David’s 20 Best Rap Tapes of 2011

(not a picture of me)



Sorry. This is long and somewhat slapdash. I may come back through and do some quick edits, but I wanted to puke this all up on the internet before the year flips over.

Every year until 2011, people have proclaimed the ‘death’ of hip-hop; I always thought it was bullshit, because it remains one of the most creatively fertile genres in popular music. But no genre seems as torn by intergenerational warfare, either, where kids today talk about the golden age of Bad Boy records and Timbaland the way Rawkus heads used to front about bringing ’88 back. But this year, I saw zero ‘hip-hop is dead’ pieces. Enough niches are available online that if you fronted on “Gucci Gucci” (smh) you could always find an Iggy Azealia to provide a “skilled” alternative (although it would be nice if she had Kreay’s songwriting ‘skills.’)

One of the effects of this niche-ification, though, is that everyone starts cosigning anything that fits their narrow notion of what hip-hop is supposed to sound like, whatever the quality of product. While I fuck with a few Juicy J songs the long way, none of his records this year were all that strong, and a few were straight-up lazy. Spaceghostpurrp had some nice beats but no lyrics. Odd Future were some niche shit that got far too much coverage for the style of music they made, a weird herd mentality amongst the press who decided that this was Important and What The Kids Listen To without any evidence that it would even be well-received beyond an audience of nihilistic skater hip-hop kids. ASAP Rocky had 2.5 good songs & enough swag to convince New York that he was one of the country’s best new rappers. Big K.R.I.T. produced some of my favorite songs this year but his album is dense & he’s not yet a dude I can handle an hour plus of serious introspection from. Future writes some great pop songs, but also some dull ones, and I dare someone to remember a single lyric from him that wasn’t a chorus. Mr. Muthafuckin Exquire is basically the return of Def Jux with a less self-serious demeanor. Danny Brown is an incredible rapper, and I liked Hybrid last year, but his choices in production are just not for me on XXX. Stalley…I have no clue what anyone saw in Stalley, but he did reuse a sample from Kush & OJ that I liked. All of these artists fit into nice PR narratives, but that doesn’t mean they can produce quality long players, and considering everyone was giving the things away, there was a lot of competition this year.

I listened to more rap mixtapes, LPs and EPs than I have in any year previous; part of it was competitive, as if to see if you can find some incredible tracks to top what Noz or Martorialist or Tyrone are going to come up with in a given year (disappointed that my fav brick squad beat was totally topped by the one Martorialist found; of course, both will now make my tracks list, but you all know who found what). And of course there are a lot of different aspects to consider when constructing these things; for example, there’s always the specter of Random Rap, that moment where obscurity becomes vanishing point, where the qualities of a certain era are fetishized and you end up celebrating some banal no-name joints over shit that was actually popular simply for fitting into some mindgarden idea of the canon. On the other hand, it’s not like the press does a very good job of covering artists that are doing unique work unless those artists are brought to their attention; sometimes, niche or unpopular artists really are making some incredible music, and might have long-term potential.

The effect of the internet hype-cycle catapulting underdeveloped amateurs to center stage is something that indie rock critics have been confronting for awhile, but it’s just beginning to impact hip-hop now. I hope the rap press at large can recognize that this is a potential problem. That said, in making my list of my favorite rap records this year, I wasn’t overly concerned with longevity; I can’t deny that, per Thomas at 100 Grand, HD may not have a reliable long-term career (obviously, I hope to be proven wrong). But I was concerned with finding artists who seemed to have more than a couple good songs, that they could fill up an album. Not that I needed “consistency,” perhaps the most overrated of album qualities; an album with 8 great songs and eight middling ones is sometimes better than a record with sixteen solid and respectful ones (I’d love to see a record from G-Side with more “No Radio”‘s on it). I also was looking at artists who weren’t relying on lame narratives like, say, anything to do with the State Of New York In Hip-Hop and its place in the world, or the Return of Gangster Rap, or a region’s production style — this stuff stood on its own. Nor are they all necessarily about to blow up commercially (although some could); for example, KLC is probably well past his commercial peak, but he deserves more attention, considering his importance to rap history and the quality of his twilight-career output this year.

Instead, these were artists who simply made great music. Some were working within a style that was saturated this year, like Trouble, but they just made better records than everyone else. Others, like Tree or KLC, are completely in their own lane. And then a few artists, like Boldy, Meek and Louie, are incredible rappers. There’s no meta-narrative needed, because they have strong personalities and distinctive styles that complement those personalities. They can carry their own records without lame critical angles or focus on new ‘sonic developments.’ They consistently produce great songs. And at the end of the day, I just wanted to listen to their output a lot more often.

(not a picture of me)

20. KLC – Grand Theft Audio
Love this record. KLC is mad underrated. He should work with Danny Brown. I talked about it here.

19. Don Trip & Starlito – Step Brothers
This one took me a minute to come around to, and I’m still not completely into either Starlito or Don Trip’s rap styles; personal preference. As one of the world’s bigger Slick Rick fans, I find Young Dolph’s laid back rap style a lot more appealing. But then, Step Brothers is a much better record than Dolph’s, and it’s also much better than Trip or Starlito’s solo records this year. Sometimes this I’m having a really intense experience recording in the booth approach feels like it could verge on a gimmick, but so far he’s stayed on the safe side of that divide. Thanks to Tom Breihan, Chris Weingarten, Noz, and I forget who else for pushing it, because I probably wouldn’t have given these guys a fair chance without it. Talked about it here.

18. Gunplay – Inglorious Bastards
Unapologetic ignorance has a strong tradition in hip-hop, and while I understand that it can be weird to see stuff like this written up in Pitchfork, I think that folks concerned about the racial dimension underestimate the degree of ‘ignorant’ hard-headed non-rap music that gets play there too, as if we were all reviewing Radiohead CDs until gangster rap showed up. At any rate, Gunplay’s not likely to develop much dimension in the future, but that would be like asking Fab to stop dropping punchlines. Gunplay’s a born rapper with a sinewy flow and a gift for post-Gucci lyricism and a genuinely vibrant enthusiasm for all things gangster rap.

17. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
This is exactly the kind of rap I don’t really like, done exceptionally well: high brow, arch, pretentious, ambitious. At the same time, it does some things I like a lot; he takes a cautious approach, where meaning is couched in ambiguity, giving the music a cerebral vibe. It is as if Kendrick is concerned that by being too on-the-nose, he’d be more open to criticism, a strategic dodge that makes the record more of a puzzle. It had me returning more than a few times to see if I could better figure out his intent or ideas. He’s a skilled rapper, which isn’t in and of itself meaningful, but amateurism in other prominent artists this year could be distracting; it gave his work a confidence his competition lacked.

16. Big Wiz & Tree – Wizardtree / Tree – The Tree EP
Tree is one of my favorite discoveries this year; this summer, Drew Barber at FakeShoreDrive sent an email with a link to Tree’s solo EP. I was immediately struck by how unique it was; his production is unusual, with the kind of raw R&B sampling that reminded me, with its originality and ruggedness, primarily of Pimp C’s work, at least in spirit. But it wasn’t until I heard his EP with Fatboi aka Big Wiz, a West Side Chicago rapper, that his style really clicked. Fatboi’s more traditional approach sounds energized within Tree’s unconventional world, and the contrast serves both artists. I’m actually putting together a piece on this release at the moment, so I don’t want to say too much more for now.

15. DJ Quik – Book of David
One of my personal favorite rap artists of all-time. Probably in the lower tier of my favorite releases by him, but still a solid record. I wish he’d produce an album for Danny Brown.

14. Max B – Vigilante Season
It’s amazing how much more popular he’s become since going to jail, as his influence has spread across the country. I wouldn’t put this up with some of his later mixtape releases, like PD6 or Quarantine (which remains my favorite latter-day Max release), but it is nice to have “South Wave” and “Model of Entropy” in NoDJ format. Plus, this guy is one of the best rap artists of the past decade, so not including him here would make no sense.

13. DB the General – King of Oakland
I talked about this record for my mixtape feature on Pitchfork, available here.

12. Stuey Rock & Future – FDU & Free Bandz
I can’t say I got too involved in the Future hype wave from this year; I find him pretty middling as a rapper, and his solo records are a slog. A split EP is the perfect length of Future output. But he’s undeniably a great songwriter, and this tape was my first exposure to him earlier this summer. Stuey Rock is underrated. I talked more about this record here.

11. Trouble – December 17th
The new Atlanta underground hasn’t rocked my world yet; I’m open to hearing a great Alley Boy record to match the potential promised by “Play Your Position,” and B. Green’s “Shawty Ugghhh” with Magnolia Chop (not yet on youtube) has the potential to be the greatest chorus of 2012, but for my money Trouble’s debut record was the best in his lane. He covers a whole lot of conceptual ground, and “Partnaz Got Stretches” is Alley Boy’s most moving moment of 2011. I talked more about this here.

10. Fat Trel – April Foolz
Can’t believe I missed out on No Secrets last year, but this guy’s still an incredible talent, and not even 21 years old! More on this tape here.

9. Travis Porter – Differenter 3 / Travis Porter – Music, Money, Magnums
I talked about this on Pitchfork as well, but I almost feel like my posture in that blurb is too defensive. Combine these two records together and snip some of the loose weight and you have a front to back classic from 2011’s version of Too $hort. I give the slight edge to Differenter 3, which apparently all somanyshrimp readers were sleeping on, judging by the number who clicked on that link from Tyrone’s singles list.

8. Sen City – Til The Lights Turn Out 2
Again, talked about this one on Pitchfork, as well as over at The Fader, although I really didn’t get to touch on his lyrical approach there. Great lyricist with a singular style.

7. E-40 – Revenue Retrievin 3&4
Wrote about this for Pitchfork.

6. Schoolboy Q – Setbacks
Jeff Weiss wrote about this for Pitchfork. Definitely more in the vein of rap I fuck with than Kendrick was. Favorite rookie from the Black Hippy camp.

5. HD – Fresh
Wrote about this for Pitchfork. One of the most underrated producers in hip-hop.

4. V/A – Mobbin Thru The West
In a roundtable over at Slate, Jonah Wiener argued that the casual misogyny of hip-hop is often dismissed or ignored in part due to the “frission of otherness.” Meaning that listeners are getting off on its perceived exoticism, which charges their experience with hip-hop, rather than detracting. I’m sure that’s true of some listeners to a degree, or that at the very least there’s a complicated interaction between race/class/etc. But I think he is looking at it from the wrong way, excluding his readers from his analysis by setting parameters around the ‘gratifying friction of voyeurism.’ Because isn’t hip-hop just as much about entertaining people that are ostensibly closer in cultural origin to the artists in question, i.e. poor people from inner-cities or trailer-parks who don’t speak in “indie-yuppieese,” and aren’t they as invested and interested in gender equality? The appeal of rappers from my POV, and this was as true when I was a kid, had less to do with ‘otherness’ in a cultural sense (in fact, as a fairly poor kid, it was often about identification) and more to do with the rapper’s strong, almost mythic personalities (which of course are also tied up w/ issues of race & class). It offers another explanation for why listeners might overlook misogyny to a great degree; these aren’t ‘real people,’ these are action heroes. Which is, of course, a fallacy all its own, and that’s the lesson we were all supposed to learn from Pac & Biggie’s deaths, the peak era of the rapper as larger-than-life hero. But trying to reduce this to simple fetishization of the other does a disservice to rap fans. It also, to me, unfairly stereotypes the rapper’s environments, as if there aren’t non-misogynist or even feminist ppl coming from similar neighborhoods. I’ll be the last to say that there aren’t complicated issues at work in any listener’s approach to hip-hop, but I think assuming that it’s primarily exoticism for the people who would happen to be smart enough to write about it is a problematic assumption about Jonah’s reading audience.

On a more pertinent note, it also explains why regular-dude rappers don’t really resonate for me at this point, and why I really like the Mob Figaz, particularly Rydah, Husalah and Jacka. They are old-school style proper gangster rap anti-heroes, capital-I Important, big picture characters who understand entertainment without backing down from the dimension required of reality rap. Anyway, “Da Mob” is the obvious highlight, but I really found little to complain about on this record. It’s not a classic like their earlier work but it’s a strong front-to-back record, and I’m happy they’re still around.

3. King Louie – #ManUpBandUp Pt. 1
Wrote about him for Pitchfork here, for Fader here, and for this website here. Basically, if you’re sleeping at this point, you’re missing out on one of the most promising rappers out today and you need to get your shit together.

2. Meek Mill – Dreamchasers
Easily the most interesting rapper of the year, Meek Mill killed it with Dreamchasers. While it has its inconsistencies, the best songs are incredible, peak documents of 2011 hip-hop. His influence as a rapper, the way his vocals transmit intense empathy, is turning out to be very influential. Tracks like “Middle of the Summer” are exactly the kind of hip-hop that used to really resonate with me as a kid and I love that there’s someone on the verge of mass-popularity who does it convincingly and effectively. Plus he can rap, he’s got a unique style that has a clear geographic origin — like a midpoint between Freeway and Peedi –and creates great music. Hail Meek.

1. Boldy James – Trapper’s Alley: Pro’s and Cons
I wrote a lot about this here. While Meek might be the best rapper in 2011, and King Louie the most promising, Boldy made the best album. Front-to-back, it’s just a powerful statement about what rap music can do. Although his voice has been compared to Prodigy, there’s a rawness under the surface that feels like a fresh wound, and is that much more powerful for it. Even when the production falters a bit, his voice is strong enough to push through and carry it. It’s also got the best child-rapping moment on a hip-hop LP in years. Get this record and watch him in 2012.

20. KLC – Grand Theft Audio
19. Don Trip & Starlito – Step Brothers
18. Gunplay – Inglorious Bastards
17. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
16. Big Wiz & Tree – Wizardtree / Tree – The Tree EP
15. DJ Quik – Book of David
14. Max B – Vigilante Season
13. DB the General – King of Oakland
12. Stuey Rock & Future – FDU & Free Bandz
11. Trouble – December 17th
10. Fat Trel – April Foolz
9. Travis Porter – Differenter 3 / Travis Porter – Music, Money, Magnums
8. Sen City – Til The Lights Turn Out 2
7. E-40 – Revenue Retrievin
6. Schoolboy Q – Setbacks
5. HD – Fresh
4. V/A – Mobbin Thru The West
3. King Louie – #ManUpBandUp Pt. 1
2. Meek Mill – Dreamchasers
1. Boldy James – Trapper’s Alley: Pro’s and Cons

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13 responses to “David’s 20 Best Rap Tapes of 2011

  1. A lot to take in, but always love your take on the rap world even thought I don’t completely agree on the opinions on certain rappers (Danny Brown record is made by its production, in a way that a lot other records that used similar producer just don’t). I am sure next year will have more acts that get co-signs and records on nearly no music–and I know you like Kreayshawn–but it is weird hearing a ASAP rapper transition to Future and then “House Party” from Meek on a rap mix during the day. I know most blogs like promoting music they like, but sometimes it is nice knowing that everyone doesn’t like the same shit, and is willing to say that a rapper is not good and their hype should be checked (Odd Future needed this earlier this year, and Future getting on the cover of anything is questionable even if his dumb hooks have found a secure home on rap radio).

    Well, to the actual list. Just downloaded the Boldy James tape, and I feel I got some more stuff to seek out. But, I will say that Trouble mixtape makes me think of a world where Trap-Rap (or whatever) actually listened to ‘Trap Muzik’ a few more times than ‘Trap or Die’. Also, did you listen to Mr. Collipark’s mixtape, because he needs to work with Travis Porter or at least FKi for some pure ATL club shit.

  2. David,
    Did you, as I often do, exclude Fed-X from your favs-of-Mob Figaz mention just so you wouldn’t hurt Ap9’s feelings too much in case he’ll stop by and read this and realizes he is the only rapper of the five you don’t feel?

  3. None of his 3 mixtapes are as consistently interesting as the artists up above imo; I like dude this year intermittently (esp. “Smoke That Bitch”) but his full tapes were pretty same-y & 1-dimensional

  4. LOL at Juice Mannen’s comment.

    Great post, I am not up on most of the artists on your list, but how decidedly different it looks from any other end of the year list I’ve seen lets me know you developed tastes outside of the internet hype machine, which is much appreciated.

    As a huge Mob Figaz fan it’s nice to see Mobbin Through the West on there, the only thing that bummed me out about that release was a handful of recycled tracks, but if you don’t follow their music too carefully then that probably isn’t a problem.

  5. Good shit man. Lots of stuff I haven’t been checking. So much stuff dropping these days. Not like when we were kids and had a CNN tape and a Spice-1 tape going on circle around the block.

    But really, thanks. Always uplifting to see good rap critics. God Bless and Happy New year.

  6. Nice list. A lot closer to my tastes than most rap lists I see online. (I didn’t think anyone else listened to Calicoe/KLC in 2011.) Though there’s so much out there for free, it’s perfectly easy for two serious listeners to not have heard half the same shit in a single year.

    The one thing I do have to ride for though: I loved Stalley’s “Lincoln Way Nights”, probably my favorite of 2011. (Either that or KD – G-Fluid). Stalley took a while to grow on me–sometimes it feels generous to call his rap style a “flow”–but Rashad’s production was amazing, and Stalley conjures a lot of interesting imagery and relatable lines in his music. Idk, once I got used to it, Stalley turned dope. All tastes though.

    And props to dalatu for that comment about Trap Muzik v. Trap or Die. “World Goes Round” from Dec. 17th was my favorite track of the year. I was disappointed when Green Light came out though, cuz it sounded like Future influence was impinging on his style. I hope whatever Trouble’s next move is, the development is closer to what he started on Dec. 17th.

  7. Pingback: DWNLD: Boldy James – Trapper’s Alley (Pros & Cons) | 10kilos.us

  8. I know I’m a few hundred days late on reading this, but I’m in bachelor mode this weekend, and I spent those hours feeding the music obsessive inside of me.

    Your thoughts to intro this list were very interesting to read now [summer 2013] and gauge how foretelling they would be. I also never got to go through Noz’s older lists, so my brain is pairing his Best Of 2011 back-and-forth in the comments section with what you wrote here.

    I’m only a fan, and I dedicate way more brain cycles than is healthy to music (especially rap/hiphop) obsession. What I have taken away from this is a rethink of the standards I use to judge music. How much have I brushed off, only to give an honest chance because my favorite writer says I should? How much have I defended even though I thought the music was crap but was trying to front the role a bit?

    Sorry for being so long-winded. It’s just nice to read something and to react in a way I did not expect. I’m not talking about epiphanies or anything, but I am reminded to remember why I immediately shrug off some stuff given that music is more to me than most anything out there.

    Always appreciated. Have a good one!
    Jay

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