As you may now know, I like to give the year an overall score, reflecting on how “good” it has been. 2007 = 4.5; 2008 = 7.5; 2009 = 8.0; 2010 = 8.5… Logically, the trend pointed to a genuine renaissance in hip hop. Unfortunately, this has been a truly mixed bag of a year. There have been jokes flying around that Saigon made the best album of 2011 all the way back in 2006 – there is an element of truth to that, even if it might be an overstatement. But last year was a good one, the best since 2006 – and 2011 has seen the big guns fail to live up to the hype. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been perfectly solid. Professional, even. But it’s also be wide open and there for the taking, and there aren’t really any clear outstanding candidates for a universal classic album. This whole year just feels like a 7.0 to me. So that’s what I’ll give it… 2011 = 7.0 out of 10.
A small caveat: I’m writing this in mid-November, and as such reserve the right to parachute in a couple of as-yet unheard later entries (e.g. Yelawolf, Common, Rick Ross, Busta Rhymes, maybe even Nas and Tinie Tempah) in January, so in fairness, the list could still change drastically. So, to the countdown – have an AMAZING holiday season, and Happy New Year! Come to the London 2012 Olympics! You can stay at my house!
Jay-Z & Kanye West – “Watch the Throne”
Deserves an honourable mention. Out of the sixteen tracks (on the Deluxe Version) there are a good nine or ten that are impressive. But as an album, it was just too disjointed and when they tell you it has gone through three separate incarnations, it REALLY sounds like it. If they had just gone one way or the other, it would have been wiser – or done an “EP” like Bad Meets Evil.
Wretch 32 – “Black & White”
A very well balanced LP, and an example of how to hit the mass market successfully without completely “selling out” (as some people like to say).
Reks – “Rhythmatic Eternal King Supreme”
Very good “underground” sounding album – with fiery lyrics, dope beats, concepts aplenty… If you have missed it and constantly moan about “a lack of REAL rap” then you should check it out.
J.Cole – “Cole World: The Sideline Story”
A good solid debut that was heavily aimed at the ladies. Seriously: half the tracks are aimed at the female demographic. That’s not “bad” within itself, but it did dilute the effect of Cole’s long-awaited album. In the end, it is solid, promising, and (like I said in the review) he needed to just get it out of the way. No “Villematic” but I fully expect him to go onto greater things now.
Lowkey – “Soundtrack to the Struggle”
Holding the attention of a listener over the course of (effectively) an entire double LP is no mean feat, but Lowkey certainly achieved it. It’s an intense album with no lighter moments, but it’s not depressing at all. A bit more diversity wouldn’t have gone amiss, but Lowkey gave his chomping-at-the-bit fanbase EXACTLY what they wanted.
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF THE YEAR:
10) Travis Barker – “Give the Drummer Some”
This was an ensemble album put together by a rock drummer that clearly LOVES hip hop. Travis Barker did a really impressive job, and it was a fine effort that genuinely outshines most of the experienced statesmen who released substandard albums this year. Good music is good music.
9) Tinie Tempah – “Disc-Overy”
Alright, I admit it. I screwed up last year. I was going to include this album for sure, got drunk and somehow forgot. Sorry, Tinie. Again. Through a technicality, the US Version of “Disc-Overy” was released this year so fuck it, I’m including it. Tinie is the biggest UK rap hope we’ve ever had, and he’s come out with some genuine heat. If he drops a sophomore (as planned) in 2012, expect a slew of international hits.
8) Kendrick Lamar – “Section.80”
Kendrick was part of this new generation of rappers, hyped up to the max without much justification. Except that, over the course of 2011, Lamar has continually met and conquered every challenge with considerable aplomb. Seriously, the guy is dope as fuck. Having to listen to mediocrity, it’s nice to fine have someone who just rips track apart, has musicality, is creative… Just the basic things, but done well. A year ago he was just another “promising” rapper to me: a year later, I’m genuinely hyped. He could be a great.
7) Royce Da 5’9″ – “Success Is Certain”
Just a lean, dope offering from Royce that finds him doing what he does well. This was another album that seems to have just slipped by without making much of a fuss, and that’s a shame: it was focussed, well-balanced and impressive. Not particularly ambitious, sure, but Royce has had quite a year. Hi Rihanna.
6) The Game – “The R.E.D. Album”
Sure, Game is a weird name-dropping sociopath but this was just a very strong album throughout. However, the length was clearly off-putting for many, and that’s just a shame. It’s a musical treat, and even tracks such as the Lloyd joint (which normally wouldn’t even be touched with a barge pole) were actually really addictive. Nothing revolutionary in the slightest, and more like a greatest hits package (similar to MBDTF); it seems to have made no impression on anyone apart from me.
5) Drake – “Take Care”
A lovely second outing for Drake where he was allowed to actively make his vision become reality. Whether or not that many people understand it is irrelevant: he is a classy artist with big plans. Saying all that, I don’t listen to Drake for his rapping. Really not. He’s primarily a singer to me now, and his album backs that up. Regardless, this was what “Thank Me Later” was supposed to be: whether everyone likes it or not is another issue.
4) Bad Meets Evil – “Hell: The Sequel”
Personally, I enjoyed Bad Meets Evil’s EP much more than “Watch the Throne.” Eminem and Royce had limited ambitions on it, but just sound so at home together and it resulted in a fun listen. Eminem is slowly creeping back to the incredible MC he used to be, and hanging around Royce has clearly sparked that old part of him back. The “Shady 2.0 Cypher” at the BET Awards has already become a legendary moment in itself, and 2012 is destined to be a big year for all concerned.
3) Saigon – “The Greatest Story Never Told”
In the harsh light of day, if this had been released in 2006, it wouldn’t have even (arguably) made the top 10 albums that year – seriously, ’06 was a vintage year. However, in 2011, it’s deemed a classic. But to me, it’s more impressive than lovable, and there are only a few songs I really connected to (“Enemies” being the best example). It was definitely great to finally hear, though, and Sai/Just did a very good job, for sure.
2) Chipmunk – “Transition”
The UK kid released an infinitely listenable sophomore LP that nobody is really listening to. Such a shame, as it really is one of the most well put-together albums of the year. I’ll be bumping this in years to come. You really should just check it out, spin it a couple of times and let it soak in properly. It’s no lyrical masterpiece but musically, it fires on almost all cylinders.
1) Shabazz Palaces – “Black Up”
This, to me, was the album of the year and, if I needed confirmation, their live show only strengthened my resolve. “Black Up” is a CLASSIC, a shape-shifting masterpiece that can be best described as “Animal Collective meets Andre 3000.” I actually hated it on the first spin, but soon ended up loving it. It pushed boundaries and challenged my brain in ways that hip hop hasn’t necessarily done for a long time. An absolute triumph.