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Allow us to reintroduce ourselves: Our name is Rec-Room Therapy. Each week, we discuss recent hip-hop tracks. Today, at the midway point of 2014, we pause to pick the best rap albums that 2014 has bestowed upon us.  As always, our distinguished panel consists of  Marcus DowlingPhil R, Aaron Miller, Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious, and Leah Manners of Hip Hop Hooray and Weird City Fest.

And in case you slept on it, be sure to check out Rec-Room’s Best Rap Songs of 2014 (So Far).

Schoolboy Q: Oxymoron

This is not the just the best record of 2014 so far, it may be the record. In this age of endless singles and excess mix tape-ery, dude just casually drops an album that is composed of 100% bangers. Every song is a threat.

There’s not a whole lot of contradictions in Q’s definition of “oxymoron.” I’m also guessing it’s heavier on the Oxy- part. There is no irony here. There is no smart rapper dumbing down, no dumb rapper selling weird, no art rapper shoving a project down your throat. This is Q accidentally making a super tight, thematically sound album because he is real as fuck. As much as a record like Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City paints a picture of a rapper relentlessly in control of his environment and caught between observer and participant, Q leaves no doubt the he is the environment.

He is the ends and the means. He is the current master of don’t-give-a-fuckedness. This is not a record for you to think about. I feel dumb for writing about it like a goddamn book report when I really should be in a low speed chase with cops, driving with my knees, with a blunt in each hand listening to “Man of The Year” for the 1000th time.

Highlights/Gold Standard for 2014 bragging-ass party raps: “Man Of The Year”; “Collard Greens” (Dub Style perfection and that Kendrick verse); “The Purge” (WOLFGANG and the Big Homie KURUPT? Fuck all y’all.) [STREAM]

– Aaron Miller

RiFF RAFF: Neon Icon

Buy RiFF RaFF’s Neon Icon for the “Houston Remix” of “How To Be The Man”, where Jody Highroller is joined by Paul Wall and Slim Thug. It’s really an incredible performance and as expected, DJ Mustard hits a home run on one of the year’s most infuriatingly generic yet somehow amazingly ear-worming tracks. However, it’s 2014, and the big takeaway from this recording is that this is the year that Diplo pulled of the greatest trick in the world by convincing us for eight years of Mad Decent Records’ history that the devil did not exist, only to give us this album.

The “devil” in Mad Decent is that one that’s reared its ugly head for as long as white guys in their purple sneakers have awkwardly danced around with their black friends (and others) and in not getting called out for using the “n-word,” have been allowed to remain largely unchecked in appropriate hip-hop culture.

Is RiFF RaFF even aware that he’s appropriating anything anymore?  That’s the bigger question.

Mike Posner, Mac Miller and Childish Gambino are on here too, and the ex-Duke grad, 90s backpacker rap aficionado, and television actor are likely three of the least uniquely original (yet still quite gifted) talents that the genre has seen in some time. Thus, this becomes an album as cinema verite, RiFF RaFF playing a Houston rap star finally releasing his debut album, his bling bling ICEE cup a rib on TV Johnny and the Swishahouse crew, what happens when you let a fan grab the microphone and act like he’s one of the big boys.

Aside from the rappers, the rest of the players here are absolutely for real, namely Diplo’s right hand man Derek “DJA” Allen, the gifted Harry Fraud and again, the magnificent Mr. Mustard, all who truly understand the nature of this bizarre album in this bizarre era and provide tracks that make chicken salad out of these chickenshit kids led by the most scared of them all. Emboldening them and in many ways guiding them to listenable performances (or better) is the album’s greatest success, and thus what makes it worthy of being on this half-year list. [Stream]

-Marcus Dowling

YG: My Krazy Life

“This that motherfucking gangsta shit,” YG says on “Bicken Back Being Bool”, and dude has a point: My Krazy Life is 46 minutes of that motherfucking gangsta shit. It’s also some of that motherfucking sonically cohesive, morally conflicted, structurally ambitious concept record shit too. It’s hard to say what kind of shelf life My Krazy Life will have aesthetically – DJ Mustard’s cold, minor key, “infuriatingly generic yet somehow amazingly ear-worming” compositions are so of the moment that its perfectly possible that they will sound as dated as Lex Luger’s 808 symphonies a year from now – but what YG does here as a rapper will stand the test of time. He’s a compelling yet understated figure, his tale personable and homespun, the awkwardness he flashes in delivery and songwriting ultimately coming off as endearing. (Seriously, who has the balls to lead a song with “I woke up this morning / I had a boner”?)

The first half of 2014 was remarkable stretch for proper albums, and with thirteen tracks and not a single misstep, My Krazy Life is the cream of the crop. [BUY]

– Phil R

Pharoahe Monch: PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is a follow-up to Monch’s similarly-themed W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) rager against the music industry, this time emerging from an internal battle with depression and so dense with personal struggle that is can be hard to listen to at times.  Not hard to listen to because of the quality rhymes or beats however, because those veer towards the precise, cerebral. creative, and tumultuous. With bona fides from his time with the lore laden Organized Konfusion and countless amazing solo LPs after, Pharoahe has set a high bar for himself, and his consistently sharp social, political, and industry commentaries in PTSD don’t disappoint. [STREAM]

– Leah Manners

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Piñata

Piñata is phenomenal.

Madlib can do no wrong. Slow and steady wins the race. I think of a time lapse video of the rap game for the last 20 years: While the game runs around at light speed in search of gimmicks and relevance, he is just standing there, moving at normal speed, pushing out product with such a signature style that no one can come close. He’s consistently ahead of the curve and setting trends in stone. Madlib is pretty much Rap Game Beethoven. (Dilla was Mozart?)

Freddie Gibbs is a monster and handles  these tracks like hot weapon. He is the bad guy that never raises his voice. The game is not a game to Gangsta Gibbs…or if it is, it’s like that 3-D chess from Star Wars. There’s levels to this shit, and they all seem to be occupied by Gibbs. Vivid storytelling. No drama shit. Hooks made of solid gold. The opposition is dead before the match begins: “Don’t make me expose you to those that don’t know you/ Man you say you the realest motherfucker in the game but check it/…You scared to drop a diss record”

Highlights: “Real” (self-explanatory); “Robes” (Earl Sweatshirt and Domo Genesis are easily my two favorite emcees of the last five years and they deserve this track  It’s projects like this that put them in a well-earned, torch-carrying place where age is irrelevant and skills still pay the fucking light bills); “Broken” (SCARFACE FTW).

I got to stage manage the Stones Throw Showcase at SXSW this past march. Madlib is a different kind of rap dude. It was more like meeting Quincy Jones or something. [STREAM]

– Aaron Miller


Young Thug & Bloody Jay: Black Portland

I talked a lot of smack about “Signs”, the first “new” single off of Black Portland, back in January, going so far as to call it “lowest common denominator rap” – a paint by the numbers production, a generic rap song, and “a shameless attempt for airplay.” Listening to that track in isolation, and with the added benefit of hindsight, I can see why I labeled it as such – I didn’t quite get how it fit in with the rest of the weird musical experiment that is this collaborative between two of Atlanta’s most exciting young rappers.

As someone who lived in Atlanta for a shade under four years (and yes, ITP), I grew to appreciate the weirdness that bubbles out of the city.  Much like that other Weird City, Atlanta is a haven in a sea of rednecks.  Anyone within a 150 mile radius who is different, creative, progressive, artistic, ambitious, or a minority moves there as soon as they can pick up sticks. Couple this with the city’s status as an affordable economic hub… well, it’s ripe for producing some really wonderfully zany art, and it has the audience to consume it.  Between trap culture, the EDM kids, the street artists, and the hippies at the Goat Farm, there’s something for everyone, as well as a constant spilling over and cross pollination of styles.  Just go to MJQ on a Wednesday night and see it yourself.

Young Thug and Bloody Jay are spitting out some quasi-stream of consciousness verses, in the tradition of the Atlanta’s haziest rappers, and are deftly assisted by the 808 Mafia collective, who laid down some surprisingly intricate beats.  “Florida Water” floats along, spreading its sound steadily and gently; “4 Eva Bloody” takes what should have been a T-Pain beat and brings it back to the hood; ‘No Love” sounds like Childish Gambino with, you know, some actual menace.  It’s all underpinned by trap snares, but with expansive melodic ideas that feel bigger than the plodding “meh” we’ve been hearing from contemporaries.  It has hints of dance music, Caribbean dancehall influences, and those trunk-rattling dirty south deep basslines.  It’s all very Atlanta, very ignant, and very enjoyable.

These guys are very young, and it’s really great to see them putting out a mixtape of this calibre and with these production values.  They feed off each other’s energy, and the album makes for easy listening, in a weird way.  It shouldn’t work, or be able to hold our attention for more than a couple of bars, but it somehow grows with each listen.  Thug and Jay are indeed forging their own path within Southern Rap with Black Portland, and it’s assured to be a fun ride. [DOWNLOAD]

– Jose Lopez-Sanchez

Future: Honest

Looking out across the internet in late April, you could detect a slight sense of disappointment hanging over Honest. There were expectations that Future’s second studio LP would be some kind of next-level event, and a lot people felt  as if Honest fell well short of that. But, #honest-ly, what is it exactly that people were pining for?  What did the Honest of their dreams sound like?  Play me the Future songs over the past three years that were more ambitious and weirder than what ended up being on Honest. Show me the creative tendencies that Future failed to explore. They’re not out there. Future, as a larger than life voice and personality, became something for people to graft their own tastes and preferences on to, instead of actually paying attention to what kind of music he made. Because by the yardsticks of Pluto and F.B.G.: The Movie, Honest is an overwhelming success.

Let’s back it up. Dropping a full paragraph of defensiveness right out of the gate isn’t fair to Honest. Let’s focus on the positive. Let’s focus on the facts: There are nine amazing tracks on Honest. There are not nine pretty good tracks. There are nine of the best raps songs to come out this year. Well, eight, because I don’t think we can call “I Be U” rap – it’s the slow jam of 2014, and, yes, I am stunting on “Drunk in Love”. As for the rest of those nine? “Look Ahead”, “T-Shirt”, “Move That Dope”, “Honest”, “Covered N Money”, “Benz Friendz”, “Special”, and “Blood, Sweat, and Tears”? These songs are Vesuvius circa AD 79, lava hot and spouting enough ash to freeze the competition in place. I am physically incapable of listening to these songs and keeping still. It’s not possible. Future has the direct line and override codes to my cerebrum. There is a reason he dresses like Morpheus.

Ok, “I Won” is cornball – especially Kanye’s verse, which he would never put on his own record in a 1000 years. The Drake song is an absolute waste of time, so much so Mike WiLL Made-It mercy kills it after two minutes. And Wiz Khalifia inexplicably derails the first half of Honest just by showing up on “My Momma”. There are still things to like about these songs, but, fine, feel free to write them off.  But show me another album this year with 9:3 absolute monster to kinda-miss ratio.  It’s not out there. Then let’s talk about what’s “next level” and what isn’t. [BUY]

– Phil R

Isaiah Rashad: Cilvia Demo

I love a good basketball analogy, so I’ll make one about Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo. Rashad on TDE is like an NBA championship team having a draft pick at the end of the first round and making the savvy choice of a guy who played all four years and can pass, shoot, rebound, defend and has court awareness. Continuing this comparing rap to basketball, he’s the collegiate star who led his school to winning the conference championship every year for his collegiate career, but just didn’t get over the hump in the NCAA tournament. Thus, he’s not flashy, but he damned sure knows how to get the job done.

Nobody’s checking for Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s not Houston or Atlanta, and it’s not even Memphis! However, Rashad’s from there, and upon one full listen to Cilvia Demo, it’s obvious that though lacking all hype until he debuted as a TDE member in a 2013 BET Awards freestyle, he was supremely gifted and a rhymer, but moreso as a storyteller. The one thing I’ll say for Isaiah Rashad is that he’s compelling. Getting the same vibes from him that I got from listening to Yelawolf’s 0-60 Trunk Muzik in 2010 was a beautiful thing. Here’s to hoping that the similarly Southern and magical griot of an emcee does better than the Shady Records afterthought that Yelawolf has become. [STREAM]

-Marcus Dowling

Open Mic Eagle: Dark Comedy

While Open Mike Eagle and Busdriver may be competing for a long time yet for the title of most accessible rapper in Hellfyre Club (their loosely affiliated group of underground MCs consistently churning out the smartest and weirdest raps in the game right now), Mike has put out a fantastic effort in 2014’s Dark Comedy.  He’s witty, dark at times, and can touch on some very real talk confessional topics with the lightest of pop-culture references and one-liners. Throughout Dark Comedy the self-identified “president of the rappers that don’t condone date rape” looks at rap, touring, and being a dad with a typically ironic and deprecating eye. Even without a stellar feature from Hannibal Buress on “Doug Stamper (Advice Raps)”, this album would be a rewarding listen. [STREAM]

– Leah Manners

Die Antwoord: Donker Mag

This might throw y’all off given my purist, hate-driven past, but do not get it twisted. Everybody wants to peg these two as some kind of art project or elaborate joke. No way. This is some real hip-hop shit. Ok? I said it. Ninja has all the fresh boom-bap flows and has officially mastered the Art of Talking Shit. Yolandi is the hottest, most genius, dangerous, hybrid artist-animal thing on the planet. Most importantly, they mean it.

They are setting the standard for the best part of rap/EDM fusion and the shit is bizarre.

They work hard. They have the coolest videos in a decade (Pitbull Terrier?!?!?!). And I have been jamming the shit out of this record.

Highlights: “Rat Trap666” (Bangeroni.  A perfect example of this twisted couple’s look-what-you-made-me-do psycho diss tracks and DJ MUGGS to boot); “Cookie Thumper” (Jesus, this chick is weird. This is track is like getting robbed and beaten half to death by crazy schoolgirls and then lying about it and saying you fought off six dudes in hockey masks and really “fucked a couple of em up bad.” No one believes you.) [BUY]

– Aaron Miller

The Roots: …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

God bless Jimmy Fallon, because if The Roots had never started playing music for him, I don’t think they could have made …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. There’s a certain freedom that comes with earning “fuck you money” – a kind of wealth that’s beyond “holy shit I just bought a Bentley with my album advance, but not “I own ten Bentley manufacturing plants” – that allows you the freedom to do what you want, when you want to do it, and the ability to stick your head into a pool of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck if haters don’t understand what you’re doing.

Ever since the Roots have been earning “fuck you money,” they’ve been exploring spaces that are post-traditional rap but still wholly of hip-hop culture. In music’s olden days, we’d call them “concept albums,” but these feel like something more. How I Got Over was a treatise in being black and nervously proud in the Obama age. Undun was a tale of urban poverty, and trying to find the answers. …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, though? It’s the most powerful of the trilogy, a tightly executed think-piece on standing at rap’s grave, bitterly articulating why the genre died, and bravely walking into a future in hip-hop culture where 25 years of the group’s life is a hollow memory. All minor chords and gritty rhymes, it’s a powerful listen that’s not so much turn up as it is turn out (the lights, the party’s over). [BUY]

-Marcus Dowling

Girl Talk & Freeway: Broken Ankles

Broken Ankles is as strong a case for the rap EP as has been made in years. In a snug five tracks, Girl Talk covers more ground than most producers can over an entire mixtape, but more importantly (and perhaps surprisingly), he does so without ever trying too hard. Is there money in rap production compared to what Greg Gillis gets for rocking a headlining spot like a house party?  My sources say no. But, for what it’s worth, here’s his calling card.  Same goes for Freeway. Someone get this man more work!  The Philly Freezer still has it!

Don’t sleep on “Suicide (Remix)” either.  [DOWNLOAD]

– Phil R

ONYX: Wakedafucup

We should all be ashamed that nobody gave a fuck enough to big up this album. Shit might be 10 years too late, but it is raw as fuck.

It has guest spots from dudes like Sean Price, A$AP Ferg, Cormega, and Papoose (yeah, yeah, errybody likes to hate on Pap, but he goes in), and plenty of fire-ass production from Snowgoons. Every track sounds like battle hymn composed for piano, violin, and a baseball bat.

I just really love raps ominous raps about the end of the world, robbing people, and not giving a fuck.

Highlights: Sticky still got it. Just listen to this album like it’s one big mean-ass track. [BUY]

– Aaron Miller

Iggy Azalea: The New Classic

Somewhere, Amethyst Amelia Kelly’s mother is praying that her daughter’s debut album The New Classic hits platinum, so that she can thank her lucky stars that she didn’t ban 2Pac and Lil Kim albums in her household while young Amethyst was almost assuredly rapping lyrics from Kim’s 2003-released single “The Jump Off” into the mirror while holding her hairbrush. Also, as a teenager, I’m also thinking that whatever “Daquan” that Mama Iggy may have hated that slipped her that 2Pac album and played “Picture Me Rollin'” in his hatchback afterschool is to blame here, too. Then, that night she watched that VH1 documentary about the death of Left Eye probably had something to do with all of this as well. 

There’s so much hearsay and conjecture about what exactly is the background of a teenage girl who travels 9,152 miles away from home at 16 years of age to become a rapper. She was teased for second-hand clothing and had only been rapping for two years, so it’s not entirely plausible that she had thousands of dollars saved. Proof of this being her statement that she had “no money, no family,” and was “16 in the middle of Miami” on “Work,” The New Classic‘s most honest single by a very large margin.

The rest of this album is a tale told in ridiculous platitudes. “Fancy” is the theme song of every girl everywhere that has ever walked by the window of Bergdorf Goodman (or whatever your urban/suburban mall comparative is), closed their eyes and dreamed of a better life. Iggy’s Southern blaccent and Charli XCX’s saccharine vocal combine for the aural equivalent of Cherry Coke and Pop Rocks; delicious, yet potentially deadly, and the Billboard charts probably aren’t going to recover for some time to come.

Ultimately, moreso than anything else that’s egregious about this album (besides the insistence on so many generic platitudes about bad bitches, shitty men, trying hard, grinding and making it, the greatest comedy of Azalea’s debut album is that it’s largely produced and written by a UK trio known as the Invisible Men. Amazingly, this isn’t their debut, but these producer/songwriters have 15 top ten UK singles in 10 years. Invisible Men for an invisible artist? That would be cruel to say, but aside from being a model-esque Aussie with a large posterior, affected trap-rap accent, and a thing for basketball players who get drunk with her at the club and then tell cameras about his sexual plans with her for the evening, what do we know? Rap’s empress is wearing new clothes, and the world is watching the parade. But just like a great clown, everyone loves a good parade, right?  [BUY]

-Marcus Dowling

Rick Ross: Mastermind

Mastermind is Rick Ross’ most self-aware album yet.  At this point in his career, the Teflon Don has been on the receiving end of every kind of praise and criticism imaginable:  He is (quite rightly) hailed as one of the leading voices of gangster rap’s renaissance, while his detractors point out his past as a corrections officer; his beats are bombastic, grandiose and ornate, in an era dominated by minimalistic production values by DJ Mustard and copycats.  He talks about a hard knock background on the streets of Carol City, and then waxes lyrical about the hedonistic pleasures afforded to him by his life of wealth – which he (incredibly) attributes almost in equal measures to slanging yayo and to his velvety voice, and not to assuming the personas of several different drug kingpins while he raps. At this point, it’s as if he’s asking us to question who is Rick Ross?  Who is he to each one of us?

Ross is one of those unmistakeable public figures with a surrounding mythos that makes them seem larger than life.  You could read the most absurd news story, or biographical detail about him, and odds are you’d shake your head briefly, before accepting that it’s probably true.  Rick Ross eats lobster bisque for breakfast, and melts Kraft singles on his Honeybuns (true story).  He also put out one of the most sonically charged, celebration-of-gang-life albums this side of American Gangster, with stellar raps and an even better support cast (true story).  At this point in his career, Ross could easily coast and spend the rest of his days riding around in drop-top chicken boxes.  Mastermind is not a stylistic/artistic career change in the way Yeezus was for Kanye – I also don’t think we will look back on it as fondly as God Forgives – but it is a refinement of Rozay’s craft, an elevation of his game to the Nth level.  Highlight tracks include supreme bangers “War Ready”, “The Devil is a Lie”, and “Sanctified”, and we even get a darker track featuring The Weeknd.  Plus, if you’ve ever wanted to hear Rick Ross sing like a strangled cat while addressing the racial dynamics in the US drug trade, “Blk & Wht” (the album’s only weak link) is the song for you. [BUY]

– Jose Lopez-Sanchez


Follow Rec-Room on Twitter, where we’re limited to 140 characters:  @marcuskdowling, @philrunco, @gitmomanners, @jrlopez, and @Aaron_ish