NPR Music's hip-hop stream, Microphone Check, is co-hosted by Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley. They got together to remember the year in hip-hop and share their favorites — the albums they had to have, the ones they loved with reservations and the performance they can't stop talking about (it was one NPR produced and Ali Shaheed played, but still).
Advisory: Some of the videos on this page contain profanity.
KILLER MIKE, R.A.P. MUSIC
Frannie Kelley: What is the word for what Killer Mike did this year? It's not "coming into his own." It's not "graduating into something." It's a state of comfort with his craft. But I don't really have an explanation for why people are responding to him so much more now than two years ago. Ali Shaheed Muhammad: I think it's because he's a bit clearer. He was so aggressive when he first came out that it was kind of — I mean, you loved his aggression, and obviously the delivery made you want to believe — but it was borderline gangsta aggressive. He still has, obviously, that "I'm not playing, take me very seriously" spirit, but it reminds me of Chuck D. Public Enemy — those guys were badasses. For a MC, you really need that element to really settle in to the hearts of people. And he has that, but with this record, the message is a lot more clearer that it's with purpose, and purpose of something greater. Nothing frivolous. He always maintained that, but I think it just — when you're growing, you're able to articulate it better and differently. FK: So he's still growing? ASM: I think so. He's always been good; I just think it's refined, and it's better. FK: Do you think any of it had to do with working with El-P? That rapper-producer monogamy? ASM: I don't know. It's possible. FK: I don't know either. I know he's one of the happiest people I've ever met in my life. ASM: Well, that's good! FK: He makes you want to be a better person. If it makes you that happy to be that good.
SMALL PROFESSOR, GIGANTIC
ASM: He has a song with Von Pea on there, from Tanya Morgan. And the song is dope. I'm a fan of Tanya Morgan. And I don't know what their movement is, or why they take so long to do records together — but just another underrated group. And he's a dope producer. FK: Is it a banger? ASM: For a true hip-hop head, I say yeah. It has those elements. Dilla set a standard that people — when it comes to chopping up soul music and stuff like that, when you hear other people do it, you're like, "Oh, that's reminiscent of this and that." So it can be a turnoff. But what's he's doing is fresh. It sounds well-orchestrated. I'm pretty sure he knows how to play some instruments, the way it's put together. It's orchestrated like Barry White to me, James Brown or something like that. FK: Like he's a bandleader? ASM: Yeah. Kind of on that Pete Rock and Premier level of production. FK: Damn. ASM: But from the now perspective. So it's a bit more glossy but in a good way. Clean but solid, filled up. When I listened to it, I was like, "Ooh I'm so mad. Who is this kid?" FK: When you're threatened, that's a good sign? ASM: He might not be a kid, but he definitely evoked that emotion. FK: That's your highest compliment: "I'm gonna punch you in the face"? ASM: Yeah, that's true. It's been a couple "I hate you right now" moments this year.
KENDRICK LAMAR, GOOD KID, M.A.A.D CITY
ASM: It reminds me of OutKast. It was good. I just saw an interview of J Dilla from, I think it was 2003, and he said, in terms of Slum Village, he loved what those guys did, and they were who they were — but he was totally aware as a producer that you have to make songs that are more catered towards the people. If you have a niche that's kind of exclusive of the masses that's cool too, but in terms of making songs it's important to recognize that. And Jay-Z said the same thing. So I think about where Kendrick is, and he's probably trying to carve out what that means in the new, the now climate of hip-hop and going against the grain. Going against the talking about the cars, the money, the women. But still making material that the masses could really appreciate. To me I don't think there's any — maybe one song that would be considered pop in my opinion. I think he's finding his way. FK: So you think he's gotta have a radio hit, a club hit, at some point? ASM: Radio hit, yeah. Club hit, I don't know. But something for the radio I think would be important for someone like him to transcend his art beyond just the underground. But I liked the album a lot.
HOMEBOY SANDMAN, FIRST OF A LIVING BREED
ASM: I mean, Homeboy Sandman can rhyme. FK: He is so fun to listen to. ASM: You mention him and I just start smiling, right? FK: He's funny. ASM: It's about the skill, and he has skills. He's definitely an MC MC. People kind of doubt hip-hop. They're saying that it's dead, or it's not interesting. But I don't think that those people are really looking. People like Homeboy Sandman are the perfect example of that. He gets better and better, lyrically and with the tracks. It's not a lot of attention on it, but it's a solid album. FK: And he tours a lot. ASM: I learned about him when I was on the road in London and bumped into him. I was like, "Who is this guy?" I just watched him perform and I was like, "I don't know, but I need to know more about him." Yeah, he's dope.
STARLITO, FOR MY FOES AND MENTALWARFARE
FK: I really love this guy named Starlito, from Nashville. He has a very un-New York flow. He always sounds phlegmy and stuck in something — like he's not even awake all the way. And I feel really sucked in the whole time I'm listening. I haven't been able to get that many other people on board this train with me, but he worked with Don Trip. They did a tape together last year, and he works a lot with this guy DJ Burn One, in Atlanta, who I really like — he's all about this kind of smoky, atmospheric, blissed out, sun going down music. And I think he's funny. He made a musical for this EP that he put out, and its just videos with some narration connecting them. It's slower. ASM: From Nashville, huh? That's interesting. I don't know anything about this. FK: It's good. I'm not sure he's got a higher purpose going on — or, if he does, it's to a different end. Maybe you won't like it as much as I do. But I think he's funny and interesting and creative. I like a different sound. I like somebody who has a completely distinctive voice.
ACTION BRONSON AND THE ALCHEMIST, RARE CHANDELIERS
FK: I really liked almost everything The Alchemist did this year. He did that Action Bronson mixtape, his, which had our favorite, Danny Brown, all over it, he did Gangrene with Oh No, and he did Domo Genesis' album. ASM: He's consistent. FK: But not boring. ASM: No, not boring. I like Alchemist a lot. He's kind of, I think, underrated. I don't get it. Industry people, we know who he is, but comparison to other big name producers his name isn't mentioned. FK: And he's had hits! I guess he worked really hard this year and it all came out this year. That Action Bronson tape is pretty hilarious. ASM: It is hilarious. He's spirited in rhymes. He reminds me of Ghostface — I'm sure he gets that a lot, but he's dope. FK: Yeah, they both talk about food a lot. ASM: And they're both hilarious.
SAIGON, THE GREATEST STORY NEVER TOLD, CHAPTER 2
ASM: One of my favorites. It appears that he's been struggling, in terms of his releases, with his label — there being support and no support. I know how frustrating that could be. I don't know how it affected his creative mind, and I know that he was always, from the beginning, lyrically, the same sort of tough guy. Especially for him, his stories of being locked up — those are real stories — he's a dope MC, and he can handle himself lyrically. But he's always been on this path of constructing songs with a purpose for something that's greater and good. But with this album I think he really went for it. He's consciously making a statement and marketing the album based off of doing better. And taking more of a responsible position. I don't know if it's because he has children or what the transition is, but he has a different position. And I tend to agree with being responsible as an artist — for what you say and what you do. Because you have a power and an authority and an influence over the kids. It's a solid album. I think some of his songs, the way they're structured, they're radio-friendly. I have the Saigon flag raised. Cause I've always been a fan of his, from day one, the Smack DVDs and all that. So to see him in this place where he is now — I'm for it. FK: I need his album covers to be a little bit better.
AB-SOUL, CONTROL SYSTEM
ASM: I like that album. FK: I like that album a lot. ASM: I have to view myself in the grandpa stage of hip-hop now — I crossed that 40 mark, but in terms of his music, he just seems to me like that little brother. Finding his way and still making youthful missteps but nothing crazy where you're frowning upon them. He's aware of his own footing and making this self-correcting kind of thing and being sort of unapologetic because it's like, "I know better, so I'm trying to get there. Don't judge me." And the music is so good. FK: In that Black Hippy group he's the one who most knows what his role on that team is, and is kind of filling holes. He'll go on a track with Schoolboy Q and he'll try to even it out a little bit. ASM: Yeah. FK: I like that that album is — you would think it's kind of cryptic — ASM: But it's not. FK: He's pretty plainspoken. He's calling people out. ASM: Yep. FK: He's like, "cause and effect." And I also like his voice. It's a little bit sing-songy. It doesn't wear on me at all. That album — I think it was a sleeper for a lot of people. ASM: There's not that many people talking about it. And it's a solid record. That's one of my favorites of this year. If I was, I don't know, 19, 20 — I don't think you have to be that young, but certainly if I was — that would be my Tribe Called Quest record. FK: Wow.
BROWNSVILLE KA, GRIEF PEDIGREE
FK: The samples that he uses and the mood that he evokes is — I was often surprised listening to it. I don't have the music theory words for why it works, but a chord change, or something resolving was just exactly right. And then he's one of those guys where you hear one line and you take your headphones off and you say the line to yourself. You know what I mean? You're like, "What?!" He's only put out two albums and he says for each album he spends two years — one year for digging and one year for writing. ASM: Wow. FK: And also he has a day job so he's not doing it for money.
AMP LIVE AND ELIGH, THERAPY AFTER 3 (REMIX ALBUM FOR THERAPY AT 3)
ASM: If I really love your album, it probably is not going to sell. I feel so bad. I remember Lyor Cohen used to call me and be like, "All right, what do you like now?" Anything I loved, he'd be like, "OK, well we're not paying attention to that," and things that I was like, "Mmm, I don't know about this," he'd be like, "Yo, that's what we're going for." But I really like that album. Those guys, being on the West Coast — I don't even think it's a coastal thing — it has a different sound. It's a bit, I think, electronic, but it's like an electronic alternative style of hip-hop. But there are elements that, like with the drums, that just — the programming and the sound of it that just, it's hip-hop, in my opinion. But I like the fact that, from an MC perspective, Eligh's killing it. His content is, again, more about skills, more about what's going on socially and questioning the status quo of, not just hip-hop, but in life in general. The things that we just kind of accept which we shouldn't. I really like it. It's a dope album. There are bits of it that remind me of OutKast, but I can't really pinpoint what. I listened to it and was like, "Wow, this is different than what's going on." I have more of an open heart for music that goes against the grain.
DEATH GRIPS, LIVE AT LE POISSON ROUGE
ASM: That, for me, was a very good moment in 2012. FK: "I've Seen Footage" makes me smile more than any other song this year. I don't know what it is about Stefan's writing, because he won't really talk about it, but it's terrifying and comforting at the same time to me. Really really hard things to think about and picture. I think delivering news like that, in a way that you're moving when you hear it gets it deeper into your head and you think about it later. You're like, "Oh, man. What is my relationship to this thing?" It's not passive. I know that some of the things that they do are off-putting to people. But not enough. If you can't get around that and understand why they're doing that, you're crazy. ASM: Yeah, you are crazy. Just listening to their music, it's different, but when you see it — the BEST performance. I'm a fan. I would continue see them year after year. Because it's a statement. FK: Would you call it hip-hop? ASM: That's such a tough question because hip-hop is so many things. They are. They are. FK: Why did you like their show so much? ASM: Because there was so much passion into the art. For me it came off with whatever life experiences they've had, it was — I don't know how to explain it — it's like everything was poured, their entire lifeline was poured into that moment when they're on stage. It was really intense and emotional. FK: Yeah it's like the anti-numb. ASM: It's the anti-herd, snap out of it mentality. Be aware of your surroundings — look around you. A whole thing of being snatched and awakened out of a very bad dream. But whatever nightmare you were having, you're still in a nightmare but not necessarily as terrifying. Like, you can do something about it. FK: It's like you're not by yourself in the nightmare. ASM: That show was amazing. The sound was a bit oppressive. Not in a bad way, I was just like, "Oh my god" — and I love low end. I was like, "Man, I'm so happy I'm part of this situation."