The Best Adult Swim Singles, Every Year From 2010-2016

By | Posted August 22, 2017
From Earl Sweatshirt to Future to Danny Brown, the best Adult Swim singles from the past seven years.
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Photo Credit: Instagram

Where were you when you saw your first Adult Swim bump?

Cartoon Network’s alternative programming block redefined what late night television could be when it debuted back in 2001, but I transitioned from devourer of Venture Bros. and Boondocks to complete Adult Swim devotee the day that I discovered William Street Records. What started with creative director Jason DeMarco working with MF DOOM, Danger Mouse and label Epitaph Records to permanently merge the worlds of Adult Swim and hip-hop with The Mouse and the Mask eventually led to a bigger deal with Warner Music Group. This deal funneled music by the likes of imaginary metal band Dethklok, industrial musician J.G. Thirwell, and even Killer Mike’s comeback record R.A.P. Music into the ears of a waiting audience, but eventually DeMarco wanted to amplify that range.

In 2010, DeMarco created the Adult Swim Singles Program as a way to lead that growing audience through a playlist culled from every corner of music, from rap and R&B to folk-rock and synth pop. I probably wouldn’t be the same fan of Flying Lotus and Unknown Mortal Orchestra that I am today if I hadn’t stumbled across them during the program’s 2012 run. It was an indie RapCaviar before Spotify was even a glint in the public eye.

What started as barely two months of weekly tunes has stretched to encompass a whole year of star-studded new releases, with Migos, Knxwledge, Run The Jewels, Oddisee, Bankroll Fresh and more set to drop new joints for Adult Swim’s legion of late-night adventures in 2017; and this doesn’t even count the 15 weeks of new DOOM music happening in the form of The Lost Notebook Rhymes.

While fellow DJBooth scribe Yoh and I were geeking out over this year’s lineup, we decided to take a look back through the program’s history and write about the songs in the first six years that touched us the most. Adult Swim and hip-hop became close cousins through the magic of TV and brought Flying Lotus, Madlib, J Dilla and Thelonious Martin into my life, but it was the Singles Program that truly took the music out of my iPod and into my heart.               

2010

Madvillain — “Papermill”

Madlib’s crate-digger supreme aesthetic has given vintage thump to everyone from Freddie Gibbs to Strong Arm Steady, but he and DOOM have a surreal bond that no one can touch. “Papermill” is on the jazzier side of that dreamscape, bending a sample of German musician Blonker’s “Irgendwie” to the will of DOOM’s stream-of-consciousness about dumplings, Playbill and even religious acceptance. It’s been three years since DOOM surprised (disappointed?) the underground community by teaming up with Bishop Nehru for NehruvianDOOM and almost a decade since his last solo album, 2009’s Born Like This. Any hopes I have for a full-length follow-up to Madvillainy are purely wishful thinking at this point, but as far as the occasional hard drive link goes, “Papermill” will always be a timeless groove. At least KMD is coming back. —CineMasai

Freddie Gibbs — “On One”

Gangsta Gibbs has been one of hip-hop’s most consistent rhyming practitioners. His impeccable lyrical execution dates back to the dawn of blogs and has continued into the era of streams. The same year (2010) he became one of XXL’s promising freshmen, Freddie teamed up with Adult Swim for the release of “On One.” His flow levitates across the West Coast-esque production, where he sounds completely at ease during an effortless performance. Freddie has never been a wave chaser, so it's no surprise the song sounds like the raw street tales of Gary, Indiana meets the wobbling bounce of California’s G-funk. “On One” is Gibbs when he was still gritty, but reaching refinement―an MC who found his voice, knew his story, and could paint the portrait over any canvas. Freddie is nostalgic yet refreshing, not too far in the past but better than most in the present. —Yoh

2011

El-P — “Drones Over BKLYN”

Drones over Brooklyn in 2017 doesn’t sound ridiculous. Back in 2011, I can see how the title might have caused a bit of alarm. Maybe that’s why El-P’s production blares with life as if trying to shake listeners from a deep slumber. It begins as a simple loop, very futuristic boom bap, and eventually becomes a electronic chant. As much as I love El-P’s government-focused lyricism, the song truly comes to life when no words are spoken. It’s like the production resurrects itself, coming back from the grave. The electric guitar solo is done with power and grace; it’s the stage of “Drones Over BKLYN” that makes the song so memorable. It’s almost like living within three different songs. Political perspective and electronic production—the blueprint of Run The Jewels' winning union can be found in their old music. —Yoh

jj — “We Can’t Stop” ft. Ne-Yo

Williams Street’s middle-of-the-road approach to genre curation has lead to some strange collabs in the past, but I’ll admit that Ne-Yo and Swedish dream pop duo jj were nowhere on my radar; and I definitely wasn’t expecting them to pair together so well. “We Can’t Stop” starts off simply enough as a standard love song, expressing the longing for human connection you might feel on a rainy Sunday morning in bed (“I'm crying in my sleep, dreaming of you / I'm dying to meet someone like you”). It’s much closer to Toro y Moi’s brand of trip-hop than it is to a traditional rap-adjacent record, at least until the beat splits in half to reveal a thumping low end and smooth background croons splashing into the guitars and synths. It’s as if the lovelorn Ne-Yo from “So Sick” got tired of hearing love songs on the radio and stuck his neck out for someone else to make beautiful music with. I’m not crying, you’re crying. —CineMasai

2012

Flying Lotus — “Between Friends” ft. Earl Sweatshirt & Captain Murphy

“Between Friends” was one of Earl’s first releases after he returned home from Samoa. Considering Pitchfork referred to Captain Murphy as “suspiciously Tyler, the Creator-sounding,” this one feels like forever ago. It’s easy to forget that Flying Lotus' rap alter-ego had the internet in a state of wonderment over his identity. It ultimately didn’t matter, “Between Friends” was all the proof needed to respect Captain Murphy. Rapping alongside Earl put into perspective how well Murphy is able to stay on par with the young, acclaimed lyricist. It’s an abstract, bizarre single driven by vocal manipulation, obscure rap references, and a FlyLo dirty jazz loop that sounds like knocking on the door to enter the void. With a flawless, free-flowing approach the two compliment each other like unified dirty minds, kindred spirits of the strange and druggy. In a perfect world where the two released more music together, “Between Friends” would have been a mighty introduction to the underground's most promising pair since Papoose and DJ Kay Slay. —Yoh

Death Grips — “@deathgripz”

Perversion mastiff, seven fingers left / Still curtain pumpin’, n’oh, I lay Jesus fresh to death” is either a blasphemous or cryptically deep lyric, depending on your point of view. Death Grips is just here for the energy that words channel. The Sacramento-based group has used their blend of rap, punk and industrial music to melt brains and bust eardrums since the early 2010s, but it was the metallic edge of 2012’s The Money Store that truly gave them the world stage. “@deathgripz” was a Money Store bonus track that found its way into Adult Swim’s 2012 Singles Program and the hearts of music fans. Like most of their songs, “@deathgripz” is the abrasive energy of Zach Hill’s production met halfway with lead vocalist Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett’s cryptic slam poetry about breaking patterns of self-harm. Death Grips have always teetered on the edge of genres and even the edge of sanity, but “@deathgripz” is a sobering look into a cracked mind trying to superglue it all back together. —CineMasai  

2013

Captain Murphy — “Between Villains” ft. Viktor Vaughn, Earl Sweatshirt & Thundercat

I’ve always wondered what a hip-hop seance would sound like. Captain Murphy (Flying Lotus) comes damn close with “Between Villains,” featuring DOOM under his Viktor Vaughn alias and Earl Sweatshirt joining hands at the table, accented by Thundercat’s billowing bass and ghostly coos. Vaughn and Murphy keep their verses tongue-in-cheek and acrobatic; all talk of stud muffins and “trading head for Reese’s Pieces” bookend the track. But it’s Earl’s deadpan linguistics in the middle that could freeze a Boo dead in its tracks. “Got these little niggas swinging from the banister / On Fax in his pajamas / Walking slowly 'cause the camels keep his stamina weak” is compact yet descriptive in a way that he’d continue to perfect as he crept further toward the darkness of Doris and I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. It’s the one foreboding jump scare inside the state fair haunted house. —CineMasai       

Beautiful Lou — "Long Pinky" ft. Action Bronson & Riff Raff

Adult Swim truly outdid themselves in 2013, making the act of crowning the best overall single an internal dilemma. My selection of Bronsolini and Raff over Run The Jewels and Freddie Gibbs was swayed by the magnetism of their personalities intertwining. These two have the humorous chemistry of Beavis and Butt-Head—the unpredictable randomness of their lyricism causes a chuckle every time. How can you sit with a straight face after Raff says, “I done got so famous I had to disguise my voice when I ordered chimichangas from Julio's Taco Truck.” Imagine the voices he must have used just to conceal his celebrity identity. Don't get it twisted, Raff is rapping as if he has something to prove. He's still the character he’s known for, but the persona is charming. Bronson isn't going for the funny bone, his verses are far more serious than witty, but it's a enjoyable balance. Action is expected to hit home runs. “Long Pinky” isn't their first time conquering the rodeo together, the two have collaborated before, and each time it's like a reminder of how two artists you never expect to coexist would make great collaborators. —Yoh

2014

Future — "Coupe"

Oversaturation is Future’s middle name. He doesn't simply flood the music industry, Future attempts to completely drown the market like he drowns his demons with pills and potions. What’s impressive about the large amount of music he outputs is how many great songs he can still produce. He's still able to be creative and operate within certain formulas. “Coupe,” for example, has a similar bounce and high-energy delivery of various Future records, but it still feels special. It has a certain punch, an overwhelming, hypnotic attraction that causes you to crave the song at the most erratic volume. It shouldn't be played unless peace disruption is your goal. “Coupe” is everything about turn-up Future that's admired, like if Lil Jon was creating crunk in the underworld with Auto-Tune and Actavis. It's loud, rambunctious, and overflowing with surging madness. Adult Swim landed a classic Future record that should be in rotation alongside “Mask Off,” “Same Damn Time” and “Commas.” —Yoh

Ka — “Lost Prophet Report”

If all New York rap is cinematic, then Ka is the stark minimalist shooting on 35mm. The Brownsville MC and firefighter has always been lethal in his simplicity and used his knowledge of the city to paint broad pictures with intimate strokes. “Lost Prophet Report” is a neon-tinged trudge through New York streets and back alleys where cats don’t just speak, what they spit is “corrosive; acid with base.” He’s not just a survivor on the streets, he types his way through the Middle Passage instead of taking the cruise. It’s that stoic lyricism over enveloping beats that colors projects like Grief Pedigree and last year’s Honor Killed The Samurai, and “Lost Prophet Report” is a hot slice of aged New York with fresh gritty fixin’s. —CineMasai

2015

Danny Brown & Clams Casino - “Worth It”

Clams Casino’s ear for beats borders on the cosmic. Whether they’re fast-paced or slow as molasses, there’s always an echo that suggests his drums and synths turn my eardrums into an open-air bouncy castle. Only an MC as adventurous as Danny Brown would know how to bring a Clams beat down to earth and drag it through the mud, and that’s exactly what he does on “Worth It.” Danny puts his elastic flow to use with bars about the pressures to sell out in the mainstream and honing his craft in the shadows of addiction he’s been living in his whole career. Rap is the medicine that counteracts the poisons of drugs and the music industry in Danny’s mind. He may not be fully alright, but songs like “Worth It” are proof positive that no matter the beat, he’s always game to work through it. —CineMasai

WOKE (Flying Lotus, Shabazz Palaces & Thundercat) — “The Lavishments of Light Looking” ft. George Clinton

Some ideas are better on paper, where you're able to live within the naïve dream of what could be instead of what is. It's always special when that naïve dream comes into fruition, at times even better than imagined. WOKE, the supergroup that combines the gifts of Flying Lotus, Shabazz Palaces and Thundercat, set the bar on planet Jupiter with their first offering, “The Lavishments of Light Looking.” Featuring the futuristic funk of groovy legend George Clinton, the four bring together their unique assets and listeners ascend to a complete different world. It's adventurous, a psychedelic, transformative beyond that takes you into three different dimensions in four minutes. It's the best of multiple worlds conjuring into one single point of funky explosion. WOKE has yet to bless us with any additional music—we can only pray more is to come—but “The Lavishments of Light Looking” is good enough to keep hope alive. —Yoh

2016

Earl Sweatshirt — “Balance” ft. Knxwledge

Earl Sweatshirt has been choosing his words very carefully lately. “Watch the wall collide with my fist,” he croaks on the first verse of “Balance” as he continues his slow march toward the light of acceptance. His relationship with his mother is more open but still scarred by memories both wish they could relive. The steady piano loop provided by new cohort Knxwledge brings the air of a straggler leaning into the piano in the center of a closing bar; confessional and intimate despite that puddle of Jameson he just stepped in. It’s a short and sweet offering, but a hearty taste of Earl and Knx’s mutual love of soul-baring grooves. —CineMasai

Thelonious Martin — "Bomaye" ft. Joey Purp

Passion. Joey Purp overflows with passion. It's embedded in his every line, each lyric explodes in eardrums like mini firecrackers. His raw portrait of the mean streets he draws from is in excellent company alongside Thelonious Martin's powerhouse production. Young Theo truly crafted a dynamic backdrop that roars with life, soulful yet brash, much like Young Purple. The duo have done excellent work together in the past, but there's something undeniable about “Bomaye,” like it was conceived to crack the sky and shake the earth. The best part is the sudden beat switch, a spontaneous change that turns up an already scorching record. Those drums! That flow! It's an excellent rap song that gets better with every listen. —Yoh

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