KZUU Hip Hop’s Top 10 of 2014

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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]. 

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

 

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DJ Quik – “That Getter”

DJ Quik

While another Compton-based Producer/Rapper has spent more than the last decade messing around with overpriced headphones and teasing an album that may never come, DJ Quik has quietly been been putting in work that’s flown completely over your head. Quik, now over 20 years deep into the game, is a G Funk pioneer that has had his fingertips printed over dozens of hit records without even getting a fraction of the shine he deserves. It would be foolish to think that a smart man like DJ Quik lacks any sort of self-awareness, so naturally his 2009 collaboration with Death Row legend Kurupt BlaQKout felt like the coming out party of his late-career renaissance. At this point, it’s clear Quik doesn’t give a fuck if you buy his record and he doesn’t give two fucks if you give him the Grammy that he should have gotten by now.

Quik continued this late-career stride with The Book of David, a personal and highly experimental offering complete with dense production and revealing lyrics detailing his role in the rap game, as well as tales of betrayal (and also plenty of the typical funk). What’s interesting about this new record, titled The Midnight Life, is (from what I’ve heard from the released snippits) the fact that Quik seems to be more or less returning to his roots, rather than push his sound further to the left. Just looking a the pen-and-pixel album art evokes memories of Quik is the Name or Way Too Fonky. Does this mean the fire isn’t still lit? Absolutely not. The smart-ass humor is still there, as well as the relevant social commentary. It’s just a sound that Quik is a master of, that he clearly feels like refining even further. “That Getter” details a rapper that isn’t too old, but rather “too funky” and one that noticed “motherfuckers in my neighborhood that grew up to be nothing/I went around the world stuntin/they still there doin nothing”. Stream the first single of Quik’s new album below, and check out some Quik cuts below that.

— Daniel

Leather Corduroys -“Porno Music Vol. II”

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Amidst all the internet April Fools’ Day BS and subsequent fallout, Chance The Rapper (or whoever updates his reddit profile) uploaded SaveMoney’s anticipated collaboration between Kami De Chukwu and Joey Purp. None of this seems to be a prank, or maybe this is the point, however the release is indicative of where we’re headed in today’s internet age — especially hip hop music. Whether it’s icons like Beyonce or middle-finger-to-the-industry alternative acts like Death Grips, unconventional/unexpected releases are becoming the norm. Free streams and downloads are now commonplace, and record sales seem to have fallen by the wayside in favor of overall exposure.

SaveMoney is no stranger to this. Chance’s Acid Rap was an official free download, as was Vic Mensa’s INNANETAPE on DatPiff, again representative of the power of internet buzz. The duo that comprises Leather Corduroys get less than a fraction of the shine of Young Money’s general Chance and his doppelgänger Mensa, even though they’ve been rapping for just as long. Some of that makes sense. Chukwu has a funny name, and it’s hard to fathom his intense flow situated beneath the jazzy sun-soaked and sedated vibes of Acid Rap. However we have seen stuff like that out of Joey Purp before on some of his mixtapes, so perhaps it’s only a matter of time and output that SaveMoney as a whole really starts to take off.

Porno Music Vol. II doesn’t exactly sound accessible and it doesn’t have a title that will be pasted all over publications, but regardless there are some great moments here. The intro “Bleed” begins with an emotive piano roll and a deepened/distorted vocal sample that picks up just a bit towards the end. Kami De Chukwu compliments the music with an equally escalating flow. The beat drops and a muted soul sample acts as a bridge towards the next song “Dat Strong”, a grimy anthem of shit-talking and threats.

After an admittedly lukewarm interlude, the rapping starts again on highlight “Nightmare on Chicago Ave”. The synthed-out beat is gloomy and melancholic, and the rhymes are intense gangsta tales of women, drugs and money. “Irie Trill Vibes” closes the brief EP, a trap banger with aggressive yet ultimately monotonous lyrics.

The production on Porno Music Vol. II (especially on the intro and “Nightmare”) is quality. The beats fit the mood of the lyrics, but the interlude and the final track are missteps — albeit missteps that are easily forgiven on a project of this length. Kami De Chukwu outshines Joey Purp more often than not, but the chemistry is apparent. These guys are all still damn young which is nothing new for hip hop music over the last couple of years. Check out the five track EP below.

-Daniel

Freddie Gibbs/Madlib — “Real”

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“Real”, an immediate highlight off the long-awaited and excellent Freddie Gibbs/Madlib collaboration (cocaine) Piñata, is a track that should remind hip hop fans of around a decade ago when Clipse had a fire lit under them after it took Jive four years to release their masterpiece Hell Hath No Fury. Gibbs infamously split from Young Jeezy’s CTE label in 2012 after only a year and obviously things weren’t left on good terms. It still isn’t totally clear what caused the separation, but it’s easy to infer based on Freddie Gibbs’ lack of overall commercial appeal. Just like when Clipse split from Jive for the same reasons, Freddie Gibbs’ poor experience with big-label music has only led to more quality subject matter.

Freddie Gibbs is so likable because he’s spent his career flexing a lot of diversity in the production department. The strictly gangster rapper never moves very far from his Midwest-boxframe Cadillac formula, and while it’s true he’s most comfortable in the chopped and screwed trap lane, he’s worked with plenty of different types of producers. See the Statik Selektah collab if you wanna hear what I’m talking about, but this Madlib project demonstrates this to the furthest extreme. Madlib is at the very least, not the guy you would think of to lay the gangsta blueprint. But again, it works because Gibbs has a hell of a lot of skill and what’s so cool about “Real” is we’re seeing him detail some pretty specific ideas.

The first verse is vintage Gibbs, and it establishes Freddie’s credibility as someone who “niggas heard of, and now all the sudden they back to thuggin” over fast-pased and buzzing Madlib production. The beat changes a minute in, and the bpm slows down so we can pay closer attention to Freddie’s story with Jeezy. He’s pissed at someone he once looked up to, and threatens to “expose you to those that don’t know you”. Rick Ross said that he’s “scared to drop a diss record” and Gibbs take a dozen or so shots at Young Jeezy’s character. In the end, Freddie Gibbs loses nothing and it’s Jeezy in fact that lost a “rare breed” and he’ll never again find “a bad guy like this that don’t produce nothing but evil seeds.”

Stream “Real” below.

http://www.audiomack.com/song/dj-arabmixtapes/real

 – Daniel 

Flatbush Zombies x Trash Talk – “97.92”

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Flatbush Zombies’ “Architect” Erick Elliot has made almost all of the beats that the NY hip hop group have put out so far. There’s a few notable exceptions (see the Harry Fraud production “Live From Hell”) but the lack of outside producers shouldn’t feel like a bad thing. Erick is a skilled producer and rapper, and his sound meshes pretty much perfectly with fellow rappers Zombie Juice and Meechy Darko.

Trash Talk are a Sacramento hardcore outfit famously signed to the Odd Future label, and those expecting a collaboration of violent and energetic proportions may be disappointed. “97.92” is nice though. The beat laid down by Trash Talk’s Garrett Stevenson is a grimy, New York thumper complete with reversed samples and drums a bit faded in the mix. Erick starts and Juice follows, but it’s Meech who again shines the brightest — with his gravelly voice that sorta sounds like a cross between Busta Rhymes and The D.O.C. after he got his larynx crushed. Erick and Juice are capable, surface-level MCs but with Meech you have to dig a little deeper. He’s “gotta keep it cryptic/powers that be wanna censor us/They’re trying to make some sense of us/I just told them cash the check/go and make some cents with us.” The Zombies haven’t yet released a proper “album”, though more mixtapes won’t leave anyone complaining. Stream “97.92” below.

– Daniel

Spark Master Tape – “Propeica”

Spark Master Tape is a mysterious rapper that’s known for his DJ Screw beats courtesy of producer Paper Platoon and a deepening vocal effect much like what Flying Lotus does with Captain Murphy. There seems to be a bit of a trend in hip hop in this regard with rappers like A$AP Rocky deepening the vocals on his hooks, and Lil Ugly Mane using the same technique on most of his verses. Spark Master Tape’s beats almost always feature the stuttering hi hats that everyone seems to be using these days. The southern, chopped and screwed sound that Three Six Mafia brought to the table years ago is certifiably back, and here to stay. 

What’s interesting about Spark Master Tape, and something that separates him a bit from other trap rappers, are the rhymes themselves.  His subject matter covers a wide territory, though that isn’t to say Spark Master doesn’t still diverge towards typical trap-rap tropes. On “Propeica”, Spark Master Tape raps about “the hood looking like Vietnam” over some dark graveyard production. When it comes down to it, the real star here is without a doubt the Paper Platoon beat. The short verses are distorted pretty heavily in spots to the point where you can’t really here what’s being said, and they lead quickly towards the loud hook that no doubt knocks hard. Spark Master still delivers some clever lines (“fuck a backpack/I pack gats/like I’m in a western.” Everyone seems to want to know who exactly Spark Master Tape is, but the music is certainly speaking for itself, and like the sound he embodies he’ll definitely be here for a while.

Stream “Propeica” below.

https://soundcloud.com/sparkmastertape/propeica-produced-by-paper

— Daniel

Step Brothers (Alchemist/Evidence) – “Lord Steppington”

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Alchemist isn’t slowing down. The 36-year-old producer/MC is pumping out quality project after quality project, and producing entire LPs at a rate that’s hard to believe. Since 2010, Alchemist has produced the entirety of (with the exception of co-production work with Oh No on the Gangrene projects) a total of 13 collaborative albums. Rappers like Prodigy and Boldy James sounded right at home over strictly Alchemist beats, but it was collaborations with rappers like Curren$y and Action Bronson that proved Alchemist could adapt to anyone’s style. His production techniques don’t necessarily change, but his moods can depending on who he’s working with. It could be argued that Alchemist makes the type of music that comes off as one-dimensional. His sample/string driven crime capers move along comfortably in largely mid-tempo beats, and one project can definitely end up sounding like another. But for someone as consistent as Alchemist, there’s really no complaining. Quality beats are always a given, while the rappers he works with don’t always pull their weight. 

And then there’s Evidence. The two have been working together for about 14 years since (obviously) the early days of Dilated Peoples. Evidence and Alchemist remind me so much of each other because they both put out consistently quality, though not always outstanding, work in their respective fields. Furthermore, Evidence even makes some beats from time to time and Alchemist has been rapping since his first solo outing in 2004 with 1st Infantry. Neither are anything special in this regard, but my point is both of these guys are really made for each other. The best tracks on Evidence’s 2011 project Cats and Dogs were the ones Alchemist produced. Now, in 2014, we’re getting a full-length LP and yes, it sounds like what you would expect.

Evidence and Alchemist together are Step Brothers, and their album is Lord Steppington. The project has been hinted at for a while, but not much on the LP really ever got released up until a few days ago when we heard the Action Bronson featured track “Mums in the Garage”. Things start off on a high note with “More Wins”. The opener boasts a soulful vocal sample, looped-up in typical Alchemist fashion. From the get-go, we hear Alchemist himself trading bars with Ev and it’s clear that Lord Steppington will be a collaboration between rapper and producer/rapper a la Run The Jewels. This is disappointing in only one way, and that’s the fact that Alchemist can only rap around half as well as he can produce. That isn’t to say he sounds bad — his voice sounds like an MC’s should — but he doesn’t say much and his flow is a bit slow, not unlike fellow producer/rapper Madlib. Still, his lyrics here are pretty much the best they’ve been since 1st Infantry and again, the chemistry between the two is undeniable.

Track two “Dr. Kimble” sounds like an outtake from the Boldy James project with John Carpenter synths and strings again looped in the way that we’re all used to. Alchemist is a talented manipulator of not only funk/soul samples, but electronics as well. We hear a fuzzed out psych guitar on “Byron G” that sounds a bit like some of the stuff we heard on Alchemist’s 2012 solo outing Russian Roulette. The track features a nice verse from the ever-improving Domo Genesis, but the beat grows tired due to a simple lack of variation. The guitars continue on “Legendary Mesh”, a hard and menacing song with some nice Evidence lines (“still I’m so personal in third person offerings/Look ma, a verse is what I caught again/I said it to the mic and poof appeared an audience.”)

“Swimteam Rastas” embodies the classic sound that these two have developed for over a decade. Alchemist starts out with a droning whistle sound (or maybe a car horn?) with drums accompanied by an eerie ride cymbal with a faint and muted bass interjecting periodically. About two minutes in the beat completely changes up in a way that reminds me of DJ Premier, and the track transitions from threatening to slightly upbeat. For a third time, the beat changes again around the three minute mark and “Swimteam Rastas” finishes up as a definite highlight of Lord Steppington. 

Frequent Alchemist collaborator Roc Marciano shows up on “See the Rich Man Play” which sounds a bit like something Marciano himself would produce with a pitched vocal loop laid over wispy and barely-present drums. Underrated California rapper Fashawn contributes a verse on “Banging Sound” and Rakaa Iriscience appears on the Dilated reunion track “Tomorrow”.

Step Brothers are a team that you would think would have existed long before 2014, but Alchemist puts in enough work for it to be understandable. Lord Steppington doesn’t really feature anything that sounds like something we haven’t head before, but it’s up to the listener whether or not this should be considered a criticism. The beats are solid, the rhymes are solid and isn’t that really all hip hop music should boil down to? Call it an acquired taste, but at least give Alchemist props for making so much music these days.

Listen to the whole thing below.

— Daniel