The Music Club

Best albums and biggest rapper 2014: Jon Caramanica on J. Cole, Young Thug, Nicki Minaj, Bobby Shmurda, Drake.

Entry 14: Let’s talk about what really matters: Who was the most important rapper of 2014?

J. Cole, Iggy Azalea, and Young Thug
J. Cole, Iggy Azalea, and Young Thug.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Mountain Dew, Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for iHeartMedia, and Rick Diamond/Getty Images for PUMA.

Team America: Pop Police,

I want to talk about a more innocent time. I want to talk about 2006, the last time (ahem) I was a part of this particular stitch ’n’ bitch.

Forrest, our supervisor and handler in this ping-pong match, reminded me that I’d taken a moment back then to advocate for a little-known teen singer named Taylor Swift. Yes, yes, good on me, but what I really remember from that year’s conversation was a later comment on a message board somewhere in which the writer—presumably a metal bro—was incredulous that a guy who worked at Vibe (where I then worked) would be into Agalloch.


Nowadays, you could have Pallbearer on the cover of XXL and I’d only flinch a little. Hybrid sensibilities are our new Merge tote bags or Snow Beach Polo pullovers or pressed Wranglers: They are the thing we show off to let everyone know where our allegiances lie. Which is everywhere—being open-eared is ostensibly a sign of anti-racism (not really) and gender progressivism (also not really) and is at least slightly aligned with the tenets of poptimism. (I’ve never been one of those, sorry—and no, I’m not one of those fuddy-duddies who think that paying attention to pop is doing a disservice to worthy indie cultures.) It’s a way of saying that we know that all those silly hierarchies that used to hold us back just don’t mean anything. (Really it’s just about Drake—everyone loves Drake. Drake is the singularity.)


But it’s also a sign of privilege, a way of writing identities that are more complex and fascinating than the ones we started out with. And it also allows people to gloss over conundrums within genres because they’re too busy showing off how fluent they are across them.

So let’s dwell for a minute on a question I ask myself every year, more or less: Who was the most important/popular/relevant rapper of the year?

Was it J. Cole, whose quiet anti-materialism and mild awkwardness have finally hardened into a workable sound (just in time to align with the changing mood of the country in the wake of Ferguson protests) and who, with his third album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, just had the largest sales week of any rapper this year? Was it Young Thug, who may never release a major-label album because of major-label nonsense but who was the year’s great stylistic innovator? Was it Kid Ink, who I still can’t identify on sight but who was gifted with, you know, a couple of very popular rap radio singles? Was it the all-star tag-team duo of Killer Mike and El-P, Run the Jewels, the choice of responsible white progressives everywhere? (I remember joking with my dear friend Sean Fennessey, also back in 2006, about how we would make a concerted effort to “bring backpack rap back”—this was before I knew what trolling was—but now it’s happened organically. Ain’t life grand?) Or was it Iggy Azalea, who is, you know, super-duper popular and white?


If you like all of these artists, good on you. But what I’d like to see more of is macro understanding of how all of these divergent approaches—successful divergent approaches—all emerged in concert. How they are born of the same ecosystem.


And that’s not even taking into account the new one-hit wonders of the world of apps. Jason asked what a Soundcloud Awards show might look like. I’d like to see the Vine Awards because Bobby Shmurda (#freebobby) and OG Maco were as important to 2014 as any of those other people I mentioned, their climbs beginning with six-second bursts.

There have always been different hip-hops—they were just better hidden. The improvements to the Billboard charts help somewhat in surfacing all the different sorts of cream, but there will always be some things that no metric can really capture.


For that, I’m thinking of Nicki Minaj, whose infection of the pop consciousness is nowhere near matched by her album sales or chart success. She is an A-plus famous person who occasionally makes B-minus albums. (Oh, and my unpopular opinion about “Only” is that it’s basically fan fic—offensively lewd on the outside but likely, as Lindsay said, misandrist at the core.) (My slightly less unpopular opinion is that Drake totally knows this.)


Nicki, I think, made it possible for all of the (white) female artists mentioned earlier in this conversation—Iggy, Ariana, and so on—to have a place to thrive. That may be Nicki’s legacy—Taylor rapping “Super Bass” and a million white girls feeling just a smidge badass and starting to rap. And while we’re here, let’s not put the Beyoncé-Nicki collaborations in the same breath as, like, “Black Widow.” Those types of team-ups are born of the hope that 1+1 might equal 47. Nicki and Beyoncé coming together is a gift on par with universal health care.


As for the rookies, as Carl dubbed them—I mean, look how dull it was to be an old this year. Aphex Twin returned and sounded like … Aphex Twin. U2 returned and sounded like … U2. D’Angelo returned and sounded like … D’Angelo. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think Madonna quite sounded like Madonna on those leaked demos, but she was plenty vintage when she overreached and called their leaking a “form of terrorism.”) Some people might find this sort of thing reassuring, and some will just go back and play Selected Ambient Works 85–92, if there’s even time in between all the Sam Hunt songs that need unpacking.


Some things I would have loved to touch on had there been more time: #emorevival, Idina Menzel, Ann’s valuable note that Sam Smith is “still forming,” Brantley Gilbert >>> Eric Church, “No Type”/“Club Goin Up on a Tuesday,” the bait-and-switch that was Miranda Lambert’s Platinum, and why none of us apparently give a whit about dance music. (There are some good reasons for that, I think, but mostly they’re bad.) Maybe these things will pop up in a future Popcast—Carl, you do flatter me, and I do like it.


My Top 10 list is already public record, so how about I give you the Platinum Edition including Nos. 11–20? That’s my idea of an update. (Sorry, Lindsay, and also Nicki, whose line that I’m referencing wasn’t any funnier than mine.)

Let’s hit the club and order 100 bottles of rosé,


1. Young Thug and Bloody Jay, Black Portland
2. Beyoncé, Beyoncé
3. YG, My Krazy Life
4. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
5. Future, Honest
6. Jason Derulo, Talk Dirty
7. Taylor Swift, 1989
8. Tinashe, Aquarius
9. Your Old Droog, Your Old Droog
10. Jason Aldean, Old Boots, New Dirt
11. Toni Braxton and Babyface, Love, Marriage & Divorce
12. Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, We Don’t Have Each Other
13. Little Big Town, Pain Killer
14. The Hotelier, Home, Like Noplace Is There
15. Ratking, So It Goes
16. Teyana Taylor, VII
17. Romeo Santos, Formula, Vol. 2
18. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness
19. Lykke Li, I Never Learn
20. The Pretty Reckless, Going to Hell