2008’s been a good year for Hip-Hop. Front all you want, but you could make a top ten list simply from what’s been released since October ALONE. Not only have we seen our share of resurgences (Q-Tip and NaS), but we’ve been blessed with some of the brightest young stars (Joell Ortiz, Blu, Nino Bless, Sene, Skyzoo, Torae, and Naledge) and continued success of some of the game’s best acts (The Roots, Ludacris, Gnarls Barkley, and Erykah Badu). We’ve seen two supergroups form (Slaughterhouse, with the aforementioned Mr. Ortiz alongside Royce da 5’9″, Crooked I, and Joe Budden; and Random Ax, with Sean Price, Black Milk, and Guilty Simpson), and though we’ve seen our fair share of idiocy (T.I. vs. the Feds; DMX vs. every law enforcement in the country; Noel Ghallagher vs. Jay-Z; Jim Jones vs. Jay-Z; DeHaven vs. Jay-Z; Jaz-O vs. Jay-Z; property taxes vs. Jay-Z (when his Vegas branch of the 40/40 Club shut down); Ice-T vs. Soulja Boy, Hurricane Chris, and every other rapper under the age of 15), it’s been vastly overshadowed by the amount of good music that’s been released this year. In honor of that spirit, here is a comprehensive list of Hip-Hop highlights from ’08:
Debut of the Year:
Not only did El’s wordplay and intricate rhyme schemes make this album one of the most entertaining and refreshing long-plays of the past couple of years, it also established him outside of Slum Village as a force to be reckoned with in the underground. His concept records (“Colors,” “Guessing Game,” “Talking in My Sleep”) are fantastic, his swagger (“Fire,” “Motown 25”) is impeccable, and his autobiographical material (“Why I Write,” “Growing Up”) is poignant and thoughtful. In a strong year for Detroit Hip-Hop (peep Black Milk taking the number seven slot on the top 10 list, as well as Quest MCODY and Marvwon’s rise to international prominence in the battle scene), Elzhi was one of the bright spots in a city that keeps on shining with more and more brilliance each year.
Just read the review.
Most Disappointing Album:
Universal Mind Control-Common
At first, I was excited about this album. Electronica isn’t necessarily the clichéd genre that it appears to be (which is a lesson I learned during a self-imposed hiatus from Hip-Hop last year). However, Com’s attempt at cross-breeding it with Hip-Hop here (by way of The Neptunes and OutKast hitmaker Mr. DJ) was wayyyyyy off-base (no pun intended). It came out to be nothing but a CD chock-full of quasi-robotic instrumentals and sex raps. Hopefully, his next effort (which is rumored to be helmed mostly by former collaborator No I.D. and Kanye West) will see a return to a more grounded Common.
Illest Rap Battles (tie):
Dirtbag Dan vs. F.L.O.
(courtesy of Grind Time West Coast)
This, to me, exemplifies what battling should be: two dudes good-naturedly trading barbs about the other. There’s rarely a homophobic remark in the battle (however, in the spirit of full disclosure, it is heavy on misogyny), and Dirtbag and F.L.O. are pretty entertaining emcees. It’s definitely worth your time.
TheSaurus and Illmaculate vs. Marvwon and Quest MCODY
(courtesy of JumpOff TV)
There are three battles in this semifinal series from JumpOff TV’s World Rap Championships. If anybody read my review of Marv and Quest’s collaborative mixtape earlier this year, you already know how much I enjoy watching those two at work. And TheSaurus and Illmaculate are this year’s champs (for the second season in a row), so THAT’S certainly nothing to laugh at, either.
Comeback Player of the Year:
Have you heard his new album “Lay It Down?” Produced by ?uestlove? Guest appearances by John Legend, Corinne-Bailey Rae, AND Anthony Hamilton? Why don’t you have this gotdamn album yet? Go pick it up. Like, right now. Your computer’s gon’ be here when you get back. …Unless DMX got outta jail again. In which case, you’re probably better off copping it from iTunes.
Producer of the Year:
I’ve never heard any producer be able to switch their signature style so fluidly and still maintain their “legendary” status as gracefully as Premo. While some of his work this year certainly qualifies as a tad retread, the positives DEFINITELY overshadow the negatives. From House of Repz’ “U Gotta Love Us” to Little Vic’s OUTSTANDING “The Exorcist” to Ludacris’s “MVP,” Premo’s definitely kept his title as the dopest producer to ever touch an MPC.
Album That I May Have Slightly Overrated:
Ode To the Ghetto-Guilty Simpson
It’s addictive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a classic. Maybe I spoke a tad too hastily about it earlier this year, but there’s no denying the replay value of this album. While it may not have made it into the top 10, it’s still one of the best albums released in ’08, and certainly remains one of the finer releases from Stones Throw’s catalogue.
Albums of the Year:
10. Ego Trippin’-Snoop Dogg
This album is on this list for its lush musical sensibilities (thanks to Snoop’s newly-formed production trio with DJ Quik, Teddy Riley, and the Doggfather himself) and its attempts at branching out from the regular Snoop Dogg sound (“Cool” and “My Medicine”). Songs like “Those Gurlz” and “Make It Good” added that extra Snoop flavor to the album’s slick sound. It’s nice to hear Snoop having fun again, and it’s a great addition to this legend’s résumé.
9. When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold-Atmosphere
In addition to being one of the more approachable Atmosphere records to date, it also delves into unfamiliar territory for the group, and to great success—just peep Tom Waits’ beatbox cameo on “The Waitress,” or Slug’s on-point blues song “Guarantees.” While aficionados may be disappointed about the absence of Lucy Ford, it gives Slug numerous avenues to explore other stories outside of his own and make a fantastic album while doing it.
8. Theater of the Mind-Ludacris
Okay, now, before I have to duck all of the tomatoes that are going to get thrown at me by the die-hard fanatics of the group in the #9 slot, I should probably explain this. While “Theater of the Mind” falls short of being a concept album, it’s a fantastic theme for Luda to run with, and he hits the mark for most of the album. Not only that, but it sounds like Luda is getting that much closer to perfecting the formula that’s worked so well for him on previous albums, and the inclusion of DJ Premier into the fold was a GENIUS way to prove how underrated his lyricism is. While it isn’t quite the classic that he was trying to make, it certainly is a significant step towards making his magnum opus.
7. Tronic-Black Milk
As I said in my review of this album, I think that Black Milk’s skills on the mic should earn him this year’s “Most Improved Emcee Award.” Last year, he was only good enough to be one of the few producers who deserved to rap over his own beats. On “Tronic,” he holds it down for most of the album, and displays his improved production skills as well. It’s an all-around evolution, and one that certainly makes for a fresh CD.
6. The Layover EP-Evidence
It’s one of the most cohesive EPs I’ve heard in a long time—nine songs, one hilariously honest interlude, three producers, a whole bunch of guests, and a nice prelude to Evidence’s forthcoming Cats & Dogs LP. In addition to providing listeners with some of The Alchemist’s dopest production in a hot minute, it also serves to paint Ev as the common man’s emcee. “There’s eight million stories in the city/What about the four million in the country?/I’m going where the people want me.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
5. The Odd Couple-Gnarls Barkley
Where their last album, “St. Elsewhere,” had a much slower,electronic feel to it, “The Odd Couple” utilizes upbeat production and guitars to add a much-appreciated spice to the record’s atmosphere. The beats, however, don’t detract from the lyrical content of this effort: Cee-Lo is in top form here, addressing everything from homicidal fantasy (“Would Be Killer”) to envy of Biblical proportions (“Neighbors”) and even a bit of visually-impaired love (“Blind Mary”). While it definitely has its serious moments (the aforementioned “Neighbors” and “Killer,” as well as a rousing rendition of the gospel staple “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?”), it’s certainly a feel-good album, and one that definitely helps Gnarls Barkley establish themselves as one of the better music acts in recent memory.
What I like about this album is that it’s essentially a lyrical essay on being Black in America. I found that to be extremely refreshing. Many albums either skim over racial issues or simply trivialize them by crafting the songs specifically FOR conscious Hip-Hop heads. However, NaS’s writing is so uncompromisingly honest that it never comes off as anything but genuine. Say all you want about the production, but if anything, it forces you to pay even more attention to the lyrics. And where Nas’s last album concept simply played out as a gimmick that wore numb with each repeated listen, this one delivers successfully, with a message that actually sharpens after every time you play it.
3. The Renaissance-Q-Tip
Hearing Q-Tip in 2008 is a breath of fresh air just for the fact that he’s still rapping; to hear him discuss subject matter that’s both relevant AND close to home is even better. In addition to producing the majority of the CD himself (with the exception of the Dilla-helmed “Move”), he also holds down the emceeing on all twelve tracks, only using his guests (Raphael Saadiq, D’Angelo, Norah Jones, and Amanda Diva) for choral work. The subject matter is varied enough to keep the listener intrigued, and luckily for us, Tip is still one of the sharpest lyricists in the game. From the clever (“Won’t Trade”) to the wistful (“Renaissance Rap”) to the elegiac (“Shaka”), “The Renaissance” covers a lot of ground in a very short amount of time, but makes for one of the best additions to the Native Tongues catalogue—to say nothing of Q-Tip’s, as well.
2. New Amerykah: Part 1 (4th World War)-Erykah Badu
Erykah Badu doesn’t necessarily have to do much to end up in the top 10 of any critic’s year-end list—usually, if she has an album out, it’s going to be one of the better releases of that year. But Ms. Badu goes above and beyond with “New Amerykah: Part 1 (4th World War).” The CD’s eleven tracks certainly carry strong political overtones (“Amerykahn Promise,” “The Cell,” “Master Teacher”) and savvy social commentary (“That Hump,” “Soldier,” “My People”). The two shining jewels are actually at opposite ends of the album, and for good reason—”The Healer” and “Telephone,” in addition to being arguably the two best songs released this year, showcase how much range Erykah truly has in her arsenal: the former is an ode to Hip-Hop that invokes every deity from across the religious spectrum; the latter is a heartbreaking ode to the late, great J Dilla, detailing one of his hallucinations when he believed that Ol’ Dirty Bastard was telling him which bus to take to heaven. It’s her best work since “Mama’s Gun,” and calling it a stunning effort is a vast understatement.
1. Rising Down-The Roots
One of the interesting things about this list was how different all of these albums have been from the artists’ previous work. “Rising Down,” however, sounds like a continuation of The Legendary Roots Crew’s last CD, “Game Theory.” Where that CD only hinted at the group’s ability to dig into dark material, this time, they go head-first into the deep end (pun intended). From the striking and disturbing album cover (one of the Roots’ most poignant and memorable, considering ?uestlove’s science behind it) to their removal of their trademark Fender-Rhodes keyboard, it’s a concerted effort to go deeper than they’ve ever gone—and it works. Malik B.’s verse on “I Can’t Help It” is brutally honest (“My mother had an abortion for the wrong child”…hoooo), and Black Thought’s imagery on “Unwritten” (“You open your eyelids, and get capped in the ribs/Your funeral they have your 12th grade portrait/Pretty corpse in casket, bell-shaped orchids/Said he 19 and left a self-made fortune/And left three orphans”) is vivid as it is heavy. The guest spots are also more necessary than they usually are on albums—P.O.R.N. saunters through “I Will Not Apologize” with swagger that may only be matched by Wale’s sixteen on the album’s finale, “Rising Up.” And hearing a refreshed Mos Def on the title track (he kicks one of his illest verses since “Black On Both Sides”) doesn’t hurt either. Even ?uestlove—who doesn’t even need to—steps his game up on here. The drums are used for everything from some good-ol’ electronically charged boom bap (“Get Busy”) to frantically paced rock-tinged sounds (“Criminal”). It’s not only my favorite Roots album, but the best CD released this year, hands down.