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Year in Review: Jesse’s Top 10 Projects of 2014

Graphic By Han Mahle
Graphic By Han Mahle

2014 was a wild year for hip-hop/ rap and we were here to document almost all of it. The following ten projects are my favorite of the year, in no particular order.

Ab-Soul, These Days…, TDE

Photo by Jesse Wiles

These Days… is Ab-Soul’s best project to date, slightly edging out his 2012 debut album, Control System. The album never really seemed to garner much attention outside of Ab’s fan base, and most blogs overlooked it on their top albums of the year list. However, it is deserving of much more praise. With jazz-influenced songs like “Kendrick Lamar’s Interlude” and bass-heavy, street bangers like “Nevermind That,” featuring Rick Ross, the album has something for everyone. From the impressive list of featured artists, to the slightly controversial album artwork, everything was well thought out and executed perfectly by TDE. Ab gave us exactly what he wanted, and it was beautiful.

Kevin AbstractMTV1987, N/A

Kevin Abstract took the internet by storm in 2014. Going from an artist who was well known in the smaller, underground blog community to being posted on Complex, Billboard and Pigeons and Planes regularly. Even more impressive than his rise to stardom was his debut project, MTV1987. The 12 track tape paints a vivid picture of what growing up and coming of age in an era dominated by social media is like. With only 3 features, MTV1987 gives new listeners an idea of how versatile Kevin is on the mic, being both a rapper and a singer. This is a project that will be relevant for years to come. The influence of MTV1987 can be seen everywhere, ranging from Twitter to Soundcloud. A new generation of young people armed with ideas and MacBooks are pushing the boundaries of contemporary art and music.

Theophilus London, Vibes, Warner Bros Records


Vibes is, in Theophilus’ own words, a “real Palm Springs, smoke a joint, hit some mushrooms, go to Joshua Tree, bathe in some motherfuckin’ volcano water… shit like that.” He doesn’t lie, the album is, for lack of a better term, incredibly vibe-y. The whole thing is a hodge podge of different sounds, hitting different ranges of music, from vintage 80’s inspired disco and psychedelic pop, to contemporary hip-hop. This is largely in thanks to the flawless executive production of Kanye West. It’s not everyday that the presence of Kanye West isn’t overwhelming, but on Vibes, he takes a step back and allows London to shine. London’s camp took a huge L in first week sales, barely pushing 2,800 units. However, this isn’t something that’s going to take over the radio and mainstream music. Vibes is a work of art, wonderfully ambitious and experimental.

Mick Jenkins, The Water[s], N/A

Photo by Jesse Wiles
Photo by Jesse Wiles

Chicago was the hottest city of 2014 for hip hop, followed closely by Atlanta. Chief Keef, drill music, gun violence, GBE, Lucki Eck$, Chance, Alex Wiley… the list of prevalent artists and themes goes on and on. With all of that going on, and all of the artists trying to follow in the footsteps of musicians like Chief Keef and Chance the Rapper, it’s hard to differentiate real talent from those biting off of pre-established talent. Enter Mick Jenkins. I could say a lot about Mick: how socially conscious his raps are, or how progressive his sound is, but I’m not going to say anything about that. I’m going to say one thing. Take an hour out of your day and listen to The Water[s]. If you don’t want to take the time to listen to it all, at least listen to “Dehydration” and “Martyrs.” You can learn something from Mick, and not many rappers teach with their words anymore.

Mac Miller, Faces, Warner Bros Records

mac-miller-4Faces is the sound Mac Miller has been searching for for most of his career. He became successful with the frat-rap style that spread like wildfire through college campuses across the US and then ditched that, going after a different sound. However, there was still too much of a college influence on his music, and for a few years he had only mediocre releases (see Blue Slide Park and Best Day Ever). Then, Faces dropped, a tape that seemed, at first, to hold too many songs–24 in all–with no real theme or a unifying sound. And that’s exactly what Mac Miller is, an artist that you can’t label. He’s going to give you laid back songs about drugs, “Angel Dust,” and then 17 songs later he’ll randomly drop a banger with MMG’s Rick Ross, “Insomniak.” Faces is one of the few projects that dropped early on in 2014 and remained relevant after countless listens.

Riff Raff, Neon Icon, Mad Decent

Photo by Jesse Wiles
Photo by Jesse Wiles

Look past the white man with cornrows, NEFF sunglasses, vintage windbreakers, and the absurd Versace references and realize that Riff Raff had one of the best albums of 2014. Maybe it’s because of how relaxed this album is; it’s not someone flexing guns and talking street violence, but more a change of pace. The album is full of a range of music, featuring comical songs, 80’s disco reminiscent of the soundtrack for the 2011 movie Drive, rock and roll, and actual rap songs. Riff Raff takes the script, rips it up, flushes it down the toilet, and then rewrites it entirely. You probably hate Neon Icon, but that’s okay, stop being so serious.

J.Cole, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Columbia/ Roc Nation

J. Cole photograph by Aaron SternIn a bold move, J. Cole and Roc Nation released one of the best albums of the year without dropping any singles, only alerting the public a few weeks before the release date and having no featured artists. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is Friday Night Lights J. Cole. This is what we’ve been missing from music, and Cole specifically. “You can listen to Born Sinner. You can listen to Sideline Story and hear it, coming out. I wasn’t liking it— I wasn’t happy,” Cole said in an interview with NPR on December 12. Since “letting go” of the things that were holding him back, he’s been able to reconnect with and recreate music that he’s happy with. He holds nothing back on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, being brutally honest on songs like “Wet Dreamz.” He also talks about his quest for material items and wealth on “Tale of 2 Citiez.” You can’t help but be happy for J. Cole with this release–quality hip-hop from a quality human being.

Travi$ Scott, Days Before Rodeo, EPIC/ Grand Hustle/ GOOD Music

travi-scott-uptown-upper-echelon-billboard-in-studio-performance-0If you’re looking for lyricism and content that’s on par with other albums on this list, you won’t find it here. With features from the hottest artists at the moment such as Migos, Young Thug, and Rich Homie Quan, Days Before Rodeo perfectly embodies the current state of hip-hop and rap. Somehow, the tracks maintain street credibility while also being mainstream enough to appeal to a wide audience. Full of overly simplistic lyrics like, “Call her ticket, cause I really want to meet her (meter),” Travi$ does the most with, well, not a whole not. Expert production and a wide array of different sounds on each track make this the best project of the year.

Childish Gambino, Because The Internet, Island/ Glassnote


There’s not one bad song on Because The Internet. Childish Gambino has done nothing but release quality music since his mixtape days. However, with every release, he gains a new set of critics. He said it best on the song “Be Alone,” off of his first EP, tastefully named EP, “Hard for a Pitchfork, soft for a Roc-a-Fella.” What he’s saying with that line is that his raps are too raw and real for blogs like Pitchfork too handle, but too soft and not street-worthy enough for big record labels like Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella Records. It’s incredibly unfair that Childish Gambino is still viewed with that lens, as he’s one of, if not the most, talented artists out right now. The only other comparable artist is Drake, who seems to get praise from nearly everyone, all the time. Gambino continues to push the envelope, experimenting with different beats, themes and deliveries, while artists like Drake stay in their comfort zones, dropping albums awfully similar to their last release.

Curtis Williams, Danco James, Two-9

curtis-williams-450x300Curtis Williams and Two-9 records are going to blow up in 2015. Thanks, in part, to the fact that Atlanta is playing host to one of the biggest hip-hop movements at the moment and, because they have put together one of the more promising, young collectives in hip-hop. Danco James is one of those tapes that people are going to look back at in a few years and ask themselves, “how did I miss that?” With a smooth, stoner vibe to the project, Curtis comes correct with all 15 tracks. Only straying from the laid back mood on a few uptempo songs like “Box Logos & Box Chevy’s,” “Bong Interlude,” and “Drugs.” Look for Curtis and Two-9 to make big moves in 2015.

Written by Jesse Wiles