When it comes to hip-hop, there is no worse feeling for a fan of the art form than to just miss out on a good album. As the end of 2019 rolls around, there is no doubt that everyone is in the lab, cooking up their top ten lists for the year. Usually, the critically acclaimed darlings of the year will pop up on a majority of lists, but no matter how many of these great albums come through on a list, there’s always bound to be an album or two on someone’s top ten that you’ve never heard, or even heard of…
What’s going to be missing from the dreaded year end list? Surprisingly, even with our virtually unlimited access to the never ending ocean of hip-hop, there still manages to be a metric sh*tload of underground or low-profile albums that never poke their heads above the waves. As is the case with all genres of hip-hop, there are plenty of good and bad underground albums out there, but as I have ventured out to find new rap releases in 2019, I have stumbled on some real gems that make a great case to appear on anyone’s top ten of the year. To celebrate the unsung heroes of rap music this year, I will show you six albums you may have missed that can add some new dimensions to your hip-hop headspace for the end of 2019!
1: Kembe X – I Was Depressed Until I Made This
Getting a Twitter shoutout from Kendrick Lamar is the music equivalent to getting dapped up by Jesus Christ; the recipient of this high honor in 2019 was none other than Kembe X, a Chicago MC with a lot of heart and skill in making simultaneously introspective and catchy hip-hop. His 2019 album, I Was Depressed Until I Made This, is reminiscent of the many lo-fi, saddened Soundcloud projects that made the rounds in the mid 2010s, but don’t let his use of trap and hungry rhymes distract you from his excellent voice and songwriting talents. This album is as dark as its title suggests, but Kembe X makes the whole adventure a worthwhile visit into the mind of an emotive MC battling his own demons and coming out on top. For an album clouded by grief, Kembe X earns his keep as a brilliant writer, with some of the most soulful and catchy hooks I’ve heard this year. Every verse and hook leaves me feeling stronger, hungrier to beat out my own vices. For a motivational, moody, memorable, and multi-layered visit to the mind of a once-troubled artist, I Was Depressed Until I Made This is a damn great time.
Must Listen Tracks:
2: Blu & Oh No- A Long Red Hot Los Angeles Summer Night
In terms of underground popularity, the name of west-coast lyrical powerhouse Blu probably carries the most weight. Despite never reaching the mainstream attention he deserved with albums like Below the Heavens, Blu has continued to make some of the best content the underground has to offer. With producer Oh No, this album is one of his most conceptually realized in years, and one of the best “feeling” albums this year. The album sounds hot, nocturnal and thriving off the LA danger that Blu raps about. His pen game and storytelling remain as sharp as ever, bouncing from poorly-planned schemes to get rich to vignettes that describe the depths of prison living and hip-hop. Blu’s selection of guests help portray the characters and stories he raps about in a way that is almost too perfect to describe, and Oh No’s beats evoke hazy memories of late night liquor runs and gang activity that even a stranger to rap or LA can feel. Blu’s voice remains aggressive, despite his veteran status in the industry, and his lyrics are still as witty and telling as ever. For a prototypical “great” rap album with good storytelling, impressive rhymes, and cinematic beats, A Long Red Hot Los Angeles Summer Night might just be the album to direct your gaze back to the West Coast.
Must Listen Tracks
“The Lost Angels”
“Round Bout Midnight”
3: MAVI – Let the Sun Talk
Let the Sun Talk is less of an “underground” rap album, more of a completely different experience than anything in the hip-hop lineup of 2019. MAVI has begun to turn heads, with acclaim from multiple music outlets such as the titanic DJBooth and shoutouts from contemporaries like Earl Sweatshirt, but the dual-wielding neuroscience and hip hop avatar has crafted a lane entirely of his own. Let the Sun Talk is a deeply reflective, unabashed look at an incredibly mature wordsmith’s spirit and environment. MAVI’s writing borders on heart-wrenching, scary, and beautiful within the span of 30 seconds as he analyzes race and self-empowerment in a way that dodges pretense while remaining artful. The album makes room for deep experimentation not found in the mainstream as well, using choppy jazz and soul samples as the backbone for which MAVI’s charm and sage persona fill in the muscle of a track’s anatomy. For anyone who wants a close listen to the thoughts of an inspired and bold young man seeking to inspire change, Let the Sun Talk is the record for you.
Must Listen Tracks:
“Eye/I and I/Nation”
4: Anti Lilly and Phoniks – That’s the World
Thank God for Bandcamp, otherwise I may not have stumbled into one of the year’s best jazz-rap releases. Anti Lilly (real name Drake Lilly) is easily one of 2019’s most soft-spoken, friendly, and knowledgeable rappers. That’s the World is the world as Anti Lilly sees it, and whether it be a joyous or melancholic moment, he paints his emotions in such an earnest and humbling way that you can’t help but enjoy the buttery whispers of his rhymes. The album is lush as a forest, with producer Phoniks using the jazz aesthetics of days gone by in a tasteful way, beautifully syncing with Lilly’s vocals to make each song a swan-dive into the flexibility Lilly has on the mic. Despite the struggles and blisses that our protagonist experiences on the record, the album never teeters on boring or repetitive, each track offering a new story or perspective to the life that Lilly leads. The album screams “love and peace for all”, and for that it has become one of my favorite listening experiences in 2019.
Must Listen Tracks:
“Don’t (It) Feel So Good”
5: C Keys & Kazi – Keys 2 Kazi
Another discovery I made on Bandcamp this year, Keys 2 Kazi is primetime nostalgia with a dash of modernity and hip-hop oddity. Keys 2 Kazi contains zany vocal samples and boom-bap flavors, all mixed in with a lengthy tracklist littered with instrumentals; it’s rare to see an MC like C Keys surf over these Kazi beats with the grace of a professional in 2019. With no central theming, Key 2 Kazi reads almost like a mixtape of abstract topical tracks, going anywhere from car drives to street violence painted with the artful bluntness of graffiti art. C Keys’s cutthroat voice and Kazi’s beats evoke the grittiness of 90s gangster rap while keeping their feet in the present with clever rhymes, concise song structures, and a sense of uncontrollable energy. This record doesn’t live by your rules; it does whatever the hell it wants and you’re going to deal with it. For those that long for albums similar to Madvillainy in structure, classic in sound, and modern in ideology, then the sprawling arena of Keys 2 Kazi is worthy of an addition to your library.
Must Listen Tracks:
“Cowboys and Indians”
6: Chris Crack – Never Hated I Just Waited
Of all the MCs on this list, Chris Crack is easily the most prolific. The Chicago experimentalist dropped 5 goddamn albums this year, with Never Hated I Just Waited being his most fulfilling and long running (though don’t sleep on his other releases, they all bang). Chris Crack’s style is delightfully bizarre, favoring miniature songs that often feature a mix of glitchy soul-samples and Chicago style grooves that clash with his electrifying voice in a spectacular fashion. His bluntness on matters of race, fame, and success is awe-inspiring, and combined with the unique instrumental palette he chooses, he creates an atmosphere that resembles a rave wherein everyone is out to snatch your chain, but you’re holding them off with kung-fu flips and kicks. Raw, bold, and charismatic as hell, Never Hated I Just Waited was a hellfire that I hope will continue burning for a while as more people find out about Chris Crack’s music.
Must Listen Tracks:
“Joy More Important Than Success”
“Printed Out Mapquest Directions”
These are just a handful of the underground projects I visited this year, and needless to say I was very impressed. However, I want to hear what you all have as an underground favorite this year! I would hate to miss out on a potential album of the year…
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