2013 has been the year of the hit Hip Hop album thanks to three of Rap’s hottest headline acts, Jay Z, Eminem and Kanye. Yet, Hattie Collins finds much to admire in lesser known lyricists, Pusha T, Mac Miller, Action Bronson and J Cole.
As the ancient* proverb goes, ‘He who shouts loudest does not always make the most noise’. 2013 was, in rap terms anyway, the year of the Big Gobs. The multi-million selling triumvirate triple threat of Kanye, Eminem, and Jay released their sixth, eighth, and twelfth albums respectively, racking up some three million combined total sales to date (if we include Jay’s 1m Samsung sales). The three enjoyed high profile magazine covers, mountains of online coverage, interviews on Ellen and Jonathan Ross, primetime performances at the MTV EMA awards and headline spots at festivals around the world.
But now that the hype, buzz and (presumably) Kanye’s angry YOU AIN’T GOT THE ANSWERS promo campaign has died down, what impact did these albums really have? What did Marshall Mathers LP 2, Yeezus and Magna Carta Holy Grail contribute to cultural conversation? Did those album sales represent a thirst for high art or were they mere commercial cash cows bought by those keen to collect what’s expected?
MMLP2 is a sonically interesting album from a more mature Mathers. Some of the wordplay is Linda Blair head spinningly awesome, the Stan based concept of Bad Guy artfully executed and the line-up of contributors from Rick Rubin to Rihanna and Kendrick Lemar carefully chosen. If you are able to overlook the dude from Fun., outdated homophobia and tired old misogyny, then MMLP2 is one of Slim’s finest works since The Eminem Show. The F-Bombing does however detract and it’s a shame because there’s much to admire about MMLP2.
In Yeezus we discover a vagina obsessed, self styled art school brat let loose to indulge his many complexes; no one told Kanye what to do here and it shows. Particularly in the sales, his lowest since debut College Dropout. Although I applaud Ye’s non-commercially driven creative aspirations, ultimately Yeezus was just too shouty, too confused, too self indulgent to encourage repeat listens. As for Jay Z? Well, we all love Hov but Magna Carta was so lazy that no one, not even Jay, could be bothered to listen to it more than 2.5 times.
It’s no huge surprise really to discover that much of the year’s finest Hip Hop came from outside the headline-gripping, money-making Top 3. Maybe it’s because Pusha T, J Cole, Mac Miller and Action Bronson are unburdened by the pressure of first week sales. They are also, mostly, rappers at the beginning of their career; surely even Shakespeare got lost for words by the time he was churning out The Tempest.
Granted, these four are far from poor, struggling indie unknowns, but these four produced great work with far less dollars and much less hyperbole. What these records have in common is artistic ambition, an alternate perspective and a non-cynical unselfconsciousness rarely felt in releases from bigger rappers. They are also really flipping enjoyable to listen to.
Miller’s Watching Movies With The Sound Off is an introspective, personal offering, soaked in the scent of sativa and woozy with an esoteric sensibility. He’s big on boasting, sure, but there’s humility too, as the Pittsburgh born, LA living lyricist reflects on a period in life involving everything from being sued, an addiction to sizzurp and losing his best friend. The Jay Electronica featuring Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes gives Em a run for mind-spinning metaphors and impenetrable sentence construction.
Similarly abstract was Action Bronson’s Blue Chips 1&2; 2 in particular was partial to being a bit bonkers. This food loving womanizer and his producer, Party Supplies, have no truck for convention when it comes to any part of the music making process. This is a novelistic, New York soaked album that stops, starts, stutters, starts again, eats some chicken parmesan, and then gets really, really stoned. There are adverts for medicine and Applebees, Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins samples, snatches of Allen Iverson interviews and Bam Bamisms galore like, ‘I’m on the boat, in the water, like a swan’s feet’. It makes perfect sense and no sense, much of the time. It’s brilliant, in a word.
Pusha T and his monochromatic menacing My Name Is My Name, a nod to the Wire’s Marlo Stanfield is perhaps one of 2013’s most dark and daring. Pusha’s funereal flow is both terrifying and enthralling; it's thanks to mentor West that the Virginia rapper is given beats to match his coffin-like cadence, draping MNIMN in a chilling yet absorbing soundscape.
Last, but most certainly not least is North Carolina’s J Cole. It was his recent reply to Kendrick’s controversy causing Control verse (by way of a Justin Timberlake TKO remix) that partly inspired this column. Rather than respond in an obvious way, Cole instead imagines the betrayal of hearing his girlfriend listening to Control on her phone. “I was home alone, next thing I know that long ass verse from a song called Control was on/ The room got nearer, the tune got clearer/ That’s when I seen the shit playing on your phone/ Girl what was that, a ringtone? Shit not you too. Even my momma asks what I’m gonna do.” He ends the song by breaking down in tears. I LOVE THIS GUY. Similarly, Cole’s second album Born Sinner was my album of choice while on a flight to Sydney and back and remains a gym staple. There’s pathos, regret, ruminations and an honesty that is quite arresting. Sometimes he’s repentant, other times he’s arrogant, but mostly it just feels real, even when it’s utterly non relatable rhymes that he’s spitting like ‘Beyoncé told me that she want to cop the new Bugatti/ That shit is more than I’m worth/ I think she knew it probably/ Well this is awkward.’ Born Sinner and Cole, a protégé of Jay Z, is my unexpected hit of 2013.
For 2014, we can expect a similarly impressive line-up of rap records from star spitters; Nicki Minaj, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne are all due a release and, if rumours are to be believed, Outkast will be back. Who knows, maybe Dr. Dre will finally release Detox. But looking beyond the big names (apart from Outkast cos that album would definitely be most awesome), lets not forget to keep an eye out for rhymers who fly below the more obvious Rap Hit Radar; RiFF RaFF, Chance The Rapper, Travi$ Scott, Rich Homie Quan, Kid Ink are all names that could produce better, if not bigger, rap records.
*It’s possible I just made this up