There’s been a repetition about year-end New York rap round-ups for a while now. They usually involve noting how the city isn’t the commercial powerhouse of hip-hop it once was (shocker!), and then speculating on whether a few artists might be somehow bringing it back (from precisely which era is never quite specified). Tradition dictates there’s also some fleeting talk about Nas’s one customary moment of excellence (this year: “The Don”) before he adds another installment to his stockpile of bat-shit crazy long-players. (Disclaimer: Nas stans, this might not be the list for you.)
In truth, the industry’s changed to the point where it shouldn’t be about musing on New York’s place in some fictional rap league of influence, but celebrating the music that’s being proudly created on the doorstep. Which is what we’ve done here, by rounding up the ten greatest albums of the year from hometown artists. Salute!
10. Children Of The Night, Queens… Revisited
When “Kids From Queens” dropped it hit home as some sort of lost Rawkus recording that you wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Black Attack pop up on. The song’s become the calling card for the trio of Nasty Nigel, Lansky Jones and Remy Banks, but their full-length mixtape hints at future moves in a broader direction: There are collaborations with some of the lower echelons of the Odd Future rabble (“Trust” and “Higher Learning”), while “’86 Mets” is gloriously gratifying outer-borough rap. In other hirsute news, Nasty Nigel is a contender to mount a challenge to Action Bronson’s Respect The Mustache movement.
9. Joey Bada$$, 1999
Flatbush teenager Joey Bada$$ sparked the year off with his incendiary underground “Survival Tactics” video and closed things out by performing a rendition of “Waves” on the Jimmy Fallon Show backed by the Roots. He might never again experience another year that escalates quite so rapidly, but his long-awaited (for a mixtape) 1999 project proves his talent as the leader of the oversized Pro Era clique. Now he just needs to shake off the unfair shackles that want to define him as a solely retro-obsessed rapper.
8. Sean Price, Mic Tyson
The promotional stickers plastered around the city put it best: Sean Price can fuckin’ rap.
7. Various Artists, Luv NY
Helmed by Bronx-born producer Ray West, Luv NY is a slightly-aging Big Apple supergroup of sorts, with Kool Keith, Roc Marcy, Kurious, and D.I.T.C. alumni A.G. and O.C. hopping on and off tracks. It’s a curious listen at times, half existing in a short-term time-warp back to the ’90s and half coming across like some secret rap club where the MCs pass through on a whim and drop verses as much to impress each other as in any hope that the wider world will ever hear them. Best kept secret status.
6. Meyhem Lauren, Respect The Fly Shit
Food rap! Whether hip-hop music that invokes hearty references to the fine dining scene evolves into a genuine movement or peters out as a flash in the pan, Queens vet Meyhem Lauren nevertheless dropped one hell of a fearsome rap album with Respect The Fly Shit. Now pass that consommé.
5. Homeboy Sandman, First Of A Living Breed
It’s a rare treat to hear a rap record from an artist still so openly in love with the art form and its roots, but that’s the charm of Homeboy Sandman’s full-length Stones Throw debut. Odes to hip-hop’s birth blocks (“Cedar & Sedgwick”) snuggle up to clever laments on the nature of fame (“Not Really”), and by the time the album closes with the perky “Let’s Get ‘Em,” Homeboy Sand’s humble everyman rap fan persona has won you over. For 2013: Homeboy Sandman for mayor, anyone?
4. EL-P, Cancer 4 Cure
EL-Producto’s top-to-toe production work on Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music might have somewhat overshadowed his own solo offering for 2012, but Cancer 4 Cure endures as his most convincing and gutsy album yet. The spin-off visuals also contributed to the esteemed canon of hip hop puppeteering.
3. Action Bronson & Party Supplies, Blue Chips
Flushing Meadows Park deserves a triple life-size sterling statue of Bronsolini and Party Supplies while “Pouches Of Tuna” plays out loud on constant repeat.
2. Roc Marciano, Reloaded
Roc Marciano might spend some of his days on the west coast now, but as he put it when I interviewed him about pressing matters like Shiela E and Riesling wine, Reloaded is the direct product of his New York years. At times Roc Marcy’s raps play out like scenes from a pulp action movie yet to be filmed: The Fendi trench-coat and 12-gauge incident that closes out the first verse of “76” is majestic. Forget the hullabaloo about Kendrick Lamar’s album — Reloaded is the year’s most cinematic rap experience.
Its spectacular vividness comes from its restraint.
1. Ka, Grief Pedigree
“Sutter and Stone, Rockaway and Dumont — the gritty arteries of Brownsville…”
So informs the sampled voice that gels together Ka’s meticulously crafted 11-song album. Phrased against the backdrop of the rapper’s Brownsville, Brooklyn, locale, Grief Pedigree sounds like it was created in the idealistic way that we pine for: An artist writing from his heart and first-hand memory, rapping over beats chosen solely for the purpose of meshing wholly with the words. It’s a formula that Ka himself has admitted makes the album a slow-burner: He’s said he expects the first listens of a song to underwhelm. But then comes the moment when it reveals itself as something approaching greatness, and Grief Pedigree solidifies as this year’s best homegrown album.
Entirely self-produced, Grief Pedigree’s songs are possessed of a stark beauty that’s capable of inspiring moods of brooding danger and melancholy lament in the listener. (Future career wildcard: 50 Cent regains his creative spoils by employing Ka and Roc Marcy to produce the entirety of his parting shot to Interscope records.) To this Ka brings verses that focus on the idea of contrast and muses on the way choices made in the moment can change a life’s course (a concept taken to the extreme on “Decisions”). On “Iron Age” he raps with a noble dignity as he explains, “In time you’ll see [a] thin line between friend and rival/ Between you and me, stupidity and men’s bravado/ Almost died trying to make paper, now I pen survival.”
In another era Ka held down a brief spell as part of indie rap cult favorites Natural Elements. Fittingly, Grief Pedigree exudes the best of the mentality of independent music. Orders on his website are prefaced with the small-town-like disclaimer, “Please be patient with your order, I don’t go to the post office every day.” Thankfully, there’s still shopping time left before the year’s out to make him haul a bunch of padded envelopes over to the Brownsville USPS depot.