Run the Jewels may be the first time NYC rapper/producer El-P has abandoned his perfectionist’s streak for the exhilaration of immediate results. There are no weighty concepts about drone warfare and abusive relationships (as on last year’s long-gestating Cancer 4 Cure) here; just raw-dog raps and galactic funk alongside Atlanta big homie Killer Mike (from the El-produced R.A.P. Music.) This quick, free joint project is comparatively frizzy, and doesn’t leave a bruising stain of forced mind expansion, just a pleasant memory of good times had by reclaiming “jewels” from the corporate overlords of mainstream rap.
Will Kid Cudi ever find true happiness? That dilemma lies at the crux of Indicud, an album that the mercurial rapper has claimed in interviews is more “positive” than his lonely stoner adventures of yore, but which simply trades inert depression for defiant, defensive “King Wizard” triumphalism. Its cover art displays a maelstrom of fire bracketed by an ornately designed frame, a synthesis of high-art aspirations and uncontrollable fury suitable for the Lord of the Sad and Lonely.
But the real question here is whether you should care at all. It has been over four years since Cudi transfixed a mainstream audience with “Day ‘N Nite” and “Pursuit of Happiness,” the two droll, goofily trippy singles from his debut album, 2009′s Man on the Moon: The End of Day. The second installment in his ad-hoc Man on the Moon series, the following year’s The Legend of Mr. Rager, was actually much better than its predecessor, but it lacked those charming breakout hits. (Last year’s insufferably lugubrious WZRD project is best left unexplored here.) Kid Cudi may claim to love being a cult artist, but he knows that cult artists are in frequent peril of slipping into irrelevance. He aims to avoid that irrelevance by raging against it.
Nicki Minaj is a self-described Harajuku girl with a potty mouth and a dementedly theatrical fashion sense to match. Much like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj is a brand in constant flux, re-positioning herself from video to public appearance to newly-released digital single. The series of teaser tracks for Pink Friday: Roman’s Reloaded brought a variety of fresh guises, including usurper of Lil Kim’s rap queen throne on “Stupid Hoe,” and the nightclub siren of “Starships.” (One early single, “Roman in Moscow,” didn’t make the final cut.) Helpfully, she cleaves Roman’s Reloaded into two distinct halves. Lovers of her face-melting rhymes get “HOV Lane” (as in Jay-Z a.k.a. “Jay Hova”) and ciphers with Rick Ross, Cam’Ron, and Nas. Fans who adore her radio confections get clubby house tracks like “Starships” made by Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” producer RedOne.
However, this was supposed to be an hour completely devoted to Nicki’s manic id, Roman Zolanski, the one who upstaged Kanye West on “Monster,” swiped credit for Big Sean’s hit “Dance (A$$),” and the self-described “lunatic” who battled with Eminem on “Roman’s Revenge.” Roman is essentially a stand-in for Nicki the MC, but Nicki the MC doesn’t pay her bills, at least when it comes to her solo success. Her biggest hits, like “Super Bass” and “Moment for Life,” featured her singing front and center, and even though she rapped on both songs, it’s the flat voice and Trinidadian lilt that we remember. So Roman the rap lunatic takes a backseat on Roman Reloaded, while Nicki the multi-platform pop sensation gets a majority of face time.
Could Kanye West ever make a bad album? It’s a question many will strain to answer as they’re confronted with the acid house shocks, drill rap stabs and Jamaican toaster rants of Yeezus. If 808s and Heartbreak, his prior art-for-art’s-sake experiment, turned the breakup-album cliché into an Auto-Tuned R&B warble; then here he nearly disengages with song structure altogether, haphazardly throwing out disconnected lyrics as he hurtles through self-orchestrated chaos and disorder. Coupled with a portentous God complex, this may be the pretentious excursion that listeners want to tune out.
If anything, it should finally (hopefully?) disable the “instant rap classic” complex that haunts the genre. Classics are made through time and memories, not crowned through five-star-review groupthink and instant Twitter feedback. West’s maximalist approach to rap gleefully encourages our zeal to proclaim his genius from the moment he unveils his latest triumphs, and well before the listening tests are complete and his hypotheses can be proven or disproven. If Yeezus is to be saved – and there’s much on it to suggest that it will be — it will be through repeated spins, not the thunder-thumb indexes of a public salivating for his ascent and/or downfall.
“I swear to God I ain’t nervous,” pronounces Lil Wayne on “Curtains,” his voice wavering under an Auto-Tune effect. Then he adds, “I spent my birthday in jail/ I was making bad decisions.” For a brief, tantalizing second, it seems like he’s making himself vulnerable. But it’s just a glimpse, and he quickly buries the impulse: “My niggas got them birds/ You ain’t even got bird seeds/ Your bitch ride me like a go kart/ I play that pussy like Mozart.”
Still, those moments of clarity are the most interesting aspect of I Am Not a Human Being II, an album on which Lil Wayne doggedly sticks to his path as a young, rich and tasteless rhyme animal. Nothing he says here is as shockingly offensive as 2011’s Tha Carter IV and “I’m Good,” when he retorted “Nigga I’m straight/ My girl a faggot.” But it’s not for lack of trying. “These niggas nag like bitches/ Actin’ like little fags like Richard,” he growls on “Trigger Finger.” He talks about his dick a lot, because, as he claims on “Back to You,” “this dick won’t suck itself/ You know it needs some help.” His lyrical spray ranges from thrillingly provocative (the title track, “Trippy” and “Gunwalk”) to clumsily boorish and ineffective (“No Worries” and “Wowzerz”). Sometimes it sounds like IANAHB II is an hour-plus freestyle about bitches, pussy and his dick.
Magna Carta… Holy Grail is ridden by ghosts of Jay-Z’s glorious past. The title itself seems to allude to his Twitter proclamation of “#newrules” for the music industry: Debuting the album via a Samsung application, and negotiating a sale with the technology company for a million free digital downloads to its customers. This isn’t the first time he’s employed unusual promotional gimmicks. One of his best occurred during 2003’s The Black Album when he summarily announced his retirement, and although he obviously had no plans of making it permanent, his fans ate up the conceit, hailing him as the best rapper ever while waiting anxiously for his return. Now, he wants us to place the Magna Carta… Holy Grail experience among his watermarks.
Azealia Banks, 1991 (May 28, 2012)
Born in 1991, Azealia Banks descends from Foxy Brown, Grace Jones, Sweet Pussy Pauline and other punany poetesses and fashion provocateurs of yore, and channels a drag persona in a black boho princess’ sense of entitlement. Sashaying over jacking house tracks, she fucks up the fun with tales of voguing and licking cunts and bang, pop, pop, Miss Thing go pow. Too lovely to be a mermaid kept underwater(ground) yet too fabulous to be a Idol worthy pop-rap queen, Azealia seems destined to burn brightly and brilliantly as America wonders what it missed. Oh well…there’s always Europe. The production is by Machinedrum, Lazy Jay, and Lone.
Nas, Life is Good (July 13, 2012)
Why did it take Nas’ thirteenth album for his critics to reluctantly acknowledge that he’s more than a one-Illmatic wonder? Was it the beautifully poignant “Daughters,” where the overprotective dad worried over his teenage girl’s blossoming sexuality? Was it the way he spat nasty little darts at his former wife Kelis throughout, only to achieve resigned acceptance of their divorce with “Bye Baby?” Was it hearing Nas belittle thugs catching their first bodies on “Accident Murderers” and figuring out that, hey, Nas is a pretty good rapper? Was it realizing that Nas’ strategy of focusing on his words, and using Salaam Remi’s production as a minor counterpoint, makes for compelling songwriting, and isn’t proof that he has wack taste in beats? Was it learning that he has used this seemingly counterintuitive approach since at least 1996’s It Was Written, and that it resulted in several excellent albums that people actually bought while you were busy hating on him? Just asking.
Serengeti, Saal (February 12, 2013)
David Cohn, who raps under the name Serengeti, is a vignette expert. He can summarize a character’s entire life — or at least someone’s crux and turning point – within a three-minute song, whether it’s the loser UFC-wannabe who finds vindication in a bar fight on “The Whip,” or the man suffering a painful breakup on “Dwight.” The former is meant to be a cleverly told joke; the latter is constructed around a series of anxious questions to the girlfriend who now rejects him. Both songs, which hail from his 2011 album Family&Friends, epitomize the sardonic humor and deeply unsettling melancholy on which most of his catalog rests. His best work is akin to short story collections in how they sustain an emotional tone through an exploration of, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, men that lead lives of quiet desperation. (There’s a third stream in Serengeti’s catalog: the bizarre odyssey of ’90s boom-bap also-ran Kenny “KDz” Dennis, as told through 2006′s Dennehy, 2010′s There’s a Storm on the Homefront and last year’s hilariously mocking Kenny Dennis EP.)
This compiles the most successful artists of 2012. It’s based on an ephemeral and highly subjective mix of record sales, industry buzz, et cetera, and has nothing to do with my personal tastes in regards to who made the best music (or worst, for that matter).
Honorable mentions who did not make the list include Lupe Fiasco, Big K.R.I.T., Chief Keef, Schoolboy Q, B.o.B, Insane Clown Posse, Ca$h Out, Dev, Juicy J, Iamsu, DJ Khaled, Lecrae, TobyMac and Action Bronson.
For previous years (2010 and 2011), click on the “Best Of” tag below.
El-P, Cancer for Cure (May 22, 2012)
El-P occupies a singular perch. The Brooklyn rapper-producer has never sounded quite like anyone else, not even in the late 1990s, when the Sasquatch thumps and xylophone flows of his Company Flow crew birthed a generation of similar-minded travelers, spawned the hugely successful independent label Definitive Jux, and briefly transformed the hip-hop underground into a land of no-wave art-jazz and super-scientifical theorizing.
Now, ten years after Def Jukies last ruled the indie circuit (and two years after the label went dormant), the new generation whines about living in the suburbs, doing prescription drugs, and drinking sizzurp while molesting white girls, all while begging Jay-Z to cosign them. Meanwhile, the man who declared himself “independent as fuck” swims against the tide. I mean, what can you even compare Cancer for Cure to… Nine Inch Nails? Over three solo albums, El’s turned into a kind of prog-hop composer, an evolution made clear on opening track “Request Denied,” a three-minute instrumental jam full of analog synths, a drum volley worthy of DJ Shadow’s Entroducing….., heavy guitar riffs, and a Rhodes organ flurry, all before he introduces himself as “a pale kid calamity artist.” (He employs a crew of backing musicians that includes keyboardist Wilder Zoby.) While other rappers design songs that grab you in a 30-second playable stream, El-P’s third solo album demands repeat listens, and even then it can seem murky, like an abstract image that refuses to congeal.
Big K.R.I.T., Live From the Underground (June 5, 2012)
Big K.R.I.T.’s Dirty South classicism is a gift and a curse. For all his bellicosity — celebrating “Country Shit” and rubber-band men and eating collard greens — he simply isn’t as amorally opportunistic as, say, Gucci Mane, who probably would rap about selling china white to grade-school kids if it netted him more downloads. For K.R.I.T., the Mississippi rapper’s love for Southern hip-hop’s pioneers is as much professorial as it is personal, and he tends to package his songs in a sociological context that canonizes his heroes while explaining their world to cultural tourists. He’s what was once called a “conscious rapper,” and that quality has helped him win fans in unlikely places — last week, the ever-so-tasteful NPR hosted an advance stream of his major-label debut, Live from the Underground, a rare event for a rap record.
But it’s a tricky negotiation between immersing yourself in debauchery while putting all those candy cars and sizzurp binges in the proper context. K.R.I.T. struck that balance perfectly on two justly lionized mixtapes, 2010′s Krit Wuz Here and 2011′s Return of 4eva. On sequel 4eva N A Day, which hit the Internet in March, he meandered into fogs of sleepy introspection and spacey, occasionally aimless beats. Live from the Underground is billed as his first “real” album, but it faces an audience well aware of his artistic idiosyncrasies. (Greenstreets Entertainment, an imprint of Nature Sounds, reissued Krit Wuz Here and Return of 4eva on CD last May.)