The Best Rap Songs of the Year... So Far

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Wiz Khalifa / Killer Mike (Photo: C. Flanigan/WireImage, Khalifa)
Brandon Soderberg WRITTEN BY
Brandon Soderberg

Cities Aviv, a Memphis rapper pretty much ignored by the blogosphere, called his debut album Digital Lows (available for free on Bandcamp). That phrase, "digital lows," sounds like a pop medical term for the feeling one gets during hour three of Tumblr page-downs or the 416th Facebook photo of an ex you've stared at instead of closing the laptop and going to sleep. Or maybe it's the overwhelming feeling that happens after you've thought long and hard about hip-hop and the Internet and tried to break down a hype machine that bounces from Odd Future (are they still cool?) to Kreayshawn, briefly pauses to celebrate the release of a Big Sean album, and then claims that someone named SpaceGhostPurrp is the dude about to blow.

Tuesday night, I got an email from a guy who claims the beat for Lil Wayne's "How To Love" was stolen from him. First of all, dude's beat was not jacked. Second, why would you wanna even claim that beat? That was one particular e-mail that definitely gave me the "digital lows." Not that this is specific to hip-hop. There's "Weinergate." And as I scour the gossip blogs like everyone else, I'm torn by what to click on next. Depressingly private photos of Amber Rose or something about Quentin Tarantino's choad?

The 16 tracks below add up to about an hour-long cure for the digital lows. The theme here is basically the best rap songs so far this year, but also the songs that have defied their contexts, and risen above any subgenre tags and the blog-rap din to stand on their own. Apologies to Curren$y, who has released two very solid albums this year -- Covert Coup and Weekend At Burnie's -- but is one of those increasingly rare, whole-enchilada type rappers whose appeal has little to do with an individual song.

Killer Mike, "Burn"
"Burn" is like an unofficial sequel to "Pressure," from 2008's I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind Pt. 2. The remarkably cogent anger of that track remains, but Mike is so much calmer here, rapping like none of the societal horror is a surprise anymore, which makes his description of it even more devastating. The recession remains alive and well, the 2009 death of Oscar Grant still stings (BART Police officer Johannes Mehserle, who shot an unarmed Grant in the back, was released from jail on June 13), and organized religion remains a crockthat's always causing problems. The sample of Funkadelic's "You And Your Folks" provides a twisted, cathartic sing-along throughout.
Squadda B, "Fakest Year Ever"
The better-known-but-less-interesting half of Bay Area underground duo Main Attrakionz gets his own case of the digital lows here, taking issue with bitch-ass Facebook status updates and self-promotional rappers (or peoples in general) over Clams Casino's rickety, uncharacteristically ugly beat. Squadda and partner Mondre M.A.N. release way too much music, and they're everywhere like every annoying Internet rap crew, but they're also oddly traditionalist, and possess some Web 2.0 form of integrity that I don't quite understand, but at least can appreciate. Think: Mobb Deep with Wi-Fi.
Stalley, "Slapp"
Stalley is now part of Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group, which makes no sense whatsoever and can't be any kind of good news, though come to think of it, the lush Lincoln Way Nights (Intelligent Trunk Music) does sound a bit like the laid-back epic rap of last year's Teflon Don -- except with loads more subtlety and better, smarter, less delusional rapping. Yeah, yeah, yeah, rap's allowed to be dumb and fun and everybody loves Rick Ross now, but "Slapp," an experimental trunk-rattler with a queasy chillwave quality and a sly Beastie Boys "New Style" sample, totally earns the parenthetical part of the album's title. It's okay to be an elitist sometimes.
Zilla, feat. 2Eleven and Monster, "Mella Hating"
Even straight gangsta shit comes out all contorted and diffuse in Huntsville, Alabama, it seems. "Mella Hating" begins with a crisp strum of guitar and ends with a light scream of synths. Between that, Zilla and his thug friends just rap, drumming up enough new, slightly sad street boasts to keep this track as fresh as the production: "Closet full of clothes, so when I'm broke you would never know." Though Zilla Shit doesn't have the scope of other recent Huntsville-based albums like G-Side's The One...Cohesive or Kristmas' W2 Boy, it does share their slow-building, post-rock-meets-hip-hop-at-a-fucking-rave sound.
G-Side, feat. S.L.A.S.H., "Came Up"
As if this song didn't possess enough striving, aspirational pathos, go watch the Southern gothic video, wherein G-Side, guest rapper S.L.A.S.H., and a small string section, perform in the most destitute of surroundings. So yeah, "Came Up" is another G-Side boast about not having to do the illegal junk they used to have to do, while being quite mindful of what that means, and the responsibilities therein. But they're never too knotty or meta about it all either. Clova's closing verse is the one that'll stick with you, though: "I remember cold nights, no food, no lights, every day I pray, but my daddy never cared anyway." Damn.
Big K.R.I.T., "The Vent"
K.R.I.T. has said before that he prefers poetry to sports and what he's doing here is close to spoken word: One long verse backed by emotive pulses of synth with the right amount of goofy, confessional sincerity to make it really hurt. It's not that the girl isn't interested in him, it's that they shared a moment, and only that moment, and what next? That's, like, some Mrs. Dalloway shit. The best line here, though, is: "I never seen a star on a red rug / If I wanna see stars I just look above." What a clever way to deflate celebrity. Not the glamorous red carpet, but a red rug. How good is that?!
Mullyman, "Special Delivery"
Mullyman is a Baltimore rapper out of time and place. He's got the confident attitude of a classic Southern character like T.I. -- a little scary, really charming -- but he raps like a word-obsessive from New York's Tunnel era, with a bit of the out-of-control flow of a Golden Age weirdo like Greg Nice (or ODB later on). This freestyle over G-Dep's 2001 semi-hit "Special Delivery," captures all those disparate characteristics as he spits non-stop punch lines, and at one point even makes a bird noise or something. Dude just kinda goes off here.
Kanye West and Jay-Z, "H.A.M."
At first, this song seemed like an obnoxious victory lap. Kanye made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a straight-up masterpiece, so here he turns producer Lex Luger's thump into something all fancy with opera samples and junk. Plus, Kanye's verse kinda sucks. But Jay-Z's verse is ridiculous and his use of animal imagery to describe the hood predators he was up against when he was younger is inspired. Like, you can imagine some gritty underground comics-like anthropomorphic world occupied by feckless d-boy sharks and vultures, ya know? Months after its release and thousands of radio spins later, the bombastic strangeness of "H.A.M." is starting to make sense. What a weird hit song.
Ace Hood, feat. Rick Ross and Lil Wayne, "Hustle Hard (Remix)"
Ace Hood frames his aspirational raps around regular things -- your kid needing new shoes, for instance. And though Hood's verses are also concerned with the hip-hop hustle (like the other two MCs here), this song's "same old shit, just a different day" hook is universal. Rick Ross literally barks his way through his entire feature, and, really, just, like, fuck that guy; but Ace Hood is surprisingly effective, and Lil Wayne, whose verse is full of out-of-prison, word-obsessed joy, adds even more wear and tear to the hook thanks to his infamous croak. This is the only rap song on the radio with something at stake.
Cities Aviv, "Die Young"
This sure ain't fair to Cities Aviv, but think of Digital Lows as the anti-Goblin. Often just as brooding, ugly and, mean-spirited as Tyler, the Creator's sophomore solo effort, it's also about half as long, and never totally gives in to hipster nihilism. On "Die Young," producer Muted Drone loops Depeche Mode's "People Are People" so that it sounds like some noisy, no-wave, hip-hop hybrid, and Cities sounds a lot like Tyler when he tells listeners, "Fuck school, burn books, and drop out of college." But he doesn't stop there. He tells you what to do next: "And feel the strength of street knowledge."
DJ Quik, "Ghetto Rendezvous"
"I hate you so much it just shows / I hate you more than Michael hated Joe / And your son looks like a fuckin' Al Qaeda / I'm-a call him whop daddy because his chin is to the side, yo / Now that's the mark of the beast / You had a Damien in 1977, to say the least/ Your house is full of mold / Body full of yeast / I bet you baking a loaf of bread down between your cheeks / You stanky little rodent / Yeah, bitch, you molded / You'll never see your brother / That why your lungs corroded / Emphysema all in 'em / You can't hurt nobody / Ain't no toxins in your venom / You're just a grandmama in denim."
Soulja Boy, "Zan with That Lean"
Thanks to a rinky-dink, Atari carnival beat, way too much Auto-Tune, and some completely irresponsible rhymes that aren't grounded in anything resembling reality, this one's just ridiculously fun. It's also a shameless rip-off of YC's "Racks," only way better, so it kinda doesn't matter much. Combining dangerous, heart-stopping drugs has never sounded so fun! For real, though, don't mess with Xanax and lean. You nod off and your heart pounds so fast against your chest you think it's gonna dislocate your shoulder. And then your heart actually may stop. Shit's lethal. Be safe, kids.
International Jones, "Absolutely"
Towards the end of this song, International Jones (or Fiend or whatever pseudonym applies these days to this former No Limit soldier), slows down his deep-voiced rumble even more than usual and observes, "Even Bill Gates likes to get face," which is sorta profound. A big gross equalizer. We're all into the same stuff. You know that children's book Everyone Poops? Sorta like that. But if that type of, um, "insight" isn't for you, there's still dude's cushiony voice over the top of blissed-out glitch-hop. And there's also something or other about corporate bail-outs, if that's what you need to enjoy a rap song.
Riitz, feat. Yelawolf, "Sleep at Night"
Rittz's chick just wants her white, red-haired, aspiring-rapper boyfriend to get realistic and find a real job. But his new nine-to-five routine further stresses their relationship and when Riitz gets home, he's tired and his feet hurt and he just wants to relax and smoke weed, and soon enough, she bolts. Verse two finds Rittz discovering via Facebook that she's officially dating someone else. He hilariously reacts to photos of the couple ("What the fuck? That motherfucker got sandals on? You kiddin' me?") and resents new dude's imagined high-school diploma (she always wanted Rittz to get his GED). Rap needs more class-conscious break-up songs like this, doesn't it?
Wiz Khalifa, feat. Too $hort, "On My Level"
Jim Jonsin's sneaky, evil beat is the soundtrack for being all drunk and stumbling, and blunted youngster Wiz and old-head hedonist Too $hort are more than happy to lay out the laundry list of what drugs they've done, or are about to do, or are about to give to their friends: "Cocaine, mushrooms, ecstasy, GHB, marijuana." Hold up -- GHB? Really, Short Dog? Like most of Wiz's surprisingly solid Rolling Papers, this is big-budget stoner rap, but "On My Level" also has some teeth. If you're still pondering that Soulja Boy track, well, the act of zannin' with your lean feels a lot more like "On My Level."
Waka Flocka Flame, "All I Need"
Radio rap stole Flocka's producer Lex Luger. And in the "underground," there's this group called Death Grips, who are attempting a Flockaveli-for-grad-students style by yelling a lot, but also using big words. It's really stupid. Flocka himself has proven to be a bit more three-dimensional than anybody could've predicted, though. "All I Need" finds him upset with how he's perceived (notice, though, that he never utters the word "haters," genuinely classy) and he airs it out over a spare, genuinely gorgeous beat. This song's not all that different from K.R.I.T.'s "The Vent," if you really think about it.
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