My Favorite Hip-Hop Albums of 2014
An old man’s ranking, guaranteed to be different from every other year-end rap list
Hip-hop is a young person’s game. Drake, Nicki, J. Cole, and Kendrick are the stars and Eminem, Jay, Nas and Wu-Tang are treated by many fans the same way teenagers treat grandparents: I can’t believe Mom and Dad are making me sit here and listen to Grandpa talk about World War II. I so don’t care. I have Snapchats I need to answer.
While I’m the first to admit I’m too old for rap, I have been a superfan for 30 years — even before it was the cool thing to do—so I feel it is my duty to give you my favorite ten hip-hop projects from 2014:
10. Common “Nobody’s Smiling”
Twenty years ago, a rapper named Common Sense began making a name for himself with lyrics that were meant to inspire as well as impress. In the two decades since, the artist now known as Common has gone through a musical evolution rarely seen in hip-hop, following up disappointments with darlings while also transitioning into the role of actor. After all of that, it would be seem to be impossible for him to return to his musical roots, but the high crime rate and bloodshed in his beloved hometown of Chicago inspired him to once again link up with No I.D. and tackle the issue directly through his music. The result is rather stunning for an older (at least for hip-hop) artist in its passion and its adherence to the topics at hand. It may not make the listener feel great, but it’ll certainly make the listener think.
9. J. Cole “2014 Forest Hills Drive”
The LP with the biggest word-of-mouth leading to its release, it is the album J. Cole fans have long been expecting. Cole’s flow is on point and he opens himself up even more to expose who he was and how that made him who he is. And in this feature-driven era, it’s admirable to not have any guests on such a visible release, but that also hurts the product as Cole’s double duty as rapper and singer becomes tiring over the length of the album. I respect it and I understand why people love it, but there were other releases that I found more enjoyable this year.
8. Slaughterhouse “House Rules”
After being one of nine people that actually bought the first Slaughterhouse album, I was offended by the beats on their Shady Records follow-up, Welcome to: Our House. That was not Slaughterhouse and I feared that the supergroup that I adored was gone forever. Fortunately, I’m often wrong and this was no exception. House Rules may be their best project to date, with all four spitters at the top of their games over production that actually fits the rhymes perfectly. In addition to their excellent cuts elsewhere (“Brothers Keeper,” “Microphone Preem,” “Y’all Ready Know”), it appears that I’ll be wrong for a while.
7. The LOX ”The Trinity 2nd Sermon”
The new LOX album is the group version of Detox—promised for years yet nowhere to be seen. Unlike Mr. Beats/Apple, though, Jadakiss, Sheek & Styles dropped an EP out of nowhere late last year and followed it up with part two this year. Sparse at only five tracks, it allows all three to bring out their A-game with their signature mix of wordplay and direct verbal assaults, showing that they haven’t lost their edge after all these years.
6. Cormega ”Mega Philosophy”
Cormega’s career is fascinating. Mentioned on Illmatic, he was featured on It Was Written as part of The Firm, but was removed from the group in favor of Nature. Since then, label politics derailed his strong Def Jam debut, The Realness, and he became known for his beefs with Nas and Nature, but Mega could always spit the street verses. On Mega Philosophy, he mixes those hard rhymes with uplifting messages, knowledge of self, and calls for action, all backed by Large Professor. At just over thirty minutes, it’s perfect for a single sitting and will stay with the listener long after the final song ends. It was released in July and I still listen to it at least once a week. Mega has finally found his balance and, in the process, has finally answered Nas’s question of “What’s up with Cormega?”
5. Skyzoo & Torae “Barrel Brothers”
Skyzoo is by far my favorite artist that did not debut in the 90s and while his introspective and heartfelt songs can be powerful, he’s at his absolute best when he just straight raps. The same goes for his partner-in-rhyme Torae. Together, they created an album of boom bap beats and gritty lyrics that take your ears to Brooklyn and make you hit rewind after almost every line as the two seem destined to rhyme together, trading bars with flows that make you “feel like you took an onion to the face.” Indeed.
4. Royce Da 5’9” & DJ Premier “PRhyme”
DJ Premier has worked with virtually all of the greats over the years, but he’s never done an entire album with a single artist unless it was Gang Starr. Royce Da 5’9” knows this and addresses it: “This is for the real hip-hop n — — s who will never ever ever ask me am I here to replace Guru.” The two first worked together on 2002’s “Boom” and have collaborated various times since, each time sounding better together. Originally conceived as a Slaughterhouse x Premier LP, the scheduling didn’t work out, so Royce took the microphone for himself and the result is a clinic in lyrics. Perhaps realizing that his reunion with Eminem has given him more attention than ever before, he keeps upping the ante of his rhymes and this project is no different as he eviscerates every track, as does every guest from Mac Miller to Schoolboy Q to Jay Electronica to Ab-Soul to Slaughterhouse and everyone else. No one will ever replace Guru and there will never be another Gang Starr, but PRhyme is more than enough.
3. Ghostface Killah “36 Seasons”
While Wu-Tang’s reunion A Better Tomorrow could be charitably called a “disappointment,” Ghostface kept his winning streak intact. Following up on 2013’s, Twelve Reasons to Die, Ghost unleashed another concept album, this one focusing on Tony Starks returning home after nine years in prison to a neighborhood overrun with crime and his home life in shambles. Featuring incredible recurring roles by Kool G. Rap and AZ, as well as an album-stealing appearance by Pharoahe Monch, it is manages to disprove two theories at once: that hip-hop concept albums don’t work and that old rappers can’t impress us with something new.
2. Run the Jewels “Run the Jewels 2"
Killer Mike & El-P’s collaboration topped my 2013 list. They drop a spot this year, but not because the product suffered. Run the Jewels 2 is that rare sequel in that it expands beyond the first iteration without losing what made the first one great. The two emcees are even more in synch, easily trading rhymes over El-P’s rough beats and touching on a variety of serious subjects without dwelling or preaching. Even as I type this, there’s a part of me that feels like if I revisit this list in five years I’ll smack myself for having this album only at number two.
1. Your Old Droog “Your Old Droog” EP
Maybe it’s because he was new. Maybe it’s because many people thought he was Nas. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t sound polished or refined. Whatever the reason, I keep coming back to the Your Old Droog EP (an extended LP with a few new tracks was released in November). Comprised of nothing but witty punchlines, dope wordplay, and clever concepts over sparse but melodic beats, it really does sound like something that was placed in a time capsule in 1995 and only found this year. Lines like, “I’m in the House like C-Span,” and “He sure to sing, like the group that go into the police for a sting,” gave us a fresh and unique voice amidst all of the copycats.
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Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.