Hey! It’s 2015 now, which means another year in music has gone by, and that means I get to tell you all about what I thought were the best albums released in past year. Just like last year (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), these rankings are in no particular order and I wrote about them in pairs because I like to be different. Also, these are solely my opinions, but I listen to an insane amount of music, so my opinions are probably better informed than yours (no offense). Anyway, here we go!
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata :: Vince Staples – Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2
When Freddie Gibbs was asked how he came up with the original title for his collaborative album with renowned producer Madlib, Cocaine Piñata, he responded with this: “I’ma tell you the truth, man. I had a dream, dog, that I had a little baby. The little baby’s birthday was here and s***. You know I like Latina girls and s***, man. I want to say all of my girls speak Spanish and s***. Anyways, so the baby would probably be a Mexi-n***a or some shit. So it was like a little n***a-Mexican baby and shit. That n***a wanted a piñata, man, in the dream, man. I don’t know. I must’ve been cooking some dope or some s*** that week, because the n***a started hitting the piñata, and it wasn’t s*** but dope falling out the piñata. I was just like, “Damn, man.” They was just kids playing in the dope. They was just playin’ in the dope. It was little four-year-old kids hitting dope in piñatas. I don’t know. It was a crazy ass dream. So, I just called that s*** Cocaine Piñata.”
On this album, Gibbs and Madlib bring the world from which this dream was sent from to life. While Madvillainy, the cult classic from Madlib and MF Doom released ten years earlier, modernized the tale of the mysterious cartoon supervillain of the 1960s, Piñata revamps another character archetype: the dynamic lead badass of 1970s Blaxploitation films. Gangsta Gibbs plays the Shaft-esque protagonist, describing his triumphs and tribulations in this fantastical world as they are soundtracked by Madlib, who captures the essence of each scene perfectly with his soulful sampling. “Thuggin’” would be a fitting theme song for the narrative, best summing up Gibbs’ overall persona, as he lives this gangsta lifestyle simply because “it feels so good, and it feels so right”. Some of the album’s most memorable moments, though, are on songs like “Harold’s” and “Knicks” that provide glimpses into the more commonly relatable parts of Gibbs’ life, giving his character depth and differentiating him from the countless other trappers and bangers out there that are unable to match his bravado.
MadGibbs made a movie with Piñata, but on Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, Vince Staples puts together a documentary. “Back and blacker than ever, got sick of waiting for these actors to get it together / Still in them gutters all my brothers is birds of a feather, try to get this money ’cause my people done struggled forever,” Staples proclaims in the opening lines of the album, kicking off his story and detailing how truly difficult it is to be a young black man in America. “Locked and Loaded” illuminates the fact that the levels of violence and crime in poor black communities resemble the depictions of Blaxploitation films because it is the only way for these people to survive in a society that has oppressed them for so long. Over bone-rattling production from the esteemed No I.D., Staples rips into the institutions that have historically conspired against him, enlightening everyone of the harrowing reality of the black experience in America. Staples’ confidence and perseverance through all of these obstacles is remarkable, but his point is that living his life should not have been this hard for him to do in the first place. He’s fired shots into the belly of systematic oppression, and is praying that he doesn’t have to pop off too many more before it bleeds out.
There are two diametrically opposed paths that artists (or anyone, really) can take in facing the realities of the universe. They can choose to be prophets like Vince Staples, making us wise to the ways of the world and actively leading the journey towards a better tomorrow. On the other hand, they can choose to be nihilists, generally accepting of the insurmountable forces that hinder them and making the best of the situation they are stuck in. Migos, the trio of Atlanta rappers Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset, are the preeminent promoters of the nihilist ideology today. They carved out their own place in the musical landscape with their trademark “Migos flow”, the triplet-laden style that is often imitated but has never been owned with as much conviction, and have become the three kings of the nation of pleasure-seeking cynics.
With No Label 2 and Rich N***a Timeline, Migos continue to show that they can captivate an audience trying to turn up like no other. Both releases contain numerous smash hits, packed with instantly quotable phrases that are delivered with an unbridled exuberance. Listening to these guys, you just can’t help getting so riled up that you yell out the hooks to songs like “Pop That” and “Fight Night” a little too loudly. Migos manufacture endless excitement, and when you can provide yourself with so much elation, what’s the point in trying to change the rest of the world?
Lil B – Hoop Life :: Lil B – Ultimate Bitch
Lil B shatters the prophet-nihilist dichotomy, instead blending the two ideologies into a unique, generally positive perspective on life that he dubs “based”. In spreading this philosophy, Lil B assumes the status of The BasedGod, who is both an all-powerful deity and a Jesus-esque god-human, in total control while also living among mortals, teaching them the key tenets of the based gospel. Due to his Christ-like preternatural ability to connect with people, through his music, social media, live performances, and even college lectures, The BasedGod has garnered a horde of devout followers, who have dedicated themselves to being based and protecting Lil B at all costs.
Hoop Life and Ultimate Bitch, the final two of three total releases from Lil B in 2014, are a couple of his sharpest, most resonant efforts to date. Hoop Life is the closest thing to a concept album that Lil B has made in his career, a vaguely autobiographical work focusing on life as seen through the lens of a basketball player, or at least someone to whom ball is life. Despite the sprawling nature of the album’s 33 tracks, Lil B’s illustration of the trials that the ascendant baller has to go through on Hoop Life is adroitly crafted, using colorful basketball-specific metaphors to touch on issues that are universally relatable. “Pass The Roc” details the immense pressure to for the baller to play well as his personal life descends into turmoil, and how success on the court can provide a much-needed respite from the troubles of the real world. On the moving “Marbel Floors and Pain”, our protagonist realizes that he has arrived at the heights that he has strived for his entire life to reach, and reflects on how he had to push through a great deal of suffering to rise up this far from the bottom. The song that knocks the hardest, though, is “F**k KD”, a diss track directed at actual NBA superstar Kevin Durant, who had the audacity to speak ill of Lil B back in 2011 and has been victimized by The BasedGod’s Curse ever since. The BasedGod may be positive and accepting of all types, but if you disrespect the based movement, you will face The BasedGod’s wrath.
Ultimate Bitch is more of a typical release in terms of lyrical content, with Lil B primarily fixating on recurrent hip-hop tropes like guns, girls, and drugs, but as usual, his distinctive style and unparalleled charm set him apart from his peers. Tracks like “Gucci Shotgun”, “Swag My Bitch Up”, and “Think I’m BasedGod Remix” see B go in like no other rapper can over surreal, clamorous beats culled from the coffers of the mysterious network of based producers. “Girl When I Want You” is arguably the most romantic Lil B song ever, as an affectionate BasedGod declares that nothing can get in the way of his love over a beat built around a tender sample of Tamia’s “So Into You”. But the most powerful song that Lil B put out this year, and quite possibly the most powerful song of the decade, would be “No Black Person Is Ugly”, a breathtaking track that celebrates the beauty of blackness and proudly professes that black lives matter.
D’Angelo & The Vanguard – Black Messiah :: Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
After fourteen long years stowed away in solitude, D’Angelo emerged from his refuge as something greater than a prophet. He transformed into a messiah, now ready and able to liberate his people from the subjugation of modern civilization and deliver them into supreme serenity. With the support of fellow Soulquarians Q-Tip and Questlove, bassist Pino Palladino, drummer James Gadson, and songwriter Kendra Foster, D’Angelo harnessed his divine powers and created a sacred portal that will bring all of his acolytes into salvation. D’Angelo proves that he is prepared to sacrifice himself for the cause, declaring on “1000 Deaths” “I was born to kill, send me over the hill.” He asserts on “The Charade” that the promised progress on Earth has not happened and never will, and so you must hold out for the type of love found in the higher realm, a love described on “Sugah Daddy” and “Really Love” that satiates all of your physical and spiritual desires. This guiding light radiates from inside D’Angelo, and he vows that he will never “Betray His Heart” and abandon those that mean so much to him. He concludes the album by elevating out of this wicked world and drifting off into “Another Life”, pleased with the fact that we will soon be able to join him in this majestic bliss.
Flying Lotus examines this transition into the afterlife on his album You’re Dead!, expounding on the effects that impending death has on individuals and exploring the destination you cross to after departing the present world. The compositions that start off the album accompany the foreboding march towards death, but the zipping jazziness of these songs compels these marchers to dance instead of trudge, to enjoy life even while consciously knowing that the end is only getting closer. The climax of the album comes relatively early on with the masterful “Never Catch Me”, as the featured Kendrick Lamar lets all of his final thoughts cascade out of his corporeal being as he leaves it behind, embracing the darkness of death because he is certain that his legacy will live on forever.
The rest of You’re Dead! proceeds to tackle the post-death experience, which comes across as nothing like the notions of heaven or hell. Instead, the soul seems to travel on a common road, winding through a celestial dimension, which is initially startling (shown in the defiant denial of “Dead Man’s Tetris” and the racing “Turkey Dog Coma”) but slowly becomes more tranquil. The spirit eventually arrives at an oasis on “Your Potential//The Beyond”, offering the opportunity to peacefully rest for eternity, but the spirit is so determined to push on that it declines, maintaining on closing track “The Protest” that “we will live on, forever and ever.” The truth is that there never is an end. There is only evolution.
Chief Keef – Back From The Dead 2 :: Chief Keef – Nobody
Chief Keef is the embodiment of this eternal evolution, as his is a soul that has transcended the concepts of life and death to obtain a higher understanding of existence. Keef, who once responded to an interviewer saying he was sixteen years old by insisting that he was 300, defies age because he has already seen it all. As the title Back From The Dead 2 insinuates, Keef has negotiated his way across the thresholds of life and death multiple times, and the music that he creates with this advanced frame of reference is absolutely fascinating. The development that Keef’s soul has undergone has led him to become increasingly isolationist, as he has learned that what happens in this life on Earth has no bearing on anything after besides furthering the evolution of the individual soul. That renders this conscious life basically meaningless, and makes the idea of modern society seem foolish.
As he has gained greater awareness of his lonely existence in this inconsequential realm, Keef has become nearly self-reliant, producing most of the songs on Back From The Dead 2 himself and largely eschewing guest features (and also pissing off Interscope, which dropped him). Songs like “Faneto”, “Smack DVD”, “Swag”, and “Wayne” have the framework of model hip-hop hits, but have been inverted and contorted nearly beyond recognition, resulting in much more ominous messages seeping out. Keef has moved past the point of needing to adhere to any conventions, mostly stringing together incomprehensible verses that rhyme in the loosest possible sense over menacing instrumentals with brooding strings and off-kilter percussion. “Moral” repeatedly stops on a dime and dashes off in another direction, zigging and zagging in a desperate search for any signs of fulfilling answers to his existential enigma. He’s been walking through a dark tunnel for a long time now, sinister sounds besieging him, and is beginning to realize that there may not be a light at the end of it.
The majority of Chief Keef’s follow-up effort, Nobody, sees him still tormented by the apparent futility of his soul’s ultimate pursuit of a place where there can be pure and equal righteousness among all. Keef remains his air of indomitability throughout the first half of the album, but on “Hard” it is clear that his confident facade is crumbling. “Life ain’t that much,” he admits, but he also knows that there is no way to escape the tunnel, leaving him no choice but to “keep grindin’ hard.” However, he finally finds some consolation on the album’s title track, a triumphant tour de force that is easily the best song of 2014.
“Nobody” sees Keef come to terms with the pointlessness of his spiritual pursuit, abandoning the notion that he needs anyone else to be at his level of comprehension, and discovers that money can provide him necessary solace. Over an ingenious instrumental structured around a sample of Willie Hutch’s “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out” (which was originally made for the official soundtrack of 1973 Blaxploitation film The Mack) that is then combined with poignant drum parts and vocals submerged in autotune from Kanye West (who produced the track), Keef joyously proclaims his infatuation with money and the exaltation it brings him. “Remember when I was broke? They thought I was a joke,” Keef laments, briefly reflecting on his despair, but then he quickly declares his profound love for money with the swelling sentimentality of wedding vows. He knows that others, lacking the education and experience he’s had, will be skeptical of the virtue of this adoration, and so he drops in the line of dialogue from The Mack that opens the sampled Willie Hutch song: “You really don’t understand, do you?” Fantasy has become reality, with the Blaxploitation gangsta archetype manifesting itself in the flesh, the brother working out his insecurities by dominating all around him. Keef’s marriage to the money may not exactly be a holy matrimony, but it provides him more happiness than anything else ever could. Til death do they part.