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 albums and mixtapes of 2013 thus far. Along for the ride is our distinguished panel of Joshua Phelps, Marcus Dowling, Phil R, Damion M, Shelly Bell, Joseph “Jiggawatts” Minock, Aaron Miller, Steve Place, and Hip Hop Hooray’s Leah Manners. If you prefer your music in a smaller serving size, revisit Rec-Room’s favorite rap songs of 2013.
Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels [Download]
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think El-P and Killer Mike had been North-South pen pals for their entire careers. But it wasn’t until last year that the two teamed up for Killer Mike’s political and unforgiving R.A.P. Music, and then El-P’s greatest album to date, Cancer 4 Cure, before continuing that fortuitous partnership to meet up, do mushrooms, and churn out this year’s crushing, cohesive Run the Jewels. Here, the duo sound utterly at ease trading verses like old hands, riffing on the most violent themes in a way that comes across more balletic than blood-soaked. Jabs at the rich, the corporate machine of mainstream hip-hop, and the current self-appointed Throne-entrenched Jay Z and Kanye are spit over El-P’s organ-laced, industrial layered beats – only, it’s tough to call them just “beats”. These are diesel-fueled tankers unto themselves.
Clocking in at a meager ten songs and 33 minutes, Run the Jewels maintains an unrelenting pace and leaves the listener exhausted, but ready to revisit it. Each track has verses that shine, to the point that quoting them all here would break BYT’s word counter, but that just makes repeated listens a necessity. It’s all too easy to carry around the rollicking chorus of “DDFH” (“Do dope / Fuck hope”), and El-P’s line (of the year?) on “Get It” (“All I want is a castle / And to move like a man with a minimum of harassment / The company of women with opinions and fat asses /Tthat’s my list of demands / You don’t answer them, get the Gatling,”) which makes RtJ perhaps the catchiest release by artists better known for phrases than hooks.
Generally careering over a searing, futuristic sea of sound with aggressive verses, the album’s only off-notes are Killer Mike’s occasional backward steps into misogyny. El-P dances around generalizations about women (“I fuck in my church shoes”), but Mike is unafraid to throw around “bitches,” “hos,” and objectifying and explicitly demeaning sex stories. These lyrics (and Prince Paul’s characteristically creepy Chest Rockwell cameo) can jar listeners out of an otherwise intense fist-pumping and entranced listen, but I’d be remiss not to applaud them both for their goddamn inspired usage of the term “fuckboy.” Finally rappers have a term for demeaning other rappers that doesn’t compare them to women under the assumption that any relation to feminine characteristics makes one weak. All is forgiven as long as “fuckboy” comes into common usage, please.
With so much of the attention of modern hip hop being trained on the newest up-and-comer and the youngest star, it’s both a relief and a vindication to see these two nineties veterans who have more than paid their dues create and release a free album that not only places them in the running for album of the year, but also shows that the genre can be reshaped and re-energized by old dogs. Killer Mike and El-P may have come up as “independent as fuck,” but there’s a good chance, as they kick off the album tour this week, they’ll have to get used to “popular as fuck.”
Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap [Download]
There may be no greater affront to my rap fandom at the moment than having to hear the voices of so many talented, yet world-weary teens and twenty-somethings. I’m officially on the dark side of my 30s, and I can’t bear to imagine to what levels of excess younger folks are reaching to be so much more depressed than I was ten-to-twenty years ago. As an old man still trying to get hip with what is increasingly becoming a young man’s game, nothing makes me happier than hearing something resembling what I grew up knowing (and loving) as “young dude rap.” Chance the Rapper isn’t going to talk my ear off about the negative effects of growing up in Compton’s gang-land while trying to avoid continuously using angel dust. Instead, he’s a kid suspended from school, walking around the streets of downtown Chicago, bragging that he’s got the JUUUUICE, and relaxing with a kiwi-flavored Mistic after getting freaky with a neighborhood girl. The deepest this mixtape gets is in discussing identity and heartbreak, which, well, if you’re a teen should be the kind of life altering questions du jour. Depending on your age, listening to this mixtape is either a pleasant memory or a hopeful omen for what life can be.
– Marcus Dowling
Cassie: RockaByeBaby [Download]
“It’s not pop. It’s not R&B. It’s Cassie.” This is was how Cassie described RockaByeBaby – her debut mixtape, and the first full-length recording she’s released since the Bush administration – prior to its release in April. It’s is nice little slice of bravado, something you would expect to come out of the mouth of Don Draper, and something you would probably chuckle at if it weren’t for one thing: That’s probably the best encapsulation of RockaByeBaby out there, and in typical Cassie succinctness, she nailed it eight words.
Of course, it could be argued that this is pop. And R&B. And rap. Check the top shelf production from Mike Will Made It, Young Chop, and Da Internz, among many others. Check how she hijacks beats from2 Chainz and Kendrick (“M.A.A.D. City”!) and makes them her own. Check the features from Pusha-T, Meek Mill, Rick Ross, Too Short (!), and Fabolous – all of whom deliver, even Wiz Khalifa, who manages to not be bad at rapping on “Paradise”.
But, really, RockaByeBaby is all about Cassie. She floats through this mixtape with an effortlessness that’s jaw-dropping. She can be sweet and seductive and cooing one minute, hard-nosed and mercenary and dismissive the next. She can talk as dirty as anything found on The-Dream’s latest raunch-fest, IV Play. She fucking raps. Cassie has built a cult following over the years – as the existence and popularity of last year’s unofficial Cassie Trilogy attests to – and for good reason, but even her biggest fans have to be surprised by the range on display here. It’s the sort of performance that makes an album built of disparate parts feel as cohesive as something as singular – and insular – as, say, The Weeknd’s trilogy.
If the success RockaByeBaby – the most downloaded female mixtape ever on DatPiff – doesn’t motivate Bad Boy to let Cassie release a second proper album, I don’t know what will. But even if Diddy sits on his hands, we’ll still have RockaByeBaby. There are days that I think this is best record released in any genre this year.
– Phil R
Kevin Gates: The Luci Brasi Story [Download]
Kevin Gates has been a subject of slight consternation and debate amongst this fair panel, and I do admit that at this stage, I’m intrigued to see how (or whether) his career develops. None of that, however, should detract from the fact that The Luca Brasi Story is one of the top rap albums of the year.
I’ll flatly admit that I typically dismiss the sing-songy rapper niche without ever giving a song so much as 30 seconds before my brain sets off an “R&B/autotune” alert and I immediately press skip. And yet, I never felt that compulsion with The Luca Brasi Story. Partly, it’s because as far as opening combinations go, “Mr. Brasi”-to-“Paper Chasers” is pretty much perfect. But it’s also largely because Gates fills in the deficiencies that we all find in the Futures and Drakes of the world. To reiterate a point that’s been made far and wide, Gates, at least on The Luca Brasi Story, manages to match both of these guys pound-for-pound, skill-for-skill, while also exhibiting the technical rapping talent that’s lacking from Future’s repertoire and portraying the grittiness that Drake never could. Imagine Drake laying down a track like “IHOP” and adding “True Story” as a parenthetical. Would you believe it?
At a much broader level, Gates’ performance on The Luca Brasi Story is a fantastic reminder of how multidimensional rap can be when you have a talented guy at the helm. It’s easy to forget that rap is actually “music”, until Kevin Gates comes along and manages to toss so much melody and feeling into an otherwise grimy narrative.
– Joey Minock
Black Milk: Synth or Soul [Purchase]
Synth or Soul is more than a mixtape: It is 20-something minutes of pure innovation. While it stays true to a concrete representation of a familiar Detroit Sound, it stands out in its push to be that New shit. The production is immaculate, and I’m glad there’s no rappers on it. There are too many rappers out there who are talking loud and ain’t saying nothing (see: Kanye). There are too many producers fighting the loudness war with no dynamics and bloated, overbearing mixes (fuck it, see: Kanye, again). There is a reason I chose an instrumental record. He shoulda just called it “Album of the Year, Again”
If there were just ten more dudes like Black Milk, Detroit would pop off like a goddamned spaceship and take the rest of us lames with it. Flowers and high-paying jobs would spring forth from the cracked pavement, the auto factories would produce only the flyest American-made rides, and every child in the D would get a fresh, blue, fitted New Era for Christmas every year forever and ever.
– Aaron Miller
Prodigy & The Alchemist: Albert Einstein [Purchase]
“For the money I’ll bounce around the earth / A few hundred thousand put me straight for the summer.”
As Prodigy’s hip hop contemporaries celebrate two decades in the game with garish art history leisure rap, the HNIC returns with ravenous bars that make you feel like you might get robbed at the merch table after a show. Albert Einstein marks the return of P and longtime collaborator Alchemist in an effort much less rushed but infinitely more urgent than HNIC 3. Alc’s stark pianos and synths paint the perfect canvas for vintage Mobb Deep menace, whether it’s hammers and baseball bats on “IMDKV” or the deliberate assassination of a foe in front of his daughter’s school bus on “Confessions.” You’d be forgiven for thinking you might be getting a breather from the onslaught as “Breeze” evokes the 80’s dock shoe sonics of Alchemist’s 2012 Yacht Rock effort, but P interjects with the hardened wisdom that “you either gon’ do life or you gon’ get killed.” You might not listen to this at a barbecue but if you’re looking for something to rattle you like a George Pelecanos novel, this is the record.
– Joshua Phelps
Future: F.B.G.: The Movie [Download]
On “Intro”, the opening track to F.B.G.: The Movie, Future does one thing: talk shit. Literally, he just talks – to call this rapping would be a stretch. His voice is contorted by auto-tune, and for four and half minutes, the words coming out of his mouth barely make sense. Meanwhile, the beat underneath him is massive. It has horns and strings, and everything about gives off an appropriately cinematic feel. It sounds expensive. The whole song is ludicrous and awesome and it sets the tone for what’s to come. “Intro” is Future letting you know, “This whole mixtape is fire, and Ima do whatever I want on it.” That’s when you know something epic is happening. That’s when you know you’re in for something special.
After a warm-up, turnt-down track with Drake (“Fo Real”), he launches into “Ceelo”, an absolute banger that’s followed by two more bangers. By time “Mark McGwire” rolls around, it’s clear that this mixtape is all the way TURN’T UP. (Ima drop that phrase more than Ray J at the BET Awards after-party. #havetotrend! #betmusicaward! #turnup!).
The next phase of the mixtape is introduced with “Intl Swagger”, F.B.G.: The Movie‘s thirteenth track, and what amounts to 28 seconds of a French woman telling us – presumably – how turn’t up these dudes are on an international level. It’s very informative stuff, and, obviously, a necessary inclusion. But what follows is the actual proof: banger after banger after banger. If you eat those tracks up, you’re full after “Keep on Shinin”. That bass-heavy track is still in my rotation, six months later.
In shelling out for this level of production and connecting with DJ Drama, Future hooked it up for the Freeband Gang. This is how you introduce your people to the scene. And when it comes to the performance, you gotta bat clean up on a few tracks and knock it out. Fans of trap music and heavy bass can’t resist this. The heavy beats, snare, and accelerated pace of the heavy hitters paint the picture he’s trying to depict: A two-scene movie where Future exalts himself with the help of his friends, then gets on stage to chant FINESSIN! with his fans.
– Damion M
GrandeMarshall: Mugga Man [Download]
Mugga Man is one of the most interesting mixtapes to drop (so far!) in 2013 for two reasons: 1) It shows the dramatic progress of a talented rapper over a relatively short period of time; and, 2) it provides a glimpse into Fool’s Gold Record’s model, and why it will continue to run shit.
Don’t get me wrong, GrandeMarshall’s last project, 800, was great, but Mugga Man is clearly in another echelon. The transformative power of Fool’s Gold’s long roster of talented producers is nearly palpable, though not in an obtrusive or disingenuous way, which makes it even more impressive. The label’s cautious approach to picking artists is be paying off, and GrandeMarshall has stepped his game up to their level. Mugga Man is chill as fuck, filled with clever and memorable lines, and is diverse enough to remain interesting for all 21 tracks.
If this is any indicator of how Fool’s Gold will continue to polish new talent—while retaining the qualities that made those artists unique—it will be unstoppable.
– Steve Place
The White Mandingos: The Ghetto is Tryna Kill Me [Purchase]
Create a single human being spirit from an established Hip-Hop Journalist (Sacha Jenkins), former member of a hardcore punk rock band (Daryl Jenifer) and a rapper whose rhymes criticize your favorite rappers (Murs) and his name would be Tyrone White. The Ghetto is Tryna Kill Me, the 15 track saga of Tyrone White begins and ends the same because it was never about beginning or ending. It was about living breathing harsh realities of being Black-N-White , a “black white boy” means you become the misunderstood weird kid in the corner of wherever America thinks black boys live. On “Black Girl Toof”, Tyrone dates the stereotypical black girl who’s missing out on love because she’s missing her father. On “My First White Girl”, Tyrone dates the stereotypical white girl who finds black men interesting because they’re black. It is rare to find one album where the artist(s) explicitly speak on interracial dating while using the stereotypes of the women to lead the story. At the end of a few of the tracks, the beat morphs into smooth reggae, like beats that ease your ear into the next phase of Tyrone’s journey. Reminiscent of N.W.A., this album will jerk the conscious of the listener, pull them close, and have a conversation with their identity. The White Mandingos’ The Ghetto is Tryna Kill Me incinerates everything society perceives as a “white people thing” and a “black people thing”, then it stares in indifference as the ashes rain over the Capital Building.
– Shelly Bell
Kanye West: Yeezus [Purchase]
Kanye’s about twelve steps ahead of the game on Yeezus. This album’s unrepentant march to its own drummer answers the most important question facing music at the moment: ”If making music isn’t making money, than why make music to make money?” Is Kanye West arrogant? Yes. Is he being himself? Absolutely. Is the self an inherently flawed being that ultimately answers to no code (whether moral, judicial or otherwise) but their own? Absolutely. Being a musician in the current era is a losing proposition without hope or future.The ends never justify the means and sounds become increasingly commercially disposable by the nanosecond. Thus, in making an album that is dissonant, arrogant, unrepentant in its misogyny and over-the-top proclamations of West’s own religious and cultural superiority – the album isn’t meant for you to like, but for Kanye to express himself. In this rejection of commerce and embrace of creativity, Yeezus is the future. The future is now.
– Marcus Dowling
A$AP Rocky: Long Live A$AP [Purchase]
Big K.R.I.T.: King Remembered in Time [Download]
Casey Veggies: Life Changes [Download]
Gucci Mane: Trap God 2 [Download]
Le1f: Fly Zone [Download]
Lightshow: Get Well Soon [Download]
Migos: Y.R.N. [Download]
Tree: Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out [Download]
The Underachievers: Indigoism [Download]
Young Thug: 1017 Thug [Download]