Moment of Truth: The Top 7 Bay Area Hip-Hop Albums of 2015

Moment of Truth’s first year comes to a close and it’s been a pleasure covering hip-hop in the Bay throughout 2015. If the year in music showed us anything, it’s that hip-hop artists in the area are getting more comfortable with stepping outside of any previously established Bay area norms. Where we’ve always been a hyphy-heavy hip-hop community, the bass-forward sound isn’t the only way to create viable hip-hop that hits.

Not gonna lie, I’m hella proud to claim all of the artists on this list as part of the Bay area hip-hop community. There’s way more than these seven to shout out, but these were the ones that stood out above the rest. With that, here’s Moment of Truth’s Top 7 Bay Area Hip-Hop Albums of 2015:

7. Blackalicious – Imani Vol. 1

The East Bay/North Bay duo of Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel made a return to the scene after a ten-year hiatus from Blackalicious. The beauty of Imani Vol. 1 is that it’s merely the first installment of an ambitious three-album project. Chief’s signature funk & soul samples are littered throughout this thing, like on the drums and Morricone-strings inspired “Escape” and the smooth keys of “The Sun.”  The latter sees singer Imani Coppola cementing the hook to create the album’s most complete work. But the star of the show here is Gab, 'cause nobody raps like him. Gab persevered through kidney failure and used writing music as a creative outlet while he labored through regular dialysis treatments. On “Loves Gonna Save The Day,” his signature quick spitting sets the stage for Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito to punctuate the jam. Welcome back Blackalicious.

6. Young God & Deniro Farrar – Cliff Of Death II

Blue Sky Black Death (BSBD) producer Young God joined forces with Virginia rapper Deniro Farrar for the ultimate example of a project that deserves more attention. The Oakland via Santa Rosa producer provides a very BSBD canvas for Farrar, whose deep, gravely voice demands attention and evokes emotion. “It’s real life rap shit,” Young God said of Farrar’s lyrics. And that’s what we’re after at Moment of Truth — shit you can feel. Peep the video for “Same Ol’/So Long;” it’s a combination of two tracks (note the sick flute sample on “Same Ol’”) off this release for a glimpse of Farrar’s versatility and Young God’s epic production. 

5. Nef The Pharaoh – Nef The Pharaoh EP

The E-40 protege dropped a promising debut that flashed his range and told a slew of different stories. On one turn, he shows his easy fluency of the hyphy style (the” Big Tymin’” remix featuring YG and Ty Dolla $ign shines especially bright). But on multiple other turns, there’s shouts to G-Funk era rap. I thought this was the best, fully-formed HBK Gang-related release of the year, with the supremely talented P-Lo dropping in for production credits on the record as well. But nothing attracts me more to Nef and other HBK rap, than the moments when the Vallejo MC scales it back to show his emotional and vulnerable side. It’s what IAMSU! did on “Sincerely Yours” and Nef just fucking crushes it on “Come Pick Me Up” with the silky hook, “Every single day I’m falling in and out of love / I give you all a million baby, but that’s just not enough / every single day I’m fallin’, come pick me up.” It's the icing on a damn fine heartfelt track.

4. Main Attrakionz – 808’s & Dark Grapes III

The Fader recently described the cloud rap microgenre as “taking NyQuil and listening to Hot97,” which isn’t a far cry from what Oakland cloud rap generals Main Attrakionz sound like. But on 808's & Dark Grapes III, chalk up the livened up production of duo Friendzone as a shot of whiskey into the mix that brought a newfound energy to Main Attrakionz. This album is so much fun to listen to with the vibrant horns and comfortable drums of “Spoken Jewelz,” as MC’s Squadda B and MonndreM.A.N. belt the lyrics. This is highly bounceable shit. The spaced-out synth chime of “Cycles” is a return to cloud rap origins, inducing elated stares at the sky. Next year’s Green OVA project from Squadda B and Young God will bring together two artists of this list in one of 2016’s early local albums to look out for.

3. Jay Stone & Monster Rally – Foreign Pedestrians

Gold Robot Records boss Hunter Mack recently left Oakland to run the label from Boston. But before he took off, he introduced Oakland rapper Jay Stone to LA-based psych-tropical leaning producer Monster Rally, and Foreign Pedestrians was born. Their union is part Adult Swim animation sounds, part Odd Future-like zany raps. Stone delivered maybe my favorite rhyme of the year on the blaxploitation-beat-driven “Cognac”: “Eatin’ cannabis souffle, sippin’ on an IPA, I’m the pharaoh of the Bay!”

This record further opened up the world of Monster Rally’s beats for me too. Starting with its second disc of just the instrumentals, the dude has a comprehensive library of beat constructions and samples of old tropical records from “like a Jimmy Buffet knock-off guy” that positively merit a shitload of spins. Stone’s whimsy is littered throughout Foreign Pedestrians with punctuations like “look good on paper like Malone and Shaq / Leave me alone, I’m tryna relax.” And ultimately, these guys drove the full aesthetic of the project home with accompaniments like “Recollection’s” stop-motion video journey to Jack London Square and our favorite vinyl of the year, a purple record, with the instrumentals on Side B and Monster Rally’s signature papercut collage artwork on the cover.

2. Duckwrth – Nowhere

Bay area rap isn’t supposed to sound like this. “The most popular concept right now is trap, and if you think of the word, people are stuck,” Duckwrth says. He, himself, is not stuck on Nowhere, an exploration of upbeat electronica production by NY-based The Kickdrums with musings from Duckwrth on women, consumerism, socio-political themes and bucking trends. In fact, challenging the norm is what Duckwrth did better than just about anyone in the Bay this year, and much of his inspiration comes from time spent in San Francisco. “My creative source comes from SF,” he says. “It’s so free. You can create as you please and there’s no pressure to be somebody. It gave me my creativity and political views.”

He opens the album’s intro proclaiming, “Exchange your old Gods, for celebrities / And dead presidents, is the new deities / So we don’t read scriptures, we read TMZ / So burn all your books and buy an LCD / Exchange your good deed for brutality.” But he certainly doesn’t beleaguer the point because this is a complete work. “Psycho” is a killer single that paints the picture of the harsh love/hate emotions he feels towards a complicated ex. “Lambo Pt. 2” is perhaps the album’s most intricate production, opening with cheek-flicking pops into electric bass hits and Duckwrth’s clever shout out to Boy Meets World: “You like that shallow type, you like the Lamborghini / I just wanna bang ya / Let me teach you Mr. Feeney.” The nomadic Duckwrth is likely on the move to LA in 2016 to realize an album he’s been working on for the past three years. Here’s hoping it’s half as good as our second favorite Bay Area hip-hop album of the year.

1. Caleborate – Hella Good

I remember hearing this kid for the first time, standing out in a list of up and coming Bay Area rappers on Thizzler’s annual “Freshman 10.” He was one of Moment of Truth’s first subjects after dropping his modest Winter Break EP. But the Ex’pression college student didn’t stop there and kept working hard to create his debut LP, Hella Good. And it hits crazy hard. 

The concept of “shifting the culture” was posited this week in a recap of West Oakland’s Feels IV party and it made me think of this album. 'Cause Caleborate made a record that’s very much his own style. He started by collecting a handful of different producers to enact the vision. He found his own muses in New Jersey’s Wonderlust and Belgian product Willem Ardui, then reached locally to long-time collaborator Ian Mckee and HBK’s Kuya Beats, Drew Banga and 1-O.A.K. This cadre (and a couple others) created the slate for Caleborate’s unique sound and then it was all up to him.

Throughout Hella Good, Caleborate establishes his own repeatable hip-hop lexicon. The album is filled with hooks and engaging call-and-response bars. He opens “$aggin Par” with a drawn out inflection that demands interaction: “I’ve been sooooooooooo fuckin’ tired of these niggas.” He understands the effect of his cadence, and all of his arrangements come across incredibly calculated. Ardui’s live strings on “Kaytra” set the rapper up for a confident hook:

“I’m living proof that I ain’t sell my soul just to make bucks.
I do just what I want, just how I want.
Fuck a pay cut.
I’m taking what I need, no disguise, homie, pay up!”

“SMH” is a club banger in the style of VIc Mensa’s “Down on My Luck.” The Drew Banga and 1-O.A.K produced “El Bandito” might be the best track on the album. The drums hit so clean and Caleborate is at his most confident — even when he chides himself, an exercise he performs with tongue-in-cheek grace numerous times on Hella Good.

On “Youth In Revolt” the Berkeley-based Caleborate takes pot-shots at tragically polarizing former Cal wide receiver DeSean Jackson, whose NFL career has been as much about big touchdown catches as it has been about brain farts. “I used to look up to local legends but they never really made it,” he sings on the track. A powerful realization for a 22-year-old and this is a quality that great rappers share: They work hard to get theirs 'cause it motivates them. It’s all they know, and Caleborate did a remarkable job this year of making that hustle feel authentic. One love. 

Peep our spotify playlist below for all of the album's on this list (except for Cliff of Death II, you can find it here)

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