#20: Captain Murphy - Duality
The cat’s out of the bag: the mysterious rapper or rappers who released a bunch of loose singles this year under the name Captain Murphy is actually just Flying Lotus. In spite of never rapping on record before, FlyLo was always the most likely candidate, what with all of the shout outs to his label Brainfeeder and Murphy’s close association with FlyLo on many of the initial tracks. Thankfully, after getting a ton of attention with the secret identity gimmick, Duality really delivers. The character of Captain Murphy is some sort of cult leader, which is reinforced throughout the tape with audio taken from a videotape made by Marshall Applewhite, the founder of the Heaven’s Gate cult. It’s also noteworthy that Duality was initially released not as a bunch of individual audio files but rather as a long-form video of the entire project. Duality is meant to be taken as one long psychedelic whole, and the confusing and sometimes frightening jumble of images that accompanies the music accomplishes visually what the beats (by a bunch of the best producers in the instrumental hip hop underground) and Murphy’s pitch-shifted vocals do aurally. Murphy is a force for evil, and since the original rap supervillain DOOM doesn’t release nearly as much music as he used to it’s nice to know that someone is out there causing mayhem in the darkest corners of hip hop.
"Mighty Morphin' Foreskin"
The entire Duality video (extremely NSFW)
#19: Nas - Life is Good
After eighteen years of releasing albums of wildly inconsistent quality, hopefully everyone has started to accept that expecting Nas to make another Illmatic is unfair to him and to us as it prevents our ability to really enjoy any good music that he puts out. We can, however, hope for the next best thing, another It Was Written, which Nas has delivered with his eleventh studio album. This is not to say that this album sounds anything like It Was Written, because it really doesn’t. The production of IWW, mostly done by the Trackmasters, is very of its time and is one of the main factors preventing it from truly achieving classic status, while the No I.D. and Salaam Remi beats are similarly of this period of hip hop. Both albums share a tendency toward slickness as far as the beats are concerned, a few ill-advised crossover attempts (I skip the awful Swizz Beats-produced “Summer on Smash” every single time I listen to this record), and a few harder songs (“Loco-Motive” and “The Don”). This sonic inconsistency and the existence of a few outright duds is exactly what made it take so long for people to come around to IWW, and it clouds the most important element of Life is Good: Nas hasn’t rapped this well or seemed to care this much about rapping in ten years. “Loco-Motive” and “A Queens Story” feature remarkably vivid storytelling, and the last verse of “World’s an Addiction” might be the most jaw-droppingly incredible verse from any rap record this year. After the good-but-not-great Distant Relatives album with Damian Marley, the terrible Untitled, and the weak Hip Hop is Dead, it’s great to have Nasty Nas back.
"Loco-Motive" (feat. Large Professor)
"World's an Addiction" (feat. Anthony Hamilton"
#18: Schoolboy Q - Habits & Contradictions
Prior to 2012, I don’t think anything that came out of the Black Hippy camp was terribly essential (that’s right, I’m including Section.80 in this statement, although that’s the best thing that had come from that crew up to that point). Habits & Contradictions, the first of three Black Hippy records to come out in 2012, marks the beginning of a remarkable upward trend in quality for the crew. It’s still marred by some of the problems of their earlier records, most notably the casual misogyny that’s on most of the songs, and unlike Ab-Soul and Kendrick Lamar, Q has only barely begun to confront or upend the clichés found in so much of hip hop (including his own music). In other areas, Q’s improvement is laudable. The quality of the beats is miles ahead of his previous mixtape Setbacks, and he’s become even more entertaining, switching frequently and suddenly from sounding bored to barking out his lyrics in a strange, clipped flow that I haven’t heard from anyone else. The album is compulsively listenable, from the boasting of “There He Go” and “Druggys With Hoes Again,” the sex raps of “Sexting” and “Sex Drive” (which has one of the strangest beats I’ve heard all year), to the violent threats of “Nightmare on Figg St.” His occasional detours into more contemplative territory, on “Sacrilegious,” “Blessed,” and the brilliant “Raymond 1969” (the only good use of a Portishead sample ever, as far as I’m concerned) offer a welcome respite from the more typical subject matter and provide just enough variation in subject matter to keep the album from losing steam. He’s said in interviews that he’s really stepping it up for his next album in order to compete with his fellow Black Hippy Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, so it’s a safe bet that his next album will come in at higher than #18 on 2013’s list.
"2 Raw" (feat. Jay Rock)
#17: Ty Segall - Twins
After making two albums in 2012 that were focused on specific styles (Hair’s trippy psychedelic folk rock and Slaughterhouse’s heavy space garage), he abandoned stylistic unity for his third record of the year, Twins. “Thank God for Sinners,” the first song on the record, might be the catchiest song he has ever written. “They Told Me Too” sounds like an outtake from the Slaughterhouse sessions that was left off that album because it wasn’t dark enough. “Would You Be My Love” harkens back to the fuzzier edges of the British Invasion. “Inside Your Heart” is a pop song drowned in sludge that ends in a mess of feedback. “Ghost,” the longest song on the album, is a hazy psychedelic jam with repetitive lyrics, wordless vocals, and one of the coolest guitar solos of Segall’s career thus far. The other songs are similarly all over the place, but the album feels strangely coherent, anchored by Segall’s voice and the ever-present fuzz that he has drowned all of the guitars in. The album sounds like the work of a band exploring the many dimensions of their sound, which is all the more impressive since Segall played all of the instruments himself, and only brought on a handful of guest vocalists. He’s said in interviews that he’s not going to try to make this many albums again next year, which is unfortunate, but his 2012 will go down as one of the best years any of the garage revivalists have had in the last decade.
"Thank God for Sinners"
#16: Meyhem Lauren - Respect the Fly Shit
Meyhem Lauren has been generally overshadowed by his more immediately entertaining colleague Action Bronson in the recent revival of a New York underground hip hop scene, but Respect the Fly Shit, the first of two free albums he released this year, has begun to change that perception. Respect the Fly Shit was recorded over a few days in a hotel room during SXSW, where Lauren hunkered down with producers Tommy Mas and Harry Fraud and a rotating cast of fellow New York knucklehead rappers. The end result is twelve tracks of wildly entertaining boom-bap, and a veritable who’s-who of New York’s current underground, including Action Bronson, AG da Coroner, Despot, Heems, and the scene’s bitter old uncle Sean Price. Lauren raps about a life of luxury that he probably doesn’t actually live, but it’s so weirdly specific and odd that it’s very endearing. Instead of rapping about his rims or driving around in his other other Benz, Lauren boasts about his fingerless driving gloves that he uses on his way to five course feasts. Half of the song titles reference food in some way (“Pan Seared Tilapia,” “BBQ Brisket,” “Grown Man Pallets,” “Peruvian Desserts,” “Juevos Rancheros,” and “Radioactive Tuna”). There’s even a love song (his first love song, as he helpfully points out in the intro to the song), “Let’s Hold Hands,” where he repeatedly asks the object of his affections if she want a baby and describes her as “the color of an egg bagel, you know that Simpsons complexion,” which might be the strangest description of a beautiful woman I’ve ever heard in a rap song.
"Fingerless Driving Gloves"
"Pan Seared Tilapia" (feat. AG da Coroner, Action Bronson & Despot)