KZUU Hip Hop’s Top 10 of 2014


2014 saw plenty of developments in the world of hip hop. Some like to knock it as a down year, but hopefully this collection of albums might help convince you otherwise. We pooled lists from a few DJs in our department and narrowed it down to ten, with plenty of great projects just missing the cut. We tried to cover all bases here in terms of sonics, lyrical content and overall head-nodding-induction. Check it out below and keep an ear open for 2015 because we’ll be playing all of these artists on the airwaves.

Honorable Mentions: 100s – Ivry, Low Pros – Low Pros EP, Your Old Droog – Your Old Droog, Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron, YG – My Krazy Life, Blu – Good To Be Home, The Neighbourhood – #000000/#FFFFFF, Ratking – So It Goes, Bobby Shmurda – Shmurda She Wrote EP, Mick Jenkins – The Water[s]. 

dark comedy

10. Open Mike Eagle — Dark Comedy 

Hellfyre Club had a hell of a 2014. Label head Nocando started things off in March with the witty Jimmy The Burnout, Journeyman Busdriver released his best album since ’05 with Perfect Hair, and Milo swung for the fences in October with the spotty but highlight-laden a toothpaste suburb. But it was Open Mike Eagle who really struck gold for the crew — who are making a serious case for the most clever collective in the genre. Hellfyre is a few steps ahead of their contemporaries, and Open Mike Eagle has been making this sort of “Unapologetic Art Rap” for over a decade. He’s “president of the rappers who don’t condone date rape”, and “really wants to dress like Sun Ra”. His friends are super heroes, but they still “don’t have very much money though”. Mike covers everything on his best album to date, and without many features he successfully handles a variety of sounds with 13 clever, soulful and funny tracks. He’s relatable and eccentric, while also embodying a philosophy that’s both free-spirited and introspective. Mike is plenty of adjectives, but most of all he’s charismatic and he’ll always be taking five steps back and ten steps forward. (Daniel P)


9. Vince Staples — Hell Can Wait EP 

Vince Staples has a voice that evokes shades of a baby Snoop Dogg, but somehow the 21-year-old’s raps are around ten years more mature than the Long Beach legend. It took him a few messy mixtapes to get here, but Hell Can Wait is the sound of a star being born in the realm of west coast gangsta revival. His hooks still need work, but Staples’ street raps are refreshingly the complete opposite of glorification. This is a bleak and painful piece of work. He’s a realist. “Hands Up” is a necessary no-nonsense rejection of excessive LAPD violence enacted upon young black males which hits hard with his objection to “paying taxes for some fucking clowns to ride around whoopin niggas’ asses” as Vince refuses “the right to be silent”. “Screen Door” is a shot a fake gansters, “65 Hunnid” is a terrifying description of hood violence, and “Limos” details falling in love and then losing it. But it’s centerpiece “Blue Suade” that hits the hardest, with a tough beat and even tougher bars concerning the sheer will to live. It might all sound like a downer, but if you think life in the hood is anything but downright dreadful then maybe a few spins of Hell Can Wait might help you understand reality. (Daniel P)


8. ZelooperZ — Help 

Although ZelooperZ’ Coon N The Room: Eating Ramen Noodles While Watching Roots on Bootleg, released in 2011, did not receive much attention outside of his hometown of Detroit, the then 18-year-old rapper had attracted the attention of Bruiser Brigade founder Danny Brown. His first project as an official member of the group, 2014’s HELP, evolves past the simpler beats and flows of Coon N The Room and embraces a range of production styles to create a cohesive product. Ranging from the droning synthesizers and bass on tracks like “Plateau” to the punishing, EDM-influenced bangers like “BM”, “Can’t Hang” and “Tonight Show,” the record is consistently progressive and engaging throughout. ZelooperZ’s inflection and delivery are nontraditional, blending with his instrumentals and combining the off-beat-yet-on style of art-rappers like Busdriver with a healthy dose of Lil B’s swagger, while his lyrics detail his Detroit upbringing and party lifestyle, complete with low-brow witticisms (“she only get the mattress; no matrimony”), as well as bruising hooks (“Yo’ bitch gon’ let me fuck tonight”, repeated 8 times over). Features from Danny Brown and Dopehead round out this excellent sophomore effort. (James A)


7. GoldLink — The God Complex

If one were to graph Goldlink’s energy level during the duration of the ironically dense 26-minute debut, The God Complex, on a piece of paper, I’d bet the paper wouldn’t be tall enough to enclose his peaks. Poor complicated descriptions aside; Goldlink really goes off. Rapid drums and flashy synths coupled with his hyperactive voice viciously trample through the nine-song mixtape/album to create a sound he labels “Future Bounce”. Although most of the album is repetitively exciting up-tempo (is that even possible), Goldlink is able to showcase a variety of paces and flows by controlling his energetic delivery on some of the tape’s more gloomy tracks (still up-tempo) “CNTRL” and “When I Die”. The God Complex is anything but brief (I mean that in the positive way) because of the many different things to digest. Imagine it as the longest, most exciting roller coaster you’ve been on. Oh, there’s even a Britney Spears sample. (Peter C)


6. iLoveMakonnen — iLoveMakonnen EP

The line between hip hop and RnB has become increasingly blurred, largely thanks to the success of artists like Drake. Now, singing over the beats of legendary producers 808 Mafia and Atlanta kingpins Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin, fellow Atlantean iLoveMakonnen has established himself as a leader in the Southern resurgence. With his crooning, vibrato-laden voice, Makonnen’s work on his self-titled EP uniquely juxtaposes traditionally “rap” topics- selling Molly, sipping lean- with emotionally charging lyrics, as Makonnen tells the Sarahs and Charlottes in his life that “you were loving someone else when I was looking at you, and I was loving someone else when you were looking at me, I think that it’s plain to see that we’re just not meant to be.” The record’s best moments come in its most tender spots, as Makonnen recalls, in a very specific and Mark Kozelek-esque way, the details of looking at engagement rings, being kept awake at night, wondering where Sarah and Brianna are in this world. While these emotions swirl, the record maintains a sense of playful naiievete and curiosity, all while dodging coming off as melodramatic, keeping up an aesthetic that Pitchfork described as the “weightlessness of a stage full of paper-mache props.” Coming in at 25 minutes, this crossover EP is the perfect companion for an emotional winter night. (James A)


5. Isaiah Rashad — Cilvia Demo 

It’s hard not to mention Isaiah Rashad’s (semi) recent addition to Top Dawg Entertainment, from the importance of association with the highly praised label, or his hometown, Chatanooga, Tenessee, from the rap history (or lack thereof) and its connections to song substance, when discussing his debut album, Cilvia Demo. Now that it’s been mentioned, lets talk music. Cilvia Demo was named after Isaiah’s old car, and is, essentially what he talks about through out the album, his childhood. The subject matter ranges from his adventures, to his teenage actions, to his father, to southern greats. The minimal production layered with powerful drums construct a solid structure for Rashad and his guests to build on. Light, airy singing by SZA and Jean Deux distinctly contrast with Isaiah’s charismatic and loud voice to create a balance of smooth and rough. And this is where the forte of the album is found, in Isaiah Rashad, the protagonist, through his vivid storytelling and demanding voice. Monster singles in “Shot U Down”, “Soliloquy”, and “R.I.P. Brad Miller” clearly show why Cilvia Demo is one of our favorites of 2014. (Peter C)


4. Run The Jewels — Run The Jewels 2

Rap’s most powerful tag team is back. After lighting up the world in 2013 with Run The Jewels, El-P and Killer Mike return with another project that defies the confines of any normal hip hop subgenre. El-P’s production continues to defy definition, expertly blending distorted guitars with subwoofer-pounding 808s and to create the sort of songs beats you would expect from a collaboration between Tom Morello, Heartbreak-era Kanye, and Blink 182’s Travis Barker, who makes a guest appearance on the record. Killer Mike delivers his best, most effective performance of his career, delving into issues of social justice to an extent unseen since R.A.P. Music’s “Reagan,” and El-P comes with his best material since 2012’s masterpiece Cancer 4 Cure. A resurgent appearance from Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha and a vividly graphic verse from Gangsta Boo round out this 40-minute heavyweight. (James A)


3. Travi$ Scott — Days Before Rodeo

Being closely affiliated with T.I. and Kanye West, Travis Scott was inevitably going to blow up, but no one knew when. Turns out his moment was in 2014. Coming off of a mediocre debut mixtape, Owl City, Travis Scott took time into developing his sound and personality, and yes, even modeling during New York Fashion Week. Days Before Rodeo is what he came up with. Like his mentors, Kanye West, Scott’s sound, or the combination of rapping and production is more important than either alone, although neither is severely lacking. With himself, Metro Boomin , Lex Luger, and others on the boards, Days Before Rodeo has some of the best production of the year, such as on Sloppy Toppy, where a unique combination of strings and trap come together. Even with exciting features by Young Thug, Migos, and Rich Homie Quan, Travis separates himself from the rest through his somber mood in “Drugs You Should Try It”. Who knows how high the sky is for Travis Scott in 2015. (Peter C)


2. Lil Herb — Welcome to Fazoland

Anyone who says Chicago drill was “over” before 2014 needs to check their head. Drill masters King Louie and SD dropped great projects this year, but neither shined quite as brightly as Lil Herb. Welcome to Fazoland is more or less Lil Herb’s debut, and apparently it took around two years to make and the work he put into it is apparent to say the least. Herb asks serious questions about why he’s drawn to the violence surrounding him, even though he’s seen first hand how destructive it is. Herb is thoroughly lyrical, so the notion that drill is devoid of substance can finally be put to death. On “4 Minutes of Hell Part 3” he snarls that “in a treacherous war/people dying, nobody crying/all the shit that I saw/you expect me to sit on the porch?”. This aint Chance or Vic Mensa, as Fazoland rests on the grim and dangerous side of the Chicago rap scene. Drugs, gangs and violence are front and center but Lil Herb puts a cohesive spin on the darkness with exceptional and surprisingly soulful production behind him. These are savage raps through and through resting upon a diverse range of trap and boom-bap, sample heavy instrumentals. (Daniel P)


1. Freddie Gibbs/Madlib — Piñata

In 2014, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib were the dream team that came from nowhere. To be fair, the project had been hinted at since 2011 (“Thuggin” has been out for years), but prior to the release of (cocaine) Piñata it was easy to ask “why”? Gibbs’ mixtapes, while mostly excellent, all saw the hardcore rapper spitting rapidly over a strictly gangsta and trap aesthetic. Madlib on the other hand has been occupying his own plane of existence about three galaxies away from left field for some time now. His soul-sampling and weirdo production seems like the oddest of choices for gangsta Gibbs, but damn if they didn’t knock this one out of the park. Freddie Gibbs described the album as a challenge, so consider this an A plus effort on the microphone. There’s plenty of subject matter for Gibbs to rifle through in his most diverse lyrical performance by far, and Madlib does an immaculate job of matching the mood. Gibbs is a gruff thug and Piñata is absolutely a gagsta rap record, albeit one that is much closer to DJ Quik than Chief Keef. The rhymes are sharp and streetwise, and the beats are straight dreamy soul. The features are excellent and there’s 17 songs.(!) We hope that it won’t take these two over a decade to record a followup like the still unreleased sequel with a certain masked MC that we all want Madlib to grace us with, but hell if the wait wouldn’t be worth every second. (Daniel P)