There was an air of predictability in the slew of end of year lists. King Kendrick sat comfortably on the throne with Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt and (depending on the size of your nostalgia googles) Dre filing right behind. So with just a few albums dominating the critical conscious, what about the albums that fell through the cracks? When you’re done listening to “King Kunta” for the billionth time, welcome Nathan Stevens, our newest writer, as he combs through 10 excellent records that may have slipped under your radar last year.
“Carnelian” – Kill the Vultures
Minneapolis crew Kill the Vultures have made cracked and hookah smoking hip-hop since 2004, creating some of the most hypnotizing and utterly strange sounds of the mid-2000s. “Carnelian” (their first in six years) is another acid-washed and globe-trekking release. Producer Anatomy unleashes a wall of horns, guitars, and off-kilter percussion as MC Crescent Moon rushes through the thoughts of his feverous mind. It kind of sounds like if Aesop Rock had flipped his studio from a sweaty Brooklyn apartment to the basement of an Eastern Orthodox Church. It’s not an easy listen by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re ready for something completely different and want to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, reach for “Carnelian” next time.
“Days With Dr. Yen Lo” – Dr. Yen Lo
New York firefighter/rapper/shaman Ka has always had a knack for making the terrifying sublime, but by teaming up with fellow Big Apple ninja Preservation, he’s tumbled even further down the abyss. A concept album partially based on psychological thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” (the OG one with Sinatra in the lead role), “Days With Dr. Yen Lo” is the sort of hypnotism that’ll chill your blood. Preservation goes by the motto “less is more” allowing the music to be carried by simplistic percussion and samples that let the murk and horror creep in. As for Ka, if you haven’t been obsessed since he dropped “Cold Facts”, then you have some catching up to do. So sit back, relax, and let the brain washing commence.
“EarthEE” – THEESatisfaction
Seattle duo THEESatisfaction spin an enchanting mix of soul, R&B and hip-hop that’s all tinged with this awesome cosmic vibe. Not surprising since they’re good friends with galactic emperors Shabazz Palaces. But while Shabazz went even deeper into their universe spanning rhymes, THEESatisfaction found some more earthly inspiration in Prince and Erykah Badu. That’s not to say that it doesn’t sound other worldly, with singer Cat Harris-White cooing over syrupy backgrounds on the seductive “Fetch/Catch” and rapper Stas Irons serving as your interstellar guide with “Recognition”. It feels like it won’t be that much longer before Irons and Harris-White return to their mothership; might as well enjoy them now.
“Imani, Vol. 1” – Blackalicious
Once upon a time, Blackalicious was the duo that every underground hip-hop head had in their back pocket. The late ’90s and early ’00s held success after success with records like “Nia” and “Blazing Arrow”. But after an underwhelming follow up, MC Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel tried their hands at solo work and all was silent from the Blackalicious camp for a decade. Then out of nowhere came the spiritual salvo of “Imani, Vol. 1”. As the title implies, this is just the first foray into a planned trilogy of albums. The saga looks promising. Gab’s flair for tongue twisting punch lines hiding political fury is back in full force and old fans who kept spinning “Alphabet Aerobics” for the last 10 years will be delighted to see the duo haven’t lost an once of energy.
“Lil Me” – Wiki
Let’s talk about the most underappreciated hip-hop album of 2014 before we dive into “Lil Me”. New York trio Ratking’s “So It Goes” quoted Kurt Vonnegut and Nas with equal aplomb and, though it was uneven, it was gritty and curb-stomping enough to make Run The Jewels’ El-P shed a single tear. Ratking’s head MC, Wiki, got the itch to do some solo work under a year later and released the surprisingly ambitious “Lil Me”. Clocking in at over an hour, Wiki works with some of Manhattan’s finest on the boards and even reaches across the pond to grab U.K. Grime lord Skepta for a feature. What impresses even more than the fluttering production or guests is Wiki himself. His slimy flow once got comparisons to a young Eminem, but nowadays he’s just Wiki: nothing more, nothing less. And at 21, the future seems blindingly bright for the young and exciting New Yorker.
“Live From the Dentist Office” – Injury Reserve
Who knew something this fun could come out of Arizona? Desert weirdos Injury Reserve seemed to appear out of thin air and gleefully delivered one of the giddiest hip-hop mixtapes in recent memory. Often tagged with the “jazz rap” label, the trio certainty has a devotion to A Tribe Called Quest with the smooth as velvet “Whatever Dude”, but that’s undercutting just how zany these dudes get. Producer Parker Corey is obviously a fan of whacked-out horn samples and click-clack percussion. Except he’s an all around hyperkinetic guy, biting video game synths on “Whiplash” and making 2015’s strangest banger with “Everybody Knows”. Dueling MCs Ritchie With a T and Stepa J Groggs contrast each other perfectly, with Groggs playing the jokester with a laid back flow and Ritchie sounding like he’s hyped up on Capri Sun. It’s an absolutely delirious product. On “Whatever Dude”, Ritchie mentions his day job at the Footlocker, but something tells me his sneaker selling days will be behind him soon.
“RESIN” – Kill Bill
Kill Bill talks about self-loathing in the same dreary tones as Slug (from Atmosphere) and compares himself to Pikachu — all in one song. Really, that’s all you need to know. The South Carolina rapper was the dude in junior high that would beat you in a Yu-Gi-Oh duel then hand your behind to you during a rap battle an hour later. Over production that sounds like degraded Flying Lotus or Captain Murphy, Bill releases a track called “I THINK YOU’RE REALLY CUTE SO I MADE A SEX SONG ABOUT YOU” and openly discusses his own self-destructive tendencies. At times, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s a joke. But that’s probably the point.
“Time? Astonishing!” – L’Orange & Kool Keith
Kool Keith has a supervillain concept album under his belt, and L’Orange described his 2012 release “The Mad Writer” as “more of a fiction novella” than an album. So it’s not terribly surprising that these two teamed up to deliver one of the strangest narratives of 2015, filled with time traveling, red scare era soundclips and Madlib like production, filled with the haze of freshly smoked weed. The plotline might be mindwarping, but both L’Orange and Keith are at their smoothest here. Add in guest J-Live, Open Mike Eagle and Mr. Lif popping in on this madhouse, “Time? Astonishing!” was one of 2015’s sleekest affairs.
“Time and Materials” – Cavanaugh
“Time and Materials” is an album that will wedge itself into your subconscious and appear as a specter in your dreams. It’s haunting, nightmarish stuff — though that’s not too surprising with anxiety rap kings Open Mike Eagle and Serengeti letting their abstract worries flow over horrifying beats. Everything seems to work on dream logic; beats slip in and out of view while humming and droning in ways that are usually foreign to hip-hop. Mike and Serengeti also jump from idea to idea with little connective issue between subjects, making the project feel woozy and hard to follow. But, again, that’s not the point. “Time and Materials” deserves the genre tag of “unconscious hip-hop” — dealing with the all-too-familiar thoughts that only pop up during the dark hours when the monsters under the bed come out to play.
“Today, I Wrote Nothing” – Billy Woods
“Today, I Wrote Nothing” is as brutish in its construction as it is in aesthetic. Only one song lasts over four minutes, and the rest of the 24 tracks land in the one to two-minute range. It’s an exercise in pace and concise writing, with mystery man Billy Woods thriving in the stark textures and short run times. The production is jazzy in the loosest sense, with Woods working over stripped back piano lines and occasional interjections from horns. But mostly, it’s his gritty flow and snapping percussion. With song titles like “Warmachines” and “U-Boats”, Woods is wading through the nasty details of war that are so often hidden from the camera. Rest assured, you won’t be able to tear your ears away once Woods starts flowing.
Disagree with our choices? Did we miss anything? Let us know by tweeting us at @RhymeJunk.
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