HNHH gives you our favorite stories of the year, told on raps.
There's a lot of bickering about lyrical content in today's rap game--well, that's always been the case. But old-headed purists argue, and will continue to argue, that today's lyricists lack the depth of their long gone favorite MCs. Of course, what you look for in a rapper depends on your personal taste. Sometimes, lyrics might take a back seat. Sure, "flow" is heightened with impressive wordplay, but many of today's most prolific rappers bang most of their buck with vocal cadence, pitching and stretching their voices to meld with a specific beat. The bare meaning of their words alone doesn't need to hold up to any analysis. Background shout-outs and ad-libs can be as big a part of vocal prowess as is conveying a message. Sometimes we're not in it to be enlightened, whether it be turnt up club raps or clique-reppin' street anthems. If you're a long-time hip-hop head, though, chances are you love a good story. The best do it with clever rhyme transitions, cryptic wordplay, and a total command of your eardrums (with a good beat to match). Hip-hop has always been a unique storytelling platform. These are the raps where you dial in, hold on to every word, and journey into the pages, fiction or non-fiction, of an MC's book on life.
Are compelling stories being told in 2014? Let's find out.
YG- "Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)" Feat. Kendrick Lamar
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YG, at age 24, is a man of many faces: gangbanger, party animal, sex God, momma's boy. In a 24-hour day, he's all of the above, ready to swap thizz face for mean mug at moment's notice. He's not trying to be the most interesting man in the world. Sex, drugs, crime...women, weed, weather--nothing groundbreaking here. But YG's story really feels original, and that's because he tells it so well. He gives real insight into each aspect of his personality and how essential they are to his Compton, or as the Bloods like to say, Bompton, way of life.
In early '09, YG did a six-month stint for burglary. This was immediately after he had linked up with DJ Mustard, both still unknown outside the LA area, to form Pu$haz Ink. At the time, Mustard was a mixtape and party DJ. Amazingly, he hadn't started making beats yet. In December '08, with Dijon's aide, YG put out 4Fingaz, his first Pu$haz mixtape. A month later, he was in jail. Luckily, it looked like his debut made an impression. His mixtape caught fire, and record execs began to take notice. When his time was up, he had major labels on his doorstep. In October 2009, he was signed to Def Jam. But he wasn't quite ready to become a superstar. Only one tape under his belt, and a jail sentence (and past enemies) in his rear-view, he needed time to grow as an artist. He’s since dropped five mixtapes, but it took him over four years to put out his debut album, My Krazy Life.
If you were keeping tabs you had an idea of what YG was about: Living large, making up for lost time, keeping things Bompton 24/7—but he hadn’t formally introduced himself. My Krazy Life is just that: A day in the life, a day in his hood. Well, not a day per se. The album begins with YG's momma screaming at him to stay away from the gangbangers, lest he end up like his daddy. It ends full circle, with YG calling his momma from jail. There are plenty of highs and lows in between, and the highs, with Mustard's help, are off the charts. Krazy, yes, but it’s not a disjointed project. For YG, gangsta rap and party rap have always been inseparable.
You’ll rarely find YG apologizing for his hedonism, but he doesn’t always glorify his behavior. There’s a method behind the madness, which he pains to explain on “Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin).” The song starts as he wakes up from a bad dream; the paranoia’s really sinking in. To top if off, he’s got morning wood—too stressed to have a woman share his bed these days. YG’s been a rising star for some time, but this is his first album; his fate in the industry isn’t sealed. He may look like he’s having fun, but this is a job, and the stakes are as high as ever: Namely, the fate of his entire family (as well as countless homies relying on him for handouts). So why does he still hang around thugs? Fame hasn’t granted him immunity. If anything, it’s put a target on his back. He’s lost four homies in the past couple of years, each of whom he namedrops at the end of the previous track (“Who Do You Love?”). Is he really insane for thinking he might be next? For needing something to take the edge off?
YG, with his Def Jam (and Jeezy) affilitation, might seem to be a byproduct of rap’s post-regional state, but My Krazy Life is the most West Coast sounding album this year. Kendrick Lamar, who’s hinted at a 2014 release date for his upcoming LP, might have something to say about that, but he was happy to drop a verse on his Compton compatriot’s debut. You might wonder why Kendrick, who doesn’t smoke and has expressed qualms about his own alcohol use, is featured here. It's clear, though, he knows exactly where YG is coming from and has a lot to say on the subject, a subject that's rarely treated with such nuance.
He starts off furiously, out of breath, channeling the same dark corners of his psyche that we heard on “Swimming Pools.” Obviously, Kendrick is now a household name, and it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean he’s at peace. Though he’s found rapping to be preferable to hustling, every day is still a hustle. He imagines walking into his label, holding up the A&R man, and demanding the chips that are rightfully his. Then he takes us to the tour bus, where he suddenly gets a “bad call”—a close friend has just been killed. As it sinks in, visions of revenge start to haunt him. He’s on the road, he’s got shows, but his mind is back in CPT, and it’s all out war. But for tonight, he’s alone with his thoughts. And a few bottles. It’s more than just temptation.
ScHoolboy Q- "Prescription/Oxymoron"
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Schoolboy Q is self-aware. His first album was Setbacks, and on it he admitted to all the destructive behavior that was holding him back. Q used to run with the Hoover Crips in South Central, and though you get the idea he’s a more than competent gangbanger, he rarely boasts about it. When he does, it’s countered with a lot of self-deprecating, which makes Q feels humble compared to rappers who deal in similar subjects. He shows us the evil side of the hard knock lifestyle. And a lot of that evil exists in Q's head. He knows, at times, the game’s made him reckless and weak. And he lays bare his weaknesses—all his actions that have jeopardized his career—which, for my money, was going pretty well two mixtapes and one album in. Habits & Contradictions expanded on the theme. In fact, Q says it’s a prequel to Setbacks. Bad habits are bringing him down. He knows what he needs to do, and he does the opposite.Oxymoronis the title of his latest effort, his first with a major label (TDE via Interscope). His life is an oxymoron—it doesn't make sense. But the title’s meant to be taken more literally than that. OXY is the first drug he sold that made him money--a lot of money. It's also the drug that he eventually got hooked on. Oxycontin has brought Q up and down, high and low, and (painfully) sober. And the other half of the title--MORON, a term Q has undoubtedly called himself, or his past self, many times. He’s an Oxymoron. Moving on.
It’s more than a clever pun, and that becomes obvious on "Prescription/Oxymoron," a two-part suite that basically sums up the album in one track. Two very different songs in one pill. Over a painfully bleak Portishead sample, Q begins, "Prescription drugs, show me love." He then names the four Rx's he tends to fuck with: Percocets, Adderall, Xanax, and don't forget the syrup. He doesn't take any time to wallow in the highs; we're led straight into the black, into the grey. Those are the two colors that represent his music, Q says. All of his album covers are black and grey. He scarily channels his mind-state from his worst days as an addict. When thoughts do manage to cumulate in his head, they're not the happy kind. At the end of his first verse, his daughter's voice begins to emerge, heard through the half-conscious ears of someone deep into some kind of bender. She’s telling Daddy to wake up. As adorable as she sounds, it might be the scariest moment on the album. Fast forward to the next verse, he’s driving (no bueno), pulls out and turns right, which happens to be the last thing he remembers. Then a flash of light. This is the climax of his near-fatal addiction. He’s exposed himself, and he knows it can’t go on like this.
The beat grows much harsher for the flipside of the story. This is the terrifying snow-moron with a bucket hat (guess who?) you see on the album cover. “I just stopped selling crack today,” he sadistically cackles. Street pusher no more, he’s now Dr. Q, moving a lot less weight, making a lot more money. It’s a reliable game with reliable customers. He turns (female) fiends into hoes. He’s getting all his rocks off, and no one’s stopping him. He sees his fiends: “Without the injections, do the same love and affection.” Perhaps he knows the prescription’s power a little too well. Remember the addict who nodded off to end part one? The pill’s got a hold of him on both sides of the game. When he stops selling, he starts using. Contradiction. Ironic. Oxymoronic. Whatever the word—you get it. There’s a never-ending duality that haunts Q’s life. He’s lived with it since he was a kid; honor roll student, Varsity, and, briefly, college, athlete—with gangbanging stints in between. It’s an endless cycle that’s continued into his rap career. It’s obvious he’s got talent and massive potential. Right now, Q says he’s off the drugs, except weed (duh), and the occasional tropical codeine cocktail. And going off the quality of Oxymoron, he’s putting a lot into his career as an artist. For our sake, let’s hope it stays that way. Though Q knows past temptations, along with plenty of new ones, will loom over him every step of the way. They won’t go away without a fight, and honestly, perhaps selfishly, we hope he continues to express his struggles with these demons through his music.
Ghostface Killah- "Love Don't Live Here No More"
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Most of the stories on this list come from relatively young authors. And hopefully guys who will stay around for a long time. But it’s not all new school. We’re lucky to have some legends still with us and still making music. Legend—that’s a word Ghostface Killah can claim with ease. He hasn’t sold out, he hasn’t washed up. Well, he may have slowed down, arguably. Rewind to 1993, he and his crew, the Killa Beez from Staten Island, released one of the greatest albums of all time, their debut nonetheless. For the remainder of the decade, he only released one solo. In 2000, he came out with Supreme Clientele, another one of hip hop’s crown jewels. He probably hasn’t matched that since, though Fishscale comes awfully close. Anyway, I suppose you could map some sort of downward spiral here, but, the fact is, Ghost is 44 and can school most of these kids not in just rap but in life. Ghost is one of the best storytellers ever, and anything he puts out is gonna be essential. He's still got some of the most gripping, original stories way, way into his career and long-past his induction into the hall of fame.
Word has it he’s working on a Supreme Clientele part 2, which he's calling Blue & Cream. Expectations will be near unbeatable by the title alone. But before that, let’s focus on 36 Seasons, which comes out December 9th, but, as of yesterday, can be streamed in full here. The album is a story itself, in which Tony Starks, Ghost’s alter ego, returns to Shaolin, their hood in Staten Island, after nine years (36 seasons). This is a case of Ghost actually inventing a story, with a full cast of characters, played by other rap legends, and the incredible young Kandace Springs, who sings the heartarchingly soft woes of “Bamboo,” Ghost’s former lover and, ultimately, the force that beckons him back to Shaolin. 36 Seasons comes with its own comic—the whole thing is something that’s meant to be appreciated for its tangible quality--and Ghost is able to make each scene spring into live-action as soon as he starts.
“Love Don’t Live Here No More” starts with Starks skipping down the block, lost in a rosy pink cloud of young love. Kandace’s faint “ooohs” have the butterflies in flight. But as with many of Ghost’s past love songs, he isn’t prepared for the possibility of hurt. He’s been gone for nine years, and he’s surprised she isn’t happy to see him. She has a family now. So it’s like that? Tony thought this was a man’s world; he’s gotta do his time, fight his crime, and have his woman there when he’s finally ready to come home. But it ain’t Bonnie & Clyde no more. It's not the same place anymore, as Tony will find out again and again throughout the album. This song is relatively short and sweet compared to Ghost’s typical fare, but, even as he’s technically in character, it’s one of the most heartfelt stories of the year. No abstruse metaphors or slang terms that’ll leave you scouring web forums. No gang raids. Not even much of a fight between Tony and Bamboo. Just a man getting turned down at his old stomping grounds by the girl, now woman, who's the last vestige of what once was. Too little too late.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib- "Harold's"
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No games, just real thug shit from Freddie Gibbs, a man no one's accusing of pretending. He's too controlled, his stories too authentic--you believe every word he lays down. Not only believe, you see it. Gibbs, cold, rarely excitable, isn't the flashiest rapper, but his words carry strong imagery. There's women, there's weed (a surprising amount considering his sober delivery), there's respect. But smiles last a moment, everything in its right place, and it's just another day in East Gary, Indiana, where the hustle never stops. Don't tell Freddie about his enemies like he's asleep on the job: "what you lookin for bitch I got em." Piñata (explicitly titled Cocaine Piñata), his collaborative album with the legendary beat konducta Madlib, released in March, is filled with Gibbs's no-frills gangster realism. He's not proud, he's not sorry, he's just putting his story out there. Gibbs undoubtedly has a bank full of horror tales he could pull from, but, on Piñata, the most effective storytelling comes on his most humble track. Gibbs says he sees Piñata as "blaxploitation on wax," and Madlib definitely provides the soundtrack. "Harold's" plays as the credits are finally fading out. It's soft, nostalgic, a snapshot of a day in the life.
"Harold's" is a chicken shop chain from South Chicago, which seeped into Gary's east side. As a kid, as a special treat, Gibbs' mother used to bring him Harold's during her lunch hour. At the end of the video, we see an image of the shut down, abandoned, windows-only joint that was the Harold's of Gibbs's childhood, adolescence--up until he got the hell out of Gary. The video shows Gibbs back in Gary with a different perspective, but ever at home. He makes sure to hit a nearby Harold's whenever he's in the area, and one bite of the chicken brings him back. By the end of the song, you'll have his order memorized: "six wing mild sauce, with all the fries you can give me, I tear them bitches off." Extra sauce, bread stuck to the bottom--it's as essential as taking the SIM out of the cell phone, or making sure the 9 mm's tucked away before exiting the house. Harold's was there from the beginning of Gangsta Gibbs, superfried binges compensating for the hungry days, leaving just enough meat on his bones to make it through the long Gary winter. Snitches, good girls gone bad, cold air in smoked out lungs. Then came the money: new ride, new gats, this time returning to Gary with a gold Rolex adorning his wrist. In the end, it all comes back to Harold's, a place where real Gs can get some grub. The simple things.
Kevin Gates- "Movie"
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Kevin Gates has a vocal aggression that would scare off most trap-house rappers/shouters. He yells, he wails, almost cries, and bends it all in and out of a sometimes incomprehensible drawl. You worry he's gonna spit out blood. But he's not just good for club happy, bass-breaking anthems: He's got a story to tell. The beats Gates raps over are some of the most ruthless in the game. Makes sense-- the only beats that can match the adrenaline of Gates' Baton Rouge non-stop no sleep murder stories. With March's By Any Means, Gates has, since the beginning of last year, released three critically-acclaimed mixtapes in a row. "That shit sounded like an album" can be claimed for each. Now signed to Atlantic, we're awaiting his major label debut, and wondering: will he ever calm down? Can a style so abrasive succeed in the majors? What separates Gates from other Louisiana rappers are his narratives--up-front and brutal true-to-life encounters. Thankfully for the meek, his most resonant story on By Any Means is one you can sit down for. It's soft, uplifting--in fact, it's deeply moving. On "Movie," Gates takes us through the births of his first two children, girl and boy, respectively. He was absent for the first and there for the second, both incidents shaking him to the core.
The song starts with what sounds like a pre-recorded interview: "So what would you say has changed?" Right off, you know this is one of Gates' more introspective numbers. He begins to talk. Who knows if this is an actual recorded conversation, or if he's talking to the mic, but it sounds like he's speaking with a close friend, tripped up by the emotion of it all. He segues into his first verse, the birth of his daughter. He's in California recording, when he gets a FaceTime-- this is important: she's in labor; it's gonna be a home birth. He flies back to New Orleans, picks up his car, hauls the seven hour drive to Atlanta, where his girl's staying. Finally, he backs in the garage, sprints up the stairs, and sees his newborn daughter for the first time. "And she ain't open her eyes until she heard me talkin'." November 30th was the DOB, a month early. Christmas came early.
Birth #2. He's vowed to be here for this one. This time, he's in Baton Rouge on a video shoot, but that doesn't mean he was ready when he got the hospital call. He's in the middle of shooting the "Satellites" vid, and production fees don't come cheap. He rushes to the Baton Rouge Women's Hospital, and right when he arrives, there's panic. The baby's no longer kicking, and the doctors have to resort to a C-section. Don't let his loudness and charisma fool you-- Gates isn't all pride and no regret. He knows his past actions have caused others a world of pain. But he's here now, and he's staying with his woman, under operating lights, for the entire procedure. The surgeon untwists the umbilical cord from around the baby boy's neck, pulls him out unscathed, and hands him to Gates. A humbled, still terrified, new father, alone with his son. Pause. Then he's right back in front of the camera, gotta finish the shoot. At this point, a delirious Gates is barely separating fact from fiction. The whole damn thing's a movie.
Run The Jewels- "Early"
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Killer Mike and El-P are one of the most unlikely pairs in rap, but in 2014, they might just be the hottest. You probably know Mike from his early 00s work with OutKast. He made his debut on Stankonia (not bad), and had a guest spot on "The Whole World" a year later. He's immediately recognizable, with a booming voice that can only come from a man his size. Plus he's got the speed, flexibility, and, somehow, the endurance to go toe-to-toe with both Big Boi and Dre. His solo work never got the exposure it deserved, though. Definitely a case of too hard for the radio. Surprisingly, he's found commercial success as part of Run The Jewels, which, in many ways, is his weirdest project to date. El-P, the other half, has always been revered among underground dwellers, and it looked like that's where his career would stay. As a rapper, his rhymes serve as cryptic, but aggressive, escapes from the void. As producer, he merges banging B-boy breakbeats with helter-skelter electronics. Together, with Mike as Run The Jewels, they're just what the doctor ordered.
El produced the entirety of Mike's (killer) album R.A.P. Music. A year later, they formed Run The Jewels, and put out a self-titled album to much acclaim. They recently released RTJ2, and it's their best work yet. Mike, a self-proclaimed Pan-African gangster rapper, has always rapped about the street injustices he's seen first hand. His rhymes are fraught with unhinged social commentary. El is less direct, as he's often raps as an onlooker--perhaps because of his race, but that's not to say his observations lack any acuity. He's a soothsayer with a full hip-hop vocabulary. What they share is a fundamental drive to say whatever's on their mind (no matter who's listening), and a distrust of the powers that be. RTJ2 is an attack on the establishment, sucker MCs, false prophets, and all fuck boys in general.
Specific issues aren’t really targeted in full, except on “Early,” a lesson in police brutality and unchecked power. Mike, usually larger than life, sounds particularly humble as he begins to unfold the album’s most gripping story. He starts out saying, “the life that I’m livin’ man, I don’t control / Every day I’m in a fight for my soul.” All he wants to do is “smoke and chill” in his front yard, but that doesn’t sit well with the men on patrol. His medicine is enough to prompt an interrogation, the extent of which is yet to be decided. The interaction is unfriendly to begin with, but not on Mike’s part— even though he appears, and very much is, frantic at the thought of being tied up in front of his wife and son, his pride and joy. Sensing resistance, the cops now see Mike as a threat. Mike’s father was a cop, and he used to hold the badge in high esteem. But that was then. Two minutes ago, he assumed he was safe in his own home. Now, from the back of a cop car, he’s hearing his woman screaming for him. She’s next in line. More screams: his little boy, seeing his mom, his “gorgeous queen,” down on the ground with a gun pointed at her. To any witness of such a chain of events, the badge can only signify one thing: Terror.
El’s turn. He’s doesn’t narrate a personal story of pain on his verse, but he’s still fighting to find his sea legs, “high seas on a rickety boat.” He, too, has lost any sense of control. The powers that be run on just that: power and nothing else. In response to the murder of Mike Brown, Killer Mike issued a warning to all Americans, and El’s piece here echoes that sentiment. Everyone’s being watched except the watchers. This easily could be a reference to Ferguson, but El goes on to say that he heard a gunshot, could’ve been a couple blocks away. Later on, he’ll hear, “a kid plus pops watched, cop make girl bleed.” Though he was personally unaffected, he was right next to what happened to Mike in the first verse. He’ll go home, go to sleep, wake up early, 9 to 5, right back in the machine. It seems Mike is the victim here, and El is part of the problem, but, in the end, his narrative joins with Mike’s to show everyone is in danger. When sanctioned force knows no restraint, the whole country’s in a fight for its soul. Heroes and villains aside, Mike and El are here to deliver a heavy dose of wake the fuck up.
Watch below as Mike, El, and BOOTS, who's responsible for the song's infectious hook, take network TV with a totally gut-wrenching performance on Letterman.
Vince Staples- "Nate"
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There's hope for you youngsters: one of the year's most compelling story comes from a 21-year-old. Long Beach native Vince Staples has been associated with Odd Future, though he's not officially part of the crew. After being kicked out of his mother's house, he moved into the crib of OF producer Syd tha Kid (female half of duo The Internet). A main recording spot for the Gang, it was here Staples met cats like Mike G and Earl Sweatshirt--he appeared on Earl's self-titled coming-out tape, as well as on last year's Doris. Insiders have been charting Staples' come-up since his first mixtape. He's now released four, and recently his first EP, hype circulating exponentially with each release. Label scouts must have recognized, too, as he was quietly signed by Def Jam before he put out his EP in October. Thankfully, Hell Can Wait is the furthest thing from a major label sell-out imaginable.
Though every cut from Hell Can Wait can vie for a spot here, our favorite Vince Staples story comes off Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, released in March. Coldchain 2 is Staples' first mixtaple since reportedly signing to Def Jam (no wonder that No I.D. produced over half the tape). The OF comparisons continue as Staples has a wild imagination and sometimes grotesque sense of humor, or anti-humor, but Staples' raps have always operated on street-level, and the pain and violence comes from somewhere a little closer to home. On "Nate," the name of his father, he takes us literally inside his home, and it's not always a friendly place. As a child (as seen in the video), Vince sees his father through lights of confusion, fear, and admiration. Vince opens the song in shocking fashion, claiming, "As a kid all I wanted was to kill a man." 'Cause his daddy did it. And what kid doesn't wanna be just like daddy?
Obviously, Vince no longer sees his dad the way he did as a kid. Without commenting on his current familial situation, we know the absence of a father has shaped his path to adulthood and his music, too. He sees the hopelessness of his father's drug operation, as well as his drug addiction, no longer confused about the bandana on his arm. He fully feels his mother's pain, understanding why she wouldn't answer the door, and her pleading resuscitation efforts, not just a late-night slumber. Despite the content, "Nate" is, sound-wise, one of Staples' most, if you will, soothing joints--thanks in large part to the looping horns from "Poetic Justice" architect Scoop DeVille. And there's also some nostalgia here. The memories that shine most brightly are the good ones-- man-to-man father-son advice, new Jordans for the first day of school, and that immaculate vision of his daddy "riding around the city with the seat back." These images seem to keep up with, sometimes obscuring, the most painful ones, including the final crash-and-burn scene, the cops seizing his dad from his own home. The cute kid with the afro turns into a confident present-day Vince Staples, standing on the corner with his crew, still knowing his father's dreams aren't (weren't) so different from his own. He doesn't forgive, forget, or apologize, telling it like it is. His vision isn't easy to swallow, but it's hard to imagine something more real.