Mistah F.A.B., Black Designer (Faeva Afta)
It doesn’t take long for Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B. to articulate why Black Designer is being called his “mature” album: just 22 seconds into its eponymous kickoff track, he raps, “Busy as hell but always answer when my daughter calls / Present when my son took his first steps.” Other song titles reference Black cultural icons — among them Duke Ellington, Dorothy Dandridge, Mansa Musa, and W.E.B. Du Bois. “George Washington Carver” could have easily been titled “Flower Shop” — it’s more about props than crops — but artistic license appears to be a by-product of F.A.B. owning his own masters.
F.A.B. has added adulting to a skillset that already included evocative imagery and nimble, punchline-laden flows. High-flying tales of lavish international trips fluidly contrast with socially conscious and inspirational messages: “I grew up poor, who ashamed of that? Not me / It’s just evidence that can’t nothing in life stop me,” he raps. Black Designer’s 22 tracks, spanning over 80 minutes, run lyrical circles around 95% of rappers alive. Though rooted in boastfulness, the use of patterns, alliteration, slang and metaphors overflow with creative mojo and a newfound sense of purpose. The album eschews trap or drill beats, instead offering up lush beds of jazzy, soulful loops more consistent with hip-hop’s history than its present state. The result is one of the best Bay Area hip-hop albums in recent memory, one that knows the world is bigger than the block. — Eric Arnold
Rexx Life Raj, The Blue Hour (Rexx Life/EMPIRE)
After the recent passing of his mother and father, Berkeley’s Rexx Life Raj took time to pour his pain into a work of art, The Blue Hour.
The 12-track album, named after the time of the day just before dawn, takes listeners through some of the darkest moments in Raj’s life. And still, between intimate details of grief, he finds space to slide in slices of levity, clever lyrics and a player lifestyle.
“Beauty in The Madness,” featuring Wale and Fireboy DML, is a club-ready track for those who like to dance. “Scared Money” is a raw display of real rapper bars over a beat that’s an audible punch in the face. “Jerry Curl,” featuring Larry June, is the soundtrack to smoke and ride to.
But it’s the song “Save Yourself” that’s arguably the most important song to come out of the region this year. Raj opens his first verse by rapping, “When I was down bad / Looked in the mirror and realized I was all that I had / Had fam and the gang is the landing pad / But if I don’t steer the plane, then it’ll still crash.”
He delivers a Sunday morning sermon about self-reliance while riding a bass-heavy beat. It taps directly into the cerebral cortex and pushes listeners to enter a transcendent state where pain and love merge in this thing we know as music.
It’s art at its highest form.
To mourn in public is to show the world your full humanity. To create art and invite others to share in the grieving process pushes all of us to be more fully human. — Pendarvis Harshaw
Fantastic Negrito, White Jesus Black Problems (Storefront Records)
Liberated from the show-business pressures he encountered in the 1990s, when he was a young R&B singer with a major-label deal, Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito has earned a national following in recent years. The inaugural winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, and a three-time Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Blues Album, he’s emphasized honesty and a pursuit of self that honors his roots.
On Fantastic Negrito’s latest album, White Jesus Black Problems, the angelically psychedelic chorus of opening track “Venomous Dogma” enraptures you and doesn’t let go. Another track, “You Don’t Belong Here,” is a sound-rich window into the realities of oppression and otherness.
Fantastic Negrito released White Jesus Black Problems with a short film of the same title. As he narrates in the introduction, it’s “a love story” — one that he lays bare on “Virginia Soil,” the last track on the album. It situates the listener in Oakland and Virginia at the same time, and honors Fantastic Negrito’s 18th-century ancestors. His white Scottish grandmother, Gallamore, and his enslaved African American grandfather — whom Negrito calls Courage — lived in defiance of the racist social order of their time. “Freedom will come,” Fantastic Negrito sings triumphantly on the track. As listeners, we’re better for his prophetic nudges towards liberty. — Camilo Garzón
mxmtoon, rising (AWAL Recordings America)
When Maia — known as mxmtoon — was 17, she wrote “prom dress,” a sad yet upbeat anthem for lost teenagers overwhelmed by doubt and confusion. Now, four years later, the Oakland-born singer-songwriter reflects on how life has changed and her evolution in her latest album, rising.
Like much of mxmtoon’s discography, rising features tender, heartfelt lyrics and dreamy pop instrumentals delivered with high, soft vocals. Many songs on the album tackle aging, nostalgia, the pressures of societal expectations and what it means to look forward as you let go of your younger self. In “victim of nostalgia,” a track fit for a coming-of-age film, mxmtoon sings: “It’s the panic of growing up / It’s the fear of fallin’ down,” illustrating her unsteadiness as she enters her early 20s.
But this doubt is balanced by songs like “kaleidoscope,” where she accepts that the chaos the unknown is where she can truly grow. “Count all of my colors, but you’ll never know,” she sings, boldly accepting that this new era she enters is one of many to come. — Kristie Song
Toro Y Moi, Mahal (Dead Oceans)
Every single one of my teenage years was spent in the 1990s. While a lot of people look back on their formative years and cringe, I never have. I loved everything about that decade — the fashion, the music, the creative communities, the attitude. The current ’90s revival then, has been filling me with joy all year — and Toro Y Moi’s chillwave has proven to be the perfect soundtrack.
On Mahal, the Oakland artist and producer (real name: Chaz Bear) mashes a plethora of ’90s trends seamlessly into one expansive, alluring mirage. Combining dreamy soundscapes, fuzzy indie-rock guitars, hip-hop beats (that occasionally nod in the direction of drum and bass) and the same ’70s funk sensibilities we embraced in the ’90s, Toro Y Moi is so retro, he’s entirely of the moment.
To me, Mahal sounds like seven people smoking weed in a tiny dorm room, backpacks and skateboards piled up in the corner. It sounds like making out under the stars on the walk home. It sounds like dancing with your friends in a sweaty basement. It sounds like living, and it’s beautiful. — Rae Alexandra
Various Artists, Tales of the Town (Tales of the Town)
It’s been a tremendously exciting year for Bay Area rap and R&B, and Tales of the Town is the natural culmination. With a who’s-who of the region’s rich talent (including Guap, ShooterGang Kony, G-Eazy, P-Lo, Jane Handcock, Koran Streets, Pallaví, Shy’An G, Ian Kelly, ALLBLACK, Kevin Allen and others), the compilation isn’t a sampler so much as a statement of purpose. Concurrent with the podcast of the same name (presented by activist organization People’s Programs), Tales of the Town addresses Oakland history, sports, police brutality, gentrification and the housing crisis — all while proving the case for Oakland as a center of Black Excellence.
The multigenerational result is verses from veterans like J Stalin, who addresses Oscar Grant (“Three years for a Black life / And they want you to praise Christ?”), and newcomers like LaRussell, who takes on police and environmental racism (“How they build a hood and a power plant adjacent?”). With spoken-word segues from Town figures like Tupac Shakur and an overarching trajectory toward making Oakland a more equitable city, Tales of the Town is 2022’s sharpest musical snapshot of the Bay Area right now. — Gabe Meline
Samora Pinderhughes, GRIEF (Stretch Music/Ropeadope)
The Bay Area got a deep look into the research that inspired Berkeley-reared pianist, songwriter and vocalist Samora Pinderhughes’ album GRIEF last spring with The Healing Project, a multimedia installation at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts produced by Anna Deavere Smith, Glenn Ligon and Vijay Iyer. A cool-toned but scorching cri de coeur revealing the costs of mass incarceration, GRIEF peels back the mounting losses one devastating track at a time.
Like on the title song, with its sinuous, whispered refrain of “death is much worse for the ones left behind,” the project’s inviting melodic hooks and luscious production generate crackling tension with the abject content. Spiritually charged but utterly grounded, the songs don’t attempt to put pieces back together as much as honor the wounds, hinting at avenues toward healing. Joined by a superlative ensemble featuring drummer Marcus Gilmore, electric bassist Boom Bishop, double bassist Clovis Nicolas, alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino and vocalists Nio Levon and Jehbreal Jackson — as well Samora's younger sister Elena Pinderhughes on flute — GRIEF marks Pinderhughes’ transformation from promising jazz pianist to visionary songwriter and producer with a rarified skillset and prophetic agenda. — Andrew Gilbert
Hokage Simon, Neon Noir (self-released)
Vallejo artist Hokage Simon has had an eventful year. He's been handling his business, playing keys for rising artists like LaRussell and Elujay, and even walking in the 2022 TOMBOGO fashion show. He dropped his seven-song album Neon Noir this summer, following up on the joint album he released with LaRussell, For What It’s Worth, in March. Simon wrote Neon Noir while battling cancer, and he released it on the one-year anniversary of his recovery. On the summery song “Enough,” featuring Tomas Jordan, Simon fuses an R&B two-step with a funky undertone and light vocals. This album spotlights Simon’s expansive synth playing, traversing R&B, psychedelic pop, jazz and boogie. On another standout song, “Gullible,” Simon sings about being sprung over someone, taking the listener back to the nostalgia of early crushes. With Neon Noir, Simon took a dark moment in his life and made something luminous. — Nia Coats
Kamaiyah, DIVINE TIMING (DELUXE) (KEEP IT LIT ENT.)
Since her 2016 debut, A Good Night in the Ghetto, Kamaiyah has asserted her way to the top of the hip-hop food chain, claiming a 2017 XXL Freshman title and collabing with rap’s biggest trendsetters, including Drake, YG, Lil Yachty and G-Eazy. This year, the Oakland star returned with a refined version of her trademark vibe on DIVINE TIMING (DELUXE). Her second studio album, this project is made for the slappaholics, hustlers and smooth talkers. It’s a soundtrack for those who yearn for G-funk’s synth and bass on songs like “WHEN I SWANG.” Then there are the drippy bells and relentless tales of braggadocio on “Play Too Much,” featuring Cash Kidd.
For Oakland’s rap queen, it’s not just about flexing lyrical muscle over West Coast house party beats. She’s also here to share knowledge and intimate memories from her journey. On the album’s only interlude, “Brenda Talks From Heaven,” an audio recording plays a distorted voice message from a departed loved one. The humanity of the artist sharing a tender moment in a time of pain provides a moment of transcendence.
DIVINE TIMING (DELUXE) is laced with a generous but not-overly-saturated number of guest features, including Vallejo’s Da Boii, Detroit’s Sada Baby and Dej Loaf, and the late Stockton rapper Young Slo-Be. With twice as many tracks included on this deluxe version as the original release, Kamaiyah reminds us why her flow is limitless — and divinely timed for Bay Area fans. — Alan Chazaro
Brijean, Angelo (Ghostly International)
On the dance floor, we typically hear songs about love and desire, but disco-house duo Brijean offers an invitation to move our bodies as a form of release from pain. Their EP Angelo opens with the echoes of singer-percussionist Brijean Murphy beckoning, “Which way to the club?” as if inviting us down an enchanted rabbit hole. But subtly and masterfully, the project weaves in themes of grief. Murphy and her musical and life partner, bassist-producer Doug Stuart, both lost parents over the past two years. The memory of Brijean’s father, Latin jazz percussionist Patrick Murphy, is embedded in Angelo’s DNA through her dexterous conga rhythms, which the bandleader has referred to as family heirlooms.
“Shy Guy” and “Ooh La La” conjure a technicolor party somewhere balmy and tropical. But Angelo comes to a more contemplative moment on the title track, named after the car in which Murphy and Stuart drove away from the Bay Area, first to care for ailing family members, and then to relocate to Los Angeles. That feeling of longing for loved ones, whether separated by distance or on another plane, comes into full view on “Caldwell’s Way,” a wistful, downtempo pop track with a keyboard solo that invites you to stare out the window in contemplation. — Nastia Voynovskaya
Elujay, Circmvnt (OneTime!)
Elujay’s track “Ratrace” set the tone for 2022. The refreshing percussion, light keys and bright synths combine to create a head-nodding beat, over which the Oakland-raised artist floats lyrics about yearning to be removed from our fast-paced society.
“It is easier to disassociate / Forget the race, rat race/ I’d risk it for you,” sings Elujay over production by Chris Palowitch, Hokage Simon and Anthony Shogun.
“Ratrace” is the first single off Elujay’s January 2022 release, Circmvnt, a project full of delightful harmonies and heavy lyrics. On “Pandemia,” for example, he writes about the dangers of overconsumption and critiques the notion of sending children to school in the middle of the pandemic. But the song is so chill that the magnitude of the lyrics might escape you if you don’t read along as Elujay sings.
The album isn’t solely deep meditations about existential crises and the ills of society. On “Luvaroq,” which features serpantwithfeet, Elujay brings fans into his version of a lovers’ rock track. And on “1080p” (with HXNS), Elujay gives listeners music to break a sweat on the dancefloor.
Circmvnt is both a soundtrack for the cool kids who have 1980s nostalgia and the philosophers who contemplate the future of humankind. — Pendarvis Harshaw
Dregs One, Sucka Repellent (Audio Vandals)
Anyone who follows Dregs One on TikTok already knows: the man is a well of Bay Area hip-hop culture, broadcasting his mini-histories of legends like Mac Dre, Ill Mannered Playas, Hieroglyphics and RBL Posse to 41,000 followers. What’s not so widely known is Dregs’ own deep rap career — the latest installment of which, Sucka Repellent, rolls up 30-plus years of Bay Area hip-hop history into 16 streetwise tracks.
Dregs nods to the bassline of Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle” in “28 Dubs”; the DJ Fresh-produced “Bobby Brown” calls for unity and blessings from “Frisco to San Jo, represent the Town bizness / Vallejo, Sacramento, Palo Alto, Richmond”; and guests like Husalah (“Geeked Up”), Cellski (“City Life”) and add an indelible Bay Area stamp.
But perhaps the most vivid encapsulation of Dregs’ own story comes on “Rap Cats.” In one succinct verse, Dregs recounts his aspirations as a hungry kid growing up in Lakeview: listening to The Wake Up Show, wanting to sound like Tupac, digging in the crates, watching graffiti in the tunnels from the bus, selling albums on consignment and rocking house parties. With a guest verse from the one and only Spice 1, Sucka Repellent comes full circle to an abiding truth: Frisco dreams really can come true. — Gabe Meline
spacemoth, No Past No Future (Wax Nine/Carpark Records)
It’s an album that opens with an unflinching question — “When is this shit gonna end?” — and closes with a wholly depressing answer: “No future here.”
No Past No Future is the disillusioned brainchild of Maryam Qudus, a studio engineer and producer that Bay Area locals might recognize from Women’s Audio Mission or Tiny Telephone studios. Qudus sounds like Stereolab’s cooler sister after spending an evening with Kathleen Hanna’s Julie Ruin album, combining dreamy soundscapes, thoroughly dystopian lyrics and irresistibly lo-fi dance moments. (“Pipe and Pistol” and “Noise of Everyday Life” are upbeat highlights.) In between, Qudus touches on the racism she deals with because of her Afghan heritage (“L.O.T.F”) and offers a cleverly constructed critique of sexual harassment (“Asking for You”) that would’ve been at home on the Promising Young Woman soundtrack.
Seamlessly combining sounds of the future with the persistent idea that there won’t be one isn’t a recipe that should work, but it is surprisingly satisfying in Qudus’ capable hands. Stash a copy in your doomsday bunker immediately. — Rae Alexandra
Mystic, Dreaming In Cursive: The Girl Who Loved Sparklers (Beautifull Soundworks)
Mystic’s long-awaited third album arrived in August, two decades after her now-classic Cuts For Luck and Scars For Freedom. In that time, she’s become an educator and healer, working in youth development. The Oakland MC brings that perspective to Dreaming In Cursive, along with her own lived experiences, resulting in that rare hip-hop album that grounds itself in love and revels in wisdom. The album overflows with positive affirmations, cognizant of human struggle, but aspirational in nature and spiritual in tone. Mystic promises to “show you magic,” yet her invocations have more to do with uplifting souls than occult sorcery.
Mystic has always been a unicorn, talented at rapping, singing and spoken word, while being both socially conscious and street-savvy. Dreaming In Cursive trades some of the edginess of her debut for a mellower overall vibe, complete with tasteful keyboards and poetic interludes. Boom-bap beats don’t dominate every track, but when they do surface, as on the anthemic single “We Are the People,” they bring a strident urgency without overshadowing her lyrical message. Which is, simply, that love is a revolutionary, transformative act that is foundational to liberation. Loving unapologetically — the album’s preeminent theme — requires having faith, vulnerability and intentional openness. This isn’t what we normally hear from rappers, but it’s perhaps what we need to hear more often. — Eric Arnold
Try the Pie, A Widening Burst of Forever (Get Better Records)
Equal parts cathartic and tender, Try the Pie’s A Widening Burst of Forever features nine tracks that bounce between wistful and slow, loud and grungy. In “Asleep on the Lawn,” San Jose-raised singer-songwriter Bean Tupou’s clear and high vocals pierce the heavy reverberations of a simple guitar melody. “I didn’t see it like you,” they sing, soft and melancholic. Then, in “Last of You,” Tupou pivots into something grittier — with a more urgent vocal delivery and faster, cranked-up guitar riffs that collide into something worth headbanging to.
The album’s raw instrumentals are often paired with heartfelt lyrics. In “Awful Moon,” Tupou sings, “I'm just a fern below the dirt / unemerged,” confessing to an unnamed person that they are still delicate, still burgeoning, still growing into an unknown. — Kristie Song
Spote Breeze, Cascade Viewing (Hot Record Societe)
Spote Breeze is one the best-kept secrets of the Bay Area’s hip-hop scene. He’s usually hiding behind glasses and a hoodie, and rarely does he promote himself. But his music for self-described introverts shows that the quiet ones, the people who sit back and observe, often have the wisest things to say. On Cascade Viewing, airy jazz- and soul-inflected beats by OG Jarin crackle with the sound of a vintage record player. With this vibe of an intimate listening session, the production gives the Oakland MC space to explore his inner world, as if writing diary entries in the blank pages of a notebook.
Spote’s story-rich verses ruminate on hard life experiences, eventually pulling out kernels of wisdom about friendship, personal growth and spirituality. Like the title Cascade Viewing suggests (it’s an almost-homonym for “casket viewing”), brushes with death haunt the album’s 13 tracks. But even amid grim reminders of our mortality, Spote builds a more hopeful future, and his intricate rhymes are the foundation. — Nastia Voynovskaya
Nate Curry and YMTK, By Design (Self-Released)
In February, Oakland’s YMTK and Sacramento’s Nate Curry dropped By Design, a nine-track project that fuses modern R&B with touches of trip-hop, heavy basslines and a dash pop flare. It’s the definition of eclectic.
The album begins with a mellow title track, about the perseverance it takes to achieve your goals, and takes listeners through a journey of physical attraction, the pursuit of love and the process of healing from love lost.
The house-influenced “Miss That” is a feel-good song about a relationship ending — somewhat of a contradictory notion, but it works really well for the healing process. It’s followed by “Silence,” where Jay Anthony joins YMTK and Nate Curry on a beat with a blappin’, mobb music bassline. The album features Bay Area standouts Guap, P-Lo and Symba — and a rare verse from Lil B — as well as Los Angeles’ Iman Europe and Phabo.
The sonic diversity in this album is a nod to the talent of Nate Curry and YMTK, who’ve figured out ways to work with a wide range of artists from the region. When Northern Californian artists join to create quality work, it does wonders for all of us. — Pendarvis Harshaw
Calvin Keys, Blue Keys (Wide Hive Records)
On the cusp of his 80th birthday, Calvin Keys sounds as lean and potent as ever. The Oakland guitarist has been at the center of the Bay Area jazz since the mid-1970s, and his new album Blue Keys finds him keeping company with a bevy of similarly distinguished masters, including former Bay Area-based percussionist Babatunde Lea, bassist Henry “The Skipper” Franklin, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz and trombonist Steve Turre (who also contributes on conch shells). As with many releases on Berkeley's Wide Hive Records, label owner Gregory Howe is in the thick of the action as a pianist, organist, composer and overall sound designer. Rather than a late-career valedictory statement, Keys’ fourth release on Wide Hive is the work of an artist who still sounds hungry to extend his creative purview.
Keys is best known for his understated eloquence in straight-ahead jazz settings, placing each note for maximum rhythmic and emotional impact. Blue Keys surrounds him with thickly textured horns, kicking off with “Peregrines Dive.” Laced with the woozily surging opening refrain from Horace Silver’s hard-bop classic “Nutville,” the tune gains momentum and heft until the horns give way, and Keys resets the stage with a sharply etched, telegraphic solo. Turre’s gorgeous conch solo on “Ck 22” provides a striking tonal contrast to Keys’ stinging phrasing while the second half “At Arrival” opens up into a delicate Keys and Bartz duet that’s worth the price of admission alone. Smart, soulful and pleasingly concise, Keys is an improviser in his prime. — Andrew Gilbert
Richie Cunning, Big Deal (Son of the City)
Rappers often shout out Frank Sinatra for his style, his underworld ties and his attitude. But let’s face it: musically, the two are worlds apart. Pop-vocal easy listening from the 1950s mixed with today’s hip-hop? The idea sounds preposterous.
Enter San Francisco rapper Richie Cunning and his latest album, Big Deal, filled with lush strings, muted trumpet, walking bass and tinkling piano. While Cunning raps with smooth ease, the voices of Sammy Davis Jr. and Bobby Darin weave in and out, and the whole thing is structured and paced to resemble a boom-bap microphone fiend time-traveling to a midnight set at an Eisenhower-era supper club.