10. The Book of David – DJ Quik
After a year or so of delays, Quik finally dropped his first solo work in six years, a welcome return to the funk the game had been missing since his last release. Quik’s recruits everyone from longtime collaborator Suga Free to the legendary Ice Cube to the late great Parliament Funkadelic All-Star guitarist Garry Shider on the outro. The album’s a celebration of Quik’s ascent to the top of his game, and even though he does take some time out to lobby potshots at his detractors (most notably on “Fire and Brimstone” and “Ghetto Rendezvous”), it doesn’t deter the record’s infectious bounce.
9. Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them – Blu & Exile
Although this album was recorded in 2009, Blu released it to Bandcamp in all of its unmixed and unmastered glory this past week. The record was originally entitled “Memoirs,” and that autobiographical theme is carried throughout the LP. Exile’s beats, while a bit leaner than they were on the duo’s debut “Below the Heavens,” lend more focus to his counterpart’s intricate rhyme schemes and narrative flair. It’s a worthy follow-up to a debut that some call one of the greatest rap albums of its time.
8. Take Care – Drake
Where “So Far Gone” found Drake struggling with his burgeoning newfound fame, and where “Thank Me Later” was an exploration of that fame once it finally hit, “Take Care” is Drake hitting his stride, comfortable in his position as rap’s newest golden boy. The production is clean and crisp, and the disc carries a much more cohesive sound than his debut did. All in all, this sounds like the album Drake has been yearning to make for his entire career, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.
7. W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) – Pharoahe Monch
No one can call a man who made “Book of Judges,” “Releasing Hypnotical Gases,” and “Agent Orange” apolitical, but when Monch began telling interviewers about how topical his new LP was going to be, it still came as a bit of a surprise. Monch has always been well known for mixing the comedic, the panty-dropping, and the hardcore into all of his albums, but “W.A.R.” trends toward the latter of the three. “W.A.R.” is all spitfire and righteous anger, particularly on “Clap (one day),” one of the best anti-police brutality anthems since “Fuck tha Police” and arguably the best song released in 2011.
6. Watch the Throne – Jay-Z & Kanye West
You couldn’t just listen to this album once – I blame the Illuminati hypnotic magic trick of a loop that played at the end of every other song on here. This is the moment when Kanye finally outrhymed Jay (on almost every song but “H.A.M.”) and proved to the world that he had what it took to go toe-to-toe with his big brother. The album mourned and rejoiced, popped bottles and pulled cards, and even flipped a familiar Otis Redding sample into a top 10 smash. Never before has “Blades of Glory” been quoted by more rap fans.
5. Elmatic – Elzhi
It’s quite ballsy to reinvent a Hip-Hop classic, particularly one that is so often cited as the pinnacle of your genre. But Elzhi did just that, and did it justice, too: by having a fantastic band (WillSessions) reinterpret the original album’s production and by writing rhymes that spoke directly to his own heart and experiences while still giving the occasional nod to the Nazareth Savage that laid the blueprint for his album, Elzhi accomplished what is almost unthinkable in hip-hop – he remade a classic and almost outdid it.
4. Oneirology – CunninLynguists
The CRIMINALLY underrated trio of Deacon the Villain, Natti, and Kno are all in top form here, with Deacon delivering some of the best rhymes of his prolific career, and Kno absolutely killing the production. The album is the perfect sonic companion to its title – a wonderful journey through everything we dream about or dream to be. By the time BJ the Chicago Kid sings of success and triumph on “Dreams,” we begin to understand how much traveling this crew has done to get to this point in their careers – complete with their best album and at the best of their abilities.
3. New Age Middle Finger – Analog(ue) Tape Dispenser and Skech185
The debut from longtime Chicago stalwart Skech185 should be subtitled “We’re All Fucked Up” – it’s unflinching honesty and brilliant writing describes varying institutions in instances of decay and disruption. He even takes time out to talk a little shit (“Surgeon General Warning”) and give us a little insight (“Breathing Room”) as well. It’s a well-rounded album with fantastic production by Analog(ue) Tape Dispenser, whose sound embodies Skech’s so well that they almost blend together seamlessly.
2. undun – The Roots
The best Roots album to date details the rise and fall (or, if we’re talking about the reversed chronology of the album, fall and rise) of Redford Stephens, a drug dealer from Philadelphia who serves as a composite of the slain hustlers that dot some of the coldest corners of this country. Black Thought’s rendering of Stephens is heartbreaking and tender, and the four-part suite that closes the album is tear-jerking. “undun” finds a brilliant band at peak form.
1. Section.80 – Kendrick Lamar
I struggled between this and “undun” for the top spot – and then I listened to “Section.80” again. My generation has never had a voice this profound or poignant at this level of recognition, and the album encompasses everything everyone 25 or younger has dealt with: heartbreak; arrogance; loss; frustration; defiance; and a country that seemingly doesn’t care much for anyone in their 20s or younger. The album was sparked by a dream Lamar had in which 2Pac told him to go speak for his generation – and Lamar has done just that.