The Real Sports Guys (RSG) are thrilled to have Sekou Bermiss join the RSG family in late 2015. Along with Marques Flowers, Sekou has recently began a Hip-Hop & Sports themed show on the RSG Network titled "Hustle & Flows" (available now in iTunes, iPhone users press & hold this link) where they break down the past, present, and future Hip Hop topics with a heavy dose of sports sprinkled in.
For the better part of the past decade, Sekou has released a Hip-Hop Year in Review. When we read the 2014 edition, we had to have him on the team. Let us know what you think on Facebook or Twitter. Here is 2015 edition...
Let me tell you what I see here: a lot of raw talent. Swagger. Bravado. People are scared of you guys. They think you're dangerous, but the world needs to hear it.
-Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller in Straight Outta Compton
When Michael Jordan retired in 1998, the center of power in the NBA shifted from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference where it remained for quite some time. The Western Conference won the NBA Championship for the next 5 consecutive seasons and 12 of the next 17. Similarly, the year 2015 was a western resurgence in hip hop. This was likely prompted by the cinematic release of Straight Outta Compton, a movie that was 5 years in the making with many doubts it would all come together. It did come out, it was fantastic, and became the highest grossing music biopic of all-time. The movie reaffirmed all the reasons why people fell in love with west coast rap in the late 80s and early 90s. I think it boils down to the interest juxtapostion of the serene laid back beauty of Southern California with the aggressive ugly imagery in the music produced in the area. How can a place with palm trees lined streets have the worst gang violence in America? And while it is depicted as provincial in regards to people (Where your grandma stay?) it is anything but in terms of musical influences. What separated the releases from the West Coast and others was the great diversity of sound. I will always love the boom-bap, but I don’t want to imagine hip hop without the G-Funk.
Thus, while there were a lot of good albums released this year, much like the NBA after MJ, the center of power sits firmly in the Golden State. Finally, and to bring it full circle, the 5 NBA champs that followed MJ came from California, Texas, and Michigan, all states represented in my 2015 list. Without further delay. My list of the top albums of 2015 in reverse order with the added bonus of the best NBA equivalent for each artist.
4. Scarface, Deeply Rooted
Just imagine if the devil had a day
And God had took a break and walked away, would you feel safe?
If everything you loved turned into hate
Will the dark angel's evil show you grace
Only to be eaten by a snake, one life one mistake
Be careful of the choices that you make, cause one day
You'll be standing on your feet and then the next
You're underneath the sheet greeting death
I wonder when I sleep is he there sitting on my chest
Stealing breath, shortening my days even less
Lost souls never rest, a killer walks the streets seeking flesh
A adolescent hangs she's depressed
A priest who confessed, a judge typing a n*gga in a text
Your honor, what the f*ck did you expect?
A father kills his son look at life it's a mess
Just imagine what would happen if the lord up and left
In September, Scarface went on the Combat Jack show and talked about his upcoming album. Two things stood out to me from this interview. First, Scarface stated that this was his best album since ‘The Fix’. Whenever a legend starts to explicitly compare their new work to their old work, it can only mean one of two things: (1) they have achieved such an amazing level of self-awareness that they can honestly critique their own work; or (2) they have reached such an amazing level of delusion that they think they can recapture their lost glory. Thankfully, Face is in the first category.
Second, Face is such an old school rap artist that it’s refreshing. He still considers albums as the primary currency of your value of an artist. He doesn’t care that you won’t hear the songs from this album on the radio or in the club. He is not trying to change anything to win new fans. There is no Future feature. There are no DJ Mustard beats. He sought to make an album that his true fans will love (mission accomplished). Scarface is independent with a capital ‘I’, so even if the album goes wood, he will still make money. That means he is free and in full creative control. And while I think that leads to an album that is fairly homogenous sonically, it also means you get a fully focused, full vested, heartfelt FaceMob on each track.
This is not an album that is going to get you amped. It is heavy and introspective. A lot of piano playing over slow dusty beats. The highlights are ‘Rooted’, a declaration about how he has and will continue to keep it real AF; ‘F*ck You Too’ a general warning to all the haters who dare throw rocks at his throne; ‘Steer’ a suicidal plea for God’s guidance; and ‘God’ a mind experiment exploring his own spiritually. Heavy enough for you?
What keeps this album from ranking higher is that it gets repetitive towards the end. This album could have dropped about 3 songs (e.g., Keep It Moving) and would not have made the album any worse. The features were also underwhelming. Nas and Rick Ross mailed in their verses on “Do What I Do”, which seems like a tragic missed opportunity for hip hop. Ceelo didn’t deliver his usual soul on “You”. Thankfully Z-Ro and John Legend made up for those shortcomings. Overall, Deeply Rooted is an intimate conversation about street life, family, and religion with an legend whose street cred is unparalleled.
NBA Equivalent: Tim Duncan. Not flashy. Doesn’t put up big numbers, but has been so good for so long, that he has quietly built a legacy as one of the best of all time.
3. Dark Sky Paradise, Big Sean
Sometimes you hit a lick, sometimes you get ripped off
Sometimes you gotta sit, sometimes it's time for lift-off
Sometimes I just shut up and let my wrist talk
It be like "we don't got time for bullsh*t, dawg"
You know I'm 1-of-1, just like the prototype
You look like the "um, you owe me" type
Oh, hardly never taking pictures, not the photo type, no
Please don't Instagram this sh*t and be up on me like
"Oh, you owe me likes"
This album may be the turning point for Big Sean. I bought stock in him pretty early. When I put Hall of Fame in my top list in 2013, more than a few people voiced their skepticism (e.g. “He’s garbage. Hard Stop.”). Two years later, I have had several people reach out to me to tell me how much they enjoyed this album. I enjoyed it too. No holes in this album. 12 tracks. Each well produced and well executed. What makes the album even more impressive is that this is a Big Sean product as opposed to the last two albums which had heavy Kanye West and No I.D. influence. Maybe it’s his voice, or the silly alliterations that he (over)uses, but I think Sean is underrated as a lyricist. He is versatile enough to be a good fit on almost any type of song. He can do a club song with E-40 (IDFWU) and an emo-esque introspective song with Drake (“Blessings”) with equal aplomb. He gets a solid verse from (dare I say) Mixtape Weezy on “Deep” and leaves the album on a high note with “One Man Can Change the World”. The outro is a hidden gem. I love an album that gives you a little sum-sum extra at the end. Much like his mentor Kanye, Big Sean is a rapper whose albums are a heavy dose of I’m-all-up-in-my-feelings. Sometimes this comes off whiny, but he is talented enough to make it come off as genuine. His Dad sums it up best on “Win Some, Lose Some”: “You speaking that from your brain, but they hear you from your heart. Because people can see your bullsh*t”.
That’s a dad that knows his son.
NBA Equivalent: Jimmy Butler. Came into the league pegged as a solid role player. Solid player but really just a 2nd/3rd option to other stars on the team. A few years later, he has his own team and looks like he might be the next superstar.
2. Documentary 2, The Game
Ever since I saved my coast, it's been born again
If I ain't sh*t then who the king of California then?
Who could out-rap me?
Now think about if the same n*gga you bout to say can run up and out-scrap me, yeah
Out-trap me, yeah,
out-gat me, I mean think about it, exactly
Speaking matter-of-factly I'm down playing that actually
Call me Game, I ain't one, still I get paid like an athlete
Do the math after the math, Doc 2 in the bag
Lived up to expectations, Dre took me first in the draft
Now who the f*ck want what?
Nobody survives so look alive when them Impalas in the cut
[Dollar and A Dream]
Documentary 2 comes in at number two on my list though it is, by a good margin, my favorite album released this year. The lyrical content will not win any NAACP Image awards. You will not struggle to follow his metaphors or allusions. But you will nod your head for 74 straight minutes and you will not skip a single song. Game has always been good rapper, but he is also a sensitive, impulsive, and has an insanely high need for acceptance. He started off on fire, but his music suffered after the G-Unit break-up. He spent most of the R.E.D. Album and LAX albums doth protesting too much about his West Coast bonafides. This album, his 6th (!) studio album, is a worthy sequel to the classic original. It’s not short (19 tracks), but with the skits and semi-interludes it feels like a shorter album. The production is a thing of beauty, a wide diversity of sound. Bongo the Drum Gahd does most of the heavy lifting, with some gems from Cool & Dre (remember them??), Mike Will Made It, Premier, and will.i.am (SN: one indavertantly funny moment in the album is the intro to “Don’t Trip” when Game asks will.i.am to “take it to the streets” with his production and the Rebirth of Slick beat drops. I guess Digable Planets is about at hood as will.i.am gets). Lyrically, Game performs consistently well on this album. Yes, he is doing the usual name dropping and style mimicry, but while mainstream rap moves toward Emo, Game stands out as unabashedly gangster. Wreckless and soulful. The track with Drake is soft as an alpaca throw blanket and somehow Game raps hard as nails on it. Speaking of Drake, the features on the album are also phenomenal. What album will you listen to with verses from Ice Cube, Q-tip, Dej Loaf, Kendrick Lamar, Future, & Drake? The Ab-Soul verse on “Dollar and a Dream” might be the best verse on any album this year period. So, Game got murdered on his own sh*t and still almost had the best album of 2015. Almost.
NBA Equivalent: Blake Griffin. A great talent, rubs most others in the industry the wrong way, and really needs talented collaborators to be successful. When he has a solid team around him though, he is show stopper.
1. To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar
Stuck a flag in my city, everybody's screamin' "Compton!"
I should probably run for Mayor when I'm done, to be honest
And I put that on my Mama and my baby boo too
Twenty million walkin' out the court buildin', woo woo!
Ah yeah, f*ck the judge, I made it past 25 and there I was
A little nappy-headed n*gga with the world behind him
Life ain't shit but a fat vagina
Screamin' "Annie, are you okay? Annie, are you okay?"
Limo tinted with the gold plates
Straight from the bottom, this the belly of the beast
From a peasant to a prince to a motherf*ckin' king
The first two times I tried to listen to this album, I couldn’t make it through. My friends were raving about it on Facebook. So I tried again. Couldn’t make it through. The accolades kept pouring in from all over the internet and I seriously started to worry that I might have forgotten how to listen to hip hop. SERIOUSLY! I thought I understood the concept of the album. I respected the wordplay, but I just couldn’t make it through. My mind would wander on whatever else I was doing at the time and I found myself uninterested in what KL was saying. Then it hit me. I couldn’t just spend the day casually with this album, we had to go to lunch together, have coffee a few times in one week together, go on some walks around campus together.
It was after I did this that certain things started to click for me. On first listen, the album seems to be all over the place, so enjoying this album means appreciating that format and not wishing it was a more coherent narrative like GKMC. ‘King Kunta’ is hostile. ‘u’ is haunting. ‘How Much Does A Dollar Cost’ is soothing. ‘The Blacker the Berry’ is lit. And these distinct pieces of beautiful music are strewn together by snippets of a poem.
And then I finally got to the outro, having actively listened all the way through, and it all came together. The album is a tribute to his idol. Kendrick knows that he is the heir apparent to Tupac but needed to make sure he paid his proper respects. This is Kobe perfecting the MJ fadeaway. Lebron switching to number 6. Then I understood why he started this album as soon as GKMC was released, and why it took 3 years to finish it. This is probably something he could only do one time and he wanted it to be perfect.
That is not to say that I think this is a perfect album, because I don’t. There are some songs that, while appreciate, I don’t enjoy. I don’t enjoy listening to ‘These Walls’, ‘Momma’, or ‘Hood Politics’. But Kendrick makes an album that has is all over the place artistically, but rather than it alienating his fans, it exposed his music to more people who are now fans (read: 11 Grammy nominations). An album doesn’t have to be perfect to be great. I’m glad I took the time to realize that about TPAB.
NBA Equivalent: The obvious answer is Steph Curry, but I would like to argue that a better comparison is Steph’s teammate Draymond Green. Green is great player who does just about everything well, and while he is effective, he is not always pleasant to watch perform. Steph’s game is universally admired, Draymond’s game takes some knowledge of the game to fully appreciate. Everyone knows he is a unique and potentially transcendent player, but not everyone likes his game.
2nd tier albums, all rotation worthy, but not in the same league as the top 4.
Compton: The Soundtrack, Dr. Dre
It would not take much to convince me that this album should number 5th on the list. It’s a great album, but feels more like a compilation album than a Dr. Dre album. Dre has so many different people ghostwriting for him on this album that sometimes I can’t tell when he is rapping. That being said, I will consider this his Detox because I can’t imagine him, with a billion in the bank, going back into the studio with the hunger necessary to make that album. The music on the album is great. The wordplay is great. The hooks are great. Every verse from Kendrick and King Mez is great. Anderson .Paak is great. Okay? Great.
NBA Equivalent: Dwyane Wade. Hall of Fame spot is guaranteed. Will always be remembered as part of a duo or collective (Shaq, or Lebron & Bosh), but still did enough on his own to warrant his spot.
Dreams Worth More than Money, Meek Mill
A pretty good album that I was listening to regularly for a while until he got a little too happy with life, got wreckless on twitter and Drake went Back 2 Back on him.
NBA equivalent: Rudy Tomjanovich. Was having a noteworthy career, but will probably only be remembered for getting punched in the face.
Mr Wonderful, Action Bronson
His raps about literally nothing, but makes up for it by picking great beats and inserting witty punchlines. He also got a little reckless and had to be put into a corner by Ghostface.
NBA equivalent: Ron Artest. Queens stand up.
I did an informal study on this. Future is the Kendrick Lamar of the strip club.
NBA Equivalent: JR Smith
Top 5 Dead or Alive, Jadakiss
Black Market, Rick Ross
NBA Equivalent: Dwight Howard. Not sure if the current underperforming is temporary or if this is the beginning of the end.
This 2015 Year in Review is dedicated to my friend Jamie Sangouthai, who tragically passed away in 2015. The first hip hop argument I ever had with Jamie was in summer of 1996 when he was a pre-freshman at RPI in Troy, NY and was literally about who was the best rapper Jay-Z, Biggie, or Nas (he lost that argument). Every so often after I published my yearly review, he would hit me up with some comments about what I got wrong (never enough Queens on the list for him). It saddens me to know that I won’t be getting those critiques from him anymore. I’ll cherish the good times we had and use your passing as a lesson to make time to stay connected with old friends. Rest in Peace.