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8 essential Brazilian hip hop albums of 2015

“When I say I saw the face of God/he was a black woman.”
– Emicida, “Mãe”

Hip hop speaks more eloquently to the current hopes and struggles of Afro-Brazilians than any other musical genre, but that’s not all; hip hop is also the music of choice for Brazil’s disenfranchised urban masses of every race. And then again, sometimes hip hop is just music — a stylistic choice you make because it sounds like you, and it sounds good.  Here’s the best Brazilian hip hop had to offer last year.

1. Emicida – Sobre Crianças, Quadris, Pesadelos e Lições de Casa…

When Emicida dropped a sweet duet with Vanessa da Mata to tease his second full-length, some haters questioned whether he’d gone soft. He hasn’t; he just grew confident enough to follow his muse wherever it takes him, haters be damned.

Whether he’s going Afropop (“Mufete,” “Salve Black”) or being backed by an irresistible children’s choir (“Casa”), Emicida displays a knack for killer hooks. He also proves he’s not afraid of embracing MPB (he and Caetano Veloso pay reverence to each other in “Baiana”) or wearing his feelings on his sleeve, if only because he can switch from mellow to fierce in a split-second, the best example of which is “Mãe,” which you could say is a Brazilian response to Tupac’s “Dear Mama,” except it’s better than that, and not only because his Mom returns the love in a guest turn.

Although Emicida rhymes that the fruits of his success are redemption rather than revenge, the wounds left by Brazilian racism are still evident. There are several vignettes (specially the one by port Marcelino Freire) addressing sarcasm with irony, but there are also plenty of pointed lyrical barbs, and when Emicida really lets it fly in “Boa Esperança,” the white masters flee for their lives. Overall this is the most ambitious and accomplished Brazilian hip hop album since Criolo’s epochal Nó na Orelha.

2. Black Alien – Babylon By Gus – Vol. II: No Princípio Era O Verbo

The long-awaited follow-up to one of the most influential Brazilian hip hop albums of all time delivers, and truth be told it may end up having a longer shelf life than Vol. 1, which already sounds dated (which is not to say that it doesn’t sound good).

In the 11 years that separated the two volumes, Gustavo de Almeida Ribeiro, aka Gus, aka Black Alien, tamed the addictions and other personal demons that drove him to a failed suicide attempt, so Vol. 2 is about rebirth — tinged with regret at times, but mostly hopeful. In the vignettes that frame the album, he traces his family history, makes peace with the skeletons in his closet, salutes his hometown of Niterói (the one across the bay from Rio de Janeiro) while comparing himself to New Orleans after Katrina, and much more, all done so beautifully you might get misty-eyed if know Portuguese.

Like Emicida, Black Alien grew hooks (“Skateboard” is one of the catchiest Brazilian tunes of 2015) and grew closer to MPB, but he’s musically omnivorous, pledging allegiance to rock by way of rap (the Run DMC-infused “Rock’n’Roll”) and copping heavy blues riffs (“Rolo Compressor,” which serves as a calling card for youngsters who may just be getting know him). Bonus points for the album artwork’s Bergman reference.

3. Rodrigo Ogi – RÁ!

Rodrigo Ogi is the most imaginative lyricist on Brazil’s hip hop scene. He opens his second full-length with a skit where he visits a shrink to talk about what goes on in his head, and what follows is a whirlwind of richly detailed misadventures all over São Paulo. At times Ogi is himself, getting beat up by paramilitary police for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, getting thrown out of nightclub for getting sexy with the wrong woman, and the like, while at times he embodies other characters, including a ninja and a rich businessman shell-shocked by the ugly realities of downtown São Paulo.

At some point the line between reality and fantasy is blurred, but it’s all so entertaining that you don’t even care, as the name-dropping and references to everything and everyone from Lebron James and Brazilian actress Letícia Spiller to “I Believe I can Fly” roll by fast and furious. When it’s over, Ogi leaves the shrink’s office with orders to come back, and as he gets in the car and turns on the stereo, what comes on is … this very album. How’s that for meta?

Of course, following this narrative and fully appreciating Ogi’s wild wordplay requires intimacy with Portuguese. If you don’t know the language what you’re left with is a series of old-school beats, which are still imaginative but not as much as the rhymes, so your level of appreciation of this album is more dependent on your familiarity with the language than for most other items on this list.

4. Aláfia – Corpura

São Paulo septet Aláfia take a huge leap in their second full-length, Corpura. Their spacey hip hop soul grooves sometimes come on like Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder by way of The Roots or Erykah Badu, but they’re quintessentially Brazilian, as evidenced by their use of percussion and Candomblé music. They take their name from a Candomblé term (broken youruba, really) for “peace,” they want to be spokespeople for the Afro-Brazilian community, and they have a right. “You say I’m a black woman with a chip on my shoulder that doesn’t laugh at your racist, sexist joke,” rhymes female vocalist Xênia França in the best track, “Preto Cismado,” which she follows up with “I am the personified voice of every incident where the police was the judge, jury and executioner.” Add it all up and what you have is a big step toward a uniquely Brazilian blend of Afrofuturism.

5. Boomshot Apresenta: Síntese + Akilez + Kiko Dinucci + Thiago França

Síntese, a onetime rap duo turned one-man-show, teamed up with three fixtures of the São Paulo underground scene — Akilez of Projetonave and Kiko Dinucci and Thiago França of Metá Metá, among others — for a one-off collaboration that aired on public television (in Brazil, of course) in late 2014; Web radio outfit Boomshot released it at the tail end of 2015, and hardly anyone noticed. But this mix of free jazz and progressive metal with the urgent vocals of Síntese’s Neto is as strong a piece of underground hip hop as anything released anywhere last year, so much so that it just had to be included in this list even though it doesn’t quite qualify as an album with its skimpy 15-minute runtime — and it definitely leave you pining for more.

6. Fino du Rap – Quixote

Fino du Rap (which translates into “the cream of rap”) is the moniker of a São Paulo MC who’s been around for a while but never crossed over. He labored for four years to produce his fifth full-length, even honing his craft at hip hop slams around town — a struggle that inspired him to name the thing after Don Quijote. The effort paid off, at least creatively. Poetic but never pretentious, jazzy enough to get Izzy Gordon to guest on the title track, throwing funk and samba in the mix but yet retaining enough street cred to get several producers, MCs and collectives to collaborate, this has a lot of heart and deserves more attention that it’s been getting.

7. A.L.M.A. – Da ALMA ao Caos, LAMA na Casa

Hardcore, this debut by three young São Paulo MCs. “Your hatred is useless/like a nun’s p***y,” they spit out at some hater who probably wishes he hadn’t crossed their path.

This has it share of cliched moments, and their excessive bilingual profanity can be cringe-worthy, but they are quite literate: in the opening track alone they rhyme Bukowsky with Tchaikovsky, go on the road like Kerouac but at Usain Bolt speed, quote from Nietzsche and Seneca, and probably reference a bunch of other things I missed. Which puts them in a similar spot as Ogi — the more Portuguese you know, the more you’ll like’em.

Bonus points for the title’s homage to the classic debut by manguebeat pioneers Chico Science & Nação Zumbi — a welcome acknowledgement that São Paulo’s favelas are closer to the seaside shanties of northeastern Recife than most denizens of Brazil’s largest city would like to acknowledge.

8. BNegão & Seletores de Frequência – TransmutAção

Back in September I praised the third full-length from BNegão for its “conceptual elegance and solid grooves.” I was also surprised by BNegão’s embrace of Afro-Brazilian religiosity and Jamaican music, and by his adoption of a messianic tone. Eventually (duh) it dawned on me that, like Aláfia, he was going for an Afrofuturist vibe. Aláfia’s stab at the genre is both more original and more compelling, but TransmutAção is a solid album that’s definitely worth your time.

Subjects for further research

A few more albums that almost made the cut:

More Brazilian music you shoulda been listening to in 2015

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