Kanye West's most challenging release yet. J. Cole's attempt at his own Illmatic. Mac Miller's drastic leap forward. Welcome to our Christmas, hip-hop heads.
Today, Yeezus, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, and Born Sinner all dropped. Yes, well, this is a fact: All three albums have been floating around the Torrent sites and the less reputable music blogs for at least four days, and in J. Cole's case, almost two weeks. But this also a fact: Today is still D-Day, the biggest and most important rap day of 2013, in what's shaping up to be, potentially, the genre's biggest year. These are strong words. I know this is no longer the '90s. Can we look at the record, though? At no other time in history will more major albums be released than 2013. It's truly staggering, actually.
It began on January 15, with BroBible footwear fashion consultant A$AP Rocky and his album, the Houston-meets-Harlem, cool as that black-and-white American flag, LongLiveA$AP. Rocky lived up to the ample mixtape hype he had garnered through the woozy beats and the unique high fashion-and-purple-weed aesthetic of Live. Love. A$AP. He's has been everywhere this year, partly because he (and mastermind A$AP Yams) have figured out how to rap in the Internet age: Kill the region-specific sound, and freely take influences from New York, Houston, Paris, and everywhere in between. The Limewire generation has its voice.
Then came March 26, and Lil Wayne's I Am Not a Human Being II.
I'd argue that Wayne's failure was actually a good thing for 2013. Since releasing some of the best tapes in history in the mid-2000s, his career—and songcraft—has fallen apart, a fact widely held by any close observer who doesn't count himself as a hardcore Wayne stan. Yet, he continues to be held up as the exemplar for rap—that guy who allows hip-hop detractors to say, "You like someone who raps 'Boy I send them bloods at your ass like a tampon'?"—and his commercial and critical dismissal can only mean the genre is correcting itself. We're not defending rap's Carrot Top. We've moved on.
Kid Cudi and Tyler, the Creator improved on the disappointing Man on the Moon II and Goblin, respectively, with their April releases. Cudi finally matched the moody, surreal beats he seems to be able to pull from his sleep, with introspective lyrics that didn't bore you; Tyler, well, he continued to do his own thing. Then, in May, French Montana... actually, I'm going to move on... Action Bronson! put out his major-label debut, Saaab Stories, and who couldn't be happy for this Ghostface-sounding, bearded bowling ball with some of the slickest lyrics you'll hear today.
Then came today. J. Cole's album is undeniably fantastic. He's able to balance the big themes of redemption and confession with low-brow lines like "She raisin' that guy's kids while she swallowin' mine"; likewise, he can follow up A Tribe Called Quest-esque jazz beats with the bombastic stuff of opener "Villuminati." It doesn't hurt that he can so nimbly rap around SAT words without stumbling or slowing down. And Miller's effort? Weird and unexpected, but these things happen when you start hanging out with the Black Hippy prodigies and Odd Future lunatics. The former frat rapper's willingness to explore N.E.R.D.-like soundscapes and free associative wordplay are a wild step forward from the "Donald Trump" pop-rap. For that, I admire him.
Then, there's Yeezus, which will be the most divided album of the year. "Blood on the Leaves," with its thundering Hudson Mohawke horns and a haunting Nina Simone sample, seems to be the only unequivocally amazing song inside the red-taped case. Your enjoyment of its other tracks will depend on your willingness to go with Kanye into his industrial beats or his wild swings of self-loathing and self-glorification—it's okay to hate it all.
But everyone right now is arguing the merits of album, and isn't that a sign we're all listening to something exciting? Dead genres don't give us something so dividing. He's done something huge, for better or worse.
The rest of the year will only give more. Jay-Z—how the hell have we not discussed Jay-Z yet?—has already sorta kinda sold one million copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail, and he set the music world on fire with just a fat Timbaland and that bearded lost Duck Dynasty brother, Rick Rubin. In July, Pusha T and Earl Sweatshirt will finally release their debut albums. With August comes a new collaborative effort by the Maybach Music Group, Danny Brown's Old, and Drake's highly anticipated Nothing Was the Same. (Don't forget Ghostface Killah and Juicy J, too.) And later in the year? Bun B, Big Sean, Asher Roth, more Action Bronson, a Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole collab, Lupe Fiasco, Ludacris, Future, 50 Cent, Hopsin, Rick Ross, Schoolboy Q, Theophilus London, Young Jeezy, and a reunited Wu-Tang Clan.
In the annals of rap, the case can be made that '96 was better. You had 2Pac, Jay-Z, and Outkast's best albums ever, plus new releases from De La Soul, The Fugees, and Ghostface Killah. 2003 wasn't bad either, with Speakerboxx/The Love Below, The Black Album, and Get Rich or Die Tryin' all finding critical and Billboard success. For pure quantity, though, it'll be hard-pressed to find a bigger year than 2013. Everybody who's anybody is releasing an album this year. Everyone.
So why does this matter: Why is it so awesome and vital that 2013 turned out to be the genre's '97 Chicago Bulls? Because while a tongue-in-cheek Nas may have killed rap back in 2006, many, many others have much more seriously sounded its death bell for a half-decade. The EDM heads have (somewhat persuasively) said its diminished prominence on club and party speakers means the heyday is over. The Golden Age purists have said hip-hop will never reach the heights of the mid-90s, so stop looking. The old conservatives, frozen in mental carbonite since Ice-T and "Cop Killa," point to the violent and aggressive lyrics, and try to discount it all again.
But it's as good as it ever was. Take us out, Cole.