I know that when I was developing my musical tastes as a teenager, I would only listen to alternative rock music. I was stanchly against music that I felt was “less sophisticated”, like country or rap. I held this attitude until I made new friends later on, who then introduced me to country and rap artists that I actually liked. It turns out that the music I associated with the “rap sound” or “country sound” was just what was being played on the radio – in other words, a small slice that was not truly reflective of each genre. Once my friends encouraged me to listen to acts that incorporated elements of the music I actually liked, I was able to ease into the new genre. I call these crossover acts “bridge artists”, who help to bridge the gap between genres. I found that after I listened to these bridge artists, I was able to appreciate elements in the more mainstream music in each genre, thus completing the crossing of the bridge.
My silly theories aside, I’m a big fan of hip-hop music. I listen to a lot of hip-hop that doesn’t have the typical mainstream sound today, so I’d like to write about some bridge artists kicking around the hip-hop scene this year. Hopefully you’ll read this and, if you’re already into rap, you’ll just enjoy the music. If you’re not, maybe this will open your eyes to the depth present in a very vibrant and diverse genre.
Chance the Rapper
Chance is one of my favorite artists out there period. He is the poster child for independent artists right now, having never signed a label and building an incredible grassroots following in his hometown of Chicago by heavily involving himself in his community. He recently released his third mixtape, Colouring Book, which you have likely checked out by now. If you haven’t, definitely give it a listen. His melodic, singy-songy rapping style meshes well with the gospel and soul –inspired production on this tape. While Colouring Book is his most recent release, for crossover appeal and his best work, listen through his entire second mixtape, Acid Rap. As an example of his talents, you may have not heard this song, which was cut from Colouring Book due to a sample not clearing:
Here’s another name you might have heard cropping up over the past year. In the last 18 months, Anderson Paak has absolutely exploded, mostly thanks to his feature on Dr. Dre’s album, Compton. The good doctor has taken Mr. Paak fully under his wing, putting him on the fast track to superstardom as with other Dre prodigies. This year, Anderson Paak released his sophomore album, Malibu. It is a gorgeous record, among the best releases of the year so far. On Malibu, Paak showcases his wide range of talents – he can spit lines as intricately as Kendrick Lamar, with whom he shares the same raspy, nasally voice. Unlike Kendrick however, Paak packs some serious pipes and the juxtaposition of his hoarse croon and smooth notes make for a musical delight. Stylistically, Malibu covers a wide variety of hip-hop sub-genres, from psychedelic, gospel, boom-bap, and classic west coast gangster. Anderson flows effortlessly over all of them, assisted by a focus on organically formed, instrumental-based production. Check out what I’m talking about on this track right here:
Open Mike Eagle
One of the most introspective rappers on this list, Open Mike Eagle mixes the conscious, reflective roots of his hometown Chicago with the inventiveness and flair of the alternative rap scene in his current location, SoCal. His latest project, Hella Personal Film Festival, is alternative rap through-and-through. Mr. Eagle pairs up with producer Paul White, whose beats challenge the boundaries of hip-hop sounds, while remaining exceedingly chill for the most part. Open Mike Eagle’s flow is smooth and conversational, which can lull you into a false sense of security, because his lyrics can be dense. Similar to his closest contemporary, Aesop Rock, Eagle can drop obscure references and his songs warrant multiple listens for their lyrical content. As an album, Hella Personal Film Festival is a cohesive, deep look into the mind of this artist. Before diving into this meal of an album, have an appetizer from his 2015 EP, A Special Episode. This one is a little more fun:
Probably the closest we have to a Childish Gambino imitator, and I don’t mean that as a knock – it’s an admirable comparison. Seattle’s Dave B differentiates himself from his Atlantan compatriot in his beat selection, which leans much more towards jazz inspiration. Furthermore, Dave B’s songs tend to have a slightly darker, more melancholy tone to them, perhaps reflecting the overcast nature of his home town. What Dave B does have in common with Bino is an effortless and varied flow, coupled with an endearingly melodic voice. Last year he released an excellent debut album in Punch Drunk, and it looks like he’s only building on the momentum from that release. He’s put out a ton of new music this year, but I think this song capture his essence:
Another technically gifted rapper with an ear for a melodic hook, Allen Kingdom was given an enormous boost of attention when featured in Kanye West’s single, “All Day”. His bridge on that track is excellent, and being sandwiched between musical titans like Kanye and Paul McCartney has clearly given Kingdom a hunger to be the best at his craft. His sophomore album was released earlier this year and is titled Northern Lights, a nod to his Canadian hometown of Winnipeg. It seems like the farther north you go, the more clearly rappers enunciate, because Allan Kingdom’s signature vocal style lies within his crystal clear delivery. It’s a good thing too, because he’s got a lot to say and not a lot of time. He covers a variety of topics on Northern Lights, often within the same song. Much of the tape concerns a lot of coming-of-age introspection and class dynamics, but he does look outward to broader societal dynamics as well. Less concerned with ad-libs and pithy one-liners, Kingdom is a straight-forward spitter, favoring telling it like it is over clever innuendo and wordplay. Here’s the lead-off track from Northern Lights:
Hailing from Detroit, Elzhi (pronounced Elz-high) breaks the mold of the typical high-energy rappers that his city normally exports. His style definitely trends more towards the chill end of the hip-hop spectrum, heavily featuring jazz-laden beats. Chill may be the wrong descriptor for Elzhi’s latest release however, which he put together while reportedly mired in depression. Lead Poison doesn’t get bogged down in darkness however, rather the bleak nature of the album causes it to soar in elevated melancholy. Swirling strings and piano often form the backdrop to many of Elzhi’s rhymes, which contain stories of bad break-ups, betrayal, and rejection. Like all of Elzhi’s work, Lead Poison is an inherently relatable album and definitely one of my favorite releases of the year. Give a listen to this beauty with a classic, DJ Premier-esque beat:
Point blank, if I had to give a hip-hop album an award for production this year, it would definitely go to Lushlife’s Ritualize. His partnership with production trio CSLSX proves to be a fruitful one, with Lushlife’s penchant for boom-bap beats meeting the electro stylings of CSLSX. If the LP was a comedy, Lushlife would certainly be playing the straight man. He is the one constant throughout the album, with a steady, 90’s inspired flow and enunciation style that is relatively simple. Fortunately, the album’s beats and melodies are so wild that Lushlife’s sturdy bars serve to ground the listener as the listener is taken on fantastical sonic journeys. You’ll go through house-influenced electronica, psychedelic funk, classic west coast hip-hop, blues, disco and every which combination therein. I don’t want to spoil too much of the album, so here’s the opening track for a sampler:
Another artist that has been on a meteoric trajectory this year, Kaytranada is the only non-emcee on this list. His production talents warrant his inclusion however, since 99.9% is one of the best hip-hop albums of the year. While I said earlier that I preferred Lushlife’s production, Kaytranada’s debut work makes it a real close competition. His unique talent is incorporating complex percussion schemes into his electronic music, which fuses hip-hop, EDM, and many other genres. My favorite part of Kaytranada’s inventive percussive style is that the production often feels improvised on the songs, an effect that is highlighted in the many parts that are sans-lyrics. Overall, 99.9%’s guest features make it a stronger album than Visualize, with all of its contributors bringing the fire with their verses. Highlights include Anderson Paak’s smooth lines on “Glowed Up”, and Vic Mensa’s frenetic verses on “Drives Me Crazy”. Another strong feature comes way of Craig David on this track:
I, like many others, discovered Noname (formerly named Noname Gypsy) through her features with Chance the Rapper. Coming from a similar background to the latter artist, Noname is a Chicago rapper that favors jazzy, organic-sounding instrumentals. She is the queen of laid back hip-hop, with a very conversational tone to her voice that makes you feel instantly relaxed when you hear her rhymes. This feature of her delivery is doubtlessly influenced by her background in poetry, as she was heavily involved in local slam and open mic events. Her roots in poetry also contribute to extremely dense, sophisticated, and dexterous verses, which she makes sound effortless to sing. Did I mention she can also pack a tune? While she’s not going to have the range of a Mariah Carey, Noname is no one-tone emcee; she carries melodies on her tracks with ease in the vein of her Chicago contemporaries, Chance and Kanye. Unlike the other artists on this list, Noname hasn’t released an album or mixtape this year, but she’s been slowly trickling out music. The word on the street is that she and other Chance the Rapper collaborator Donnie Trumpet have been working to put out her first mixtape. Hopefully it’ll be out soon! In the meantime, here’s one of her recent songs:
2016 has been an excellent year for hip-hop so far and we’re only halfway through. I’ll be writing a bit more about other hip-hop releases throughout the year. Looking forward, I’m really excited by Danny Brown and Childish Gambino’s upcoming releases, so hopefully we'll have an equally strong second half of the year!
BREAKING NEWS EDIT: Noname tweeted earlier today that her debut mixtape will be out July 31st! Exciting stuff.
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