Looking back in retrospective, it’s pretty clear that 2013 was a landmark year for hip-hop. Amidst an abundance of top-notch releases from rap’s finest, it marked the first time four of the genre’s most iconic representatives – Jay Z, Kanye West, Eminem and Drake – released full-length albums within the same year, and with the apparent revival of the genre’s visceral edge of competition (thanks to a certain Kendrick Lamar and his confrontational ‘Control’ verse), it only feels right that they should be pitted against each other for their artistic merits.
What’s perhaps most disappointing then, is that there’s one clear victor in this majestic clash of the titans. When Kanye West unleashed ‘Yeezus’ unto the world in its sleeveless glory, nobody knew what to expect, but the unexpected. It was a traditionalist hip-hop fan’s nightmare, but also a milestone in the development of hip-hop as a genre, essentially bringing the eccentric noise-hop movement that’s circulated the underground in the form of acts such as Death Grips into a mainstream environment. The sheer polarity of the record meant it wound up on best and worst album lists in equal measure, being heralded as both a masterpiece and a cultural abomination. To top it all off, West was the real-life embodiment of his album, coming off in interviews and public appearance as just as volatile and unpredictable as the haywire production and lyrical absurdities that riddle his record. Refusing to pander to well-worn traditions, with Yeezus West restored that crucial element of danger and progression to hip-hop’s tired mechanics.
In comparison, the albums produced by the remainder of hip-hop’s ‘Big 4’ in 2013 are perhaps best represented by the meagre on-the-spot shuffling of feet, rather than ambitious strides forward. Drake’s ‘Nothing Was The Same‘ felt ultimately conflicted, with one half embracing a more conventional self-serenading rap approach, the other delving into the soppy, emotionally-charged schtick he’s both praised and teased for. Eminem’s ‘The Marshal Mathers LP II’, despite delivering somewhat on upholding the original’s legacy by reverting back to hard-hitting lyricism of his classic Slim Shady days, felt scuppered by a selection of corny instrumental choices that distract from his intuitive wordplay. As for the now hyphen-less Jay Z, his bumbling ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ project didn’t even make the rapper’s top 5 of his own favourite album list, coming across as a flimsy extension of the ‘Watch The Throne’ collaborative record with West rather than its own entity. He might’ve been successful in securing the commercial win, thanks to a gargantuan deal with Samsung guaranteeing 1m records sold on the first day, but it’s a hollow victory in the grand scheme of things.
It might come as a serious culture shock to those ingrained in hip-hop’s roots, but the reality is to argue in the case of any album other than ‘Yeezus’ as top contender from rap’s greatest in 2013 would be pointless, as the inevitable conclusion would be, quite simply, that you ain’t got the answers, man.
Words by Joshua Pauley