So much good music came out in 2014! Indeed, 2014 surprised and enthralled me. It was certainly a fantastic year for producers. The production value on so many albums that dropped this year was sky high—I’d go as far as calling it a real honest-to-goodness achievement. The playing field between indie artists and major label veterans was pretty level as well. In 2014, it was just as likely you’d find yourself nodding your head to a single artist responsible for the entirety of an album as it was a team of A-list celebrities doing guest spots on each other’s tracks. I actually even listened to the entire new Nicki Minaj album! Not only that, but I had some thoughts about it.
First of all, I’d just like to admit that sometimes, a man is wrong about things. The most controversial pick not officially included on this list is Nicki’s latest. Hell, even I’m surprised I dug The Pinkprint as much as I did! Nicki can rap—I think it’s important to establish that right away. I also think this album is at its most successful when it ditches the pop music clichés that have become synonymous with her (something she’s actually been pretty successful with recently). When she’s allowed to do her thing, Nicki goes nuts. There’s a lot of atmosphere in a number of these tracks (see: “All Things Go”) that I simply didn’t think she was capable of putting on a record. I was wrong. Mega radio hit “Anaconda” is almost certainly one of the weakest (i.e. worst) tracks. Let’s hope her management lets her really start flexing her skills on upcoming albums; I’d be extremely interested to see what the result is.
Without further ado, these were my favorite Hip-Hop albums of 2014:
- Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2: This album might be at the top of this list simply because I had been anticipating it more than anything else released in 2014. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Maybe. But the fact remains that RTJ2 is FIRE. It’s a rare phenomenon when an album drops anymore that you can listen to front to back, but RTJ2 is one of them. I contended that RTJ1 was the best album of 2013, and that El-P and Killer Mike’s solo efforts Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music were the co-best albums of 2012. I stand by that. With that track record, RTJ2 could have really flopped…in the hands of anyone else, but El-Producto and Michael Render are consummate professionals. Like RTJ1, their rap game is on point. And also like its predecessor, they’re giving this album away for free, but it’s certainly worth your hard earned cash should you decide to buy a copy on vinyl (if it’s ever back in stock—anywhere; I’ve been trying to nab myself a copy since just after its release date!) or on CD. In fact, get all of these albums on vinyl or CD! Favorite tracks: “Jeopardy” and “Blockbuster Night part 1”
- Pharoahe Monch – PTSD: “They mad ‘cause they can’t stop me / ‘cause I said Fuck swag / I got moxie!” Aside from RTJ2, P.T.S.D. was my most anticipated album coming into 2014. By my recollection, Pharoahe has been at it for 24 years, only getting better with age. While his style has remained consistent (that is to say, phenomenal), his focus has topically shifted a little. Whereas his older material was more taking a look at his environment and things there within. On P.T.S.D., you’ll find a much more introspective Pharoahe, putting his own selfhood and psyche under the microscope. One thing that will be familiar to Pharoahe Monch fans is the “Fuck You” attitude he’s cultivated since 2001’s eponymous Training Day soundtrack track (and long before). Favorite tracks: “Time2” and “Bad M.F.”
- Dilated Peoples – Directors of Photography: One of my all-time favorite Hip-Hop albums is Dilated’s The Platform, so it goes without saying I was excited for this release. With guest producers such 9th Wonder, Alchemist, and DJ Premier featured on the album, the instrumentals are nearly as good as the lyrics. This is also Dilated’s first release on Rhymesayers Records. The album is as refreshing as it is introspective with Evidence and Rakaa turning their lens as much in upon themselves as they do concerning their surroundings and the industry in general. In an interview about the release of Directors, Dilated’s own DJ Babu said, “If anything, we felt like this legacy needs this album. It deserves this album. I feel like this album brings us full circle.” I couldn’t put it better myself. Favorite tracks: “The Dark Room” and “Show Me the Way”
- Your Old Droog – Your Old Droog: Hey, remember earlier this year when people thought Nas was releasing music under a pseudonym? One of those people was yours truly at first. But when you listen to Droog closely, you hear an up-and-comer settling into his style rather than a veteran trying something new. But it remains an impressive feat that anyone mistook Droog for Nas in the first place at all—how could a 25-year-old Ukrainian kid sound like one of Hip-Hop’s greatest, a true lyricist legend? Droog is a clever lyricist and the fact that he can seamlessly mix classic rap themes with lines about Google Chrome and Bing perfectly illustrates this. Droog brings fire on every single track. Fans and enthusiasts of that boom-bap sound alike will absolutely love Droog’s debut LP. That being said, if I was forced to pick a single weak spot in Droog’s debut, I’d say it’s the beats (no offense to DJ Skizz); they simply lack the punch an emcee of Droog’s caliber deserves. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d personally like a bit more production polish on the instrumentals. Maybe Mass Appeal could sign Droog (*hint, hint*). He’d certainly be a great fit for the label (but that’s just my humble opinion)! Regardless, all signs point to amazing things in the future for Droog. Favorite tracks: “You Know What Time it Is” and “Bad to the Bone (Remix)”
- Ghostface Killah – 36 Seasons: “Ayo, I’m back after nine years, that’s 36 seasons / Shit is changed up for all types of reasons / Staten Island ain’t the same, shit is lame / No familiar faces son, I’m dodging the game.” It’s actually pretty hard to believe it’s been nine years since “Put It on the Line” and Fishscale dropped, but it has. It didn’t take much to sell me on the album, but guest spots by Kool G Rap, Pharoahe Monch, and AZ really sweetened the pot. One thing that might turn some listeners off is that it’s ultimately a concept album, the gist of which is as follows: Tony Stark is disfigured in a gruesome accident, later resurrected through a synthesis of science and the intercession from a higher power intervention. Ghost then sets out to safeguard his neighborhood and obliterate his foes. The liner notes are actually a comic book. If all of this sounds cool to you, you’ll dig 36 Seasons! Favorite tracks: “The Battlefield” and “Emergency Procedure”
- Prhyme – PRhyme: The other extraordinarily talented Detroit rapper on this list makes up one-half of Prhyme, Royce da 5’9”, the other half being Gangstarr veteran, DJ Premier. Given the pedigree, the production value here is through the roof. The guest appearances here are top notch too, with A-game performances from Common, Jay Electronica, Killer Mike, Schoolboy Q, and a few others. Of course there is one knock against this record, and that’s it length. Clocking in at just nine tracks, Royce and Premier leave you wishing there were another nine after the closing track, “Microphone Preem.” If the old saying is to be believed, Prhyme definitely went with quality over quantity here. Favorite tracks: “Courtesy” and “You Should Know”
- Black Milk – If There’s A Hell Below: Hailing from the city that gave us J Dilla (RIP), Black Milk has in turn given us something truly fantastic. Speaking of, BM’s production certainly has more of a Dilla vibe than, say, Shady Records, which is probably for the better if you ask me. Black Milk is an extremely versatile artist, never satisfied to simply repeat his past efforts across albums—no resting on any laurels here—If There’s A Hell Below might feel a little spasmodic or disorganized at times, but—most importantly—it never feels inconsistent. Black Milk always gives the listener the impression he wants to show her/him this really cool new thing he’s gotten exceptionally good at. With guest appearances by Pete Rock and Bun B, you know there’s something special going on. Favorite tracks: “Everyday Was” and “All Mighty”
- Step Brothers – Lord Steppington: (The Alchemist & Evidence): Evidence is one of two artists to make it onto this list twice (Rob Sonic is the other). [And n.b. If this list were to include Best Instagrammers of 2014, I’d include Evidence again, for whatever its worth.*] Evidence and Alchemist are friends from way back, which is to say, the early nineties. For those who think that Alchemist is just a fantastic producer (or forgot that he used to be a key player in the gangster rap scene), he flexes his rhyming skills here on Lord Steppington. While there is certainly a lot of homage paid to nineties rap, the album itself never takes itself too seriously (for better or worse, depending on who’s listening). It’s possible that this album will mostly appeal to fans of the duo’s prior work, but I think there is enough here to convert plenty new fans. Favorite tracks: “Mums in the Garage” and “Tomorrow”
- Rob Sonic – Alice in Thunderdome: This is an album that is probably going to fly under a lot of people’s radar this year, and that’s a shame. Hailing from the Bronx, Bobby Freedom has been a part of New York’s Hip-Hop scene for nearly twenty years, a veteran of Definitive Jux and Rhymesters records, this time he decided to release an album on his own OK-47 Records imprint. The album starts off on fire with Sonic’s assessment of the music industry in “Jesus Christ Super Tramp” and doesn’t let up all the way through the final track, “Pep Rally.” With guest spots by Breeze Brewin of The Juggaknots, Mallon partner in crime, Aesop Rock, the album just bangs from start to finish. Favorite tracks: “Jesus Christ Super Tramp” and “Not For Nothing”
- Wu Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow (My Nostalgia Pick): A Better Tomorrow isn’t Wu Tang Forever (1997) or 36 Chambers (1993), but there is just something special when this group of artists in particular gets together to create something. It’s intangible, but definitely present. As an album, this one is probably about in the right spot in relation to the others on this list. I can’t imagine it’ll be one I listen to on repeat, but it does have some of my favorite lyricists of all time, all in one place. At times, the album feels musically more like an experiment than a cohesive entity. But that’s OK too. In the RZA’s hands, A Better Tomorrow manages to hang together, even if just barely, rather than messily (or even catastrophically) falling apart. Favorite tracks: “Ruckus in B Minor” and “Hold the Heater”
So that’s it, in a nutshell. I’d briefly considered making an overall “Best Music of 2014” list, but it occurred to me that most genres/artists that weren’t Hip-Hop ended up disappointing me—I’m looking at you, InFlames, Slipknot, Dillon Francis, Opeth, Beck, and The Black Keys. That’s not to say there weren’t a couple letdowns in Hip-Hop as well. I really wanted to love new albums by The Roots, Common, and Flying Lotus, but something about each one didn’t resonate with me (which is not to say they are bad, of course). But because of Hip-Hop alone, I consider 2014 a win for music!
– Hail Mary Mallon – Bestiary: Favorite tracks: “Kiln” and “Dollywood”
– Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata: Favorite tracks: “Piñata” and “Bomb”
– J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive: Favorite tracks: “Fire Squad” and “No Role Modelz”