Hip-hop is my generation’s rock & roll. So, after a 15-year hiatus, I’ve made it a point to get back into this culture-defining music. I’ve always been a lover of classic hip-hop and a casual spectator of current pop-rap, but it had been a long time since I listened seriously to America’s favorite genre. I wanted to find something new that could move me (a tall order for a 40-something). I found sifting through Spotify to be tiresome and I was left flailing in the deep-end of the hip-hop pool, trying to discover something that hooked me. Finally, tracks started bubbling up reminiscent of classics like Wu-Tang, as well as new sounds by creative producers like Kenny Beats (who produces tracks for many of the artists on this list) and intelligent wordsmiths like J.I.D. So consider this list a proper primer of current artists and tracks that got me back in the hip hop game. Hope you dig them too.
Hailing from Atlanta, J.I.D is a technical lyricist with a powerful flow that breaks away from the trappings of his fellow ATL peers. Many critics compare his flow and lyrical method to the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar. J.I.D caught my attention with the comical Nickelodeon-inspired “EdEddnEddy” (2017), that tells the story of a spaced-out drug dealer trying to keep his shit together. This track samples a haunting and funky jazz-organ piece by “Brother” Jack McDuff, the artist credited with giving George Benson his big break.
Rico Nasty is a young and prolific artist with a ferocious vocal style. Her current album release, Nasty (2018), was produced by the very talented up-and-comer Kenny Beats. To say that her style is aggressive would be an understatement. The 21-year-old is raunchy and braggadocious, which is nothing new in hip-hop. What is less common today is the use of heavy rock beats creating a bizarre rap-metal style that she features on many of her current tracks. I hope this creative young woman continues to push the envelope and doesn’t settle into the more common and palatable pop-rap of today.
For anyone looking to step back into hip-hop, I consider Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter to be the most accessible artist on this list. As one of the two founding members and MC/vocalist of rap group The Roots (aka The Tonight Show band) he’s been around since the 90s. The Roots may have been putting out albums for almost three decades but Streams of Thought Vol. 1 is Black Thought’s first solo foray. The opening track “twofifteen” felt familiar yet fresh with a perfect freestyle vocal and neo-soul sound complete with wah-wah guitar samples and a funky-drum back beat. As is often the case in popular music, everything old (Tariq is 46) can become new again.
Jay Rock has been in the game for a while now. I remembered “All My Life (In The Ghetto)” a fast-paced lyrical track with a soulful Curtis Mayfield sample that he put out a decade prior. I rediscovered Jay through the title track of his latest release Redemption (2018). A thoughtful, self-aware song that poses the question, “What would you do with a second chance?” It’s also a semi-autobiographical tale of his own major motorcycle accident and the woman who came back to be by his side. Neo-soul singer SZA adds her smooth vocals to the chorus of this atypical rap track.
Pusha T is unquestionably the OG of this group. He’s spent nearly 20 years in the art and business of rap and is currently the president of Kanye’s GOOD Music record label. He’s been spitting rhymes for as long as some of the MCs on this list have been alive. Pusha T will take you on a menacing journey through the streets with an eloquence and perspective of a veteran. The first track, “If You Know You Know” off his current album, Daytona (2018) is a banger that drew me in and made all the old gangsta cliches feel fresh and new again. Kanye produced the track (and the album) using a mesmerizing screechy, plucky guitar and droning organ sample from “Twelve O’Clock Satanial” by 70s jazz/prog/psych-rock group Air as the backdrop.
Since I’m not a rapper I can’t say, “Vince Staples is a rapper’s rapper.” But if I were a rapper that is exactly what I would say. Tight, razor-edge lyrics that declare rather than glorify his gang-affiliated youth and culture of his hometown, Long Beach, CA. There’s a fascinating and brutal candor to Vince and the rich, modern headphone-worthy West Coast beats that back up his lyrics. The sonic intro to “Blue Suede” (2014) made me take notice, but I quickly realized his entire catalog is worth examination.
Upon his return from a Samoan boarding school for at-risk youths in 2013 (his mother was worried about early stardom and drug use) Earl Sweatshirt, the 18-year-old prodigy, released one of my favorite hip-hop songs of this decade. “Chum” reminds me of my favorite Marly Marl tracks, but with witty, gritty and sadly emotional lyrics against a simple piano melody and a percussion-heavy sample from Humpty Dump by The Vibrettes. At 16 Earl showed up writing and rapping at the highest level. Eight years later he’s still moving forward, growing and evolving, all while still being considered one of the best MCs out.
Chicagoan Saba has been on the come-up for a while, rapping, producing and making mix tapes, as well as being featured alongside Chance the Rapper. Emotional, energetic and thoughtful lyrics set the foundation for Saba’s satisfyingly soulful tracks. My attention was drawn to his 2016 track “Stoney” that smacks of the fun 90’s summer tracks involving cars and women with beats and samples similar to Pharcyde or Tribe Called Quest. Saba’s current album, Care for Me completely revolves around the real loss of one of his close friends. If you haven’t been listening to hip-hop Saba is a good example of how far it has evolved.
There’s a hypnotic quality to Cardi B and her #1 hit, “Bodak Yellow.” With its deliberately ruthless and uninhibited lyrics and trance-inducing beat, I still can’t get enough of this track! The pop charts had been missing a foul-mouthed hip-hop diva and Cardi slid right down the stripper pole to fill that void. Don’t be mad, okuuuuurt!
I only scratched the surface here — there is so much more great hip-hop to discover. Detroit’s alt-rap hipster Danny Brown has a bizarre vocal style and ravenous rhythmic beat that I find quite stimulating. And there is an impressive number of female rappers on the rise who are starting to get proper exposure, like the ski-masked Leikeli47 whose tracks will take you ’round the hood from a distinctly female perspective. Last but not least (he’s a big man), chef and rapper Action Bronson will feed you 420-friendly gangsta tales in the vein of Paul’s Boutique-era Beastie Boys. Sure, hip-hop may not be for everyone, but if it piques your interest, take this list and your fave streaming app and start digging on shit that will make that old ass move.