There's no real science to these posts. We honestly have no idea who will end up on our year-end lists in 12 months, no insider info on what rapper will emerge out of nowhere and 'save hip-hop,' not much more than a slightly-educated hunch on who or what will deliver that great LP that stays in rotation for months on end.
Nonetheless, this is the Internet and that comes with expectations, so here are five artists and groups to watch in 2013.
Widowspeak - Not brand new but certainly poised to breakout, Brooklyn dream-poppers Widowspeak have a unique weapon in the hushed, super-sad vocals of Molly Hamilton. Their new album, Almanac, expands the band's sonic range while maintaining the romantic, late-night vibe that made me fall in love.
Joey Badass - With his 1999 mixtape, Joey Bada$$ threw his hat in the New York rap game. Now comes the time to cash in those chips. His recent Peep The Apocalypse was a good placeholder, but it's time for Joey to capitalize on the lush, wordy, '90s-obsessed clarity that showed so much promise on tracks like "Waves."
Ex Cops - For all the amateur '90s indie worship of the past couple years, very few groups have shown as much promise and real-deal talent as Ex Cops. Their upcoming True Hallucinations is a masterful lap of indie-pop with guitars majestic enough to make the nostalgia into reality.
Brenmar - This NY-via-Chicago producer showed a real knack for turning some of our favorite pop songs into bootleg bangers with sputtering dance dynamics and enough R&B and rap-related thump to push towards a club future where genre matters a lot less.
Earl Sweatshirt - Now that the great hype of 2010 feels like a bad fever dream, we settle into the reality that Earl Sweatshirt is the best MC in Odd Future. His single "Chum," released last year, was exceptional, showing a deep emotional reservoir over a gurgling, soulful, piano-based beat. If Earl does more of that on his official debut LP, then we'll have something major. No pressure at all.
Looking back, I'd imagine that these past few years will be viewed as a transitional time for hip-hop. For every interesting new voice, there's an even deeper retreat into genre codes and formulas, and no one really knows exactly how it's going to shake out. Music is cheap to produce, but that means there's more garbage and it's easier to burn out when that one cool video is the only cool thing an artist makes.
There will always be bangers, though – sometimes even by the most unoriginal or untalented prop-rap artists. Here are some very good rap songs in playlist form and an overview of the most notable hip-hop developments in 2012.
Kendrick Lamar - He made the only great rap album released on a major label. It's been said for years that real hip-hop is living on mixtapes where artists are free to make their own choices without excessive collaborations and label input based on earning potential. Kendrick had bigger ideas, producing a cinematic, sophisticated major label debut album that oozed personality and soul. It reminded me of Aquemini immediately – never ever a bad thing and I can't wait to see where he goes from here.
Chicago Is Scary - Outside of Chicago, not many people ever really paid attention to the city's rap scene. Then came Kanye. He sampled Chief Keef's "I Don't Like" and there was an immediate spotlight on a youthful, menacing, nihilistic rap movement that had little interest in subtlety and a great one in brandishing firearms and gang affiliations. As the city's murder rate exploded, artists like the 13-year-old Lil Mouse started captivating the Internet by dancing around with stacks of money, women and guns. Both sickening and engrossing.
2 Chainz - Simply the best. His verse on "Mercy" is a revelation of form.
Ross/Drake/Wayne/French/Etc. - This crew continued churning-out ridiculous hits with huge formulaic beats that everyone still gobbled up. It must get old at some point, but that certainly never happened in 2012. I'm going to play "Pop That" at my wedding, and let's also never forget French accidentally inventing the word 'fanute' – a gift that kept on giving.
Killer Mike/El-P - These two made great rap records, flexing their mastery of craft and a futuristic ethos that proves independent hip-hop is alive and well. I'm not sure I'd call it a resurgence as both artists have always been rock-solid, but the one-two punch of R.A.P. Music and Cancer4Cure was a good rebuttal to people that think the genre has devolved into lyrics about molly and stealing peoples' girlfriends.
Sad Nas - Nas, working his way through his much-covered divorce with Kelis, delivered what might be his best album since Illmatic. Sure, some of it is pure '90s NYC wheelhouse pander, but tracks like "The Don," "Daughters" and "Bye Baby" were a reminder that Nasir is one of the finest lyricists of all-time.
DJ Mustard - If you wanted to sneer and go full-on ignorant, DJ Mustard was your guy. Whether it was Tyga's outrageous "Rack City," Meek Mill rapping about blood on his shoes or 2 Chainz showing why he was such a special snowflake, Mustard's ultra-minimalist ratchet-ready music was the soundtrack.
Rick Ross - Stay Schemin (feat. Drake & French Montana)
Chief Keef - Love Sosa
Future - You Deserve It
Tyga - Rack City
Earl Sweatshirt - Chum
2 Chainz - Birthday Song (feat. Kanye West)
Joey Bada$$ - Waves
Kanye West - Mercy (feat. Big Sean, Pusha T & 2 Chainz)
Nas - Bye Baby
Kendrick Lamar - m.A.A.d city (feat. MC Eiht)
Nicki Minaj - Come On A Cone
A$AP Rocky - Goldie
Action Bronson - Muslim Wedding
Meek Mill - Amen (feat. Drake)
Killer Mike - Reagan
French Montana - Pop That (feat. Rick Ross, Drake & Lil Wayne)
SpaceGhostPurrp - Elevate
(Photo: Meek Mill)
With a few key singles, Friends brought back that downtown New York sass we love so much. The Brooklyn band is currently crafting its debut full-length, and if it carries the torch of the group's breakout "I'm His Girl," then we're sure that the year-end lists will be raving 12 months from now.
No surprise here as Azealia Banks, a 20-year-old Harlem upstart that can really rap and sing, blew our minds with her single and video for "212" during the final months of 2011. With a yet another irresistible single, "Liquorice," and a debut full-length produced by Paul Epworth on the way, Banks is set to completely dominate that thin line between pop, rap and dance music.