2019’s first round-up of essential hip-hop releases includes an audio documentary about the Black Panther Party, an expansive snapshot of the U.K.’s interconnected hip-hop, soul, and jazz scenes; and vital modern boom-bap chronicles. We also spotlight a heavyweight dub-infused project that might have passed you by during the holiday season.
Aesop Rock & TOBACCO are Malibu Ken
This team-up between erudite wordsmith Aesop Rock and producer TOBACCO (of Black Moth Super Rainbow) is anchored by electronic production created on analog synths and tape decks. Taking his lyrical cues from the viscerally sparse beats, Aesop spits with a booming, wide-eyed clarity on tracks like “Churro,” where he compares human behavior to the cutthroat nature of the animal food chain. Later, “Acid King” invokes the story of teen murderer Ricky Kasso, while “Corn Maze” dabbles with the idea of personal privacy in the modern world. It’s not all gloom and doom, though: the shuffling electro fuzz of “Tuesday” prompts our MC-cum-host to cop to being unable to keep a cactus alive.
Big Kahuna OG & Fly Anakin
Big Fly 3
Big Kahuna OG and Fly Anakin hail from Virginia’s Mutant Academy clique. This third volume in the duo’s Big Fly run of EPs features the dusty, jazz-influenced production associated with the collective, courtesy of Ohbliv and Tuamie. At times, the vibe brings to mind the early oeuvre of Joey Bada$$ and the Pro Era camp, but the two MCs stamp their own authority all over the beats. Anakin’s higher-strung flow is easily complemented by Big Kahuna’s weightier brogue. The consummate five-track set is rounded out by “Rain & Sun Freestyle,” which the MCs dedicate to the late, great Big Pun.
Blockhead is best known for his many revered instrumental hip-hop albums—but on Free Sweatpants, the New York City-based producer calls on the talents of an ensemble cast of MCs. Open Mike Eagle, billy woods, and the Juggaknots’ Breezly Brewin pass the mic over the woozy, string-laden “Slippery Slope,” with woods time-traveling back to days when he was “13 with the Malcolm X hat,” and Mike Eagle coming through “looking all abstract and half bohemian.” Other standout moments skew less sartorial, like when Chicago’s gravel-voiced Tree recounts the misdeeds of a cast of nefarious characters over the noir backdrop of “Frank,” or an animated Vic Spencer indulges in a “rapping spree” on the brooding “Favorite Chair” and warns foes he’s come packing “extra body bags in the corner.” Elsewhere, an especially heated Aesop Rock takes a pointed stance on police brutality on “Kiss The Cook,” venting, “You people still defending the police—you’re fuckin’ poison.” Nodding to Blockhead’s earlier discography, the album closes with the shapeshifting six-minute instrumental cut “Make America Gape Again,” bringing Free Sweatpants full circle.
The REALITY STONE
Canadian DJ Chong Wizard’s Infinity Stone EPs are quickly emerging a crucial documentation of the modern boom-bap hip-hop movement. The series kicked off last summer with The POWER STONE, which set out the artist’s executive-producer role, hand-picking and pairing together underground artists like Ankhle John, Rome Streetz, Chris Crack, and Sadhugold. The REALITY STONE marks the second installment in an eventual, six-volume franchise; its cast, featuring the talents of Estee Nack, al.divino, CRIMEAPPLE, and Hus Kingpin, keep the quality at its pinnacle. Head to “How To Kill A Spider-Man” for a proper distillation of the vibe: MC Haze issues threats (“When I punch it’s like a rusted razor made the cut”) atop Evilldewer‘s dramatic and ghoulish guitar-spiked beats.
On the reggae-influenced “Ital-You-Can-Eat,” Curly Castro hits up a late-night jerk chicken spot in a bid to satiate his “stomach on growl like bass from Hank Shocklee.” Both line and track provide a potent summary of the Philadelphia-based Wrecking Crew MC’s style on TOSH, arriving via billy woods’s fertile Backwoodz Studioz label. Over 16 tracks, the listener is bombarded with lyrics and beats that are equal parts inspired by hip-hop’s golden age and West Indian rhythms. The combination peaks with “Babel,” an intoxicating dub-infused posse cut that drafts in Defcee, Collosoul, and ELUCID to help further Curly Castro’s righteous mission.
Plotting his dispatches from a base in Phoenix, GRIM MOSES specializes in concept-heavy hip-hop. As you might guess from the album’s title, The Proletarii is all about exposing the plight of the world’s exploited working classes. Evocatively shadowy production is provided by Camoflauge Monk, who beatheads might recognize from collaborations with Mach-Hommy and Tha God Fahim. “Some gotta rob or they starve / Why you gotta make it so hard?” opines the husky-voiced GRIM MOSES on “Vitiate,” apotheosizing to his newfound role as people’s champ.
Justo the MC & maticulous
Mind of a Man
There’s solid heritage running through this collaboration between New York City spitter Justo the MC and fellow Gotham beatsmith maticulous; the former earned his stripes buzzing around the Gang Starr Foundation, while the latter claims a production portfolio that features Masta Ace, Lil Fame, and Guilty Simpson. The tone of his latest record, Mind Of A Man, flips between moody moments of reflection (“Speaking My Language,” “Long Way Home” featuring Kev Brown), and brawnier outings (“Stereo Type” and “Kick Knowledge,” the latter of which features sharp scratches by DJ Eclipse). The 10-long project culminates with “Champagne Rain,” which balances nostalgic, bass-heavy production with celebratory visions of bubbly cascading down from the clouds.
Knxwledge’s beats and Meek Mill’s amped freestyle flows make for a smart combination, as evidenced by this fourth installment in the Los Angeles beatsmith’s remix series. Meek’s guest appearance on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show last year forms the basis of “whatiwant,” with the rapper’s voice complemented by off-kilter synth lines; the beat underscoring the “Moment 4 Life” freestyle, in particular, conveys a nostalgic feeling. Crowning the project is “10mins_,” which pairs Meek’s impassioned brags with frequent rounds of applause, as if he’s kicking sermons for his people—and rightfully basking in the acclaim.
All Power to the People
All Power To The People is the latest in a series of documentaries on wax that 4hero producer Marc Mac has been releasing since 2006’s It’s Right To Be Civil. Digging into a vinyl stash of ’70s soul, Mac lays down mid-tempo, head-nodding hip-hop beats—and then tells the story of the Black Panther Party, via meticulously sourced soundbites. To that end, there’s an album-long emphasis on debunking misconceptions regarding the Panthers’ preoccupation with violence; tracks like “Breakfast Program,” “Feed The Babies,” and “Healthcare” spotlight the organization’s emphasis on social programs. A bonus mixtape-style presentation of the tracks ensures that delivering essential knowledge has never sounded so funky.
Years (2009-2019) is pitched as the “definitive catalogue” of songs recorded by west coast lyrical experimentalist Myka 9 and Canadian beatmaker Factor Chandelier, whose production style leans heavily on live instrumentation. Consisting of a mammoth 54 tracks, the collection offers a fittingly epic listen. Arranged in a chronological fashion, it kicks off with the pair’s 1969 album; bonus unreleased demo recordings are also sprinkled throughout the mix. Guest MCs on the discography include Aesop Rock, busdriver, Open Mike Eagle, and Abstract Rude, casting the album as both career overview and a lesson in advanced rhyme tactics.
No More Normal
London-based producer Swindle forged his reputation on the U.K. grime circuit, but No More Normal takes up the broader challenge of connecting the country’s vibrant hip-hop, jazz, and soul scenes. “Coming Home” frames Kojey Radical‘s ebullient raps by way of rousing brass fanfares, courtesy of the Riot Jazz Brass Band. Nubya Garcia adds bluesy sax lines to “Run Up,” and Eva Lazarus and Kiko Bun bring cocksure lyrics to the slinky “Knowledge,” with the latter bragging, “Why must I pretend to be ignorant when I’ve got all the knowledge that I need?” The speaker-busting thrills are strong with cuts like “Drill Work,” where Ghetts drops fierce bars over gargantuan, trap-style drums.