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The summer of 2012 has turned out to be an unexpectedly good time for music. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you choose to look at it), I had more than my fair share of free time during these summer months to go through several new releases and 5 of them stood out more than the others. Here we go, in reverse order:

5. Selah Sue

Selah Sue’s self-titled debut album was actually released last year in Europe so I’m cheating a bit here, but it comes out in the States here this summer, allowing it to make this list on a technicality. As I mentioned before in a previous post, her music is a sort of odd combination of neo-soul, reggae, blues, a few other genres, and a slight Flemish accent. The girl has some pretty serious vocal range and despite a few weaker tracks, her debut album is rock solid. I’ve found myself singing along to “Crazy Vibes” on more than a few occasions.

Standout Tracks: Crazy Vibes, Please (feat. Cee-Lo Green), Black Part Love, Raggamuffin, Crazy Sufferin’ Style

4. REKS – REBELutionary

REKS is easily one of the most talented rappers on the planet but goes completely unnoticed time and time again. On the follow-up to his excellent Rhythmatic Eternal King Supreme album, REKS is again at his most focused, unleashing lyrical whirlwinds (yeah, I really went there) over hard-driving production. Each rhyme is a showcase to his talent and some of his flows are downright dizzying, all the while staying focused on very serious social commentary. Unfortunately, a few of the guests on the album simply can’t keep up with him. The album is held back by some weak production and choruses/song concepts in the middle parts but some of the material here is incredible.

(skip the intro and start watching when the beat comes in)

Standout Tracks: Bang Bang, Hallelujah, Shotgun, Passports (oh my god, Passports)

3. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure

El-P’s music is probably best described as dense. Everything from his multi-layered electronic production to his obtuse lyrics can be a bit overwhelming at times, so his music definitely isn’t for everyone. At his best though, he’s one of the best artists in hip-hop. His music is by and large intense and brooding, with very few exceptions. “The Full Retard” is an absolute banger that just begs for you to “pump this shit like they do in the future.” His sound maintains a futuristic electronic vibe throughout, although it’s more effective in the first half of the album than the second. El kept the guest list on the album short, but he made great use of the guests that did appear on the album. Despot and Killer Mike trade vicious verses on “Tougher Colder Killer” and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire delivers what may be the verse of the year so far on “Oh Hail No.”

Overall, the album is very good, despite a few weak songs at the end. I highly recommend it, although it’s definitely a bad fit for your family barbecue.

2. Nas – Life is Good

Nas has come a long way from “Life’s a Bitch” to Life is Good. A classic debut album led to a self-indulgent middle stage of his career that left fans of his classic songs disappointed. However, since he began recording Distant Relatives with Damian Marley, Nas seems to have found new energy. One listen to “Nasty” reveals a focus that hasn’t been seen since Illmatic. This focus, along with shaking his usual tendency to rap over mediocre beats, resulted in the best album he’s put out in years.

“Accident Murders” is a monster of a song and features a very strong guest verse from Rick Ross (he seems to have no idea what the song was supposed to be about, but still), “The Black Bond” would sound right at home in a Hollywood spy thriller, “Loco-Motive” is all kinds of 90s throwback awesome, and “Nasty” shows Nas at his shit-talking best. The strongest cuts on the whole album are the more personal songs. “Bye Baby” addresses the divorce that inspired the album’s cover, “Daughters” details his struggle to raise a teenager daughter while being a rap star, and “Cherry Wine,” featuring the late Amy Winehouse is a song of the year candidate. It’s a very mature duet (no, that doesn’t mean Nas sings) about finding the perfect partner. Nas manages to pull off sensitivity without being corny and Amy Winehouse knocks it out the park as per usual.

Not even the grating “Summer on Smash” and Swizz Beatz’s voice could ruin this album.

1. Killer Mike – R.A.P Music

This album (Rebellious African People’s Music) is the result of a highly unlikely collaboration between Killer Mike, a self-described “gangster rapper, civic leader, and activist” from Atlanta and El-P, a highly experimental underground rapper/producer from Brooklyn. To the surprise of many, their highly divergent styles brought out the best in both of them. El-P’s production is at its most accessible throughout the album without losing his trademark complexity. Despite it being the first time they’ve made music together, the chemistry is immediately apparent. On the opening track, “Big Beast,” El’s snapping snare drums perfectly accent Killer Mike’s booming delivery. “Untitled” features a sublime combination of deep bass, slinking synths, and stuttering snares, a backdrop that serves as a great contrast for Scar’s smooth falsetto on the chorus. Killer Mike has a uniquely powerful delivery that really lets you feel what he’s saying on each song. If you don’t want to stand up and fight somebody (I mean that in the most positive way imaginable) after “Don’t Die,” which features a beat that’s just plain fucking rowdy, then you might not have a pulse. I was fortunate enough to see the album performed live and I’m not sure I’ve seen a crowd go that wild at a rap concert before.

Of course, the album isn’t limited to the “hardcore G shit” on “Big Beast,” the tongue-twisting battle raps on “Go,” or the intensely violent tale of police brutality of “Don’t Die.” The album is just as effective when things slow down. “Untitled” has Mike pondering how his wife will live on if he dies, Willie Burke Sherwood is a heartfelt tribute to the man that raised him, and R.A.P music is a powerful ode to the music he loves and creates.

Honorable Mention:

Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

Public Enemy – Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp (haven’t heard the whole thing yet, but the stuff I’ve heard is great)

The Alchemist – Russian Roulette

Big K.R.I.T – 4Eva N A Day

Homeboy Sandman – Chimera

Lushlife – Plateau Vision

Ab-Soul – Control System