Grant James sifts through new releases each week to bring us some of the good, the bad, and the Evanonsense. These are his five favorite 2012 releases for Hip-Hop and R&B. They are all available at Radio-Active Records and Sweat Records.
5. Brandy, Two Eleven
Brandy Norwood’s comeback was one of the more silent victories of 2012. Although it debuted at No. 3 on the US Billboard 200, and was received well by critics, it still failed to catch on with mainstream audiences. In an interview with hip hop blog UrbanBridgez, Norwood stated that after her infamous car accident (she’s speculated to have been the cause of the accident that took a man’s life), breaking up with her ex-fiancé, losing on Dancing With the Stars (she placed fourth), and the disappointment of her previous album (2008′s Human), “it’s like failure, after failure, after failure … I really feel like this is my last chance.” Fortunately, it’s one of the best R&B albums of 2012. “Without You,” “Wildest Dreams,” and “Wish Your Love Away” all channel a flawless, old-school inspired Norwood. We’re hoping people will finally take notice and that Brandy’s hard work and talent will pay off in the end.
4. Death Grips, The Money Store
Death Grips is one of those rare bands that when you hear them for the first time you think, “this is amazing but what the hell?” It’s grating, schizophrenic, loud. Death Grips’ debut studio album, The Money Store came from left field and was both unexpected and amazing. Led by a rapper that bears a striking resemblance to the Miami Zombie, Death Grips aim to shock and disturb, but still amuse. “Hustle Bones” is the equivalent of slamming your head against a wall repeatedly: too numb to notice any pain. Closing track “Hacker” leaves you feeling defeated and confused, but also curious. It may not be the most polished album of the year, but it’s absolutely one of the most innovative and fun.
3. Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City
Like a Bob Dylan of the hip hop world, Kendrick Lamar can tell a story. On the dark and dirty opener, “Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter,” Lamar grabs your attention, and doesn’t let go until you turn him off completely. It isn’t even really the phenomenal production that keeps you hooked, but rather Lamar’s exceptional rapping, and his ability to create stories within each individual song (as well as an overall story for the album, acting as what Lamar calls “a short film”). Throughout the narrative, Lamar’s involvement with a Compton gang grows steadily, but he manages to sprinkle in some comedy, keeping the album from feeling too forced or contrived. It’s varied, probably appealing to a lot of tastes, but manages to stay true to Lamar’s roots.
2. Azealia Banks, 1991
Debut rapper Azealia Banks’ rise was one of if not the fastest of 2012. With a style mixing Missy Elliot and Foxy Brown – she raps fast and loose like Elliot, and sings R&B hooks like Foxy — she became a superstar faster than you can say “I’mma ruin you cunt.” The comparisons aren’t meant to imply she lacks innovation; she’s taken ’90s New York Ball Culture, R&B, rap, and house music, and made them her own cocktail, while still paying homage to her roots. It’s hard to do something new while playing off the old, but Banks makes it look easy. And her single “212″ was easily one of the biggest, most titillating, and just goddamn fun rap songs of 2012. Named after the Harlem area code, the song captures a rapper battling, determined to make it to the top. What most don’t notice however, is that the song is actually Banks fighting herself: “Saying you’re grinding but you ain’t going nowhere/ Why you procrastinate girl?/ You got a lot, but you just waste all yours/ And they’ll forget your name soon and won’t nobody be to blame but yourself.” That bridge was rumored to be directed towards Nicki Minaj, but in recent interviews, Banks cleared the air. She said the song is instead about overcoming her own self, pushing her boundaries, and giving it her all.
1. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
It’s been a big year for Frank Ocean. The Odd Future member came out of the closet publicly in an effort to support the ever-growing number of bullied teens, he released a successful Billboard-charting debut LP, and most recently, received six Grammy nominations. Seriously, believe the hype. Channel Orange is one of those rare albums that lives up to the Grammy praise. (Grammy award distribution isn’t exactly as prudent as it once was.) It’s sensual, classic (with some modern flare), and incredibly lush. “Super Rich Kids,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Sweet Life” show off Ocean’s endless talents, but maintain a common thread: each song feels fresh, new, yet strangely familiar and brooding with intimacy. Lead single “Thinkin Bout You,” has kept Ocean on the radar, but is just really one of 17 perfect, romantic tracks.
–By Grant James