In my review last year I wrote “Looks like 2019 is going to be another wild one”. I really had no idea. Thankfully, when the world goes to hell in a hand basket, that is a good time to escape to the arts. This is definitely the case for the world of film and TV, where there were some grandiose finales including the (largely unsatisfying) end of Game of Thrones and the (thoroughly satisfying) end of the Avengers movie series. There were also some inspiring beginnings like The Watchmen on HBO, which was so good that I re-read the original comics just to keep that same energy in my life. And of course 2019 will largely be remembered as the year Little Baby Yoda on the Mandalorian - a show which I think lived up to out-sized expectations.
On the music side, however, I think it has been a down year. There was plenty of good music, but I don’t think any 2019 rap albums will be as memorable as Daenerys Targaryen flying Dragon over King’s Landing. I think the same can be said about college football in 2019. Plenty of good teams, but I’m not sure if we are seeing any all-time/ all-decade teams. I know people are going crazy about LSU, but I saw them play in person in September and they were a bad roughing the passer penalty from losing to the eventual 8-5 Texas Longhorns. Burrows is putting up crazy numbers, but his play literally defies all expectations. He came out of nowhere and most sane fans are wondering if this is just lightning in a bottle. Same with Clemson - tons of talent but until Ohio State, who did they really beat? The eventual champion may seemingly be an all-time great, but I don’t buy it.
That said, excellence should be recognized. Creating a good rap album in 2019 is tough. It takes a tremendous investment in time, energy, and focus, and the rewards are few and far between. It’s not quite a thermodynamic miracle, but it’s close (shout out to my Watchmen heads who got that reference). Winning a National Championship is also difficult. So even if you aren’t an all-time great team, it’s an accomplishment to be the best at an activity that so many people try and fail. So without any further delay, my 2019 best of hip hop list the “College Football Playoff” version.
K.R.I.T. IZ HERE, Big Krit
“Let's be honest, I'm better
I did it without the vouchers and feathers they tethered to keep you together
The distance I jumped off the porch just couldn’t be measured
Yo metaphors never make sense in the storm that I weathered
Undoubtedly, proud to be, I’m like lightning in a bottle
A country boy killing yo' favorite rapper’s bound to shock you”
-Make it Easy
The SEC is the best conference in football for this millennia producing 11 (possibly 12 by the time you read this) national champions since 2000. Similarly, the south has put the rap game in a headlock for the last 20 years. The best album from the SEC region of the country has to be from Meridian, Mississippi native Big K.R.I.T. While Tuscaloosa, Athens, and Baton Rouge may readily jog your SEC memory more than Oxford and Starksville, KRIT is showing that lyrics and creativity always triumphs name recognition (see my Honorable Mention selection below) in my reviews. It’s an album that showcases his virtuoso lyricism and creativity without getting too abstract and losing the audience. The albums starts off firing on all cylinders with “K.R.I.T. HERE” featuring a sick Winans sample bringing the right mix of Bible belt spirituality and razor sharp delivery. “Make it Easy” a song that a veteran makes on their album to remind everyone why they are a vet. Effortlessly switching flows mid-verse, clever lyrics with southern drawl and bounce. There is a bit of everything on this album. Some Emo rap on “Energy”, a jazzy feel on “Everytime” and “MISSISSIPPI”, a great tribute track on “Learned from Texas”. I was expecting his collaboration with J. Cole, “Prove it” to be better and some of the tracks at the end of the album are less memorable.
Honorable Mention: Port of Miami 2, Rick Ross - A solid album, but a bit too predictable. I got to see him perform live in Vegas this year and it was a “whole damn mood”. But he doesn’t ever take any musical chances which will always limit the ceiling of his albums.
Baby on Baby + KIRK, DaBaby
“I'm tryna stay up off my iPhone
Told my b***h "I love you", that was just a typo
That b***h drive me crazy, she gon' make me psycho
Everything I been through, it's something only I know”
In football the ACC means Clemson, but in basketball the ACC first and foremost means the state of North Carolina which has historically flooded the market. Two of the albums are from NC legends whose music I love, but the standout from this area HAS to be Charlotte native DaBaby. I feel ridiculous saying his name out loud as a grown man (though it’s better than his original name: Baby Jesus), but similar to Lil Wayne back in 2008, his talent and energy are a phenomenon that can’t be denied. If you haven’t seen his videos, stop reading this and go watch the BOP on YouTube. It’s a motion picture quality set piece! Reminds me of when Hype Williams burst on the scene in the 90s. While DaBaby has the music production and sound of a mumble rapper, it was his concise delivery that initially caught me off guard. Listening to DaBaby gives me hope that Migos-inspired rappers will see that you can still make it in this game with complex rhyme schemes. Add to that, DaBaby went full heat check and released two albums in one year. Baby on Baby has the breakout radio hits like “Suge” and “Baby Sitter”, but he recorded KIRK after the passing of his father and the album sounds significantly more mature. The first track “INTRO” sets the tone. This man is hurting about the loss of his dad, but that has only furthered his resolve towards success. There are several highlights to the album, such as “BOP”, “GOSPEL” and “REALLY”. But what is more impressive to me is that there is almost no bad song. Even songs that are not really about anything are carried by his humor and personality (i.e., “TOES”). This might be why he’s been getting his 90’s Method Man/Chris Brown like cameo game on by guest lecturing on tracks hosted by Megan Thee Stallion to his Under the Sun track with Dreamville.
Conference Co-Runner up: (1) Eve, Rapsody; (2) May the Lord Watch, Little Brother - Conscious lyricism + Soul Council production is a killer combination.
Big Ten Champion
Bandana, Freddie Gibbs + Madlib
N****s don't understand, that 360 mean a percentage of every income stream
That record ain't doin' no numbers, you trip on your management and your legal team
Uhh, I done been dropped before
Talked about and wrote off before
Heart on my sleeve and the ATF at my mama door
Mr. Mongol told me, "Freddie, fix up your posture, bro
Walk tall and never show n****s more than they gotta know"
Championship or not, this album wins the Heisman trophy. I have always liked Freddie Gibbs. He is a poet. A rappers’ rapper, but I could never make it through his albums, largely because they didn’t sound distinctive. I couldn’t finish them. His collaboration with Madlib unlocked something in him that is apparent on this album. I give Madlib a lot of credit because I saw him do the same thing for MF Doom in their Madvillian collaboration. Black Thought is a God MC, but I often wonder what his career would have been without the best hip hop band of all time producing music that perfectly complimented his style. As for the album, it’s great from beginning to end. Nothing predictable. Sometimes the song just ends with Gibbs talking to the audio engineer. Madlib’s production never let’s you get too comfortable. You never know when the beat will change in the middle of the song, when someone will be speaking Japanese, or when you might be treated with a clip from an old Dap Sugar Willie comedy set. This is not to say that there is no substance. Gibbs has #BARZ. He is tapping into the spirit of Kool G Rap on this album. His delivery is gritty, observant, soulful, and vivid. His verses stand up against legends such as Pusha T on “Palmolive” and Mos Def & Black Thought on “Education”. If that wasn’t impressive enough he matches Anderson .Paak’s energy on “Giannis” which is the gem of this album. He is a perfect Big 10 representative because you can clearly hear the influences from Bone Thugs ‘n Harmony on “Situations” and Nelly on “Gat Damn”.
Conference Runner up: The Big Day, Chance The Rapper - this album got clowned pretty hard when it came out because it is so unapologetically positive. If you can stand listening to a rapper who is really happy with his life and constantly expresses how much he loves his wife - it’s a really enjoyable album.
Big 12 Champion
Fouriginals, Tobe Nwigwe
“I go ape, I go chimpanzee on every beat that they hand me
I've been branded as the man who gon' handle my hood advancement
Out the slum,
I ain't dumb,
I know you plotters be peepin'
But my head down and my arms cover my paper, it ain't no CHEATIN'
plus I got all the flavor, I'm lowkey SEASONIN’
Woe are those who willingly done gave their heart to hoes, I was told by the G code that that's FLEETIN’
On God, I was broke for over thirty SEASON
Now me and Fat in our thirties 'bout to be in Norway, Like some melinated NORWEGIANS
If a rapper stiff as me, he prolly ain't BREATHIN
That's rigor mortis, I hope y'all absorb this, flow gorgeous, how I'm TEACHIN’
I'm the coldest in my REGION
Y'all decent but if I'm critiquing, y'all FECES
It ain't nothing personal, lies kill
And if I die tomorrow, my wife and my whole hood know I'm real”
2019 was a down year for the Big 12, but there was one team that stood out above the rest with their style of play and schemes that turned heads (as an Austin resident & UT fan, I won’t name the team to which I am referring, but the school hails from the state featured in HBO Series The Watchmen). Tobe Nwigwe is the Lincoln Riley of rap right now. He has schemes and a system that people revere in part because they can’t seem to duplicate it. Tobe is 100% independent. He built his following on Instagram posting #GetTwistedSundays verses every week while getting his hair done. The album itself is a collection of songs that he has released in 2019. And listening to it you can hear it, he is an ARTist. Flipping back to the coaching metaphor, Tobe is definitely from the OutKast coaching tree. He flows like Big Boi with Andre 3000 personality. From his lyrics to the videos (including a fantastic NPR Tiny Desk Concert), everything he creates is worth watching. He is a conscious rapper in the best sense of the word. He is conscious of who he is and what he wants his message to be - mainly about navigating life, spirituality, family, and SWAT (SouthWest Alief, Texas). His verse on Juice is one of the best of 2019. Much like Lincoln Riley, it will be very interesting to see where Tobe goes from here, but 2019 was definitely his “PUBLIC SERVICE HA-ANOUNCEMENT” to the world. #oouu
Conference Runner up: Fever, Megan Thee Stallion - this almost wholly on the strength of me seeing her perform live at SWSW last year. It was one of the blackest Texas things I have ever experienced (in a good way).
Playing in New Year’s Day Bowls...
Pac 12 Champion
Born 2 Rap, The Game
The Pac-12 conference was not good this year, but someone has to play in the Rose Bowl, so congrats to The Game. This album is more like a pretty good mixtape, but it mostly wins because there were no other outstanding West Coast releases this year. I’ll chalk this up to a moratorium in honor of Nispey’s passing. I’m sure Cali will be back strong in 2020.
Conference Runner up: CrasH Talk, Schoolboy Q
American Athletic Conference Honorable Mention (Championship Belt is Vacant) aka The Zombie Big East Champion
El Capo, Jim Jones
The AAC was created in 2013 when the Big East conference was destroyed by greed and the remaining schools did whatever it took to survive (Editor’s note: Still confused about the AAC? See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Athletic_Conference). Needless to say, despite the fact that college football was literally invented in the Northeast, there isn’t Big East football anymore with traditional football Big East powers migrating to the ACC (Miami, Virginia Tech, and PITT). I think Northeast rap is facing similar challenges. Similar to how football money disbanded the Big East, greed destroyed most of the dominant Northeast rap players and now is a shell of its former self. That said, El Capo is clearly the best album released in the Zombie Big East. The entire album is produced by the Heatmakerz, so it has a classic Harlem sound. Starts out very strong, but there are probably 5 songs too many. I also can’t tell if Cam’ron is putting in any effort in his verses any more. The idea of Jim Jones out rapping him multiple times on an album is concerning. There are quite a few songs that will sound very good at large volumes while riding around the concrete jungle.
Conference Runner up: The Plugs I Met, Benny The Butcher