1. Nas: Street’s Disciple

With a style all his own and a veteran’s pedigree, Nas carves his name in history books once again with his new double CD, “Street’s Disciple.” I can’t help it, I love this album. I can’t go two days without listening to it or I think I’d actually break out in hives. Nas returns harder than ever with street anthems like “Theif’s Theme,” and still soft as sandstone on tracks like “Getting’ Married” and “Me & You.” But don’t worry, there is “Thugz Mansion” type of pandering here, no concessions of character. Nas comes strong as a Don to set everyone straight. He starts with a “A Message To The Feds,” moves on to criticize the whole country in “American Way,” and then goes after sellouts stars on “These Are Our Heroes.” That’s just in the first five songs. This album is vicious but judiciously vicious. Nas cuts through the bullshit to say what needs to be said, to teach that ether, “that shit that makes your soul burn slow.” Besides all the political implications, Nas is just a badass with a lot of style. He’s who The Clipse would call “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper.” Overall, “Street’s Disciple” is as untouchable as Nas is unforgettable. Cop it.

2. Madvillain: Madvillainy

Madlib and underground-crowned MF Doom combined minds (and their cartoon aliases) to create one of the craziest, most maniacal albums the rap world has ever seen. Its insolubility is unmatched. You never know what is going on or what is coming; maybe a cartoon skit, maybe an eerie instrumental, maybe a dope beat with Doom’s uncanny “calm flow” spitting out innumerable quotables, who knows? I’ve listened to it a thousand times and still can’t figure what is going on half the time. But say what you want about the album’s organization. The music speaks for itself. Madlib and Doom just seem to be the perfect partnership: two extremely talented, yet slightly deranged, cartoon villains trying to take over the world. Who could stop them? Also, extra props to Doom for dropping three dope albums in one year. Any one of them could have made the top ten but all of them should make your CD case. Madvillian proves to be one of the great producer/rapper collaborators and fans will be looking forward to seeing more from these two in the future.

3. Cee-Lo: Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine

His slightly self-reverent title says it all: Cee-lo Green is the soul machine. Back in his Goodie Mob days Cee-lo set himself apart not only by his high-pitched vocals but also by his creative intuition. The man seems to work from somewhere deep inside himself that no one can touch, yet’s say the soul for catchphrase sake. Realistically, Cee-lo is just an extremely talented guy. As he brags in the outro, “is there anything I can’t do?!” True to his claims, Cee-lo aims at every musical style and emotion conduit in “Cee-lo Green…is the Soul Machine” and somehow pulls it all off beautifully. He will hit you with an Al Greenish sounding style on “All Day Love Affair”, and then tear you apart lyrically on “Evening News.” He can keep the clubs packed with the Timberland produced track “I’ll Be Around,” or air it out with “Glookappella.” Then there are down right prolific tracks like “Sometimes” that will make you stop and realize how good Cee-lo really is. Basically, “Cee-lo Green…is the Soul Machine” is what “The Love Below” was supposed to be: insanely creative yet dope as hell. (“The Love Below” lacking that latter.) A lot of non-beleivers are going to see this as an odd pick. But the truth is Cee-lo was one of the easiest picks. “Cee-lo Green…is the Soul Machine” is an extraordinary album.

4. De La Soul: The Grind Date

This is just a great album. Production is flawless and the trio’s lyrics leave you with an old school aftertaste in your mouth. Ummm…really nothing to complain about. If your wondering why such a “perfect” album didn’t make number one, it’s simply a matter of tastes. I’m not preferable to old school flows. But don’t let that undercut the fact that his is probably the most classic album of the year.

5. Kanye West: The College Dropout

One man who is sure to be on everybody’s list is Kanye West. With “College Dropout,” West went from the ‘hot new producer’ to ‘hot new rapper’ to rap icon. Plus, by expanding his production penuche to the mic, he showed the world that anything is possible again—something we periodically need reminding of. That is what makes “College Dropout” such an important album, it broke boundaries. Yes, the beats were beautiful and the lyrics were catchy. But most of all Kanye challenged himself and his audience to evolve past their own stereotypes. With “Jesus Walks”, West challenged club-heads to go to church. With songs like “All Falls Down” he charged the black community with introspection, forcing his black fans to look inside themselves much like Eminem did white fans. Also, he showed the industry that you can keep your soul and still be successful. “College Dropout” is a great album, but it makes number five for its importance in the grand scheme of things. As Nas said, “it’s not your fifteen minutes but what you did with it.” Well Kanye West chose to use his moment at the top to question the trends driving the hip-hop community instead of abiding by them.

6. Masta Killa: No Said Date

2004 was supposed to be the year of the Wu: the supergroup’s shogun general, RZA, released his first, non-alias, solo album at the end of 03′ along with CD’s from Inspectah Deck and Raekwon. Then in 04′ fans saw Wu-Tang dropping albums almost monthly. U-God presented the hillside scramblers in March, Ghostface ran the streets in April, Method Man released a prequel in May, and Masta Killah, the ninth and finally member, FINALLY released his solo album in June. It appeared as though the group had finally gotten their shit together both collectively and individually, rumors of a reunion were even circling the cipher. Then ODB died (R.I.P. Ol’ Dirty). But before the group suffered the tragic loss of their friend, they managed to gather together for one last classic, “No Said Date.” Adhering to the laws of their glory days, “No Said Date” is a completely in-house project. All production is handled by wu-producers RZA, Mathematics and Tru Masta. Plus, “No Said Date” contains murderous versus from all nine clansmen. (They kind of cheated on U-God but he was on timeout.) Yet, the surprising twist to the album is how well adjusted the “Older Gods” of rap sounded to a new generation of tastes. Chances are only devoted Wutonians picked up this album, but nevertheless PROTECT YOUR NECK, because “No Said Date” will rock the heads of anybody who picks it up whether you know what C.R.E.A.M. stands for or not.

7. Royce Da 5’9″: Death is Certain

Royce Da 5’9″ is another hustler who took the ball and ran with it in 04′. After Eminem and his entourage sparked the fire inside Royce, then a relatively unknown artist, he has kept the kettle hot by releasing back to back albums in 04′. Quick recap: back in 03′ on “Destroy and Rebuild” Royce abandoned all past ties to Aftermath, one of the most powerful record labels in the world, and outright dissed Eminem and Dr. Dre, the most popular rapper and most powerful producer in the business. It certainly seemed like ‘death was certain’ for Royce. But what kept his career alive in 04′ was the same thing that finally excavated his fame, he wasn’t afraid of death. On “Death is Certain”, Royce refuses to be pushed back under the table, to be ignored. He denies death. From the vicious opener “Regardless” to its triumphant, closing anthem “Something’s Wrong,” this album will spur the warrior in you. Royce Da 5’9″ is a fucking hero: a warrior battling something greater than himself, standing up for what’s right against overwhelming opposition, all by the strength of his own ethical integrity. Unfortunately, usually the hero dies. It is a necessary sacrifice for success, for martyrdom will always expand the legend far beyond what the hero could. Who knows what the future holds for Royce Da 5’9″. If he will succeed in procuring the respect and acknowledgement he deserves. But with each release he further expands his legend.

8. Ghostface: The Pretty Toney Album

It seems some A&R forgot to tell Ghostface he is supposed to kindly lay down the mic and retire like all the other ‘older’ rappers, because the Wally Champ attacked the streets this year like a younger cat after the crown. From pumping out mixtapes like hotcakes to European tours with his new crew Theodore, Ghost hustled day and night to fight his way back into the industry. “The Pretty Tony Album” encompasses all the energy and anxiety of a man on the edge, determined to single-handedly change hip-hop. You can feel the tension explode in tracks like “Beat the Clock” and “Run” with Jadakiss, and refocus in burners like “Be This Way” and “It’s Over.” But the real strengths of Pretty Tony—both as an artist and an album—come when Ghostface opens up that bleeding heart of his, exposing the profound compassion that drives him. Ghost always poured himself out on wax, but “The Pretty Tony Album” holds some of his most empathetic moments such as “I’m from a place where fish was made…” Come on, you gotta feel this guy! After listening to “Holla”, “Love”, or anything of this soulful album, there is no choice but to respect and adore Ghost for giving so much of himself for what he loves. If you still don’t know what so special about Ghostface, I’m sure Pretty Tony will still get his one “moment in life, just to wreak ya’ll lames.”

9. Xzibit: Weapons of Mass Destruction

A rap top-ten list wouldn’t be complete without the west representing, and The Game might be set up to take next year’s spot but Mr. X to tha Z has got that Cali bounce you’ve been looking for in 2004. If you were skeptical of X since the success of “Pimp My Ride” and those completely cheesy deodorant commercials (look what Right Guard did to Method Man!), you can put your apprehensions at ease. With his fifth release, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Xzibit comes to prove he’s one of the best from the west. Personally, this is my favorite album since “40 Dayz & 40 Nightz.” “Cold World” and “Criminal” will have you crip walking again, and “Hey Now (Mean Muggin)” is just too hot NOT to get up and move to. It’s more than a Timberland hit. Its more then a marketing ploy. It’s just what you want from a westcoast album: bangin’ beats, trunk rattling bass, and rock-hard lyrics. “Weapons of Mass Destruction” is the best westcoast album to come out in a while, actually one of the only westcoast albums to come out in a while, and Xzibit’s back must be aching from carrying the team. Until The Game can relieve some of the weight in the west (IF he lives up to the hype), X stands as the man to hold the Cali crown in 2004′.

10. Handsome Boy Modeling School: White People

Ignore the homo-esque name, this is one of the best compilation albums ever. Handsome Boy Modeling School is what happens when you combine the bizarre sense of humor of Dan the Automator with the equally quirky forces of old school producer Prince Paul. Unlike the group’s first attempt back in 98′ with “So…Where’s Your Girl?”, this album is untouchable. Every song feels perfected. It’s the kind of polishing that glistens with talent, the stuff Ghostface (who was sadly missed in the mix) would call ‘fucking bulletproof.’ Also, “White People” sports probably the wildest variety of artists seen on a Hip-Hop album since…the last Handsome Boy Modeling School album. It jumps from De La Soul to Jack Johnson, from Del to Pharrell to RZA sharing a track with some rock group called The Mars Volta (?) This album has got something for everyone; but more importantly, it’s something everyone should hear. As Dan said himself about the album, “we’re gonna try and make it not every man’s record, but a record that every man should be listening to.” Very few artists have the courage and the skill to risk everything on their creative instincts. Dan and Prince Paul make it look easy, and sound great. Bottom line: this shit is bulletproof.