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The Year 2010 in Review
Author: Pete T.

In 2010 hip hop lost one of its great artists and essential contributors in Keith Elam. Guru's tragic death was all but ignored by mainstream media and marred by malicious rumors of homosexuality and negligence that surfaced within days of his premature passing and provided a horrific disservice to a musical innovator who was active in charity and the community throughout his legendary career. I blame both his shameless acquaintances and an irresponsible media for the atrocious manner in which his death was mishandled.

Compellingly literate and deeply spiritual, Guru used his position as mic controller to be a teacher and an activist, and as one of the East Coast's most technically astute artists, rappers the world over will remain in awe of the King of Monotone's vocal presence. From his legendary work with partner-in-crime DJ Premier to his eternally overlooked Jazzmatazz records, I know I speak for millions when I say that Guru is one of the reasons I came to love hip hop, and even his final work showed a man still at the height of his powers, if not commercial viability. One of the most commanding and inspiring MCs of his generation, his presence is and will continue to be sorely missed.

In what is in all likelihood my one chance to eulogize Guru, I find his verse from "Eulogy" obvious yet appropriate:

"The emotions that one goes through over a loss of a loved one
Or friend then, knowing the cost of rebuilding and carrying on
It gets so damn hard in this modern day Babylon
And disease runs rampant, so many men carry arms
So many have a lonely painful road to travel on
Mothers losing sons, improper use of guns
Children go astray because their parents were abusive ones
I used to run with the illest guys
Through the realest eyes, I've seen the realest and the illest die
The cycle continues, so many times the good ones
The young ones, so many misunderstood ones
Remembering their faces and voices
And when the wise man said, 'Life is full of choices'
Some get caught up, others are innocent victims
All I know is they were close to us, and that we miss them"

We may never make sense of the bizarre accounts of Guru's last days, but we will continue to celebrate his music and legacy. Here's hoping he found his "Moment of Truth"—may he rest in peace.

It wouldn't be right to embark upon a year in review without extending further R.I.P.s to Eyedea and Nujabes—two immense talents taken far too soon.


Honorable Mentions:

Statik Selektah & Termanology's "1982"
The union of Statik Selektah's sweet production and Termanology's smooth-flowing lyrics is truly a match made in heaven, probably the reason both were placed in Lawrence, Massachusetts in the year 1982.

Big K.R.I.T.'s "K.R.I.T. Wuz Here"
A coming-out party for a rare talent both on the mic and the production boards. Big K.R.I.T.'s swagger and insight make him equally comfortable among both the Curren$y/Smoke DZA crowd and the Bun B/Devin the Dude set, and hopefully Def Jam will allow his star to shine even brighter in coming years.

Witness' "The Everafter LP"
I can't decide what I like more about this record: the gorgeous, jazzy instrumentals or Witness' irresistible storytelling. The Minneapolis-by-way-of-Philadelphia rapper possesses a sly charm and unusual attention to detail as he recounts conversations at the bar, women on the beach, late nights on the highway, and their greater implications. The lush music adds further degrees of both joy and contemplation throughout the short LP. With a graceful, versatile delivery and knack for poignant, poetic narration, Witness is one to watch for in 2011.

Ghostface Killah's "Apollo Kids"
Few surprises here. Ghost returns to the soul-driven sound of the "Fishscale" series (if he ever left it) and shines as only he does. The lengthy guest list includes old Wu compadres GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, and Killah Priest as well as East Coast heavyweights Busta Rhymes, Jim Jones, Sheek Louch, Joell Ortiz, and Black Thought for a suite of excellent collabs. Some are overwhelmed by Ghost's impossibly high output, but who can complain when it's this good.

Eminem's "Recovery"
Say what you will, but few rappers provide the level of introspection that Em does. What's been so enjoyable about listening to "Recovery" for me is the sense that I'm witnessing the continued maturation of not only an artist, but a man as well. Marshall remains the fascinating soul I grew up with, and while it's not a perfect album by any means there's a lot of quality material here by any standards.

Incise's "Daily Methods"
Further brilliance from one of the best producers you've never heard of. His rich, expansive sound and the wide-eyed philosophizing of his collaborators have universal appeal.

Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"
What's left to be said about this album that hasn't already been said? Everything and nothing. "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" is the most ridiculous, overblown rap album to date, with contributions from everyone (I mean everyone) from Elton John to Chris Rock and nine-minute marathons with four dozen musicians including two French horn players. It's a spectacle, a mess, a game-changing opus, yet through it all Kanye still triumphs as one of hip hop's greatest producers for the sheer power of his melodies and arrangements, not the addition of a fifth trombonist or indistinguishable background vocals from Charlie Wilson. The answer to the question "Can we get much higher?" is probably no, and while I hope Kanye eventually returns to earth I'll continue to be entertained and mystified by "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."

Black Milk's "Album of the Year"
The drums and horns on this record are amazing, and after all the years Black Milk has been labeled up-and-coming I think it's safe to say he's arrived. In fact, the title, self-conscious lyrics, and overall aura of the album recall another producer-turned-MC from the Midwest. I hate to say it, but Black Milk may have become a poor man's Kanye West.

Pete's 10 of '10:

10. The Left's "Gas Mask"
Detroit's new soundtrack comes courtesy of Apollo Brown, Journalist 103, and DJ Soko, whose music gives nods to both Motown's rich soul tradition and the recession which has left their city and state gasping for air. Brown's horn-driven production and Journalist's take-no-prisoners raps are equally heavy, and few records in 2010 felt more substantial or necessary. Be them from the wrenching vocal samples of "Binoculars" and "The Melody," the unforgettable collabos with Kool G Rap and Finale, respectively, on "Frozen" and "Caged Birds," or Journalist's commanding desperation on "Statistics" and "How We Live," expect to get chills listening to "Gas Mask."

9. Pimp C's "The Naked Soul of Sweet Jones"
The album opener "Down 4 Mine" begins with Pimp C telling the listener, "'Dis my first solo album, bitch... I ain't never had one befo'." With the knowledge that he'd be cold in the ground for three years before said album was unleashed, "The Naked Soul of Sweet Jones" can be simultaneously chilling, frustrating, saddening, and liberating, but mostly it's impressive in that it sounds exactly as Pimp C's solo debut should. With a slew of syrupy-sweet soul, a star-studded guest list, and Pimp's high-pitched crooning, the album sounds like the musical embodiment of pimping, and I mean that in the best way possible. Highlights such as the lowrider-thumping "Made 4" and the silky-smooth "Midnight" and "Believe in Me" channel the classic UGK sound, while guests such as Chamillionaire, Jazze Pha, and Young Jeezy keep it rooted in 2010. It would have been outlandish to expect Pimp to produce a better album from the grave than Bun B's in 2010, but "The Naked Soul of Sweet Jones" easily outshines "Trill O.G."

8. Nappy Roots' "The Pursuit of Nappyness"
Backed by a new array of producers but the same Kentucky-fried appeal, the overwhelming sentiment of Nappy Roots' fourth LP is that, despite everything, life is still good. In trying times it's a message worth passing on. While they try their hand at a few mostly-successful club tracks, the bulk of the album's highlights are products of their tried-and-true formula, such as the twangy Phivestarr productions "Infield," "Ride," and "Come Back Home." Elsewhere, the heartfelt accounts of "Be A'ight," "The People," and "All 4 U" reinforce the gracious, down-home mindset that made the quintet a household name nearly a decade ago.

7. Collective Efforts' "Freezing World"
Backed by a five-piece band and production from Diamond D, the Atlanta crew's fourth full-length combines organic instrumentation, motivational lyrics, soulful vocals, and a focused, artistic spirit. Ben Hameen stands out as the group's star with a performance that's half Nate Dogg and half Myka 9, and the band's spare, channeled playing recalls recent efforts by The Roots. The spooky, headier tracks such as "Tunnel Vision," "See What You Find," and "One Million Minds" mesh well with the smooth, optimistic gems including "Time to Grow," "This Far," and "Try Again." "Freezing World" is a perfect wintertime listen, so it's just as good a time to pick it up as any.

6. Black Sheep's "From the Black Pool of Genius"
Too often when ultra-veteran rappers attempt a comeback it either sounds extremely dated or extremely forced. "From the Black Pool of Genius" is in fact a Dres solo album that ingeniously blends a fresh underground style with the classic Black Sheep sound. I'll be the first to admit that "A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" is far from my favorite Native Tongues offering, but the familiar, danceable vibes of "Party Tonight" and "Forever Luvlee" appealed to me in a way even the original Black Sheep records failed to. "Reason to Pray" and "Elevation" hit surprisingly close to home, and subsequent guests from Jean Grae, AZ, Rhymefest, Psycho Les, Q-Tip, and Trugoy yield some of the best collaborations of the year. "Come Back Home" is one of the smoothest, freshest downtempo tracks of recent memory, and the personal closers "For the Record" and "Victory" show a Dres even longtime fans may be unfamiliar with. At times funky and others eerie, Dres is a better rapper than he was twenty years ago and "From the Black Pool of Genius" just might be his best record yet.

5. Shad's "T.S.O.L."
One mark of a great rapper is that he can make his difficult craft sound effortless. Shad's reflective, technically superb rhymes seem to flow so naturally that it's almost easy to overlook their brilliance. He's got exuberance in droves, evidenced by the openers "Rose Garden" and "Keep Shining," can flip a concept as on "Yaa I Get It," and tug the heartstrings as on "At the Same Time." The beats are a little spacey and definitely take some getting used to, but I found that repeated exposure made initially difficult tracks like "Lucky 1s" and "A Good Name" even more appealing. Shad is a virtuoso for sure but is practically impossible to dislike, and while "T.S.O.L." definitely takes more than a few listens to sink in, the extra effort results in an unusually endearing, rewarding, and lasting record.

4. yU's "Before Taxes"
A charming, sentimental album with boom-bap sensibility from one-third of Diamond District. yU is as unassuming and humble an MC as they come but "Before Taxes" is anything but. His whimsical production is on display throughout the album, especially on the extraordinary instrumental tracks, yet on the mic he seems most inspired when reminiscing over old friends and relatives like on "Close," "Memory," and "The Rock." While the album is quite consistent, individually it has some of the year's most memorable tracks: the sax-driven street banger "Corners," the gloomy Oddisee production "Lunchin'," an ode to unreasonably violent males, and "Native," a nod to yU's American Indian heritage laced with a cringe-worthy Glenn Beck clip. yU and Slimkat78 are a superb production duo as the 1978ers, and if D.C. can manage more distinctive records like "Before Taxes" in coming years it will fast become a nationally-recognized hip hop hotbed.

3. The Roots' "How I Got Over"
Thought the Jimmy Fallon gig posed an end to the Roots' reign as the premier hip hop band, did you? Think again. With "How I Got Over" The Roots move farther than ever from their heavy-swinging jam band days, exploring the distant realms of psych folk and abstract soul with help from a magnificent guest roster. Black Thought and Dice Raw share the mic with a strong crew of MCs including Blu, P.O.R.N., and Phonte, adding greater universality to the verses' content. Their new working relationship with John Legend drives one standout, "The Fire," a song so immediately enrapturing it inspired a subsequent project, the "Wake Up" covers collection, later in the year, while singers Joanna Newsom ("Right On"), Patty Crash ("The Day"), and Monsters of Folk ("Dear God 2.0") provide eerily affecting vocals to the album's highlights. "How I Got Over" contains some of The Roots' most striking and purely beautiful songs to date, with dazzling arrangements and the type of melodies that linger for days after listening. Haunting, moody, and deeply introspective, "How I Got Over" is a gem of a record that at its core celebrates the power of persistence and perseverance.

2. Brotha Lynch Hung's "Dinner and a Movie"
Two decades into a storied career and seven years since his last effort, Brotha Lynch Hung managed his best effort to date by striking the perfect balance between horror and humor. Tech N9ne's Strange Music proves the ideal home for Brotha Lynch's slasher rap, and the bone-chilling production is the best he's seen yet, thriving on tinny pianos and strings rather than heavy synths. "Dinner and a Movie" is a true rap opera, but one need not follow the storyline faithfully to appreciate the excitement of the jaw-dropping "Sit In That Corner Bitch," the unexpectedly relatable (relatively) "Meat," the hypnotizing "Siccem!," the Strange posse cut "Don't Worry Momma, It's Just Bleeding," or the DPGC-aided "Anotha Killin." Much of Brotha Lynch's genius is that most of the time the listener has no idea whether to laugh or cower, and combined with the warped plot, suspenseful music, and perfectly selected guests, it makes for a singular listening experience. I never would have guessed that Brotha Lynch was capable of an album this brilliant, and "Dinner and a Movie" is often hilarious, frequently stunning, and constantly thrilling—if cannibalism and body mutilation aren't your thing then it's your loss entirely.

1. Big Boi's "Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty"
Every OutKast album to date has been a minor revolution in itself, and the tradition continues with the long-delayed "Sir Lucious Left Foot." The record is equally innovative and lovably familiar, with Organized Noize appearing in all their glory along with Salaam Remi, Scott Storch, Lil Jon, Andre 3000, and Mr. DJ on the boards, all providing a delicious offering of beats perfectly in step with the OutKast name. Sleepy Brown, Joi, and Khujo Goodie sate the Dungeon Family faithful, and even Big Rube shows up with his spoken word poetry that has inspired fans for the better part of two decades. "Sir Lucious Left Foot" is not the year's most consistent album, but the standouts alone make it easily my favorite record of the year. The fist-pumping swagger of "Daddy Fat Sax" is amplified on "Shine Blockas," featuring a magnificent Gucci Mane, and the wily ONP funk of "Turns Me On." The dramatic Jamie Foxx duet "Hustle Blood" and "Be Still" with the always-lovely Janelle Monae show the mature and bewildering Big Boi we know and love, while "Night Night" sounds like one of the best moments from "Idlewild." "Fo Yo Sorrows" is absolutely ingenious and provides everything a Big Boi, Too Short, and George Clinton collabo should and so much more. My favorite of all is "The Train, Pt. 2 (Sir Lucious Left Foot Saves the Day)," a deeply sobering arrangement that amazes on countless levels. The most stunning aspect of the album, then, might be Antwan Patton's performance itself, combining impossibly complex rhyme schemes with meticulously arranged melodies. Twisting syllables that at face wouldn't rhyme, spacing them rhythmically into syncopated patterns, and tweaking his voice to match the key of the lush music, one of hip hop's most uncelebrated masters seems to have landed at a pivotal moment in the evolution of rap performance. Among the many statements of "Sir Lucious Left Foot" is this: make way for the next generation of rapping.

I'd like to thank the readers and fellow staff writers who provided their feedback and support during my first year on the RR team. To 2011!

Originally posted: December 30, 2010

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