For our latest roundtable, we sent around an internal survey for album of the year. The survey didn’t detail exactly what “album of the year” means, but we believe the details were embedded in the albums that were on the ballot and in the eventual results, presented below. We know that a sample of twenty people is far from representative of all hip-hop fans, so keep that in mind. But also keep in mind that we’re more than fans, so we did more than just choose our favorites. Thus, “Album of the Year” isn’t synonymous with “thing we like the most.” Far from it, this is a list of things that we heard – which is its limitation, admittedly – and felt the need to hear again and again and again regardless of whether we actually liked them or not (ie. Yeezus). Accordingly, we now encourage you to hear them as well.
#15: 1017 Thug – Young Thug
For better or worse, 2013 has undeniably been the year for trap music. Saturated with molly references, menacing bells, thudding bass and auto-tune, most of this music has been aggressively forgettable. Even the most passionate trap-enthused DJs haven’t kept most of these songs in rotation. Nevertheless, amidst this atmosphere of ephemeral mediocrity, one particular artist is etched into our minds: Young Thug. The Atlanta artist released 1017 Thug back in February, but it’s still a fresh project. Released a few weeks after Young Thug‘s signing to Gucci Mane‘s 1017 imprint, the mixtape reminds us of the unbridled experimentation that characterized trap’s initial emergence. Before trap music had a readily identifiable aesthetic, it was basically the sound of people trying to make money by any means necessary. Accordingly, no stone was left unturned; no idea was left unconsidered. Young Thug keeps that spirit alive, using trap sounds to create music that doesn’t easily fall into the categories of “street anthem” or “club-ready.” 1017 Thug features him truly exploring what trap can do beyond making people “turn up.” Of course, this mixtape will make you turn up, but that’s not all there is to it. There’s some genuine craftsmanship here.
#14: Summer Knights – Joey Bada$$
Young Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ had a hectic 2012. The release of his mixtape 1999 was insanely successful, very quickly propelling him and his Pro Era crew from internet underdogs to widely acknowledged emcees. Yet despite these gains, the year ended with a tragic los:, the suicide of Joey‘s friend and fellow crew member, Capital STEEZ. Joey and company strongly kept chugging along, working with other artists, touring and just generally trying to capitalize on their hard-earned opportunities, but death is a strange and unpredictable experience, so when Summer Knights was announced, there was some genuine trepidation regarding how good the music could be in the wake of such a tragedy. Fortunately, Joey delivers. Whereas 1999 painted Joey and Pro Era as meticulous nostalgists, Summer Knights shows that the crew’s artistic roots extend far beyond 90’s New York. New York’s particular contributions to hip-hop are still central to how Joey creates, but Summer Knights depicts Joey with leanings toward reggae, dub, poetry and arguably even some punk rock, with flows to match.
#13: Cut 4 Me – Kelela
Kelela has the uncanny ability to establish harmony amidst the most elemental chaos. Featuring graceful melodies atop amorphous tracks from producer hive Fade to Mind, Cut 4 Me is 50 minutes of fearless exploration of voice and affect. Strikingly, most of the songs are remixes, yet Kelela stealthily colonizes them all, owning them for herself. Some of these instrumentals truly are intimidating, yet Kelela faces them like a veteran, variously taming them and absorbing their unbridled energy into her melodies. Cut 4 Me is the musical equivalent of the comic book character Storm controlling, unleashing and becoming one with the weather.
#12: King Remembered in Time – Big K.R.I.T.
The consequence of giving fans consecutively stronger releases is the escalation of their expectations. With the release of Live From the Underground, Big K.R.I.T. found himself fighting against the quality of his former releases, much to his chagrin. After all, he made many sacrifices for Live From the Underground, namely its necessarily small number of samples in comparison to his mixtapes. Dealing with the reception of his debut album, the Mississippi rapper doubled-down on King Remembered in Time, actively competing with and trying to best his previous works. He isn’t as successful as he could have been, but the tenacity and the gumption of the project resonate well. K.R.I.T. both gives fans what they want and gives them a potent “STFU,” all while remaining relatively innovative and open-minded. There are surely some misfires, but when K.R.I.T. is on point, he’s truly unmatched. Read our full review here.
#11: No Poison, No Paradise – Black Milk
Black Milk‘s biggest career mistake may have been titling his 2010 LP, “Album of the Year.” While that project certainly stands firm as a great body of work, it is on No Poison, No Paradise that the Detroit emcee/producer crafts his magnum opus and undoubtedly one of the best albums of 2013. From the Mel-assisted opener, the listener is taken on a morose journey through the childhood of Sonny, a fictionalized character brought to life by Black Milk’s own experiences. Think of this as a more flushed-out and hyper-realized version of The Roots’ Undun. “Deion’s House” tells the story of Sonny’s friend, who is a quasi-bad influence, given the fact that he pulls Sonny towards the street life, while at the same time pushes our hero to pursue his musical aspirations. Herein lies the narrative in a nutshell: dealing with the influences of your surroundings while striving towards a greater goal. While Black Milk’s production sometimes garners more attention than his lyrical skills, as do his collaborations with the likes of Danny Brown and Jack White, this is the album that proves that his pen game is just as lethal.
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