Well, it’s December 28th (well, probably not when this piece goes up). So I guess it’s the time of year to talk about shit I liked and shit I didn’t like, because I’m a person who sometimes writes for a music blog and that means everybody on earth is just dying for my input even though nobody asked.
There are a fair amount of albums this year that I liked. Tribe’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is what I now consider the pinnacle of a group reuniting and going out. I obviously really liked the two albums I reviewed (Kuniva’s A History of Violence Vol. 2 and Fatt Father’s Veterans Day). I was impressed by Snoop’s Coolaid, and Aesop’s The Impossible Kid was a cool listen, as were Marv Won’s Soundtrack To Autumn, De La Soul’s …and the Anonymous Nobody, and Kendrick’s untitled umastered… I didn’t mind Royce’s Layers and T.I.’s Us Or Else: Letter To The System… And as I sit here that’s all I can think of at the moment of writing this, although I’m sure there’s great music I am either forgetting came out this year or I haven’t had the chance to listen to yet.
However, dope as those albums were, there were only two albums that came out this year that really blew my mind. Albums that I knew were something special from the first time I listened to them; where that feeling didn’t go away after two listens, or three, or ten…
Those albums were Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown, and Run The Jewels 3 by a duo whose name I’ve forgotten.
I think based off that little incomplete list of albums above, it’s clear that that my taste tends to be a little lot more rooted in traditional hip hop. However, it ended up being Atrocity Exhibition and RTJ3 that really stood out to me. Danny’s album in particular is so far from what I normally listen to that I was incredibly surprised at how much I liked it when I was hearing it for the first time, especially given how stubborn and set in my ways I am. It was (and I’m using someone else’s description for it, go ahead and sue me for plagiarism***) some weird industrial post-punk shit, way far away from the end of the musical spectrum that I generally find to be appealing.
Normally, I’m really, really not into industrial hip hop. It’s a little too abstract for my pea-brain to be able to comprehend. Most of the industrial hip hop that I’ve listened to contains weird sounds, and rapping that’s too… out there for me to like. It’s just my personal opinion, I don’t connect to it. So for a little bit, it sort of perplexed me as to why I loved Danny’s album so much. I mean, sure, the rapping was great, but I had never imagined that I would gravitate so much towards the production. However, I listened to it more and more, it started to click.
Danny Brown put his own spin on a typical Detroit sound. There are moments on this album that remind me very strongly of the Fat Killahz. “Dance In The Water” sounds similar to “The Fat Song.” The production on “Lost” sounds reminiscent of something you’d hear Fatt Father and/or Marv Won rap on. “Get Hi” screamed King Gordy. However, they weren’t exactly the same. The production on Atrocity Exhibition was warped beyond our dimension; it sounded like it was what Danny wanted us to think went on in his head when he was on drugs.
That didn’t matter though. It did what many other industrial rap acts that I’ve listened to don’t. It stayed hip hop. It’s a lot harder to blend two genres and stay hip hop while trying to go industrial than it is to just make the jump over into industrial. Atrocity Exhibition did its best to get as far away from typical hip hop production as it could, but it made sure to remain rooted in the genre in a way that was familiar. There are hipsters who aren’t versed at all in hip hop who may get mad and try to tell me I’m wrong and that Danny’s album was so good because he abandoned traditional hip hop, but I couldn’t disagree more. He didn’t abandon hip hop, he just blended genres together, seamlessly, without making it too on-the-nose or overt the way someone like Yelawolf does these days with his terrible outlaw country pop rap.
Danny blended genres and kept a hip hop attitude. In doing so, his album became the most creative, effectively experimental hip hop album I have ever heard and love to the degree that I do.
Then I got to thinking, and it began to make sense as to why I enjoyed Run The Jewels from the very first time I listened to them. El-P’s production generally consists of synthesized drums and distorted instruments, far from the heavy bass and knocking drums of what you’d think of when you think of New York. However, he keeps the gritty, Brooklyn vibe to it. The way the beats are done, it sounds like they’re looped in a way similar to the sampling done by a typical New York boom bap producer, even when nothing is being sampled. In fact, on some songs, particularly “Legend Has It,” “Down,” “Thieves!” and “Thursday In The Danger Room,” the production almost sounds like futuristic boom bap. It’s very unlike what I had originally expected industrial hip hop to sound like, before I started to listen to their music, because I had heard several songs that didn’t sound anything like good hip hop (or music [sorry, not sorry]) to me.
Right now, it seems like hip hop is in limbo, sonically, as far as what the next representative sound will be. I get the feeling we’re going to see the current phase of trap fall out of popular favor in the near future. There’s a lot of different sorts of experimental-sounding music coming out. I think Kendrick may have spearheaded it last year with To Pimp A Butterfly. Although the mumble/trap aspect of hip hop is sinking to new lows with irredeemable garbage being made by guys like Lil Yachty and Desiigner, there’s new climate, where it seems like people are starting to throw new ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. I actually don’t think there’s been a time like this in hip hop since I’ve been a fan. There’s an air of artistic freedom that I think may be starting to arise with the prevalence of independent acts. Whatever it is, I think we’re going to be coming out of the mumble rap phase, at least in the next 2 or 3 years.
I want to see the next phase of hip hop be the style of industrial/alt-rap that I’ve been discussing. It seems to be catching on as time goes on and the general atmosphere of hip hop becomes more experimental. It doesn’t even need to be done to the degree that it’s done by Run The Jewels or Danny Brown on Atrocity Exhibition. Black Milk, for instance, has been becoming more and more experimental with his production with every release; the distorted keyboards, the bass, the drums, the vibe. It started on his Tronic album, and on his last album, If There’s A Hell Below, it seems like he’s heading in a very exciting direction, while still remaining firmly rooted in hip hop. I want to see more of it.
That’s not to say that I want to see artists from the 90s try to be experimental just because it’s what’s popular. I want to be clear and say that I want upcoming artists to participate in making this sort of sound. You know how it sounds sort of desperate (bordering on pathetic on occasion) when a rapper 20 years deep starts rapping on trap beats and using autotuned hooks? It’d sort of be the same kind of thing. There’s nothing wrong with staying in your lane and doing what you know, so long as your own artistry doesn’t regress or stagnate. Do things naturally. With rapper/producers it’s different, because producers have a different mindset, so guys like El-P and Black Milk who have been around for a while can get more experimental organically. But I want the industrial/experimental sound to be like how right now with trap, where it’s the sound that most new and upcoming rappers want to jump into and start their [non]careers with.
Busta Rhymes said in a Westwood interview this year something that I found really interesting. He spoke about the acts who seem to be succeeding in making quality music have something in common. They keep their feet planted in the essence of hip hop. They don’t necessarily make the hip hop of the past, but they keep the spirit and vibe of hip hop while venturing out to do their own styles of music. He says that the trap shit that even his own artists do is cool in the moment, but the really timeless, transcendent music being made by rappers is the music that remembers that it’s hip hop. I really like what he was saying, and for the most part, I agree with him wholeheartedly…but what I liked most about the interview is that Bus’ got Westwood to sit quietly without spouting some loud, unfunny nonsense for more than 3 minutes. But yeah, what he was talking about is exactly why albums like RTJ3 (and RTJ’s other two albums) and Atrocity Exhibition are so effective while being so experimental.
I tried to articulate all of this the best I can. I’m not very well-versed in industrial hip hop so I may sound like I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I hope I got my point across. In any case, I’m interested in what the future of hip hop will sound like. If it sounds anything at all like what I was describing then I’m on board.
***I’m sorry, I just wanted to look cool. Please don’t sue me.