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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Top 10 of 2014 - #6- #1

06. BIGREC & Diamond D - "DoomsDay"
When I first heard that one of my all time favorites was producing a full album for a Southern emcee by the name of BIGREC that I never had heard of before I was both very intrigued and a bit skeptic. After all I had heard Diam ditching samples and doing a bounce record on his last album to horrible effect. However, once the video preview and the first single, "Bullseye", hit every bit of skepticism quickly disappeared. Not only was Diamond bringing his classic boom bap production with smacking drums, cuts, and agressive rock guitar, BIGREC proved to be an absolute monster on the microphone - it's no wonder why a legend like Diamond picked 'REC to do an entire album with. REC's got a grimey voice and cadence that demands you to hang on to his every word, and his rhyme schemes and flow is straight up hardcore. Right from the bass and vibraphone heavy introduction of the emcee and album concept on "The Dawning" (Diamond really loves his vibes!), to the epic closing anthem "Nowhere 2 Run 2" where REC adresses how he got to where he got to, shuts up his haters and shines a light on his struggles "DoomsDay" is truly a coherrent album. "At the end of the day I got four basic needs - live, love, learn and leave a legacy for my seeds and it's real...", boasts 'REC on the aforementioned song. Even if "DoomsDay" would prove to be his final album he would leave a damn fine legacy behind.

I know BIGREC has been an active emcee for years but "DoomsDay" kind of feels like a debut album. Throughout we get to know who BIGREC truly is, speaking both of personal problems and victories, as well as touching on social ills in his community, while finding time to introduce his crew TH5PENTAGON on the incredibly hard "New Order". With Diamond D's dark and rugged production the posse cut is almost like a Southern version of a joint like "5 Fingaz Of Death", and the entire crew can definitely rhyme (Jawz Of Life was also featured on Diamond's last album "The Huge Hefner Chronicles"). Throughout the short but sonically and lyrically satisfying album, 'REC and Diamond D is supplying fans with true quality hip-hop. Produced by one of the best producers and written and performed by a Southern emcee with a delivery that is simply unbelivable. You can find traces of inspiration from the great classic masters like Scarface, Kool G Rap, Big Punisher, Rakim, and KRS-One in BIGREC's writing and performance - not in any negative way as in biting, but rather as an influenced emcee on a way to being an equal to his influences. Just check how he has no problem holding his own against R.A. The Rugged Man on the unbelivably funky bonus cut "The Dumb Out". As for Diamond D, he isn't trying to be something he's not here either - he's basically rocking his tried and tested production style, a few tracks are maybe a little more Southern oriented than he would put on his own album, but you could never accuse him of not representing boom bap and real hip-hop to the fullest. Some of the joints like "Abomination", "DoomsDay" and "The Dumb Out" wouldn't even sound out of place on a D.I.T.C. album. "DoomsDay" is without a doubt the most underrated album of 2014, and a great sister album to "The Diam Piece".

05. Freddie Gibbs - "Pinata"
Years ago, 2007-2008 say, some of my friends really were going crazy over this new emcee Freddie Gibb's mixtapes to date such as "Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs" and "Str8 Killa". Now people on this blog now that I'm an East Coast head to the fullest; it's just something about those dirty NY beats and overall style that speaks to my soul. So while I could clearly appreciate that Freddie Gibbs was someone who was a great artist and an ill emce - spitting real raw, thugged out shit but always with a twist (in other words he wasn't some boring run-of-the-mill thug rapper), I had a hard time listening to much of his music due to his choice of beats. The wordplay, while often quite simple compred to some of the more legendary rappers before him, was never dumbed down, his gravely voice was commanding and you definitely wanted to hear what he had to said. He also had a down south flow that put the vast majority of newer Southern rappers to shame. There was no question, that this guy was making true hip-hop straight from the soul and whenever he jumepd on a beat I fucked with he always ripped it - Shit like "Till The Angels Come" or "Freddie Soprano" or the EP he put out with Statik Selektah back in 2007 called "Lord Giveth, Lord Taketh Away".

So when Madlib and Freddie Gibbs revealed that they were gonna release a full-length album, with Gibbs exclusively on lyrics and Madlib exclusively on the beats I damn near creamed my pants. Madlib's been one of my favorites for a long time, though some of his more recent projects have felt way too thrown together or simply weak (e.g. parts of "Madlib Medicine Show" or having more than the otherwise excellent LP he did for Guilty Simpson feature more interludes than actual music). But "Cocaine Pinnata" is Gibbs AND Madlib at their finest, and though much of it wasn't recorded together there actually is a chemistry or a bond between these guys that is very evident throughout. The sonical approach of the album can be divided into two type of tracks - the raw, hardcore type of tracks where Madlib often takes a minimalist approach, relying on synthesizers and fat bass as well as the more classic LA type of Madlib beats that focuses heavily on soul samples. Gibbs sounds great over both type of styles - matter of fact Gibbs simply sounds great over Madlib shit. These type of sonics switches back and forth throughout the 60 minutes running time, making the LP a joy to listen to.

To be honest it took me a while to fully appreciate this project, though there were some tracks that really stood out that I couldn't stop revisiting. However after some time I came to the realization that "Pinata" is actually a real front-to-back banger. Among the harder more stripped down tracks, that often uses slamming drums, heavy bass and cocaine flavored synth melodies we find the opener "Supplier" and the old school flavored "Scarface" that together form a hard hitting introduction to Gangsta Gibbs and what's about to come. This makes way for "Deeper", which might very well be my favorite song on the entire album. The combination of Madlib and Freddie Gibbs here is simply incredible; providing addictive strings, beautifully chopped vocal sample, low-key bass which brings out one of Gibb's best written songs on the entire album, filled with quoables that I know a lot of us men can relate to. Another important track is "Real", the hard ass dis joint to Gibbs' former labelmate Young Jeezy that is not only one of the LP:s illest cuts, but stands as one of the rawest diss tracks heard in years. Using two equally fat beats (one agressive and percussion heavy, the other more mellow and soul sounding) Gangsta Gibbs is spraying quotables making sure no stone is left unturned when it comes to his relationship with Yeezy. "Ross said you scared to drop a diss record/ No nuts, now you get the whole crew looking weak/ That's why they ran up on you at the BET/ LA Red Carpet, yeah I was geeked, you couldn't take security so we couldn't take a seat ... Don't make me expose you to those that don't know you". Indeed!

17 tracks deep, many of these were released on limited 12" pressings beforehand which caused some upset fans but personally I really couldn't care less. It would've been a shame to leave out gems like "Terrorist", "Shame" and "Harolds" from the album. We must remember that great music and art is timeless! I could definitely see Freddie Gibbs carry the entire LP by himself but the guests are mostly on point. At least it's crazy to hear Raekwon and Gibbs together on "Bomb", and even better to hear him join forces with Scarface on another one of the LP:s finest moments  "Broken". AB-Soul jumps in on another one of my favorites - the LA anthem "Lakers'", and BJ The Chiago Kid always does a good job at crooning on songs like the almost already classic "Shame". I'm not going to front and pretend that there is not some wack ass guests on "Pinata" as well, most noticely on the final song which is an 8 minutes long rap showcase over a menacing Madlib beat that could make for a great posse cut. Unfortunataly, save for Gibbs himself the six other emcees (which includes Mac Miller and Domo Genesis) are straight trash and mess up the end of the album. However, the vast majority of the LP is fat as hell and IS the album I've been waiting for from Freddie Gibbs since the day I first heard him!

04. Diamond D - "The Diam Piece"
Diamond D's first major single was called "Best Kept Secret" and still to this day I think he's kind of underrated, as I would still place him among the five best producers in the world. However I've been more than mildly disappointed in Diam's latest few solo releases, such as "The Huge Hefner Chronicles" and "Grown Man Talk", but his outside production has for the most part remained top notch. Thus it seems to be a logic step for the BX legend to release a production compilation featuring some of the finest legendary emcees of the '90s. The result is "The Diam Piece", a 19 track offering that takes it back to the Bronx with Diamond working absolute magic with a sampler and endless crates of Jazz, Funk and Soul. There's a lot of smooth sounding shit on this disc, Diamond is a master at finding the perfect loops and blending in slick horns and keys in the same key to put over them, always with madly powerful drum programming. What I really love about "The Diam Piece" is that it really does come together like a one hour program of records Diamond D would produce on other cat's albums while still being cohessive enough to work as an album.

Real hip-hop heads will no doubt get hyped looking at the tracklist which includes guests such as The Pharcyde, Pete Rock, Masta Ace, Guilty Simpson, Chino XL, Grand Daddy IU, Chino XL, AG, Nottz, Hi-Tek, Bumpy Knuckles, Fat Joe, Chi Ali and many more. Usually when producers does albums of this type they just try to get 26 ill 16s, not caring whether the artists on the posse cut will sound at all good together or not. In the end you get 18 boom bap beats with 26 verses on how ill that particular emcee is on the microphone, something that never fails to get monotone. Diamond, like the true veteran he is, knows exactly how to put together an album, coaching the artists on their verses to fit the concepts while specifically tailor making beats for certain artists and making sure the guests sound right together. Like I said before Diamond is a top 5 producer for me, and though he had a rough patch during the early 2000s, he's back full throttle with his best album since 1997.

03. Pharoahe Monch - "P.T.S.D."
Ever since 1990 music fans have always been able to count on a few things - dope Pete Rock remixes; brilliant Ghostface and Nas verses and, of course, outsanding albums from Pharaoahe Monch. "P.T.S.D." is something of an Orwell's "1984" of hip-hop albums, and is a direct follow up to his previous outing "W.A.R." where the last line of defense have lost and the world is now run by machines and human tools. It's a bleak vision and one that Pharoahe does with conviction, and it's also very inspired by Monch recent dealings with depression, paranoia and mental illness; another team that ties the album together. Who the hell said you need a lot of skits and interludes to make a great concept album?

As I mentioned on several occassions during this list, the best albums have taken me a few spins before they truly sink in and make me realize their true brilliance. This was also the case with "P.T.S.D.". Don't get me wrong, I always liked many of the songs on the album but it didn't blow me away until I truly focused on it 100% and started breaking it down. From the first to last song, with impeccable and important skits, Monch has created another album that's close to a masterpiece, making him one of the most important artists hip hop has today. Every single song here are filled to the limits with quote - and quotes with important messages at that. Just take the album opener "Time2" and one of my favorite quotes from that ("Last year they hired me, and last week they fired me/ And I got all these bills to pay, so what the fuck am I supposed to say to my wife/ She's pregnant, and if our kid does not go to college he is irrelevant/ And my melanin makes me a felon/ And I just want to take this crack and sell it to the planet/ I'm a mechanic depressant mechanic who manages to frantically do damage to my brain with Xanax/ And it's like the word anxiety is branded to the back of my eyelids in a variety of fonts...."). I bet a lot of people that's gone through some real troubles in their lifes can relate to this album, and quotes/songs like this, which makes us relate to the music and perhaps even drop our masks a little bit. The song concepts and soncial backdrops keep switching up enough to make it interesting; take the two back-to-back tracks "Damage", which happens to be the third installment in Monch's celebrated bullet trilogy where the verses are written from the perspective of a bullet and describes how it is affecting people in it's way. It's another brilliant take on a classic Monch concept that still feels as fresh as it did on "Stray Bullet", not only thanks to the brilliance of the emcee ("I will ring your bell like Avon, before displaying some of my favorious tatoos (Trayvon)/ The Oscar award winning Ayiana Jones (hey Sean!)/ Swore to be cannon fodder for your father/ slaughter daughters, armor piercing more deadlier than Napalm...") but also the extreme chemistry he has with long time producer Lee Stone who truly does the concept justice

"Broken Again" was what set the proces off, using the classic theme of how when that true love gone wrong and it feels your world is crumbling around you, can be compared to heroine addiction. It's nothing mindblowing or truly original, but it's a good jam. Overall Pharoahe Mocnh has here created his most lyrically aware album yet, which is one hell of a statement, considering his catalouge. There's a wide range of different topics that all form together losely but close enough to make it a coherrent listen both lyrically, and with production from Marco Polo, Lee Stone, Jesse West, and The Stepkids, it's simply an amazing, well written, sonically pleasing concept album. Pharoahe is a true emcee's emcee, not only is he an amazing writer and composer with a flow others can only dream of, he also puts on some of the best live shows I have ever witnessed (I've seen him three times so far). "PTSD" is a great example of why that is so please don't sleep!

03. Cormega - "Mega Philosophy"
It's an amazing feeling when one of your most anticipated albums of the year turns out to be just as good as your highest hopes for it. After hearing "Journey", "The True Meaning", "MARS" and "Stay Focused Up" (plus seeing 'Mega and Large Pro performing together in Copenhagen in 2013) every hip-hop head worthy of such a title were in the know that these these two legendary Queens musicians could create a miracle that could stand the test of time. And deliver they certainly did... Although perhaps not in the fashion that some people had expected.

The album, clocking in at only 33 minutes, is extremely focused and cohessive and as That Guy With The Glasses stated in their excellent album promo interview for XXL, he had never before collaborated so closely with an artist on an album he had produced for. Meaning that the credits which read produced by Large Professor and Cormega means a whole lot more than on many other LP:s which similiar credits. 'Mega was very instrumental in the sound he wanted, helped Extra-P pick out samples, and overall had a lot of input on the production. This explains why "Mega Philosophy" both sounds a little different from the classic Large Pro beats, and also help explains the overall somberness of the album. A somberness that has grown out of Corey McKay's maturity as a man and an emcee. I can't think of many other rappers, except for maybe Nas (who's excellent "Life is Good" feels like the natural full-circle from "Illmatic" if you ask me) and GURU, that have gone through a life transformation that he's not ashamed to put on wax. Following Cormega's career has no doubt been a very interesting ride. From the agressive young, prison used, drug dealer repping QB hard heard on "The Realness" he has became both wiser and more skilled as a writer with each album. As any real man should, Cormega has evolved through life experience and he is glad to share his knowledge on "Mega Philosophy". Two tracks in particular was influenced by a trip that Cormega took to Africa in prepartion for the album - and they are definitely thematically stand-outs - "Rise" and "More". The way Large Pro incorporates African percussion during Mega's final verse, which touches on topics that obviously hit close to home on his trip.

This is overall such a well written and lyrically soulful album that I might dare to say that it 'Mega's finest outing as a writer/lyricist yet which not necessarily makes it his best album overall. Every song really let the listener into 'Mega's world and soul, touching on differnet themes that are important, pertaining to topics such as the industry, a couple of straight up welcome boast raps, jail life, honorability, family issues, and more. The somber tone that dominates much of the album really works well with the songs thematical structures, and together it forms what is close to a masterpiece in my opinion. If there is one thing that I can complain about after hearing about the album for such a long time, is it's short length. I know that the "Journey Remix" was originally slated for the LP, and so was "MARS", and I think they would both have made fine inclusions. Either way, this is a real gem of an LP, and I love how both 'Mega and Large Pro keeps growing as artists. I can't wait to see what the future holds!

02. MF GRIMM & Drasar Monumental - "GMV III - The Phoenix Program"
Actually the top spot is pretty much shared between "GMV III" and the album below, but I still might give a slight nod to the latter. Some might believe that because I have somewhat of a personal relationship with the artists behind the "Good Morning Vietnam" series to be a warning signal of bias. Trust me when I say that that couldn't be further from the truth; in fact it was when I first reviewed the original first volume of the album and put it as the #1 album of 2012 (I think it was) that we really started building. And in my honest opinion with each succesful installment they have only became better and more refined. After placing "GMV II - The Golden Triangle" as the best album of its year I was a bit afraid, to be totally honest, that I wouldn't like the third volume as much and have to give it a much weaker review. Because trust me, that's exactly what I would have done if that's what I felt - I'm a blogger, but I take this as serious as cancer. Besdie that I felt that the two volumes that already existed formed such an extremely dope album together (clocking in at around 60 minutes together) that was about as close to perfection you will ever get these days in hip-hop (hence the rare 5/5 rating). I was simply worried, despite knowing what Drasar and MF Grimm was capable of to say the least, that a weaker volume would mean they be started to repeating themeselves. I mean 100+ minutes by one MC, one Producer, and with one concept could get pretty repetitive in the wrong hands. But these were minor concerns, more than anything I was just HYPED!

And worry I sure as hell shouldn't have done. In fact "GMV III - The Phoenix Program" is even better than its two predecessesors while it's clearly also a continuation. To me it feels that what begun on "Good Morning Vietnam" (the track and the EP) has truly come full circle on "The Phoenix Program". Everything is more refined, Drasar has transformed into one of the deadliest secret weapons around armed with an MPC and a record collection, and MF Grimm's verses are now so truly focused on the Vietnam theme and playing around it in a meaningful way that it's just unbeliveable. It's like "Good Morning Vietnam" on steroids. Once again digital and CD buyers gets the 45 minutes long album as two 22 minutes long files - split exactly like the vinyl sides. That right there is a statement of taking it back to forcing the listener to listen to an entire album front to back, and it also puts as much pressure on the artists to be sure to be interesting for that entire time.

Drasar and Grimm does just that - MF Grimm's wordplay and thematic structures are some of his best yet, and he touches on it all; from the political angle (big up for the diss to Henry "snake in the grass" Kissinger), the soldiers in the trenches, the conspiracy "theories", and some really deep stuff like the Icex program (you can learn a lot from this record - look up words you don't know on Google, because they truly did their research on this) on the magnificent "Glaciers of Icex". Then you got Drasar, who according to Grimm is the best collaborator he has ever worked with, and it's easy to see why. Drasar has a totally unique way of producing music, forget about four minutes loops, no matter how dope - he truly produces like a DJ, it's almost like he's having MF Grimm rhyme over a super well thought out beat tape. Whatever you think of the album, one thing's for damn sure - you will not be bored for a second. New ideas and samples are constantly introduced, beats are switching up and then returning to its original form, bombs are dropping while turntable excellence by Drasar and Vendetta Vinyl artist DJ Fooderz takes form behind Grimm's calm but deadly delivery and well written verses takes us back to a time when hip-hop was played in the parks and wack MC's and wack DJ's would get booed of stage. An excellent closing to the "Good Morning Vietnam" saga, and I'm eager to see what these gentlemen wil be cooking up next when dealing with a new, fresh concept.

01. Souls Of Mischief + Adrian Younge - "There is Only Now"
Picking between Souls Of Mischief and Adrian Younge's "There is Only Now" and MF Grmm & Drasar's "The Phoenix Program" for the #1 spot was a tough ass choice, as they are two very different albums. But ultimately I think the Souls LP might have the slightest edge for me here. Souls Of Mischief's debut album "'93 Til' Infinity" will always be remembered as one of the best hip-hop projects of all tme, and the LP that set off the Hieroglyphics movement. Unfortunately, if you ask me, the quartet (consisting of A-Plus, Phesto, Opio, and Tajai) have never managed to reach that high height again (despite a lot of ill tracks and sick Hiero albums. In 2009 they hooked up with Prince Paul for "Montezuma's Revenge", which in fact is a very underrated album - still it was far from an album of the year in 2009.

Then you got the young music composer, multi-instramentalist and proudcer Adrian Younge, a lover of Soul Music and Hip Hop who first rose to prominence through the soundtrack to the hilarious Blaxplotation parody flick "Black Dynamite" (if you haven't seen that gem yet, do so ASAP). This was followed by a brilliant album inspired by Italian Soul / R&B soundtracks created by Younge with his live band Venice Dawn, "Something About April". This was released on Wax Poetics, and led to the two albums that really cemented Younge's name on the urban map. First and foremost, he single handledy brought back William Hart and The Delphonics for one of the greatest Soul albums of the 21st century, which was then followed by a concept album with Ghostface Killah called "12 Reasons to Die". Come to think about it, "12 Reasons..." actually made the top spot on last years list. And both albums definitely have a lot of things in common, but if I was gonna make a choice between the best of the two I would actually give the nod to the Souls LP. I feel that Younge has now truly mastered his craft, and while I love the storytelling of Ghost's album, the concept of "There is Only Now" is even more well rounded.

If the album was created in the same way as the Ghost album, Adrian Younge came up with a basic story for the emcees to work around and develop. On it's most basic level it's a kidnap story but there's more than first meet the ears, and this is definitely an album that you'll have to listen to several times in a focused mindstate before you get the full grasp of it. Once the album kicks off with the smooth jazzy funk of "Time Stopped", the four Souls are out cruising the town together when they suddenly find themeselves in the middle of a shootout. On the other side of the barrell is Womack, brilliantly portrayed by Busta Rhymes, who reminds us why he once used to be considered a truly great emcee on an interpretation of the "Scenario" beat ("Womack's Lament"). In the "Panic" that ensues A-Plus, Opio, and Phesto reflects in a panic state about the situation while also confirming that they are OK. However they now realize that Tajai has been kidnapped. All this is taking place over an absolutely brilliant Younge composition filled with flutes, Rhodes, tight drums and a heavy bassline that truly brings back memories of classic '90s albums like "Midnight Mauraders" and "'93 Til' Infinity". In fact the story takes place in 1994, something I didn't even realize for the first several listens, which is the reason for making the album sound like a lost classic hip-hop album from that year - something it actually succeeds in. Before the albums release Younge said that this project is made for people who love and miss the classic music of artists like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Hiero crew. Suprisingly Younge and Souls succeeds without coming off as pretentious, nostalgic or simply repeating past glories.

"There Is Only Now" manages to both sound like the classic '90s East Coast boom bap and come of as fresh and innovative. There is several reasons for this - the music on here is extremely well crafted and gorgeously played. Younge and his band is of course playing all instruments live here, but running it through samplers, chopping it up and producing it in a vintage hip-hop fashion that truly gives it a unique sound. Not knowing that this was all live instruments, one might even quite easily be under the impression that the album is produced using a sampler and a library of dusty 12" vinyl of rare jazz and funk. Electric bass, thick drums, various horns and the beloved Fender Rhodes piano are main staples in the production of the 19 cuts found here. The CD comes packaged as a double disc that also includes all instrumentals, and the instrumentals has also been released on wax and tape. This is a great thing as the album actually works really well as a front-to-back listen in both its vocal and instrumental version (of course the vocal version is superior). A reason that Younge has managed to capture a form of that classic Native Tongues sound is the contribution of Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest. While he's not directly credited as co-producer or instrumentalist for more than a couple, three songs the legendary DJ and producer influence and presence can be felt throughout (musically speaking, although he is also playing a fictionalized role of himself narrating the album through radio intermissions). In fact Linear Labs Records also made a 5 track EP of selected stand out tracks from the album that's been remixed and revamped by Muhammad. It's an interesting take on the material that I also strongly recommend my readers to seek out.

Another important reason to Souls Of Mischief's fifth studio album being their greatest since their debut is the freshness of the lyrics and their driving home of the concept. It's like the combination of Younge's music with the clever storyline really bringing the best out of A-Plus, Opio, Phesto and Tajai. Seriously, I've always known these dudes were good on the mic, but throughout this LP I was constantly blown away by their wordplay, cleverly written rhymes and their chemistry together. This also includes the guests Busta Rhymes, Scarub, Snoop Dogg, The Delphonics / William Hart and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who all help make Souls and Younge in creating one of the most cinematic albums you can imagine and the best project released in 2014. 

1 comment:

  1. Souls Of Mischief number 1....LOL, nah seriously that's funny. I listened to that souls of mischief album once and couldn't wait to delete it off my hard drive.