2017 Album of the Year Write-Up: Run the Jewels 3 – Run the Jewels

Listen: YouTube (Playlist of Full Album)

The critical success of Run the Jewels’ 2014 album RTJ2 would certainly warrant depicting their most recent effort a victory lap. In many ways it is: it feels like a celebration of the excellent music and the eternal friendship that El-P and Killer Mike have created amongst one another. This is incredibly faulty however – a victory lap is never as good as the lap it’s commemorating and that is where this metaphor becomes moot. RTJ3 (2017) is in every way just as quality as its predecessor and in many ways exceeds it. The production at its heaviest bumps unprecedentedly containing nuance and intricacies that raise the album’s bangers to complex compositions on songs like “Hey Kids (Bumaye)” and “Panther Like a Panther (Miracle Mix).” These larger-than-life tracks are complimented with some of El’s most beautiful productions like “2100” and “Down.” The latter serves as album opener and is an unexpectedly tame track that features gorgeous synths and what sounds like a filtered guitar strumming at the low end of the mix. The use of this track as the album’s intro is a testament to Run the Jewels’ vision for this album – whereas their previous two albums were simply fantastic displays of their mastery of their craft: focused, vicious production and expert lyricism and flow, RTJ3 (2017) attempts to showcase those skills in addition to their ability to assemble a cohesive and consequential album. The songs on this record are tied to one another closely in sound and theme. Their sequencing is an essential aspect of the project – take away any track, change their order and the album becomes something less and it feels like that is exactly the duo’s intention. The greatest brilliance of this album however lies in its ominous and foreshadowing nature for the dark year that succeeded it. While the album came out digitally Christmas Eve 2016, and had its physical release in the following month, it serves as a soundtrack for 2017 rather effectively. Listening to this album you can feel an unearthing of dark and disgusting secrets. Run the Jewels has developed a notoriety for lambasting the powers that be and with the now lucid display of corrupt politicians and sexual abuse in Hollywood, El-P and Killer Mike’s critiques are in a sense sadly prophetic. RTJ3 (2017) is the duo’s most interesting album musically and perhaps their best showcase of chemistry – but even more importantly it’s a relic of its time. For better or for worse, this record stands as a pointed representation of the unfortunate state of society in 2017.

FAVORITE TRACKS: Down, Talk to Me, Legend Has It, Call Ticketron, Hey Kids (Bumaye), Stay Gold, 2100, Panther Like a Panther (Miracle Mix), Thursday in the Danger Room, A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters

2017 Album of the Year Write-Up: 4:44 – JAY Z

Listen: YouTube (The Story of O.J.; Official Video)

Following the messy, uneven, and rather pandering Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013) a lot of the interest in JAY Z’s ability to create a great late-career album diminished. No one wanted to hear a 40+ year-old rapper forcefully insert himself into the hip-hop tropes of his younger counterparts – it’s just unnatural, and it seemed that that might be what the latest act of JAY’s career would dwindle into. 4:44 (2017) completely rips this possibility as Shawn delivers one of the most mature and candid records in his discography. The album is truly a testament to JAY’s talent for songwriting and composing as well as his already deified ability to string together witty and provocative raps. Clocking in at a short 36-minute runtime and a tight 10 tracks there’s not much room for anything other than focused craft. “Kill Jay Z,” sets the tone of this album without mistake displaying immediately an urgent self-deprecation and brutal honesty that sees its way into every track on the album. His vivid introspection is paired with an acute awareness of larger societal issues on tracks like, “The Story of O.J.” and “Moonlight,” the former being an absolute standout. The titular track serves as the album’s centerpiece fittingly. No I.D. samples Hannah Williams on the tune whose voice throughout sings, “I’m never gonna treat you like I should,” as an affirmation of JAY’s regret and sadness in betraying his wife and by extension his children. The maturity and self-awareness expressed in bars like, “and if my children knew, I don’t even know what I do,” witness to the place from which JAY is creating this album. But for all of the growth displayed lyrically on the record, the place it may be most apparent is in his decision to allow No I.D. the complete reins in its production. Rather than work with a team of producers, JAY knew his vision exactly and his focus for creating that vision is apparent in realizing that No would, and absolutely did, sculpt the perfect sound for him. With 4:44 (2017) JAY paves a route for the old man in a young man’s game. The grown-up topics of family, finances, and infidelity JAY deals with respectfully and with a perspective that he’s clearly pondered actively for some time. His insightful musings over No I.D.’s stunning production create yet another timeless record for his legacy and though the era of JAY Z is certainly over, Shawn Carter’s has just taken root.

FAVORITE TRACKS: The Story of O.J., Smile, Caught Their Eyes, Family Feud, Marcy Me, Legacy

2017 Album of the Year Write-Up: Neō Wax Bloom – Iglooghost

Listen: YouTube (Playlist of full album)

Iglooghost’s début full-length on Flying Lotus’ zany, boundary-pushing label, Brainfeeder, is an eclectic collection of songs each full of adventurous ideas and relentless attention-to-detail. Leading up to its release the producer tweeted out that one of his goals with the album was to abstain from simply looping phrases, and instead to chase new ideas with each passing bar of music. If nothing else, this album should be praised for the ridiculous amount of dedication such a task would take. Nevertheless, the actual music that comes out of this creation process is truly incredible. There are moments that induce awe like the ancient and inspirational chords throughout track “Teal Yomi/Olivine”; moments of wandering curiosity exemplified on “Sōlar Blade” which sounds like an explorer walking through a magical forest, and moments that relax only to suddenly cut to a dark room with flashing lights full of sweaty dancers like on the album’s penultimate track “Peanut Choker.” One of the year’s most intriguing consecutive run of tracks can be found in this album’s first five songs. From opener “Pale Eyes” through SOTY “White Gum” each tune seamlessly flows into the next creating a foundation for Iglooghost’s outlandish world by completely bulldozing over traditional musical sounds. The album lulls for a couple tracks thereafter, not so much out of boredom but more out of introspection – it seems like it’s trying to find its footing once again and on the album’s climactic song “Infinite Mint” the album succeeds. The track features a beautiful, non-lyrical sung contribution from vocalist cuushe. Iglooghost’s percussive, haunting production on the track and cuushe’s melodious, stirring vocals weave into one another to create a gorgeous centerpiece for the album – listening to the track leaves a longing for more intimate and emotive tracks from the budding producer. And that is the beauty of Neō Wax Bloom (2017): the potential of a young, incredibly talented producer shines brightly, and there is certainly only upward movement in his future.

FAVORITE TRACKS: Super Ink Burst, Bug Thief, Sōlar Blade, White Gum, Infinite Mint, Teal Yomi/Olivine, Peanut Choker

2017 Album of the Year Write-Up: Without Warning – 21 Savage, Offset, & Metro Boomin

Listen: YouTube (Full Album)

The southern-based hip-hop sub genre, trap rap, definitively gained its mainstream success throughout 2017 with universal hits like “Bad and Boujee,” “Bank Account,” and “Bodak Yellow.” Without Warning (2017), whose performers are responsible for 2 of the 3 above tracks, quickly proves itself as one of the genre’s standard-bearers. It only follows that Metro Boomin would be at its helm – his production has become a sort of gold standard and this album is certainly no detractor. Opener “Ghostface Killers” provides a menacing bounce with cemetery bells and Halloween-inspired melodies that set the mood flawlessly. The album is filled with dark and brooding textures complimented by drums with a drunken bob. The production is definitely the highlight of this record, but 21 Savage and Offset both deliver enticing performances that cater to their own unique styles, which are vastly different, while maintaining an incredible amount of chemistry. 21’s flow was essentially made for these beats: dazed out, villainous, and unsparing with annoyance for his deniers and fakers. And just when his monotonous flow becomes tiresome, 21’s partner Offset dips in with what could be considered the definitive trap flow. Triplet rhymes spew out of his mouth without break over Metro’s roomy beats – he makes use of every available space relentlessly. Technically the more skilled MC of the two, his standalone track “Ric Flair Drip” can certainly attest to this, Offset works as the compliment of 21’s sleepy flows. The two rappers each handle their share of hooks as well – another highlight of the project. On, “Still Serving,” 21 raps, “I aint’ never been no bitch, and I stand up when I piss,” creating a somewhat unwarranted sense of pride but also an unforgettable line to recite. Without Warning (2017) is top-tier trap production that two of the genre’s most distinct MC’s utilize to create an unattested chemistry proving to be both wildly entertaining and truly impressive.

FAVORITE TRACKS: Ghostface Killers, Rap Saved Me, My Choppa Hate N*ggas, Mad Stalkers, Run up the Racks, Still Serving, Darth Vader

2017 SOTY Write-Up: North Pole ft. Austin Feinstein – Injury Reserve

Listen: YouTube (Official Video)

After releasing two well-received mixtapes in the same amount of years, both helping to garner a relatively large cult following, Injury Reserve released “North Pole,” as their first taster of music in 2017. But rather than celebrating the success they’ve acquired, the trio seems to be anxious about it in this track. With icy, sparse acoustic guitar chords and a pitched down vocal phrase exuding regret and sadness, Parker Corey’s production is the most somber and distant an Injury track has ever been. The spacious drums make the cold climate of the song even colder which is visualized in the accompanying music video showcasing the members wearing heavy jackets unfit for the shoot location, Los Angeles, with fake snow pouring all around them. Again, Injury Reserve should be celebrating their well-deserved accomplishments, yet even moving to La La Land can’t purge the cold that can come with success. “North Pole” is the group’s metaphor for being on top, but that’s also where it’s the coldest and the loneliest. The group’s two MC’s both rap about their relationship with old friends in the context of new success, but from different angles. Stepa flows over the beat with remorse as he realizes many of his old acquaintances never truly wanted him. Ritchie dwells over what could have been with a deceased friend but in a cathartic manner that seems a bit healthier than his partner’s method. The hook is handled by guest Austin Feinstein whose regretful tone captures the mood beautifully. He cements the sentiment that Ritchie and Stepa introduce on their verses singing of, ‘plastic confidence,’ and ‘spiral twists.’ Injury Reserve delivers an emotive track in, “North Pole,” that genuinely sheds light on their current situation, and makes for one of the group’s finest songs to date and one of the best of the year.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: The Deep – clipping.

Listen: YouTube

clipping. is perhaps hip-hop’s most underrated group working today. The trio consists of MC Daveed Diggs, of Broadway-hit Hamilton fame, and producers William Hutson and Jonathon Snipes. The combined talent of these three is astronomical, and “The Deep” is another insert in their oeuvre as evidence. Hutson and Snipes, two masters of sound, take direct influence from a 90’s Detroit techno duo named Drexciya for the track’s production. The song is broken into four movements each filled with watery textures and bouncy drums. Transitioning from one section to the next are twangy bells and a pitch-shifting eerie and atmospheric whine that effectively create an ominous effect. Every new segment increases the tempo significantly and with it the track’s tension. Daveed rides this unorthodox beat purposefully, matching his flow with the relative intensity of every progression. By the fourth and most intense section, Diggs is showcasing a complete mastery of technical rap over a danceable techno-infused hip-hop beat. The development of the beat is not only interesting musically, but also as a tool for Daveed’s story telling. Diggs uses the increasing tension of each evolution to tell the story of an abused underwater species usurping their negligent ancestors. He handles the topic as an expert storyteller using powerful imagery in, “Oil slick upon the sleeper,” and “when y’all swim up out yo mama while yo mama was asleep.” The stimulating plot develops intriguingly as each section looks to enliven and unify the underwater people against their oppressors until finally arriving to the climax where they do. The experimental beat with engaging progression matched with Daveed’s enticing flow and grabbing storytelling create what is another classic example of the group’s multifaceted capacity for songwriting.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: Glow ft. Kanye West – Drake

Listen: Spotify

The surprisingly sparse and minimal production on “Glow” works effectively to frame two of hip-hops largest personalities. A simple kick and side snare tick coupled with a rumbling and warping bass define the groove for quiet chords and quaint muted strings to color the track. These few elements leave the mix full of room for Drake and Kanye’s astounding performances. The latter opens the show up with vibrant and heartfelt vocals whose lyrics develop into the song’s refrain. Most interesting however is the amusing flow Kanye adapts for his rap verses. The creative three-syllable ending of each of his bars is immediately grabbing and can prove impossible to not join along in rapping, “We go suit and tie, we gon’ touch the sky-y-y.” Kanye is the clear star here, but that’s not to say Drake is not deserving of his due. In the last third of the track Drake reveals he is unsure of his own glow, and that perhaps there is still work to be done. For as much as he has shined in the music industry there remain issues he struggles with at a personal level, and before truly glowing he must attend to those first. To finish the track Kanye makes use of a recently popularized production technique he featured on The Life of Pablo (2016). Rather than chopping the sample up, Kanye maintains its integrity and allows it to play practically unaltered. Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Devotion” is the chosen sample here and, my god… simply amazing. The soul group’s song adds a sort of commentary to Drake and Kanye’s musings on the glow. The sample sings, “Through devotion, blessed are the children,” and you get the sense that both artists accept this idea of devotion as a means to success. Thematically, as well as musically, the sample bears brilliance in its added inspiration and introspection to this perfect song. “Glow” is an impeccable demonstration of the chemistry between two of the genre’s biggest influencers.