#15: Homeboy Sandman - Subject: Matter EP/Chimera EP
When it was announced late last year that Homeboy Sandman had signed to Stones Throw, it seemed like a great move for all involved. Homeboy Sandman would be able to get the greater exposure that his talent deserves and Stones Throw would be able to add another great artist to their roster and deflect complaints from people who think they don’t put out enough hip hop records anymore. First of a Living Breed, his debut album for the label, mostly fulfilled his promise, but the duds were so weak that they pulled the album out of consideration for this list (“Sputnik,” “What You Want From Me,” and other songs on the album are among the best material he’s ever done, but I never need to hear the beyond-corny “For the Kids” ever again). The two EPs that preceded it, Subject: Matter and Chimera, have the consistency that First of a Living Breed lacks, and when taken together distill everything that makes Homeboy Sandman one of the best rappers today. When making Subject: Matter, Sandman set out to cover topics that had never been covered in hip hop, an impossibly lofty goal that nonetheless spawned an excellent and tremendously varied record. “The Miracle” is an in-depth look into his writing process, “Mine All Mine” raps about his modest possessions and small apartment with the same gravitas that other artists ascribe to their imaginary Benzes and mansions, and “Soap” is about soap cleaning the earth (or something like that). The beats are incredibly varied in sound and style, and each of them fits impeccably with the subject matter of the songs. By contrast, Chimera is a much more muted, dreamy affair, and all six songs have loose, stripped down beats. Also, unlike the previous EP which has several songs where Sandman cuts loose and shows off his dexterous flow, he doesn’t raise his voice at all and he favors slower and simpler flows on Chimera. This relaxed rapping makes the last verse on “Hold Your Head,” possibly the most impressive verse of his entire career, hit like a smack to the head. Sandman has a classic Stones Throw album in him, but for now these two EPs make up the closest thing to a classic that he has yet released.
"Mine All Mine" (from Subject: Matter)
"Hold Your Head" (from Chimera)
#14: Gangrene - Vodka & Ayahuasca
First things first: Oh No and the Alchemist, the two rapper/producers that make up Gangrene, are not great rappers. Both got their start as producers, and it is unlikely that they will ever be higher regarded as rappers than as beatmakers. This is not a good kid, m.A.A.d. city type album where you can pore over the lyrics endlessly. This is a beat-driven record, and in that sense, it’s an unqualified success. Oh No and the Alchemist both have very distinct styles, but when they come together to make a Gangrene album, they make Gangrene beats as opposed to Oh No or Alchemist beats, to the point that it is often difficult to discern who produced which song. The beats on Vodka & Ayahuasca are deeply rooted in psychedelic rock, and they have put together an album that fits in with the all-too-small lineage of psychedelic gutter rap albums dating back to Redman’s Dare iz a Darkside from 1994. The primary focus of this album, as evidenced by the titled, is drug use, and they string the songs together with audio clips of people discussing their use of the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca. Since this isn’t an instrumental project, the rapping has to be a factor in the album’s quality, and thankfully both members have been steadily improving, and have enlisted more talented guests, including Kool G Rap, Prodigy, Evidence, and Roc Marciano, to anchor some of the songs.
They also made one of my favorite music videos of the year for the album’s title track. I actually like the song better with all of the extra sounds from the video, and after absorbing the song through this video for a few weeks before the album came out I had a difficult time adjusting to the album version.
"Vodka & Ayahuasca"
#13: Flying Lotus - Until the Quiet Comes
Listening to Flying Lotus’ incredible 2010 album Cosmogramma made you feel as though you were experiencing something much greater than yourself. It’s a sprawling, cosmic affair that takes you through environments that few records really connect with, although many try: the most beautiful and frightening corners of the universe and through time to the start of things (creation or what have you). By contrast, FlyLo’s follow-up Until the Quiet Comes is a much smaller, more personal record. The songs on UTQC are mostly muted and dreamy, and Lotus leaves much more room in the mix than he has on previous records. He hasn’t lost his ability to tap into the abstract, and much of this album feels like a representation of lucid dreaming (rather than the cosmos of Cosmogramma). The short film that accompanied the album’s release furthers this theme. It’s an impressionistic set of visuals, with little discernible story and the arguable main character first appearing as a corpse before getting up and dancing away. It looks like we’re looking in on one of someone else’s dreams. It’s interesting that such an internal, personal record is also FlyLo’s most collaborative to date. These collaborations with live musicians give the record a much warmer sound, and many of the guests from Cosmogramma have made return appearances, with Thom Yorke, Niki Randa, and Laura Darlington contributing vocals, while Dorian Concept and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson making impressive contributions and bassist Thundercat lending his nimble, casually virtuosic playing to half of the albums songs. These returners are joined by Jonny Greenwood, Erykah Badu, and the late Austin Peralta, among others. Flying Lotus is the most consistently impressive member of the L.A. beat scene, and even though Until the Quiet Comes isn’t as good as his last two albums, it’s still the best instrumental project in a year full of great beat records.
"Until the Quiet Comes" (Short Film)
#12: Roc Marciano - Reloaded
Sometimes a crime movie with generic plotting or characters can get by on a combination of mood, style, and attention to detail. Roc Marciano pulls this off perfectly on his sophomore album Reloaded. On the first listen, it’s just another gangsta rap record, with lots of talk about guns, cocaine, and women with loose morals. Honestly, I thought it was boring the first time around. I thought the same thing about his first record too. The beats are so understated that they don’t make much of an impression initially, and the rapping so calm that it’s easy to miss how incredibly gifted Roc is. He throws in details about everything from the weather on the day that Marvin Gaye died to his lawyer’s choice of suitcase (“My lawyer pop the alligator suitcase/you can’t dispute taste/all the loot is safe in the fire proof safe” on “Peru”). The record in many ways feels like the opposite of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’s cinematic crime saga. Unlike Raekwon and Ghostface, Roc Marciano doesn’t need to raise his voice to sound threatening. Reloaded is all cool menace. Like his debut album Marcberg, legendary ex-pimp/author Iceberg Slim remains Roc’s primary lyrical inspiration, and the resulting album sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a Blaxploitation film adaptation of Pimp: The Story of My Life.
#11: The Alchemist - Russian Roulette
The Madlib Medicine Show, stretching over thirteen volumes in 2010-2011, had a simple format: odd-numbered volumes would be original music, and even-numbered volumes would be DJ mixes. The results were uneven (how many people are still playing Before the Verdict?) but frequently brilliant, especially on the mix side of things, but taken as a whole the project set forth a blueprint for a new form of sample-based music somewhere between sampled-and-chopped up hip hop beats and outright mixtapes. The Alchemist, emboldened by his time collaborating with Madlib’s younger brother Oh No, has made career highlight Russian Roulette, an album that fully embodies the promise of the Medicine Show. Built entirely on samples from Russian and Balkan music (Alan the Chemist in the Former Soviet Union, if you will), Russian Roulette slips seamlessly from beats to long unlooped samples with all sorts of weird spoken clips from interviews, language learning tapes, and who knows where else. Hooks are basically nonexistent, and none of the guests appear for more than one verse, which pass quickly and melt right back into the overall Soviet soundscape. It’s basically a mixtape with rapping on it that somehow sounds like the most coherent album of Alchemist’s career. The list of guest rappers reads like a who’s-who of the most exciting underground rappers out today: Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Danny Brown, Schoolboy Q, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, and on and on. With thirty tracks in total, the album culminates in the eight-part “The Kosmos,” essentially one long song that ends with eXquire being abducted by beetle-like aliens who want him to help save their world. I really hope that an Alchemist sci-fi record is in the future.
"Flight Confirmation" (feat. Danny Brown & Schoolboy Q)
"Don Seymour's Theme" (feat. MidaZ the Beast)