When I requested to do the list for the Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of 2012 for the LA Music Blog, I don’t think I quite realized just exactly what I was getting myself into. After seeing the hip-hop albums that made our collective Top 50 Albums of 2012 list, I immediately saw controversy and pictured my fellow staff writers stoning me for my choices, but then I realized that’s the beauty of music. There will never be a definitive Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of 2012 list; one man’s #1 may not even be ranked on another man’s list.
As you go down this list, making your way to my #1 album, you may notice the absence of some albums that cause you to think I’m crazy to have not included, and I feel like out of respect to the website and to my fellow writers, I should at least explain the one album that didn’t make my Top 10 but did make the staff’s Top 2.
My not including Kendrick Lamar’s new album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, is not intended to be a slap in the face to anyone. It’s a great album, and I recognize the talent, but at this point, I don’t agree with the level of acclaim his work is receiving. To me, it’s like comparing James after one championship to MJ — let’s wait until he has 6 rings before we start comparing him to the greatest ever.
That being said, I don’t think negatively of anyone that would put him in their Top 10. There are no right or wrong selections here, only opinions, and that, my friends, is a wonderful thing.
10. Rick Ross – God Forgives, I Don’t
Rick Ross came hard as a neck tattoo this year with his new album, God Forgives, I Don’t, via Mercury. The album is what I believe to be his best since his debut, Port of Miami, and it has some of the best production and arrangements of his career. The album features some of the best guest appearances of his career as well, with Dr. Dre, Jay Z, and Andrew 3000 contributing verses. This is one of the best commercial hip-hop albums I have heard in a few years, and it definitely silences critics that were saying Rick Ross had fallen off.
9. Sean Price – Mic Tyson
Having lived in Brooklyn for a few years, I have a certain affinity for music groups that come from the area, and Sean Price was a part of one of the most underated groups to come from BK, Boot Camp Clik. Since 2005 he has been releasing solo albums and has since become one of my favorite emcees. His ability to rap about raw and in-your-face situations while using a flow that is as smooth as silk with hints of minimalism is not something that you find in your everyday emcee. Mic Tyson is an album that transcends traditional hip-hop production techniques and cultivates a vibe that nobody else really had this year.
8. Gangrene – Vodka & Ayahuasca
So by now most of you know that if an album has a drug listed in the title, I am probably going to listen to it. It just so happened that, with this album, it paid off. In 2010, West Coast producers/rappers The Alchemist and Oh No teamed up and dropped what was arguably my favorite hip-hop album of the year, Gutter Water. This year they got back together and released another amazing record, Vodka & Ayahuasca.
To me these guys are the future of the West Coast sound. Their style is original, not really trying to copy the past as much as they are attempting to move on from it, and they sound like they have been around forever because that’s how hard people have bit their style in the past three years. If these guys ever decided to permanently team up and start releasing records like Gutter Water and Vodka and Ayahuasca every year, we are in for a serious threat, but for now I’ll be happy with these two.
7. Obie Trice – Bottoms Up
It’s been 9 years since Obie’s critically acclaimed debut album, Cheers, was unleashed on the hip-hop scene. I remember playing the CD so much that it wore out and eventually cracked, leaving me a hobbled mess, so when I heard that, six years after the release of his last album, Obie Trice was releasing a new album in 2012, I was excited to say the least.
Bottoms Up doesn’t quite live up to the level of Cheers, but its consistency and Obie’s vocal direction are stellar nonetheless, and for the first time in his career, it really seems like Obie is trying to say something different. You can tell he is taking extra time and really putting thought into the flow and purpose of his words. With no wasted syllables and very little filler, Bottoms Up will leave you bobbin’ your head long after it’s over.
6. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
El-P has been quietly stepping into the realm of eliteness for quite some time now, but this year he stopped stepping and took a giant leap. Not only did he produce arguably one of the best hip-hop albums of the year in Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, but he also found time to release his own stunningly amazing LP, Cancer 4 Cure. Where does this guy find the time to run one of the best independent hip-hop labels in America (Definitive Jux) and be the trendsetter in the underground hip-hop scene?
I could personally take or leave El-P’s lyrics, and his flow is marginally better than most underground emcees, but what really sets him apart from anyone else at this time in hip hop is his knack for incredible production. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see EL-P producing some big-name albums next year due to his work in 2012, and I can’t wait to have his flavor on some mainstream releases.
5. Oh No – Ohnomite
Oxnard, CA rapper/producer Oh No is signed to Stones Throw Records, the younger brother of infamous underground producer Madlib, and one half of the previously mentioned Gangrene collaboration that has already made the list once. His album OhNoMite came out this year and surprised the hell out of me. It features guest appearances by some of my favorite New Age emcees, and the production is Roots-meets-Madlib. Yes, that is exactly as amazing as it sounds.
The entire album is based on samples from Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite soundtrack and gives an admiring nod to one of the most famous blaxploitation characters ever. If the concept isn’t enough, the execution is perfect, and that’s why OhNoMite comes in at #5 on my list of the Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of 2012.
4. Masta Ace – MA_DOOM: Son Of Yvonne
Even with one of the most consistent discographies in hip hop and a boatload of mainstream artists dropping his name as an influence on their music, Masta Ace continues to be one of the most underrated emcees of any generation, but if you asked me, I couldn’t tell you why. His lyrics are thoughtful and passionate, his flow is imaginative, and even his stuff from the early ’90s doesn’t sound completely dated — actually, songs like “Born To Roll” sound like the new-school NY underground stuff. So what you end up with is an emcee that has been trendsetting for the past two decades plus and not getting fat off the cow, staying hungry, working to elevate his game with every release, and never being satisfied.
This year Masta Ace dropped another diamond in the rough with MA_Doom: Son of Yvonne via M3 Records. The album is Masta Ace’s fourth solo studio effort, and the beats are taken from the Special Herbs series of instrumental mixtapes by MF DOOM. It’s a concept album dedicated to Ace’s departed mother and loosely follows his upbringing in Brooklyn. My personal high moment for the album has to be “Think I Am,” which features MF DOOM and the legendary Big Daddy Kane himself. MA_Doom: Son of Yvonne is a great combination of two really uniquely gifted minds in hip hop, and it works like magic, only with less smoke and mirrors and more white tigers.
3. The Alchemist – Russian Roulette
Now onto a man that has been all over this list before we even talked about what I believe to be his crown jewel of 2012, Russian Roulette via Decon. This guy is the epitome of what the new West Coast sound should be, or he has at the very least created his own wacked out version of the West Coast style with almost two decades of hard work, countless producer credits and collaborations, and a pioneering attitude towards experimentation. He has been quietly producing tracks for some of the hottest artists in hip hop for years, but since the release of his second LP, Chemical Warfare, The Alchemist has been slowly gaining the recognition he deserves.
Russian Roulette is kind of like 2001: A Space Odyssey if 2001 was Russian and on DMT instead of acid, and an album instead of a movie — so really not anything like it at all, but it is trippy and involves space-themed imagery. The album features many samples from old Russian folk songs and gives me the same vibe that reading an old-school espionage comic would. Both the musical and vocal samples are used beautifully, and the album reaches a level that not a lot of hip-hop albums have dared to shoot for, let alone achieve.
The Alchemist has sought to utilize a concept that transcends the hip-hop genre while still obeying the rules of the style, and he has successfully accomplished his task. Russian Roulette is a product of hands down one of the best producers since the likes of Dilla; hopefully it doesn’t take the artist’s untimely death for people to recognize it.
2. Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors
Every now and then even an artist that you are extremely familiar with manages to surprise you in a big way, and that is exactly what Big Boi has done with this album. Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors incorporates such an eclectic mix of modern genres and subgenres that they end up taking the album to an entirely different level production-wise than any other hip-hop album I have heard this year.
Most would expect Big Boi to follow-up his commercially successful solo debut with something relatively safe, something that sounded like Big Boi, but he has done the complete opposite with Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, instead opting to create by far one of the most diverse records of the year while still managing to make it sound easy! The album features Little Dragon, Kelly Rowland, A$AP Rocky, T.I., Ludacris, Sleepy Brown, and even West Coast psych-rockers Wavves, and by the end of the record, you’re not sure what you just listened to. It could have been a hip-hop record just as easily as an album from a new indie-electro group fashioned after the Gorillaz.
Another reason I really like this record and rated it so high on my list is I really feel like this album is one of Big Boi’s more personal records as far as lyrical content goes. Not only do I believe it is the first time he references Andre in his music since the hiatus, but the personal nature of songs like “She Hates Me” and “Tremendous Pressure” are unprecedented in his career. It’s the first time I have seen Big Boi open up and fully lay down his pimp shield, and you know what? The dude’s got some soul.
1. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Well, here we are. You suffered all the way down my list, and you have made your way to my #1. Before I get into my thoughts about the music, I will say that I had no second thoughts about where to put this album. To me, it’s an instant classic, and if we rated albums here at LA Music Blog, it would get a perfect score from me.
Killer Mike has long had one of the sickest flows in hip hop, but he never had a producer that could craft songs that would hold his immense presence. In 2012 that problem would be solved in a very big way. Enter El-P, and exit R.A.P. Music. El-P blended his passion for experimenting so perfectly with Mike’s Southern charm that it clicked immediately, and together they created a sound that nobody else could begin to touch this year.
The album manages to come off grimy and hard while still being educated and passionate. El-P’s production techniques and how they flow so organically in non-traditional hip-hop arrangements while playing off Killer Mike’s ability to tell stories and sculpt narratives is an amazing thing to behold. Everything from the music to the lyrical content is unparalleled in 2012. It’s a mix of North meets South, East meets West, politics meets ‘hood, and all of this without even sounding like they are breaking a sweat.