Have you tried making a list of the best rap albums of 2014? I can’t even come up with 10. Yet to me, this has been one of the most pivotal and surprising years in hip-hop. In order to see what made it special, try making a “Top 10 Weirdest Names” list. Rae Sremmurd? O.T. Genasis? Fette Wap? I rest my case. It’s a year that actually made us re-examine what rap is.
2013 brought Yeezus, Nothing Was The Same and Danny Brown’s Old. While no album from the last 12 months quite compares to those, somehow I liked 2014 better. It’s like Yeezus set the tone for marginal rap: it broke formats of song structure and challenged the industry. One year later, the left field seeped out of the margins and into the mainstream. The fact that none of the Jays and Lil Waynes released a full-length simply opened up the lanes for rookies to come out of the woodwork with fascinating music and innovative rollouts.
What’s becoming clear is that we’re changing the way we discover and consume rap music. More than ever, rap and tech go hand in hand. 2014 was the year of SoundCloud rap—why hasn’t anybody pointed that out? SoundCloud was already popular in electronic music, where mutual support is key: my friends and I have been reposting each other’s remixes on there for years. Recently the medium transitioned into hip-hop and became a breeding ground for that scene too. Now there are SoundCloud rappers, the same way Soulja Boy and Lil B had co-opted MySpace. Because the platform lends itself to curation, Metro Boomin’s page, for instance, is as much a destination as any blog.
If there is one major rapper who fully embodies that shift, it has to be Drake. This was supposed to be an off year for Papi but he just got a Grammy nom for the SoundCloud freebie “0 to 100.” He also spotted iLoveMakonnen’s oddball anthem “Tuesday,” added a verse and put it up middle of the night. Seeing that song go from a SoundCloud surprise to a Top 40 hit shows just how much the traditional path has altered. But what’s a Top 40 hit if it’s not bolstered by a 6 second viral? Think of 2014’s dopest jams — “U Guessed It,” “Hot N*gga,” “Lifestyle”—and the way they blew through Vine comedy, which is fucking amazing in a genre traditionally so concerned with credibility and gravitas.
There are no more rules on to how to break an artist or a song. As some of you know, I own the record label Fool’s Gold. 2014 has been a challenging year for me on that end. Why? Ask Migos: “No Label.” (Migos actually do have label muscle—Lyor Cohen and Todd Moscowitz’s 300—but they don’t show it.) I tried to sign Makonnen early last summer but he was already selling his music on his own!
Honestly, the independent in me loves the fact that rappers can blow up without an infrastructure. This makes me re-examine the role of a label in the digital DIY age. It’s funny because, in relation to majors, we’re supposed to be DIY. But nowadays, even an indie looks like an extra link in the chain. So we have to step our game up and provide more than just distro and executive producer credits.
I loved YG’s album and trust me, I couldn’t be happier for Run The Jewels. But my favorite record of 2014 wasn’t featured on any year-end lists. To me, if there’s one release that exemplifies where rap is at right now, it’s Travi$ Scott’s Days Before Rodeo. He hit the zeitgeist nail on the head. Travi$ is a keen observer: he recognized Atlanta’s rising weirdos, so he cast phenom of the year Young Thug, Migos and Metro Boomin to accompany his signature howling and brooding production. The result is both undeniably authentic and astutely curated, with a rare attention to detail. The line between artist and A&R is forever blurred.
Sure, OutKast reunited, but 2014 was mainly the year of the new outcasts. Consider Yung Lean: a nerdy 18 year-old white kid from Sweden who has the best videos in the game. Dej Loaf: Detroit’s answer to Da Brat whose hit record seemingly appeared out of thin air. Logic: a Maryland salt-of-the-earth lyricist who sold 72,000 albums his first week. Lecrae: a Gospel rapper who landed No 1 on the Billboard 200. Would they be getting as much attention if Kendrick put out a record this year? Probably not. That opening is just what the game needed.
Since the days of Zulu Nation and pristine shell-toe Adidas, hip-hop always had a strong sense of rules, a rigid code of conduct, an obsession with authenticity, appearance and even sexual orientation. When Young Thug playfully calls Rich Homie Quan his husband—much to the ire of closed-minded Instagram commentors—it feels like rap has been flipped upside down, in the best possible way. Nothing Was The Same indeed.
Going back to that fateful night when Drizzy posted his “Tuesday” verse, I remember Travi$ Scott put a screenshot of the remix on IG. In hindsight, it was the most meta moment of the year: Travi$ (album of the year), screen-grabs a SoundCloud post (rap adopts tech) of Drake (superstar rapper) fanning out to iLoveMakonnen (then unknown artist). Travi$ captioned it: “is this for real?” And the answer is: yes, this is rap in 2014.