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 tracks that the year has offered us. As always, our distinguished panel consists of Marcus Dowling, Phil R, Joshua Phelps, Aaron Miller, Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious, and Leah Manners of Hip Hop Hooray and Weird City Fest. If you prefer your rap in a larger serving size, check out Rec-Room’s From Bompton to Black Portland: 2014’s Best Rap Albums (So Far).
Big K.R.I.T.: “Mt. Olympus”
This is brag, boast, and cautionary tale all in one. Big K.R.I.T. pretty much kills half the rappers working before the beat drops. So many shots fired and no need to name names. A perfect wide angle response to the current sad state of affairs in mainstream hip-hop, “Mt. Olympus” makes “Control’ (and the subsequent bullshit excuse for beef) look kind of self-indulgent, no matter how badass “control” was. The message in ” Mt. Olympus” is more we than me; more fuck-all-y’all than fuck-that-guy.
It’s all too common these days to hear a track is that’s a banger. Every other month there’s a new, young emcee that is supposed to be a problem. Yawn. It’s not so common to have a message that’s powerful and a Boss Dawg delivery to back it up. Even the video is a testament to how much KRIT does not give a fuck about current rap standards. It’s just him rapping his ass off, framed by his own shadow, with minimal distraction other than some light slo-mo . No real close ups. No shiny shit.
K.R.I.T. has his own lane and it takes up the whole highway – both ways. He seems concerned about where this rap thing is headed, and other rappers should take heed and do something about it – like make a track half as dope as this one and holler back next year.
– Aaron Miller
Cam’ron & A-Trak: “Humphrey”
When “Humphrey” dropped back in February, I was just elated that the God of goon rap was teaming with the untouchable A-Trak for a whole EP of pink coats and white coke. I still am. Here, Cam carpet bombs the smooth piano loop with typical non-sequiturs like “I didn’t get to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian” and “A bank is a place that’ll only lend you money if you prove you don’t need it.” But he also sprinkles in some personal notes that you might miss if you blink: “My parents got high / No lie / It’s no shame / A product of lust, dust, and cocaine.” Sure, “Humphrey” is punctuated with a joke about crackhead fellatio but, please, baby steps here, folks.
– Joshua Phelps
Jeremih ft. YG: “Don’t Tell Em” / TeeFLii ft. 2 Chainz: “24 Hours”
Is there a more prized commodity in the summer of 2014 than Mustard? Fuck limes: If you can afford Mustard, you’re living the life right now. This shit pairs with everything. Riff-RaFF. J.Lo. Rozay. T.I. Whatever.
But sometimes it fees like Dijon McFarlane’s production was made for R&B. There’s something about the way a good singer can skate through his icy landscapes, filling the minimalism with melody and lechery and dick jokes. Ty Dolla $ign has been the biggest beneficiary of this – riding “Paranoid”, “Or Nah”, and “Down on Me” to legit fame – but the two best R&B songs have come from a couple of also-rans: the criminally underrated Jeremih and the criminally spelled TeeFLii. And with “Don’t Tell Em” and “24 Hours”, these guys have given us twin slices of breezy, dirty-mouthed synth pop perfection.
“Don’t Tell Em” is obviously the better of the two. Jeremih just nonchalantly bodies this thing. If he doesn’t sell you with the interpolation of Snap!’s “Rhythm is a Dancer”, just stick around for the vocal runs at the end of the song. And even though YG is out here talking about “Twitter pussy I met on the internet” like “Catfish” never happened, you have the give the Compton rapper credit for always sticking to a song’s theme (see also: “Vato”). The one thing working in “24 Hours” favor: 2 Chainz. Titty Boi knows his way around a Mustard beat. And here? Woo. Try to find another verse more fun to sing along to this year. All day. 24/7 like a Waffle House.
– Phil R
Iggy Azalea ft. Charli XCX: “Fancy”
It says everything about rap music in 2014 that in looking at everything from a statistical standpoint that Iggy Azalea is the year’s “best” rapper at the halfway point. Rap’s become so ubiquitous and ersatz that an Australian woman with a put-upon Southern “blaccent” can “hold [us] down like physics,” while being joined on the hook by Charli XCX, the woman that “[didn’t] care” that Icona Pop wished to “crash [their] car into a bridge.” But, for how terrible this song is for maintaining rap’s classic status quo, it certainly fulfills the notion of being the best of pop music. Tin-drum sounding 808-laden trap is driven by a hook that’s more cloying than getting caramel popcorn stuck in the space between your canine teeth and gums.
Every time I see or hear Iggy Azalea I’m intrigued, amazed, turned on, angered and ultimately tied in so many conflicted mental knots that I’m rendered entirely speechless. Regarding Azalea’s success, a great conversation about stereotypes, America, racism and the future of culture in the digital age can be had. “Hold you down like physics,” thought? The coolest girl in school still gets away with murder just by smiling and shaking her ass at everyone. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
– Marcus Dowling
Run the Jewels: “Pew Pew Pew”
Rap game Dream Team El-P and Killer Mike are back this fall with Run the Jewels 2, but in the meantime, they dropped this bonus track from the first installment. El-P has said that the new Run the Jewels will be “a darker album”, so while you may still be reeling from the industrial grind beats and rapid fire spitting of the first album, I guess be ready to be sadder? Either way, I’m super stoked for the sequel.
– Leah Manners
Vince Staples ft. James Fauntleroy: “Nate”
Talk about making a statement from the jump off. This song just grabs you from the first beat and doesn’t let go. It’s a compelling origin story over a lush and beautiful production (that breakdown/bridge towards the last quarter of the song, in particular) that stands in contrast to the dark subject matter. There’s some real-fucking-talk about the hood’s socioeconomic conditions in there too. Vince reveals a lot about his worldview, and makes himself immediately empathetic. While you can’t accuse the Odd Future Kids of holding any feelings in check, their delivery is often too gruff and dissonant to keep my attention for long. Vince is telling his tale with the confidence and verve normally associated with a veteran performer. The future is bright for this guy.
– Jose Lopez-Sanchez
Busdriver ft. Aesop Rock & Danny Brown: “Ego Death”
Best never before thought of combo this year. (Obligatory) Run The Jewels (worship) proves that there is a wealth of Dungeons and Dragons style team-ups that are just sitting there, hiding out in the open. There may even be enough to keep Real Rap going for a few more years. “Ego Death” is no exception. I could listen to a whole album of these three rappers, no problem, all damn day.
Wrong. I guess all it takes is the two talkingest rappers on earth to team up with the Shit-talkingest rapper alive, dump that on a track produced by a phenom that people will be talking about all next year, and you have a track that is basically a magical robot unicorn ghost that only passes thru when the stars line up right.
– Aaron Miller
Rick Ross ft. Kanye West & Big Sean: “Sanctified”
On March 6th, Rick Ross appeared on “The Arsenio Hall Show”. It was a Friday night, and three days had passed since the release of his sixth LP, the oft-delayed and laughably named Mastermind. “Kicking it off tonight, performing ‘Sanctified’ is Rick ‘The Bawse’ Ross, and some very special friends,” Arsenio said, queuing up the appearance. And then Rick Ross proceeded to not show up for three minutes. Three minutes. For three minutes, Big Sean and Kanye West performed. For three minutes, The Bawse waited in the wings. His album had just dropped, he was making his highest profile appearance to promote it, and the dude was off camera for 2/3 of his single’s rendition.
That is how good “Sanctified” is: It made Rick Ross willingly relegate himself to an afterthought on national television.
I like to imagine a handler sat him down and said, “Oh, yeah, ‘Thug Cry’ would absolutely slay tonight, Ricky. No doubt. It would burn like that lobster bisque you shoulda let cool down… But what about ‘Sanctified’? Yeah, I know you’re barely on it, but hear me out. Put the baguette down, Ricky – it’s not a weapon. Just hear me out. I mean, the way Betty Wright slays the hook? The way Kanye says ‘handkerchief’? The way the sacred flirts with the profane? The way you cut Big Sean’s verse? This by far the best thing on Mastermind. Just like you planned it. You are a mastermind. You are the mastermind. Wait, are you asleep?”
– Phil R
ScHoolboy Q: “Break the Bank”
Alchemist’s addictive, creepy piano anchored this early single off Oxymoron, ScHoolboy Q’s critically acclaimed and most anticipated record to date. Q traffics in both introspection and maniacal gangster rhymes, and here we get a taste of everything: a sing-song chorus screaming jibberish like “la-da-di-do;” lyrics about the death of a grandchild; NWA fuck-the-cops raps; and, an interlude he basically drools out about taking his own teammate’s (Kendrick) throne. The record may have only sold about a fifth of Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, but for my money, I’ll take Q’s imbalanced cacophony over Kendrick’s control.
– Joshua Phelps
Big K.R.I.T. & A$AP Ferg: “Lac Lac”
This unlikely combo of A$AP Ferg and Big K.R.I.T. came about during this spring’s “Week of K.R.I.T.” promotion – his marketing gimmick of releasing a song every day for a week. More than table scraps, the tracks featured some big-ticket collaborators like Big Boi, Rick Ross, UGK, and Blue Oyster Cult, and, on the whole, were pretty good,. But this lean, slow roller stands out for it’s smoothness and throwback-not-stale style.
– Leah Manners
Girl Talk & Freeway ft. Young Chris: “Tell Me Yeah”
Real talk: Freeway and the homie Girl Talk, they combined. Are they thinking way beyond making them hits? Allegedly. Does the block tell them no? My sources say no. Do I love what they be cooking up? Yeah, yeah.
– Phil R
Future ft. Pusha T, Pharrell & Casino: “Move That Dope”
Every time Pusha T raps, it’s either “Numbers on the Boards” and “Nosestalgia,” or it’s “Move That Dope.” On a level of sheer lyrical execution, there may be no better rapper in rap at-present than Pusha T. His emphasis and enunciation turn fairytale bars into real-life horror stories, the kind of moments that captivate like few others in rap. However, he (like honestly so many other rappers) appears bored by the sheer volume of guest verses happening now (a move intrinsic to the genre’s sustainability in the midst of economic depression), and so often his guest verses feel mailed in and wholly uninspired.
Speaking of uninspired, there’s Future, the Manute Bol of rap music. Manute Bol was 7’7″ tall, but though an amusing NBA sideshow, didn’t have a truly dominant NBA career because he lacked the strength and flexibility to be consistently dependable. Similarly, Future’s autotuned warble is everywhere in pop music, and to many, it is amusing, but not particularly memorable. As well, in either singing in a largely inaudible manner, or without the aid of autotune, may lack what it takes to have a long-term career with significant value.
And Pharrell? Well, he’s the Austin Powers of rap music. Cryogenically frozen hipster from the jiggy rap era, he’s been unfrozen and is cavorting with these two and wearing his stupid hat. This track is on the surface about drugs, but deeper beneath, the ultimate proof of how similar rap has become to formulaic Brill Building pop.
Pusha T, Manute Bol, and Austin Powers on the same track. And because Mike WILL makes anything a hit, this wins. Ultimately, the lesson here? Mike WILL is the best at rap. By a long shot.
– Marcus Dowling
Diamond D ft. Pharoahe Monch: “Rap Life”
“Rap Life” really stuck with me this year. Monche remains unfuckwithable, and Diamond D’s production is like going to a Boom-Bap museum where hip-hop has been preserved at its best. It was rap perfection, if anyone was even paying attention. One could argue that once you reach veteran/legend status like these two, absolutely crushing it is no longer impressive – it’s your job. Rap real life is a cold, hard place. Dudes can be killing it for years, whole careers worth of killing it, and they still fall off. Fuck up your taxes, make one shitty record with a teen pop idol, get one snatched chain, or engage in one weird Twitter beef, and you’re gone like its Wack History Month.
But as long as old dudes keep killing it, young rappers will keep learning it.
– Aaron Miller
Ghostface Killah & BADBADNOTGOOD ft. Danny Brown: “Six Degrees”
That beat change when Danny Brown appears on “Six Degrees” is exactly how I feel whenever Danny brings his manic and unconstrained energy to a track: chills, bruh. I’d go so far as to say he induces even Ghostface to raise his game for this one. And I’ll say it again: HOOKS ARE OVER.
– Leah Manners
Major Lazer ft. Pharrell Williams: “Aerosol Can”
It’s funny what the weather will do to our perceptions of art. Back when this song was released, the entirety of the East Coast was under Winter’s thumb, and it felt like we’d never see the sun. As such, in my original review of “Aerosol Can”, I said something to the effect that it was “too kinetic to catch on in the mainstream.” Revisiting this track four months later, in the wake of the Union BBQ and an entire afternoon of Moombahton in the sun, I am eating my words. Diplo and Pharrell were just ahead of the curve, yet again, warming us up with another scorcher. This song is relentless, fun, and catchy, in the face of its unusual structure and lack of a chorus.
Major Lazer isn’t really putting out anything original or novel in the context of world music – it’s a blatant rip off/facelift of Afro-Caribbean beats, and even Sean Paul did that just a few years ago – but it is doing a fantastic job of bringing dancehall culture to a seat at the table again. Pharrell continues his ascendancy, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to loosen his grip on the musical zeitgeist any time soon. It isn’t terribly novel, but it brings a different sound and dynamic at a time when the DJ Mustard and Mike Will “feel” are ubiquitous.
– Jose Lopez-Sanchez
Future ft. Andre 3000: “Benz Friendz”
Let’s have a heart-to-heart: “Benz Friendz” is not the best Future song on Honest. On most days, that distinction goes to “Look Ahead”, which scores a perfect 10 out of 10 on the Nayvadius Wall-Punching scale. That song is what Juggernaut pumps through his Beats by Dre to get jacked up for a big match against concrete and brick. On other days, however, the distinction goes to a much different kind of cut, “I Be U”, which is unquestionably the slow jam of the year, and, yes, I’m counting Beyoncé. Taken together, these two songs give a pretty good idea of where Future is in 2014: Bipolar as fuck. Reading interviews with him, you get the sense that the dude just wants to make ballads- that he’s kinda over rap. But he can’t leave rap alone, the game needs him. So he indulges his base with songs like “Shit” and “Covered N Money” and “T-Shirt”, and when he does, he turns up to 11 like he’s mad about still having to do this.
Lost in the shuffle are the pop songs that previously had a seat at the table: “Straight Up”, “You Deserve It”, “Parachute”, “Fo Real”. Future was amazing at making pop rap. Now he could give a damn about it.
The one song on Honest that bucks this trend is “Benz Friendz”, and that’s mostly because it’s not a Future song: It’s an Andre 3000 song. It’s on a Future record, sure, but everything about “Benz Friendz” reads Outkast, from Dungeon Family affiliates Mr. DJ’s lightly galloping production to 3K’s anti-materialistic screed to the waythat everyone sounds like they’re having fun. It’s all so wonderfully at odds with everything else on Honest. I mean, Future riding a bicycle? Get the fuck out of here. There’s a reason Future buries this at track 11 of Honest’s 12: Cognitive dissonance is not a good look. But this song is.
– Phil R
The Roots: “When The People Cheer”
I appreciate The Roots more than any other rap act in 2014. They’re the very definition of post-rap yet still hip-hop – true artistes who have disassociated the music from the culture and have discovered wealth, success and a heightened state of excellence. Their 2014-released album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is wholly informed by this, the fact that their millions of dollars earned as the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s NBC late-night hosting gigs has finally afforded the “legendary” crew the ability to say “fuck you” to rap and not have to turn back and care.
When Black Thought talks about “douchebags” in “doo-rags,” the level of honest heartbreak in his voice hits you like a rock embedded in a mound of dirt, if you’re a corpse already in the ground. The whole song is so unflinchingly bittersweet that it’s amazing that it was released as part of a mainstream rap album on a mainstream music label in the modern era. It’s as if the Roots turned in their album and dared Def Jam to not release it, because they would just release it themselves on Bandcamp or something. This one is worth ten listens followed by a listen to Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye” for good measure. Simply amazing.
– Marcus Dowling
Young Thug ft. Zuse: “Treasure”
What is happening right now? Who is just leaving treasure laying around? What are the sounds coming out of Young Thug’s mouth? Was this dude raised on Endor? Is he part mogwai? Who knew he could rap this hard? Does he just ask producers for the most demented tracks they have? How long has Dun Deal been sitting on this monster? Where has Zuse been all of my life? Who gets their rifles from Cuba? So many questions. Gonna need to give this a 300th listen.
– Phil R
Rick Ross ft. Jeezy: “War Ready”
Looking back, I’m still shocked “War Ready” was a Mike WiLL Made-It production considering the right turn he took into the pop world. This track’s ominous keys stand in polar opposition to his recent, tropically joyous “Buy the World”. As for Ross, no one’s looking for him to reinvent the wheel here, and he continues to occupy the fake Scarface space as well as anyone. Jeezy, however, sounds like someone stole his lunch and he’s coming with the street sweeper. It’s triumphant take for the snowman.
– Joshua Phelps
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: “Shitsville”
Don’t fool yourself: You’re a piece of shit. And Freddie Gibbs isn’t gonna let you forget this. But, hey, it’s ok, here’s the silver lining of “Shitsville”: We’re all pieces of shit. We’ve all cheated. We’ve all cried. We all pick our noses. We’re all the same.
One of the best qualities of Gangsta Gibbs is how allergic to fronting he is, and no song off his fantastic collaboration with Madlib, Piñata, captures that spirit like “Shitsville”.
– Phil R