Though lyrics get most of the attention when it comes to critically listening to and discussing hip-hop, instrumentals do things that lyrics can’t even fathom. Sorry rap geniuses, but an acapella cypher between Eminem and Kendrick Lamar just won’t get people to move like a DJ Mustard beat. Of course, lyrics and instrumentals rarely appear individually by the time they reach the listener, so discussing which one is more important is a moot point. The point here is simply that because instrumentals often directly affect how a song plays out, paying attention to the instrumental can sometimes give you further insight into other aspects of a songs, like tonality, rhythm, flow, harmony, dissonance, etc. Accordingly, we paid attention to some of our favorite instrumentals from this year and described what they do for certain songs.
Don’t look at this as a “best of” list. This is simply an impromptu assembly of dope beats, as experienced by people who think of instrumentals as more than blank, dead canvasses for rhymes. Instrumentals are alive. Read some accounts below.
“I’m In It” – Kanye West. Produced by Kanye West, Evian Christ, Dom Solo, Noah Goldstein, Arca and Mike Dean.
The alternating piercing moans coupled with deep, vibrating synths create one of the most unconventional beats out there, and the thumping vocals of Assassin complement everything for an electrifying, jarring track. There’s no telling how many babies will be made to this song. Or how many abortions will occur to it.
“Suicide” – Pusha-T. Produced by Pharrell Williams.
Pharrell‘s beat sounds like something out of a video game, a mishmash of dissonant tones and otherworldly drums, not to mention the occasional single syllable uttered from an unrecognizable vocal sample.It’s a true exercise in sonic A.D.D. We know that Pusha plus Skateboard P has always been a solid combination, but this genuinely sounds like “something the world has never felt before.” [Editor’s note – Props to you if you get that reference. S.K.]
“Where He Get It” – Chief Keef. Produced by Sonny Digital, Southside and MetroBoomin.
This track is one of the most finely-tuned clusterfucks ever made. With more space, we could get into its nuances, its subtleties, its overwhelming atmosphere, and the seamless presence Keef finds within those elements, but for now we’ll just say that it’s basically the most fearless instrumental of this year. It’s heavy-handed in its inclusion of so many competing leading sounds and daring in its execution. There’s no telling how so many sounds can be made to actually work together, but it happened.
“MC ILLIN” by MondreMAN. Produced by Al Jieh.
Jieh creates a watery strength for Mondre on this track. Hints of G-Funk with contemporary technicality, Jieh‘s work ripples to its own propulsions. #bubbly
“Run The Jewels” – Run the Jewels. Produced by El-P.
This shit can knock down buildings. Don’t be surprised if this song starts to replace wrecking balls.
“Tom Ford” – Jay-Z. Produced by Timbaland and J-Roc.
Fuck Yeezus, this is what hip-hop from the future will really sound like. Every single component in this robo-gymnastic beat sounds hand-picked, unique, bananas. Timbaland‘s hard drive should be a national treasure.
“King Push” – Pusha-T. Produced by Kanye West and Sebastian Sartor.
Perhaps it was the rumor that Joaquin Phoenix produced “King Push” that made its initial unveiling feel like a unicorn sighting, but the fervor the beat creates is solely a byproduct of its megalomaniacal feel – like capturing bravado in a bottle. Produced by Yeezy and an unknown beatmaker named Sebastian Sartor, “King Push” is proof that you don’t need a big name behind the boards to create a certified banger. And that squeaky noise at the beginning is critical.
“Blood On The Leaves” – Kanye West. Produced by Kanye West, Hudson Mohawke, Lunice, Carlos Broady, 88-Keys, Arca and Mike Dean.
When you integrate a sample of Nina Simone‘s rendition of “Strange Fruit” with TNGHT‘s “R U Ready” you get a supernatural experience that induces a pure sonic euphoria. When you chop the aforementioned elements into an interpolation of C-Murder‘s “Down 4 My Niggas,” you get something else entirely – something completely and utterly existential. “Blood On The Leaves” is a hodgepodge of rare and strange ingredients unified to create one of the finer reinterpretations of sound in recent memory. Truly.
“Pound Cake” – Drake. Produced by Boi-1da and Jordan Evans.
The beat literally gives you goosebumps every time you hear it. You can play it a thousand times, and it feels like the first time you heard it. The Wu Tang sample is genius, and adds to the smoothness of the beat even more. Have Canadians always been this good at music?
“Palm Trees” – Flatbush Zombies. Produced by Erick Arc Elliott.
Flatbush Zombies architect, Erick, constructs a hypnotic, eerie, and incredibly catchy instrumental that is both laid back and energetic. Palm Trees is the perfect groove for Meechy and Juice to explore and the perfect
replacement addition to your parent’s reggae playlist.
“My Yout” – Joey Bada$$. Produced by Chuck Strangers.
This instrumental is a prime example of West Indies meets Brooklyn. Or better yet the West Indies influence that is already infused within Brooklyn hip-hop. It’s reggae-dub with a hip-hop twang and serves as a testament to Joey Bada$$‘s Caribbean roots. Melodic and intricate, it’s a top record on the generally impressive Summer Knights mixtape.
“Flip Ya” – Action Bronson. Produced by Party Supplies.
The sample of Junior Walker’s rendition of “Wishing On A Star” is what sets this instrumental off so nicely. The wailing saxophone, heavy bassline and faint background singing are the perfect compliment to the vivid rhymes by Bronson and Retchy P. In all honesty it should’ve been a longer song. As is, it just isn’t enough. We need more backflips!
“Portlyn” – The Stuyvesants. Produced by The Stuyvesants
The beat is just so damn smooth. It almost seems like it was made for cruising the streets on a warm summer night — just riding without a care in the world. A real 70s, blaxploitation feel to it. Good shit.
“Work” – A$AP Ferg. Produced by Chinza and Fly Beats.
No matter if you hate the song at this point or still go hard for it, the instrumentals is supremely powerful and that bass will always knock. Plus, Ferg‘s chanting at the beginning of the song could probably wake the dead. And yes, that chant should be considered apart of the instrumental.
When Kanye first performed the track on Saturday Night Live, it felt like a moment. We’d heard ‘New Slaves’, and as impressive as that song is in itself, ‘Skinhead’ is a beast all in it’s own. Kanye‘s lyrics – attacking and revolting – are still overshadowed by the power of the track behind them. Again, watching Kanye perform ‘Black Skinhead’ on SNL felt like a moment, but the beat was eternal. That militant percussion genuinely makes it sound like Kanye has an army behind him.
“Contemporary Man” – Action Bronson. Produced by Party Supplies.
Rumor has it that this is the first song Action Bronson and Party Supplies ever recorded together. If the legend is true, then it was a brilliant look into the crystal ball. Bronson‘s at his best when his spitting his cartoon-lifestyle-bars over Party Supplies‘ ever-sampling beats, and hearing the self-proclaimed “young Tom Selleck” go in over an assortment of 80’s hits feels like soul mates finding their better half. This was a match-made in hip-hop heaven, and we’re so, so glad they found each other.
“Orange Juice” – Vic Mensa. Produced by Cam.
It’s hard to see a song named “Orange Soda” and not immediately think of Kel from Kenan & Kel. Like the memorable TV show, “Orange Soda” is bright and bubbly. Synths rise like the heat on a summer day while the bass moves fluidly and freely like a nice breeze. It’s a near-flawless setup for the upbeat and vibrant delivery of Vic Mensa: the rap game’s Kel. Who loves “Orange Soda”? I love “Orange Soda.” I do, I do, I do–ooo!
“Go All Night” – Kelela. Produced by Morri$.
It’s an unspoken fact: any song that includes a sampled crowd “Hey,” is bound to be great–especially if it’s an R&B/soul/whatever-exactly-it’s-supposed-to-be song. It’s as if Morri$ knew what this song was destined to be: an after hours banger where you’re huddled up close to someone you just met at the club. Will you leave with them when the lights turn on? Will you at least get their number? Maybe, maybe not. You’re more concerned about the twilight synths leaving your knees weak, and those 808s ringing in your ears.
“Gas Pedal” – Sage the Gemini. Produced by Iamsu.
No words are needed. Hell, are words even possible? This beat is groundbreaking.
“Fuck That Nigga” – DJ Mustard. Produced by DJ Mustard.
Let’s keep it 100: Mustard soundtracked 2013. People say that he makes the same song over and over again, yet rappers keep calling him for beats. Explain that.
“Torture” – Danny Brown. Produced by Oh No.
On “Torture” Danny Brown takes some time out from being on Adderall goofball order a grim picture of his past life. Oh No provides a beat that seems more suited for Ghostface than Danny, but the Detroit spitter delivers his most in-pocket performance ever as he details a life plagued with horrors. The beat here alone is enough to give you coke-fiend nightmares.
“Hoarse” – Earl Sweatshirt. Produced by BadBadNotGood.
The beat feels like a tornado mixed with a black hole, growing in intensity, consuming everything, yet somehow pushing me away. That feeling, plus the Wild West sound effects give the song an acute loneliness that truly haunts. But it’s weird because it feels you’re haunted by an absence rather than a presence.
“Enemy” – Kelela. Produced by Nguzunguzu.
Nguzunguzu really put some work into that beat. It’s reminiscent of Portishead‘s “Machine Gun” in terms of how it demands your attention. It’s very militant and forceful, especially with the random pauses. It feels like someone’s marching toward you with a knife. Beyond how it makes you feel though, it’s amazing how so many of the elements of the instrumental are just plain unpredictable. How in the world did Kelela write lyrics to this?
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