|Best Albums of 2010: Hip-Hop Edition
||[Feb. 13th, 2011|09:54 pm]
The Lady Killer - Cee-Lo Green; Teflon Don - Rick Ross (apparently it's great?); Death of a Superstar - David Banner & 9th Wonder (apparently it's also great and features a lyrically conscious Mr. Mississippi?); I Am Not A Human Being - Lil Wayne (but I don't like his album albums anyway...); Man on the Moon II - Kid Cudi (what's a Kid Cudi?)......well, ok....other than Cee-Lo, I don't feel like I missed too much.
Special Jury Prize
Enter the Magical Mystery Chambers - Wu Tang Clan vs. The Beatles
A lot of fun, but even if it’s one of the finest mashup/remix albums of all time, since it’s not a wholly original work, I don’t consider it as more than an entertaining experiment. I thought I had a near encyclopedic knowledge of Beatles songs, but Tom Caruana proves me wrong. Each arrangement sounds great and brings new life to these beloved Wu-Tang lyrics, and the likes of ODB’s “Baby I Got Your Money” over “You Never Give Me Your Money” is genius. It’s uncertain whether Chambers is better than The Grey Album, as Danger Mouse’s arrangements were among the first of their kind and launched a million copycats, but it’s damn good.
Recovery - Eminem
It’s time to admit that the guy peaked with “Lose Yourself” and has spent the last eight years trying (and amiably failing) to get back to that level. On his self-described comeback album, Eminem stylistically wears himself out and it’s mostly a pleasure to hear him rapping like he cares. But it amounts to nearly all style and minimal substance. He’s run out of interesting stories to tell and is left to spitting ridiculously layered rhymes about nothing (and not in the good Seinfeld way). Dr. Dre’s lone contribution makes him sorely missed and few of the piecemeal productions (sadly, DJ Khaled is the most frequent perp) are noteworthy. Em’s energy on “No Love” inspires Lil’ Wayne’s best verse in years, but the other guest spots are less successful: Pink’s growling fits fairly nicely with hardcore Em on “Won’t Back Down,” but the Rhianna collabo “Love the Way You Lie” is a miserable failure. That it was a huge radio hit proves how mismanaged the album was. (And the pending Best Album Grammy is meaningless.) With Slim Shady nowhere to be seen (though thankfully the odd voices that populated Relapse are also gone), it’s difficult to pinpoint Eminem’s place in hip-hop. If he could somehow free himself of the restraints to make a standard album of singles and unnecessary hooks, and instead focus on the ridiculous wordplay and flows of which he’s clearly capable (see “The Cypher”), he could produce the kind of liberating and showcasing display that his talent deserves. Until then, he may be doomed to the limitations of conventionality as seen on Recovery.
Seared Foie Gras with Quince & Cranberry - Asher Roth
Mixtapes are tricky. They’re great ways for emerging and established artists to get out a variety of tracks on the cheap and to have fun by rapping over other people’s beats. But there’s plenty that can go wrong. T.I. says “Fuck a mixtape,” and I’m apt to agree. Even the best offerings are marred by annoying DJs, unnecessary distracting scratches, and a general lack of focus. Most are good for a single listen and then might as well self-destruct. But Asher Roth is too laid back to let any of that impede on his style. There are plenty of eyeroll-inducing runback replays at the start of tracks, yet the beat selection is impeccable (Madlib, RZA, Pharrell, 9th Wonder, Kanye, Dilla, Just Blaze, Will.I.Am, and Timbaland all show up) as are the guest stars (B.o.B., Truck North, Blu, and Talib Kweli). And then there’s the stoned white boy himself, tossing around his signature cool rhymes as if he’s got a never-ending supply. As listeners await Roth’s followup to Asleep in the Bread Aisle, his mixtape debut provides an appealing bridge between records. Heck, it may as well count as his official sophomore effort.
LeftBack - Little Brother
LB’s swan song was supposed to be a fond sendoff, yet it’s mostly just sad. That’s not entirely because it marks the end of NC’s finest hip-hop group; it’s because the album is merely an echo of the mastery they’ve shown over the past seven years. Phonte effortlessly stacks his trademarked quotables, Big Pooh raps his heart out, and even 9th Wonder shows up for a hot second. But why junk up the tracklist with a handful of remixes from their previous album, GetBack? When Phonte says he kind of misses his former self, he’s not the only one. These days, he’d rather sing R&B as part of Foreign Exchange (I far preferred it when FE was a rap-first group) even though his MC skills are as sharp as ever. Poor overmatched Pooh is left to carry on the duo’s tradition and 9th is long gone. LeftBack is an unfortunate end for LB, but at least they leave an impressive catalog in their wake.
Thank Me Later - Drake
When Drake actually raps, Thank Me Later does fairly well. He’s got killer flow, amusing enough lyrics, and his timbre resembles mentor Lil’ Wayne to the point that you have to listen closely to determine whether or not Weezy is on the track. So why does he insist on singing corny R&B rather than spitting? Advertised as the star-studded debut of the year, it’s instead packed with forgettable production and sags under Drake’s own inexperienced ego. Jay-Z, Weezy, and Alicia Keys help carry the weight, but in the end it’s the rookie’s album and he’s unable to get the job done. The Sprite commercial on which Drake raps “Last name: Ever / first name: Greatest” felt inappropriate when he only had mixtapes to his name, and is increasingly unfitting now. The title of an Amazon review said "If you think this is good hip-hop, you probably think Taco Bell is good Mexican food," and I agree. Drake has made an interesting choice in working with The Xx on his follow-up, but for now, he’s little more than a loud flash in the pan.
Wu Massacre - Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Method Man
Really? All that hype and sky high expectation for less than half an hour of music, including two forgettable skits? Rumors abounded about the hurry to get the album out and how few of the verses were recorded in the same room. And yet if it was actually rushed, couldn’t the Hakim Warrick line have been updated once he was traded from the Bucks? (And didn’t Jadakiss make a similar and much better play on words back in ’03 concerning Sam Cassell’s tenure in Milwaukee?) Even though it’s ultimately a gyp, it’s a nice tease and hopefully a collabo that will be revisited and revised often, as was done on Ghostface’s latest record.
Manifesto - Inspectah Deck
Long, unfocused, and far too many solo tracks = violation of Wu success 101. Listened to it once and almost instantly forgot it.
The Top 10 - Hip-Hop
10. Season of the Assassin - Vinnie Paz
For an angry white guy from Philly with technically one style (um, angry) and a predictable AAAA BBBB rhyme scheme, Vinnie Paz can make a diverse album. The lyrical leader of Jedi Mind Tricks and Army of the Pharaohs, the Pazmanian Devil delivers his trademark dark rhymes over equally dark instrumentals, and while there’s plenty of violence in his words (song titles include “Drag You To Hell” and “Kill ‘Em All”), he’s too talented to let it limit him. With “Keep Movin’ On,” he likens a laid-off factory worker and a wounded, discharged soldier to his struggles to succeed in the music business, and on “Same Story,” he pens a loving dedication to his recently deceased stepfather, thanking him for being good to his mother and providing him with a strong male influence, and manages to balance tenderness with his gritty style. With standout spots from Clipse, Beanie Sigel, and R.A. the Rugged Man, plus a range of production styles (it’s as if the producers looked up “hardcore” in a thesaurus and came back with 21 different answers), Season of the Assassin is the year’s best work by a white rapper.
9. The Adventures of Bobby Ray - B.o.B.
In a fantastic year for Atlanta hip-hop, newcomer B.o.B. turns in one of the year’s most fun albums. Riding high on big worthy singles like “Airplanes” and “Magic,” it’s between these tracks where B.o.B. truly shines. He twists Vampire Weekend’s “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance” into a literal commentary on inner-city children and on “Ghost In the Machine,” he dials in from outer space over an arena-sized beat that demands greatness. The dude can sing, and it’s worth noting that Big Boi tapped him for a Sir Lucious Left Foot guest spot for his pipes, not his rhymes. But the dude can certainly rap, too. “Famous” sports a machine gun lyrical attack and everyone on “Bet I” rips it hard to the point where I wondered if I’d misjudged B.o.B.’s mentor T.I. (I hadn’t.) With oodles of mainstream appeal, B.o.B. is popping up all over the music scene. Here’s hope that he keeps his chameleon act strong for years to come.
8. The Archandroid - Janelle Monae
Monae has received attention for working with Big Boi and Of Montreal on the same album, but the real question is why not more far reaching collabos? With her deft handling of R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock, Broadway, and whatever else is hiding in The Archandroid, she can surely do it. Her full-length debut is just as ambitious and sprawling as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and better edited, but the highs aren't as momentous. The overarching story is apparently a Metropolis-inspired tale of an android searching the universe for love or something like that, but it's lost on me. (Remember, this is the same guy who still can't piece together American Idiot.) What isn’t lost is hit after interesting hit, from speed-pop of “Cold War” to the aforementioned hook-up with fellow ATLien Big Boi to the impossibly catchy chorus for “Wondaland,” lifted from a sexy robot dream via Candyland. With memorable turns on Big Boi’s and B.o.B.’s albums, there may be a new queen of R&B amongst us.
7. Apollo Kids - Ghostface Killah
Is it wrong that I most enjoy Ghostface, and his Wu-Tang brothers, on posse cuts? Isn’t that what made Shaolin great from the start? On a disc that slipped in right before the calendar flipped, Tony Starks does all he can to make up for last year’s unlistenable Ghostdini and practically plays a supporting role on his own album. No complaints here. It’s a formula that’s worked wonders his whole career, most recently on Cuban Linx Pt. II, and surrounded by rollicking old school beats, it’s an impressive though short return to the form we knew he was already at, Ghostdini or not.
6. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - Kanye West
Kanye’s most sonically interesting album, but also his most erratic, and one in which his rhyming took a giant step backwards. (How many references to the man’s ass do we need?) Still, it’s likely that no one pushed music forward more in 2010. He reaches fantastic new heights production-wise, from uniting a symphony of all-star voices (“All of the Lights”) to manipulating his voice to emulate an internal argument (“Blame Game”) to reminding us just how damn cool Swizz Beatz and RZA sound (“So Appalled”). On the lyrical front, he’s hit-or-miss, but a bevy of guests pick up the slack. Pusha T gives Yeezy a master class on his pair of appearances and the much-ballyhooed Nikki Minaj verse on “Monster” is as raucous as advertised, while Jay-Z’s Dark Knight embodying turn on “So Appalled” is goosebump-inducing (and makes up for his disturbingly subpar one on “Monster”). Then again, the extended auto-tune solo at the end of “Runaway” is one of the most horridly self-indulgent moments in the history of music, and while Chris Rock’s foul-mouthed skit tacked onto “Blame Game” is funny the first time, it’s not one to be revisited the same way as Bigger and Blacker. Despite the immense contradictions, it’s one hell of an enjoyable ride and worthy of the great debates that it should spark far into the future.
5. (tie) Melatonin Magik - Canibus
Freshly signed to Warlab Records, Bis brings immense energy to the first of his two 2010 albums. Meeting his unparalleled lyricism are a slew of independent producers who match his hunger, and the convergence gives him his most sonically interesting album since Rip the Jacker. The consistently jaw-dropping tandems build upon one another, feeling simultaneously indie and epic. Even the Eminem attack “Air Strike,” in which Warlab tricked the other four members of D-12 into recording ambiguous diss verses that, alongside Canibus’ stabbing daggers, makes for one of the most interesting battle tracks to date. But then after a dozen strong tracks of Bis Gone Wild and some quality guest spots, the album devolves into a bad mixtape, ending with four posse cuts that derail the show. Stopping the disc after “Stomp On Ya Brain” makes for a terrific, focused album, but since it must be judged on its entirety, Melatonin Magik exists as an unnecessary director’s cut of an immensely strong work.
C of Tranquility - Canibus
Technically a 2008 release (references to 10 years since Can-I-Bus and an as-yet-unelected Barack Obama are the only giveaways) but mysteriously shelved for two years, C of Tranquility puts the focus back on Canibus himself. Though not as ambitious and awe-inspiring as the highlights of Melatonin Magik, it’s better edited, never straying into formulas that distract from the lyrical mastery on display. The beats are strong and lean more to the indie side without bringing the corniness that plagued the likes of C:True Hollywood Stories and Hip-Hop For Sale. There’s the long rumored and memorable collabo with DJ Premier (“Golden Terra of Rap”) and “Good Equals Evil,” which takes the folksy strums of and blankets it with intergalactic blips to make for Bis’s finest overall track since Rip the Jacker's "Poet Laureate II." It’s been a good year for Canibus, whether that year be 2008 or 2010, and if his typical output is any indication, more should be on the way soon.
4. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty - Big Boi
Let’s call this Big Boi’s second solo effort, since Speakerboxxx was clearly his. A decidedly Southern album, filled with more crunk than what’s allowed on the typical Outkast disc, the group’s more consistent and grounded MC keeps his quality rhymes coming. With the help of some unexpected production by the likes of Salaam Remi, Scott Storch, and Lil Jon (where have those guys been hiding?), along with usual suspects Organized Noise, Big Boi paints a diverse sonic landscape that feels both global (“Daddy Fat Sax” and “General Patton”) and firmly planted in Atlanta (“Fo Yo Sorrows,” “Turns Me On,” and “Shine Blockas”). Lyrically, he sounds incredibly fresh and nimble for someone with nearly 17 years in the industry, yet there are a few clunky moments. T.I. does little with “Tangerine”’s fun beat and there’s only so many times one should hear Yelawolf’s junkyard flow or (gasp!) Andre 3000’s clunky production on “You Ain’t No DJ.” Yet despite his misstep, there’s the the overarching feeling that the album is missing Andre. He and Big Boi work so well together that while their “solo” and solo efforts are some of music’s best, their collaborations are often the best.
3. How I Got Over - The Roots
As big of a Roots fan as I am, I’m ashamed that I’ve yet to tune in and see their nightly performances on Jimmy Fallon. If this was back when I was a Letterman connoisseur, I would have tuned in nearly every night or at least taped it for viewing the next day. (Really, what I should do is DVR Fallon and only watch the musical segments.) So considering how much work the Roots put into their day job, it’s extraordinary that they were able to record their best album since Things Fall Apart. Unlike with their last record, the inconsistent Rising Down, ?uestlove’s rhythms and Kamal’s keys exceed their usual teamwork to reconstruct the unique backbone on which the great Roots records were built. Black Thought is as focused as ever, building on the sense of urgency he created on Game Theory and reclaiming his spot as a Top 5 MC. Joining him on the mic is the usual smattering of quality guests, including regulars Dice Raw, Truck North, P.O.R.N., and another scene stealer from Peedi Peedi. But it’s the union of Phonte and Blu on the same track (!!!) as Black Thought (!!!) that tops the bill. The album builds with increasing intensity and complexity, throwing in the likes of John Legend, another brilliant re-imagining of another group’s track (Monsters of Folk’s “Dear God”), and a surprisingly fitting Joanna Newsom sample, until it climaxes with...an auto-tuned crying baby? Yeah, we’ll just pretend like “Hustla” never happened. But the rest of How I Got Over definitely did and it’s another strong statement of lyrical conscience and musical wizardry from the legendary Philly crew.
2. Revolutions Per Minute - Reflection Eternal
At long last, Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek come together for hip-hop’s most anticipated reunion outside of, well...Kweli and Mos Def’s Black Star. Whereas the “too much of a good thing” virus hampered Train of Thought outside of the unfuckwitable first ten tracks, forcing it to crumble slightly beneath its own greatness, the second go-round is tighter and more entertaining as a whole even if it never reaches the individual peaks of its predecessor. Hi-Tek, relieved of his self-imposed purgatory as G-Unit's in-house producer, surrounds Kweli with beats that simultaneously sound vintage and fresh, the sure sign of a top programmer. There’s a lot to be said for employing a single producer, something that most discs on this list didn’t do, sometimes to their detriment (Eminem, I’m looking at you), and when matched with Kweli’s Top 5 lyricism, there’s truly something special at work. Album MVP "Ballad of the Black Gold" does for oil what Mos‘s "New World Water" did for H2O. Kweli draws Jay Electronica, J Cole, and Mos for the year’s best posse cut (“Just Begun”) and on solid opener “City Playgrounds” he lets loose one of the calendar’s best lines: “Time gets suspended more than DMX’s driver’s license.” (And with apologies to Pitchfork, Black Eyed Peas wish they could make a track as catchy as "Midnight Hour." As if computer-smoothed Fergie could ever sounds as raw and human as Estelle on the chorus.) Hi-Tek beats have appeared on the majority of Kweli’s post-Train of Thought albums and there’d been rampant hints from both camps that a reunion was eminent. Nine years is a long time to wait, and hopefully it won’t be that long before the next full-length collabo, but it should definitely be worth the patience.
1. Distant Relatives - Nas & Damian Marley
I’ve previously shown my appreciation for this modern classic, and nearly a year later I firmly stick to those comments. A “peer-reviewed” Nas is a beautiful thing to hear and with the Marley’s tackling the production side, it’s a spectacular pairing. Mr. Jones’s latest three-album stretch is the finest consecutive output of his career and his latest may be the closest he’ll come to replicating the freshness of Illmatic...not that we’re holding him to it or anything.