Let’s face it. XXL hasn’t been about that hip-hop life for real for quite some time. Either they’re pulling one big annual troll on rap fans everywhere or they’re genuinely not well versed in what good MCs are and going off of “what’s hot” and “what the kids are doing nowadays”. Either way, it’s been some time since XXL was considered the last credible hip-hop publication outside of blogs or websites. That being said, you have to love the culture enough to want better for it, so there’s no use complaining unless you’re willing to do what you can to improve it, especially if it doesn’t cost you anything. Boldy James released his Alchemist-produced debut LP My 1st Chemistry Set last year after two excellent mixtapes and some beastly guest features, so his shine is long overdue…plus, when you see the bums they’ve got up there as nominees, you’ll want to vote for someone who an actually spit and has a story to tell. See also: Isaiah Rashad, Bishop Nehru, Bodega Bamz, Rapsody, Snow Tha Product, Stalley (?!?), and Tree for valid nominees.
JIMBO x Boldy James
It’s finally here…the album I didn’t expect to anticipate so much and yet kept me awake at night for a week (not really, but you get the picture). Willie The Kid enlists the Wu-school production of Bronze Nazareth for this 13-track project that features appearances from Boldy James, Roc Marciano, Sean Price and others. I can’t get enough of these projects popping up that feature a rapper working solely with one producer (a la Prodigy & Alchemist, Action Bronson & Party Supplies, etc)…they really showcase the rapper’s abilities over a cohesive product as opposed to having production all over the place due to too many cooks in the kitchen. The vision is just clearer. Enjoy.
Just know that it took everything in me to get through the pain of ending this guy’s name with a “Z”. It’s almost worse than rappers with dollar signs in their names. Anyway, this guy enlists an assist from none other than Boldy James, and quite the assist it is. Download Giftz’ Position Of Power here. Dope artwork.
I can’t tell you what was “hot” in 2013 or why people considered it “hot” aside from me wanting to set some of these so-called top notch albums on fire. If you notice, a lot of the music blogs and websites that do “Best of 2013” lists exclude mixtapes and only list LPs you can buy off iTunes like upstanding American citizens. You may think this is because mixtapes “don’t count” when discussing albums, but some of the most complete projects (at least in hip-hop) to drop in the last few years have been mixtapes and they’re more than fit for the challenge of standing next to LPs. So the reason they aren’t included isn’t because they don’t compare, but because they’re free. If no money exchanges hands, then how can one hand wash the other between the for-purchase bloggers/site owners and the major labels? Music blogs are the next evolution of the payola system. People realize urban radio is no longer a taste-maker for the discerning listener, so this role has shifted to bloggers, but the blog game is looking more like urban radio every day…
Anyway, I don’t listen to music for the purpose of saying this album’s better than that one, so this list will not be in any particular order, but I do think it’s important to let my readers know what I thought was dope in 2013 in case they missed something I raved about or in case I forgot to mention something I was feeling until now. Hopefully, you’re able to check out something you slept on this year and if you thought there was something dope I missed that I didn’t already deride at some point, post it in the comments section. Let’s discuss.
- Blue Chips 2 x Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Any follower of Front-Free knows I’m a big supporter of Action Bronson. Part of his appeal is that he does great work with a number of different producers and each time, the chemistry is different. With Party Supplies, you’re probably getting Bronson at his most experimental, gettin’ busy on tracks that are at times clearly unorthodox for a rap project and sound more like the score for a 1970s Blaxploitation flick (see “I Adore You”). Those still calling Bronson a Ghostface knock-off are at this point just not listening because the man has clearly put himself in a lane occupied only by himself. Download Blue Chips 2 for free here.
- Marci Beaucoup x Roc Marciano – Roc Marciano has been on a hot streak for those looking for an alternative to the paper-thin quality of mainstream hip-pop. Though subdued in the energy he gives off, Roc is no slouch when it comes to clever wordplay and imagery. Marci Beaucoup is one of his finer recent projects. On the appropriately soulful “Soul Music”, Roc brings along A.G., best known as one part of D.I.T.C., which to me speaks to Roc’s appreciation for hip-hop and ear for an authentic sound. Cop it on iTunes.
- Days Are Gone x HAIM – It’s not pretentious. It’s not angsty. It is, however, fun and refreshingly light and, dare I say, girly in the vein of Pat Benatar. I can’t carry this particular energy with me on a daily basis, but I have a great respect for the authenticity I hear in their work and was impressed with the production value. My wife put me onto this band a long time ago and I fronted for a couple months before giving it a spin, but I’m never one to not give props where they are due. Cop it on iTunes.
- Orange Starburst Baboon x Oscar O’Malley – I love EPs. This particular one is almost disappointingly short, but given the density of O’Malley’s rhymes, it isn’t impossible to listen to the five tracks over and over again and find something new each time. The ODB-sampling “Ol’ Dirty Snorlax” breathes fresh life into “Brooklyn Zoo” a Wu classic that would under any other circumstance be nearly untouchable. Download it here for free.
- S EP x SZA – I slept on SZA until very recently when I caught her feature on Isaiah Rashad’s “Ronnie Drake“. While her most alluring work to date, to me, remains the unattached “Teen Spirit”, the S EP dropped this year and is evidence of how unique this artist is. Throughout S, SZA comes across with an almost uncomfortable vulnerability. Quite the refreshing project. Download it here for free.
- Doris x Earl Sweatshirt – When all the hypebeasts were sniffing after Odd Future, I was checking it from a distance and hoping these guys would eventually grow out of their shock-rap phase. Earl, easily the most critically acclaimed of the bunch, has clearly matured a little, relying more on actual skills than saying the most offensive thing possible. Sweatshirt even acknowledged the progression saying “I hope I lose you as a fan if you only fuck with me because I rapped about raping girls when I was 15”. He also was hopeful of gaining new ones based on the growth and I’m excited to say he accomplished that goal, as I’m eager to see what he’s got in the works for 2014. Cop it on iTunes.
- Magna Carta Holy Grail x Jay-Z – I’m old enough to think fondly of Reasonable Doubt and must admit that when I heard Timbaland and Pharrell, etc. would be producing MCHG I was disappointed. However, if anyone has mastered growing up as an MC, it’s Jay-Z. Maybe being married with a kid makes me appreciate Jay’s situation a little more, but life isn’t the same now as it was for Jay when RD dropped, nor should he rap like it is. Cop it on iTunes.
- Extended Play x Statik Selektah – This album made me remember what it was like to unwrap a new DJ Clue mixtape back in the early 2000s. Statik called in a rack of favors on this one, making unlikely pairings like Mac Miller and Sean Price (“21 & Over”) actually work. Prodigy puts down the solo banger “Pinky Ring” while on “Camouflage Dons”, the veterans Smif-N-Wessun join the newcomers Flatbush Zombies. There’s a lot going on here and that’s basically what mixtapes used to be when DJ Clue, Funk Flex, and Kay Slay were putting out regular compilations as opposed to arguing over Nicki Minaj singles on-air.
- Aquamarine x Willie The Kid – Hands down, the dopest artwork on anything released within the past couple of years as far as I know. Willie the Kid is an easy MC to ignore because of his mundane name choice and unassuming image, but he’s a rapper’s rapper with an impeccable flow and a great ear who I’d ignored for too long before Aquamarine. Download it for free here.
- SHE x Alice Smith – If this were released yesteryear and I had SHE on cassette, repeated plays of Smith’s CeeLo cover “Fool For You” alone would have made this tape pop in the player. In what was otherwise a boring year for R&B, Alice Smith came out of left field with a deeply soulful album that is a throwback to when people worried less about glamour and more about getting some hurt or joy off of their chest and onto a record. Cop it on iTunes.
- Albert Einstein x Prodigy & Alchemist – I have mixed feelings about Prodigy as a solo artist, considering his nasal, at-times-monotonous flow, but Alchemist is a capable enough producer for his production to compliment P’s flow almost like an actual rhyme partner. The dense soundscape becomes its own multi-layered contribution and comparison to P’s plainly-delivered, murder-laced narratives and braggadocio. On “Bible Paper”, Alchemist himself reminds you he can rhyme, too and also shows off on the boards. Cop it on iTunes.
- Polo Sporting Goods x Retch – This is one reason I waited so late to drop this list. In the last few days of 2013, Retch dropped his own mixtape produced entirely by Thelonious Martin. Martin himself is the silent star here, producing a seriously dope set of tracks that showcase newcomer Retch’s style perfectly. Download/stream it for free here.
- Beyonce x Beyonce – Some critics get so jaded to the pop machine that they can’t even recognize pop music that’s been done well. There was a time when pop was actually respected because artists put in actual work to make it as opposed to following a formula composed of what will sell for sure. While Beyonce could literally sneeze on a track and it would sell, it’s clear she has no plans of getting lazy any time soon. While it isn’t something I got a whole lot of play out of (I’m far from its target audience), I found it enjoyable and I’m glad this was done to set a benchmark for what pop and R&B artists should be striving for. While a little silly and trite at times, the music wasn’t disposable and the astute listener can tell there was a vision to this album that was achieved without having to watch all of the accompanying videos (I didn’t). Cop it on iTunes.
- My 1st Chemistry Set x Boldy James – I’ve never understood the problem people seem to have with MCs who tend to rap almost exclusively about one topic. Usually, this complaint is directed at “drug rap”, which Boldy James is well versed in. I’d much rather hear a talented rapper like Boldy rhyme about the life he seems to know well than rap about romance just to please critics and fail or abandon his criminal roots. While it’s difficult to say these days how authentic a rapper is, Boldy James sells you nothing but authenticity, kicking his lingo with such skill and versatility that you forget he’s still rapping about crack. Alchemist gets busy here as well, making this an unquestionably hard album including well-placed guest spots from Action Bronson, Earl Sweatshirt, and others. Cop it on iTunes.
- The 20/20 Experience x Justin Timberlake – If you couldn’t at least get loose to “Let The Groove Get In”, then you’re probably too cool for this album. I just had to get over myself. While I was of the minority who loathed the peppy “Suit & Tie”, the ethereal cool of “Blue Ocean Floor” was enough to get multiple spins from me. Like Beyonce, JT showed the music biz how pop was done this year by letting the work ethic speak for itself and then adding some panache to take it over the top. Cop it on iTunes.
- Avalanche x Quadron – The fact that this album was considered a commercial failure is a testament to the fact that the majority of people don’t know good music. This Danish duo comes off like a European Groove Theory, with more soul than one would expect from the songstress and amazing production on each track. Hopefully, people get hip to this album so that Quadron gets their due props. Cop it on iTunes.