2014 was hip-hop’s most balanced year in nearly a decade. 2011’s adult contemporary hip-hop boom and 2013’s ignorap renaissance both bore considerable fruit this year. New blood finally started pulling their weight. The most successful trend was a familiar but welcome one: dynamic duos. Whether it was a rapper/producer partnership or two MCs tag teaming, camaraderie and chemistry brought focus to numerous projects. (Note to Pharoahe Monch & Marco Polo: you need to do a whole album together, those twotracks on PTSD were not enough.)
I would be remiss if I did not bring up hip-hop’s continued influence on other genres, and I don’t just mean shoe-horning a rapper onto an ill-fitting pop/rock radio single. Caribou added his name to the list of most explorative electronic artists with “Silver,” and tUnE-yArDs’ “Manchild” is modern funk at its finest. With a few exceptions (some notable, some regrettable), the playing field remains cluttered with African-American males. Still, considering the banner year black men have had (*side-eye*), we desperately need to hear all of these voices.
Only Academy Award winner Jordan Houston can get me to listen to a Nicki Minaj verse over and over. Juicy J’s Stay Trippy victory lap included a high profile cameo on Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” and seeing his live show ticket price exceed Snoop Dogg’s. Pure THC: The Hustle Continues was supposed to drop in 2014 but did not. In the meantime, the Juice Man teased us with a few crisp, moody club bangers. Mike Will Made It’s “Ice” beat may be more seductive, but Dr. Luke’s minimalist thump on “Low” highlights our host’s syrupy drawl and the punchy barbs of his guests.
Shouting out Baths’ Obsidian, Emma Watson, In-N-Out, and more, “Delicious Pizza” is my go-to track for introducing people to Pizza Boy. The production is equal parts delightful and ominous, a perfect fit for the rhymes as they journey from jocular to dejected. Pizza Boy is never at a loss for punchlines, and “ohh, don’t know what I’m singin’ 'bout” gets my vote for best Auto-tune hook of all time (sorry, “Sensual Seduction”).
Dropping the same sample Black Milk used for “Deadly Medley,” The Roots- wait, THE ROOTS SAMPLING?! What should have been blasphemous becomes yet another masterstroke for the Illadelph band. Musically speaking, “Black Rock” is …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin's brightest moment, though not conceptually. Black Thought plays stentorian Greek Chorus to Dice Raw’s downtrodden stoner. A jolting, necessary throwback to East Coast hip-hop at its grimiest.
“Broken” screams “featuring Scarface” from its stunning opening seconds. A sped up loop from Isaac Hayes’ “Wherever You Are” anchors this street pharmacist’s lament, reminiscent of when crime rhymes were full of painful choices and consequences. “Promise I done seen everything but old age,” Gibbs mutters forcefully before handing the reins over to the gangsta rap legend. Face’s baritone is as vein-freezing as ever, detailing both the allure of avarice and the monotony of its law-abiding alternative. Can we get a Scarface/Madlib album, please?
Jay Z (don’t forget to forget that hyphen!) didn’t have the greatest year from a public relations standpoint. Elevator surveillance video notwithstanding, Hov really dropped the ball when he got showed up by… DRAKE?! Jay mistakenly figured he could show up to the studio and say “cake, cake-cake-cake, cake” and it would still sound better than Jimmy from Degrassi. Thankfully, “It’s Ya Boy!” recovered with his most dazzling rapid fire flow since “Flip-Flop Rock” from Speakerboxxx. The Drizzy diss got him in the headlines for reasons not involving a member of the Knowles family, and we got another Jay Electronica verse, so it was a win-win. Also, Kenny Fucking Powers.
The Three 6 Mafia resurgence doesn’t begin and end with Juicy J. DJ Paul took it back to Mystic Stylez with the surviving members, now known as Da Mafia 6ix. The move clearly inspired this pair of Hypnotize Minds veterans to also revisit their horrorcore origins. Gangsta Boo may have gotten more exposure for yet another lascivious tirade, but on “Witch Brew” she flexes her impressive tongue-twisting chops, flaunting her former road dog’s Oscar in the process. Will Power's tempestuous beat is even better tailored to La Chat, who comes out swinging (and shooting) Murder She Spoke style. Fefe Dobson’s spook-tacular chorus is the icing on the crunk cake.
What’s that rumbling in the distance… the tag team of the goddamn century, of course! Killer Mike and El-P (or “the white guy from Run the Jewels” as kids these days are calling him) hit a creative peak in 2013 and then decided “LET’S KEEP HITTING IT AS HARD AS POSSIBLE.” RTJ2’s best song that doesn’t have “dick in her mouth all day” as a hook draws considerable strength from multiple sources. The breathless flurry of shit-talking is as good-natured as it is pointed, the imagery is so vivid that El-P’s business card now exists, and the hybrid raptronica production is next level. Still not looking forward to hearing this re-recorded with cat sounds, though.
Futility track one is an awe-inspiring mission statement, and a quantum leap forward just months after No Tip Necessary. Kyle Justice keeps it simple, a determined synth line propelling the beat forward. Pizza Boy’s verses are so mesmerizing that they’re worth memorizing (keystyle). Aging hip-hop heads, this is the best reason yet to gaze across the generation gap with respect (also sort of a keystyle). Guy Fawkes masks now mean Anonymous and not V for Vendetta, and “neighborhood” now refers to Daniel Tiger instead of Fred Rogers. Whether you have to google “Walt Whitman” or “Kevin Gates,” this is an illuminating listen. Fuck Melvin Burch, wherever you are.
On Valentine’s Day 2014, Hellfyre Club performed for four solid hours at Elbo Room in San Francisco (go soon because it probably won't be there much longer). The highlight of Nocando’s solo set was when he introduced the crowd to one of the most captivating songs of the year. Underpinned with a menacing thrum, “3rd World Hustle” could and should be rubbing shoulders with whatever bounce music is exalting these days. Nocando’s lugubrious rapping provides depth, telling a pair of personal stories loaded with regret. Though being able to make you dance and think at the same time seems to be a dying art, it remains a mark of greatness.
I just discovered “Jay Elect-Ramadan Muhammad asalaamica Rasoul Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala through your monitor” this past winter. In four months, I went through all the stages that the rest of hip-hop had gone through over the last seven years: shock, excitement, admiration, confusion, boredom, disinterest. But none of that detracts from the power of this song, unexpectedly released in March at the behest of a Twitter follower. Two violins and a piano are the new two turntables and a microphone in Jay Elec’s hands. Choosing to place samples from Elijah Muhammed and The Wizard of Oz side by side is bolder than any brag or dis rhyme recorded in 2014. The main event is just a couple dozen bars, but they’re more than raps. They are his benediction. “The church you go to pray in it, the work is on the outside, staring out the windows is for love songs and house flies.” Astounding work. But that album ain’t ever coming out.
Zestyverse's resident Music Geek Sean Morris is an SF Bay Area native with a photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture. He is a graduate of UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television, a former Los Angeles Slam Team member, part of the collective Art 4 A Democratic Society, and a music blogger for The Owl Mag. Find him on Twitter, SoundCloud, and YouTube.