Hesitant to call any year-end list a collection of the 'best', I present to you my ten favourite rap songs of 2013. Naming this list a 'best of' would assume that I've heard enough music this year to qualify, and while I may be an expert on sandwiches and the many variations of Caribbean dancing, I am not a music writer.
As context, I grew up on hip hop and was heavily influenced in high school by the likes of Nas, Mobb Deep, the Wu-Tang Clan and the Boot Camp Clik. Then, I listened to rap music for a host of reasons, one of which was to identify with the inner city urban struggle that seemed as alien to me as it would for any private school kid who had a mushroom cut and sported penny loafers and a blazer to school.
This was all before the introduction of the internet as we know it. Music was exchanged only in physical form, whether it be copying a friend's mixtape or staying up late to dub a college radio program onto a Maxell cassette. Word of mouth and street marketing were today's music blogs.
I remember fondly the first time I heard the Wu-Tang Clan's seminal debut record 36 Chambers (1993) at a track meet in Grade 9 and thinking that my life had changed forever. Hearing Raekwon rap over beats that would now be classified as horror-core with a lisp that painted visions of a portly black man from Staten Island rapping with a mouth full of quarters was the Ying to the Yang that was distance running and Latin classes.
Nas' Illmatic (1994) is a perfect example of how rap was changing as a medium: it was storytelling in its purest form. An album that perfectly conveyed the plight of a demographic and the socio-economic obstacles they faced without being preachy, where the line between factual and fictional was only blurred to intimate an idea that required sharing. While records like A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders, Black Moon's Enta Da Stage, Wu's 36 Chambers, Geto Boys' Til Death Do Us Part, Snoop's Doggy Style and Tupac Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. - all of which were released in 1993 - signalled the growth of rap music, somewhere not long after it became stagnant, eventually regressing into much of the garbage the major labels shill today.
I pity the child growing up on the likes of Rick Ross and 2 Chainz, where conveying an image of the urban struggle has been replaced with the quest for opulence and luxury. Nas depicted a people committing crimes as a means to an end. Rick Ross does the same, glorifying it to illustrate the desires of an idiot and ignorantly perpetuate the stereotypes that plague a generation. One seemed genuine, the other smells rotten.
While much of today's rap music is a festering pile of steaming shit, there are several artists making excellent music. Much of the newer rap music I listen to today is completely different than that which I was enamoured with in my teens and I listen to it for different reasons. Hood anthems and street bangers have been replaced by acid rap and laconic beats, where some of rap's more creative artists search for influence in places previously untapped. The internet has introduced today's youth to a bevy of genres, and forward-thinking producers are sampling and finding inspiration in music other than the Motown standards or soul recordings of the 70's
Below are listed my ten favourite rap songs of 2013 in descending order with a brief description of the song and the artist.
10) Pusha T - Numbers On The Board
Pusha, formerly of the brother duo Clipse, has in the last few years forged a reputation as your favourite rapper's favourite rapper. 2013's My Name Is My Name features the Virginia Beach product lacing cocaine metaphors and analogies over some unusual beats, none more unconventional than Numbers On The Board.
9) Viper - You'll Cowards Don't Even Smoke Crack
Despite being recorded in 2007, Viper's marquee single gained notoriety this year when a slowed-down version of this song appeared on the internet. Assuming that we all agree that the lyricism is not this song's strongpoint, it makes me wet myself with laughter with each listen and is an ideal track when considering what drugs to smoke on a certain evening. Amidst the scandal in my city this year with a crack smoking mayor, it was impossible not to think of this song with every mention Rob Ford's drug of choice.
8) Suicideyear - Birthday
Yup, that's a sample of Fleetwood Mac's Little Lies that you're hearing. From 2013's Japan release, Birthday is a song that relies heavily on a craftily-built sample and little else. It is simple. It has no lyrics and it'll get stuck in your head for days. The Baton Rouge producer's work is heavy on synths and woodwind melodies, often times meandering outside of what most would consider hip hop, without ever straying too far from a sound that is for a loss of better words, fucking fantastic.
7) Yung Lean - Ginseng Strip 2002
Stockholm's teenage answer to every internet rapper ever can easily be dismissed for a slew of reasons, least of which is a nostalgic aesthetic that harkens back to simpler times. The pioneer of #emotional music and the SAD BOY crew, Yung Lean channels every rap song he's heard into something that is as equally as enjoyable as it is a novelty. Among a number of songs Yung Lean released in 2013, Ginseng Strip 2002 perfectly encapsulates both the sound and the visuals of his music. Just listen to the words, understanding that his disjointed flow is intentional and I dare you not to chuckle a few times. Care to delve deeper into the Yung Lean sound? Drink a bunch of cough syrup and watch Hurt.
6) Chance The Rapper - Smoke Again feat. Ab-Soul
Chicago's founder of the Acid Rap movement, Chance The Rapper released 2013's Acid Rap to the praise of plaudits and artists alike. On this track, Chance raps alongside Black Hippy member Ab-Soul about smoking weed and enjoying the fuck out of it. In much the same way as other tracks on Acid Rap, Chance flows with such ease that it's absurd, weaving between voices and cadences like he was born to rap in a carefree fashion that translates to one of the best sounds of 2013.
5) Action Bronson - 9.24.13 feat. Big Body Bes
Currently one of my favourite rappers, Queen's rotund Albanian Bronson released 2013's Blue Chips 2 as a free mixtape that was without a doubt one of the year's best releases. 9.24.13 is an ideal example of the tape, highlighting a simplicity and flow that is without effort but ripe with gems. With references to pop culture, professional sports, cuisine and automobiles, Bronsolino spits bars with a smile on his face, before his friend Big Body Bes drops one of his hood-inspired, grin-evoking monologues. Just listen to Blue Chips 2 next time you have an hour to kill and you'll not be disappointed.
4) Mac Miller - Watching Movies
As much as I disliked Pittsburgh's Mac Miller upon first hearing his work a few years ago, he has developed into a better rapper, working with many of the industry's emerging producers to create a sound that is all its own. 2013's Watching Movies With The Sound Off introduced a refined version of Miller, altering his flow as the beat required, foraying into various styles and influences. Watching Movies is a haunting track with a beat reminiscent of a nightmare littered with clowns and circus iconography. The guy might still be a bit of a douche - I assume most white guys are.
3) Black Hippy - U.O.E.N.O Remix
L.A.'s Black Hippy gained notoriety with the emergence of Kendrick Lamar with last year's Good Kid M.A.A.D City. On this remix of Rocko's oft-remixed breakout single, Lamar and groupmates Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and SchoolBoy Q rap over one of the year's best beats, taking a track that was once littered with awful rhymes and transforming it into one of the year's standout tunes. Each with unique styles and flows, the members of Black Hippy rap over this laconic beat with an assumed ease that would put most rappers to shame.
2) Drake - Worst Behaviour
2013's Nothing Was The Same was met with as much praise as it was jokes about Drake's sincerity and tendency to express a desire to emotionally appease his women. If this is a man's shortcoming, then I'm a Grade-A pussy in the mould of Toronto's own. While the album does contain many a song best listened to in the company of the missus, Worst Behaviour is without a doubt a banger, singled-out by a flow that switches without effort, vacillating from Drake's marquee transparency to the swagger of one of the game's top emcees.
1) Lil Ugly Mane - Throw Dem Gunz
The Virginia based rapper/producer is also the maker of one of my favourite mixtapes of the last few years, 2013's Three Sided Tape that highlights the versatility of a producer who is not confined by the genres that typify many artists, switching from Southern Rap to punk. On Throw Dem Gunz, Lil Ugly Mane raps with a distorted pitch over an eerie loop that is as haunting as it is banging. To boot, the video, filmed in Helsinki, Finland, and Tallinn, Estonia, is an ideal visual compliment to a song that could afford to be minutes longer, yet is perfect in every way.