2015 is the greatest year in the history of hip hop music. This seemed crazy even to me when I first advanced the idea. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.
If you ask History Detective Tukufu Zuberi, he'll tell you hip-hop started -- more or less -- on August 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc played a party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Spinning at his sister's back-to-school celebration, the DJ elongated an instrumental beat -- so people could dance -- and started rapping over it -- so he, presumably, could take credit for doing so. Soon, DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa adopted his style and an entire genre was born. It went something like Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, NWA, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Jay Z, Outkast, Eminem, 50 Cent, Kanye West. But have we hit a stopping point?
Nas famously declared hip-hop dead in 2006, and I think what reacting to, was a decoastilization of hip-hop due to the inordinate popularity of Atlanta part rap best exemplified by people like Lil Jon and the Ying Yang Twins. (Or it could easily have been about the following year's release of 'Crank That', Soulja Boy's party anthem that everyone will admit is a pretty amazing song if you give them enough to drink.)
What Nas was reacting to was the tidal movement of hip-hop at large and rap in particular. Early rap is more or less extended drum breaks that are easy to dance to with rudimentary MCing that tells pretty straightforward stories about what the MCs lives are like. This is true of most art forms -- they start out extremely personal before they evolve into different modes of more complex metaphoric expression -- and is indeed extremely true as hip hop became much more self-consciously punk and politically inflected in the late 1980s (Public Enemy, KRS-ONE, NWA and even the Beastie Boys if you squint hard enough).
The next great tidal shift was away from "politics" writ large and became about street life. Whereas Grandmaster Flash might talk about his own personal experiences, there was now a huge cadre that claimed to speak for "The Streets." 1993 and 94 saw a huge glut of particularly East Coast hip-hop, including Enter the Wu-Tang, Midnight Marauders, Illmatic, Tical, Ready to Die, and the criminally overlooked Enta da Stage. That's not to leave out the West Coast explosion featuring 93 'til Infinity, Doggystyle, and even the Southern classic Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik. When people talk about classic hip-hop, this is what they're talking about. But what you had were very distinct schools of production. The West Coast was firmly in the g-funk camp, a style popularized by Dr. Dre. The East Coast was more disparate -- you had the Wu-Tang doing their own inimitable minimalistic thing but also the wonderfully down-the-middle Bad Boy production that made Biggie simultaneously a [studio] gangster and a pop music icon. This was the Roman Republic of hip-hop. And of course it all came crashing down when Biggie and Tupac were shot in still-unsolved incidents involving Suge Knight.
After that, the tide went out and the Dark Ages came in. Significant hip-hop more or less fled the coasts, finding refuge in Detroit, Atlanta, and Chicago. It's telling that Eminem was able to trick everyone into thinking he was a good rapper. Dr. Dre really just didn't have much to work with. Of course, you had masterpieces like Rhythm and Gangster, the Black Album, ATLiens, and everything Kanye produced, but really after Jay Z retired from his junior Biggie career, there wasn't a centralization of hip-hop power. True, there was that glorious moment when Houston was the be-all-end-all and we all thought even Paul Wall might be a star and there was even a year in which Britain was producing the best hip-hop. Ok, maybe that was like a month.
And that's kind of still where we are. There's not a single place producing the best hip-hop. But that's what's kind of amazing. Rather than having all these disparate styles, we instead have an amazing maturity of the form that's resulted in a year of nearly unimpeachable greatness.
Kendrick's To Pimp a Butterfly was a miracle of street positivity that still managed to have a decent single. At Long Last A$AP -- which may be the most expensive album ever -- has the last unreleased Pimp C verse, three great singles, and even Rod freaking Stewart. Mr. Wonderful announced Action Bronson as a food-and-sports-obsessed weirdo that sounds so much like Ghostface even Ghost himself can't tell the difference. Even Big Sean's Dark Sky Paradise was pretty good. That's how good 2015 is -- even Big Sean made a dope album! We haven't even mentioned Drake and Nicki Minaj yet.
Ok, but what about great singles -- and hip-hop has always been a singles-dominated medium. Vic Mensa's 'U Mad' is earth-shattering, Kanye's 'All Day' featured a flame thrower onstage and nobody blinked, and even 'Who Got It' by Dorrough and Problem would be the best party song in any other year. Shit, the two Kendrick verses on the video version of Taylor Swift's 'Bad Blood' might be in the top 5 this year. Even Taylor Swift is promoting good rap.
All of those albums and songs are forward-looking but with a reverence for the past that never slips into meaningless nostalgia. They are representative of a form that's ready to meld East Coast Afrocentrism with West Coast gangster rap (Kendrick), the Houston drawl with East Coast luxury rap (A$AP), and being fat and white with sounding like a lost member of the Wu-Tang Clan (Action.) Not only is hip-hop in 2015 amazing for its blending but also for its diversity of styles. Trap music has found its way into the mainstream as a discrete genre but also a production form that didn't seem possible last decade.
Another reason 2015 might be the best year ever is our best may still be yet to come. We're still missing releases by Kanye, Pusha T, Run the Jewels, Lil' Wayne -- if it ever comes out -- and young rappers like Vic Mensa. Nobody is sure when these albums are going to drop, but those are three of the biggest names and two of the hottest young names in hip-hop. It's unprecedented for so many established superstars to come out with good-to-great albums in the same year, alongside obviously talented newcomers like Mensa, like Bronson, and like some other third rapper that we don't even know exists yet.
All of this quality and without the notable dross of previous years. Iggy Azalea has her qualities but she's not a talent on the level of A$AP or Kendrick. Macklemore had a great song, but The Heist is not going to be played anywhere but the most out-of-touch of fraternities in two years. Somehow, miraculously, there really haven't been any annoying or bad songs put out this year. Knock on every piece of wood you can find.
So why is hip-hop great this year? Long story short: there's been this incredible respect for the party roots of hip-hop [all the great singles] as well as a replication of the diverse styles of hip-hop's golden age [all the great albums] with fresh talent [Action, Mensa] and talent at the top of their game [Kendrick, A$AP, Kanye, et. al.] This may look like a completely ridiculous piece in two weeks, or it may be ridiculously prescient in two months, but it's something worth considering.