It's a well known fact among rap fans that the first quarter of the year is a traditionally miserable time for the genre. Hip-hop heavy-weights almost never burrow out of hibernation until fall or winter, holding off until the end of Grammy eligibility or the start of the holiday shopping season. "Every fourth quarter, I like to Mike Jordan 'em," goes the Jay lyric, a declaration of the influential MC's favorite time to drop. But times have changed, and with the whole industry at a cross-roads, the most enterprising rappers are saving sleep for death, opting instead to push fresh product all year 'round.
In 2009, even casual listeners would have to have been under some serious igneous to miss the slew of sizzling singles, remixes, mixtapes and (occasional) albums. From the indefatigable roster of next generation talent, including Drake and Kid Cudi, to the game-can't-wait resurgence of veterans like Raekwon, DOOM and Kanye West, these days the hard part isn't finding signs of life in hip-hop, but keeping track of them all.
With that in mind, we present The 1st Annual First Quarter Awards - A critical look back at the very best hip-hop released through the end of April, the early bird's season of choice.
First Quarter Face-Off The Mixtape coming Thursday. Awards over yonder -->>
No one's really sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line, a Canadian child actor turned full-time rapper, part-time singer emerged as hip-hop's most bankable future mega star. Haters will chalk it up to the Lil Wayne affiliation, the 808 worship or the fact that ladies love the kid - but that's the usual riff raff. At the end of the day, Drake's impressively effortless flow and dedication to quality product are what's kept the unsigned, album-less artist atop both Google Trends and bills for jam-packed college shows.
Best Leaked Singles:
1. Drake - "Best I Ever Had"
Love raps this fresh are rare due to their inherently difficult nature: how can a rapper engage in male bravado while simultaneously kicking a little sumpin' for the ladies? LL Cool J has done this a handful of times but the list is short.
The key to Drake's success is his guarded affection; he'll compliment his subject for her natural beauty ("hair tied, sweatpants, chillin' with no makeup on/that's when you're the prettiest I hope that you don't take it wrong"), then cooly boast about much of a tiger he is in the sack ("they call me the referee 'cuz I be so official/my shirt ain't got no stripes but I can make that pussy whistle"). The drums kick harder than expected, his flip-flopping from crooning to flowing is seamless, this song's crest is yet to come.
2. Raekwon ft. Ghostface and Method Man - "Wu Ooh"
For all the new agey bullshit (70% from Charles Hamilton), it's been a strong year for '90s holdovers who smarten up, embrace the fact their platinum days are over (looking at you, Tony Starks) and kick fringe flows for the heads. No one has done this better than the Chef, who presents the best Wu-Tang affiliate track since 2007's "Yolanda's House." This one sticks to your ribs.
3. Kid Cudi, Common, Kanye West - I Poke Her Face
A wholly childish, ignorant bit of fuckery from grown men who should know better; a trite ploy that attacks and resents Lady Gaga for daring to popularize her proclivities by flipping her anthem and lathering it in slippery sexism. Granted. But the playful, dauntless witticisms? Undeniable. "I'm on that conscious tip?" asks Common, "get up on this conscious dick." Fuck it. We know it's wrong, but it feels so right.
Most Interesting Storyline: The rise and fall of Asher Roth.
We talked to him (nice guy), we wrote about him tons, we closed the book on his career.
Asher Roth is a victim of his own monster. For all the hype generated by his unprecedented new media marketing machine (even the indispensable 2 Dope Boyz dedicated THEIR WHOLE SITE to his album release), he got creamed by Rick Ross, a C-list rapper by any honest appraisal. So what did he get out of it all? A now infamous Twitter fiasco that was at least as asinine as it was HUGE NEWS in the blogosphere.
The problem is that Mr. Roth has built his career on unmitigated Whiteness and suburban pedigree to such an extent that any circumstantial racial debate or snafu becomes even more polarizing than usual. And no, the "nappy-headed hoes" thing didn't help. For someone who loves Eminem so much, the apprentice doesn't seem to have learned the lesson of the master at all: Just rap. Fuck the bullshit.
As it is, we can't even see Asher outshining his lamentable behemoth "I Love College," a single whose time came and went before his album was available for less than ten bucks at Best Buy. What was that Chris Rock joke from the Video Music Awards? "Here today, gone today?"
1. Drake - So Far Gone
Drake's latest mixtape had the Internet goin' nuts. Not in the way your favorite rapper boasts into his iSight camera, but as in literally pushed servers to the brink. With So Far Gone's "fashionably late" arrival (in the wee hours of the morning after it was due) the Age of Drake struck harder than the bars outside T.I.'s new window. We've written plenty about the young man in this article and elsewhere in these pages, but trust: This mix is what it's all about. Some listeners have been thrown by the amount of singing (by Drake himself as well as a band of young lotharios including Trey Songz, Lloyd and Omarion), but Drake's multiple tastes and talents (dude can sing) are undoubtedly what make his music so exciting. As far as the 808s jocking goes, he could have worse influences.
2. DOOM - Born Like This
Good to have you back, Mr. Dumile.
Every college rap fan's favorite underground persona's initially brilliant (Viktor Vaughn, Madvillain) then too-big-to-be-cool (the Cartoon Network album with Danger Doom), then just plain weird (allegedly using masked imposters as stand ins at shows, yelling at audiences to put their hands down) career ends the decade in triumphant fashion with his most mush-mouthed, soulful album in a minute.
3. Illmind presents - "Blaps, Rhymes and Life vol. 2"
Illmind has got a tough job. If you think it's hard getting play as a rapper in the digital age, just imagine trying to make it big as a producer - with nary a #1 single to speak of. Yet somehow the New Jersey beatsmith is doing it, and doing it well at that. After contributing to Little Brother's flawless 2007 comeback LP, Get Back, Illmind leveraged his increased profile into the second volume of his Blaps, Rhymes and Life series, a Dre-esque vessel for a gaggle of hungry, unknown MCs trying to make a name for themselves. 50 Cent, Talib Kweli, Scarface and Eminem show up for bragging rights.
Artist of the Quarter: Kanye West
He doesn't have a new album out. He doesn't have a new album coming. Yet popular music's most divisive figure has not released his months-long chokehold on the game one iota. In fact, he's increased his presence exponentially - appearing on the cover of magazines, getting his ass kicked on Southpark, changing america, becoming the most stylish rapper ever, throwing down at SXSW, throwing down on Storytellers, producing the Blueprint 3, making the sneaker world his bitch, and keeping G.O.O.D. music afloat.
And he's done it all while blazing a blistering trail of guest verses and remixes with flows so good, the mixtape magnates had to round them up into a commemorative mixtape. Voice of his generation? Maybe not yet, but honestly, who's doubting anymore?
Check back this Thursday May 7th for ATG Presents: First Quarter Face-Off - The Mixtape!!!