Jeff’s 15 Best Hip-Hop Tracks of 2013

Posted by on December 23, 2013

Best-Of---hip-hop---big With the mainstream sound shifting further towards hip-hop (or is it the other way around?) the way it has in 2013, it’s become quite a good climate for rappers. While this year has had its share of successes and rises to fame (see Chance The Rapper, Logic), though, it’s certainly had its share of disappointments. Read on to see my selections as the year’s best work in hip-hop.

15. B.o.B — Coastline

It’s hard to watch an artist that came up with such a unique and creative approach to hip-hop fall back on familiar tropes. Such is the plight of B.o.B, who—after creating the pop-oriented Strange Clouds last year—found himself hanging around 2 Chainz and Future, echoing the former in his hit “Headband” with the line, “Drop that ass down/Now look back at it.” Amidst an album crippled by hypocrisy, the centerpiece of Underground Luxury is “Coastline”, an honest, poignant track which finds B.o.B asking, “How foolish am I?” in regards to how he’s come to embrace the kind of materialistic rap he used to position himself against. It’s hard to digest seven tracks in from where he opened the album with, “All I want is money/Money, money, money,” but it’s still an impressively candid song, and one that frustrated fans have to accept as better than no acknowledgement of the change. After all, I could name dozens of rappers who could’ve easily replaced B.o.B on “Headband”, but none of them are capable of making a song like this.

14. J. Cole — Cole Summer

J. Cole seems to perform best when not under pressure, and thus it’s no coincidence that one of the best records he made all year came after submitting Born Sinner to the label. Utilizing a fantastic sample from Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo’s 1998 collaboration “Nothing Even Matters”, Cole delivers a stream-of-consciousness track in which he does some light reflecting on his path, as well as having a conversation with hip-hop, which he personifies in the second verse. This is the kind of record you can tell the artist had fun making, and as a result it’s one of the most enjoyable releases of the year. 

13. Kanye West — Bound 2 (feat. Charlie Wilson)

No record this year was more of a tease than this. I’ve come to understand it as Kanye’s way of acknowledging that he knows exactly the kind of sound his fans are desperate for, yet he’s only willing to oblige for a brief moment before the album’s close. As out-of-place as it is on Yeezus, it delivers an incredible moment of satisfaction after such a harsh album—a triumphant ending vaguely redolent of “Compton” from last year’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. And then there’s the spoof.

12. Drake — Too Much (feat. Sampha)

Back in February when “Started From The Bottom” first hit the web, I grew nervous that the introspective and personal Drake that defined his early career was giving in to the boastful rap that’s made a resurgence on the airwaves in a big way. While many are battling it out to come up with the most enduring mottos, few rappers still seem to be working for the sake of creative release. In September Drake visited Jimmy Fallon, and calmed those nerves, neglecting to play his immediate hit and instead performing “Too Much”—a song highly reminiscent of So Far Gone’s “The Calm”, on which he vented about his souring relationships. The second verse here is about as much he’s ever divulged about his family, so much that his family members were upset with him over his decision to perform it on national TV without warning. Maybe you’d rather have Drizzy stick to making melodic club fodder, but the fact that he’s gotten as big as he has and can still make songs about what he needs to says quite a lot about his music.

11. Logic — Walk On By

Though no lesser-known artist’s rise has been as astronomical as that of Chance The Rapper, Logic has had a spectacular year in his own right. As a final free showcase of his lyrical talent prior to his No I.D.-helmed album drops on Def Jam next year, Logic released Young Sinatra: Welcome To Forever, a mixtape packed with advanced lyricism and flows that show just how hard he works on his technique. “Walk On By” features an anthemic C-Sick beat and some of the most exciting verses Logic’s spit in his career thus far.

10. Childish Gambino — 3005

Frankly, I was disappointed with Gambino’s Because the Internet. He certainly showed terrific improvement as a producer and technical rapper, but overall it felt too reliant on the screenplay, and ultimately much less accessible than he intended. That is not to say, however, that he didn’t give the world some great songs, as evidenced by “3005”, a track he produced with his in-house team of Stefan Ponce and Ludwig Goransson. While most quickly assumed this was a female-inspired narrative, Gambino has maintained he wrote it as an existential song that can be about “whatever you need it to be”, which is part of why it’s been such a crossover success. Another part of that equation is how much he’s improved as a singer, which is apparent throughout the album, as the best cuts (“Telegraph Ave.”, “Urn”, “Pink Toes”) all feature him pulling double-duty.

9. Pusha T — Nosetalgia (feat. Kendrick Lamar)

I think everyone knew we were in for a treat with My Name Is My Name, but I could never have imagined that Pusha could carry a full album sans No Malice with such command and fluidity. This Kanye/Nottz produced standout finds two of the game’s most emphatic voices talking about the balance of the drug game, with Pusha saving his best for Kendrick and delivering the enduring line, “Nigga, this is timeless/Simply ‘cause it’s honest/Pure as the fumes that be fucking with my sinus.”

8. Kanye West — New Slaves (feat. Frank Ocean)

No, Yeezus was not the kind of soulful, introspective Kanye album that I’d hoped it to be; that made projects like The College Dropout and Late Registration some of my most cherished from any genre during my lifetime. Sure, the angst of the album can get heavy—this is not nor was intended to be easy-listening—but none of that holds Yeezus back from reaching its lofty vision. The only place it seems to fall short repeatedly has to do with its sloppy writing process. On “New Slaves”, however, that issue never surfaces, as ‘Ye drops some of the most inspired lyrics of his in years over a stripped-down beat with an aggressive, alluring bass line. The power of the Frank Ocean-laden outro can’t be overstated, either. This is Yeezus at its finest—executed as intended in all realms.

7. A$AP Rocky — Fuckin’ Problems (feat. Drake, 2 Chainz & Kendrick Lamar)

This is certainly the record on here lacking the most in depth, but what it lacks there it makes up for in charisma. Out of all the beats that Noah “40” Shebib crafted this year (he’s credited on ten of fifteen tracks on Nothing Was The Same, in addition to producing “Mine” off Beyoncé’s surprise album), this one is probably the most memorable and enthralling. Though his album was rather tepid, Rocky showed up in top form here, as did Drake, whose “Flap Your Wings” reference steals the show.  

6. Chance The Rapper — Chain Smoker

If there was ever a year in recent memory where one could expect best-of lists to be dominated by industry vets, it should’ve been this one. Yet amongst all the hype surrounding Em, ‘Ye, Jay, Drake, and others, the year’s most impressive work was arguably that of Chance The Rapper, a little-known Chicagoan whose second mixtape Acid Rap showcased the creativity and personality of an artist soon to be a star. “Chain Smoker” is one of many spectacular beats on the project by frequent collaborator and friend Nate Fox, who provides the stellar palette for Chance to show off the intricacies of his flow and his melodic nature that has garnered so much praise. See his performance of this on Arsenio Hall from last week here. 

5. Kendrick Lamar — Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix) (feat. Jay Z)

This is kind of cheating, because not all of what makes this record great was birthed in 2013, but the three fresh verses are what really earn its place. While I loved his original verses on the album, these two from Kendrick are equally—if not more—powerful, which wasn’t a small order. Which brings me to Jay. For someone who released so much material this year, the inspired and creative genius we know him to be never really surfaced in his raps, save for this. Maybe it took Kendrick to bring the best out of him, but this might be his best verse since Watch the Throne. Kendrick’s reaction to hearing it says it all.

4. Eminem — Rap God

I have some pretty mixed feelings about Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2, but there’s no question that when this record dropped, Marshall reemerged as one of the most technically-skilled, if not the most, in the game. Yes, there’s the whole “Lookin’ Boy” part which (despite Em’s tired “that’s how people used to use the word in my neighborhood” argument) expresses homophobia, and a few places where he doesn’t particularly excite, but the kind of rhyming and speed-rap that Em exhibits here baffles even the most critical listener. Not bad for a 41-year-old.  

3. Big Sean — Control (feat. Kendrick Lamar & Jay Electronica)

How can one even begin to talk about this year in hip-hop without acknowledging this track—or, more accurately, verse? This was an above-average Big Sean verse on (or I should say “intended for”) an album riddled by poor, uninspired work, and any Jay Electronica feature is always welcome, but let’s be honest, this was a one-man-show. Even though good kid, m.A.A.d city came out last year, this was still largely Kendrick’s year, and one that showcased his growing confidence and aggressive desire to be treated as a great. The most memorable and talked-about moment was certainly when he echoed Eminem’s 2002 “Till I Collapse” and shared his own best-of list, and then called out pretty much everyone he’d been on a song with in the past year (minus TDE). But note the complexity of the verse throughout, including the extended metaphor that closes out the final eight bars. Agree with the spirit of it or not, this was by far the most passionate, imaginative verse we’ve heard from a rapper in years.

2. J. Cole — Power Trip (feat. Miguel)

During interviews for his acclaimed second album, Born Sinner, J. Cole frequently talked about the arduous and uninspiring process of trying to create something for radio on his debut. Determined to make a more organic and cohesive follow-up, Cole got cozy in his apartment studio for months on end, and as his production improved, so did the crossover ability of his music. The best cut from that period, “Power Trip”, is not only Cole’s best beat to date, but one of the best that anyone made this year. It’s also one of the most emotional records that made it onto radio, complete with a hypnotizing Miguel hook, and some of the most honest and journal-esque verses from an artist who really found his voice this year in a big way.

1. Drake — Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)

This is certainly the song from this year that will continue to receive the most spins in years to come. It’s one of those special songs that connects with listeners well outside of the artist’s usual jurisdiction, inspiring thoughtful covers and significant praise from more mature audiences and alternative genres. The success is due to its large conceptual reach, making it accessible and transferrable to many occasions, yet it’s still written with an intimacy that makes it feel as if it’s only about you. This song also was the first glimpse of his talented new OVO signees, Majid Jordan, whose vocalist shines on the latter half of the song, and especially in this live performance. Regardless of your taste, Drake has evolved into one of the most evocative and versatile writers working in any genre today, and this phenomenal cut from the also phenomenal Nothing Was The Same is as good as 2013 got.

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