Rajin Rambles: 2018 in Review, and Beyond

by Rajin

rajin2019

So I’ve kinda been AWOL for most of this year. I’ve been struggling with some pretty bad writer’s block for one reason or another. I just wanted to use this piece as an opportunity to shake the rust off and give my opinions on hip hop in 2018 that I — as someone who was raised a soft suburbanite — can’t and don’t expect any readers to take seriously.

I mentioned in last year’s recap that I felt hip hop was in a state of limbo, and that rap music didn’t seem to know where it wanted to go. In some ways I think that still holds true. It seems like commercial rap is clinging on for dear life to the trends that’ve had the genre in a stranglehold over the last two or three years. Rappers both new and established seem petrified at the idea of leaving the comfort zone that has established itself, because nobody knows where to go next. Melodic trap lives on for better or for worse…and from what I can tell, it’s actually gained some footing back in the game. Last year I got the sense that there was a bit of exhaustion in regards to that sort of music that I no longer seem to find. People seem like they’re totally satisfied with the prevailing trends remaining firmly in place, which I can’t knock since everybody has their own tastes; however, I’m a little disheartened by the stagnation. I also can’t pretend like I’m not sick and tired of the representative sound of hip hop being so sanitary and watered-down when the music was built off a spirit of defiance and grit.

This is all anecdotal though. I can’t say for sure whether my observations are actually accurate; all I can say is I’ve been hearing a lot of Travis Scott and Drake, and it’s made me want to “accidentally” crush my own windpipe.

Fortunately for those who have tastes that aren’t exactly satisfied by that sort of music, an almost comical amount of projects were dropped by underground rappers this year. It reached the point where, unless you are in certain settings, there was really no reason for you to pay attention to anything going on that you didn’t like. In the maybe three pieces I’ve written in the last year and a half, I’ve spoken a countless amount of times about the new-age boom bap movement that has taken root in the underground. For some reason, this time last year I figured that this movement’s growth would merely be incremental. Couldn’t tell you why, and at this point I feel pretty fucking stupid for ever holding that belief. The flood gates have been opened and they’re not shutting any time soon. Last year this particular scene was still budding, but this year it’s clear to anybody with the ability to use a computer that the underground is alive. It’s stronger than it’s been in 15 years, maybe somebody should let DJ Booth know.

In the last 12 months, I’ve become familiar with a lot of newer artists. Daniel Son, ANKHLEJOHN, CRIMEAPPLE, Asun Eastwood, and Eto have caught my ears the most. That’s not to take anything away from anyone else, but a huge chunk of my favorite albums this year were released by these guys. Since mid-2017 and even earlier, they’ve released a metric fuckton of incredible projects with shocking consistency. Artists have seemingly upped their output this year…which is also something I’d like to talk about. They’ve been releasing project after project, with many ending 2018 with upwards of four or five; in the past, I likely would not have been thrilled about it. I would have said something about oversaturation serving to dilute the artist’s overall impact for me. I’m not sure that’s how I feel anymore though, at least not with certain artists. More attention is being paid to structuring a body of work. I partially credit the return of vinyl and cassette for that. If people are making albums that they want to release on an analog format, they put a greater effort into trimming the fat and eliminating filler. You can’t just skip a track, so every song needs to serve a purpose. Generally, this results in projects being compact and packing a punch. In comparison to when artists were dropping three 70-minute long mixtapes a year in addition to an album, projects don’t end up sounding as rushed or bloated. That is mainly where my ambivalence toward this practice stemmed from. Having several shorter projects in a year is a great way to accomplish the same thing without sacrificing quality control, and frankly I would quite like it if more of my favorites started releasing more regularly.

I’ve also noticed that producers have been branching out a bit more from the minimal style that Roc Marciano, The Alchemist, and Daringer used to pioneer the sound of this movement. I’m pretty glad about that, because for a little bit I was afraid that people would overdo the minimalism and make it feel stale. I’m once again relieved that I was wrong. I have to give a huge shout-out to Futurewave, who is pretty handily my favorite producer out right now. His work on Pressure Cooker and Physics of Filth is just utterly astounding. It’s everything I love about hip hop. I also want to mention Big Ghost Ltd.; while I’ve enjoyed his work for a while now, his beats on Aguardiente and especially Van Ghost show that he’s continuing with the steady incline he’s been on essentially since coming out as a producer.

This year hasn’t only been about new artists though. I’m very happy with a lot of vets. Roc Marciano obviously comes to mind — he released three albums that I really like, with Behold A Dark Horse putting up serious competing for the position of my favorite album in his discography thus far. One of those albums, Kaos, was produced by the legendary DJ Muggs, who’s had a remarkably strong year himself. He’s actually been on a hot streak since his album with Meyhem Lauren last year, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be ending anytime soon; in addition to Kaos, in 2018 alone he released a strong Soul Assassins album, an EP with Meyhem, reunited with Cypress Hill for their best album in two decades, and is set to release albums with Eto, CRIMEAPPLE, and Mach-Hommy next year. Black Thought finally released some solo projects and while they were a little lacking in substance, he made it perfectly clear that he is the most dangerous emcee on the face of the planet. Shad and Blueprint released utterly gorgeous records. People may clown me for this next statement, but they can fuck themselves. I think Eminem brought it with Kamikaze. I consider that to be his best and most genuine album since 2002, which absolutely shocked me because Revival was the epitome of a career-ending album. Royce 5’9” also released his best and most personal album to date this year, alongside a strong PRhyme outing with DJ Premier.

He’s been hyping up a Bad Meets Evil reunion album at shows overseas lately, so I’m really hoping that’s something we see next year. Unrelated, but I’m looking forward to the next Run The Jewels album, too.

Of course, there are a number of vets who once again didn’t release the albums they’ve been promising for years now. At this point, I should know better than to expect Redman, Ghostface, and Busta Rhymes to drop those records…but I’m a moron. Overall though, despite a few of my earlier complaints I found 2018 to be the strongest year hip hop has had since I’ve been a fan. There truly is room for everything in this day and age, a while that lends itself to music and artists I’m really not a fan of, it’s also led to some incredible material and future legends. I hope to be more active next year than I was this year to offer my unsolicited opinions and takes…just like all of the hip-hop writers for whom I hold a seething hatred, because the way things are going I only see good things in store for 2019.

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Dustin’s 2018 Most Recommended Album List

by Dustin

2018 album list

Being a fan of hip-hop in general, I find year end list season to be a particularly special level of hell. While most publications crank out relatively harmless and generic top tens with whatever charted best in the past twelve months, there’s always a few outlets that decide to get holier-than-thou about their opinions through numeric rankings. Case in point, my favorite aggressive group of travelling trend chasers, DJ Booth talking down to people for enjoying an Eminem album.

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Now, it obviously doesn’t matter if Kamikaze gets left off a top releases list, but it’s all in the presentation, right? If we’re going to play the taste-shaming game, I will take the opportunity to point out the fact that they’re up their own ass about a list that includes Drake’s Scorpion and Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy; however, just like them, that would be nothing more than dumping on others for enjoying things I don’t like. I suppose I just wanted to take a quick second to dig at DJ Booth for thinking their opinions hold any weight, when they’ve already proven to be more out of touch with rap than the artists they dub irrelevant. Maybe next year, you can put people onto some new things without desperately trying to stir up controversy-based discussion on Twitter. Given the level of quality control, I doubt it’ll happen, but I’m a dreamer.

At any rate I’m not going to rank my top albums this year, take this as more a list of recommendations that I see as an essential snapshot of hip-hop. Thirteen favorites which I feel strongly enough about to say, “you should give this a try.” No rankings, as I stand behind each and every one of these records as worth your time to a degree that I don’t need to quantify. 2018 was amazing, but this is my personal cream of the crop.

Blueprint – Two Headed Monster: I can never help but feel like Blueprint is one of the most chronically underrated artists in hip-hop. He’s been around forever, standing alongside artists in the Definitive Jux and Rhymesayers camps since their haydays. To make things better he seems to only improve with age, and is perhaps one of the most thoughtful craftsmen in the genre. Two Headed Monster carried the spirit of acts such as A Tribe Called Quest in the most respectful way I’ve ever heard. It clearly pulled from that era, but it was handled with such care that it ended up like a heartfelt tribute to rap music. Front to back nothing stands out or steals the spotlight, yet still it was impossible to walk away from without feeling insanely happy. An album for the head-at-heart that avoided being condescending.

LARS – Last American Rockstars: The first wish fulfillment I received this year was seeing The Davidians finally materialize. See, back in the mid-2000s King Gordy and Bizarre formed a group under that name. Being heavily into Detroit rap at the time and a big King Gordy fan, I spent forever waiting for a release. After a bit of time, I started to assume the project had met the same fate as Detox and Jon Connor’s Aftermath debut. I was however, wrong (which will become a bit of a trend on this list) and the pair’s LARS rebrand started work under Majik Ninja Entertainment. The album ended up being an absolute bombastic joy. I can only really summarize it as having been a rollercoaster of debauchery that I never wanted to get off. If you want to read a little more about it, I wrote a review of this one. It was certainly a unique beast.

Eminem – Kamikaze: I’m sure there is going to be a faction of readers who will absolutely loathe the fact that I have placed this album on my 2018 most-recommended list, and that’s okay. Fortunately for me, this is my list and not yours. To me, Kamikaze was the first Eminem album to feel like an actual Eminem album since Encore (which was pretty weak). He sounded larger than life, angry, and immature in the way that made his music so engaging over a decade ago. While I’ve seen it be panned for lacking “emotionally mature” content, I felt as though the route of violent braggadocio taken worked out for the best. If I’m being honest, Eminem’s dramatic gut spilling of personal issues had long been majorly played out for me. I was refreshed simply to hear him rapping with a big personality on top of enjoyable production. I found the critical reception of Kamikaze to be an unfortunate byproduct of the perception that Eminem is “lame” to praise or enjoy, at least in comparison to my experience. I had all but given up on him after the dumpster-fire that was Revival, but this was actually quite a pleasant effort.

Hermit & The Recluse – Orpheus vs. Sirens: Ka has been a favourite of mine since his 2013 release The Night’s Gambit. I was quickly tantalized by his scripturesque lyrical style, and how it was built upon with distinctive and often drumless production. When he unveiled “Hermit & The Recluse” as a project with producer Animoss, it seemed like a match made in heaven. If you’re familiar with Ka at all, Orpheus vs. Sirens really wasn’t far removed from what you would expect. It fell a little short of Honor Killed the Samurai (and perhaps even Days with Dr. Yen Lo) for me, but it was for all intents and purposes a splendid piece of art. I’m sure this sounds as if I’m dismissing it as “more of the same,” but when you have the track record of consistency Ka has, that’s far from a negative.

Royce da 5’9” – Book of Ryan: Rajin and I both avoided writing a review for Book of Ryan, even though we loved it; given the highly personal nature of the subject matter, it didn’t feel right to dissect. I stand by that decision. Book of Ryan was more of an audio confessional with Royce da 5’9” opening up about the darkest and most private aspects of life. I could see this being an album that not everybody will enjoy, as it lacked any sort of pace or energy. This wasn’t an issue for me though, and those who enjoy melancholic introspection will likely really vibe with the atmosphere and vulnerability.

Knowledge the Pirate – Flintlock: Knowledge the Pirate — a long standing associate of Roc Marciano — created what was probably the most old-school east coast flavoured rap record this year. Flintlock was no-frills, no excessive flair, and perhaps slightly one dimensional; however, none of this held it back from being downright fantastic. From front to back his debut release gripped the part of me that grew up on grimey 90s music. If that sentence could also describe your lineage in hip-hop fandom, you should definitely pick up this one up as soon as possible.

Roc Marciano – Behold a Dark Horse: Admittedly, I was not huge on Rosebudd’s Revenge 2: The Bitter Dose when it released. I felt it to be a little too minimalistic, and a sequel that didn’t live up to my enjoyment of the original (though Rajin disagrees with me entirely on that). With that in mind, I was genuinely a little conflicted when Roc Marciano announced Behold a Dark Horse as his second major drop set for 2018. I was, unsurprisingly, very incorrect in my hesitance once again. Behold a Dark Horse ended up a fantastic display of off-kilter bold production, and Roc Marci at his weirdest and most energetic. In the future, this album will likely remain near the top of his discography for me. It had every single trait that I felt the second Rosebudd’s Revenge lacked, and was ultimately and extremely satisfying listen.

Black Milk – FEVER: I view Black Milk as a gigantic talent, and one of a small handful of artists I am comfortable pre-ordering new music from. I had truly unfairly high expectations for the follow up to If There’s a Hell Below, yet somehow he surpassed my hopes. FEVER was a luscious and beautifully smooth progression of the jazzy sound Black Milk toyed with on the Nat Turner collaborative LP The Rebellion Sessions. I feel as if this album never really received the attention it should have, likely due to coming out at the very beginning of a well saturated calendar year. If you did happen to miss FEVER, give it a chance. I think it has the potential to appeal to a wide variety of fandoms, while being challenging enough to please even the snobbiest of alternative music nerds.

ANKHLEJOHN & Big Ghost Ltd. – Van Ghost: On the lead up to June 18th, Van Ghost was probably my most anticipated drop of 2018. Ankhlejohn was on a furious hot-streak of quality tapes, and Big Ghost was showing to be a rising star in the modern boom-bap circle. Having them come together felt no less than a recipe for success, and it was. The Van Gogh-inspired Van Ghost was dark and gnarly, but with a distinct undertone of delicacy. It was anghellic in ways, but not afraid to kick the listeners ass when confronted with unpleasant reality. I really cannot recommend this enough, nor can I properly word just how wild it was stylistically. I can, however, promise that Van Ghost will not let you down.

Denzel Curry – TA13OO: Denzel Curry is one of those rappers who’s seemed on the cusp of dropping a individual masterpiece since his career launched. 2016’s Imperial came close, but this was the year it fully came to fruition. TA13OO saw Denzel finally apply his wonderful toolkit and raw skill to a well thought out concept, and it was gorgeous. I might even go as far as saying that TA13OO will be looked back on as the definitive record of its scene. I did review it, but it’s an album that you need to hear for yourself to appreciate properly. Whether you’re a fan of the old-school or the new generation, it would be a disservice to your ears to not give it a fair shake. It was phenomenal.

Daniel Son x Asun Eastwood x Futurewave – Physics of Filth: A little earlier this year I discovered Asun Eastwood’s project Hollywood Briggs from 2017, and gave it a spin with Rajin. We were mutually impressed, to the point that I ended up ordering the CD version of the release; however, the tracks featuring Daniel Son really stood out. His presence pushed Asun to elevate himself to unbelievable heights, leading to spectacular toe-to-toe rapping. Immediately we began to talk about how hyped we would be for them to form a duo. As it turns out, we would get our wish and then some. The duo formed a trio with super-producer Futurewave (more on him in the next blurb), and released one of the nastiest barrages of hip-hop I’ve listened to recently. For anybody hungry for more grit in the modern rap scene, this album is for you.

Daniel Son & Futurewave – Pressure Cooker: The second consecutive entry on this list for both Daniel Son and Futurewave, and an absolute monster of a record. Rajin reviewed this one already, and he said a lot more than I’m going to be able to in this format so I recommend giving that a read. What I will say though is that Pressure Cooker is the result of an emcee firing at all cylinders alongside a highly skilled producer with a clear vision of soundscape. Much like the works of duos such as Eric B. and Rakim or earlier Atmosphere the chemistry on display was almost unfair, resulting in a nearly flawless end product. If you dig the Roc Marciano lane, but want something with more snarl, Pressure Cooker is likely the perfect choice. Don’t get it mistaken though, Daniel is far from being another Roc clone. He is a breed of his own, and Futurewave has the chops to match.

Shad – A Short Story About a War: The only way I know how to properly express my adoration of A Short Story About a War, is to say that attempting to review it in the light it deserves sent me into an awful writers block spiral for several weeks. I could not find the words to capture just how incredible it was, and felt as if anything I could write would still misrepresent it to the reader. This album is not only musically enjoyable, but the heavy themes and ideas it carried were presented with a perfect balance of delicate tact and reality grounding shock. Seriously, if you’re a music writer who maintains the opinion that hip-hop lacks “content” currently, get your head out of your backside and look a little harder. In my opinion, one of the best social-political rooted albums of all time dropped this year, and you have missed out by not doing your due diligence. It nearly killed this website by being too good, and that’s coming from an immensely stubborn human. I wish I was kidding.

To conclude my 2018 list of recommended hip-hop records, I’d like to thank a few people. First and foremost, thank you to Rajin and Emily for their contributions to Extraordinary Nobodies. We all had a rough stretch in terms of activity, but I am extremely proud of what we did accomplish. Additionally, I’d like to shout out my friend Isaac for regularly offering me feedback on articles. Thank you to Michael (of FilthyBroke Recordings), Ramon (also known as MCrv), and Ben for listening to me vent multiple times about difficulties balancing life and writing. To all the artists who we featured in some form or another, thank you for doing what you do and giving us a reason to write. Finally, a massive thank you to everyone who has supported Extraordinary Nobodies in 2018 and years prior. We’re an artists-first site, and knowing people appreciate that is beyond special. Let’s hope for another strong year of hip-hop in 2019. We can’t wait.