Of the many valid criticisms of major-label rap releases is the fact that most of them sound like they were written and produced by a committee. An artist might get signed based on one specific style or sound, but by the time they actually get their album out they’ve had to deal with a million accountants and marketing monsters, who’ve made sure there’s the right ratio of pop-rap ballads, discount trap anthems, and DJ Mustard beats. But there’s something to be said for simplicity (Mustard, for example, was a lot less annoying when he was overseeing YG’s My Krazy Life rather than churning out tracks for Fergie and Jordin Sparks), particularly when it comes to the spirit of true collaboration.
If you knew where to look, some of the best rap releases of 2014 came from equal partnerships between producers and rappers. Splitting a release’s sound between just two people offers enough input for a diverse and captivating release, without sounding like it was created by a focus group.
With that in mind, here are seven producer and rapper duos who dominated 2014.
The legendary DJ Premier is no stranger to collaboration — he is half of the beloved duo Gang Starr, after all — but his latest project PRhyme is one of the best things he’s done, hands down, since Gang Starr’s Guru passed away in 2010. Built on cut-up samples from composer Adrian Younge, Premier’s beats are as gritty, soulful, and classic as ever. The other half of PRhyme, Detroit MC Royce Da 5’9″, also shines on here, offering wordplay both clever and confessional. And while the release has it’s share of guests — Jay Electronica, Schoolboy Q, and Killer Mike among them — Royce never sounds like he’s getting lost in the shuffle. PRhyme is a far better showcase of his talents than his spots on the bloated Shady XV compilation that also came out this year.
Girl Talk and Freeway
Let’s face it — as soon as we realized mash-ups were the musical equivalent of Mountain Dew and Doritos (i.e. that concoction that’s momentary to outsiders, but a lifelong religion for mouth-breathing, message board-dwelling cretins), they sort of lost their allure. Unfortunately for Greg Gillis, making music that sounded like four radio stations being played at once had become a way of life. Rather than hang up the auxiliary cord, however, he took his audio collage abilities and produced an EP’s worth of tracks for Philadelphia spitter Freeway. The result? A timelessly fresh, creative, and vital release that saw both artists one-upping one another. Plus, the video for “Tolerated” is one of the year’s best thanks to its cathartic shots of fuckbois getting punched in the face and Waka Flocka Flame eating a severed human limb.
Madlib and Freddie Gibbs
No matter how many daps he gets, Madlib continues to feel like one of the most underrated producers of all time. That’s not to say he’s unappreciated — he most certainly is — but a year doesn’t end without a significant, game-changing turn from the beat-making prodigy. No stranger to the value of a strong rapper-producer dynamic (this was the man behind the boards for DOOM’s iconic Madvillain project, not to mention an incredible LP from Guilty Simpson), Madlib lent his immense talents to gruff-voiced Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs. Piñata, the duo’s collaborative LP, was a departure for Gibbs. The long buzzed-about rapper has been poised for a next-level breakthrough for years, and recently parted ways with Young Jeezy’s CTE label. Rather than any sort of radio-thirsty club tracks or pop appeal, however, Piñata simply pairs an amazing producer with an amazing rapper and lets them be amazing.
Bishop Nehru and DOOM
Speaking of Madvillain, the duo’s masked villain half is the main reason they’ve never released Madvillainy 2. The perpetually procrastinating Daniel “MF DOOM” Dumile has slowed down his output in general, and is far less prolific than he was in the mid-2000s. Still, this year saw the release of NerhuvianDOOM, a collaborative effort between the rapper-producer and 18-year-old New York rapper Bishop Nehru. There are many reasons why NehruvianDOOM isn’t that notable, and borders on lazy: the beats were similar (or sometimes staight-up lifted) from DOOM’s Special Herbs series, and he barely raps on the record. Nor is Bishop Nehru a strong enough talent to carry his own on record with a bona fide legend. That said, it’s a unique pairing that occasionally works well, and it’s also pretty awesome that a 43-year-old rap mysterio would take a chance on such a young up-and-comer.
Shad and DJ T.Lo
Toronto/Vancouver rapper Shad is inarguably one of Canada’s best hip-hop artists, if not the best. Yet his albums, for all their cultural merit, often favour songwriting and ambition over simplicity. While that’s one of the main reasons he’s so popular, he recently skipped out on the big ideas and threw things back to basics on his Boarding Pass EP. Working with frequent tour mate and collaborator DJ T.Lo, Shad spits inhumanly fast rhymes atop soulful, classic hip-hop breaks. While it may not have the Juno- or Polaris-baiting bells and whistles of his LPs, it’s actually one of the best things he’s ever put out.
Cam’ron and A-Trak
Though it was delayed and didn’t even come out, the idea alone of Cam’ron and A-Trak’s collaborative Federal Reserve EP was larger than life. Factor in their two singles — the equally amazing Dipset throwbacks “Humphrey” and “Dipshits” (which arrived with a truly perfect video complete with a Cat Power cameo) — and A-Trak and Cam’ron crushed 2014 without even finishing their project. Here’s hoping the EP actually does see the light of day, however. While Cam still had a solid showing this year with his 1st of the Month EP series, the production didn’t quite have the same impeccable vision as A-Trak’s work on these singles.
Run the Jewels
Of course, a list about producer and rapper powerhouses would be incomplete without Run the Jewels. Both veteran performers in their own rights, the duo of producer-rapper El-P and rapper Killer Mike have sparked a mid-life renaissance with their collaborative effort. This year, they released their raw, rambunctious RTJ2 LP and it proved to be one of those rare sequels that’s more momentous than the first. Both men are veterans, which means their lyrics are wizened with age, and they don’t fall prey to zeitgeisty cliches or timely trends. As such, Run the Jewels are an extremely successful and artistically focused act who fully demonstrate the power that can come from two people putting their minds together without any other input.