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In a big year for hip hop, Canadian Press lists best rap records of 2013

Singer Kanye West arrives for a film screening in Cannes, May 23, 2012. 2013 was a rich year for rap music. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Francois Mori
December 23, 2013 - 2:30 AM

TORONTO - 2013 was a rich year for rap music. Below, Canadian Press music writer Nick Patch highlights some of his favourites.

1. Kanye West — "Yeezus"

And for his next trick, the greatest artist of the young century dons a black cape and descends into darkness. The best rap album in a year of stunning rap albums is barely a rap album at all, opening with — in order — a glitchy orgy of distortion ("On Sight"), a heavy-breathing drum drubbing ("Black Skinhead"), a shifty electro tantrum ("I Am a God") and a rant so starkly skeletal it sounds like grisly geometry ("New Slaves"). West is in full seething and scything mode here, heaving boulders at the glass ceiling and cloistering corrosive proclamations on race and class with occasionally ugly insights into crisis-bound relationships. The sonically mesmerizing record is West's worst lyrically, yet the album's unpolished wordplay only seems to exaggerate its exhilarating urgency — even when West tries his hardest to be repellent, he's magnetic.

Top track: "New Slaves"

2. Danny Brown — "Old"

This was the year's most beguiling nightmare, a split-down-the-middle 19-song odyssey that's as overwhelming as its magnetic storyteller is overwhelmed (a condition he cops to again and again). On the first half, the 32-year-old murmurs soberly over psychedelic swirls about a lifetime of trauma sustained in inner-city Detroit — tales of domestic abuse, horrifying violence and desperate poverty — and the addictions that have subsequently consumed him. On EDM-fuelled Side B, his manic cackle trills tales of narcotic hedonism that, having been contextualized, no longer sound like much fun: "Close my eyes, feel like I'm going down in an elevator 90 miles an hour/ And all I see is stars and they coming at me sort of like a meteor shower/ My forehead's sweaty, my eyelids heavy, feeling like I ain't goin' make it/ Cause inside my head's like a firework show on the 4th of July, Las Vegas."

Top track: "Kush Coma" (featuring A$AP Rocky and Zelooperz)

3. Earl Sweatshirt — "Doris"

Leave it to a 19-year-old to craft the year's most rewarding throwback, a raps-upon-raps rhymefest dug up from 1993 and appropriately caked in dirt. With his hands-in-pockets mumble, Sweatshirt nimbly wriggles through thorny thickets of language and imbues even fairly banal boasting with lead-dense layers of wordplay. When he deigns to ditch the entertaining schoolyard sparring for heavier matter like his binge drinking or absentee father — "it's probably been 12 years since my father left, left me fatherless/ And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest" — the results are transcendent.

Top track: "Chum"

4. Chance the Rapper — "Acid Rap"

It's as if the Jabberwock wandered down a rabbit hole of his own. On his thrilling second mixtape, the 20-year-old flickers between wide-eyed wonder and beyond-his-years weariness — documenting the sadness that occasionally surrounded him in Chicago — while giddily smearing his canvas with hues of soul, acid jazz, blues and house. It's a record with a gleeful disregard for boundaries and an electric addition to the Windy City's recent history of hip-hop trend-setting and rule-breaking.

Top track: "Chain Smoker"

5. Drake — "Nothing Was the Same"

Aside from West, no zeitgeist-wielding pop star seems as determined to test and stretch the limits of his stardom as this Toronto taste-maker. Really, none of this should work together — not the insistent street single "Started From the Bottom" alongside the Egyptian cotton softness of "Hold On, We're Going Home" alongside the Penrose stairs of "Worst Behaviour" alongside the typical bevy of luxuriantly sad diary entries. When the 27-year-old raps on the booming "Tuscan Leather" that "this is nothing for the radio, but they'll still play it though/ 'Cause it's that new Drizzy Drake, that's just the way it go," it's clear that he has the game on a leash — and he expects it to keep up.

Top track: "Hold On, We're Going Home"

6. Pusha T — "My Name is My Name"

After two decades of arctic-cold trap sneering with the magnificent duo Clipse, this Virginia rapper wears a cantankerous crust that only increases the blunt appeal of his bleakly elegant rhymes. The 36-year-old's solo debut is, appropriately, an event — replete with starry collaborations and skeletal beats tagged with Beverly Hills pricetags — but a laser-focused and wearily wizened Pusha seems unpersuaded by the pomp, simply doing what he does best: breathe fire over ice.

Top track: "Nosetalgia" (featuring Kendrick Lamar)

7. Travi$ Scott — "Owl Pharoah"

This Kanye cohort channels the influence of his mentor's post-"808s & Heartbreaks" era — all anguished Auto-Tune, leviathan synths and thunderdrums — and swirls in a healthy helping of Houston screw for one of the year's most thrilling debuts. The 21-year-old rapper-producer is no mimic — he received production credits on G.O.O.D. Music's "Cruel Summer" and "Yeezus" — and already possesses a beyond-his-years mastery of mood, with the record's veil of mesmerizing melodrama rarely lifting even as Scott lets his wild talent draw him in a variety of directions.

Top track: "Bad Mood/S*** on You"

8. Run the Jewels — "Run the Jewels"

Two ornery old hounds growling over squiggling electro, Killer Mike and El-P — who collaborated on the former's excellent 2012 LP "R.A.P. Music" — grounded out an unrefined gem all the more impressive for its seeming effortlessness. Killer Mike especially is blissfully unhinged here, ranting with reckless irreverence and even taking casual aim at hip-hop's supposed kings in West and Jay Z when he raps "there will be no respect for thrones" and "I stand on towers like Eiffel, I rifle down all your idols." Moments later, he rhymes "I feel like my sanity slippin'/ And I think I like the freedom." You think?

Top track: "Banana Clipper" (featuring Big Boi)

9. A$AP Rocky — "Long.Live.A$AP"

The New York rapper's breakthrough mixtape "LiveLoveA$AP" was perfectly drawn weekend-drizzle mood-rap and this official follow-up manages to float to similar heights even as Rocky broadens his cloudy horizons. Such diversions — a shrieking Skrillex collaboration, two stuffed-to-the-gills posse cuts — could have forced the record's mood to swing as hard as Jose Bautista, but Rocky's honeyed flow somehow sticks the whole thing together.

Top track: "F*****' Problems" (featuring Drake, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar)

10. Shad — "Flying Colours"

This London, Ont., rapper had already so proven his naturalistic lyrical dexterity, he set off in search of new ground to conquer on his fourth full-length. And as this densely musical disc opens with the opalescent, off-kilter reverie of "Lost," it's clear he found it. As his considerable ambition spirals upward, Shad's cerebral raps grapple with the elusiveness of self-identity — and in searching for it, he's evolved into an artist who sounds like no one else.

Top track: "Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrants)"

11. A$AP Ferg — "Trap Lord"

Simultaneously pitch-black and vivdly eccentric, the Harlem rapper's rugged-and-buggered debut came close to eclipsing the slick primary entry of Ferg's more ready-for-primetime crewmate A$AP Rocky. A screws-loose showman, Ferg's grimly dank tunes are lightened by infectious choruses ("Work" and the undeniable "Shabba"), blistering guest appearances ("Lord," rapid-fire euphoria with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony) and surprising infusions of pop melody ("Hood Pope").

Top track: "Shabba" (featuring A$AP Rocky)

News from © The Canadian Press, 2013
The Canadian Press

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