The Sonic Breakdown’s Top Ten Grammy nomination for 2015
The Sonic Breakdown is presenting the top ten hip-hop albums that we believe should have been considered for the 2016 Grammy awards. The criteria for this list is based on replay-ability, cohesiveness, ability to play the album from begin to end, innovation, and content connection. The list was not composited based on album sales or popularity. There may be albums which were released in 2014 that are still considered for this list because of how late the albums were released. November-December of 2014-2015 release dates were considered for this list.
1. Kendrick Lamar,To Pimp a Butterfly
The album can be complex, which might be hard to digest for the casual listener. Let’s address the title first, which has many different interpretations and has similarities to one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The pimp is as we all know one to be: a person that exploits someone for their talent or skills for monetary gain. The butterfly represents the talent, skills, and positive attributes to society that black people possess. We all start out as the caterpillar, consuming everything around us, as Kendrick states. The caterpillar grows as it consumes, which is equivalent to people learning and developing skills that transform into talent (butterfly). The cocoon that transforms the caterpillar into a butterfly is comparable to the black community breaking free from oppression and injustice. This relates to the book on the basis that society has to stop killing black people just like the mockingbird. They both have wonderful things to give to the world; black people share their talent, and the mockingbird has its songs. Black people must learn to utilize that talent in ways to elevate their community instead of that talent being pimped just for others’ monetary gain.
Next, the album sonically is wonderful, giving you a range of emotions that take you on several journeys. Some might think the content can only be applied to the black community, and to that I would say they are wrong. Every theme, lyric, and emotion found can be broken down to a universal understanding. Conflicts between good and evil, depression, or being self-conscious are human struggles, not just black struggles. This album has many layers in regard to its depth. The more you listen to it, the more depth you hear. I am still finding and learning new things and experience different emotions with every listen. My affinity to the album might have something to do with my musical upbringing from jazz, funk, soul, and R & B to old-school hip-hop and new-school hip-hop and the fact that my family introduced me to a broad range of genres and encouraged musical exploration from a young age. All of these genres heavily influenced this album, giving me a sense of nostalgia while at the same time Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics transport me to the present. He talks about issues occurring today, like Trayvon Martin and police brutality. This album is a snapshot of the issues happening in society today through music. This occurred in the 60s with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I am not saying To Pimp a Butterfly is equal to the significance of What’s Going On because time can only tell that, but it shares in the relevance. Something that is impressive is Kendrick’s ability to speak about topics that most artists wouldn’t dare touch, much less personalize. This is refreshing and encouraging, especially for a sophomore album. The personalization is evident by him touching on mental illness, a subject that is shunned in the black community. Another topic that tends to have a divisive effect is religion. This album doesn’t shy away from religion, but it does not feel as if he is pushing his religion on me. Instead, he uses it as examples to highlight points.
The album is very cohesive mainly due to the deep, thought-provoking poem. Cohesion and having a complete concept is now a trait we associate with a Kendrick Lamar album. The fact that the track order has U coming before I, where U is dark and I is uplifting, pushes the listener to the end of the album, leaving you with a sense of hope. U is hating yourself, and I is loving yourself. “Complexion” deals with color issues, promoting love of all colors, followed by “The Blacker the Berry,” dealing with color hate and “blacker” as a complexion of black. Each additional line of the poem is either an introduction to a song that is broken down in more detail or as a conclusion to a song. To reiterate, I am purposefully leaving out lines of the poem because I believe you should listen to the album yourself to get the gravity of the poem.
Overall, I think this a great album that I would enjoy instrumentally, though adding the lyrics to invoke thought-provoking dialogue takes it to another level. It has high replay-ability due to the new connections and new insight gained during each listen. I would highly recommend this album and am pleased and honored to make this my number one album for this list.
2. J. Cole, 2014 Forest Hills Drive
This project touched on many social issues that were discussed in To Pimp a Butterfly, but he took a more introspective approach instead of a societal one. What I mean by that is that he gave us insight to how he sees these issues and navigates through them giving personal examples. The production is pretty intricate with elegance and restraint, which was mostly, if not all, done by Cole himself. There are no features on the album to bring home the point of how personal the album and its subject matter are to J. Cole. An auspicious vibe permeates throughout the album. J. Cole asserts a high level of introspection that can leave an artist vulnerable but makes the act that much more courageous. This introspection also allows the audience to relate to him on a personal level. Cole paid homage to classic albums in the form of how the song titles were written on the track list. This matched the sound in the production, resulting in a great album and number two on this list.
3. Lupe Fiasco, Tetsuo & Youth
The artistic quality and thought that was put into this album combined with the content, production, and cohesiveness makes this a standout album to me. The amount of thought and depth, from the concept, tone, lyrics, and instrumentation all the way to the artwork that went into the project allows it to hold this spot on the top ten list. The quality of this album is equivalent to Food & Liquor and The Cool. It is the best album from Lupe Fiasco in a long time. It seems as though he really made the album he wanted to with the content he wanted, and we reward his hard work and vision with the number three spot.
4. Rapsody, Beauty and the Beast
This album is very lyrically dense and is similar in that regard to Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, already mentioned on this list, which is ironic because I first heard her on “Complexion” from Kendrick’s album. I could spend several days decoding it and parsing out every meaning and sonic property and still miss things. This adds to the high replay-ability, which provides more evidence of how great an album it is. Through this album, Rapsody gives an introspective view of who she is and what she values. She is a mixture of Rakim’s smooth delivery, MC Lyte’s edge or feminine aggression, and Lauryn Hill’s emotional connection with a splash of Queen Latifah’s positive, unifying quality. Something that stands out to me is that her content isn’t just female oriented, but human oriented. She touches on topics and situations that are very relatable to a multitude of people: black, white, male, or female. Rapsody does have songs and perspectives that can only be given from a female point of view, but she approaches these topics in a socially conscious manner. It is a well-thought out album that shows how lyrical Rapsody is, not as a female rapper, but just as a rapper, making it easy to put this album at number four.
5. Logic, Under Pressure
This was my introduction to this artist in the aspect of a complete album. The entire album has a very clean and polished feeling that is sonically pleasant to the ears. A very introspective approach is used, exemplified by the divulging of Logic’s father on drugs, his sister’s boyfriend abusing her, and his dependence on nicotine. Logic’s cadence and tone alters to fit each beat and emotion to envelop and add to the atmosphere. He makes you feel as though you have grown up with him and you are part of his inner circle. There are portions of the album where you feel as if you are getting a sneak peek into his life, as if you are watching from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. The album has high replay-ability because it is enjoyable for an auditory experience, placing it number five on the list.
6. The Roots, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
This is a unique and innovative album from concept to sonic properties through musicality and the use of live instrumentation that only The Roots can provide. Black Thought again has many key moments that showcase his undeniable lyrical prowess. I do wish he was featured a bit more, which might have boosted the album’s ranking on this list, but that might be my bias for wanting to hear more of his excellent word play combined with substance in content. The album progresses like an opera due to the sophistication of the production and the multitude of atmospheres, creating scenes for the ears. This hip-hop opera could be hackneyed if put in the wrong hands, but luckily this group has the proper delicate hands to cultivate and stimulate this concept. This is a wonderful and very daring album that lives up to the standard set by previous Roots albums. This is a must listen and must have for true lovers of hip-hop that want to continue to see its evolution and growth.
7. A$AP Rocky, At. Long. Last. ASAP
It is a very good album that was an elevation in production quality, lyricism, and concept in comparison to the previous album, which was a good album. On its own merit, it is a very good album that provides a trippy, heavy, sentimental and cinematic atmosphere. Some of the issues A$AP Rocky is dealing with are grave and dark. He expresses how he is dealing with the death of A$AP Yams, from grief to acceptance, love for the drug that Yams died from, to him being comfortable with himself and his celebrity status. Music is used as a form of escapism for A$AP Rocky and, ironically, could be for his listener also. Rocky showcases his stylistic rapping diversity by using multiple styles throughout a single song, much less the entire album. Joe Fox has the essence of a true singer/songwriter with an old soul that is exposed on this album. The features on the album are added judiciously, accentuating the production nicely, highlighting the artist while not taking away A$AP Rocky’s shine or causing him to be overshadowed. I have had more time to absorb this album, and so far it has held its luster, putting the album seventh on the top ten list.
8. Dr. Dre, Compton
The album has a lot of features that do take some cohesion away from the album, justifying its ranking in the bottom half of the top ten list. The amount of features shouldn’t have been unexpected due to the previous album, 2001, which had a plethora of features, and he is more known as a producer then an MC. I do appreciate the openness that Dr. Dre provides on this album. The instrumentation on the album is superbly sophisticated and clean, with no additional sound that doesn’t elevate the production, without losing that central West Coast hip-hop feeling that is expected from Dr. Dre. The artists chosen for the features made the best out of the opportunity and don’t lack in quality or diversity. Anderson .Paak stood out to me the most among the artists I had never heard of until this album due to his Prince-like versatility and lyrical content choice (keep an eye out for an article on the new section of the Breakdown by Effie Mattie called illmattie in regards to Anderson .Paak). The first half was stronger than the second half for me, but it is still a very good, complete album with decent to high replay-ability due to the range of topics and tones.
9. Killer Mike and El-P, Run the Jewels 2
This is the follow-up to a very good album, Run the Jewels, and it lives up to its predecessor. From the beginning of the album to the end, it is laced with hard-hitting intense and aggressive production matched lyrically by Killer Mike and El-P. The production has many different influences from jazz to rock to experimental, combining interesting sounds and maintaining the essences of hip-hop. Both MCs play off each other extremely well, sometimes giving the feeling of a symbiotic relationship, pushing each other to increase their lyrical talent. They also discuss social issues affecting different communities, which is something Killer Mike has never been afraid of addressing. The way that they finish each other’s lines continues the somewhat lost tradition in rap that Kanye and Jay-Z used on the Watch the Throne album that was once commonplace during the infant stage of rap becoming a genre. This album has me excited to see their continued progression and propels it into the ninth spot on this list.
10. Wale, The Album About Nothing
The concept for The Album About Nothing by Wale is based on conversations between Wale and comedian Jerry Seinfeld, which inspired songs that coalesced into a complete album. I like the use of the Seinfeld clips and conversation to emphasize points or serve as supporting evidence to themes. There were many times when I felt like I wasn’t absolutely sure that my overall interpretation was correct, but then a clip would come in and validate or deny it. The album gives us a brief glimpse into the creative process and insight into the relationship between two entertainers from vastly different forums.
Overall, I’d say this is a good album that makes me feel as though I understand Wale more. There is only one song that I felt was a radio hit that I could have done without, though I don’t mind hearing it, and that is “The Body,” which contributed to the album being placed last on this list. Another track that didn’t resonate with me as much is “The One Time in Houston.” It isn’t a bad song, but it didn’t provide anything to the album sonically for me either. The album as a whole is worth a listen and is an entertaining auditory experience.
This year was a very good year in the quality and content of hip-hop albums. It was hard to narrow down the albums for this list, but it was an enjoyable process. Leave a comment stating which albums you think should have made the list.