Friday, January 31, 2020

Looking Back on 2019 (Part 3)


Street art seen in Mexico City, June 2019.


A little delayed in sharing this final look back at some of the things I liked about 2019, but that gave me time to properly soak in the music that dropped later in the year. As always with this blog, my favorite new albums came out of the realm of hip hop in its purest and grimiest form.

We are now nearly a quarter century past the golden era of hip hop and the art form remains alive with a slew of newer artists arising to bring fresh blood and new approaches to a musical tradition whose forefathers they seem to not only respect but spiritually summon and pay homage to. Some established rap gods have also helped bring along the new artists. These phenomena were reflected in some of the albums and artists I dug in 2019. Here are, in no particular order, my favorite albums from last year with a few words about each.




Favorite Albums from 2019:


Slime Wave LP - Hus Kingpin
The Connect Tape - Hus Kingpin & Smoovth
Beyond the distinctive sonic dimension that Hus Kingpin works within---that consistent taste for boom-bap beats whose distorted tempos or droned synths or dusty keys give them a unique flavor---Hus has proven to be a lyricist who seeks to splash a unique poetic image in every bar. References to natural forces, the skies, the moon, the planets and galaxies often appear in his rhymes. In that sense he comes across as a true poet, a verbal painter with a penchant for surreal imagery. He's also a connoisseur of debauchery, his rhymes frequently deploying exotic arrays of BDSM and all manner of extreme lasciviousness. As with the planetary poetry, his raps on fornicating use surrealist extremes of creativity, especially since all of this comes thru a dense slang doctrine. He's like a combo of Cappadonna and the Marquis de Sade. Hus is one of those emcees with his own brand of slang (the title of the Slime Wave LP is perfect since "slime" is his favorite pronoun and he often works "wave" as an adjective, with "Wavo" as his signature tag weaved in each verse). As unique as Wavo may be, he also earns points for keeping to the essence of pure rugged, east coast hip hop, carrying on a specific tradition, giving due recognition like when he summons the "Ghost of Camay" over a Mathematics beat or notes that "I got my slime wave from Noreaga (War Report)."

The extreme imaginativeness described thru a flavorful slang matrix makes each Wavo verse exciting and worth checking out, even on the few tracks where the beat or the featured verse may not be as interesting. The Slime Wave LP was one of my favorite records from last year---the production is solid across the board and it has awesome features including some of my favorite emcees like Estee Nack, Bronze Nazareth, Killah Priest, Planet Asia, with the unique style of Hus standing out next to lyrical heavyweights. I keep going back to "The Conversation" his back-and-forth cipher with Kxng Crooked, an impressive collab whose chemistry was recreated on "Outer Limits" off Kxng Crooked's Gravitas album later in the year. Following Slime Wave, Hus Kingpin and fellow Hempstead native Smoovth dropped a collab album later in the year, The Connect Tape. While the latter feels like more of an EP than the former, The Connect Tape is another front-to-back solid project with quality beats, good features, wavy rhyme imagery and they included on there this nasty banger called "Wilson Fisk Meets Manny Merengues" that had first appeared in a series of Marvel-themed compilation albums by Chong Wizard:





-Renaissance - Estee Nack & RLX
-Papitas - Estee Nack & Gialla Point
Nack has been among my top emcees for several years now but the last few years he has ramped up the output and taken his style to a new level since joining forces with Al.Divino. After a ridiculously prolific 2018, Nack dropped a bunch more heat in 2019 and finally started getting some shine beyond the underground world when Westside Gunn caught on to his work and featured him on an album. To try to put things into perspective: that track, "Banana Yacht" earned Estee Nack the 10th best verse of 2019 according to Complex which was great promo for the underrated underground emcee, and yet it's also a slower tempo'd track that doesn't really showcase Nack's rapid flow and if you heard everything Nack dropped in 2019 that verse probably wouldn't rank among his own top 5 verses of the year. For me, his best verses were on joints like "Marijuaneros" off Renaissance, his excellent collab with the talented young producer/emcee RLX or "You Blew it Fam" from his collab with producer Giallo Point. Both of those albums were and remain in heavy rotation for me. Nobody in the rap industry right now can touch Nack's combo of effortless, dexterous flow and clever lyricism. And few artists sound like they have as much fun rapping as Nack does. He's also got a knack for great beat selection. The production on Renaissance is fucking filthy---lots of dusty, hypnotic, lo-fi bangers. There's a strong rap movement out of Massachusetts going on right now, mostly led by the Al.Divino/Nack dynamic duo and Nack's formidable crew the Tragic Allies, and this kid RLX also proved that he represents a really promising part of that movement. I love his dusty, Roland SP sampler sounding style, super grimey old cassette tape type sounds. And to top it off he's an impressive emcee with rapid bars and rhyme schemes that stand out like his opening on the track "Thorough": "We didn't mean to hurt ya guys/ but the thirty turned him into fertilizer/ I'm certified, we don't coincide/ The whole hood avoiding bills/ the void is filled with buoyant pills/ my first lesson on destroy & build/ I'd uncoil and kill you but I'd rather chill/ It be the loudest in the room who end up pushing up daffodils."

This was probably my favorite Estee Nack joint from last year (produced by RLX):





King Midas - Al.Divino
Fishscale - Al.Divino
Legacy - Al.Divino & RLX
The Door - Al.Divino & Estee Nack 
In the middle of that movement out of Massachusetts is the talented and prolific emcee/producer Al.Divino. Like RLX, Divino is a young guy with a devotion to the real hip hop lyricism and rugged sound of the golden era of rap, yet he is also constantly pushing the envelope trying to provide something fresh. He has definitely carved out his own sound lately with his raw, hoarse, rapid-fire Tasmanian Devil delivery dropping terse bars loaded with arcane allusions and cultural references (he's good for some deep cut sports references---I've heard him drop Joey Votto in a line before, his album Fishscale mentions NHL greats like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and even Vladimir Tarasenko) over dusty lo-fi sounding dungeon basement beats. His element is truly underground. His work strikes me as kinda avant-garde underground rap, though. He strikes me as someone who started with a pretty straightforward approach and could keep working in that realm if he wanted, but he opts to "make it new" and take interesting creative risks. I'm thinking about the beats he raps over like "Magi" (produced by Sadhugold) off King Midas which makes great use of pockets of silence which Divino overflows with bars, or the bare bones beat on "Trucho" off The Door where it sounds like just a metronome that Estee Nack and Divino rap over, giving the track life with the pace of their flows. There are traditional straight-up bangers on Divino records (like "King Midas" or "Fishscale") but there's also bizarre beats incorporating elements that sound like found art, turning beats out of raw materials you wouldn't expect. I should point out that, like Estee Nack, Al.Divino also teamed up with RLX for an excellent record called Legacy. I love the RLX production on this project, super soulful and super lo-fi, he even brings out a rare reflective side of Divino. His signature delivery is a tommy gun barrage of bars, a stimulating challenge for the listener to catch it all. One of his better verses from last year though was his feature with Estee Nack on "Cointelpro" a more deliberate tempo where Divino drew out his delivery more slowly, giving bars an extra emphasis. The movement led by Al.Divino, Estee Nack, RLX and their associates is one of the most exciting and promising things about rap music these days. Here's Divino's track "King Midas" (off the album of the same name), one of my favorite tracks from last year:





Bandana - Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Definitely their best work yet. Madlib's production sounds as rich, layered, and analog as ever (and somehow he made it all on an iPad?). Gibbs flows beautifully over the Madlib soundstream and drops many memorable lines. This album blew up last year, with good reason. The collab with Freddie, Yasiin Bey, and Black Thought was one of my favorite songs of the year:






Gravitas - Kxng Crooked & Bronze Nazareth

Few producers can touch Bronze when it comes to crafting a full record. And this was a rewarding combo since Kxng Crooked has always been a dope lyricist in search of a producer worth his salt. Bronze gives this album a cohesive sound, crafting a record that captures the spirit of its title. While there are some straight bangers on here like "Outer Limits" and an uplifting southern Cali sounding track "Westside Willie" this is otherwise an album focused with serious themes. "Slave Chains to Handcuffs" channels generations of pain while directly linking slavery to its modern day manifestation in extrajudicial police killings and mass incarceration. The middle of the album becomes an elegy lamenting the dead, with Crooked remembering a lost relative and Bronze channeling his brother Kevlaar who passed away suddenly in 2014. One of my favorite tracks is "Change Ur Beliefs" where Crooked is accompanied by guest verses from Bronze and Kevlaar going back and forth. To hear Bronze trade verses with his deceased brother is somber but beautiful, and the essence of this part of the album is encapsulated in the skit that follows where we hear Crooked and Snoop Dogg remember a precious moment they shared with Tupac years ago, while soulful strings crawl in mournfully. (I'm proud to mention I had an executive producer credit on this album.) Vinyls for this album just went on sale here: https://crookedi.bandcamp.com/

One of the things that was missing from rap in 2019 was we didn't get to hear enough of Bronze Nazareth on the mic. On the other hand, 247hh.com released a series of interviews with Bronze including an acapella session where Bronze deciphered his own bars. A new solo album called If You're Worried You Should Be looms on the horizon, hopefully coming in 2020 along with other new stuff Bronze mentions like an album with Inspectah Deck. Bronze had a few dope features in 2019 especially on his old student Apollo Brown's compilation album Sincerely, Detroit. This magnificent track "Over Do It" features Bronze and Boldy James rapping over resonant production from Apollo:






The Gold Room - Sadhugold
I've written about this one a couple times already. I wish producers did this kind of thing more often. An instrumental album homage to The Shining full of beats that morph and tell stories using only their sound, no voices. This record is absolutely brilliant.






The Ra(w) Material - Czardust (Sadhugold & Ohbliv)
Speaking of brilliant. The same dude who produced The Gold Room, Sadhugold, released this collab album where he rapped over production from Ohbliv. I had no idea Sadhugold was also a rapper. This is a wonderfully bizarre record, super experimental hip hop that feels a lot like Sun Ra space jazz (probably what's hinted at in the title) mixed with DOOM with skits that channel ODB. Sadhu is a fascinating rapper with psychedelic imagery. My favorite track on here is probably "Wemerk Loops Inc":







Retropolitan - Skyzoo & Pete Rock
Pete Rock is a living legend, plain and simple. The same dude who produced "T.R.O.Y." in 1992 still makes some of the best rap beats of anybody in the world. I'm a huge Pete Rock fan and the production on this record still blew me away. Powerful bangers, soulful samples, varying tempos and flavors. This is a fantastic album. "A love letter and a wakeup call to the city," as Skyzoo describes this thoroughly NYC-sounding rap record. I'd never been a Skyzoo fan before but a colleague whose rap opinions I trust has sung his praises for years. Skyzoo's beat selection had kinda held me back but here the match is perfection and, for me at least, it allowed Skyzoo's intricate poetic techniques to really sink in. My favorite tracks are the ones that bookend the album, the opener and the closer. Here's the phenomenal track "Glorious" that leads off the album:





Heather Grey EP - Eto & Willie the Kid & V Don
Eto was a new discovery for me last year. Another impressive newcomer who keeps the essence of classic hip hop alive. A sharp voice for a thugged out dude who seems small in stature, he seems to channel Prodigy. You'll frequently catch him throwing Prodigy lines in his ad-libs. Eto dropped a bunch of projects last year including one with DJ Muggs, but my favorite was the album he did with Willie the Kid and producer V Don. I've written before about Willie the Kid and his intricate approach to crafting rhymes. Eto made for a great duo with Willie because he also seems to have a very technical approach to his rhymes---while his imagery channels criminal enterprises, he also raps in dense parables and emphasizes the honor codes of gangsterism. Eto makes me think of Robert DeNiro when he talked about how Trump is a lowlife mobster, he said "ya know, even gangsters have morals, they have ethics, they have a code."

My favorite song from last year was actually from this Willie the Kid, Eto, and V Don combo but it wasn't even on their album, it was a standalone single. I found myself listening to this track over and over again throughout the year, constantly catching more layers. After I acquired a new pair of Beats headphones that added more layers to it as I was able to savor the work V Don does on the bass of this track. This had to be my favorite track from last year, "Floor Seats":


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