Top Hip-Hop Albums of Q1 2015: Staff Picks

Cherry Bomb – Tyler, The Creator
Submitted by Joey Chini


Tyler has returned from what seems like a very long hiatus, and he’s back with a new album. Cherry Bomb caught most listeners, including myself, off guard. The album’s release came as a surprise, with Tyler letting everyone know through his social media that his third studio album was on its way to iTunes, with physical CDs at participating retailers shortly after.

The album opens with explosive guitars and bass, careening Tyler’s voice overtop a heavy riff where he lets listeners in on the albums main theme: finding yourself. The first song, titled “DEATHCAMP”, is populated with crazy metaphors, a gnarly beat and Tyler’s snarling lyricism, which is the best it has been since his debut mixtape Bastard. Tyler continues to cite Kanye West and Pharrel as primary influences, going as far as finally working with West on the song “Smuckers”, along with Lil Wayne.Tyler makes his first track set the motif, but not the tone, declaring “The blind niggas used to make fun of my vision/And now I pay a mortgage and they stuck with tuition” harkening back to Kanye West’s College Dropout. Another influence Tyler constantly cites is musical group N.E.R.D. stating again in the first song “In Search Of… did more for me than Illmatic”. Illmatic, obviously one of the most influential traditional hip hop albums of the 90’s, is not held in high regard by Tyler, and Odd Future’s signature noise is inspired by a mixture of modern artists along with Tyler’s now classic sound.

The rest of the album is amazing, the theme of ‘finding your own style/sound/what have you’ permeates through every track, there is even a song literally called Find Your Wings. While the album is very much a holistic piece of work, it sometimes loses its hard-hitting momentum in favour of a softer, slower sound where Tyler himself is comfortable enough to sing, albeit he sings along with the artists featured. Its a very fresh change of pace for The Creator, and while I wish I could go further in depth, you’ll just have to listen to Cherry Bomb to appreciate its volatile force.

B4.da.$$ – Joey Bada$$
Submitted by George Pierce


I’d always wondered what rappers from the ’90s would sound like if they had been displaced and found themselves in the new millennium. Joey Bada$$ has been answering that question for a few albums now, but not even his head-turning first mixtape 1999 wore its influences as brazenly as B4.da.$$ does. Beyond simply laying heavy-handed references to the great hip-hop albums of the decade (“Cash ruin[s] everything around me,” he croons in “Paper Trails;” “Big up, big up–it’s a stick-up, stick-up,” he declares in “Belly of the Beast”), Joey pays homage to the ’90s by bringing back the East Coast sound. Smooth, expertly selected jazz beats drive every song, created by some of the best beat-makers in hip-hop history–DJ Premier, J Dilla, and even The Roots are featured in the credits.

Joey is a decent wordsmith. He spits a rapid-fire flow with Caribbean slur, but he doesn’t have the foaming mouth that the region is known for (think Busta Rhymes), and for most of the album, his voice hardly ever rises above the level of the production. As such, few songs on the record force you to pay attention to his lyrics. “Hazeus View” is probably the track where Joey has the most volume, and “Paper Trail$,” with a masterfully simplistic beat from Primo, gives Joey a chance to really showcase his lyrical chops. But the album truly shines when Joey’s voice flows with the slow, rolling pulse of songs like “Piece of Mind” and “On & On,” and the listener gives in to the natural inclination to nod along like they were listening to it live on the street corner on a smoky New York evening. That instinct to nod, that incredible vibe and atmosphere that permeates every inch of the album, is what B4.Da.$$ truly has going for it, and that’s what transforms the album from a simple ’90s copycat into the standard-bearer for 2015.

Sour Soul – BadBadNotGood & Ghostface Killah
Submitted by Joey Chini


Toronto jazz trio BadBadNotGood solidified their place in the industry in the past half a decade with their instrumental studio albums, BBNG, BBNG2 and III. Working with artists such as Tyler, the Creator of Odd Future, BadBadNotGood showed just how well they can meld with hip hop, a genre already prevalent in their songs. Sour Soul, the trio’s full-album collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah forgets current hip hop trends, and brings listeners back to a simpler song structure while still maintaining the authentic improvisational jazz sound laid out by their three studio albums. Bass lines are deep and reserved, guitar licks are thick with reverb and there are little intricacies and percussion swing back and forth under the foundation, proving BadBadNotGood are divine with their musical technicality.

Ghostface proves he can still rap better than most by lyrically dissecting each instrumental, rhyming with increasing intensity as each track goes, creating a technically mesmerizing poetic piece. Smooth, groovy and perfect to rap along to, Ghostface keeps it real old school discussing traditional hip hop themes such as pimpin’ on Tones Rap and bringing out his inner activist on Nuggets of Wisdom in his schemes. Simple, subtle and succinct, Sour Soul clocks in at just over a half hour and is sure to slap a sour sneer across your face and bob your head back with satisfaction.

Favourite Tracks: Gunshowers, Mind Playin Tricks, and Food.

Tetsuo & Youth – Lupe Fiasco
Submitted by George Pierce


It would be so easy to write off Lupe Fiasco. We’ve all been afraid to trust in his ability to put out a quality album since he burned us with Lasers. Perhaps we should have let him fade into obscurity, buried in the pile of so many other artists whose first album stands as their best. Then again, perhaps the absence of expectation was exactly what he needed to redefine himself, because despite his less-than-stellar discography, Lupe has never lacked talent. He’s always been one of the greatest of the modern generation at wordplay and phrase turning, but perhaps before he could clear away all doubts, he had to clear away all presumptions. Only on that condition could an album like Tetsuo & Youth come about, but this could very well be Lupe’s defining work.

It takes but a glance at the track-list to know that this album is well separated from everything else Lupe has ever done. The album is split up into sections, using interludes named after the seasons. Each section takes on its own part of Lupe’s identity–Summer is filled with the open and easily-digested production that made Lupe a radio darling in the mid-2000’s, Fall features the more subdued and emotionally charged tracks that fans have always lauded Lupe for, and Winter is where you find the bangin’ harder-edged tunes with abrasive beats. Such a mix of styles could’ve easily turned sloppy, but Lupe constructed the album with care, and it flows smoothly across the seasons with a common theme that ties all the sections together (even if the track list is played backwards, so the rumors say).

There are bigger risks here than Lupe has ever taken on an album, from having three different eight-and-a-half minute songs, to using prison rape as a metaphor for his record contract. The risks pay dividends, however, as the long tracks are among the best of his career, with opening freestyle “Mural” perhaps being the zenith. In every corner of the album, Lupe’s full skills are on display, but for once, it’s not the only thing his record has going for it. The album is engrossing, the beats are (for the most part) fitting, and the narrative is timely and poignant. From completely out of left field, Tetsuo & Youth has not only set the bar high for Lupe Fiasco’s future career, but also for hip-hop in 2015.

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late – Drake
Submitted by Joey Chini


Absolutely hot off of Nothing Was The Same, Drake shows no signs of slowing down. The Toronto artist attacked iTunes in February with a surprise release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, which Drake himself considers a mixtape, though due to iTunes charging for the work, it is officially considered his fourth studio album. Speculation, along with the legal dispute between Birman and Lil Wayne, and by proxy, Young Money and Cash Money records, lead this fan to believe Drake and Cash Money charged for the supposed mixtape in order to qualify IYRTITL as Drakes last album under the label, freeing him from the chains of corporate greed.

Aside from the debatable nature of this release there is no denying Drake shows growth with this album, declaring he “isn’t new to this” industry and to “not speak to him as if he was the Drake from four years ago.” Full of quotable lines, unbelievably catchy melodies, and stunting hard on almost every track, straight rap, almost no choruses, while occasionally drifting seamlessly from rapping into singing it’s hard to find a reason to dislike these seventeen ‘throw-away tracks’ (including two bonus tracks if you count the physical copy). The beat production is among some of the finest in Drake’s career, producer 40 and Boi1da show their technical ability to the fullest extent.

Drake’s only fault on this outing is allowing other people to feature on it. PARTYNEXTDOOR and Travi$ Scott both detract from the songs they are on, and in my opinion Drake shouldn’t rap alongside anyone but his mentor Lil Wayne. Speaking of Lil Wayne, a version of “Used To”, featuring a new Drake verse and an autotune-less Wayne verse appears on the album—a nice treat for fans of Wayne’s Sorry for the Wait 2. Throughout the course of the album Drake gradually gets more serious, and by the end he expresses exactly the way he feels, sick and tired, a notion he champions through the final three songs, ‘You & The 6’, ‘Jungle’ and ultimately ‘6PM in New York’. In short, this album is just fun to listen to, Noah ’40’ Shebib and Boi1da are at the top of their production game, and they contribute to Drake’s greatness just as much as Drake does. Looking forward to Views From The 6.

Favourite Tracks: Know Yourself, Star67, 6PM in New York

To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Submitted by George Pierce


I can only imagine what Kendrick Lamar was going through in the three years since putting out one of the biggest hip-hop records of the 2010’s so far in Good kid, m.A.A.d. City. While he may have finally earned enough to move away from the infamous streets of Compton, CA, Lamar has found himself more a slave to his contract than he may have ever been, especially since the anticipation for his new album reached a fever pitch in late 2014 after the release of single “I”. Meanwhile, as the volatile nature of race relations came into the public eye through police shootings and Twitter beefs, perhaps Kendrick realized that Compton might’ve been exactly where he needed to stay. Bangers and baseless braggadocio could not be allowed to continue defining the black voice. Not with so much tumult in the community. Not when Lamar was in a position to say something about it and force people to listen. I imagine he went into To Pimp A Butterfly thinking that if anyone could make people take notice of what was going on, it was him.

To Pimp A Butterfly is at once an outward celebration of the African American community, and an introspective journal wherein Lamar tries to figure out how to come to terms with his unique and elevated position in it. “I remember you was conflicted; misusing your influence,” he writes to an apparition of Tupac, mirroring his own emotions about this record. He addresses many facets of the black experience as though he were simply writing entries in his private journal, including the expectation of black men to be sexually dominant without regard to consequence, the exploitation of a black culture that still carries a negative stereotype with it, and yes, even the “N-word,” which he traces back to Ethiopian roots to mean royalty.

By speaking out through a rap album instead of a journal, however, Lamar harkens back to the golden age of the ‘90s, when hip-hop records WERE the journals—when the stories and lessons of the streets were told in songs like “The World Is Yours” and “Everyday Struggles”. The jazz beats make them easily digestible, but these songs carry a weight of credibility that truly makes people listen over and over. This is what it means to be a black man in America today. But more interesting than that, this is what it means to be Kendrick Lamar in 2015, after the grand slam that was Good kid, m.A.A.d. City. To know that everyone’s waiting to hear what you have to say, and having to come to terms with the fact that you carry a voice that might be far louder than any other in recent memory; to bear the responsibility that what you say now might define your legacy.

Most importantly, this is what it means for an album to be legendary–because To Pimp A Butterfly is the ultimate criterion for hip-hop’s return to form, and the most important album of the genre since 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP.