A lot of big names, both underground and mainstream, dropped albums and mixtapes in 2009 – Jay-Z, Eminem, 50 Cent, Wu Tang Clan, Raekwon, Lady Gaga, Wale, Clipse, Sage Francis, Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Mr. Lif, Sole, and Themselves, just to name a few. I had high hopes for Eminem, but was let down when he decided to rap in a bad Jamaican accent for half of “Relapse.” I have for years been determined not to like Brother Ali, but he dropped two real solid projects in ’09. I could never get into MF Doom, the stoner, but DOOM, the existential polemicist, inspired me to revisit his past works. I have always secretly hoped that Clipse would drop an LP dedicated to more than exploring the coke game, but, upon listening to (the still very solid) “‘Til the Casket Drops,” sort of wish they would go back to what they do best. I guess it goes to show you never can tell.
Ok, here’s the list:
1. P.O.S. – Never Better
I always thought rap-rock was bad by definition. It seemed that decent rappers with heavy rock influence (Beastie Boys, El-P, Saul Williams) were considered innovative, while shitty crossover novelties (Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit) were dubbed ‘rap rock.’ It seems that P.O.S. is the exception to the rule, effectively redefining the rap-hyphen with an album as much punk rock as hip-hop. This is not surprising as P.O.S. started off as a punk rocker in Minneapolis. It is similarly not surprising how effortless his synthesis sounds. Lyrically, P.O.S. is able to spit incredibly mature hope over any number of beats. He is not being positive, nor negative; he is struggling, fighting, and somehow, surviving.
2. k-os – Yes!
The best produced rap album of the year, and up there with the best produced of any genre, k-os can compete with Grizzly Bear’s work effort and Vampire Weekend’s pop intuitions, displaying a remarkable sense of musicality and subtlety. He may not be the best MC out there, but his flow is effortless, and his words are at once esoteric and relatable, as he raps about topics ranging from the status of hip-hop (“Astronaut”) to personal tales of woe about falling in love with lesbians (“I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman”). If you want to think while you dance, check out “Yes!”
3. Phillip Morris – The Process of Addiction Has Its Costs
Nebbishy, nerdy, and more poignant than it should be, Phillip Morris’s “The Process of Addiction” will appeal, not only to unapologetic backpackers, but to anyone who has ever sat home on a weekend resigned to their own righteous boredom. Well, maybe that’s just the backpackers. In any case, this guy can really spit.
4. K’Naan – Troubadour
A lot of rappers rap about being hardcore with contrived stories about blunts, forties, and bitches. That’s all well and good, but K’Naan is from Somalia, and that pretty much puts to shame American rappers that buy guns just for cred. Still, K’Naan spends little time wallowing, and more time observing what’s around him and, ultimately, celebrating it.
5. DOOM – Born Like This
I never liked MF Doom, not until this album. I found his stoner rap played-out and his elaborate rhymes gimmicky, but, on “Born Like This” DOOM takes a turn away from the ganja-rap, and towards the apocalyptic. He is here smarter and, ironically, funnier than on his past works. In short, why rhyme “Fritos” with “Doritos” and “Cheetos,” when you can rhyme “damn train derail” with “scam Nigerian email?”
6. Mr. Lif -I Heard it Today
I have a love/hate relationship with this album. When Lif is going on self-serious diatribes about how weed is the key to seeing the deep dimensions of the universe, he sounds like a 17 year old Phishnik tool with no sense of humor. But when Lif is dropping topical political commentary about the foreclosure crisis over dense El-P-esque, End of Days dissonance, he is taking political hip-hop in a whole new direction. Fortunately, the latter dominates.
7. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II
Rae’s flow is so simultaneously gritty and cogent that I’m willing to forgive the fact that the album is 22 more tracks of The Wu using martial arts as a metaphor for the coke game. Ok, lets be honest, it’s pretty awesome that ‘kwon uses kung fu as a metaphor for the coke game for 22 tracks, none of them weak.
8. Juice Aleem – Jerusalaam Come
This is not your father’s grime. It’s your crazy bible-thumping uncle’s grime. Comparing the current political state to a lawless, hunter-gather, tribal society, Juice spits fierce, unflinching reality with a sense of imminence seldom heard. Do not listen if you are elderly, pregnant, or in need of comfort.
9. Brother Ali – The Truth Is Here
I have, since I heard him, resisted liking Brother Ali. He is obviously an incredible rapper and an adept narrator, but I found his stories boring and bordering on emo, which is not a term I often use. But on “The Truth Is Here,” Ali finds such a unique balance between righteous anger and genuine hope, that the EP is impossible not to relate to. “US” is pretty good too, but “The Truth is Here” is what awakened me to Brother Ali.
10. Wu-Tang Clan – Chamber Music
Where “Only Built for Cuban Links II” finds Raekwon leading the Clan is an intensely focused commentary, “Chamber Music” showcases the Wu’s diverse talents and eclectic personalities. Otherwise put, they’ve still got it.
And now a brief note on homophobia in rap/why I’m a hypocrite: It is widely understood that rappers are too often homophobes. As a hip-hop lover, but also someone who prides themselves on tolerance, I find this extremely disturbing, as do many. Still, this year, I placed my aesthetic sensibilities ahead of my political will, and put two albums on this list where The Wu Tang Clan uses the word “faggot.” Use of this degrading slur is unforgivable, and in most other mainstream genres could be a career-ender, but in rap it is somehow more consistently overlooked . (DOOM’s “Batty Boyz,” while arguably homophobic, seems to be a tongue-in-cheek dig at overly-masculine super heros, so I’m more willing to forgive it). I also listed, as two of my top albums as the decade, El-P’s “Fantastic Damage,” on which he spits “these faggots hit like teddy bears,” and, last but certainly not least, Eminem’s “Marshall Matthers LP.” I guess I’m in no position to complain now, as I’m the one promoting this bigotry with my end of the year lists, but this isn’t a disclaimer, and if my own complicity pisses off any readers out there, you should get pissed.