The State of the (Rap) Union (So Far)

It’s been a tough year for mainstream rap music. For the first six months of the year, the only rappers making certifiable hits were Drake, Iggy Azalea and whoever could afford a DJ Mustard beat. The genre’s old guard — Jay Z, Kanye West, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne — has mostly kept quiet. And many leaders of the new school — Young Thug, Nicki Minaj, Meek Mill, Lil Durk — remain in limbo with their record labels.

It wasn’t until August that a handful of upcoming rappers began landing on the Billboard charts, Spotify and iTunes top lists, pop radio and whatever else constitutes “mainstream” music curation in this age of fractured taste.

But the general lack of major label rap singles and albums is not a sign of rap’s impending death. It is a symptom of broad changes in how music is consumed. Rap has always been a singles-oriented genre. But in the mid-90s, acts like Nas and Outkast set the precedent for the full-length album as artistic statement: a thematically coherent package meant to be consumed whole. An ambitious few have carried the template into the 2010s, like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.

Nevertheless, artistic statements released on major labels are not the norm. In the early and mid-2000s, artists like Cam’ron and Lil Wayne set a new precedent by flooding the Internet with free singles and mixtapes. Tons of rappers have since embraced this strategy and turned the free mixtape into the genre’s most reliable form.

Today, upcoming artists like Young Thug and Migos have built their reputations on just three or four singles. Frustratingly, both of these artists still have to bypass a major label system which has no faith in gangster rap if they ever want to release a retail album. But thankfully, the major label system proves less essential to an artist’s success and longevity with each passing year.

Newcomers which cut through the clutter of the Internet can make money off tours, endorsements, features and even tweets. This is the democratizing power of the online music circuit. It isn’t perfect. Rappers still need corporate support, and making a living off album and single sales alone is now nearly impossible. But, the Internet gives rise to 20 or 30 exciting new artists every year. As a result, even as the major labels push culture-vultures like Iggy Azalea to the public, local talents like Rich Homie Quan and Migos can become bona fide stars without label assistance.

In an effort to organize the clutter of rap on the Internet, here’s a list of rap albums and singles worth hearing from 2014.

1. YG - “My Krazy Life”:

On “My Krazy Life,” YG gives a taut rendition of rap’s oldest tale: a well-intentioned young man trying to navigate the world of trouble he inherits. DJ Mustard — whose sound defined mainstream rap in 2014 — makes the set pieces crackle, and YG makes them cohere.

2. Migos - “No Label II”:

“Turn on your radio, you gon’ hear every rapper tryna rap like the Migos.” This line, from the first song on “No Label II,” is not an exaggeration. Migos — the trio of Atlanta rappers Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff — have a handful of signature cadences everyone from Drake to Jay Z has borrowed in the past year. Cadence, or “flow,” is rarely discussed outside of rap nerd circles, but even a rap novice can appreciate the displays of vocal agility on “No Label II.” With a songwriting style which prizes rhythm and repetition, Migos recount their journey from crack houses to French fashion shows, never forgetting their beginnings and frequently thanking their moms.

3. Isaiah Rashad - “Cilvia Demo”:

In his writing, Isaiah Rashad paints himself as a young man tormented by his drug habits and skeptical about the endurance of familial and romantic love. His verses convey an obsession with the fleeting nature of pleasure. Rashad plays the afflicted poet convincingly, and the wordy soliloquies on “Cilvia Demo” are enriched by his husky voice and ear for subdued melody. Top Dawg Entertainment’s gifted group of producers lace Rashad with a slew of meditative beats, and he uses them to conjure a world where to be young is to be sad and to be high.

4. Kevin Gates - “By Any Means”:

No current rapper has a voice better suited to communicate pain than Kevin Gates. On “By Any Means,” he recounts his beleaguered rise from poverty with a vocal intensity which suggests his words are hurting him as they come out of his throat. He rattles off linear narratives of crime and betrayal which build to enormous choruses, pioneering a new style of street rap where the scale is grand and the content is grave.

5. Shy Glizzy - “Young Jefe”:

Southeast DC-native Shy Glizzy’s bullying humor and callous attitude lands him in the lineage of great crime rappers like 50 Cent and Gucci Mane. And like those rappers, his cocky posturing belies a gift for phrasing. Despite his playful timbre, his couplets scan serious: “My young n***** on drugs/ They don’t really get no love/ For an eight-ball and some dubs/ They’ll send your ass flying with the doves.”

6. Lil Herb - “Welcome to Fazoland”:

Gang related shootouts are so common in Southside Chicago that young residents have dubbed the area “Chiraq.” Nineteen-year-old Herbert Wright is no stranger to this violence. His first mixtape, “Welcome to Fazoland,” is named for a friend who died when Herb was 15, and his upcoming mixtape, “Ballin’ Like I’m Kobe,” is dedicated to a young man whom Herb witnessed bleed out last year. This context informs his art. Herb is a writer of two minds. He stands on the corner and watches it regretfully from above. He believes the only prospects for a black kid in Southside are crime and rap. So he raps about crime in rigorous detail over bombastic 808 drums and sad soul-beats, hoping against hope his tragic behavior will yield enough to move his family out of the ghetto.

7. Rich Gang - “Tha Tour (Pt. 1)”:

Rich Gang is the duo of Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan. Birdman, the Cash Money label boss who brought the world Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Drake, assembled this duo and financed their music. In doing so, he united the two most innovative vocal stylists in rap music today. Young Thug, in particular, is unpredictable. He jumps in and out of octaves and cadences like a reggae singer channeling Lil Wayne. And he has chemistry with the equally bizarre Rich Homie Quan, who provides harmonies in a full-throated, heavily filtered Atlanta drawl. Both of these young men are stars in the making. On “Tha Tour,” they turn 20 conventional beats into a seminar on unconventional rapping.

8. Yung Simmie - “Shut Up & Vibe 2”:

Yung Simmie is a 20 year-old Miami rapper who makes one type of song: the catchphrase oriented banger. He picks a word or phrase (“Fancy,” “Hit A Lick,” “No English,” “Paris,”) and uses it as the conceptual framework for a series of droll punchlines about hedonism and delinquency. Simmie’s youthful voice and goofy wit undermine the menacing production on “Shut Up & Vibe 2.” He comes off as a knucklehead in the most endearing sense.

9. Kool AD - “Word O.K.”:

Kool AD is an Afro-Cuban multimedia artist whose musical career kicked off with the academically inclined duo Das Racist. His raps read like the disjointed thoughts of a stoned world systems theorist. When scrutinized, the verses on “Word O.K.” reveal a man trying to reconcile a humanist outlook with the exploitative nature of the globalized economy. Through studied open-mindedness and self-deprecating wit, Kool AD establishes himself as an artist who can provoke thought and promote love without patronizing.

10. Mac Miller - “Faces”:

Mac Miller has had an improbable career arc. He began as a suburban interloper rapping about the comforts of middle-class whiteness over traditional drum breaks. Now he’s collaborating with and often upstaging esteemed genre virtuosos like Rick Ross and Vince Staples. Despite his newfound acceptance in the rap community, Miller is depressed. “Faces” is essentially a concept album about the lonely agonies of fame and drug addiction. Over rich, gauzy self-productions, Miller punctuates his whimsical metaphors and non-sequiturs with bursts of self-loathing and remorse. The result is a moving cautionary tale about the emotional tolls of excess.

10 Rap Songs for 2014:

  1. Bobby Shmurda: “Hot N****”
  2. Young Thug, Freddie Gibbs & A$AP Ferg: “Old English”
  3. Meek Mill featuring Lil Durk & Shy Glizzy: “Chiraq”
  4. Rae Sremmurd: “No Flex Zone!”
  5. Drake: “0 to 100/The Catch Up”
  6. A$AP Rocky featuring Juicy J: “Multiply”
  7. Juicy J featuring Young Thug, Nicki Minaj, & Lil Bibby: “Low”
  8. Lil Durk: “Try Me (Remix)”
  9. Chance The Rapper & The Social Experiment: “No Better Blues”
  10. Lil B: “No Black Person Is Ugly”

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