Ambrosia For Head’s 13 Best Hip-Hop Albums Of 2013 (Food For Thought)
2013 was a different kind of year in music. Not only did Rick Rubin return to crafting Hip-Hop albums, but he had a hand in three of the genre’s biggest releases from top artists like Jay Z, Eminem, and Kanye West. Meanwhile, as has been the case over the last three years, some of the most championed, critically-acclaimed music was in fact free for consumption—further blurring the lines between albums and mixtapes.
Some of the year’s best music was from artists approaching their forties, while other was from creators barely out of adolescence. Some great albums sounded like nothing ever heard before, while others were audio comfort food, reminding us of different movements and bygone qualities of Hip-Hop.
This was not an easy list to create. Seeing as everybody’s got a list of some kind right now, Ambrosia For Heads opted to give you our favorite 13 albums of 2013, in chronological order:
Casey Veggies – Life Changes (January 22, mixtape)
Inglewood, California’s Casey Veggies followed up 2011’s Sleeping In Class with a brand new sound rooted in the Soul and Funk of some of his West Coast predecessors. From the first notes of the Phil Beadreau sample used in the intro, Young Veggies makes it clear he’s in a meditative mood. The lush chords in songs like “She In My Car,” “Faces” and “Whip It” provide the ideal accompaniment for Casey’s laid-back, slick flow. But, it’s on songs with The Futuristiks where he shines brightest, likely reflected in the fact that they hold down more tracks on the mixtape than any other producer.
CZARFACE – CZARFACE (February 19, Brick Records)
In 1999, Boston, Massachusetts duo 7L & Esoteric recruited the Wu-Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck to bring his lyricism to their breakthrough track “Speaking Real Words.” At the time, Esoteric and the Rebel INS both enjoyed flipping words with heavily-researched substance involved. In 2013, the three opted to fully-form, and made one of the underground’s strongest albums. Guests including Ghostface Killah, Action Bronson, and Roc Marciano shined on the cohesive wordplay display, and revived DJ 7L production. With a sequel already in tow, CZARFACE was a necessary evolutionary step for three decorated careers, and bringing lyrics back to the forefront of a project.
Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap (April 30, mixtape)
The free-form approach re-popularized by Black Hippy throughout the last two years got its own interpretation courtesy of Chicago, Illinois’ Chance The Rapper. With a short discography prior to this year, 20 year-old Chance made Acid Rap, Hip-Hop’s first mainstream-embraced psychedelic work since Xzibit’s “Shroomz.” However, the freebie is much more than colorful trips and dehydration. Instead, Chance—who has a lot of the versatility and musicality of a young Wyclef Jean, provided a dense listen, with deceptively clever takes on themes of lost innocence, navigating morality, and unifying a youth movement in a city that’s much more complex than what is captured by the infamy of nicknames like Chiraq.
Statik Selektah – Extended Play (June 18, Showoff Records/Duck Down Music)
Every year raising the stakes on his compilation-style albums, Statik Selektah partnered with Dru Ha and Buckshot’s Duck Down Records to release Extended Play. Pulling out the stops, Statik placed Joey Bada$$ seamlessly in a Gospel-backed cypha with Raekwon and Black Thought on one song, and swirls the eras of Brooklyn with Smif-n-Wessun and Flatbush Zombies on another. With additional vocals from Posdnuos, Lecrae, Action Bronson, Sean Price, Styles P, Bun B, Mac Miller and Termanology, the credits for this album read like a Who’s Who of underground stalwarts old and new. And, with Statik Selektah at the helm on the boards, the sonic texture is consistent throughout—jazzy samples, boom bap drums and plenty of scratches on the hooks.
Mac Miller – Watching Movies With The Sound Off (June 18, Rostrum Records)
Once wrongfully reduced to a giant of “Frat Rap,” Mac Miller (who never attended college, let alone pledged) muffled all critics and naysayers with his sophomore release, Watching Movies With The Sound Off. The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania MC/produced recorded a druggy album in his L.A. pool-house, with a new ensemble of friends and peers ranging from Earl Sweatshirt and Ab-Soul to Action Bronson and ScHoolboy Q. Along the way, the local lyricist returned to his teenage roots, having a lot of fun with words and deliveries, while opening up about his own anxieties and insecurities before and after his express lane into the spotlight. Few artists in Hip-Hop grow so much going into their second effort, but Mac Miller has a whole new canvas and palette in his ’13 go-‘round.
Kanye West – Yeezus (June 18, Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam Records)
Kanye’s sixth album jerked the steering wheel on wherever we thought he was supposed to be going musically. In 40 minutes, with 10 tracks, Mr. West lashes out with more ego than we ever thought he was capable of, harder-core sex, and more epic heartbreak–“when soul-mates become soulless.” In the midst of it all, with Rick Rubin “reducing” the album, Kanye came with a harder, bleaker sound that was short on simple melody and high on intensity. If this were anyone but Kanye West, many may not have given this album more than one spin (myself included). However, over time, seasons, reflection and changing moods, this is an album that, like the most complex food and drink, opens up to reveal layer upon layer of richness. It’s been a long time since Hip-Hop’s been so polarized by one album, perhaps manifesting ‘Ye’s over-arching goal: to get people talking about the music, not the maker.
Australia’s Kid Tsunami made a musical trip back to the future without Doc Brown. Putting artists like Masta Ace, Kool G. Rap, KRS-One, Bahamadia, Pharoahe Monch, Chubb Rock, Sadat X, Jeru tha Damaja, O.C., Craig G, Prince Po and Percee P on his joints, Kid Tsunami made tracks that sound like white label twelve-inches from 1995—in a great way. With all the retro influences driving today’s Hip-Hop, this album was a perfect platform on which the originators of much of the current sound could shine. Moreover, not reduced to features, each MC seems out to best each other, and remind everybody that the skills remain in tact.
Taking the winning formula from 2012’s R.A.P. Music album by Killer Mike, the ATLien and his producer, El-P decided to take the next logical step: form a group. Run The Jewels continues with the barging tracks of R.A.P., but Mike opens up the studio to insightful, grim, and penetrating raps from El-Producto. This is Radio Raheem boom-box music made in the Internet era. Front-to-back Bully Rap, made by two underdogs who defend the passed over.
Stalley – Honest Cowboy (August 8, mixtape)
With the Honest Cowboy mixtape and the subsequent retail EP, Stalley wasted no words, channeling his inspirations with renewed vigor in the music he loves. The Ohio MC expanded his intelligent trunk music sound through working with vets like DJ Quik and Scarface, and worthy peers like ScHoolboy Q. He continued his music with a message on calls to action like “Raise Your Weapons.” Honest Cowboy lived up to its name, made by an MC repping the Blue Collar Gang and who tells a story as he sees it.
Rapsody – She Got Game (September 17, Jamla Records)
A year removed from the stellar Idea Of Beautiful debut, Rapsody returned with She Got Game. Just as introspective and musically lush, this mixtape found Rap tackling themes like loyalty, loneliness, love, rejection, painful childhood memories…heavy stuff? Mos def., but the music never feels weighed down. Rather, Rapsody channels the soulfulness of each track and raps from the perspective of someone who has fought through and thrived in the face of these challenges rather than succumbed to them. It is a celebration and coronation of the game that has gotten her this far. She invites some friends to the party, as well. Collaborative chemistry drives She Got Game, whether it’s showing out with Phonte and Jay Electronica, vibing with Raheem DeVaughn or trading blazing verses with Chance The Rapper or Ab-Soul. And, never to be outshone, Rapsody brings out the best in all around her.
Drake – Nothing Was The Same (September 20, OVO Sound/Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic Records)
“Started From The Bottom,” Drake’s first single, lived up to the title of this album. Drizzy was back with a breathy new slow flow that maintained the swagger of old but with a different punch. “Wu-Tang Forever,” was a misnomer in every since of the word, since the song sounded nothing like the Killa Bees and despite the rumors, featured none of them. Neither song made sense in isolation and even less so together. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” further muddled things. But, then came “Too Much” and the Jay Z-assisted “Pound Cake” and things started falling into place. With his third studio LP, Drake was as cohesive as always, but unlike most projects these days, his was a true album that needed context to be understood and full appreciated. From start to finish, N.W.T.S. is meant to be a holistic aural and emotional journey. Drake opens up—whether he’s looking back at high school with a chip on his shoulder, or speaking on a wounded heart—and shares his feelings and insecurities in a way that embodies absolute confidence. The production of N.W.T.S. is more subdued than Take Care, and provides a complementary soundtrack to Drake’s ongoing journal. This is a cold-weather album after a neon summer, and like Yeezus, it is one that makes more sense yet grows more complex with each listen.
Vic Mensa – INNANET TAPE (September 30, mixtape)
Vic Mensa is a star. They say stars are born, not made, but in Mensa’s case his star wattage started to shine brightest when he stepped out of his band Kids These Days and into the solo spotlight. His INNANET TAPE project was a tour de force that has put the Hip-Hop community on notice that Chicago is fertile ground for MCs and the water yields a diverse array of styles. In many ways, INNANET TAPE is a microcosm of that diversity. “Orange Soda” is a return to some of the bass-driven soul that fueled early Pharcyde productions, while “Lovely Day” is a psychedelic trip in the sunshine. Songs like “Time Is Money” and “Holy Holy” tap into Vic’s introspective side and gems like “Run!” showcase his Rock influences. Throughout, Vic attacks each track with an unorthodox and tailor-made flow that defies convention. Vic is a leader of the new school but he joined heavyweights like Kanye West in pushing the boundaries of what Hip-Hop “sounds like” in 2013.
Pusha T – My Name Is My Name (October 8, G.O.O.D Music/Def Jam Records)
The Clipse’s star MC Pusha T waited 15 years to make a proper solo album considered a studio debut. While No Malice dabbles in Christian Hip-Hop, Pusha Ton is back to the blocks and bricks with My Name Is My Name. With complete disregard for radio play, Pusha T uses dark production to bring attention to his fierce wordplay, cold exterior, and bravado that makes Big Daddy Kane and Rakim proud. Kanye West and the G.O.O.D. guys played the background in an album that attempted to restore the importance of lyrics at a time of overall vibe.
Related: AFH: The Best Hip-Hop Albums Of 2012