Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Top 10 Hip Hop Albums of 2011

Questove and the Roots finally got their shine in 2011
I know this is a little more than a week late, but for those who care, below is my take on the top rap albums for 2011. To be honest, it took me a while because I had a hard time coming up with them. There were a few factors working against me. On the one hand, let's face it, there was not that much great material out there to work with. On the other hand, the sheer volume of crap, available from a dizzying array of sources, made it harder than ever for a working, middle-aged dad to keep up with what's going on and what's truly worth listening to. Anyway, I spent the last couple of weeks, digging back through my digital crates -- rap blogs, assorted email links, Rhapsody, Spotify, itunes, etc., to give a fair listen to as many albums as possible to compile the rankings you see below.


I've been a Saigon fan ever since Turtle was trying to jumpstart his career on Entourage. So I was as excited as anyone to finally see him get his due with this big budget major label debut featuring the likes of Jay-Z, Q-Tip and Black Thought. Sure it was uneven at times, with Saigon's conscious side often butting heads with the label’s no doubt annoying insistence that he achieve commercial success (to pay for all that expensive studio time). But on balance, his liquid flow and Just Blaze's solid production work combined to create a worthy overall effort.

Not much new to experience here, just Pusha T and an impressive display of famous friends  -- Kanye, Rick Ross, Tyler The Creator, and so on – spitting reliable gangsta rap over hard beats. The formula works, largely on the strength of the front man’s formidable skills, although it would have been nice to hear a little more substance and/or diversity. I got the feeling Pusha T was a little bored by the whole exercise. After all, he could do this in his sleep.

Tyler The Creator is scary. Not just because his sadistic rhymes are so far over the line that complaining about them is beside the point. But also because, for better or worse, he and his band of madcap madmen known as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All represent one of the most exciting new directions we’ve heard in hip hop in years. Although he’s an affront to anything resembling family values, I have to give him credit for his inventive rhyme patterns, sick sense of humor and dazzling electro beats. I just hope that if he is the future of hip hop that he tones it down little (ok, more than a little) for the sake of teenagers world wide.

You might worry that Raekwon attempting to deliver a Rza-free Wu-Tang album this deep into his career would be a recipe for disaster. But there is more than enough well done material here to prove that the Chef can hold his own even without Rza’s guiding hand there to light the way for him. Producers such as Alchemist and Eric Sermon do a fine job of approximating Rza’s dark-arts wizardry while Raekwon, perhaps unburdened by expectations for him to live up to his own legacy (as on 2009’s “Only Built For Cuban Linx 2”) sounds poised, relaxed and as sharp as ever.

Cole World sounded about about as good you could reasonably expect from a contemporary hip hop album in 2011. Timely, expertly crafted and led by a spectacularly gifted young MC, it was easy on the ears yet contained just enough substance to make you feel ok about listening to a record with so much urban radio ambition. J. Cole’s star power has never been in doubt, at his best, as on “Light’s Please” and “A Dollar and a Dream” he demonstrates that his fluid delivery and potent punch lines are worthy of his best-of the-next-generation stature. With that established, we hope that for his next record he will push the envelope a bit further with more complex production and challenging storylines.

 The last place I expected Digable Planets’ soft spoken Butterfly to turn up, 17 years removed from his group's 1994 masterpiece “Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time And Space)” was in Seattle, Washington, revitalized and sounding like some sort of hipster Black Panther. But there he was in 2011 on the envelope pushing "Black Up" with a new crew, still doing experimental hip hop – innovative, avant-garde, left of center and strangely appealing. I guess some things never change.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around what to make of Donald Glover. After getting to know him as a comedian/actor (who kills it as the self-absorbed jock on “Community”) it’s hard to take him seriously as an emcee. On his debut album, Glover (utilizing his Wu-Tang alias, Childish Gambino) leverages this incongruousness to his advantage. Perhaps too often, Gambino raps about how haters tend to underestimate him because he’s an outsider, an artsy black kid from the projects who talks white, likes Radiohead and fits in with no one. On Camp, thanks to his humor, quick wit and unusual perspectives on youth, culture, hip hop and stardom, we get to enjoy being a fly on the wall of his rather interesting life. It’s obvious that so far Gambino is getting a kick out of his incredulous ride to the top and this entertaining album makes for an excellent place to ride shotgun.

NoID provides a lush musical backdrop for some of the finest rhymes we’ve heard from Common since his early days. This album’s got a true school hip hop appeal that effortlessly brings the 90’s back in living color while managing not to sound dated. Impressively, Common proves that he can still talk smack and flip clever word play like a hungry young MC, but mostly this record succeeds by oozing maturity and sophistication.

Probably nobody out there, including myself, wanted to like this album. Two .01% rich guys delivering a pompous, overblown shout out to themselves while us regular folk suffered through hard times in a down economy. But it’s hard to deny accolades to a record that is so beautifully well executed. Sonically this album sounded like nothing else on urban radio. Light years ahead of contemporary hip hop, it came off as artful and imaginative, yet seamlessly accessible. The Run-DMC style back & forth rapping that Jay and Kanye employed on numerous tracks offered a welcome throwback to raps hey day – further grounding Watch The Throne in authenticity and providing evidence of true in-studio collaboration rather than phoned-in verses. And few of us expected such nuance and depth thematically, with the two giants lamenting on the downside of fame and the nagging sense of unfulfillment that accompanies it, even while reveling in their largess.

Questlove said recently that Undun is likely the best album that the Roots are capable of making. The implication being that if you are still waiting for hip hop’s perennially under appreciated supergroup to make its definitive opus after this one, then you should probably give up. In nearly every possible way, what The Roots achieve on the relentlessly dark and conceptually brilliant Undun is flawless. Questlove oversees musical arrangements that are mesmerizing, cinematic and thoroughly engrossing. Meanwhile, for his part, Black Thought takes advantage of a mood perfectly suited for his crisp delivery, bleak storytelling and peerless wordsmanship. On song after song, especially the thumping “Stomp” and funky “The Other Side”, he manages to coax A-Game performances out of a host of guest rappers without ever allowing himself to be overshadowed. Undun is one of those records that reaffirms our faith in hip hop as a genre that is alive and well and that still has the ability to deeply move us.

Also Considered (15 more to round out the top 25):
11.  Curren$y - Weekend At Burnies
12.  Tha Carter IV - Lil Wayne
13.  The Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Part 2
14.  J-Live - S.P.T.A
15.  Lupe Fiasco - Lasers
16.  Phonte - Charity Starts at Home
17.  The Cool Kids - When Fish Ride Bicycles
18.  Wale - Ambition
19.  Kool G. Rap - Riches Royalty & Respect
20.  Kendrick Lamar - Section.80
21.  The Game - The R.E.D. Album
22.  Mac Miller - Blue Slide Park
23.  Random Axe - Random Axe
24.  Drake - Take Care
25.  Styles P - Master of Ceremonies