The Best Albums of 2017 in Triangle Hip-Hop
A Tale of Two Come-Ups, And a Slew of Tantalizing EPs
In a year that many times seemed to defy reality, that saw many of our most cherished institutions under assault at the hands of incompetence, neglect or malicious intent, one institution has remained by our side: music. Spoiled as we are in the Triangle, we didn’t have to look too far to find great music (though there was plenty to go around) — all year, for those who bothered to look, there was incredible work being churned out by artists in our own backyard.
It may sound like a broken record at this point, but NC hip-hop just keeps improving, and 2017 was the best year yet. We witnessed the national (and international) coronation of NC State graduate Marlanna Evans, a.k.a. Rapsody, saw a Japanese-American poet-turned-rapper spit out the barbecue sauce-laced descendant of Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up,” and were blessed with a handful of cohesive and artistic EPs from some of the best rappers the Triangle has to offer.
So hop in for a mid-winter trip down memory lane. Don’t worry, we’ve got heat inside the car.
Laila’s Wisdom - Rapsody
For those who’ve been listening to Rap Diddy since the days when she was just another fun-loving emcee in Kooley High, the Snow Hill rapper’s ascendant 2017 almost seemed quietly unremarkable in its consistency with her past few years as a whole. Yes, she released a thumping, thoughtful album full of high-caliber features, but she’s been doing that (Crown, She Got Game). Sure, she was co-signed by some of the biggest names in hip-hop, but for those who’ve been paying attention, she’s been getting those. In a way, this year felt like another straightforwardly solid step for Rapsody toward wider hip-hop recognition that has been a long time coming. Nothing more, nothing less. What my familiarity with Rap had partially blinded me to — and what made it by far the most massive year of her career — was just how many people were taking notice of all of this for the very first time.
The Independent (UK), which I can’t find any record of having covered Rapsody a single time previously, called Laila’s Wisdom the No. 3 overall album of the year. The GRAMMYs, having only ever recognized her for work when in service of another artist’s project (To Pimp A Butterfly), presented her with her first ever solo nomination, for Best Rap Album, in a year that was full of great rap albums. And just for good measure, she’s gotten a recent signal boost from new fan Cardi B, a.k.a. the biggest thing in music since the invention of the iPod. So yeah, definitely not just “another year for Marlanna.
We don’t know what song Cardi was listening to when she tweeted that Rapsody’s music had “hit the Bardi in me” (note to self: this is the only way I’m expressing approval of others’ work in 2018), but just about anything from Laila’s Wisdom would be a good guess. From the contagiously uplifting and inspiring intro track (“You won’t need no toll booths, they’ll pay attention — Hov do/ They’ll ask you for advice, tell ‘em the same thing I told you”), to the unapologetically swaggy “Chrome (Like Ooh),” to the absolutely perfect collaboration with BJ The Chicago Kid, “Black & Ugly” (“Took all my demons threw ‘em downhill in a buggy/ Then I stood atop the hill and did the Milly Rock and Dougie, screamin’ only God can judge me”), Rapsody shows the range of sound and skills that every top-tier artist in hip-hop must possess, not to mention an ear for beats that’s befitting of a 9th Wonder protegé. The odds are long that she’ll take home Best Rap Album later this month, but she’s already proven what many of us already knew: she belongs. Literally anything is possible for Rap in 2018.
Listen on Spotify.
Shouts to Durham - G Yamazawa
If at some point about three years ago you distinctly remember feeling a change in the Force, that was the feeling of Durham spoken word poet G Yamazawa — already a world-renowned performer making a living off touring — starting to take his rap career seriously.
It started simply, with YouTube videos in which Yamazawa dropped Logic-like rhyme explosions over classic beats, surrounded by eye-grabbing scenery like downtown Tokyo (many of those tracks would make their way onto his mixtape, 23). That soon made way for the Yamazawa EP, the first project of 100% original material, including the moving first-person of account of growing up in his parents’ Japanese restaurant, Yamazushi. When he got back to covers, this time they weren’t just opportunities to display lyrical prowess, but intentional, re-purposed expansions on the originals: a version of “Real Friends” even more somber and sentimental than Kanye’s; a take on “Dat $tick” full of inflammatory, tongue-in-cheek racial provocations (“If I started a football team, I’d probably use ‘Chink’ for the mascot/ And the logo be mad hot, with a mushroom cloud for the backdrop”) that would have made Rich Chigga’s smash single a thousand times more compelling to begin with.
By the time he dropped his debut album this year, Shouts to Durham, Yamazawa had already proven himself as a gifted lyricist and an incredible live performer. But like most up-and-coming acts, he still hadn’t managed the kind of hit (like “Rich Chigga”) that could put him in everyone’s ear.
Then “North Cack” happened.
Propelled by a smooth one-take video from KidEthnic and Ned Phillips, capable verses from J. Gunn and longtime friend Kane Smego, and the boost of the Team Backpack Facebook page, “North Cack” exploded. The original Facebook video started racking up views, and “North Cack” was soon in rotation from 102 Jamz to K97.5. For a particularly enjoyable stretch of the year, I would open Instagram and barely have to scroll through a few posts before landing on another amazing bit of “North Cack” ephemera — a little kid rapping the chorus from his car seat, or impeccably choreographed dance videos from parking lots to professional studios. The view count for the Facebook video now sits at four million, the YouTube video at 600,000. He’s still not a household name — with the notable exception of my household — but like Rapsody’s, his was a year marked by monumental landmarks that put him on fresh, uncharted ground as he looks ahead to the future. A move back to NC may be too much to ask for, so I’ll just settle for another quality album.
Editor’s Note: Other can’t-miss songs beyond “North Cack”: One Crown, Ego Trip, Sheep, 1990.
Listen on Spotify.
All Kings Get Their Heads Chopped Off - Well$
Leading the pack of this year’s exciting EP releases has to be Leroy Shingu, a.k.a. Well$, whose 7-track follow-up to last year’s The Way I’m Living Makes My Mom Nervous is a trim, lightweight jaunt through the 23-year-old rapper’s exploits and the lessons learned along the way, complete with flawless guest appearances from Wally Left (Wally fuckin’ Left!!) and NicX.
The unbridled aggression that Well$ brings to most songs (the sparkling, dreamy tone of “Rosé” notwithstanding) is an acquired taste, to be sure. But behind the fury, the words are as potent as ever on All Kings, including his own mom expressing disappointment that he wasn’t named in Kendrick’s list of adversaries on the infamous “Control” verse:
“She said she listened to “Control,”
Like, why I ain’t shouted? Like I ain’t bout it? N****, I’ll be damned/
Ain’t there yet, but I’m still one hell of a man,
I do it all for my fans and my mans, and I’m ghost…”
All Kings had me coming back all year, no matter what new album or single had just been released. Well$, like Yamazawa, is primed for some big moves in 2018. Now if we could just get some album names that are less than 27 syllables, we’d be in business.
Free Nights & Weekends - Ace Henderson
Whether lending subtle behind-the-scenes touches to Well$ and Pat Junior or tantalizing fans with singles like Venaquí and Runaway, (or abruptly removing entire albums from his catalog on SoundCloud and Spotify), few Triangle artists have granted us such maddeningly brief glimpses of their creativity and potential as Ace Henderson.
Even at six tracks, Free Nights & Weekends therefore represents a bounty of riches that fans of Ace haven’t enjoyed in a minute — a cohesive package of songs under one roof, tackling a handful of the many weighty subjects that occupy his mind. There are many satisfying moments on FN&W, perhaps none better than the collaboration with Sylvan Esso producer Made of Oak, “Let It Go.” Over a buoyant, energetic instrumental that seems to make everything around it float, Ace has the freedom to experiment, and turns in a lyrical performance bubbling over with his unique blend of joy, creativity and wit.
It’s a case of him taking his own advice. On the very next track, “Runaway,” he tells us: “Good things come when you crafty with the rock.” Here’s an addendum: good things come when Ace Henderson releases new music. Here’s to more of it, in 2018 and beyond.
Listen (and read more) here: http://deadendhiphop.com/ace-henderson-free-nights-weekends-album-stream/
Think Good Thoughts - TheDeeepEnd
Speaking of long-awaited projects, 2017 was kind enough to bring us a solo offering from TheDeeepEnd — the artist who had previously made his biggest marks on the Triangle scene in the form of multiple standout feature verses on Pat Junior projects.
Responsible for the production on all eight of the tracks on Think Good Thoughts, DeeepEnd is free to make unconventional but appealing choices, like interspersing more traditional rap songs with his surprisingly moody and evocative instrumentals. At times it can feel like his lyrical skills and production savvy — both high-caliber independently — still don’t know exactly how to play off each other. But on a song like “The Formula,” their potential for symbiosis comes into focus, as an understated, searching beat lays the foundation for the heartfelt storytelling in which DeeepEnd truly excels:
“Lost my mom to diabetes (lost my mom to diabetes),
And my father to a habit (damn, damn, damn),
Wow…. what a deep life, for a shallow guy, that seeks Christ,
And ain’t too bougie for ramen noodles or white rice/
With a hint of butter, and some nice spice,
I robbed Peter to pay Paul… Ain’t have coordination to play ball,
but had the aptitude to weave words, To create chills and strike nerves
I’m grateful for safe passage, through these wrong turns…”
These aren’t bars that leap off the page, but when complemented with the right sounds, they are imbued with feeling beyond just the surface level. In moments like this, TheDeeepEnd is a rapper/producer operating at his best: beats and rhymes that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Listen on Spotify.
Black & Mild; Smoke Signals - Pat Junior
Speaking of double-threats, it’s almost as if rapper/beatmaker Pat Junior (it’s just Pat now, not P.A.T., FYI) got the memo this was the year of EP’s from Triangle hip-hop, because he dropped two of them: an initial six-track release called Black & Mild, and then its sonically retrofitted sibling, Smoke Signals, with the help of Kooley High producer Sinopsis.
Pat’s work almost always sounds good on the first listen, but the true testament to his 2017 music is the way I kept finding myself going back to it weeks and months later in my iTunes library (yes, I still use iTunes. Yes, I realize this makes me old as shit). The double-EP year for Pat Junior shouldn’t be recognized solely for its quantity, but for the way that the two projects collectively managed, in what can now only be described as Kendrick-ian fashion, to convey wholly different feelings without changing a single word.
Listen to both projects on Bandcamp.
Midnight Sun - Young Bull
Though it didn’t live up to every expectation from at least one local fanboy music writer, Young Bull’s follow-up EP to 2016’s Sopadelic, Midnight Sun was an enjoyable, pleasant listen befitting of a young group with as much potential as anyone else in the area.
By smartly pulling rapper/vocalist Christian Sinclair into the fold full-time after multiple features on the debut Young Bull album, singer Tahmique Cameron and producer Gabe Fox-Peck added a crucial third dimension to the band’s dynamic. Sinclair has the range to carry the bulk of the load on a song when he has to, allowing Cameron to focus on what he does best, rather than doing it all. “We Up,” an infectiously upbeat track that perfectly combines the superpowers of the trio, was undoubtedly one of the best songs in the Triangle this year. Consider that this little old Durham band now has nearly half a million Spotify plays on two different songs from their debut album, and a third track from Midnight Sun with 100,000 streams, and things are looking up. If Hopscotch and Art of Cool aren’t calling yet, they should be.
Listen on Spotify.
What did I miss? Who’s name did I spell wrong? I’d love get the answers to these questions, and more, on Twitter. Thanks for reading, and Happy Belated New Year!