This is Part II.
If you haven’t read Part I yet,
you should go read Part I before reading this.
I’m not your mother.
ScHoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions (January 14, 2012)
If 2009 was the greatest year ever for mixtapes, 2012 might be the greatest year ever for hip-hop at large. Kendrick broke into the mainstream; Frank Ocean released Channel Orange; P Diddy got in a car accident. Well, maybe that last one wasn’t great, but the fact is that 2012 saw dozens of amazing albums, and choosing one for the top was hard. But, such is the life of a self-imposed music list maker such as myself, and I have to choose. So, I’m going with ScHoolboy Q’s breakthrough, Habits & Contradictions.
Throughout the album, Q bounces back and forth between his contradictory personality traits, from the charismatic party monster on tracks like “There He Go” (my grad school theme song), to the introspective stoner on “Sacrilegious,” to straight, West-coast gangsta on “Nightmare on Figg St.” Q’s lyrical ability shines across the album, and his back-and-forth with A$AP Rocky on “Hands on the Wheel” is one of my favorite verses of all time, tied with their back-and-forth on “Brand New Guy” on Live.Love. A$AP. What can I say? Just like Kathy Griffin, I’m shipping Q and Rocky.
The crazy thing is, in a year that wasn’t 2012, Habits & Contradictions would have been, far and away, my favorite album. But for 2012, I basically had to choose between some of my overall favorite albums from the last decade, including Kendrick’s first magnum opus, Action Bronson’s breakthrough, and Harry Fraud’s cloudiest beats. Still, ScHoolboy Q shines through for to the top not just because of overall quality of the album, but because his live show in Denver for this album was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Looking back, I think the show stands out so much because it really encapsulated his persona: yeah, he’s a threatening gangsta from South Central, but at heart, he’s a groovy, black hippy who looked like he was having a great time on stage.
- Runners Up: Kendrick Lamar Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (October 22, 2012); Smoke DZA and Harry Fraud – Rugby Thompson (June 19, 2012); Action Bronson – Blue Chips (March 12, 2012); Death Grips – Money Store (April 24, 2012); Spark Master Tape – Syrup Splash (December 31, 2012)
Spark Master Tape – The # SWOUP Serengeti (March 28, 2013)
With a lyrical dexterity to match some of the top word-smiths in the game and sample-heavy, bass driven beats, Spark Master Tape’s second mixtape still flips into my rotation regularly. Spark’s second mixtape follows the same model as his first, Syrup Splash, which was released four months earlier. Dripping with a dark, manic energy, often stemming from Paper Platoon’s masterful production full of deep bass grooves, Spark only appears on tracks with his voice pitched as low as the bass line. Ostensibly pitched down to maintain anonymity (although some internet sleuths have linked him to Last Standing Poet), Spark represents the depths of the hip-hop underground in the digital age, claiming no territory but the hoods of the web.
Across his albums, Spark credits “Paper Platoon” and “DJ Charlie” for his production, but I’m still convinced that this is primarily the work of one person (in the vein of MF DOOM/Metal Fingers/Viktor Vaughn/King Gheedora). I’m sure he has added additional producers to the team since 2013, but I am convinced that Syrup Splash and The #SWOUP Serengeti are the products of a singular vision that extends past to the music and into an entire digital hood that Spark inhabits.
Runners up: Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap (April 30, 2013); Lucki Eck$ – Alternative Trap (February 25, 2013); Danny Brown – Old (October 8, 2013)
Freddie Gibbs x Madlib – Piñata (March 18, 2014)
I remember when this album was released, because despite the hype on r/hiphopheads, I wasn’t particularly interested. I was interested in Madlib, but hadn’t really dived into his oeuvre, and Freddie Gibbs just seemed like a Tupac clone (frankly, he still does for the most part). However, when I saw the cover, I had to give it a shot, and my life has been infinitely better for it! Gibbs and Madlib work together in perfect harmony to create a “gangster Blaxploitation film on wax.” Even though, ostensibly, Gibbs and Madlib attract diametrically different audiences—Madlib is an underground, avant-garde producer with heavy indie-cred and Freddie Gibbs is a midwest gangsta rapper—together they paint aural pictures reminiscent of the best Wu-Tang Clan tracks, crackling with innovative sampling and production, while slamming the audience with complex, hard lyricism.
Although Piñata didn’t get me interested in Freddie Gibbs other work—lord knows I tried—the album did spark my interest in Madlib. In the year or so after it was released, I went back and ran through Madlib’s discography, and found that, surprise, Madlib is a genius. From Quasimoto, to Madvillain, to Jaylib, to the Beat Konducta, Madlibs production is second to none, and I have to thank for that.
Runners up: Vince Staples, Hell Can Wait (October 7, 2014); Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (October 24, 2014); Mick Jenkins – The Water[s] (August 12, 2014); Young Fathers – Dead (January 31, 2014)
Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (June 30, 2015)
If you had told me in 2010 that the I would be listening to more Vince Staples than Earl Sweatshirt, I would have thought you were crazy. I first heard Vince on that 2010 EARL tape, and I was interested enough to check out some early mixtapes but I wasn’t super impressed. That all changed with Hell Can Wait in 2014, where Vince proved he could produce exactly what I like in hip hop: a mix of catchy beats with dense lyricism and a healthy dose of consciousness. This combination flourished on Summertime ’06. Vince’s slightly nasal but impeccable flow meshes intimately with dark, grimy beats that somehow have incredibly catchy hooks. I regularly chant “With three legs jump off the roof” as I’m cleaning my house, and my wife knows the chorus to “Norf Norf” by heart, without every actually listening to the song. I think the ability to create catchy hooks over dirty beats is an underrated talent in hip hop, and I think that Vince is one of the best of the game in that regard.
In the last three years, Vince has really stood out from the rest of the field as a smart, funny, and politically conscious artist. His politics are tinged with irony and cynicism about the American system, but he has also proven himself to be an empathetic and diplomatic voice in the public domain. Especially, when a white, christian woman posted a video of herself crying about the lyrics to “Norf Norf.” I’m still confused as to why she was more upset with the line about getting an abortion than with the line about murdering witnesses, but whatchu gonna do.
Runner up: Nappy Roots – The 40 Akerz Project (May 15, 2015); Pusha T – King Push: Darkest Before the Dawn (December 18, 2015); Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (March 15, 2015); Heems – Eat, Pray, Thug (March 10, 2015)
Young Thug – Jeffery (August 26, 2017)
I’ve struggled a lot with with Southern rap over the last ten years. In 2007, Outkast embarked on their indefinite hiatus, Pimp C died (RIP), and “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” spent seven week’s as the number one song in the nation. In the underbelly of Atlanta however, there was some movement. The marble-mouthed rapper Gucci Mane (I just want to pause and say this is, by far, my favorite way of describing Gucci Mane’s rapping style) was slowly building his base in Atlanta by grinding out mixtape after mixtape. Personally, I’m not a huge Gucci fan. The first time I found something I liked by him was through Odd Future, when I realized that the beat for “Orange Juice” was Bangladesh beat for Gucci.
To be completely honest, Gucci still doesn’t do that much for me, but his influence over Southern hip-hop over the last decade is second only to Lil Wayne, and in terms of Atlanta specifically, probably unmatched. The flood of rappers following his mold have mainly bored me, so when I first heard that Young Thug was the next best thing out, I was definitely skeptical. I listened to some early singles, and thought he was another Gucci clone. This all changed after some idiot on Reddit started complaining about the cover of the new Young Thug album. Apparently, Young Thug was wearing a dress! The scandal! This piqued my interest. In the hyper-masculine world of hip-hop and the aggressively hetero world of trap music, how is Atlanta’s hottest MC getting away with wearing a dress on his album cover?
Basically, there’s nothing to get away with really when your album is this good. Front to back, Jeffery floored me when I first heard it. While not particularly notable, the production is solid across the board and in comparison to the other mumble-rappers who dominate the ATL sound, Young Thug sounds like he’s reading the evening news. I’ve always been a little partial to a good ad-lib, and Thugger’s got those in spades. In the end though, this album is great because Young Thug’s attitude is infectious. He’s so infectious that I’ve been looking into his collaborators, to see if they can infect me like Thugger has. Long story short, they can’t. Playboi Carti is probably the closest, but he lacks any sense of lyricism and relies too heavily on his, admittedly catchy ad-libs. I’ll keep my ears peeled on that ATL sound, but for now Thugger stands alone.
Runner up: Anderson .Paak – Malibu (January 15, 2016); Kanye West – The Life of Pablo (February 14, 2016); Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (September 27, 2016); A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You For Your Service (November 11, 2016)
Epilogue: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. (April 14, 2017)
I started writing this article in 2017, and due to some extremely foreseeable delays (aka, no one is paying me to write this nonsense), I’ve only been able to release it in the middle of 2018. The one upshot of this is that I get to include an album by Kendrick who, more than anyone else on this list, is destined to go down as one of the best to ever do it.
As many have noted—even upper management apparently—Damn. is a masterpiece. I mean, how would it not be the top for last year. No other album really even came close for me. Starting from the March release of the visually fantastic video for “Humble,” Damn. stole the show for the entire year. I Jay-Z released an album last year that I haven’t listened to yet (mainly because I don’t have Tidal, but still). From Kedrick’s fierce lyricism, to the ever-excellent TDE production team, to the complex but coherent concepts that run back-and-forth across the entire album, Damn. is a magnum opus of hip-hop and a defining album for this generation. While I personally think thatGood Kid, M.a.a.D. City andTo Pimp A Butterfly are both incredible projects, I think this is what Kendrick will be remembered for. It’s entirely possible that GKMC or TPAB are better albums in many ways, but the impact of Damn. reaches far beyond either of those previous albums. Plus, that Geraldo sample … woof!
Frankly, the album’s success makes me happy that I’ve been listening to Kendrick since 2010. I remember telling my mom when GKMC dropped in 2012 that she should keep an eye out for the name Kendrick Lamar. Last February, she called me up and asked if I had seen my man at the Grammy’s. Honestly, I hadn’t seen him (and she hadn’t either, because, who watches the Grammy’s?), but I’m glad he got a chance to shine, even if it might be too little, too late.
Runners up: J.I.D. – The Never Story (March 10, 2017); Brockhampton – Saturation (June 9, 2017), Saturation II (August 25, 2017) and Saturation III (December 15, 2017); Wiki – No Mountains in Manhattan (August 25, 2017); Playboy Carti – Playboi Carti (April 14, 2017)
If I were to write one more entry for 2018, Kendrick is the strongest contender for the crown with the Black Panther soundtrack. But it’s only May, and things are looking up. J. Cole finally dropped an album which has more than two tracks I want on rotation; Young Fathers released a great trans-genre album that mixes hip-hop, punk, and experimental rock; Pac Div came out of nowhere with their first album in six years, and it bangs.
But, if I had to guess what the best album of 2018 will be,
my money’s on the only Donald who matters.