First and foremost, I’d like to thank Derek Scarzella and Troy-Jeffrey Allen for giving me the opportunity to express my opinions and interpretations on myriad subject matter via Action-A-Go-Go and for the new level of exposure. Thanks to you both and thanks to my fellow columnists.
2013 has been a year in which I wondered if being 30 years old means that I’m too old to listen to hip-hop now. I’ve shed my baggy jeans, over-sized fitted hats and maternity-ward novelty t-shirts, but I still am enamored with the music. So much so, that I continue to do my annual staple of what I think were the best top 10 hip-hop albums of the year. So despite my age, I won’t stop listening to it. It’s kinda like how Chris Rock once said in his stand-up special Never Scared: ”Whatever music was playing when you first started getting laid, you’re gonna love that music for the rest of your life!” Regardless though, this is my 2013 offering. The list is in order, building up until you reach the number one hip-hop album. Thanks, and read away. Oh, FYI most reviews contain some level of profane language. So, just so you know, this review is NSFW.
Album Title: Peter Pan Syndrome
Label: Old Maid Entertainment
Release Date: September 10th, 2013
Sometimes I forget that comedy rap has a place in hip-hop. But this is the first time I’ve heard a comedy rap album satirically tackle the issue of age in hip-hop and life. Queens producer J-Zone (aka Captain Backslap) is now over the age of 30 and has humorously packaged his semi-midlife crisis into a conceptual musical hodgepodge aptly titled Peter Pan Syndrome.
Most of the music sounds like a low-budget version of 1990’s NYC boom-bap, but that’s kind of the point. Zone’s character on this album hasn’t traded in his dated MPC sampler because refuses to go with the flow. Being in the music industry since his early 20’s, he’s hit something of a crossroad at the age of 36. The album questions the relevance of artists of great age in a culture as youth-oriented as hip-hop. Some say that 30 is the new 20. Others say that 30 is the age at which men finally grow up. But what does it mean to grow up? To J-Zone, growing up means assimilating into a world that he wants no part of because of the stifling monotony of marriage, kids, a 9-to-5 job, and constant bills. In a word, conformity.
Zone brings his comedic nature in full-force by tempering his sophomoric lifestyle with observations that only come with age. On “Gadget Ho”, he hilariously takes aim at how communication technologies have turned people into social maladroits. He attacks the women who approach him to use their smartphones to take group shots of them with their girlfriends with the same ferocity as he does the alpha males who’ve been socially castrated by these women. It’s a mockery of internet language and how the communication barrier between genders grows stronger with more technology.
He doesn’t stop there. He tackles topics that are both relevant and idiosyncratic. On “Crib Issues”, he points towards women he knows who have unkempt homes. On the same track, his squeaky-voiced alter-ego (Chief Chinchilla) states tongue-in-cheek that this track has alienated the few female fans that they have. The hypocrisy of supposedly post-racial America is examined on “Miscegenation On Ya Station!”. Here, Zone provides a brief narrative of a White man who loves Obama but is upset and disturbed that his White girlfriend cuckolded him with a Black rapper and got pregnant by him. He gleefully incorporates stereotypes of mixed-race children with raps like “You could show him Seinfeld and gluten free pancakes/And he’ll still do a soul brother handshake“.
Continuing with the album’s theme on “Jackin’ for Basquiats”, Zone talks about the recent trend in hip-hop music to shout-out famous painters and to purchase expensive paintings as a status symbol. Some of the tracks with interesting titles like “The Drug Song (remix)” or “Gimme a Hit” are instrumental tracks that could’ve fit into the album more thematically had lyrics been added to them.
He had few guest appearances as usual. On “Hog Slop”, he reunites with his Boss Hog Barbarians other-half, Celph Titled. Juggaknots emcee Breezly Brewin provides an assist on “Fox Hunt”, a very facetious proclamation for how ugly women are the best to pursue since their sexual prowess compensates for their unattractiveness. There’s a vocal sample from a stand-up comedian at the start of the track to drive the point home.
Just when I thought the album was dragging on, Zone brings out some more interesting observations of a man of his age. “Rap Baby Boomers” uses a Soulja Boy vocal sample from when he ridiculed Ice-T for having no place in hip-hop because “da game done changed; dere’s new niggaz out, and don’t nobody wanna hear dat ol’ shit no mo’!” It speaks to how society tells hip-hop artists to fear being “the old guy in the club” and uses a skit at the end about how rappers with no marketable skills will find it impossible to gain employment in the professional workforce. “Trespasser” attacks those midwestern folks who move to tough NYC neighborhoods, act bourgie by trying to make their new home identical to the one from which they’ve just escaped. You can spot these people by their reverence for Jay-Z’s hit songs, anything Obama, and a distinct lack of Black friends (I keed! I keed!).
The one track that cracked me up the most was also something I can fully relate to: “Black Weirdo”. Most eccentric Black males over the age of 30 will find the topics included familiar: Rejection from Black women for not being sufficiently a pretty-boy stereotype (“I need a real brotha, like Shemar Moore!”); not assimilating into the workforce; and basically not being the stereotype that even their own believe they should conform to. Zone also points out that the same Black women who rejected him and led him to seek White women diss him for that, and yet try their hardest to fit into the same White world they claim they can’t stand. He also declares his disdain for modern R&B, preferring old school instead. In fact, the only R&B singers in the last 20 years that he respects are R. Kelly, Aaron Hall and Jodeci. Why? ‘Cause they some goons.
Peter Pan Syndrome makes my top-10 list this year, not only because J-Zone’s an ill producer, but because his insult-comedy rap style shed light on hip-hop’s perceived arrested development, not to mention my own. Are there things I think I should’ve accomplished before I hit the age of 30? Yes. Does it bother me? Not so much anymore. As for hip-hop, most of the rappers I listened to in my teens are now over 40 years old. But age doesn’t make one irrelevant. A lack of evolution kinda does, though. As for J-Zone…he sees the big picture, but doesn’t care. He’d rather paint his own.
Album Title: 13
Label: Nature Sounds Records
Release Date: May 7th, 2013
Producers: Havoc, Statik Selektah
Kejuan Muchita has had over 20 years in the music business as both an emcee and sought-out producer. As one-half of Mobb Deep, he gained a reputation as a producer with a penchant for ominous urban soundscapes. While he definitely has skills as a rapper, they’ve always been outshone by his skills at production: Taking a sample and then finding a way to unleash its darker side. On his third solo album, 13, Havoc musically and stylistically demonstrates to contemporary rappers/producers (ala Kanye West) why he is indeed one of his progenitors.
Interestingly enough, this album was recorded during a period when Havoc and his Mobb Deep partner-in-rhyme Prodigy were disputing with one another. They reconciled soon after, but Prodigy is not included on 13. That’s fine by me, since Prodigy is a shell of the kind of emcee he used to be and has completely fallen off like leprosy.
Havoc’s rhymes are hardcore all the way through and, this time, it feels like he owns on this album. By that, I mean that this is all him. Without Prodigy, it has the added bonus of not sounding like a Mobb Deep side-project. The production is mostly his brain child, and, further to his credit, he has six enlisted guest vocalists. In this third outing, Havoc has experimented with different production techniques and, as such, has altered his usual flow.
Not one to shy away from his New York roots, he recruits fellow NYC stars Styles P. and Raekwon on the track “Favorite Rap Stars”. With a looped 1970-style bass riff, guitar line and funky drum pattern starting it out, I thought it sounded like an Alchemist throwaway. Then at 0:23, the clanging drums kick in and give the beat a brand new lease on life. Havoc had the best verse out of the three as he sounded the most laid back. All three emcees take aim at fake rappers with their respective styles, and it’s indicative of Havoc’s know-how in producing beats that are unmistakably rep New York. While the same holds true of the next track, “Life We Chose”, it’s kind of marred by Lloyd Banks’ lackluster verse. Also, though Mobb Deep may have been dropped from G-Unit, it’s good to see there aren’t any hard feelings.
The lead single from the album “Eyes Open” is a synth-heavy track featuring Chicago emcee Twista. Although the beat is tailor-made for Twista’s fast-paced flow, Havoc holds his own:
Know that I just built this, sweat blood and tears
My brother died, was the only time I shed tears
Then switch gears, was outta there like last year
Now everything is smooth like cashmere, Chinchilla
Coupe so White, that’s Mac Miller
Feel some kinda way? Then blast nigga
Word me, that’s a good one, fear none, aired ’em
‘Round here ain’t no fair ones, you not shootin’ off no flare guns
Another beat that follows the synth-trend is “Already Tomorrow”; a lamentation of the transitory nature of glamour that Havoc’s lifestyle brings him. Havoc also incorporates boom-bap into the children’s choir-helmed “Hear That”. Also, adding to his ear for production is how he adds an Asian-influenced sample into the beat. Lyrically, Havoc has seemed to grow out of his comfort zone of gritty NYC dark urban lyrics. While those themes do comprise a huge chunk of the album, he takes the initiative and experiments with other lyrical sides to himself. On “Eyes Open” and “Favorite Rap Stars”, he engages in braggadocio rhymes and displays a cleverness that I had never heard out of him.
The bonus track, lucky number 13, is entitled “Can’t Sleep”. Although MA-native Statik Selektah produces the beat with exploding drums and a piano loop acting as a coda, it almost seems to have no place on the album after the previous tracks were masterfully consistent courtesy of Havoc’s production. Actually, let me rephrase It’s just that when there’s one producer overseeing the whole album, I sometimes view any outside sonic assistance, however beneficial, as somewhat of an intrusion.
The final track before the outro is “Gettin’ Mines”. Definitely a stray from his usual topics, Havoc’s raps speak as an anthem for empowerment. He raps about self-improvement and the benefits of sometimes ignoring conventional wisdom. His message? “Let the haters hate, couldn’t wait to let ’em see me blow!“. Other guests on the album include crooner Masspike Miles and Slaughterhouse’s lyrical tour-de-force Royce da 5-9 on “Tell Me To My Face”. With Miles, Havoc creates tracks smooth enough to enjoy radio play, but expectedly will not.
Overall, I enjoyed listening to this album. Havoc sounds more comfortable in his own skin without the influence of any of his Mobb Deep affiliates. He’s sharper behind both the mic and the boards. His work with some of the best emcees on throughout the hip-hop spectrum is also a testament to what’s happened to him with this album: He’s evolved.
Artist: Marco Polo
Album Title: PA2: The Director’s Cut
Label: Soulspazm Records
Release Date: November 12th, 2013
Producers: Marco Polo
A Canadian hip-hop artist who has garnered critical acclaim within the music industry for his talents, had one of his tracks featured on the soundtrack of a Hollywood produced film, and is named after a pioneering traveler.
If your first thought was Drake, good guess but wrong. In comparison, Canadian-born Marco Polo is a complete 180º: A producer with an affinity for Newport cigarettes, armed with an MPC 2000 sampler, and such a relentless drive for digging (in crates, mind you) that they should have brought him in to rescue those Chilean miners a few years back.
I’ve said in the past that Marco is the musical heir to DJ Premier. While influences of Premo and Pete Rock are evident, particularly with scratched-in lyrics from several different hip-hop tracks and the genres of sampling, I think that Marco now has a much more distinctive style than before. His beats have achieved the point of where I can now listen to a beat and recognize it as one of Marco’s. His slavish devotion to mining for samples from different instruments allows him meld different sounds into a modern homage to that boom-bap from the 90’s. Which brings us to PA2: The Director’s Cut.
The sequel to 2007’s Port Authority, this sophomore effort follows the same format as the original. He’s enlisted several underground and semi-mainstream emcees to spit over his tracks. If you’ve read my review on Facebook for DJ Khaled’s Suffering From Success, then you know how I feel about mixtapes. But a critical difference between the final products from Khaled and Marco is this: Marco Polo does his own production and, what’s more, his beats are pretty much made for rappers who can actually rap.
To kick things off, actor/hip-hop fan Michael Rapaport acts as Marco’s Flava Flav. He appears on the intros of several tracks, demonstrating a comedic presentation of the rappers and Marco with a fanboy enthusiasm and encyclopedic hip-hop knowledge that makes me tip my hat. He even has his own near 2-minute intermission. The first track reunites Organized Konfusion on “3-O-Clock”. Pharaohe Monch hasn’t lost a step when it comes to his trademark flow. The beat sounds like something I wish was on their 1994 debut. “Savages”; with a menacing piano loop, heavy drum programming, and DJ Revolution scratching in the hook; showcases Celph Titled, Ill Bill and Slaine lyrically engage in a level of savagery that would make the Macho Man (R.I.P.) blush.
While hip-hop is typically seen as strictly a boys club, girls can play too y’know. Newark’s Rah Digga comes out swinging on the appropriately titled “Earrings Off”. One track that evokes the sound of New York rap is “Astonishing”. Set over Blaxploitation-era sampling with hard drums, Marco manages to bring together Large Professor, O.C., Tragedy Khadafi and Inspectah Deck. Though Marco is known to work mostly with east coast rappers, he recruits MC Eiht and King Tee for “West Coast Love” to sling rhymes over a smooth musical tribute to Cali’s hip-hop scene. Speaking of tributes, Talib Kweli and DJ Premier perform to show love to the late Keith Elam (Guru from Gang Starr). On “G.U.R.U.”, the album’s first single, Kweli’s lyrics narrate his beginnings and legacy:
I will never stop, cause whether or not if radio play us
My ability should display a soliloquy of chaos
Painting the perfect picture
Trust me when I say that we miss ya
I felt like getting Freddie Foxxx and Big Shug
Reforming the militia, swarming on these niggas
Threw on Jazzmatazz and let my thoughts simmer then
A storm started blowing in my eyes, I want to eulogize
The truest rhymes gonna keep Guru alive
Tracks that definitely qualify as street bangers include “What They Say” and the album closer “Glory (Finish Hard)”. Featuring Kardinal Offishall, Lil’ Fame and Styles P. while the latter consists of Masta Ace, A.G., and Posdnous (from De La Soul). Both tracks have the kind of nocturnal energy that’s unmistakably birthed from the heart of the concrete jungle. “Parental Discretion” by Breeze Brewin is kind of weak. Not because of the social commentary in the lyrics, but because the beat sounds too mellow. Brewin just didn’t sound right over it, I thought. “Wrong Girl” by Reach has a catchy chorus and should’ve been released as a single because of its potential pop appeal.
PA2: The Director’s Cut is a solid release and a love letter to hip-hop with its motley crew of emcees and Marco’s insightful understanding of hip-hop production. His understanding has made him one of the most sought-after producers in hip-hop, from underground rappers to elder statesmen. While his first album was better, Marco demonstrated in 2013 that mixtapes, despite their saturation, are still a viable source of artistic merit and rewarded listening when they’re done right.
Artist: Deltron 3030
Album Title: Event 2
Label: Bulk Recordings
Release Date: September 30th, 2013
Producers: Dan the Automator
I admit: I was holding out for CunninLynguists’ Strange Journey, Vol. 3 to be included on this ‘best of’ list. They are my favorite hip-hop group and, from a personal and objective standpoint, their albums have the consistency and creativity that lands them a spot on my lists. That album was supposed to be released this year, but it’s been pushed back to early 2014. This left me scrambling for a final slot. After listening to several 2013 releases that I previously hadn’t heard, I thought I was resigned to include a half-assed album just round-out the list. Thankfully, a friend recommended Event 2 by Deltron 3030.
Normally, I don’t check out too many west coast artists. My predilection towards east coast hip-hop usually takes precedence. After listening to Event 2 three times since I was put on to it, I now have to get Deltron’s self-titled debut release. The duo (comprised of Del tha Funkee Homosapien and producer Dan the Automator) released the press release describing the record:
“This time, the album has a specific story. The Deltron world has gone too far with technology. Everything’s destroyed, and you just see the remnants of our technology. The streets are run by criminals, the police are outnumbered and outgunned, and we’re like pirates, running rogue, doing what we do to survive. That’s the scene of it.”
As a nod the cinematic theme of the album, the duo recruit film stars such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Amber Tamblyn and David Cross to perform several skits. The former helms the intro, describing the dystopia that society has become since the end of the last Deltron album. The latter two, a husband-&-wife duo in real life, portray a cynical lamentation for the drastic change in society. While the album is definitely inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, and would fit right in if released on the now-defunct Definitive Jux label, I think its Orwellian dystopian theme is more of an long-playing extended allegory for the hip-hop industry.
Songs like “Pay the Price” show how people have the ability, but not the capacity to think for themselves. Deltron believed that they left planet Earth in a good state before crash landing back on it 10 years later. What they find is a society where everyone, from the ruling elite to the impoverished, is unaware of how the dystopia began. They don’t seem to care either, they all play the roles society has assigned them to without question. Del, with his smooth laid-back Cali delivery, lays it out over Dan’s futuristic funk:
“And I told him man, “Seems like y’all gotta think big.”
I said introduce deeper concepts
He told me “Hell nah fool, it wouldn’t profit”
What do you mean it wouldn’t?
Who sabotaged history to make it unique?
In aspects of superiority
He said “One for you, more for me”
I see, we ain’t really equal
You part of the disagreeable people
Who broke off into a smaller pack
Who were dubbed the hard headed holograms”
“Melding of the Minds” has Deltron enlisting Zach de la Rocha to help him literally rage against the machine. Dan’s production sounds more modern on “The Agony”, which from a technical perspective, has Del doing his best emceeing. It’s also the track that puts in a nutshell my theory about the album being a metaphor for a hip-hop experiencing its own Orwellian holocaust.
Event 2 shares the same “Blade Runner” influences with contemporaries like El-P, Kool Keith, and Aesop Rock. But it also serves as an example of the correlation between science-fiction, comic book lore and hip-hop. On this album, Del establishes himself as an Osiris figure in this future to save everyone on “City Rising From the Ashes”. For emcees, their rap alter-egos are their costumed identities. Their ability to rap is their super-power, which varies in versatility and intensity from rapper to rapper. Producers, graph writers and breakers all operate under the same concept.
At the close of the album, my view of the album being a commentary on the state of hip-hop remains resolute. It earns endearment because of its thematic and entertainment value is in the same vein as those rock opera/concept albums from the 1970’s. I’m surprised that no one has used the term “progressive rap” for these kind of albums. Does the outcome of Event 2 result in hip-hop being saved? I can’t tell. But what I can tell you is that it’s like that old joke about 1,000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean:
A good start.
Artist: Pusha T
Album Title: My Name Is My Name
Label: GOOD Music/Def Jam
Release Date: October 8th, 2013
Producers: Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Nottz, Swizz Beatz, No I.D., 88-Keys, et. al.
“My name was on the street?! When we bounce from dis shit here, y’all gon’ go down to dem corners and let dem people know: Word did not get back to me. Let ‘em know Marlo step to any motherfucka — Omar, Barksdale, whoever. MY NAME IS MY NAME!” –George Pelecanos, The Wire
Starting off a hip-hop review with a quote from what many, including myself, have deemed the greatest television series of all time seems kind of unorthodox. It only seems that way to some because they fail to see the correlation between hip-hop music and urban television dramas like HBO’s The Wire. When alternate mediums like movies and television have gangster motifs, then hip-hop artists will draw from them relentlessly to give form to their own musical alter-egos. Terrence Thornton (b/k/a Pusha T) is no different. But while many rappers constantly profess to still push weight, Pusha makes his own exploits sound interesting through ghetto sensibility, a large pop-cultural lexicon, and imaginative lyrics.
You could argue that the album is over-produced because of how nearly every track contains several personnel involved in producing and co-producing. But when you’re signed to a label owned by Kanye West, you’re in good hands as far as the beats go. Bombastic displays of ego notwithstanding, Mr. West remains a force to be reckoned with when he’s in the producer’s chair. On My Name Is My Name, he is credited as a producer to most the album’s tracks. The opening track, “King Push”, has Kanye’s hand in it. The choppy drums in the song take a dramatic switch at 30 seconds as Pusha drops his lyrics. With his ice-cold razor sharp delivery, he waxes about how “the trap” is his subject matter. But he makes it interesting with his flow and his sharp wordplay. The album, as a whole, is tailor-made for the clubs. The beats, the playful flow and the guest stars betray this notion. The beats go from minimal to borderline avant-garde and there are guest stars on 10 out of the 12 tracks. For a solo debut album, Pusha has so many guest artists he’s almost a cameo appearance on his own album.
Regardless of the tailoring of the beats, the majority of them have street appeal as well. “Sweet Serenade” is one that has elements of both. The beat has a nice bounce with ethereal echoes in the background. With Chris Brown spitting a verse (don’t ask me why), this is Pusha’s variation of “Started from the Bottom”. Speaking of Drake, though Pusha had some kind of beef with him, he appears to emulate his songwriting style on “40 Acres”. Having The-Dream on the hook and intro reinforces that idea. “No Regrets” also has a Drizzy-sounding chorus, but has one of the hardest beats on the whole record, with drums packing a thunderbolt punch. One of the album’s singles, “Nosetalgia”, benefits from the combined talents of Nottz and Kanye West. Featuring a verse from Kendrick Lamar, both Pusha and K.Dot provide first-hand accounts of both sides of cocaine: the dealer and the bystander who watches those around him succumb to it. The beat kind of reminds me of DMX’s “Crime Story”, and the lyrics are just as detailed:
[Verse 1: Pusha T]
20 plus years of selling Johnson & Johnson
I started out as a baby-face monster
No wonder there’s diaper rash on my conscience
My teething ring was numbed by the nonsense
Gem Star razor and a dinner plate
Arm and hammer and a mason jar, that’s my dinner date
Then crack the window in the kitchen, let it ventilate
Cause I let it sizzle on the stove like a minute steak
[Verse 2: Kendrick Lamar]
Quantum physics could never show you the world I was in
When I was ten, back when nine ounces had got you ten
And nine times out of ten niggas don’t pay attention
And when there’s tension in the air nines come with extensions
My daddy turned a quarter piece to a four and a half
Took a L, started selling soap fiends bubble bath
Broke his nails misusing his pinky to treat his nose
Shirt buttoned open, taco meat laying on his gold
The album has dark tones similar to Hell Hath No Fury, one of the closest tracks that hark back to that is “S.N.I.T.C.H.” featuring and produced by Pharrell. Though Pusha is unapologetic and unabashed as a coke rhymer, his debut album is an example of his ability to almost intuitively process that style in a stunning manner.
Album Title: The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Label: Shady/Aftermath/Interscope Records
Release Date: November 5th, 2013
Producers: Alex da Kid, DJ Khalil, Rick Rubin, Emile, Sid Roams, Eminem, et. al.
When an artist has an album in their catalog that can most aptly be described as their “The Godfather Part II”, the question in my mind is, “How the can they possibly top this?”
Eminem’s first three major-label albums all benefitted from Dr. Dre’s production and a melanin-lacking rhymesayer whose skill-set oft-times left his peers embarrassed. While Eminem has had a consistent catalogue, The Marshall Mathers LP (his sophomore release) remains his opus. Thirteen years and five albums later, we’ve arrived at the titular sequel. So I guess the other question is: “How does it measure up?”
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is a retrospect, a continuation and a progression. While Dr. Dre is absent, one of hip-hop’s forerunner producers, Rick Rubin, has been recruited to stand in. Recovery producers Alex da Kid, Emile and DJ Khalid also make solid contributions behind the boards. The seven-minute opener for the album, “Bad Guy”, is a first-person narrative sequel to “Stan”. Told from the point of view of Stan’s now-adult and vengeful younger brother Matthew, the track begins as a legacy from an obsessed fan. By the fourth verse, though, Eminem seems to describe Stan and Matthew as metaphors for the fame he’s garnered and the different directions it’s taken. While not as impactful as its predecessor, Em’s introspective insight more than makes up for it. The self-produced “So Much Better” gives another take on Recovery’s “25 to Life” in which Eminem uses a scandalous woman as an extended metaphor for hip-hop and how it still affects him in his early 40’s. Though lyrically he remains good, the album doesn’t really begin to “wow” me until “Survival”. Produced by DJ Khalil with his heavy signature guitar riffs, this is the perfect track to get one amped-up for anything. As a single, it’s also perfect for airplay in any stadium-held sports event.
The album’s lead single, “Berzerk”, is trademark Rick Rubin production. Built around a Billy Squier sample, it has Eminem in his Slim Shady persona armed to the teeth with intricate rhymes, pop culture references, and very subtle jabs at celebrities and lyricists of lesser caliber than him. While the song is dope, it’d be even more impressive if each verse was done in one take. Parts of each verse are him delivering energetic lines, lines which sound more stitched together instead of being fluid.
On the controversial single, “Rap God”, Em goes in. Over six minutes long, very few rappers can achieve these lyrical feats: Incorporating pop-references, parodying current rap styles and a double-time flow, the technical proficiency of the lyrics and flow surpasses Kendrick Lamar’s overrated “Control” verse by a light-year.
On the pop-side of things, the Rihanna-helmed “The Monster” re-affirms a proven formulaic chemistry between her and Eminem. The two tracks that demonstrate Eminem’s progression with time are “Stronger Than I Was” and “Headlights”. Both songs are apologies, of sorts. The former is a dark piano driven, mostly sung, choppy marching-band beat with Em producing it and rapping from the point of view of his ex-wife, Kim Mathers. The latter is helmed by Emile and has a somber sonic backdrop. Here, Eminem puts his infamous drama with his momma to rest, apologizes to her and tries to make peace at long last:
‘Cause to this day we remain estranged and I hate it though
‘Cause you ain’t even get to witness your grandbabies grow
But I’m sorry Mama for Cleaning Out My Closet, at the time I was angry
rightfully, maybe so
Never meant that far to take it though, cause now I know it’s not your fault
and I’m not making jokes
That song I’ll no longer play at shows and I cringe every time it’s on the radio
And I think of Nathan being placed in a home
And all the medicine you fed us and how I just wanted you to taste your own
But now the medication’s taking over and your mental state’s deteriorating slow
And I’m way too old to cry, that shit’s painful though
But Ma, I forgive you, so does Nathan, yo
All you did, all you said, you did your best to raise us both‘
One of the most heavily talked about tracks is a bonus song entitled “Don’t Front”. A near-identical approved remake of “I Gotcha Opin” by Black Moon, Mr. Mathers adds his own rap cadence over his choice cover beat. So is The Marshall Mathers LP 2 better than the first? I don’t think so, but it comes close. Throughout the album, Eminem has proven his ability and capacity as an advanced lyricist. The man loves what he does, knows the history of this musical art, and has dedicated himself to it like a sacred calling (albeit a love-hate one). Being a White emcee no longer seems to be an issue with him or his peers; he’s proven himself and hasn’t lost his hunger. He’s like Charlie Sheen’s closing line at his very own roast:
“What I’m trying to say is that…I’m done with ‘the winning’ because…I’ve already won.”
Artist: Run the Jewels (Killer Mike & El-P)
Album Title: Run the Jewels
Label: Fool’s Gold Records
Release Date: June 26th, 2013
Now collectively known as “Run the Jewels”, Killer Mike and El-P are a stand-out duo among their hip-hop peers. Their second collaborative self-titled effort comes a year after El produced the entirety of Mike’s R.A.P Music as well as his own third solo effort Cancer4Cure. What makes Run the Jewels a stand-out hip-hop album in 2013 is how it evokes the term “funcrusher”. Look at the cover: It’s a pair of amputated monster hands after robbing someone of their dookie rope. Perhaps it’s a portrayal of El and Mike raging against the current state of hip-hop? Mind you, Funcrusher Plus was the title of Company Flow’s (El-P’s first hip-hop group) first album. When asked about the title, El stated that because of the shiny-suit era of 1997, “we called the album ‘funcrusher’. How much more direct can you get?” Funcrusher Plus had a major impact on underground hip-hop comparable to how Nirvana’s Nevermind changed the face of rock music by heralding the grunge scene. While Run the Jewels is indeed a funcrusher, it’s also a fun album.
With El-P behind the boards, it’s like a sonic jalopy for how hip-hop would sound in a Blade Runner-esque future. This time, he’s also more present on the mic. Speaking of Mike, he does not lose a beat with El on the rap tip. He goes in every time and the chemistry between his rhymes and El-P’s talents both on the mic and the boards is much stronger than before. Even though the album is less than 33 minutes long, it boasts some of the hardest and most dense beats and rhymes for all of 2013. The title-track opener sets the tone for the album, a tone that calls to mind Big Pun’s famous line, “now you know you done fucked up, right?”
The second-released single, “Banana Clipper”, sounds like Beanie Sigel’s “Mac Man” with the Pac-Man-sounding sample. Big Boi from Outkast spits the last verse on this single and the unconventional nature of his presence piqued this listener’s interest. But then again, on their first collaboration, T.I. actually spat over an El-P beat. Nonetheless, its guests like him and Big Boi that contribute to the album’s progressive style. “36’’ Chain” has a similar video-game sample, but some of the bars from Mike and El are so hard you’d think they were part of a cage:
Be it NYC or the ATL
From the ceilings of heaven to the gates of hell
We murder death killed every stage we step
Homicide times two better warn yourself, El
Anybody looking for some trouble better self-med
We could double-dutch in a minefield, hell gets
Just the right temperature, break beat minister
River dance cleats on your face for the finisher
“DDFH” has a tight hand-clap beat to it, but its successor “Sea Legs” fully captures the rebellious musical sentiment shared by both artists. Of course, every hip-hop album has to have something of an obligatory drug ode. Usually, it’s marijuana. But Run the Jewels, true to their eccentricities, also incorporate psychedelic consumables into their narratives on “Never Come Down”. The first single, “Get It” is a head-nodder without going over one’s head (get it?).
The album’s closer oozes a darkness that even extends to the title, “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”. Using visceral metaphors to explain themselves, El and Mike paint vivid pictures of their respective urban upbringings.
While some tracks are stronger than others, the overall album still packs quite a punch despite its EP length. The beats are typical El-P with Killer Mike being his partner-in-rhyme’s ATL counterpart. Frequently, their lyrics allegorically target mainstream listeners and those who cause said mainstream to metastasize. They’re right to take aim at those who’ve been conditioned with a pathological adherence to conventional ‘wisdom’. But the fact that those people are unaware that their being attacked lends credence to just how numb and desensitized they are. More than that, they blindly defend those who’ve conditioned them. I’d laugh if it weren’t so heartbreaking, because I know they believe what they’re told.
However, regardless of my own personal feelings on the mainstream masses, the Run the Jewels is more analogous to NeXT Software and more to Steve Jobs than Kanye West could ever claim to be. They think different than their contemporaries and have an output of products that are both ahead of their time and highly influential. With Jaime & Mike, I expect nothing less.
Artist: R.A. the Rugged Man
Album Title: Legends Never Die
Label: Nature Sounds
Release Date: April 30th, 2013
Producers: Apathy, Ayatollah, Marco Polo, Buckwild, Mr. Green, C-Lance & Vherbal
Uncompromisingly rugged grimy NYC with a wild reputation, the first time I even heard of Long Island’s Rugged Man was when I picked up the WWF Aggression CD during my junior year in high school. But what made him a name for me to remember was after I purchased Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists several years later. In it, I read a hilarious excerpt by him entitled “R.A. the Rugged Man Reveals His Top 10 Ways To Get Dropped From a Record Label”. Undoubtedly, the man has issues with record companies, but it hasn’t deterred his career. Despite being in the game for over a decade, he didn’t start to receive wide attention until his draw-dropping 2-minute verse on the 2006 Jedi Mind Tricks track “Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story”. His verse was so acclaimed it was featured in The Source Magazine’s “Hip-Hop Quotable” section. Since then, I’ve come to view him as one of the most technically gifted emcees out there: Able to pack several rhyming syllables in and between bars while armed with a breath-control that would give Big Punisher or Twista a run for their money. His sophomore album, Legends Never Die, is a crash-course in lyricism. While the majority of the album consists of the Rugged Man talking trash, he does it in the same creative fashion (as it pertains to flow, precise breath-control, wordplay, and rhyme style) that he also applies to the album’s strong concept tracks.
From the very start of this album, you know that this is a straight-up New York rap record. I’m glad that R.A. hasn’t given into what I think is this mainstream conformity for NYC rappers to downplay their hometown roots. The Buckwild-produced intro contains a beat that feels fresh even with its vintage mid-90’s sound. While the intro’s lyrics showcase his brash humor and his superiority over other emcees, they don’t do him justice. The next track, “The People’s Champ”, shows just how much of an animal R.A. is on the mic. Produced by Apathy, the Rugged Man combines historical references with religion and delinquency to murder the beat. Sporting lines like he’ll “Sip wine with Jesus ’till I’m in a drunken stupor/Then I slap box God and sumo wrestle with Buddha”. Clearly, the man revels in his irreverence. “Bang Boogie”, while only close to being two minutes long, had me wanting to recite the entire verse word-for-word. The level of skill on that one track makes me wonder how he did it in one take without even breaking a sweat. Although the Rugged Man would much rather take aim at the mainstream than be part of it, there are two tracks on this album that sound like they would get radio play just by the catchy hooks alone. The Tech N9ne-assisted “Holla-Loo-Yuh” is one such track. With a beat that fosters mosh-pit energy, the brutal lyrics go way too over the average listener’s head for them to even include them into their discussions. The second track, a real tear-jerker I admit, is “Legends Never Die (Daddy’s Halo)”. A dedication to his deceased father, Staff Sgt. John A. Thorburn, R.A. may be one of the few rappers out there to show this level of love for a father on record. Usually, rapping about parents typically consists of venerating the mother while bashing the father. The beat, laced by Mr. Green, has an acoustic guitar riff over a hip-hop beat that sounds like a Black Eyed Peas record. But the beat only adds to the mournful, yet celebratory dedication. In the final verse, you just hear R.A.’s voice choke with emotion as he conveys his role in the track as a son who terribly misses his father.
The collaborative efforts on the album a pretty stellar. Mr. Green creates a piano-laced beat with hard drums on “The Dangerous Three” featuring Brother Ali and Brooklyn’s Masta Ace. Despite the lyrical caliber of all three, the Rugged Man refuses to get sonned on his own track:
“It’s sickening, ain’t a chick alive I won’t stick my dick in
I’m more shameless than Hammer dancing for popcorn chicken
Ace was the ink before Irv Gotti was laundering loot
And he dropped Slaughtahouse before they was ever forming a group
Fuck being miserable, whether it’s the mental or in the flesh physical
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Yeah, I took it Biblical, I’m so dangerous”
Not one to shy from anything taboo, his concept tracks tackle politics, sex, positivity and the mass media. “Learn Truth” features a verse by Talib Kweli and has both men talking about how pertinent facts are omitted from history by revisionists. ‘Luv to Fuck” features one-hit wonder R&B crooner Eamon on the hook while “Media Midgets” takes Immortal Technique’s “The 4th Branch” even further. The mass media (radio, TV, film, et. al.) took advantage of hip-hop’s proliferation and forced its way to the top of the food chain. Eamon also lends a hook to the Ayatollah-helmed “Still Get Through the Day”. An inspirational song, this track should’ve been the album’s closer.
Instead, he gives a satirical tutorial on how to break big in the rap industry on “Make You Famous”. Again, the Rugged Man does not turn his head from what everybody else doesn’t want to talk about. To some, that’s a boon. To others, a burden. For R.A. the Rugged Man, it’s both. While the cover of this album has R.A. dressed in an officer’s uniform as a nod to his father, it also shows that the forces the shaped him as an emcee are an affirmation for hip-hop’s immortality. With his known industry antics and his undeniable talent as a rapper, the Rugged Man is getting closer to becoming one such legend.
Artist: The Demigodz
Album Title: KILLmatic
Label: Dirty Version Records
Release Date: March 5th, 2013
Producers: Apathy, Teddy Roxpin, DJ Premier, Marco Polo, Chumzilla, The Snowgoons, et. al.
Underground hip-hop super-groups are a tricky bunch. They show enormous potential on their first outing together, be it an LP, EP, or even a demo collection. And then they spend over a decade either resuming or establishing solo careers and then making loose collaborations with each other. MHz, Boot Camp Clik and the Demigodz are no exceptions to this. For the DGZ’s, I bought their 2002 EP The Godz Must Be Crazy during college and what I heard left me breathless with anticipation for a full-length LP. A classmate/friend of mine was also a member of this group during the recording of the EP, which fostered my interest even more. 11 years later and with a somewhat altered line-up, the arrival of KILLmatic is kind of late, but its musical and lyrical devotion to hardcore hip-hop more than makes up for it.
With Apathy and Celph Titled (from Connecticut and Florida, respectively) remaining the group’s co-captains, the rest of the roster consists of Blacastan and Motive, also from CT; Esoteric from Massachusetts; and Ryu from Cali. In addition to his emcee duties, Apathy is behind the boards on seven of the sixteen tracks. His beats are sampled and consist of hard-hitting drums and well-looped choice samples, which perfectly suit his style and those of the emcees rapping over them. For example: The album’s first single, “Demigodz Is Back” has the framework of a classic Rocky soundtrack sample. The message being like Mr. Balboa’s final training montage in Rocky III before his rematch with Clubber Lang: ‘We’re back!‘. And, Lord, do they get it in lyrically. While they typically don’t stray from battle rhymes with veteran flows, clever wordplay and punchlines, some of the beats can be a tad pedantic. On “Just Can’t Quit”, Ap crafts heavy drums with a menacing piano riff and a Biggie sample, but it still felt a little minimalist to hold my complete attention. What did grab my attention before the album dropped was the second single released. “Dead in the Middle” has been this reviewer’s favorite hip-hop track for most of 2013. Taking a cue from MF Doom and looping a Scooby Doo cartoon sample, adding a vocal sample from the late great Big Pun’s (R.I.P.) famous line from “Twinz (Deep Cover)” to the hook makes the beat incredibly primal. While Ryu makes a good opening statement and Apathy has a superb closing argument, it’s the testimony of Celph Titled that steals the show:
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, so pop the cork
I got a Jansport filled with explosives
Leave your corpse crispy down in Corpus Christi
My instruments hollow out pianos and leave every organ empty
I got greasy with a groupie and I smacked the britches
The bitch worship my nuts, I guess she’s sacrilegious
And that’s what happens when your rap is vicious
Sadomasochistic, snapping pictures of captured victims
In my dungeon won’t feed you
Leave you ’till you’re just a carcass
Turn a major label rapper back to a starving artist
Who’s the hardest? Motherfucka, yes I am
My porcupine grenade’ll hit you wherever the spikes land
I am my own hype man
So whoever standing next to me has got to be the got damn boogieman
I make the cookie blam, the biscuit could go off
The ratchet have a seizure, make it sneeze and blow your nose off”
Will C’s “Tomax & Xamot”, helmed by Apathy and Esoteric, falls somewhat short because of the overabundance of G.I. Joe references in the beat and the lyrics. Apart from “Just Can’t Quit”, there are three other tracks in which all of the Godz participate, all of which are helmed by different outside producers. The Snowgoons’ 1970’s cop-show sounding “The Summer of Sam”; DJ Premier’s “Worst Nightmare” with his trademark NYC sound; and the album’s closer “Audi 5000” by the Premo and Pete Rock sample-chopping lovechild, Marco Polo. Boston’s Teddy Roxpin brings his vintage east-coast sound to “Never Take Me Out” and “Captain Caveman”. I had no issue with any of the guest rappers appearing on this album. With emcees like R.A. the Rugged Man, Termanology and Eternia, to name a few, who can complain?
The thing that makes this album an excellent listen is how steeped it is in ’90’s-era east-coast hip-hop without coming off as some dull clichéd revivalist record. Even the title is a direct reference to Nas’ heralded debut album from 1994. The chemistry of Apathy and Celph remains as strong as it ever was, not to mention between all of the group members as well. I just wish this record didn’t take as long as it did to drop. And while the general run of rap listeners (i.e. “the mainstream”) believe that a guy like Kendrick Lamar is a hardcore battle rhymer simply because he called out every one of his rap peers in a verse, that doesn’t have even a small sliver of validity to it. But hey, hardcore hip-hop ain’t for everybody. It’s pretty much for people who know how to take rewards from each listen.
Artist: Ghostface Killah
Album Title: Twelve Reasons to Die
Label: Soul Temple Entertainment
Release Date: April 16th, 2013
Producers: Adrian Younge
Lemme get this out of the way: I heard Apollo Brown’s remix of this album and thought the original was better. How better? How about the best-hip-hop-album-of-2013 type of better?
The Ghostface Killah was been the most consistent member of the Wu-Tang Clan since their breakthrough onto the rap scene 20 years ago. He’s had the highest output and the greatest amount of critical acclaim. With his 10th solo album, Twelve Reasons to Die, Ghost creates cinema for your ears. On the surface, it sounds like typical Ghostface with hard-hitting non-sequitor stream-of-consciousness rhymes. But on this album, he actually melds mafia movies, b-movies, and hip-hop into a full-on concept album.
Ghost takes his Tony Starks alter-ego and puts him center stage in the album’s story. He works as Black mafia enforcer in 1960’s Italy, later breaks off from his crime family and creates all sorts of deadly tension on both sides. While the story sounds incredibly farcical (because it is), it feels like one of those action movies you’d watch on an idle Saturday afternoon. The album reaches a crescendo towards the middle when Starks falls in love with a woman who’s actually a spy for the rival DeLuca mafia family. She sets him up, has him killed with his remains pressed into 12 vinyl records (one for each member of his murderous assailants). At this point, Starks is resurrected as the Ghostface Killah and seeks to exact revenge on the DeLuca crime family for killing him.
The guest stars featured include fellow Wu-Tang members U-God, Masta Killa with narration provided by the RZA. Within the story, they play the roles of Starks’ crew. I only wish that he enlisted some rappers to play the parts of the DeLucas. They have an integral part in the story, but they’re not directly portrayed. It’s like the Nanny character from Muppet Babies: The face is never shown (see what I just did there?). The music, on the other hand, plays a big role in the story. Completely produced and composed by Adrian Younge, the album both sounds and doesn’t sound like your usual Ghostface album. Although, Younge’s productions resemble the soul-sampled backdrops we’re used to hearing from Ghost, they’re actually all live instrumentation. They took an organic approach to the album’s music and even recruited William Hart from the Delfonics to sing the hook for “Enemies All Around Me”. Having Hart on the hook instead of a usual Delfonics sample was a smart way to save money.
It’s interesting to note that this album is his first release since he left Def Jam. Even with the production method on the album, one would think that it wouldn’t have fully seen the light of day if released on a major label. Although, with the success of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, the majors now might encourage rap artists to emulate such a format…just like they did with rock artists during the post-grunge era.
Throughout the album, Ghost stays well in character. But when his character’s resurrection occurs, that’s when he was bringing straight fire. The first released single, “The Rise of the Ghostface Killah”, chronicles his vengeance:
“Medusa stare, my guns bust in silence
I’m a Black vigilante killer, pro violence
It’s the rebirth, born again
Rise through the vinyl spin
They took out Starks, but the light shines within
It’s the almighty rise of the murderous Ghostface
Bodies dropped in aisles left a cold case
Colombian neckties from a Black Gambino
Bodies get dumped in the black El Camino
It’s Reno, gangster wars, money, power, respect
Revenge is felt like the heat from a Tec
Tommy guns are irrelevant, I’m bulletproof now
I could fly through the air and duck your chick-a-pow
Black superhero, crime boss arch nemesis
Good vs. Evil since the first book of Genesis
Battle to the end that’s the way of the thriller
And Starks is reborn as the Ghostface KILLAH
No one could get iller”
Even the music video paid homage to cinematic aspects formerly widespread in such videos. But anyway, Twelve Reasons to Die is the first gem released by Ghost since Fishscale. While his stream-of-consciousness raps and loud NYC flow endear him to fans, he’s at his apex when he applies this style to storytelling raps. While he has done several narrative tracks in the past, making an entire album with a cohesive story is just icing on the cake. Well done, Ghost.