2013 has been an amazing year for hip-hop. From Houston to Chicago to Los Angeles and New York City, rappers have been bridging the gaps between ‘conscious’ and ‘gangster’, ‘independent’ and ‘mainstream’ with surprising collaborations, competitive musicianship and sharp social commentary.
Leaving aside the Magna Carter/Yeezus/Marshall Mathers 2 mega releases, here are some (but far from all) albums, performances and breakouts that helped change the hip-hop game in 2013.
1. TDE Cypher at the BET Hip-Hop Awards
If Kendrick Lamar’s verse in ‘Control’ lit a competitive spark in the hearts and minds of his peers, the Top Dawg Entertainment cypher at the BET Hip-Hop Awards threw gasoline on the fire. In the 6-minute 22-second freestyle, featuring Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, Ab Soul and Isaiah Rashad, King Kendrick cemented his spot as hip-hop’s biggest threat (giving legitimacy to his brash braggadocio) and TDE made themselves known as the year’s best crew.
2. Pusha T releases My Name Is My Name
Following 15 years of post-Clipse obscurity, failed record deals and a saving cosign by Kanye West, Pusha T released his first solo album, My Name is My Name, in October on West’s GOOD Music label. The leadup featured an epic press run, in which Pusha stated with unflinching confidence that the album would easily be the year’s best. This claim seemed unbelievable, but ended up pretty close to the truth.
Named after a quote from The Wire, the album conveys a similar raw worldview - “Coulda been Trayvon… but instead I chose Avon”, Pusha T says on ‘Pain’. His pointed lyrics and snarling delivery bring a sense of dark urgency to his descriptions of street life. He does not shy away from politics or biting racial commentary. At the same time, his message is not patronizing, pious or prescriptive. It is not a condemnation of life on the corner, but a rejection of the unequal society that both fights and fosters drug culture - “We'll be growing poppy seeds on my 40 acres.”
Showcasing Pusha’s skills as "coke rap's poet laureate”, My Name is My Name paints a picture that is haunting, angry and unsatisfied, yet fiercely proud of the culture from which it came. If it isn’t the best album of the year, it is certainly the most powerful.
3. Cory Mo records an album, and gets some deserved recognition
Like Pusha T, Houston legend Cory Mo should have been in the limelight for the past 15 years. Beginning in the late 90s, he worked closely with UGK and the late Pimp C on production, touring and rapping. He has produced tracks for numerous hip-hop and R&B legends, and has released 11 mixtapes. So it’s surprising that it took until October of this year for him to release his first full length album, Take It or Leave It, on Talib Kweli’s label Javotti Media.
The album features collaborations with some of the south’s best, including Bun B, Big K.R.I.T., Devin The Dude and Chamillionaire, and is filled with perfect examples of that slow and dirty H-Town sound. While it hasn’t seen much chart success, it’s sure to be a slow-burn classic. Cory Mo just finished up a national tour with Talib Kweli and is showcasing at SXSW 2014.
4. Hip-Hop Returns to a New York State of Mind
From club hits to lyrically charged throwbacks, New York is back and vying for the spot of number one hip-hop city… Atlanta, watch out.
A$AP Mob: With A$AP Rocky in the realm of Super Bowl commercials and high fashion shows, 2013 was the year for A$AP Ferg to make his musical mark. His first single, ‘Work,’ was arguably the biggest club hit of the year, his debut album, Trap Lord, was met with glowing reviews (even at Pitchfork, as he'd predicted) and he embarked on his first solo tour of the country. Next up, keep an eye out for A$AP Nast, featuring on the Mob’s recent release ‘Trillmatic’.
Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era: Paying homage to the artists of New York’s hip-hop golden era, 2013 showcasing artists Joey Bada$$ and his crew Pro Era are proving that nostalgia has a necessary place in the new New York. Bada$$ utilizes vintage beats, samples, and a quick, smooth flow to create a throwback sound for a new generation.
On Indigoism, The Underachievers' debut mix tape (released in February), the Flatbush natives mix old school lyricism with new school beats. Their sound is characterized by trippy production, witty wordplay littered with drug references, and a tag team rapping style that is both fast and seamless.
5. J. Cole is all over the Radio. This time, without regrets.
J. Cole’s first foray into the mainstream did not go exactly as he had hoped. The release of his catchy, but uncharacteristically cliched, song ‘Work Out,’ in June 2011 was met with very mixed reception. It gained huge radio buzz and chart success (reaching #3 on the rap charts), but was criticized by many fans, peers, and eventually by Cole himself. In trying to appeal to a wider audience, he overshot the mark, compromising his musical identity and artistic integrity - “apologies to OGs for sacrificing my art,” he says in ‘Let Nas Down’, a song written about this specific regret.
This time around, though, he’s worked out the perfect balance. 'Power Trip', the first single from his June 2013 album, Born Sinner, is expertly crafted for radio success, but not at the expense of substance. A story of unrequited love, the song brings a degree of heartfelt honesty that is lacking in most bravado driven chart hits - “it's a different level of honesty that I feel like I have been trying to bring to the game,” Cole described in an interview with NPR earlier this year. The entirely self-produced track also saw Cole pairing with Miguel for a second time and is currently nominated for a GRAMMY in the ‘Best Rap/Sung Collaboration’ category.
Honorable mentions: Gucci Mane Tweets... alot, Juicy J meets Miley Cyrus, Wale vs. Complex’s ‘Best Album’ list, Everything 2 Chainz did, Riff Raff’s joins Vine, Migos ft. Drake - ‘Versace’, and of course James Franco and Seth Rogen - ‘Bound 3’.
Kendrick Lamar at SXSW 2013 - Photo By Tammy Camp, Cory Mo Live at SXSW 2013 - Photo By Sonny Castillo, A$AP Ferg at SXSW 2013 - Photo by Richard McBlane.