Top Ten Essential Hip-Hop Albums of 2014

Posted by Billyjam, December 16, 2014 11:13am | Post a Comment

10 Essential Hip Hop Albums of 2014

1) DJ Qbert Extraterrestria + GalaXXXian (Galactic Butt Hair Records)

Although only released digitally in 2014 following a successful Kickstarter campaign (vinyl to arrive at Amoeba in 2015), this instrumental album (Extraresstria) and its rap/emcee counterpart album (GalaXXXian) rate as my top pick(s) for the best hip-hop released in 2014. Apparently I'm not alone in thinking so; Extraterrestia is up for a possible Grammy award. The stated goal of DJ Qbert's new album, which the artist considers as a Wave Twisters Part II, is to present the sound of skratch music in the future as he sees it, or - as he said upon the release of the new project - "the time capsule response and interstellar transmission to any galactic civilization, alien or far-future human." The "Jimi Hendrix of the turntables" ably accomplishes both solo as producer/DJ as well as with such album collaborators as Kool Keith, Del the Funky Homosapien, Mr Lif, Dana Leong, and Chad Hugo, who (along with Tipsy) co-produce the album's best track - the soothing, dreamy, ethereal "Ascender (Agartha)."

2) Serengeti - Kenny Dennis III (Joyful Noise Recordings)
Why this most unique and endlessly talented Chicago emcee is not a huge star already is beyond me! But then again, no one ever said the music biz was fair.  An ever-creative and prolific lyricist, who conjures up engaging characters and builds whole stories upon them, Serengeti's latest concept album Kenny Dennis III  continues an ongoing theme and by so doing delivers his finest release to date (about 20 EPs and LPs over a dozen years). With production by Jel and Odd Nosdam and prominent narration collaboration from Anders Holm (known as one third of the hilarious Workaholics collective from Comedy Central and is also in the brand new Chris Rock movie Top Five), Serengeti takes on the persona of his hilarious "Kenny Dennis" alter ego and weaves the engaging tale of a guy trying to get his career off the ground. As much a book on tape as a rap album, you really have to listen to it in its entirety and in its presented sequence. Also available in LP and digital download formats.

3) L'Orange - The Orchid Days  (Mello Music)

Few artists can create an otherworldly ethereal mood as producer L'Orange can as witnessed by his 2014 release The Orchid Days. His abstract productions shine on their own or with the aid of his carefully selected guest vocalists who include Blu, Homeboy Sandman, and Billy Woods. Whether instrumental or with guest vocals, this Nashville-based producer works his magic with his trademark, hypnotically dreamy production style - all the while subtly moving the album's storyline along. It is a story of love: finding love, falling in love, and then losing it and missing it. The story is told via random soundbites expertly assembled to the backdrop of an old world mood crafted by building layer upon layer of dreamy jazzy  grooves. He digs deep into old jazz records with flutters of dramatically engaging soundbites/samples from old black and white movies, along with often static sounding, classic old radio broadcasts. Album is also available in LP format.

4) Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Record Soundtrack (Stones Throw)

Available as both a download compilation album and as the bonus CD disc to the DVD/Blu Ray release of Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton - this soundtrack kicks ass. Like Peanut Butter Wolf's record label that the documentary tells the story of, the soundtrack is a refreshingly diverse release that transcends hip-hop and embraces various styles. For this 26 track release, which includes a lot of unreleased tracks, Wolf enlisted his buddy/beat maestro Madlib to serve up several instrumental bonus cuts ("Cue 1, 2, 3,” etc.) along with such goodies as a live cut from Dam-Funk (“Don’t Go Swag”), and tracks from the artists on the always diverse and prolific label such as James Pants, Mayer Hawthorne, Homeboy Sandman, Vex Ruffin, the late great J Dilla, Madvillain, and Aloe Blacc (a live in-studio version of his hit "I Need A Dollar"). Like the documentary, it captures the rich diversity and quality of the Bay Area-founded, LA-based, one-of-a-kind record label that is Stones Throw Records.

5) Homeboy Sandman - Hallways (Stones Throw)

Homeboy Sandman is a rarity in these cookie cutter rap days. He's an emcee with a truly distinctive and unique sound whose voice and flow is totally unlike anyone else's. Plus he possesses a gift for unleashing one amazing release after another - all packed with his clever wordplay and stream of consciousness rhymes that seem to effortlessly roll off his tongue as witnessed yet again by the prolific emcee's latest album, Hallways (also available in LP and digital download formats). The 2014 album is the Queens, NY artist's seventh release (a total of five EPs and two LPs) for Stones Throw Records since he signed with the label in late 2011. The album's dozen tracks feature eleven different producers including J-Live, 2 Hungry Brothers, Kurious, Oh No, (fellow Stones Throw artist) Jonwayne, and Knxwledge (who produced "Problems").  "I don't really choose producers. I choose beats [and] these beats spoke to me. They had stories in them for me to extract or were able to extract stories that were in me," Homeboy Sandman told the Amoeblog in an interview about his recommended newest album.

6) Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)

Run The Jewels, the super talented hip-hop power duo of El-P and Killer Mike, outdid themselves in 2014 with their anticipated follow up to last year's excellent self-titled debut on Fool's Gold. For the all killer no filler sequel, released via Nas' newly launched Mass Appeal Records and simply entitled RTJ2 or Run The Jewels 2, they turn up the sonic and lyrical assault with an in your face album that is as much rock as it is hip-hop and, while only eleven songs deep, it satisfies on every level, leaving listeners longing for more. If only for the pitch-perfect second single and best song on the album "Oh My Darling Don’t Cry," this album would be worth buying but everything on here kicks ass. As E-Lit at Amoeba Berkeley noted, Run The Jewels is better than anything either El-P or Killer Mike  have done individually up to this point in their respective careers - and they've each done some amazing work!  RTJ2's select featured guests include Zack de la Rocha, Travis Barker, Diane Coffee, and BOOTS.


7) Dilated Peoples -Directors of Photography (Rhymesayers Entertainment)

Don't call it a comeback cos they've been here before and ain't going away anytime soon, but eight years is a long time between albums for SoCal hip-hop legends Dilated Peoples. 2014's  Directors of Photography was their first album since 2006's 20/20.  Released on Rhymesayers Entertainment (who also pressed  clear vinyl), it was well worth the wait. It is a wonderfully executed work that's all tied together with the theme of photography, and is packed with references to both hip-hop and to their hometown. It's an intricately produced work with seductive bass-lines, bone-tingling beats, and engaging rhyme flows that find Evidence and company at their finest. Stand out tracks include the DJ Premier produced “Good as Gone” and  “Show Me the Way” featuring Aloe Blacc on the chorus.  As accurately reviewed by "Though it’s plenty rooted in classic hip-hop, Directors of Photography mostly avoids feeling dated with some of its more adventurous tracks. Record pops, lo-fi mics, and a dark guitar lick give “Let Your Thoughts Fly Away” a terrific modern underground feel, its wicked bass comes through partway in to keep it engaging amid lyrics about “dreaming even though we’re wide awake.”

8) Step Brothers -
Lord Steppington  (Rhymesayers Entertainment)

Just as Killer Mike and El-P's Run The Jewel's side project kicks some serious ass, so too does the Step Brothers - the combined power duo of Dilated Peoples emcee (and producer) Evidence and Shady Records producer The Alchemist. Their flawless, 14-track album as the Step Brothers, Lord Steppington, features the lead single "Step Masters." The pair have teamed up together in the past, but this is the first time they've collaborated on a full-length together. On Lord Steppington, the seasoned pair present a pure hip-hop vibe that sounds new while simultaneously sounding rooted in the best classic '90's hip-hop, complete with perfectly selected album guests such as Roc Marciano, Fashawn, Blu, Styles P, and Action Bronson (who guests on "Mums in the Garage," the album's second single). Listening to the album you can hear their collective skills as producers and mic-wreckers and knowledgeable crate diggers with a wicked sense of humor (check their Amoeba Music WIMB? - What's In My Bag? video shot at Amoeba Hollywood). To top it off, the album (also comes in vinyl) is presented in a nice velvety packaging that reportedly delayed the release by a number of weeks since it took longer to manufacture than standard packaged releases.

9) Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf - 
CIrca 1990-1993  (Stones Throw)
While previous Charizma releases have featured some of the tracks on CIrca 1990-1993, this four-LP box set is an exhaustive collection of just about everything the late, great Milpitas-based emcee recorded before his untimely death in 1993 at the young age of 20. He was a supertalented artist who, if he had lived, would likely have become a major hip-hop star. The 2014 box set includes such Charizma classics as "My World Premiere" and two versions of "Red Light, Green Light" along with other unknown unearthed material and rare live performances such as "Live in '92 at the DNA Lounge." It's all dug-up and compiled by Charizma's partner in rhyme, producer Peanut Butter Wolf. It is fair to say that Wolf's whole identity and career was shaped and defined by Charizma with whom he started his hip-hop career.Following Charizma's murder, PB Wolf almost quit (that aforementioned Stones Throw documentary spends some time on this). "When he died I just felt so helpless," PB Wolf told me in an interview I did with him for the liner notes of this album. Back in the early '90s, following being turned down by label after label that didn't want to put out the music of a deceased rapper, PB Wolf eventually decided to do so himself and in 1996 he set up Stones Throw. Circa 1990-1993 (also avail as download) is the ultimate Charizma with Peanut Butter Wolf collection

10) Souls of Mischief - 
There Is Only Now (Linear Labs)
Two plus decades in the game and Oakland's Souls of Mischief show no sign of slowing down as proven by 2014's There Is Only Now, which the longtime Hiero hip-hop crew with multi-instrumentalist, producer, and composer Adrian Younge.  This concept album styled like a blaxploitation film with a storyline full of love, loss, and revenge is based on a real life: a near fatal incident that occurred back in 1994 when the Souls were cornered in a parking lot outside a club by a masked gunman who shot at them. For the album, A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad narrates the tale playing the part as a DJ for a fictional Oakland radio station. Other album guests include Busta Rhymes, William Hart (The Delfonics), Scarub (Living Legends), and Snoop Dogg who cameos on the album title track. The album was released in various formats and forms including cassette, black vinyl, and picture disc vinyl, as well as remix vinyl and the instrumental cassette and instrumental vinyl versions.


It goes without saying that the above top ten only scratch the surface of what was a rich, diverse, quality year for hip-hop releases. Hence I want to give honorable mention to another ten amazing hip-hop album releases from 2014 that include Blu's Good To Be Home (Nature Sounds - also available in vinyl), Madlib's Rock Konducta (Madlib Invasion), Slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark's Slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark released by Tre's old label Delicious Vinyl (also available in vinyl), underrated LA artist Open Mike Eagle's Dark Comedy (Mello Music/Fat Beats - also avail on vinyl), San Francisco crew BPos' Positive Beings (One League), longtime Bay Area emcee Dub Esquire's The Odyssey, Doomtree crew/label founder Sims' Field Notes, Scottish emcee diss1's underground release Sympathetic Detonations,  DJ Platurn's self-released  So This Is De La Heaven Pt. 2 (technically 2013 but came out in December of last year), and prolific, longtime, Bay Area game spitter E-40's latest two-part, guest heavy project Sharp On All 4 Corners 1 & 2  (Heavy On The Grind) that features such tracks as "Red Cup (feat. T-Pain, Kid Ink, & B.O.B.)."

Relevant Tags

Dub Esquire (7), Bpos (18), Best Of 2014 (20), Serengeti (5), Homeboy Sandman (42), Run The Jewels (21), Lists (63), Dj Qbert (21), Diss1 (1), Souls Of Mischief (23), Dj Platurn (48), E-40 (42)