Wednesday, December 7, 2011

2011 Rap in Review

Now that the final month of 2011 is upon us, the time is ripe for looking back at the year's best hip hop albums.  Among my circle of friends, I'm mostly alone in my love for the genre.  That probably has something to do with running in a middle-class, suburban Nebraska crowd and being a part of the generation that lived just before hip hop became a suburban, sweater-wearing affair (thanks for that, Kanye).  Since I don't get a chance to discuss the beats and lyrics of the best albums throughout the year, I'm going to dump all my hip hop thoughts here.  This will be the first of two entries.  In this post, I'll talk about the rap albums I've listened to enough to form an opinion about, but which ultimately did not make my top 5 list.  In the next post, I'll discuss my five favorite rap albums from the past year.  But first, a brief background note:

The Year of Weed-obsessed Frat Rap

They say Henry Ford democratized the automobile.  I think they should also say that internet democratized hip hop.  In today's world any punk high school or college kid with too much time on his hands can skip classes, make beats and work on his rhymes.  He/she can try to win an internet audience through youtube postings and various hip hop mixtape web sites...and if he/she gets enough buzz on the internet grassroots level, eventually a label will come calling.  The result is that there is a new breed of rappers who are allowed to get an audience without having to go through the usual "street cred" rituals and routines (such as a pre-star 50 Cent making a song about "how to rob" other rap stars).  Instead, the new breed spends 50% of their time rapping about their favorite drug, 25% of their time rapping about how good they are at rapping, and the other 25% rapping about girls (Mac Miller).  The Mac Miller-types are essentially a new crop of potty-mouthed "Fresh Princes," catering to junior high kids and frat guys.  They're goofy and devoid of menace even when they try to mimic the street-smart rappers they grew up listening to. Mostly, they're just looking for a fun time and few fly honeys to hang out with.  Their vapid lives make for rather vapid rhymes, kind of like a CBS laughtrack sitcom.  It makes for good background noise at times, but that's it.  (Two internet sensations who don't fit the New Breed: (1) Tyler the Creator, an obscene, off-the-wall character who skateboards, and who, along with his crew Odd Future, is basically Insane Clown Possy for a new generation and (2) Das Racist, a smarmy hipster rap crew that caters to the college-age and twenty-something Ivy League-wannabe crowd). With that said, here are the albums which did NOT make the cut to be in my top 5.

Mac Miller - Blue Slide Park
Mac smokes weed.  He's trying to make money, party and have a good time.  He was recently in high school.  He likes good-looking girls.  He's surprised by newfound fame, but happy that his crew is still with him.  Now imagine a variety of ways to express those facts, all set to energetic beats and an attitude that includes a strong aversion to any sense of responsibility.  Mac is truly the king of douchy frat-rap. 

Chiddy Bang - Peanut Butter and Swelly (mixtape)
 Chiddy Bang is a college duo that brings a bit more creativity than most frat-rappers.  In 2010, they released a smash hit single in "Opposite of Adults," which sampled MGMT's infectious "Kids."  In fact, the main draw of Chiddy Bang comes from the songs that they sample, which includes the work of indie favorites such as Sufjan Stevens, Passion Pit and Grizzly Bear.  Unfortunately, despite the superior beats that immediately appeal to the hipster college crowd, the actual rapped lyrics are assembly-line cut-and-paste jobs with little actual connection to the song.  The fact that Chiddy was able to break the record for longest freestyle rap is well and good...but a song is supposed to be focused instead of just a collection of words that rhyme and are on beat.  Few Chiddy Bang songs have any force, although that is easy to forgive in their best moments, such as the afore-mentioned "Opposite of Adults."  They also deserve credit for popularizing the use of the word "swell" and "swelly," which is a fine addition to the youngsters' vocabulary.  That said, their 2011 mixtape "Peanut Butter and Swelly" offers little of distinction, which does not bode well for their upcoming major-label debut album ("Breakfast" - Feb. 2012).  But then again...who can resist a beat and hook like this? 

Big Sean - Finally Famous
Big Sean has been internet buzzing since 2007.  With his major label debut, he seems to have a song for every recent trend in hip hop.  He has the club R&B songs (My Last, Marvin and Chardonnay), the spaced out, full-of-one-liners bragging track (I Do It), the over-the-top song about sex that is sure to offend Bill O'Reilly (Dance A$$), the song about weed (High), and even a couple mid-tempo introspective tracks (Memories, Wait for Me).  Big Sean's punch lines are sharper than most, and the fact that he possesses a hint of introspection is a nice tough (even though he's often wondering things like "What's the better accessory? My new watch, or the chick that's next to me?").  With his appeal to the suburban masses, and especially college guys who are into parties, girls and Family Guy (yes, he name-drops Quagmire), Big Sean will fit right in with the perpetually-adolescent generation.

Tyler the Creator - Goblin
 If the crazies who say Obama was elected because of "white guilt" were into hip hop, who knows what they would say about the love Tyler the Creator gets from a mainly white music-critic audience.  Leader of a crew of teenage troublemakers that calls themselves Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, Tyler's debut album is a mostly unlistenable affair that in its worst moments borders on horror-core parody.  Songs like "Yonkers," "Sandwitches" and "Analog" show creative potential, but your perspective on Tyler the Creator basically depends on whether or not you think there is a deep meaning behind the vulgarity.  If so, then perhaps the below-average beats suddenly seem to be an artistic expression that the masses simply don't get.  If, however, you take Tyler's destructive vulgarity as irredeemable, then this album will seem like nothing more than awful lyrics set to awful music.  (Unless, of course, you are a high school student, in which case you like Tyler the Creator simply because your parents don't). 

Wiz Khalifa - Rolling Papers
Welcome to the new face of pop-rap.  Taking the mantle from Nelly, Wiz's sing-song weed-rap has taken suburban youth by storm.  To his credit, his songs are undeniably catchy.  From "Black and Yellow" to "No Sleep"  to "Roll Up," this album is full of radio-ready hits that are easy to rap along with.  There's nothing of substance, of course.  But Wiz is probably too high to care anyway.

Wale - Ambition
 The man who once released a Seinfeld-themed mixtape is now linked up with cartoon don Rick Ross.  For a rapper who has periodically shown flashes of social consciousness, it's slightly disappointing that Wale's major label debut turned out to be devoid of any themes beyond the typical "struggle-to-the-top" and "rep my crew" songs mixed in with various odes to unfettered capitalism.  Oh well.  He's too serious and focused and has too few references to weed to fit in with the frat rappers and he's also not distinctive enough lyrically or thematically to set himself apart from other rappers.  On the bright side, he does have an anthem that's sure to blast in NBA arenas this year, particularly at Wizard home games.

Drake - Take Care
Drake is Jimmy Eat World mixed with Jay-Z.  Brash and arrogant one minute, then navel-gazing the next while he drunk-dials a girl and spills his guts about the difficulties famous people face, like "having sex four times this week."  Artistically Drake is a step beyond most other rappers.  Instead of just making club bangers, he has nuance and pace to his music, in the mold of Kanye West.  He's certainly one of the most talented hip hop artists in the game right now, and he's the face of the new hip hop - less menace, more braggadocio, less street cred, more emo.
Representative Song: Take Care

J. Cole - Cole World: The Sideline Story
It's hard not to root for J. Cole.  He's a hard-working, energetic rapper, a college graduate who seems to have a conscious and an awareness of the big picture beyond girls and parties and clubs.  For example, he has a song rapped from the perspective of both a man and women arguing about what to do with an unplanned pregnancy ("Lost Ones"),  and peppers in references to things like "paying back Sallie Mae" in his lyrics.  The problem with this album, though, is that too many beats are simply mediocre, and the ones that do have decent beats come across lyrically like half-hearted attempts to make radio-friendly club songs.  J. Cole is clearly to trying to find out how to "blow up" (as one of his mixtap songs is called), while at the same time trying to up the intellectual ante in the hip hop community.  It's too bad that the story J. Cole depicts in "Lights Please" gets played out in this that song, J. Cole raps about trying to have a deep conversation with a girl ("ain't it shameful how guys blame girls for giving birth to a baby that took two to make?") only to find out that all the girl wants is "me to unhook her jeans."  In the song, as in the album, J. Cole acquiesces to his baser desires and impulses.

Das Racist - Relax
Das Racist get to be the one rap group that hipsters who are too good for rap music like.  The beats are not the strong point for Das Racist...instead it's their obscure cultural references.  If you want your rapper to rap about being a "neo-rap Zack attack" and being "in the building with Belding" while "solving mysteries like Wikipedia Brown," all while name-dropping Jeff Mangum, then this is the group for you.  Listening to Das Racist is an overload of smarmy too-smart-for-you references that somehow rhyme and are on point.  At times, they parody popular trends in hip hop ("Booty in the Air"), but more often than not they seem more content to sit back above the fray of life and amuse themselves with hints about how ridiculous everyone below them is.  I guess there's a niche for that.

Lil Wayne - Tha Carter IV
In terms of pure technical skill as a rapper, there are few who can top Wayne.  He has complete command of any beat he's on, and a knack for the punchline ("I'm shooting for the stars...astronauts dodge bullets").  Furthermore, there is no rapper out there right now whose style is bitten by more rappers.  Listen to Big Sean, Drake, Mac Miller, Childish Gambino, and you'll hear traces of Wayne in their raps.  On the other hand, in a genre built on ego and narcissism, few can top Wayne's penchant for rapping about himself and his skills.  Maybe that's your thing...but for me, his act gets old after awhile.

COMING SOON: My five favorite rap albums of 2011.