I’m sure you’re all pretty sick of end-of-year lists by now, having been inundated with the things for the last month. I personally have a sort of love/hate relationship with 'list season', but in the spirit of things I thought I’d attempt to make sense of the year in hip hop. Rather than forcing only my own critical opinions down your throats, though, I’ve opened the column out to some of the artists that have made hip hop so exciting in 2011.
I couldn’t let them have all the fun, of course, so I’ve had a stab at listing my own favourite rap releases of the year as well. This is by no means a definitive selection, and in what was a very strong year for hip hop, there were so many other releases I could have included. What we have here, then, are an arbitrary number of hip hop records that have best defined my year, followed by picks from select members of the rap community. There's certainly plenty of great records left out here, so please feel free to share your own favorite rap releases in the comments section below.
12: Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Gonna Eat That? (Rhymesayers)
11: Curren$y & The Alchemist - Covert Coup (mixtape)
10: Paul White Rapping With Paul White (One-handed)
9: Don Trip & Starlito Step Brothers (mixtape)
8: A$AP Rocky LiveLoveA$AP (mixtape)
7: Action Bronson Dr Lectar (Fine Fabric Delegates)
6: DJ Quik – The Book of David (Mad Science)
5: Danny Brown XXX (mixtape)
4: Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire Lost in Translation (mixtape)
3: Main Attrakionz 808s and Dark Grapes II (mixtape)
2: Jehst The Dragon of An Ordinary Family (YNR Productions)
1: Big K.R.I.T Returnof4eva (mixtape)
ST 2 Lettaz (G-Side) & Block Beataz: We really enjoyed Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 mixtape for a couple of reasons. First off, you can tell that the music was properly produced. If you listen closely you hear how tight the harmonies are aligned with his main vocals. A lot of rappers and so called engineers don't pay attention to detail. Secondly, this is the first time we've ever been this tuned in to a monotonic rapper. His sharp & quick delivery rides the beats perfectly. His dialect, definitely is Cali (‘ADHD’ is a perfect example.). Our production styles are definitely similar; hopefully we can work together soon.
Clams Casino: One of my favourite projects of this year, was Main Attrakionz’s 808s & Dark Grapes II. They have been doing their thing and making their own lane for the past few years, but it's great to see them really getting some shine this year
Blockhead: This year has been a real comeback year for hip hop in my eyes. Between Danny Brown, Open Mike Eagle, Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire , Roc Marciano etc. there have been some seriously stellar releases. All that considered, my #1 album this year is Brooklyn based rapper Billy Woods’ mixtape, Cowardly Threats. It's a compilation of all of Woods’ work he's done since he started doing solo stuff. A pretty obscure release, but it's the one I've given the most run to. He has a new album dropping early next year called History will absolve me that's easily the album I'm most looking forward to hearing. Look into this dude, he's no joke.
Danny Brown: My favourite album of the year had to be Main Attrakionz’s Chandelier. Squadda and Mondre has always been the yang to odd futures ying, spitting drugged out verses filled with emotion about two kids approaching their twenties coming from Oakland. But see, where they’re from is not the determining factor here. You won't hear MAz doing any hyphy songs or make the mobbed out sound that E40 use to in the past, or even the fun party element that Mac Dre use to come with. All of that’s there, but its presenting in a way no one’s ever heard before. In terms of the production, Julian Wass of Fol Chen and LWH also provided some one of the best soundtracks of 2011. From the industrial sound of ‘Desperado’ to the beautiful piano roll of ‘Youngin Tho’ and the chimed out ’Swaggin Hard’, this album has more personality than any project you heard this year.
Davinci: Prince Aries, Clean Ass Whip mixtape. This was probably my favourite mixtape that came out this year. A compilation of new and classic west coast hip-hop mixed in with their original samples. Ice Cube, E40, spice1, Rappin 4tay, Too $hort and more. If you try to play this on your laptop, you're missing the point; you have to play in your ride when the sun is out. It literally took me back to the soundtrack of my childhood.
Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire: Two mixtapes that definitely caught my attention this year were 2Chainz’s True Religion and Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80. 2chainz just has that down-south wild trap swag, but he's mad lyrical at the same time. For me being from Brooklyn, real MC's have to be lyrical, and they gotta say some real shit. 2Chainz is real & his indie grind needs to be respected. Kendrick's message is important as hell too and I'm glad he's winning right now, because too many cats just wanna talk about what people think rappers should rap about. Like mother fuckers forgot the artist makes the music. These two dudes are about the artist making the music real artists make.
Cities Aviv: 2011 was basically overloaded with one notable release after another but my favourite record overall is without a doubt Higher Ground by Rimar. In a year where artists and writers alike became more pre-occupied with genre titles it is refreshing to hear a record so in tune with its own aesthetic that it can't be pigeonholed. Faded out sex trax and hypnagogic R&B worship. For ladies who came feet first.
Ayinde (The Jealous Guys): Purity Ring’s ‘Lofticries’ is the most memorable and influential record I've heard all this year. Not a mixtape, but everything they dropped was crazy and I can't say anything else hit me so hard. The sound Purity Ring carries is so refreshing, synths play a huge part in my art and when I listen to that song it's like deep love with a hint of weirdness to it. Plus it makes you bounce too, on some Trap shit. I've actually got close to a woman I met a party because of that song and she loved me ever since - and I hate partying. But that is our song now.
Homeboy Sandman: Earlier this year I Am Many put out the Born Again Sinner mixtape. This cat I Am Many, he's a musician. He's a one of a kind talent, nobody can rap like him. He’s got mad styles, delivers with confidence, with force. Personality. Insight. Born Again Sinner was impressive from top to bottom as far as originality and gift. Saying things others don't say, peppered with saying things others have said in a way that nobody's said them. My favourite release of 2011. Honourable mention: Paul White's Rapping with Paul White.
Stalley: One of my favourite records from the past year is Foster the People's Torches. Although it's kinda poppy, the songwriting is excellent and the production is perfect for any time you're in the mood for something upbeat. They really did a great job of melding genres together and coming up with their own unique twist on pop music.
Apollo Brown: One of my standout albums of the year 2011 is Median's The Sender. I've always been a big fan of Median and his sound. The song ‘How Big Is Your World’ is actually one of my favourite hip hop songs, period. The new album is pretty dope with production by 9th Wonder, Khrysis, SV, Kev Brown and more. My favourite joints on the album happen to be starting the album off at #1 and #2, ‘Take A Chance’, produced by Kev Brown, and ‘Bright Individual’, produced by Khrysis. I'd love to work with him down the road.
Squadda B (Main Attrakionz): The Shady Bambino Project. I got to make beats for Shady Blaze from Green Ova instead of me beggin’ for his beats, and it worked. I was runnin’ in and outta town hearing what he was sending back, so to see the world feel that shit was priceless.
Oddisee (Diamond District): My favourite record of the year is without a doubt, Metals by Feist. From start to finish this record had me in awe. The range of her voice and the control she has over it never ceases to amaze me. The orchestration & instrumentation of this album is truly some next level shit. The mix of the record alone makes me want to scrap everything I've done this year & start over. Truly a masterpiece, it's a record I'll keep coming back to for inspiration and reference.
yU (Diamond District): I thought A Sucker for Pumps by Tiron & Ayomari was a great album. It plays like a movie from beginning to end. First and foremost, both the cats were rhyming like a mug. The sound was cohesive all the way through. The features were minimal besides two very dope ones, with Thundercat on the bass & Yummy Bingham on a hook. A very well thought out & put together record.
Nacho Picasso: When I had my El Camino (RIP) I was listening to Yelawolf's ‘Box Chevy’ like every day. I'm always listening to Mac Dre and vintage Cam'ron, but as far as the new shit, I've been slapping some Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. It's hard to really get in to other music, because I've been working on music constantly this past year, so usually I'm listening to Blue Sky Black Death or Raised by Wolves instrumentals. I'm always working. I try to check everybody's shit out so I know what's going on, though. Today I was watching Danny Brown's new video - I like him.
Lazerbeak (Doomtree): Take Care, by Drake. I know a lot of people can’t stand this dude ("soft as baby thighs" as Paper Tiger puts it), but this record is simply too awesome to deny. It’s probably because I’m such a big R&B guy, who knows. I really liked Thank Me Later though and I ride for this one even harder. The beats rule, he can actually kinda rap his ass off when he wants to, and he got Stevie Wonder to co-write and play harmonica on a track. Just don't look at the album cover when you listen to this and you'll be fine.
Rob Sonic: In terms of 2011 I could sum it up with the phrase, “who is this dude? He’s ill!” I asked this about Danny Brown early and then people asked me later. XXX is the album I probably listened to most this year; there is just something right about what Danny Brown does on the mic. The album itself is like a throwback to a time that had dudes not really giving a fuck about what rap was supposed to be, because they embody it. I miss this for the most part because everyone is trying to be so next, or just don’t care about rap enough to sit down and pen whole verses that are concise and keep you intrigued enough to not rely on hooks. I was only introduced to Danny Brown’s music earlier this year with ‘Hybrid’ and it was a breath of fresh air. See, as a rapper I need to hear rappers go in, and this was a good year for that led by Danny Brown’s XXX.
Matt Martians (The Internet / OFWGKTA): All throughout 2010 I would fly back and forth from Atlanta to Los Angeles working on music with Tyler and the fellas. During that period I would also spend a lot of time at my mentor Om'mas Keith's studio. Om'mas would always tell me about Thundercat and how there wasn't anybody funking with him as far as bass players go. When his album was released, the first listen blew me away instantly! It reminded me of the 60-70's soul music my parents raised me on. This album was really the ‘soundtrack of my year’; I would listen to it at all times no matter what I was doing for six months straight. No lie. Very inspiring.
Sole: Considering the state of the world, the themes on Watch the Throne are absolutely absurd. Even the title. But I think how out of touch this album is has a lot to do with its charm. Somehow this is the only album this year I find myself going back to. I'm sure it helps that it came out in the summer, because if it had come out in February I might be saying Lupe Fiasco's Friend of the People mixtape is album of the year. It’s actually better, but since I have only had it for a week I don't think it’s fair to call it album of the year...although it is really fucking good.
(Sole actually wrote a much longer piece for the column – but as we’re tight for space you can read the rest here).
Kyle is on Twitter, here. By February, he will have proclaimed at least three separate records to be 'album of the year 2012'.