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.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: Truth – Kamasi Washington

Listen: YouTube (Official Video)

Kamasi Washington is in the business of creating life. He first hinted at this with his debut album, The Epic (2015), whose title harkens back to millennia old stories that dealt with answering the question of creation. On “Truth,” Kamasi becomes the creator. The opening piano chords bring to mind a formless void being filled with rushing water. To fill out the lower end the bass follows closely to the keys’ rhythm; you can imagine landscapes pushing their way out of the oceans. The song quickly adds a reserved guitar part and dynamic yet yielded drumming as greenery and small creatures begin to inhabit the landscape with vibraphones ringing out discreetly in the back of the mix. And though all this life has been set up, it goes truly unseen until Kamasi’s saxophone introduces the light. His mesmerizing melody, which becomes the song’s motif, accents the music below it with grace and refinement. This beautiful composition continues for some minutes in crescendo until coming to a break in the song. The tempo increases and the mix is reduced to a quieter but livelier rendition of the song’s opening moments. The capricious shift is reminiscent of a Lucifer-type character interrupting the process of creation, but Kamasi refuses to not allow there be beauty in that. For the first minute after this break, Washington’s saxophone timidly solos over the few remaining instruments, but it isn’t long until it takes lead and guides the instrumentation elegantly to bear undeniably gorgeous performances. The combined efforts of “Truth’s” various sections develop into an almost ancient and absolutely grandiose arrangement – a creation song.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: Family Feud ft. Beyoncé – JAY Z

Listen: YouTube (Live Version)

Question JAY Z’s status as a rap god and you’re crazy. Question his ear for beat selection and you’re brainless. On 4:44 (2017) JAY Z enlists legend No I.D. as the album’s sole producer and the result is a flawless tape of beautiful beats – the brightest amongst them being “Family Feud.” The foundation of the beat is built off an absolute gem of a gospel sample in The Clark Sister’s, “Ha Ya.” Their strong, chorus vocals set against No’s modern, rolling drums produce a swagger fit only for JAY’s confident and luxurious flows. No I.D. instills the beat with a sense of the old school via traditional sampling but at once the beat feels completely modern. JAY certainly picked up on this feeling when he penned the song’s theme. The ‘family’ alluded to in the track’s title is the entirety of hip-hop, and moreover black culture – the ‘feud’ is the old school vs. new school infighting. Jigga acts as a mediator advising both sides that the petty differences they argue over are detrimental to the family’s success, specifically their financial success. The intriguing aspect of JAY’s role in this discord is that it is both distant and intimate. In one breath he realizes it’s not his place to lead the culture anymore. “New n*ggas is the reason I stopped drinkin’ Dos Equis,” he raps as a way of accepting he is no longer ‘the most interesting man in the world.’ In the other breath, JAY knows that his success can be a template for those on the way up to earn their stripes, but even more he feels he has to keep pushing further as well with the three comma club just on his horizon. And in that context he asks, “what’s better than one billionaire?” – the obvious answer being multiple. Over a beat that intertwines both the old and new for a stunning result, JAY argues that doing that for the culture will yield parallel outcomes.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: Thursday in the Danger Room ft. Kamasi Washington – Run the Jewels

Listen: YouTube

Run the Jewels delivers the most emotive and empathetic song in their three-album discography over some of El-P’s grittiest and most focused production. Gurgling synths over jangling tambourines, a heavy snare, and soft kicks produce an eerie and almost ghostly atmosphere. It brings to mind a dark and rainy evening in a misty cemetery, but not out of horror and more out of somber commemoration. However, the beauty of this song goes beyond its spectacular beat. El-P and Killer Mike both bring poignant verses concerning untimely death and its effect on their persons; while El-P’s maintains a consistent 2nd person POV and appeals to debatably universal truths, truths he learned through his experience with his dying friend, Killer Mike reveals incredibly dense personal experiences. Both verses are gold and standouts on RTJ3 (2017), but Mike’s is stunningly cathartic as he offers hope to the individual who murdered his close friend that he “righted [his] wrongs,” and prays that he made it out of the jungle that is the streets. To bridge the rappers’s introspective verses, the two speak directly to their deceased subjects on a saxophone-laced hook letting them know they’ll never forget. While neither MC is unknown to stirring raps, “Thursday in the Danger Room,” is simply tear jerking.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: White Gum – Iglooghost

Listen: YouTube

Iglooghost creates adventurous, detailed and absurd electronic music. It truly is like nothing else being produced today. “White Gum” takes the masterful idiosyncrasies of an Iglooghost track and filters them through a fine layer of pop appeal. The track opens with an anxious and unfamiliar essence that brings the listener into his paranormal world of floating eyeballs, witches, and gelatinous worms; just peruse the album cover art. Halfway into the intro a monstrous and intense 808 bass bursts into the mix demanding attention if you haven’t already tuned in. The track really begins to take form as an aggressive, non-lyrical voice fades in and serves as a sort of narrator for the coming compounding and complex twists and turns that the track never seems to run out of. The addition of this voice, a sampled grime vocal, is such a creative and unique approach to the instrumentation. Even though it is clearly of human origin, the sample acts as a perfectly befitting instrument in this wholly electronic composition. The greatest feat of “White Gum”, however, lies in its ability to constantly shift from idea to idea without feeling overwhelming and instead become a memorable and catchy tune. While the track truly feels alien, Iglooghost still plays to minute, simple melodies and hard-hitting drumming seen in most contemporary music. Its components are merely tried and true electronic music precedents that when compiled by Iglooghost operate to tell the story of “a giant calamity involving two huge eyeballs falling from the sky.” The track’s creator is not some foreign entity with access to a library of new, unearthly sounds, and that is what makes the creation of “White Gum” such an astonishing achievement.