Before the storm of best-of lists to come, I wanted to take a second to put aside the artistic merit aspect of the year in review, and take a look at what happened in the cultural landscape of rap music. Some of these albums were really good, some of them were really not, but all of them will affect what hip-hop fans will be listening to in 2013.
Finally Rich, Chief Keef
This album isn't out until December 18, but the singles "3Hunna," "I Don't Like" and "Love Sosa" have made impact on rap music already. Brutally violent and sexual imagery in his lyrics (and equally disturbing actions) have made the 17-year-old Keith Cozart a poster child for everything we as a country need to save the youth of Chicago from. Rhymefest and Lupe Fiasco have both gone on record this year to criticize Cozart and the content of his music, especially after the Chicago Police Department announced on September 5 that he is under investigation in connection with the shooting death of local rap scene peer Joseph "Lil JoJo" Coleman. Ten days later, Chief Keef was banned from Instagram for posting a picture of himself receiving oral sex from a presumably underage groupie. Talk about #nofilter. In the hip-hop community, the rapper is never the problem; the rapper is a product of their environment. Hopefully, in 2013, Cozart will force the American consciousness to ask themselves what the problem in Chicago really is, before we lose any more children to senseless deaths.
Somethin' 'Bout Kreay, Kreayshawn
Somewhere in the Bay Area, a white girl mafiosa known to at least 3,900 fans as Kreayshawn is having a blue Christmas without you. After generating a sizable Internet following, and scoring a major-label deal with a million dollar advance, her debut album bricked pretty hard this September, moving less than 4,000 units in its first week. Not good news for Sony/Columbia, but pretty comforting for us to know that the majors have learned their lesson. Just because the target demographic puts up numbers on your Tumblr page when bored or horny doesn't mean they're gonna head over to Best Buy and put numbers up on the charts if you're not bringing the heat.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick Lamar
You're familiar with the Compton kid, the one who's been taking over everyone's speakers since his first major label album on October 22. The one who won the BET Hip-Hop Award for Lyricist in the Year, which will probably make it an esteemed title to earn now. The one who's been heralded "next" by his peers, the media, the old school. Rap culture recovered a long-lost formula: Let an artist be 100 percent faithful to their own unique vision, and turn it into commercial success. Since the album's release, his single "Swimming Pools (Drank)," a song condemning the effects of alcoholism and binge drinking, hasn't left the top 20 of the Billboard Top 100 (or the top 5 on the Hip-Hop and R&B chart). That alone changes everything.
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Live From the Underground, Big K.R.I.T.
Speaking of first-week numbers, I think the only thing that made true country rap fans happier than seeing Big K.R.I.T. debut and No. 1 on the Hip-Hop and R&B chart was the incredibly warm critical reception that accompanied its release. New-school Southern rappers have been trying for a while now to do what LFTU accomplished. There will never be another UGK, another Scarface, another OutKast. And it's not always satisfying for fans to listen to the younger generation try to emulate something that was executed so perfectly in the '90s. But, once again, the rapper is the product of their environment. Though bred on a lifelong diet of Third Coast promethazine-pourin', grain-grippin', lane-switchin' greats, there are rappers out there like K.R.I.T, who are somehow able to bring an authentically classic feel to a new golden era of Southern rap.
Future had an amazing year. The 25-year-old from Atlanta went from Dungeon Family's songwriting sideliner to one of L.A. Reid's top priorities at Epic Records. He was featured on XXL's freshman list in early 2012, and on Rihanna's new album, Unapologetic. His catchy, melodic, Auto-tuned style brings to mind the pop-rap wave that Nicki Minaj has been riding the last couple of years with "Superbass" and "Starships." Both Future and Minaj also participated in one of the most annoying trends of the year: re-releasing an album less than a year old, adding a few new songs, and calling it a sophomore effort (Pluto 3D). For whatever reason, the public loves this guy, so it looks like bubblegum rap won't be escaping the airwaves in 2013.