By Thomas Johnson, December 6 2017 —
Hindsight’s a funny thing. Despite a few albums that dropped like asteroids, you’d be forgiven for glossing over 2012’s stake as one of modern music’s most impactful years. Five years later, the fruits of one of the more transformative years in recent memory continue to sprout. This July, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange celebrated its fifth anniversary. In October, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.a.a.d. city did the same. These are the obvious highlights, but the list runs far longer.
It’s hard to tell whether R&B and rap have undergone a greater metamorphosis since 2012. Torches were passed en masse, largely acting as the brick and mortar of the last five years. Miguel’s rebranding to a sexually liberated guru began with his trio of Art Dealer Chic EPs was cemented with 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream and lead single “Adorn.” Likewise, BJ The Chicago Kid’s 2012 Pineapple Now-Laters carved his place in modernity. Both went from dependable feature artists to distinct auteurs in their own rights and — though BJ has receded to a cult-following — Miguel continues to set the high bar as a premiere balladeer.
It’s hard to argue against rap’s dynamic change in the past five years. A cursory list of rap’s figureheads in 2011 looks almost foreign — Common, Black Thought, Royce Da 5’9”, Tech N9ne and Kanye. But in 2012 there’s Kendrick, 2 Chainz, Drake, Killer Mike, Pusha T and Kanye. 2012 was a year-long torch-passing. Along with Channel Orange, Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All used 2012 to nail their point to your forehead with a string of critically acclaimed projects. After “Oldie” and The OF Tape Vol. 2, their strongest mission statement as a collective, Domo Genesis and The Alchemist rattled out No Idols, one of the strongest solo outings in the group’s catalogue. Action Bronson signed to a major label and released Rare Chandeliers, also with The Alchemist, effectively upgrading him from a cook who raps to a rapper who cooks. Nicki Minaj repackaged Pink Friday as Roman Reloaded and “Starships” has been played at every house party since. In the south, Big K.R.I.T. released another promising mixtape with 4eva N A Day along with his heavily anticipated but understandably maligned debut album, Live From the Underground.
G.O.O.D. Music held the world on baited breath with dominant singles “Mercy,” “Cold” and “New God Flow” that failed to justify the clumsy Cruel Summer. Death Grips accelerated noise-rap with the mind-boggling The Money Store and equally curious NO LOVE DEEP WEB. Blu & Exile have wilted their flowers attempting to recapture the magic of their 2012 debut Give Me Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them. A slew of pedestrian releases from veterans including DMX and half of the Wu-Tang Clan widened the generational gap, while enlightened releases by older acts shifted their focus. Nas made dad-rap relevant, 2 Chainz ad-libbed, Aesop Rock self-produced and Curren$y got even more stoned. El-P chronicled the new decade’s fear-mongering on Cancer 4 Cure, completing his trilogy of post-millennium anxieties on a sombre note that paralleled Killer Mike’s renaissance. Mike then hitched up with El-P to produce his caustic R.A.P. Music in its entirety, inadvertently spurring the most vital hip-hop duo since Outkast in Run the Jewels.
But at the crest of the calendar year were four Top Dawgs. In 2012, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) scored big. Three TDE members released albums and Jay Rock, who released his debut the previous year, contributed a standout feature to each. In January, Schoolboy Q dropped Habits & Contradictions. The month of May saw the release of Ab-Soul’s Control System. And in September, the earth’s axis aligned with Compton’s and good kid, m.a.a.d. city was unleashed. It remains the jewel in King Kendrick Lamar’s crown and an instant classic, devastatingly impactful tour de force that will be remembered as not only one of the greatest works of our lifetime, but the pinnacle of 2012 — a year overflowing with similar achievements.