Tyler, The Creator
Odd Future / Sony; 2013
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 3.5 / 5.0
Click here to read my review of Tyler, The Creator’s new album, Wolf.
The 20/20 Experience
Score (Beats Per Minute scale): 85% (out of 100%)
The good folks at Beats Per Minute have welcomed my somewhat coherent ramblings for their album review section and, HUZZAH, I got to review JT’s The 20/20 Experience for them. Click to read what I thought.
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 3.0 / 5.0
Jamie Lidell makes pop-R&B/soul/funk that looks and sounds like the legendary source material by his musical heroes in their ’80s heyday. If you squint hard enough, that is. Click here to read my review of his new self-titled album.
More Town goodness from the last 365 days.
Today concludes our year end list of the Best Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2012. Yesterday was the Honorable Mentions and today is the Top 10. Holler at me in the Comments section or on Twitter. Expanding the debate is part of democracy. Just remember: I’m right and you’re wrong. Happy New Year!
(Click on the album covers for links to purchase or free download, where available.)
Sportn’ Life Records co-founder and OG in the Central District rap game Fleeta Partee (real name, no gimmicks) enlisted the two best area producers for the majority of Lifemuzik, an 8-song EP full of hard-worn street knowledge. Vitamin D lends board work for over half the tracks, his keyboards and drums on “Inception” and “Part of the Game” sounding bigger and deffer than everyone else’s, except for maybe Jake One’s whose “Apathy (No Love)” captures a blues feeling in boom-bap form. As far as the well-traveled Fleeta Partee goes, his free-wheeling, old-school flow rejuvenates rap purists’ earholes the way a pair of fresh laces lends new life to sneakers. Are you feeling bogged down by all the vapid swag excursions through chattering high-hats and cheap synth? Lifemuzik is the remedy.
There’s a small part of me that worries Nacho Picasso’s Exalted made this top 10 because of other blogs that put it on their year-end lists. The power of group think is a motherfucker. After all, let’s face it: over the course of four mixtapes Nacho has become somewhat of a one-trick pony. But damn what a trick it is. There’s certainly no one else in the Town that does what he does: the monotonic nihilism accented with wicked one-liners, all pulled to a degenerate end by the wobbly, hazy renderings by production partners Blue Sky Black Death. For Seattle, Nacho is the vital counterpoint to the easy party-rocking optimism of the city’s most visible rap stars. Macklemore is an expert jokester, sure, but like all great comics Nacho finds his humor in the dark recesses of his own psyche. When the pathos is threatening to overtake your soul, sometimes smoking, fucking and, of course, laughing, make for the only true medicine.
On Sol’s Bandcamp page, the rapper dedicates Yours Truly to “the human pursuit of deep understanding,” an endeavor the MC is no doubt currently pursuing on a post-college graduation trip around the world. Most of this album — the culmination of a series of shorter, free EP releases — is an attempt at universal appeal, heavy on the pop hooks and R&B melodies which serve to make it all just feel very…easy. But when you consider Yours Truly in the context of the artist’s statement, it makes sense: we’re more immediately bonded together when our commonalities are highlighted, hence the depth of understanding we can find when enjoying an album like Yours Truly together. This may sound annoyingly meta and shit, but the threads that connect us through musical experience don’t exist at the surface of listening, which is true even when an album as easily enjoyable as this comes along.
I’m super hyper-critical of Macklemore. Mostly because his puritanical rhymes are written and delivered so evidently as to diminish that vital trait which separates good poets from great ones: nuance. Then again, I agree with virtually everything the MC has to say on The Heist about marriage equality, white privilege and artistic integrity, three poignant topics that are sadly absent from about 90% of all other hip-hop I listen to. Plus producer Ryan Lewis conveys pop sensibilities in a manner that no other Seattle-birthed rap album featured so expertly this year, or perhaps ever.
I nitpick Ben Haggerty’s rap game in the same way I fixed upon every full-count, two-out, man-on-second strikeout by Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997 — you know, the year dude hit 56 home runs and won the AL MVP award. My criticisms of Macklemore are undeniable in the same way “Thrift Shop” undeniably moves butts and endears fans all over the globe. Is The Heist polarizing for a lot of rap heads? Sure. But the fact that this duo is killing the game right now while simultaneously causing haters to chatter is proof that they’re doing something right.
Seatown rappers went certified worldwide in 2012 and that’s word. But none of them in the fashion of Abyssinian Creole teammate, Gabriel Teodros. His Colored People’s Time Machine cuts a broad cultural swath with guest rappers from different countries rhyming in their native languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, and Tagalog, by my count).
While home is the central theme on CPTM, Teodros fashions the concept on his own terms, grappling with the intricacies of identity as a person of color and the realization that just because you were born in a specific place, it doesn’t mean that locale represents your cultural center. As always, the MC dons a critical, analytical cap, dropping piercing knowledge but always with love and a deft touch. As an ambassador to the rest of the rap world, Seattle can’t do much better than the homie GT.
Cat and Stas of THEESatisfaction are no longer the Costco-employed “starving artists” of their earliest mixtapes, That’s Weird and Snow Motion. Both of those quirky hip-hop/R&B low-fi’s were recorded in the comfort of their own bedroom closet-turned recording studio and it endearingly showed. Neither is THEESatisfaction the little sister act of Shabazz Palaces, though the two forward-thinking groups do share a label home (Sub Pop) and a decidedly left-of-center musical spirituality. Awe Naturale was THEESatisfaction’s official debut and it garnered a ton of praise from both local and national outlets, much of it due to the quiet confidence of the group’s two members who are double threats in both rhyme and song. “Queens” is a funky, heady feminist groove that doesn’t name itself as such and was winning enough to garner a video treatment by the venerable dream hampton. Awe Naturale stands out, like Shabazz’s records, because it doesn’t sound like anything else in hip-hop.
Tomorrow People reaches for a broader context than The Physics’ previous album (last year’s outstanding Love is a Business) without sacrificing any of what makes the group so appealing. Soulful, funky and beautifully nuanced, TP is 13 tracks of grown-man/woman hip-hop. MCs Thig Nat and Monk Wordsmith are thoughtful, conscious and raunchy always right when they need to be. And producer Justo and don’t-call-them-back-up singers Malice and Mario Sweet put the finishing touches on each track so they shine at just the right angles. This is a crew with a rare nonchalance that never translates to dull, a sure sign of artists who truly know who they are. There is something for everyone on Tomorrow People. You could play this album for your grandma and she would probably love it, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Fatal Lucciauno’s stubborn refusal of the Seattle rap status quo is probably one of the most important statements made in the local arts. In a city home to the nation’s annual White Privilege Conference, it’s no surprise that the gregarious Macklemore has become Seattle hip-hop’s envoy to the rest of the world. That shit happened basically by default.
On the colder end of town, however, is where Fatal stages his operations. Hardcore and unforgiving to a fault, Respect is the other side of Seattle rap’s truth. It rejects even the militant-light stylings of acts like Blue Scholars and Gabriel Teodros, preferring to cast flickering reds and blues on the folks too preoccupied with basic survival than to be troubled with thoughts of the revolution. And in a year when we viewed all local rap through a Heist-colored lens, it’s important to ask ourselves: What percentage of those “Thrift Shop”-ers actually understood how their discovery of joy in a dirty bargain bin can be construed as yet another ironic luxury borne out of privilege?
It’s true we’re all better people when re-purposing perfectly useable disposed goods, feeding our souls with something truer than what is marketed to us. But Fatal’s Respect speaks on a different type of hunger: the one for things untarnished after a lifetime of languishing at the bottom.
Cloud Nice teammates formed like Voltron for Kingdom Crumbs, a hazy, danceable, electro-funk departure which was by far the most fun Seattle hip-hop release of the year. Jarv Dee, Mikey Nice, Jerm, and creative mastermind Tay Sean managed to find unique swag in a diverse array of funk compositions, from the hippie smoke session “Evoking Spirits” to the stuttering swankfest “Ridinonthestrength.”
Cloud Nice have evolved into one of the most diverse and reliable rap collectives in Town and much of that is owed to Tay Sean’s virtuosic keyboard and drum programming. Kingdom Crumbs rides on the strength of its accessibility (dreaded word, I know) and its musical intellect, the two factors that most often determine the level of quality in pop music. In a year when pop stylings thoroughly influenced Seattle rap, determining the best release of the last 365 days often came down to a single question: Which album would I rather listen to on repeat? More often than not Kingdom Crumbs was the answer.
You could never accuse Dark Time Sunshine’s music of being cheery, but on the group’s third album, ANX, Chicago producer Zavala allows enough cracks in his heavy, electro-organic compositions to let a little bit of sunshine in. Onry Ozzborn’s deadpan science drops are illuminated by tad brighter synths, driving breakbeats (which were all but absent on DTS’s previous two albums, Believeyoume and Vessel), and a few well-placed cameos (vocalist Reva DeVito on “Never Cry Wolf” and a livewire Swamburger on “Take My Hand”, for example).
ANX is also less claustrophobic than its predecessors, its aesthetic welcoming well-equalized car stereo speakers rather than just the strict confines of headphone cans. Dark Time Sunshine’s music has always aurally represented the variations in weather of the group member’s home cities: the frigid wind of Chicago, the lidded grey Seattle sky. But finally with ANX we have tunes that go equally well with our Town’s de facto cloud cover and this past September’s exquisite atmospherics.
Don’t get me wrong, everything that makes Dark Time Sunshine one of the best hip-hop crews working today is still here; much of ANX still heaves and sighs like a concrete robot and Onry hasn’t lost a touch of his scathing pessimism. But that glow you see underneath an electronic heart is evidence of an evolved sentience. ANX can be cold to the touch, but the soul under the surface gives off uncommon warmth. It’s this new layer of complexity that elevates ANX above Dark Time’s great past work and places it in a superior class over every other Seattle hip-hop album of 2012.
Deep-voiced narrator: 2012 will be remembered as the year when Seattle hip-hop stepped triumphantly from the dark recesses of the underground and brazenly into the pop music mainstream light.
(Cue klieg lights and horns.)
Or something. Until this moment, surely Seattle rap had never been as prominent on a national level as 1992, the fated year Sir Mix-A-Lot squirted baby oil all over a bunch of hapless, anonymous rear-ends, thus adequately drowning out the city’s fine underground hip-hop tradition while simultaneously setting back gender equality by about, oh, I’d say ten years or so.
But I digress. Seattle hip-hop as a topic of national conversation is in a much healthier and holistic place in 2012. Thank the Internet and the burgeoning liberal youth movement for that. There are local groups operating far afield with progressive musical campaigns that stretch beyond the constituencies of the 206, 425, 253, and 360 — and if you read this blog (or even outlets like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and Complex) then you already know who they are.
Town rap has officially entered the pop music mainstream and, aside from the glowing national press and Billboard Charts, the biggest tell that things were moving beyond our beloved local brick-and-mortars is the overarching trend in musical aesthetics. This year featured the most decidedly pop-oriented releases in the history of Seattle rap. Artists like Sol, The Good Sin, Eighty4 Fly, J. Pinder, Royce the Choice, and Fresh Espresso all put their best ear-worm efforts forward and (for the most part) succeeded in their attempts. Even EDM got a nice emissary to the rest of the country in The Flavr Blue, a trio composed of prominent hip-hop players from the Town.
Stubborn rap purists will not call this the cream rising to the top, but for the staff of an outlet like 206UP.COM who appreciates Golden Era boom-bap and 80’s Hitz! in near equal measure, brand new doors to listening pleasure have been opened. Of course that sets our critical ears askew in some fashion and attempting to shake out where the “best” releases of 2012 stood in comparison to each other was the most difficult it’s ever been in this blog’s short history. As always, though, generating a list of the Top Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of the Year was a labor of love for your loyal blogger.
So here goes: The end-all, be-all, definitive catalog of what you should have kept at the top of your Seattle rap playlists in 2012, beginning today with Honorable Mentions and concluding tomorrow with the Top 10. (Note: links are provided to purchase or free download, where available — click on the album covers.)
Kirkland rabble-rousers Kung Foo Grip found their producer soulmate in Giorgio Momurda for this EP collaboration. Indigo Children Tales From The Otha Side is home to the region’s best beat of the year, “FVCKV9TA5”, which bubbles, exhales, rattles, and combusts in perfect muted fury. MCs Greg Cypher and F is H spit juvenile raps with grown-up flows, close to riding off the rails at times but remaining the best exhibit of controlled lyrical chaos the city has to offer.
This release by Dyme Def offshoot Fearce and Bean was one of those high-quality “traditional rap” albums that kinda slipped through the crevices of the Seattle pop sieve in 2012. There Goes The Neighborhood cracks, slaps and thumps by way of Bean One’s rare ability to flip equally exceptional samples into trunk-rattling heatrocks (see: the rock-tinged “Heart Breaker”). Here we also have the thinking man’s swagger of Fearce Villain who will certainly get all up in your face, but never without a good reason. “Bully” (which unfortunately didn’t make it onto TGTN) perfectly encapsulates what the third rapper of Dyme Def is about: keeping your conscience amidst the turbulence of a hard-knock world.
My main beef with Careless, J. Pinder’s official debut album, is that it often sounds like dude isn’t having any fun. And given the miles logged on the MC’s frequent-flyer card in the last couple of years that should not be the case. I’ve never met Justin Pinder, but he reminds me of a couple of friends of mine who spend a lot of time living inside their own heads, folks for whom the term “pensive” doesn’t begin to approach an adequate description. Judging by the jet-setting tales on Careless, J’s rap life is not devoid of the normal trappings of burgeoning celebrity, but he approaches it all with a wary hand and calculated measure. The fleeting balance between heedless indulgence and degradation of one’s own soul is parsed out expertly by J. Pinder over some of the most expressive boom-bap of the year.
Universal Republic; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 4.0 / 5.0
The Weeknd’s major label debut is simply a compilation of 2011’s three heralded EPs: House Of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes Of Silence. While there are still thrills to be discovered by those unfamiliar with the group, there’s not much new for the already initiated. The Weeknd’s devoted fans are left with the question: What’s next?
Click here to read my full review.
good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Interscope Records / Aftermath Entertainment; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 4.5 / 5.0
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city is one of the best hip-hop albums of 2012. But you already knew that. Click here to read my review at PiMB.