10 groundbreaking hip hop productions from the last 12 months

Hip hop isn't what it used to be - this list of 10 weird, convention-defying tracks shows how the digital age has sparked a hip hop revolution in 2012.

2012 has, overall, been a ground-breaking moment for hip hop. Pioneers of the genre have steered it into territory that a mere couple of years ago we never would have thought we’d see, and as the landscape just keeps on evolving, the future of the genre is a constant talking point.

This year alone, we’ve seen rappers emerge who have collaborated with people they met online (or even people they haven’t met), rappers who have been informed by wildly disconnected influences that they found on the internet, and rappers who have used the immediacy of their online presence to express themselves more truly and intimately than has ever been seen before. In this list, we show not only just how explosive and unpredictable the future of rap looks to be, but also just how complex, characterful and downright weird its present is, too.

  1. Chief Keef – Ballin
    The online success of ‘Bang’ and the explosive viral hit ‘I Don’t Like’ had Chief Keef quickly painted as the most gutter of street rappers when he first came into the wider consciousness earlier this year. His much anticipated Back From The Dead mixtape, the first since his popularity rise, was also an unflinching, gothic gangland affair whose title played on the local rumours that Keef had been killed in an altercation with the Chicago Police Department. ‘Ballin’ interrupted the script when it surfaced at the height of his initial buzz. Drawling and melodic rather than oppressive, it was produced by auto-tune wizard Leekeleek and showed the relatively glitzier side to Chicago’s abrasive drill scene. Keef has since signed a bumper deal with Interscope and collaborated with the great and the good but the funny thing is he may have been signed on the muscle of a sound that’s quickly evolving. It’s good that Chief Keef has been given the chance to do something major with his talent but the clumsy clambering for his signature also shows the disjunction between the big labels and the young stars they try to harness. He is simply moving too fast for them, which is exciting, but hopefully that won’t hinder him when he finally has to deliver something for them. [AW]
  2. Kendrick Lamar feat. Gunplay – Cartoons and Cereal
    ‘Cartoons and Cereal’ is not the song that is going to take Kendrick Lamar’s career to the next level; with its skit-like, fly-on-the-wall production, its complicated structure, indulgent length, and a defiantly swastika-tattooed Gunplay, it’s possibly the least audience-friendly track that any rapper has dared to record in recent memory. It refuses to be accessible, or to tame its nightmarish distortion to a more familiar beat, and so it isn’t going to make Lamar into a “thing”. But it’s brave enough – and just plain good enough – to prove that he deserves our attention. With this track, Lamar took his place as one of modern hip hop’s great innovators, and it looks likely that he’ll be at the helm of rap’s curiouser and curiouser future when his debut album Good Kid, Mad City drops this Autumn. [AC]
  3. Kilo Kish – I Feel Like Dying
    This sketch of a track was uploaded to Kilo Kish’s Tumblr with the caption: “one of my favorite lil wayne songs. covered it for fun. pardon the quality, i don’t have the patience to do it like 482875 times. x”. It’s an odd combination because she clearly isn’t living or aspiring to live the life Lil Wayne did during his Best Rapper Alive phase but it’s the atmospherics she’s interested in playing with. The textured vocals and experimental cadences make her take on the druggy-sad classic all the more strange and bring out what’s most most interesting about Kilo Kish’s nascent career. The cover may only linger on her blog but it offers a glimpse into the working process of the artist. Its something that Kilo Kish is particularly adept at and an approach that’s a definite plus of the internet age; as the approach to releasing material becomes more fluid we can get the chance to hear rappers trying things out in the studio and maybe hear them talk about their musical development a little more too. [AW]
  4. Supreme Cuts & Haleek Maul feat. Tree and Wiseblood – Roll With Me
    The majority of what the world has heard from Barbadian rapper Haleek Maul so far has been a collaboration with Chicago production duo Supreme Cuts. Beginning with an appearance on his debut EP Oxyconteen, the pair went on to work further with the rapper by releasing a joint mixtape this summer called Chrome Lips, featuring a slew of buzz rappers including the Chicago MC Tree, who comfortably skirts the edges of the drill scene, and Kool A. D. of Brooklyn’s Das Racist. Despite being only sixteen, and not having grown up in a mainstream or even sub-mainstream hip hop scene, Haleek Maul is now deeply embedded in a his own scene of misfit rappers, creating a patchwork of disparate and inventive sounds. All existing on the fringe of one scene or another, the MCs and producers on Chrome Lips represent an undercurrent of individualism, not bounded by geographical or cultural ties, that is bubbling alongside all the wider revolutionary movements in hip hop today. [AC]
  5. Lil B – Connected in Jail
    Lil B’s back catalogue from this year alone could be an example its of strange developments in rap music: its scope ranging from euro-house revivals and skewed reggaeton to messy, layered auto-tuned tracks all backed by an open-ended based mythology. ‘Connected in Jail’ isn’t one of his biggest or immediately arresting, turning on a sample of the 2001 wrestling fan favourite ‘Bodies’ by alt-metal band Drowning Pool, but it shows just how far he’s is being allowed to take his vision. A conversation between the earthly, flawed Lil B and the perfect, all embracing Based God with a bemused onlooker present, it plays on the tension between the streets and a self-help book positivity that’s always there with Lil B – with a heavy dose of ridiculous posturing added of course. His large and dedicated online following has allowed him to keep this most bizarre and confusing of careers successful and so long as he can stay a few steps ahead and away from actually becoming the meme he’s created it’s impossible to guess what he might do next. [AW]
  6. Mykki Blanco – Join My Militia (Nas Gave Me a Perm)
    With an upcoming debut that’s slated to include contributions from Nguzunguzu, Brenmar, Physical Therapy and Leif, a talent for slam poetry and a transgender aesthetic, Mykki Blanco is a boundary-stepping artist who defies any and every rule that once existed in hip hop. And even so, he’s going to be huge. His sounds are sleek, bitter and terrifying, emanating from a slowed-down, horror-tinged cavern of sound that hip hop rarely explores – even without the flagrant challenge to hip hop’s heterosexual, masculine hegemony, then, this would be a rapper carving out a powerfully individual path to the top. [AC]
  7. Riff Raff – Lil Mama I’m Sorry
    Riff Raff is a pop culture cipher seemingly birthed by an MTV reality show in 2009 and cultivated on Youtube and Worldstar since. Toeing the thin line between an homage or a parody of late 90’s and early 00’s Texas rap, he uses social media’s lateral spread to front his colourful persona – home videos documenting his vast catalogue of songs, freestyles and neck chains. He’s definitely got talent and a sense of humour but Riff Raff’s link to the scene he apes are a little more cloudy. ‘Lil Mama I’m Sorry’ – the opener to his album Golden Alien – may give a glimpse into his back story. He sets the scene of hot summers and wood wheels and you’d imagine that there’s probably someone back home he might have to apologise to for balling quite as hard as he has. That being said, the song is still typical of Riff Raff and doesn’t reveal much about the man behind the mask, if it really is a mask. Riff Raff remains a mystery but a key question he raises is the extent to which roots matter in rap today; is its truth really dependent on past stock or can it be realised in ever-shifting present instead? [AW]
  8. A$AP Rocky – Demons (produced by Clams Casino)
    In an interview/lecture with the Red Bull Music Academy last year, Clams Casino revealed that his collaboration with A$AP Rocky began when he messaged the rapper online, only to receive a swift reply that said “you’re like my favourite producer right now”. ‘Demons’, it turned out, had already been recorded, after an enthusiastic Rocky had pulled the track ‘Numb’ from Clams’ Instrumentals mixtape and morphed it into his lean-tinged rap. In a world where rappers and producers stand shoulder to shoulder, collaborations can happen in the speed of a download, and the law – let alone the artists themselves – can scarcely keep up. It’s just as well that Clams loved Rocky’s version of his song, and that they they then went on to collaborate on countless more, crafting each other’s careers in a way that would have been unthinkable before the ability to DM your favourite producer, or even seek out and have a favourite producer, became a thing that you could actually do. [AC]
  9. Future – Turn On The Lights
    There’s something refreshingly old school about Future . He came up with a string of independent releases in his home city, making fruitful and long-lasting connections with other rappers and producers in the process, before finally getting his major label deal, and his most important links tend to go back to his past rather than out through the web. The single ‘Turn On The Lights’ is a good counterbalance to the rest of this list because it shows that forward-thinking rap doesn’t have to be tied to a gripping online presence. Future’s twitter isn’t great entertainment and his name isn’t search engine friendly but he can still release a belter of a ballad from his début album that sounds like an amazing but totally organic progression of his style. [AW]
  10. Kanye West feat. R Kelly – To The World (produced by Hudson Mohawke)
    The appearance of suspisciously HudMo-shaped beats on Kanye West’s recent G.O.O.D. Music collaborative album, Cruel Summer, marked a definitive moment for the surprising, curveball nature of hip hop in 2012. The year in which a Scottish producer who taught himself to make beats on his PS1 can collaborate with the biggest rapper in the world is a year in which the internet is redefining the limits of what we thought was possible; it’s a year in which hip hop seems to truly be a meritocracy, a rags-to-riches fairy tale. As music goes, you don’t get much more radical or revolutionary than a genre which boasts better social mobility and opportunity than society at large, and that seems to be exactly what hip hop, with all its glamourous influence, is becoming. [AC]

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