It’s hard to think of a genre that is more polarizing than hip-hop. Some people listen to it exclusively, some only like a select few artists, and some loathe it like the plague. It’s easy to see why; if done right, hip-hop can be brilliant, well-crafted poetry with a fantastic beat to follow. If not, it can be bad nursery rhymes chock-full of misogyny and homophobia over whatever beat a drunk producer could cook up in ten minutes. Still, no genre is growing as fast. The past few weeks alone have seen tons of hip-hop albums topping the charts, like Kanye West’s Yeezus, J-Cole’s Born Sinner, and Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, to name a few.
Hip-hop itself is expanding, too. New production styles and subgenres are starting to move into the mainstream. Ever heard of cloud rap? It utilizes spaced-out, psychedelic and sparse beats to create the hip-hop equivalent of dream pop. It used to be underground, but recently the likes of Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and a roster of other artists have brought cloud rap to the masses. In some cases, artists are taking experimentation to a whole new level. Detroit rapper Danny Brown uses beats with odd, screwball time signatures to deliver bouncing, ferocious rhymes that sound like a resurrected (and pissed) Biggie Smalls with a complete lack of voice control. And Kanye West, who we all hate to love or love to hate, released Yeezus, which sounded like Nine Inch Nails and Kanye had a child, featured a song called “I Am a God (Featuring God)”, and used a sample of “Strange Fruit”- which is about lynching- in “Blood on the Leaves”, a song about a hookup and taking ecstasy. So, yeah, boundaries are being pushed.
But in this new sea of rhymes and beats, who’s who?
Chance the Rapper
This Chicago-born rapper took some cues from A Tribe Called Quest when he picked his name, but his music couldn’t be farther from theirs. His album, Acid Rap, features trippy, slow beats, with lots of piano and soul samples. Sort of like a psychedelic College Dropout-era Kanye. Chance himself alternates between rapid-fire tongue twisting (“Cocoa Butter Kisses” features machine-gun rapper Twista) and a slow drawl that almost sounds like singing (“Everybody’s Something”). It could be compared to Nate Dogg, or maybe Kid Cudi, but Chance’s lyrical focus is different: introspective without being whiny. In fact, he seems to be enjoying every minute on the album. Practically every song is upbeat, full of energy and life. Acid Rap is great album for the summer, and Chance is a rapper to keep your eye on.
Best Album: Acid Rap
Best Songs: Cocoa Butter Kisses (Ft. Twista), Juice, Everybody’s Something, Pusha Man
Sounds a bit like: Early Kanye West, Common, Kid Cudi, Nate Dogg
Danny Brown is a mobile moshpit. With only a couple of albums out, he is already notorious for insane drug use, a charmingly insane aesthetic, and music to match it all. Don’t confuse Brown with the party anthems you hear on the radio, though- that wouldn’t be nearly weird enough. It’s common knowledge in rap that you should have a solid beat to rap over with a concise and steady rhythm. Danny Brown didn’t get the memo. He zigzags over unsteady, demented rhythms, spewing lyrics that, while hilarious, might make your mother rinse out your ears with soap (“Stank pussy smell like cool ranch Doritos” is a line. You’re welcome). But there is a method to his madness. Brown’s best (and most recent album), XXX, shows that not only can he go delightfully nuts (“Express Yourself, Monopoly”), but that underneath it all, he’s a human being just like the rest of us. He understands the damage drugs can cause (“Party All The Time”) and when the party’s over, there’s enough pain for a thousand hangovers (“30”).
Best Album: XXX
Best Songs: Grown Up, Monopoly, 30
Sounds a bit like: Slim Shady-Era Eminem
To be fair, Kendrick might not be so new to a lot of people. The Compton-born rapper released his first album, Section.80, back in 2011. Lamar’s rhymes, focusing on life in Compton and racial identity (“Fuck Your Ethnicity,” “Keisha’s Song”), showcases an incredible talent for storytelling and almost flawless technique. It wasn’t long before Dr. Dre caught word, signing Lamar to his label and beginning to work with the young rapper personally. Before long, Lamar released his second album, good kid, m.A.A.d City, which was advertised as “A short film by Kendrick Lamar.” And boy, would it make a great movie. You’ve probably heard “Swimming Pools” on the radio (which, while mistaken for a drinking song, is actually about alcoholism), but there’s a lot more to this album than appears on the airwaves. From chilling out (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”) to turning it up (“Backseat Freestyle”), from scrambling for that last dollar (“Money Trees”) to scrambling just to find meaning in life (“Sing About Me”), Lamar’s storytelling power paints a vivid picture of a day in Compton, with brilliant, often critical, lyricism and strong, distinctive characters. Even after signing with Dre, his songs feature old friends like Jay Rock, and the beats might be G-funk, but they’re made by his old producers, same as always. good kid, m.A.A.D city is one of the strongest big-label debuts that hip-hop has seen in a long, long time, and it might be one of the most honest albums you ever listen to. One of the hottest MCs in the game, Kendrick Lamar is going places.
Best Album: good kid, m.A.A.d city
Best Songs: ADHD, Watch Out For Detox, Money Trees, Backseat Freestyle, Sing About Me
Sounds a bit like: Tupac, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Jay Z
Ab-Soul hasn’t been getting the press he deserves. He is best known as being part of Black Hippy, a hip-hop supergroup that also includes Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Rock. With friends like that, it’s easy to overlook what Ab-Soul can do on his own. True, he doesn’t have the storytelling power of artists like Kendrick, nor does he possess the raw technique that Jay Rock brings to the table. What he has instead is soul. There is a determination and flow to his music, a spirit that seeks to establish itself among the screams of a thousand other rappers. Check out his song “Illuminate” and just try to resist getting caught up in all that energy. On tracks like “Book of Soul”, he proves that he can slow it down, too, with a flow control that is reminiscent of Blueprint-era Jay Z. He doesn’t quite have that something or other that takes a rapper from good to incredible, but just because his peers are giants doesn’t mean he can’t keep up.
Best Album: Control System
Best Songs: Terrorist Threats, Illuminate, Book of Soul,
Sounds alot like: Jay Z, Nas.
Earl Sweatshirt is another name you might recognize. A core member of rap collective Odd Future (which includes artists like Tyler the Creator, Hodgy Beats, and Frank Ocean), Sweatshirt creates music, that, like his peers, drifts somewhere between genius and batshit-crazy. His voice is thick, quick, and often incomprehensible- you’ll make more than one trip to Rap Genius if you become a fan. But just like Tyler, there’s something addicting about the way Sweatshirt flows his verses together, and something in his voice that makes you feel like he’s hardly even trying when he raps, yet still sounds incredible. Like other Odd Future members, he tends to mess around a lot, especially if he is working with Tyler. But if you catch him on tracks like “Hive,” “Molasses,” or “Whoa,” Sweatshirt displays lyricism and flow that, if he used it more often, could put him in a whole ‘nother league.
Best Album: Doris
Best Songs: Hive, Whoa, Chum, Molasses.
Sounds a bit like: Tyler the Creator.
Some might object to M.I.A’s appearance on this list. Just about everyone has heard of the Sri Lankan rapper, after all. But not for the right reasons. Most people know her for her single “Paper Planes,” (which, riding a Diplo-produced, Clash-sampling beat, makes drug dealing sound like a lot of fun) and for flipping off a few hundred million people during the 2013 Superbowl Halftime Show. M.I.A is a hell of alot more than a Clash sample and a middle finger. She’s influenced by punk (Meds and Feds), pop (XXXO), world music (Bird Flu), electro (Bad Girlz), and countless other genres that make her music the most eclectic thing you’ll ever find yourself dancing to. So, with tunes like that, why haven’t you heard more about her? Well, M.I.A wasn’t really built for the radio. Her father was associated with the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan guerilla force (she was later denied entry into the U.S based on this), and she shares some of his political views. Songs like the spectacular “20 Dollar” read like Bush Administration hate mail, and she herself is a humanitarian activist in the Middle East and in her home country. On top of that, female MCs are incredibly rare, and if they do make it, they tend to gradually disappear (Missy Elliot, Lil Kim) or get sucked into a pop supernova (Nicki Minaj). M.I.A probably faced the same pressures, but there was one problem: she’s M.I.A. She won’t compromise her music or her image for anything, and you know what? We’re just fine with that.
Best Albums: Kala, Maya
Best Songs: Paper Planes, XXXO, 20 Dollar, Meds and Feds, Sunshowers, Bad Girlz
Sounds a bit like: The Beastie Boys