More than any other genre of popular music, hip-hop has benefited from the internet revolution. A fundamentally collaborative genre, hip-hop remained nonetheless quite insular during its salad days, with artist cooperation related to more to geographic location than to stylistic affinity. Now, with the ability to share music with both fans and fellow artists instantaneously, and with the ability to workshop tracks across the country in real time, the rap community has become more interconnected than would have ever been imaginable. This interconnectedness was on full display in 2012, with seasoned veterans and wide-eyed up-and-comers coming together to produce a collection of the best rap records we’ve heard in some time. History and politics re-emerged as thematic staples, although never so much as to overshadow saturnalian roots of the music. In otherwords: 2012 gave us some dope shit. Dig in.
10. Rick Ross - Rich Forever
This summer, Rick Ross released his blockbuster LP God Forgives, I Don’t. And, like most blockbuster LPs from superstar rappers, it kinda sucked. Boring, bombastic, and bloated, God Forgive, I Don’t plays like the slow deflation of an enormous hype-balloon. But Rich Forever was the reason that balloon got so big in the first place, and ten months after its release it stands as the finest work Ross has ever produced. This 19-track mixtape is so suffocatingly intense that it manages to make Diddy and Drake scary. Indeed, the stars are all over this release: John Legend reminds us that money is cool on the title track, Kelly Rowland manages to sound just cheesy enough on “Mine Games,” and Nas does what Nas always does on “Triple Beam Dreams.” Rich Forever is easily the best mainstream hip-hop release of 2012, and that’s before even considering its greatest quality: it’s free.
9. Meyhem Lauren - Respect the Fly Shit
I’m not going to succeed in hiding my biases on this list: I have a penchant for mid-90s New York City hip-hop. Biggie, Nas, and especially Wu-Tang wrote my personal high school soundtrack, and any release that reminds me of those times is going to appeal to me. Meyhem Lauren’s debut LP Respect the Fly Shit appeals to me more than most: with the Raekwon/Ghostface-style interplay of Lauren and Action Bronson, and with the RZA-circa-Supreme-Clientele-style production, this tape is like 1997 all over again. Yes, Lauren is a bit conventional at times. Yes, he gets shown up by his co-signs on occasion (e.g. Despot on “Pan-Seared Tilapia”). And yes, I could do without the blow-by-blow account of a fellatious evening that is “Top of the World.” But minor flaws aside, Respect the Fly Shit is one of the most enjoyable slices of hip-hop you’re likely to hear this year. And while you’re listening, think about this: these guys recorded this LP at this year’s SXSW…in two days.
Did someone say Wu-Tang? The beats on Roc Marciano’s outstanding Reloaded are straight crimonology rap, but the real star of this record is Marciano’s relentless, rhyme-riddled wordplay. This record is full of the kind of evocative, abstract, mind-bending wordplay on which New York City was built. It should be no surprise that Q-Tip, The Abstract himself, stops by to drop a beat on this record. This record is a gift for those who believe in the true art that is emceeing.
7. Joey Bada$$ - 1999
If Joey Bada$$ were nothing more than a 17-year-old kid from Flatbush with a phat rap name, I’d still love him. Fortunately, he’s so much more than that. This preternaturally skilled rapper whose confidence and insight belie his age. Unlike his peers in Odd Future, who make no effort to hide their age-appropriate sophomoric attitudes, Joey Bada$$ clearly views himself as the inheritor of a tradition, the next in a long line of New York rappers whom he has the responsibility to respect, to honor, and to make proud. And, with 1999, make them proud he does.
6. BBU - bell hooks
Politically conscious hip-hop has been on life support for the last 20 years, but 2012 saw a few concerted efforts to resuscitate it. No effort was more concerted than that of BBU, whose mixtape bell hooks fearlessly attacked corporate America and guilt-driven liberalism with equal furor. But if militant music scares you off, fear not: the tape is filled with the kind of infectious party beats that will raise your spirits and move your ass. In a year of outstanding hip-hop releases, this one has been criminially underappreciated.
For a relatively small group of us who were music nerds graduating from college in the early 2000s, El-P is something of a legend. He was the man behind Funcrusher Plus, The Cold Vein, and a slew of other records that re-defined hip-hop in the minds of many an impressionable youth. The “indefinite hiatus” embarked on by his Definitive Jux label in 2010 appeared to mark the sad end of a remarkable era. Thankfully, El-P was resurrected this year, nowhere more prominently than on his third and best solo record Cancer 4 Cure. Our hero does an admirable job of rapping on the album, and many of raps new underground idols (Danny Brown, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire) stop by to lend their talents, but as always it is El-P’s unique, psychosis-inducing production that is the star. Take a deep breath and spin Cancer 4 Cure; you may not breathe again until it’s over.
Peter Lillis said everything that needs to be said about this remarkable record upon its release in January; its “stories of depravity, sacrilege, honesty, violence and pills” remain as compelling, engrossing, and terrifying as they did ten months ago. Habits & Contradictions set the bar high for hip-hop in 2012, and although a handful of releases cleared the bar, there’s no question that Schoolboy’s statement provided the starting point for a spectacular year.
3. Action Bronson & Party Supplies - Blue Chips
Listen: just don’t play this one for your mom.
The stylistic depth of Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music cannot be overstated. El-P’s compositions have always been the stomping grounds of hyperkinetic “underground” emcees, but R.A.P. (produced by El-P in its entirety) shows what can happen when southern rap legends, political militants, and straight-up gangsters get ahold of them. To wit: something spectacular. From the star-studded blitzkrieg of “Big Beast,” through the bellicose disenchantment of “Reagan,” to the celebratory strains of the concluding title track, Killer Mike’s latest bathes in the glory of hip-hop. It’s hard to believe that there was a rap record better than this in 2012.
But there was. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this one in the days and weeks to come. For now, suffice it to say: it’s a masterpiece.
Check back tomorrow for our 10 best metal albums of the year. And don’t miss yesterday’s top 10 psychedelic albums of the year.