Hip-hop is synonymous with pop, and so by mainstream standards the eye rolls in 2014 were difficult to avoid: Macklemore’s Grammy success way back in January and Iggy Azalea’s summer reign and American Music Award for Best Rap Album, chief among them. That’s the lede—the rampant whitewashing of hip-hop by gate-crasher artists, siphoning gasoline and driving further because of an inherent path toward connecting with young suburbia. There was a week where three of the top five iTunes hip-hop sellers were albums written and performed by white artists.
I saw Azalea perform twice, and unlike Macklemore (who sells his insular and bland wheat without much of an olive branch to other rap music), she was an interesting entry point to southern hip-hop for teenagers. That doesn’t mean that her entire assimilated persona isn’t hogwash, and while “Fancy” should have been called “Catchy,” I’m mostly bummed that people were too busy listening to endless “Fancy” loops to catch Gangsta Boo and La Chat’s stellar comeback record. The Memphis, Tenn., 36 Mafia associates reunited with Juicy J’s clique and their first record in six years was the calendar’s best classical gangsta rap project—double-tracked vocals, extensive snares from producer Drumma Boy.
Elsewhere, Vine solidified itself as a hip-hop breeding ground for hits. Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N***a” became an instant-trap classic after serving as ripe canvas for six-second parodies—propelled by the viral Shmoney dance. Even Elmo got in on it.
But anyone that enjoys rap music should point to DJ Mustard as the artist of the year. The 24-year-old Los Angeles producer went on a dastardly tear through club hip-hop and was behind seemingly every strong banger with his signature ratchet style. In addition to an underrated solo record, Mustard produced 12 hit songs in 2014 (even one with, sigh, Iggy Azalea). But it was his inner circle—songstress Tinashe, rapper YG, Auto-Tune master Ty Dolla $ign—that made the most raw, farm-to-table Mustard.
In the wake of the tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., hip-hop was relatively quiet. It was the year of the mindless banger, after all: “Tomorrow I might be hungover, that don’t mean nothing,” sings Kid Ink on the brilliant “Show Me.” Killer Mike was a welcome voice on the porch; The Game organized a nice protest song; Vince Staples wrote the best cop paranoia track; Christian rapper Lecrae (who scored a No. 1 Billboard album) had a lot of interesting things to say.
Urban radio was an endless loop of 10 or so hot songs that played across Clear Channel stations every two hours. There was a unified, glossy filter in songs by August Alsina, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Usher, and Trey Songz, yet I love the way countless radio stations called “The Beat” reduce these tracks into a fuzzy, FM party to go.
In terms of mixtape culture, it was dominated by unofficial, high-profile moments. Mostly Rich Gang’s Tha Tour Part 1, a corporate merger of a crew that now loosely includes Birdman, Drake, Lil Wayne, DJ Khaled, Juvenile, Nicki Minaj, Soulja Boy, and critical darling rookie associate Young Thug.
On Spotify, we got an avalanche of singles and collaborations. Here’s a grinding playlist full of 85 unimpeachable tracks. Yes, I included that A$AP Ferg shout out to Adam Levine. For sure, we got that Riff Raff skit where he pretends to be the moon. No doubt, there’s ample Rick Ross features. Please believe, Kanye West’s ode to dipping Kim Kardashian’s ass in gold is on deck.
Screengrab via Rich Gang VEVO/YouTube