Our Favorite Local Hip-Hop Releases of 2014

As promised (for a cranky mini-dissertation on how lists are dumb, check this list first): Here some of SF Weekly's favorite hip-hop releases from the past calendar year. Want to support the local music scene? Go straight to these artists' websites and buy the actual records. (And go here and here for lists of the rock and electro-ish variety.)

Souls of MischiefThere Is Only Now
Oakland represent! Twenty years after the release of the iconic 93 ’til Infinity, the East Bay kings of hip-hop put out their sixth studio album. There Is Only Now is ambitious, and it succeeds largely on the effort of producer Adrian Younge, a producer who’s quickly becoming a go-to name in hip-hop. Dude is J-Dilla good (real talk) and drops classic soul samples throughout. But A-Plus, Tajai, Opio, and Phesto are still steppin’ to the mic with conscious rhymes, tackling relevant themes like police brutality and the justice system with multiple appearances from Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg. This is a money hip-hop release — bump the deluxe version of the record with a second disc of instrumentals. Adrian Spinelli

[jump] K. Flay Life As A Dog
There’s never been any question that Kristine Flaherty, aka K.Flay, the Stanford grad who grabbed the hip-hop world by the collar as a college junior with her first-ever mixtape 10 years ago, had immense talent. But for the last few years, we were left wondering when her first real full-length would see the light of day. Life As A Dog, the LP she self-released (and mixed here in the city at Different Fur) after getting out of her contract with RCA, answered this question far more than satisfactorily. Showcasing a newly complex level of songwriting as well as actual singing from the emcee, it’s a coming-of-age album in the best possible sense: She’s still full of fast food references, stoner party anthems, and boner jokes, but this is also the perfect record for a hungover day bumming around the city, lamenting that you’re still suffering unrequited crushes while your friends are having babies. In short: It sounds like turning 30, which, surprise, Flaherty is doing next year. She has plenty to celebrate. ES
Sage the GeminiRemember Me
Either it doesn’t take much to embody the sound of Bay Area rap in 2014, or Sage the Gemini makes it look easy. (Almost certainly the latter.) Following up on the twin national hits “Gas Pedal” and “Red Nose,” both gently percolating slaps that ably bottle the sensation of a hundred high-tech vaporizers lighting up rhythmically in an otherwise pitch-black club, the Fairfield MC’s debut full-length Remember Me mines the same lightly mechanized, nonchalantly lascivious vein to consistently satisfying effect. Sage never reaches past his technical comfort zone, but he never dilutes it much either; perhaps his best quality as a rapper is the strength of his convictions. “Fuck the cool crowd,” he declares on track one: “Bitch I’m a nerd.” Nerds need to party sometimes too, after all, which lends a little credence to his claim, on the “Gas Pedal” remix, that he’s “the Bay’s respirator.” Daniel Levin Becker
Kev ChoiceOakland Riviera
A classically trained pianist, emcee, bandleader, and producer who has impressively straddled the worlds of jazz, hip-hop, and classical music for over a decade now, Kev Choice came into his own this year with a musical map to his hometown. Jazzy interludes named for Oakland streets (International, MacArthur, etc.) serve as segues between tracks that feature the seemingly eternally positive Choice rapping about the gentrification of the Uptown District and other changes taking place in his beloved East Bay. The former bandleader for Lauryn Hill still plays the keys with a who’s-who in East Bay hip-hop (The Coup, Too $hort), but we have a feeling Oakland Riviera is only the start of his solo career, not a blip on the map. ES
Fidel CashIgnorant Summer (mixtape)
Besides having a hotter rap dictator name than local mainstay J “high as fuck at the taco truck” Stalin, Hunters Point MC Fidel Cash earns a nod for Ignorant Summer, an omnibus of hood swagger that casts his raspy chameleon flow over contemporary hotnesses including Drake’s “Draft Day,” Dej Loaf’s “Try Me,” and Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga.” As that last one suggests, Cash takes it upon himself to shine some light on the Bay Area’s popularly neglected criminal underbelly, but he’s neither humorless nor nihilistic about it. (Ignorant Summer is hosted, if you will, by a deeply obnoxious motivational speaker who weighs in on everything from Ray Rice to the optimal rate of salad consumption for an aspiring hustler.) Another Cash mixtape, the equally strong Poe Lil Rich Kid 2, came out earlier this year, but Summer is more dextrous, more unpredictable, more straight-up fun. May his regime live on. DLB

Ensemble Mik NawoojA Hip-Hop Orchestra
Whether he's bringing classical music into hip-hop or hip-hop into classical music is irrelevant; the fact is that Korean-Born composer JooWan Kim has created a sustained engagement between the musical traditions — not just a sample or a collaborative track but a whole project — that resonates to an extent that makes the combination seem obvious. Driven by Kim's haunting compositions, Ensemble Mik NaWooj (the leader's name spelled backwards) takes advantage of the lyrical dexterity of MCs Sandman and Do DAT and the dramatic potential of a traditional chamber quintet to explore and extend moments both bombastic and intimate. Whether it's in original compositions inspired by mystical Taoist rituals or interpretations of songs like Wu-Tang Clan's “C.R.E.A.M.” (the video for which has made a big splash this year), Kim and this uncommon ensemble prove that seemingly contrasting musical worlds might just have more in common than we thought. Micah Dubreuil FrakBagels
“I'ma drop more projects than gentrification!” the SF-born-and bred-MC Frak screams on “Welcome To Bagels,” the opening track of his sneaky-smooth Bagels mixtape. The tape itself is a solid effort from the 20-year-old MC, who gets a slew of co-signs on the record from Typical Cats' Denizen Kane, Shad and even Percee P, et al. Frak took his flow all the way to the MC Olympics finals in Philly last year and Bagels is the product of two years of work for the college student. He's a quick-rapping wordsmith, but on moments like “Cardiac Arrest,” he settles into a solid beat without being scatterbrained, and he's at his best rapping over jazzy beats like “A Letter” Here's hoping for more moments like that and “Cardiac Arrest” down the line. AS

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