We’re a little more than halfway through 2012, and while the apocalypse still has plenty of opportunities to wipe us from the face of existence, let us not go quietly into that dark night without first checking out these albums, which have already made for a solid year in terms of its hip-hop offerings.
This should go without saying, but if you haven’t listened to these already, then you have some serious catching up to do.
Any year-end “Best Of” list, hip-hop centric or otherwise, that omits this LP needs to have a prompt examination of whichever collective head birthed it.
In the protracted synthesizer taunts of perennial hip-hop left-winger El-P, Killer Mike’s barking, iconoclastic lyrics have finally found their spiritual equal. While the rest of the hip-hop world expended its energies of the past decade creating an exact catalogue of its Lamborghinis and loafers, Killer Mike allowed years of obscurity to ossify his fulsome political and social frustrations into an agitprop hysteria that practically leaps out of the speakers to bodily grapple with listeners.
Given how many reasons there are out there to record pop music (profit, fame, contractual obligations), it’s shocking how rarely “necessity” ranks among them. R.A.P. Music is an album that needed to be made, and it’s an arresting specimen because of it.
Curren$y’s late-career “studio debut” persists throughout its run in portraying the most superficial aspects of hip-hop culture, and were these baubles the album’s true subject, not even its immaculately silken production could have salvaged the effort. However, The Stoned Immaculate, coming as it does after a dozen years’ frustrated striving on the part of Nola MC Curren$y, in fact concerns itself with ambition—ambition so unflappable that years of frustration have only served to prod it into the bull-like rage.
Though tracks like “Showroom” and “Jet Life” use phlegmatic beats to highlight Curren$y’s mumbling flow, don’t for a moment make the mistake of thinking the man is sleeping on the job. Beneath The Stoned Immaculate’s skin lives a ravenous beast, and Curren$y’s success derives from his developed ability to harness that monster toward his material ends.
Though flawed, fearsome and a far cry from the quality of his early classics, Nas’s Life Is Good nonetheless forms one of the MC’s most laudable efforts of recent years. When the album works (as it does on “Accident Murderers,” “Cherry Wine” and “Loco-Motive”) Nas winds up mining his checkered history for verses that spin valiantly against their own drive. Things fall apart when he gives free reign to his arrogance (“The Don”), predilections for violence (“Stay”), and oleaginous bids for radio play (“Summer On Smash”).
The true success of Life Is Good lies with its maker’s refusal to give in to the entropy nipping at the heels of his own career. Nas could have thrown in the towel a while ago and spent the rest of his life taking perpetually shorter victory laps, but he has elected to continue the fight, even if the results sometimes come out skewed.
channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean
We will hereby stretch the definition of hip-hop to include leftward-leaning R&B, seeing as Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE is both fantastic and committed to stretching every definition it can lay its hands on. In addition to Ocean’s much-publicized, protean sexual inclinations, channel ORANGE has earned its king’s ransom worth of headlines from a seemingly effortless reinvention of its ostensible genre.
Laconic, minimalist beats from Pharrell, discomforting found-sound samples and uncommonly honest songwriting make channel ORANGE sound like the only R&B album to date that regards its presence in the twenty-first century as a matter of course, rather than an affected posture.
Lyrically, Ocean addresses such topics as the spiritual black hole at the center of American glamour, the torpid spirals of drug addiction, and the unrequited desires (mostly sexual, though not entirely) that drive the whole system along its ill-fated path.