Hip-hop fans in my late 30s/early 40s age cohort are accustomed to lamenting the state of “the game” year after year as the genre supposedly moves farther and farther away lyrically and sonically from the values of its late 80s to early 90s Golden Age.
2012 was the perfect year for this type of fan to start listening to new releases again, because it was a great year for hip-hop, a year when a lot of great work was done both in traditional and non-traditional styles and in both the “underground” and “commercial” hip-hop scenes.
A lot of these great albums, mixtapes, singles etc. have already gotten a lot of press, shown up on a lot of year end lists and so forth but some haven’t. A lot of great work was done by rappers and producers in the younger Generation X age cohort of early to mid 30s, but, most encouragingly, amazing work was also done by millennial-aged rappers and producers who grew up as “Golden Age” hip-hop became the lingua franca of all young people in America, using the 80s and 90s hip-hop of their youth as a constant reference and background presence.
A good example of the latter type of album is Kendrick Lamar’s justly critically acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d. city, the consensus best hip-hop album of the year and one that showed up at or near the top spot for best album overall of the year on several publications’ and websites’ lists. Lamar subtitled the album “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar” but that’s underselling it.
It’s really more like a novel or a play. The songs all fit into a larger narrative but also all work on their own. In some songs Lamar raps from the perspectives of various characters in the story. This might make it sound like the album is overly tasteful or too serious but it’s also just a really fun commercial hip-hop album, with virtuoso rapping from Lamar and great beats from various producers.
A good song to get new hip-hop doubters on board is “Backseat Freestyle,” a muscular display of Lamar’s flow over a fantastic beat by the producer Hit-Boy. The lyrical content is shallower than that of most of the album, but the song is actually supposed to mark a moment in the narrative when Lamar’s character raps for the first time as a 17-year-old, so the typical rap boasts (“Damn I got bitches” etc.) are meant to sound empty and ironic given the character’s station in life at this moment:
My favorite hip-hop album of the year, and the one likely to bring those who haven’t paid attention to the genre in awhile back on board, is Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music. This album is a strong rebuke to those who think hip-hop with strong political content disappeared with the heyday of Public Enemy.
It takes the genre back to the days when it was actually threatening to the white power structure and not merely a celebration of hedonism and consumerism by combining the gritty crime/street narrative tradition of N.W.A. and Wu-Tang with Public Enemy style polemics. Amazingly, unlike most overtly political rap, the political content, though militant, is completely well-argued and cogent, avoiding the conspiracy theories of some radical rappers on one hand or warmed over conventional wisdom on the other.
After emerging as an Outkast/Dungeon Family affiliate in the early 2000s, Killer Mike has been working in a similar vein for almost a decade, but R.A.P. Music is his first top to bottom great album. A big part of what makes it great is that it’s an extended collaboration with 2012 hip-hop MVP candidate El-P, who produces every track and raps on one. El-P’s futuristic, dystopian, hard-edged beats bring a unified vision that fits perfectly with Killer Mike’s authoritative, muscular rapping style. Nowhere does the combination work better than on the song “Reagan,” the album’s jaw-dropping centerpiece and probably the best song released in any genre in 2012.
Beginning with actual recordings of President Reagan’s public comments on the Iran Contra scandal, Killer Mike then grapples with the man’s outsize legacy in the life and imagination of rappers and of African-Americans in general, delving into the history of “The Dark Alliance” and the consequent war on drugs and huge increase in the number of young black men in prison. The final few bars about the present state of the country are better argued than 99% of political op-eds out there (though the final assertion that Reagan was in fact a re-incarnation of Satan is a bit farther than even I would go) and way more engaging and fun to listen to.
To top it off the song’s official video was this brilliant animated film:
In addition to producing R.A.P. Music El-P also released his own brilliant solo album: Cancer 4 Cure. Pretty much the whole thing is amazing on every level: sonically, lyrically etc. so it’s hard to pick a single standout track. My personal favorite is “For my upstairs neighbor (mums the word),” a richly observed portrait of the no nonsense way New Yorkers who live in crappy tenement buildings deal with hearing domestic violence in a neighboring apartment which turns the words “If you kill him I won’t tell” into an improbable hook:
While the above three releases all received plenty of critical acclaim, there was plenty of other good material put out that was either a little bit more under the radar or was considered too commercial and goofy to end up on ever year end list etc. In the former category was Roc Marciano’s Reloaded. This record didn’t have nearly the ambition of the other ones I’ve mentioned thus far, but what it did it did extremely well. It’s a deliberately retro 90s New York style “gangsta rap” album. In it the former minor Flipmode Squad member unleashes absolutely dazzling wordplay, put downs, and punchlines over menacing old school jazz and funk samples. It lacks any of the ambitious narratives or more personal statements that might vault it to all-time classic status, but the incredible wordplay and the consistent groove of the album’s production make it endlessly mesmerizing to listen to.
On the goofy commercial end of the spectrum is Future’s huge hit album Pluto. This one is pretty much the opposite of all the albums I’ve mentioned thus far, in that there’s absolutely nothing about it that would appeal to fan of old school/indie “hip-hop.” In fact, I’m not even sure why the album is considered to be hip-hop or Future to be a rapper at all. It’s really more like some sort of weird future spaceman R&B or something. The guy pretty much just hoarsely croons through auto-tune, but somehow it works (for me at least.) It’s sort of the in the vein of the stuff that Kanye West and T-Pain were doing about four years ago, but Future takes all the hip-hop/R&B cliches and injects them with a new sincerity and romanticism purely through the power of his unguarded delivery. Also, almost every song has an undeniably great hook, especially single “Turn on the Lights,” my candidate for best Top 40 single of the year: