The mainstream end of New York City’s 2013 rap output might have seen uptown upstarts A$AP Rocky and French Montana putting numbers on the board, but the city’s most fertile and invigorating offerings came from less glitzy-reaching enclaves. Consider this round-up a salute to the rap albums that best defined New York this year.
(Obligatory honorable mentions disclaimer: Steel Tipped Dove’s double volume smorgasbord of emcees …And A Whole Bunch Of Motherfuckers Parts 1 & 2, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s canny Kismet, World’s Fair raucous Bastards Of The Party, and EL-P and Killer Mike’s magnificent Run The Jewels jaunt which missed out on inclusion by virtue of the ATLien’s hefty contribution.)
10. Armand Hammer
The Armand Hammer duo of Billy Woods and Elucid are a gift from the underground. Race Music, which was preceded by the freebie mixtape Half Measures, wins with its full-on dirt appeal; imagine the heavy mental thoughts and space-thud production of EL-P’s “Nightwork” tryst with the lesser-spotted Sir Menelik and you’re in the subterranean ballpark. For greasy kicks, lead single “Shark Fin Soup” also shouts out Mott Street food spots.
9. A$AP Ferg
Couldn’t get beyond the department store muzak moment of “Fashion Killa” on A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP? Try the long-playing debut from the Mob’s second-in-line instead, which casts Ferg as the continuation of New York’s mid-’90s street-centric swagger. With the “Work” remix the Fergster also crafted a 2013 anthem–although hometown hounds might want to try and replace the now unwelcome Trinidad James’s guest spot with some vocals from Zhiggie.
8. Jean Grae
A novel in the form of a trilogy of EPs? Or just more advanced-level, back catalogue-referential rap hi-jinks from Jean Grae that will all be fathomed out in years to come? Start forming your own take on the Gotham Down experience by delving into the gifted-child rap acrobatics of “Kill Screen (Steve Wiebe).”
Left-coast beat-miner The Alchemist gets a hearty assist here as he holds down top-to-toe production duties on Albert Einstein, but the project’s beating heart is the Mobb Deep man’s gutter-superstar performance. Over 16 songs, Prodigy sounds as equal parts mentalist and enlightened as you’d want. And in the year of Tim Dog’s curious (and unsolved) disappearance, “Curb Ya Dog” resonates as something of an unplanned tribute.
The Peter Pan Syndrome
J-Zone’s out-of-retirement album is the sound of a native New Yorker struggling to cope with the stress-heaping bureaucracy of his local USPS on one side and a gaggle of rappers salivating to jump on the fine-art bandwagon on the other. Smartly, he deals with it via a healthy dose of off-kilter funky beats topped with rhymes that brim with a cynical humor.
5. Roc Marciano
The Pimpire Strikes Back
Reloaded almost topped last year’s round-up of the best New York City rap albums, and for 2013 the former Flip Mode man dropped two projects. The superb Marci Beaucoup will be revealed to the world next week, but before that he unleashed The Pimpire Strikes Back which saw Marcy widening his creative cohorts to include Madlib and Evidence while still proving the appeal of his now inimitable wry flow.
4. The Underachievers
A top of the year contribution from Flatbush staples Issa Dash and AK, The Underachievers steered the Beast Coast collective in a psychedelic-enhanced direction with Indigoism. There’s tangible glances back to the ’90s at times, not least with the majestic “The Mahdi” channeling Souls of Mischief’s “93 ‘Til Infinity,” but these kids have indigo-tinted eyes that are focused upwards and to the stars.
3. Action Bronson and Party Supplies
Blue Chips 2
Bam Bam Bronsolino and producer Party Supplies are hip-hop’s greatest odd-couple comedy-double-act-in-the-making. Someone give them a TV show. And pass the tequila.
While self-exiled in the eerie expanse of upstate New York, the duo of Matter ov Fact and EP recorded the most peculiarly beguiling home state album of 2013. I once likened the duo to a couple of Dr. Octagon’s interns who were dismissed from duties for being a little too quirky. To wit: HARK‘s 12 tracks include references to crazy cat ladies, cougars chomping on Peter Luger steaks, and the sport of fem-dom. This is harnessed to production that succumbs to hip-hop’s infatuation with flipping a good break in a fresh way; the flute-line on “Sunshine” nags away like a lost Beatnuts beat-sketch while “Barbiturates” is just about the dreamiest rap fabric of the year. Consider HARK your indoctrination into the black cloak lifestyle.
The Night’s Gambit
On Saturday July 13th, Ka stood outside the location of the old fabled Fat Beats store on 6th Avenue in Manhattan with a box of vinyl records and a backpack full of copies his new album, The Night’s Gambit. Posted up, he greeted fans, inspired upcoming emcees, and good-naturedly argued with an elderly Chinese woman who descended from some form of massage parlor upstairs to ask him to move on. It’s unlikely anyone who turned up to sign on as an early adopter for The Night’s Gambit returned home unsatisfied–on even a first listen the record resonates as something to cherish for the ages.
Following up the plaudits of last year’s Grief Pedigree (which also topped our best NYC rap albums list in 2012) The Night’s Gambit unfolds as a sacred hip-hop sermon with Ka conveying his wordily contemplations in a hushed reverence. “Each Ave’s its own parish/ To the pulpit I don’t preach no bullshit,” he outlines on the pounding opener “You Know It’s About” before asserting, “My catalogue’s a slum Bible.” And on it goes for 11 self-produced songs (or 12 with the bonus vinyl-only coda “Poor Thoughts”) that coyly infuse the bleak and harsh exterior of the city with the blood-warm beating heart of those surviving in it (“I”m a fighter, had to learn to be a lover,” he confesses on the epic “30 Pieces of Silver”). The haunting-yet-cleansing “Our Father” is artsier than Yeezus, “Peace Akhi” is a production masterclass in mustering up an air of nervy and taut tension, and “Off The Record” gives a rap nerd’s nod in GZA’s esteemed direction. All praises due to Ka for blessing us with 2013’s hip-hop masterpiece.
More:Best of NYC