Here’s the entirety of the list I just finished posting, condensed into one huge post. Enjoy.
50 – “Rich As Fuck” – Lil Wayne feat. 2 Chainz – I Am Not A Human Being II
The late-March release of I Am Not A Human Being II was almost treated as a throwaway of sorts – or at least as much of a throwaway as an album that moved almost 250,000 units in its first week could have been. Most people thought the album ranged somewhere from “terrible” to “maybe sort of decent, I guess”, depending on their personal preferences; fans of Wayne’s older work bemoaned the fact that he didn’t really seem to be trying anymore, and even open-minded folks who went in expecting an album full of lightweight rhymes and solid production came away thinking “OK, some of those songs are pretty good” – the Gunplay and 2 Chainz-assisted tracks receiving most of the praise – “but man, what was Wayne thinking when he recorded…”
That sentence was usually finished by one of several songs, each with their own signature brand of “unique” late-period Wayne influence. The first song on the album, “IANAHB” opened with a minute and a half of piano solo – just enough time to lull the listener into thinking that maybe, just maybe, Wayne – after all his forays into “I Am Music” experimental rock-crossover territory and endless stream of often cross-genre features – had finally hit on an innovative artistic vision that would push the boundaries of the hip-hop genre, an illusion which was ruined as soon as Wayne jumped in with “I’m in the crib butt naked bitch / She said my dick could be the next black president”, following this up several lines later with “I’m in the ocean getting shark pussy.” Meanwhile, “Romance” featured the immortal couplet “The best part of waking up / Is breakfast after a nut”, while “Wowzers” was an altogether amazing compilation of a song consisting of the following: a Soulja Boy beat, comprised mostly of a single piano key and some drums, underlying some of the most ridiculous boasts possible about Wayne’s penis and sexual prowess. (The chorus of this song is “My tongue is an Uzi / My dick is an AK / My tongue go ‘Brrrrrrr’ / My dick go ‘Bow!’”).
The general consensus is that these songs are bad. Objectively, this might be true. However, they are also hilarious (reciting any of the most outlandish lyrics in a deadpan, poetry-slam-style performance is proven hilarity – “Suck this dick… and swallow that nut! Call it… penis colada.”). If the point of music is enjoying what you listen to, Wayne, intentionally or otherwise, has provided a great litmus test – a whole album full of “This is so, so stupid, but I love it” music that functions as solid entertainment that will never, ever get a pass from listeners who feel like they’re above this kind of nonsense. If you think about that, it’s almost a summary of a good portion of rap in and of itself.
Oh, and the track with 2 Chainz – the T-Minus synth-and-bass production that this entry is actually about – is a certified banger.
49 – “Temptation” – YONAS feat. Lucian Walker – The Black Canvas
YONAS is an oddity. A seemingly pop-rapper with pop, or at least pop-influenced, production who actually has a modicum of lyrical depth, his most popular video on YouTube – an adaptation of Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” – sits at just over four million views, quite a respectable figure for an artist that, as far as I know, has not managed to gain any kind of nationwide, non-Internet recognition. A top comment on one of his videos suggests that he should do a song with Jake Miller; OCD: Moosh and Twist appear in the sidebar suggestions; his Wikipedia page says he opened for Aer; all the external signs, in fact, point to the idea that he falls into the outskirts of the frat-rap scene.
This is strange, not just because YONAS is black (I’m not stereotyping anything here; just look at the associated artists above, or if you prefer, continue down the list of related YouTube videos to find Timeflies, Hoodie Allen, Logic, G-Eazy, etc. Apart from Twist – or is it Moosh? I can never remember – what’s the common thread connecting all of these artists?), but because frat-rappers or pop-rappers don’t generally talk about having a “gun to [their] chin” in the first few lines of their songs (or really at all). The song itself is an odd contrast – a simultaneous acknowledgment of life’s depths and the importance of living life to the fullest; a more mature YOLO, if you will. Yet it all works, somehow. It’s not an especially intricate take on deep issues – this isn’t Guru exploring the depths of suicidal angst on “Moment of Truth” – but it is a well-produced song with a catchy hook (provided by Lucian Walker). YONAS has the sound to break through to the mainstream – just check out “Don’t Give A Damn,” “Feels Right,” or really almost any song off his “The Transition” mixtape from 2012 as proof – which would almost certainly tilt his music in the relatively content-free, feel-good direction of his YouTube associated-act contemporaries. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing; with songs like this, he deserves the success.
48 – “Smiling Faces” – Kevin Gates – Stranger Than Fiction
Kevin Gates has seen some shit. You don’t need me to tell you that, though; you don’t even need him to tell you that, at least not through his lyrics. Just listen to his voice – not the singing, but the rasp. Anyone who can sound like Gates on the opening bars of “MYB” has to have lived a rougher life than you or I – it’s the timbre of someone who has not only seen it all, but recently chain-smoked several packs in an effort to alleviate some of the stress.
“Smiling Faces,” the standout cut from Gates’ hybrid album/mixtape Stranger Than Fiction - is slightly over 2 minutes of Gates venting his frustration and paranoia regarding the world around him. It’s a contradictory message of sorts – on the one hand, the song is a bass-heavy trap banger of the type that wouldn’t be too out of place on a Waka Flocka mixtape, with a beat that kicks into overdrive the second Gates starts screaming and rapping twice as fast as normal, creating the type of atmosphere that wouldn’t be too out of place as, say, the introduction to a warmup tape, the one that plays over the speakers as the home team busts through the tearaway paper barrier, the song that provides a momentary boost of adrenaline and sets the stage for some heads to get knocked around. On the other hand, just look at the lyrics:
“Reason I can’t quit syrup, my anxiety be fuckin’ with me / Every bitch I’m with, find out I ain’t shit after three weeks of just fuckin’ with me / It’s a fucked up feeling when you looking in the mirror and everybody in the mirror pretending they fuckin’ with me / Who fuckin’ with me?”
That contradiction, in and of itself, is what separates Gates from the other rappers populating his particular subgenre – 99% of trap-rappers would undoubtedly use a song like this to brag about how much cocaine they’ve sold, throw in a couple clever shoutouts to their hometown, and call it a day. Instead, Gates vents raw emotions, channeling his paranoia into a torrent of excitement – and producing one of the standout tracks of 2013.
47 – “The Future” – Rockie Fresh – Electric Highway
It wasn’t so long ago that Rockie Fresh might have actually been considered the future. In 2012’s Driving 88, he released one of the most underrated projects of the year, jumping between raw trunk rattlers (the mixtape’s titular track with Casey Veggies) to up-tempo Skrillex-sampling electronic numbers (“Turn It Up”) to slowed-down, piano-laced reflective pieces (“So Long”). The styles were diverse enough to pencil Rockie in as a rapper whose lack of quotable lyrics and mic presence (a deficiency aided by his selection of one of the most generic pseudonyms in the industry, one only outdone by not-even-trying-on-purpose artists like Lil Ugly Mane or Young Thug) were more than compensated for by his excellent ear for beats and ability to sing hooks. Then he got signed to Maybach Music Group, and…
At least it started out well. Rockie’s debut MMG mixtape, Electric Highway, begins with “The Future” – a track that leads off with the familiar “M-M-M-Maybach Music” tag, then segues into a drum march juxtaposed with an old DeLorean commercial – an apt continuation from the themes of Driving 88, which referenced the iconic vehicle in both cover and title. Then Rockie comes in over an uplifting horn-synth arrangement with an exceptionally catchy Drake-lite hook – “I got dreams of rollin’ round the city, screaming out money ain’t a thing” – and we’re off. The track itself is typical my-journey-to-the-top – if we’re still making Drake comparisons, this is absolutely “Started From The Bottom”, not “Marvin’s Room”. But it’s extremely well-done, at the very least – a slow-paced anthemic mission statement that blends the best of Rockie’s original, genre-exploring sensibilities with major-label production. It’s just too bad that the rest of Electric Highway is filled with a series of decent-at-best misfires, songs full of either AutoTuned lyrics or Rick Ross emulations – one of which Ross himself even appears on – that suggest that “the future” for Rockie may be more along the lines of his labelmates Stalley or Wale, trapped in Ross’s oversize shadow, than his clear (if perhaps unintentional) muse, Drake. But if Rockie does pull a Jeff Francouer – sucked into a career of mediocrity after a stellar debut – at least nobody can take away his equivalent of a Sports Illustrated cover.
46 – “Lost” – Chance the Rapper feat. Noname Gypsy – Acid Rap
Front to back, Acid Rap is easily one of the top rap albums released this year. Chance’s effortless ability to slide back and forth between rapping and singing is stunning; his verses are almost hooks, and vice versa. The album got a lot of well-deserved praise for its introspective, emotional takes on gang violence in Chicago – the ones featured so prominently on songs like “Juice” and “Pusha Man / Paranoia” – that one of the album’s more relatable major themes – relationships – often felt brushed-off and relatively ignored in critical overviews.
This is unfortunate, because “Lost” is a stunning track – a drug/not-really-love ballad – that’s a story and an emotional rush all in one. It’s Jesse Pinkman singing to Jane. It’s a musical expression of an attempt to find an outlet to channel pain and anxiety – Chance attempting to escape the world around him. All that is great, and would make for a fine song in and of itself, but this track does something more – it includes the other side of the story.
It’s actually kind of crazy when you think about it. On a tape with a bunch of well-known artists – industry veterans (Twista), underground-acclaimed rappers (Action Bronson), crossover actor-rapper college-demographic superstars (Childish Gambino) – a literal no-name (it’s her actual rap name! You can’t make this stuff up) steals the show. Noname Gypsy’s third verse on this song is short, raw, and packed with emotion – like Chance, she’s looking for escape, but it’s rooted in a desire for something more. In the span of several sentences worth of words, she conveys a relative lifetime of loneliness and despair, ending with the gut-punch promise of its continuation: “The only time he loves me is naked in my dreams.” It’s chilling, and – simultaneously – masterful, the type of performance that immediately leaves you wondering why you haven’t heard of an artist before. With any luck, in a couple of years, her name won’t be so apropos.
45 – “Creepin” – Alex Wiley feat. Freddie Gibbs – Club Wiley
On the flip side of the up-and-coming-Chicago-emcee-gets-their-song-hijacked-by-a-guest-feature coin (which, granted, is an oddly specific form of currency), we have “Creepin” – which, unlike the above entry, doesn’t aspire to any kind of intricate cognitive connection with the listener. If “Lost” is the emotional equivalent of staring out a window on a rainy day, wondering where it all went wrong, “Creepin” is smashing through the window and jumping out while spraying two Uzis in the air.
Backed by a horn/bass combo and a surprisingly effective set of electric guitar riffs, Wiley is solid on the earworm hook – “came down, creepin through the hood, with a cup fulla dirty and a blunt fulla good” – and displays a remarkably adequate double-time, keep-up flow reminiscent of, although not nearly as iconic as, fellow Chi-towner Twista’s. But as with nearly every song he features on, the real standout here is Gibbs, who turns in a typically excellent, hard-edged verse that leads off with the proclamation that once dead, he will “see all of [his] haters in hell and start to blast ‘em.” It’s outlandish, but you believe Gibbs when he says it; in the land of the boasting-on-wax gangsters, the man who promises to commit murder after death is king. (And have you seen the video for “Thuggin’”? Look at the size of the clip on the AK, then come back and tell me that Gibbs is lying.)
44 – “3 Wishes” – J. Cole – Truly Yours 2
Leading up to the release of Born Sinner, J. Cole dropped two mixtapes/EPs – Truly Yours and Truly Yours 2 – for free. It was an odd move – most rappers who manage to get a guest verse from Young Jeezy or 2 Chainz would hold the song in question back and make it the centerpiece of their album, rather than releasing it for free as part of a promotional EP. Cole, though, is different – he’s a rap fan who just happened to make it as a rapper. There’s a video from 2004 circulating the Internet, where you can see a then-unknown Cole in the front row of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Chappelle asks the crowd if anyone in the audience can emcee, and Cole is jumping up and down, desperately trying to get noticed. Nearly a decade later, he has a #1 album. It’s a cliché, but when he says he’s releasing solid material for free “for the fans,” it’s true – it’s not even a case of “you get the sense that if he wasn’t rich or famous, this is what he’d be doing.” You know this is what he’d be doing, because when he wasn’t rich or famous, he was posting his tracks on Canibus forums.
The primary drawback of this approach is that it’s led to a situation where Cole’s non-album material is as good as, if not better than, his albums; most self-described Cole fans will expound at length on the greatness of The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights while downplaying his debut. It’s an unfortunate streak of misplaced brilliance continued by “3 Wishes”, where Cole, in a semi-storytelling format, describes exactly what he’d do to change (presumably) his own life. Its production, by the perennially underrated Jake One, is top-notch; the slow, shimmery synths set the reflective mood instantly. It’s heartfelt, if devoid of subtext; in fact, a great deal of its effectiveness comes from Cole’s explicit descriptions. A stepfather beating a mother, while a little kid stands by and wishes he could stop the violence; a young man who’s seen his friend slide down the wrong path, turn to murder, and end up in jail; these are powerful stories that deserve to be heard. It’s a shame that only his fans will hear them.
43 – “Ex-Boyfriend” – Lil Dicky – So Hard
A good part of Lil Dicky’s appeal comes from the fact that, as far as I can tell, he appears to be a regular guy who just happens to be hilarious and rap pretty well about relatable topics. That’s not long-form for “he’s white,” even though he is (and has a song about his status as such, “White Dude”) – it’s a direct description of most of the songs off his mixtape. The rest of the tape is worth checking out, but “Ex-Boyfriend” is the song that you might know about – the one that went viral, with four million YouTube views and counting. It’s deserved success for a song that manages to address one of the primary pitfalls of so-called “comedy rap” – how do you keep your listener invested in what’s typically a single-note joke for several minutes at a time, and more importantly, how do you make them want to listen to it again?
In the case of “Ex-Boyfriend,” the answer is by telling a story. The joke is “penis envy”, at least explicitly, but in a more general sense it’s “dude envy” – Dicky’s vocalization of the internal mental struggle caused by a person-to-person comparative evaluation where the outcome is “crap, this guy is better than me.” That’s a wordy description of the song, and one that’s not altogether fitting, because it completely glosses over the fact that the song itself is objectively hilarious – if you’re not cracking up at the Sir Mix-A-Lot callback by the end of the second verse, I don’t know what to tell you, and it only gets better from there: “I’m lookin’ closer, I think that his dick has abs? / (SIX PACK ON A DICK) Now what the fuck is that?”, lines which, in the video, are accompanied by a depiction of a cartoon penis showing off its abdominal muscles, just so we’re clear on exactly what the fuck that, in fact, is. Throw in a slew of pretty decent one-off lines like “hung like Saddam Hussein” and, altogether, when it comes to rapping and being funny, you’ve got the total package – pun sort of intended – here.
42 – “News” – ILLFIGHTYOU – ILLFIGHTYOU
It’s not often that a group’s name gives you the entirety of its mission statement. In case it wasn’t clear enough the first time around, they made it the name of their debut album, too. To clear up any remaining misunderstandings: ILLFIGHTYOU will, presumably, fight you.
The genesis of this group, as far as I can tell, was that one day, three rappers got together and said, “We should make a bunch of songs where we just brag and make ridiculous threats over menacing production.” It’s a simple idea, and yet it works so effectively that you wonder why it isn’t done more often. ILLFIGHTYOU’s self-titled debut is 12 songs of front-to-back aggression – the soundtrack to an extended barroom brawl. The tracks’ genres are all tagged as “BEATDOWN.” Of course, everything is labeled in all caps – how could it not be?
Considering how well the album plays front-to-back – there are no features, and all the production appears to be handled by the same crew – it’s pretty unfair to single out one song for consideration. Consider “News” a stand-in for the entire album, as it provides perhaps the most quotable summary of the artistic vision behind both group and album, courtesy of group member Khris P: “If I had a Grammy speech, this would be it / And if I only had time for one line or one thing to say, ILLFIGHTYOU’s for the kids but we really ain’t the ones to play. Thank you. / …Psyche, n***a! Suck our dicks, n***a!” You get the sense that if you told these guys that truth in advertising was an oxymoron, they would disagree, and then punch you in the face.
41 – “Juney Jones” – The Jet Age of Tomorrow feat. Mac Miller & Speak! – The JellyFish Mentality
Rounding out our first ten entries on this list, it’s an Odd Future B-side – a song about nothing in particular, destined to go nowhere in particular. It’s light rap minimalism at its finest – the beat consists of only a few drums and a little bit of melody on the chorus. There aren’t any heavy, overbearing, menacing bass or synth notes, and not a Tyler, the Creator in sight. Instead, there’s Mac Miller in full-on free-association stoner mode, and Speak! – whose claim to fame, paradoxically, is his anonymity, having made his name in the industry as a ghostwriter on successful songs (“Gucci Gucci” being perhaps the most recognizable). It’s not a song with greater aspirations, or even much meaning at all. Its YouTube comments consist mostly of people arguing about Earl Sweatshirt, who, like Tyler, does not appear on this song (although he does turn in a guest verse on a different song off the same album). By all accounts, this song shouldn’t really appear on anyone’s radar.
And then you listen to it a couple of times, and you find yourself humming the melody of the hook. Then you listen to it a couple more times, and you’re rhyming right along with the two MCs’ scattershot bragging – listening to yourself reciting a quotable about Mac Miller listening to Dipset and reciting all the quotables, and somehow now you’re singing the chorus. “Juney Jones” might be fluff, but cotton candy is popular for a reason.
40 – “Bimmer” – Tyler, The Creator feat. Frank Ocean – Wolf
Technically, this is only a third of a “song” – the final section of the centerpiece opus of Tyler’s Wolf, “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer” – which is kind of fitting, because “Bimmer” itself seems to be split in two. In one half, you have the beat for the chorus – deep, trunk-rattling bass with a threatening, minimal-note synthesizer melody over the top, your ordinary Tyler affair – and Tyler’s verses, which, while they aren’t quite on the level of anything off Bastard or Goblin in terms of being over-the-top or explicit, are typically unsubtle (“Cause I fingered you, you think the fuckin’ ring is comin’ up?”). Tyler does not do subtext.
Instead, he leaves that to Frank Ocean – bringing us to the other half of the song, personified by the artist formerly known as Lonny Breaux and exemplified by the beat during the verses. There’s an uplifting note trailing through the back of the whole thing as Ocean croons about street lights and the fact that it’s getting dark outside. It makes for a nice effect, displaying two sides of a love ballad – Tyler as the impulsive animal who just wants to “start it up and smash”, Ocean as the laid-back romantic who wants to “kick it”, telling the girl that “it’s cool, we’re moving slow”.
Of course, I’m also partial to the titular automobile metaphor. They really do have a surprising amount of trunk space.
39 – “Nigeria” – Young Thug feat. Gucci Mane & PeeWee Longway – 1017 Thug
I’ve recommended Young Thug’s breakout mixtape, 1017 Thug, to several people. Their reaction consists of several stages, which inevitably go something like this:
- “Young Thug? Are you serious?”
- “This music is absolutely ridiculous.”
- “It’s not that bad, actually… his production’s pretty decent.”
- “I’M SO COLD IN SIBERI-A-A-A”
“Nigeria”’s verses could be about anything, as far as you and I care. Gucci Mane shows up, along with a Brick Squad rando (PeeWee Longway), but it’s Thug who outshines them all with the globetrotting chorus, promising to travel all the way from Nigeria to Jamaica to smoke weed originally obtained in Nigeria, then throwing in a trip to Siberia, where it is, to no one’s surprise – save potentially Thug himself – cold. In “Thug’s World” – the apt moniker he bestows, elsewhere on 1017 Thug, upon his own sphere of influence – this makes perfect sense. Who knows if he’s in on the joke; in the end, does it even matter?
Also worth noting: when Thug ends a line in this song with “like a motherfucking baby”, he proceeds to actually imitate a crying baby by saying “wah wah wah”. This, from a grown man, on an Atlanta rap record. It’s sublime stuff.
38 – “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” – Jay-Z feat. Rick Ross – Magna Carta Holy Grail
Perhaps the best Rick Ross song since “Stay Schemin” or “Triple Beam Dreams”, “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” displays all the familiar Ross trademarks – a booming, speaker-shattering beat, verses (and a title) consisting entirely of in-your-face bragging, and a high-profile guest verse to cement Ross’s status as the Don of MMG.
Which all begs one very important question – what the hell is it doing on Jay-Z’s album?
Forget the oddity of the numeric advantage Ross has in the song composition (Ross: 1.333 verses and 2 hooks, Jay-Z: 1 verse and 1 hook). The important question here extends to the entirety of Magna Carta Holy Grail, perhaps the most audaciously titled decent-at-best album in existence: who is Jay-Z, at this point in his career, that his best songs are a wholesale ripoff of other artists’ styles? (To wit: “Holy Grail”, perhaps the best Justin Timberlake song released in 2013 – and certainly, by a wide margin, the best Justin Timberlake/Jay-Z collaboration of 2013 – making an appearance on neither of the albums released by Justin Timberlake in 2013.) I’m not going to decry it or anything – Hov can do pretty much whatever he wants at this point in his career, so I suppose we should be thankful for just getting an assortment of legitimate (and legitimately good) songs rather than an album full of extended recorded invitations asking Miley Cyrus to twerk. It’s just a little out-of-character for someone of Jay’s outsize stature to simply disappear*.
*End note: I already used the “into Rick Ross’s oversize shadow” line on a previous writeup, and thus will not be repeating it here. Just in case you were wondering.
37 – “Dog It” – Jonwayne feat. Captain Murphy & Jeremiah Jae – Cassette 3: The Marion Morrison Mixtape
Continuing the trend of guest artists hijacking a song from their top-bill counterparts, we have “Dog It”, which should absolutely be billed as Captain Murphy (better known by his producer alias Flying Lotus) featuring Jonwayne. (Jeremiah Jae, in either case, plays the role of the guy called up from the Stones Throw AAA team to fill in the missing verse on the song.) The entirety of the song – the verses, the beat, the hook – gives off a villainous, inhuman vibe, much more in line with Murphy’s persona – the dark intimidator standing atop a pile of human skulls – than that of Jonwayne, a beatsmith-turned-rapper whose usual aesthetic consists of smoky, jazz-influenced crate-dug samples. (Jeremiah Jae doesn’t really have an aesthetic to speak of… okay, I’ll stop with the potshots. He’s a fine rapper who turns in a perfectly competent verse here and has released a couple of decent albums of his own.)
And man, what a vibe it is. The song starts with just a few sparse, metronome-esque drums – just enough of a misdirection for the low sub bass and the pitch-shifted “I’m a dog, I’m a beast” hook to hit like a blindside from a middle linebacker on a crossing route. It’s Bane’s theme music, or maybe Lex Luthor’s – the soundtrack to a montage of the Big Bad’s world domination scheme coming to fruition. Aside from a cringeworthy line by the normally solid Jonwayne (two words: Wright Brothers; two more: c’mon, man!), the MCs do their best to accentuate the entire affair, the mouthpieces for the advent of destruction – of the world, ostensibly, but more immediately, of your subwoofer system. When all is said and done, Murphy’s closing line provides probably the most adequate summary of the whole thing – when you hear that “muahaha”, I bet you know it’s them.
36 – “Bound 2” – Kanye West – Yeezus
I don’t buy the idea that Kanye West doesn’t care what you think. It’s particularly in vogue right now on the heels of the release of Yeezus, almost certainly the most polarizing album of 2013 (certainly in rap, but most likely in any genre), an album full of songs ripped straight from the antithesis-of-consumer-friendly industrial punk-future aesthetic of an El-P or Death Grips album. If Kanye truly wasn’t interested in fan opinion, the album would cut off after “Send It Up” – a raucous, metallic number whose primary melody sounds like someone making music with a tune-slider air raid siren. (That might sound negative, but I like “Send It Up”.)
Instead, Yeezus closes with “Bound 2” – a return to the old chipmunk-soul Ye, and perhaps the only feel-good song off the entire album (the good feelings entirely contingent on how long you dwell on the fact that you’re listening to an extended love ballad to Kim Kardashian). There’s a not altogether insignificant movement suggesting that “Bound 2” and “Blood on the Leaves” are the only legitimate songs on the album (witness the existence of r/botlandbound2, which is satirical, but parodies the totally legitimate phenomenon). I understand the stylistic similarities that lead to this grouping (sped-up soul music! It’s just like College Dropout!), but thematically, “Bound 2” stands by itself. The rest of the album deals with Kanye being angry – at society, at past relationships, at pretty much everybody, really. Not so in “Bound 2”; Yeezus even says it himself: after all those long-ass verses, he’s tired, you tired. Even Kanye has only so much fury to go around. Aside from being a declaration of love, it’s an apology of sorts: “Sorry for blowing out your sound system with 36 minutes of rage; here’s something to make up for it.” It’s an admission that his indulgences – the first 9 tracks of Yeezus being an extended one – absolutely have a negative effect on his public perception, and if you’re going to be The Man™, you can’t leave them unchecked; I mean, damn, what would Jeromey Romey Romey Rome think?
35 – “Aquarium” – Mac Miller – Watching Movies With The Sound Off
In a fight to the death between party-kid Mac Miller and stoner/philosopher Mac Miller, I’m not sure who I’d want to win, although I’m not sure it matters; anyone who’s listened to the entirety of Watching Movies With The Sound Off knows that party-kid Mac is long buried somewhere where nobody will ever look, much like the arsenal of Mike Ehrmantraut (thus fulfilling my contractual obligation to make one Breaking Bad reference in each writeup section). “Aquarium” is purportedly Mac’s favorite song off WMWTSO, and it’s easy to see why; the general vibe here is “life is crazy, what does it all mean? I have no idea because I am way too baked right now,” filled with the kind of deep proclamations usually preceded by a long, drawn-out “Duuuude…”. “Take over this world when I’m on my Donald Trump shit” this ain’t.
This all sounds like a negative review of the song – which is becoming somewhat of a pattern here – but on the whole, the aesthetic is actually quite mesmerizing, and it makes for excellent music. Is “Aquarium” a post-doc thesis on the essence of spirituality and religion? No, and it doesn’t have to be. When it’s late at night and you’re listening through your headphones, staring up at the ceiling, Mac’s assertions – backed by a spacey tUnE-yArDs sample – ebb and flow like waves, and you find yourself drifting, and suddenly it all seems to make perfect sense; you’ll follow Mac wherever his mind goes, or maybe it’s vice versa, but what’s the difference, anyway?
34 – “Tapout” – Birdman, Lil Wayne, Future, Nicki Minaj, & Mack Maine – Rich Gang
Rich Gang’s magnum opus comes in at #34 on this list, but in an alternate-universe, “Top Opening Lines Of Songs In 2013” list, it’s #1, far and away, with a Weezy quotable that rivals anything off IANAHB2 for sheer audacity. Birdman, as always, rhymes lines consisting of mostly the same words in slightly varying configurations, all of which describe the relative magnitude of his wealth, doing little to nothing to dispel Gillie Da Kid’s (purportedly the former ghostwriter for Cash Money) notion of his ability (Gillie: “I know Stunna he can’t say too many big words, so you got to make it as simple as possible.”). He also does the make-money palm rub (referenced in Nicki’s verse!) in the music video, completing the necessary requirements for a Birdman appearance. Future delivers an instantly memorable hook, Nicki gets sexplicit enough to make male listeners just slightly uncomfortable before returning to boilerplate bragging, and Mack Maine drops by just long enough to be forgotten.
This is all well and good, but it all goes one step further when you realize that someone in the YMCMB braintrust decided that this song merited its own prelude:
…which comes complete with its own great opening line, clocking in at a comfortable #2 on our aforementioned imaginary list (“Sometimes they come from a very struggling environment”), and a Future couplet rivaling any of Shakespeare’s works (“Champagne on her nipple / Drippin’ on my pistol.”). We also learn a little too much about Future’s “gardening” habits; they’re, predictably, quite reckless, although presumably good-natured in intention.
All told, we’re talking a little over 7 recorded minutes dedicated as an ode to the elusive “million dollar ooh, ooh, ooh”. In the immortal words of Weezy F. Baby: If you hate it, maybe you just need some pussy.
33 – “Ratchet In My Benz” – Ty Dolla $ign feat. Juicy J – Beach House 2
32 – “RNGM” – Alley Boy feat. Ty Dolla $ign – War Cry
On the smoothness spectrum of male R&B singers, you have your Frank Ocean types on one end – the romantics, the ones who appreciate their partners’ external and internal beauties, the masters of the subtleties of the seductive arts. This is the conformist side of R&B, really – the tradition of the art hinges on the soft-spoken crooned promise of lovemaking, of appreciation, of deep, interpersonal connection.
On the other side of this spectrum, there’s Ty Dolla $ign, who promises: “I’mma just pull it out / You’ll know what to do.”
Dolla $ign’s effectiveness lies in his absurdly explicit lyrics. This is not to say “explicit” as in “obscene,” though, to a degree, they certainly are; rather, “explicit” refers to the manner in which Ty$ firmly delineates exactly what will happen in a given scenario, conveying the exact construct of his mental state at the time of recording or writing lyrics. Witness “Ratchet In My Benz”’s chorus’s play-by-play: “I just want to take you for a ride, and we going / Ride around the corner / Ain’t nobody looking… Meet me in my backseat / And we’ll get ratchet in my Benz.” (Juicy J is on this song, too. Of course he is. I’m not quoting his lyrics, mostly because nearly every single one is pretty equally over-the-top and resonant with the song’s theme; suffice it to say that he, too, is willing to copulate with females inside his vehicle of choice.) It’s this overtness that allows Dolla $ign to steal the show on Alley Boy’s “RNGM,” flippantly describing the exact state of his monetary security (“One million ain’t shit / Two million ain’t shit”; presumably three million crosses over the “shit” border) and boasting in a uniquely matter-of-fact manner (Ty$: “Your girlfriend is my bitch.” How are you supposed to respond to that?).
The production on both songs is spot-on, with “Ratchet In My Benz” toeing the line between lighter, upbeat notes and Three 6 Mafia-inspired Memphis slow-crawl bass (complete with Three 6’s signature “Yeah, ho!”) while “RNGM” relies on varying permutations of a single synth loop, somehow never managing to feel tired all the way throughout, but maybe it’s just a side effect of Dolla $ign’s catchiness; both hooks stick with you long after you’re finished listening to the song (although only one is permissible to sing in public if you’re white). In this particular niche of “extremely hood R&B”, then, it’s Dolla $ign for president, indeed; put his face on the big face 100’s.
31 – “Shabba” – A$AP Ferg feat. A$AP Rocky – Trap Lord
Spoiler alert: This is not the first time Trap Lord will appear on this list. A$AP Ferg’s debut album is comparable to Waka Flocka’s Flockaveli: it’s the underling stepping out of his boss’s shadow (to use the old analogy parlance: Waka is to Gucci as Ferg is to Rocky) to produce one of the year’s best albums, full of songs guaranteed to get any party – or maybe just you, in the front seat of your car, driving around – hype.
Ferg’s not quite Waka – he still plays a firm second fiddle to his industry-established mentor, and “Shabba”’s Jamaican dancehall-infused trap sound isn’t likely to take over the rap industry in the same manner as “Hard In The Paint”. That isn’t to say that “Shabba” is inferior by any means, though; both the chorus and the goofy-yet-threatening vibe (Ferg’s transition, in the video, from his stairs-walk to his facial expression during the “MASTA BRUCE!” drop, at around 3:44, is probably the most succinct way to summarize it) are undeniably infectious, coercing you to chant along. Shabba Ranks himself would be proud. (He probably is; he appears in the video.)
30 – “Give You The World” – Homeboy Sandman – no album
Listening to a Homeboy Sandman track is a relatively unique experience. While most rappers rap at you, placing themselves apart from the listener and delivering their message in a manner that suggests that whatever they have to say is Greatly Important, Sandman imparts a conversational feel to the whole process; his tracks always feel like they’re essentially just some dude talking to you, albeit over a beat and with rhyming phrases. He’s uniquely down-to-earth, and it’s a style that works best in the laid-back atmosphere of tracks like “Give You The World”, which is essentially just four minutes of Sand telling you exactly what’s on his mind. It’s a style that’s made all the more impressive by the fact that Sand delivers these casual asides while smoothly transitioning in and out of intricate rhyme schemes that would serve as the highlights of most other rappers’ tracks (sample: “But I’m in a good place / Hell of a good day / I told you Felton and Gallo for Melo was a good trade”).
Sandman knows this assonance sounds absolutely effortless, which plays to another of his strengths as an artist: he knows exactly how to get your attention. It’s this understated ability that leads to one of the greatest moments in any song released this year: the breakdown in “Give You The World”’s first verse, where Sand’s admonishment of pseudo-fans: “This for the half-wits, who ask me what I think about somebody gettin’ signed. / Who even ask me a third time, and realize I was ignoring them after the second time. / ‘Yo, Sand, you doin’ yo thing!’ / ‘Thanks, that means you think my music is dope, right?’ ‘Well, I ain’t heard it, but I seen you in a magazine!’” is punctuated with a blunt departure from established rhythm, abandoning all pretense of rhyming: “You’re an idiot.” It’s a lesson that a lot of artists could take to heart: sometimes, brevity is far, far more effective than eloquence. “Give You The World” is a master class in both*.
*You’d expect nothing less from a Penn graduate who used to be a teacher; Sand dropped out of law school to become an MC.
29 – “Sideways” – Skizzy Mars – Phases
In a perfect world, Skizzy Mars would be famous. Not, like, “people who follow random Internet rappers maybe know who he is” famous, or “dude, me and my bros at SAE play his music all the time” famous, but the other, more conventional type of famous: the one that involves radio play, record deals, and the type of money that Mars purports to be making throughout the course of songs like “Sideways”. His sound’s not quite EDM-lite, but it certainly has the hallmarks of someone raised in the video game generation – a lot of well-sequenced synthesizer bleeps and bloops, with an occasional Beirut sample thrown in for good measure. Mars’ rapping is of the generic, “I have both money and women in large quantities” style – which I hear is all the rage with the kids these days – and serves as probably the primary argument both for and against the currently limited public acknowledgment of his talent. On the one hand, he’s not bringing anything new to the table – we’re not talking Skizzy Lamar(s) here – but on the other hand, it’s probably one of the most polished versions of the items already on said table to not make the leap to a bigger audience.
I once read an article that described the appeal of a Pitbull song as his ability to essentially compose a song as a string of multiple hooks that seamlessly weave in and out of each other, with a couple verses thrown in for good measure; while a regular song maybe has one chorus, or a couple lines, that stick in your head, something like “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” boasts no less than three chant-along touchstones: the “one-two-three-four/uno-dos-tres-cuatro” countdown drop, the call-and-response “I know you want me / You know I want’cha” chorus, and the Spanish “Rumba / Ella quiere su Rumba” get-on-up-and-dance come-on. (And this number jumps to four if you count the interspersed “Dale”’s.) Mars has the same effortless hook-melding ability, and it’s on display in full force on “Sideways” – there’s the “Look me in my face / I’m cashed, I’m sideways” sing-along chorus and the “I stepped my game up in 2012, I know you noticed” anthemic choral lead-in declaration, and Mars’ sing-rap style allows really any of the verse lead-ins to be about as catchy as the chorus itself. It’s probably some of the best pop music to not make it anywhere near pop radio; last I checked, Phases was still available as a free download. And though the song is filled with fairly stereotypical boasting, Mars isn’t exaggerating about one thing: when it comes to his music, he really did step his game up. If you haven’t already, you should go notice.
28 – “Rusty” – Tyler, the Creator feat. Domo Genesis & Earl Sweatshirt – Wolf
We’ve covered one song off Wolf already during these writeups, but it’s “Rusty” – the competent-rappers-in-Odd-Future posse cut that’s also the closest stylistic adherent to the songs that allowed the group to become famous in the first place – that’s actually the best song off a fairly inconsistent, yet altogether solid album. “Rusty” isn’t the emotional sledgehammer of “Answer”, nor the subtle elegance of the aforementioned “Bimmer”, and it’s about the farthest thing possible from “Trashwang” (which, for the record, I actually kind of like, but has no place being on an actual record being released and sold in stores for money). Domo and Earl turn in excellent bookending verses (even if Earl’s is cut short, for reasons known only to OF), but it’s Tyler that steals the show here, much as he did on the similar, if more inclusive posse cut “Oldie”*, turning in an extended introspective verse that serves as an honest assessment of the status of his career but also includes enough one-off quotables (“I’m harder than DJ Khaled playing the fucking quiet game”) to not come off entirely as self-indulgent. Much like his second verse on “Oldie”, it’s an explicit (in all senses of the word) mission statement that’s uniquely Tyler; it’s Wolf at its most walking-paradoxical. On a concept album where questionable sequencing decisions force the songs to be considered on more solitary terms, “Rusty”, then, is the unquestioned standout.
*That is, if you didn’t think Earl or Frank – or Jasper – were the standouts.
27 – “NonStop” – Andre Legacy feat. RiFF RaFF – no album
I always found it funny how artists that clearly are not serious about this whole “rapping” thing – guys who are just in the profession because they realized it’s a better conduit to drugs and women than standup comedy (RiFF) or homelessness (Legacy) – manage somehow to be better at making songs than quite a few people who are rappity-rap “lyricists” by trade. Case in point: “NonStop”, which rides a killer beat made by underrated producer Walter White – sorry, Nik Nikateen – to become one of my personal favorite songs of the entire year. (Also, two things: 1. 3/3 on Breaking Bad references; 2. Seriously, it’s really uncanny how much that guy looks like Bryan Cranston as Heisenberg.) It’s RiFF at his nonsensical, free non-association best: I’m almost positive “Rove around the globe in the candy Axl Rose” means nothing, and “Pull up on you dragons in the Nancy Kerrigan station wagon” means even less, but that doesn’t stop them from being great rap lines (and that’s not including the best, most Action Bronson-esque boast of the song: “Spent 50 grand on a Goldie Hawn ice sculpture”). Andre Legacy’s appeal is subtler, but just as ridiculous when you get down to it; his signature deep voice and simplistic boasts (“Fuck the cops, I’m faded, cruisin’ down the block”) are almost enough to convince you that he’s a legitimate rapper – and “It ain’t an OD if the G still breathin’” would be a standout boast regardless of source – but then he busts out with something like “Sorry, your honor, I didn’t mean to do it / But the duck kept quackin’ at me (Quack!) She Jewish” and you realize that he and his featured artist are operating at about the same level.
One of my favorite Legacy moments is this video, where, clearly under the influence of several substances, he enters a rap battle against an opponent who is trying way, way too hard and proceeds to destroy him with off-the-dome freestyles which, while maybe not as lyrically complex as what his competitor is offering, serve to highlight the ludicrous nature of the whole affair. It’s a pretty good stand-in for his place in the rap industry, actually; underestimate him at your own peril. He’s not an overt parody of a rapper (Lonely Island, Lil Dicky), which doesn’t mean that his songs aren’t jokes, which in turn doesn’t mean that they’re not good songs (the summation of which leads to the elusive quintuple negative). As far as these songs go, “NonStop” is a great one; at the very least, it’s more accessible than something like “Blow Off My Dick”.
26 – “Picacho” – Young Thug feat. Maceo – 1017 Thug
Reaching the halfway point on this list, we have Young Thug’s seminal work – the clear showpiece of the ridiculous hybrid Atlanta-trap/space alien/carnival affair that is 1017 Thug, and the chorus of which I present as follows:
“My diamonds they say Pikachu, they say Pikachu /
I’m a boss, I walk through the club and just Pikachu /
My diamonds they say Pikachu /
They gon’ wink at you /
I’m a boss bitch I’ma walk through and just Pikachu /
When I walk through the club my diamonds dancin’ /
Yes sir, my shit look like cameras flashin’ /
Ten-hut, yeah my diamonds be demandin’ /
Your ho suckin’ with a passion, she laughin’ /
Therein lies the appeal of Young Thug: Most rappers are content with merely saying they happen to be in possession of flashy jewelry, maybe even throwing out a simile or two to describe the nature of said jewelry. In Thug’s World, you get an entire chorus, sung in Thug’s distinctive upper-register whine, somehow equating his diamonds to the most eminently recognizable Pokemon in existence. It’s nonsensical, yet simultaneously absolutely understandable, and it’s really unlike anything else out there. Gucci Mane called Thug “one of the most talented people he’s ever worked with.” I don’t know if I’d call what Thug does talent – in fact, I’m not really sure what to label it – but it sure does make for some great listening experiences.
25 – “Ya Hey” – Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
And here you thought this entire list was going to be rap. (Spoiler alert: 2 of the top 5 aren’t rap, either, although one is actually nominally by a rapper.)
There’s not much to be said about “Ya Hey” that hasn’t already been covered elsewhere by other, similarly pretentious music critics (who are, unlike me, actually employed to write about this stuff). It’s a neat trick pulled off by Ezra and Co., transmogrifying some pretty heavy-handed religious meditation into five minutes of music that you can sing along to in your car. There’s a lot going on here under the surface; it’s the fully adult version of something like “Aquarium” (No. 35 on this list), saying much, much more with far fewer words. It’s a fitting symbol for the transformation of Vampire Weekend itself; returning to the theme of maturity, you can see the world-weariness, the depth to their concerns. Their self-titled debut was firmly set in the college-kid mentality – worries about girls, wanting to leave Cape Cod and go see the world. Come Modern Vampires, they’ve seen the world, and traded odes to the girl on the campus lawn for existential questioning. There’s even a spoken-word breakdown, detailing an encounter with God though music at Coachella, or somewhere similar. It’s all very meta – doubtless this song will inspire similar revelations – and self-aware, mature beyond their years but simultaneously reflective of them – an anthem for the post-college fugue state, realizing through the extent of what you’ve learned exactly how much you don’t know, how much you doubt, how much you’re still searching for meaning and existence. “Who could ever live that way?” asks Koenig, but the answer is in the song, too.
24 – “Yacht Lash” – Earl Sweatshirt feat. RiFF RaFF – Scion AV Presents Harry Fraud: “High Tide”
One of these guys is a super-serious Rapper with a capital R, hailed as the second coming by every anonymous Internet blogger (save the guys at 2dopeboyz, who still – in a situation reflecting the nuanced emotional maturity of all parties – won’t even mention his name thanks to Tyler, the Creator leading off Bastard with “Fuck 2dopeboyz”) who wishes it were 1993 again and every rapper was a super lyrical lyricist of lyricism with videos featuring their crew standing around garbage can fires in some alleyway and trading verses. The other says “Versace” more than anyone except the guys in Migos, promises to “feed your nieces Reese’s Pieces while your nephew tie [his] sneakers”, and has what essentially amounts to a second career making hilarious Vines. Clearly, these two were destined to come together and collaborate on a song at some point.
Over one of the most menacing beats of not only the year, but possibly the decade – a dark synthesizer in full-on aliens-are-invading undulating crawl – Earl Sweatshirt turns in two verses of solid post-Samoa DOOM-lite Earl – assonance-heavy boasting in a monotonic voice that oscillates between threatening and sounding like he’s in a Vicodin-induced coma. Then RiFF comes in and talks about how he doesn’t want your girl because she looks like “an iguana driving a Honda”. It’s a little out of place, and not up to the gold standard of RiFF featuring on a more acclaimed rapper’s single/side project (“Bird On A Wire”), but it still works, mostly due to the overwhelming (and overwhelmingly nasty) beat kind of swallowing the entire affair whole. To top it off, this whole escapade is financed by Toyota’s Scion AV record label, which has existed since 2003 and aims to “market the Scion automotive brand to younger customers by promoting various music, art, and film projects”, which – of course it does! I wonder how they feel about Earl and RiFF shouting out three different cars (BMW, Lamborghini, Aston Martin – four if you count RiFF’s “Aladdin station wagon”), none of which are Toyota brand.
23 – “Let It Go” – A$AP Ferg – Trap Lord
These days, it feels like an album’s opening song means progressively less and less. In this era of Internet blog-hype, leaks, and iTunes early-release singles, it’s rare not to have heard at least a few songs off an album before its actual release date, meaning the concept of the first song “setting the tone of the album” is pretty much lost. (When you hear half the album before the release date, we call this a “Cruel Summer”-ing.)
That said – man, does “Let It Go” ever set the tone for Trap Lord. Ferg’s manager Yams shit-talks a sparse intro (and an outro) with some instant-classic boasting primarily notable for being absolutely outlandish in the best of ways (greatest lines: “We at the all-star game right now, eyes closed, shootin’ fade aways from half-court, elbow in the rim and all that, y’all still in the D-League doing layup drills!” and “Pay your dry cleaning bill!”, complete with an adlibbed “Pay dat, pay dat!”. Where do people come up with this stuff?). Ferg alternates between slower and staccato-punctuated rapid fire flows over a beat that sounds like it was lifted straight out of a rap Jumanji, complete with hollering chants in the background. It doesn’t have the crossover appeal of anything Rocky does – no sing-along hooks (“Goldie”), guest-star charismatic appeal (“Fuckin’ Problems”), or EDM beat-jacks (“Wild For The Night”). But to go back to the well of Flockaveli comparisons, it’s a lot like “Bustin’ at ‘Em”, producing one of the greatest feelings in all of trap-rap: being ready to knock some heads by the time you’re halfway through the song, then realizing you’ve got about 15 more songs to go. Not bad for someone whose ad-lib shoutouts recall the female member of the Black Eyed Peas.
22 – “No Place Like Shibuya” – Gorilla Warfare Tactics – Zoology
Speaking of guys who wish it were 1993 – I’m pretty sure these dudes still think it is 1993. How else to explain Zoology, an album full of old-school production and semi-political raps with subject matter – “slicing bullets with katanas” – straight off a lost Wu-Tang B-side?
It’s not a bad thing – in fact, at its best, it’s great. “No Place Like Shibuya” would have been a lost classic from the ‘90’s underground had it been released 20 years ago, with solid boom-bap production (no idea what sample they used) underscoring what’s actually a surprisingly deep set of lyrics – three verses representing three different perspectives on warfare (machine, soldier, civilian). It’s a little heavy-handed, but also in keeping with a lot of old-school rap traditions – the old “elevate your mental” callbacks to the mysterious higher art of “science”, the aforementioned Shaolin-style samurai warrior ethos, even the perceived revolutionary attitude of the common people – “I don’t need an army, I just need a mask / Free at last”. It’s the type of thing that’s refreshing in small doses; the genre might have moved past GWT’s sound and mentality, but reminders are nice once in a while.
As an aside, the group apparently consists of three current seniors at NYU Stern who plan to pursue careers in the financial industry, continuing the rich tradition of financier-rappers; Heems of Das Racist was a Wall Street headhunter, and RedFoo of LMFAO was a day trader.
21 – “You Broke” – YG feat. Nipsey Hussle – Just Re’d Up 2
On the scale of monumental ignorance, “You Broke” is a veritable obelisk of ratchet-ness. The entirety of Just Re’d Up 2 clocks in at the high end of this scale, but “You Broke” is the standout, earning (deserved) radio-play on Bay Area stations. Calling it an “ode” to hoodrat girls is a bit of a misnomer; it’s more along the lines of an extended admonishment, the mission statement of which is as follows: If you are a female and currently not in possession of money, do not attempt to have sexual relations with either YG or Nipsey Hussle. (That’s my suburban-white-kid retelling of the instantly memorable chorus: “Bitch you broke, shut up / Don’t talk to me, get your bread up”.) Over a typical DJ Mustard backdrop – a new-school West Coast minimalist heavy-bass, few-notes beat – YG and Hussle turn in an honors thesis addressing the following topics: 1. not having sex with women who are broke, 2. gangbanging, and 3. see subjects 1 and 2. It’s all perhaps best summarized by whoever mixed and mastered Re’d Up 2 – the bass levels are turned up to 11, and are designed to blow your speakers out. Or maybe it’s “moni white”, in the comment section on “You Broke”’s RapGenius page, who says it all better than I ever could:
“i lovvve diz damn song bro diz the real shit i lke it right here frfr doe”
Yeah, I think we’ll go with that.
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.
10 – “The Answer” – ScienZe – Ella
For whatever reason, the history of rap isn’t exactly riddled with songs that one would consider “happy.” Sure, there are plenty of songs where artists brag about how well their life is going – dropping tons of dollar bills and buying all the expensive alcohol at their strip club du jour – but for the most part it’s an empty sort of boasting, designed more to be in-your-face than celebratory. (Or they’re focusing on the negative aspects of it all – you know, suffering from success.) It’s especially true with love songs for some reason; music has been focused on heartbreak since the beginning of time – the molecules in the primordial soup probably released a series of melodic bubbles lamenting the loss of ionic bonds – but romantic ballads in modern rap tend to diverge in one of two directions, either functioning as yet more showpieces for an artist’s monetary wealth – the “women are objects on which I can spend my copious amounts of cash” type – or focusing on sadness, loss, and/or unobtainable love. (The latter is better summarized as just “Drake.”)
So it’s a rarity, then, to get a love song such as “The Answer” – one that’s extremely upbeat, entertaining no thoughts of the possibility of negativity. The production is one thing; qualifying a beat as “happy” is a lot like trying to define hardcore pornography in the Supreme Court, but Lord Quest has clearly made one of the happiest beats of the year here, immediately earning a space in my personal pantheon alongside “Good Day” and “Today Was A Good Day” (and ruining the synergy of the song titles in said pantheon). The lyrics themselves are a little awkward, which makes them all the more endearing; they’re explicit about a lot of little things (“Tell me, how you make your morning breath stink so good? / Like, it be smellin’ like the toothpaste should”) which, on the surface, are impossibilities, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s a freeze-frame of the best part of a relationship – the head-over-heels, “you hang up first, no you hang up first” mentality, the part where everything about the other person just seems perfect, even the flaws. It’s part of Ella, an excellent concept album on love and relationships; the other songs on the album are worth listening to, but I’d almost advise against it – why focus on the negatives?
9 – “Switch Lanes” – Rittz feat. Mike Posner – The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant
What happened to Mike Posner? The Detroit native with the uniquely high-pitched voice was responsible for a debut album containing several top-100 radio hits, then all but vanished, leaving us with only intermittent traces of his continued existence – he released an underrated 2011 mixtape targeting rap fans with a feature list most rappers would kill for (K.R.I.T., Slim Thug, Bun B, Twista, and Elzhi, among others), but since then has popped up in the oddest of places, guesting on songs from name rappers doing bad stoner comedies, EDM superstars, gimmicks, and pop-rap also-rans, then releasing a pretty terrible comeback single (while, presumably, held at gunpoint in a recording studio by his label).
And then there’s this song with Rittz, the recent Strange Music signee who fulfills Tech’s label’s contractual obligation to be able to rap extremely fast over pretty much any beat in existence. The song itself is really about nothing in particular, to be honest. “Switching lanes” has always been one of the strangest focal points of rap braggadocio; there’s a good chance it’ll be rolled out whenever rappers talk about their vehicles (it’s inevitable if the rapper is Southern), but it’s not a metaphor for anything, and it’s not really out of the ordinary – you and I switch lanes every day – so its appearance is usually a sign that a rapper is just aimlessly showing off. But “Switch Lanes” is meaningless boasting of the greatest kind – competently executed and featuring a great hook by Posner, who may have found his second calling as a go-to guy for rap choruses, providing the necessary catchiness to bolster otherwise merely decent songs to the point of excellence. (He’s been doing this for a while – see “They Call Me” and “Kinda Late” – but if he wanted a career resurgence without sacrificing artistic integrity, he’d do it for rappers who are a little more well-known.) All in all, “Switch Lanes” is smooth, catchy, and best played at high volumes; appropriately, the perfect song to play while performing its titular action.
8 – “Dump Dump” – A$AP Ferg – Trap Lord
My favorite moment at this year’s VMAs was a stunning subversion of common decency, an egotistical, self-promoting display of arrogance that shocked nearly everyone who watched it, meriting a healthy amount of discussion regarding contemporary social roles throughout the following few days. I’m talking, of course, about A$AP Rocky undermining Jason Collins’ heartfelt speech regarding prejudice and homosexuality to shout out the release of Ferg’s Trap Lord. (What, did you think it was going to be something else?) It was a fitting tribute, really, because “Dump Dump”’s chorus is probably the absolute pinnacle of rap ignorance; show’s over, everyone, you can go home now, it’s not going to be topped.
You know that saying, “brevity is the soul of wit?” There isn’t really any wit here. Just two lines, a couplet so simple in its brilliance that you wonder why, in the extended history of trap-rap, nobody’s ever thought of centering a song around this particular pair of boasts before. It makes you wonder why most rappers try so hard to be so clever; Lil B figured this out a long time ago, but it turns out you can just tell people you fucked their bitch, and they’ll be more than willing to go along with it. Sure, there’s a whole song here, but it’s substance-free, just a way to bide your time until the chorus starts up again. It’s the distillation of the formula that rappers from Atlanta, Oakland, and Harlem – among others – have been trying to perfect for years; the eleven herbs and spices of trap music, if you will. Really, though, there’s only one herb and one spice: “I fucked yo bitch” and “She sucked my dick”; leave it to the Trap Lord to realize it.
7 –“Change Up” – Problem & IamSu! – Million Dollar Afro
Hyphy never died; it just evolved. The early-2000s buzz around the movement was gone about as quickly as it appeared in the first place, which wasn’t much of a surprise; let’s be real, guys like Keak da Sneak were never destined to stay in the national spotlight for long, and it’s kind of amazing that they got there in the first place. Artists like Mistah F.A.B., once known for being the definitive authority on Patrick Swayze/automobile crossovers, were reduced to releasing albums literally pandering to the Internet backpacking crowd, desperately trying to reclaim some of their lost mass appeal; sure, they were legends in the Bay, and even today, you can probably go up to Oakland and find yourself a sideshow somewhere, but for the most part, the days of ridiculous Bay-isms making their way into the pop culture lexicon were over. The sound itself never vanished entirely, though. Instead, it just toned itself down, foregoing attempts to coin ridiculous terminology in favor of more streamlined songs – a Jacka/Nickatina hit here, a Clyde Carson breakout there – that didn’t require a ritualistic initiation via Urban Dictionary searches.
This resurgence is hitting a peak of sorts with the rise of, among others, Problem (who’s technically from Compton, not the Bay, but might as well be a Bay rapper given the production teams and feature lists on his projects) and IamSu!, two rappers who seem determined to put the West Coast back on the map the only way they know how – songs about money, women, and the thug life. Million Dollar Afro, one of the best releases of the year, is filled front-to-back with a parade of similar-sounding songs, each touching on one or more of the aforementioned topics in varying degrees, but it’s “Change Up” that emerges from the pack by going back to the tried-and-true roots of hyphy’s former popularity – phraseology. Like “Dump Dump”, “Change Up” features a chorus that acts as an amalgamation of ideas that are so memorable, and work so well in conjunction, that you wonder why they’d never been put together before; if you can think of a more concisely brilliant way to admonish someone than “Step your dick game up,” I’d love to hear it. It’s the type of song – and album, really – that seems destined for larger audiences, the forerunner of the Bay’s next rise to widespread prominence, and by some signs, that may already be in the works.
6 – “Burgundy” – Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
“Burgundy” is notable not for what it is, but what it isn’t. It isn’t the opener to Doris, although it’s the perfect opening track, as Earl addresses expectations, fears, and even personal issues surrounding the album; it even starts with Earl saying he’s “busy tryin’ to get this fuckin’ album crackin’”. (We covered the fact that the actual opener to Doris, “Pre”, is… underwhelming, back in the entry for “Hive”; this was apparently a deliberate artistic decision.) It isn’t typical Earl production, either; gone is the trademark Odd Future low-octave bass, replaced by an almost upbeat, instantly grabbing six-note piano sequence. (It’s actually a Pharrell beat, which shouldn’t be a surprise, seeing as that guy is everywhere these days.)
Perhaps most importantly, it isn’t quite perfect. It’s everything you’d want out of an Earl Sweatshirt song, the realization of what he could be if he just put all his talents together for a second – a rapper that seamlessly ties together personal narrative and classic posturing with more elaborately complex rhyme schemes in four bars than most artists have in a whole album – but there are these slight setbacks everywhere. The way the song ends right as it gets going, right as Earl segues into a double-time flow that perfectly matches the beat’s cadence. The unnecessary, and unnecessarily loud, “Cut that bitch off!” sample in the background. You learn to live with these things, to accept them as part of the listening experience, to appreciate the whole thing for what it is, but there’s always that nagging feeling that the song was a step away from being flawless. Earl’s got it wrong; we don’t need “raps” or “bars, sixteen of ‘em” – he delivers those in spades. We just want perfection; when he comes so close, is that really too much to ask?
5 – “Step” – Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Otherwise known as “the song that will make even people who hate Vampire Weekend respect them, at the very least,” there’s really something for everyone here. Musically, the influences range from Souls of Mischief to Pachelbel’s Canon to Grover Washington Jr., and it’s all pieced together in an exceptional melancholy, downtempo offering, synthesizing the best of its foundational cornerstones. Lyrically, it’s the Cretan labyrinth, a dense, twisting, unnavigable warren of references – everything from typical Vampire Weekend globetrotting to personal experiences to historical figures to musical shoutouts – with Ezra Koenig at its center in place of a minotaur. It’s punctuated with a bridge that features some pretty poignant lines, among them the much-celebrated “Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth,” providing an easy out for people looking to summarize “Step” succinctly, even though it’s really more accurate to say it’s a thesis statement for the entire album. “Step” itself is a little too meandering to be condensed to a single existential observation, especially when one of the band members has actually come out and said it’s a song about “people who can be possessive over music they love, and… also other songs.” It’s more appropriate to treat it as an exquisitely crafted tribute piece, one where attempting to analyze a fragment of a single line can send you down a musical rabbit hole. It’s almost better not to even try; just enjoy the clever aphorisms (“Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife”) and let the rest (the song’s melody is partially adapted from a song by the band Bread, which elevates that line from great to wow) sink in later.
4 – “Red Eye” – KiD CuDi feat. Haim – Indicud
Can we just take a moment to appreciate that this song actually exists? It’s a collaboration between a rapper from Ohio and an LA sister-act indie band released on a major label (or at least a subsidiary of one), one of those things that feels like the Internet coerced it into being; there’s no way anything like this happens before the rise of skinny-jeans blog-rap superstars, before the cultural movement that spawned a whole new wave of crate-diggers who spurned actual, corporeal boxes of ‘70s soul classics in favor of web-ripped .rar’s of the latest 8.4 – Best New Music release.
“Red Eye” isn’t even a CuDi song, really – he just provides some backing vocals and a bridge at the end – but it’s by far Indicud’s best effort, a spacey hook-fest that’s, paradoxically, probably the most CuDi-esque stoner anthem on the album despite it containing the least amount of CuDi of any of Indicud‘s non-instrumental tracks. Genre-wise, it’s pretty unclassifiable, trending closer to synthesizer-backed electro-indie than anything resembling rap. It’s a marked departure from the rest of the album, and it further cements recent CuDi’s Adam Dunn-esque streak; swinging for the fences every time, mostly missing, but when he connects, look out.
3 – “Between Villains” – Captain Murphy feat. MF DOOM, Earl Sweatshirt & Thundercat – no album
“Between Villains” is “Dog It” on steroids – or, more accurately, Venom – bringing the bad-guy tendencies of the Cassette 3 standout even more squarely to the forefront by tremendously upgrading its roster of MCs, enlisting one guy who raps under multiple supervillain aliases and another who might as well be his Mini-Me. (I’m not imagining a connection between the two tracks; apart from each involving Captain Murphy, the show where “Between Villains” premiered ran the two songs back-to-back, with FlyLo transitioning to “Dog It” before the start of his verse.) Befitting a mastermind’s grand plan, it reached a much bigger audience than its predecessor; “Dog It” and Cassette 3 released on Stones Throw to relatively little fanfare (not surprising, considering that the first two Cassette albums never hit the Internet; they were only available in the form of actual cassettes), but “Between Villains” debuted as an Adult Swim single.
The beat might as well be the soundtrack to a horror movie – just a few low, resonating notes that tell you something bad is about to happen – and the MCs all experiment with deep-pitch modulation; you know, because the whole thing wasn’t threatening enough already. (Actually, I don’t think DOOM does, but his voice is naturally extremely low, so it doesn’t really matter.) It’s a mesmerizing array of ridiculous internal rhyme patterns with nary a misstep (save maybe Murphy’s “nieces/Reese’s Pieces” line, which, in a probable homage to George Harrison, was used in another similarly menacing track featuring Earl Sweatshirt; you may remember it from earlier in this countdown). When you get right down to it, though, it’s really just three guys doing the same thing they do every night – trying to take over the world.
2 – “Passing Fancies” – Jonwayne – Cassette 2
It’s #2 on this list, but #1 for best sample. Leave it to Jonwayne, who emerged from the underground LA beatmaking scene, to pick a backdrop that encapsulates his song’s somber subject matter perfectly – a slightly pitched-down adaptation of a Gershwin jazz standard, “Love Is Here To Stay”, covered by the McGuire Sisters. (Crate-digging isn’t quite dead, it seems; good luck coming across that particular version in the wild. There are probably about 20 versions of “Love Is Here To Stay” on YouTube, and it isn’t one of them; here’s a MySpace link to it, of all things.) It’s an ideal fit for the song itself, a meditation on life’s fleeting nature, death’s finality, and the MC’s place at the center of everything. It’s proof that Jonwayne can hang with the best out there lyrically, a live poet eloquently expressing the “carpe diem” mentality – “Everything is after the fact / I’ve never lived a day in my life without asking for it back” – and positing that maybe the universe agrees with him (“’Sometimes I wish I could forget to leave ‘em breathless,’ said Death / Restless souls resting on his necklace”). If nothing else, though, it’s probably the most apt choice for an unofficial soundtrack to Dark Souls; a worthy heir to continue the rich tradition set in motion by This Is False. (If you haven’t experienced either the game, or the album, or both in conjunction – go. Now.)
1 – “Collard Greens” – ScHoolboy Q feat. Kendrick Lamar – Oxymoron
So it is, then; after 49 whole writeups, we come to the end of the list, and – surprise! – TDE takes the top spot, like I’m guessing they will in a whole lot of countdown lists come December. For all the strides the label’s artists have made in introducing introspective, thoughtful, meaningful rap to the mainstream, “Collard Greens” is mostly just about stunting – a song where the video is just one giant party (Macklemore even shows up!), and a collaboration between the two currently most commercially viable MCs on the label (Jay Rock, as the saying goes, is too hood to be Hollywood, and Ab-Soul might round into form once he quits releasing guest verses with top-5 all-time terrible lines); one of them is about to be famous, and one of them is already very, very much so.
Let’s talk about the first guy first. It’s very possible that, had I made this list last year, another ScHoolboy Q song – “Blessed” – would have taken the top spot. Anything the song might have lacked in lyrical complexity was made up for tenfold by its being a raw, emotional wrecking ball (not that type of raw, emotional wrecking ball), with lines like “My n***a just lost his son while I’m here huggin’ on my daughter / I grip her harder / Kiss her on the head as I cry for a bit / Thinkin’ of some bullshit to tell him, like, / ‘It’ll be okay, you’ll be straight, it’ll be aight.’ / Well, fuck that shit!” spanning the entire spectrum of reactions to a tragedy, the laments of a gangster. On the strength of “Blessed” and other standouts, Habits and Contradictions was really Q’s breakthrough album, only he didn’t break through; sure, the Internet liked it, but it wasn’t the monster of a release that was good kid, m.A.A.d city. Q’s actual rise to mainstream stardom is only a matter of time, though, seeing as his strength is his adaptability – he sounds just as much at home on a slow, solemn song like “Sacreligious” as he does making his double-time boasts on “Collard Greens” – which doesn’t pigeonhole him into a single style, offering something for every type of discerning listener. Oxymoron is generating album-of-the-year talk before it’s even been released (Mac Miller said it’s “the best album to come out on TDE ever”), and certainly, if the rest of the album is as infectious as “Collard Greens”, with its nonstop quotables in its verses and chorus – “Chiddy ching ching, could buy anything, cop dat” – we could be in for something special, something that would run back all the “year of TDE” talk from 2012, only with a different MC at its epicenter.
Which brings us to the second guy. It’s fair to say that 2012 was Kendrick Lamar’s year; GKMC propelled him squarely into the spotlight, but really, he was making a claim before that. For all of Q’s talent, Kendrick’s final verse on “Blessed” still managed to steal the show; “The Recipe”, GKMC’s pre-release single, was about as close to Detox-worthy material as we’re probably ever going to see; even “Cartoon and Cereal” would have been a career-defining song for most rappers, and it didn’t even get cleared for official release. 2013 looked pretty quiet for Kendrick, unless you count a typically scene-stealing guest turn on “Fuckin’ Problems” (which I don’t, seeing as how that song was out in 2012 – hence why none of LongLiveA$AP appears on this list) – until, well, this happened, probably the biggest event in rap’s recent history, something shocking enough to make people essentially forget that Jay Electronica made his biannual journey out of the gilded Rothschild Batcave to record a verse on the song; I’m amazed Twitter’s servers didn’t up and explode. (Its aftermath, unfortunately, was a whole bunch of responses nobody wanted to hear.) It’s a bold claim to put yourself in rap’s top five, then call out – by name – every perceived member of your competition; if you do something like that, you better be prepared to back it up, which Kendrick does in spades on “Collard Greens”. Even on a song that consists of nothing but bragging, K.Dot outshines everything – in this case, by rapping his first four bars in fluent Spanish, effortlessly running through pretty much every curse word in the language before continuing with his verse proper. Much like everything Kendrick does these days, it’s a moment – something that immediately makes you sit up and take notice (even without the “Hold up… BIAAAAATCH!” that precedes it) – and leaves you in awe. It’s a celebration, an embrace of primacy; it’s a coronation of sorts, which is all too fitting for the once, future, and present King Kendrick.
There we have it; 50 songs, a finished countdown that started in August and ended in mid-late September. I’ll be back with more, probably not-music (at least for a while), writing at an indeterminate point in the near future. Until then, kids, remember: be a crack smoker, not a coward. And watch the last two episodes of Breaking Bad.