Hard Time On Planet Earth :: Best Hip Hop of MMXXI

This year sucked. We all know it sucked. I ain’t have to say any more. Regardless, we got some great records, and this is my top ten.

I swore I’d write a max of two paragraphs per record. I do that every year. It doesn’t work out so good. You can put this in your Don’t-Know-What-He-Said Book.

  1. Moor Mother :: Black Encyclopedia of the Air / Irreversible Entanglements :: Open The Gates / BLACK QUANTUM FUTURISM :: Mmere Dane: THE BLACK TIME BELT

Moor Mother is the future, and to me the most important and interesting artist working in the music sphere right now.

Moor Mother is not a rapper. What falls in and out of rap as a genre is pretty debatable these days. Genre itself is a social construct and more and more pointless; just ask Drake.

Moor Mother isn’t even just a musician. She’s a poet, spoken word poet, singer, rapper, artist and maybe even a scientist? (The boundaries between art and science are somewhat arbitrary.) I’ve seen her described with more labels than your average rapper’s closet. (In addition to all of this year’s outputs, she’s also working on another book of poetry and still keeping tabs on the collabo punk project, Moor Jewelry, but there was a loosie from dancetronicawhatever 700 Bliss. And features on The Bug, and Zonal, and whatever else I forgot.)

She’s pushing so many boundaries and creating so much work that she can’t be categorized. Just as N.K. Jemisin is carving out new spaces in speculative fiction in the path Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany cut, Moor Mother is creating new types of sound. (It’s funny how even when she’s describing the influence of Sly & The Family Stone, she’s really more talking about her own work.)

There’s far more than I can possibly unpack in the art and thought that underlies these works. She makes Killah Priest look like Pitbull. There’s too many revolutions per minute. Her work is so dense, heady, complex, brilliant and unique I can only compare it to the exegesis and world-building of Rammellzee’s Gothic Futurism. I mean, there are entire volumes of writing underpinning what she’s doing and putting on wax.

Her work (near as I can understand it) aims to reshape and reframe the way we think about time: that it’s the biggest prison of all. We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine called history and the machine is bleeding to death. It’s about reclaiming temporal spaces and moving beyond the trauma of the African diaspora, and the way Blackness is always defined against whiteness; navigating a new continuum that doesn’t truncate the pre-Middle Passage past from the freedom movements and new injustices post-1865 nor from the expanding intergalactic empires of Afrofuturist imaginings of the future — Ancestors returning again/this time only to themselves. Folding spacetime to create grandmother paradoxes and counter-chronologies. Time itself is part of how racism and oppression is enforced — “they have clocks, but we have time.”

Time travel is an escape from dystopia, a reconnecting with hidden history, a leapfrogging over current shackles, and a way to repair the wounds of the past. To escape hierarchies, we also have to escape linearities. The Project: Time Capsule posits that capturing lost times also can unearth erased presence — as with the BLACK TIME BELT project, there are ghettos and genocides in the way we perceive and record time itself. The ‘quantum time capsules’ physically created with her artistic partners/collectives:

“are temporal technologies for oppressed Black and Brown people isolated in local, progressive, linear, fatalistic time ghettos that otherwise deny access to temporal dimensions…They elude linear space-time and trouble our notions of past, present, future, history, and progress by including stories and objects usually rendered invisible…Black cultural artifacts and sites of memory are never present to the white gaze unless they are being used for capital appropriation, exploitation, and accumulation.”

In reading and thinking about the wider body of work Moor Mother and her collaborators have/been/will create, I kept being reminded that music is, inherently, the most quantum time machine of all, of this quote from VALIS about the redeemer’s reincarnation:

“The key to understanding it is time…when you play a record a second time, do the musicians play the music a second time? If you play the music fifty times, do the musicians play the music fifty times?”

I’ve definitely had Moor Mother on my radar since around 2016’s Fetish Bones, and while the work was fascinating and deep, I need a bit of swing, headnod in the noise. My ass needs to move as much as my brain. Last year’s BRASS with billy woods did that, and since then I’ve been catching up.

It’s amazing to contrast the tranquility of Black Encyclopedia against the coffee-can-full-of-nails-in-the-face of her earlier noise work; she calls it “a gathering of bones,” pulled together during quarantine from more than a hundred Olof Melander instrumentals. America is increasingly two parallel, competing universes occupying the same space, battling to define the past and reality itself, and the record finds liminal, watery spaces of protest and safety. It’s an Orphean journey through our present Hades, with guest verses like shades encountered on the odyssey. The myths hold weight.

As apt a title for the record it might be, it’s also an appropriate reference and historical re-claiming of John Henrik Clarke and Alan Lomax’s 1969 aural document of the African diaspora sound (big fedora tip to the god John Morrison for that).

The record is just as political, collaborative and authoritative as any of her other work, camouflaged in often lush soundscapes. It sounds like:

  1. Reincarnated Sun Ra. Although I listened to thirteen Sun Ra records in that same month, I stand by this.
  2. Transmissions from dimensions clearly accessed during her CERN residency at the Large Hadron Collider
  3. Handmade bismuth crystals resting on black volcanic sand
  4. Dead clocks painted violet by design
  5. I like to punch people in the heart, and then kiss the heart.” (She does this.)
  6. She said in an interview it’s ‘deconstructed R&B’ or ‘decoded R&B’ but then said she doesn’t remember saying that. So it sounds like Mandela Effect R&B.
  7. Also ‘Black Encyclopedia of the Air’ sounds a lot like ‘Album of the Year’ if you say it fast.

Open The Gates is the third full-length from free jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements, laying down some heavy and superlative sounds over which Moor Mother brings her spoken word — all these years I’ve been listening to jazz, it never occured to me that what it really needed was cryptic, deep political poetry over it. Even though it’s a totally different steez, I keep thinking of that bit of Glass’ Akhnaten which goes “Open are the double doors of the horizon / Unlocked are its bolts.” Sound the horns. Beat the drums. It’s nation time, it’s Neptune time. Slapbox with Pope Gregory XIII, lick shots at Stephen Hawking.

More under the radar was THE BLACK TIME BELT, a cut-up, musical concrete mixer in line with last year’s found soundscapes Circuit City and Waiting Time/Weighting/Wading Time, created alongside her partner, Rasheedah Phillips, as part of BLACK QUANTUM FUTURISM. It’s an immersive experience, a liminal narrative that comes with its own website installation that’s equally worth exploring — building safe zones within time itself, re-placing the displaced, unearthing the lost.

I won’t be the least surprised when Moor Mother gets a MacArthur grant, and don’t know why the fucking geniuses who give out the Genius grants haven’t caught on yet.

Further reading:

2. Armand Hammer x Alchemist : Haram

Look, peoples: you heard it on the radio, you seen it on your smartphone screen: A to the H? A to the motherfucking Z.

Last year’s SHRINES had woods and ELUCID sometimes finding more contemplative, even celebratory moments, and while Haram has no shortage of bones and executioners, pairing up with The Alchemist parts their usual sea of sludgy, dark beats to better highlight their sarcasm and one-liners. The duo is always portrayed as being doom prophets, which ignores how often they’re genuinely funny, spitting dark humor sideways.

While woods and ELUCID keep the words Real Do Lung Bridge Type Hours for the most part — lighting up the night like Sodom and Gomorrah — Alchemist brings a lusher, more colorful sound palette, giving them pockets of brightness on joints like ‘God’s Feet,’ and elsewhere to skate over. It’s “breath for the winded, clarity if conflicted.” Hearing them work with one producer instead of their usual rotating team of beat assassins gives a new and interesting cohesion.

(Sidebar: back in the day, every album had one producer/DJ, and Armand Hammer would’ve been a triumvirate like Run-DMC…when exactly did that go by the wayside? KRS’ 1993 Return of the Boom Bap is the first I can think of, but that feels like an early outlier. Are we better or worse off with MCs smorgasbording their sounds? Answers in the form of a Lyricist Lounge postcard.)

I’ll probably be tried for heresy for this, but Alchemist always has adapted to his MCs, whether it’s Prodigy or Bronson or Boldy — he doesn’t really have a distinct, recognizable sound the way RZA, Premier, the Bomb Squad, El-P or Muggs do. So he reaches into his bag of guitar psychedelia here (‘Falling Out The Sky’) but also the good old iron-laden grunge we expect AH to roll on (‘Chicharrones’).

It’s a great progression for them overall, still knee deep in referentials (“left the pedestals empty like Bamiyan”), but distinctly different, enjoying the LA sunshine — even if the pool where ELUCID learns to swim in is still one a boy drowned in. We might dive into the ocean of prisons on ‘Wishing Bad,’ but we also get ELUCID…singing?

But the heads. You’re looking at the heads. Sometimes they go too far, but they’re the first to admit it. (PETA’s taking offense at the cover was one for the books.) If you don’t get the joke of two pigs’ heads = HARAM, well, I can’t do nuttin’ for ya man.

Rumi was asked: what music is considered haram under Islam? He replied: “The sound of spoons playing in the pots of the rich, which are heard by the poor and the hungry.”

3. Killah Priest : Lord Sun Heavy Mental 1.1 / Summer End Cafe

Deities. Planets. Prayers. Clouds. Centuries. Years. Pharaohs. Swords. Bronze. Crystals. Reptiles. Glory. Crowns. Halos. And that’s the first two tracks.

Whereas Rocket To Nebula was the endpoint to where Priest started on Heavy Mental — and maybe the endpoint for rap music, period — Lord Sun is, as subtitled, a 1.1 to Nebula’s 10.0. Over stripped-down tribal drums and C.B. DeMille sand-and-sandal technicolor epic type beats, Priest continues his cosmic cartography, maps of star homes, carving raps as ancient totem poles. It’s rap as a golden doorway to immortality, another volume of his syncretic religious lessons, namechecking gods the way other rappers namecheck luxury brands.

Does he rhyme ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ with ‘Nikolai Tesla’? Does he rhyme ‘robe of gold fabric’ with ‘esoteric magic’? Does he call himself ‘Hocus Pocus Henry Hemisphere Hermetic Hercules All-Mesmerising Magnetic Man, or Mr. Mercury’? Does he have me Googling the significance of 532MHz?

Yes, he does this.

Does he re-tell the story of Genesis and Adam & Eve in rap form, over a chopped-up kung fu movie track? Yes. Yes, he is doing that on ‘Magnetic Garden.’

To paraphrase Rammellzee’s response about the first Transformers movie:

Priest, are you going to see Dune?

“I don’t need to see it. I am it. Why do I need to see me?”

The strangely haunting, ragtime type beat of “Ghost of Hammurabi” bridges directly from Lord Sun to Summer End Café, which is on some other, other shit entirely.

Maybe the best and most artistically accomplished joint on Rocket To Nebula was ‘A Magnificent Interview’—that one about Priest having brunch with Lucifer and ordering way too much vegan food.

At the end of that song, Priest and the waitress went off together and…turned into a pillar of crystal and a pillar of salt?…but on some Twin Peaks type shit, he’s still in the café. And the café is in the 1930s. Or the 1950s. Or something. It’s not really clear.

The record finds him storytelling over some 78rpm, wax cylinder type beats, some Astrud Gilberto type joints, a picnic with a honey in Rio — far more love stories than you’d expect from a killer and a priest. Also rapping about honey. It’s the time slip where the Great Sphinx met the Great Gatsby. There’s that meme about the 24-year window where a samurai could’ve faxed Abraham Lincoln. I don’t actually know what the hell is happening on this record. But it’s dope to see him just get loose, to even sing some, to hold his hand out.

4. Mach-Hommy : Pray For Haiti / Balens Cho

It’s always an event when Mach drops, and everyone celebrates like when the rain comes — and we got two records from the dude who’s made a career out of mystique, a USP out of $777 albums and an iconic look out of a bucket hat; he’s an enigma wrapped in a bandana who DMCAs the shit out of Genius.com to get his lyrics off-screen. He made himself into an urban legend simply through absence and rare sightings. Because keeping it on the down low is his main M.O., it’s always a surprise when he releases, and it’s always welcomed: in part, Mach-Hommy has gone against the grain of relentless, ongoing musical drops, and this has kept the quality control much, much higher than his on again/off again Griselda gang.

He steady brings on the raps in the style of a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robot in Morse code — dot dot dash dash singing singing punch punch — with the lyrical content of a Numbers Station; you need a cipher key to unlock the cryptics. There’s no doubt he’s at the height of his powers, and that Pray for Haiti is among one of his best records (Balens Cho has got some joints, but doesn’t have the overall cohesiveness — WSG has a great touch for exec producing). While he still has a thing sometimes for those lush, Mantovani-style beats I’m kinda sick of, otherwise he does pick some serious heaters (and has probably given Conductor Williams a huge career boost).

Mach’s Haitian identity has always floated as one shard of his practice, and it’s more foregrounded which adds a more personal, emotional, anguished level that sometimes breaks through the cultivated veil.

Mach-Hommy possesses that certain wizardry of creating great music, no words wasted and always sharp, yet also leaving liminal spaces between the lines, shifting between topics and references. The work is always personal, yet never lets you in — like a Rothko or a Pollack. The bandana doesn’t get lifted, but we can hear what’s coming from underneath. What happens when your vision ain’t visible?

5. Navy Blue : Navy’s Reprise

Navy blew in not long ago with Ada Irin, which I felt was a good debut, but the cat needed time to shake out those Bambi legs before he flew. (That one got the first and only guest verse from the mighty Ka, a blessing and torch-passing that was a nice nod to his debut verse on GZA’s ‘Firehouse.’) Last year’s Songs of Sage was a big step up, and he’s since been popping up all over, including producing Wiki’s 2021 Half God.

This record is warm like vacuum tubes. There’s a throughline here starting from Basehead’s Play With Toys to the confessional, real feels warmth of Danny Brown in storytelling mode and Open Mike Eagle. There’s a lot of golden light here, celebration and gratitude and prayer. It’s Kodachrome slides of family and unsolved mysteries. It’s finding home and returning home. Rap is often about processing trauma and pain, but it also often wallows and revels in it rather than claiming healing agency. That’s what Navy does on this album — a full heart coming into the sun.

6. Ka : A Martyr’s Reward

The past is always present in Ka’s work—yeah dunn, we know, it’s never dead, it’s not even past. Ka’s raps are always whispers and memories and scars. There’s always survivor’s guilt and post-gentrification stress syndrome. He’s always the last man standing. He’s always doing his dirt all on his lonesome. It’s elegies, regrets, tales of days gone by.

It’s been thirteen years and 8 1/2 albums since Iron Works, and he’s still cultivating the same strain of ascetic quietude; Rap James Hampton’s ‘Throne of the Third Millennium.’ The compression of words and sparseness of loops has become ritual, with minor variations in theme the contrast — it’s Rap Robert Ryman.

This album’s exploration is reined back from the previous mythic and Biblical, back to the personal beginnings of Grief Pedigree. There’s no reduction in the craft of his words and his beats — is there such a thing as a skippable Ka track?—it’s another volume in the collected works. For me, Days With Dr. Yen Lo’s more fragmented and experimental exploration was his high point, a thrilling leap to another level. Not to say every Ka album isn’t an accomplished work to be carefully and repeatedly studied, but that I personally would love to see him try stretching those pigeon wings again. But, Martyr’s Reward is another exceptional album, there’s no doubt.

I want to speak on one more thing though. Ka (along with billy woods and other favorite rapper’s favorite rappers) are often said to be writing ‘literary’ lyrics ‘as good as any novelist’ or some shit like that. (I’ve said as much myself.) I came to realize this is implying that it’s second-best to the Western, white-dominated narrative canon.

Rap ALREADY IS a genre of the word. It’s an oral tradition, full of double meanings, referentiality, that builds on itself historically like nothing else.

Why isn’t billy woods a novelist? Because he isn’t. He’s a great rap writer, which is just as valid—if not more so. So is Ka. They’re two of the best.

Burroughs said ‘writing is fifty years behind painting,’ and it never caught up. Rap is the only new literary genre since the short story, and its fusion of music and writing is not only unique but continues to avoid the stale nature of other forms of writing, which often struggle to stay relevant, fresh and capture the times. It has created a quantum language of signs and signifiers, something Ka is a master of: lines, verses and individual words can mean two things at the same time, occupy the same space, mean different things to different people at different times. It’s as intensely coded and packing in as much information as a strand of DNA.

In conclusion, #listentomoreka.

7. Curly Castro : Little Robert Hutton

Look, there might be other massively talented, vastly different yet Lego-brick-complimentary consortiums of rap dudes that aren’t the Wrecking Crew, but a) you’d think I woulda heard of them by now and b) to be fair, I didn’t get out much even before the covid. Also c) Jesus Christ, these dudes are just pumping out heaters on the regular.

I mean, it’s unfair to both lump them all together and to choose just one, but otherwise I got a top ten AOTY where they cop six slots. I mean there was Zilla x Chong’s high-rolling ‘always bet on black’ Vegas Vic, AND Zilla x Small Pro’s Never At Peace. AND there was Jason Griff x Alaska’s CNN vs Twilight Zone broadcast from the foil-lined basement Human Zoo (Alaska got ice bath hyped on that one too). AND the 2am ruminating about life and regret and art over a bottle of Yamazaki single malt reserve of PremRock’s Load Bearing Crow’s Feet. AND the crew showcase compilation of Steel’s Kitchen. AND the punk-inflected comp of Jason Griff’s Fireside Chats. AND there were about two hundred incisive and entertaining episodes of the Call Out Culture podcast. AND I probably forgot some. I mean FOR FUCK’S SAKE FELLAS. I ONLY GOT TWO EARS.

Anyway, unfortunately this shit is like who to ask to the prom. I mean, figuratively though. For me, the best of the bounteous crop was Castro’s Little Robert Hutton.

This record is a Fear of a Black Panther manifesto, chewing up the past and spitting seeds to the future. We get political rap still, but we don’t get much revolutionary rap. It’s a superhero epic; it’s weaponized knowledge. It’s equal parts dead prez and BDP, equal parts X-Men and Clarence 13X. It has the organised anger of uprisings, the pop of Molotovs, without forgetting what The Coup always remembered: keep it bouncing, keep the beats banging.

Castro has always been a unique voice, but it wasn’t til I noticed ‘Raynathan and Romello’ uses the same Funkadelic sample as ‘The D.O.C. and the Doctor’ that I noticed there’s a DNA splice there — hard-spitting, but also bites his words off with authority and a bit of sarcasm. The beats he’s served (from August Fanon, Jason Griff, Quelle Chris, Blueprint, Messiah Musik and others), and the guest shots (Wrecking Crew crew, Breeze Brewin, Defcee, woods, Lif and others) just add more flavor to the plate.

We need more records like this: staunch, loud, angry and uncompromising, while also funny, heartfelt, and above all, crafted to perfection.

8. Steel Tipped Dove : Call Me When You’re Outside

Yes, yes, it’s very confusing, there’s this one and Tyler’s Call Me If You Get Lost and that movie Call Me By Your Name, there’s too much calling, please hit me on WhatsApp blah blah your album title could’ve been an e-mail blah blah blah.

Dove has long been one of those secret weapon producers for the underground, like Messiah Musik, Camouflage Monk, Sadhugold and August Fanon — those who know, have known (among other bangers, he produced a lot of SHIRT’s early and best work). His production matches his name: it’s sharp, glistens and rises lightly into the air.

One-producer compilations are underrated as a showcase for a beatmaker’s finest work, bringing out the best in the MCs, and capturing a snapshot of hip hop at the time and scene — Best American Hip Hop 20XX. Compilations like Soundbombing II and Lyricist Lounge caught the zeitgeist heavy, but there aren’t as many like this as there should be…it’s up there with Muggs’ 1999 Soul Assassins Vol. 1 and 2018’s Dia Del Asesinato, but more in line with Preservation’s 2020 Eastern Medicine, Western Illness — weaving an album’s worth of musical themes and ideas across verses from the current top MCs in that particular sphere.

And on that, Dove catches wreck from billy woods, SHIRT, Fatboi Sharif, ELUCID, Pink Siifu, Fielded, Koreatown Oddity, Fat Tony, SKECH185, and KeiyaA…damn, that’s a lineup like the [insert sports reference here, I don’t know from sports, 1956 Baltimore Orioles? Sure, whatever].

In a lot of ways, the move from rap groups with one producer to rappers plus hired gun producers has made those that craft the tracks shadowy ninjas in the background, and the demise of liner notes has made digging out the names more like the old days of digging up the samples used. That’s a shame since they deserve more shine, but maybe it will bring out more showcase anthologies like this. Also, now you know what the Dove got, you’ll be on the lookout for more.

9. Solomon Strange x Ari Yuseff : THE GUERILLA GOD

Like a kraken or some other cryptozoological beast, Solomon Strange emerges from the depths every couple of years to deliver his mysterious, dusty old school missives and then submerges again. (Yeah I know Bigfoot or whatever doesn’t really do that, just work with me fam.)

First spotted in 2017, Strange hooks up a mix of beats straddling Muggsian wooze, milkcrate soul, and proudly super old school (is he really flipping an ‘Apache’ loop in 2021? Very well then, he flips an ‘Apache’ loop in 2021). He seems to have a bottomless supply of old nature documentaries and sci-fi flicks to sample from. Ari Yuseff’s back-of-the-throat nickel-plated nostalgia becomes another instrument in the soundscape. The Creature of the Black Lagoon is selling this cassette out the back of a rusty Cadillac.

10. Serengeti : Curse of the Polo

Near-on twenty years into his career, Serengeti dropped nine projects this year, but y’all were too busy apologizing for Nas’ shitty album with Hit-Person and trying not to notice Westside Gunn is STILL with the Hitler thing, or whatever. (Wait, didn’t we get a Kanye AND a Drake record this year everyone kind of forgot about? Now that’s progress.)

Anyway, Polo is the best of Serengeti’s work this year, bringing once again his signature wistful humor, playful storytelling, and intelligence. There’s indie folk rock beats. There’s a joint that sounds like a cassette of The Cars got stuck in the boombox. There’s some kinda 1984 Casio joint about the capital of Morocco and Jon Voight. I’m saying though.

Best Mixes

Kassa Overall : Shades of Flu 2

A much worthy follow-up from last year’s covid-adjacent mix, this is 49 minutes of remixed jazz and interpolations, but also brings in new jazz musicians and some guest rappers alongside the samples and flips. It’s the sound of a producer locked up in his home studio exploring jazz and hip hop history, finding the throughlines and connections. This is his second mix alongside last year’s debut album, and the cat is one to watch for real for real.

Geng PTP : Slowness As A Vehicle

The silent weapon for quiet wars, Geng has been pumping out rap tapes since long before Yacub and Dr. Titus released the virus. His transmissions have expanded the scope of underground noise/experimental/cutting edge shit galactically and exponentially.

Somehow, while simultaneously running an innovatively curated label, designing everything, rocking some of the flyest camo fits ever camouflaged, and calling a meatball a meatball, he’s bumped out the Slowness mixtape series. These are the King Vision Ultra’s ultra king vision, hazy liminal soundscapes plumbing all depths.

Outro

So, this is the last Annual Report, for a few different reasons.

First, I’m pretty much hitting the same artists over and over…plain facts is, there’s a few dozen incredible artists I really dig putting out albums regularly, and they’re keeping a hold of their crowns for me. So this shit is getting stale.

But also, I’m just finding fewer and fewer new cats I really go nuts for. I’m still peeping out tons of records, but it’s not grabbing me. There’s stuff coming out I know is important and vital, like Pink Siifu and Akai Solo…what these cats are doing is some next level/next wave shit — mentally, I see that, but aurally, I just don’t vibe with it.

I think about my dad, who was old enough to serve in WWII but was still a huge fan of all the ’60s stuff like the Rolling Stones. In the ’80s, together we discovered and raved about Talking Heads and Bowie. Then one day he came in my room when I was listening to Criminal Minded and his face just said: nope. His brain hit that wall. There’s that oft-cited study that, on average, people stop listening to new music after they’re about 30…well, I made it another 20 years but maybe my tastebuds can’t go no further in my earbuds.

On some real shit though, the truth is: I’m progressively losing my hearing from tinnitus. More than two hours of music a day and I can’t hear shit for about a week. I can’t bump 700 records a year no more.

Finally, this is the 10th edition of these, and 10 years is a long time. That’s an era covered; I’m closing the books. I’m passing the baton to Caltrops Press, he knows what’s up.

See you in the funny papers, mi familia.