The last time I compiled one of these, I commented, with some surprise, at the lack of…well, “white music” on the list. Not to say that there wasn’t any indie or traditional pop I enjoyed this year, but much of it was older music I got too late [Sufjan Stevens, why did I sleep so long?].
Nope, as far as music produced in 2011, I was in a non-stop hip-hop state of mind, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some rock and indie might have nudged their way into the party under other circumstances [Foster the People, The Black Keys], but like I said last year, that isn’t music I want to listen to. That’s music where, if I hear it on the radio on a drive to see a movie, that’s cool. But I’m not running home to buy it on iTunes. These songs, I did. So let’s go, in no particular order.
Danny Brown – XXX
Few artists had a better year than Danny Brown. With his toothless grin, new wave haircut and a voice that sounds like a goose caught by the throat, his Fool’s Gold debut mixtape set the internets afire with its vulnerability, humour [a whole song dedicated to his cunnilingus skills? Really, son?] and pure rappity rappin skills. The XXX in the title has nothing to do with pornography, instead referring to the rapper’s age, his disbelief he survived his addictions long enough to make it this far, and his despair and confusion over what to do next, served over a beat that slaps the snares in the face and shakes the guitars by the shoulders.
Drake f/ Rick Ross – Lord Knows
In my world, there are few things better than the moment when Just Blaze yells his name at the start of a track. It’s the starting pistol letting you know that some shit is about to go. down. But the last place I expected to hear it was on Drake’s “Take Care.” Truthfully, the song is like a Skynnrd fan at a Bon Iver concert, a thunderstorm of boom-bap in the syrupy seas of bass and synth that permeates the rest of the album. But shouts to Aubrey for knowing a good thing when he hears it, because it’s probably the beat of Just’s already stellar career. The choir, the live drums, good lawd tell me that don’t make you want to start some shit? I dare you.
Special commendation to Ricky Rozay, I finally relinquish my hesitation to appreciate his merits after his authenticity scandal in 2010. He kept his head down, and put out music so good you had no choice but to get behind him. That line about being the “only fat n***a in the sauna with Jews” won my heart.
Tyler, The Creator – Yonkers
While the OFWGKTA hype first started hitting me in 2010 when Earl’s mixtape started showing up on best-of lists, it wasn’t until crew leader Tyler’s debut, major-label release and video hit the internet that I understood why the kids were so enthralled. When it hit, I said, “The lyrics are frequently hilarious and the beat is the hardest, most terrifying thing I’ve heard in years.” It’s an assessment I stand by. Odd Future may not have set the world on fire like some people predicted they would, but that was probably too much to ask. They shouldn’t set the world on fire, really, I shouldn’t even know who they are, they should stay as that group that the kids keep to themselves and bump in their bedrooms to freak out their parents. Every generation needs one, and this song [and video] accomplished that better than most.
Random Axe f/ Roc Marciano – Chewbacca
The beautiful thing about hip-hop at this point is that the old man genre has become a boutique niche of its own. If the Lil B’s and Waka Flockas of the world get you down, you can always count on some old cats out of New York to keep putting out the boom-bap like 1994 never left. Random Axe, a collab between producer Black Milk and rappers Guilty Simpson and Sean Price is nothing fancy, nothing groundbreaking, just a reminder that what some of the grumpy rap nerds think hip-hop is, is still alive and well.
Pusha T f/ Tyler, The Creator – Trouble on my Mind
Tyler’s second appearance on the list is the first collaboration he did after Yonkers blew him up. It was a bold move for Pusha to give him the co-sign: he’d come off a starmaking turn on Kanye’s ‘Runaway,’ and was set to blow as a solo star. So what does he do for his coming out party? Bridge the gap between the old heads and the kids. At once reaffirming his status with the youth and giving the kid a co-sign from the larger hip-hop community, Pusha locked his place as one of the most important rappers working today. Plus, he just looks like he’s having damn fun in that video.
Common – Sweet
Common is ANGRY. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that the rule in rap seems to be, you can act or sing or experiment or get emotional, but you have come back every few years and remind the people who you are. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it’s how it be. Common is clearly dealing with this issue, and holy shit did he come with it on this song. Produced by his original mentor No I.D., Rashid wants to put the world on notice that just because he’s starring in some show on AMC or hosting BET’s best videos of the year doesn’t mean he won’t eat a rapper’s ass, and anyone who thinks he’s out the game should recondiser before stepping. Not a diss against anyone, just a classic display of rap bravado by one of the best to ever do it.
Madlib & Freddie Gibbs – Deep
If you can’t get another Madvillain record, this is probably the next best thing, a surprise collab between two of the most universally beloved rap artists making music today. The initial “MadGibbs” EP was sold at a few shows in California late last year and only had two vocal songs on it. While both songs are incredible, I ultimately go with this one, since a song with a soul sample always trumps a song without one for me. Freddie kicks that southern-fried double-time flow I didn’t hear nearly enough of this year. Here’s hoping for a full length in 2012.
Kendrick Lamar – A.D.H.D.
I was woefully late to the Kendrick Lamar party, having first encountered him on Drake’s album I’m ashamed to say, because his mixtape ‘Section.80’ is incredible, and this is the song that gets everyone’s attention when they first hear it. It occurs to me that so many artists this year seem to be reactions to the age of excess espoused by their predecessors in the blingy jiggy era…there’s no fulfillment in the boozing and drugging and strip clubs, they keep at hoping it leaves them with some sort of meaning, but it never does, and how much more alone that leaves you feeling. It’s not a message that will have a long shelf life, but for this year it was revolutionary, at least in hip-hop. It doesn’t hurt that the beat is incredible, either.
Elzhi – It Ain’t Hard to Tell
It should be blasphemy. It shouldn’t work on any level. Remake Illmatic? Son, is you crazy?! But the project works for two reasons: one, Elzhi knows if he’s even going to try to attempt this, he better rap his ass off, and he’s got the skills to do it; two, using Will Sessions as a backup band to turn the classic instrumentals we all know and love into something new but familiar. The whole Elmatic project is worth your time, but this track is the standout, just as it was on the original.
Drake – Look What You’ve Done
Drake – Marvin’s Room
I know, I know. But really, the whole album could end up here, with few exceptions. It’s hard enough for me to limit it to these three. Look What You’ve Done, a love song to his mother, uncle and grandmother has the distinct honour of being possibly the first song to sample a Youtube video, an impromptu performance by the late Static Major of Smoke E. Digglera’s ‘If U Scared, Say U Scared‘ [I’m not making these names up, I swear]. Those piano chords just kill me. That sample selection is indicative as much as anything on the album of the influence Aaliyah and other late-90s Timbaland inspired R&B has on the album. As far as Marvin’s Room goes, I don’t think I need to say anything else about it that I haven’t already said: No one in rap today would ever have the balls to put out a song like that. Whether that was a good decision on his part or not is up for debate, but respect the audacity to do it in the first place.
Frank Ocean – Novacane
If 2011 taught us anything, it was a reminder again that the traditional label model of releasing music is dead in the water. Frank Ocean was signed to Def Jam and couldn’t get them to release any of the music he was working on. So he put up a mixtape on his Tumblr unannounced and crashed the internet. A bidding war started to percolate, imagine everyone’s surprise, including Def Jam’s, when they realized they’d already signed him? A lot of people talked about the rebirth of R&B this year, primarily attributed to the emergence of The Weeknd [who adopted a similar label-free, drop music for free on internet unannounced model], but I have to admit, I sometimes find Abel’s voice a little grating after too long. Frank just feels a little more grown to me, there’s more living in his voice to me, despite the drug soaked haze that permeates most Weeknd tracks. I doubt Def Jam will have any idea what to do with him, which doesn’t bode well for his 2012. If they just let loose the reigns and let him go, just imagine what he could do.
J. Cole – Work Out
J. Cole was on this last year, and I predicted that he could own 2011. I don’t know that he succeeded, but he made a hell of an effort. A buzzy thud of a bass, a bugged out Kanye-sample, a Paula Abdul hook [say what?] made for one of the most pleasant earworms of the year. The kid probably has the brightest future of any rapper in the game right now.
DJ Khaled f/ Drake, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne – I’m On One
This is a DJ Khaled song like I’m the lead designer on Skyrim: just cause I play the shit don’t mean I made it. With all these Drake songs I’m really not celebrating Drake as much as I’m celebrating his producer. Noah ’40’ Shebib had the year of his life and joined the beatmaking elite because his sound became signature. When you first heard ‘I’m On One,’ you knew it was a 40 beat. Just like you know that ‘woof!’ is Rick Ross and the sound of the lighter means Weezy’s verse is starting. This song got overplayed to hell this year but there’s a reason for that: it was the best song that came out this year, save for one.
But seriously, Khaled, what the hell do you do?!
Jay-Z and Kanye West: N***as in Paris
I hated this song when the album came out. Seriously. Hated it. Thought it was the dumbest shit I’d ever heard, and certainly wasn’t better than Otis, or That’s My Bitch.
Then the shows started. We heard about three times. I got four times when I saw them in Toronto. The next night in Detroit they did it seven. Chicago got ten. And by the sheer force of their wills, they made me love this song. I started to appreciate the sheer absurdity of it, how it simultaneously gave the world at least four catchphrases in one shot and sampled a damn Will Ferrell movie! Not even one of the funny ones! Seriously, how many Netflix queue adds do you think ‘Blades of Glory’ got after this song hit? Didn’t hurt that once you get over that silly little synth hook the beat punches you in the face like you stole from it.
So that’s the list for the year! When you gather them all in one place, it was better than I thought it was. For anyone’s listening pleasure, I took the liberty of putting together a Spotify playlist for your enjoyment [but only if your enjoyment is based outside of Canada, sorry countrymen. There are backdoors, if interested]. Not all songs could be included [though adding one of the lame karaoke versions of Jay and Kanye was tempting], but I did what I could. Mainly, I just wanted to experiment with the service, since I spent most of sickly New Year’s Eve getting it to work.
And that’s how my 2011 shook out musically. How was yours? Did I miss anything essential whilst silo’d off in the world of the hippity-hop? Let me know in the comments.