A Compton classic. An unlikely rapper/producer pairing. Two long-awaited projects from veteran members of hip-hop’s hottest crew, and a strong debut from their eager label mate. While Kendrick Lamar crafts his anticipated sophomore LP, Kanye West fraternizes with major clothing lines, and Jay Z travels the world with some groupie, a series of celebrated up-and-coming artists have taken over the first half of 2014, keeping fans’ interests afloat with quality, ambitious releases. Picking favorites from crop of phenomenal productions from diverse young artists and seasoned veterans alike wasn’t easy, but after putting it to a vote amongst the RESPECT. staff, here are our top ten albums–in no particular order–of 2014 so far:
YG – My Krazy Life
In the music industry, you get one chance and one chance only to debut your voice, your flow, your sound. Once that chance is taken, there is no going back. Most artists believe that they are able to bounce back from a bad first impression, but rapper YG is smarter than that. And, not to mention, much more strategic. YG’s debut album, My Krazy Life, left very little to the imagination and gave all listeners the inside scoop to his life. The good, the bad and the ugly all found a home in My Krazy Life. The honesty drew fans in and they couldn’t get enough of YG and his ability to craft an amazing story based off of his life experiences. Between the production from DJ Mustard and the lyrics, YG created one of the hottest albums of 2014.
Best Tracks: “Sorry Momma”, “Me and My Bitch”
– Jasmina T. Cuevas
Mac Miller – Faces
The man of many personalities, Mac Miller, dropped his latest mixtape, Faces, on Mother’s Day. Last year Mac impressed critics with his studio LP Watching Movies With the Sound Off, and this tape did not fail to follow suit. Although Faces is nearly 90-minutes long, Mac takes you on an enjoyable journey full of tales of love, depression, drugs, and self-reflection. There are also fun tracks, such as “Thumbalina” and “Insomniak.” Hell, he even surprised the world with a Mike Jones feature. Mac is getting better with every new release, proving to doubters that he isn’t just a fun, cheesy rapper who only makes party music.
Best Tracks: “Insomniak” ft. Rick Ross, “Inside Outside”
– Jesse Lyles
Ab-Soul – These Days…
Ab-Soul took his lyric-driven hip-hop eccentricities to new levels with his third studio LP These Days…, which blends catchy melodies, dense bars, and gleeful spontaneity in a way that keeps listeners on their toes throughout its nearly 90-minute runtime. The density of Soulo‘s lyrics–which touch on everything from race and religion to sex and “THC through TSA”–are matched by intricate, layered production from a variety of skilled producers. And, like the ambitiously scattered production, These Days… features a variety of guests from all walks of the hip-hop world, including Lupe Fiasco, Action Bronson, Danny Brown and a virtual who’s who of the ever-intriguing TDE collective. Whether or not fans can discuss These Days…with the same reverence as Soulo‘s excellent 2012 LP Control System remains in question, but there is certainly no doubt Ab-Soul is one of hip-hop’s best and brightest young talents.
Best Tracks: “Tree of Life”, “Stigmata” ft. Action Bronson & Asaad
– Sam Griffen
ScHoolboy Q – Oxymoron
Oxymoron is in fact just that–an oxymoron–and in more ways than one. In one aspect, it isn’t the hype, club-banging, radio-heavy album most assumed ScHoolboy Q would debut to the mainstream world with. Instead, TDE teased us with a clever, oh-so-gangster album which just so happened to gain attention in the club with singles such as “Man Of The Year” and “What They Want” featuring club-single “gawd” 2 Chainz. Earlier releases like “Collard Greens” and “Break The Bank” can still be heard in midday radio mixes and seen on video streams on VH1 and MTV. Now, we’re grooving with the gangster Q to his “Studio” single which features BJ The Chicago Kid and has started getting played everywhere. Take a walk in ScHoolboy’s shoes as he does everything “bad” all for the good of his beloved Joy.
Best Tracks: “Studio” ft. BJ The Chicago Kid, “Collard Greens” ft. Kendrick Lamar
– Atiera J.
Future – Honest
After the surprising success of his debut album, Pluto, Future went from regional champion to national commodity– appearing on tracks with everyone from Miley Cyrus to Young Thug over the last two years, and popping up on every out-of-this-world hook on the warmer side of Mars. But as anticipation grew for the follow-up, so did the concerns. As the singles leaked out, none seemed to truly stick. Then came the exact release date, almost exactly two years from the day Pluto dropped into orbit, and, finally, “Move That Dope” and “I Won.”
With two certified bangers – and hits – on the airwaves, Honest hit stores and all tension was released. The album is concise, with a run time under an hour, and star-studded (guests include: Kanye, Andre 3000, Drake, Pharrell, and, of course, producer Mike Will Made It) but at the core we’re left with one, multifaceted central character – Future. And we get to see every side of him here. There’s the street hustler in “Move That Dope,” plus the loverman guiding us through the “Turn on the Lights Pt. 2”-ish feel of “I Won” (which includes Kanye at his most frat-bro-in-love moment, probably ever), but there’s also there’s also the pillow talk promising on “I Be You” and the two different forms of brashness of “My Momma” and the title track. Once you add in the fade-in, fade-out Drake appearance on “Never Satisfied” and, arguably the best song of 2014, “Benz Friendz” what you have is proof of this: Future’s a bonafide rap star and here to stay.
Best Tracks: “Benz Friendz” ft. Andre 3000, “I Won” ft. Kanye West
– Justin Rockhold
Vince Staples – Shyne Coldchain II
As astoundingly good as he is, it’s hard to blame you if you’ve been sleeping on Vince Staples. His drawling, almost drooling sneer of a voice and his bulky, if sometimes unstructured, flow fly below many radars on the first go around. Almost lazy-sounding at a first glimpse, Staples‘ music reaps huge rewards if you just give him a moment more of your time and attention. The Long Beach shooter has a golden gift for bleak, brutal storytelling and stunning, dead-eyed shit talk. His best project to date, Shyne Coldchain II is stuffed full of vivid, harrowing vignettes of Vince’s upbringing that rival any and all storytellers and poets in hip-hop.
The ten song tape begins with a piercing, storm-forboding sample from the legendary No I.D., being battered around by a dazed Vince, who drops dozens of haymaker nihilist gems. “Shells they burning long as hell is burning, I’ll murder God / If he was tryna fuck up my paper, nigga that’s all I got,” he raps on the first verse. “Seen blacks ain’t crack, so they gave us that / give us hope, then take us back,” he spits in the second. On the chorus, he just hums like a kid dragging a twig across a fence—“dun da dun, dun da dun.” He’s numb to the pain, and further, the morbid cycle has become the only institution to which he pledges allegiance, and so he does so with murderous abandon.
SCVII sees Vince growing up a scarred and warped young mind, with present-day Vince capturing his past ache and confusion with gut-checking crispness. “As a kid, all I wanted was to kill a man,” he raps on album highlight “Nate,” a song of trauma so painfully rendered that it alone is worth essays. While what that line tells us about Vince as a kid is shocking, what we learn (from the surrounding songs) about that wish’s ripple-effect is perhaps the tape’s true centerpiece. “My mama cried the day I got put on the hood / Never wished for better days, only wished a nigga would,” Vince says, staring down a Southern California-sized gun barrel without blinking. Nothing about Vince Staples or Shyne Coldchain reaches—every bar and beat, even at their grimmest moments, come as easy as breathing, as calmly as Vince reaches for his pistol. Teddy Roosevelt famously said to “walk softly and carry a big stick,” and Vince Staples has mastered each end of that advice to a chilling degree.
Best Tracks: “Nate”
– Ben Sherak
Kid Cudi – Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon
Take a ride in a space ship to the moon and beyond with Kid Cudi‘s Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon. With soft and sultry singles such as “Balmain Jeans” featuring the smooth vocals of Raphael Saadiq as well as party-potential songs like the title track, “Satellite Flight”, Cudi gives us versatility and a whirl of emotions per usual. “Too Bad I Have To Destroy You Now” and “Internal Bleeding” keep us in space as Cudi draws us even further into his emotional world, all the while displaying his brilliant production skills. Satellite Flight is the long awaited journey of a release that Kid Cudi fans have been needing since 2013’s Indicud.
Best Tracks: “Balmain Jeans” ft. Raphael Saadiq, “Too Bad I Have To Destroy You Now”
– Atiera J.
The Roots – …and then you shoot your cousin
The Roots have pulled off quite a feat. While becoming more recognizable than ever thanks to their Jimmy Fallon gig, they’ve managed to go the complete opposite direction with their music. The normal route would be to capitalize on their newfound mainstream visibility and begin making more accessible, radio-friendly music, but the Roots are far from normal. Instead of going after the charts, ?uestlove et. al began crafting shorter, darker, bleaker projects. …and then you shoot your cousin follows up their “concept” album Undun, and takes the structure to its maximal point. Where Undun maintained a fairly straight-forward structure, &TYSYC turns it on its head.
We have sparse lyrics, more melodies, and some jarring, industrial instrumentals. Even though the album clocks in at a brief 30 minutes, the listener does not feel cheated. The music is dense and the lyric-driven songs on the album require attention. “Never” and “When the People Cheer” are paranoid, frightened records that introduce the theme of overarching darkness the band has been playing with more and more since How I Got Over. “The Dark” is aggressive, with an absolutely killer verse from Dice Raw, as he spits, “Crossed that bitch, then I got that bitch/Now all I want from her’s an abortion/My mind filled with distortion, my eyelids say caution/Yeah I sold crack to get my soul back, they say it’s gonna cost a fortune.” Not one to be outdone, though, Black Thought delivers his most graphic and poignant verse as the album reaches its bleakest point on “The Unraveling.” “What did the thief say unto the hanging man?/‘Here come the hounds, lay your burdens down in advance.’”
The Roots seem to have no interest in returning to fuller, longer albums, and there is no need for them to even attempt to do so. Where Undun tripped up with its ambitious concept, &TYSYC delivers in spades with focus and economical execution. It’s dark, it’s short, but it’s spectacular.
Best Tracks: “Never”, “When the People Cheer”
– Kevin Ahmadi
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Pinata
In what is certainly hip-hop’s oddest success story of the year, gruff-voiced Indiana MC Freddie Gibbs linked up with everyone’s favorite sample wizard Madlib for Pinata, a 17-track gauntlet of street rhymes and spastic production. Madlib uses the same jarring beat changes and ADHD-infused sample selection that made Madvillainy, his oft-celebrated collaboration with MF Doom, such a masterpiece. Gangsta Gibbs’ raw, gritty lyrics are delivered with an intensity that can keep up the pace with the production. Fashioned as “a gangster Blacksploitation film on wax,” Pinata is Madlib and Gibbs wearing their hearts on their sleeves–pure, unadulterated samples layered over raw, unabridged lyrics describing a life of crime, thrills and pain. Now let’s get these two working together more often.
Best Tracks: “Deeper”, “High” ft. Danny Brown
– Sam Griffen
Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
When thinking about Top Dawg Entertainment, it’s easy to focus on the headliners like Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul and nothing else. However, bubbling underneath the surface are artists like SZA — hell, even TDE co-president Punch spits sometimes. Another artist teetering on the verge of stardom is Isaiah Rashad. His Cilvia Demo was quietly released in January and quickly became a fan favorite.
At times, Isaiah has a delivery reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar but with more of a southern flair and perhaps a chip on his shoulder. His songs run the gamut of crunk trunk-rattlers to introspective thought provokers and everywhere in between.
Isaiah Rashad and the aforementioned SZA make a formidable duo and it’s no coincidence that Cilvia Demo‘s standout songs pair the artists together. “West Savannah” is a slow-rolling ode to young-but-misunderstood love and “Heavenly Father” is a somber look at both the world around him and in the mirror. The closing “Shot You Down” assures us that Isaiah can hold his own alongside the bigger dawgs of TDE. All in all, the future appears to be bright for Rashad and if he keeps dropping stellar projects like Cilvia Demo, he won’t have to be “Modest” for much longer.
Best Tracks: “West Savannah” ft. SZA, “Heavenly Father”
– Emanuel Wallace
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