Monday, December 21, 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade. #1 Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003) - Outkast

It’s one thing to attempt to do something different, it’s another thing to succeed wildly at it. From the moment I first heard “Hey Ya” I knew we were in for a roller coaster ride. Andre 3000 crooning’ and playing guitar? Crazy right? For the rest of his side of the album, Andre kept pushing further and further off the deep end, channeling Prince, Cameo and Rick James, and pursuing whatever inspiration that hit him at the moment. He did all of this while having a blast, rarely rapping but never losing his profound sense of rhythm. It was a complicated balancing act to say the least. But Andre threaded the needle brilliantly.

While Andre was emerging as the Golden Boy -- collecting glamorous friends, winning “best dressed awards” and generally staking his claim to the moniker of “coolest person on the planet” -- Big Boi was serving up his usual offering of top-shelf, dirty south crunk music. While he couldn’t outdo Andre, he certainly outdid himself. He doubled down on the stankiness on his way towards stringing together the most badass tracks of his career, none better than the lead single to contrast with “Hey Ya”, the seductive “The Way You Move”.

Everything about this 29 song, 102 minute opus was left of center, including the fact that the dynamic duo did not really collaborate very much. It was basically a collection of solo singles from two artists headed in two different directions. Conventional wisdom would flag that as a recipe for disaster, but the 11 million copies sold suggests otherwise.

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade. #2 Graduation (2007) - Kanye West

I have a lot of patience for talent and talent is something Kanye West has a lot of. For “Graduation”, it’s critical to strip away the artist in order to appreciate the artistry. Nobody composes big, celebratory hip hop tracks like Kanye. And on “Graduation” he was firing on all cylinders, improving on his impressive first two albums with inventive samples, lush instrumentation and pulsating drum patterns. Listen to the run of amazing tracks. “Stronger”, “Flashing Lights”, “Homecoming”, “Good Life”, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”; these records weren’t just good, they were special. Give them another spin right now and they'll sound better than they did two years ago. That's the hallmark of a true classic. Say what you want about what a jackass he is, but no artist did more to write the soundtrack of our lives in the 2000’s than Mr. West and “Graduation” was his greatest triumph. Being the best in the world at what you do is no excuse for bad behavior but that shouldn’t stop us from honoring a pitch perfect rap album.

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade. #3 Get Rich Or Die Tryin' (2003) - 50 Cent

The 50 Cent character we know today, the part-time rapper, full-time brand manager, hawking everything from Vitamin Water to cologne, is nothing like the guy from 2003’s “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’”. That 50 Cent delivered one of the greatest pieces of gangsta pop music you’re ever going to hear. “Get Rich” was a brilliant collection of menacing club tracks, laced with sweet hooks and phat baselines. Dr. Dre’s impeccable production work, dark, ominous and synthesized into eerie perfection, provided a perfect canvas for 50 to unleash hell on an unsuspecting public.

He started modestly with “Wanksta”, a nifty little put down on wannabe neighborhood big shots. Then he exploded with “In Da Club”, a song with a groove so deep and punch lines so crisp that hearing it a million and one times couldn’t diminish its appeal. What made the album truly special however was the fact that 50 Cent was never overshadowed by all those astounding beats. As a front man he proved to be charismatic and engaging, illuminating his colorful back story with wit and humor. His hunger for rap superstardom fueled every verse, you could hear it in his voice and feel it in his often surprisingly poignant lyrics. “If David could go against Goliath with a stone, I can go at Nas and Jigga both for the throne” he rapped on “High All The Time”, stating his intentions in no uncertain terms.

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade. #4 The Black Album (2003) - Jay-Z

When Jay-Z announced that “The Black Album” would be his last he put self-imposed pressure on himself to deliver something over-the-top for his grand finale. I don’t know if it was the renewed sense of urgency or the rush of attempting the impossible, but it’s obvious the incentive worked. Hov delivered in spades, “The Black Album” was indeed a tour de force. It helped that Jay-Z was able to demand the best production work imaginable from the world’s most worthy producers. His assembled team of luminaries, including Kanye, Timbaland, The Neptunes, Just Blaze, and Rick Rubin, all contributed stellar tracks.

But Jay-Z never let you forget that he was the true star of the show. For the entire album, he was transcendent. His gifts for bedazzling word play, finger-on-the-pulse culture references and showmanship were all on display. Appropriately however, this was one of the few times where he decided to temper his legendary boasting to offer more introspection, reflecting on a career in the spotlight and offering pieces of himself to his adoring public for his swan song. It was like he channeled everything he’d learned about his craft into delivering his greatest performance during his final hour. From the back-and-forth with himself verses on “99 Problems”, to the frustrated musings on “What More Can I Say” to the sheer audacity of “Interlude”, never has Jay-Z’s star shined so brightly on the strength of such a magnificent display lyrical prowess. “The Black Album” is where Shawn Carter earned my vote as The Greatest Of All Time.

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade. #5 Tha Carter III (2008) - Lil Wayne

For some Lil Wayne is the second coming. For others his madcap rhymes are nothing more than a garbled mess, cleverly packaged as new millennial avant-garde hip hop. For Me “Tha Carter III” was validation of something I already knew but didn’t want to admit. Wayne was a thrilling emcee whose talents could no longer be denied or contained.

“Tha Carter III” was the culmination of a five year run that saw Wayne transform from also-ran Hot Boy to pop music icon. The statement was bold, fearless and indelible. “Lollipop” was the album’s fire starter, a jittery, Auto-Tuned, fantastic voyage of a record that found its way into every crevice of our collective existence. Then came the succession of world-beating singles that set the summer of ‘08 ablaze. There was “Get Money” for the clubs, “A Milli” for the streets, “Mrs. Officer” for the radio and “Mr. Carter” for the non-believers. Wayne was everywhere. At the height of his ubiquity he seemed to be the only MC available for hire. You might still be a skeptic, but you’ve got to respect the fact that for one moment in time, Wayne and his daring imagination stood above all.

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade. #6 The Eminem Show (2002) - Eminem

“The Eminem Show”, the third album from Eminem’s remarkable trilogy, was to me his finest. At 8x platinum, it was definitely his most successful. Much more than commercial accolades however, Em wanted respect; recognition from hip hop aficionados that he deserved to be mentioned on rap’s short list of elites. The record was his all-out attempt to leave his mark on the genre. I’d say: mission accomplished. Compared to “Slim Shady” and “Marshall Mathers” this record was much more understated, Em dialed down his desire for shock value in search of flawless song crafting and intense soul searching. On tracks like “Sing For the Moment” and “Till I Collapse” he rapped with unabashed earnestness. He even broke into song on several occasions, wailing convincingly on “Hailey’s Song” and “Cleaning Out My Closet”.

Throughout the entire, largely self-produced effort his lyrics were razor sharp. The head-spinningly complex rhymes were by now taken for granted (re-listen to “Business” and “Square Dance” to remind yourself just how good this guy is). But what most people missed was his unique ability to manipulate his voice -- pitch, speed, rhythm, etc. -- to convey desired emotions, from frustration to anger to twisted humor. If this record didn’t provide enough evidence to add Eminem to your G.O.A.T. list then nothing he ever does ever will.

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade

#7 Food And Liquor (2006) - Lupe Fiasco

From the start it was apparent that Lupe was not going to be your average knucklehead rapper. “Kick Push”, his effervescent debut single was the tip off that he was seeking higher ground. The sublime shout out to skate culture was contagious, coasting along on a jazzy mid-tempo groove and sweeping horns. For the full-length album, Lupe proved he had much more in store. Across a diverse set of intellectually demanding tracks, Lupe demonstrated a remarkably high degree of bookish creativity. Pushing boundaries musically and thinking outside of the box conceptually. It was a thoroughly refreshing take on what contemporary hip hop could sound like in the hands of an artist hell-bent on elevating the art form regardless of the commercial implications.

From “Daydreaming”, a subtle indictment on those who perpetuate hip hop stereotypes to “He Say She Say”, his lament on absentee fathers, Lupe was enthralling. And his politically charged tracks like “American Terrorist” and “Hurt Me Soul” could make Chuck D proud. But beyond the attention to detail and verbal sophistication, Lupe showed that he had the gift of flow. His voice was remarkably musical, his verses soothingly fluid. He could rap passages from War And Peace and it would still sound good. Not since Nas’s “Illmatic” had a debut artist delivered a record so mesmerizing. Lupe is indeed a throwback to the days of the true school MC’s. A rapper with a lot to say, the skill to articulate his ideas and the will to follow his own path.

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade

#8 The Fix (2002) - Scarface

We all knew from his Geto Boys days that Scarface was a standout rhyme slayer. The cagey veteran has seen a few things in his day. Plus with a voice fantastically suited for gritty storytelling, he’s always been capable of spinning a compelling narrative. But few of us knew that he had “The Fix” in him so deep into his critically acclaimed yet modest solo career. What we got with this album was a first-rate collection of his most absorbing tales, dripping with street wisdom and astute observations; a dead-on survival guide for life in the urban jungle. Rather than feeling like manufactured menace, Scarface’s rhymes rung true. He didn’t have to remind us that he was “keeping it real”; we believed it based on his past deeds and current choices.

There’s also a wonderful thread of spirituality and grace that runs through the album. And Scarface goes out of his way to remind us that while life in the ghetto can be bleak, there is much joy in coming of age there as well -- friendship, family, and the collective striving of a people seeking hard won success. My favorite track on the album, “My Block”, best captures this sentiment. Few hip hop records have ever made me feel so downright proud to be from the hood; feeling fortunate to have escaped but nostalgic nevertheless for the time spent there. In Scarface’s words, "I wouldn’t trade it for the world ‘cause I love these ghetto boys and girls”.

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade

#9 Phrenology (2002) - The Roots

Still waiting for the great Roots album? The signature effort that defines their careers and solidifies their legacy? Clearly you missed “Phrenology”. If The Roots had disappeared after “Phrenology”, I’d still count Black Thought, Questlove and the crew among my favorite all time groups. “Things Fall Apart” and “Do You Want More” may have had more highlights, but none of their previous albums were as consistently excellent. “Phrenology” achieved a harmonious blend of divergent influences. There was the rock tinged “Rock You” and “The Seed 2.0”, the butter smooth R&B flavors of “Sacrifice” and “Break You Off” and the straight-up break beats and battle rhymes of “Rolling With Heat” and “Thought At Work”. If you’re a fan of hip hop or appreciate the precision of seasoned musicians and superb vocalists regardless of genre, then it’s a good bet that Phrenology had something for you to love.

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade

#10 Stillmatic (2001) - Nas

After giving us the best album of the 90’s with “Illmatic” Nas’s career was derailed by a series of luke warm follow up efforts. Then, just when we were about to write Nas off, Jay-Z picked a fight with him and the rest is history. Nas responded with “Ether” the lead single from “Stllmatic” that blistered Jay with sharp-tongued jabs to his ego and instantly returned Nas to the forefront of rap royalty. While “Ether” was a boomshot, “One Mic” was a masterstroke. Regarded as one of the greatest lyrical performances in rap history, it cemented Nas’s legend, certifying him as hip hop’s poet laureate and a first ballot hall of famer. The great producers dominated hip hop in the 2000s. It’s mostly their work that will fill the charts of the decade’s “Best Of” lists. But with Nas it’s always been about world-class lyricism and never was that more evident than on “Stillmatic”.

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums Of The Decade - #11-25

The Rest Of The Top 25

The Blueprint – Jay-Z – So many hits, so many extraordinary verses, so much classic material. Jay could have ended it here and still been considered The G.O.A.T.

Stankonia – Outkast – This one softened the world up for “Speakerboxx”. It was every bit as good really, just shorter.

St. Elsewhere – Gnarls Barkley – Hip hop loosely defined and brilliantly rendered.

Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz – The Nappy Roots – The Po Folks anthem. A little Grand Mariner only enhanced the listening pleasure.

Trap Muzik – T.I. – Tip stood out amongst the glut of southern rappers thanks to his whip smart rhymes, liquid flow and infinite swagger.

Be – Common – Common hooked up with Kanye and finally made the album that lived up to our expectations.

AOI: Bionix – De La Soul – If you’re one of those who think De La stopped making music after “De La Soul Is Dead”, then you’ve missed out on one of hip hop’s most prolific groups. If you only cop one album from their unbroken string of gems since then, make it “Bionix”.

The Chronic 2001 – Dr. Dre – It took him a while but Dre came back with a vengance. He got a lot of help from his friends, including Snoop, rescued from No Limit and sounding rejuvenated.

All Of The Above – J-Live – Heady, gimmick-free back-pack rap from a True School legend. Still criminally obscure.

Blazing Arrow – Blackalicious - The Bay Area indie rap darlings earned their rep with this mellow, unassuming treasure.

The College Dropout – Kanye West - Not as focused as the next two albums, but still a game-changing debut from Kanye.

Supreme Clientele – Ghostface Killah - This is where Ghostface established himself as the most outstanding Wu Tang soloist.

Reflection Eternal – Talib Kweli & Hi Tek - The combination of Talib's exquisite mic skills and Hi Tek's masterful board work was unstoppable.

The Marshall Mathers LP - Eminem - Eminem emerged as quite likely the best rapper alive at the time with this avalanche of scathingly insightful, utterly stupendous rhymes.

The Minstrel Show – Little Brother - Based on the poor sales of this fantastic record, I can only assume that it was a little too intelligent for the general population.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Is Tiger Woods An Idiot?

Is Tiger Woods an idiot? The answer to this question is critical for shaping my worldview. In general, when famous, powerful men have been caught cheating on their wives, my knee jerk reaction has been to sneer and cry out: “what an idiot”. Mark Sanford, Elliot Spitzer, Steve McNair, the list goes on. All of these men took foolish chances, made sloppy errors in their cover up attempts and paid the price. But does this assessment really apply in the case of Tiger? I mean Tiger is way too smart for that right? He must understand that he is one of the most famous men in the world, that every move he makes is being zealously recorded. Surely he understands that he lives in the age of insatiable and abundantly available media. And someone must have told him that every phone call, email and text message he sends will leave a digital footprint that will go on his permanent record.

So why take the chance then Tiger? Why jeopardize the $100 million salary, the beautiful wife and family and the masterfully crafted image? I can only surmise that Tiger Woods can’t be that stupid. Nor was Bill Clinton or Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan or any of the others on my list of knuckleheads.

I now have to concede, as my wife has reminded me each time, that there is something else going on here. Something more innate, something dark lurking in the souls of men. Maybe he, maybe they all, do indeed think that they are above the law. That the rules of commitment and trustworthiness don’t really apply to them. Maybe they just think they are too smart to get caught or so rich that they can buy their way out of any situation. Or maybe the rush of power chemically alters men’s brains, affecting them in ways us mere mortals can’t understand? The God Complex manifested perhaps.

For sure mere mortals also cheat. Everyday nitwits who don’t deserve their wives still somehow figure it’s ok for them to seek a little action on the side. But while no less shameful, the everyday Joes have so much less to lose. They don’t in fact have it all, not even close. Sure they should resist the temptation, if not because it’s their Christian duty, then because they should be deathly afraid of getting caught, of seeing their lives go to shambles…the divorce, the loss of their children, the golden years spent growing old alone in a dingy apartment, eating take out food in their boxer shorts. But Tiger Friggin’ Woods? $1 Billion dollars in career earnings? That’s a lot to bet on a cocktail waitress. Stupidity and arrogance are just not worthy enough to sufficiently categorize such an epic blunder.

So what have I learned? I now know that I can no longer dismiss these “transgressions” as the folly of egomaniacs who are a little too dim witted to realize that they are digging their own graves. There is a larger psychosis going on here that I can never truly understand. Power corrupts? The price of fame is an empty soul? Money can’t buy happiness? I don’t know. The truth is, I don’t know jack. I have questions but no answers.