10 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2013
Right now, it seems hip-hop is where rock 'n' roll was in the '80s (the dawn of hip-hop, interestingly enough). In '80s rock, technical prowess was all the rage, and speed/hair metal bands drafted the most technically capable guitarists and drummers around, creating one big circle jerk of musicians trying to outdo one another. On the other side of the coin, the irreverent, no-regard-for-convention punk movement that had begun at the end of the '70s hit its stride, and weird, outside-the-box music thrived at the fringes. From Kanye West's 'Yeezus' to Chance the Rapper's 'Acid Rap,' many of this year's most creative hip-hop albums have stemmed from a rejection of the most cloying aspects of bling and trap. Meanwhile, in the mainstream, MCs are doing things with cadence and flow that are truly impressive from a technical standpoint -- look no further than Eminem's 'Rap God' for evidence. Hip-hop may not be in a golden age, but it has come a long way from where it was in 2006, when Nas dropped 'Hip Hop is Dead.' Let’s not forgot that U.K. agitators Crass declared punk dead in the '70s, years before Black Flag struck their first chord and proved 'em wrong. This list of the 10 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2013 gives us hope that the genre still has plenty of life.
Founded by rapper, podcaster and former battle king Nocando, Hellfyre Club is a West Coast hip-hop collective that may not be as young as Odd Future or come with as many accoutrements but are probably more deserving of your listening time. 'Dorner Vs. Tookie' features Nocando, newcomer Milo, Open Mike Eagle and Busdriver. Hellfyre Club is a true representation of Fresh Coast Hip-Hop -- where it is today, and how it got here. This is one of the years most interesting hip-hop records -- an avant-garde set wherein the flows are fast, sometimes funny, sometimes silly and always smart. On top of all of that, it's fairly accessible. If you like Run The Jewels, give this a shot.
This may belong elsewhere on this list -- perhaps higher, perhaps lower -- but it's just so new (or rather not quite out yet) that it's tough to call. It's definitely one of the year's 10 best hip-hop albums, but there are missteps -- weird musical breaks that are like 'Channel Orange' dragged into undue territory. On the other hand, there are times when this feels like the year’s best rap album. Songs like 'Crawl' and 'Life: The Biggest Troll' are light years ahead of any major-label rap offerings this year. This album doesn’t just sound like right now, it sounds like tomorrow.
This album has quite a few excellent moments and a few huge missteps. Tracks that are un-listenable sadly share space with utter triumphs. 'Rap God,' for instance, is a perfect anthem for today’s hip-hop heads, and with its many rewind-and-relisten moments, you could spend a weekend on it. 'Rhyme Or Reason' is creative, catchy and fun, a successful re-purposed rock hook far more successful than the single 'Berserk.' 'Survival' is hard-hitting and inspiring in a way that’s reminiscent of 'Until I Collapse.' On the other hand, 'Bad Guy' is a silly attempt at recapturing lighting in a bottle. Songs like 'Brainless' and 'Stronger Than I Was' will hopefully act to drive the nail in the coffin of Eminem’s singing aspirations, which have marred his past three albums, and which unfortunately muck up this otherwise killer set.
Even listeners less than enthralled with these two rappers have to admit the production on this album has an incredibly trenchant “right now” feel to it. What makes the production so successful is the same thing that works on 'Yeezus' -- notably missing from this list -- though the style is frankly better executed here. Caustic bleeps, bloops and grinding groans endemic to dubstep-influenced hip-hop are smashed directly on top of 808s and classic rap beats, making 'Run the Jewels' a proper soundtrack for any 2013 occasion. There are moments, like Big Boi’s verse on the lead-off title track, that will just destroy your speakers. El-P flows his way through this record in his slowly-ripping-Velcro style, and coupled with Killer Mike’s far choppier and more dissonant approach, that moves things along nicely.
Based on his look, name and overall package, Pusha T seems like a 2 Chainz type -- a purveyor of over-the-top fluff rap -- but that turns out not to be the case. 'My Name is My Name' is a fantastic hip-hop record. The production hits hard, and Pusha, more than holds up his end when it comes to riding the beat. He's one of those spitters that makes you nod your head in teeny tiny circles until there's no more space to make circles. He makes you anticipate the way he's going to ride a beat and then switches it up on you at the most opportune moments.
When a rapper causes you to make that face where it looks like you've got a bad stomachache, but they also make you want to throw a brick through a Starbucks window, you’ve really got something. Sole is one of the best things to ever come out the hip-hop underground, and even though he's politically motivated and one of the most anti-status quo rappers alive, he also understands the value of a beat that makes your head nod, and he proves this with each album. It’s like that quote about how their needs to be glow sticks and nitrus at the revolution or it’s no fun. This album also features the incomparable Sean Bonnette of the folky punk rock duo Andrew Jackson Jihad. 'No Wising Up No Settling Down' exceeded all expectations and showed why he deserves that No. 2 spot on our 10 Hip- Hop Acts for People That Only Like Rock list. (Note: Back in the days when underground hip-hop flourished and usage of the term "backpack Rap" was rampant, Sole had beef with El-P, one-half of Run the Jewels, that culminated in battle tracks from both. (Sole's is here, El-P's here.) Look how far they've come.
This Kenyan-born, Canadian-raised rapper is the most underrated artist on this list. He apparently has a masters in liberal studies and did a Ted Talk. He’s poetic like Saul Williams, startlingly musical like Childish Gambino and technically sound like P.O.S. In fact, 'Flying Colours' feel like a more polished 'Camp' and absolutely should be the break-out record for Shad. His cleverness is only matched by his ability to make smart and catchy hip-hop.
As much as Chance presents himself as being kooky and different, he’s really not so odd. 'Acid Rap' reflects another notable trend in hip-hop that has emerged over last couple years. From Eminem’s 'Berserk' to Joey Bada$$, the return to '90-style, jazz-driven sounds has become an under-the-radar phenomenon. On 'Acid Rap,' Chance shows he’s one of the most talented and thoughtful rappers doing it, and at the same time, he incorporaties his own unique flair. Between Gambino, Chance and Kendrick, you've got a holy trinity of universally beloved, truly talented and creative rappers who don't seem to care what the rest of the rap world thinks of them.
Aside from the soundclips, there are no tricks on the production end of 'The Night's Gambit.' There are just simple beats, catchy bass lines, muted guitars and steady drums. The same goes for Ka’s flow. This is no 'Rap God,' and yet the album sounds like nothing else. 'The Night’s Gambit' has a narrative feel reminiscent of Mobb Deep's 'Murda Muzik,' and drawing parallels to '80s punk, Ka might be his genre's Bad Brains. He’s not doing anything faster than anyone else. He’s not behaving or emoting in an “out there” type of way. He’s just doing what he does really well, like somebody who's studied for years and waited until very late in the game to finally trying playing for himself. On 'The Night's Gambit,' Ka pays tribute without being derivative. Just as 'Shook Ones' is the perfect soundtrack for any tense street moment in a film, this entire album has that late-night-on-the-block tension, and that’s what makes it so memorable.
This album (officially a mixtape) is simply inspired. It’s a record where the DJ does nearly as much as the MC to make the songs feel like a narrative, keeping the thing cohesive from one track to the next. Action Bronson arrived on the scene with 'Dr. Lecter,' which was such a powerful and out-of-left-field debut that we should have known he was here to stay. 'Blue Chips' was an even more impressive effort. It had the unpredictability of Jadakiss combined with the creativity of Kool G Rap, not to mention DJ Party Supplies, thus far Bronson’s greatest muse. 'Blue Chips 2' is neither background ambiance music nor club party music. It’s just really great hip-hop that demands your attention for its entirety, which is a hell of feat these days.
Snow Tha Product, 'Good Nights and Bad Morning 2'
This and the first installment of 'Good Nights and Bad Mornings' serves as proof that Nicki Minaj needs to step her game up. Snow tha Product is without a doubt the next female rapper you’ll be hearing about.
Loaded Lux, 'You Gon Get this Work'
This is the rare instance of a battle rapper making a good record. But even without that qualifier, this is really exceptional record. 'You Gon Get This Work' is a call-back to the '90s -- the “quiet storm” days when hip-hop dominated. Lux has the appeal of a wiser Tupac, and this mixtape seems like a precursor to some very promising material in the future.
Earl Sweatshirt, 'Doris'
This review sums it up: This should have been in the top 10, but somewhere along the line, 'Doris' goes off course. The energy present on Earl's debut mixtape is only here in short bursts, and despite a few moments of greatness, this one doesn't go the distance.
Nino Bless, 'R.O.A.M 2'
This just barely missed the top 10. If this were a list of the top 10 rappers you need to check out, Nino Bless would be in the top 5. Check out his recent track 'Ryhme of the Year' for a good taste of what he does. Imagine if Tech 9 had grown up on Eminem (not technically possible, of course), and you’d have something close to Nino Bless, a rapper who’s not beholden to the trends of contemporary hip-hop. Like the Lux mixtape, this feels like a callback to the mid-'90s. It's an album Funk Flex would have covered with bomb sound effects. It’s dope in the same way 'Night’s Gambit' is, and it definitely deserves your attention.
Drake, 'Nothing Was The Same'
There's nothing really left to say about this album. It has some of the best beats to come out this year, as can be seen by the many freestyles over 'Pound Cake.' Drake is one of the most tolerable ultra big names in hip-hop or pop culture in general.