By: Maceo Maddox
If you were to ask your average rap fan how 2014 fared in regard to the quality and quantity of music produced, they would likely have more negatives to present than positives, and I couldn’t blame them. Following the blockbuster year that 2013 turned out to be for hip-hop, the bar for 2014 was set rather high. Needless to say, this year didn’t match up at all.
But how could it? In a year where A$AP Rocky, Tyler the Creator, J. Cole, Kanye West, Mac Miller, Jay-Z, Big Sean, Drake, and many others all graced us with full-length LPs, the discrepancy between commercial satisfaction in 2013 and 2014 was already set up to be quite large. There were still quite a few noteworthy releases this year, though few and far-between. Unfortunately, there were not enough good projects to create a Top 10 list for mixtapes and albums separately, so I’ve decided to merge the two categories together. Up first, we have…
10. Last Winter – Bas
As J. Cole’s lead protégé, you could develop a bit of an idea as to what you would hear from a debut Dreamville album, and you’re probably right. With Last Winter, Bas creates sort of a “break away” album, conceptually speaking. He speaks on the struggles of life at the bottom and typical events that plague the mind and bodies of those who are subject to this lifestyle, and he does a fairly decent job. However, Bas doesn’t seem very inspired, which is a bit of an issue when listening to this album. The beats are solid, but he doesn’t really seem to invest himself in the production on certain tracks. Bas does have an uplifting quality about his music, though, and that’s rather appealing. Last Winter is a good album to listen to in order test the waters of Dreamville.
9. Faces – Mac Miller
Mac Miller’s tenure post-Blue Slide Park has been a pleasantly surprising paradigm shift. He’s made a smooth transition from empty, happy-go-lucky party rap to a brooding, drug-ridden, sound that is also Earl Sweatshirt-esque at times. Faces is no different. The biggest issue with this mixtape can be seen just by looking at the track list; at 24 songs, this project is lengthy, maybe too lengthy to keep the average audience engaged. As you could guess, given the aforementioned description of Mac’s music, Faces has a mood that isn’t uplifting in the slightest. However, if you can appreciate Mac’s dark, interesting wordplay, then Faces is a mixtape that you can easily enjoy.
8. Oxymoron – Schoolboy Q
Schoolboy Q brings a lot to the table in Oxymoron, his third studio album. Q brings what you would expect from him: his unique, hardcore west-coast vibe. Impressively enough, he was able to hone and magnify it properly in several songs throughout this album. Instrumentally speaking, this album is engaging and is sure to get your head nodding. Q’s storytelling on Hoover Street is rather impressive, though respect to lyricism is rather vacant. I find the same issue in Studio and Prescription/Oxymoron. With how much Q speaks on how he’s better than Kendrick (he’s not), one would think that he would try to be more lyrical on his first commercial release. Still, lyricism isn’t his forte, and his music is still easy to appreciate even with this shortcoming. Q’s choppy flow and raspy voice give his music great personality. Oxymoron is a fun listen that bangs from beginning to end.
7. 2014 Forest Hills Drive – J. Cole
(features excerpts from previously-written article)
2014 Forest Hills Drive offers consistency on the platform of production. The beats are solid, and don’t venture far, if at all, from what you would expect from a J. Cole project. However, when it comes to what’s being communicated from song-to-song, this album is one of highs and mediums. Nothing about the album as a whole is particularly bad. In fact, there are more things to praise about the album that to shame it for. 2014 Forest Hills Drives offers fewer blunders than The Sideline Story and more passion than Born Sinner. This album’s greatest triumphs lie within the phenomenal storytelling of Wet Dreamz, the harsh realities of ’03 Adolescence, and the hearty sentiments of Love Yourz. This album is consistent and still rather safe, but Cole has certainly stepped up from his two previous albums.
6. Cadillactica – Big KRIT
Arguably the most ”slept-on” entity in the rap scene, rapper-producer Big KRIT has been amazingly consistent from Return of 4eva to King Remembered In Time. Cadillactica continues this feat. This album is instrumentally magnificent from top to bottom; it’s clear that KRIT decided to be bolder with his production on this LP. However, this album’s greatest triumph is also its greatest downfall. It is known that KRIT is a lyrical heavyweight, but this isn’t shown nearly as much as expected. Cadillactica is much more centered on melodies and choruses than his other projects, and the style of production KRIT implements on the album is unrelentingly dominant. This characteristic makes its verses less-than-memorable, which is not a favorable trait, especially in a KRIT project. Also, the song sequencing on this album is bizarre; all of the most memorable tracks occur before the Standby interlude. Notwithstanding, Cadillactica is very smooth and flows well, albeit oddly. You’ll have a great time riding around and vibing to this album, just don’t expect much “heat” from the lyrical domain.
5. Cilvia Demo – Isaiah Rashad
When I first heard this EP from TDE’s latest lyricist, I wrote it off as something to be enjoyed only while under the influence, due to the cloudy instrumentals and the “smoker’s vibe” that the project brings. It took me a long time to realize how wrong I was. Production-wise, I never had any doubts; Cilvia Demo might be the most cohesive project of the year – smooth and overcast with hazy vocals at various points. Isaiah Rashad managed to create a great coming-of-age endeavor which chronicles his adolescence and young adulthood, and he accomplished this in an almost seamless manner. The only significant flaw with this project is Rashad’s brazenly linear flow. He raps in a manner that is so straightforward that it leaves me wondering what he could achieve if he could bring more creativity in that category. Nevertheless, in his first release since his signing with TDE, Rashad has already produced a project that stands near the top of all of TDE’s releases. I’m excited to see what he’ll make next.
4. Lord Steppington – Step Brothers
Alchemist is a prominent figure in the west-coast hip-hop scene, known for his industrial and coasting instrumentals. Having worked with rapper Evidence before to form the duo Step Brothers, these two artists have already established chemistry together, and it shows on Lord Steppington. The grand allure of this project is its banging beats that ride oh-so well. You won’t hear any conscious rap or mind-boggling punchlines on this project, just harsh lyrics from top to bottom, and Evidence does a solid job of laying down his verses to complement the instrumentals. If it sounds like a simple combination, that’s due to the chemistry of the duo and Alchemist’s years of perfecting his craft up to this point. If you want to hear grimy delivery and grimy lyrics over grimy, banging beats, Lord Steppington is definitely the way to go.
3. The Water[s] – Mick Jenkins
Up-and-coming Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins’ craft is both conscious and flavorful. Standing alone, this mixtape deserves much acclaim, but geographically speaking, The Water[s] provides refreshment to a Chicago music scene which has been predominantly overrun by drill music (Lil Reese, Lil Durk, Chief Keef, etc). Jenkins’ lyrical delivery is quite unique, as he combines his commanding voice with a rhyme scheme that is slightly off-beat at times, but the crispness, flexibility, and tenacity of his delivery makes for an excellent combination. Unorthodox, but effective. One would think that a flow this commanding would warrant safe instrumentation, but The Water[s] knocks that theory on its ass. Outside of a consistent series of instrumentals that sound almost dreamy at times, the beats on this tape are well-layered, engaging, and hard-hitting. Also, Jenkins implements the title of this project as a metaphor for truth, enlightenment, spirituality, etc. But he doesn’t project his message in an upfront or overbearing manner. He instead glides through the project, consistently sprinkling his sermon in the form of coasting criticisms. And even so, Jenkins is more than lyrically capable without a theme to rap on. The Water[s] is bold and intriguing from beginning to end, demanding multiple listens.
2. Pinata – Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Deemed “the collaboration of a lifetime” by the album’s creators, Pinata brings exactly what one would expect from such a potent duo. Legendary producer Madlib is known for his dusty instrumentation and smooth, wavy loops, while Freddie Gibbs’s calling card is his brash voice and hard-nosed, straightforward delivery. When combined, the result is a poignant, matter-of-fact-ish composition of grimy, yet flavorful songs that exemplify each of these artist’s individual traits. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib come together as one, and the fusion is absolutely seamless. The delicacy of the instrumentals on this project deserves the most recognition, though those who are familiar with Madlib won’t be surprised at all by his craft. Gibbs adds to the project by simultaneously using the beats as a beacon for his rhyme scheme and bludgeoning the listener with his commanding delivery. All in all, the synergy of Pinata is greater than anyone could have anticipated, and this album is definitely one for the books.
1. Run the Jewels 2 – Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels is a duo that consists of southern rap veteran Killer Mike and producer El-P, and this is their third and most refined project to date. Much like Pinata, this album is a combination of two prominent musical personalities. However, unlike Pinata, these two have a tenure together, and they have consistently improved in the realm of synergy. El-P’s production style is distinct and gripping – his beats are loud, slap hard, and hold absolutely nothing back. There’s a teaspoon of techno here as well. You cannot sit still while listening to this album, because Run the Jewels comes AT you. Killer Mike’s flexibility in regard to flow is nothing less than admirable. He’s dynamic and flavorful, much like his cohort. At first I thought it odd for these two to join forces due to how sonically different El-P’s production is from what you would expect Killer Mike to appear on, but that was quickly erased. Their sound is nothing like you’ve ever heard before, and that fact gives this album stride ahead of Pinata. With a fresh sound, distinct personality, banging beats, sonic bravado, and the simple quality of being fun to listen to, Run the Jewels 2 is the best rap album of 2014.