#10: MeLo-X & Jesse Boykins III - Zulu Guru
MeLo-X has thus far made his career on acclaimed but under-the-radar Bandcamp albums, while Jesse Boykins has released a couple of similarly acclaimed albums on assorted labels over the last few years, but their first collaborative album Zulu Guru on the legendary electronic label Ninja Tune is their most high profile and assured release yet. Both artists have used their previous projects to hone their respective crafts, and this album of Afrocentric hip hop soul recalls the best of the Native Tongues and the Soulquarians. MeLo-X is a great rapper (“Tribe of Stafa” is probably the best showcase for his rapping on the album), and like most great rapper/producers he sounds most at home on his own beats. The ones on Zulu Guru are trademark MeLo-X with their soulful minimalism. Boykins is a great singer, and his breathy style is a great fit for MeLo’s production. Boykins contributes to the production as well, bringing a spacey neo-soul vibe to many of the songs. Zulu Guru, along with being the title of the album, is the name of their collective, and all of the guests on the album hail from this group. At the end of the final track “Schwaza,” there is a spoken word outro in which someone claims that “this is the type of collective, you gonna look back thirty years from now and be like ‘wow, all these people existed in one space… this is only chapter one, that’s what’s crazy.’” The rest of Zulu Guru illustrates that this is not hubris. If the members of the collective keep putting out albums this good, they’ll be remembered with the Native Tongues and the Soulquarians. They’ve already shown that like those two collectives, they can tie their music to the vast history of Black music while simultaneously looking toward the future.
"Zulu Guru" (feat. Kesed) (This is the best of the interludes on the album, highlighting the spoken word skills of fellow Zulu Guru member Kesed)
#9: The Congos/Sun Araw/M. Geddes Gengras - Icon Give Thank
If you were to ask me to list my ten favorite reggae albums, probably seven of them would be dub records. From the earliest experiments by King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry though their protégés and successors Prince Jammy, Scientist, and Mad Professor, and onto the electronic dub and dub/trip hop experiments of the nineties, dub reggae has been consistently forward thinking. Icon Give Thank, the collaboration between legendary roots reggae vocal group The Congos and psychedelic explorers Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, is the future of dub. This is not the tinny digital dub of years past. Araw and Gengras bring their ambient psychedelic rock and electronic experience and have created sound beds that are cavernous and filled with reverb. The various sounds, including hand drums way low in the mix, electronic bleeps and bloops, guitars with lots of effects pedals, and rumbling omnipresent bass, are all heavily reverbed to the point where they sound like they’re echoing off of each other and turning back in on themselves. Sonic elements drop in and out, making room for Rasta chants and ghostly falsetto harmonies before returning to crowd the vocals back out of the mix. If dubstep is one direction of dub’s inevitable progression, then Icon Give Thank, which sounds like it was made by aliens with a lot of really high quality weed, will hopefully inspire a legion of likeminded artists who will forge an alternate path into dub’s future.
#8: Killer Mike & El-P - R.A.P. Music
The comparisons between ATLien Killer Mike enlisting Brooklyn’s El-P to produce his newest album and Ice Cube reaching across the east coast/west coast divide to work with the Bomb Squad on his debut solo album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted have become cliché in the months since R.A.P. Music came out in May, but it is a particularly useful cliché. The Bomb Squad has been an important influence of El-P’s ever since he began abandoning the minimalist style of the first Company Flow album. Killer Mike is a social/political gangsta rapper in the mold of Ice Cube, and on R.A.P. Music, the best album of his career by a wide margin, he reaches his idol’s level. Opener “Big Beast,” featuring standout verses from Southern rap titans Bun B and T.I., is the kind of chest thumping banger that Ice Cube seemed to make effortlessly from his days in N.W.A. through his third solo album. “Untitled” is a less fiery affair, but he still gets out lines like “I don’t trust the church or the government/Democrat, Republican/Pope or a bishop or them other men/And I believe God has sustained me with rap/So I pick a burning bush, put it in a Swisher rap.” He also compares himself to Slick Rick in that song and backs that comparison up with “JoJo’s Chillin” and “Don’t Die,” which is the best killing corrupt cops rap fantasy in twenty years. “Reagan” is the album’s centerpiece and best song, and is one of the most thoughtful and insightful political hip hop songs since Mr. Lif’s “Brothaz.” Despite making his debut on OutKast’s critical and commercial smash Stankonia in 2000 and being featured prominently on their huge hit “The Whole World” the next year, Killer Mike’s solo career never lived up to his promise, and he seemed destined for footnote status. R.A.P. Music is the album that changes that, and it has turned him into one of the best rappers out today.
#7: Ab-Soul - Control System
Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q might get more attention, but Ab-Soul is my favorite member of the Black Hippy crew, and that’s almost entirely the result of this album (sorry Jay Rock, you completely overpower most other rappers with your guest verses, but you need to release an album on the level of what the other three Black Hippies did in 2012). Ab-Soul has the most versatile subject matter out of the whole crew, rapping equally effectively about politics, depression, drugs, hoes, wack rappers, his third eye, and the death of his girlfriend and collaborator Alori Joh. That subject matter is all over the place, and it would be easy for a rapper to lack a coherent identity by stretching himself that thin. Not so for Ab-Soul, who aptly describes himself by imploring the listener to "Just imagine if Einstein got high and sipped juice/Broke rules, got pussy, beat up rookies on Pro Tools," on “Track Two.” The album’s best song is “The Book of Soul,” the album’s penultimate track, which begins with the lines “Your momma told me read the Book of Job/They shoulda called it the Book of Soul,” and continues on for five heartbreaking minutes about contracting Stevens-Johnson Syndrome as a kid and about meeting and falling in love with Alori Joh and her eventual suicide in February of this year. Near the end of the song, he says “Everything I love gets taken away from me, my momma and music is next/And if that happens before I turn 28/Then I’m going out with Kurt Cobain.” Tellingly, he follows this up with “Black Lip Bastard (Remix)” featuring fiery verses from all four of the Black Hippies. Ab-Soul’s verse is the second best of the bunch (Jay Rock has the longest verse and completely owns the song. He really needs to hurry up and put out another album), calling out wack rappers who spend too much time eating yogurt in bed. He'll be making music very successfully for a long time.
"Terrorist Threats" (feat. Danny Brown & Jhene Aiko)
"The Book of Soul"
"Black Lip Bastard (Black Hippy Remix)"
#6: Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream
Major label R&B has been kind of a wasteland for a long time. There have been bright spots (FutreSex/LoveSounds being one of the standouts from the last decade), but 2012 seems to have marked a sea change in the kind of freedoms major labels allow some of their artists. Frank Ocean has been the most visible example of this trend, and he had to release his first record for free behind the back of his label, and foster acclaim and attention to get that leverage. Miguel went a different route. He made a decent album, All I Want is You, which Jive underpromoted after steering the direction of the album, but the second single “Sure Thing,” was successful enough that he was able to get a much greater degree of creative control for his follow-up Kaleidoscope Dream. Try to imagine what “Sexual Healing”-era Marvin Gaye would have sounded like if he projected more insecurity in his lyrics and his music was more psychedelic and you won’t be far off from Kaleidoscope Dream. There are no guest rappers and the album doesn’t have beats from any of the hot producers who are popular this week. Instead, Miguel is able to air out his insecurities and project his being onto a gorgeous soundscape that is far from the pop R&B template of the day.
"Don't Look Back"