Allow us to reintroduce ourselves: Our name is Rec-Room Therapy. Each week, we debate, discuss, and dissect recent hip-hop tracks. Today, at the halfway point of the year, we pick our ten favorite songs of 2013 thus far. Along for the ride is our distinguished panel of Joshua Phelps, Marcus Dowling, Briana Younger, Phil R, Damion M, Shelly Bell, Joseph “Jiggawatts” Minock, Aaron Miller, Steve Place, and Hip Hop Hooray’s Leah Manners. Next week: The best albums and mixtapes of 2013.
Pusha-T: “Numbers on the Board”
Pusha T is the best overall rapper in the game at-the-moment. Argue with me and name anyone else, and yeah, you’re wrong. Rap’s gotten too pretty, too idealistic, and too creative for its own good, and thus, it demanded balance. Pusha is the man because he still raps about basic rap shit, but does so in such a manner that instead of the excessive ground-and-pound combinations of UFC’s Uriah Faber in 2013, he’s bringing back boxing – rhyme crushing like Mike Tyson style one-punch undertakers from 25 years prior. There’s nothing cute here. He’s “doing dirt like it’s Earth day,” proclaiming that he can out drug deal “any Mexican,” and again, if you’re his side chick and you get out of line, he’s going to headbutt you. YES!
There’s something in the enunciation in Pusha’s delivery, the loping, fearful nature of the track and the Jay-Z sample that makes this song so primal, urgent, and necessary. What Kanye could only accomplish by making a rap album-as-performance art, Pusha excels at in one song by executing (as expected) with excellence.
– Marcus Dowling
Future: “Mark McGwire”
Dearest Future, why do you spend so much time on “Mark McGwire” fantasizing about being other people? You are having the biggest year of any rapper on the planet. Forget about Big Meech. And Antwan Jameson. And Ted Turner. And Lil’ Boosie. And Bill Gates.
Future, my loveeeeeee, fuck Bill Gates. Can Bill Gates single-handedly give Ace Hood a hit single? Does Bill Gates show up to coo on the slow jam of the year, and not even ask for a feature credit? Is Bill Gates the secret sauce on 69% of the year’s most popular songs? Where is he on “Bitches Love Me”, “U.O.E.N.O.” and “Fo Real”? I can’t hear him.
Future, who you think you is?
“Now I think I’m the king,” you tell us on “Mark McGwire”. Yes, your highness: You are royalty. You understand culture. You are the nucleus.
And this is your battle cry. Play me “Mark McGwire” and I will follow you into war. Show me a wall that has offended you and I will seek retribution. With my fist. I will put my fist through that wall. I have spent many hours, listening to “Mark McGwire”, preparing myself for that moment, tempted to punch a wall. Say the word. Your army of wall-punchers awaits.
“But I have given you ‘Buggati’,” you will tell me. “Why must me celebrate this ‘Mark McGwire’?”
“But you also gave ‘Bugatti’ to Ace Hood,” I will remind you. “And to Rick Ross, who sounds like he needs a nap. Did he eat a big meal before laying down his verse?”
No one is napping on “Mark McGwire”. I’m not sure if anyone is “rapping” either. This is the sound of the heavens raining. This is the robot apocalypse, as led by the rap game’s Wall-E.
– Phil R
Black Milk: “Sunday’s Best / Monday’s Worst”
Skills like Black Milk’s are becoming increasingly hard to find in this current age of trapped-out, narcissistic, neo-thug bullshit. Simply put, the dude is made of Hip Hop and could easily find himself a place in the pantheon of great producers, like, on a big-ass Rap Game Mt. Rushmore, right between Dj Premier and J Dilla. (Pete Rock gets his own mountain, so whatever.) He’s already chopped it up with legends, tastemakers, and Detroit royalty for a decade and shows no signs of slowing down.
I love a good cautionary tale. All the best raps ever are basically telling you to watch the fuck out. ” Sunday’s Best/Monday’s Worst’ is just that: It’s a classic devil-on-one shoulder, angel-on-the-other type joint that makes you think about going back to school, or volunteering with kids right after you ride out on enemies.
– Aaron Miller
J. Cole ft. Miguel: “Power Trip”
Ever since the Valentines Day release of J. Cole’s lead single “Power Trip,” our ears have been captivated every time we hear Hubert Laws’ flute come through a speaker. On this sequel to The Warm Up‘s “Dreams,” Cole reunites with Miguel to write the perfect love-hate letter that spans the board of unchanging love to unconstrained jealously (word to the equally as spellbinding video). Miguel softens the blow, with an all-too familiar sting of vulnerability as he sings “would you believe me if I said I’m in love?/Baby, I want you to want me.” The duo captures the essence of the most basic of human emotions and contains it in four minutes. Cole’s songcrafting and production really shine on “Power Trip,” and he knew he’d struck gold, calling it one of his strongest songs to date.
– Briana Younger
Juicy J ft. The Weeknd: “One of Those Nights”
You can’t make a baby to this like other Weeknd joints, because Juicy J butts in like your girlfriend’s college roommate, but I still fucks with it.
– Steve Place
Action Bronson: “Alligator”
The latest Bronsalino/Harry Fraud EP may seem unremarkable at first – we know and love the Queens joker’s usual bag of weed smoke, prostitute quips, camel clutches, and dropkicks, but we’re certainly not surprised anymore. With “Alligator”, we see the duo stretching the oeuvre and triumphantly segregating the parties and the mornings after with a dose of tenderness and pain rarely on display from Bronson. That tenderness may be in the form of forcing Spike Lee to switch seats at the Knicks game because he’s spilling Henny on Action’s girl’s feet but, hey, baby steps here.
Harry Fraud’s production strikes violently at first: a menacing synth reminiscent of the Synclavier demo made famous from Beat It, pushed through a filter of Raekwon’s Canal Street. He deftly switches gears into what I can make out as a re-working of Awolnation’s 2011/EVERY MOVIE/TV TRAILER EVER smash Sail. And yes, any song that soundtracks the sociopathic (“Sons of Anarchy”), narcissistic (“Iron Man”), or imperialistic (“Vikings”) is going to play well as a sonic background to cold-hearted street boasts and self-aggrandizing toasts. It’s moving stuff, whether it moves you to ram your fist through someones smug mug or to move a codeine-dipped blunt to your face.
The chorus is notable not for the outrageous desire to own an alligator, but for the mutually-selfish but still-love relationship between Bam Bam and an unnamed lover: “My girl asking me ‘Where ya been?’ Don’t worry. She said, ‘Baby, I crashed the Benz.’ Don’t worry.” We have Bronson out running wild like Tony Soprano in the “Sopranos” season five finale, “All Due Respect”, and his girl being placated like Carmela, who was equally a piece of shit, putting materialism over respect time and time again.
The second half of the track weaves a depressing narrative of a terminally ill, pregnant Queens prostitute over sparse electric piano that comes on like early electronic Radiohead. You’d be forgiven for thinking Bronson’s gone all “Lion King”/”Circle of Life” with his descriptions of a delicate sea turtle’s birth, but in the end, he can’t win for losing. The baby’s not his, but his own thoughts disgust him so much he throws his journal in the fire. He’s still not a character easy to sympathize with but you have to give him credit for flexing his muscles in a different direction here.
– Joshua Phelps
Dizzee Rascal ft. Bun B & Trae the Truth: “H-Town”
Hackneyed as the expression may be, it is no less true that oftentimes the best ideas are the simplest. Put more bluntly, when in doubt, K.I.S.S. “Keep it simple, (fill in your own S-word).”
Now, say you’re a kid from London, or, perhaps a kid from Montreal. And say you grew up in the early-to-mid 90s and hit your musical sentience just as the parallel, ascendant trajectories of the East and West Coast rap movements had begun to plateau and the Southern rap movement was becoming the new face in the game.
Now, say by some stroke of sheer luck (or, perhaps preternatural musical aptitude), you have an opportunity some 15 years hence to get in the lab with the undisputed godfather of the entire establishment in Bun-B and one of Houston’s brightest underground stars in Trae tha Truth. What would you do? Well, you would undoubtedly screw it up, no pun intended. But here’s what Dizzee Rascal and A-Trak do: They recognize that they are completely in foreign territory and they respect the fact that they could sound really bad if they don’t watch it. And they pull it off with aplomb.
A highly technical, highly skilled DJ, best known for infusing electronic and house influences heavily, and frenetically, into hip hop settings, A-Trak does an incredible job of creating a simple, down-tempo beat worthy of his surroundings and then, even more incredibly, getting the hell out of the way. By the time Dizzee’s done with his first bar, you’ve largely heard the extent of A-Trak’s work on this song, and for a man that is absolutely always capable of stealing the show with his production alone, that’s phenomenal to me.
Next, you’ve got Dizzee, who, despite leading an extremely eclectic, sometimes discordant, career that’s seen him bounce from grime to hip hop to pop/R&B and all in between, simply jumps on this track and does what you’re supposed to do with a Houston-brand, chopped-and-screwed beat – you tell a simple story. I don’t know who showed whom his verse first or how the hell it all worked, but Dizzee’s verse is largely indistinguishable, content-wise, from Bun’s and Trae’s. And that’s a great thing, because the whole point of this song is set up in Dizzee’s intro: “Yo, you know I can’t forget about H-town,” and later in the opening hook: “Keepin’ it trill, in the land of the brave, chillin’ with the OG, UGK”.
This is just a dude that has found himself fortunate enough to be rapping with one of his idols, and on top of all that, he manages (along with A-Trak) to act like he belongs.
– Joseph “Jiggawatts” Minock
Lil Wayne ft. 2 Chainz: “Rich as Fuck”
If the Hip Hop male ego was one identifiable being, it would be the combination 2 Chainz’s public favor and Lil Wayne’s work ethic and lyrical appeal. Songs like “Rich as Fuck” work themselves into radio rotation right before your ears, even though you can’t even say it’s name on the radio (word to “Niggas in Paris”). You could totally hate both artists and still find yourself bouncing to this before you catch yourself. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne have different lyrical approaches, but they balance each other on this track like salt and pepper on a baked potato. Weezy’s punchlines spice up the beat as if it gets less bland every time he drops a catchy line. 2 Chainz on the hook is the gritty salt that balances your taste buds in the moment you’re about to complain that this is too spicy for you. With all of my education and professionalism on the line, I couldn’t deny this track as I found myself bouncing, singing, and feeling like “all my niggas look rich as f*ck” after the first verse. “Amerikaz Most Wanted Tour” can’t get here soon enough.
– Shelly Bell
Run the Jewels: “Get It”
EL-P and Killer Mike are the strongest original voices in rap right now and however they’re making it happen, they need to keep doing it.
– Leah Manners
ScHoolboy Q: “Yay Yay”
As I said in March, Habits & Contradictions was probably the most accurately titled record of last year: ScHoolboy Q is a walking contradiction, and that may be his greatest strength. He’s deplorable and he’s utterly charming. He’s the menacing thug and he’s the hornball jester. He’s morally bankrupt and he’s a doting family man. On a song like “Yay Yay”, Q is all of these things, and he is without a hint of pandering or self-awareness. A lot of rappers try to have their cake and eat it too, but Q is the only one who’s face-planting into the thing and walking around for the rest of the night with icing all over his face.
– Phil R
Kevin Gates: “Paper Chasers”
Gucci Mane ft. 2 Chainz: “Use Me”
Rocko ft. Rick Ross & Future: “U.O.E.N.O.”
Kanye West ft. Charlie Wilson: “Bound 2”
ScHoolboy Q ft. Kendrick Lamar: “Collard Greens”
Robin Thicke ft. T.I. & Pharrell: “Blurred Lines”
Chance the Rapper: “Juice”
Earl Sweatshirt ft. Tyler, The Creator: “Whoa”
Big K.R.I.T. ft. Bun B: “Shine On”
A$AP Rocky ft. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, & Big K.R.I.T.: “1 Train”