Yes, Yeezus Dominated 2013 Hip Hop, But Many More Gems Were Made

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This week we're looking back at the year in music through the lens of NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums of 2013. It's the annual list assembled by our in-house experts, including NPR music editor Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, producer and founding member of the rap group A Tribe Called Quest. The pair host NPR's Microphone Check.


All this week, we're looking back at the year in music with our friends at NPR Music as our guides. Every year, they round up their favorite 50 albums, some mainstream, some more obscure and some completely unavoidable, like "Yeezus" from Kanye West.


BRENDA LEE: Uh-huh, honey.

KANYE WEST: (Rapping) What you doing in the club on a Thursday? You said you only here for a girl birthday. They ordered champagne but still look thirsty. Rock Forever 21 but just turned 30.

CORNISH: West was everywhere. But there are many more hip hop albums that might have flown under your radar, and who better to talk about them than the co-hosts of NPR's "Microphone Check," NPR music editor Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. He's a producer and founding member of the rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Hey, guys. Welcome to the program.



CORNISH: So apart from "Yeezus," all the albums that made the list were from kind of lesser-known rappers. And I want to start with a pair from a state I'm actually familiar with, Tennessee. It's Starlito from Nashville and Don Trip of Memphis who are not afraid of humor.


STARLITO: (Rapping) My name rang like a doorbell, and my (unintelligible) chilling like Hormel. (Unintelligible) High hopes (unintelligible) short as hell. But...

KELLEY: What's striking to me is their partnership. It's how well their styles compliment each other and how well two very different sounding voices can work over the same beat.


STARLITO: (Rapping) I'm well-fed. They owe money. They steal bread. I stand up on my two legs. Got more hammers than a tool shed.

MUHAMMAD: There's a lot of bounciness and a lot of movement but they stick to the, I think, most important script for being an emcee and that's to have a lot of metaphors. Pack it up, fill it up with just images that kind of make you laugh and just sparks an instant emotion.


CORNISH: Now, the second album that you guys are bringing us is by a newer artist. He's actually from Brooklyn, so we're leaving the South. He goes by Ka, basically known for pretty straight-ahead, no-hook, no-smiling rap, right?


CORNISH: Ali, is that a fair description?

MUHAMMAD: Yeah. Pretty fair, accurate. It's so New York.


KELLEY: Well, Ka has a day job, which we are told is a firefighter in Brooklyn. This man produces all of his songs. He is the rapper. He is the video director. He sells his music hand to hand. If you go to his website, it says: Please have patience with your order, I don't go to the post office every day.



KA: (Rapping) From the days I behaved like a thug. I don't get rich from this. This is labor of love. Mom's forgave me when I was ill and stressing her. I continued rhyming when they was killing the messenger. If this ain't meant for me, nothing is.

CORNISH: All right. Well, I want to get to the third album. This is from a rapper who's actually been around for a while, Pusha T. The new album is called "My Name Is My Name."


CORNISH: And I want to play a little bit of a song here called "Nostalgia."


PUSHA T: (Rapping) Twenty-plus years of selling Johnson & Johnson. I started out as a baby face monster. No wonder there's diaper rash on my conscience. My teething ring was numbed by the nonsense.

CORNISH: I started out as a baby face monster.


CORNISH: Guys, help me out. I mean, what is it about this album that made it a best of for you?

KELLEY: What Pusha did this year is cement his reputation. People have criticized him over the years for continuing to tell these very similar drug life stories. But I think what he's doing is refining his style. I mean, we didn't ask Raymond Chandler to write a different story. We understand that this is what he does the best. And what he really did on this album is strip away anything that might distract from his words. So he's that much more in your face.

The energy is that much more palpable. So when you hear Pusha's words, the images that come to your mind are unencumbered. The energy is palpable. And you can't help but be sucked in. Like, you can see his eyes very wide staring at you while you listen.


T: (Rapping) What I sell for pain in the hood, I'm a doctor. Zhivago tried to fight the urge like Ivan Drago. If he dies, he dies like Doughboy to Tre. If he rides, he rides throwing punches in his room. If he cries, he cries.

CORNISH: You guys, thanks so much for stopping by.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

KELLEY: Thanks for having us.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Frannie Kelley and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad. They co-host NPR's "Microphone Check." And you can see NPR Music's 50 favorite albums of 2013, the entire list, at


T: (Rapping) You better change what comes out your speaker. You better change what comes out your speaker.


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