Quelle Chris, Deathfame
[Mello Music Group]
With DEATHFAME, Quelle Chris blends contemporary hip-hop themes, jazz-rap stylings, and a diverse range of dreamy/noisy atmospherics. With “Alive Ain’t Always Living,” he expresses wistfulness re: the process by which innocence is lost, chorus-washed and distorted synths giving the track a lo-fi sound. Trashy drums and clangorous instrumentation on “King in Black” wouldn’t be out of place on a Tom Waits track. On “Feed the Heads,” Chris demonstrates his rap skills, alternating between staccato phrases and fluid long-rhymes. “So Tired You Can’t Stop Dreaming” highlights Chris’s gift for a g-funk delivery, supported by a jazzy piano part. On “How Could They Love Something Like Me?,” Chris’s echoey vocal, again supported by a piano, brings to mind Dean Blunt a la Black Metal/Black Metal 2. The title cut shows Chris commenting on success and its cost, and contains a jolting counter to 50 Cent’s famous tagline: “Fuck gettin’ rich an dying trying, give me deathfame.” The closing tracks are heavy on guest-features, a move that conjures a communal feel but also slightly dilutes Chris’s signature skills and vision. Still, all in all, DEATHFAME is a compelling project, Chris demonstrating his broad talents as a lyricist, rapper, and sonic architect. – John Amen
Flee Lord & Mephux, Pray for the Evil 3
Never say Flee Lord hasn’t put in the work. The one time Prodigy (RIP) protege put out a project for every month in 2020, and what’s more, not a one was disposable. Understandably, he took it easier in 2021, “only” dropping three projects. He’s been even more patient in 2022, waiting until May to drop Pray for the Evil 3. Mephux’s contribution is not to be underrated, with the producer once more proving he’s among the most underrated beatsmiths working today, laying down the perfect sonic map for Flee Lord to slither across, and neither contributor wastes a moment. Flee himself is an undeniable presence, with a voice that borders on a pure snarl, and an endlessly memorable ad lib (Lord Lorddddd!).
The project also makes the most of its guests, from the lesser known (everyone: go listen to G4 Jag) to legends in the form of Cormega and Fat Joe. Then, of course, there’s “Final Four”, which sees Flee Lord face off against Roc Marciano, Trae tha Truth, and the year’s arguable MVP, Conway the Machine. Suffice to say, it’s a moment – in a project full of them. – Chase McMullen
Saba, Few Good Things
Saba seems like the kind of soul who attracts company. He came up alongside his beloved Pivot Gang, and his circle continues to grow with his experience in the game. On his latest album, Few Good Things, he can count the likes of Black Thought and Krayzie Bone from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony among his guests – heroes who have become friends, and a sure sign of respect from the older generation.
Across Few Good Things, Saba is mostly paying tribute to the positive aspects in his life, regularly revolving around his friends and his neighbourhood. Compared to the rawness of his last album, 2018’s Care For Me, it might at first seem soft-bellied as it coasts on mellow and melodic production, practically beach ready. That said, there are still barbs hidden in here, and it’s G Herbo who arguably pulls the most fire out of Saba on the unhappy reflection of “Survivor’s Guilt”. Overall though, this is an album of taking stock; of the Chicago rapper retracing his steps to where he is now, the good and the bad, and just being thankful for what he has. – Rob Hakimian
Fly Anakin, Frank
Fly Anakin’s debut studio record Frank – really, a debut in name only as he’s been releasing music for close to a decade at this point – functions as both a historical (though slightly unreliable) account of his younger years and an overview of the musicians who led him to making music. From his beginnings in Richmond, Virginia and the founding of rap collective Mutant Academy, Fly Anakin has been the point man for rap technique within his musical sphere, treating syllables as nothing more than malleable components that he can shuffle around in service to any beat laid out in front of him. Frank harnesses a potent momentum residing within his voice, allowing him to careen through elastic landscapes filled with a library’s-worth of influences and driven by an insatiable need to recontextualize the sounds of the world around him. – Joshua Pickard
Leikeli47, Shape Up
Anonymity is important to Brooklyn artist Leikeli47, as you won’t find her performing without some form of physical concealment. Her latest album, Shape Up, uses this sense of secrecy to play around with the concept of piercing sentiments as blank canvases which can be colored with our own circumstances. A rap album that prefers to keep its influences as broad as possible, Shape Up is a chameleon, shifting between hip-hop, techno, R&B, and house music without missing a beat – the connecting lines she draws between these genres are as obvious as they are often overlooked. The beats can be subtly minimal before suddenly bursting apart and inviting you into some lush and curiously ornate rap environments. She exudes a raw vulnerability as she doles out waves of elevated braggadocio which functions as the bridge between caustic verbosity and sultry balladry. These songs are often vicious, occasionally affectionate, and always founded upon a blunt and necessary honesty. – Joshua Pickard
Earl Sweatshirt, Sick!
And here we thought the man who doesn’t like shit and won’t go outside would be fine during the lockdown! Turns out Earl, in his usual surrealist fashion, saw the era of anxiety as a great mold to explore amorphous blobs of dreamlike moods to observe alienation. Working with The Alchemist and Black Noi$e, SICK! is neither as broken as SOME RAP SONGS, nor as otherworldly as I DON’T LIKE SHIT… – instead, it exists in a strange haze of midnight fever, of lines heard from another room. Depression is a recurring theme, but so is a strange sense of cosmic dissolution. Something is wrong here, and neither the garlic nor sage stick of the cover seems to help.
Thebe seems to approach the questions offered by the lockdown and its accompanying stasis instead of naming the disease itself. While it has become familiar for Earl to not directly address issues and instead finding a language to reframe his perspective into poetry, it’s as fascinating and cryptic as his best work. As on Feet of Clay, there is no reveal of monsters or ghosts, just the sense that something is lurking that feeds off us, collectively. But unlike on his previous albums, the manifestations are less vapor and more plastic, reveal themselves in bubbles and tentacles that dance around the bars. The more material he releases, the starker the impression that Thebe is giving his audience puzzle pieces which, if only assembled in the right fashion, reveal a larger picture, a key to the man and his riddles. SICK! won’t reveal the solution to the mystery just yet, but it’s another intriguing ingredient of Earl’s alchemical process. – John Wohlmacher
T.F, Mephux & Roc Marciano, Blame Kansas
You know a rapper is overdue their moment when not one, but two fantastic producers agree to split the work on an album for them. That’s just what happened for L.A.’s T.F on Blame Kansas, with Mephux and Roc Marciano each taking a half of the LP. Whatever that might you lead you to believe, it flows supremely well, the two portions of the album slotting in together just like they’re forming some sort of superior killing machine. T.F, for his part, proves just why he deserves such attention, effortlessly sliding across the lush sonic landscape provided for him. It guests don’t come to waste any time, either, from Roc himself spitting alongside the seemingly omnipresent Conway the Machine (where in 2022, isn’t this man?), along with Crimeapple and longtime ally Flee Lord. It’s a brutal, to the point exercise in sheer talent and supreme focus. Whatever the title says, we’re not in Kansas anymore. – Chase McMullen
Denzel Curry, Melt My Eyez See Your Future
MELT MY EYEZ SEE THE FUTURE is a deeply beautiful, emotionally haunting and entrancingly psychedelic experience. Similarly to Kendrick Lamar on his new album, Denzel Curry embraces a therapeutic perspective of facing his demons head on, baring his soul and past in the process. Where TA13OO still saw the rapper using alter egos and metaphoric characters, he now abandons the masquerade. At the same time, he chooses a psychedelic kaleidoscope of styles and sub-genres to fully cultivate the necessary aesthetics for the individual chapters of his life. “Worst Comes To Worst” has a freaky, demented vibe, similar to something you’d expect from Ol’ Dirty or Busta. The self-confident strut of “John Wayne” is more acid Western than gangster rap, while “The Smell of Death” is a clear homage to MF Doom, cartoonish sample-intro included.
And then there’s the smooth Californian vibe of “Troubles”, the manic drum’n’bass of “Zatoichi” and the pleasant, Kendrick like jazz rap of “Mental” – all co-existing in the larger tapestry of one unified vision. This is thanks to Curry’s clear sense of intent, and his great quality as a writer and MC alike. Vocally, he transforms from conscious rap to punk rock to soul singer. Lyrically, he doesn’t invent stories so much as he interrogates his own behavioural patterns in a poetic fashion. This isn’t so much afro-pessimism, as evident on some of TA13OO’s harsher cuts, as it is an attempt to unify the sensitive artist with the product of ‘the struggle’, accepting that the bad comes with the good. As he puts it in the masterful, tranquil closer – and possibly best song of the album – “The Ills”: “Demons on my mind, they know where to hide, really / Then nine minutes later, I’m met with the nine milli’ / So nine times out of ten, I’m probably going to Hell / ‘Cause I’m the devil, which means I sold my soul to myself”. A multicoloured masterpiece, which will reveal its gravity in years to come. – John Wohlmacher
Elucid, I Told Bessie
You may feel as though everything is collapsing under the emotional weight of Elucid’s latest record, I Told Bessie, an often austere and ragged ode to his grandmother which also functions as statement of intent for his own perspective on history, both familial and musical. Aided by his Armand Hammer partner billy woods as both executive producer and guest musician, Elucid delivers an insightful and bruising tour of the past while using it as a guide to the future.
In comparison to his previous work with woods, I Told Bessie feels more existential, more attuned to the nuances of passing time. There’s a murky gloom hanging over these tracks, riven by tumbling beats, patches of blistering lyrical evocation, and a penchant for detailing everything in historical snapshots rather than longform narratives. But there is still room for hope here, space for those whose love and affection molded him in his earliest years – and in those moments, he feels alive and intoxicated with the pull of ancestry and blood connections. He’s not necessarily looking for abject truth on I Told Bessie; he’s simply searching for something to tie him to his family and draw them all closer together. – Joshua Pickard
Pusha T, It’s Almost Dry
With It’s Almost Dry, Pusha T continues to explore familiar themes: street life, power dynamics, and his perennial fav, cocaine. Half of the tracks are produced by Kanye West, the other half by Pharrell Williams. West’s productions occur as more broad-stroked and raw, as with “Dreamin’ of the Past,” featuring Pusha’s matter-of-fact swagger bolstered by a loopy Motown-esque soundscape. Williams’ work tends to be more meticulously crafted, as with “Let the Smokers Shine the Coupes” with its sharp percussive accents and glitchy yet tightly wound ambience. The jangly “Diet Coke” (produced by West and 88-Keys) shows Pusha riffing on the drug/dealer life while expressing gratitude that he survived the past (“The crack era was such a Black era / how many still standin’ reflectin’ in that mirror? / Lucky me”). The Williams-produced “Call My Bluff” navigates similar territory, Pusha offering imagery that might land as formulaic with another artist but unfolds as moodily credible coming from Pusha (“Sister, aunt, niece, duct tape them all”). Pharrell’s bass-heavy tones swell the track, enhancing the sinister content.
It’s Almost Dry spotlights Pusha revisiting stock tropes, though with sleeker narratives and more infectious cadences than displayed on previous releases (excepting, perhaps, 2018’s succinct and cogent Daytona). Production approaches complement his voice and delivery, West’s and Williams’ divergent styles giving the album added variety. – John Amen
Westside Boogie, MORE BLACK SUPERHEROES
Given the title MORE BLACK SUPERHEROES, you might expect an album full of preaching and pomposity. This couldn’t be further from the truth – Westside Boogie might strive to be better, but it’s a case of one step forward two back (at best). Women, money, pride, and don’t forget a dose of daddy issues – it’s the usual suspects that are piercing the rapper’s armour, but the way he openly dissects his shortcomings is uncommon in this field.
The unique dichotomy that is Westside Boogie is laid bare on the album’s closing “ANTHONY (WAR)”, a two parter that starts with the rapper in repentant, reflective mood – only for the beat to flip and him to come out swinging: “I’m going DEFCON”. Boogie wants to be the carefree playboy, but, more often than not on MORE BLACK SUPERHEROES, his attempts at happiness end in testosterone or tears. Fortunately, he pours it all out onto the page, and it’s been teased out across this surprising and soulful album. – Rob Hakimian
Vince Staples, Ramona Park Broke My Heart
[Blacksmith / Warner]
Over time, Vince Staples has become perhaps one of the glummest rappers in hip hop – and certainly one of the most fatigued. After a frustratingly long absence, he returned last year with Vince Staples, a project that nearly constricted with its brief, yet supremely focused, length. It was grim, pure and simple.
He followed it up (especially for him) shockingly quickly with RAMONA PARK BROKE MY HEART, which, at least musically speaking, is warmer, the perfect West Coast summer album. Yet, scarcely beneath that is Staples’ weary reality, wishing freedom for his incarcerated brethren, rapping from the perspective of a lonely gun, hell, he even manages to wrench a strong verse out of Lil Baby. Some of the tracks here would be hits had they come from a bigger name, and we can bemoan the state of things due to that simple fact, but Staples seems satisfied with his lane. At least so much as his paranoia and depressive state of mind will allow. An album that will sneak up on you more and more with each listen until its in constant rotation. – Chase McMullen
Conway the Machine, God Don’t Make Mistakes
[Shady Records / Drumwork]
Conway waited for his moment. He may have been dropping off essential projects along the way – LuLu with The Alchemist and La Maquina perhaps key among them – but it was always clear his Shady Records debut, God Don’t Make Mistakes was going to be the main course. From its opening seconds it’s purely ominous, one of the tightest, most fully realized hip hop albums in recent memory, making perfect use of its guests, both the expected (his Griselda brethren and Drumwork signees) to the more surprising (Beanie Sigel).
Yet, where its greatest strengths lie is in his willingness to dig beneath the facade of an unflappable gangster. He jokes about his face (he suffers from Bell’s Palsy and paralyzation in the right side of his face) one moment, and admits to crying looking at himself in the mirror the next. Most powerful of all is when he speaks on losing a child, holding its tiny corpse. It’s as bracing and painful as music gets, and God Don’t Make Mistakes revels in being a victory lap and therapy session in one. As essential as any hip hop in 2022. – Chase McMullen
Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
[Aftermath / TDE / PGLang]
After five painful years without much from him, Kendrick Lamar made his grand re-entrance in 2022 with Mr. Morale and the High Steppers, his most polarizing work to date. The double album has sparked controversy thanks to its critical appraisals of gender, race, politics, and woke culture among other things. Basically, it’s a Kendrick Lamar album, one that we’ll go back and forth on for years to come until his next one.
Morale is the messy masterpiece fans were clamoring for. It features everything one would want and wouldn’t expect from K-Dot in 2022. It’s not always easy to listen to – especially some of his more painfully inarticulate criticisms of woke culture and gender wars, not to mention the prevalent inclusion of Kodak Black.
Still, the allure of Kendrick Lamar hasn’t waned the least; the highs of Morale are stratospheric, toppling expectations with the tender “Mother I Sober” which features a very rare appearance from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons. And while there are some tracks we may skip if our parents are riding in the car with us (“We Cry Together”), there’s a handful of astonishingly raw moments like the reflective “Father Time”, which gets a prominent assist from Sampha, that go equally as brutal as his Covid-cautious “N95” single.
No single album release in hip-hop has been this demanded for in quite some time, but through his own flaws Kendrick Lamar released another watershed moment in his discography that’ll be remembered for its fumblings and triumphs, sometimes within the same song. It’s one of the most honest records in 2022, coming from one of the most honest voices in music. – Tim Sentz
Billy Woods, Aethiopes
I used to think billy woods was a bitter man – some underground phantom who shovelled the underbelly of society into troughs for consumption; a derelict rapper from a forgotten time when conscious rap actually meant something. His work with Elucid as Armand Hammer has persistently been challenging – last year’s delirious Haram underlined many themes woods has been uncovering slowly, and may have finally caught on with a larger audience after over a decade in the game.
But woods isn’t this crotchety old curmudgeon, he’s a learned man with an optimistic belief that sometimes gets masked by his venomous rhymes. Always private but not closed off, woods uses his latest solo outing Aethiopes to breach the collective consciousness via belligerent animosity that’s biting but not offensive. It’s honest rap, and whether he be comparing crack addiction to the 1986 Challenger explosion on “No Hard Feelings” or taking shots at the justice system and its similarities to a dead telephone company on “NYNEX”, woods is in top form throughout Aethiopes.
His 10th album is a hyperfluid critique, as dense as ever, in a format only woods can produce. He’s brought great company too in Quelle Chris, Elucid, Despot, and a stellar spot from El-P on the outstanding “Heavy Water”. This results in a high watermark for woods and company, making Aethiopes the hip-hop album 2022 has needed the most. – Tim Sentz
Listen along to our Hip Hop 2022: Halftime Spotify playlist.