206UP YEAR-END: The Top 10 Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2014

ten

206UP turned five years old this year and I, as my mother and carbon dating would assuredly tell you, turned 37 in human years.

As far as the blog goes, it has never been more self-sustaining. We (and I say “we” because, unlike the previous four years of the site’s existence, there are voices contributing now beyond my own) are a production company, a resource for insight into live shows in Seattle, and a nationally recognized tastemaking outlet on par with the Pitchforks, Consequences and Wonderings of the online music world. (In a strange twist, however, none of the editors at those sites ever return my calls.) I kid, obviously, but still… Things are going really, really great in the 206UP office.

In my personal life, I can’t recall a year when I experienced wider swings in happiness and anger. The happy part came when I got married in May (I know, mazel tov!). And the anger part heaved and fluxed throughout the year with the ease of a sighing elephant, as blatant transgressions within our society dominated feeds and headlines.

How’s that for light and dark?

Thankfully, however, hip-hop goes where we go. And Seattle, being a microcosm of the rest of the country, did as much to illuminate the sustaining, healing aspects of the culture locally, as other more pronounced voices did their part nationally. The most important music, in my opinion, spoke to our most important concerns. Below the jump you’ll find albums that did just that, and yet others for which escapism was an equally important task. In either endeavor, this is the hip-hop from Seattle that best held us down in 2014.

Best of 2014 Best Of Lists Features

206UP YEAR-END: What Mattered Most in 2014

Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images News

Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images News

Great things happened in Seattle hip-hop in the year 2014 and many of those things took the form of cohesive, fully-realized albums. We’ll get to listing some of those tomorrow. Today, though, we’ll be talking about the two records that mattered most to 206UP, both within the last 365 calendar days and, as we’ll clumsily attempt to illustrate, time immemorial. One has specific ties to Seattle (it’s this blog’s top hip-hop album of the year). The other, while not intrinsically tied to the Town, was such a monumental — and surprise — release that it demands mentioning here. Both records flirted with the dimension of time the same way a drummer like Questlove flirts with rhythm: easily manipulated, altered to slow or speed our senses, and employed to imprint thoughts, memories and ideas onto our subconscious so that images like the one above become mere fossils in a morality tale we hope to never tell again in real life.

Best of 2014 Best Of Lists Features

206UP FIVE YEAR (2009-14): The Top 15 Albums

FIVE clear

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

206UP 5 Year Anniversary Best Of Lists Features

206UP FIVE YEAR (2009-14): The Top 25 Tracks

FIVE clear

206UP turned five years old on July 5th. Can you believe it? What started as a lark — a mere glimmer in the apple of my internet eye — has grown into the most popular Seattle hip-hop blog in existence. (I’m not tooting my own horn here, do the Googling and see for yourself … Okay, maybe there’s a little bit of tooting going on.)

Some quick history: 206UP began as an alternative creative outlet a couple of years after I moved to New York City. For a time, I was keeping one of those very self-indulgent, personal blogs about my new life in NYC — very uninteresting stuff to anyone other than my mom. After I put the kibosh on that, it only took about 20 minutes to decide I wanted to try something different. 206UP was basically borne out of an instantaneous decision; there was really no planning involved, which probably explains why the very name of the site was hijacked (subconsciously, I swear) from a sub-heading on Larry Mizell’s now-defunct — and definite source of inspiration — Raindrophustla.

I still live, work, and write and manage the blog from New York City, which keeps me once or twice removed from the local scene at all times. But in some ways that separation is preferable: 206UP prides itself on maintaining a critical edge which would be tough to preserve if I were sitting down to coffee with these rappers every weekend. In the end, this site strives to provide an exhaustive, discerning look at the dedicated and well-deserving Town artists putting in work in the name of hip-hop music. We keep this site going because we care, just like the artists we feature.

To celebrate the five-year milestone, regularly scheduled programming is being preempted for the next few days in order to bring you some special features. First up is a list: 206UP’s Top 25 Seattle Hip-Hop Tracks of the last five years*. These are the songs the site kept coming back to time and again. The ones that made immediate impressions when heard for the first time and, more often than not, the ones that endured and actually got better as time passed. These tracks also tend to stand alone, as singular, well-rounded examples of the artists that created them. If you were to name the single most important factor in determining if a song made it onto this list, it’s probably that one.

As always, you might disagree. You will disagree. And 206UP’s own opinion is subject to change. In fact it probably already has. The list begins after the jump.

*7/5/09 through 7/5/14

206UP 5 Year Anniversary Best Of Lists Features

206UP.COM YEAR END: The Best Seattle Hip Hop Albums of 2013 – The Top 10

10

Today concludes 206UP’s Year End feature on the Best Seattle Hip Hop Albums of 2013. Below the jump you’ll find the blog’s Top 10 Albums of the Year (including a master list of all the albums considered at the very bottom of the post). Click on the album artwork or artist-titles for links to download or purchase.

Thanks so much for checking out the site! In 2014 there are some new features and — hopefully — big surprises to come, so keep visiting 206UP.COM throughout the New Year.

Peace, family!

Best of 2013 Best Of Lists

206UP.COM YEAR END: The Best Seattle Hip Hop Albums of 2013 – Introduction & Honorable Mentions

Diversity

The critical blogosphere loves diversity, doesn’t it? Actually, back up two paces.

The critical blogosphere loves talking about diversity, doesn’t it? And the only thing it loves more than that is talking about a lack of diversity. It loves all the hang-wringing associated with applying every last conceivable critical analysis to its pop culture artifacts until there is no single party left offended at the end of the exercise. The so-called “cultured” internet loves scrubbing down television, film and music until all of the prejudices and pre-conceived notions are polished to glisten at every discriminating angle the light touches. Visit any of the most popular news and culture sites for proof. The internet loves telling itself what is wrong with… Well, itself.

I do it all the time. 206UP’s most highly-trafficked post of the year was this piece on Macklemore I wrote during one particularly grumpy day in March. Culture critics are not impervious to falling through the looking glass even when the subject of debate is a hometown hero. Ken Griffey, Jr. used to strikeout on 3-2 counts with the bases loaded from time to time, and we cursed him (albeit secretly) under our breath for doing so.

All this to say, when your critical perspective is driven by the desire to see actual meaningful progress within music (to say nothing of major societal issues — racism, sexism, classicism, etc.) picking out all that is wrong from what might be an overarching right, can begin to feel like diminishing returns during those warm and fuzzy, honest moments. That’s how I feel sometimes about Macklemore’s music, and it’s especially how I feel about hip hop music in Seattle at the end of 2013.

Diversity was the name of the game during this city’s last annual cycle. Elements of hip hop were touched by more outside genre influences than ever before. That sounds like an obvious statement considering how music in general functions these days, but this is a Seattle blog and this is our own special microcosm. To wit:

Of course there are many more examples of Seattle’s rangy hip hop production escapades to note and maybe I’ll get to some of those in 206UP’s Best-of 2013 list which begins today. And of course the biggest music story of the year concerns an artist whose material you won’t find in any of the links above, which was an intentional omission. 206UP is — as the body of this text suggests — celebrating Seattle’s diversity in sound, and the rise of Macklemore above the humble din of Town rap’s other goings-on isn’t of primary concern here. He and Ryan are making us proud, sure, but that pang of dissatisfaction you might be feeling is a symptom of the secret you and other devoted heads of the SEA are harboring: The one that says Seattle hip hop has much more to offer than just a trending topic of the moment. More, in fact, than maybe any other region in the country.

After the jump begins 206UP’s look at the Best Seattle Hip Hop Albums of 2013: Three honorable mentions today followed by the Top 10 tomorrow. Make sure to listen to all of them, as each is worthy of your attention. Most importantly, try listening with an open mind. The lesson, as always, is that the passing of another 365 days brings each of us closer to curmudgeonly critical behavior. Thank God, then, there is hip hop to keep us young.

Peace and prosper in the New Year,

– Editor

Best of 2013 Best Of Lists

206UP.COM YEAR END: The Best Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2012 – Top 10

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.)


Fleeta Partee - Lifemuzik

10. Fleeta Partee – Lifemuzik

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.


Nacho Picasso - Exalted

9. Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death – Exalted

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.


Sol - Yours Truly8. Sol – Yours Truly

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.


Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The Heist

7. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist

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.


Gabriel Teodros - Colored People's Time Machine

6. Gabriel Teodros – Colored People’s Time Machine

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.


THEESatisfaction - Awe Naturale

5. THEESatisfaction – Awe Naturale

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.


The Physics - Tomorrow People

4. The Physics – Tomorrow People

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 - Respect

3. Fatal Lucciauno – Respect

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.


Kingdom Crumbs - Kingdom Crumbs

2. Kingdom Crumbs – Kingdom Crumbs

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.


Dark Time Sunshine - ANX

1. Dark Time Sunshine – ANX

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.

Album Reviews Best of 2012 Best Of Lists Downloads

206UP.COM YEAR END: The Best Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2012 – Honorable Mentions

POP!

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.)


KFG - Indigo Children

Kung Foo Grip & Giorgio Momurda – Indigo Children Tales From The Otha Side

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.


Fearce & BeanOne - There Goes The Neighborhood

Fearce and Bean – There Goes The Neighborhood

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.


J Pinder - Careless

J. Pinder – Careless

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.

Album Reviews Best of 2012 Best Of Lists Downloads