While there are undoubtedly about 250 hip-hop albums that have dropped since the invention of the genre which are more important and better than what March produced, the month released more good albums for the genre than many previous years in the past decade in just 31 days.
Like any genre, at some point people start to talk about how it has expired or in a worse way turned into something fraudulent. Hip-hop and rap, genres that once seemed more distinct and now intertwined, have radically changed over the last 20 or 30 years. The genre has struggled on, occasional releases by talented groups or artists scatter across the timeline of the genre as the stale and embarrassing cluster the longer that the timeline stretches out.
Enter March, 2015. The year was already off to a massive start with a January release from Joey Bada$$ that was straight fire, borrowing heavily from an older New York sound, a sound from a time when the teenage Bada$$ might not have even yet been born. Following that release, the news of potential work from Kanye West, Jay Z and A$AP Rocky perked the ears of casual fans and gave the genre the mainstream jolt it needed to get 2015 into gear. In February, human-vegetable Drake dropped an album, which I am forced to assume he wrote his own lines for, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. If his verses are on par with his past work and his deadlifting form, I can only assume it sucks. In fairness, I have had the good fortune to not listen so I cannot state with complete certainty that it is awful. However, there is no denying that a Drake album does keep rap on the general public’s radar.
But this past month? My old friends and I developed a saying one night, a saying that I hope to never forget, “How did it get to be like this?” And how did March get to be like this; a single month where so many unique voices from within the fold of the hip-hop genre released albums that didn’t just perpetuate but are potentially shaping the genre moving forward. Let’s do a quick rundown of possibly the single most insane month of hip-hop releases in the history of time and dinosaurs and space. This is the approximate order in which I rank these albums, though not precise as I have not taken the time to listen to each of these albums in full ten times which is what a true ranking deserves.
Ghostface Killah & BADBADNOTGOOD – Sour Soul (February 24th)
Anything Ghostface does is worth listening to. While the Wu-Tang Clan seems more of a relic or t-shirt branding you might find at Spencer’s these days, it would be a mistake to dismiss anything that one of the Clan’s members does. Ghostface has been killing it for over two decades and shows no signs of slowing down. I could blast out another three thousand words right now about all the other members of the Wu-Tang, but I won’t. Let’s just leave that at the greatest grouping of hip-hop/rap pioneers, visionaries and radicals that had actual talent and helped shape an entire culture. How does Ghostface reinvent himself? Oh, just joins up with BADBADNOTGOOD to create probably the single most chill-jazz hip-hop albums of all-time.
Heems – Eat Pray Thug
Here’s the thing about Heems. I don’t really like his work all that much and I never got into Das Racist all that much either. There is a certain movement out there which is way into artists taking mainstream beats, going a bit off-kilter and then throwing in some sensational hyper-political vibes and I am not part that scene. I think that Heems is talented and should be celebrated for the work that he has been noted for doing in New York City. But the work he is doing in NYC and the things that he is putting on record are two different things for me and I’m not sure how to feel about it. I’m not going to get too deep on this. I won’t be surprised if a lot of people like Heems, but after all the other music that dropped this month, I won’t be surprised if I never come across this again. The aptly titled “Pop Song (Games)” really does have a fantastically catching, poppy beat and probably highlights the album for me. Mostly because I hear something in it that is very Jai Paul and I want a Jai Paul album immediately.
Da Mafia 6ix – Watch What U Wish
So, I’ve listened to Three Six Mafia for a long time. I’d have to put it at some point in 1990s when I first heard them. I remember being in a metalcore band in the early 2000s and I had the sound man play “Weak Ass Bitch” to open our set. I was amused, not too worried about how that impacted anyone else. Ah, to be young and dumb(er) again. I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t realize that DJ Paul is still doing things and I believe that is a really good thing. I didn’t buy or download the new album. I did this entire hot take from a YouTube stream of the album. The only thing I can say about Da Mafia 6ix at this point is how in the hell do they keep coming up with awesome beats!? “Dat Ain’t Inya” is like a really bizarre trip on some syrup and a horror movie that has the same garbage lyricism that has defined the Three Six empire, but somehow the beat is actually fun and enjoyable at a loud volume. Did I mention that the album features a guest spot from Insane Clown Posse. Welcome to March, 2015, everybody! Da Three 6ix: keeping horrorcore and syrup real.
Ludacris – Ludaversal
I can’t rank this higher than Heems, Da Mafia 6ix or Wale. It isn’t good. I do not like it. I really liked the movie No Strings Attached and he was not good in it. I would rather watch his parts in No Strings Attached edited together, 20 times in a row, than listen to Ludaversal ever again. If you feel yourself disagreeing with me; a) stop, b) open your iTunes, Spotify, whatever, and c) listen to Word of Mouf and never ever acknowledge this new album. Or maybe I’m taking too hard of a line based off of a couple really bad tracks, because this song, “Beast Mode,” isn’t that bad.
Wale – The Album About Nothing
Wale, in all honesty, ended up on my radar with his mixtape only because I love Seinfeld. And he only stays on my radar because he does things with Jerry Seinfeld from time to time. Wale famously blew up when his last album got a bad review, but I didn’t think it was very good. Wale has returned to the Seinfeld vibe in full force with The Album About Nothing. There is a different feel to this album for me and I honestly can’t tell if I am being swayed by the appearance of Jerry Seinfeld. There is a good feeling vibe on a lot of the tracks this album. The parts that shine do so spectacularly.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
I never understood why Kendrick was such a big thing on his previous album. After having a chance to hear the lead track, “The Blacker The Berry,” I was pleasantly surprised. The beat is fantastic and the lyrics are confrontational and honest. The whole album is a huge statement about society and race relations. I don’t think I have anything unique or insightful to add about Lamar’s new album, but it is absolutely worth listening to at least 15-20 times even if you aren’t sure if it is your thing. And while I kind of assumed that I knew the direction Lamar was going after his last album, I was completely wrong.
Ratking – 700 Fill
I’m always a fan of Ratking. Younger people might like, even love, Ratking. Whether it’s because they like Wiki’s flow, the groups association with Trash Talk, or the fact that it is different from a lot of their contemporaries. The new offering from Ratking is strong with me for a lot of reasons. I find their sound to be a more unique stroke on the canvas of modern rap and hip-hop. I enjoy the flow and lyricism of Wiki, reminds me of a lot of the great rappers of the 90s. Maybe that is why they are slow on the rise in 2015. People dig it, but they don’t have a point of reference of a time before 50 Cent or Lil Wayne or whoever else you want to credit for helping to usher in the current sound and content of rap. If you ever heard Kurious, Arsonists, or The Cenobites project, you probably have a point of reference for what I like so much about Ratking. You don’t have to have the same point of reference to enjoy it, but it might explain why I think it is some of the best music I’ve heard recently whereas some people see it as another whistle stop on their Spotify tour. Best part, free download “mixtape” that includes the instrumentals. Ratking keeping it one-hundred.
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Everyone knows Earl. He’s probably the most talented and interesting artist affiliated with Odd Future. Sure, Tyler the Creator is great, but there was never much to his story that he wasn’t just putting out there, making waves. Earl killed us with some of the most skilled, gruesome lyrical content at age 16. Then there was the famous incident where his mom sent him away to a boarding school in Samoa. When he returned it was clear that he had changed, which is what is supposed to happen to a boy between the ages of 16 and 18. As he continues to grow up, and away from his Odd Future roots, he continues to expand his sound and the approach to the topics that he explores. His new album is probably his best release yet, free from cameos that would otherwise slow down or detract the skill that Earl displays. In any ordinary month or year, this might be the best release, but that was before we knew what March of 2015 was all about. It is fitting that one of the highlight tracks on Earl’s new album features Wiki of Ratking, one of the few features on the new Earl album.
Cannibal Ox – Blade of the Ronin
The Cannibal Ox return is upon us. The album was well over a decade in waiting, following up the seminal “The Cold Vein” release in 2001. The initial response to the album has been underwhelming, though I would assume that is more due to people expecting to hear an album that matches up with something that was produced 14 years earlier, before the artists involved had repeatedly hinted at new work and never working together again. The release of a second LP from Cannibal Ox is a triumph on its own and even if this isn’t the same type of album that we got in 2001, even half-strength Cannibal Ox is better than any current artist who may carry the antecedent “Lil” or “Yung” so let us celebrate this fantastic album for all that it offers in 2015.
Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful
It’s true – I didn’t care about Action Bronson too much before this release! Some of my friends had been feeding me all of his highlights and I was definitely entertained, but never really sat down and locked in with anything Bronson was doing. That has finally changed with Mr. Wonderful. Bronson has put out an absolutely excellent album, better than new Wale, Kendrick, Ludacris, Ratking, Earl Sweatshirt, Da Three 6ix or Heems! He has some of the craziest videos, a larger than life character, hilarious and tremendously creative lyrics, and the ability to never take himself too seriously. You are completely enjoying listening to his album while being engaged by his larger than life visage. Hell, the track and video “Easy Rider” is probably the best thing you can experience simultaneously.
Billy Woods – Today, I Wrote Nothing
No one told me about this album. I had to actually research it after hearing to make sure that it was a new release. NO ONE TOLD ME. Billy Woods is fantastic; one of the best. For all the sensation and legitimate points raised by the new Kendrick Lamar, it is just a primer to get you focused so that you can go deeper with Billy Woods. I could say a lot, but I’ll let the songs speak for themselves. There was only one thing that was released this month which could trump Woods for me. He should be getting so much more attention and praise for the amazing work that he does. Please, please, go find this and listen to it and buy it and let Billy Woods speak to you. At first, my brain couldn’t process the length of each track, because I was looking only to be entertained and experience a standard song structure. Woods gives you more, by doing less on this new release. The tracks are all shorter, Woods is demonstrating his lyrical ability and presenting us the necessary information in an artful manner while not crafting the album so as to appeal to our brain’s conditioned expectations of music format. Right?
Death Grips – The Powers That B
I don’t really like the hipster culture or their incessant flag planting. I’m genuinely unmoved if you heard a band first, have a beard, or shop at the very pricey organic co-op. I’m glad about the co-op part, because everyone, if able, should seek to support local products, etc. But the real hipster issue is that it is a pop culture movement about being the first one to discover or like something. Trying in earnest to unearth some awful bluegrass-sounding garbage produced by college grads with trust funds. And I NEED to say all of that, because I am about to commit the great hipster sin: I have been in on Death Grips since day one. I don’t even know how I accidentally stumbled onto that first mixtape, but I’ve been hooked the whole time. While half of their new album was already leaked last year, the other half was kept much more under wraps. And it is now here. A lot of people don’t like Death Grips; don’t think it is very good. I strongly disagree. The new Death Grips album retains all of the signature Death Grips angst, vitriol, and venom but has strongly rearranged itself and somehow evolved, moving forward. Death Grips was great from the beginning because it was both amazing and unique. Some people had heard acts like Power Struggle or Dälek, but nothing quite like this. If Death Grips had just run their course and stopped, it was perfect. They risked more by coming back if they didn’t move their sound forward, if they stagnated and simply started ripping off albums that sounded like what they had always done or lost some of their artistic authenticity. Instead of cashing in and just reproducing their previous work, they again changed their sound just enough to give the listener a completely new take on the type of music they are generating. The production is more raw and they use a lot more electric guitar than you would have imagined from Death Grips based on their last few albums. For some reason it reminded me more of early Death Grips and their Live from Death Valley release. Whatever they did, the last track on the new album tells you all you need to know, “Death Grips 2.0.”
by Daniel Coughlin