Phonte – Charity Starts At Home (+FE Music)
Under normal circumstances, the prospect of listening to a rap album about “being jaded with the rap game” would provoke about as much feverish anticipation as the release of a new Memphis Bleek LP. But this is Phonte we’re talking about. With his first (and, might I say, long overdue) solo album, the former Little Brother frontman spends the first four tracks proclaiming his distaste for rap stardom (and sometimes, rap itself) before book-ending the album with a similar diatribe about the joys of a quiet family life far removed from music industry excesses. Hip-hop, for Phonte, is “a tool that I use, that’s it.” CSAH contains one of the most astute guest line-ups in recent memory (with the likes of Evidence, Big K.R.I.T., Elzhi and Pharaohe Monch chipping in with verses), a nice filling of R&B tracks sandwiched between the hip-hop stuff, and – dun-da-da-daaah – the triumphant reunion of Tigallo over that trademark chopped-and-looped 9th Wonder production (with additional contributons from the always-on-point S1, Khrysis and Swiff D). But it’s the overall bittersweet sentiment of rapping-as-a-means-to-an-end (particularly in these dark days of the post-iTunes, post-GFC music biz) that really seals the deal for this listener. Worth the wait.
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
A lone entrant in the “white people music” category this year. Haunting, evocative, expansive, grandiose – use all the superlatives you like, but you still won’t come close to describing the joys of this album. The musicianship displayed on Helplessness Blues is exceptional, the voice of Robin Pecknold (and the harmonies backing him up) are at once pained and world-weary and angelic and uplifting, and the melodies and songwriting and idiosyncratic lyrics strike a chord that just can’t be defined. In case you can’t tell, I love this album. Highlights are many, but you can’t go past the incredible multi-part epics of ‘The Shrine/An Argument’ (see: 360 ‘No Matter What I Do’) and the title track for sheer mind-blowing tension and release. ‘Bedouin Dress’ is feel-good strum-along folk with an ethereal quality to it. ‘Sim Sala Bim’ conjures up weird and disturbing imagery but begs to be rewound and played back again and again. And ‘Grown Ocean’ sounds like the theme song for one’s ascension into Heaven. I don’t know where Fleet Foxes will go to from here; I hope it’s simply up.
Frank Ocean – nostalgia, Ultra (self-released)
Frank really shook up the world in 2011 and it’s not hard to see why. Take some exceptional R&B songwriting, a slightly subversive take on a much-loved but incredibly tired genre, highly competent singing ability, a money-can’t-buy affiliation with Odd Future, a nifty back-story about major label politics and a finely-tuned ear for savvy beat-jacking and you pretty much have the reasons for nostalgia, Ultra’s success. ‘Swim Good’ (see: 360 x Prime ‘Swim Good’) and ‘Novocaine’ are the obvious stars of the show here (with nods to suicidal thoughts, cocaine for breakfast and pornography over lush, late night, synth-heavy, post-Drake instrumentation), but the unexpected Eagles retread ‘American Wedding’ and the MGMT-sampling ‘Nature Feels’ are equally superb. An all-original Frank Ocean album in 2012 would be a beautiful thing. Until then, expect more hooks than Nate Dogg (R.I.P.) in the months ahead.
The Weeknd – House Of Balloons / Thursday (self-released)
The Weeknd is/are masters of mood. That’s important to note. Do they write great songs? Sometimes. That’s why these albums share a single spot in the top 10. Listen to each in its entirety, and at best you’ll have a ready-made sountrack to an incredible night of indiscriminate sexual encounters, recreational drug use and self-pity. If that’s your thing. But take the best five songs, respectively, from HOB and Thursday, put them on one 10-track disc, and you’ll have one of the finest albums of the year. Best tracks for my money are ‘House Of Balloons/Glass Tables’ (see: Prime x The Weeknd ‘House Of Balloons), ‘Wicked Games’, ‘The Knowing’, ‘Thursday’, ‘The Birds Part 1’, ‘Gone’ and the unexpectedly sunny ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’. HOB is a far darker listen, but probably a better starting place to get inside the mind of singer/lyricist Abel Tesfaye – a pill-taking, model-fucking, wrist-cutting character as repulsive as Tyler the Creator, but one just as engaging.
Drake – Take Care (Young Money/Cash Money)
“I heard once that they would rather hear about memories than enemies. Rather hear what was or what will be than what is. Rather hear how you got it over how much it cost you. Rather hear about finding yourself and how you lost you. Rather you make this an open letter about family and struggle and it taking forever. About hearts that you’ve broken and ties that you’ve severed. No doubt in my mind, that’ll make ’em feel better.”
Geko & Aetcix – Goatmob (Crate Cartel)
Aetcix was one of the first local hip-hop peddlers this young tacker got really excited about. As part of the greater Melbourne crew known as Hungry Humans(featuring fledgling talents like Raven, Fatty Phew and Autism), he stormed the net around 2003 with a gang of MP3s of dubious audio quality, all characterised by gritty, self-produced beats and heavily textured, stream-of-consciousness stoner raps, delivered in a jovial but street-savvy mush-mouth style. Sounds like a mess on paper, but in those heady days of Australian rap, it was the individuals who really stood out – and Aetcix was certainly one of those. Hearing his guest shot on Raven’s 2010 album – “Eight six / ain’t been the same since The Matrix / ain’t been the same since I ate trips” – really whet my appetite for a return to the fold, and this new joint album with Geko didn’t disappoint. Dirty beats, jagged bars, weird vocal snippets, colourful samples and a complete disregard for conventional song structure really make for an exciting listen. The cameo verses, while being in-house for the most part, are all exemplary, with Maundz, 1/6, Budsa and Raven in particular really stealing the show. And when Aetcix tells you he “hasn’t eaten meat in three weeks”, you feel his protein-deficient pain. So good that we’ll even overlook the whole “tape” thing (who did it first guys?).
Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne (Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam)
I heard one clever commentator describe Watch The Throne as akin to listening to “Madvillain directed by Michael Bay”. It’s not far off the mark. WTT has a baroque and diverse production aesthetic, more free-flowing song structures than we’re used to (from Jay at least), a heavy emphasis on sampling (although the crate-digging on the likes of ‘Otis’, ‘New Day’ and either of the dubstep-influenced jams is not exactly deep by hip-hop standards), and a sense of randomness at times. When it’s good, it’s really good. The Frank Ocean-assisted ‘No Church’, the double-barrelled ‘Murder To Excellence’, the much-vaunted ‘Niggas In Paris’, the Dark Twisted Fantasy leftover ‘That’s My Bitch’ and the aforementioned RZA-produced ‘New Day’ are nothing short of awesome. Unfortunately, the album is also testament to Jay’s slow decline into lyrical mediocrity (save for some excellent turns on ‘New Day’, ‘Who Gon Stop Me’ and ‘Murder To Excellence’). But it’s a minor gripe when the production and flows are this tight. If nothing else, I’m really excited for the next Kanye solo instalment – and glad to hear a rap album with no guest verses for once!
Ellesquire – Ready (Big Village)
Nothing too complicated or innovative going on here. Just a feel-good, throwback hip-hop album that carries with it none of the horrible connotations usually associated with those tags (see: Jurassic 5, Lyrics Born, any “rap that white people like”), but rather the warm, fuzzy, old world charm and cut-and-paste, sample-heavy production aesthetic of the Native Tongues era. The softly spoken Ellesquire can hold his own on the mic (and hold a tune), but the real star of the show is unsung beatmaker P-Major, who shows himself to be a force to be reckoned with among a growing cohort of exceptional Australian production talent. Oh, and the guest raps from various Loose Change luminaries are great too. Inner West wins again.
J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story (Roc Nation/Columbia)
The question on everyone’s lips: did J. Cole’s official debut live up to the hype? The realistic answer: could anything have? In rap, we’re always looking for a saviour; the next incarnation of Illmatic-era Nas. That kind of pressure isn’t fair. It’s like looking for the next incarnation of EPMD – never gonna happen, we live in different times. But Cole holds his own on Cole World, not least for the fact that the album is almost entirely self produced – who does that these days? Rhyme-wise, Cole is at his best when in reflective mode – exemplified by the album’s best track, ‘Sideline Story’, and ‘Breakdown’ – or when asserting his lyrical superiority – see ‘Dollar and a Dream III’, ‘God’s Gift’ (that beat!) and ‘Mr Nice Watch’. In loverman mode, Cole tends to falter, suggesting he should leave the player antics to the likes of Drake (although their ‘In The Morning’ collabo, equestrian references aside, is stellar). But as a complete package, Cole World is a debut album that any emcee – overhyped or unknown – would be proud of.
David Dallas – The Rose Tint (self-released)
Expat-friendly performances at Canadian ski resorts aside, antipodean rap has yet to make any serious inroads into the highly competitive, arguably xenophobic US market. David Dallas could change all that. A co-sign from street-certified NYC label Duck Down, an incredible production team in Fire & Ice, a (let’s be honest) Yank-friendly flow, and pretty boy looks that make Mac Miller’s face look like a bulldog’s arse all add to the package. But it’s the quality of The Rose Tint – which, despite being made available for free download, is a proper album with none of the usual mixtape hallmarks – that should propel his star even further. Exhibiting a mood reminiscent of So Far Gone (unlikely-hero-on-the-cusp-of-victory lyrics, melancholy-tinged beats), D Dot uses The Rose Tint to paint a comprehensive portrait of his “shy half-cast in the class” character. It’s compelling enough to have racked up a reported 50,000+ downloads through word of mouth alone – and has arguably set a new gold standard for NZ rap.