For a lot of people, participation in the larger narrative arc of the rap world is key to enjoyment of the music. I’m not one of those people. When I was a kid, rap was pure escapism, and deep down there’s no way for a white kid from rural Wisconsin to shake that element of it. I don’t believe it lessens my experience one bit; nobody can stop you from loving something you love, even if it’s something that’s not explicitly for you, and the effort to stay on top of it all is only gonna come off as pretention from someone like me, so to hell with it, I’ll leave that to people with more spare time than I have.
As with any genre, I do tend to lionize certain artists whose message and abilities line up precisely with what I’m seeking; I think it happens more with rappers because the words are so much more crucial than in most other genres. In a very real sense, rap is the only viable American folk music right now, and this is why it’s no longer just escapism for me; rappers are the only musicians who seem to care as much about words as I do. But this is also why I tend to dismiss artists more readily if their lyrics do nothing for me or their flow is lazy or their beats are unimaginative. There are too many artists right in my face doing great work. And that includes some albums not even mentioned here, but here’s what came out when I sat down to write.
With no Kendrick and no Open Mike Eagle this year (yes the New Negroes soundtrack, there I mentioned it, but this is an albums thing), the field was pretty wide open this year. Tyler, The Creator grabbed the early spotlight with Igor and it’s still high on my list. I’d never taken to more than a handful of Odd Future songs over the years, Frank Ocean excluded, and Tyler’s albums have always been hit or miss. I think my lack of appreciation for him was partially a victim of overhype, but who cares. Igor is an entirely different piece of work; it makes most of his back catalog seem like kids’ stuff, even though this is still a guy who shows no sign of taking himself too seriously, and it’s above all a fun album. I just think it’s a huge leap forward in creativity for him, all over the place and still a weirdly cohesive (maybe even grand?) musical statement. Hell it’s practically art rap.
Another suddenly-triumphant artist this year is Rapsody, the North Carolina MC whose first splash came courtesy of a head-turning guest verse on To Pimp A Butterfly, a break upon which she hasn’t necessarily capitalized in the traditional sense. Maybe others weren’t as impressed as I was by that verse? I’ve been on the edge of my seat since I first heard it, no joke, but 2017’s Laila’s Consent didn’t quite exemplify the type of ambition I was thinking we were going to hear from Rapsody. Stupid of me to extrapolate a whole m.o. based on one verse, I know. When I heard Eve, though, the thought that quickly hit me, at first as a hope and then as a certainty, was ‘This is the Rapsody record I’ve been waiting for.’ Each track is a tribute to a different icon, the full album a fierce celebration of empowerment, brilliant passionate wordplay, and the rebel spirit of 2019. It’s such a sad thing to say, but we have to hope that the spirit carries on, though it has accomplished so little in this country’s overall culture thus far.
I have to mention Danny Brown; his uknowhatimsayin¿ is one that I wouldn’t know how to sell other than to say ‘it’s a new Danny Brown album’ which if you like Danny Brown, well, there you go. I love the way he puts words together and the ridiculous bullshit he spouts. He’s kinda like a drug, a rush that’s only active when you’re actually listening, nothing much to puzzle out or ponder. Nothing wrong with that. I also need to mention the new JPEGMAFIA, All My Heroes Are Cornballs, easily my favorite thing he’s done. It plays to my love of hyper-eclecticism, a dizzying sequence of mostly-successful experiments. I wish his delivery didn’t bug me so much. It’s a totally unfair music-critic thing to say but his whole approach comes off as trying too hard, and I end up having no idea what point he’s ever trying to get through to us. It’s his goofier side that I connect with, so why do I feel like that’s not how he wants to come across? I’m gonna keep trying because I’m pretty sure he means it.
I don’t usually write about posthumous releases but I have to say this year’s Sean Price output has been kind of amazing, and 86 Witness is undeniably one of my favorite things I heard in 2019. Just to think of the love that went into creating this album; I’m no expert on Small Professor but it seems like he meant for this to be a tribute as well as to stand on its own as an LP. There may not be an overriding narrative but there’s a superb flow and an urgency that you don’t normally get from an afterthought or a celebration of a lost artist’s legacy. It’s a little bit retro, sure; the attention to detail in the beats and DJ Revolution’s vital scratching keep it sounding relatively timeless, though.
Confession: I have a huge hangup regarding British rap that I probably need to get over. Just haven’t been able to get into Skepta or Little Simz or Dave or even The Streets; I don’t have a good explanation. Then there’s Kate Tempest. Her latest album, The Book Of Traps And Lessons, I was guaranteed to love and yet not love as much as her previous album, which ought to have been the all-world rallying cry but most people are still too isolated and/or oblivious to process such universal empathy, much less acceptance of blame. Traps is similarly steeped in penetrating humanism from the reigning champion of the downtrodden, the mentally ill, the marginalized, and even us ordinary schlepps suffering the existential crises of privilege and helplessness in the face of societal collapse. Yet this time, there are no hooks. There are barely songs. There’s just heart-wrenching poetry over cold, minimal beats and pianos and sonic washes, a heavy journey through everything that makes us humans so terrible and so beautiful. Tempest’s last album was a plea for saving humanity; this new one is more of a reckoning with whether or not we’re worth saving, universal to painfully personal and then back again. You’d best allow her words to enter your psyche and yourself to cry. She understands us all better than most. However it shakes out, she’s the most important wordist that we have in the wide world of English-based lyrical music. Time will tell, but there’s a chance I’m going to end up liking this even more than Let Them Eat Chaos in the long run.
Finally, honorable mention to Quelle Chris, who’s making the transition from straight-up goofball to sober truthsayer with a still-generous helping of goofball. I see the potential for him to be taken more seriously in the future; this year’s Guns wasn’t anywhere near as riveting as last year’s love child with now-wife Jean Grae, Everything’s Fine, but it is a worthy follow-up in a similar vein, with standout tracks like “Mind Ya Bidness” and “It’s The Law” and “You, Me & Nobody Else” sticking with me throughout the year. The key thing about Quelle is that he is unmistakably his own thing and that will keep me following him for as long as he’s up to his shit.