TOP 10 RECORDS OF THE YEAR
1. Madvillain: Madvillainy
As hopelessly jaded as I’ve become over the past few years, Daniel Dumille and Otis Jackson Jr (more popularly known as MF Doom and Madlib respectively) have always provided me with plenty of incentive to have faith in rap’s decaying, emaciated corpse, to spur it on while it crawls lethargically towards its impending doom. Needless to say, the union of these two zany rap warlocks satiated many a nerd’s rap jones, and even a leak of the album a year before release couldn’t sap any vitality from Madvillainy, a record that is beyond a doubt the most vital and artistically sophisticated record to be exhumed from the carrion-infested bowels of rap music in years.
Subverting all the conventional notions that we have erected within contemporary rap and gutting the verse-chorus-verse format that has imprisoned artistic creativity for what seems like an eternity, Madvillainy is an exercise in utter irreverence, an outrageous foray into the cavernous psyches of two twisted geniuses. Distilling rap’s essence into sporadic two-minute bursts, each track presents an impossibly outlandish proposition, Doom’s scattershot and slipshod cadence stumbling and sprawling over Madlib’s malformed monstrosities, mutated beats that hardly qualify as rap tracks- hell, one track is a wholesale loop of a dusty Brazilian rap track. In true Madlib fashion, samples are wholly shrouded in mystery, brazenly jeering aspiring cratediggers to unearth them. Matching his partner’s boundless penchant for invention with his unparalleled wit, Doom elegantly finesses tracks that most emcees could not even imagine approaching, brewing a verbal potpourri littered with stellar wordplay and semi-obscure Americana references. For an album that is so disdainful of established musical conventions, you’d expect something a lot less listenable or captivating than this little bugger, an LP that I can confidently proclaim as the new Illmatic.
2. Nas: Street’s Disciple
It’s spectacularly unfair that this record arrived in the same year as Madvillainy- in a different scenario it would have lodged itself firmly into the Olympian heights of Nas’ finest work, gloating at the tired haters who continue to throw rocks at Nasir’s throne. The truth is Mr Jones hasn’t sounded this impassioned, this consumed with purpose in years, a fact that is all the more unusual considering the complacency one would expect from a man facing the tame sterility of married life. While God’s Son offered some of the most vulnerable and fragile vignettes to grace Nas’ work, Street’s Disciple is a far more comprehensive and satisfying affair, at once a portrait of the man at his most braggadocios and conversely his most fallible. The tormented conflicts between Nasty and Escobar have been laid to rest, as Nas assuredly assaults Kobe Bryant, Condoleeza Rice and fake emcees with the relentless vitriol and militant urgency that we have come to expect from rap’s most outspoken visionary. Factor in the always impeccable contributions of one Salaam Remi, whose post-Fugees work has been painfully sparse, and you have a double disc with few chinks in its armour.
3. Cee-Lo: Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine
At the risk of being swamped by torrents of hate mail, I will venture to say that this is the record Andre Benjamin WISHED he made with The Love Below. That’s not to say that Dre’s masterpiece was a contrived facsimile of Cee-Lo’s output, but really Mr Green has been painting with the funk soul rap palette for far longer, only to be dwarfed and eclipsed by the successes of his Dungeon Family comrade. The shades of Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Donald Byrd are more distinct and developed than on The Perfect Imperfections…, lovingly reinterpreted through Cee-Lo’s countrified twang and cohered with incisive intelligence. Poetic without being pretentious, eclectic without being off-putting, the man affirms what Goodie Mob enthusiasts have been aware of all along- as far as soul goes, you ain’t fucking with Cee-Lo Green.
4. Eightball & MJG: Living Legends
When news spread of Ball & G’s newly inked deal with Diddy’s haplessly gimmicky Bad Boy South imprint, many feared that this astute Southern institution would crumble into degenerate, blithering crunkdom, reconstituted and sterilised for mass consumption. I was ready to chalk another name on to the casualties list, so imagine my surprise when I was greeted with the most ferocious, ravenous record I’ve heard from the duo in years. Far from a tired stab at mainstream acceptance, this feverish jambalaya is tastier than any platter of Southern gangsta rap this year, Ball’s syrupy, laissez-faire drawl providing a marvellous contrast to G’s carefully metered execution, all sprinkled atop stunning, crisp production. If this doesn’t catapult them to the prime time, I don’t know what will.
5. Ghostface: The Pretty Toney Album
It’s probably been reiterated ad nauseam, but let me restate the obvious- Ghost is absolutely the most charismatic, irresistible emcee walking God’s green earth. While some may construe RZA’s absence on this record (save for street single “Run”) as arrogance on Ghost’s part, the fact that The Pretty Toney record showcases some of Ghost’s finest work to date speaks volumes about how assured and accomplished Tony Starks has become. As rifts in the Wu have become magnified over the years, Ghost has emerged as a franchise independent of the Killa Beez, his unmistakeable, larger-than-life presence and off-the-wall, candidly lucid verbiage filling the gulf that his troubled collective has left. Illuminating grim, graven streets with his animated slang and relentless delivery, Ghost infuses and invigorates flagging clichés with newfound vitality and charm. Now if only he’d don that mask again and go on tour with Doom…
6. Devin the Dude: To Tha X-Treme
Not since Redman has there been an emcee quite as endearingly audacious as Devin The Dude. Much like Reggie Noble, Devin’s content revolves exclusively around an appallingly limited range of topics- loose women, copious amounts of marijuana and malt liquor. However, while Reggie has become a hapless caricature lampooning himself on cable TV, his music suffocating in the stasis of his stale posturing, Devin assumes a decidedly different stance, that of the rap antihero. Painfully honest tales of loss and poverty are delivered with deadpan, unapologetically stark humour. The uncontested maestro of rap black comedy, Devin navigates you through the seedy underbelly of life, far from the glamorized facades and gratuitous fantasies of the music video, his vehement refusal to adorn or obscure these truths with pretensions making for some outrageously candid results. While this record is far from the zenith of his career (as it very well could have been), it is still a sublime work from an artist who is just now starting to get his due, if you consider the hook he provided on the Roots record and his appearance on the Dilated Peoples album to be steps in the right direction.
7. Masta Ace: A Long Hot Summer
It’s a little tragic that this guy’s final record could also very well be his most accomplished and compelling to date. While he has enjoyed a staggeringly consistent career since its genesis with the Juice Crew and Cold Chillin’, accentuated by the Masta Ace Inc days and the seminal Slaughtahouse record, his career has hardly followed a linear arc. Bizarrely, the Masta Ace of Sittin’ On Chrome and Disposable Arts are almost two entirely distinct entities independent of each other- one a revered artist from a bygone age whose work is highly touted by purveyors of fine vinyl, the other an underground sensation beloved by headphone-rocking suburban neophytes. This record stands firmly on the plateau erected by Disposable Arts, occupying that junction where subwoofer mauling production and awesome, vivid storytelling meet, a consummate concept album that is absolutely as engaging and arresting as the first instalment, finding its thrust in its seamless merging of contemporary, headnodding production with Ace’s technically accomplished, yet commendably relatable old-school sensibilities. A fitting farewell to a living legend.
8. Kanye West: The College Dropout
Whether you agree with this inclusion is rather inconsequential, as there is one thing you will invariably have to agree to, that this record has a polarising effect on par with the Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Yet it is baffling to note that the incendiary tirades of Kanye West’s harshest critics hinge on his rather self-absorbed public persona, as opposed to the quality of his musical output, which is more often than not absolutely stellar. This concept record is an utter success, brilliantly capturing the contradictions latent within an embattled young man whose fiery convictions compel him to change the world, but who has been surrounded by the wanton excesses of rap music and is prone to materialistic temptation. Musically the College Dropout is Kanye at the peak of his creative powers, as he further refines the soulful Chi-Town template of mentor No ID, fusing it with the dirty rawness of RZA and a profoundly warm sense of melody that has propelled him to international superstardom. A bit of a no-brainer, really.
9. Oddities: The Scenic Route
If your virgin ears are unacquainted with this outfit from Toronto, your purchase of this record is long overdue. While the Living Legends, Hiero and the Visionaries are all approaching the twilight of their careers, The Oddities have reimagined and reinterpreted classic West Coast underground rap into a collection of playful, meandering yet grippingly relevant tracks, delivering a record that indulges in technical virtuosity without forsaking accessibility or songcraft. The production is fiercely jagged and unconventional, embarking on a variety of off-kilter time avenues that are highly indicative of Bookworm’s endearingly individual flair. Each member of the collective complements the angular production with remarkable effortlessness, boasting devastatingly intricate, distinct deliveries that celebrate the boundlessness of rap as a creative medium. Stop turning your nose at Canadian rap and do yourself a favour.
10. Cam’Ron: Purple Haze
Seeing as this article allows me the space to make as many ostentatious and obnoxious statements as I please, being purely an extension of my personal opinion, I will make yet another- anybody who doesn’t like Cameron Giles is a boring bastard. Purple Haze boasts dynamic, bombastic production, trunk-decimating bass and Cam’s serpentine flow, all infused with the loveably smug and self-assured aloofness that he has made his own. While many have been quick to identify the glaring lack of introspection, the biographical contemplation that made Confessions of Fire and S.D.E. such captivating records, I am resolute in my assertion that Cam is infinitely more entertaining and charismatic in his current guise. Really, only Cam’ron could make “Good golly, look at my galoshes” sound gutter. In an industry where plastic, cosmetic facades are becoming increasingly prevalent, something must be said about an emcee who vehemently refuses to take himself too seriously.
TOP 5 SLEEPERS
1. Dalek: Absence
Throughout the past few months I’ve read several reviews (all penned by elitist indie rock intelligentsia, no less) that have compared Dalek to a hip-hop reinterpretation of My Bloody Valentine. Considering my boundless, eternal devotion to Kevin Shields and company’s immortal, wall-of-noise music, my love for Dalek’s noisy, uncompromisingly dark-hearted minstrelsy has grown with each momentous release. Taking occupancy in Mike Patton’s haven for weirdos, Ipecac Records, Dalek have unleashed their bleakest work yet. In truth, the lone similarity they share with MBV is within their reliance on sustained, monumental walls of sound- they are far more oppressive in their approach, fusing white noise with industrial jackhammer beats and avant-garde cadences. Molten slabs of distortion and harsh dissonance coalesce to form a barbed, barbaric electronic whole, an experience that is alternately ghastly and ghostly, one that will anger and affect you in ways that no other rap record will this year.
2. RA the Rugged Man: Die, Rugged Man, Die
RA has gone through innumerable pains and triumphed over considerable adversities to deliver this platter, and if he had such trouble convincing record labels to give this record a chance, it is likely that he will have a harder time urging a surly rap public to give him the respect he sorely deserves. It’s a shame, too, because RA has done something fellow mid ‘90s cult heroes like Royal Flush, Michael Franti and Lord Have Mercy have failed (quite spectacularly) to do this year, creating one of the most unique and magnetic releases of 2004. Thoroughly smeared with The Rugged Man’s trademark dementia, this is a bare-boned, brutally honest record that makes no apologies and takes no prisoners. Far more individual and memorable than 99% of the stuff this year.
3. Empire: The SARS Mixtape Volume 2
With the resurgence of the mixtape, we find ourselves mired in lacklustre bullshit, the market saturating itself with stale punchlines and tired diatribe as rappers struggle to exhaust every gun and drug reference that they can conjure. If anybody’s going to resurrect punchline rap’s exhumed corpse, it’ll be Toronto’s Empire collective, who through sheer ability alone lay waste to America’s foremost cliques. As a peek into the city’s vibrant battle scene, this mixtape offers a dizzying array of watertight cadences and breathtaking, lung-collapsing displays from Toronto’s finest mic-manglers. Absolutely essential if you like your mixtapes.
4. The Maroons: Ambush
While many may have approached Ambush with scorn, viewing it as a stop-gap wannabe Blackalicious, a substitute for a new Blackalicious record with Gift of Gab’s solo endeavour, this record is far from some feeble facsimile- Lateef ably fills the Quannum liutenant’s sizeable shoes, and Chief Xcel’s impeccably astute, irresistibly funktastic afrobeat-inspired compositions never disappoint. Plus, they manage to address 9/11 without sounding misinformed or impetuous. Buy it!
5. Messy Marv: Disobayish
One of the Bay Area’s foremost purveyors of bump-in-your-trunk g-funk, the stupendously prolific Messy Marv returns with another enjoyable excursion into the deceptively serene streets of Sacramento. Please purchase all of this dude’s albums, especially his album with Marvaless.