Better late than never … 206UP concludes its run of special features in celebration of the blog’s five-year anniversary. For all past related entries, see here. For yet another controversial, internet-exploding list of music-related opinion, see below.
Herein lies The Top 15 Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of the Last Five Years*, according to the often-tardy but never half-formed opinions of 206UP.COM. We present 15 because ten seemed too few and 20 too many. If an album made this list, we wanted it to actually mean something.
These are the albums that spoke to us the most over the course of the last five years. In revisiting these records — and many, many others — during the formation of this list, it was interesting to track how the perception and opinion of the music changed from the very first listen to the umpteenth spin. The benefit of hindsight and the context in which you’re experiencing the music is always in play when compiling a list like this, which might help explain why the album that originally held the unequivocal top spot in our minds, in fact changed upon later re-visit, replaced by a collection of tracks that — in our opinion — stands impervious to criticism in their breadth of creativity, profoundness and accessibility. If you’re an everyday reader of this blog, you probably already know what record I’m talking about.
And with that, hit the jump to read the rest.
*7/5/09 through 7/5/14
15. The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
You can’t talk about the last five years in Seattle hip-hop without mentioning The Heist. So here we are, mentioning The Heist. Upon its release in the fall of 2012 I wrote a mostly positive review for the website Potholes In My Blog just as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were putting the capital M, R and L’s in their names. That is to say: their worldwide fandom was just getting feverish. Now, it’s impossible to consider The Heist in a Seattle-centric vacuum, which makes for a weird listening experience when the album plays in sequence with the hyper-local releases found elsewhere on this list. At what point does an artist become so big that he or she no longer belongs to their hometown?
In a mythological world where The Heist never made it past the margins of Seattle’s area code, it would remain an entertaining, expertly crafted pop-rap record. It has all the makings: big sticky hooks, arena-sized beats and the type of absurdly earnest songwriting that caters to audiences en masse. The Heist remains polarizing both nationally and locally, but you will rarely catch a fellow Seattle rapper criticizing Macklemore on record. “Macklemore is great for getting Seattle hip-hop more national exposure,” is the most common refrain heard from his Town peers. A truer statement does not exist.
14. Cognitive Dissonance – Raz Simone
For his 300 Entertainment debut, Black Umbrella cohort Raz Simone crafted a cinematic expanse of an album that carried enough weight — emotional, physical, narcotic — to drown the record’s appeal in the deepest channels of the Puget Sound. It was Raz’s own sparkling humanity, however, that saved Cognitive Dissonance from its own pathos and lifted raw, stripped-bare sentiments like “They’ll Speak” and “So Far, So Far” into lofty, Pac-like contemplation.
Raz remains an MC with a massive amount of potential energy: his career and musical aesthetic could go in any number of different directions as evidenced by the diverse style of music videos that have accompanied Cognitive Dissonance, and his current national tour with Rittz. It’s Raz’s intense thirst for veracity, however, that will likely remain the grounding force in his music.
13. They’ve Got My Number Down At The Post Office – Art Vandelay
are were a great equalizer in the Seattle hip-hop scene. Ricky Pharoe and Mack Formway’s obscure approach to beats and rhymes on They’ve Got My Number Down At The Post Office balanced the scale between the street-oriented/hustler/struggle rap that can be found in ubiquity these days, and the backpacker/political/neo-communal hip-hop that Seattle proudly persists to claim. AV’s outlook internalized much of what is fundamentally wrong with society and re-projected it through the lens of the “struggling artist.” They’ve Got My Number proudly recast the stoner/recluse archetype as a sort of post-Gen X philosophical soothsayer, albeit of the low-key variety. Sadly, Art Vandelay have since disbanded, but their nuggets of cloudy wisdom live on in packets of compressed data.
12. Respect – Fatal Lucciauno
Fatal Lucciauno’s Respect can be a bitter pill to swallow. There’s frank ugliness on this record in the form of gunplay, drug dealing, homophobia, misogyny, allusions to domestic violence, and, oh yeah, a track titled “Adolph Hitler.” All of the standard criticism that gets leveled at hip-hop on the regular seems to be fair game here. Still, the significance and value of Respect lies in the context of what we’re typically used to seeing in mainline Seattle hip-hop, which is almost always tamer and more positive.
Fatal’s light is trained on the other side of town, where all of the events the coffee shop philosophers have the luxury of debating over actually happen. The first words Fatal raps on Respect are, “Death is promised.” That statement goes for everyone and it’s a scathing yet equalizing proclamation. The real trouble lies in how some of us ultimately get there. Fatal’s loyalties are with those who live a hair’s width away at all times, and his Respect satisfies a hardcore rap fan’s lust for disorder, while pushing the boundaries of what could be considered enjoyable entertainment.
11. Kingdom Crumbs – Kingdom Crumbs
Grooving above, at a cruising altitude higher than most Seattle hip-hop records of 2012, was Kingdom Crumbs’ self-titled debut album. Packed with 13 feel-good tracks, Cloud Nice compatriots Tay Sean, Mikey Nice, Jerm, and Jarv Dee gathered in a prayerful circle and let creativity take the reigns. This was smart pop music (“For The Birds”) and lifted swag rap (“Ridinonthestrength”) recombinant with glorious funk music elements.
10. Cinemetropolis – Blue Scholars
The third full-length album by Blue Scholars was funded through a massively successful Kickstarter campaign which proved the duo worthy of the Seattle Hip-Hop People’s Choice Award in 2011 (until someone named Ben Haggerty snatched the fictional title less than a year later). This is not a perfect metaphor, but I’ve always thought of Blue Scholars as the Ken Griffey, Jr. of Seattle rap and Macklemore as the Alex Rodriguez. At some point, A-Rod was labeled a villain by a certain segment of interested parties, while The Kid stayed in favor even during his lean (and absent) years.
Blue Scholars are certainly in flux these days, with Sabzi finding success with his Made In Heights project, and Geo doing the same, flexing both lyrical and culinary muscles through a duo of creative enterprises. Still, though, Blue Scholars are the only hip-hop group in the Town deserving of the “legacy act” label. Their fans don’t take a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude, which was evident in a successful Brooklyn show last October that didn’t have the benefit of being powered by an album release.
Cinemetropolis still stands as a monolithic album in Seattle hip-hop of the last five years. Sabzi replaced his sample-based production with synth and tropical riddims which meshed unexpectedly well with Geo’s conceptual lyrics about the intersection of real life and film. The songs from Cinemetropolis are more enjoyable when heard live which is another factor in the staying power of this record; fresh life is given whenever we have the benefit of seeing it performed. Blue Scholars still hold the championship belt when it comes to remaining connected to the people, and comprehensive artistic statements like Cinemetropolis are one of the main reasons why.
9. Exalted – Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death
It took three albums for Nacho Picasso and Blue Sky Black Death to find their narcotized footing and by Exalted, the third in the soon-to-be considered classic trilogy, they were comfortably numb. Nacho is, at all times, equal parts absurdist and deviant, and there is no other name I’d rather see following the word “featuring” in a song tag. As a solo artist he can be a lot to inhale in one sitting, but Exalted found him at his most, well, balanced, I suppose you could say. Like the best movie villains, he instills fear through great acts of ludicrousness on tracks like “The Gods Don’t Favor You” and “Surf Nazis Must Die.” Production partners Blue Sky Black Death direct the anarchy through a murk of gothic trap.
8. Graymaker – Grayskul
Forming a union between Seattle and Chicago that would continue to reap musical rewards, the Oldominion duo commissioned 100% of Graymaker’s beats from a hip-hop/electronic/downtempo producer from the Chi named Maker. For our money, this ninth studio album by Onry Ozzborn and JFK is the group’s best. It’s a self-contained capsule of dynamic boom-bap in which the two constituent MCs grew synthetic limbs from their already-hewn vampiric extremities. Grayskul’s past supernatural tendencies, as heard on Deadlivers and Bloody Radio, meld with the retro-futurist sound of Maker, which is how we get to evolutionary hybrid joints like “We Android” and “Machine.” Graymaker was the new rap primordial ooze from which one of Seattle’s best veteran acts re-emerged.
7. BLK GLD / WHT GLD / RSE GLD – Porter Ray
Porter Ray, Seattle rap’s golden child, has a gift. But it’s not one of immortality, or even precognition. It’s simply that he’s one of the best observational storytellers around. Try recounting a time in your life or an event that you witnessed firsthand without contaminating the narrative with your own editorial. Porter Ray’s BLK GLD / WHT GLD / RSE GLD series of EPs were shotgun-seated, front-stooped examinations of everything beautiful and ugly in his native Chopper District. The aesthetics are vintage because Porter is an old soul in a new body, but the bars are tight and clarified because his rap mind is the sharpest tack in the Six. Black CNN, indeed.
6. ANX – Dark Time Sunshine
Dark Time Sunshine are longstanding Seattle rapper Onry Ozzborn and Chicago producer Zavala. The two principles borrowed heavily from their respective environments for this project: you have the frigid, gothic architecture of the Chi clasped with the androidenal, synthetic warmth of Seattle’s tech. ANX was borne from that embrace, and sounds like what you should be listening to during a September afternoon rain shower in the Pacific Northwest. This is an engaging, compelling listen; the type of record where it’s impossible to determine a favorite track because each one ends up surprising you in some astonishing way.
5. Sweatsuit & Churchshoes – Candidt
Sweatsuit & Churchshoes — Candidt’s sprawling ode to West Coast b-boy legacies and his fictional alter ego Homes Capone (“That uncle in every hood,” as Candidt put it) — survived a studio robbery and massive creative re-up in order to finally be brought to fruition. What Seattle got in return for all the drama suffered by Candeezy was one of the most creative and joyful hip-hop records of the last five years. The beats bump in instantly recognizable ways, but fresh ideas laminate the entire project; it’s almost as if the album was dipped in a fountain of rap youth as the finishing touch. The same goes for Candidt, whose modest wisdom cuts through every negative notion like a beaming Coupe de Ville on an overcast day.
4. Black Up – Shabazz Palaces
You probably already know SP are the critical darlings of Seattle rap. For every million Macklemore downloads, websites like Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound and Tiny Mix Tapes seem to add half a point to their Shabazz Palace album review scores. Depending on where you’re sitting, this might be considered a sort of limited atonement in the confined Seattle music scene; a great balancing of the hip-hop scales of justice.
But I digress … Critical adoration aside, Black Up, and the group that created it, existed outside of the music industrial complex from the very start, so in that respect the emergence of Shabazz Palaces as a major disruptive force was preordained. Black Up fulfilled both Shabazz Palaces’ creative urges and the hopes and desires of a listening public hoping this rap shit would be pushed forward in a true and meaningful way.
This album felt like a fully inhabited universe that was still frustratingly inaccessible. The twists and turns in sound and lyrical verse are cohesive like a patchwork quilt, but one that’s been sewn together in an unending set of patterns. I still feel like I don’t quite “get it” which might be the very point: transience in artistic intention is one surefire way to preserve immortality. Whatever the design behind Black Up, the work will remain a head-scratcher well into hip-hop’s next phase, however that might end up looking. And that’s certainly a more interesting space to occupy than limpid simplicity.
3. Digital Wildlife – The Physics
Digital Wildlife is to The Physics what Midnight Marauders was to A Tribe Called Quest: these are the albums where everything finally came together musically for their respective groups. The entire Physics library before DW pointed in this direction; their brand of hip-hop had always bled into the soulful margins of the genre. Unofficial front man Thig Nat finally adopted singing as a second mode of expression on Digital Wildlife. He’s not as blessed in that department as the group’s vocalists Malice and Mario Sweet, but what he lacks in natural talent he makes up for in edgy bravura.
Still, this record can’t be taken entirely as it was branded — as an electro-R&B outing — because it’s too deeply rooted in rap sentiment. “No Tellin” cross pollinates the different genres with the most success: trap drums meet Thig’s Lothario tendencies meet blissful romantic resignation in an easy musical handshake. Everyone who makes music in Seattle, regardless of genre, should be taking notes from The Physics because they make it look and sound so damn easy.
2. Gravity – Def Dee & La
An impossible album not to love if you still have your head in the dusty attic of New York City boom-bap of the mid-90s. Check the warm thump and perfectly-executed Anita Baker flip on “Desire,” or the knocking staccato of “The Gem.” Gravity introduced Seattle to one of its best rappers and producers simultaneously: La as the do-it-all type MC who smartly played it low-key dynamic on this album (but later showed out in a serious way on his follow-up, Roll With The Winners), and Def Dee, a dealer in vintage beats that stretched far beyond the Pacific Northwest region, eventually leading to his signing with throwback shop Mello Music Group. Gravity, albeit post-haste, etches into the Seattle rap canon a key source of inspiration: the post-Golden Era stylings of the East Coast.
1. Eagles Soar, Oil Flows / The Seven New – Shabazz Palaces
Before their ascension to the stratosphere (Black Up) and their willing submission to the unpredictable throes of the space-time continuum (Lese Majesty), Shabazz Palaces crafted two brief EPs — considered for our purposes here a single, holistic element — summarizing the “depraved devil heart’s system that got us all laid down.” A landscape where cop cars patrol “like sharks,” and the best medicine to cure the oppressed is more grease in the frying pan and “one white president” (though it’s unclear if they’re talking about a C-note or an actual dead president).
Eagles Soar, Oil Flows and The Seven New are the typically forgotten (by the music journalist establishment anyway) Shabazz records rooted more in the firmament than the vapor. These EPs don’t necessarily stand as less challenging entries than their two follow-ups, but there is undoubtedly more to grab onto, far fewer allegorical details to wring your hands over, and a harder, tougher edge. This was Ishmael Butler embodying the philosophical gangster while simultaneously preparing to embark that mortal vessel for greater transcendence. If Shabazz Palaces continues its creative movement — whether marching, soaring or teleporting — then Eagles Soar, Oil Flows and The Seven New will mark their vital first steps to preeminence.