Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Hip-Hop

Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012:Hip-Hop
Assuming you already picked up our 2012 year-end issue, you already know our number one album here, not that Kendrick Lamar's poignant debut taking the cake should surprise you. But the talent this year in hip-hop ran deep otherwise— dig in below.

Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Hip-Hop:

16. Ab-Soul
Control System
(Top Dawg Entertainment)

With Control System, T.D.E. "deep thinker" Ab-Soul either serves up a half-baked casserole of YouTube conspiracy, or an original epistle to counterculture lovers around the world. Either way, it makes us hungry: for knowledge, for music, for magic mushrooms. Soul walks us through his nightmare before Christmas on "Soulo Ho3" — a lyrical exhibit over what fellow Californian Evidence might call "subdued slap music." Singles "Terrorist Threats," featuring Danny Brown, and "Sopa," featuring Schoolboy Q, zoom inward into Soul's cerebrum — with TinkeredByAli's adlibs popping from all dimensions. Visually speaking, records like "Pineal Gland," with its concept "borrowed" in the hippest sense of the word from contemporary French cinema, won over many a first-time listener. Then there's the production — first-rate work from mostly in-house Digi+Phonics. Former Sore Losers producer King Blue chips in with a poppy sample of the Merv Griffin theme song for "Mixed Emotions." Control System is the complete package, no matter what you think about Soul's motivations. Whether he believes in what he preaches or if he's just doing it to serve a malnourished mythology is a question best left for freshman philosophy. What matters here is a combination of entertainment, commitment and lyricism.
Peter Marrack

15. Heems
Nehru Jackets

The recent news that Das Racist broke up is a blow to many hip-hop fans, but one softened by the fact that Heems put out two stellar mixtapes in 2012. The stand-out was Nehru Jackets, a lengthy ode to nothing in particular on which Himanshu Suri proves he is a rapper quite outside the "bills, bitches, bling" Venn diagram that is modern rap. Where Childish Gambino (who is featured on the album) annoys some rap aficionados for coming on too strong as a "nerdy" rejection of the rap stereotype, Heems embodies that rejection with effortless and overpowering nonchalance. The man literally raps about Karl Marx, rugby and the Jason Bourne movies, the latter of which for an entire song, and plays it off as natural. Not all the album's themes are outside of the genre norm. In "NYC Cops" he expresses his hatred of the city's police, citing noteworthy examples of brutality as he spits. He also pays tribute to the ladies with "Womyn," a track not unlike the Beastie Boys' "Girls," but with only a little more lyrical extravagance and maturity ("I know women, they like to go swimming"). With 25 songs, Heems had a lot of time to miss on Nehru Jackets. But, like his native Queens, the record is a melting pot of styles and influences and track after track elicits confused smiles and head bobs while simultaneously offering a new window into the same off-kilter mind behind "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell."
Evan LePage

14. Big K.R.I.T.
Live From the Underground
(Def Jam)

In an era where rap artists borrow slang from other regions and buy beats from producers located three time zones away, Mississippi native Big K.R.I.T.'s major-label debut has been slow-cooking in nothing but Southern influence for a quarter century — and then it slops up its own gravy for good measure. There are the obvious country nods such as the collaborations (care of Devin the Dude, Bun B and 8Ball & MJG) and references to candy paint and cornbread, but K.R.I.T.'s exploration of the world in which his grandma raised him digs deeper than that. Vocally, he winks at DJ DMD's "25 Lighters" on gents'-club standout "Money on the Floor," smoothly flips Miami bass double-time flows on "I Got This" and "Yeah Dats Me," and flexes Scarface-calibre storytelling on "If I Fall" and "Praying Man" — a slavery epic featuring blues icon B.B. King. Most impressive of all, Live from the Underground is produced exclusively by K.R.I.T. himself, a 25-year-old who takes a risk by arranging live instruments and singing many of his own hooks. "I couldn't go crazy with the samples. That's an extreme difference [from my mixtapes]," K.R.I.T. told Exclaim! in June of this year. "I had to create records that sound like samples but aren't." The result is full-sounding record, best played loud and on cruise control, that gives both your brain and your subwoofers a little something extra to deal with.
Luke Fox