All Rapped Up: The best US hip-hop of 2013
The past 12 months felt somewhat low key for US hip-hop. In sharp contrast with 2012, which yielded a sizeable stack of truly excellent records and, in Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, one bonafide classic, 2013 seemed just, well, a bit quiet. Given it’s a quarter-century since the high point of hip-hop’s fabled Golden Era – 1988 – a year which threw up landmark albums such as Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and Ultramagnetic M.C.’s Critical Beatdown, and 20 years since the Wu-Tang Clan’s game-changing 1993 opus Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), perhaps those of us on the wrong side of 30 spent a little too much of 2013 revisiting the classics, and not enough time with the current stuff.
Or perhaps, more broadly, it was other forms of media – TV more specifically, and US shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones in particular – that provided us with an altogether more high-octane entertainment hit on our tablets and smartphones than the beats and rhymes of NY, LA and everywhere in between. But don’t get it twisted though: 2013 showed us that US rap remains in solid shape, with some great music still being released, as this little roundup of what rocked our iTunes playlists and clocked up those YouTube hits demonstrates.
Harlem’s A$AP Rocky kicked off the year with his hotly-anticipated Long.Live.A$AP. Like so many albums and mixtapes this season, it was patchy in the extreme, but bangers like ‘F**kin’ Problem’ with Drake, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar and the certified crossover smash ‘Wild For The Night’ with Skrillex put the album on a solid footing. On ‘1 Train’, Rocky even resurrected the lost art of the hip-hop posse cut, with Kendrick, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Big K.R.I.T. – a who’s who of hip-hop in 2013 – all turning in sterling performances.
Jay-Z and Eminem – both rap kingpins a decade ago – may have struggled to keep up with the pack in 2013, each delivering fairly forgettable albums, but another of the noughties’ most celebrated acts returned in fine style. Pusha T and (No) Malice – the Virginia brothers collectively known as the Clipse prior to their split a few years back – each delivered strong solo efforts in My Name Is My Name and Hear Ye Him, respectively. A fellow hip-hop journo colleague once described HBO’s modern classic The Wire as essentially “the Clipse on TV”, and similarly both albums saw the brothers continue to examine America’s street pharmaceutical industry in vivid detail, delicately balancing between regret and cold harsh reality and, in Pusha T’s case, producing one of the year’s most memorable lines: “What I sell for pain in the hood, I’m a doctor, Zhivago/Tried to fight the urge like Ivan Drago/If he dies, he dies…”
Mirroring the Clipse/The Wire connection, Detroit’s Boldy James tapped into this year’s television phenomenon, Breaking Bad, on his My 1st Chemistry Set album. Produced entirely by veteran beat maker The Alchemist, the album’s cover and imagery offered more than a passing nod to the trials and tribulations of Walter White, while the music inside was a highly-charged blast of gritty hood-hop as addictive as anything cooked up in those Albuquerque meth labs.
Indeed, 2013 proved a good year for classic hardcore storytelling hip-hop, following the past few seasons of club-rap dominance. Both Baton Rouge-based Kevin Gates’s The Luca Brasi Story (which included ‘Neon Lights’ – one of the year’s major anthems) and Albert Einstein from Prodigy and The Alchemist (him again) yanked the subgenre back into the spotlight, making it edgy, topical and relevant again. A bit like what Miley Cyrus did for the foam finger at the MTV Video Music Awards.
In contrast with pal Jay-Z’s tired Magna Carta Holy Grail, Kanye West’s Yeezus (officially the second-best Jesus pun ever used in a rap album title; the best being, naturally, Sean Price’s wonderfully whimsical Jesus Price Supastar from 2007) arrived mid-summer bulging with bangers. Sure, the levels of pretentiousness were at an all-time high (though, as he said himself, he’d “rather be a d**k than a swallower”). But magnificent work in the form of ‘New Slaves’, ‘Blood On The Leaves’ and ‘Send It Up’ meant Mr West remained far and away the most interesting and relevant of rap’s marquee artists in 2013. Just hurry up with his damn croissants.
If Yeezus was one of the most anticipated albums within the mainstream, then it was the new material from Long Island rapper/producer Roc Marciano that whetted appetites the most among the rap cognoscenti. Following last year’s astonishing Reloaded album, the current reigning NY champion hit listeners with a double-whammy: The Pimpire Strikes Back mixtape teaser and the full-length album Marci Beaucoup. Both sets fully delivered on Roc Marci’s trademark approach of decorating gritty, gutter-level crime-rap with pop-culture references, his rhyme topics suavely switching between Magnum revolvers and Medusa and Back To The Future with considerable aplomb. Meanwhile Roc Marci’s affiliate Ka followed up last year’s excellent Grief Pedigree with The Night’s Gambit, a mature, focused effort which examined grim survival tactics on NY’s streets. Underpinned by a cold, brooding, atmospheric sound, it was the perfect companion piece to Roc Marciano’s work.
Yet as good as Roc Marciano and Ka’s efforts were, it was Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and Brooklyn producer El-P – hip-hop’s odd couple, together known as Run The Jewels – who really delivered the pick of the bunch this year. Anchored by awesome cuts like ‘Get It’ and ‘Banana Clippers’, Run The Jewels built on Killer Mike’s acclaimed R.A.P. Music from last year, with El-P’s relentless barrage of sonic pyrotechnics again proving the perfect backdrop for Mike, whose rhymes continued to cut open US politics, society and economics. Fittingly for a year in which rap celebrated the 20th and 25th anniversaries of so many critical albums that helped define and shape the genre, Run The Jewels sounded like a classic Public Enemy or Ice Cube record with a 21st century upgrade. Play it loud.
Albums/Mixtapes Of The Year:
1. Killer Mike + El-P = Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels (Fool’s Gold Records)
2. Roc Marciano – The Pimpire Strikes Back (self-released) / Marci Beaucoup (Man Bites Dog Records)
3. Kanye West – Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam Recordings)
4. Boldy James – My 1st Chemistry Set (Decon)
5. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name (GOOD Music) / (No) Malice – Hear Ye Him (Reinvision / Re-Up Gang Records)
6. Ka – The Night’s Gambit (Iron Works Records)
7. Kevin Gates – The Luca Brasi Story (Atlantic)
8. Prodigy & The Alchemist – Albert Einstein (Infamous Records)
9. A$AP Rocky – Long. Live. A$AP (Polo Grounds / RCA)
10. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap (self-released)
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