The philosopher Jiminy Cricket once famously said, “Just look at the morning paper. Turn to any page. You’ll find the whole world worryin’ about some future age. But why get so excited? What’s gonna be is gonna be. The end of the world’s been comin’ since 1903. That’s, uh, B.C., of course.” Dr. Cricket, Esq.’s argument was simple: every generation thinks the next signals Armageddon. But hip-hop’s gradual deterioration has been overstated; rappers who are barely able to drink, like Black Hippy and Joey Bada$$, are putting out incredible music. Which isn’t to slight the elder statesmen who are holding it down—like Jay-Z, who lends some bars to a track from Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music compilation.
1. Kanye West feat. Big Sean and Jay-Z, “Clique”
Big Sean’s less-than-stellar debut album caused too many fans to sour on him. But if you’ve written him off, then you’ve missed a run of show-stealing verses (the best verse coming on Meek Mill’s “Burn”); here he tests his mettle against The Throne. While Sean and Jay both put together valiant verses, Kanye steals the show as he brings his most obnoxious personality to bat. That sounds like an insult, but Ye can be totally over-the-top while being absolutely engaging. He asks the audience to let him talk his shit, and he does just that over another undeniable banger of a beat from Hit-Boy.
2. Vado – “Burn” Freestyle
There was a time a few years ago when Vado was going to take the Diplomat movement to the next level and be New York’s next big rapper. Then… nothing. Vado dropped a collaboration with Cam’ron, then disappeared. He has the tools for greatness: clever lyrics, immeasurable swag and a movement that was a strong as any in the country. But now his songs are accompanied by questions: Where he’s been, what could have been. At least his hiatus hasn’t resulted in him falling off; here he rips through Meek Mill and Big Sean’s “Burn” instrumental for a couple of minutes. Get ready to have this tide you over until he drops another song in a year or so.
3. Joey Bada$$, “DSL Da Special List”
Joey’s 1999 mixtape was a breakout project for the MC, but it felt a bit too cluttered with guest appearances from the Pro Era clique. That’s why his just-released collection of outtakes, Rejex, is such a welcome surprise. The teenager flows over 14 beats all by his lonesome and absolutely spazzes. (Some of the tracks were recorded when Joey was just 15.) “Da Special List” is a clear throwback to classic Big L and Reasonable Doubt-era Jay-Z. It’s a shame I’ll have to say this: but in light of the rap feuds going on in Chicago, it’s pretty refreshing to hear a teenage rapper say he “shine like crystals, never tote a pistol, never pack a tool.” It’s the simple things that give me hope. While Joey is honing his craft and staying relatively under the radar for now, it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be in rap’s elite class.
3.9. DJ Kay Slay Feat. Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock, “Highway To Hell”
Despite DJ Khaled cornering the overweight, screaming DJ market, it’s important not to forget about Kay Slay. Slay may not be climbing the charts like his more unbearable counterpart, but he’s still managing to pull together some unforgettable music. This track features three-quarters of the best rap crew in the world right now, Black Hippy, and it’s a monster. Kendrick Lamar continues his run of outrapping everyone else who owns a microphone while Q and Jay play capable wingmen. Jay Rock especially steps up; he’s been thought of as Black Hippy’s weak link, but here he snarls his way through one of his strongest verses of the year. Yes, unfortunately, Kay Slay yells through too much of the song, but I guess that’s part of the job description. Cut him out and we have crew rap perfection.