Hey all, I know it's been a long time since I've last written, but better that I pop in every three months with an okay-ish post rather than waste everyone's time with filler, right? This has been a difficult semester, as between working, playing music, and battling whackness in its several manifestations, keeping up with new music wasn't high on my list of priorities. Also, there weren't any hip-hop shows I could make my way to after seeing GZA, though I had some transcendent live experiences after thanks to O'Death and Ponytail. All this isn't to say that there haven't been songs I've heard this year that haven't left an impression on me, just that I won't front and present some master list of 2008's best songs. Instead, I'll present a brief list of songs both old and new that I've had the good luck of discovering, with a focus on new songs that I feel have been unfairly ignored by most top lists I've read.
Pharoahe Monch f. M.O.P - No Mercy
The most memorable rap song of the past few months for me is incidentally one that came out 9 years ago. I don't really know how to begin here, there are so many things that come together to make this into THE perfect hardcore battle rap track. Everything about it is overdone. The string part The Alchemist samples, when slowed down, sounds like it was originally written to be played as the Four Horsement are being summoned to Earth, and they're punctuated by these baritone horn blasts and timpani strikes that just add to track's franticness. Monch spits some of the most straightforwardly "hard" battle rhymes of his career, chock full of the multi rhyme patterns that have endeared him to rap nerds since his beginnings with Organized Konfusion. It is M.O.P, however, who are the real showstealers here. "Why are they yelling at me?" is the question my roommate asked when he heard Lil' Fame and Billy Danze doing their thing; but Paul, that's the entire point of the song! None of their punchlines are particularly impressive ("I got kick like Tae Kwon Do"?), but they spit like your life's at stake if you ignore them, and both of them have moments where they grab your attention by approximating machine gun fire. At the end, the beat rides on for a minute as the three cackle menacingly in the background, but I think it's also that they're laughing at how ridiculous the preceding 4 minute affair really was. They were having fun, and managed to escape the self-seriousness that makes 99% of hardcore undie rap tedious to listen to.
Nomo - Rings
This is one of those pieces that speak far better for themselves than any person really could, though this guy does a pretty good job explaining what Nomo is doing on Ghost Rock."Rings" is a fitting title for the song, as it's arranged so that each layer of instrumentation is introduced in order. The song reaches its apex with a great saxaphone solo (and eventually duet), and then each layer is removed in reverse order. It's incredible how they are able to draw such obvious inspiration from Fela Kuti while being so original.
Black Milk f. Royce Da 5'9 - Losing Out
I don't get how anybody can dismiss Black Milk as being some sort of boring, derivative boom-bap producer after listening to Tronic. While he is a skilled producer all around, his drums are really what draw me in; his percussion patterns are some of the most complex that I've heard. His flow also serves to complement, rather than distract from, his outstanding production work, something that can't be said for most producer-rappers. "Losing Out" is a great example of this, as he and Royce ride smoothly over a cymbal-driven groove supported by some crazy vocal sample in the background.
Jean Grae - My Story (Prod. 9th Wonder)
After Shapeshifters, Jeanius would most likely get my vote for most slept on album of 2008 (notice that both of these albums were crafted by female MCs... coincidence?). Although I saw it mentioned fleetingly by some during the summer, it seems to have largely (aside from this great review) escaped the critical consciousness of the Internets. This really shouldn't be the case. For one, of all the albums 9th Wonder has fully produced, Jeanius may contain his most consistently great set of beats yet. Although he is still mainly relying on soul samples and his drums still aren't crazy or whatever, I feel he does a great job varying each track's mood to suit Jean's subject matter. Jean's MCing is in peak shape as always, but there have always been complaints about her allegedly montoone and emotionless delivery. "My Story" should put these weak criticisms to rest, as she tells an intensely personal story about her struggles with abortion, faith, and family. She grabs your heart in a way that few artists, regardless of genre, ever manage to, and I'm disappointed that she hasn't gotten the acknowledgment she deserves for being brave enough to commit something like this to wax.
CYNE - Radiant Cool Boy
We needed a song like this in 2008. A rallying cry against the vacuous cynicism, "ironic" consumerism, and cultural misappropriation AS WELL as the self-congratulatory progressive worldview that has so characterized my generation. It also helps that the drums here smash something wonderful. The rest of the album is great, too, and I'd highly recommend you cop it. I'll provide yet another link (I really enjoy sharing the great work of others) to a great essay that tries to grapple with these themes.
Invincible f. Finale - Locusts (Docu-Music Video)
I've referenced this before during the summer, but it bears mentioning again. This is a moving testament to the ills of gentrification. At 10 minutes it is not overlong, and there is enough brilliant rapping interspersed between footage of Detroit and local residents to keep the impatient seated. Check for the rest of Shapeshifters if you can.
Young Jeezy - Word Play
So I may have just lost all credibility with my one backpacker reader out there, but so it goes. There's been a lot of talk about "My President" and "Put On," but it was the one-two combination of "Circulate" and "Word Play" that really grabbed me by the throat on The Recession. I love how playfully Jeezy shits on the critics who paint him stupid or whack because he isn't "lyrical" while stepping up his "lyrical" abilities. If he were angry, this song probably wouldn't have worked.
The Game f. DMX - Intro
Because this is perhaps the greatest arbitrary rap intro ever. Disagree? Well, then I rebuke you in the name of Jesus.
Pacewon and Mr. Green - Children Sing
Love the sample.
J-Live - It Don't Stop
Probably my favorite post-HHID "but hip-hop isn't dead yet!" anthem. A little corny, but I've always been a fan of J-Live's production and the energy he brings to the microphone.
Damu the Fudgemunk - Pulse Remix
I couldn't have left Damu out, especially when he blessed us with TWO great, free LPs this year, in Spare Time and Overtime. He's one of the most talented beatsmiths on the come up, and most likely my favorite. While drawing a lot upon the Golden Age jazzy boom-bap of yesteryear, Damu manages to make his music sound warmly familiar, and not boringly recycled. This is a remix of the original song "Pulse" by a wonderful group called Panacea, but as good as the original is, I prefer this version by leaps and bounds.
Nas - Queens Get The Money
I've defended Untitled enough. Though I like "Queens Get The Money" even more now than I did then.
Wale - The Artistic Integrity
I would've gone with "The Kramer" instead, but many others have already spoken to the great job Wale does in deconstructing the n-word on there, so I opted to go with this off of his fantastic Seinfeld themed The Mixtape About Nothing. He speaks on devouring lemons, life's being unfairly compared to Lupe and just about every other rapper, and being abandoned and raised by Nas. I can dig.
G-Side - G S I D E R
I have yet to fully absorb Starshipz and Rocketz, and this is very likely not the best song on the album, but tell me the combination of the emcees' slow, southern drawls, the rolling drums, the strings that sound straight out of an old Western flick, and spacey synths doesn't make you want to curl into a ball of joy. The production on every other song I've heard is also nothing short of superb. I can't even type as I listen to this.
People Under The Stairs - The Grind
PUTS quietly dropped one of the best albums of the year in Fun DMC. I would've rather put up the track "Gamin' On Ya" in which Thes flips what I assume to be an old NES sample to great success, but I couldn't find it. Still, "The Grind" is a great example of the relaxed, funky style that PUTS has gotten better at with each release.
GZA - 0% Finance
Talking about quietly dropped albums, whatever the hell happened with Pro Tools? Surprisingly few seemed to care about it, but I guess GZA didn't help by largely failing to perform any tracks off of it during his tour. In any case, GZA maintains the high caliber of writing that he's known for throughout the LP, and "0% Finance" is the most obvious example of how. Given that GZA has previously written conceptual narratives using the names of record labels, animals, and football teams, is his channeling of the auto industry to do the same thing a bit gimmicky at this point? Probably yes, but who cares? Who else could actually pull this off? In a sense, "0% Finance" is this year's antithesis to "A Milli." GZA also goes off on a 4 minute apparently stream-of-consciousness tangent, but GZA's manages to be extremely well-constructed, completely undanceable, and yet fun to listen to (not as fun as "A Milli," granted). I'd label it superior to all his own aforementioned concept tracks, perhaps save "Labels." Good work GZA, you've redeemed yourself somewhat.
Quarteto em Cy (with the Tamba Trio) - Imagem
Kinda random, but too beautiful for me not to include. Quarteto em Cy was originally a vocal group of four sisters from Brazil that was active in the bossa scene of the 60s. They still exist today, but their lineup has changed considerably with time. Anyhow, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon this gem of a group (originally consisting of four sisters named a few years ago on last.fm, and this review reminded me to check out more of their catalogue. If you have even the slightest preference for bossa nova, you will fall in love with this album and this. This isn't even my favorite song of theirs, but this was all I could find on YouTube. As listening to sublimely beautiful vocal harmonizing goes, you can do no better than Quarteto em Cy.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and I excluded most songs I've really liked that have appeared on most other lists, but if I want to include any more, I should probably do so in a second post. Thanks for reading, and happy holidays all.