Each year brings somewhere between 250 and 350 hip-hop albums and EPs. These are just the releases from rappers with some kind of audience, whether it’s Rick Ross and his multinational marketing campaign for God Forgives, I Don’t; Z-Ro and the tens of thousands that he can depend on to support Angel Dust; or the small assembly of beat-heads and avant-garde rap fans that heard Thavius Beck’s The Most Beautiful Ugly. Omit the thousands of anonymous rappers that may be just one local hit away from demanding our attention and becoming the next Chief Keef (“I Don’t Like”) and Trinidad James (“All Gold Everything”), but factor in hundreds of mixtapes that Napster occasionally carries, like Future’s Astronaut Status. The result is an overwhelming deluge of sound that’s impossible to completely process.
It’s a logistical challenge for both the artists and the listener. For the former, they often respond by selling us more music. E-40 released three volumes of The Block Brochure, and then a two-volume set with Too Short, History: Mob Music and Function Music. Each of the five separate albums was about an hour long. Rick Ross had his solo album as well as Self Made 2, a compilation featuring artists signed to his Maybach Music Group (and two official mixtapes, Rich Forever and The Black Bar Mitzvah). Tech N9ne released three EPs. Oh No released a solo album, an instrumental album, and a collaboration with rapper Chris Keys. The Alchemist released a solo album, and an album and EP with Oh No (under the name Gangrene). It’s partly the nature of hip-hop culture in the new millennium: Instead of sorting through the crap and presenting us with their best work, they unleash the full force of their creativity upon us. It’s also a canny marketing tactic that makes their brand seem omnipresent, and gives us little chance to forget their names.
For rap fans, the question of whether trying to keep up with the culture is truly worthwhile seems self-evident. But without an overarching storyline akin to the mixtapes-as-albums renaissance of 2011, hip-hop in 2012 dissembled into micro-trends: trap-rave, the Chicago drill scene, Yay Area slap, L.A.-inspired “ratchet” minimalism, EDM pop-rap, et cetera. There were the requisite number of Important Albums like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Nas’ Life Is Good, and Big K.R.I.T.’s Live from the Underground. What did it all mean?
While I’ve ranked 20 albums according to my intellectual opinion – surprise! Kendrick Lamar is No. 1 – my personal tastes are slightly different.
Here’s how I approached good kid, m.A.A.d city. I listened to it once while hacking away on my computer, and I didn't get it. Then I listened to it a second time with my undivided attention – OK, I might have played online poker or something – and finally grasped its quirky brilliance and elusive melodies. I wrote my review and haven’t returned to it much since. I've spent many more hours replaying Curren$y’s The Stoned Immaculate (which really grew on me), Jeremiah Jae’s Raw Money Raps, THEESatisfaction’s awE naturalE, Lushlife’s Plateau Vision and Roc Marciano’s Reloaded.
Should I have topped the chart with the album I like the most as a fan, or the one I respect the most as a critic? I’ll let you debate that one. But when I mull over what will represent 2012 in the years to come, I think back to two decades ago, when The Source magazine named Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s Mecca & the Soul Brother as the best album of 1992. In their haste to celebrate the East Coast’s boom-bap peak, the magazine’s staff overlooked what became a far more influential work, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and the incursion of G-funk into mainstream pop culture.
At the moment, I can’t see any candidates that eclipse Lamar, who represents what Pop Editor Rachel Devitt hilariously described as the “urban dreamer/depressive” Zeitgeist that performs a “wispy, contemplative, relatively hook-less new brand of soul.” (Lamar, meet Frank Ocean, Drake, Miguel, The Weeknd, et cetera.) It’s possible that Chief Keef’s Finally Rich -- the last album left on the 2012 schedule with the potential to make mainstream critics froth at the keyboard (and make “conscious” fans scream once again that “real” hip-hop is dead) -- will be a piece of knucklehead hotness on par with Waka Flocka Flame’s 2010 debut Flockaveli, which had a more lasting impact than I initially gave it credit for. Or maybe Finally Rich will be a compromise of gangbanging nonsense and bland urban pop hooks like Waka’s 2012 follow-up, Triple F Life: Friends, Fans & Family.
Or maybe it will be another album from someone whose influence has yet to be felt and understood. This is the beauty of culture: It changes and evolves when we least expect it to.
20) Death Grips, The Money Store
19) Future, Pluto
18) E-40, The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil
17) Gangrene, Vodka & Ayahuasca
16) Plan B, Ill Manors
15) Big K.R.I.T., Live from the Underground
14) Homeboy Sandman, Chimera
13) Ka, Grief Pedigree
12) Jeremiah Jae, Raw Money Raps
11) El-P, Cancer 4 Cure
10) THEESatisfaction, awE naturalE
9) Curren$y, The Stoned Immaculate
8) Lushlife, Plateau Vision
7) Spoek Mathambo, Father Creeper
6) Azealia Banks, 1991 5) Nas, Life Is Good
4) Serengeti, Kenny Dennis EP
3) Roc Marciano, Reloaded
2) Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music
1) Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city