By Jake Sweltz
Hip-hop music is a rapidly evolving beast. Its styles and trends shift faster than a new Bugatti; what sounds fresh and innovative in January is old hat by June. The music is constantly transforming itself into something new and different and unlike anything you even thought possible a year earlier. This is why, more than any other popular genre, hip-hop encapsulates what it’s like to be alive in 2013. In a world where your brand new 16 GB, 3-axis gyroscope magnetized, 4G-enabled, 4.3-inch qHD multi-touch capacitive smartphone becomes primitive technology by the time you’ve finished rattling off its features, hip-hop seems like the ultimate representation of 21st-century modernity.
If all this sounds a little grandiose, that’s because it almost certainly is. I love hip-hop, so I often tend to imbue it with all kinds of extramusical meaning and significance, whether it’s warranted or not. That said, 2013 was a banner year in rap music (hint: they’re all banner years), and with the holiday season winding down, it seems like the optimal time to recap just what the hell happened in hip-hop over the past twelve months.
Obviously, it’s beyond the scope of this post to examine every single record from this year, so instead I’m going pare down this retrospective to just 13 capsule reviews covering what I thought were the most notable studio album releases of 2013.
(Note: Due to the strange promotional cycles of some records/labels, this list will be omitting at least a few super-ubiquitous artists who didn’t technically release any studio albums this year. Sorry, Future.)
Anyway, let’s get the ball rolling:
1.) Kanye dropped Yeezus, and it was another game-changer.
Conjured into existence by West and a bevy of mostly anonymous co-producers (plus Daft Punk), the final product was reportedly perfected over a hectic days-long stretch that saw West basically re-recording entire tracks in the span of a few hours. Also, apparently there were some highly-ambiguous-yet-critically-important last-minute contributions from Rick Rubin? Basically everything about this album’s life cycle, from the pre-release anticipation (which had ‘Ye premiere the caustic “New Slaves” on the sides of buildings all over the world) to West’s completely bonkers Yeezus tour (which had him literally walk with Jesus), was one big WTF moment after another. Automatically the most monumental record of the year, not to mention the best. Yeezy done did it again.
2.) Drake dropped Nothing Was the Same, and it was pretty much more of the same.
I had high hopes for this record, given that Drake went with the classic “portrait of a young rapper” album art (in the tradition of Illmatic, Ready to Die, Tha Carter III, etc.). 2011’s Grammy-winning Take Care was an interior triumph, hailed as a progressive leap forward in post-808s R&B. Here, Drake often ends up regressing instead, falling into his radio-friendly comfort zone on appealing-but-predictable cuts like “Furthest Thing” and “The Language.” Still, I counted at least five standout tracks; besides the inescapable singles “Started From the Bottom” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home”, “Connect” and the Sampha-assisted “Too Much” are both worthy additions to the Drake canon. Plus, we got to listen to a comically menacing Aubrey Graham pretend to be a hard-ass on “Worst Behaviour”, and it was admittedly pretty glorious.
3.) Jay Z dropped: (1) his twelfth studio album Magna Carta… Holy Grail and (2) the hyphen from his name, which, y’know, sure, I guess. Why not?
I don’t really have much to say about Hov’s music at this point in his career, so I’ll just say this: if he wants to drop the hyphen, he might as well go all the way and tell people to just call him “Shawn” from now on. He’s 43 years old.
4.) Pusha T dropped My Name is My Name, his first official studio album as a solo artist.
Featuring lush-yet-sparse production from the likes of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, this album was sonically one of the more satisfying releases of the year. Lyrically, Push remains sharp as ever, although I do find myself wishing he would rap about something other than cocaine at least once in a while. Even coke raps this accomplished can grow tiresome after a decade of nothing else. Still, it’s hard to complain when you get a track like “King Push,” which was fun because for about a week everyone thought Joaquin Phoenix made the beat. Also, people seemed to really dig Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Nosetalgia.” But then again, if the most noteworthy verse on your solo debut comes from a guest rapper, I wouldn’t call it your best work. CLIPSE 4 EVA.
5.) Danny Brown dropped Old, and all the hipsters lost their shit.
In case there’s any confusion, that’s not a knock on Brown. He’s too unique a rapper to try to pigeonhole into any single scene, and this record was equally resistant to oversimplification. The raw, vaporous production of the first half backdrops Brown’s dark ruminations on street life before giving way to the zany electro-insanity of the album’s trap-heavy B-side. On 2011’s XXX, Brown rapped with a childlike goofiness; he was aggressive, but still affable; vulgar, yet charming. Basically, Brown established himself as the quintessential Lovable Rascal of Rap. Old is his dark picaresque masterpiece.
6.) French Montana dropped the actually-kinda-crack Excuse My French, officially proving that real talent has absolutely no bearing on mainstream hip-hop success.
I don’t mean to sound like Silky Johnson. It takes a remarkable amount of commitment and hard work to reach the top of the charts in any genre, let alone rap music. I can’t knock French Montana’s hustle; the dude has earned every penny he’s made. But man, does he suck at rapping. Anyway, that shouldn’t diminish the fact that this album featured two of the most irresistible rap singles in recent memory, one of which was “Pop That,” arguably the defining summer jam of 2012. Montana also gets points for somehow managing to turn one of the all-time irritating ad-libs (his nasally “Haaan!” donkey cry) into an inseparable part of the hook for “Ain’t Worried About Nothin'”, a legitimate banger.
7.) Eminem dropped The Marshall Mathers LP 2, which somehow managed to become the best-selling rap album of the year without anyone really noticing and/or caring.
It seems like Em just kind of outlived his own relevancy. After a wild run in the early aughts as perhaps the most culturally dominant and divisive figure in hip-hop, Slim has finally grown up…and youth culture has moved on. Did you know that on this new LP, Em actually apologizes to his mom for all the dirt he threw on her on his classic records? I respect the guy’s humility, but at the same time, that doesn’t really make for great club fodder. Remember when Mathers’ hysterically warped rhymes about hating everyone and everything (including himself) provided the soundtrack for scores of angst-ridden teens and post-adolescents seeking catharsis in a politically repressive and frightening new millennium? Good times!
8.) Mac Miller dropped Watching Movies with the Sound Off, on which he collaborated with seemingly every major underground hip-hop hero of this decade.
Seriously, how the fuck did this happen? It seems like only yesterday I was laughing off Miller as just another derivative weed-rap wannabe, riding the wave of Wiz Khalifa’s early success. Now he’s rubbing elbows with Flying Lotus and Jay Electronica in the studio? I knew something was drastically wrong when I attended Bonnaroo in summer of 2012 and Mac Miller was manning one of the two main stages opposite The goddamn Beach Boys on day four. I had seen back-to-back sets by Danny Brown and Kendrick freaking Lamar in one of the tiny tents reserved for relative nobodies three days earlier. Dude must have sold his soul to the devil or something, because he is living the dream of every aspiring rapper alive while having the voice of a marginally more talented Brad Gluckman.
Speaking of questionable rappers who out-billed K-Dot at Bonnaroo in 2012:
9.) Childish Gambino dropped Because the Internet, and it was–
–actually, on second thought, I won’t even bother. I’m already too riled up, and I don’t want this to turn into a snark-fest. Let’s just move on.
10.) A$AP Rocky dropped Long. Live. A$AP. and it was good. A$AP Ferg dropped Trap Lord, and it was better.
Didn’t really see this coming. Before we were blessed with “Shabba”, most people only knew Ferg as one of A$AP mob’s negligible underlings. But Trap Lord, the darker, more twisted counterpart to Long. Live. A$AP. was a revelation; it took the melodic majesty of Rocky’s debut and violently strangled it, leaving only its hollow, boom-bap bones. A$AP Rocky’s record was plenty harsh, but it had a pop buoyancy that kept the atmosphere light and playful throughout. But where Rocky was merely mischievous, Ferg is straight-up demented. Be forewarned: Trap Lord is the most unabashedly explicit record of the year, and it’s not really close. From the tortured dancehall rhythm of album-opener “Let It Go” to the profane stream-of-consciousness raps on “Fergivicious”, there’s not much room for sunlight. “All I know is pain,” Ferg raps on the latter cut. By the end of record, you’ll be able to relate.
11.) Killer Mike and El-P teamed up to drop Run the Jewels, and it was NOT safe for children.
In an age when softies like Drake and J. Cole rule rap radio, these two champions of the underground have remained defiantly hard-as-fuck. Last year’s Cancer for Cure (El-P) and R.A.P. Music (Killer Mike) went heavy on the sociopolitical belligerence, but here the duo refocus their lyrical energies on a less ambitious, but no less aggressive theme: namely, threatening you with extreme bodily harm. If you’re a battle-rap traditionalist, it doesn’t get much better than this; the album is chock-full of wicked one-liners (“try to say grace, get a face full of staples”) and rapid fire tongue twisters detailing the myriad ways you might end up in the morgue if you try to talk shit. El-P’s production is similarly confrontational, but after two decades in the game, you should probably know what to expect by now. Hip-hop may have cleaned up its image in some respects, but it’s refreshing to be reminded that, at the core, it’s still hazardous material.
12.) Odd Future dropped Wolf (Tyler, the Creator) and Doris (Earl Sweatshirt).
Ok, I’m cheating a little by lumping these two together under the Odd Future label (Earl signed with Columbia Records to release Doris), but in my mind they’re still inextricably linked. Both Tyler and Earl’s early work showed flashes of brilliance, but ultimately suffered from juvenility (they were both under 18 years old when Odd Future first rose to prominence). Thankfully, they’ve dropped the bizarre rape/murder jokes since then, and each has grown significantly in their artistry. Earl’s talent on the mic has been justifiably lauded since day one, but it’s his hazily pensive production on tracks like “Chum” and “Sunday” that comes as the most pleasant surprise. Tyler, meanwhile, is even more skillful and creative on the boards; he utilizes organic instrumentation to great effect, and his sonically jarring left-turns in the middle of songs like “Tamale” are often inspired. But his MCing remains a little too stilted for my taste. I envision a future in which he raps a lot less and focuses more on his musical ability. Either way, both young underground icons have made great strides. They might sound like burnouts, but they’re certainly not fading away any time soon.
13.) Juicy J dropped Stay Trippy, further launching Mike WiLL Made It’s career into the stratosphere.
In case the phrase “Mike WiLL Made It” is still foreign to you, that’s the name of the producer who over the past 18 months or so has given us at least six straight-up classics, including four of 2013’s most infectious mega-hits: Rihanna’s “Pour It Up”, Lil Wayne’s “Love Me”, Ciara’s “Body Party”, and Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop”. Juicy J is great and all, but the real reason his record is on this list is because it made Mike WiLL a household name, thanks in no small part to the 2012 single “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” the cut that introduced us to the star producer’s signature brand of dreamy, blissed-out trap anesthesia. I’ve heard complaints that his production style is repetitive (I’ll admit that for its first month on the radio, I thought “Pour It Up” was just Rihanna’s remix of “Bandz”), but who can deny the crossover brilliance of a song like “We Can’t Stop”? Above all else, 2013 was the year that hip-hop became truly indistinguishable from pop music at large, and no figure better represented that sea change than Mike WiLL Made It.
[Additional shout-outs: Future, Chief Keef, RiFF RAFF, Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, Rich Homie Quan, 2 Chainz]
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