50 Best Songs of 2014

“where is your drive?” –Theo Parrish.

i do not pretend at broad canonical authority: this selection focuses on very specific musical axes that interest me. but it also makes an argument about What Matters, both within and without genre, and an argument that the areas I’ve focused upon are more exciting than most others in popular music 2014: namely Chicago rap artists, rap artists generally, Nigerian pop artists, certain strains of dance music, etc.

artists may not compete for TRL space any longer, but i am drawn to artists who look outward and to a plurality, those who envision the entire world as their outer limit. for many, young thug did that this year. it’s not that he’s weird; lots of people are weird. instead he makes weird a new normal

so does chief keef, who some had feared had gone too far off the deep end but instead seems to have pulled his audience with him. while young thug is in his imperial phase, he’s also still just establishing his language. but keef has left the 2012 edition behind to deepen his artistic and emotional breadth. although he had a few great melodic moments (I like “Oh My Goodness”) it was the seething anxiety of his rapping-for-rapping’s-sake records that seemed to best capture not just his own personality, sparking to life in the shadow of American cruelty, but something broader in the darkness of the current national moment. like it or not he is an auteur, not a mere hitmaker. or alternately and equally, he is a hitmaker, not a mere auteur. i have confidence Thug will evolve narratively as well, and thankfully quan provided the heart to make the Rich Gang tape the best rap album of the year.

“Shmoney Dance” is better than “Hot N****” though i understand choosing the latter as a single if you’re worried about getting locked up before you could build upon the former song’s advances. “Hot” was the more obvious & immediate hit but also rode pure intangibles, where “Shmoney Dance” had ideas: wall-of-sound adlibs, Atlanta by way of Chicago back to New York, a perfect midpoint of NY-Chi swag and the balance of Rowdy Rebbel (the better solo artist?) and Shmurda. it was—like everything from “Coco” to “Try Me” to “We Dem Boyz”—2012 Chi derivative, but in a much more fresh and promising way

one of my favorite pieces of writing this year was Alex Ross on the relationship between pop culture and power—the pendulum swing back towards an unreconciled conflict between art and politics. “Babylon System” (#24) operates well as a 2014 theme song, a year of pessimism and charged, righteous anger in the face of elusive, immovable enemies. While the waves of UK’s soulful garage (Duke Dumont, Disclosure) crashed on U.S. shores at the end of 2013, the dark, muscular apprehension of tracks like “Keep Calm” (#37) and “Gladiator” (#9) would have better fit the national mood

on a related note, anyone who has been listening to rap already knew. not that the new attention isn’t a net positive, but it was never a secret, as Kap G suggests here (#44). just yesterday newcomer Manolo Rose (#48) threw his own hat into the ring, right around the same time Mick Jenkins did the same. I am very excited about Mick Jenkins as much for his potential as his recent tape The Water(s). It is risky to be so bold, so direct, not only because the whims of gatekeepers may conspire against you (see: Michael Jackson) but because there’s a real artisticrisk for this kind of work: the dangers of didacticism, of letting propaganda overwhelm the art. it’s become unfashionable, and he seems unconcerned about that, and that is inspiring leadership and I will take that over one thousand Chief Keef clones any day

for some Stitches is nothing more than ironic foolishness but relative to other gimmicky nonsense (Riff Raff, Spooky Black, Yung Lean) he at least had a grasp on the structure and spectacle of a fully committed pop record, rather than relying entirely on a winking joke. i cant say I believed in this ideologically, but it nonetheless meant…something. I wonder often what happened to the Slipknot/KoRn fanbase of the early 2000s, and if in a failing major label system new artists have filled the void; rather than a Vice Records novelty act, I could see Stitches finding success in an exurban lane, or just becoming a time capsule artist that will forever remind us of the naiveté of spring 2014

Nigerian music of course took up much of my year because I sincerely believe it holds the keys to music’s future the way James Brown once did, or Chuck Berry, or Timbaland—anyone who understood rhythm as popular music’s driving force. it’s not merely important music, it’s also compulsively listenable; it makes everything else seem less substantial, more staid in the contrast. as hip-hop and R&B struggle on the American charts, it suggests a future where all compete on even terrain: EDM, hip-hop, R&B, ‘uptempo rhythmic pop,’ it all exists within the contours of Nigeria’s fingerprint

rap music has not abandoned this forceful new territory, as Mudd Gang’s beat for “Jockin” (#33) demonstrates. and Tree remains one of hip-hop’s most original and under-appreciated producers (and as often as ‘under-appreciated’ is thrown around these days, it makes it doubly true for MC Tree G). yet most important to me were artists who sustained as writers, as rappers, as lyricists. I appreciated Jacka’s philosopher-militant (who else spits “Nature of the Threat” bars on a weed record?) on What Happened to the World. or the raw pathos of Percy Keith’s “Stories Part 2.” Although I had to nix it at the last minute for space, it’s been good to see AR-Ab’s returned from prison with his taste for shock and awe street punchlines unharmed. Dreezy is a lyrical monster and her technique is used purely in the service of her ideas on “Chiraq.” And naturally it’s a rapper of my generation, Vic Spencer, carrying the torch for Redman in an era when that particular lyrical style almost feels forgotten

I survived this year reasonably unbruised but I cannot say the same for some of the people close to me, never mind those whose stories have made headlines, and this knife’s edge mood seemed to refract throughout the culture. there are moments of cutting bleakness throughout this list though it was unintended. The list climaxes with Kris Kross-esque pop-rap innocence (Totally Krossed Out cassette was the first tape I bought as a kid) but it exists as the counterpoint to records like YP’s urgent “Thinkin Bout” (#15). at once a search for meaning and a grim suspicion that this ineffectual search itself is what sustains us, “Thinkin Bout” exists at the intersection of the political and personal, at the collision of doubt and drive:

i be thinkin bout the bucks, it be hard to rap
cause the world keep spinnin’ like a laundromat
i be thinkin bout the shorties, they the new bunch
and any sudden moves they shoot some’n
they just think because you’re lyrical you’re posed to be political, let it go
I ain’t never hypocritical
see i be thinking bout the times i done been there
and loved ones disappear in front of thin air
I be thinkin’ bout if n*ggas wanna pull the trigger
and I be thinkin if God really hear a n*gga

50. Rowdy Rebbel feat. Bobby Shmurda “Shmoney Dance
49. Johnny May Cash feat. SD “Where I’m From
48. Manolo Rose “Dope Man (All About the Money)
47. Stitches “Brick In Yo Face
46. Lil Chris “Keep Your Head Up
45. Chief Keef “Bussin
44. Kap G “Fuck La Policia
43. Lil Debbie “Slot Machine
42. Tree and Chris Crack “Chicken Pock
41. Percy Keith “Stories Part 2
40. Lupe Fiasco feat. Ty Dolla $ign “Next To It
39. DJ Quik “F*ck All Night
38. ZMoney “Dope Boy Magic
37. Anton Romero “Keep Calm
36. SD “Circles
35. E-40 “Choices
34. Sam Smith “Restart
33. Breezy Montana, DLow, and Stunt Taylor “Jockin
32. Davido “Aye
31. Nicole Scherzinger “Heartbreaker
30. Chief Keef “Earned It
29. Dreezy “Chiraq
28. Nipsey Hussle feat. K-Camp “Between Us
27. WizKid “Show You the Money
26. Lauryn Hill “Black Rage (Sketch)
25. King Louie “Live & Die In Chicago
24. Hodgson “Babylon System
23. The Jacka feat. Dru Down and Joe Blow “The President’s Face
22. Guy Gerber and Puff Daddy “Let Go
21. Vic Mensa “Down On My Luck”
20. White Gzus “Money Up”
19. Adrian Marcel feat. Sage the Gemini “2AM
18. Speaker Knockerz “Erica Kane”
17. DJ Xclusive feat. WizKid “Jeje”
16. Chief Keef “Sosa Style”
15. YP “Thinkin Bout”
14. Jeezy “Holy Ghost”
13. Vic Spencer feat. Tree “Profound”
12. D’Angelo “Really Love”
11. DJ Khaled feat. Chris Brown, August Alsina, Future, and Jeremih “Hold You Down”
10. Davido “Owo Ni Koko”
9. RS4 “Gladiator”
8. Moodymann feat. Andres “Lyk U Use 2″
7. Lil Kesh feat. Davido and Olamide “Shoki (Remix)”
6. Chief Keef “Make It Count”
5. Kehlani “FWU”
4. Rich Gang “Flava”
3. Dr. SID feat. Don Jazzy “Surulere”
2. Kevin Gates “Movie”
1. Rae Sremmurd “No Type

And 25 Albums in no real order…
BeatKing Gangsta Stripper Music 2
Kelis Food
Mouse on tha Track Air Time
Lil Boosie Life After Death Row
Common Nobody’s SmilingMoodymann Moodymann
Run the Jewels Run the Jewels 2
Tree The Tree EP
D’Angelo Black Messiah
Kevin Gates Luca Brasi 2
Starlito Black Sheep Don’t Grin
YG My Krazy Life
Cormega Mega Philosophy
Lil Herb Welcome to Fazoland
A-Wax Pullin Strings
Mick Jenkins The Water(s)
Tinashe Aquarius
King Louie TONY
Chief Keef Back From the Dead 2
Theo Parrish American Intelligence
The Jacka What Happened To the World
Mr Twin Sister Mr Twin Sister
Kehlani Cloud 19
Rich Gang Tha Tour Part 1
DJ Neptizzle Ultimate Afrobeats 2014

Second Best Duo Since Outkast

Written by Dwight C @KeepDwightGirl

Understandably lost in all the Rich Gang mixtape hype, “I Need War” off the new Hustle Gang tape is the second collab from Clifford and Jeffrey. TI’s flow has always been there but something had been missing lately – consistently fire beats. Don’t know what channel producer Lil C was watching late one night that still plays Old El Paso commercials and inspired this beat, but salute that program director for being the spark that lit that match. Likewise, Thug must’ve been ordering wings and paid for it with a new hundred, cause his blue cheese line on the hook is probably the greatest thing I’ve heard him say. And I understand what he says almost all the time, unlike the narcs who complain they can’t. After hearing these last few cuts hopefully the tide is turning. The tide of the war. The war of TI vs himself. But not TI vs TIP, cause that was cool. War on, TI.

Key! and FKi’s Unlimited Potential

Written by Dwight C @KeepDwightGirl

If you keep up with Atlanta’s rap scene (you should) then you’re probably no stranger to Key!, or at least seen the name on blogs you frequent. (If not, follow better blogs.) FKi, production duo responsible for a slew of recent Atlanta jams, “Make It Rain” “Bring It Back”, “FDB”, and “Get TF Out My Face”, and not to mention Jeremih’s “All The Time”, have been rapping for a while now. Well guess what. They released a joint EP a week or so ago titled FKEYi and it’s worth a spin. The stand out offering off of the collab, which also seems to be gaining the most traction according to advanced analytics (my Twitter timeline and subsequent Twitter searches of the lyrics) is Limit. Limit features Key!, First (of FKi) and Ferrow reverberating over a smooth beat laced by FKi and Slade. Key!’s on the verses, First is on the bridge, and all three combine for the hook. Who doesn’t love soft-voiced girl hooks on mellow Atlanta beats? One time, that’s who. Fuck one time, boot this one up a few.

Catching Up with Waka Flocka Flame on “Re-Up”

Written by Scott Brown (@blackbeanage)

A couple years ago when talking about who’d he work with on his second album, Triple F Life, Waka stated all he needed was Southside, currently head of the 808 Mafia crew, and Lex Luger. Waka put an emphasis on remaining loyal to his team of collaborators—sans Gucci Mane, so even Chaz Gotti is featured and shouted out his newest mixtape Re-Up. Despite this claim of crew love, there aren’t any beats from Lex Luger on this tape and the best songs are arguably the ones 808 Mafia’s Southside didn’t work on.

“How I’m Rockin’” strikes me as a great song on the mixtape and there’s something to London on the Track and Waka’s combination. The depth in London’s sound facilitates Waka’s venture into more refined melodies and flows than his go-to team 808 Mafia. It’s as simple as development requires new surroundings and soundscapes, which London on the Track and Metro Boomin are providing. Maybe I’m just reaching to get another “My Life“-type collaboration in the future.

For better or worse, Waka Flocka Flame has been flowing and rhyming more and yelling and “Dem Gun Sounds” mimicking less. Energy is never in shortage here, which is the least one could ask from Waka. Thankfully, Re-Up is a sweet and short mixtape. There are tracks like “Lottery” that would be boring if there wasn’t as much yelling. It’s a track I could picture this being a song by Plies, a rapper who has tried to reinvent to reinsert himself into the rap discussion with little success. Young Thug is a highlight on “Ain’t No Problem” but it’s interesting that Waka is pretty comfortable within Thugger’s weirdness. But he able to puts everything together on “Word to the Wise,” where his energy via loudness and adlibs sounds as if Waka is almost out of breath half way through the two verses on the song. The song used a beat from rising producer Metro Boomin of “Karate Chop” fame, a selection that shows Waka is still keeping up with the current rap landscape.

The thing I’d like to know is if this mixtape is eleven songs short to be a compact, quality over quantity offering. There are interesting features from Young Thug, Too Short, Young Scooter which lead you to believe there was thoughtful selection. Especially compared to Roaches to Rollies, which mostly featured other Brick Squad Monopoly artists; on the other hand, Re-Up unfortunately ends with songs that are just overproduced demos.

Link: Waka Flocka Flame’s Re-Up

Who Is Que?

Written by David Turner (@dalatudalatu)

Talent has never been important for a lasting rap career. The key is even less tangible, but far more valued: Persona, either on or off the record or preferable both. Unfortunately Que struggling to prove he has either.

Titled Who is Que?—a SEO for-pay rap release, genius—the brief EP doesn’t give much time to answer that question. “OG Bobby Johnson” was the single that justified why what was originally announced as a mixtape turned into an EP, but it wasn’t his first “hit.” Last year with the still just buzzing Migos, Que got a hit with “Young Nigga,” a song of that repeated the title phrase to a point of extreme meaning. There was a kind of an inclusion that appear in the track, as if it was really only meant to be for his #newatlanta rapper and producer friends. The song was a basement recording studio anthem that made far too much sense in clubs and cars.

The same crew love aspect applied to “OG Bobby Johnson,” which is named after the song’s lone producer, Bobby Johnson. Unlike the looseness of “Young Nigga,” “OG Bobby Johnson” shows Que as a rapper whose commitment to rap might be a little too much. Where some songs falter after a verse or have a bum line, Que doesn’t allow for that to happen, so the technetronic beat is given equally robotic verses that lock into place. Perfect singular song, but is a hard style to keep interest and successfully repeat. But Que still tries. “From the Jump” and “Time” are stilted triplet rhyming patterns that can be grating with the three members of Migos and certainly so for solo artist. Que and Migos on “Young Nigga” did have something really spark, which Migos picked up and made flourish, but Who is Que? cannot make that connection.

Link: Que’s Who Is Que?

The Frozen World of Vince Staples’ “Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2″

Written by Maxwell Caveseno

In 2016, Barack Obama will have his last term as president concluded. On the very first track of Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, Vince Staples snarls dismissively at our first black president, smearing him as a “house nigger” in a nasally “nyah nyah” of a voice that perfectly conveys the disrespect he wants the words to mean. It’s one of many drips of venom the Los Angeles native offers up on his latest offering.

For the past few years Vince Staples has been a slow-burning flame. Initially a generic hipster rapper, he showed promise and a cruel sense of humor that allowed him to fit well at home with his compatriots Earl Sweatshirt and Mike G on their early Odd Future mixtape debuts. However, his first tape, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1 was a surprising departure from the rape fantasies and juvenilia of his former peers. Coinciding with the rise of the “trillwave” aesthetics’ fascination with 90s gangster rap, and aided immensely by the fluidic productions of Two-9 affiliate Snubnose Frankenstein; Staples began to be beholden to the ghosts of rap legends past, marrying his humor to the imagery of decades ago. A simple change of costume, abandoning post-Tyler crewnecks for Raider-cosplay flannel, but it made a world of difference.

Since then, Vince has maintained a significant presence with a guest verse on Earl’s “Hive,” and collaborating on whole projects with producers Michael Uzowaru and Mac Miller, under his “Larry Fisherman” alias. 2014 finds the next installment of his Shyne Coldchain series bolstered by production from No I.D., Evidence & DJ Babu and Scoop DeVille. Everything is in place for the young Staples to ascend and claim his rightful place in the spotlight, except for one significant flaw: he has no interest in trying to catching anyone’s attention.

Blame is not solely the fault of Staples. No I.D. produced some of the most uninspired, dull “hip-hop” beats in years. Polished and clean, they provide little more than retro-leaning pomp, offering little dynamic for Vince to toy with. Whereas whenever the other producers flex their work, you see a significant effort from Staples to negotiate much more delicate samples and sounds. Considering that I.D. handles a bulk of the production on this tape however, you’re left with massive gaps of draining, trench-crawling from our antagonist as he snipes away at the world.

This dynamic isn’t the worst thing in the world, as plenty of rappers have turned the “me against the world” mentality into a universal saga. But Staples lacks the charisma to carry this weight. He’s skilled at his evocative sadistic nature, describing people as “candles on the concrete” or muttering how ‘”church only makes you worse.” Yet his voice lacks dynamic or variation, turning into an irritating drone that needles at the listener. Staples has passed on inviting fellow rappers on his project, leaving the only deviations from his oppressive will in the form of the occasional breaching R&B singer (Jhene Aiko, James Fauntleroy). Surely Vince isn’t devoid of confidence, yet Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 seems hexed with a severe case of rapper’s ego, as he is uncommitted to anything but his own ever-insular world.

Vince Staples is at a curious position in the rap game: most of his peers as far as frequent association have already become phased out from their “next big thing” status, with few maintaining more than an underground audience. On this tape, his scope seems to be narrowing into a magnified sense of tunnel vision put on specific details, but unable to look beyond such a narrow frame. It’s an intense journey that he’s going on, but he isn’t concerned about helping anyone along his path.

Link: Vince Staples’ Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2

The Lure for Potential: Lil Mouse’s “Michael Mouse Myers”

Written by Maxwell Caveseno

If 2012 was the year that “Drill (music genre)” ran rampant, snatching up all eyes towards Chicago as the next “big thing” in rap, then 2014 feels like the hangover. The Chicago youths moved to Bop and it’s sonic and emotional innocence, where now most Drill stars have spent their chips devoid of ideas, if they ever had any to begin with. Curiously enough, however, only two Drill acts appear to have delivered official debut albums. One is obviously enough Chief Keef, the poster boy of Chicago rap for the mainstream world, and the other is the least likely act to follow: Lil Mouse.

Since his viral hit “Get Smoked,” Mouse has remained a key figure despite a comparatively limited output. Naturally the sight of prepubescent youth backed by goons discussing the same street shit of his older peers seemed like simple “shock factor.” Yet Lil Mouse continued to collaborate with figures both in and out the Chicago scene with the release of his debut Michael Mouse Myers to show this wasn’t all merely a trend hopping cash-in attempt.

Lil Mouse is no longer worth noticing for his actual baby-face, but now instead it’s his skill set. While “Get Smoked” at best is a noxious ear-worm, Mouse Myers’ intro is an absolute thunderstorm. Deploying dense flows and a technique that would leave your average Tech N9ne fan moderately impressed given the source, Mouse easily surpasses his idol Lil Durk’s detached cold Meek Mill impersonations. One has to marvel at intensity from a rapper, whose career could’ve easily been mistake for a cheap gimmick a year ago.

But after the remix of “My Team” from last year that featured Durk an especially jubilant Young Scooter, the album’s patchiness is revealed. Dull hooks, generic flows borrowed from Keef or Durk, gaudy singers take and beats that range from startlingly forward (“She Going”) to woefully generic (“Came Up”), unfortunately take up the rest of the album. It’s a highly professional effort, working hard to establish him as a serious rapper, but it’s incredibly undercooked and just plainly lacking in presence and quality.

One’s expectations for someone of Lil’ Mouse’s age and stature in his scene might be dreaming the impossible dream. But the more discouraging matter is the severity of the gaps between his highs and lows. Lil Mouse has the potential, if he truly dedicates himself, to make himself into his generation’s Lil Wayne (something Dewayne might’ve recognized himself, given the remix of “Get Smoked” served as a distant acknowledgment of the other’s significance). Unfortunately he also has the ability to prove skeptics right and remain a Worldstar-casualty. And with the clock starting to wind down on his niche, Lil Mouse has to decide how to evolve and age gracefully into a rapper to watch.

Link: Lil Mouse’s Michael Mouse Myers