New York City rap in 2014 will be remembered by many for the way Brooklyn’s Bobby Shmurda and his Shmoney Dance shenanigans shot up the Billboard charts, but the rest of the city’s scene was also busy on a grassroots level, creating some remarkably creative hip-hop. Despite being conceived, released, and performed on your doorstop, many of these hometown offerings never received the due they deserved — but that’s no reflection on the vitality of the music that was constantly seeping up from the underground. Here, then, are the 10 most essential Big Apple rap long-players of 2014 — consider them your savvy year-end playlist template.
10. Meyhem Lauren and Buckwild
Meyhem Lauren isn’t new to this, but the Queens lifer’s profile caught a bump when his Polo pal Action Bronson’s career began to skyrocket. This year saw Lauren grab his own slice of the spotlight as he dropped his most cogent project to date, the 13-song-strong Silk Pyramids, pairing his heavyweight flow with hardscrabble production from the crate-master Buckwild. Cameos come from scene staples AG Da Coroner, Troy Ave, Retch, and that man Bronson, but the whole package is held together by Laurenovich’s steadfast spitting.
9. Armand Hammer
The most seductively eerie listen on this list, Billy Woods and Elucid’s nine-track Furtive Movements release is a subterranean gem. Over production that resonates like a gumbo of low-end tones and skewed atmospherics, the duo broadcast their lyrics live from the deep concentration zone. File under: The new heavy mental movement.
8. The Underachievers
Cellar Door: Terminus Ut Exordium
The Flatbush duo of Issa Dash and AK created a deliberate head-fuck with their latest Brainfeeder offering. Inspired by a book Issa wrote (and then duly lost on a missing laptop) when he was younger, the album’s lyrics continue to embrace an introspective and astral-gazing third-eye mentality while the project dips into duskier production climes than UA’s prior releases. It’s a new direction that suits the Beast Coast kids well.
Teaming up with the Snow Goons production unit, the original grimy-voiced kids from Queens holed up in the studio and crafted 14 tracks of brilliantly murky rap. The vibe throughout is relentlessly grubby, with the highlight being a team-up with Cormega and Papoose to reminisce over rowdy days and illicit shenanigans at New York’s ultimate thug club, The Tunnel. Don’t call it a comeback as much as a rugged flashback to the ’90s.
6. The Doppelgangaz
Still broadcasting from Parts Unknown somewhere in the depths of upstate New York, the self-coined Ghastly Duo of Matter ov Fact and EP followed last year’s HARK project with the 11-track Peace Kehd. This time the music heads in a more expansive direction with songs infused with wavering synths and woozy basslines, while the lyrical ambit remains endearingly kooky. If you’re not already on board, consider Peace Kehd your entryway to the Black Cloak lifestyle.
5. Your Old Droog
Your Old Droog
Beyond the hullabaloo that teased that Your Old Droog might be a cheeky secret side-project from one Nasir Jones, the newcomer’s debut 10-track EP-turned-album impressed by dint of one simple virtue: The kid from Coney Island can rap his ass off. Fusing a lubrication-smooth flow with a nasally and nicotine-stained timbre, Your Old Droog rips through rhymes over production that bubbles with a funky swagger. Welcome to Droog’s world.
4. Pharoahe Monch
The former Organized Konfusion mic commander has always possessed a keen eye for concepts, but his fourth solo project channeled his expansive thoughts into a beguiling body of work. Embracing the overriding topic of how stress in its many forms runs through society and daily life, Monch drops canny commentary while never tempering his razor-sharp flow. Impressively, as the album progresses it moves from a brooding and often torturous opening tone to a finale that’s swaddled in a lightness of being. Consider it your personal rap therapy session.
3. Skyzoo and Torae
Representing live from the Planet, Skyzoo and Torae’s first full-length collaboration was pitched with an overt manifesto: “I don’t make music for Fader/I make mine for the guys that grew up how I came up.” Naturally, what follows is a taut trip through the burly Brooklyn the rappers call home, with robust flows being dropped over concrete-solid production. It all adds up to a proud hometown mission statement.
2. Bishop Nehru and MF Doom
There’s a good few decades between the New York City-raised (but now exiled-in-London) MF Doom and the upstate-residing Bishop Nehru, but listening to their hip-hop tryst, it’s as if they’ve been plugged in to the same creative zone all along. The formula here is simple: Doom produces, Bishop raps, and on occasion the curmudgeonly supervillain with the “Brillo Pad beard” also deigns to grab the mic, but it’s the duo’s shared off-kilter sensibility that gels the listening experience. And when they team up for the positivity-packed “Great Things,” it’s as if Doom has temporarily let his mask drop to embrace a nostalgic revisiting of the original K.M.D. vibe.
1. Homeboy Sandman
All hail Homeboy Sand. A literal mainstay of the New York City underground scene since the days when he was plastering the 7 train with his stickers, 2014 began with the Queens-raised rapper continuing his excellent run of EP releases with the Paul White-produced White Sands project before climaxing with his creative opus Hallways. Sparked by a perky interpolation of a Boogie Down Productions anthem on the opening song “1, 2, 3,” the 12-track project charms like a svelte and smartly sequenced album of yore, with Boy Sand dipping into Big Apple sociology and spirituality during the mid-section, becoming smitten with a girl who “know all the words to O.C.’s ‘Time’s Up,’ ” and culminating with a trio of some of the most delicate and feathery rap songs you’ll ever experience. At times Boy Sand’s tricksy raps seem like they’re about to take a stream-of-consciousness turn into a cul-de-sac, but the skilled lyricist always slips out through a secret conceptual side entrance. Hallways is simply the sound of a master rap writer at work.