I was speaking with Lily Mercer, Editor-in-Chief of the excellent UK-based Hip-Hop lifestyle magazine VIPER, about the idea of the “Golden Age of Hip-Hop.” This period, often referred to as the years between the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, has only been referred to as such in retrospect. When Wu Tang dropped 36 chambers and Biggie dropped Ready to Die and Nas dropped Illmatic and Public Enemy dropped ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ and Ice Cube dropped Amerikkkaz Most Wanted and 2pac dropped 2pacalypse Now, no critic said, “Fuck, I think we are living in the Golden Age of this Rap shit.”
That makes it even the more ironic now that people are so nostalgic for the last Golden Age that they are not realizing that we are living in our OWN GOLDEN AGE. I 100 percent believe that 2015 has been a landmark year for Hip-Hop. We have gotten massive releases from the world’s biggest stars: Drake, Future, Rocky, etc..; to experimental records from some of the game’s most genre-bending weirdos: Le1f, Milo, Oddisee, etc.
Vince Staples said in an interview this year that hip-hop is the most important contemporary art form. I tend to agree with him. Aside from the fact that spoken word poetry over music genre-bending beats is one of the most winning music formulas the world has ever seen, no other “artist” can really match the reach that rap stars have. Now that Hip-hop is starting to represent more than one type of background and perspective (Women, gays) it’s entering a new phase of sonic and thematic maturity.
Read up on the tracks below...
1. Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside, Track: "DNA"
The Odd Future collective has outgrown each other. Frank Ocean has become a generational icon. Tyler has diversified into a human brand. And Earl Sweatshirt has become the best rapper on Earth. Sony really fucked Earl on this one, releasing I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside on iTunes with no prior promotion. That meant that heads had a new Earl record they didn’t know about for a couple of days, and the record didn’t have near the cultural impact that it should have had. The record is sparser than his previous release Doris, but even more polished in the wordplay. He is most certainly a millennial rapper, heeding influence to everything from early Eminem and MF Doom. In a year fat with great rap records, this one I consistently went back to.
2. Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Track: "Legend"
Drake owned 2015 from February onward: Hotline Bling, Meek Mill destruction, OVO X Jordan. And it all started with this record. It seems like Drake lost some of his fan boys with this disc that found him spit a bit more aggressive and lacking some of the Cure-ish melancholy “sad king” sounds from his earlier records. But that got me thinking. I once had a journalism professor who worked for EW and he said the coolest celebs were always the most famous ones: your Robert Downey, Jr’s, Brad Pitt’s, Clooney’s. Guys that are so fucking famous they are just used to people freaking out on them and no how to be cool about it. If You’re Reading This… has Drake acknowledging that he’s untouchable. If he died, he’d be a legend. And fuck if that isn’t the hottest opening hook I’ve ever heard.
3. Dr. Yen Lo, Days with Dr. Yen Lo, Track: "Day 1125"
Ka keeps the spirit of Brooklyn alive. With Night’s Gambit, he established himself as the logical successor to GZA as an MC that was equally meditative and streetwise. His whispered rhymes sometimes come at you more as a lullaby than street poetry. His Dr. Yen Lo project is collaboration with producer Preservation, perhaps previously best known for his work with Mos Def. The album finds them playing with the themes of the Manchurian Candidate. As with all Ka releases, it’s extremely minimal, pulling just the right bass line to keep a weed clouded head bopping ever so slowly. Day 11215 is a bit of an outlier on the album, with a beautiful guitar melody shimmering under Ka’s observations. It’s a shame that hip-hop like this will never be bigger.
4. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly, Track: "The Blacker the Berry"
Kendrick’s importance to contemporary culture has been discussed at length, and there’s not much for me to add to it. So I’ll talk about the music. When I first heard the new record, I respected that he pushing his sound outward to the land of free jazz and Parliament, but it wasn’t nearly as immediately addictive as m.A.A.d. city. That was probably a good thing. Not many artists get to international superstar status and get MORE experimental. Kendrick is bold. And this record grows on you until the point that you’ve realized that you listened to the damn thing over 20 times. The Blacker the Berry is still the best track, channeling the aggressive spirit of Kendrick’s hero Tupac Shakur and turning it inward. Kendrick is the protagonist and the antagonist.
5. Vince Staples, Summertime ’06, Track: "Jump off the Roof"
I saw Vince Staples twice this year: once opening for Run the Jewels on the Williamsburg waterfront, and once at the Rocky/Tyler extravaganza. He was incendiary both times. No other artist, except for Run the Jewels most likely, right now is packing such a club banging intensity while espousing revolutionary thought. Staples is a wickedly smart kid and his interviews are as enjoyable to read, as his music is to listen to. He can also get personal with the best of them, as in ‘Jump of the Roof’ where he ponders whether or not his vices are taking over his life.
6. Future, DS2, Track: "The Percocet and Stripper Joint"
I always have liked Future, without taking him overtly serious. That changed in 2014, with the Monster mixtape. He really has developed a singular style. After his split from fiancé Ciara he has started to question his inflated bravado. Celebratory songs of drugs and sex have turned into self-chastising tails of addiction and heartbreak. This was undoubtedly the biggest year of his career, between DS2 and What a Time to be Alive with Drake. I feel like a lot of heads dismiss Auto-Tuners. They shouldn’t. It’s an instrument, a tool. And Future has reached a new level of artistry with it at his arsenal.
7. A$AP Rocky, AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, Track: "Electric Body (ft. Schoolboy Q)"
Though Rocky is massively popular, he seems to get overlooked critically. On Long.Live.A$AP; perhaps deservedly so. But Rocky both went back to what we fell in love with him in the first place for, anthemic fashion gangsta club tracks, AND expanded his sound, with psychedelic guitar drenched beats and splashes of color. He’s still not the best rapper out there, but he’s gotten a fuckload better, and his music is just so fun to listen to. This was the best driving record of the year. Schoolboy Q and Rocky bring out the best of each other on Electric Body, if you can handle the unabashed misogyny.
8. Bodega Bamz, Sidewalk Exec, Track: "Bring em Out (featuring Flatbush Zombies)"
The Flatbush Zombies and A$AP-affiliated Bodega Bamz, of Spanish Harlem, is an integral piece of the New York Hip-Hop puzzle, but everybody sleeps. ‘Sidewalk Exec’ pays homage to the horrorcore of yesteryear: Geto Boys, early Three 6 Mafia. Produced by V-Don, Sidewalk Exec plays out as both foreboding and at times terrifying.
9. Le1f, Riot Boi, Track: "Koi"
People had been waiting for this one for a while, and Le1f did not disappoint. As openly gay man in hip-hop, there was bound to be automatic interest in Le1f from the art crowds, but he has won over hip-hop crowds almost just as easily. His flow is truly one of a kind, like a more flamboyant Skeptic. He also takes the trap genre to its logical conclusion, incorporating near-cheesy happy hardcore beats into his record that are banged so recklessly joyous that the sound is undeniable.
10. Milo, So the Flies Don’t Come, Track: "An Encyclopedia"
Born of the Los Angeles alt-rap club, Hellfyre Club (is the Nick Tosches reference purposeful?), Milo released his most interested record yet with So the Flies Don’t Come. His beats are barely beats. His rhymes are nearly spoken word. But everything is so oft-kilter and chalk full of pop cultural references that everything comes together full circle. He delivers lines like, “People of Color coloring,” in an onslaught of repetition. His music gets under your skin.
11. Young Thug, Barter 6, Track: "Numbers"
As he appears naked in a Sandy Kim photograph on the cover of his record, it’s clear that Young Thug is a pop star for the millennial art generation. It doesn’t matter that his lyrics don’t make sense. He oozes soul and conviction. He is hyper-conscious of image errs towards performance art. When he edits himself, he also has songs. The Barter 6 is Thug’s most realized effort yet. Kanye needs to get with this kid and teach him how to hone that zaniness.
12. Oddisee, The Good Fight, First Choice
Like Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest before him, Oddisee is interested in the entirety of black American music history. His beats reference soul, jazz, and his hip-hop forebears. What I find most fascinating about him is his ability to weave his rhymes into complex melodies. His music sounds undeniably tight, much like a jazz collective. It’s a total interplay between voice and music.
13. Freddie Gibbs, Shadow of a Doubt, Track: "Narcos"
Gangsta Gibbs’ 2014 collaboration with Madlib, Pinata, was my favorite hip-hop record of 2014. Then last week he dropped another late-year instant classic with Shadow of a Doubt. Gibbs is one of the only MCs in the world that could accurately be labeled as both a coke rapper and socially conscious. His tales of gangbanging aren’t exploitative. They are journalistic. He offers a window into a world in hopes that we can gain a better understanding of it. On Narcos, he tells us that his woman can no longer stand his lifestyle, but he is addicted to it. He loves it. The sentiment is shocking and sad. He also has the best voice in rap. Period. Gibbs forever.
14. Rich Homie Quan, If You Ever Think I Will Stop Going in Ask Rr, Track: "Stupid Me"
How is Quan faring in the battle for Atlanta? Pretty good, I would say. His record If You Ever Think… revealed a new clarity in Quan’s vision. He is introducing a slew of new vocal techniques to pop music. He stays on beat more than Thug. He’s less experimental (if that’s the right word?). Not a perfect record, but promising nonetheless.
15. Meek Mill, Dreams Worth More than Money, Track: "Lord Knows (featuring Tory Lanez)"
Meek fucking Mill. This should have been your year! From its first track Lord Knows, it was clear that Mill was out for blood. No opener this year set the pace for such a bone-shattering album. He just went out for the wrong blood. Drake proved untouchable when Mill challenged him earlier this year, stomping on Meek with two perfect diss tracks. That will be Mill’s 2015 story. But, if you just focus on this record, then Meek won. Plus he gets to have sex with Nicki Minaj. Life can’t be that bad, right? (better than mine anyways)
16. White Boiz, Neighborhood Wonderful, Track: "Main St. (featuring Earl Leon’ne)"
White Boiz aren’t white boys. It’s actually a collaboration between MC Strong Arm Steady producer Star-Ra who came together for this Stones Throw-released Neighborhood Wonderful. The result is a record that channels the galactic spirit of Sun Ra as filtered through Flying Lotus and the meditative qualities of early Mos Def. Though experimental, the record is also quite accessible. It plays like a conversation between the two artists. A conversation that is important to listen to.
17. Quelle Chris, Innocent Country, Track: "Well Running Deep"
Quelle Chris is 13 fucking records into his career, and people still have no clue who he is. He really doesn’t care though, “As artists and musicians, we lost a lot of shit,” he said in an interview with Hip-hopDX, “We sacrifice everything to barely make anything while giving our whole life to people.” Chris makes real hip-hop at the expense of financial security. Generally, he’s pretty funny. On Innocent Country, he gets contemplative. He contemplates why he does what he does and why he is who he is. He never fully realizes his own ideas, and that makes him more interesting to listen to. While we try and figure out what he’s talking about, Quelle is still trying to figure out what he’s trying to talk about. Humanity runs deep in his rhymes.
18. Future Brown, Future Brown, Track: "Talkin Bandz"
I almost forgot about this one. I wasn’t that excited about this record when it came out, but Fatima Al Qadiri and crew grow on you. Warp Records artists, from OG gods Aphex Twin to modern abstract club cultists like Arca, have always paid heed to hip-hop music. Future Brown outwardly explores that connection. In the Internet culture, the kids who are out frying their skulls on Molly in packed clubs to dance music are often the same kids smoking weed in front of their computers all day listening to ‘90s hip-hop. Future Brown comes off as a conceptual project exploring that very mindset.
19. Travi$ Scott, Rodeo, Track: "Piss on ya’ Grave (featuring Kanye West)"
I have so many friends that hate Travi$. In some ways, I see their points. He isn’t the strongest lyricist and he seems more ready-made for fame than he seems willing to develop as an artist. But I found myself seduced Rodeo. It’s interesting to finally hear the Yeezus effect loud and clear. Kanye West once accurately told Zayn Lowe that rappers are the new rock stars, from the sounds to the fame to the fashions. Scott is an immediate rock star. Piss on ya’ Grave, the Kanye collab that serves as the album’s strongest track, takes a Hendrix riff and reappropriates it for a rap star generation.
20. Big Sean, Dark Sky Paradise, Track: "All Your Fault (featuring Kanye West)"
Sean is always going to be over-shadowed by his contemporaries. He lacks Kendrick's lyrical skill, Drake’s emotional resonance, and Kanye’s dominating personality. But when working with the right producers, he does pop-rap as good as anyone. Any other year Dark Sky Paradise would have been one of the biggest releases around. It’s undeniably listenable and a gigantic step up in quality from anything Sean has done previously. He’s also a million times better than J. Cole, but heads seem to hero worship J. Cole until no tomorrow while Sean is left in the G.O.O.D. Music shadow.
Bonus: Vic Mensa featuring Kanye West ‘U Mad Ha’
Though neither artists had full-lengths in 2015, both had strong years. Mensa is the heir apparent to Kanye’s legacy: he channels the grit of the South Side of Chicago while reaching for higher art aspirations. In a recent video, he revealed himself as political, fighting for the justice of Laquan McDonald. And while Kanye had no new record, 2015 still was one of the biggest years of his life. It was the year that the fashion industry finally had to take him seriously, as he released his deconstructed Helmut Lang-channeling military garb with Adidas, and three of the best sneakers ever made. On top of that, he got an honorary doctorate and gave the best VMAs speech ever. On ‘U Mad Ha,’ both artists come together for what will surely prove to be an interesting 2016.
Text and Playlist by Adam Lehrer