The most important, impressive, and unforgettable releases of hip hop this past year—in Nashville, on the Internet, and beyond. This is what defined 2012 hip hop for me, in alphabetical order.
Free the Optimus - FTOverseas (September 2012)
Between Mind Ninjas’ Burning Leaf Technique and this collective release, Free the Optimus released a phenomenal amount of really, great music this year. Shep Bryan only produces one track on this album; the rest come from a collection of European producers—hence the name. I’d hate to call the stellar production the highlight of this album, because the MCing is equally impressive. FTOverseas is just wholly impressive.
The GTW & Bengfang - 4814 (September 2012)
4814 is pop without sacrificing anything, genre-blending without being esoteric, and extremely clever. Few releases made this much noise with so little. 4814’s 4 tracks clock in at just 10.5 minutes, yet it’s potency has earned The GTW & Bengfang coverage from The Guardian, Fader, Interview Magazine, and every blog that exists. “Cravings” is one of the singles of the year, and the video hasn’t even come out yet. Every song on this EP is a potential single, and it’s the kinda release you put on repeat and play four times in a row. It leaves you hoping this crazy duo makes a full-length album.
JJ DOOM - Keys to the Kuff (August 2012)
What an sublimely, bizarre album. Jneiro Jarel matches DOOM’s off-brand weirdness step-for-step, making Keys to the Kuff one of 2012’s great successes. Neither Madvillain or DANGERDOOM released more than one album, but hopefully JJ DOOM does this again, cause this shit is too real to only happen once. DOOM sounds as fresh as ever, and Jneiro Jarel offers some of the most unique production of the year.
Heems - Nehru Jackets (January 2012)
Wild Water Kingdom is great, but Nehru Jackets is Heem’s statement piece. In fact, had he gotten rid of the unnecessary tracks and freestyles that make it 25 songs long, it could have been a proper, classic hip hop album. As it is, it’s still one of the best things anyone’s dropped in a long time. Himanshu’s cleverness and originality is never-failing, and even though Das Racist is no longer, he remains one of the most important voices in rap music.
KABY - Seasonal Flavors (February 2012)
The hardest working man in Nashville had a busy year, releasing several impressive mixtapes. Seasonal Flavors is KABY at his finest, coupling his larger-than-life charisma and wit with a near-flawless delivery and trademark creativity. KABY has a unique perspective on life, and every time he steps to the mic, you find yourself looking forward to what he’s gonna say next.
Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city (October 2012)
Usually when you have a debut album as lauded as Section.80, and anticipation as astronomical as the buildup for good kid, m.A.A.d. city, it’s rare for the sophomore release to live up to expectations. Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut exceeded them. All things considered, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, along with Nas’ Life Is Good,is the biggest accomplishment in hip hop this year. And all things even, it’s also a better album than Nas’ 2012 offering. Simply put Kendrick Lamar did the impossible and gave us the most ambitious album hip hop has seen since Kanye’s MBDTF.
Macro x Treekeeper - Welcome to Bohemia (January 2012)
Macro & Treekeeper’s debut EP is quite an introduction to the weird and wonderful world of the Bohemian Hype Cult. This six-track offering is irresistibly nostalgic with quite an old-school ethos, despite the fact that Treekeeper’s instrumentation is unlike anything you’ve likely heard. 2012 was a big year for BHC, all of its members. They collaborated with a plethora of collectives and artists, and at least one of them was running the blog circuit seemingly every day. Look out for them to ride that momentum come 2013.
Mind Ninjas - Burning Leaf Technique (June 2012)
A multitude of debut albums came out this year; few made as definitive a statement as Mind Ninjas’ freshman record. This NC duo are ones to watch for the future. The Good Shepard is maybe the most talented up-and-coming producer in hip hop right now, and he still has bars better than your favorite rappers. C.Shreve is a professor in and out of the classroom, and the chemistry between he and Shep Bryan is impossible to ignore. Burning Leaf Technique is a smorgasbord of deep lyricism and soulful beats.
Nas - Life Is Good (July 2012)
Life Is Good is the best Nas album since The Lost Tapes and one of the best records of his career. This is what it means for an MC to age like fine wine. I think we all know how crucial this album is to Nas’ legacy. He needed a late-career album like this to fight off the ghosts of Illmatic that have plagued him his entire career. His latest LP should be the focal point of a Hip Hop 101 course titled: How to Stay Relevant as a 40-Year-Old+ MC. And LL Cool J should either enroll or hang it up.
Pro Era - Peep: the aPROcalypse (December 2012)
When Pro Era announced they were releasing a posse album, I thought it was too soon. I thought they were making a big mistake. I was wrong. Peep: the aPROcalypse is THE definitive statement of the boom bap resurgence, thus far. This is revivalist rap in true form, and Pro Era manages to release an album with 12 members and 17 songs, without losing cohesiveness. This is Joey Bada$$ introducing his crew to the rest of the world, in dramatic fashion. Since it dropped with like 10 days left to the year, expect this album on any year-end list I might make next for 2013.
S.T.A.N. - Here You Go (May 2012)
Here You Go might be the most underrated 2012 release in Nashville hip hop. A collection of original and repurposed beats set the backdrop for S.T.A.N.’s impressive flow and poignant lyricism. No track sums up the tape’s brilliance better than his lead single “Reality Rap”. With just 8 tracks and barely 26 minutes long, Here You Go still manages to leave a big impression from start to finish.
Ziggurat Records - Flossed In Space (November 2011)
Where do I start? Flossed In Space is one of the most creative hip hop albums I’ve ever heard. Although it was dropped in late ‘11, Ziggurat rode the momentum from their debut for all of 2012, highlighted by a headlining, multi-city tour with Lunice and Lorn. Production-wise, this album is impeccable and progressive. Lyrically, Miyagi and Purpl Monk establish themselves as two of the most entertaining and insightful spitters anywhere right now.