1999 – Joey Bada$$ (Cinematic/Creative Control)


2012 was a good year for hip-hop heads not least because it was a year that saw the emergence of Joey Bada$$, a preternaturally-gifted rapper from Flatbush who (incredibly) turns just eighteen later this month. 1999, the Pro-Era-hosted mixtape Bada$$ released over the summer, sustains continuity with the circa ’94 “Golden Era” of hip-hop without sounding willfully nostalgic — something even the best rap veterans often struggle to pull off. But in the main what pleases is Joey’s laid-back flow and complex lyrical skill, neither of which wavers whether the topic is sex, Wall Street or looming adulthood. Oh, and stay tuned for Joey Bad’s upcoming collaboration with the mastermind himself, DJ Premier, “Unorthodox.”

The Idea of Beautiful – Rapsody (Jamla Records)

“Mountains and peaks, valleys I been through / The landlord telling me come through, rent due”: like Little Brother before her, North Carolina native Rapsody turns the daily grind of her own life into soulful, universal experience — thanks due in part to her frequent collaborations with Little Brother’s extraordinary producer 9th Wonder. And though The Idea of Beautiful sags a little throughout — I think Rapsody would have been better served with just 12 or 13 tracks — it is a moving, intelligent effort that surely cements her standing as one of the finest rappers in recent history.

XXX – Danny Brown (Fool’s Gold)


Originally made available as a free download in 2011, Danny Brown’s voracious and much-hyped debut was released on CD and vinyl by A-Track’s Fool’s Gold imprint last year. The single “Grown Up,” which was easily my favorite song of 2012, remains the go-to for the uninitiated, but listener be warned: its breezy, uplifting sound is complicated by XXX’s alternately big-cocked irreverence and personal anguish. Brown’s voice moves from a distinct, confident yapping to a more intimate delivery that borders on restraint (see, in particular, “Party All the Time”), and this is partly what makes XXX such an insistently diverse record. Brown effortlessly scales the heights of derangement and drug-fuelled madness — on “Die Like a Rockstar” he catalogs the deaths of, among others, Chris Farley, Heath Ledger, and Brittany Murphy, all the while hinting at his imminent reunion with them — before he comes tumbling down to more comprehensible depths of emotion.

Key to the Cuffs – JJ DOOM (Lex Records)


The husky-voiced, mask-clad evil genius DOOM is the King Midas of contemporary hip hop, and Key to the Cuffs, his collaboration with producer Jneiro Jarel, is just the latest offering from DOOM’s veritable mine of solid gold reserves. Recorded in London (where he was born), DOOM pays a unique homage to British culture and, well, language, on tracks like “Rhymin’ Slang” and “Guv’nor” (“Vocals spill over like the rolling hills of Dover”), while on “Banished” he recounts being denied re-entry to the United States — an episode that now seems like a gift of an opportunity: “Villain got banished, he ain’t even Spanish,” the track opens with deceptive straight-forwardness before spiraling into DOOM’s unique, and uniquely strange, super-villainous universe.

Shame (EP) – Freddie Gibbs and Madlib as MadGibbs (Madlib Invazion)

Madlib is exactly what Freddie Gibbs needed. The self-titled Baby Face Killa, whose voice suggests anything but, may once have seemed an unlikely fit to Madlib’s dusty, underground sound, but after 2011’s “Thuggin’” it was beginning to sound like the best thing since Madlib’s 2004 collaboration with MF Doom. Shame, though it offers just two Gibbs-laced songs and two irresistible “bonus beats,” serves only to intensify hopes for a future, full-length MadGibbs album.

MA_DOOM: Son of Yvonne – Masta Ace (M3 / Fat Beats)

Backed by beats appropriated from MF Doom’s Special Herbs mixtapes, Son of Yvonne is a concept album in the typical Ace-mold: an album-length narrative of his upbringing that is also a moving tribute to the life and legacy of his departed mother—and, to the rest of us, a reminder that no one can tell a story like Masta Ace.

Chimera EP – Homeboy Sandman (Stones Throw Records)

Since signing with Stones Throw in 2011, former law school student and Huffington Post contributor Homeboy Sandman has released two EPs and, this past September, a full-length album, First of a Living Breed. Among these I preferred his Chimera EP, especially Sandman’s exhaustive yet monotone delivery on atmospheric tracks like “Look Out” and “Illuminati,” in which he can sound as though he’s trying to pack as much information as possible into just a few bars: “All you see is shop and save sales / Where’s the dough you spent to try and save whales? / Well / That was took and added to the monies from the breast cancer walk / Who knows what’s the answer to what it bought.”

Mic Tyson – Sean Price (Duck Down Records)

Mic Tyson
, as its title and album cover suggest, falls squarely in the hyper-agressive, anti-humble arenas of contemporary hip-hop. Sean Price says as much: “Fuck being humble, I’m better than everybody.” This posturing can at times seem a little wearying, but Sean’s gruff delivery, perfectly paced, on beats by The Alchemist, 9thWonder and Khrysis is hard to dismiss. Be sure to give the bonus track “Remember,” which features Freddie Gibbs, a couple of listens.

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Morten Høi Jensen

Morten Høi Jensen is a freelance book critic. His writing has appeared in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions.