As Max Bell noted in his round-up of L.A. rap earlier this month, it was a very good year for hip-hop in our city, with all corners of the varied scene — from Open Mike Eagle's smart 4NML HSPTL to Odd Future's rambunctious The OF Tape Vol. 2 to Ty$ and Joe Moses' raunchy Whoop! — well represented. Oh, and then there was a certain South Central-based collective you may have heard of. In any case, since we like to play favorites, here are our top five.
See also: The Best Rap Singles of 2012
5. 4Hunnid Degreez
It was the year of ratchet in L.A. DJ Mustard's tag, “Mustard on tha beat, ho,” became ubiquitous, with his simple, sparse, bass-heavy beats banging out of seemingly every club and every car in the city. Add YG's natural charisma and drowsy delivery of raps about, well, not much else than eating pussy and getting paid, and it's a wrap. Lyrically, are there better tapes than 4Hunnid Degreez? Yeah, but a party ain't a party until YG is played. “Blunted” and “Westside 4 Fingaz,” their narcotic beats coupled with catchy hooks, became instant anthems. Regarding oral sex, sure, YG wants reciprocation (“Get down on your knees, and tell the Lorrrd how much you love me, thennnn runitback,” he slurs on the blatant, ridiculously addictive “I Like Head”). Call us easy, but any guy who's been a vocal champion of pleasuring girls (remember “Pussy Killer”?) gets our support.
See also: Top Five Ratchet Songs of 2012
4. Baby Face Killa
We know he's from Gary. But dude first moved for his deal with Interscope in 2006 and settled here for good over three years ago — wanna quibble over where Tupac's from, too? Besides, he recruited plenty of natives (Dom Kennedy, Jay Rock, Problem) for Baby Face Killa. Gibbs' talent as a rapper is indisputable. He fires off rounds of lyrics, using gasps of breaths almost as an instrument (the two sharp intakes that punctuate the chorus of “BFK,” for instance). His weakness? He doesn't waste much time on writing the big, catchy hooks most of us walk around singing. Instead, he hops on hazy beats like SMKA's “Kush Cloud” or Cylla's “The Diet” and just decimates everybody. This shit won't get played on any radio station, especially now that he's parted ways with Young Jeezy, but it will be in constant rotation while you're enjoying Cali's weather, women and weed.
3. Control System
“This is a story about control, mind control,” Jhene Aiko says at the beginning of Ab-Soul's Control System, flipping Janet Jackson's intro to Control, the 1986 album that established her identity. Which is precisely what Control System does for Soul, the preternaturally cool hippie on local label Top Dawg Entertainment. “Bohemian Groove” is just that, a free-spirited jammy song on which Soul spits, “Motherfuck the government, motherfuck the system.” He trips out on the hypnotic “Pineal Gland,” listing the drugs he's enlisted toward the goal of enlightenment, before dictating that his organs be “donated to science, bitch,” and chanting, “You got three eyes, three eyes.” It's hard even to choose a favorite track. The haunting “Terrorist Threats,” where he proposes uniting all the country's gangs in order to defeat the military (enhanced by a typically arresting, aggressive guest verse from Danny Brown), perhaps. The heartbreaking “Book of Soul,” which has Soul suggesting the Book of Job should've been named after him and pleading with God for taking his longtime girlfriend Alori Joh, who committed suicide earlier this year? So far, Ab-Soul has gotten overshadowed by his labelmates, but that unfortunate oversight is likely to be rectified next year.
2. good kid, m.A.A.d city
Subtitled “A short film,” good kid, m.A.A.d city is indeed cinematic, but we'd put money on the songs' lyrics being bound and studied as a book in some “Deconstructing Hip Hop” course on a college campus within a couple years. Evangelical Christian prayers and the base nature of man battle it out on Compton's streets. Sex blinds our young hero, who's wrestling with both God and gangs. But when Kendrick dives into a bottomless well of introspection, he isn't afraid to admit his vulnerabilities. good kid is not easy listening, and sometimes Kendrick just stresses us the fuck out. But he is a tremendously gifted writer and rapper. The exhaustion you feel after playing this album all the way through has as much to do with the dizzying realization that he may be the best this generation will get.
See also: Kendrick Lamar's Mood Music
1. Habits & Contradictions
If Kendrick is the tortured eyewitness, Jay Rock the hustling everyman and Ab-Soul the contemplative conspiracy theorist, Schoolboy Q is TDE's alpha male. Pissing on everything to mark his territory, Q swaggers about on Habits & Contradictions, making it clear that his competition is no one — “Look at you/Now look at me/Now look at him/Now back at me,” he begins as a flute trills on the Mike Will-produced “My Hatin' Joint.”
He flips one of Jay-Z's lines from “Niggas in Paris”: “What's 50 grand to a motherfucker like me, can you please remind me? (You can't be serious, right?) Shit, I'll remind you!” he snaps on the paranoia-inducing, testosterone-driven “Nightmare on Figg St.,” reminding anyone who forgot that not so long ago he was running the streets as a Hoover Crip. And even though we love Future's “Turn On the Lights” as much as anyone, Q is sorely overlooked as knowing exactly what real women want — just listen to his hushed verse on the Roberta Flack-sampling “Groovline Pt. 1.”
But what really sets Q apart is he plays with his voice. He's absolutely unafraid of just wilding out and sounding almost clinically insane — “No A/C but the heater work, MURK!” he blurts on “Nightmare.” In “There He Go,” he repeats the title in a quiver, almost like a cartoon character pretending to be a woman. You never know how he's going to deliver a line. For those of us who like our rappers sorta unhinged and our rap tinged with a sense of real danger, it's thrilling.