There have been a lot of big moments in hip-hop this year, but most of them have had little to do with actual music. Frank Ocean came out. MCA died. 2Pac came back to life…as a hologram.
Long since having overtaken rock as our dominant musical genre, hip-hop is both America’s pop music and its gangster fantasy. You’ll hear the latest Lil Wayne hit at the Super Bowl, at suburban strip malls, and the iPod of half my students in Oakland. (The other half are listening to Miley Cirus, and surprisingly proud to admit it.)
Hip-hop artists are everywhere these days, but what are they actually saying? Now that the Great Recession enters its the fifth year (or its 520th, depending who you ask), that question has been popping up more frequently. Most recently, legendary singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte called out Jay-Z and Beyoncé for “turn[ing] their back on social responsibility.” Lots of folks rushed out in defense of the King and Queen of the Game, but Belafonte was right. It’s time for hip-hop to embrace its inner Spiderman: with greater subwoofers comes greater responsibility.
At its core, hip-hop is rebel music. From its South Bronx origins to its current global innovations in places like Chile and Ghana, rap is about the rebellion and the remix. Cultural rebellion, political rebellion, cutting and splicing together different movements and genres into something new that will literally move the crowd. Lucky for us, there’s still some MCs who know what that means.
Maybe hip-hop music was lying low in the first half of 2012, but it’s coming hard this fall. From Billboard chart-toppers to underground heroes, we’re looking at an oncoming seasonal abundance of head-nodding, hard-hitting lyricism. It’s on us to support these rebel artists — so don’t just watch them on YouTube, buy their records!
So in order of release date, here’s five albums your playlist should watch out for…and one song from each artist that reminds me why I fell in love with all this rhythm-and-poetry in the first place.
1. LUPE FIASCO – Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1
Album release: September 25
You know why I love Lupe? He doesn’t try to straddle the conscious/mainstream rapper divide that the industry loves to play up — he demolishes it. By ignoring the false divide, Lupe has freed himself up to speak on stronger, broader subject matter. He raps about everything from America’s foreign policy of terrorism to life (and death) on the West Side of Chicago. Lupe raps it because he reps it, as we saw earlier this year when he broke down in tears on MTV talking about the fallen brothers from his old neighborhood. Now the Midwest emcee is dropping a new album, featuring the much-hyped lyrical attack on misogyny “Bad Bitch.” Conceived as a follow-up to his 2006 breakout album Food and Liquor (despite the fact that he released two albums since then), all signs point to this one being a classic. But as you’ll see below, this still might be only the second best album coming out of Chicago this fall.
2. TYPICAL CATS – ‘3’
Album release: September 25, 2012
Besides Lupe, the post-industrial shores of Chicago have produced plenty of hip-hop’s finest emcees: Common, Kanye, Twista, Rhymefest, Psalm One, and freestyle legend Juice, to name more than a few. But if there’s one group that has always symbolized the jazzy, grimy, underground soul of the Midwest, that crew is Typical Cats. Featuring the eclectic brotherhood of emcees Qwel, Denizen Kane, and Qwazaar, Typical Cats is that rare group that will destroy you in a rap battle, drop equal knowledge on Fred Hampton and Fred Flintstone, and make you bust out laughing — all at the same time. The Cats haven’t put out a full album since 2004’s Civil Service, when Denizen Kane moved to Oakland (where we’ve been happy to have him, I must say.). But now the brothers are back, so get ready for a new round of punchline manifestos and political, poetic wordplay. It ain’t just Chicago that’s happy to have them back.
3. THE COUP – ‘Sorry to Bother You’
Album release: October 30
With the Republican National Convention about to kick off like it’s 1929, sometimes it’s hard to have hope for our political future. But I do know this: when the revolution comes, The Coup will be its soundtrack — and the actual folks on the front lines storming the barricades. Led by emcee Boots Riley with his 24/7 leather jacket, big Afro, and even bigger mutton chops, The Coup represent the best of Oakland — loud, militant, and funky as hell. Boots has had a busy year — mobilizing the radical roller coaster that is/was Occupy Oakland (recently featured in a long, problematic New York Times piece), writing his first-ever movie screenplay, and in good news for music fans, making a new album. Sorry to Bother You is The Coup’s first album in six years, but no apology is necessary, Boots. Not when you’ve given us one of hip-hop’s truly epic songs (and song titles), seen here. We all know now — never trust a pimp named Jesus.
4. GUANTE – ‘You Better Weaponize’
Album release: November 9
From one great political rapper to another. Straight out of Minneapolis (one of hip-hop’s most slept-on cities), Guante is the type of lyricist that will make you want to burn down a bank — or at least a snow bank. Guante is a national poetry slam champion, and deservedly so, but his best stuff (and this is coming from a poet) isn’t his poetry. It’s his music. It’s his ability to find that sweet spot between beat, lyric, and meaning. Combining powerful storytelling with an activist’s righteous anger, Guante makes the connection between individual art and collective action. Plus, he took his emcee name from the Spanish translation for former NBA star (and Oakland native) Gary Payton’s nickname “The Glove” — so you gotta love that. Guante’s new album, You Better Weaponize, is a collaboration with producer Big Cats! that keeps the movement moving. Here is a teaser taken from an Occupy Minnesota rally last winter.
5. MIA – ‘Matangi’
Album release: December 21
I know. This one is sure to upset the purists. Is MIA hip-hop? Yes and no. On the most literal of levels, the Sri Lankan singer/fashionista/rabble-rouser fits somewhere between electronica, dance, and that thing the record stores call “world music.” But MIA has never been about easy categories. She is about the beat. Rebel diasporic connections. And yes, the bling. What’s more hip-hop than that? To me, MIA represents both hip-hop’s ancient roots — and its globalized future. Whether she’s speaking up for the rights of the oppressed (be they Tamil, Palestinians, or young black men in Bed Stuy), or giving the Super Bowl the middle finger, MIA ain’t afraid of a little controversy. Now she’s got a new album coming out, Matangi, which will be accompanied by a film and book. Whatever you want to call it, it will be a great way to close out 2012, from the woman who gave us maybe the best song of the last decade.