Next month you’re going to be up to your neck in “Year’s Best” lists. It’s been a bizarre year for music, especially hip-hop. But while much of the rap world spent the year hung up on debating a white Australian's alleged cultural appropriation, and a New York teenager’s YouTube dance, Los Angeles spent the last 12 months putting out a more consistent and diverse array of hip-hop than anywhere else in the world.
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Want something gangsta? Something avant-garde? Something from a new artist finally having their breakout moment? Something from a proven collective establishing their dominance? Something from a classic artist making a stellar album more than two decades after their debut? Los Angeles has you covered.
Top Dawg Entertainment as a collective already had an absurd buzz thanks to Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city, but Lamar’s labelmates Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul made a mark all their own this year with definitively different albums in Oxymoron and These Days, both of which became critical and commercial hits for their gangsta and introspective elements alike.
But the major label Los Angeles success stories don’t end there. Def Jam released Compton rapper YG’s My Krazy Life album, which embedded itself into all of our ears with the undeniably catchy “Who Do You Love?” While the album may have had way too many skits for our tastes, when YG is on, he more than knows how to maximize his moments and properly utilize major label resources. My Krazy Life is exactly what a big-budget, major label rap album should sound like.
For another Los Angeles MC, rapping about the major label experience helped his independent release stand out as one of the most refreshing perspectives behind the mic in a long time. Speak, who may be most known for co-writing “Gucci Gucci,” came into his own in 2014 as the incredible songwriter behind both the album Gnarly Davidson vs. The Marlboro Man and the Summertime Radness EP. Speak's great at skewering the corporate music experience, but we really couldn’t get enough of his tales of debauchery and his pop culture pointedness.
Next: The year's most exciting independent release, and strongest comeback...
But you can’t tally envelope-pushers in Los Angeles hip-hop and not mention Open Mike Eagle. His album Dark Comedy matched infectious harmonies, catchy melodies and top-tier wordplay into an outrageously satisfying rap experience that gets better with each listen. As if Dark Comedy weren’t enough, Mike’s continued killing guest appearances and dropping new singles like the Exile-produced re-working of the title track, titled “Late Show.”
While the young blood may be what’s kept Los Angeles’ hip-hop heart pumping, it’s a muscle that wouldn't be as strong without decades of regular exercise by artists like the incomparable DJ Quik, who returned with a vengeance with The Midnight Life. Over production that’s as unapologetically funky as ever, Quik’s every bit the slick player weirdo that he was when he first burst onto the scene. But he’s not now, nor has he ever been, a revivalist. The Midnight Life finds Quik staying two steps ahead of most trends and making a serious case for his place on the short list of rappers like Scarface and E-40 who never, ever fell off.
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While we fully acknowledge that other rap projects have been great this year, Los Angeles’ sheer dominance of every type of hip-hop is a feat few regions could ever match in a calendar year. The next time you hear someone complain about hip-hop in 2014, ask them how much time they’ve spent in L.A.