CJ's Top 2018 Albums
By John Ricker
It’s between three albums. One out of these three albums is about to be listed as the album that takes the whole enchilada for the best album of this calendar year. The rest of 2018 and all the other blogs can take a back seat to what I think.
Before I got into the meat and bones of this stew, I mulled over what exactly these three albums did for me. I believe the essence of it all is backstory. I see these artists as characters, basically a part of the project like the snare or lyrics. I don’t know them personally, so it all really boils down into the narrative they are projecting. Some of their narrative I get from just listening to the records themselves, but a lot of it comes from outside references: interviews, rumors, folklore that I’ve picked up for some reason or another. That essential piece of humans speaking beyond just music, trying to shout out pass the record, is equally part of a project that hooks me in the end.
First up is Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap. Now, I do this thing a lot where I don’t tap into a lot of hot artists until, for some reason or another, I decide to pick them up when they drop their latest release. This was again the case for Nipsey. I didn’t hear any old Nipsey, perhaps minus a hits here and there.
What I did hear from Nipsey, was the folklore that he left behind -- Selling a grip of $100 mixtapes, bypassing major labels and doing it all with an in-house team. Before I fell in love with any music, I fell in love with the public character of Nipsey as the embodiment of what a lot of people fell in love with Jay-Z for: making an empire out of dirt.
I was originally just going to credit the two singles that I believe stood the test of time, but thumbing through the tracklist, all of these songs still heavily resonate with me to this day… and this album came out at the beginning of 2018. If I can still look back at these songs and feel a type of way, it’s an album worth of noting.
I loved Rap Niggas and Last Time That I Checc’d. For one, the production on the album, especially the two aforementioned songs is great. The bounce is unabashedly a representation of the modern west coast sound with its ear-piercing synths plus some hollow bass. This sound persists throughout Victory Lap, not just in a few standout tracks, which offers a sense of cohesiveness to the project. Most of the times great sonics from an album are due to a steady hand in the production, and in the case of Victory Lap, this production is owed to the super duo Mike & Keys (formally The Futuristiks). Unlike a lot of records today that contain a multitude of producers, Victory Lap’s sound is curated.
Nipsey’s character is a hard working business owner beyond just a rapper. This truthfulness cracks through your head when you’re listening to all these songs. He brags about owning his masters. Hip-hop is known for a dose of a testosterone-driven ego battles [masculine calmtent link], but here is a figure deeply embedded in rap since 2005, and he’s boasting about copyright. It’s gangster, man.
In an interview Nipsey had with NPR back in February, he said, “A lot of us were raised off these principles that we got from the Jay-Z catalog or the Tupac catalog and, later on, the Jeezy catalog or the E-40 catalog. There were jewels in there that, if you really live by them, your life will benefit and your financial status will benefit.” Following that he talked about how if people followed the principles set down in the era his music has landed in, they’d end up “strung out” and “end up in a bad position.”
“I understand art reflecting life,” he continued, “but we grew up on art instructing life, with love and from a position of: I been there young bro and I know it’s hard on you but I did it like this; here’s the bread crumbs. After a while, I felt like it was almost a responsibility for me to give the game up [on record]. I look at it like a blueprint.” That is the character that shines through in this record. At the end of the day, you hear what a person is like through their music or at least a representation of what they want to be seen as. If that’s not how Nipsey Hussle actually is as a man then so be it, but the lessons he chooses to paint are still worth looking at.
The music also bumps.
I got Nipsey’s backstory from word of mouth, through the stories he’s put out on the street for a minute. Jay Rock, on the other hand, has the reputation of Top Dawg Entertainment behind him. The label possesses the timing and the platform to put directly the narrative they want to put in people’s heads. I didn’t know the backstory of Jay Rock very well, and TDE put out a docuseries that outlined exactly why I didn’t know that. Jay Rock was the crash test dummy for TDE; how to market their artists. Where Jay Rock succeeded and failed ultimately serve purpose as the foundation of how to build up their next artist, Kendrick, into the superstar that we now know he is.
An actual redemption. That’s what Jay Rock’s Redemption album was. That’s what I heard throughout this album. Redemption didn’t have a super cohesive solid sound to my ear, and in that regard I would put it just behind Victory Lap. But Jay Rock’s motif of overcoming obstacles is always a little more appealing to hear then Hussle’s success story. (I’d chalk that up to the human experience).
When you sprinkle on top the fact that the rapper was in a motorcycle crash in the midst of his redemption catching steam, his comeback story is real enticing. Redemption is exactly what his single “Win” sounds like: a victory song that plays while Jay Rock stands on the ringposts and throws his arms up to celebrate a win. While Nipsey does his victory lap in a car seemingly by himself Jay Rock is on top of the ropes with the TDE squad behind him.
“Fuck everything else/ Win, win, win, win.” It’s simple words from Jay Rock, but when you tie in the bigger picture, it becomes a lot heavier. Jay Rock was the sacrificial lamb for TDE. He was supposed to be as big as Kendrick is now. He was supposed to be the face that TDE championed first and foremost. He was supposed to have the throne. Maybe the better talent rises to the top either way, but TDE isn’t built competitively. Sure, there’s competitiveness in all rap by nature, but Kendrick described it best in the docuseries when he said Jay Rock was always making sure that K Dot had the opportunity to shine.
Redemption is a piece of work that shows off exactly how far Jay Rock and the rest of TDE has come. They’re literally always winning. And after what could be seen as a bunch of losses, this record is just a big sigh of a relief and a smile.
Some Rap Songs
I was already leaning into Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs as my favorite album of the year, maybe because it was just the most recent album of the three. But one line really helped me cement that lean. Jay Rock had a line about his father: “My momma say I'm like my daddy, I got too much pride/ And she was right, mix this bottle with the lime and Sprite.” Earl’s father line: “Mama said she used to see my father in me/ Said I was not offended.”
That line got me. Because here’s what I have in my head about the backstory of Some Rap Songs, it was supposed to be a white flag of sorts to his parents for any shitty behavior Earl was showing in the past. And then his dad, a figure literally ingrained into the record, died. And then his uncle, ingrained in the record as well, died shortly after.
Remember what I said about Redemption being a little more appealing because of the plight? Some Rap Songs is the telling of that plight, directly from inside of it, not a tale of overcoming the plight. It sounds like it’s in a positive light, like the direction of the album graphed upwards, but then it just comes to a crash and burn.
The backstory might be the most appealing of the three albums, but the production and rap of Earl is what truly suckered me in, and his father rhyme is a great example. In an album that revolves around a family motif, having a line that addresses his mother seeing his father in him would usually come off as an insult is the epitome of a solid rap line.
Some Rap Songs also glorifies sampling, and I just can’t hide from the richness of the art of sampling. The act of leaving a musical breadcrumb trail to lead an audience down a rabbit hole is something I have a love for. With sampling, if you find the sampled record, you can begin to feel what the artist who used the record was feeling when they listened to the song. It’s some sort of amazing portal into the eye of a soul, possibly seeing how a rapper can be inspired by something made in the past to put a piece of themselves on. It’s magic.
He weaves a sample of his mother, a law professor who’s relationship with her son has been quite public, over a sample of his father, with now-deceased poet Keorapetse William Kgositsile (or Bra Willie) that paints two great aspects of this records. One, how sampling can create a representation of the a present that was built on its pasts, and two, what that present and past might be for Earl Sweatshirt.
The past might be the name itself, Earl Sweatshirt. His real name, Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, was plastered in promotional posters around LA, and in an interview with NPR, Thebe this is the first time his work has straddled between the two names.
To me, this album sounds real. It sounds like what a certain group of young 20 year olds would make. A group that might consist of semi-depressed alcoholics. A group that sounds older than they are, for whatever reason. In Earl’s case, one of those reasons might be because he has been in the spotlight for so long. It sounds like someone who has separated themselves from the crowd that he blew up with. It sounds like someone who knows they had to do some growing up, and is doing that in their way.
And it just sounds like hip-hop. He probably made it on his computer. He probably mixed it himself. It’s a sound that I resonate with, and a sound I would make. But it’s honest. And that’s what all three of these albums were. Some Rap Songs just caught my honesty the most.
This piece is by John Ricker. Follow him on Twitter @CollarJohn.