2014 saw all kinds of hip hop floating around, from new stars and old. Countless tracks have already been forgotten, but this article is about the ones that really stuck. This is just one writer’s opinion, but here it is: the ten best hip hop tracks of the year.
10. Clipping – “Work Work”
While clppng is one of 2014’s more uneven releases in any genre, “Work Work” channels the group’s brand of bizarre industrial-hop into something almost party-appropriate. The sneering delivery of lyrics about pimps, gang signs, and dead homies comes caked in irony, but “Work Work” is charming and catchy enough to let us in on the joke.
9. Jeremih – “Don’t Tell Em”
DJ Mustard gets much of the credit for gracefully reconciling modern popular hip-hop with increasingly EDM-soaked pop charts, after previous attempts ranged from limp to mashup-tier. You can criticize Mustard for being formulaic, but when songs you didn’t even produce start following the formula you can’t deny its effectiveness. On representative track “Don’t Tell Em”, Mustard streamlines the hazy, stylish, “All the Time” Jeremih for mass consumption.
8. Run the Jewels – “Jeopardy”
“Jeopardy” opens Run the Jewels’ second release with a bang, with Killer Mike immediately spitting call-outs and accusations over a lurching beat that builds intensity from guitars and eventually a brass section. “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” or “Lie, Cheat, Steal” are rivals for standalone pick from the solid RTJ2, but “Jeopardy” is too strong in context to ignore.
7. ILoveMakonnen – “Tuesday”
“Tuesday” features a confusingly addictive hook – Drake protégé ILoveMakonnen’s sing-songy delivery isn’t like anyone else’s – but it sinks in quickly. The production is feather-light compared to more hard-hitting club tunes, which backdrops our introduction to the friendly, if strange, demeanor of this rising star. His reason for getting the club goin’ up on a Tuesday is comically ordinary: he has to work all weekend.
6. Future – “Honest”
While Future’s Honest is a solid hip hop release, you can’t help but notice tracks where the guest spots seem to take over. Kanye is on a song seemingly about Kim K. The Drake feature is called “Never Satisfied”. The Andre 3000 song sounds like Outkast. While these songs are done well, you don’t come out of the album with an overall sense of Future’s vision and control. In this regard, it’s feature-less songs like “Look Ahead”, “T-Shirt”, and especially “Honest” that are the real gems. On “Honest”, Future seems to be opening his heart with a stream of confessions, but it’s a ruse: his only confession is that he’s awesome. “I was gon’ lie to you”, he’s saying, like maybe you’d relate to him better if success made him feel empty inside, but to be honest he just spent $100,000 on watches, flat screens, and strip clubs so he’s not really thinking about it.
5. Kendrick Lamar – “i”
As the follow-up single to an album that instantly entered the rap canon (good kid, m.a.a.d. city), “i” makes a lot of sense. Lamar distills a theme present there – embracing self-confidence and individuality to thrive in grim surroundings – with a much lighter tone. While some found the song’s cheery Isley Brothers sample uncharacteristic, or its upbeat message too aligned with “Happy”, I find it a refreshing post-good kid palette cleanser. It might take a close reading of good kid to distinguish Lamar as a role model amongst his peers, but “i” is a welcome mat for millions of kids to identify with and absorb Lamar’s content.
4. Rich Gang – “Lifestyle”
I finally cracked and looked up what Young Thug was saying in the third line of the “Lifestyle” chorus. Livin’ life like a volcano* this only the beginning, in case you were wondering. I’m impressed someone figured this out, because he so emphasizes the wrong syllables in each word that comprehension approaches Kanye’s garbled auto-tune moaning that closes out “Runaway”. In both cases, the effect moves focus from what’s said to how it’s said – the “volcano” is closer to a feeling than a metaphor. “Lifestyle” is part of an appealing trend in hip hop right now (“Tuesday” and “No Type” being other examples) where it’s the laid back songs that sound the most heartfelt.
*Turns out he may be saying “beginner” instead of “volcano”, but there’s not really a consensus.
3. Bobby Shmurda – “Hot Boy”
What’s impressive about “Hot Boy” is that it doesn’t have a hook. That can’t be true, you say, that’s like a really catchy song. Do you know the words though? Shmurda never says the same thing twice. Instead, the catchy part is the ebb-and-flow dynamic, wherein Shmurda controls his lyrical tone and volume to manage hype like a festival DJ. “Hot Boy” surpassed its offbeat companion “Shmoney Dance” to somehow sit at #6 on the pop chart right now, and we’re still not sick of it.
2. Rae Sremmurd – “No Type”
If “No Flex Zone” is the rocket youngsters Rae Sremmurd rode into orbit, “No Type” is the lasting hit from after they got there. The Mike Will Made It production glides on minor-key synths and a subdued trap beat, while in the foreground the brothers vocalize from a slick upper register. These two project unbridled optimism bordering on naiveté, but they present it so likeably you can’t help but root for them.
1. Schoolboy Q – “Man of the Year”
While many of the artists on this list – Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd, Future, Makonnen – are based in Atlanta, the top spot goes to the West Coast and Schoolboy Q. “Man of the Year” isn’t tied to trends, highbrow analysis, or radio ubiquity. Instead, it’s a deceptively catchy rap song saturated in resonant production formed from cavernous low-end synths, a Chromatics sample, and a meticulous, stabbing beat as subtly vicious as Q’s delivery. The flow of the writing condenses the dynamics of the “Hot Boy” verse/chorus tension into each nonlinear bar; the technical scheme is Eminem-like in its proficiency but with no heavy-handedness. The track isn’t the first to stand out from Oxymoron, but once it clicks it’s here to stay.