If you’re like me, listening to rap music in 2014 was like eating fast food on a daily basis. And just as no good comes from chowing down on sugar, carbs and processed foods every day, a steady diet of unhealthy rap can just leave the mind feeling empty.
Thankfully, 2015 will offer some healthier alternatives.
But there’s a caveat. Just as you might have to travel a little farther down the road for Whole Foods or the Fresh Market if you want to find healthier food, you might have to look beyond your favorite everyday radio station to experience these artists’ music.
Some of the best new albums were released at the end of 2014, rounding the corner into the new year. The ones I recommend are sonically pleasing, have healthier lyrical content and can still easily mix with the other stuff so that at least your brain doesn’t feel as if it’s constantly being assaulted by profanity, violence, misogyny and over-the-top bravado.
Here are some of the best offerings:
Released on Dec. 9, 2014, J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive turned traditional promo tactics on their head. The album has no lead singles or videos. Instead, the focus remains on the music. And while Forest Hills Drive isn’t what you normally think of when you think of commercial rap, it still sold 354,000 copies in its first week, placing J. Cole on the top of the Billboard 200. He also gave an amazing live performance of “Be Free” on The Late Show With David Letterman.
Weeks before J. Cole’s Letterman appearance, Run the Jewels, which includes rapper-activist Killer Mike and rapper-producer El-P, live-performed “Early” from Run the Jewels 2, the duo’s second album together. Unfortunately, you will not hear lyrics like “It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’, man, I don’t control. Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul” on your favorite urban radio station.
Two of my favorite lady MCs right now are Rapsody and Azealia Banks. Rapsody just wrapped the new video for “Hard to Choose,” a 9th Wonder-produced track that includes lyrics like “Because where I’m from it ain’t cool to be wack. And I’m so pro-black.” Banks is, too, if we add her pro-black Twitter sermons about cultural appropriation and reparations to her recent album, Broke With Expensive Taste. Would it be too much to ask to get a collaboration between these two sisters in 2015?
Drake and Kendrick Lamar are also set to release new music. “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” the first single from Drake’s Views From the 6, sounds like a stripped-down version of NWTS’ “Started From the Bottom.” Lamar’s “i” is the lead single for his untitled sophomore follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d city. Beyond the sample of the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady,” “i” includes one of my favorite new riffs: “Give my story to the children and the lesson they can read. And the glory to the feeling of the only unseen. Seen enough, make a motherf—ker scream, ‘I love myself!’”
I’m hoping that in 2015, Nas will bless us with the long-awaited The Lost Tapes 2 and that we finally get to hear De La Soul’s You’re Welcome. And maybe Q-Tip will step from behind the veil of Twitter—where he spends most of his time prepping us for The Last Zulu—and call on his new favorite Southern rap group, Migos, to hop on a track or two.
Lastly, after last year’s Outkast reunion tour, I’m sitting on pins and needles waiting for Big Grams, Big Boi’s EP collaboration with Phantogram. The Greenwich, N.Y., electronic-rock duo first appeared on “Lines” from Big Boi’s last LP, Vicious Lies.
You might look at my 2015 wish list and say I’m something of a hip-hop purist—and no doubt, when I turn up in the club, sometimes they’re left scratching their heads—but I prefer to think of myself as a hip-hop preservationist. I believe that the music I listen to—just like the food I eat—should be balanced, fresh and nourishing. It’s the difference between what I see as “capital-H Hip-Hop” and “lowercase-h hip-hop.” It’s music that doesn’t glorify violence, materialism, sex, misogyny and other pathologies magnified in “lowercase-h.”
Why the distinctions? Because I recently saw a viral video of a 5-year-old boy rapping Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga,” using gun gestures, profanity and all. That’s a problem of access and preservation, not of purity. Our young people deserve a fair shot at ingesting Hip-Hop in its highest form. And the grown folks like you and me—who have mature ears and know how to listen to hood-rich rap—should keep championing music that has positive energy and provides nutritious content that keeps the mind and spirit healthy and strong.