Best Hip-Hop and R&B Albums of 2012 (So Far): Nas, Elle Varner, R. Kelly, Odd Future and More
To say that 2012 has been an eventful year in music is an understatement. Some of hip-hop and R&B’s biggest albums this year have been released in the eye of controversy. From divorce stories from Nas to Frank Ocean‘s Tumblr note released amidst rumors of his homosexuality, the two have gone through a heap of media attention this summer. But when both artists released their albums, the respective projects proved to be high-quality, leading most listeners to forget the drama and focus on the music.
Over the last eight months, there’s been a shift in R&B, creating a more diverse pool of sounds within the genre. A new class of singers, namely Ocean, Elle Varner, Emeli Sande and BJ the Chicago Kid, take classic R&B stylings and pair that with modern production. Their albums have moved the genre forward rather than away from its soulful origins. However, veterans such as Usher and R. Kelly seem to be exploring freely on their LPs. Usher’s latest brings a euro-pop sound and the Pied Piper of R&B calls more on ’70s grooves and flowery lyrics.
On the hip-hop side, the diversity has continued as well, but with most rappers keeping in tune with the sounds of their crew. Odd Future released a well-received effort, as well as two out of four of Black Hippy’s own: ScHoolBoy Q and Ab-Soul. There’s also Maybach Music Group king Rick Ross, who dropped his fifth studio album, but allowed members from his camp to shine on many of the tracks.
More than halfway through the year, The BoomBox gives a nod to 15 of the best R&B and hip-hop albums thus far. Find out which crooners and lyrical entertainers moved past the competition.
Nas, Life Is Good
Nas was able to acquire a winning summer with his 10th studio album, Life Is Good, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts. The rapper was prepared to alter the hip-hop scene after once claiming it was dead. With Life Is Good, Nas looked within and unveiled his personal truths, revealing his pains post-divorce from ex-wife Kelis on “Bye Baby” and the struggles of fatherhood on “Daughters.” At this point, the Queens MC has one of the best hip-hop albums this year.
Elle Varner, Perfectly Imperfect
Elle Varner’s debut album, Perfectly Imperfect, landed at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart and at No. 2 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. As the co-writer of the album, Elle explores a variety of topics including young womanhood, crushes, addictive love and getting too turned up at the club. Although her choice of lyrics have been touched on many times, it’s her way with words paired with her raspy voice and vibrato that draws listeners in. Perfectly Imperfect, a seamless introduction to a rising star.
Curren$y, The Stoned Immaculate
The Jet Life recording artist released The Stoned Immaculate in June, marking the effort as his eighth studio album. The LP features top production from Grammy-award winning producers Bink!, J.U.S.T.I.C.E League and the Neptunes. As his highest-charting album to date, it landed at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 and No. 2 on the Top Rap Albums charts. Hazy soul samples make up many records, keeping in tune with Curren$y’s laid-back flow and then there’s an all-star line-up of features from 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa and Pharrell Williams. An immaculate work indeed.
Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
Released in July, while rumors of Frank Ocean’s sexuality floated throughout the blogosphere, Channel Orange proved to be satisfying with its in-depth storytelling and intricate production. Most of the controversy was forgotten in a blink of an eye as the album is one of the most innovative R&B projects this year. Andre 3000 shows up on “Pink Matter,” John Mayer on “White” and there’s production from Pharrell Williams on “Sweet Life.” Channel Orange debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, solidifying the crooner’s spot on the music scene.
Odd Future, The OF Tape Vol. 2
The OF Tape, Vol. 2 is the sequel to Odd Future’s 2008 debut mixtape, The Odd Future Tape. In spirit with their rebellious, dark and potty mouthed-lyrics, the album features each member stepping up as lyricists. Tyler the Creator and Left Brain also come to the table with unique production, giving the LP a sound all their own. The Los Angeles rap collective impacted the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart at No. 1 as well as landed on the Independent Albums chart in the top spot.
Emeli Sande, Our Version of Events
After slowly climbing her way to recognition in the U.S., U.K. songstress Emile Sande’s Our Version of Events debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard R&B and Hip-Hop Charts — she landed at No. 1 in the country that helped make famous. There’s no denying the dazzling, powerful chops showcased on the album, placing Sande in the league of the industry’s best vocalists. She shines effortlessly while singing of life and love.
Ab-Soul, Control System
As the deep thinker in the Black Hippy quadrant, Ab-Soul dropped equally though-provoking lyrics on his sophomore album, Control System. The rapper unearths his pain, grief within his personal life and the world, paranoia and loneliness on the mostly dark, complex, moody effort. This is especially evident on the standout eerie track “Terrorist Threats” featuring Danny Brown and Jhene Aiko. On the song, he notes the gangs of the world, the ones around and higher up while flaunting his lyrical skills.
R. Kelly, Write Me Back
Returning to R&B following a divorce and throat surgery, which caused a delay in his album release, R. Kelly had a lot to prove with Write Me Back. He didn’t disappoint, delivering an opus of good, old-fashioned R&B at its core. As the follow-up to 2010′s Love Letter, this LP has the same traditional feel with reflective stories of relationships only a grown man can tell.
B.o.B., Strange Clouds
B.o.B.’s sophomore album, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop charts and No. 5 on the Billboard 200, featured a plethora of top collabos from Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Lil Wayne and even the rapper’s mentor and Grand Hustle boss T.I. For the most part, the LP continues to showcase Bobby Ray’s dual personalities in his music, providing melodious hooks that make a feel-good hip- pop song. His slightly more aggressive rapping alter ego also stirs movements with his playful flow. All in all, as a producer of the album, he demonstrates the progression of his production skills.
Rick Ross, God Forgives, I Don’t
With immaculate production from J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and Pharrell to name a few, the head honcho of Maybach Music Group released his fifth album during the heat of summer. He creates many memorable tracks, celebrating his lavishness (“Amsterdam” and “Presidential”) or going ham in the club (“Hold Me Back”). The rap opus also has high-class features including Jay-Z and Dr. Dre on “3 Kings” and Andre 3000 for “Sixteen.”
Usher, Looking 4 Myself
Usher’s seventh studio album, Looking 4 Myself, is his most experimental project to date. The effort, combining dance sounds with soulful crooning, welcomes production from Swedish House Mafia and Diplo to support the singer’s introspective lyrics. His hit single “Climax,” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, took listeners to new auditory heights.
Schoolboy Q, Habits & Contradictions
For his second album, Schoolboy Q brought his charismatic, versatile rhymes about his way with women, drugs and consequences of everyday life. The independent release featured the underground hit “Hands on the Wheel,” featuring A$AP Rocky, which condones intoxicated, wild behavior — something this West Coast MC is known for. The project pushed Schoolboy Q into a spotlight of his own, stepping out as suitable rap counterpart to his TDE brother Kendrick Lamar.
Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio
Robert Glasper’s Black Radio goes back to the basics. The jazz pianist brings his signature neo-jazz backdrop to a landscape of well-known R&B and hip-hop acts from Erykah Badu, Musiq Soulchild, Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def. His fifth album pairs jazz sensibilities with R&B stylings. Glasper serves a refreshing soundscape that stands apart from his competitors.
Big K.R.I.T., Live From the Underground
The Meridian, Miss., native relied on the same formula that made his mixtapes flourish when creating his debut LP. He stayed true to his bluesy production and gritty lyrics, adding some fixings such as live instrumentation and even the legendary voice of B.B. King. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop charts.
BJ the Chicago Kid, Pineapple Now-Laters
Most have heard B.J. the Chicago Kid as the go-to man for crafting hooks on the albums of Black Hippy members like Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 and Ab-Soul’s Control System. But in February, the crooner released his debut LP, Pineapple Now-Laters, showcasing the rips and runs of his passion-filled, gospel-trained vocals. He touches on lust amd love, and more conscious storytelling towards the end of the LP, easily garnering the title of a young Marvin Gaye. Although this independent release may have been overlooked by the mainstream, it has led to him to a recent signing with Universal Motown.