Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of 2012

Treble staff
Kendrick Lamar

Every year for hip-hop is as much about comebacks as it is debuts, but 2012 hasn’t so much been about veterans getting some skin back in the game as much as it has been a particularly good year for lifers in top form. Not that there hasn’t been a good showing from some younger emcees as well. One of the more impressive albums to romanticize the ’90s East Coast Renaissance came from a teenager. And on the West Coast, a 25-year-old delivered a sprawling opus of vision and artistry. All the while, some dudes from Sacramento dropped a pair of bombs that reinvented hip-hop by destroying it, in a manner of speaking. We listened to some good rap albums this year, some of which broke impressive ground, and these are the ten best ones to have been released in 2012.

10. THEESatisfactionawE naturalE (Sub Pop)

Seattle has rarely been acknowledged as a hip-hop powerhouse (not like Los Angeles or New York or Atlanta, anyhow), but the Emerald City is no slouch when it comes to beats and rhymes. The city is home to Sir Mix-a-Lot, for one, as well as more recent underground acts like Common Market and Blue Scholars. But when Shabazz Palaces reclaimed Seattle’s hip-hop crown with last year’s Black Up, the duo changed the game, so to speak. That group’s peers, friends and collaborators in THEESatistfaction took that creative impulse and ran with it, turning hip-hop into an abstract blend of poetry, soul and art, and slapping it with the title awE naturalE. Seattle duo Stas and Cat occupy a strange and beautiful place between the triangular points of Erykah Badu, Gil Scott-Heron and the aforementioned Shabazz Palaces, and inside this pyramid they make sparse, sampladelic magic happen. It’s surreal, funky, strange and hypnotic. A little unconventional perhaps, but a true artist rarely plays it safe. – JT

Read full review


9. JJ DOOMKey to the Kuffs (Lex)

That’s right, DOOM is still around (reportedly in exile) still dropping clever rhymes and holding his own. And if there was any doubt, look to “Guv’Nor” in which DOOM pulls the almost unheard-of feat of finding a rhyme for “Eyjafjallajökull.” However, Key to the Kuffs proved difficult to make. Producer Jneiro Jarel reportedly sent the beats over the Internet and got DOOM to lay down rhymes on his own. Despite the setbacks, JJ DOOM is one of the more overlooked albums that came out this year. The production on it is solid, particularly with tracks like “Banished” “Retarded Fren” “Bite The Thong” and “GMO.” While this may not be a staple in the DOOM catalog, it’s kind of refreshing to hear Metal Face again, given that so many years have passed on the supposed DOOM/Starks project, and of course a proper sequel to the great Madvillainy. But set those thoughts aside and take solace in the fact that DOOM can still weave a ridiculous, mesmerizing and spectacular flow. – GM

Read full review


8. Roc MarcianoReloaded (Decon)

If Roc Marciano’s Reloaded isn’t at the top of this list, it’s not for lack of skills. The onetime Flipmode Squad member comes hard with a formidable arsenal of wordplay and a production sweet spot between chillingly eerie and lush, provided by some East Coast pros, namely The Alchemist and Q-Tip. Roc’s flow is such that a first listen just isn’t enough to catch every reference, every clever rhyme or every pun. The veteran emcee has an enviable thesaurus, and his manner so icy that he scarcely breaks a sweat, even when spitting thusly: “I’m back for the crown, baby/ In the Avi’ that’s brown like gravy/ Style’s wavy, lazy eye Tracy McGrady/ Deliver like an 80-pound baby.” Where Reloaded errs is in its fairly narrow storytelling, but that hardly seems the point here. The way Roc Marciano raps is so dazzling that his subject matter being a secondary concern isn’t all that much of an issue. – JT


7. Death GripsNO LOVE DEEP WEB (Self-released)

The release of NO LOVE DEEP WEB turned out to be one of the most captivating moments this year. Released without any label involvement, due to delays, it became the one of the most downloaded albums of 2012. And true to the press release the band issued in late summer, NLDW is bass heavy and minimal. It’s got elements of club and dance music, if Tyler Durden owned the discotheque, that is. The production may be scaled down from its predecessor, but it’s still aggressive and uncompromising. That’s the style they started with and they’ve kept all throughout. Tracks like “Come Up And Get Me,” “Black Dice,” “World Of Dogs” and “Stockton” only prove how far this band will go to keep all ears pointed in their direction. The scrutiny Death Grips faced after this release from Epic was real; it wasn’t a publicity stunt to prove that punk still lives in a major label. While the business arrangement was questionable from the start, Epic at least held up their end of the bargain, for better or for worse, while Death Grips remained the most talked-about group in underground hip-hop. If The Money Store licked your wounds clean, NO LOVE DEEP WEB polishes those bones and puts them on display while MC Ride dances around them. WHOOP WHOOP. – GM

Read full review


6.NasLife Is Good (Def Jam)

Nas is the latest in a fairly long line of rap legends to grow a little contemplative and wistful as he approaches his forties, though on Life Is Good, he does so with a hint of irony. That’s his ex-wife Kelis’ dress he’s holding on the cover, for one thing. But while some bitterness abounds, Nas nonetheless chooses to spend most of the time celebrating. Even “Bye Baby,” one of the moments where he does directly address his crumbled marriage, isn’t so much angry as nostalgic for some good times now long gone. But the rest of the album is more the result of a veteran emcee having some fun and highlighting his talents more than engaging in the conceptual mumbo-jumbo that doomed his past few records. Not that he avoids seriousness by any means — “Daughters” is one of the most touching tracks he’s ever released. But Nas seems to no longer be all that interested in making a statement, just one hell of a good record. – JT

Read full review


5.Joey Bada$$1999 (Cinematic/Creative Control)

If you were to tell me that the boom bap was going to return this year, I would have been skeptical. And yet, here it is with 1999, a mixtape that resurrects old school New York hip-hop in its purest form. The beats, mostly produced by the Pro Era crew, are in fact, refreshing. While it may not be entirely game changing, it only proves that hip-hop can still merge a classic aesthetic with a fresh outlook. It’s all the more impressive coming from the young emcee himself, barely 18, and ready to take on the world, discussing societal problems that I didn’t start concerning myself with until well after that landmark birthday. Aside from the Pro Era production, J Dilla and MF Doom beats are present too, further reinforcing the tradition among purists. While hip-hop has been hijacked by skate crews and nihilists, Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era return to the form that made the genre great in the first place. Don’t be surprised if these guys are leading and changing the game in the next few years. – GM

Read full review


4.El-PCancer 4 Cure (Fat Possum)

Staying on the five-year-interval plan keeps Jamie Meline, aka El-P, from being all that prolific as an emcee, but the flipside to that is his album always arrive sounding as flawlessly crushing as possible. Cancer 4 Cure, El’s first since the death of friend Camu Tao and the shuttering of Definitive Jux builds up a pretty ominous head of steam before it gets going — a full three minutes elapse before he even utters a word. At 3:01, all hell breaks loose. Cancer 4 Cure is alternately clever and curious, hilarious and hellacious. Somewhere between a mission statement and an airing of grievances, Cancer 4 Cure is El-P standing his ground and turning out a few unfuckwithable bangers in the process. – JT

Read full review


3.Killer MikeR.A.P. Music (Williams Street)

As Dirty South rap goes, Killer Mike has never been one to court commercialism. To the contrary, Killer Mike focuses more on the dark side of the south. He recognizes the problems that were thought to have been resolved long ago, but still very much exist. R.A.P. Music is deeply political and socially minded, featuring some of the best lyrics put to record in the last few years. And blend with EL-P’s bombastic East Coast production, it makes for a spectacular and wild album. “Big Beast” starts the roughness, and was appropriately given a fucking awesome music video that displays the album’s raw, gritty artistry. “Reagan” marks an appropriate election year anthem, as it explains in vivid detail the fallout from policies and legacy of the late president, which have had a lasting effect on many and continues to inadvertently permeate rap culture. And in less than two minutes, “Go!” simply showcases Killer Mike’s incredibly paced delivery enough to outrun El-P’s beats. R.A.P. Music is a wonderful album and a fitting platform for Killer Mike to stand up and reclaim the attention he deserves for keeping the Dirty South strong. – GM

Read full review


2.Death GripsThe Money Store (Epic)

Let’s be clear — Death Grips don’t really give listeners many options. You either like or dislike them. But it’s almost impossible to be indifferent to their chaotic sound. Is it punk? Is it hardcore? It’s both, and yet neither; it’s hip-hop. While the samples are unconventional, along with the abrasive and brash lyrics of Stefan Burnett, this is rap achieving a new and unforeseen level of artistry. Effete snobs might not see it that way, but there are hooks and rhymes enough, not to mention surprises, to start a serious discourse. Death Grips don’t post their lyrics, but a second-hand transcription is worth the read. They’re like a horror movie, enough to give you thoughts and feelings of abjection and alienation. Ironically, “I’ve Seen Footage,” a song mostly about paranoia (“Stay Noided”) and violence in the digital age, is their most accessible track. It was even apart of a shitty MTV campaign where a bunch of spoiled rich kids were dancing around a pool. Whether or not you like it, it’s an album that begs to be listened to. It will lick your wounds clean, like any good album does. – GM

Read full review


1.Kendrick Lamargood kid, m.A.A.d. city (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)

Few albums in 2012 have lent themselves to the level of hyperbole as Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city has. Drawing comparisons to everything from Nas’ Illmatic to “Citizen Kane,” Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album is the kind of hip-hop epic whose numerous complex themes and sheer ambition is hard to overstate. At only 25 years old, Lamar pens a street memoir that’s as much a character profile of his hometown of Compton as it is a tell-all of his own path to adulthood. It begins with Kendrick driving his mom’s van to meet up with a girl named Sherane, detours into an artful re-imagining of a teenage freestyle, commentary on racial profiling, self-destructive vices and gang violence, a 12-minute opus that includes two dramatizations of Lamar’s own death, a block party in the name of Compton, and then ends where it began, with Kendrick borrowing his mom’s keys. The journey’s long and winding, complex, intense and affecting, not to mention the fact that it’s the single best display of rapping and production in 2012. I’d say that’s a victory. – JT

Read full review

Scroll To Top