All rapped up: The best US hip-hop of 2012
While it may not (yet) be regarded as one of hip-hop’s landmark years in the same way 1988 or 1994 now are, there is a sense as 2012 draws to a close that it’s been one of the genre’s strongest seasons for some time.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of that feeling is that Nas, one of the genre’s most gifted (but also most frustrating) artists, finally delivered an album worthy of the extensive praise heaped upon it by fans and critics. Eighteen years and 10 hot-and-cold albums after his celebrated classic Illmatic, Life Is Good saw the New York rapper going back to basics – spitting rapid-fire raps over classical, drum-heavy east coast beats, and switching between the past (Reach Out sounded like a lost Eighties NY radio exclusive) and the present (Daughters sketched out heartfelt reflections on fatherhood).
Rick Ross remains the nearest hip-hop gets to a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster — crowd-pleasing, high-quality production values draped over faintly ludicrous subject matter. As most of the world knows thanks to 50 Cent, Ross once worked as a correctional officer within Florida’s penal system, before reimagining himself as an on-record kingpin of the criminal underworld. But in spite of that, his Rich Forever mixtape – however implausible – trumped his official God Forgives, I Don’t album and, in Stay Schemin’, provided one of 2012’s most enduring club anthems.
Atlanta rapper Killer Mike’s politically-charged polemics – backed by producer El-P’s stomping sonic pyrotechnics – recalled an early post-NWA Ice Cube tearing up beats by the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s production outfit, some 20 years back. Political hip-hop often sways between po-faced self-righteousness and tiresome conspiracy theories, but R.A.P. Music released on the acclaimed Def Jux label and thrilling from start to finish—helped yank agit-rap out of its protracted slumber.
Staying below the Mason-Dixon line, Big K.R.I.T. built upon the sterling work he’s delivered on the mixtape circuit lately with Live From The Underground, an invigorating, soulful blast of Mississippi rap on the legendary Def Jam label. With track titles like Bitch I’m Lugubrious and Maniac Drug Dealer III, Lil Ugly Mane’s Mista Thug Isolation was the lunatic flipside to K.RI.T.’s introspection. The rap cognoscenti lapped up Mane’s warped, skewed mix of thumping 808 beats, strangulated screams, distorted cop sirens and film noir-ish jazz clips.
Pluto by the android-like Future was perhaps the most forward-thinking release of 2012. From the majestic sci-fi pop of Turn On The Lights and Same Damn Time to the intense Trippin—a nightmarish tale of drug-induced hallucination— Pluto was a startling, AutoTune-propelled, Blade Runner-esque twist on those typical blunts ‘n’ strippers tales.
Cigarette Boats meanwhile found New Orleans rapper Curren$y’s sole topic of conversation — weed, and how much of it he smokes — reinvigorated by producer-de-jour Harry Fraud. Fraud’s immaculate production, bleeding out of speakers like a pitched-down pastiche of a Giorgio Moroder score for some lost Eighties cop show that never made it past the pilot, was the perfect backdrop for Curren$y’s hazy flow.
Action Bronson — the king-sized, flame-bearded, Albanian-American gourmet chef-turned-rapper from Queens, NY — paired up with the Alchemist for the splendid Rare Chandeliers. Bronson’s style is a pungent mix of culinary references, naff old school professional wrestling name-drops and questionable social etiquette – draped over renowned producer Alchemist’s wispy, psychedelic beats, it sounded incredible.
Alchemist also served up some sizzlers for Roc Marciano’s excellent Reloaded. Like those Nineties NY favourites the Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep, Roc Marcy’s music – laidback rhymes over fractured beats that rattle like a passing New York subway train – bristles with an atmospheric, understated menace. The album succeeded by eschewing candy-coated club anthems for a brooding, suffocating portrayal of the concrete jungle.
With its in-depth examinations of society, politics, relationships and more, Control System may on paper seem like fairly heavy work. But Ab-Soul – one quarter of Top Dawg Entertainment’s Black Hippy crew alongside SchoolBoy Q, Jay Rock and Kendrick Lamar (more of him in a minute) – ensured the album was a winner by lacing his rhymes with humour and verve. The woozy, slow-rolling beats caught the attention immediately, while Ab-Soul threw out lyrical gems at ease.
Ultimately, though, 2012 belonged to Ab-Soul’s TDE associate, Kendrick Lamar. Overseen by legendary producer Dr Dre, good kid, m.A.A.d city was, like all great hip-hop albums, rap as street reportage. It’s an awesome, sprawling study of Compton street life, calibrated not by the machine gun fire or customized cadillacs that traditionally frames west coast rap, but by Lamar’s complex, blackly humorous take on peer pressure, family life, alcoholism and more.
The sheer breadth of it is astonishing: the title track found Lamar comparing the threats posed by the red and blue doo-rags of LA gang rivals the Bloods and the Crips with the red-and-blue flashing-light menace of the city’s constabulary, while alcohol ode Swimming Pools (Drank) effortlessly soundtracked pretty much any party or club night throughout the summer.
Dropping in October, its impact was immediate. The NME’s predictably way-off-the-mark 6/10 review aside, the album scooped up acclaim by the bundle-load from the music press, the Sunday style supplements and the hipster blogs. Hell, even bitter, cynical, jaded thirtysomething, semi-retired rap hacks – guilty, your honour – loved it.
Simultaneously tagged as an instant classic, a must-have, the best album of 2012, the first great hip-hop album of 2010s, good kid, m.A.A.d city was all those – and much, much more.
Albums Of The Year:
- Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)
- Roc Marciano – Reloaded (Decon)
- Ab-Soul – Control System (TDE)
- Curren$y & Harry Fraud – Cigarette Boats (JetLife/Warner Bros.)
- Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music (Def Jux)
- Lil’ Ugly Mane – Mista Thug Isolation (Hundebiss)
- Future – Pluto (Epic)
- Action Bronson & The Alchemist – Rare Chandeliers (Vice Records)
- Big K.R.I.T. – Live From The Underground (Def Jam)
- Nas – Life Is Good (Def Jam) / Rick Ross – Rich Forever (MMG)
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