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Ten From 2014 #8: Hip Hop

Thursday, 18 December 2014 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

If 2013 was the call, then 2014 was to be the response. But, after Kendrick Lamar spent last year trying to “push forward the competitive element of hip hop”, it seems that his memorable Control verse fell on deaf ears. J. Cole missed the point, while legendary artists stepped back in the ring only to fall far short of their former glories. Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep just sound bored at this point in their careers.

Speaking of competition, this year marked another mainstream attempt to commercialise the dense sub-culture of battle rap and condense it into a marketable product. MTV's Total Slaughter event, co-signed by Eminem’s Shady Records but without once featuring him, received a mixed reaction as Joe Budden was swept away when put up against a genuine battle emcee.

All was not lost though, as there were some cracking albums dropped throughout the year. The likes of Freddie Gibbs and Killer Mike have as much right to claim a rap crown as any. Here are 10 hip hop records from 2014 to make you sit up and take notice.

1. Freddie Gibbs & MadlibPiñata

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib's 'Piñata' was the hip hop soundtrack of 2014, proving to be an instant classic after years of teaser EPs from the duo. Madlib outdid himself on the production here, combining soul samples with immaculately cut guitar and string parts. Tracks like Deeper and Thuggin' are powerful and emotional, but also the perfect platform for Gibbs to showcase his impressive double-time flows. On that note, the midwest rapper might just be the most captivating emcee to listen to since 2pac. His powerful voice and thug persona legitimise the role that he embodies here, with the album's tone something like a ‘70s gangster movie. In terms of a strong character painting a narrative, 'Piñata' might even supersede 'Good Kid M.A.A.D. City' as the hip hop classic of our age. Absolutely essential.

2. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

Oh my. Run The Jewels did make the list last year with their frenetic debut, but Killer Mike and El-P jumped into another realm entirely on its follow-up. Their whole style is ridiculous; a swagger-fuelled combo of unrelenting back-and-forth punchline raps and busy production.

Killer Mike's flow is on point as ever, but El-P also really brings heat on tracks like Oh My Darling and the incredible opener, Jeopardy. Much like its predecessor, this album is banger after banger, albeit with a little more structure and ambition this time around.

Listen: Oh My Darling (Don't Cry)

3. Mick Jenkins – The Water[s]

Though he's quite new on the scene, Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins has a maturity and songcraft that his peers should be envious of. 'The Water[s]' is the mixtape of the year because, despite being free, it's genuinely creative and conceptual. Jenkins proves a thoughtful orator with a good taste for mellow beats, but he also can rap his ass off when he wants to.

What is most refreshing, though, is to hear a conscious hip hop album from an emcee who can actually belt out a hook. He can rap, he can sing, hopefully he can get the mix right again on an LP next year.

Listen: The Water[s]

4. Kate Tempest – Everybody Down

Talking about his Hip Hop Shakespeare tour in an interview last year, Akala told me that he was pushing “for hip hop to be recognised as the intellectual artform that it is”. With that in mind, it is satisfying to see artists as gifted as Tempest gain plaudits in broadsheets and beyond.

She's technically regarded as a poet first and foremost, but more and more young writers are embracing hip hop as an avenue to inject real imagery and technique into their work. 'Everybody Down' is a gripping debut from a working class storyteller with a realist edge, a quality that poets aren't always known for possessing.

Listen: Circles

5. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

Very much the polar opposite to Tempest in terms of tone. Though the flavour here might cause hip hop purists to place it in the house camp, they would be missing out on a perfectly-paced record that's inspired as much by bass music in the UK as on her side of the pond.

Sometimes Banks attempts too many things at once, but more often than not ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ is engaging and, more importantly, fun. Yes, 212 is included, two years after its release, but it's still a banger, so who really cares?

Listen: Chasing Time

6. Skyzoo & Torae – Barrel Brothers

As solid a back and forth as any other duo on this list. Though this will firstly appeal more to boom bap heads, 'Barrel Brothers' is a multifarious piece of work that is still remarkably cohesive. What it's missing in hooks, it makes up for in cutting wordplay. The result is an album that is re-playable because it does the basics very, very well.  

Listen: Memorabilia

7. Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron

This wasn't everybody's cup of tea, but 'Oxymoron' is Schoolboy's most impressive and experimental project so far. The Los Angeles rapper undeniably suffered from the burden of hype that is thrust upon every member of the Black Hippy clique, but the album still stands up 10 months later. What it lacks in lyrical depth, it makes up for in much improved production and Schoolboy's now impenetrably comfortable persona. Collard Greens makes the top five tracks of the year on its own.

Listen: Collard Greens

8. Loki – G. I. M. P.

The excellent Young Fathers took the Mercury Prize, but Loki produced the best Scottish rap album of 2014. An underground veteran, the Glaswegian activist and poet sharply dissected the ramifications of a no vote in the independence referendum. Set in a dystopian Glasgow circa 2034, Loki scrutinised the role of the media and the power that fear can have over an entire population. It's long, yes, but the fantastic narrative still comes second to Loki's natural talent for songwriting.

Listen: G.I.M.P.

9. Sage Francis – Copper Gone

Sage Francis is earnest, over-dramatic and intense in absolutely everything that he articulates to his listeners. Some people hate that, but Francis is at his best when he's at his most passionate. In grabbing you by the throat, Francis doesn't fall into his previous traps of occasionally “over-rapping” and describing scenes for pretentious effect. 'Copper Gone' flows, and it's the catchiest of his recent outings.

Listen: Grace

10. A$AP Ferg – Ferg Forever

A$AP Ferg makes the list two years in a row, deal with it. The fact that the guy couldn't write a story if he was adapting a screenplay is neither here nor there, as he's effortlessly entertaining. After the success of Shabba, Ferg doesn't just drop his dancehall influences but allows them to bleed into his whole style here. His flows are spasmodic and the beats are cacophonous, but his approach to trap is more innovative than critics like to admit.   

Listen: Ferg Forever

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