Not a single hip-hop album achieved platinum sales in 2014, so why did the art form feel more vital than ever? Because of the return of its political identity, activated by more mainstream artists than in any other year so far this century? Because of its continued embrace of dark, challenging, gritty soundscapes that act as the perfect soundtrack to these dark, challenging, gritty times? Because of the ubiquity of complex and captivating questions like “are Macklemore and Iggy Azalea legitimate artists or cultural tourists?” and “does hip-hop have a role to play in the ongoing national discourse around racially-motivated extrajudicial police brutality?” All of this, and one more thing: the music was incredibly good.
Albums of the Year
1. Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait
2. Ratking – So It Goes
3. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels II
4. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste
5. Future – Honest
6. Freddie Gibbs/Madlib – Piñata
7. Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron
8. Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint
9. J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive
10. DJ Mustard – 10 Summers
In analyzing the last few years in rap music, a defining trend is made apparent: one year’s “disrupting” album has an enormous impact on the culture of the next. The major albums from 2013, like Drake’s Nothing Was the Same and Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, were grandiose and cinematic, but also interior and reflective – they bore the mark of the previous year’s disrupting album, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.
This year’s best records are Hobbesian as fuck: nasty, brutish, and short. They’re visceral, musically scathing and full of ugly truths from which you can’t avert your ears. They’re the children of Yeezus. I’m referring mainly to my top three, and yes that’s not a misprint – Run The Jewels II came in third. RTJII, the critical consensus hip-hop album of the year, has been widely praised for three things: its relentless activism, its gut-punch production and its length (39:56, all lean, no fat). Here’s what I’ll suggest: Hell Can Wait’s “Hands Up” is more specific, more intelligent and more moving as a protest song than any of Run The Jewels II’s revolutionary tracks. Hell Can Wait’s production is thematically coherent (like RTJII) but stylistically and sonically varied while remaining so (unlike RTJII). Finally…Hell Can Wait is shorter. I know it’s technically an EP, but its shorter. Run The Jewels II is incredible and will remain on my workout playlist until the end of days. But Hell Can Wait is the album of the year.
On that combative note, a few more disclaimers: you may have a problem with DJ Mustard. Look, it’s late December, and I’m still listening to “Face Down.” I have to be thinking about posterity here – 10, 20, 50 summers from now, when I’m struggling to remember my grandkids’ names, I promise you that the clear-as-day clarion call of “Mustard on the beat” will still be super-glued to my brain. Additionally, you may be sick of the respective shticks of J. Cole and Freddie Gibbs, but I’ve been Stanning for them since The Warm Up and The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs, and trust me, this is their shticks at their best. That’s not just the dulcet tone of Dido talking. The Pinkprint appears here because it represents a very important moment for women in hip-hop, and pace haters, it’s also really great; I’m sorry “Anaconda” threatens you sexually. Finally, folks, I really wish I could include some of the relatively unheralded “old-school-sounding” boom-bap hip-hop records of the year – Ghostface’s 36 Seasons, NehruvianDOOM, Statik Selektah’s What Goes Around – but as excellent as they are, they’re not the future. Future is the future. I’m just being honest.
Mixtapes of the Year
1. Mick Jenkins – The Water[s]
2. A$AP Ferg – Ferg Forever
3. Young Thug & Bloody Jay – Black Portland
4. Rich Gang – Tha Tour Pt. 1
5. Dej Loaf – $ell Sole
6. Migos – Rich Nigga Timeline
7. Shy Glizzy – Law 3
8. Mike Will Made It – Ransom
9. Kevin Gates – Luca Brasi 2
10. King Louie – Drilluminati 2
Oh yeah, the mixtapes. The Water[s] is cerebral and somehow deeply comforting and menacing at once. Ferg Forever achieves buoyant surface level joi de vivre and crushingly deep-seated reality, sometimes on the same track. Black Portland is Young Thug, the most exciting MC of 2014. The rest…well the rest you should download for free right now, because you can. Mixtapes are the best.
My hope for hip-hop in 2015 is that it stays political, stays experimental, and stays competitive. I hope the concept albums tell great stories and the singles rattle my trunk. I hope the new kids bring up someone the old heads begrudgingly love, and I hope the kids embrace an old-head’s late period and a career is re-invigorated. I hope that albums by Young Thug, Camron & A-Trak, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick, Drake and Kanye (wow, it’s going to be a great year) totally blow my mind. Most of all, I hope Lil B affects Kevin Durant’s livelihood again somehow. Just kidding – most of all, I hope that hip-hop in 2015 is good to you, ATG readership, and that you are good to it.
We put together some highlights from this year’s best hip hop albums and mixtapes. Give them a listen below with this handy Spotify playlist.