2023 has been an uneven year. We are fully outside, outside. The world is largely functioning as it was before. In some ways, that’s great because we are doing things that we haven’t since the pandemic. Taking my daughter to see the Barbie movie is something I’ll never forget. On the other hand, some of the worst crimes against humanity are also on full display when everybody is fully outside, outside.
I think hip hop albums in 2023 have also been fairly uneven. The good parts were really good (see First Person Shooter on Drake’s album). Other parts, were ummmm…really bad (see most of the other tracks on Drake’s album). But that is the way of things, no? Even the best teams in the NFL this year have some rough showings (except my NY Giants who have a rough showing every week). With that in mind, I am honored to present to you my list of best albums for this year, the good and the bad - and since I’m a positive dude, I talk mostly about the good and much less about the bad.
5. Propser, KXNG Crooked, Joell Ortiz
[Released 20 October 2023]
Bars. You won’t find two rappers nicer with wordplay than these two Slaughterhouse alums. Plenty of lines that will make you do the ugly face (e.g. think of the face you make during Busta’s verse in the Tribe’s Scenario). The production is a bit uneven, and I find that dynamic duo shine a bit brighter on the Hesami (The Tale of 2 Cities & Propser) and Heatmakerz tracks (Sunroof). The weakest part of the album are the two obligatory songs “for the ladies” (Wife Her & W.i.f.e) which are well intentioned but feel forced.
4. Chomp 2.5 [EP], Russ
[Released 12 May 2023]
Chomp 2.5 consists of only 6 tracks for a combined 15 minutes (yup, 15 minutes), but still one of the best albums released this year. The production is remarkable for an EP: Statik Selekta, Havoc, The Alchemist and an absolute soulful banger by 9th Wonder. None of the tracks are mind bending, but each one is really good and that consistency is something that has been lacking in 2023 releases. In fact, the lack of consistency is what actually plagued Russ’ full length release this year ‘Santiago’ which is massively uneven. Perhaps this is why Russ mentions in the 2nd track of Chomp 2.5 (Blow the Whistle) that he gave us “just a little something to hold us over” which ironically might have been foreshadowing the underperforming ‘Santiago’...but I guess this was simply part of the unevenness that 2023 brought us. Unevenness aside, Russ remains one of the more clever lyricists in the game. I would describe his flow as emo-adjacent, but authentic. When you listen to his songs you feel like you actually know him, and that’s rare in today’s hip hop.
3. The Great Escape, Larry June
[Released 31 March 2023]
This album is technically a collaboration with Alchemist, who produced all the tracks. Alchemist has done this before, and has done it well (see 2020’s Alfredo with Freddie Gibbs). Larry June knows his lane: Summertime Cali Riding Around Music. The Great Escape is another solid entry in his ever growing catalog. He delivers everything you would expect: smooth laid back delivery and generally positive self-improvement message and some mild braggadocio. Summer Reign is a song that literally makes you feel the sunshine on your face. He has some notable features by Action Bronson, Big Sean, and Slum VIllage. Each feature is genius in that they provide some variety to the song, but not enough to change the overall vibe of the album. Again, genius.
2. MICHAEL, Killer Mike
[Released 16 June 2023]
This album comes out the gate on fire. DOWN BY LAW sets the haunting tone for the album, SHED TEARS take you to church, RUN makes you want to march with the ancestors, SLUMMER makes you reminisce about your teenage summer love. It’s uncompromisingly raw, passionate, and southern. On SCIENTISTS & ENGINEERS, Killer Mike even convinced Andre 3000 to put the flute(s) down and spit some lyrics with Future who is also rapping harder than I have heard him in quite some time. The content is, as expected, mature. A ton of political and social commentary. But more generally, Killer Mike is rapping about struggle, love, fear, pride, family, & intergenerational trauma. I wish I could say this about the entire album, but if the album starts out in fire, the back end of the album is like a bonfire that has simmered to the glowing coals: it’s hot in certain spots (e.g., DON’T LET THE DEVIL), but you have to pay close attention. The production on the album is generally very good but shines strongest on tracks produced by Cool & Dre and No I.D. (Side Note: I may add a No I.D. + Killer Mike EP to my 2024 Christmas wishlist).
1. Magic 3, Nas
[Released 14 September 2023]
I’m a Brooklyn dude (Brooklyn’s in the HOUSE). When Jay-Z and Nas were beefing, I had to choose my side. Since then, I have been accused of being biased against Nas. I won’t defend it now, but needless to say I disagree. If anyone has read these reviews, you will not that I have not loved all the albums in this Nas/Hit-Boy run. I really liked some of them (see: KD II) but I felt that most of them were good but not great. Maybe for a regular rapper, but not for Nas!
So let me say this loudly for the people in the back: ‘Magic 3’ is the best album for 2023 and I DON’T THINK IT’S EVEN CLOSE. It’s a stand out album even for an artist of Nas’ stature. Every other top album on this list has at least 2 or 3 songs that miss the mark. Not Magic 3. The album starts strong, ends strong, and is strong in the middle. The strengths of Magic 3 start with Hit-boy’s quality production. There are so many things to appreciate that he does on these tracks from the boom-bap on ‘I Love This Feeling’, to the bridge on ‘TSK’, building the beat on ‘No Tears’, and the sample work on ‘Never Die’. The production is all very different and Nas rises to the occasion each time. Meaning, aside from his signature effortless flow, you also get to hear the full versatility at play. He can do just about any type of song but no one tells a story quite like Nas. ‘Based on True Events’ & ‘Based on True Events Pt 2’ are classic Nas rap cinema. The Half-a-Mil reference halfway through ‘Based on True Events’ stopped me cold. Like when your uncle is telling you a story and halfway through you realize it’s about how he helped you dad escape a dice game shootout in the 60s. I was like, ”what what?” I remembered when I first heard Half-a-Mil had died. All of a sudden the story took on a whole different weight. That sort of depth can only happen when you have been working on your craft for 30 years. If this is the last album for this combination, they left on a high note.
Spiderman: Across the Spider-verse Soundtrack (by Metro Boomin): There is no reason that these tracks go so hard. The only album this year that I can blast with my kids in the car.
‘For All The Dogs’ by Drake: Usually when I pull out the actual rap songs from a Drake album, it’s a solid EP. Not the case with this one. It’s ‘First Person Shooter’, ‘8am in Charlotte’ and that’s about it.
‘Blockbusta’ by Busta Rhymes: So, my shout out to Busta earlier in my Prosper review felt like the least I could do, since I knew he was going to appear in my dishonorable mentions. Out of respect for Busta, I’ll keep this short: I don’t know what Busta was thinking with this one. I barely got through ‘Blockbusta’ once.
That’s it for me. Happy New Year to you and yours. Thanks to all my friends and family who asked me about the list. Y’all remain the battery in my back to sit down and get this done.
A tough year of losses for the hip hop community, but the passing of Dave Jolicoeur a.k.a. Trugoy The Dove a.k.a. Plug Two hit me the hardest. It was just weeks away from De La Soul’s music finally being available on streaming. He did it for us. May be forever rest in peace.