This gets harder and harder to do every year, friends. My relationship with new music in 2012 was a lot like my relationship with people who still watch Glee: I have a vague idea of what they’re talking about, I used to be more heavily invested, now I really don’t care enough to pay much attention to it. The few times I did pop my head out from the wormhole to 1994 I typically live in, there was nothing but poverty-fetishizing dustbowl folk music at one end of the musical spectrum and monosyllabic raps over trap beats on the other. Growing disconnect with the musical landscape is not an atypical condition to find oneself in, and God knows I’ve been on the wrong side of the cultural fence over the years as both a player and a listener. I’ve grown to accept and embrace it.
That said, despite the increased difficulty factor, there were still ten songs that managed to cross the divide to my lonely island. Some clarifications:
These songs are the ten songs I liked the most. Not the most perfectly constructed, not the most beautifully melodic, not the ones that had something to say about the human condition. I might be able to appreciate that the military precision with which Taylor Swift’s team of drones can craft a chorus, but it’s not anything I’m ever going to want to listen to. Perhaps that’s a deficiency in my musical genome, but something in a song has to speak to me on a level I can’t articulate. There has to be something in there that summons a mood, or a feeling, something I’ll want to go back to again and again. These are the songs that I’ll still be listening to when I draft next year’s list. So, in no particular order.
Large Professor f/ Cormega, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, & Saigon: M.A.R.S.
The clear standout from the fourth album by 90’s-era beat king Large Professor, Professor @ Large. This song is everything you want from a grimy, East Coast street cut: Snares crack like a 2×4 over your head and kicks slug you in the chest over a suspenseful pulse of sampled strings, while four of NY’s finest underground MC’s spit some ‘grown man rap.’ Special shouts to Saigon’s surprising show stealer of a verse, and for those 16th notes on the hi-hats. That’s the sort of thing that makes an okay beat a great beat. Class is in session.
BJ the Chicago Kid f/ Kendrick Lamar: His Pain II
Kendrick is the MVP of the year, no one can really argue with that. good kid, m.A.A.d. city is probably the best complete work of art any musician made this year [I don’t know how well it works as songs, I find I have to listen to the whole thing instead of dipping in and out via the shuffle on my iPhone. This is a good problem to have, the last album I felt that way about was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy]. But even as incredible as his flow his on the album is, there’s something about this guest spot on ‘His Pain II’ that connects with me more, abandoning the galloping, triple time flow he pulls out a little too often and delivers a verse like a conversation, confronting the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people. Which would be impressive enough by itself, but the rest of the song, delivered via BJ’s scratchy, Sam Cooke-lite voice over a head-knocker of a breakbeat, is nothing to sleep on either.
Look. He’s never going to make another Illmatic. The sooner everyone accepts that, the better off we’ll all be. Instead, he dropped the first album of rap’s middle age, an album that isn’t perfect, but when everything clicks into place, Life is Good just soars, never higher than it does on this song addressing a topic rarely if ever discussed in hip-hop: the relationship between a father and his daughter. Nasir comes real on the struggle he faces trying to set good examples and solid boundaries despite being…well, a rap star. Great rappers should always come with the real, even [especially?] if the real isn’t life in the streets, or poverty, or flossing. Nas may never be the King of New York again, but he’s claimed the spot as Rap’s Elder Statesman: the man who’s seen it all and come out the other side ready to drop jewels for anyone with ears to listen. While Jay-Z watches his throne, Nas is teaching in the trenches.
ScHoolboy Q f/ A$AP Rocky: Hands on the Wheel
Kendrick Lamar’s able lieutenant in the TDE crew, ScHoolboy stands poised to be a guy who has an incredible 2013, and the highlight of Habits and Contradictions partners him with a guy in the same position. Yes, it’s just a song about the pleasures of non-sobriety, but the sample selection, a reclamation of folk singer Lissie’s cover of Kid Cudi’s ‘The Pursuit of Happiness‘ [seriously, stop it white girls], gives it a sort of sinister undertone that suggests as much fun as they’re having, everyone involved is well aware of the prices that may end up being paid.
Also? Don’t roll weed on your MacBook. Come on, now. This is why we can’t have nice things.
J. Dilla & Katy Perry: The One That Got Away
My favourite album, the thing I listened to more than anything else, was an amateur mashup album of Katy Perry vocals over known and rare J. Dilla beats mixed by someone calling himself De’von. As with all mash-up projects, there are some uneven patches, not all of the pairings work as well as they could, many are good, and a few, like this one, do that thing all good mashups should: surpass both original components and make you wonder why it didn’t sound like this in the first place. De’Von tweaks Perry’s vocals so they slide perfectly into the pocket of Slum Village’s ‘Tell Me’, adding a dose of funky melancholy to the tale of lost love. Another fine testament to the usefulness of remix culture: no one’s making money here, it’s just a way of making something new and interesting by blending two individual pieces.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib f/ BJ the Chicago Kid: Terrorist/Shame
My problem with Madlib is simply that he’s too good. There’s way too much quality for me to keep up with at any given time, but when he teams up with one of my favourite rappers I pay closer attention. Freddie Gibbs is not someone I would have ever pegged to work with Madlib, but his tales of stickups and dope deals sound tailor made to the 70’s stained funk of ‘Terrorist’ and soulful strings of ‘Shame’, complete with a video that makes selling cocaine to hipster girls look like a sensible career alternative.
At this point, anytime Usher releases a song that clocks in under 130 BPM and isn’t produced by David Guetta it’s cause for celebration. It helps if it’s an earworm of a melody sung in breathy falsetto over a Diplo-crafted quiet storm beat. What takes it from a radio-only confection to an iTunes addition is the trick played by the title and chorus. In the oversexed pop landscape of 2012, it would be easy to assume ‘Cimax’ referred to…well, what we all would think it does. But the song is actually talking about that moment in a relationship when it’s as good as it gets, when you’re lying with her and you know nothing will ever surpass that moment, and what a humbling and painful realization that can be. Grown folks’ music.
Y.N.RichKids: Hot Cheetos and Takis
Just so we’re all clear: this song is the product of an after-school program at a YMCA in Minnesota. All the kids in it had to maintain good grades to participate in the song. And when they got in a studio, they rapped about what they liked: snack foods. The catch is that it’s really fucking good.
Nevermind that the beats sounds like it was left off a Rick Ross album, the simple fact is the kids can rhyme, and I’ve yet to see two write-ups that agree on which kid had the strongest verse [Personally, I rep #11]. This song was just such a fun reminder, after how depressed I was after the Lil Reese shitshow that contemporary sounding hip-hop can still have that foundation of fun, innocence and party-rocking that the music was built on in the first place.
Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha T & 2 Chainz: Mercy
Cruel Summer worked like pretty much every other hip-hop compilation album since the dawn of time: one or two awesome songs, two or three more okay songs, filler filler filler and the continued inexplicable presence of DJ Khaled. ‘Clique’ was the best beat, ‘I Don’t Like’ was the hypest song, ‘New God Flow’ had the best all around rapping. But ‘Mercy’, while not being the best of any of those subjects, kept a high enough average among them to claim the overall victory. From Big Sean’s ‘ass’-play to Pusha’s lyrical dominance and Ric Flair fixation to Kanye’s hook to an anchor verse by 2 Chainz that solidified his career, you couldn’t deny this one.
Knxwledge – wntwrk
My beatmaking discovery of the year was Philadelphia’s Knxwledge, who put out the four-volume Karma.Loops series in 2012 [the above track comes from Vol. 3]. I’m predisposed to love his work, considering it blends the jazziness of Nujabes with the vocal-chopping of J. Dilla. Quick little 90-second bursts of genius. One day the right people are going to start jumping on his beats, and we’re all done for.
BONUS! Three Songs Not Released This Year That I Discovered in 2012 and Probably Like Better Than Any of The Above
Pete Rock & CL Smooth: It’s On You
I have a dream, friends. It’s a dream to DJ [ie, just play songs, I respect the title too much to claim it] a night I’d call ‘Mellow My Man‘ at some lounge in Toronto where they care more about a dope atmosphere and bobbing heads no faster than 96 BPM than cold rocking a dance floor. This song is the reason I want to. Popping up on a Songza playlist this fall, I fell in love immediately. Pete Rock & CL Smooth were already responsible for some of my favourite rap songs, I have no idea why I never delved deeper into their album cuts, but there’s much to love there, especially on The Main Ingredient, which definitely owned the later months this year for me. Dusty drums bouncing over a plaintive piano loop, CL’s flow perfectly in-pocket. Can’t beat that.
Washed Out: Feel It All Around
This is so unlike me, but listen: when I was in journalism school, back in 2003-2004, listening to Royksopp and The Postal Service, this song would have owned my life. So, credit where due. Breathy vocals and airy synths over a chopped and screwed Gary Low sample. People seem to have claimed this as a summer song, but I know it’s the sort of thing that’ll be soothing me through the long Toronto nights.
Phat Kat f/ Elzhi: Cold Steel
The most intimidating part of the book project [so far] has been trying to get a full sense of J. Dilla’s discography. I started to resolve myself to the fact that as far as his musical progression was concerned, I might have to paint in broad strokes. Then a kid at work who’s a total head said he was so excited because he just got the ’64 Beats’ tape, and was horrified to learn I had no idea what that was. To my surprise, he sent me a copy, and buried near the end of that batch [which I’m pretty certain was put together by fans after the fact] is the original sketch to this song. And my jaw just. fricking. dropped. This is maybe the ‘street-est’ Dilla beat I’ve ever heard, more than ‘Fuck the Police’ even. It’s got the bounce of his Soulquarian stuff, a pinch of some Donuts-era vocal chopping but the drums slap your mama, and Phat Kat and Elzhi, two of Detroit’s best MC’s, just eat the track alive. I’ve no idea if this is Dilla’s attempt at a ‘keyboard beat,’ but if it is, he would have been just fine in an era of trap music and ratchet beats.
Image: “Sound Wave” by Jin Shin. [h/t]