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cyphers

No, not:

scyther

 

Cyphers are wonderful things where a bunch of rappers rap on a rap song.

A couple of decent albums dropped in the past few weeks: A$AP Rocky’s Long Live A$AP and Pro Era’s Peep the Aprocalypse. The former leaked and the latter was released as a free download. There’s a lot of gold on them, but the cyphers stood out to me. So many raps.

 

 

1Train one hell of a posse cut (synonymous with scyther). But as random as the gathering seems, it was never random in Rocky’s eyes. “I really wanted to take it back to the essence of the ’90s; it was the generation of the underground. Even though I have a lot of mainstream appeal, I come from the underground, and I just wanted to give back to that. That’s why I was really strategic on who I picked to be in the line-up… with Joey Bada$$ and Action Bronson and Danny Brown, they’re from the underground. Yelawolf, he’s really underrated if you ask me. I think he’s one of the best lyricists of our day. I feel like everybody on that track has a value in our generation.”

Whether or not you agree with Rocky’s assessment, you have to feel the level of talent crammed into the song. The beat (by Hit-Boy, the dude who produced Goldie) is smooth. I think I could hear people freestyle over it for hours and not get sick of it. And I almost wish that were the case here. 6:13 for seven talented rappers? I wouldn’t have any issue if the song were twice as long. As great as the song is, I feel a bit frustrated at how short the verses are (a 45-second Kendrick feature?), and the overlapping thing. Oldie a posse cut (and my favourite song of 2012), and I loved the heavier beat that broke up the verses. But this is/is gonna be the third single from the album, so maybe Rocky was just trying to keep things as tight as possible.

And for the record, I thought Action Bronson worked the beat best. Although I was really excited to hear Joey on this. And I love the music of everyone on this song, so I was just glad to hear them all together, doing their thing. Big, happy family!

 

 

After a few listens, my favourites on the Pro Era tape were The Renaissance and Last Cypher. And the latter’s got 8 people on it- one more than 1Train. Suspect, and even bigger Pro Era posse-cut off of Joey’s 1999 tape, has grown into one of my favourite songs on the album. And this one is just as good, although I don’t like Joey’s verse quite as much ( his Suspect verse has got to be one of the best verses on 1999 but).

Also, if you’re a fan of freestyles, or 20-minute videos, here’s a freestyle session three of the Pro Era dudes did at Hot 97: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xd9n-dTcU-4   Joey is nuts. He sounds like he could freestyle without pause for the rest of time.

On a sad note though, Last Cypher finishes (and so the album finishes, as it starts) with a Captain STEEZ verse, who died a few days after the tape dropped. As a 19 year old. Details haven’t been released yet, but no matter how it happened it’s incredibly sad. He was a talented kid who could’ve gone a long way. Dude will be missed.

 

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the12of12

It’s time again for my favourite songs of the year. I’ve been plowing through every song that might have been distantly related to Papa Quality for the last few days, and I think I’ve sufficiently plumbed the depths of the year to rubber stamp these 12. So sweetness. Onward we go!

 

12. Kendrick Lamar – Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst

Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was tank, and many considered it an instant classic. But I only feel comfortable saying I love two, or maybe three, of the songs on it. Maybe I just find a lot of it easier to respect than love. But this (with The Art of Peer Pressure a close second) is my favourite on the album. The smoothness and lyrical depth show the immense talent of a kid who’s on route to become one of the lyricists of our generation.

 

11. Supreme Cuts – Whispers in the Dark

Damn. I couldn’t find this song on Youtube, so the link is for Belly, one of  my other favourites from the album. But Whispers in the Dark, the title track of the album, is different altogether. Belly’s dark and moody with a sharp hook, but Whispers is a slow-burner. It’s over 8-minutes long and has a lot of stages to it: in large, from chill to euphoric. The discovery of the production duo of Supreme Cuts was one of my musical high-points of this year, and this song was a large part of why that discovery was so exciting.

 

10. Action Bronson – 9-24-11

Bronsolini had a huge year. Blue Chips, the album this was off, dropped at the start of the year. Then Rare Chandeliers dropped last month. Party Supplies did the production on the former and The Alchemist did the production on the latter. Both were solid, largely consistent albums, and both were free. But this song was my favourite overall. And I know. Bronson makes at least 4 mistakes in the song, and doesn’t seem to care in the slightest, which is sort of less than ideal. But the beat. Probably the best beat I’ve heard this year. And when Bronson isn’t redoing his past four lines, he’s pretty on point too.

 

9. Joey Bada$$ – Hardknock

Mid-year I put Survival Tactics in my favourites, but it’s worn off since. This song grew on me a lot, however. Especially the last verse. To think that a 17-year-old kid wrote “relish fetishes, menaces want the senator’s percentages, if you ain’t prejudice you still a nemesis. Smoking on the Clematis, get open like a present is, now your presence is on the premises for them presidents” is ridiculous. The beat’s old school; oddly like one from the “Pro Era.” But Joey’s writing lyrics that could easily become timeless. He’s blown up since 1999 dropped: he’s been signed to a label, appeared on Jimmy Fallon and gone on tour. So here’s really, really hoping that his major-label debut is as sharp as this.

 

8. Keaton Henson – You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are

It was a bit of a toss-up for this, cause Dear is more of a powerful whole than a one-song standout. But I think this is my favourite.  This album is maybe the most affecting album I’ve ever heard. Henson wrote it in his bedroom after he broke up with his girlfriend, and everything, from the lyrics to the guitar to his voice, are as sad as anything I’ve ever heard. And it’s really hit me personally. I tried to write about my mother’s death a couple of months ago, and this album was the only thing I could think of which had a piercing enough emotion to suit. So over a week or two, every writing session I listened to this album on repeat. And on the final writing session, when I was writing about the last few things I could remember of Mum’s life, I sat in a coffee shop, weeping uncontrollably as I was writing, with sunglasses (luckily) covering some of the tears streaming down my face. I’m not sure any other album could have put me in that place of cathartis.

 

7. Jessie Ware – Taking In Water

Devotion was a good album, and a refreshingly fresh sound of female R&B amidst a wave of dudes innovating the genre. But most thought of three songs as standouts: Wildest Moments, 110% and Sweet Talk. Wildest Moments is easily my second favourite on the album, but Taking in Water hit me immediately as something else, and has stuck with me since. It’s one of the few songs on the album where she lets her voice loose, and the heart in it is huge.

 

6. Physical Therapy – Drone On (Supreme Cuts remix)

They’re in it again. I stumbled across this in a Gorilla Vs Bear monthly mix, and a few days later I described it to a friend as “everything I love in a song, in a song.” Huge percussion, sparkling lyrics, layers of sound that work well together, huge high-points. I still haven’t heard the original song. I don’t really want to (sorry, Physical Therapy, whoever you are). Because it might ruin my enjoyment of this song some. It’s one of the most euphoric things I’ve ever heard, and for once I want to go on that giddying ride with the artist.

 

5. A$AP Rocky – Goldie

This is as close as something gets on this list to a guilty pleasure. Yeah, I know, Rocky isn’t exactly a lyrical genius. “Yes, I’m the sh*t. But tell me, do it stink?” But Rocky’s got something going on that I can’t quite put my finger on. The closest I can get to it is cool. He’s got style. He’s got confidence. He’d probably call it swag. But he’s a master at picking impeccable beats which suit him perfectly. If he ever rapped over an average beat, his mediocrity would be overwhelming. But somehow he always seems to grab the best off the best. And he’s the only guy I’ve heard who can improve on a naked Clams Casino beat. Goldie is, somehow, one of my favourite songs of the year, which only grew on me with many repeated listens.

 

4. Frank Ocean – Pyramids

Channel Orange was one of my most anticipated albums of the year, and it definitely lived up to my expectations. This song was its mammoth. There are a lot of fragments to Pyramids, and they somehow amass as coherent. I love the club-banger Pyramids. I love the moody electronic Pyramids. I love the guitar outro of Pyramids. It does more than anything else on Channel Orange to establish the style and character of Frank’s art, and hence stretches the boundaries of the genre than anything else. Coming from an Odd Future fanboy, it’s one of the 3 best songs anyone from Odd Future has ever made.

 

3. Captain Murphy feat. Earl Sweatshirt – Between Friends

The mystery was fun, but FlyLo is the man. This song emerged out of nowhere for an Adult Swim Singles thing, and immediately everyone wanted to know who this Captain Murphy dude was, why he was rapping with Earl, and why he was so good. But Flying Lotus owned up to it a couple of weeks ago. He produced Between Friends and rapped its second verse (and all the other Captain Murphy songs on Duality), but as he’s want to do, Earl steals the show. It’s the best beat Earl’s ever rapped over, so it’s nice to hear his potential. This was, as far as I know, the first straight hip-hop beat Flying Lotus ever produced, except maybe Mighty Morphin Foreskin. And it’s so flippin’ cool. I can’t wait to hear where he goes from here. It’s easily one of my most-played songs of the year, and I’m not sure any of my love for it has diminished.

 

2. Clams Casino – I’m God

Drool. I’m out of words for this song. Technically, it’s a beat. To be rapped over. But I’m not sure even the combined powers of 2Pac, Biggie, Jay-Z and the entire Wu Tang Clan could do this beat justice. It’s got an Imogen Heap sample sparkling with heaven, and a beat that kicks for the stratosphere. No one makes ’em like Clams, and this is the best thing Clams has ever done.

 

1. Odd Future – Oldie 

This was my mid-year favourite, and here is it still. I’m not sure that it’s even close (aka I’m sure that it’s not close) to the best song of the year. But this is the song that I got the most enjoyment out of. And a large part of it was Earl. This and Chum are the best things he’s done since he got back from Samoa, and they make me really, really want to hear his damn album, which now has a name. Doris. WHERE ARE YOU, DORIS? Some of the other dudes hold their own in Oldie and some don’t. But this is a posse cut (aka a rap family reunion), so everyone has to be here. The beat is amazing and Earl is amazinger. I’ve never heard anyone rap like him, and there’s no reason to think that he isn’t going to get better. “And me? I just spent a year Ferrisin’ and lost a little sanity to show you what hysterics is. Spit til’ the lips meet the bottom of a barrel, so that sterile piss flow remind these niggas where embarrassed is.” Daaaaaaaaaaamn.

 

 

 

If I’m allowed (and I am), there are three honorable mentions I want to throw out:

Ab Soul (feat. Black Hippy) – Black Lip Bastard. When I was originally composing this list, this song was sitting at 13 for a long time, then I decided to make it a top 12, and I tried to find a way to fit it in. But in the end it was the first reserve. It’s a braggadocio-fest, but I love it.

Big Boi (feat. A$AP Rocky & Phantogram)  – Lines. I was waiting for Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours to emerge before I sealed the list. And I’ve given it appropriate time, and Lines is the only song I love off it. But I couldn’t bring myself to put it above Sing About Me, and there was a lingering doubt in my mind about my longevity of enjoyment of it.

Earl Sweatshirt – Chum. I thought two entries in the list was enough, but this probably has the best writing Earl’s ever done. Which is saying a heck of a lot.

 

 

 

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crew love

Hip-hop crews. Posses. The inevitable Wu-Tang comparisons. They’re lovely things. And it seems like there are four standing poised at the moment- Odd Future, Black Hippy, the A$AP Mob, and Pro Era- and any of them could come out on top by the end of the year. If I had to have a guess? Well, I suppose I could spend a little while considering who I’d predict, or most enjoy, to be dominant by year’s end. Yeah, cool.

 

Odd Future

Well-known members: Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, Mellowhype.

 

So far: My love for Odd Future isn’t exactly hidden. But they did used to release a lot more music. At one point they were dropping quality, free albums every few months, if not every few weeks. But this year, in almost nine months, they’ve released Purple, Naked Ladies, OF Tape 2, Channel Orange and No Idols. The first three were studio albums, that cost money to buy. So that’s less good. In terms of quality? Channel Orange is insanely good. But the others are a bit hit-and-miss. No Idols is pretty cool, but Domo just doesn’t have Tyler’s charisma (which is especially apparent when you listen to the title song), or Earl’s lyrical skills. Purple, Naked Ladies was interesting, but not exceptional in any way. And the OF Tape 2 was fragmented, to say the least, but easily their second best release this year.

To come: As you’ll soon see competition’s heavy, so OF’s gonna need more than a release from their resident prodigy of R&B, and a scattered, while good, group album, to come out on top this year. So what’s coming? The thing with OF is that anything is possible at any point. But from what they’ve said, releases sound somewhat set. And the two releases that could sink or swim the whole operation are from the dudes above: Tyler’s Wolf and Earl’s so-far anonymously-named album. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m more excited about Earl’s debut album than I am about any other musical artist or project at current. The kid has the potential to be anything. But both albums could really be either game-changers or ordinary. Both guys have said that these albums are going to be far different to any music they’ve released to this point, and Tyler has identified that there will be more of a jazz-influence, and more of an emphasis on production than in his previous albums. And Earl has tweeted that he is “just trying to make pretty music”, and that he hopes he loses fans who only like him because he “rapped about raping girls when [he] was 15.” Which sounds fair enough to me. Also, Mellowhype (Hodgy Beats and Left Brain) have Numbers dropping next month. But unless they lift their game a lot, it won’t effect much.

Tyler’s Wolf is due in November, and Earl’s album could drop at any time in the near or distant future. Thing is, Tyler hasn’t yet finished Wolf and Earl has finished his album. And he’s apparently started on his second. Now he just has to release it… It could be this year (I really hope so), or it could not. You’ve have to think it probably would though.

And for what it’s worth, here is the only snippet released from either album- 26-seconds of a song called Awkward off Wolf, which Tyler added sneakily into his Summer Camp mix this year. I don’t know why, but it makes me really, really excited to hear the rest of the album.

 

 

 

 

Black Hippy

Well-known members: Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab Soul.

 

So far: Poor Jay Rock. There are only four Black Hippys, and three are “well-known”. Poor Jay Rock… Well, in terms of released material, Black Hippy probably has the most consistent release quality, and the most seen-potential of any of the groups. Kendrick released Section 80 last year, Schoolboy Q released Habits & Contradictions in January and Ab Soul released Control System in May. All three were well-recieved, and launched the three guys (especially Kendrick) into guest appearances aplenty, and hence attention from the right kinds of people. Kendrick was “especially”, not only because he’s had the most guest appearances of anyone (in Black Hippy, or possibly of anyone anywhere), but he also landed a deal for an album with Dr Dre’s Interscope label.

To come: Thing is, the other three members don’t have much coming (as far as I know) by the end of the year, either because they’ve already released their big, studio album this year, or else because they’re Jay Rock. But the one album still to come? good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick. The two (or maybe three) songs that have been heard from it are fire- Swimming Pools (Drank), The Recipe, and Cartoons and Cereal (which was leaked, but hasn’t been confirmed as a GKMC song). Dr Dre’s in charge of operations, and he’s not only one of the best hip-hop producers to ever live (not that he’s producing the album, but still… he’s there), but a perfectionist as well. So if anyone’s gonna push Kendrick, it’s him. And if any young MC has depths of genius to tap, it’s Kendrick.

Below is Swimming Pools (Drank), the most recent single from GKMC. If there’s one thing Kendrick can do it’s write songs about social issues without sounding like a tool. It’s conscious hip-hop, but it’s not “conscious hip-hop”. And if there are two things Kendrick can do, the second is rap.

 

 

 

 

A$AP Mob

Well-known members: A$AP Rocky

 

So far: A$AP Rocky stands at the forefront of the A$AP Mob like Tyler stands at the forefront of Odd Future: boldly and instinctively. While there are other members who rap well, or produce well, Rocky is the still far ahead of anyone else in the bunch. A$AP Ferg, I think, is probably the second best MC, and A$AP Ty Beats can make some really nice beats (like two of Rocky’s biggest hits, Peso and Purple Swag). But still, they are in the underneath, lifting Rocky’s game: making beats for him, or giving him guest verses to prop his songs up. None of the other members have come into their own yet. Even when The A$AP Mob mixtape Lords Never Worry dropped last month, it seemed like a star amongst his occasionally talented friends: they could almost keep up technically, but you can’t mimic star power. And Rocky’s mixtape last year, LiveLoveA$AP, had that. It’s not that he has technical brilliance, because he doesn’t, really. But Rocky has an image; he knows how to choose beats that he can complement and vice versa; he knows how to rap through the dull formalities of money, women and guns and make it sound interesting.

To come: In saying all of that, it would be redundant to even consider the A$AP dudes, if not for one reason: Rocky’s studio album debut, LongLiveA$AP is coming at the end of next month. Like Kendrick for Black Hippy, this one album from their star hinges the whole crew between greatness and dominance. I wouldn’t consider it as any kind of competitor against the other crews, but for Goldie, really. That one and only song that’s been released from the album so far is really, really good. And Rocky has said that, like Dre, he is a perfectionist and he won’t release the album until he knows it’s the best it can be, which he admitted was a part of the fault of Lords Never Worry. 

 

 

 

 

Pro Era

Well-known members: Joey Bada$$

So far: Well, again there’s the one-man star of the crew. But Pro Era is different (I think) to the A$AP Mob in that Pro Era has just emerged, and Joey has been the only one to release anything, though there is every chance that the other members could release quality music. Back in June, Joey released 1999– probably the best mixtape released this year, and one that has only grown on me in the months since I first heard it, especially considering Joey’s 17, and as far as I know the rest of the crew aren’t beyond their teens. The lyrical depth Joey showed in 1999 and Rejex, another mixtape released earlier this month full of surplus tracks from the 1999 recordings, is astounding. And I know I just said this, but seriously: there are so many songs that have grown on me from 1999: Waves, Killuminati, Snakes, Suspect, to name a few. The depth of the tape is really, really promising.

To come: Who knows. That’s the truth. Joey could well release another mixtape, or even a studio album before the end of the year, or he could not. And the rest of his crew (who I’ve only heard in guest features on 1999) aren’t underwhelming at all. On Suspect, the final song on 1999, a posse cut which features 9 rappers from Pro Era, the non-Joey rappers are surprisingly good. And in terms of when/whether any of them will release solo music is unknowable. But whatever is to come, I really am looking forward to it.

 

 

 

 

The Verdict: Well. The talent I’ve seen from all of the crews is huge. I could easily say Odd Future, simply because I love Earl and Tyler so much. Or I could pick Pro Era, the crew with the smallest output, so there’s the element of mystery there, and there’s definitely potential there. Or I could bank on good kid, m.A.A.d city or LongLiveA$AP to be more brilliant than anything else. To be honest (and to sit comfortably on the fence), I really don’t know. The uncertainty over releases, or whether the lead singles from albums are an indicator of the quality, or are carrying the thing, I don’t know. Honestly, I think (and hope) more than any of the others that Odd Future comes out on top. Frank Ocean has already released what has to be close to album of the year, and I can’t imagine Tyler and Earl making anything I wouldn’t like.

But at the same time, GKMC has every ingredient of an incredible album, and Habits & Contradictions and Control System were really well-made, interesting albums in their own way. With his lack of poignant lyrical themes (like Kendrick), technically brilliant lyricism (like Earl and Joey… and Kendrick), or other-worldly charisma (like Tyler), Rocky will have to make sure he is doing what he does well as best as possible in order to be a contender.

Yeah.

Whatever.

In summary: OF have my vote.

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