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Breaking down the year in rap

By Alec Siegel

Section: Arts

December 7, 2012

Amid an oversaturated, Top-40 dominated music climate, these 10 artists managed to release albums that stood out above the rest. Here are the greatest hip hop and R&B albums of 2012.

1. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Kendrick Lamar released the year’s best album, hands down. The buzz he built with 2011’s “Section.80” culminated with this groundbreaking debut in which Lamar meets and exceeds all expectations. An extremely personal album, “good kid” provides the listener with more than just an intimate peek into Lamar’s childhood. A “short film by Kendrick Lamar” in every sense, the album proves Lamar to be lyrically and conceptually miles beyond his peers. This may be the first step in a long, illustrious career that could end with Lamar chiseled on the Mount Rushmore of hip hop.

2. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Frank Ocean sent shockwaves through the music industry before the release of his debut by revealing that he fell in love with a man a few summers past. While some pegged this as a risqué marketing ploy, others decided to simply appreciate the man’s music and witness our generation’s Stevie Wonder as he blooms to a certified star. “channel ORANGE” contains orchestral sounds and elaborate musical palates mixed with Ocean’s brilliant storytelling and songwriting. It makes for a beautifully layered experience that demands the listener’s attention to soak it all in. Plus, it contains one of the best songs in years, “Pyramids.”

3. Nas – Life Is Good
With 2012’s “Life Is Good,” hip hop legend Nas proves he can still hang with the young bloods and more than just keep up. His most personal album in years, “Life Is Good” shows Nasty Nas at peace. At peace with his past, at peace with his role as a father, at peace with his recent divorce and at peace with his current status in the hip hop world. The music on “Life Is Good” is wonderfully nostalgic, with dusty R&B samples, classic hip hop breakbeats and crisp, soulful drums. Nas uses this vivid landscape to paint a picture of a man living the good life—not in the material sense, but in the Zen-like state of peace we all strive to attain.

4. Brother Ali – Mourning In America and Dreaming In Color
Being a white Muslim rapper residing in America puts Brother Ali in a unique position. He can remain on the fringes of society, recording thoughtful observations of his country and the way it treats the different people inside it, all while crafting great music that appeals to an eclectic group of individuals. “Mourning In America,” another addition to Ali’s consistently solid discography, may be his most poignant, musical effort yet. At a time when it seems America is often the subject of an album, Ali’s comes out a cut above the rest.

5. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
El-P had an extremely eventful 2012. After teaming with Killer Mike to release another of my favorite albums of the year (see number nine), he released his fourth album, the darkly apocalyptic “Cancer 4 Cure.” El-P is known for his spacey, detailed beats that utilize obscure samples and video game-esque beeps and blips with his complex, concept-packed and syllable-dense lyrics. A brilliant commentary on war, the ills of a modern American city, having a lack of funds and simply as a medium for El-P to display his skills, “Cancer 4 Cure” will take many listens to fully digest.

6. Ab-Soul – Control System
Perhaps the most talented member of Kendrick Lamar’s TDE outfit (see numbers one and 10), Ab-Soul’s “Control System” is an album that explores the psychology of control. Self-control, control by the government and the potential for spinning out of control are all themes that Soul tackles in an extremely skillful way. Soul comes across as a spooky, all seeing prophet with his lyrical delivery that results in a quite engaging experience. “Control System” portrays Ab-Soul as a man on a mission, a man trying to understand the darkest corners of his mind and how it operates, not to mention a man who has a rare penchant for putting words together with clever punch lines and wordplay.

7. Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1
Since he arrived on the hip hop scene in 2006, Lupe Fiasco has been christened “The Chosen One,” or “Hip Hop’s Savior.” This is due mainly because of his rare lyrical ability and his gift to tell extremely detailed stories that connect in a symbolic, complex way. “F&L II” may be a preachy, self-righteous critique of America, but it’s equal parts enlightening, revealing and lyrically impressive. It contains songs that explore every aspect of America: music, cities, history, society and politics, as well as songs about what Fiasco knows best: hip hop. It’s these tracks where Fiasco shines, where his dizzying lyrics take center stage and are a joy to dissect.

8. Big K.R.I.T. – Live from the Underground
Southern hip hop comes attached with certain stigmas: dumbed-down lyrics and simplistic, repetitive production. Subject matter containing money, hos, drugs and murder. Big K.R.I.T. spins these stereotypes on their heads and delivers with the phenomenal “Live from the Underground.” Instead of falling in line with the aforementioned southern clichés, the album is steeped in soul: from its sonic backdrops to its lyrics that firmly place the listener in the middle of a sticky summer night on the porch of a rickety Alabama abode, with the birds chirping, the stars gleaming and the ice tea chilled.

9. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
An aggressive rapper from Atlanta paired with a producer known for his sparse, spooky production for primarily east coast artists sounds disastrous on paper. However, Rapper Killer Mike and producer El-P have been underdogs their whole careers and with this album prove that what doesn’t work on paper can in fact be golden if executed properly. Enter “R.A.P. Music,” the album that finds Killer Mike professing his near religious relationship with hip hop and his frustration with the machine and how hip hop allows him to deal with that. And El-P? He sounds just as furious and fired up behind the boards. If this is what odd musical pairings result in, I want more.

10. ScHoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions
ScHoolboy Q lacks the overall brilliance of Kendrick Lamar and the lyrical acrobatics of Ab-Soul, but he sits at the top of his TDE clique in terms of pure passion and feeling. The man makes you believe what he says, and “Habits & Contradictions” really lives up to its title. He rhymes about his sexual escapades in shocking detail just as quickly as he professes his self-awareness to how blessed he is to not only be in his current position, but to be alive with a healthy family. ScHoolboy Q represents the contradictory human being in all of us, and is nothing if not relatable.

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