I realize that we’re now well into September and I’m just now winding down a countdown I started in August. It’s easy to make excuses as to why I haven’t posted more often, but honestly, it’s entirely my fault; I can’t ascribe my laziness to external forces. That would be a total copout, and I’d be lying not only to myself, but to anyone who reads this, so I won’t do it.
Who am I kidding? I blame football and League of Legends.
To continue, here’s #20-11 on the list, and links to:
20 – “Summer Of Sam” – Demigodz – KILLmatic
“Summer Of Sam” is really rap for rap purists. It’s a song that pulls off the rare feat of managing to fit in twice as many MCs (six) as it has minutes in its runtime (three), all of whom share equal billing; amazingly, this works because of the interchangeability of the rappers – technically skilled guys such as Blacastan, Esoteric, and Ryu who float around between underground “supergroups” making songs containing every variety of multisyllabic boasts intertwining gunplay and popular culture. It’s a niche, to be sure, and one could be forgiven for dismissing “Summer Of Sam” by saying it’s nothing that couldn’t be found on any of the albums already released by Army of the Pharaohs, or Styles of Beyond, or even the Demigodz themselves.
That all might be true, but it’s missing the point, which is that “Summer of Sam” is an excellent song, interspersing references to everything from Iron Man to Bell Biv Devoe to Frank Miller to T.I’s arrest for assault weapons as six guys try to outdo each other in their attempts to describe their murderous prowess – presumably in real life, but also in a more meta, self-referential sense; clever rhymes about how clever the rhymes are. It all comes at you in an overwhelming rush – lines whose complexity is designed for rewinds, references so intricate and esoteric (no pun intended) that by the time you’ve fully comprehended one, they’ve already rapped three more. Considering the sequential destruction of the rhyming, then, it’s only fitting that the titular thematic reference would be an allusion to a famous serial killer.
19 – “Whoa” – Earl Sweatshirt feat. Tyler, the Creator – Doris
“Whoa” is the synthesis of old and new Earl, an explicit reminder that yes, spending an extended period of time in Samoa changed him, and no, he did not forget how to rap. It’s a callback to Earl’s self-titled debut EP/mixtape/album (10 songs on a free release is sort of the triple point between those), quite literally; Tyler’s intro acknowledges “Chum”, Earl’s first major post-hiatus single, as being a departure where Earl “got all personal” and addresses the worries that he “won’t go back to that old fucking 2010 shit about talking about fuckin’ everything”, then the beat drops, and we’re back to buffering vids of Asher Roth eating applesauce. Only things are different this time around; there’s still ridiculously complex wordplay and a sub-blowing minimalist beat, but everything’s much more scattershot – admittedly a tough criticism for someone whose introduction to the masses consisted of nonstop non-sequiturs (“ask her for a couple bucks, shove a trumpet up her butt”), but it absolutely holds. Even the least-focused songs on Earl had some sort of logical threads running through them, be it a focus on an extended personal introduction (“Earl”) or hypothetical scenarios involving outlandish murder and/or rape (“Earl”, and pretty much the rest of the album). “Whoa” reads like Earl wrote a bunch of great couplets that didn’t really fit anywhere else, then decided to throw them all into one song. It still makes for an excellent display of rapping, and certainly there’s a significant subset of listeners who’d claim that simply focusing on not-murder/rape represents a significant step forward in his development as an artist. I’ll buy that, but not the idea that its side effect is a transformation into advanced Rap Mad Libs. It’s ultimately frustrating because “Whoa” is like watching your #1 overall can’t-miss draft pick perform competently enough to earn a starting spot; yeah, it’s good, but we expected greatness.
18 – “Cocoa Butter Kisses” – Chance the Rapper feat. Vic Mensa & Twista – Acid Rap
Rappers have a long history of expressing nostalgia in detail. There’s a pretty clear reason for this: rap affords its artists a comparatively gigantic amount of words to work with relative to other genres, allowing them to forego broad platitudes in favor of explicit description – instead of “I miss those days”, describing exactly what it is about those days that they miss. But “Cocoa Butter Kisses” isn’t just a one-way trip down memory lane, although that’d be perfectly fine – a whole song’s worth of Chance’s equivalent of Nike Cortez with footsie socks, and eating pickles with Tootsie Pops, and it don’t stop. (Oh wait – that actually exists, too.) It’s a more ephemeral, lost-generation type of drugged-out regretful reminiscence, the ballad of the non-innocent who’s too far gone, too mature to go back to the old days. It’s really a two-part song with a somewhat out-of-place name feature: Chance wants to go back, regretting putting “Visine inside [his] eyes so my grandma would fuckin’ hug [him]”; Vic Mensa’s in the moment, realizing the brain-dead underpinnings of his existence, but saying “fuck it” because things are going well and he’s in too deep already; Twista talks really fast and compares himself to the Higgs Boson. (It’s not a bad verse, but it’s one of those where the rapper really didn’t concern himself with any of the song’s deeper inherent meaning; see also: Paul Wall and GLC, who interpreted Kanye’s “Drive Slow” as a song about stunting in your vehicle, a thematic swing-and-a-miss that stands out even more when T.I.’s verse is added to the remix.) So yes, Chance is allowed the chance (ha!) to reminisce about Rugrats, Chuck E. Cheese’s, and church choirs, but it’s not the recollections that matter as much as their absence; memories with burn holes seeming a little less dank.
17 – “Get Lucky” – Daft Punk feat. Pharrell – Random Access Memories
Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’ve heard this song somewhere this summer; unlike a fair majority of this list, which is drawn from some pretty far-reaching corners of the musical world – okay, mostly the rap world – this song was literally everywhere. Maybe you saw the commercial where it debuted on SNL, or maybe you turned on a radio at some point, or maybe you were paying attention when the release of the new Daft Punk album suddenly became a Big Thing To Talk About, or maybe you were just listening to the go-to-commercial music on Thursday Night Football last week, or maybe you’re just a subscriber to this whole Year of Pharrell thing, or maybe… you get the idea, the point being that this song was absolutely ubiquitous for a few months, depriving a whole bunch of writers of the need to write countdown lists (hello, meta, my old friend) anointing the “summer jam of 2013” – everyone knew the consensus #1.
There was quite a bit of talk about Daft Punk’s new album finding “the groove”, which is a pretty ambiguous phrase; the linked WSJ article seems to define it as a comment on the genre of the album’s music, a designed break from the standards of contemporary EDM. My take was that it was more about the idea that the album made a DJ’s job about as easy as possible in that it was very cohesive (for more on this, skip two entries down to “Hive”), being designed – also unlike a lot of contemporary EDM albums – to be played straight through as a solid listening experience, rather than a series of auditory rollercoaster rides consisting mostly of waiting for “the drop.” Which makes “Get Lucky” all the more impressive; it fits seamlessly into the album’s sequencing, yet also functions as a standalone jam. It’s quite a feat, but maybe not as impressive as the song’s ability to sustain repetition; you barely notice the extra couple of minutes on the album’s extended cut when you’re busy jamming along to its infectious guitar riff. It’s an experience not unlike a record player replaying your favorite part of a song ad infinitum when its needle happens to get stuck, and if you’re wondering if maybe that’s what they meant by “the groove,” then there’s a good chance you’d be right.
16 – “Immortal” – KiD CuDi – Indicud
Indicud was a pretty good album that was terribly received because, unfortunately, people were either expecting another type of pretty good album or, alternatively, an excellent album. To be fair, Cudi didn’t do himself any favors; he didn’t quite go full WZRD, but Indicud’s tracks were, generously, a mess. Otherwise solid songs went overlooked due to the deafeningly obvious missteps of other tracks: inaccessible harmonic structure (“Unfuckwittable”), terrible guest verses (“Girls”), or being the second half of a 9-minute-long self-indulgence-fest featuring Michael Bolton (“Afterwards (Bring Yo Friends)”), and this isn’t even including the absolutely unnecessary instrumentals comprising 1/6 of the entire album.
It’s a shame, because “Immortal” is actually a great Cudi song, one that would have fit right in on the first Man on the Moon. It’s upbeat, with a melody that instantly draws you in – half the chorus is literally just Cudi humming, but chances are you’re humming along, too – and it’s Cudi at his off-kilter sing-rap best. (It’s not “rap Cudi,” who seems to be on a permanent hiatus, although he pops up once in a while; witness “First Chain”.) It’s a song that deserved greater acclaim, but unfortunately won’t get it, swimming upstream amidst a sea of “lol Pitchfork 4.0” and “Cudi fell off” (the cousin of which is “Cudi fell off when he quit doing drugs”, which is inevitably followed by the disturbing mentality of “bring back old Cudi”). Cudi, for his part, doesn’t seem to care – his first post-Indicud single appeared to be a return to his even more-terribly received diversion into rock – which makes sense, really, considering that disregarding negativity is sort of “Immortal”’s entire point.
15 – “Hive” – Earl Sweatshirt feat. Vince Staples & Casey Veggies – Doris
It’s pretty easy to slant your music criticism one way or the other, depending on how you feel about an album – and since music taste is subjective, there’s really nothing someone else can say to prove you wrong. For example, if an album is full of songs that sound the same, and you like that sound, it’s “cohesive,” with the artist exhibiting a “well-defined” sound; if you don’t like it, it’s “formulaic,” “stale,” and the artist needs to “evolve.”
Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris is one of the few examples I can think of where the dreaded “formulaic” tag can be applied to the album not only in the usual, critical sense of the word, but also in a way that doesn’t indict the music itself, the “formula” being as follows: Take a dark, woozy, drugged-out beat, add a featured artist – usually an OF affiliate – have both contribute one verse, and maybe have Earl rap another one. It’s a recipe that works to varying degrees of success throughout Doris, with the quality of the songs being dependent mostly on the beat and the featured artist. “Hive” is the most well-executed example of this formula; it’s the anti-“Pre” (the album’s opener that, in a typical Odd Future “fuck-you” move, leads off Earl’s album with a verse from SK La’Flare, who 1. is not Earl and 2. is far, far inferior to Earl when it comes to rapping). It’s a song that showcases Earl at his coherent, menacing, quotable best – “the description doesn’t fit if not a synonym of menace” – and Vince Staples turns in a career-defining verse on the feature. (Casey Veggies is listed as a featured artist, too, but he’s only on the chorus.) It’s a reminder that, despite Doris’s inconsistencies, Earl’s still a force to be reckoned with when it comes to rapping; maybe he can’t put the full extent of his talents together for a whole album yet, but for now, we’ll settle for a few songs that are this good.
14 – “Activist” – Waka Flocka Flame feat. Ben G – DuFlocka Rant: Halftime Show
13 – “Stay Hood” – Waka Flocka Flame feat. Lil Wayne – DuFlocka Rant 2
I’ve actually been a huge fan of Waka Flocka Flame since he was an unknown Brick Squad underling whose videos drew WorldStar commenters claiming he was a borderline illiterate fool who roamed around Atlanta-area grocery stores repeating his rap moniker out loud over and over. (Sorry, no link on that one, but I swear it’s out there if you want to go digging through comment sections on 2009-era WSHH uploads featuring Flocka.) Hilarious as that mental image might be, we’ve since developed a more nuanced view of Flocka – he might be a clown, but he’s surprisingly self-aware, funny, and seems like a genuinely nice guy, certainly not the type to come off as a crackhead. (That honor, these days, goes to his former boss.) His rise to stardom came when he discovered a winning formula and stuck to it, his own personal rap Heisenberg blue (Gratuitous? Yes. Forced? Maybe. 4/4? Absolutely.); bass, aggression, more aggression, repeat.
It’s a little bit of a surprise that the two best songs off two sequential mixtapes in Flocka’s basketball-themed series (side note: If you’re not using “Lebron Flocka James” as your fantasy basketball team name, you’re doing it wrong) are noteworthy mainly on the strength of their features. “Activist”, the rave-influenced single that jacks its beat from an old-school Three 6 Mafia song, closes with a verse from Ben G – who, as far as I can tell, is just some random white kid who happens to be signed to Bricksquad – that delivers more quotables than most of the rest of the mixtape combined (including a killer last line that’s basically just one huge internal rhyme: “I’m hardly active on that Activist / Actually I’ve been actively passin’ piff with the baddest bitch”). “Stay Hood” is a little more in line with expectations – you might have heard of its featured artist before – and features Wayne at his loosely-mixed-metaphor (“Dead body in the bushes / Now that’s a bush you don’t beat around”) best, or at least about as good as recent Wayne gets. (He only makes one reference to “pussy.” Progress!) If either of these songs are an indication, Flockaveli 2 is shaping up to be worthy of its predecessor’s name – a step far back in the right direction after the forgettable Triple F Life – and that’s a great sign, if only because it means that we can pretend that collaboration with Nicki, Tyga, and Flo Rida never happened.
12 – “New Slaves” – Kanye West feat. Frank Ocean – Yeezus
It might not exactly feature the best verse “OF ALL TIME IN THE HISTORY OF RAP MUSIC, PERIOD,” but damn if “New Slaves” isn’t a tour de force anyway, the type of song made to be introduced to the public at large by projections that take up entire buildings worth of space. (Cue the “Kanye/big head” jokes.) It’s distilled Kanye – a combustible mix of anti-establishment anger combined with the simultaneous realization that Ye is the establishment; legitimate commentary on neo-American racial roles interspersed with graphic promises to fuck your wife. (And really, if we’re talking “distilled Kanye”, does it get much better than “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”?) It’s also a continuation of Watch the Throne’s obsession with two-part tracks, albeit adhering to the format in an absolutely bizarre manner – the minimalist beat gives way into a full on minute-plus operatic outro featuring a sample of a Hungarian song with Frank Ocean (and Kanye) vocals layered over the top. It’s an artistic decision that’s tailor-made for the white devil sophists at RapGenius to read way too much into; personally, I think Ye probably just thought it sounded cool.
As a bonus, “New Slaves” is responsible for this absolutely hilarious adaptation of a particular niche Internet in-joke image, which is on the short list of greatest things the Internet has ever created. (My current top of that list: this picture, which I am currently using as my desktop background.)
11 – “Power Trip” – J. Cole feat. Miguel – Born Sinner
Surprise: When Cole’s not busy making songs based on, or containing, horrible “shit” metaphors, he can actually make some pretty good music. And no matter whether you feel that “Power Trip” is a simple love song, a lazy ripoff of/homage to a metaphor that was done better by Common a long time ago, or a stalker’s anthem, “Power Trip” certainly qualifies as “good.” Combining the slow-jam sensibilities of R&B (and featuring an actual R&B artist) with a surprisingly adequate flow following the unusual melody of the beat – which centers around a dubstep-ish wobble – Cole delivers probably the catchiest chorus of the year, one that instantly sticks in your head and won’t let go for days. Perhaps more admirably, he manages to go an entire song without saying something overly cringeworthy, an unfortunate Cole habit that ruined other would-be standouts off Born Sinner (I’m looking at you, “Villuminati”, and your extended facepalm-generating “faggot” digression. “Let Nas Down” doesn’t count, seeing as the entire song is one giant cringe.). Cole might want to be known for his lyrics, but if his future is in genre-melding crossover smashes with slightly above-average rhymes – like this one – things wouldn’t be so bad.