Here’s a brief list of 25 notable rap albums this year. I reviewed most of the titles for various outlets; those reviews are attached where applicable.
When you hear an Alchemist beat, you know it. He’s refined his style over 15 years and hundreds of productions, from Prodigy’s thug-rap high-water mark Return of the Mac to brilliant loosies for Dilated Peoples (“Worst Comes to Worst”), Nas (“Book of Rhymes”) and Raekwon (“Surgical Gloves”). His sound moves between two poles. There are the loops woven out of all manner of sample fodder, like the superior Israeli Salad instrumental suite he released earlier this year that excavates records purchased during a trip to Israel. Then there’s his coldly synthesized gangster music, best displayed on Mobb Deep’s mid-’00s hit “Got It Twisted”, and seemingly inspired by New Wave pop and ’80s crime soundtracks like Giorgio Moroder’s Scarface and Tangerine Dream’s Thief. Both types of Alchemist beats are clipped and chopped like vintage DJ Premier, yet they also rumble at a leisurely West Coast tempo.
Alchemist does consistently entertaining work, but it’s become predictable after over a decade and too much music—so far this year, he’s dropped Israeli Salad and Retarded Alligator Beats joints, and now comes Gangrene’s You Disgust Me. Yet Al’s Gangrene project with Oh No gives both a chance to subvert their well-worn templates into something more dynamic. The two complement each other: Oh No likes to flip vinyl from exotic sources, too, whether it’s Dr. No’s Ethiopium or Exodus into Unheard Rhythms, the latter built around Galt MacDermot’s catalog.He tends to be underrated—it’s unlikely that most people who heard Dr. Dre’s Compton and its “Issues” track know that Oh No also sampled Turkish folk singer Selda’s “Ince Ince” with his 2007 track “Heavy”, which Mos Def used for his 2009 single “Supermagic.” And while his dependence on traditionalist sample loops runs deeper than Alchemist, he uses rhythm more dynamically.
Both Alchemist and Oh No approach Gangrene’s You Disgust Me as an excursion into weed-hazed hip-hop psychedelia: Snippets of whacked-out voices, culled from some late night VHS videodrome, and dudes talking greasy over digger’s delights. (RIP Sean Price, who drops a jewel on “Sheet Music” alongside Mobb Deep’s Havoc.) It’s a formula that Gangrene established over its two albums, Gutter Water and Vodka & Ayahuasca, light themes that bracket the usual backpack thuggery. The thirteen tracks add up to just under 40 minutes, and often seem to blend in with one another. Peaks like “Noon Chuckas,” and how its ominous big band buildup smooths out into a female voice’s hypnotic glissando, sound indistinguishable from knuckleheaded errata like “Driving Gloves,” and Action Bronson’s brain fart about needing “a bitch with a pussy like like a Little League glove.”
As rappers, the words Alchemist and Oh No say are less interesting than the sound of their slangy, chippy voices riffing over the blappers. Their peak You Disgust Me moment arrives on “The Man with the Horn”, which draws equal inspiration from Miles Davis-styled melancholy, and New York noir vis-à-vis Travis Bickle audio. Al visualizes himself as a loner wandering the streets, “stumble out the bar, vision blurry/ Humphrey Bogart, face underneath the rim of my derby.” Oh No adds, “It’s looking like a scene out of Vegas/ It’s nighttime, and the jazz jukebox is playing.” It offers a glimpse of what Gangrene could be if it was more than just headnod music stuffed with weed jokes. Both are more than capable of crafting memorable hip-hop music, even if they’re too focused on cranking out bangers at an industrial rate to notice whether anything they’ve made stands out.
For the cover art of Sean Price’s 2012 album Mic Tyson, Raphael Tangal depicted the rapper as a hulking figure with impossibly large muscles, a microphone in one hand, and standing amidst a field of dead and bloodied apes – a metaphor for murdered MCs. It’s an image that Price embodied through his bellicose raps, and claims that he’d give you “wings on your back.”
But Price was also a married husband and practicing Muslim with three children. When the 43-year-old musician died in his sleep on August 8, we were once again reminded of the stark difference between the aura of invincibility that so many rappers promote to us, and the real life men and women behind that image who are just as frail and human as we are.
For rap fans of a certain vintage, Price was a familiar voice. Based out of the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, his career dated back to 1995, when he and Jahmal “Rock” Bush appeared as Heltah Skeltah on Smif-N-Wessun’s Dah Shinin’ and, most impressively, the Fab 5’s “Leflah.” Collectively, the Boot Camp Clik was emblematic of New York rap in the mid-90s. They were street soldiers who described a life of everyday violence, and used weed as a “third eye” opener as well as to blunt life’s pain. For them, hip-hop was a ritual and proving ground, and their sharp-elbowed raps, which eschewed lyrical complexity in favor of punch lines that just went for the throat, anticipated later thug rap crews like G-Unit and D-Block.
Heltah Skeltah released a critically acclaimed debut in 1996, Nocturnal. But Sean Price wouldn’t emerge as a real force, someone who people knew by name instead of his BCC affiliation, until a decade later. By the time Monkey Barz appeared on Duck Down in 2005, the label had floundered for years as it tried to promote BCC amidst a mainstream-obsessed New York scene. The album arrived at just the right time, satisfying listeners who wanted an alternative to the slick thug rap made by Jay Z and 50 Cent, but didn’t care for the experimental underground sounds of El-P’s Definitive Jux camp. Led by Price (as well as Buckshot and other resurgent BCC fam), Duck Down charted a middle path that felt innovative given the overly commercialized era, yet proudly conservative as well.
Over three solo albums as well as side projects like 2012’s Random Axe, Price embodied a bullying kind of rap orthodoxy. But he wasn’t afraid to parody that image, whether in songs like “Straight Music” from Mic Tyson, where the chorus repeats his nickname “P!” with a wink, or in YouTube videos like his hilarious “Rap Clinic” series. No matter how much he mean-mugged on the mic, he let his audience know that it was all in good fun. It’s his mischievous quality that made Sean Price so memorable.
Photo from Duckdown.com.
As a rising producer from North Carolina, L’Orange has built a sound signature rooted in the past yet wholly his own. You can trace a line between his MPC rips of black-and-white TV shows back to Madlib’s zonked-out tapestries on Madvillainy, and Daedelus’ surrealist lounge music for The Weather. But over the past few years, and especially in 2015 through projects like After the Flowers and The Night Took Us In Like Family (the latter made with L.A. rapper Jeremiah Jae), the man who bears the same name as Gilbert Bécaud’s 1964 French chanson has cobbled something wholly unique. On his best work, he stacks his vocal snatches into something approaching a narrative, and adds bebop and exotica tones, while creating enough rhythmic thrust to avoid slumping into a downtempo-like torpor.
Adrian Younge isn’t the first musician to create sounds so faithful to early 70s psychedelic soul. But he may be the quirkiest. Each project finds him using a variety of instruments, from the familiar (drums and guitar) to the exotic (sitar and glockenspiel) and wholly unique (a Selene, a keyboard sampler he built himself). Performing alongside a shifting series of of collaborators that includes backing vocalists Loren Oden and Saudia Mills, and well-traveled trumpeter Todd Simon (of Breakestra, Antibalas and many others), he creates a sound that seemingly creaks and pops like scratchy old vinyl. And when he performs with one of his bands, Venice Dawn, they appear on stage with phantom of the opera masks and funereal black suits as they strum instrumental breaks, often to the bewilderment of their audience.
After several years spent toiling anonymously in the L.A. underground, the crate-digger magazine and record label Wax Poetics recruited Younge for Black Dynamite, a parody of black action films. If you haven’t seen the movie, which premiered to positive reviews in 2009 and spawned an Adult Swim cartoon spinoff, it’s much better and funnier than you’d expect. After that auspicious debut, Younge codified his aesthetic on subsequent projects. It’s a cross-section of black power dreams, B-movie soundtracks like Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Ennio Morricone’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and workmanlike funk curios like the Whatnauts and Sir Charles Hughes (whose “Dynomite” was used on the Black Dynamite soundtrack). In fact, each Younge album seems to be a soundtrack for an imaginary film, whether it’s the voiceless illustrations of Venice Dawn’s Something About April, or Twelve Reasons to Die, where Ghostface Killah and other rappers lay out the plot machinations in rich detail.
Thanks to a rising profile, Younge formed the record label and recording studio Linear Labs in 2014, and made it a home for his retro fantasia. This year has already brought the compilation Los Angeles, Bilal’s In Another Life, and Twelve Reasons to Die II. Coming soon is The Midnight Hour, a collaboration with Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and Something About April II, which will feature Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab.