A Funky Look Back at the Year that Was(n’t): Another year gone, another slew of terrible rap music. But in what was seemingly a disappointing overall year for Hip Hop, looking back reveals that there were in fact plenty of solid releases from newbies and veterans alike, along with a handful of near-classics that kept my ears smiling for months on end, if not for years to come. Looking hard enough through the almost endless stream of lazy mixtapes and major label huckstery, one can find Quality with a capital Q. So here now is my flawed, biased, unscientific and ill-researched critique of the year that was.
Best albums I never actually checked for (due to lack of funds and time) but would have liked to:
Aceyalone & RJD2 – “Magnificent City“: I’ve always respected Ace and his recent beatmaker RJD2 more than I’ve actually listened to them, this isn’t to say I don’t love revisiting both of them occasionally. Each artist brings his own unique frameworks to their work, and from what I hear, this is another success for the underground staples.
Cam’ron – “Killa Season“: The Dipset leader has always had the talent and dangerous allure to be a top MC, so it’s mostly a matter of craftsmanship as to whether his latest release will be any good. Fortunately this year’s “Killa Season” has a nice mix of silliness, menace and an acceptably small amount of filler. Crew mate Jim Jones’ “Hustler’s P.O.M.E.” is also a solid release, but Cam’ron’s charisma makes this the Dipset joint to scoop this year if you only buy one.
The Game – “Doctor’s Advocate“: Supposedly with even better beats than his debut, Game is still relying heavily on his sonics to carry his full-lengths, but he seems to have just enough magnetism to keep things interesting lyrically. I just figured another Gangsta rap classic was a little superfluous-I prefer my funky nihilism circa ’91-and besides, I could never get up the nerve to cop this shit over all the other (more experimental) joints from years past.
Nas – “Nas: Hip Hop is Dead“: Released too late for my already flat-not-fat-pockets, Nas’ newest is no doubt another superb mix, full of genius and contradictions. I will cop it eventually, and you should too.
Quietest (genuine) farewell by former legends:
Alkaholiks – “Firewater“: I don’t care who does or doesn’t know it: the Liks are legends. Sure, they all but fell off the radar after a solid but still disappointing third LP “Likwidation,” but you can’t front on their first two releases, both stone cold classics. It’s a damn shame that “Firewater,” their last as a group, snuck in and out of the public eye so quickly. It was admittedly their weakest release yet, but they still know how to lovingly craft funky fresh party jams as good as anyone else.
Outkast – “Idlewild“: All the signs for a breakup (or worse, breakdown) of the seminal and beloved ATLiens have been around for a long while, but this clumsy shadow of an album still hit me hard in the chest when I heard it, and not in a good way. Even though their last release’s double-solo album format suggested that the group was essentially divorced, it was still dope music, so as always, no need to panic. “Idlewild,” by contrast, still finds the duo essentially working separately, but this time is full of half-formed ideas and individual excesses, with only a few true bangers. And yes, it has to be counted as an official Outkast album, despite the soundtrack format. We knew the end was coming, we just didn’t know it was already here.
TOP 10 RECORDS OF THE YEAR
10. Debaser, “Crown Control“: I had to sneak one lesser known album into my top ten, and with “Crown Control,” the Oregon-based duo Debaser well deserves a spot. The album is packed to the gills with freshness, featuring brilliant sonics and playfully skilled lyrics. Even if you don’t rep the Northwest, cop it and enjoy.
9. Gnarles Barkley, “St. Elsewhere“: the sheer volume of creative energy alone captured on this collaborative disc would justify its inclusion in my top ten; add that to the fact that Cee-Lo and DangerMouse continue to make funky music while attempting to further push the boundaries of Hip Hop, and you gotta love this disc. And yes, whenever a Hip Hop artist does a (good) Violent Femmes cover, that’s pushing boundaries.
8. Rhymefest, “Blue Collar.”
7. Lupe Fiasco, “Food & Liquor“: Slots seven and eight go to two relative newbies from the new Midwest Mecca for quality Hip Hop, Chi-town. Both came with near-flawless albums, flavored with unique and genuinely interesting voices not afraid to stray from familiar subject matters. Sonically, Lupe’s album had some rough spots, and “Blue Collar” never got the promotion it deserved, but both of these discs deliver right now while promising even greater things to come.
6. Lil’ Wayne, “Dedication 2: Gangsta Grillz” (featuring DJ Drama): Weezy Baby is a hot MC right now, the kind that sucks you in and keeps you hype for the next verse even before the first one finishes. His second mixtape collaboe with DJ Drama makes the concept simple: give Wayne a ton of hot beats and let him run his game all over them. And despite some real momentum killers (rambling monologues disguised as ‘skits’), I’m still another satisfied customer.
5. The Roots, “Game Theory“: The Roots have never released a bad album; a lot of people hated on 2004’s “The Tipping Point,” but I still thought it was tighter than most. The praise given to “Game Theory” just means that this one is especially good, featuring the signature conciseness of concept taken to new levels of sharpness, as they go deep into the heart of deeper emotions and thoughts. This is grown men making music with a purpose, and is bound to still be relevant and enjoyable for years.
4. TI, “King.”
3. The Clipse, “Hell Hath No Fury.”
2. Ghostface, “Fishscale“: Numbers two through four in my book go to albums either directly or indirectly in the sphere of ‘crack-rap’. TI’s offering was full of smartly chosen bangers and ridiculous boasts and threats that the improved MC finally sounds justified in making. Naming his album after royalty wasn’t so far off. The Clipse, meanwhile, finally got the chance to release their sophomore platter, complete with twelve of the Neptune’s most amazing sonic templates. The raps are strictly crack-inspired, but the duo mostly succeeds in keeping things interesting through sheer charisma. They’ve definitely mastered the art of the hook, too (see if you can help singing some of the more catchy choruses for weeks on end). As for Ghost, it’s almost expected that he’ll drop a classic every few years, based on the fact that he’s damn near batting a thousand in the album category. Point blank, he is one of the densest, most intriguing MCs in the game, and “Fishscale” is full of varied and chunky beats, satisfying guest appearances and enough Wu-Tang attitude (Ghost style) to make any Hip Hopper believe in everlasting dopeness.
1. Dilla, “Donuts“: Dilla’s crowning achievement is quite simply a sonic masterpiece. His use of drum and other samples is breathtaking, and without any official vocals (other than samples), JD manages to convey more here than most releases with lyrics do. This year’s post-humous “The Shining” is also a great record, but if you want to know why Dilla was so beloved by many and will be so missed now that he’s gone, look no further than “Donuts” to find out why. There’s a reason the “Outro” and “Intro” tracks are the same and in reverse spots: the album is meant to be played continuously. Hip Hop Nirvana.
That’s all from me; let’s hope next year brings more originality to the game…fresh for ’07, you suckaaasss!!!