Saturday, December 26, 2015

Best Of 15: Hip Hop

Kendrick Lamar bestrode the world of hip hop - and music in general - like a colossus in 2015. But there was much else that excited in the world of beats and rhymes, whether on full albums or just EP's and singles.

Pusha T can elevate even minor tracks with 16 bar features, which is mostly what we got from him this year. Until this month, when he dropped King Push - Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude. Supposedly made up of the songs that didn't quite fit on his next album (King Push, due in 2016), this has some incredibly strong stuff among its 10 tracks. Crutches, Crosses, Caskets, Untouchable, Keep Dealing - these are among the best songs he's released since Clipse sunsetted. Wild beats, words bitten off like beef jerky, and enough attitude to flatten Manhattan - at it's best Darkest Before The Dawn is all you could want from Pusha. Avoid the acronym songs, however. M.F.T.R. has way too much of The-Dream, with one of the least hooky hooks ever, and M.P.A., with Kanye West and A$AP Rocky, has to be one of the most depressing posse cuts I've heard.

But on Sunshine, the closing track, he gives us something special: an impassioned look at the post-Freddie Gray landscape of racial perceptions and relations between African Americans and those "sworn to protect and serve." That there may be even better material to come is a tantalizing prospect indeed. As Pusha says in Keep Dealing: "How I blew my first million/Luckily was something in the ceiling/Keep dealing."

London's own Kate Tempest stayed in the game with Bad Place For A Good Time. A moody masterpiece, it was also one highlight of her smoking set at Mercury Lounge back in March.

It was sad that Chance The Rapper let another year pass without following up 2013's Acid Rap. But it was difficult to stay down when he was making such joyful music with his friends Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment on Surf. Opening song Miracle was a dose of pure wonder, Slip Slip Slide featured Busta Rhymes sounding reinvigorated among its joyful horns and young guns, and Sunday Candy instantly became the greatest hip hop song about grandmas. Those are just a few of the highlights from a consistently sweet album. Chance also finished up the year strong with the single Angels, letting us keep hope alive for next year.

I'm always happy when Isaiah Rashad's Cilvia Demo comes up on shuffle, but he's been quiet since it came out in early 2014. He recently released one song, Nelly, that finds him in top form - hopefully prepping us for more in 2016.

I don't know if we needed a whole album of Fetty Wap's rap, but Trap Queen will long define the sound of 2015. Love that video, too.

A$AP Rocky turned out to be a lot more interesting on AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP than hinted at by his earlier work. Too long by about 20 minutes, but full of songs that zig and zag into realms both soulful and spacy, the album's pinnacle is L$D, which also had a brilliant video inspired by French bad boy auteur Gaspar Noe. This is new territory for NYC hip hop.

Speaking of new territory, California's Vince Staples ambitiously wanted his debut Summertime '06 to be a rap Dark Side Of The Moon. Not quite - but he shows a lot of promise, with more personality than many young M.C.'s.

Even though its best song was two years old, Raekwon's Fly International Luxury Art was a credible attempt at updating his sound, mixing his Wu Tang grit with everyone from his Wu Tang comrade Ghostface Killah with newer voices like A$AP Rocky, French Montana and 2Chainz. Unlike Ghostface, however, who found new life by collaborating with BADBADNOTGOOD, Rae may be holding himself back by trying to keep up with the mainstream.

Your Old Droog has no concerns about the mainstream, however, unless rapping about 90's alternative rock is a lot more popular than I think it is. The New Yorker released an album's worth of material over two EP's, Kinison and The Nicest. "I don't make music for mass consumption," he raps over a classy beat by EL RTNC on We Don't Know You. Maybe so - but that doesn't mean more people shouldn't listen.

"Call me the 27th character," Jonwayne raps on the opening cut to Jonwayne Is Retired, the six-song follow-up to 2013's Rap Album One. He's definitely a character and I'm glad he's not really retired as he is a singular presence, a wordsmith and beatmaker of much originality. If you want to try your hand at the words, he also released Here You Go, a two-part collection of spectacular beats. If he's giving this stuff away, what is he saving for his next album?

Killer Mike used to be underground, now he's interviewing presidential candidates. Between politics and touring constantly, it's no wonder we only got two new songs this year from Run The Jewels, his collaboration with El-P. Rubble Kings Theme (Dynamite) is a bit of a throw-away but the menacing Bust No Moves was no outtake, with Killer in especially fine form. There was a also a cat-themed remix album but I'm allergic to cats.

I guess we'll now have to wait until 2016 for Kanye West's Swish (or whatever he's calling it now) to be released. Fortunately, he dropped a few songs to spice up this year. The stomping All Day could have fit on the brilliant Yeezus, although it's a little less edgy and you can actually dance to it. The real pop moves, however, came with FourFiveSeconds, which had Paul McCartney strumming behind 'Ye and Rihanna, who actually sounds good in this raw setting. Strange bedfellows, maybe, but no one's hogging the sheets. Macca also plays a sweet keyboard behind the tender Only One and even with the liberal and creative use of autotune, Kanye is singing better than ever. Maybe all that time with Justin Vernon is paying off. Whatever direction the next album goes, count me in.

Another return I hope we can look forward to in 2016 is Missy Elliot, who's last album was 10 years ago. Her career was slowed by a number of things, including a bout with Grave's disease, a kind of hyperthyroidism, which was successfully treated. Her Super Bowl appearance in February showed she hadn't lost a step and reintroduced her to the world. Earlier this month she put out WTF (Where They From?), which was classic Missy from start to finish, as was the hilarious video. Pharrell's on the track, too, and brings his A game, but there's no question that Missy is the star. Hip hop can use more of her high-spirited, left-field stuff so I'm pulling for a big 2016 for Missy!

Here's a playlist to get you started.

You might also enjoy:
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past
Best Of 15: Reggae

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