50 Best Songs, 2014

“where is your drive?” -Theo Parrish.

i do not pretend at canonical authority: this selection focuses on specific musical axes that interested 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 an 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

Tracks
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 Smiling
Moodymann 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

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