashad right now. So, when he says towards the end of new single 'Free Lunch', "today was a keeper", it feels like a significant triumph, a moment of relief for those whose coping mechanism is just to take life one day at a time. 'Free Lunch' is Rashad's 'It Was A Good Day', though longtime listeners will know to cool their expectations - where brash Ice Cube was delighted to see his name in lights on the Goodyear blimp, reserved Rashad is just pleased that he was able to smoke in peace on a car journey. It might seem underwhelming, but anything else would seem disingenuous, and that's one thing Isaiah certainly is not. The beat, built on a gently stuttering guitar lick, is unassuming but welcoming, the perfect complement for the modest flow and lyrics. Whilst Kendrick is trying to right all the world's wrongs, Q is delving further into the recesses of his own mind, and Jay Rock is still far too gutter to get involved in anything stupid enough as to involve actual human emotions (and Ab-Soul, presumably, is high on acid somewhere, Googling methods for autofellatio), the Chattanooga outsider has quietly become the most likeable member of the TDE crew. Bring on the album. (Mike Eagle already did the laundromat video, though.)

I don't think I've been as excited as everybody else by Gucci's homecoming. I was never a huge fan anyway, and his new album, though clearly his sharpest and most focused in years, felt kinda rushed (duh). That said, it isn't without its moments, and especially the majestic 'Guwop Home', which is easily the most natural melding of dual producers Zaytoven and Mike Will Made It's respective, distinctive styles, with Zay's piano arpeggios gliding smoothly across Mike Will's detached, faraway, almost siren-like synths. The song is also propelled by a jubilant Young Thug hook, almost growling with excitement at times as he announces his former label boss and mentor's reintegration into society, and a memorable verse ("I got the weed, bring the molly with ya, I got the syrup, bring the Jolly Rancher"). Gucci himself utilises a bouncy flow, very reminiscent of Pimp C's classic 'Big Pimpin'' verse, and proudly boasts about his abilities and achievements as a renowned talent curator and serial Casanova. The song's sense of camaraderie is infectious, and it's easy to be swept up in the obvious fun that everybody involved is having.

Cam & China's 'We Gon Make It' is the best song with that title - or, for all the pedants out there, some variation of - since Jadakiss and Styles P's 'We Gonna Make It'. Both of the latter appear separately on this list via guest appearances (as does that song's producer), and they are, coincidentally (or maybe not; I won't pretend to know who Cam & China listened to growing up), the two rappers the former Pink Dollaz twins remind me of most. This song, however, is significantly more downbeat than its bouncy, Alchemist-produced namesake. As evidenced in their earlier appearance here on Nocando's 'Next Subject', Cam & China are mercilessly fierce rappers, well-studied in the artform, unapologetically street and blessed with all the attributes necessary to make a huge splash: gritty of voice, nimble of flow, and possessing a steely determination. "I told my mama, I promised I won't go to college 'cause I've got a theory to prove", raps one of them - it's near impossible to tell them apart, on mic or off - towards the end of the song, and you can't help but believe that the pair will achieve anything they want.

It sometimes feels as if no Texas hip-hop album is truly complete without a great "for the dead homies" song, and Z-Ro's 2016 return to form, Drankin' & Drivin', more than delivers in that regard. His juicy baritone and raw rapping delivery make him, to his fans, the perfect mix of Nate Dogg and Tupac, even if he hasn't ever really managed to parlay his local legend status into full-blown, national (or international) stardom. It's songs like this one which make that lack of crossover into the mainstream even more frustrating. The real stroke of genius on 'Since We Lost Y'all' is to rope Krayzie Bone in, another rapper whose main strength has always been his strikingly natural melodicism, for a track which overtly references Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's biggest hit 'Tha Crossroads' in its hook ("you know I miss all of my dawgs y'all, like Wish Bone misses Uncle Charles y'all"). Whilst the song may occasionally threaten, lyrically at least, to spill over into soulless cliche territory, there's more than enough passion here in both of these voices to carry the song, and to give it genuine pathos.

It's no secret that Future's music has taken a massive drop-off in quality in 2016. Maybe burnout was inevitable - after all, how was he supposed to keep up the energy that carried him on that run from Monster through to DS2? Both Purple Reign and EVOL felt like tired rehashings of ideas already done, and done much better, whilst it's probably best not to remind anyone of Project ET. After spawning a legion of copycats (see: Desiigner; the Travis Scott hook on that new Juicy J song), Future sounds uninspired and, for the first time in 18 months, behind the curve. For those hoping that he hasn't completely fallen off, however, there are still fantastic moments to be found if you look hard enough, the best being the Nard & B-produced 'Inside the Mattress' from the aforementioned Purple Reign. You probably have a fairly decent idea of what it sounds like; if you're reading this I'm sure you're familiar with Future's recent work. But, vitally, it's the catchiest, most energetic song he's put out this year, and it would sit comfortably on either DS2 or 56 Nights. It's also, most comfortingly, evidence that he hasn't completely lost his mojo.

For all of his brash proclamations and moments of pure, unadulterated ego, I'm of the opinion that Kanye West is at his best when he allows his insecurities and vulnerabilities to show. He's always been a clumsy, slightly awkward rapper, as likely to come out with something cringe-inducingly corny as he is to produce a fantastic couplet. The Life of Pablo is certainly his most uneven album, and arguably the one with the least distinctive sonic and thematic personality (though Graduation also struggles to carve out a coherent identity). It's also his most likeable album since Late Registration, precisely for those reasons. It was refreshing to hear Kanye just put out a bunch of tracks, without trying to make some grand, artistic statement. It's compilation-like feel works in its favour, for me at least, and its best moments are my favourite Kanye songs in years. Top of the pile is 'Real Friends', reliant on an eerie, reverb-drenched piano motif that recalls that gorgeous, ghostly underwater effect used so successfully by British modern classical musician Gavin Bryars on his masterpiece, 'The Sinking of the Titanic'. Kanye openly discusses his own failings as a family member and friend, before berating those who do the same (often through the medium of Ty Dolla $ign's very welcome, grainy, melodic inputs). It's possibly somewhat hypocritical, but it's also emotionally raw and affecting in a way that Kanye often isn't these days. It's Kanye West at his best, and it's a joy to hear.

As stated earlier, I wasn't as excited as some were about Gucci's homecoming. One person who would have been ecstatic to see his release, however, was surely BIA, whose self-explanatory song is simply one of the catchiest, most fun things I've heard this year. Over rinky-dink, nostalgia-inducing, ice cream truck pianos, and breezy trap hi-hats, BIA singraps about Gucci's impending return, thinking about all the weed everybody's gonna smoke in celebration, and even contemplating handing out ice cream cones. What could easily have come across as corny (and/or using Gucci's name to enhance her own career) actually proves to be extremely infectious, and it would take a heart of stone not to enjoy BIA's enthusiasm. "If Gucci comin' home, we don't need no Donald Trump".

Straight from the Boosie School of Frog-Voiced Street Preachers, the currently incarcerated, 19-year-old Floridian Kodak Black is probably the new artist who has most impressed me this year. Whilst I was already familiar with him prior to 2016, I think it's fair to say that his latest release, Lil B.I.G. Pac, is easily his best yet, much more concise that his previous, overlong mixtapes, and with more immediately memorable moments. He's a straight talker who refuses to sugar-coat anything and, like the aforementioned Boosie, he is capable of mixing his hedonistic material with something altogether more poignant; 'Can I' definitely leans towards the latter. With a lush, hazy beat, courtesy of producer Da Honorable C.N.O.T.E., Kodak considers his chances of enjoying his success, always conscious that, when you're famous, danger lurks around every corner. It contains some of his most powerful lines ("once a nigga make it, they gon' wanna take it, money don't change you but it do drive you crazy"; "I'm not a bad kid, I just didn't have no guidance"), and is a song I've found myself returning to time and time again over the course of the summer.

Perhaps conspicuous by his absence from this list, it's fair to say that I didn't love Chance's Coloring Book. It was well-intentioned, but also cluttered, poorly mixed, and far too God-bothering for my liking. It tried to bite off more than it could chew, and I found it exhausting, quite frankly. Thankfully, frequent Chance collaborator Noname (formerly Noname Gypsy) managed to harness the same good times vibes, and then place them into a much leaner, more concise, and overall more refreshing package. Telefone is one of my favourite projects of the year and - like many of my favourites - I could quite easily have picked almost any of its songs for this list. I decided to go with 'Shadow Man', the album closer and posse cut of sorts, and perhaps the song which best encapsulates the tape's overarching theme; the mortality of young black people in America today. After a gorgeous sung intro, courtesy of Phoelix, theMIND and Cam O'bi, Noname spits a typically poetic verse, talking of "apathy for caskets" and including a genuinely touching reference to Chicago forebear Kanye, reminding us that he was once just a humble college dropout; Saba and Smino both add some textural variety with their skippy flows, before that aforementioned trio reprise their intro for the fadeout. It's a truly beautiful end to a truly beautiful album.

I'm legitimately ashamed to admit that when I first heard this song, the final track on Kamaiyah's fantastic, summer-soundtracking mixtape, A Good Night in the Ghetto, I thought it sounded forced and trite. I guess this is because the downbeat vibe and dark theme seems so at odds with Kamaiyah's default setting; uber-confident, hedonistic, full of life. Whilst the song did grow on me with each listen, it wasn't until I saw the excellent mini-documentary (also called A Good Night in the Ghetto) that the full power of it hit me. Now, you might rightfully ask whether a song is truly a great song if it requires extra context to really make an impact, and that's a fair question. But the fact is that, before seeing the documentary, I never gave 'For My Dawg' a fair crack of the whip. I dismissed it as being outside of Kamaiyah's wheelhouse, a clumsy ending to a mixtape which otherwise felt so natural. But, as a message to her late best friend (Cocaine James, as he's referenced elsewhere on the tape), it's the project's most emotional moment. I'll leave it up to Kamaiyah's own lyrics to really explain what makes 'For My Dawg' so special: "I said I wish you died, didn't mean that shit for real, when I heard you really died, man, that shit just gave me chills". 

In a little over 15 months time, Earl Stevens - better known as E-40 - will turn 50. Let that sink in for a moment. And he still spits with more energy and panache than 99% of rappers you can name half his age. This is familiar territory for 40 Water - a minimalist, snapping beat, over which he explains why he is so superior to his "petty" haters and hangers-on, teaching (in his own words) "a fuck nigga a valuable lesson". What makes it so special, then, besides the fact that whenever E-40 touches mic it's pretty special, is the Bay Area legend giving local upstart Kamaiyah his official Seal of Approval, and then hearing her subsequently nail her spot with all the confidence that has been her main selling point since she burst onto the scene. Whilst this beat is less sunny than she's used to, she still attacks it with the same sing-song bravado she attacks everything with, and from the moment you hear her now-trademark "AWWWWW SHIIIIT", you just know she's about to kill it ("speak on me, but your talk is cheap, 'cause you sneak diss on some sucker shit, Kamaiyah be my name hoe, when you speak on me use my government"). I'm obviously a little biased, because I'm a big fan of both rappers involved here, but as an intergenerational example of what the Bay Area has to offer, this is one of the most refreshing songs of the year.

For those who have lost count, Boosie Badazz has released five full-length projects in 2016, not including the recent Trill Entertainment showcase album he largely carries. Even in a rap game seemingly full of artists who do nothing but sleep, sip lean and record, that is ridiculously prolific. What is most striking about all of that, though, is the consistently high quality of much of that material. Three of those releases - Thug Talk, Bleek Mode (Thug In Peace Lil Bleek), and this song's parent album Out My Feelings (In My Past) - are amongst the very best I've heard all year, because of moments like 'Look at Life Different'. Over some gorgeous blues guitar work, Boosie recalls a couple of the saddest stories shared with him by former fellow inmates, including an old man whose family won't speak to him (and who asks Boosie to leave him his shoes and socks as gifts when he gets released, an image so powerful that it needs no sort of comment), and a mother visiting one of a number of troubled sons, all either dead, in prison, or facing time. It all makes Boosie realise how lucky he is, and teaches him to never take things for granted. It's exactly the sort of poignant, unadorned rapping that has made Boosie such a hero to his fans over the years, a willingness to tell the stories of those too often ignored or forgotten, and it's easily one of the most powerful pieces of music I've heard all year.

Drake's bloated, hollow, record-breaking, quasi-ambient (and undeniably listenable) new album Views split opinion amongst critics and fans, and part of that was down to the fact that it lacked truly memorable moments. Even having listened to it a number of times, I can still only remember what about six or seven of the songs actually sound like. That's a pretty poor hit rate given the album's length. But I can forgive Drake a number of duds that fail to ever really catch fire, on the basis that he's also capable of creating a song like 'Feel No Ways'. Along with longtime producer 40, at their best the pair create lush, glacial, epic soundscapes and simple earworm melodies that effortlessly straddle hip-hop, R'n'B, and straight-up pop music. Whilst 'One Dance' and 'Controlla' (and 'Hotline Bling' before them) have become huge, world-conquering hits, 'Feel No Ways' has lived a rather more modest life. Whereas the album's other big pop moments are informed by dancehall, there's a distinctly more 1980s pop vibe to 'Feel No Ways', no doubt enhanced by that Malcolm McLaren sample (which is used much more tastefully than the Timmy Thomas sample that propelled 'Hotline Bling'). The lyrics here are typical Drake fare; Drake loathes a lover because she didn't appreciate being treated like a dickhead. (As an aside, I'll never understand those who think Drake is a sensitive, feminist antidote to apparently more sexist rappers - the women avatars he uses in his songs are always just mirrors for his own narcissism. But, hey, it sells lots of records.) This one is all about the beat and the melody, both of which are undeniably smooth, with 40 and Drake achieving a professional veneer that really makes the song sparkle. It's probably the song on this list that I've listened to most this year, even if it is utterly vacuous and probably not even hip-hop. Oh well.

Maxo Kream is the gulliest rapper alive. I will accept no other nominations for this title. Nobody else is as relentlessly mean as the high-energy Houston spitter - selling drugs and killing people aren't just regular occurrences in his raps, they're his entire raison d'être. His latest full-length, The Persona Tape, is easily one of the top three hip-hop releases of the year, because of his ability to match those gutter tales with increasingly accessible flows (he always goes with the drumbeat, his gnarly vocals disguising just how sharp his rapping is), and nowhere is that better displayed than on the excellent 'Big Worm'. If there's a harder stretch of rapping on any song this year than "forgive or forget, call it Robin Givens, I've been robbing, giving, serving all the children, this is how I'm living, I'm a piece of shit, want the dough for sure, Maxo Richie Rich, I might want the hoe but I don't need the bitch", I've yet to hear it. That is the definition of tight, not a word is wasted, and it still manages to outline everything Maxo stands for. Too often, trap rappers are derided for not being lyrical enough, whatever the fuck that means; that right there is a better display of pure rapping than Joey Bada$$ has ever conjured up, and I'll stand on KRS-One's coffee table in my Jordan 4s and say that. And to do all of that over a beat carved out of Wiley's classic 'Morgue' instrumental? That's genius.

I don't give a single solitary fuck about French Montana, and neither should you. Buuuuut, with 'Lockjaw' (or possibly earlier; I wouldn't know because I literally have no interest in him or his music), he figured out how to make the perfect French Montana song: get a much better rapper with some actual personality and energy, and let him do all of the work, using your utterly inexplicable industry influence to get him the type of high-budget beat and mastering job that his talent deserves. Especially when that rapper is Kodak Black. Kodak's ode to gurning, presumably through wanton MDMA use (maybe somebody with an allergy to ambiguity would check RapGenius, but I am not that person, because I don't feel the need to know what everything means; some shit just sounds cool, damn it), was and is the lowkey anthem of the summer. Over a delightfully wavy Ben Billions beat - all disembodied, wordless vocals and sweeping strings - Kodak slurs about drinking lots of alcohol and refusing to talk the feds and how his trousers keep falling down because of the pistol in his waistband. (He also, crucially, proves that he's the anti-Rick Ross, assuring a potential sweetheart that he didn't spike her drink. Who said chivalry was dead?) Whilst Kodak's real strength, his secret weapon, lies in openly describing the bleakness of life in the ghetto, he's also capable of songs like 'Lockjaw'. It's brilliant, it's triumphant, and it captures all of the youthful exuberance and I-don't-give-a-fuck-ness that makes Kodak such a fascinating figure. It's Kodak Black's best song to date, and it promises that there are plenty more moments like this to come. And, for the most part, French Montana does everyone a favour and just stays the fuck out of the way.

YG's Still Brazy, and all of its updated G-funk brilliance, is an album full of potential songs of the year: the zeitgeist-strangling 'FDT' (which stands, of course, for 'Fuck Donald Trump'); 'Gimmie Got Shot', which is executed perfectly in a thematic sense; the title track, with YG's most accessible flow(s) yet ("paranoia (*gasp*), paranoia (*gasp*), paranoia down in killer California"); 'Twist My Fingaz', the album's most overt sonic nod to the mid-'90s, replete with the bold (and, to his credit, believable) claim that he's "the only one who made it out the West without Dre", but which was deliberately omitted from this list on account of the fact that I named it as my favourite song of 2015 in various corners of the internet. Still Brazy is the album on which YG exceeded all expectations, sharpening his flow and displaying a greater economy in his lyrics in ways that I - and, I assume, many others - didn't imagine he was capable of. There's a subtle ferocity in every single line on this album, and that's no exaggeration. My choice for this slot could've been any of the above (well, apart from that last one, obviously), but in the end I plumped for 'Who Shot Me?', the song that is the best representation of the album's foreboding sense of paranoia, but also of its confidence in the face of potentially fatal opposition. With its needling guitar lick (hints of Ennio Morricone, courtesy of producer DJ Swish), stoic bassline, and delightfully cooed outro ("bullets don't just go where the wind blows"), the beat sounds like it could've come straight from Dr. Dre's 2001. The rapping, on the other hand, is pure YG, a painful recount of his shooting last year, and the subsequent suspicion it brought on. He runs the gamut of emotions, from angry, to hurt, to relieved ("my granny's prayers worked, 'cause it coulda got worse, I'm talkin' pictures on the shirt", a poignant, vivid, and all-too-easily imaginable scene given the tragic amount of recent footage we've seen of bereaved families of black men taken far too early), but comes out of it only more determined to stand tall, refusing to be beaten. It's the definitive moment on the year's most vital hip-hop album, and it's my favourite song of 2016 (so far).

* It was going to be 25, but then Isaiah Rashad decided to drop his new single whilst I was halfway through writing this and I had to quickly change my plans. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Kamaiyah - A Good Night In The Ghetto Review

A Good Night In The Ghetto is a big "fuck you" to the "sex sells" cliches of female rappers since Lil Kim, while at the same time, is an embracing of West Coast rap cliches since Tupac. Bay area up-and-comer Kamaiyah cares little for political posturing, and would much rather make her own versions of "Get Around" ("Niggas") and "Mo Money Mo Problems" than a "Blacker the Berry" or "A Bird in the Hand." Kamaiyah's subject matter is not broad reaching; she mostly enjoys rapping about getting fucked up, the come-up into riches, and playing "Toot It and Boot It" with men. Some would see this as a criticism, I see it as a welcome return to care-free 90s West Coast rap.

A Good Night In the Ghetto is a nostalgic album in its sound, as it relies heavily on old school West Coast production and 80s synth pop/funk instrumentals. In the music video to "Out the Bottle," Kamaiyah totes a late 80s mobster mobile phone, and on interludes throughout the album she speaks on the phone over a landline, not an iPhone. A subtle touch, but effective. But as an MC, Kamaiyah is concerned only with living life in the present. She raps about, "drinking it out the bottle," and getting "drunk as fuck," with no shame about it. The tracks in which she is at her most openly hedonistic, such as "Fuck It Up," are where she really shines. She's a female counterpart to YG; he features on this track, and she features on "Why You Always Hatin?" off Still Brazy.

On "One More Chance" off of Ready to Die, Biggie responds to a litany of voicemails left by hood rats he hit and quit. On "Niggas," Kamaiyah reverses this formula; she treats the men in her life as disposable. A nigga she's got, "gives me head 'til I'm red, then I ride him to sleep." Elsewhere on the album, she, "has a nigga goin' down like I paid him for it." The idea that Kamaiyah wants you to understand is that she's no different from the boys, both in life and especially in the rap game. As a rapper, Kamaiyah wants the same respect and popularity of West Coast rappers like YG and The Game, without having to pimp herself to the mainstream like a Nicki Minaj or an Iggy Azaelia.

Midway through this record, the sound takes a dramatic U-turn. She trades in West Coast g-funk for Southern-inspired basslines, and R&B/funk synths. In a couple tracks such as "Ain't Going Home Tonight" and "Swing My Way," she barely even raps; she sings in an oddly pleasing grainy voice that I can only describe as a combo of Lil Boosie and Remy Ma. The album smoothly transforms from a West Coast rap album into synth funk, without upsetting the flow and care-free feel of the free album.

Kamaiyah switches back and forth from West Coast party rap to smooth R&B, but the intended message and tone never changes. Kamaiyah has no time for sentimentality, conscious rap, or even telling tales about hard times in the ghetto. The title she chose is A Good Night In The Ghetto; the intended theme is optimism and having fun no matter the environment. The optimism matches Chance the Rapper on Coloring Book, but with less God and more summer anthems. A Good Night In The Ghetto was released in March of this year, but the free album is a great soundtrack to summer nights anywhere.

Download it

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Life of a Copycat

What makes a copycat in the world of music? In hip-hop, most of us think of a copycat as a swagger-jacker who steals another artist's style, changing little but the name they go by. The latest copycat in hip-hop we've seen is Desiigner, a new rapper from Brooklyn, New York.

Desiigner first made waves for his inclusion on the song “Pt. 2” on Kanye West's 2016 album, The Life of Pablo. It is still not definitively known if his part on the song was sampled or just re-recorded for the album, but that's another discussion for another blog post. Nevertheless, “Pt. 2” led to discovery by the masses of Desiigner's debut single, “Panda”, which was first released about two months prior to Kanye's album. The song got re-released, blew up as a result of being on Pablo, and the rest is history. The song went #1 for two weeks and is still in the top 5 as I write this. 

Desiigner’s similarities to Future, a rapper from Atlanta, Georgia, can't be denied. Even if you don't hear it in “Panda”, there's a pretty good chance you'll hear the similarities in “Pluto”, Desiigner's follow-up song. The main thing most people will notice is the cadence. Apparent in “Panda” as well as his other songs, it sounds like Desiigner’s from...Atlanta. Coincidence? Probably not.

This is honestly a difficult problem to address, as no-one seems able to stop copycat syndrome from occurring in hip-hop. It does say something interesting when the copycat does better than the original. Like a lot better. Now, Future does have a top 40 hit right now with the song “Low Life”; however, the cause for the song's success can mostly be attributed to the inclusion of The Weeknd and not the lead artist himself. All of that aside, Future still doesn't have a top 10 hit, and he's been popular in the mainstream since 2012. Desiigner got a #1 hit in just a few months.

Personally, I believe the copying is somewhat intentional. Rappers have their own influences just like artists in rock or pop. But copycats give a bad look to the game. The originals work hard to get to where they're at. When the copycat does better than the original, that’s when this becomes a real issue.

That's what makes this story a story in the first place. Desiigner is huge. He’s living the life most teenage rappers would only dream of. Got signed to one of the hottest rap labels (G.O.O.D. Music) out right now. Has a debut single go #1 (for two weeks), and it inches closer to platinum status with every passing week. Has that same single break streaming records left and right. All before he turns 20. The only problem is, he didn’t come up with that style on his own.

Authenticity and rap music is a difficult relationship. Did Jay-Z really sell drugs in '88? How can Rick Ross rap about slinging white when he was a correctional officer? Kanye West doesn't write all of his music and he should be slain for it, according to some fans and critics. If the music isn’t really yours, the rap community doesn’t accept it. At least that's how it works in the game.

And yes it’s true; this is a different issue entirely because Kanye, Ross, or Jay don't really try to sound like their counterparts. But the point still stands that the music has to be yours, and yours only. Your own ideas, your own creations, your own thoughts. While it may sometimes be justifiable, no-one wants a genre full of copycats or liars.

The next question is what should Desiigner do next? He's dangerously on the path toward becoming another one hit wonder. His other songs, “Pluto” and “Zombie Walk” are hardly known outside of people who frequent hip-hop blogs and forums. The best thing for him to do would be to release his album (currently titled, The Life of Desiigner), hope that it goes #1, and do a disappearing act from rap music. He can't stand on his own, and the Kanye cosign is honestly just pure luck. 

All of this comes from a guy who plays “Panda” regularly and actually enjoys what Desiigner is doing, even if it's not exactly morally acceptable by some people's standards. But a good song doesn't make intellectual theft justifiable; even I know that. I'm surprised there hasn’t been more of a response from Future about this situation in the past couple of months. But maybe he thinks the same way myself and the rest of us probably all do. Desiigner won't be around for long. Give him as little attention as possible, and let nature take its course. We'll be jamming out to something entirely different this time next year. I'm sure of it.

Desiigner - Panda

Future - F*ck Up Some Commas

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Magna Carta... Holy Grail Review

In the now infamous commercial during halftime of Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Shawn Carter proclaimed he was releasing an album in a couple weeks that would usher in an era of “#newrules”, in which album promotion would be no longer necessary, returning the focus of the music industry to the music. The album’s lack of promotion included no lead single and boasted hip-hop legend Rick Rubin’s sitting on a couch production, a highly original marketing campaign which hadn’t been used since Kanye West’s last outing. It doesn’t stop there though. For his game changing new album, rap/entertainment/clothing/business mogul Jay-Z formed a rap conglomerate with Samsung to give away his album for free to one million non-iPhone users, if there are that many. In addition, Jay-Z sent out a few tweets for the first time since ’88, and put on an art show.

Oh but wait, this album was supposed to focus on the music wasn’t it? Sorry, after all the non-promotion I must have forgotten. Anyway, just like half of the music world did, on the night that Magna Carta/Carter... Holy Grail became available to Samsung users (I heard that a lot of them had trouble downloading it anyway), I torrented the new Hov album excited to see what God, the Father (Yeezus being the son of course) was going to bless us with. It was pretty nice for the first 3 seconds of the album with that awesome sounding beat from the commercial, but shit goes downhill after that with one of the most grating singing performances I’ve heard in recent memory, especially from a singer in which I personally find talented. But as Magna Carta... Holy Grail is an album of “#newrules”, it only makes sense to have one of the most popular figures of the 21st century on the first track of your album. After the 20 minute long JT ballad, Hov comes in and get his Hov on, name dropping his daughter, (“Fuck that shit y’all talking about” – Blue Ivy Carter) MC Hammer, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, and this guy named “Augh” (sp?) about 300 times. I mean c’mon, at least explain who this “Augh” guy is if you’re gonna say his name after every line.
Okay, okay not EVERYTHING is laughable about this album. The following track, “Picasso Baby”, is probably my favorite lyrical performance from Hov on the album, and the beat is pretty great. Most of the production on Magna Carta is pretty great actually. After all, the man himself said, “Don’t be good, be great”. Unfortunately, Mr. Carter didn’t follow his own advice in regards to the rapping on this album. It’s a sad day when the worst part of a Jay-Z album is Jay-Z. While none of the rapping is downright awful, none of it is great either. Hov coasts along from track to track like he was on a cruise to Cuba with Beyonce. Speaking of Beyonce, the “cliché” love song she’s featured in is actually pretty good, as is the token Frank Ocean song (“I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo”), though Jay-Z has practically nothing to do with the quality of either song.
While there are some passable songs on here with some reasonable depth to them (“Heaven”, “Nickels and Dimes”), none of them are enough to overshadow the trainwreck that is “BBC”. No, not a track about the stereotype of black men, although with the fake gaudiness of the beat and materialistic lyrics, it just might be. The track features a random mix of kicking and screaming from the likes of Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, and a Nas verse that comes and goes faster than Trinidad James’ career. The track is rather symptomatic of the album itself in its mesh of talented artists into a melting pot of mediocrity, missed opportunities, and failed expectations.

I could go on and on about the mediocrity of Jay-Z’s rhymes, or I could talk about Rick Ross’ attempt at spitting the worst verse of the year, but I won’t waste your time with all of that just like you shouldn’t waste your time with this album.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Miyuki ~ Kenjutsu / 剣術 EP

Miyuki, albeit being a little known artist from Russia; comes at the scene with a big presence with her newest ep 'Kenjutsu / 剣術'. Borrowing heavily from Japanese elements including traditional Japanese instruments, Buddhist mantras and every day talk/intercom speech. These components layered on top of her ambient/glitch/downtempo roots compliment each other exceedingly well, lending to what could be her greatest album to date. More so than her previous albums, this one is a fair bit more glitch/upbeat orientated. Less long, drawn out ambient sequences; replaced by the hums of old Buddhists and harder more pronounced drum lines, bell tolls, and sharp synths. It brings out what I would consider a very idyllic balance between progressive glitch and relaxing ambiance. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu ~ Nanda Collection

Sadly I am quite busy this week due to work and other miscellaneous things, and so this will not be a full reflection on this album; but merely a slight overview. 

 For those who are new to Kyary, if you have enjoyed groups like Perfume and Capsule (all produced by Nakata, that guy sure gets around) this will be a joyous occasion indeed. Her inane lyrics and ridiculous fashion sense lend to a light and cheerful mood that is powered by electronic production.

Kyary's new album "Nanda Collection" is not quite "new". Sure, it has been released fairly recently, but a majority of the tracks have been taken from her previous single; with only two new songs being put in. However, should you skip this album? If you enjoy J-Pop and Kyary, no, no you should not. It is a collection of her previous works, and includes what I would say are her best songs. This is the album to have if you do not posses any of her previous works (with exception to 'tsukematsukeru', seriously grab that one it is great).

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kanye West ~ Yeezus

Oh boy. Where to start with this one... Even before Kanye's head was plastered on a building, scaring children, and sparking debates all over the internet, Yeezus was spurring gigantic controversy. If you are still one of the hopefuls expecting a pre-808s style album, you will be sorely disappointed. The Kanye West you once knew is long gone, he is no longer a rapper, and you should not expect that he is going to rap. He has been replaced by Kanye Kardashian, and it is up to you to decide whether this is a good or bad thing.

Right from the start of the album your ears will be engulfed by some of the strongest production that has ever been featured in a Kanye album. Invoking a powerful feeling, the album immerses listeners in superb sampling, progressions, and aggressive, dark inspirations from the Trap music scene. The last minute of ‘New Slaves’ is the pinnacle in this regard, showing how far Kanye has come as a producer. The whole album has been polished to a gleaming shine, with major standouts being ‘Black Skinheads’, ‘New Slaves’, and ‘Blood on the Leaves’.

However, Yeezus does come with a price. Most of it drawing from Kanye's bloated ego and tendencies to complain about things he has done to himself; like becoming famous and a hip hop icon. The lyrical content is not what you would call....well....good. The vast majority of the album is Kanye bitching about how tired he is of being famous, and how hard it is, how the fashion industry did not take him in with open arms, and how he never wanted all the pressure of being famous This is not an album to listen to if you are looking at it for the lyrical content, you will be greatly disappointed.

If you do not mind the direction Kanye has been taking for the past few years, this album may be what you need for a nice summer soundtrack. However, if you are still waiting for the Kanye of ‘College Dropout’ days to poke his head out of the crowd, pass this album up. He has been covered with a sheet, brutally beaten with a bat, and is posing as Jay-Zs new bean bag chair.

Side note: Stop tweeting "I'd rather be a dick than a swallower" please. That shit has been played out since Kanye wrote it down.