10 of the Most Underrated Hip Hop Projects of 2023, Pt. 2
All over social media, I’ve seen claims that 2023 is a weak year for music. In the mainstream, things have been drier than usual, but taking a moment to admire the work the underground scene is putting in, 2023 suddenly turns from a lacklustre year to a phenomenal one for hip hop. Here are ten projects that deserve a little more love, all of which you should take some time to give a listen.
Mansdem – FIFTY. 50.
Last year, Mansdem gifted us with Hitmans, a quickfire run of lyrical magic running for a tight twenty-three minutes. FIFTY. 50. is the exact opposite of its concise predecessor: as its title suggests, the album is a fifty track marathon of Mansdem bangers, filled with dozens of clever verses and slick instrumental cuts serving as interludes for a moment to breathe. Despite being such a drastic change of pace for the MC, Mans pulls off the concept perfectly, bringing on producers from J4K to Harvey Gold to add a soulful twist to the rapper’s style. Mans himself is a formidable MC, rapping with a sophisticated, steady demeanour which adds a bravado to his nonstop witticisms. Rappers like Unruly and Don J offer great verses, but for the most part, FIFTY. 50. is a solo performance from Mansdem. Producing over a dozen songs himself and rapping on the vast majority, Mans displays an inhuman level of consistency that allows him to keep the momentum of the project going for all fifty tracks. Don’t let its length intimidate you; either in segments or all in one, FIFTY. 50. is well worth your time.
INSMNC – Praxis
Putting aside his signature futuristic style for a more jazzy beat tape, Praxis is the first full instrumental album from South Jersey’s INSMNC. Where he shines most is in his ability to splice together samples: taking elements of jazz, rock, electronica, soul, and more, he seamlessly glues together sounds of different genres into a range of slick beats. “Speakers Untouchable” is a relatively tame song compared to what comes later in the album, with these meandering horns looping over a backbone of ska production to form a summery sound rarely heard in hip hop. Many of the subsequent tracks follow a similar structure, sticking together different styles with an ever-changing solo dancing over the percussion to keep things interesting. Near the back end of the album is where things get even more eccentric. “Breezeblock” and “Last Night” are five-minute mammoths of sampling insanity, traversing dozens of styles through a myriad of unpredictable beat switches. Embracing the chaos of his sound, Praxis is INSMNC’s production at its most colourful and original.
Money Mogly – A LONE WXLF
One of the most eclectic hip hop projects of 2023, Money Mogly adapts well to any style, showcasing his versatility to the fullest on A LONE WXLF. Whether you’re a fan of traditional trap music, grimy East Coast sounds or even the danceable style of Miami stick, this project has it all. Mogly brings a different flavour to every song, showing off his vivid storytelling ability on the tense “$TORY TIME”, displaying a slick flow over the synth-laced summer anthem of “DI$H WA$HER$”, and taking a more introspective approach on the melancholic “GRAPE FROOT TROUPE”. A handful of features make the album even more diverse, but it’s Mogly himself who keeps it engaging, never afraid to tackle a new sound with the confident mic presence to make it work every time.
Thought Provokah – Is It Friday Yet
If you aren’t familiar with Thought Provokah, he’s one of the most consistent MCs in the modern underground, balancing clever concepts with an impressive technical ability that makes any verse a lyrical delight. Is It Friday Yet is the follow-up to 2022’s I’M GOOD I’M GOOD, an album where the rapper took on the persona of Knaps Jones, a simple man living a mundane life narrated through hip hop. Provokah’s dry wit and comical sense of storytelling are made more compelling by his sheer talent when it comes to rhyme, boasting an enormous vocabulary that allows him to lace each verse with internal rhymes and his incredible ability to play on words. Is It Friday Yet is not my favourite project by the MC, but in twenty short minutes, it acts as a fantastic introduction to his style.
Lil Derik & Skip the Kid – Derik “The Dragon” eMCee
After their stellar 2022 collaboration Mean Gene & The People’s Champ, rapper Lil Derik and producer Skip the Kid have joined forces again for The Dragon. Unlike many of Skip’s projects which embody a more rustic, grimy sound, his production here is far poppier, complementing Derik’s smooth performance. Beats like “Crippla Crossface” and “Oh My God” include these textured vocal samples layered over strings and punching drums, working together to form a warm, summery atmosphere. Derik is fantastic throughout the project, with a knack for catchy hooks and a dynamic arsenal of flows to adapt to beats quick and slow. In only twenty-two minutes, the duo craft one of the slickest, most accessible rap albums in the underground to release this year.
Kheyzine – Hell On Heart Sides A & B
Exclusive to Bandcamp, Hell On Heart is the latest project from French beatmaker Kheyzine. Full of sinister piano loops and dusty drum patterns, he captures the gritty sound of underground New York, bringing on a range of guests to thrive in the grimy soundscape. A different rapper dominates each song, resulting in a diverse tracklist full of varied performances. On the psychedelic “Idle Words”, the vivid storytelling from Jonny Farias sounds so crisp and prominent over the dreamy beat from Kheyzine. On “Billy Dance”, the spiralling piano keys create a captivating dichotomy between the chaos of the instrumental and the steadiness of Shottie’s cold-hearted rhymes. Hell On Heart shows off Kheyzine’s range as a producer and talent as a curator, herding together an army of MCs who each flourish on his intricate style of production. Even if one song doesn’t impress you, there’s a good chance that the next one will, thanks to the sheer diversity of styles presented on Hell On Heart.
Lunatic – Derange Poems of Sadness
With a bombastic delivery and ferocious flow where the MC hardly takes a breath, Lunatic offers one of the most energetic performances of the year on Derange Poems of Sadness. The production embodies that gritty underground sound most often compared to the Griselda crew, filled with distorted piano, crunching percussion and haunting vocal samples. As familiar as the sound can be, Lunatic’s animated presence and densely-layered rhymes give him a unique style that is far from derivative. Where he thrives most is in his colourful lyrics, juggling personal anecdotes with sadistic threats. Lunatic knows how to entertain both with the pen and on the mic, resulting in a project that never loses my interest for a moment.
Jiggs & Wiz Kelly – SILK
Returning after last year’s God Meant It, SILK is an even greater album from rapper Jiggs with an excellent assortment of beats supplied by Wiz Kelly. When it comes to raw rapping ability, few MCs in the underground are on Jiggs’s level. His fiery, impassioned delivery matches well to the bombastic beats, with the rapper-producer chemistry between Wiz and Jiggs at its strongest on the empowering opener “H.O.F. (Forever)”. A couple of guests offer fantastic verses, especially on “TEARS” where Berg285 and MARCO PLUS bounce off Jiggs like they were secretly always a trio. “WOUNDS” may just be the strongest cut on the album, where Kelly’s warm, laidback production gives prominence to the emotional storytelling from the MC, going into vivid detail that keeps he hooked on every word. Sharpening his skillset with every release, it will only be a matter of time before the biggest names in the underground catch on to Jiggs.
Formerly Known As – on death’s door
Producer-producer collaborations aren’t as common as they once were, but Blank Thought and Mashoni Beats have proven the formula still works with on death’s door, combining their talents to become Formerly Known As. The project embodies this thick, sinister soundscape prioritising atmosphere over all else. From its haunting piano samples to the growling bass and myriad sound effects laced into the instrumentals, on death’s door immerses me in a foreboding sound like no other in 2023. The odd-numbered tracks are produced by Mashoni while the even-numbered are handled by Blank Thought, but the duo’s beats transition so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget the project is even a collaboration. Whether it be the swaggering presence of Twogeebs on “descending” or Mourning Run’s tongue-twisting rhymes on “secret chord”, all the features deliver and do the frigid beats justice.
Echo – Rap Philosophiæ: Book I
If you’re looking for hip hop that’s a little more laidback, Rap Philosophiæ is the perfect project to check out. Echo’s choice in production is minimalist, with subtle vocal chops and horns weaved into soft drum patterns, allowing the MC’s writing to be the main focus. Although he uses a few verses to practice his wordplay and downplay the competition in a range of witty ways, it’s the more bizarre cuts like “Epicurus” where Rap Philosophiæ is most entertaining, describing in grave detail the experience of dying along with asking a range of anxiety-inducing questions about death. Avoiding traditional topics at all costs, Echo challenges himself to rap about a range of philosophical and political ideas. The result is a project that, even on the tracks I’m not as fond of, I’m still left impressed thanks to the creativity and unwavering charisma from Echo.