Already some ways into 2008, I figured I’d still write a little something about the hip hop albums I enjoyed the most in the past year. The genre is clearly going through changes, seeing not only a substantial generational shift and a geographical displacement of its creative locus to the South, but also what seems to be a return to its roots as a localized, urban underground genre as sales of high-profile mainstream material is in free fall, and the wave of innovative suburban white avant-garde hip hop of the years around the turn of the millenium has lost steam. Though the last few years have been meagre indeed, quality seems to be winning through in various places. Despite recognizing the above-mentioned overall trends, I was happy to recognise that the music I enjoyed the most the past year, at least in terms of albums, came from all over the place. Anyway, without further ado — check out the following albums if you haven’t already.
This is that shit.
THE YEAR’S 10 BEST
Pharoahe Monch — Desire
Reemerging from years in record label limbo, Pharoahe Monch proved with this album that he has lost none of his hunger as an MC, and he brought greater focus to his game than he had been since the days of Organized Konfusion. With slamming, congenial production from such luminaries as The Alchemist, Mr. Porter and Black Milk, Pharoahe masterfully marries flow and intent. He brings an equal measure of sophistication to concept, lyrics and delivery, and manages to strike the difficult balance that makes for clear, resonant hip hop music with a street gospel edge. The manifesto-like title track would in itself be enough to secure the album’s bid for classic status, unfolding as it does its theme of creative desire and freedom. Its pairing with the confessional record label-exorcism “Free” consolidates it, while the rousing “Push,” the wonderfully ebullient ghetto serenade “Body Baby,” and the flipped cover of one of hip hop’s definitive emancipatory raps, Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome,” further expand upon and enrich it. A beautifully conceived album from one of hip hop’s most original and enduring MCs.
El-P — I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
El-P’s second solo effort is less personal than its predecessor, the solo debut Fantastic Damage (2002). Where that album to a large extent was introspective, this one presents a more distanced perspective. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a panorama to Fantastic Damage‘s kaleidoscope. Although the nerve and the noise are the same, the sound is less abrasive, giving way to a development of the symphonic approach to production nascent on the last album. Thematically, he seeks to present and represent the urban youth of the West and its experience as teetering on the thin line between love and hopelessness, tempted by release in state-authorized violence and religious delusion. Though veering into the over-conceived and bathetic at times, the album contains some of El’s most banging tracks, notably the ‘here-I-stand’ manifesto “Smithereens,” and writing to stand with his best, such as the vivid, scene-setting overture “Tasmanian Pain-Coaster” and the exploration of the allure of martyrdom found in zealous youth, “Flyentology.” Thoroughly virtuosic and highly ambitious, the album at times comes off as overly ostentatious, but at its best marks a significant step forward for one of the genre’s most intelligent and original artists.
Full Bunker review MySpace DefJux
Lil Wayne : Da Drought 3
Despite not having released an official album, 2007 was emphatically Lil Wayne’s year. As the overblown PR efforts of the highest-profile players betrayed the undercurrent of desperation plummeting sales are causing the industry, the New Orleans-bred MC made his mark through a winning combination of hyperconfident self-promotion, hard work and rare talent. His laid-back, freestyle-based delivery affords him remarkable range, but while his writing is often inspired (not to mention hilarious!), it is unfortunately wildly erratic and equally often comes off lazy. Most the time, he manages to flow around this problem, but it does seem that he has been overstretching himself somewhat lately. Staggeringly prolific, he drops album-length mixtapes faster than most artists record singles and simultaneously finds time to provide guest shots on the albums of pretty much everyone who is someone in the rap game. This productivity however seems to be the means to an end, part of an exciting development. And even if his upcoming album, The Carter 3, disappoints due to the ridiculously high expectations he has been engendering in the listeners, the ride itself will have been worth it. (It is hard to pick amongst his releases, but Da Drought 3, presenting a slew of fresh material, is perhaps the best single showcase of his work in 2007).
MySpace CashMoney Records Lil Wayne Online
Wu-Tang Clan — 8 Diagrams
One would have been forgiven for expecting the first Wu album in six years to be too little, too late. With public disavowals by the group’s two most current MCs, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, of producer and Wu-architect RZA’s creative direction, it almost seemed it would never happen. Happily, it did and turned out to be a strange and wonderful, mature album. The production, alternately melancholy and almost willfully abrasive, layered with unexpected atmospherics and idiosyncratic vocal refrains, is a daring step forward. Rich, slowly gestating work. The grown-man perspective brought by most of the MCs complement the production perfectly. Though unfortunately only appearing on three tracks, Ghostface Killah brings the heat, and Raekwon is a constant, solid presence. Method Man has played down his theatrics and seems more focused than he has done in years, UGod has refined his always tight flow, RZA himself sounds more weirdly intense than ever, and Inspektah Deck delivers some of the best work of a sadly underappreciated career. These guys age well.
MySpace Wu-Tang Corp.
UGK — Underground Kingz
After several years of forced hiatus due to Pimp C’s incarceration, UGK returned triumphantly with this double-disc southern fried codex, showing all newcomers who’s really trill. It was a trip hearing these pioneers of the South reasserting their position at the centre of the livest regional scene in hip hop today, made doubly poignant by Pimp’s sudden passing at the beginning of December. This transformed the album from monument to testament. The album is not perfect, but the wheat-to-chaff factor is sufficiently high that you forget the filler and concentrate on the great, iconic tracks: Amongst several others “The Game Belongs to Me,” an emphatic assertion of ownership, the sweet rider’s anthem “Gravy,” the glorious material love declaration “Chrome-Plated Woman,” the retro-banger teaming Bun and Pimp up with Bay Area-legend Too Short, “Life is 2009,” the proudly swaggering “Trill Niggas Don’t Die,” and the manifesto-like “Quit Hatin’ the South,” on which even former Geto Boy Willie D manages a dope verse. These guys are obviously having a blast and nowhere more so than on the phenomenal “International Player’s Anthem,” featuring OutKast, which has all four MCs sounding as alive as ever. RIP Pimp C.
RJD2 — The Third Hand
Though hardly classifiable as hip hop, it seems right to include the third solo effort from one of the most interesting beatmakers in the game over the last half decade or so. Following up where he left off with 2004’s halfway tree, Since We Last Spoke, RJ here leaves hip hop behind entirely in favour of a kind of classical pop standard-influenced ‘post-hip hop’ (ie. to hip hop what post-rock is to rock). And not only does he change up the beats, he sings. What he lacks in vocal range and force, he makes up for in personality and charm. Addressing the follies of humanity with a laissez-faire twinkle in the eye, these are humorous, slightly ironic songs with the kind of lost, romantic tinge we have come to expect from RJ’s music. It is almost as if he has finally given his beats a voice, a persona. The production combines the best of his breakbeat-based hip hop work with the lighter electronic programming of Since We Last Spoke. RJ has found a new voice and we are all the better for it.
Sage Francis — Human the Death Dance
After the overtly political, big picture effort A Healthy Distrust (2005), Sage Francis returns to the personal domain that despite his gifts as a political lyricist has always been his homebase. Human the Death Dance is perhaps his single most focused and accomplished album to date. While it does not have the rawness and honesty of his classic debut Personal Journals (2002), it is more confident and less prone to pathos. Though proclaiming outright that irony is dead, Sage very much retains his trademark tongue-in-cheek humor, intertextual approach to emceeing, and self-deprecating megalomania. Love him or hate him, it is hard to deny that he is one of hip hop’s cleverest lyricists and commands a broader range of flow and delivery than the vast majority of his peers. Trust Sage to seamlessly transpose themes common in rock — infidelity, divorce and loneliness — to hip hop where they remain rare, all the while eviscerating everything from pop culture to hip hop poseurs with the vocabulary of a slam poet and the verve of a battle MC. The signature track, surely, is the Odd Nosdam-produced “Underground for Dummies” where Sage boldly seeks to reclaim what he helped make the most vital subgenre in hip hop around the turn of the millennium : suburban underground hip hop : from the obscurity it is currently, and lamentably, sliding into: “This is hip hop for the people, stop calling it ’emo!”
MySpace Sage Francis Strange Famous Records
Ghostface Killah — The Big Doe Rehab
Hot on the heels of last year’s banging Fishscale and the tight mix CD More Fish, Ghost hits us with another barrage of impressionist narratives of drug trafficking, fatalist street life, almost insistently asserting his continued hunger on the mic. One misses RZA’s beats, but even though the production, from a broad array of beatmakers (not all of them equally distinguished), is rather erratic, its souled-out tenor generally suits Ghost’s melancholy-tinged tall tales well, and the sheer audacity of rapping over another artist’s entire song, as he does with Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Superman Lover” on “Super GFK,” and pulling it off without appearing cheap nor arrogant, is the kind of thing that makes this album so eminently enjoyable. That, and the intensity Ghost continues to bring to his game, all the while tempering it with both humor and poetic verve.
MySpace Def Jam
Sole and the Skyrider Band
Returned to America after a two-year Bildungsreise, that most pretentious yet pathetically honest MC, Sole, has established himself in the rocky heights of Arizona and combined with a trio of semi-electronic musicians, the Skyrider Band, for his latest release. And he has not sounded as on point since 2003’s classic Selling Live Water. Sole here brings his signature non-rhymed writing and confessional approach to a more mature and assured presentation. Less intense and urgent than earlier, his delivery here is more melodic and measured. The themes remain the same: personal assertion and identity and the discontents of Empire. The high point is the three-point sequence of “Nothing Is Free”, “The Bridges, Let Us Down” and “A Hundred Light Years and Running,” early on the album. Sole here examines growing old, by way of a lopsided introspective battle rap, vividly invokes the inevitable disillusionment of idealism in a self-admonishing, impressionistic monologue and describes life as a hopeless journey towards dust, while the Skyrider Band provides the richly varied, haunting score. Heady topics all, and ones rife with risk of bathos, but Sole’s strength has always been his embrace of this, and carried the day with his unfiltered delivery and creative use of language. And besides, hip hop needs an analyst of its both powerful and painful basis in youth culture : someone to examine why “you can’t be thirty and still make hip hop.”
DJ Drez & Azzurro — Flying Humanoid
The amazingly prolific Los Angeles DJ Drez has been taking mixology to a new level in recent years. His main release in the past year was The Complete Moon Bay Sessions, an official album recorded in collaboration with jazz pianist Marty Williams, and while its jazz-hip hop fusion was eminently satisfying, Drez is at his very best when he mixes. His encyclopedic, theme-oriented approach and acute sense of what just works has resulted in some of the most compelling mix CDs this listener has ever encountered. Drez invariably has an interesting take on his chosen theme, throws many a curveball in the form of obscure breaks or otherwise marginalised recordings, all the while providing new contexts for classic material. He hears connections that seem obvious to the extent that you wonder whether they were not, in fact, always there, waiting to be discovered. Flying Humanoid, mixed in tandem with Japanese DJ Azzurro, is the latest in this prodigious stream of nourishing musical reconfigurations. ‘Nuff said!
DJ Drez MySpace Azzurro MySpace DJ Drez Azzurro Mic Life
THE YEAR’S DANISH RELEASE
Natasja — I Danmark er jeg født
The year saw the tragic loss of one of the brightest lights on the Danish reggae and hip hop-scene. Natasja Saad died aged 32 in a car accident in Jamaica. On the cusp of a popular breakthrough, she went and disappeared on us, but thankfully left behind this posthumously released album. Her first album in Danish, it is a strong showcase of how much she had grown as an artist over the years. This is hungry, happy music that rocks the dancehall and at the same time is alternately politically rousing and deeply moving. Speaking, on “Gi mig Danmark tilbage,” on the closure and demolition of the (in)famous youth community house in Copenhagen and the right turn in Danish society that cleared the way for it, simultaneously has her at her most fiery and funny, while the title track — taken from a song by the great Danish author Hans Christian Andersen : is a compellingly honest meditation on being of mixed background and acting out your dreams as an artist. Goosebumps time. RIP Natasja.
Full Bunker review (in Danish) MySpace
THE YEAR’S MOST OVERRATED
Common : Finding Forever
People continue to crowd the line to pile hyperbole on this mediocrity. OK, it is not as terminally dull as its predecessor, Be, but this album is still a depressingly clichéd underachievement from one of hip hop’s once-great lights. Tellingly, the line everyone remembers from the album is the refrain “My daughter found Nemo, I found a new Premo.” This line neatly encapsulates both the lyrical laziness and the artistic dead end Common has been moving down these last years. This is the cat who inscribed (eg. like so) himself in the rap canon as one of its premier lyricists with Resurrection (1994), and went on to record several classic albums, showing ambition both in terms of content and flow (even the much-maligned Electric Circus (2002), though far from perfect, was ambitious and different). Today he comes off as straight lazy on the mic, apparently banking on his clichéd soulfulness to carry the day. “My daughter found Nemo” — what has that got to do with anything? As for the alleged “new Premo”, aka. Mr. Clean Shirt Kanye, the assertion is absurd on the face of it. Kanye, though undeniably talented, is surely the most overrated producer of our time. He will never come close to the level of sheer innovation and sonic resonance of DJ Premier (the closest Common got was with the sadly departed J-Dilla in the early naughts). What is worse in this context, however, is that Kanye’s shallow approach to soul seems to be encouraging the worst in Common — not just his lyrical laziness, but his weakness for sentimentality, which is sounding more trivial than ever these days. OK, you cannot blame the man for being so successful in his new, hyper-groomed persona, but it is still depressing to witness.
THE YEAR’S WACKEST
50 Cent : Curtis
50 Cent is symptomatic of the development of the worst in mainstream hip hop over the last decade or so. A so-called MC with no flow, no ideas, and no originality, and a slurred laissez-faire delivery and Dre’s production as his only actives skyrocketing not only to pop fame, but — bafflingly — acclaim amongst hardcore fans. Quality control gone the way of the handclap. Curtis, his third release and the weakest yet, is an uninspired mess of clunky “bangers” and sugar pop on which even Dre’s beats sound tired. That it failed to do the numbers hoped, despite a silly PR stunt the less said of which the better, could however be cause for some hope. The industry is changing and thankfully, hip hop remains alive and relatively well elsewhere. The days of outrageous pop fame seem to be fading for the genre and one cannot be but a little optimistic that this means that this kind of industry product is on its way out.
MySpace 50 Cent
Image of Lil Wayne from here.