The Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2013
An Excerpt From 2013: A Year In Review
By Nathan G. O'Brien on Scene Point Blank
Well, here we have yet another installment of our year-end best-of coverage. Our music-loving, wordsmith workhorse Nathan has compiled a list of the 30 best full-length hip-hop albums from the past twelve months. Take a look and let us know what you think!
Well, they went and did it again. Following a year that saw El-P and Killer Mike releasing two of the best albums in any genre, let alone rap music, both of which were produced by El-P, the two returned as the duo Run The Jewels. And as it was expected to be by anyone who loves rap music and has a Twitter account, Run The Jewels is actually the best rap album to drop in 2013. El-Ps beats were deep, scientific, tense, and so far beyond bass-heavy, that they needed to be heard with headphones (and possibly a senses-heightening substance) to be fully appreciated. Cadence-wise, the duo attacked each track with sweltering intensity and unrestrained emotion. Their verses effortlessly traversed between humorous witticism and cutthroat battering.
2. Tie: Gensu Dean & Planet Asia – Abrasions (Mello Music Group) and Durag Dynasty – 360 Waves (Nature Sounds)
Fresno, CA’s veteran underground emcee, Planet Asia had two of the year’s best rap albums—Abrasions with beatsmith Gensu Dean and 360 Waves with the Durag Dynasty posse. MMG has a knack for pairing the right producers and emcees up with favorable results—as evidenced by last year’s Apollo Brown & OC - Trophies and Guilty Simpson & Apollo Brown—and the Dean/Asia combo was one of the latest. Gensu Dean, who’d gone largely unknown up to this point, crafted simplistic yet alluring loops rooted in boom-bap nostalgia. As usual, Planet Asia masterfully rocked the mic with his commanding presence and sharp rhymes. Durag Dynasty found him teaming up with emcees Tristate and Killer Ben, and prolific beat master Alchemist. Although there was a minimal air of comedy involved, mostly due to imagery and the fact that they’re called, you know, Durag Dynasty, 360 Waves was an exercise in grimy cypher rap – a prominent example of mic skill and hard beats. These two albums appealed to heads who want more out of their rap music than a clever hook and a generic trap beat.
Detroit emcee Guilty Simpson has worked alongside some of the hottest producers in the game. With full-length collabos flanking Madlib, Black Milk, and Apollo Brown already under his belt, he stepped out in 2013 with burgeoning beatsmith Small Professor. Highway Robbery was a concept that was set in post-apocalyptic Detroit, where Simpson’s signature rhyme scheme told the story of survival in the concrete jungle, while Small Professor’s menacing, percussion heavy, scratched-up boom-bap pounded its way forward in neck-snapping fashion.
4. Ill Bill –The Grimy Awards (Fat Beats)
Over a decade has passed since The Future Is Now, the debut album by the now-defunct group Non Phixion, which featured a grip of hip-hop’s most sought-after producers and some menacing and poignant lyricism, and the vehicle that placed Ill Bill immediately into the annals of underground hip-hop greatness. For the latest in a fertile catalog of work that includes numerous collabos, supergroups, mixtapes and solo records, Ill Bill returned to that early formula of using high profile beatsmiths and spitting venomous rhymes. The album featured backing from the likes of Large Professor, Pete Rock, the Beatnuts, DJ Muggs, El-P, and DJ Premier, which of course droves the sonic direction into hard-hitting boom-bap. But Ill Bill’s lyricism and delivery was totally on point too. Not only did he do the requisite murder and paranoid conspiracy raps, but he got deeply personal about his life, loved ones, and how much hip-hop (and even heavy metal) shaped him. The Grimy Awards was as near a “classic” rap record as we’ve heard in a while.
Roc Marciano makes noir-style rap music that’s perfect for a headphone session. Whether riding a train through the city or laid back on the couch with a splif, Roc’s gravely accent and distressing wordplay swirls its way into your ears, demanding your astute attention. Marci Beaucoup was ripe with his enthralling production; managing to sound experimental while still exhibiting evident nuances of classic New York hip-hop. While he handled all the beats and appeared on every song, he also brought aboard a bevy of guest emcees including Evidence, Quelle Chris, Ka, Boldy James, Action Bronson and Guilty Simpson.
6. Pusha T – My Name is My Name (Def Jam / GOOD music)
After turning in a somewhat disappointing trap-orientated mixtape in the Wrath of Caine early in the year, Pusha T came back hard with a capital H on his debut album My Name is My Name. Against a backdrop of alluring, and often times mean-sounding beats handled mostly by Kanye West, Pusha was the most urgent and focused he had been since his Clipse days. Whether he came with braggadocios rhyme style or was sharing personal insights—often times switching up his cadence and using different vocal tones—he kept you glued to your headphones throughout the duration of the album. In many ways, My Name is My Name is the good kid/m.A.A.d. City of 2013.
Twelve Reasons to Die was the latest in a recent catalog of hits ‘n’ misses for the Wu Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah. More in line with the hits Fishscale and Apollo Kids than the misses The Big Doe Rehab or Ghostdini, the album was produced entirely by beat-maker Adrian Younge, and narrated by Wu head honcho RZA. Twelve Reasons was a concept album of sorts. Ghost starred as Tony Starks, a former enforcer for a crime family, who was murdered by the mob after falling in love with the boss's daughter. His remains were melted in vinyl and pressed into a dozen LPs that, when played, revivified him as the Ghostface Killah. He then exacted his revenge on his killers. It’s often been said that rap music is cinema for the ears, and it couldn’t be truer with Twelve Reasons. Not since a Prince Paul album, do I recall story time rap being taken to this level. The synergy between Young and Ghost is so air-tight it’s hard to believe this was the first project they’ve done together.
8. Tie: A$AP Ferg – Trap Lord and A$AP Rocky – LongLiveA$AP (A$AP Worldwide / Polo Grounds Music / RCA)
A$AP Mob’s biggest stars released albums this year; beginning with A$AP Rocky’s long-awaited LongLiveA$AP in January, and ending with A$AP Ferg’s highly-anticipated Trap Lord in August. The two records complement each other well, as Rocky fits in well with the oddball party rap styling of Danny Brown or 2 Chains, while Ferg holds down the thuggy gangsta end of things. As well, both records are shining of examples of what popular hip-hop sounds like in the year 2013. That is to say, despite geographic location (in this case NYC) the South’s impact (trap in particular) on rap music cannot be ignored.
In a career that dates back to the early ‘90s, Legends Never Die was actually only the second album from boxing fan/cult film aficionado/hip-hop historian/magazine writer/rapper R.A. the Rugged Man. Although the album featured guest spots from the likes of Talib Kweli, Tech N9ne, Masta Ace, and Brother Ali, it was R.A. who shone the brightest. The album showed he had grown as an emcee in the nine years since his last release. He flexed a breathless, multi-syllable style of rhyme-slinging, against a backdrop of boom-bap provided by Buckwild, Apathy, C-Lance, Marco Polo and others.
10. Quelle Chris – Ghost at the Finish Line (Mello Music Group)
Following an excellent mixtape titled Niggas is Men early in the year, Detroit emcee/producer Quelle Chris dropped his latest album, Ghost at the Finish Line. It was an insightful look at “art and life, and the realities and illusions that blur the two.” The album featured guest spots from a number of notables, including Alchemist, Guilty Simpson, House Shoes, Black Milk and more. Beats were handled by Denmark Vessey, Knxwledge, Oh No, Chris Keys, and Quelle Chris himself. Ghost at the Finish Line was Chris’ best effort to date.
After an involuntary stay in boarding school, Odd Future’s cult-like figure Earl Sweatshirt returned to the limelight that had been awaiting him for three-plus years. Doris was the genius piece of art fans and critics alike had been waiting for since 2010. While Earl’s lyricism and rhyme play was as impressive as expected, and largely free of the murder ‘n’ misogyny that ruled his previous material, much of the albums brilliance came at the hand of his producer alter ego “randomblackdude.” Doris was full of brooding, cloudy beats that helped convey an overall feeling of a dark reality.
12. Freddie Gibbs – ESGN (ESGN, Empire Distribution)
Gary, Indiana’s Freddie Gibbs is one of hip-hop’s emerging talents and somewhat of an enigma in the rap game; seemingly as comfortable collabing with well-known producers like Madlib as he is rapping over disposable trap beats. After a string of successful mixtapes dating back to 2004, Gangsta Gibbs finally unleashed his debut album ESGN unto the eager masses. While there were a few slight drawbacks—the majority of the production was done by relatively unknown trap producers, and the whole thing clocked in at 75-plus minutes—there were more than enough high points to make it stand apart, where other albums were easily lost in the shuffle. As far as delivery goes, Gibbs was near-perfect throughout the entire album, proving that he can hold his own alongside some gangster raps most historically revered artists.
Brooklyn’s little-known emcee/producer Ka is a working class professional by day who makes rap music on the side. His D.I.Y. or die approach to hip-hop is straight punk rock. He’s the type of hushed innovator that goes largely unnoticed by the masses but is held in esteemed regard among underground heads. While it’s often stated that he resides in the boom-bap nostalgia of the ‘90s, his beats on The Night’s Gambit were too ominous and ambient for that comparison for that to be wholly accurate. In fact, often times he used no drums at all. Instead he relied on simple orchestral loops, which worked well with his vocal tone. Much like his compadre Roc Marciano, his usual gravelly voice effectively transmitted the dark subject matter of his song writing.
14. Inspectah Deck and 7L & Esoteric – Czarface (Brick)
Revisiting a collaboration that first appeared on the title track of Speaking Real Words, the debut EP by 7L & Esoteric, the Beantown duo teamed up with Wu-Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck again. Some 14 years later the three veterans came together with a full-length superhero project titled Czarface. Taking into account the back catalog of the parties involved, it came as no surprise that the modus operandi was gritty, hard-line boom-bap. The album was a clear indication that both Esoteric, at over a decade in the game, and Deck, at nearly twice as long, are still exceptional rhyme-slingers. The two effortlessly intertwine braggadocios liberetti with a myriad of cleverly placed pop culture references, and did so at well-paced clips. During a period of rap music that sees increasingly less emphasis placed actual mic skills in favor of marketable personality, Deck and Esoteric remind listeners that emceeing is still a true art form.
G.O.Y.A. found Lawrence, MA’s Termanology picking up where last year’s Fizzyology, his collabo project with Lil Fame of M.O.P. left off. It was another unapologetic dose of potent East Coast street rap, from an emcee that’s lived that life. In the past Term had worked with well-known producers like DJ Premier and Statik Selektah, but in keeping with the unforgiving griminess of this project, his entire beat selection came at the hands of a relative unknown in Shortfyuz.
16. Tie: Boldy James & Alchemist – My 1st Chemistry Set (Decon / Mass Appeal) and Prodigy & Alchemist – Albert Einstein (Infamous)
Beatmaker extraordinaire Alchemist had yet another productive year. Aside from Durag Dynasty, he also provided the soundscapes for longtime collaborator Prodigy of Mobb Deep on Albert Einstein and up ‘n’ comer Boldy James on My 1st Chemistry Set. Alchemist’s genius has never been about pushing his emcees into new territory, but rather his ability to compliment their strong points with apropos beats. The production on Albert Einstein hit a little harder and was more on the boom-bap tip, which matched Prodigy’s gritty, braggadocios rhymes well. My 1st Chemistry Set found him providing ominous, orchestral beats that rolled in sync with Boldy’s laidback, oft-monotonous rapping.
While Old was a bit of a departure from Danny Browns previous material, it’s not at all surprising that the guy that has a fucked-up emo-style haircut, sponges much of his fashion sense from punk rockers, gets oral sex on stage from fans (allegedly,) and calls himself the Black Brad Pitt, would go and put out a rap album with left-field techno beats on it, and a confusing narrative. For half of the album he was exercising the demons of his former life. The other half he was celebrating his current life, which, if you’re not paying close enough attention to the details, sounded a lot like his old life. But that was part of the brilliancy of Old – it was blatantly honest. Brown packed his verses with an interpersonal commitment to the details as he set up the scenes, told the stories, and expressed how he felt about all of it.
18. Denmark Vessey & Scud One – Cult Classic (Dirty Science)
Produced in full by Chicagoan Scud One, the sonic direction of Cult Classic relied heavily on simplistic soul, R&B, and psychedelic rock sample flips. Detroit emcee Denmark Vessey spun a tale of an ambitious rapper who somehow ended up becoming a cult religious leader when hip-hop didn’t provide him the fame and riches he had hoped it would. As far as rap concept albums go, and one about religion no less, Cult Classic worked really well thanks to tight deejay / emcee synchronicity. Much like frequent collaborator Quelle Chris (who appeared on one track) Vessey’s lyricism and off-kilter flow kept listeners engaged throughout the entire album, while Scud One's beats helped things move along nicely.
Much like 2009's Depart From Me, Cage’s 2013 album Kill The Architect may not have jumped out and grabbed the listener immediately the way Hell’s Winter or Movies for the Blind did. But after spending some time with it, it became clear that that was never the intention. This record was more about the journey than it was the impact. No, he didn’t recapture the glory of his first two albums, but unlike Eminem, who he is oftentimes unfairly compared to, he wasn’t at all trying to. Cage has indeed killed the architect, just as he departed from himself last time around. (Perhaps it’s time to start taking his album titles literally.) This album showed us a Chris Palko that has long grown bored of backpacker boom-bap and shock value rap. He slowed his cadence and employed the trip-hop production of DJ Mighty Mi, the Eastern Conference label head whom he’d recently reconciled with. It’s unfair to compare this record to his previous ones, as many a critic have. It’s not that it wasn’t good; it was just a different kind of good.
20. Swollen Members – Beautiful Death Machine (Suburban Noize)
Beautiful Death Machine was the eighth studio album by the Vancouver, British Columbia rap group, Swollen Members. It was the type of record that requires complete attention and repeated plays to fully sink in. Emcees Madchild and Prevail spit crazy-provocative lyricism that pierced the cerebrum; while Rob The Viking twisted-up mesmerizing, neck-snapping beats. The whole thing was dark and perverse. Both lyrically and in delivery, the two emcees were completely on point throughout the entire record. Beautiful Death Machine was clearly a focused attempt to snatch rap supremacy by the throat and strangle it into submission.
In what has been rumored to happen for several years now, emcee Del the Funky Homosapien, producer Dan the Automator, and deejay Kid Koala came together again to reform the futuristic alt hip-hop group Deltron 3030. For the first time since 2000 Event 2 found Del reprising his role as Deltron Zero, a hero here to take on the giant corporations and big governments that attempt to rule the world. Only this time around his outlook was a little bleaker. His rhymes were as on point as ever, but he’d dialed back the humor a bit, in favor of a more focused lyricism. For better or worse, listening to Event 2 reminded you of everything that’s gone wrong in the World in the last 13 years.
22. Kool G Rap & Necro (Godfathers) – Once Upon a Crime (Psycho + Logical)
Once Upon a Crime was the result of two storied NYC impresarios teaming up for some murderous, street-heavy, horrorcore rap theatrics. Godfathers is legendary, influential rap master Kool G Rap and emcee/producer Necro . Most of the record’s production was similar to that of Necro’s previous work—ripe with gloomy, repetitive loops and simple yet hard-hitting drums. The two emcees painted narratives of violent criminals who spit one evil-tongued, gruesome and violent threat after another throughout the duration of the album. As far as delivery is concerned, it came as no surprise that Kool G Rap, who is often credited as the inventor of gangsta rap, clearly outshone that of his makeshift understudy Necro. However both had such tightly-wound raps that they complemented each other well. There was absolutely no positivity or consciousness within’ the confines of Once Upon a Crime. Rather it existed in the vein that rap music often does: escapism for escapism’s sake.
Intelligence & Ignorance was the latest in a long string of releases dating back to 1991 for Boston veteran emcee Edo. G. Over the course of 10 tracks Edo explored the dual existence of that which the album was named. There were songs that advocated intellect, empowerment, and positivity as well as tracks that dipped into in the mindless pursuit of material wealth and the discord of ignorance. The majority of the production was handled by Microphono, who provided soulful boom-bap beats.
24. Tie: Marco Polo – Newport Authority 2 (Spaghetti Blender) and Marco Polo – PA2: The Director's Cut (Soulspazm)
NYC’s Marco Polo put out two the year’s best producer albums. Newport Authority 2 dropped first; featuring a bunch of songs that “politics and industry bullshit” prevented from appearing on his soon to be released PA2: The Director’s Cut. He added intros and interludes, had deejays Shylow and DJ Revolution drop record scratches on it, and then got it mastered as an official album. It featured veteran emcees like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Tragedy Khadafi and Das EFX, as well as contemporaries like Torae, Big Gutta, and Jaysaun. Later in the year PA2 came out. It was chock full of his signature boom-bap production, narration by Michael Rapaport, and more cuts from DJ Revolution. The emcee feature list was a virtual who’s who of the genre’s most revered and highly skilled rhyme slingers. Organized Konfusion, Ill Bill, Rah Digga, Large Professor, Inspektah Deck, O.C., MC Eiht, King Tee, Lil Fame, Styles P, and Masta Ace, and several others dropped verses. Both records were prime examples of tailor-made boom-bap that appealed to Golden Era aficionados and underground heads alike.
The Chase was the debut album from Perth, Australia’s producer extraordinaire Kid Tsunami. As someone who appreciates all forms of hip-hop (at least for their mere existence, if anything) I don’t really like throwing around terms like “real hip-hop” because I think it cheapens the evolution of the art form and more-or-less excludes anything that’s not boom-bap. But I’m going to give myself a pass here and just say it: This was some real-ass hip-hop! Dude is a student of the game, as he has obviously immersed himself in classic hip-hop. And by that, yes, I do mean BOOM-BAP. The Chase was 16 tracks, constructed from soul, jazz and funk sample flips, with a ton of storied emcees rhyming on them. Kool Keith, Sean Price, OC, Masta Ace, Sadat X, J-Live, Craig G, AG, Kool G Rap, KRS-One, Pharaoh Monch, Jeru the Damaja, and others all took turns in the booth. DJ Bless also left his mark on the project, as he flexed his impeccable turntablism skills, mixing the whole thing together and dropping some serious cut-laden hooks.
26. DJ Skizz - B.Q.E. (Brooklyn-Queens Experience) (Soulspazm, Inc.)
B.Q.E. was the debut album from DJ Skizz, a producer and turntablist known for his work behind the boards of heavyweights like Lil Fame, Havoc, Sean Price and countless others. Skizz culminated his 10-plus years in game with an album full of hard-knocking boom-bap beats, record scratching, and grimy versus courtesy of A.G., Cormega, Craig G., Ill Bill, Infamous Mob, Masta Ace, O.C., Tragedy Khadafi, Roc Marciano and a whole bunch of other rugged-tongued East Coast emcees. When I say “hip”, you say “hop!”
Deejay/producer/rapper/radio show host Tony Touch entered the rap game during the renaissance era of the early 1980s. Influenced by pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, Red Alert, and Jam Master Jay, he focused his interest on the turntables. For his sixth album, that he wanted to do something special to pay tribute to era in which he came up. So over the course of two years, he took his time compiling beats and securing verses from some of his favorite contemporary rappers. The end result was The Piece Maker 3: Return Of the 50 MCs, a compilation of beats, rhymes, and turntable cuts that celebrated an era of rap music when boom-bap was king and strong mic skills were crucial to an emcee’s survival. If you could only had one album to rock a party with this year, Return of the 50 MCs was it.
28. Oh No – Disrupted Ads (Kash Roc Entertainment)
Early in the year beatsmith and sometimes emcee Oh No, released Disrupted Ads, his production-based album structured loosely around an infomercial-styled cigarette ad from the days before cancer. It was a well-formed and creative compilation of musical snippets, retro audio samples, and brief emcee appearances from the likes of Rapsody, Psalm One, Tristate, and Souls of Mischief. Its moody, psychedelic, and dystopian soundtrack played like neck-snapping cinema for the ears.
After spinning his wheels in 2012—teaming up for uninspired full-length projects with Termanology and Reks—deejay/producer/ perennial workhorse Statik Selektah returned in 2013 with a solid solo outing titled Extended Play. Front to back, the album was jam-packed with hard-hitting beats, faultless vinyl cuts, and cipher-style emceeing that followed the boom-bap blueprint of forefathers like DJ Premiere and Pete Rock. At 18 tracks and a monstrous 38 guest emcees, some of whom make more than one appearance, Extended Play was a nonstop hour of real-ass hip-hop party music.
30. P-Money – Gratitude (Dawn Raid / Duck Down / Dirty)
NYC by way of New Zealand producer P-Money returned with his sixth album Gratitude. After the dance-orientated styling of his last album, he reverted back to his hip-hop roots with a grip of head-nodding East Coast-style boom-bap beats and a bit of R&B. Clocking in at a favorable 40 minutes; Gratitude featured emcees Talib Kweli, Pac Div, Skyzoo, M.O.P., Freddie Gibbs, Havoc, Buckshot and Roc Marciano.
Take a look at the rest of Scene Point Blank's 2013: A Year In Review feature here.
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