Hip hop remains a dominant cultural force, but as a slew of critical essays reminded us, in 2023, it turned 50. And I can confirm, 50-year olds struggle to find new and creative ways of doing things. Sometimes, you don’t need to be new. You just need to be really good. In 2023, as the genre embraced its prosperous middle age, there were some great throwbacks, and some bold looks ahead.
“GLORIOUS GAME” by EL MICHELS AFFAIR & BLACK THOUGHT
Tariq Luqmaan Trotter and Leon Michels would seem to be the perfect pair to explore the crossover between hip and soul. Trotter (MC name – Black Thought) has a long history with the Roots, and Michels’ outfit has played with some of hip hop’s leading acts. They combine to put out one of the year’s best hip hop albums. The title track blends Trotter’s rough baritone rapping with Kirby Dockery’s heavenly vocals for a glorious song.
“BADLY DRAWN HERO” by SKECK185 & JEFF MARKEY
Speaking of Black Thought, here’s what SKECH185 has to say: “The revolution will have a laugh track – and a guest verse for Black Thought.” Do with that what you will. This is dense, name-dropping rapping that covers enough material for an entire album, all in one pulsating track.
“VIN SKULLY” by EARL SWEATSHIRT & THE ALCHEMIST
It kind of seems that Earl Sweatshirt and the Alchemist have been slowly drifting toward each other for a few years. Their collaboration here yields an album that may be better-known for the cool way they snuck it into the world without anyone noticing. But the tracks – and least most of them – are powerful too. “Vin Skully” has an epic feel despite being under two minutes long.
“CHANNEL FIT” by TIERRA WHACK
Tierra Whack hasn’t released a full album since her debut in 2018. If her new single “Channel Fit” is on a new album one day, it will be definitely be an album to check out. Her voice is more assured and shows a broader range. Over a tinkly Nick Verruto piano beat, Whack’s staccato flow is jam-packed with clever, offbeat rhymes, never once feeling the need to tell all the bitches how bad she is.
“SPACEMAN” by MONSTER FLORENCE
My last two hip hop songs come from British artists. I don’t know if that means anything. Thought I’d just throw it out there. Monster Florence is a three-rapper crew that performs over a guitar/bass/drum trio. “Spaceman” has Jonny Poole’s jazzy piano underneath a takeoff countdown before launching into a series of childhood memories about searching for a miracle that might come from above. They reference Maradona, Neil Buchanon, and, as you might expect, given the title, Buzz Aldrin.
“STOP GIVING ME ADVICE” by LYRICAL LEMONADE & DAVE (FEATURING JACK HARLOW)
OK, so neither Cole Bennett (of Lyrical Lemonade) nor Jack Harlow (who kicks off this track) are Brits. But Dave is. So I’m counting it. I mean, he mentions Knightsbridge, after all. “Stop Giving Me Advice” is one of those rare laid-back angry tracks that keeps its cool while calling out how people who haven’t lived it really ought leave true artists alone. That’s the kind of thing I might take personally. But I like the track way too much to take offense.