Maybe it’s just where the industry’s headed, maybe it’s just a result of how 2013’s calendar worked, but this year rap fans digested their music through song, not album. And the songs came from unexpected places, like Vine and Soundcloud, to speak nothing of Detroit and the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. If this speaks anything about the future of rap, it’s to say: no one knows what’s coming. Where the sources are so disconnected, though, it goes without saying that these are the verses and hooks that brought us all together.
Check out the Billboard’s picks for the top 10 rap songs of 2014:
10. Cam’ron feat. Juelz Santana and Damon Dash, “Dipshits”
A-Trak is sentimental, as seen at all of his Brooklyn Fool’s Gold Labor Day “Day Off” parties, where the line-ups not only boast young up-and-comers, but always a headliner whose best days are considered behind them. So when word got out that A-Trak (DJ Extraordinaire/Producer Extraordinaire/Tastemaker Extraordinaire) and Cam’Ron (Rapper Extraordinaire/ Instagrammer Extraordinaire) aimed to lay down tracks together, there was measured hope: while it’d been years since Cam had been focused on putting out strong music, and a decade since DipSet had released a project together, if there was anyone who could bring back that Harlem feeling, why not the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Montreal DJ A-Trak? Not only did A-Trak deliver classic Cam lyrics, but the song was powerfully co-produced by Just Blaze (who for a long time didn’t mess with Cam), featured Juelz Santana on the hook (complete with is trademark ad-libs), and dedicated an entire breakdown at the end for Dame Dash to talk that vintage Dame Dash talk. “Dipshits” screamed New York back, without screaming “New York back!” But just as quickly as it showed up — which was without warning, video teasers or a radio premiere — the A-Trak-Cam project “Federal Reserve” disappeared. Or maybe it never existed at all. Regardless, we’re thankful for “Dipshits,” which allowed us to jump in a time machine and rap along without irony, “still DipSet, you dipshits.”
9. Rae Sremmurd, “No Type”
If “No Flex Zone” was a pizza — because name a person who doesn’t like pizza — it was the biggest pizza in the world. But then “No Type” dropped. Now we need a bigger pizza truck. It’s a silly little ditty — some of the longest words in the song are “Kardashian,” “shopping” and “popping.” But the hook is what we care about: “I ain’t got no type! Bad bitches is the only thing that I like / You ain’t got no life: cups with the ice and we do this every night.” “No Type” is an anthem for the Millennials or maybe just the nation or the world or whatever. Well, until Mike Will Made-It makes another pizza.
8. Wiz Khalifa, “We Dem Boyz”
Wiz Khalifa has made a career of proving people wrong. Warner Bros. Records can’t figure out what to make of Wiz’s music? Fine, he’ll go independent, tour constantly, build up a large and loyal fan base and prove himself so in-demand that WBR’s sister label Atlantic signs him for big money. People don’t take him for a ladies man, especially with a random yellow streak in his brown hair? Fine, he’ll court Amber Rose, marry her, and have a child together. Fans think his major label albums are too commercial? Fine, he’ll write an online letter of apology, and put out music that’s more true to him and his roots. Tabloid-readers harp on Wiz because his marriage doesn’t work out and he dyes his hair purple? He intimates that he’s made a sex tape with a Playboy bunny. And when his own record label once again didn’t know what to do with the song he intended to make his first single off of his then-upcoming album Blacc Hollywood, “We Dem Boyz”… the song grows and grows and grows, to the point where it’s undeniable, from the radio to the club to his dominant performance at Hot 97’s Summer Jam. The song — half hook and half “hol’ up, hol’ up, hol’ up” — is immensely fun, carefree, addictive, and 100% pure Wiz. Watch out for not buying into this purple-haired guy, cause he’ll end up making you look silly.
7. DeJ Loaf, “Try Me”
“Let a ni–a try me, try me / I’ma get his whole mothafuckin’ family / And I ain’t playin wit nobody / Fuck around and I’m a catch a body.” They’re not the most welcoming words, but hey, it’s DeJ Loaf’s Detroit hello. Weirdly for DeJ — hidden by a bucket hat, high collar and heart shades — her voice caught Drake‘s ear early this year. From there it was on: if a person didn’t tack on a verse to her smooth murdergram, they probably weren’t a rapper, singer or alive this summer.
6. YG feat. Drake, “Who Do You Love?”
YG doesn’t mince words, just as DJ Mustard doesn’t mince piano notes. The West Coast’s modern-day Snoop and Dre put together an award-worthy album (even if the GRAMMYs nomination got “lost in the mail”), and “Who Do You Love?” — a syrupy proclamation of living that gangsta life is a stand-out. The hook repeats the simple question, “Bitch, who do you love?” and the answer, of course, is a no-brainer: one’s self. YG loves who he is (someone who doesn’t run, doesn’t tell, and doesn’t mind you knowing how much money he has in the bank, and which bank he uses, for that matter), and Drake, featured on the second verse, loves who he is (OVO crew, thought he told you; big in the West, like he’s big in the South; too-big pinky ring). This song is a wonderful daily affirmation. Like a Rap Game Stuart Smalley, YG, Drake and Mustard allow everyone to look in the mirror and recite, I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, bitch, who do you love?!
5. Young Thug feat. Rich Homie Quan, “Lifestyle”
No one understands Young Thug. Not the way he dresses, not how his contracts and business dealings are structured, and — most to the point — no one understands a thing he raps, sings or rap-sings. So, sure, it’s an easy joke to make on the Internet: “[unintelligible]…just to live this here lifestyle.” But when it comes to Thug, it’s less about the nuts and bolts and more about the feeling, and, truth be told, there’s a lot of feeling. Lyrics are past the point because we’re all singing along.
4. Bobby Shmurda, “Hot Ni–a”
“He’s just famous off a Vine.” “He’s a one-hit wonder.” “He’s Trinidad James.” “He got famous off an old Lloyd Banks mixtape instrumental.” “There’s no chorus in the song.” “It’s not radio-friendly.” “It’s not TV-friendly.” “HE’S JUST FAMOUS OFF A VINE.” …and then a DJ puts Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Ni–a” on in the club. Suddenly your hat’s in the air, you’re Shmoney Dancing to the most unexpected hot song of the year, and you’re out of excuses.
3. Migos, “Fight Night”
Not too many songs overheat off their own hype and decide to start over; usually a DJ makes that choice. Migos’ “Fight Night” is the exception to whatever rules people make in just about every case. It’s a weird beat, floating in and out like a robbery. And that’s not even addressing the lyrics: “If you know me, know it ain’t my feng shui” may look like English, and sound like English, but it quacks like a duck. All of which is to say: it’s fun, more fun than anything that’s come out this year.
2. Jeezy feat. Jay Z, “Seen It All”
That flute loop — run up by Cardo and Deejaycyfer for Jeezy’s Seen It All: The Autobiography — conjures visions of elves and nymphs, the parting of the trees in the wood. But Jeezy and Jay — while lords of the rings and things — bring it to ripped-edge scrapbooks, memories bittersweet and vivid, unable to divorce the win from the struggle. As Jeezy told MTV, “We got on the phone and [Jay] was like, ‘Yo, Jeezy, when I was writing the verse I had tears in my eyes, man,’ because it took him so far back to [Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects].”
1. Drake, “0-100 / The Catch Up”
Drake’s “0-100 / The Catch Up” is an artistic achievement on so many levels — from the simple, mesmerizing Wu-Tang Clan-like beat, to his NFL Films-worthy slow-motion tap dance across a football field flow — but none more important in 2014 than the ability to take anything and everything he’s dealing with in life, putting it into the ether, and watching it become instantly re-appropriated in every one of his fan’s lives. As seen immediately on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all other forms of social media after he drops a song like 0-100 on SoundCloud, Drake’s lyrics become basically a new language (not to mention memes and t-shirt slogans). People love to make an easy joke about Drake being all in his feelings, but the truth of the matter is that the 6-God has bequeathed each and everyone of you with a way to express your own feelings. And as per usual, his mastery shows up out of nowhere; real quick. Real fucking quick.
iLoveMakonnen feat. Drake, “Tuesday (Remix)”
King Louie, “Live & Die in Chicago”
Run the Jewels feat. Zac de la Rocha, “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”
Big Sean feat. E-40, “IDFWU”
Big K.R.I.T., “Mt. Olympus”King Louie, “Live & Die in Chicago”