i’m down i swear

The 2015 PFG Playlist

*pulls tarp off of website, shakes out the cobwebs*

Hey. How was your year?

I meeeeeaaaan, look. I’m not going to defend the lack of activity here. I work nights, I’m not perpetually tired, but I’m pretty tired a lot of the time. I wrote some stuff for some people, but a lot of where my non-day job hours of consciousness ended up was on the retooled RadioPFG. What was once a semiregular directionless podcast has now become, on the strength of the two years I’ve spent as a junior-intermediate crate digger, a weekly hourlong show I produce myself live every Saturday at 2:00 pm. I broadcast it on Mixlr every week, then toss the newest episode on Soundcloud for the following seven days. I’ve really enjoyed doing it, and the feedback from the friends who are listening regularly has encouraged me enough to keep  working on it from week to week.

If there’s one thing working on the show has done, is that it’s allowed me to re-engage with music on a deeper level than I have in a few years. After years of writing these preambles and lamenting that music was boring me or that I couldn’t find 20 songs that I loved in any given year, I had more music than I could handle in 2015, and what’s more, I was actively seeking it out, which is new. Record collecting and programming a show has made my tastes weirder and (no surprise here) more global. Let’s take a stroll through the songs that blessed my ears the most this year, not the objectively superior, not necessarily the most innovative, just the ones I liked the best, in no order.

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The 2014 PFG Playlist

Let’s ignore for the moment that you could count on both hands the number of posts between the 2013 and 2014 editions of this list. I wrote a book, people!

The last time I drafted my annual list of favourite songs, I was surprised to find that there were actually tracks that I had to leave off to keep it at ten, the first time in recent memory that had happened.

Yeeeeeaaaah. Didn’t really have that problem this year.

While I still ended up with more than ten songs (opting to scrap my self-imposed limit this year), my sense of disconnect and indifference with the current musical landscape returned more ferociously than before, for a few reasons, chief among them my two-footed jump into record collecting.

Devoting so much of my extracurricular efforts to educating myself on what vinyl’s worth my time turned my musical attentions backwards. I refocused on the things I always loved and started self-directed studies in the jazz and soul records that formed the foundations that built hip-hop; it’s an endeavour that’s proven rather labour-intensive. Turns out there’s a shit load of music that’s been produced in the last sixty years, who knew? But I still try to stay out here.

If there’s any thematic unity among 2014’s selections, it would be a sudden surge of female artists onto the list in the year’s latter half and the abrupt end of my brief flirtation with guitars, following Deafheaven’s surprising appearance last year.

I was saying to a friend last weekend, and I’m aware of how arrogant this sounds, but I really feel like after a certain point, you just start to get bored with the sounds that things like six strings through distortion pedals can produce. The kids at my job are getting their lives over Ty Segall and King Tuff, and I just caaaaan’tBecause all that music makes me want to do is listen to Dinosaur Jr or like, I don’t know, The Cave-In. Or Hot Water Music. Or Quicksand. Or any of the dozens of rock bands I was into at their age that they would undoubtedly find wack as hell.

Look at  it this way: back when I was playing in the band, our mandate always seemed to be that we were trying to play as loudly as possible to punch through to some sort of transcendent emotion, and personally, I don’t feel like we ever fully pulled it off because we were limited not only by our skill set but by the instruments we were using. I find that synthesizers and software are twanging that note in my soul more lately, and 2014 was the year I fully accepted them into my life.

Not that anyone cares nearly two weeks into the year, but I’ve already come this far, so let’s get this over with, in no particular order.

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On Bob James

In what’s been a monumental development for me but standard operating procedure for most of you, I am now finally, legitimately on Spotify.

You’re confused. You would be. I will explain.

Despite being available to our Southern neighbours for over three years, the online streaming music service only launched in Canada last week (making it the site’s 58th market. Oh yeah, Lithuania had Spotify before we did).

I’d managed to finagle backdoor access to the site here and there and understood the appeal, but having the full experience via the app on my phone has been game changing. I’m using the service for free for the time being, so there are some limitations, of course, but who cares if I can only shuffle my playlists, I made them, so I like everything on them.

As an aspiring and inexperienced vinyl collector, Spotify’s already proven itself a godsend. I can search for songs I might have own on vinyl but not digitally, or albums I’ve been thinking about copping, add them to a playlist, and check them out while working overnight at the day job. It’s given me a chance to gain a deeper appreciation for songs I knew, but couldn’t really listen to closely because I’d only ever had them on vinyl.

Songs like “Nautilus.”

“Nautilus” is the last song on One,  the debut solo album by jazz keyboardist Bob James. Blending a stinky groove from bassist Gary King and drummer Idris Muhammad, the spacey pings and tones of James’s organ and cinematic string flourishes, the song immediately caught the ears of hip-hop producers rifling through their parents’ record collections.

In the subsequent years, flipping “Nautilus” became a compulsory part of a producer’s education: everyone has taken a pass at it. Which is amazing enough in itself, but what’s even crazier is, according to an intervew James gave to Noisey last year, the song was kind of a throwaway to begin with.

“It was almost completely ignored in 1974. Back then you put the best track on Side A at the beginning and outside of the record because it always sounds best because the groove is wider. “Nautilus” was towards the end of Side B, a filler track really,” said James. “It was the last track we recorded and it was recorded last minute. I had a little bass line and everything else we [improvised] in the studio. So it wasn’t the focus of the album whatsoever.”

I spent a morning this week exploring some of my favourite interpolations of the track, amazed at how a truly exceptional producer will find some kernel of the song that hasn’t really been explored yet, or slice and dice the track like a samurai and reassemble it into a speaker-blowing monster.

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All In

Back when I was playing in the band, occasionally friends who knew me outside of the group would ask what I got out of the experience. I was never shy to point out that I rarely listened to the sort of proggish-metal we composed and performed in my personal life, Tool/A Perfect Circle and the odd System of a Down track being the occasional outliers. The response I would always give is that the simple explanation behind my musical preferences is likely no different than anyone else’s, I just require music to make me feel something. When I was striving to be the loudest thing onstage with three of my closest friends, that made me feel transcendent; when I listened to 90’s-era Manic Street Preachers I felt invincible; when I heard Sam Cooke I felt longing but never lonely.

You could argue I experience emotion a little more acutely than others (while being simultaneously oblivious to the feelings of those around me. It’s a process), I don’t think I’m unique in what I want out of music. We all have our artists that we cherish more than others because they strum that string in our souls that can be guaranteed to instantly summon a certain feeling. But it’s important to reiterate as I investigate how I became the guy who wrote a book on J Dilla and became totally enthralled with a Japanese girl group in the same year.

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A Letter to Donald

‘Bino,

I woke up from a mid-morning nap following an overnight shift to a phone blown up with texts and tweets alerting me to the spontaneous listening party you’d announced for your upcoming album in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods park.  I was a little shocked, as far as I knew you were still filming your episodes of Community, but with enough time to throw some clothes on and head down, I didn’t want this to be another of those “Cool things that happen in Toronto that I take for granted and don’t go to.”

There were only about fifty people or so when I showed up, standing around a kid with a pair of amplifiers. I foolishly thought attendance might actually stay at those levels, and that maybe I could tell you some of these things in person, but within fifteen minutes the crowd had swollen to around 200. As the crowd grew and 5.00 came and went the kid with the amplifiers started to look nervous, and it occurred to me it was wholly possible we were about to be trolled by a local crew of kids taking the opportunity to promote their shitty mixtape.  But then you showed up, no fanfare, pushed through the crowd to the picnic table, sat down, plugged your phone into the speakers and started playing the album*.

Aw, dammit. I thought. He’s on his art school bullshit again. I can’t lie, Donald. I’d been concerned. You first hinted at restlessness on the ROYALTY mixtape, so news that you were leaving Community (where I first became a fan) was disappointing, but not surprising. But that short film you made last summer (which I admit I didn’t even watch) caused some eyebrow arching, and then there were your Instagram notes last month. So when you strolled up without a word, I started to wonder if I was willing to hang with where you were going.

By the time I left Bellwoods, though, I was back on board, not from anything you did, per se, but from what the crowd did.

Toronto is…we can be a weird town. Superior yet love-starved. Many in that park seemed to think they’d be getting a concert of some sort, despite your earlier tweet to the contrary. A few climbed nearby trees to catch a glimpse of you. When you’d played what you wanted to, you stood up and answered questions from the crowd for half an hour. When a second person asked you if you were going to do any stand-up, a few of us groaned and you chuckled and mentioned someone had already asked that and moved on to the next question.

“Uhh, okay?  Thank you? For not answering my question? Appreciate it!” the guy hollered. And all I could think was Wowww, you know what?  Fuck youguy. He owes you nothing. And that was when it all sort of clicked in for me. You don’t owe me anything either. If I’m sad the antics of Troy and Abed will be shortened this year, tough shit for me. Would I really turn down the chance to run the ship at my own show if given your choice?  No, I wouldn’t. Neither would anyone else.

As for the ‘cry for help.’ Instagram notes, I watched your Breakfast Club interview where you explained that part of what inspired it was just feeling alone and lost, like damn near every other twentysomething butting their heads against the promises of history.

“Everybody stunts on Instagram. Nobody shows their buddy’s funeral, nobody wants to be vulnerable. People thought I was crazy because I was honest. That was it,” you said.

That honesty is what always drew me to your music, that willingness to admit fear that always causes “real heads” to get their backs up and start calling people “soft.”  Like Kanye said, “We’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” He was never supposed to be the last.

When I was in journalism school my second writing course was on various styles of column writing, personal essays, shit like that.  For my first workshop submission, I wrote about something extremely personal that was going on with my family. I was older than most of my classmates, who I’d only known for five months by then. You could feel the air getting sucked out of the room as they read it. But I just threw it all out there because I couldn’t stand the idea of restraint, felt like all of our work work would suffer if we weren’t willing to go all the way with it. I’ve grown somewhat more diplomatic in how I deploy the truth in the subsequent years, but I still believe what I did in that class: that any art that means anything has to leave it all on the table. Your willingness to do that, rawer than how Kanye or Drake or even Eminem do it, is unlike anything I’ve heard in hip-hop, and is still so exciting to me. It’s like being 12 years old and listening to De La Soul is Dead for the first time, just being enthralled and anxious and confused all at once.

So what I guess I’m trying to say is do your damn thing, Donald, whatever that thing might be. If you want to write, write. If you want to make music, make music. I might not love everything you do, but you’ll always make it worthwhile to check in.

Best,

Jordan

ps: That “rainbow, sunshine” song? The one that sounded like Jhené Aiko sung a hook?  It’s a goddamn monster.

*Because the Internet, out Dec. 10.

 

Gone to Ground

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But how could I go any deeper, you ask?

I’m writing this on a train southbound to Windsor, where I will then drive another half an hour south into the asphyxiating humidity of Amherstburg, Ontario, where I will hole up in my parents’ house for the next week and a half to take the scraps, scenes, scribbles and scrivenings I have floating around my hard drive, in Moleskines, on ripped papers currently stuffed in my pockets and attempt to stitch them into something resembling a cohesive narrative for 30,000 – 35,000 words, which I will then take the month of July to edit and polish, and then send off to the powers that be and hope they still want to publish it. I will likely need to write a giant decompression post when that happens. But that will be later.

Today, I want to talk about that photo up top. See, this past Friday the good folks at Hip-Hop Karaoke Toronto had their inaugural ‘Posse Cut’ Edition. After three annual solo competitions, the crew listened to feedback from folks who wanted to compete as groups, and set up this event for duos, trios and quartets, keeping everything nice and equal.

Hip-Hop Karaoke has always been a thing I do a lot with one particular person. I used to date that person. I no longer do. No further details necessary.We still see each other, we still hang out. Sometimes it’s weird, most times it’s not. People find this confusing. I don’t really care.

Anyway, the two of us had gone up individually on separate occasions to some acclaim as performers, but cemented our legacy with a performance of MOP’s “World Famous” that years later was still cited as one of the best performances of all time. OF ALL TIME. Hell yes, I will big myself up.

But for some reason, it always felt to me that we never really got over. We had a couple rough performances, we [okay me] can be socially awkward around people so friendships with the other regulars were limited to a quick dap and ‘S’up?’ walking through the club. But when the group competition was announced, we knew we had to do something.

There was some minor bickering over song selection: I’d thought ‘The Next Episode’ by Dr. Dre was something unique I hadn’t really seen done before, and the Nate Dogg portions could inspire some fun crowd interactions. She thought it was a little slow, might bring the energy down. She suggested “Peter Piper” by Run-DMC. I was a little hesitant, considering the song’s age, and how much the kids in the crowd might know it, but it had some good back-and-forth work [the thing everyone remembers about that MOP performance], some classic lines, and even if the kids didn’t know the song specifically, everyone knows that Bob James break by now. So I agreed, and we spent the next week working it out.

I didn’t turn to look at the judges behind me while we performed, but I heard from friends later that they were going pretty nuts. All I knew at the time was when I decided spontaneously to throw out some classic, ‘Lemme hear you say ho-oooh!‘ to the crowd, the response was far louder than I’d anticipated.

Oh shit,” I thought, “We could actually place.”

Well, we didn’t place. We won the whole damn thing. Full disclosure, we ended up tying with a pair of ladies who have become regular in the last six months and have always impressed. I didn’t have a problem with it, it was good company to be in.

I’ve thought about that night a lot this weekend. About how, despite no longer being together, I’ll always trust that girl implicitly when I step on stage with her, just like I used to trust my band mates back in the Ictus days. The band always used to say we’d never do it with anyone else, just because that sixth sense of understanding you develop with performers you’ve known for years, that’s too hard to find. We used to call it ‘bedroom eyes’, that look we’d give each other when a change-up was coming. That’s how I felt about her at HHK. I’ve performed with other partners, and while it’s gone well enough, there was a spark missing.

I’ve also thought a lot about how the classics never go out of style, about how the song that probably got me into hip-hop in the first place, just two guys from Queens saying nursery rhymes and big-upping their DJ could still tear the place down, 30 years after it was first released.The whole point of hip-hop was to rock a party. Despite how much time has passed, the tools for party rocking haven’t varied much, and that makes me very happy.

There’s currently no video footage of our performance, and I almost prefer it that way [if some turns up later, I’ll post it here or more likely on PFGExpress]. I like the idea of it only existing in the memories of the people who saw it, and in ours. Just one more thing she’s now staked for herself in my brain, one more item shoved into the folder of things that will always remind me of her, along with Coco by Chanel, Volkswagen Beetles and a million other things.

I once said ‘the couple that HHK’s together, stays together.’ Time might have proven me wrong, but it doesn’t mean we won’t eat a pair of microphones when called to do so. We have the medals to prove it.

That’s the Joint

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I’ve heard it mentioned on occasion that everyone has one story in them that only they can tell.  A story so inextricably entangled in the core of that person’s most authentic self that to withhold it does a disservice bordering on insult [series like The Moth or the back page of Toronto Life butter their bread on this very theory].

For a while now, I’ve known what my story is, I’ve just been trying to decide on the medium to tell it in [closest I ever came was about a dozen pages worth of graphic novel scripting, still sitting on my hard drive. If any artists out there want to take a crack, email me]. Longtime readers know I will always maintain that my coming of age, while not necessarily unique, or stuffed with hardships, was just really fricking weird.  

When you grow up in a rural part of Southwestern Ontario, Canada, during the 1980s, surrounded on all fronts by body shops, dilapidated tractors, abandoned barns, and poorly tended corn fields while the nascent forms of hip-hop, house and techno are crossing the river via radio signal from a Black cultural giant like Detroit…when you gravitate towards that culture, in that environment, it cements your outsider status, and it leaves you with a sense of, not isolation necessarily, but of standing apart, being out of step. And that feeling never really disappears. Sometimes you’re reminded why.

A few weeks back I came across the above photo on Facebook.  As a joke, it’s a cute pun but not very funny; as cultural commentary it’s a ‘facepalm and move on,’ type of trifle. It just amazes me that this some people still find the need to engage in this insecure dick swinging, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Take my Pops.  He took me to buy Fat Boys tapes at Devonshire Mall when I was nine years old, I still remember him trying to explain to the clerk what exactly it was I looking for [“I think it’s called ‘rap,’ or something?  I don’t know, it all sounds like garbage.”]. He loves to make jokes deliberately getting the names of MCs incorrect [‘Biggie Big’ is a personal favourite of both of us]. He’s watched me embrace this music for almost 30 years, he knows I’m writing a book about it, yet there is definitely a part of him that still cannot believe that this music, this culture, still exists, let alone evolved into the economic titan it is today. And that’s not entirely unreasonable of him: the origins of the music and the cultural concerns present therein couldn’t be more foreign to him.  They should be foreign to me; I’ve yet to suss out a reasonable explanation for why it resonated with me so fully, but it is what it is. Between the rhythm of the beats and the education in classic soul, jazz and funk they’ve always provided, I’ve just always found it a more rewarding musical experience than ‘Arrrrr, rawk!’ [I’ll give some slack to Deftones, who fully exposed their desire to be a Depeche Mode cover band somewhere around 2005. Abe still plays too busy, though].

And I’m not going to sit here and act like I’ve never looked down my nose exasperated at a crew of gel-spiked dudes in Affliction t-shirts throwing up the devil horns at the camera, but I’ve tried to adopt a certain level of cultural detente with those camps as I get older and mellowed out; as the homie Big Ghost once said: “I aint really mad at it tho…like it aint horrible or nothin. It jus dont got no real purpose in my iTunes.”

It’s funny, I remember a few months back watching Lords of the Underground perform at Hip-Hop Karaoke’s Competition Round.  In the middle of ‘Chief Rocka,’ Mr. Funkee cut the beat off, and said the following before he finished his verse:


Let me explain something to y’all. I been doing this shit for almost 22 years. And there’s people that still can’t say this shit. So on this whole tour we’ve been on, I’ve been breaking this shit down so that people can understand it, because it’s important for us to communicate as hip-hop artists. Because they don’t want hip-hop to flourish, they don’t want hip-hop to survive, they don’t want…they hate this shit, dude. Trust me.”

I remember standing in the crowd thinking, ‘well, that’s a little dramatic.’ After three decades, the music had gone from a block party conceit to a globally dominant culture, and you can’t play the underdog once you’re on top.

But then I see that photo. And it occurs to me how wonderful it is that after all this time, this hip-hop thing can still get people shook enough to draw their lines in the sand, even via something as benign as a chalk sign.

That’s a beautiful thing.

The 2012 PFG Playlist

This gets harder and harder to do every year, friends. My relationship with new music in 2012 was a lot like my relationship with people who still watch Glee: I have a vague idea of what they’re talking about, I used to be more heavily invested, now I really don’t care enough to pay much attention to it. The few times I did pop my head out from the wormhole to 1994 I typically live in, there was nothing but poverty-fetishizing dustbowl folk music at one end of the musical spectrum and monosyllabic raps over trap beats on the other. Growing disconnect with the musical landscape is not an atypical condition to find oneself in, and God knows I’ve been on the wrong side of the cultural fence over the years as both a player and a listener. I’ve grown to accept and embrace it.

That said, despite the increased difficulty factor, there were still ten songs that managed to cross the divide to my lonely island. Some clarifications:

These songs are the ten songs I liked the most. Not the most perfectly constructed, not the most beautifully melodic, not the ones that had something to say about the human condition. I might be able to appreciate that the military precision with which Taylor Swift’s team of drones can craft a chorus, but it’s not anything I’m ever going to want to listen to. Perhaps that’s a deficiency in my musical genome, but something in a song has to speak to me on a level I can’t articulate. There has to be something in there that summons a mood, or a feeling, something I’ll want to go back to again and again. These are the songs that I’ll still be listening to when I draft next year’s list. So, in no particular order.

Large Professor f/ Cormega, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, & Saigon: M.A.R.S.

The clear standout from the fourth album by 90’s-era beat king Large Professor, Professor @ Large. This song is everything you want from a grimy, East Coast street cut: Snares crack like a 2×4 over your head and kicks slug you in the chest over a suspenseful pulse of sampled strings, while four of NY’s finest underground MC’s spit some ‘grown man rap.’ Special shouts to Saigon’s surprising show stealer of a verse, and for those 16th notes on the hi-hats. That’s the sort of thing that makes an okay beat a great beat. Class is in session.

BJ the Chicago Kid f/ Kendrick Lamar: His Pain II

Kendrick is the MVP of the year, no one can really argue with that. good kid, m.A.A.d. city is probably the best complete work of art any musician made this year [I don’t know how well it works as songs, I find I have to listen to the whole thing instead of dipping in and out via the shuffle on my iPhone. This is a good problem to have, the last album I felt that way about was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy]. But even as incredible as his flow his on the album is, there’s something about this guest spot on ‘His Pain II’ that connects with me more, abandoning the galloping, triple time flow he pulls out a little too often and delivers a verse like a conversation, confronting the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people. Which would be impressive enough by itself, but the rest of the song, delivered via BJ’s scratchy, Sam Cooke-lite voice over a head-knocker of a breakbeat, is nothing to sleep on either.

Nas: Daughters

Look. He’s never going to make another Illmatic. The sooner everyone accepts that, the better off we’ll all be. Instead, he dropped the first album of rap’s middle age, an album that isn’t perfect, but when everything clicks into place, Life is Good just soars, never higher than it does on this song addressing a topic rarely if ever discussed in hip-hop: the relationship between a father and his daughter. Nasir comes real on the struggle he faces trying to set good examples and solid boundaries despite being…well, a rap star. Great rappers should always come with the real, even [especially?] if the real isn’t life in the streets, or poverty, or flossing. Nas may never be the King of New York again, but he’s claimed the spot as Rap’s Elder Statesman: the man who’s seen it all and come out the other side ready to drop jewels for anyone with ears to listen. While Jay-Z watches his throne, Nas is teaching in the trenches.

ScHoolboy Q f/ A$AP Rocky: Hands on the Wheel

Kendrick Lamar’s able lieutenant in the TDE crew, ScHoolboy stands poised to be a guy who has an incredible 2013, and the highlight of Habits and Contradictions partners him with a guy in the same position. Yes, it’s just a song about the pleasures of non-sobriety, but the sample selection, a reclamation of folk singer Lissie’s cover of Kid Cudi’s ‘The Pursuit of Happiness‘ [seriously, stop it white girls], gives it a sort of sinister undertone that suggests as much fun as they’re having, everyone involved is well aware of the prices that may end up being paid.

Also? Don’t roll weed on your MacBook. Come on, now. This is why we can’t have nice things.

J. Dilla & Katy Perry: The One That Got Away

My favourite album, the thing I listened to more than anything else, was an amateur mashup album of Katy Perry vocals over known and rare J. Dilla beats mixed by someone calling himself De’von. As with all mash-up projects, there are some uneven patches, not all of the pairings work as well as they could, many are good, and a few, like this one, do that thing all good mashups should: surpass both original components and make you wonder why it didn’t sound like this in the first place. De’Von tweaks Perry’s vocals so they slide perfectly into the pocket of Slum Village’s ‘Tell Me’, adding a dose of funky melancholy to the tale of lost love. Another fine testament to the usefulness of remix culture: no one’s making money here, it’s just a way of making something new and interesting by blending two individual pieces.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib f/ BJ the Chicago Kid: Terrorist/Shame

My problem with Madlib is simply that he’s too good. There’s way too much quality for me to keep up with at any given time, but when he teams up with one of my favourite rappers I pay closer attention. Freddie Gibbs is not someone I would have ever pegged to work with Madlib, but his tales of stickups and dope deals sound tailor made to the 70’s stained funk of ‘Terrorist’ and soulful strings of ‘Shame’, complete with a video that makes selling cocaine to hipster girls look like a sensible career alternative.

Usher: Climax

At this point, anytime Usher releases a song that clocks in under 130 BPM and isn’t produced by David Guetta it’s cause for celebration. It helps if it’s an earworm of a melody sung in breathy falsetto over a Diplo-crafted quiet storm beat. What takes it from a radio-only confection to an iTunes addition is the trick played by the title and chorus. In the oversexed pop landscape of 2012, it would be easy to assume ‘Cimax’ referred to…well, what we all would think it does. But the song is actually talking about that moment in a relationship when it’s as good as it gets, when you’re lying with her and you know nothing will ever surpass that moment, and what a humbling and painful realization that can be. Grown folks’ music.

Y.N.RichKids: Hot Cheetos and Takis

Just so we’re all clear: this song is the product of an after-school program at a YMCA in Minnesota. All the kids in it had to maintain good grades to participate in the song. And when they got in a studio, they rapped about what they liked: snack foods. The catch is that it’s really fucking good.

Nevermind that the beats sounds like it was left off a Rick Ross album, the simple fact is the kids can rhyme, and I’ve yet to see two write-ups that agree on which kid had the strongest verse [Personally, I rep #11]. This song was just such a fun reminder, after how depressed I was after the Lil Reese shitshow that contemporary sounding hip-hop can still have that foundation of fun, innocence and party-rocking that the music was built on in the first place.

Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha T & 2 Chainz: Mercy

Cruel Summer worked like pretty much every other hip-hop compilation album since the dawn of time: one or two awesome songs, two or three more okay songs, filler filler filler and the continued inexplicable presence of DJ Khaled. ‘Clique’ was the best beat, ‘I Don’t Like’ was the hypest song, ‘New God Flow’ had the best all around rapping. But ‘Mercy’, while not being the best of any of those subjects, kept a high enough average among them to claim the overall victory. From Big Sean’s ‘ass’-play to Pusha’s lyrical dominance and Ric Flair fixation to Kanye’s hook to an anchor verse by 2 Chainz that solidified his career, you couldn’t deny this one.

Knxwledge – wntwrk

My beatmaking discovery of the year was Philadelphia’s Knxwledge, who put out the four-volume Karma.Loops series in 2012 [the above track comes from Vol. 3]. I’m predisposed to love his work, considering it blends the jazziness of Nujabes with the vocal-chopping of J. Dilla. Quick little 90-second bursts of genius. One day the right people are going to start jumping on his beats, and we’re all done for.

BONUS! Three Songs Not Released This Year That I Discovered in 2012 and Probably Like Better Than Any of The Above

Pete Rock & CL Smooth: It’s On You

I have a dream, friends. It’s a dream to DJ [ie, just play songs, I respect the title too much to claim it] a night I’d call ‘Mellow My Man‘ at some lounge in Toronto where they care more about a dope atmosphere and bobbing heads no faster than 96 BPM than cold rocking a dance floor. This song is the reason I want to. Popping up on a Songza playlist this fall, I fell in love immediately. Pete Rock & CL Smooth were already responsible for some of my favourite rap songs, I have no idea why I never delved deeper into their album cuts, but there’s much to love there, especially on The Main Ingredient, which definitely owned the later months this year for me. Dusty drums bouncing over a plaintive piano loop, CL’s flow perfectly in-pocket. Can’t beat that.

Washed Out: Feel It All Around

This is so unlike me, but listen: when I was in journalism school, back in 2003-2004, listening to Royksopp and The Postal Service, this song would have owned my life. So, credit where due. Breathy vocals and airy synths over a chopped and screwed Gary Low sample. People seem to have claimed this as a summer song, but I know it’s the sort of thing that’ll be soothing me through the long Toronto nights.

Phat Kat f/ Elzhi: Cold Steel

The most intimidating part of the book project [so far] has been trying to get a full sense of J. Dilla’s discography. I started to resolve myself to the fact that as far as his musical progression was concerned, I might have to paint in broad strokes. Then a kid at work who’s a total head said he was so excited because he just got the ’64 Beats’ tape, and was horrified to learn I had no idea what that was. To my surprise, he sent me a copy, and buried near the end of that batch [which I’m pretty certain was put together by fans after the fact] is the original sketch to this song. And my jaw just. fricking. dropped. This is maybe the ‘street-est’ Dilla beat I’ve ever heard, more than ‘Fuck the Police’ even. It’s got the bounce of his Soulquarian stuff, a pinch of some Donuts-era vocal chopping but the drums slap your mama, and Phat Kat and Elzhi, two of Detroit’s best MC’s, just eat the track alive. I’ve no idea if this is Dilla’s attempt at a ‘keyboard beat,’ but if it is, he would have been just fine in an era of trap music and ratchet beats.

Image: “Sound Wave” by Jin Shin. [h/t]