L.A. hip-hop hasn't seen a year like this one since 1992, when the word G-Funk was (re)defined and art-rap was steadily making noise in and around Leimert Park. Twenty years ago saw, of course, the release of The Chronic, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, The Predator, Spice 1, and Way 2 Fonky, among others.
See also: The Making of The Chronic
Two thousand and twelve has similarly been a year of game-changing commercial releases and overlooked avant-garde gems. As a bonus, though, there's been a healthy amount of ratchet ridiculousness. In any case, it's been a landmark year that will likely merit discussion 20 years from now, and here's why.
Let's start with Top Dawg Entertainment, the label responsible for three of 2012's best hip-hop albums. First, they released Schoolboy Q's Habits and Contradictions, the conceptually and sonically heavier — and more introspective — follow-up to his 2011 album, Setbacks. Then Ab-Soul delivered the slew of sativa-fueled sociopolitical rants and playful unpacking of language that is Control System.
The culmination of the TDE trifecta came with the release of Kendrick Lamar's critical/commercial success, good kid, m.A.A.d city. It is a concept album that takes many risks — it's light on the radio singles, for starters, and it features melancholy and ironic undercurrents that threaten to consume the record. All of this is quite rare for a big budget hip-hop debut.
See also: Kendrick Lamar's Mood Music
In between TDE releases, blog-darlings and Fairfax Ave. pop-up shop proprietors Odd Future released their first official commercial release, The OF Tape Vol 2. The unfocused — yet highly-charged and entertaining album — was primarily produced by Tyler, the Creator and Left Brain, and features all 12 members of the group, including the onetime Samoan exile Earl Sweatshirt. Earl's verse on “Oldie” essentially served as a prelude to his recent solo single, “Chum,” among the most poignant and lyrically dense cuts from an OF member yet. His album is something to be on the lookout for in 2013.
Meanwhile a crew that deserved more notice nationally was Alpha Pup Records collective Hellfyre Club, helmed by resident Low End Theory veteran MC Nocando. Most egregiously overlooked was The Kleenrz from Freestyle Fellowship's Self Jupiter and producer Kenny Segal — think art-rap meets Tarantino, Raymond Chandler, with a dash of Darren Aronofsky claustrophobia. Also, Open Mike Eagle's 4NML HSPTL (Fake Four Inc.), one of the most intelligent and forward-thinking records of 2012. It's an amalgamation of the ethos of Office Space and the comedy of Hannibal Buress, if you can imagine that.
But perhaps the best blend of all things Hellfyre came on Project Blowed veteran Busdriver's single, “Werner Herzog.” It's an assault on everything Hollywood, over menacing production and featuring some of Budriver, Open Mike, and Nocando's most cutting and uproarious bars. Really, it's the best posse cut of the year, next to Ab-Soul's “Black Lip Bastard (Remix),” which features all of TDE.
At the opposite end of the L.A. hip-hop spectrum reside YG and DJ Mustard, the rapper and producer responsible for all things ratchet. Their mixtape 4 Hunnid Degreez (with DJ Ill Will and DJ Drama) is chock full of catchy and bass heavy bangers. Introspective? Not at all. Fun and freaky? Most definitely.
It would also be an oversight to leave out of this discussion the man who has become our city's rap nucleus, the man who sequesters himself in his dank and air-conditioned in-home studio in Santa Monica — The Alchemist.
Over a shared pipe he has become a dojo for MCs looking to hone their craft, collaborate, and rhyme over some of the most arresting production around. Apart from the psychedelic Vodka & Ayahuasca with Stones Throw MC/producer Oh No (together they're known as Gangrene), and Russian Roulette, his 45 minute pastiche of Russian-music sampled beats featuring a who's who of blog-buzz rappers, The Alchemist handled the production for one of the best Odd Future projects to date, Domo Gensis's No Idols, which features a revitalized and ravenous Earl Sweatshirt as well as Action Bronson, Freddie Gibbs, and Prodigy, all in top form.
Playing 'Six Degrees of Alchemist' is fun — and quite easy (try it). In a sense, he encapsulated L.A. hip-hop in 2012, intelligent without being too self-serious; hard-edged but ready for a good time.
See also: Gangrene Get High, So High