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.
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 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.’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, 2 Chainz, 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.
Recently released U.K. film Ill Manors is an orgy of heroin shooting galleries, illegal immigrant women enslaved by Russian mobsters, a young bwoy doing his first murders, a cracked-out prostitute pimped for a cell phone, and an infant baby sold for cash and, in a climactic scene, thrown out an apartment window. What caused all this madness? These lost souls are products of broken homes and refugees of foster care. What they need, apparently, are responsible mummies and daddies.
Rapper/producer Ben Drew not only directed and wrote the screenplay for this East London council estate drama, but recorded its soundtrack under his alias, Plan B. Despite achieving two No. 1 albums in his native Britain (including this one), he hasn’t inspired the sort of American cult following that Mike “the Streets” Skinner engendered with his 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material. Skinner was as much a satirist as social commentator, evinced by the idle-youth anthem “Geezers Need Excitement”; by comparison, Plan B is deadly serious. On “Sick 2 Def” from the 2006 grime compilation Run the Road II, he banged on an acoustic guitar while angrily rhyming that he’s “Had it up to here, had it up to here / I’m hafta do it Reservoir Dog-style, slice off their ear.” For his second album, 2010’s The Defamation of Strickland Banks, he adopted a soul-boy persona, singing in a light, wavering croon about an obsessed fan who falsely accuses him of rape after a one-night stand.