#15 - Tech N9ne: Klusterfuk
Tech N9ne has lived on the outskirts of mainstream rap music for his entire career. He's become a force to be reckoned with on the road, bringing his Strange Music to every hood no matter big and small, building up his fan base out with warp speed rhymes, entertaining live performances and a plethora of music.
Free from the obligations of creating music that will appease the labels, Tech lives in a world where he can rhyme, rap and flow any way he pleases. The Kansas City native keeps his arsenal of high-octane rhymes locked and loaded throughout the six-track EP.
In the title track, Tech reveals the struggles of switching religion when he raps about what it was like to convert from Christianity to Islam as an adolescent. In "Blur," he recruits the help of his Stange Music signees MAYDAY to try to piece together a night filled with fun, females, friends and of course an ample supply of liquor.
Klusterfuk is not a project that will sky-rocket Tech to the stratospheres of Rick Ross or Lil Wayne but it is another shining example of how well Tech N9ne thrives on the outskirts.
#14 - DJ Khaled: Kiss The Ring
Like him or not, DJ Khaled knows what it takes to make hits. There's no secret to his success; the Miami DJ enlists the help of the hottest rappers on the radio at the moment, often pairing two or three or more on one song, and puts them on a bass-rocking, club-banging beat. His relentless drive has earned him his own label and the title of president for another.
Building on the success of both We The Best and We The Best Forever, DJ Khaled called in favors from huge rap stars for his latest offering, Kiss The Ring. The track list reads like the performance list at BET's Hip-Hop Awards; he relies heavily on MMG and YMCMB artists but they're also joined by Future, Ace Hood, Jadakiss, T.I., Big K.R.I.T., J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, T-Pain, Kendrick Lamar and more.
The legend DJ Premier helps out with some deejaying duties on "Hip-Hop," who's joined by rap veterans Nas and Scarface for arguably the best track on the album, which is a tough feat considering the heavy-hitters on the other songs. DJ Khaled steps from behind the turntables and in front of the mic for "B-Boyz," which is a nice surprise even if you only play once.
Production for Kiss The Ring has never been finer. J. Cole, Beat Bully, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Hit-Boy and Detail help out on the songs not produced by DJ Khaled. Kiss the Ring is heavy on singles which should come as no surprise from the DJ that declares he "makes hit records!"
#13 - Big Boi: Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors
If there was any doubt left over from the critically-acclaimed Sir Lucious Left Foot that Big Boi could be a successful solo artist, he has eased all fears with his second solo offering, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. The former Outkast member shows the depth and growth that only an artist with almost 20 years in the game can have the faith and courage to do.
Fans of Big Boi's first album may be a bit skeptical with the sound and feel of Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. He has fun experimenting with different genres and it is evident in the not one but three tracks featuring pop-soul duo Phantogram. Much of the album is an enjoyable hodge-podge of indie rock, electro synth-pop, Southern rap, and Cali-punk beats while Big Boi raps and sings. Yes, he sings and he’s not half bad.
The Atlanta rapper does a great job of reining in the eclectic sounds while staying true to his fundamental style of quick jabs and one, two punch lines. "Objectum Sexuality" featuring Phantogram and "Mama Told Me" with Kelly Rowland are both upbeat and airy songs that can easily feature his more eccentric Outkast partner Andre 3000 as well. The feel of Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors is futuristic and space-age at times but Big Boi tackles heavy subjects in "Tremendous Damage" and "She Hates Me."
Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors is not without its club bangers. Big Boi enlists the help out his fellow ATLiens Ludacris and T.I., who's never rapped better in recent memory than on this track. Filled with ego-fueled lyrics, Big Boi proves he’s one of the best rappers in Atlanta. “Like a postman, I deliver. See I'm the letter with the anthrax in it. Pass that, hit it. Sniff it, snort it, then go on take a bump, shawty.”
For his hardcore fans that may not fully appreciate the trip to outer space, "Thom Pettie," "Gossip" and "The Thicket" help balance out the album. It's quite fitting that the best song on the 17-track album is perhaps the one song without any guest features. "Apple Of My Eye," reminiscent of Idlewild, showcases Big Boi’s versatility, creativity and evolution as a solo artist.
Big Boi takes a hard left turn from his debut Sir Lucious Left Foot, but for any open-minded individual, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors is an enjoyable ride.
#12 - Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music
For more than a decade, Southern rapper Killer Mike has released solid music filled with socially conscious lyrics that have demanded attention. Killer Mike ups the ante on his latest release, R.A.P. Music.
The bar is set high with "Big Beast" featuring Bun B, T.I. and Trouble, an unabashed Southern anthem that opens up the album. Killer Mike does an excellent job of balancing the intensity, energy and politically-charged lyrics from start to finish.
"Southern Fried," "Reagan," and "Jo Jo's Chilling" demand attention for different reasons. Killer Mike is a savage beast in the two-minute no hook "Go!" but he is at his best on "Untitled:"
“I don’t trust the church or the government / Democrat, republicans, Pope or a bishop, or them other men / And I believe God has sustained me with rap / So I take a burning bush, put it in a Swisher wrap / And they can’t kill a G, I seen how I die / I’m only going once, a coward dies a thousand times / And till that chariot come and take a nigga home / I’ma spit this ghetto gospel over all these gutter songs / I’m gone."
His latest offering will no doubt please Killer Mike's fans as well as bring in some new ones. Killer Mike does a great job of rapping on the politically-charged album without sounding preachy. R.A.P. Music is a great album for Killer Mike and a feather in his cap for El-P, who handles the entire production. El-P matches Killer Mike's intensity and sound throughout every song making R.A.P. Music as much about the sound as it is about the lyrics. Killer Mike's passion and delivery has never been on such a bold and artistic display as R.A.P. Music.
#11 - Ab-Soul: Control System
One-fourth of Top Dawg Entertainment's Black Hippy, Ab-Soul is the least visible member. Shadowed by poetic Kendrick Lamar, the wildly entertaining lyrics of ScHoolboy Q and the quick wit of Jay Rock, Ab-Soul is the last out of the gate with his full-length album, Control System.
Different from the others Ab-Soul grew up not in the hood but the suburbs, most likely with his nose always in a book, soaking up knowledge, metaphors, similes and references like a sponge, filing them away to be used for his career as a lyricist. ScHoolboy Q refers to him the human dictionary.
Opening with Janet Jackson's line "This is a story about control/ My control," Ab-Soul sets the tone. More politically charged than his Black Hippy mates, Ab-Soul raps about a wide aray of topics from being diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, the stabbing pains of a broken heart to how he got his nickname, Black Lip Bastard.
Ab-Soul rhymes with confidence and intelligence, weaving words and sounds like a linguist with something to prove. "Just imagine if Einstein got high and sipped juice/ Broke rules, got pussy, beat up rookies on Pro Tools." At times his confidence soars like either a newcomer ready to make a name or an underdog that has been underestimated or both. "I used to wanna rap like Jay-Z, now I feel I can run laps around Jay-Z."
Control System is a glimpse into Ab-Soul's mind but he controls what we see. Judging by his debut, it's safe to bet we will be seeing a lot more of this talented young artist for years to come.
#10 - Wiz Khalifa: O.N.I.F.C.
Wiz Khalifa had a lot to celebrate and several reasons to continue his grind in 2012. The Pittsburgh rapper made a name for himself on the mixtape circuit, rising in popularity with every release. By the time the smoke cleared from his Rolling Papers debut album, Wiz Khalifa became a household name largely in part because of his catchy, smash hit "Black and Yellow" and his relationship with Kanye West's former flame, Amber Rose.
Wiz faced a series of setbacks with his second attempt, leaving many to believe he will become a victim of the sophomore slump. Faced with a new baby on the way and the demanding role of the leader of his Taylor Gang, Wiz kept the self-created buzz going by adding Juicy J to his label and releasing his Taylor Allderice mixtape to great fanfare while waiting for the release of his next album.
Wiz Khalifa readily admitted he deviated from his laid-back and smoke-filled lyrics when it came to his first album. This time he sticks to what worked for him in the past with his second offering, O.N.I.F.C.: rapping about chasing paper while high on marijuana. Seemingly the reincarnate of Bob Marley, Wiz is largely responsible for the trend of rappers to extoll on the virtues of smoking marijuana rather than selling it.
O.N.I.F.C. (which stands for Only Nigga In First Class) is high on marijuana (pun intended). Wiz cruises in his lane with ease song after song. Cam'ron helps light up "The Bluff" and Wiz travels across the border to enlist the help of The Weeknd for the dark "Remember You." Wiz shines best when he's paired up with his fellow Taylor Gang cohorts. The Lola Monroe-assisted "Initiation" and "Medicated" featuring Chevy Woods and Juicy J demands second and third listens.
O.N.I.F.C. doesn't reach the height of his mixtapes but Wiz Khalifa definitely makes it an interesting trip.
#9 - Curren$y: The Stoned Immaculate
Curren$y has proclaimed he is the forefather of Lifestyle Rap. With the constant flood of mixtapes in the past few years and now his major-label album The Stoned Immaculate, Spitta solidifies his title. His witty and arrogant rhymes coupled with his smooth flow that covers a track like molasses no matter the beat is what his fans have come to know and love.
Curren$y is heavy on the opulent jet-setter way of living that has become a staple in his music. His Jet Life movement has taken on a life of its own, bringing Spitta to new height in his career with The Stoned Immaculate. High-flying lyrics accompanied by innovative ways to describe marijuana and cars, nobody stays on the paper chase better than the New Orleans native:
"I chase that money down like it said something 'bout my mama/ I chase that money down like I think it stole my wallet/ I chase that money down like it key scratched my Impala/ I chase that money down, pile it up and climb on top it."
Wale, Estelle, Big K.R.I.T., Marsha Ambrosius, Pharrell and Smoke DZA all make appearances on The Stoned Immaculate that help balance out the album in different ways. Spitta is at his braggadocio best in "Armoire" and "Chasin' Paper." Wiz Khalifa joins Spitta Andretti for two songs but it's on the high-energetic "No Squares" that show how well these two mesh together and what they really have in common.
The Stoned Immaculate is a solid album and a great addition to Curren$y's ever-growing catalog of music.
#8 - T.I.: Trouble Man - Heavy Is The Head
T.I. enjoyed much success for most of his career. Crowned the King of the South, he had no problem holding down the throne. However, two jail stints and a lackluster album that followed when he got out seemed to have tarnished the crown. T.I. was never one to give up. He regrouped and focused on what helped him earn his title. The shift in focus is evident with his latest release, Trouble Man: Heavy is The Head.
Tip jumped right into it with "No Introduction," a sure sign that old habits die hard and he is back to his old trap rapping ways. He proclaims on Marvin Gay's sampled "Trouble Man," “I’m just a hood nigga, I ain’t ever had shit/ Just a bad attitude, and a bad bitch/ Just bag full of tools and a half brick.”
The streets are feed with plenty of bangers off of Trouble Man. Gone are the apologetic and remorseful lyrics that dominated T.I. songs right after his release from prison. "G-Season," "Wildside" and "Trap Back Jumpin" will please hardcore T.I. fans. He shows that he can still cook up the dope lines with the best of them.
The ATL rapper gets some help from R. Kelly, Cee-Lo Green, Akon, A$AP Rocky and more. T.I. tangles with pop star Pink on "Guns And Roses." His ode to Southern cars in the Hit-Boy-produced "The Way We Ride" is an instant classic song that will be bumped in every ride south of the Mason-Dixon line. Andre 3000 joins in on "Sorry," for an introspective verse that is one of the many highlights of Trouble Man.
T.I.'s newest album isn't meant to be an apology for his previous choices. Rather it serves to cement T.I. back on top with a solid and well-balanced album filled with his life story and lessons learned. With Trouble Man, T.I. rubs the tarnish off of his crown and proudly sits it back atop his head where it belongs.
#7 - 2 Chainz: Based On A T.R.U. Story
2 Chainz' path to success is an anomaly. After a career that spanned over two decades with limited success, Tity Boi reincarnated himself as 2 Chainz and became the go-to artist for guest features seemingly overnight. The Atlanta-based rapper became the Nicki Minaj of 2013, appearing on almost every song on the radio.
What has gotten 2 Chainz over is not his raps which can be very simple and flimsy at times. The energy he brings to a track with his signature slow drawl and delivery is what made him popular and it is evident every time he exclaims "2 Chainz!" He also struck while the iron was hot, gaining momentum and filling the void left by T.I. and to a lesser extent Gucci Mane when both rappers took another spin through the revolving doors of the penal system.
2 Chainz creates a solid debut album with all-star guest appearances from Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Drake and more on Based On A T.R.U. Story. He is often outrapped on his own songs. With lines like, "Go so hard, Viagra try to sign me," it's hard to take the artist formerly known as Tity Boi seriously but when he's having so much fun on the track and newfound fame and popularity so late in his career, who can blame him?
2 Chainz gets a lot of help from YMCMB to carry the album. The Drake-assisted "No Lie," lit up the charts before the album dropped. Nicki Minaj featured "I Luv Dem Strippers," "I'm Different" and "Feel Good" are the stand out songs on the 13-track album. "Birthday Song" with Kanye West became the go-to song for everyone celebrating his or her born day.
Based On A T.R.U. Story may not solidify 2 Chainz as a premier lyricist but it's evident he is finally enjoying the fruits of his labor.
#6 - ScHoolboy Q: Habits & Contradictions
As one-fourth of the California Black Hippy group, ScHoolboy Q differentiates himself from Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul with his oddball personality and trippy, drug-laced lyrics. At home on Top Dawg Entertaiment where artists are encouraged to express their individuality, ScHoolboy Q flourishes.
Habits & Contradictions is Q's sophomore album. The oddest-ball out of an oddball group, Q stays true to the album title. He kicks things off with the somber "Sacrilegious" and immediately follows up with "Hands On The Wheel," featuring the king of purp A$AP Rocky. Contradictions, indeed.
Through the marijuana haze and shroom cloud, ScHoolboy Q spits dark and lonely lyrics as he spits about life's disappointments and failures. Other songs include rantings of a madman like "Tookie Knows" and "Raymond 1969." Q is at his best solo on the songs "There He Go" and "My Homie."
Habits & Contradictions aptly closes with "Blessings," featuring his Black Hippy mate Kendrick Lamar. K.Dot almost steals the spotlight but Q flexes his lyrical prowess with stone cold self-awareness that comes out of nowhere and surprisingly fits right in.
ScHoolboy Q's versatility is evident throughout his second attempt. He switches flows as easily as he switches the drugs used and referenced in the album. Kendrick Lamar's sudden rise may have brought extra attention to the rest of Black Hippy but it's clear Top Dawg has more than one superstar on its hands.
#5 - Big K.R.I.T.: Live From The Underground
Big K.R.I.T. has been on the grind, working the underground and mixtape circuit for several years building a buzz and a fan base along the way. After grabbing attention with Krit Waz Here, Big K.R.I.T. built on the success with solid follow ups Return Of 4Eva and 4Eva N A Day. Big K.R.I.T. (whose moniker stands for King Remembered In Time) sticks to his Mississippi roots and formula of Southern beats and thoughtful lyrics for his debut album Live From The Underground.
K.R.I.T. made the hard task of creating a well-balanced album look easy. Not since the days of Outkast have we seen such a well-rounded and rich album from a Southern artist, complete with songs full of harmony, bass-heavy beats, catchy hooks and thoughtful lyrics.
K.R.I.T. is proud to hail from Mississippi and it is evident. Lyrics filled with Southern life and references pay homage to his region, especially in "Cool 2 Be Southern." But he is most soulful when he is rapping about the life lessons he's learned. In "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," he raps, “I remember when I fell from my first bike / There were no ‘are you okays’ and rarely ‘are you alrights’ / Just dirt in my pockets, handful of gravel / That’s when I realized that getting up is only half the battle / The fear of falling off will haunt me well into my teens / The moment that the world took a shit upon my dreams / ‘Cause money is the root, and love is all we had / In fact, I’m glad, I had a rich dad, poor dad.”
K.R.I.T. gets some help from Ludacris, Bun B, 8Ball, MJG, Anthony Hamilton and 2 Chainz but no one makes an impact greater than the legend B.B. King on "Praying Man," which is both a huge feather in his cap as well as a dream come true for K.R.I.T.
Fans will not be disappointed with Big K.R.I.T.'s Live From The Underground and those on the fence about the young emcee will jump over to his side after a good listen. His debut album shows he is anything but an amateur.
#4 - Rick Ross: God Forgives, I Don't
Rick Ross is a master at art imitating life. After more than 11 years in the game, Ross has always rapped about a lavish lifestyle, an ever-expanding drug enterprise, beautiful women, expensive cars and exotic vacation destinations. As the years, albums and mixtapes went by, the raps became more extravagant. As his popularity grew, his life slowly started to resemble his lyrics (the short stint as a corrections officer notwithstanding).
When the time came to drop God Forgives I Don't, his fifth studio album, Ricky Rozay seemed bigger than life. A true testament that persistency pays off, Ross released a masterpiece filled with big beats, big lyrics and braggadocios tales. The women and vacation spots are more exotic. The cars are foreign. The bank account has grown.
With an all-star line-up that includes Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Andre 3000, Usher, Ne-Yo and Ricky's MMG counterparts, God Forgives I Don't is a wild ride through the eyes of the bawse. It's always a good thing when other rappers freestyle and remix a song, which was done repeatedly with the Wale and Drake featured buzz-worthy "Diced Pineapples." The heavy-set rapper is surprisingly light on his feet on the bouncy Pharrell-produced "Presidential." Rick Ross is at his finest on "3 Kings." With the help of uber rich Dr. Dre and Jay-Z, the three rappers lyrically exude extravagance like true kings.
In the midst of boastful raps, Ross gets pleasantly serious on "Ashamed" when he raps, “Went from walking on gravel, now I’m riding on vogues / 50 M’s in the bank, I get me 200, I’m gone / Still so close to the hood, I’m ashamed to say / All the money in the world can’t take this pain away / It’s just another story at the campfire / Court side seats with the franchise / I think about my niggas doing 25 / Shining bright, who am I for you to criticize?”
God Forgives I Don't is balanced with loud and brash beats and lyrics and smoothed-out songs. Rozay has an ear for beats unlike anyone else. When lyrics falter or seem repetitive, the beat carries the song to the finish line. Production is handled expertly by various producers including J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Jake One, Rico Love, Cool & Dre, Cardiak and more.
God Forgives I Don't is an opulent yet dirty look at a rapper who's life is now imitating his art.
#3 - Game: Jesus Piece
Not since Kanye West's 2004 hit "Jesus Walks" has religion been so popular in rap. Over the last few years, especially with rising popularity of Lecrae, rappers have found religion again. Game ups the ante with the themed Jesus Piece, his last album for Interscope. He kicks things off with "Scared Now," the type of street anthem the Compton rapper is known for.
The album stays at a boastful and energetic pace, even as the tempo slows down. A master at picking the right beats for the right songs, Game enlists the help of several of producers to help fill out the sound including Cool & Dre, Jake One and Boi-1da. Heavy on the guest features, Game pulls out his rolodex to call in verses from 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, Meek Mill, Lil Wayne, Future, Young Jeezy, Chris Brown, Common, Pusha T, Big Sean, Fabolous, Jamie Foxx, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and more.
Perhaps the best song is the Rick Ross and 2 Chainz assisted "Ali Bombaye." Although 2 Chainz' verse falls a bit short, Ricky Rozay and Chuck Taylor more than carry the song. Game is at his boastful best when he raps, "Get my people out them chains nigga/ I mean handcuffs, time to man up/ Put my hands up? Fuck you saying bro/ Cuz I'm a Black man in a Phantom/ Or is it cuz my windows tinted/ Car cost three hundred thousand and I blow indo in it/ You mad cuz your daughter fucks with me on spring break?/ Well I'm gonna fuck her til the springs break."
Game does a great job of sticking to the concept by including the theology-themed songs "Church," "Hallelujah," "Pray," "Heaven's Arms" and the title track "Jesus Piece." He is still able to feed the streets with hardcore raps and beats that have made Game famous. Who knew that boastful raps and the Lord meshed so well in one album? Jesus Piece will turn a lot of people into believers.
#2 - Nas: Life Is Good
After nearly 20 years in the game, Nas still had a lot to prove with Life Is Good. After lackluster sales and a substellar response from his last few projects, a very public divorce from R&B singer and wife of two years Kelis, Uncle Sam on his back and dealing with a daughter who's boy crazy, Nas had a lot on his plate. Could he hunker down, ignore all the distractions and make an album that more than just his die-hard fans could love?
Life Is Good met and exceeded all expectations. An ample supply of both quality beats and lyrics, Nas proved that if the rapping is a young man's game, he can still flow with the best of them. He left nothing on the table, addressing everything from the pain of a failed marriage to to senseless, violent acts of murder committed by our youth that only he can so poetically do.
The production mainly lies in the qualified hands of No I.D. and Salaam Remi who provides the Queensbridge emcee with a wide range of sounds from organ-based beats to hard and gritty sounds. Nas bucks the trend of a feature-loaded album and keeps the guest list light. Rick Ross joins in on the No I.D. produced "Accident Murderers," Large Professor gives a nod to the fans 'trapped in the 90's,' Swizz Beatz lights up the club friendly "Summer On Smash."
Nas samples Guy's 'Goodbye Love' in 'Bye Baby,' the best goodbye letter ever recorded on wax. One of the stand-out tracks guest features the late Amy Winehouse on the beautiful and lovelorn "Cherry Wine," who provides the old-school Etta James jazz-infused feel that was missing on her hastily thrown together postmortem album.
Life Is Good is void of the sarcastic tone the title may imply. It is rich in painting a picture of the mindset of arguably the best rapper to come out of New York. The beats may catch ears but the honesty and maturity of a veteran is what leaves an impression. "I know you think my life is good cause my diamond piece/but my life been good since I started finding peace," He may have dropped his debut Illmatic album at the tender age of 21 but at nearly 40, Nas still has the fire in his belly. Now he has the wisdom and knowledge of a life well lived to match.
#1 - Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city
No other album has received so much fanfare before its release than Kendrick Lamar's highly-anticipated good kid, mA.A.d city. Following the success of his critically-acclaimed Section.80, Kendrick has steadily gained more co-signs than someone with bad credit. Uber producer Dr. Dre took the Compton rapper under his wing. Megapop star Lady Gaga gave her stamp of approval saying . Fellow Compton rapper Game publicly passed the torch to K.Dot, confident the young rapper will carry the West coast on his back with ease. All of this translated to a lot riding on his debut album and Lamar has more than delivered. Not since Nas or 50 Cent has a rapper garnered so much attention with a debut release.
GKMC is a narrative of a coming-of-age story of a young, Black kid struggling to become a man in a city where it's highly likely one woud become a statistic before adulthood. 17-year-old Lamar dodges trouble and bullets while chasing after girls in his mother's van in "Sherane aka Master Splinter's Daughter." The thought-provoking "Sing About Me, I'm Dying" starts off in the perspective of a gang member in the first verse and the voice of Keisha's sister (from Section.80) who both predict their demise.
Production of Lamar's debut was put in the hands of abled veterans who matched the vigor and attitude of the concept album. In an ode to his hometown, the Black Hippy member dances all over the Just Blaze produced "Compton." Drake joins in on Scoop DeVille's jazzy "Poetic Justice." Lamar gets raunchy over Hit-Boy's aggressive "Backseat Freestyle." With the help of his mentor Dr. Dre, Lamar lays out the winning formula on why everyone flocks to the West Coast in "the Recipe."
The interludes effortlessly weaves together the theme of one kid's plight to remain sane in a crazy city throughout the album. Words of wisdom from his parents offer insight into how Kendrick Lamar survived the poverty and violence. The few features on the album also include his Black Hippy compadre Jay Rock, MC Eiht and Anna Wise, who croons over the sweet "I'm Real."
Lamar wisely subtitled the album "A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar," making his debut a 2012 autobiographical audio version of the classic coming of age movie, Boyz N The Hood. GDMC cements Lamar's place in hip-hop history, similar to the way Nas' Illmatic in that a young, budding emcee makes a classic record proving he is ahead of his time.