Best Hip-Hop Records of 2012
Now in its fifth decade of existence, hip-hop is, and has been for many years, the most culturally impactful and socially relevant form of music in the entire world. Whether you’re fan of the art form or not, it would be foolish to deny this absolute truth. But perhaps what’s even more foolish is to attempt to narrow down a list of the past year’s best hip-hop records to a manageable size. Yet, that’s what I, lover of rap music, self-proclaimed knower of it all, and apparent seeker of self-inflicted punishment has haphazardly volunteered for once again. (And this time around I’ve even tossed in a second list of just mixtapes to follow.) Clearly I love this stuff. Clearly I hate myself. And with that, I present to you The 20 Best Hip-Hop Records of 2012…
Apollo Brown & OC – Trophies
D.I.T.C. crew member OC returned alongside up ‘n’coming producer Apollo Brown with an outstanding album that might just be the sleeper of the year. The premise is as alluring as it is basic: Apollo produced simplistic sample-based boom-bap and OC blessed it with his conciliatory no-frills delivery. You won’t find any traces of crunk, trap, thizzle, #swag, or purple here. Trophies is 16 tracks of pure unadulterated East Coast-style hip-hop, and it’s outstanding. The next time you hear someone loosely throwing around a term like “real hip-hop,” play them this record.
Whether on the mic himself or behind the boards for Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, Murs, Mr. Lif, or Cage, El-Producto has been consistently creating stellar hip-hop music for nearly twenty years now. In 1997, as part of the now legendary trio Company Flow, he was responsible for one the most important rap records of the ‘90s, Funcrusher Plus. And in five year increments he has dropped a solo album that is not only one of the year’s best records in hip-hop, but the best in all of music. (See Fantastic Damage , '02 and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, '07.) The same can be said of his third, and most recent, Cancer 4 Cure. Intact are the recognizable distinctions El-P has spent the last decade perfecting: meticulously-crafted futuristic sound collages and densely congested beats—sci-fi-informed and bass heavy—balanced with hard-hitting lyricism that zigzags between paranoia, self-deprecation, braggadocios chest pounding, and metaphorical witticism. Cancer 4 Cure isn’t just good hip-hop; its good music. Like the hook in the lead-off single “The Full Retard” goes, “You should pump this shit like they do in the future.”
Gangrene – Vodka & Ayahuasca
According to Wikipedia, “Ayahuasca is a brew of various psychoactive infusions or decoctions,” the effects of which are “massive spiritual revelations regarding (your) purpose on earth…a spiritual awakening and what's often described as a rebirth…access to higher spiritual dimensions and making contact with various spiritual or extra dimensional beings who can act as guides or healers.” In layman’s terms, or rather, in terms that most rap fans would clearly understand, it’s some shit that gets you really fucked up. Forming once again as Gangrene, Alchemist and Oh No dropped Vodka & Ayahuasca; a sample-heavy blunted cornucopia of movie, TV and druggy interview clips, psychedelic acid rock, and ghostly organ and string arrangements. As a duo, the two fuse their production styles in an impressive fashion, but when it comes to rapping, the best verses come courtesy of guest spots from Kool G Rap, Roc Marciano, and Evidence. (See also: Odditorium EP)
Guilty Simpson & Apollo Brown – Dice Game
At this point it’s probably safe to anoint Apollo Brown the new king of boom-bap. Perhaps recognizing that the greats (Pete Rock, Lord Finesse, Large Professor, Showbiz, DJ Premier, J-Dilla, etc.) didn’t have to go great lengths to layer their beats, Apollo flexes an uncanny ability to create incredibly enthralling bangers from basic sample flips—organs, strings, and brass are his modus operandi. Guilty Simpson is a hulking presence on Dice Game. He doesn’t attempt any lyrical mathematics; rather just straightforward rhyming. “Dear Jane” is a metaphorical ode to the herb and one of the album’s best tracks. It’s here that he shows his growth as a lyricist; sticking to the subject matter throughout the entire song rather than going off-topic or playing the word-association game as he has in previous work. The next time you hear someone loosely throwing around a term like “real hip-hop,” play them this record. (Sound familiar? I did that on purpose.)
I Self Divine – The Sound of Low Class Amerika
I Self Devine is not only the unsung hero of Ryhmesayers Entertainment, but in many ways, underground hip-hop as a whole. As far as RSE goes, he’s the most traditional street-level rapper on the label. Setting himself apart from his peers, I Self takes a utilitarian approach to songwriting; largely skipping the misogyny, homophobia and gun-clapping subject matter that plagues most street-level hip-hop. Instead he takes it upon himself to narrate the current state of “lower-class” society and provide a historical telling of how things got this fucked up. The Sound of Lower Class Amerika is the latest in an impressive catalogue—one that includes several Micronauts records, a superb outing with DJ Abilities as Semi-Official, and the underrated, yet unforgettable Self Destruction. Against a backdrop of beats provided by Jake One, Vitamin D, Benzilla and others, I Self conveys messages of community, class warfare and social injustice in the United States. (See also: Culture Series mixtapes)
People seem to feel very strongly about Kendrick Lamar’s rap oeuvre, good kid, m.A.A.d city—they either love it, or, they hate it. And you can’t really fault either side, as that’s just how polarizing a record it is. On one hand it’s a superbly crafted concept album with meticulously-written lyrics and pacing; and on the other, it’s a self-righteous, self-indulgent vanity project with twelve-minute rap songs. Personally, I wasn’t about to allow an album to be called “instant classic” when it hadn’t even been released yet. So admittedly, I went into the first couple spins with some trepidation, and truthfully, wasn’t all that impressed. But now, after having spent a considerable amount of time with it, I can no longer deny it; good kid, m.A.A.d city has fully grown on me. Am I ready to concede that Kendrick is “the savior of hip-hop,” as many fly-by-night critics are implying? Emphatically, no. But did he indeed create one the best rap records of the year? Without a doubt, yes. That being said, I believe the best songs on the album are the ones that fall in line with traditional rap music—“Backseat Freestyle”, the MC Eiht feature, “m.A.A.d city” and “Swimming Pools.”
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Released only one week prior, and playing like a companion piece of sorts to El-P’s Cure 4 Cancer, R.A.P. Music shows the Atlanta based Dungeon Family veteran as an invigorated and fresh-breathed emcee on verge of finally breaking through. Over a backdrop created entirely by El-P, Killer Mike spits a potent mix of politics, personal tales and hardcore G-talk. Aside from appearances by Bun-B, TI, El-P and a couple lesser-known emcees, Mike goes at it alone, and the result is unified and striking. Considering El Producto’s on the beat, it’s hard to call this Southern rap. That being said, in the aptly-titled “Southern Fried”, Mike lays down Dungeon Fam-esque rhymes about Killer Hill and strip clubs, while El does his best to direct the beats appropriately—not exactly ‘playalisticadillacmuzik but close enough.
Masters of the Dark Arts marks the return of La Coka Nostra, a rap supergroup who had originally assembled sometime in ’05 as a much larger entity than they are today, boasting members of Nonphixion, Special Teamz, a reunited House of Pain, and misdirected “rappers” from DMS. (The NYC crew normally associated with thug-ish metalcore.) Since then, they have trimmed the fat so to speak—Everlast has departed, presumably to go back to making less than mediocre acoustic-guitar-folk-blues-rap or whatever, and Big Left’s (of DMS) contribution is limited to a singular verse. That is not to say there aren’t an few key guest spots (Vinne Paz, Sean Price, and Thirsten Howl III all make appearances) but it’s primarily the group’s core—DJ Lethal and emcees Ill Bill, Slaine and occasionally Danny Boy—making most of the noise this time around. Master of the Dark Arts is a pluperfect union of bombastic boom-bap, record scratching, and realism-based hardcore rhyming. Head-banging is absolutely required.
Large Professor – Professor @Large
Large Professor, at twenty plus years in the rap game—including being a decisive emcee and production presence on Main Source’s 1991 classic, Breaking Atoms—has created beats for a number of hip-hop’s most revered acts, including Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B & Rakim, and Mobb Deep. So it should come as no surprise then that Professor @Large sounds like a product of the Golden Era NYC. The entire album was produced by Large Pro, and on the majority of the songs, he’s the only rapper, save a few notable appearances by guest emcees. Specifically Cormega and Tragedy Khadafi on “Focused Up.” Cormega also appears on the album closer “M.A.R.S.” alongside Action Bronson, Roc Marciano and Saigon.
Lil Fame of M.O.P., going by his producer moniker “Fizzy Womack” and Boston emcee Termanology originally intended to work on a Termanology solo album but at some point midway through the recording process Fame had ended up spitting verses and hooks on nearly every track. They realized that hewing an entirely collaborative project as a duo could result in a milestone record, benefiting both artists. And thus, in the new-ish trend of combined names, Fizzyology was born. Anyone that’s familiar with M.O.P. knows what Fame is all about on the mic—cotton-mouthed gangster-isms straight from the dark alleyways of Brownsville—and there is no shortage of it here; he comes as hard-rhymed and imposing as ever. But Termanlogy turns in some of the record’s most impressive verses. During his best moments, Term has the uncanny ability to make the listener feel weirdly uncomfortable. Songs like “The Greatest”, “Lil Ghetto Boy” and “It’s Easy” make you feel guilty for being privy to his bumpy life story. And all the autobiographical details of his painful upbringing come to head on “Family Ties.” (See also: 1982 (Statik Selektah & Termanology)-2012)
Masta Ace – MA_Doom: Son of Yvonne
MA_Doom is the latest offering from veteran NYC emcee Masta Ace. All of the beat selection comes from MF Doom’s instrumental mixtapes series, Special Herbs. So while none of the beats are new, it’s fresh to hear Ace masterfully breathe new life into them. Be warned though; those looking for a return to the furor of Slaughtahouse, this is not it. Son of Yvonne is a tribute to Ace’s departed mother. Over the course of the album Ace raps stories of his upbringing under her watchful eye as he weaves his way through a life immersed in hip-hop’s developing years—from DJing, to graffiti, to rapping, to touring and all parts in-between. MF Doom does make one appearance on the mic, alongside Big Daddy Kane on “Think I Am.”
Meek Mill – Dreams and Nightmares
Although Dreams and Nightmares is billed as Meek Mill’s debut album, the truth is he’s already a household name in the rap world. This comes on the strength of some very solid, financially-backed mixtapes which have produced radio hits, and a high-flying presence on the Maybach Music Group's Self Made compilations. So instead of judging this by the outdated standards of debut albums, consider it the latest in an already impressive body of work—this one just happens to have a price tag on it. While the majority of the production would fall in line with trap music, it’s what Meek is actually saying that really sets him apart from the pack. No, he doesn’t do much to distance himself from the negative stereotypes associated with rap music, but he balances it with numerous moments where the listener gets to see his vulnerable side. On the album’s most distressing track, “Traumatized” he details the murder of his father at a young age, and how he struggles with the desire to avenge his death. Meek's raps are the strongest when he flexes an anxiousness in his cadence. The sense of urgency on songs like “In God We Trust”, “Real Niggas Come First” and the second half of the title track is—and it sounds strange saying this—classic Meek Mill. (See also: Dreamchasers 2 mixtape)
Ohnomite is the result of beatsmith and emcee Oh No—the younger brother of Madlib and son of singer Otis Jackson—being granted unmatched right of entry to the Rudy Ray Moore/Dolemite audio archives. This included legendary material from The Human Tornado, Petey Wheatstraw, the Dolemite Soundtrack and a multitude of previously unreleased and alternate acapellas and instrumentals. Oh No was given free rein to sample and manipulate it any way he see fit. The end result is a trunk-rattling chaotic burlesque of witty lyricism and gritty beats assembled from the nastiest fragments of funk, soul and Blaxploitation. Carrying the familiar resonances of Gangrene, Evidence and The Alchemist rejoin forces alongside Oh No on “Real Serious." The track piggybacks on some of the best moments of Vodka & Ayahuasca. And perhaps sponging worthy collaborators from his brother, Oh No also brings aboard a few emcees that contributed to some of Madlib’s finest moments; with MF Doom, Guilty Simpson and Phil Da Agony from Strong Arm Steady all featured on separate tracks. (See also: No-Ashes w/Chris Keys, Disrupted Ads)
It’s questionable whether what P.O.S. does can even be called hip-hop anymore, inasmuch as his music transcends across genres. It’s not on the same level of mass appeal as say, the Beastie Boys, but quite similar in that he employs a multifarious approach to art. The Twin Cities veteran emcee describes his fourth album We Don’t Even Live Here as “an anarchist dance party.” And that’s pretty much on point, as this record is bursting with anti-establishment lyricism and beats rooted in punk rock, techno, trap, and, well, yeah, regular hip-hop too. The hook to the lead-off single, “Fuck Your Stuff” pretty much sums the overall feel of the album: “My whole crew is on some shit/Scuffin’ up your Nikes—spittin’ on your whip/Kickin’ out your DJ—rock it, then we dip/We don’t watch the replay.”
Where Reks’ previous albums have featured beats from a variety of producers, Straight, No Chaser is produced entirely by longtime collaborator Statik Selektah. The Lethal Weapon-inspired “Riggs and Murtaugh” shows Action Bronson and Reks trading verses against a RZA/Wu-like backdrop. On the title track, Reks and guest emcee Slaine spit bars over a twisted downbeat that's been looped with minimal keys, recalling DJ Premier’s work with Jeru the Damaja. And the same can be said of the posse cut “Such a Showoff”, which features Statik scratching across hard-hitting boom-bap, while Kali, JFK, Termanolgy, and Reks channel the rap ruckus of the ‘90s. On that note, Statik also deserves credit for keeping alive a key ingredient of hip-hop that has been all but abandoned by the current crop: turntablism. Even when his beats are substandard, he keeps things stirring by showcasing his scratching ability. And as usual, he has an unsullied skill for crafting hooks made up of clever samples and cuts. Key notables on this record include the Beastie Boys in “Autograph,” Common in “Sit/Think/Drink”, and 50 Cent in “Cancel That.” (See also: Rebelutionary)
Roc Marciano – Reloaded
Reloaded is one of those albums that, despite months of me patiently anticipating the release of, still took me completely by surprise. And in turn, I find it difficult to explain to people what exactly it is about this record that makes it so damn good. A Google search will result in numerous 500+ word essays on it, but from my standpoint, it’s a disservice to the genius of Roc Marciano to try and spoil this for those who haven’t heard it yet. Roc has the type of vocal accent and flow that pulls you in, demanding your astute attention. Pair that with his alluring production and the end result is an hour’s worth of engrossing headphone music that sticks with you long after it’s over. Reloaded is faultless soundtrack to a train ride through the city—managing to sound experimental while still exhibiting evident nuances of classic New York hip-hop.
Sean Price – Mic Tyson
Amidst a period of rap music that could be theorized as “in transition” it’s clear that Sean Price is confident and comfortable in his, let’s say, non-transitioning role. And that’s not surprising, seeing as how his emergence in the rap game came in the early ‘90s as part of the rough ‘n’ rugged supergroup, Boot Camp Clik. It was a time when emphasis was placed more on mic prowess rather than personality and marketability-driven hooks. Over beats from the likes of Evidence, Alchemist, 9th Wonder, and Khrysis, Price spits street lyricism with a poignant and venomous deliverance seldom heard these days. Mic Tyson isn’t so much a statement, as it is an affirmation: Sean Price doesn’t make rap songs for the MTV Jams/BET set. Also, he'll smack the shit outta anyone actin' like a rapper. On “Pyrex” he raps, “A whole lot of shots will follow after I bust your snotbox with the Ciroc bottle.”
SpaceGhostPurrp – Mysterious Phonk: The Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurrp
While lyricism may not be SpaceGhostPurrp’s greatest strength, his YOLO-esque black male self-awareness, laughable ignorance and misogyny-laced rhymes only distract mildly from the overall feel of Mysterious Phonk, as it tends to one of hip-hop’s chief qualities: escapism. Production wise, Purrp’s beats are Southern-tinged, foggy head-nod-ers that borrow heavily from DJ Paul or anything chopped-n-screwed, and fit nicely alongside contemporaries like A$AP Ty Beats—they are, for lack of a better term, purp’d the fuck out. To people who loved hip-hop before sippin’ syrup and blowing back hydro became the norm, Chronicles probably doesn’t scream “best of”—and traditionally speaking, no, Miami’s SpaceGhost isn’t the most gifted rapper—but as a dual-headed monster—his real prowess is as a producer—he has created one of the year’s most cohesive, and I’ll just go ahead and say it, best hip-hop albums.
Strong Arm Steady & Statik Selektah – Stereotype
Returning to the singular producer formula they last used on 2010’s Madlib collabo In Search of Stoney Jackson, Krondon, Mitchy Slick and Phil Da Agongy,—the California cliq known as Strong Arm Steady—teamed up with Beantown production workhorse Statik Selektah for Stereotype. Although the title may imply otherwise, the contents therein which are not as formulaic as one might expect; which is not surprising in regards to SAS, as despite a steady work rate, they come different every outing. With Statik cruising by on autopilot throughout a few other recent releases, it’s nice to see him step away from Preemo-esque boom-bap for a change. Here he steered into a vibrant soulful direction that mirrors the laid-back West Coast approach taken by SAS and various guest emcees.
Wu-Block – Wu-Block
While there are appearances from other members of Wu-Tang Clan and all of D-Block (also known as The Lox,) Wu-Block is first and foremost a Ghostface Killah and Sheek Louch project. Fairly free of any surprises, Wu-Block finds Ghost and Louch delivering all the crack-bagging, gunplay and material goods-based rap you’ve come to expect from these two veterans. Wu-Block are at their thuggiest on the Method Man feature “Pull the Cars Out.” The three emcees spit gutter-worthy rhymes over a molten-hot banger co-produced by The Furturistics and Phonix Beats. Ghostface raps in typical fashion, “Every hood spot, they know me/Loyal females who can’t just give me the twat; they show me/Like I’m a big stock broker on Wall Street/I said ‘Naw, I’m that big drug dealer from 4E.’” Despite guest spots from the likes of Masta Killa, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, GZA, Cappadaona, Jadakiss, and Styles P what’s most impressive is how well Ghost and Louch work as a duo; clearly claiming ownership of the Wu-Block name and guiding the direction of the album.
Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid
Shocker: the record everyone got hyped about and is still talking about is on here. While it would be hard to pick out a proper single on the record, that almost seems to be the point. More than almost any recent hip hop record, this is a complete album with a story attached to it. Each song feels right in its own place, showing a clear idea from start to finish.
Sean Price - Mic Tyson
The wait has ended. After more than a few years of teases, the brokest rapper you know has come back. For all the underground hype surrounding it, the record holds its own and then some. Nothing drastic has changed: Price is still tougher and better than your favorite rapper and he has no shame in telling you about it. The guest features feel right at home as the guests only add to the songs. The production is top notch too, fitting Price's style perfectly.
Ab Soul - Control System
Possibly the forgotten member of the TDE family, 2012 saw one of the more intelligent and interesting releases of the year. The songs allow room for Soul to go in on any subject of his choosing, whether that be politics, love or his adolescence. Everything comes out and feels completely natural, never begging for the listener's attention, but seeming to receive it no less.
Roc Marciano - Reloaded
After a sadly misplaced bit of his career as a member of Flipmode Squad (ask your older brother), Roc managed to go back into the underground, make heavier than anything beats, and come out with a staggeringly intelligent NY hip hop record. After a bit of a wait, he returned and gave us Reloaded, which in a sense is more of the same. But what needs to change when your first record is a perfect encapsulation of East Coast hip hop?
Killer Mike - R.A.P.
El-P really did it this year: along with his return to releasing proper solo records, he fully produced this record too. While one could question how El's production would fit with the cadence and southern flow of Killer Mike, one listen will convince you of how well it works. Bending tales of his family and politics into a complete and visceral album lets this stand on its own and convince any holdouts on Mike to quit sleeping.
El-P - Cancer 4 Cure
And now for his second entry on this list. The master of the dystopian rumble in hip hop returned to his full glory this year, turning in a record that includes his futuristic style while allowing some room for some ridiculously heavy beats. The subject matter feels dystopian just the same, while still being very real and very scary. Whether you listen to "Tougher, Colder Killer" in which he talks about a soldier in Iraq or "For My Upstairs Neighbor" which does everything but allude to domestic abuse, the fear is very real and the music matches it quite well.
Nas - Life is Good
He's been threatening it for more than a few years in his own way: Nas making a grown up album. While each album has shown its own growth in its own way, never before has Nasir managed to encapsulate both his abilities and flaws so well into a complete record. The album that he referred to as his "here my dear" did much to deserve that reference. From the divorce that preceded it to speaking of truly grown up woes in the song "Daughters", The man that once called himself Escobar has truly grown beyond his past.
Schoolboy Q - Habits And Contradictions
Possibly the next member of the black hippie group to get noticed on a mainstream level is Schoolboy Q. This album is the perfect argument as to why he deserves it. Mixing gangster tales with grown up fears without bemoaning his situation past or present takes a certain intelligence. This is all done while speaking of his actual habits with a candor and intelligence that is usually left to indie rappers trying to get noticed. Schoolboy does this while retaining a keen ear for beats that slowly rumble and feel suffocating without being overly dark.
Brother Ali - Mourning In America
I would venture to say that Brother Ali has yet to put out anything less that a great full length record. Each record has relied on a single producer and Ali's willingness to be completely honest (for better or worse) with both himself and his audience. The story remains relatively the same here, trading in his usual conspirator, Ant (of Atmosphere) for the Seattle beatsmith Jake One. Jake provides soulful yet modern beats for Ali to speak his mind on, and for each second of this record Ali does nothing less.
Skyzoo - A Dream Deferred
Skyzoo has made a name for himself in the East Coast underground for years. Between affiliations with 9th Wonder and now Duck Down Records, he's made the most of the notice hes received. With each record, Sky has grown as a writer and found his own voice. With a growing ability to pick beats that he sounds great over it's only a matter of time before he makes a full-on classic. Meanwhile, this is a great record that shows him pushing further towards that classic.
Apollo Brown & O.C. - Trophies
It's sadly forgotten by most, but around the mid-90s, D.I.T.C. were one of the pre-eminent hip hop crews. This was well deserved with members such as Big L, Fat Joe and Big Pun, but with two of their main members' deaths and the mainstream's lack of interest in NY-style hip hop, the group was all but forgotten. Meanwhile, still-active member O.C. has managed to turn in some great albums - arguably, this is the best one yet. Taking full advantage of having Brown at the boards, O.C. makes the most of the opportunity, writing some of his best rhymes ever and sounding truly indestructible.
Apollo Brown & Guilty Simpson - Dice Game
One of Detroit's most streetwise and downright toughest MCs, Guilty Simpson has done more than make his name in modern hip hop. The man has rhymed tougher than most yet is still forgotten in most discussions while D12 still has a major label contract. Whether this is deserved or not is becoming less about opinion with each album Guilty releases. Few MCs carry such a consistency within their catalog, and this record is no different. For Guilty's last album he went with Madlib; for this one he goes with Apollo. Each one brought something special out of Guilty Simpson. Once again, Detroit has given hip hop something great: hopefully more people will notice it after this record.
- Jon E