"Ghost Hammurabi" is a new track from Killah Priest, it also feels like the latest installment of the style heard throughout Priest's 2020 project Rocket to Nebula, with a drum-less beat and mesmerizing, evolving tempos overridden by rapid-fire lyricism evoking epic, cosmic scales. It's a track that might take some getting used to, or it might speak to you instantly. For me it was the latter. So it seems like a good way to start off this assemblage of reflections on my favorite rap albums from the past year.
These are short reviews of some favorite albums from this pandemic era, last year and into 2021. Not exactly trying to provide objective criticism or a ranking of best albums, just giving my opinion on the albums that brought me excitement, enjoyment, or inspiration during the pandemic year. Not listed in any particular order, this is a curated list of rap elixirs I've been soaking in with thoughts on the merits of each.
Killah Priest - Rocket to Nebula
This remains my favorite album of the past year, you can read my full review "The Interstellar Corridors of Killah Priest's Rocket to Nebula" here. Priest actually dropped three new albums in the past year including this one, but Rocket to Nebula stands out, it is on a level all its own. It's an album of cosmic contemplations and exercises in mindfulness of the simple pleasures of earthly existence, a potent antidote to the anxieties and stresses of the pandemic era. The style involves more meditative soundscapes devoid of drums, with the spoken-word poetry from Priest journeying through worlds and dimensions, lyrically spinning portals like Doctor Strange. "Time travel portals I toy with, rhymes channel immortals for enjoyment."
Favorite tracks: Too many to name, it's a double-album filled with great tracks, but if I had to pick one I'd say "Magnificent Interview".
Madlib - Sound Ancestors
This came out in early 2021 and it's been great to hear some new Madlib after what seemed like a long hiatus, at least for his solo work. Sound Ancestors plays like it's part of Madlib's Beat Konducta series, an instrumental album with a few bass-heavy bangers, some bizarre experimental joints, plenty of hard drums and jangling coins, a track in homage to J Dilla, and even some forays into jazz music. This new album has earned Madlib quite a bit of press, including a piece in The New Yorker where it mentions how Madlib makes hundreds of beats per week and has tons of unheard music in his vaults. The new project is actually a collaborative effort with Four Tet, an experimental musician from the UK whose role on Sound Ancestors was apparently to help curate and mix down some of the music. If this is the type of team-work required to get more music from Madlib out to the world, I'm all for it and hoping the success of this project leads to an increased output.
Favorite tracks: "Theme De Crabtree"; "Hopprock"; "Two for 2 - for Dilla" especially the second beat; and "Road of the Lonely Ones" is such a beautiful track, the drums are crisp and carry along a smooth-paced banger whose crooning voices stir the soul. Some reviewers thought the haunting manner of some of the music on the album was indicative of Madlib musically mourning his friend MF DOOM who, it was announced on New Year's Eve, had passed away on Halloween, but apparently Madlib heard the sad news when all of us did.
(((R.I.P. MF DOOM)))
I must take a minute to reflect on MF DOOM one of the all-time greats who passed away last year. 2020 was a rough year, a season of death, and to learn on the final day of the year that we had lost MF DOOM, that just felt like a cheap shot. That news really hurt. Whenever I think of DOOM (aka Daniel Dumile), I get a happy feeling inside because he was just such a force of creativity and a living breathing comicbook character, his music was fun. His imprint unforgettable. His penchant for creative rhyme schemes is unmatched, he had the sense of humor of an older soul (he died at age 49), and he was something of a super-nerd. His rhymes featured faded styles of humor, references to 70s TV shows, comicbook characters, Star Trek, pro wrestling, and then he'd rap about the Large Hadron Collider and seamlessly weave the name of that Icelandic volcano (Eyjafjallajökull) into a verse. He was dropping new verses as recently as 2020 yet he had an old-school vibe, his career began in the late-80s rapping under the name Zev Love X alongside 3rd Bass, his story taking on a dark turn after his brother and close-collaborator DJ Subroc was killed in a car crash. Zev re-emerged as MF DOOM, wearing a mask and rapping at poetry slams in Manhattan cafes. His new persona borrowed from the backstory of the supervillain Doc Doom (true identity Victor Von Doom---DOOM other characters included Viktor Vaughn) who went off to the Tibetan mountains after tragedy struck, learned under the monks before overthrowing them, then returned as a supervillain with metal mask. Ever the man of mystery, an enigma in an image-saturated rap world, DOOM enlightened and thrilled and confounded us all. He gave us so much classic music, yet he leaves with so much untapped potential. He leaves a powerful legacy behind (as seen especially in the responses of other rappers and in murals appearing around the world), the image of his metal mask synonymous with the potency of the underground in all art forms, his approach to music an inspiration for anyone to pursue our creative energies however we see fit.
Here's a cool video with the lyrics for the song "Mad Nice" with DOOM and Black Thought:
Ka - Descendants of Cain
No doubt one of the best albums of the past year. Seems like each new project from Ka is a special event and this one was no different. Ka albums carry a certain theme, on this one the concept is Biblical, the title referring to Cain, son of Adam, killer of his brother Abel, and if we're thinking in Biblical terms, the begetter of all who came after, leaving all of us to carry the stain of his sin. An allegory of this scale provides an ideal dramatic template for Ka to work within as he's always seeming to be in the process of purging traumas of the past through artful constructs of language and aphorism. The method of Ka is the same he's developed for the past decade, rapping in low tones, his gravelly voice finding pockets in the beat to fill with his tightly-wound, artisan-crafted poetics. His bars are intricate, interesting to unravel. As I've written before, Ka has a knack for good choruses too. "The Eye of a Needle" chorus repeats, "Penny for ya thoughts, nickels with the grip, had dimes tell me that they love me." What separates this album from his other ones is the quality and mood of the beats. I think I would still put this below Orpheus vs. the Sirens on a ranking of his best albums, but Descendants of Cain maintains the epic scale and elite lyricism of Ka's previous work.
Favorite tracks: "Every Now and Then" is a perfect introduction to the artform of Ka, with a beat he produced, deploying undulating strings and a lamenting electric guitar reverb. Ka rarely has any guest appearances on his albums except for the occasional appearance from Roc Marciano and Marci's appearance on "Sins of the Father" made for an impactful track, Roc dropped one of the best verses of the year. "The Eye of a Needle" is another favorite of mine, especially the part after the beat flips. And the mood on "Old Justice" is haunting and incredible.
Preservation - Eastern Medicine, Western Illness
Preservation has been a producer synonymous with crisp, melodic beats that flip great samples. He had some good beats on Babygrande records projects in the 2000s, he produced bangers for Mos Def, he teamed up with Ka for that amazing Days With Dr. Yen Lo album, and then this past year Preservation dropped this compilation album Eastern Medicine, Western Illness with beats made from samples he discovered living in Hong Kong. The beats are lush, exotic and often glorious on here. Preservation's far-east-oriented sounds are laced with some great verses from an array of renowned rhyme slingers, the best verses for me being the features from Nickelus F, Your Old Droog, Mach-Hommy, Roc Marciano, and Ka. If the emcees sound extra inspired on these tracks it's because the beats go so hard. The audio journey Preservation takes the listener on is the ultimate highlight of this record.
Favorite tracks: On "Correspondence" Your Old Droog and Mach-Hommy crush it, they sound so good on this production (this combo of YOD, Mach-Hommy, and Preservation have teamed up for some great work on other projects too including a recent joint with MF DOOM). Roc Marci murked "Medicine Drawer" as did Ka on "Cure for the Common"---of many good songs on this album, I also really like "I-78/Capillaries" and "North Bridge" and the beat on the outro "Mouth of a River" is just a beautiful piece of music.
Estee Nack & Superior - BALADAS
Album titles and track names appear in all caps with no spaces on Estee Nack projects. Emblematic of his emphatic and agile style of rapping, maybe. Nack with gritty vocals and a flow that sounds effortless dances rapidly over beats, while the flayed cuts of drawn-out organ pipes and lofty-sounding samples provided in Superior's production make great territory for Nack to run wild in. The style of Estee Nack often amounts to more than the sum of its parts, I think, because his incredible flow and gravelly voice just go so well over beats, plus his ad-libs are always clever and memorable. Nack is one of the most entertaining mic presences in hip hop these days. I've been a fan since his earliest Tragic Allies releases in the mid-2000s. He's been open in interviews about his growth as an artist and it's been cool to see his style evolve and his star continuing to shine brighter and I hope the steady stream of new projects continues unabated.
Favorite tracks: "PLEGARIAAUNSICARIO" is probably the best song on the album. There's so many amazing displays of flow on this record, the movement of Superior's beats really highlights the dexterous rhyming abilities of Nack. This was especially evident on "TELLTHETRUTHANDSHAMETHEDEVIL" and "MANGOMARMALADE" and I also love how he spazzes out on "LAUNCHTHEBOATOFFAKEYWEST." Lots of great vibes throughout this record, including on "WISDOM" with Codenine.
Willie the Kid - Capital Gains
Willie the Kid & V-Don - Deutsche Marks 2
WTK has become one of my favorite artists. He's got an interesting style, a lyricism of luxuriant opulence over a rugged, grimy, underground sort of sound. This style goes amazingly alongside V-Don production, they complement each other well. V-Don produced the dank banger "Free Parking" that opens the album Capital Gains, and the two dropped their latest collab Deutsche Marks 2 which was also really good. Willie strikes me as a lyrical technician---the automobile engineering theme of the Deutsche Marks albums feels appropriate. "Too advanced for the passive listener," he brags on "Audubon Ballroom." To call it wordplay seems too simplistic but he toys with language a lot. I've been thinking about what he does using directions in the opening of "Free Parking":
Last time shit went left, my n****s got right
Left a man where he stand, ya right arm in a sling
Liberate like the left wing, equal rights
I took a stance never took the stand, despite
Game room in the east wing, I never punt
All is quiet on the western front
Notice the "left" and "right" each repeated three times in the first few lines in different contexts, then balanced by "equal rights" in the third line. "I took a stance" is to balance physically but figuratively it's a push in the direction of racial equality in society, "liberate like the left wing." And then the two sides continue in "the east wing" and "the western front." This type of rhyme subtlety is evident in all his music if you look for it. Willie has a way with words, his beat selection is top-notch, and he goes at the beats with his own style that fits perfectly.
Favorite tracks: The first three songs on Capital Gains are amazing. That whole project is good but that lineup of "Free Parking" - "Cork Free" (ft Action Bronson) - "Egregious" those three tracks flow perfectly. On the Willie the Kid & V-Don album, I love the tracks "Plum Wine", "Minutiae" and "Audubon Ballroom."
Roc Marciano - Mt. Marci
Roc Marci is venerated as a legend in 21st century raw rap. He had a number of stand-out features in the past year, he produced an acclaimed album for Stove God Cooks, and he dropped his newest solo album Mt. Marci to much fanfare. Following a string of consistently quality releases, Marciano on Mt. Marci creates a more tripped out sonic atmosphere than usual while highlighting the Marciano template of gnomic flows, street imagery, ostentatious splashes of style drip, soul vibes, and a reassertion of his stature in the world of hip hop lyricism, as he puts it, "my third eye never calcified."
Favorite tracks: Best song for me on here is "Spirit Cooking" with Action Bronson, the beat, the energy they both bring, the way they let the melody breathe and find their way into it. "Steel Vagina" is a musical odyssey. "Baby Powder" has good texture and vibes with some of Roc's best bars on the album. "Wicked Days" is a bugged-out trip of crawling shadows and muttering tweakers, which Marci walks into with warnings for those writing him off, "If rapping wasn't still fun I'd be done with it/ I'm dumb with it not dimwitted."
Hus Kingpin - Portishus
Portishus (2021) has the makings of a modern day classic. Hus Kingpin has dropped a number of quality albums the past few years and he delivered something special on this one. The production on this album is amazing, much of the sound of Portishus is conceived in homage to the 90's UK trip hop group Portishead. Hus Kingpin also consciously places the album within a tradition of innovative, raw boom-bap, the epitome of east coast rap. There are many examples, a few of them being the snares and strings on the opening track "Who Made You Look" recalling the beat from LL Cool J's classic "I Shot Ya", the heavy piano melody on "The Struggling" giving new life and amplified emotional weight to the sample DJ Premier used on one of the best songs from Reasonable Doubt (1996), there's a song called "Belly" and a song called "Kool Keith," and he shouts out Mobb Deep associate Big Noyd right before a song featuring Mobb Deep associate Twin Gambino. In trying to honor the sound and vibes of '90s classics this way while pushing the envelope here in the third decade of the 21st century, Portishead is ambitious as fuck but I think it succeeds, mainly on the strength of Hus Kingpin's poetic flourishes and good ear for beats.
Favorite tracks: The whole first half of the album is amazing, I also really dig "Atticus Play" and "The Heroes" (ft Ransom and Willie the Kid).
Bronze Nazareth & Leaf Dog - Bundle Raps
Bronze returns with a banger. Bundle Raps sees the Wu affiliate out of Detroit teaming up with Leaf Dog, a producer/emcee from the UK group The Four Owls. Leaf Dog seemed to capture the ideal sound for Bronze on here, this is an album full of neck-snapping bangers. Raw hip hop at its finest. Most of the other albums on this list have somewhat similar approaches in sound, experimenting with distorted tempos and drawn-out vibes, often without drums, the emcee finding rapping space within silences or lower-key pockets enveloped within melodies. By contrast, Bundle Raps is just straight hard drums, heavy bass lines, chopped soul samples and raw rhymes delivered with relatively fast flows. When done to perfection, it's a reliably potent approach to boom bap. Leaf Dog crafts grimy beats and Bronze showcases elite level lyricism with densely weighted sixteens, heavy in metaphors, imagery and wordplay. Witness the track "The Deranged" featuring Bronze's group the Wisemen. The whole crew sounds at home over rapid tempos, with dexterous flows over a banging beat, and Bronze bewilders the intellect with fresh imagery in every bar, "Running rhymes similar to Gail Sayers, double time/ Hell layers, walk thru urban cement Himalayas/ Specialist dart arson thru the vent sprayer/ Clouds rain, eyes turn to Alcatraz glaciers."
Favorite tracks: I think "Theatre Speak" (ft. Kevlaar 7) and "The Immaculate" are two of the best Bronze Nazareth songs ever. I love the track "Grime Lords" with June Megalodon, the way the emcees feed off each's energy and the ad-libbed freestyle vibe on it. "The War On Us" is heavy in creative linguistics while calling attention to travesties and justified paranoias all with poetic brevity in bars like "They poisoned Flint, genocide thru the kitchen sink/ Snyder wife sittin with fish and minks/ the meat's pink, parasites parasailing thru ya blood type/ Police periscoping profiles off DNA sites." I also love the short track "Burnt Leaf" and Bronze's verse on "Lyrical Wars" is amazing, this was one of the best lines on the album: "Since K went beyond the world ceiling/ glass house bull throwing rocks from a pearl building."
Some honorable mentions:
Ankhlejohn - As Above, So Below
Really dug this album. Ankhlejohn has a flow that fishtails around bars in a way that's often thrilling to hear.
Zagnif Nori - Gemstones series
Nori dropped a slew of releases revolving around a rare gem theme, the style rugged as ever, Ruby was a good one.
Illah Dayz & Bronze Nazareth - Coby
This album dedicated to Illah's departed nephew named Coby dropped a little while after the death of Kobe and gave a pretty powerful elegiac and uplifting soundtrack to a difficult year.
Blu & Exile - Miles: From an Interlude Called Life
Some amazing stuff on this extensive (95-minute) album, a stand out for me was the 8-minute encyclopedic black history lesson on "Roots of Blue."
Your Old Droog - Dump YOD (Krutoy Edition)
This guy has an old-school vibe that's laid back and rugged but funny. He sometimes reminds me of DOOM who he's done a few songs with. I loved the posse cut "Pravda" with Mach-Hommy, El-P, Tha God Fahim and Black Thought. There's a line from Tha God Fahim that sticks in my head because it's kinda hilarious: "I'm mad shout on the buttons until the game break."
Napoleon da Legend - The Stuff of Legend
This guy dropped a bunch of good albums recently. I only learned about him last year but his style is incredible.
Lastly, a couple other hip hop items from the past year stood out to me:
- Nas dropped a new album with a track featuring the Firm including Cormega. This was a huge moment in hip hop history because these two legendary Queensbridge emcees grew up together, were close collaborators in the mid-90s, then had a falling out and a very public beef for a while, so it's great to see them having buried the hatchet and come together on a song. Also, Cormega appeared on Noreaga's "Drink Champs" podcast for a memorable discussion, Mega dropped many gems, told many stories, and also conversed with Nas over FaceTime.
- I think this one kinda flew under the radar but I was pretty struck by it. The RZA did an in-depth interview with Ari Melber, among other things what stood out to me is RZA mentioned he has been working on The Cure, his long-awaited album that diehard fans have been pining for since the late-90s. RZA had always said the album was written, he just needed to find the right music. Well, it sounds like he's finding it, and that's fantastic news.