?uestlove's Dilla masterpiece, Jackie Chain's masterful piss-take, and the return of Gucci Mane's kooky mastery
January and February were light on event records. Rick Ross' overrated Rich Forever seemed to demand we take it seriously simply because it's stuffed with starpower and executes its gangsta-rap cliches adroitly — and that just isn't enough. And when it comes to next big things, ScHoolboy Q's Habits & Contradictions, bogged down by alpha-male sex bullshit and a brassy embrace of the "cloud rap" aesthetic, is a step down from last year's direct, personality-filled Setbacks (even the Sacred Bones Records-like cover seems to be trying too hard). Typically, it was the feckless flow of free mixtapes, indie-label releases, downloadable mixes, and stray mp3s that made the early part of the year exciting.
?uestlove's Hot97 tribute mix to J. Dilla (download here) is extremely thoughtful and lots of fun. My favorite moment: 43 minutes in, when he deftly exposes the sample source of Common's "Dooinit" (Rick James' "Give It To Me Baby") by mixing between the two songs, as Mister Cee excitedly shouts along to the artfully chopped bass line. It's the kind of raw visceral appreciation of the legendary, cerebral producer that you don't get to hear all that much.
Jackie Chain and Nick Catchdubs' After Hours seems intent on knocking popular EDM down a few pegs by sampling ridiculous shit like Scatman John's "Scatman (Ski Ba Bop Ba Dop Bop)" as if to say, "so, you thought Flo Rida was gauche." It helps that Jackie's just a rascally, charming Fritz the Cat type who stays winning no matter what. On "Role Model," he soberly advises listeners, "don't look up to me, look up to your teachers," then boasts, "I'm the one who fucked the cheerleader behind the bleachers." And Catchdubs worked way harder on this thing than was probably necessary. His attention to sequencing and mixing makes what could've been a one-note, syrup-sipping, boner-popping, mixtape throwaway, one of the most addictive, eccentric releases of this young year (second only to Heems' Nehru Jackets).
Gucci Mane's Trap Back is a surprising return to 2009 or so, when Gucci was rapping ludicrously great, and totally deserved the "best rapper alive" label that no one was ready to give to a grunting, mumbling weirdo. On "Get It Back," Gucci intricately bounces rhymes off the Tetris theme, and "Sometimes" addresses his self-destructive tendencies with dark, deadpan humor ("Sometimes, I feel good, I be in the hood and I just ride by / Sometimes, I feel bad, I be in the hood, might do a drive-by"). Trap Back is an hour inside the troubled, adjective-stacking rapper's head.
A similarly immersive experience is Homeboy Sandman's Subject: Matter. The Queens undergrounder's aggressively provincial interpretation of hip-hop — nothing but wordplay, zero interest in hooks — reminds me of outsider art, where indulgence and closed-circuit world-building are all part of the appeal. "Canned Goods," a touching, naïve plea for mindfulness, is the kind of song that Common should've never stopped doing.
Some stray Internet raps worth your time: Mannie Fresh disciples Beanz N Kornbread's "Chick Fil-A (Love The Taste)," an absurd Valentine's Day lark thrown out to the Twitterverse. "Economy Of Tricknology," an ambitious, cogent, 11-minute rap about the history of money and privatization from Labtekwon, a legend in my hometown of Baltimore. Grip Plyaz's "Died (In Yo Pussy)" boils down a classic Richard Pryor routine into an obnoxiously catchy hook. Fiend's "Aqua Flow," is a freestyle over Washed Out's "Feel It All Around." I'd like to think this happened because the New Orleans veteran's a big fan of Portlandia.
And finally, those rare radio hits that never seem to get old. I will spare you more words about Tyga's "Rack City," but its spare charm is only enhanced by mix shows blending it into Drake's "The Motto". Rick Ross' "Stay Schemin" seems like it belongs to Drake because Drizzy's loathsome raps about Kobe Bryant's divorce are far more memorable than the Bawse's idiotic couplets ("Damn, life so short / Fuck it, I don't want to go to court"). But the song actually belongs to Beat Bully's melancholy production and French Montana's weary, Jim Ignatowski-like hook. I heard an insane house music edit of the song on the radio last weekend, but I can find no evidence of its existence on the Internet. I should probably see if Mr. Sherburne knows anything about it…