This year was another where great music was produced in excess of the limited listening hours at hand so, in this year-end list of sorts, Word Is Bond’s review team (DJ AFOS, Matticus Finch, Hardeep and Paddy) catch-up on the great albums they didn’t get around to reviewing.
DJ AFOS: I was going to call Hieroglyphics the Avengers of Bay Area hip-hop due to their stature, but off the battlefield, the Avengers want little to do with each other. The Hieros are more like Johnnie To’s The Mission: the Mission bodyguards are the opposite of dysfunctional, whether during militarily precise gunfights or kicking around a paper ball in an office waiting room for fun. Joined by Sacramento’s Sleeprockers DJ crew (extra points for the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Gianni Ferrio samples) on their first album in 10 years, the Hieros haven’t lost a step and their Mission-like chemistry is as strong as ever.
DJ AFOS: ”Footnote: Kendrick ain’t mention no females! Rapsody, we gotta change that!,” says DJ Drama during the Raleigh spitter’s 2013 mixtape. With bangers like “Lonely Thoughts,” which features a laugh-out-loud funny guest verse by Chance the Rapper, and the Dark Knight Rises-inspired “Dark Knights,” which has Rapsody and Wale dropping the nerdiest Batman references outside of nerdcore, Rapsody proves she belongs on Kendrick’s infamous “Control” list of the game’s most skilled MCs. “Jedi Code” (featuring Phonte and Jay Electronica) is a joint I can’t stop replaying, thanks mostly to a bizarre yodeling sample courtesy of 9th Wonder.
DJ AFOS: After the G-Funk era ended, Snoop Dogg has made some decent pop records, as well as lots of disposable ones that were born to be needle-dropped into an ABC Family original show (Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”). But now he’s found an ideal partner in L.A. funk wizard Dām-Funk, in what has to be the first Snoop project that’s captivated my ears since his Neptunes phase. At less than 40 minutes (the dopest cut other than “Faden Away” is “Do My Thang”), 7 Days of Funk is a lean head-nodder that leaves you wanting more from Dām and Snoop without making you feel devoid of the funk.
Matticus Finch: By now, Black Milk has established himself as Detroit’s producer laureate, carving his name in Detroit’s rugged soundscape with trademark blends of soul and electronica. In a sense, he is Detroit’s latter-day Dilla, a well-connected producer who happens to rap but excels most at producing technically impeccable boom-bap. No Poison No Paradise is Milk’s most adventurous album yet. It’s a loosely organized (emphasis on “loosely”) concept album which chronicles the urban upbringing of “Sonny”, a thinly veiled fictional representation of Black Milk himself. It’s by far his best lyrical effort, too—Milk demonstrates his capacity as a storyteller, along with a refreshing vulnerability which makes his story seem all the more authentic.
Matticus Finch: R.A.’s career started way back in ’89, but Legends Never Die, released in April, is only his second full-length LP. Now, rapidly approaching 40 (or 60, we can never be too sure with R.A.), he’s absolutely murdering beats. Sometimes, he just suffocates them—“Definition of a Rap Flow” overwhelms with its density and internal rhyme. He somehow occupies the spaces between his words with…more words. “Learn Truth” exposes malfeasances in popular religion and the ugly truths of imperialism. “Shoot Me in the Head” is R.A. at his most irreverent, featuring a wildly self-deprecating hook sung in a madrigal style: “I’m a piece of shit, I’m a fucking fat fuck/Shoot me in the head, shoot me in the head”. He’s comfortable talking about anything, and he’s staging a vigilante attack against fake rappers and industry bullshit.
Matticus Finch: “They made a list of Chicago rappers and they skipped me! Maybe ‘cause I’m so much more” Vic raps on “Orange Soda”. It’s a well-founded affirmation—the former frontman of Kids These Days has an ear for music that distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries (Chief Keef, anyone?). As evinced by the song’s music video, Vic and Chance the Rapper are homies with similar styles, but Vic wants to be his own show. Overall, he’s a slightly more polished lyricist than Chance and he has better voice control than Chance. Innanetape is Vic’s claim to originality, a mixtape that traverses genres, moods and geographic areas.
Hardeep: Turntablist brothers Matt and Trevor Chan have been maintaining an auditory output you can set your watch to for some time. I first caught their work through the many remixes up on their Soundcloud which saw golden-era classics go face first into choice heavy funk jams; straight alchemy, including this one that I talked in some length about. With Lola, their first foray into original production work, we get a glimpse into the genetic structure of their sound which they frequently splice for their remixes; rock solid break beats, and super sharp cutting and scratching that would get the most seasoned bboys forming circles, and the most gravel-voiced emcee’s like Mr. Lif signing up for rhyme duty.
Hardeep: For many of us, Damu started to increasingly occupy our hard drive space around 2008/2009 with his digital releases Spare Time and Overtime; two instrumental joints that followed his work with Panacea and Insight, and saw him progress further towards his modern day renaissance-man status. Their long-awaited release on long playing microgrooves has now arrived with this combined and re-inspired record. Featuring only the instrumental tracks, its a solid display of Damu’s considered beat science and instrumentation sampling. Fan favourites like ‘Colorful Stoms’, here ‘Picturesque Storms’, are re-jigged but retain their core character, in this instance the blossoming harp arrangement (check if you dig that sound). It’s a faultless embodiment of the East Coast sound perfect for these brisk winn’a-time days.
Hardeep: The Soundsci crew are true vanguards of the boom-bap. Their EP from earlier this year had each on their A-Game with tough rhymes and beats that’ll remind many why they love Hip-Hop. Tracks like the titular ‘The Ultimate’ and ‘Rhyme 4 Rhyme’ are out-and-out lyrical onslaughts with highly kinetic production backing them, with the latter having a remix by DJ Format, whilst more mellow offerings like ‘Ill Dialect’ feature the remix treatment of another legendary deejay in Spinna. Plus, “the slang be that dang-a-da-dang like Bas Rutten” might just be the most chuckle-inducing line this year.
Paddy: Freedom Writers are a collective of emcees from Canada who share a love for hip-hop with a potent message. It’s easy to dismiss an album like this as run of the mill ”conscious hip-hop”, but to do so would be to miss out on a genuinely engaging and insightful project. First and foremost everybody in this crew can rap, there’s no hype surrounding this LP which means that the album relies on the talent of the emcees on show. At 17 tracks every verse is rapped with a refreshing consistency. I was hooked from track two which features one of my favourite emcees in Ian Kamau, who delivers a memorable chorus full of poetic gems. There is great chemistry between the numerous artists contributing to this project and collectively they create a mature mixture of sounds. The production on the album is handled by Big Sproxx who understands how to craft a real hip-hop LP. Having trawlled through many albums in 2013 that claim to boast “experimental” hip-hop beats, I was happy to hear somebody return to the fundamentals. These beats are jazzy, soulful and made to highlight the lyrical ability of the emcees Theo 3, Tona, Adam Bomb, Frankie Payne and Progress.
Paddy: 7 G.E.M.S. are made up of Tragic Allies and Tragedy Khadafi. Tragedy had a lot of buzz in the 90′s as the Intelligent Hoodlum and he’s continuing on that legacy with his lyrics here. These songs are delivered with real passion by the emcees involved and have a classic feel to them. Topics range from revolution to the cosmos and everything in between making for an entertaining listen. There’s plenty of hardcore and gritty lyricism on show with philosophical elements and it’s very easy to get immersed in the World of 7 G.E.M.S. Golden Era Music Science is Wu-Tang inspired with plenty of 5 Percent-er style teachings, there’s even a guest feature from Wu affiliate Killah Priest who’s been on fire this year in general. The beats take it back to the boom bap era and incorporate some clever samples that provide the perfect backdrop to the vivid pictures 7 G.E.M.S are excellent at painting. It’s one of those albums, that if you put it on in the company of others, most people will want to know who your playing. If everybody put as much effort into their lyrics, hip-hop would be thriving right now.
Paddy: John Robinson has one of the most distinct voices in hip-hop right now. He’s an emcee that dosn’t really make bad songs, rather he makes consistenly good songs and many great ones. His style is refreshing and he sounds like a wise elder of the underground. MF DOOM collaborated with him at length and with albums like this it’s easy to see why. Robinson is full of quotables and laces each track with meaningful hip-hop. Further adding to the greatness is Kyo Itachi, who provides beautiful instrumentals that are as soothing as they are head nodding. The one producer – one emcee format is still alive and kicking with The Path Of Mastery, and the songs on here showcase why it’s such a much missed style of production.