2004 saw a renaissance, of sorts, in Hip Hop. Though many consider 1994—exactly one decade ago—to be the pinnacle of Hip Hop’s golden-era years, 2004 saw a slew of releases that have breathed life into what some hackneyed fans have written-off as a dying art form. Without further ado, this fan/critic’s top releases of 2004.
TOP 10 RECORDS OF THE YEAR
1. De La Soul: The Grind Date
“We’re De La ’til the death, or at least until we break up…” Hopefully, these two scenarios posed by Posdnous are years away. After toiling in poor label support, trying to stay up-to-date and experimenting with new sounds in the late 90s and early 2000s, the trio of Posdnous, Dave and Mase that is De La Soul returned in 2004 in a major way. They’re fresh, reinvigorated, and most importantly, making the music they love to make and their fans love to hear. Virtually every song is chock-full of the trademark De La quotables of light-hearted wisdoms, such as “Church,” “The Grind Date,” and “No.” “Rock Co.Kane Flow” takes the crowns for both the best beat and best guest spot of the year, courtesy of Jake One and MF Doom, respectively. “Shopping Bags,” produced by Madlib, appropriately enough, is the best dance cut you’ll ever hear which warns of gold-digging women. The Grind Date is a labor of love—a love affair De La Soul has carried on with their art form for a decade and a half now. To deny De La Soul is to deny Hip Hop itself and everything it embodies.
2. Madvillain: Madvillainy
“But who knew the mask had a loose screw?…” Here’s an obvious rhetorical question: What do you get when you lock beat impresario Madlib in a room with the schizophrenic MF Doom, and throw in a few crates of the most obscure records one might ever image sampling? How about we give them carte blanche to create whatever kind of music that suits their fancy, just for good measure? The answer, as so many know by now, is Madvillainy, an album nearly as bizarre and abstract as the two individuals who combined forces to create it. Aside from its oddity, all Madvillainy did was turn the underground on its ear, further solidify its co-creators as the paramount of their respective trades, and leave the mouths of anyone who heard it agape. Tiny Stones Throw Records now lays claim to an album whose ripple effect is sure to be felt for years and years to come. The collaboration actually makes sense; it’s rumored that the two usually-aloof artists would sometimes go an entire recording session without actually speaking to each other—instead using eye contact, hand gestures and body language to communicate. To love this record, we had to forget what we thought Hip Hop should be, what is should sound like. Instead, Madlib and MF Doom reinvented what Hip Hop could be, and, in the process, changed the game forever.
3. Kanye West: The College Dropout
“First nigga wit’ a Benz and a backpack…” Easily the most anticipated release of 2004, Kanye West fulfilled almost all expectations with his February debut. While he stole some of his own thunder by leaking rough versions of many of the tracks (whether it was intentional is debatable) as much as six months prior to its official release, this album was so hot that it really didn’t matter. The underground/mainstream dual-image angle was beaten into the ground a little bit, but honestly, which mainstream rappers, aside from perhaps Ma$e, would release both “Jesus Walks” and “The New Workout Plan” as singles? He may have a lot of it now, but Kanye West did put his money where his mouth is. Although a bit long-winded at 21 tracks, and overindulgent in skits that really weren’t too funny, Kanye West was nothing less of enthralling in terms of both beats and rhymes on his debut. It’s an accolade thrown around all too often, but The College Dropout featured not one skip-worthy track. Add in the fact that Kanye West is, by far, the most sought-after beat maker for other artists, it becomes abundantly obvious, as Mos Def once proclaimed, that Kanye West is, indeed, the future of Hip Hop.
4. MURS: MURS 3:16 – The 9th Edition
The comparisons are inevitable: A West Coast rapper (already well established with a group) with a chip on his shoulder and a knack for speaking his mind hooks up with one of the hottest East Coast producers of the moment. Does it sound familiar? Well, it should, because that’s exactly what Ice Cube did with the Bomb Squad in the early 1990s. Instead, though, the rapper is MURS and the producer is 9th Wonder. The result is ten of the tightest tracks packaged on one disc in 2004—no small feat considering this stiff competition. But MURS and 9th just had that intangible chemistry together and if they never record another track together again, this record will stand out as a high point in the careers of both. Whether it’s love tales on “Bad Man!,” sharp social criticism on “And This Is For…,” or straight up battle raps on “The Animal,” MURS and 9th Wonder proved that Hip Hop knows no boundaries in terms of geographic residence.
5. Masta Ace: A Long Hot Summer
“This is how Hip Hop is supposed to sound…” Long underappreciated by his peers and new jacks alike, Masta Ace said farewell to Hip Hop with this record. Ace’s dedication to his craft is unparalleled, and his efforts are not wasted on this creative release. Instead of throwing together a disparate collection of tracks onto a disc, Ace deftly narrates the story of a duo of criminals whose use Hip Hop as a front for protection. Of course, the idea wouldn’t be dope without great tracks, and they are aplenty on A Long Hot Summer. 9th Wonder, Koolade and Dug Infinite all lace Ace with heaters for “Good Ol’ Love,” “Beautiful,” and “Big City,” respectively, and those are just a few of the many standouts. With his smooth flows, witty wordplays, and unobtrusive social/political commentaries, Masta Ace will be sorely missed. Oh yeah, did I mention the story is actually a prequel to Disposable Arts? How many rappers could pull that off?
6. Cee-Lo: Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine
“If I could, I’d dance my life away…” If ever there was an aptly-nicknamed performer, he is Cee Lo Green, the soul machine. While many other rappers get bogged down in death, violence, materialism, etc., Cee-Lo transcends the pitfalls of this world and it manifests itself in his vibrant music. Each song is a celebration of life, joy and happiness. Long overlooked as the weird dude who was on that OutKast joint back in the day–or as just another member of The Goodie Mob–Cee-Lo broke out as a solo artist a couple years back and has realized his full potential with this release. From his club-banger first single “I’ll Be Around” (produced by Timbaland), to the effervescent “The Art of Noise,” and the incredible combination of singing and rapping with Ludacris on “Childz Play,” Cee-Lo pulled out all the stops for this one. If Cee-Lo never released another LP, his legacy would be one of reverence, based solely on this record. But, hopefully, we’ll be hearing from him again.
7. K-Os: Joyful Rebellion
“Damn, it feels good to have people up on it…” Indeed, after an excellent, but largely unnoticed debut album, K-Os finally seems to be garnering his just dues. It took a nearly flawless album, but The Joyful Rebellion opened otherwise-unbeknownst heads to the Canadian rapper/crooner extraordinaire. Aside from his rapping and singing, K-Os also laces himself with his own impressive beats, including the old school anthem “B-Boy Stance,” the ethereal “The Love Song,” and the jazzy “Crabbuckit.” With his Fugees-eque multi-talented aesthetic, K-Os appeals to a broad audience, and it’s easy to see why. His singing vocals are catchy and his rapping isn’t terribly inaccessible like many of his underground contemporaries. Detractors say he’s too preachy and corny; supporters say he’s just positive and uplifting. Regardless, the music is dope, and he deserves recognition as not only a force in Hip Hop, but someone to watch for on the pop culture music scene in general.
8. The Roots: The Tipping Point
“Handsome, intelligent, tough / I’m all the above…” The creative collective known as The Roots threw us yet another curveball in 2004, and, for the most part, no one is complaining. Though it was the undeniably-catchy club joint “Don’t Say Nothin'” (produced by Scott Storch) that garnered The Roots their most mainstream acclaim since “You Got Me,” it was actually the Earth, Wind & Fire sample on the uber-soulful “Star” that had most of their long-time fans clamoring. While most of their past albums were laden with abstract intros, outros and interludes, The Roots kept this record more compact and concise—to very good results. Rumor has it that The Roots have been trying to atone for a label gaff in which MC Black Thought’s solo LP, tentatively titled Masterpiece Theatre, was shelved a few years back. Instead of the band taking center stage on this record, it is BT’s time to shine. For those who have been sleeping on BT: Wake up! He is, in fact, a monster on this record. BT is relentless throughout: From the most infectious nonsensical chorus ever recorded on “Don’t Say Nothin,'” to his Kool G. Rap and Big Daddy Kane impressions on “Boom!,” and on the reggae-inflected political track “Guns Are Drawn.” The Tipping Point may not be what we’re used to from The Roots, but they’ve never been the group to rest on their laurels.
9. Pete Rock: Soul Survivor II
“2, 4, 6, 8… Who do we appreciate?” It’s an interesting question Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth pose on the chorus to their feel-good single. The answer is pretty simple: We appreciate the practitioners of the real Hip Hop. There we have it; Pete Rock teams up with some of his favorite artists in the industry to release the long-awaited sequel to his original Soul Survivor LP from 1998—and, for the most part, to excellent results. The beauty of this record is that Pete has not grown complacent, nor is he stuck in the past; he sticks with what works but also experiments enough to keep it fresh. While the club banger “Warzone,” featuring Dead Prez, might not be his forte, it still comes off surprisingly well for what we have come to expect from Pete. Elsewhere, Pete keeps it real, as only he can, on the Wu Tang assisted “Head Rush,” the old school throwback “One MC, One DJ,” and the smooth soul of Little Brother on “Give It To Ya.” The rumors of a pending Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth reunion were quickly squashed by a new beef between the two, but at least we got “It’s a Love Thing,” “Fly ’til I Die,” and “Appreciate” out of the deal. Regardless of the status of that reunion, let’s just keep our fingers crossed that Pete builds in 2005 upon the momentum he created in 2004.
10. The UN: UN or U Out
“It’s been a long time…” Well, well. Finally, the proper follow up to The Infamous. The only problem is that it took nearly ten years and the formation of The UN to release it, instead of Mobb Deep getting the job done back when. Indeed, these guys probably would have made a bigger splash when “Shook One, Pt. II” was at its height, but we love ’em anyway. They’re grimy, they’re street, they’re hard—fuck it, they’re ign’ant. But the New York grime has been mostly missing for quite some time, and, say what you will about this collective of MCs, but they are New York gutter Hip Hop at its finest. Along with the UN’s self-produced cuts, Extra P and Pete Rock kick in their always-reliable efforts to create that gloomy feel. The UN barely showed up on anyone’s radar in 2004 (their label is the obscure 456 Entertainment), but there is definitely a market for this stuff. And, should a major take a gamble on them—especially since rumors of Mobb Deep’s pending breakup are abound, and they haven’t been this hungry in a while anyway—it seems like the fans would respond in terms of sales.
TOP 10 SLEEPERS
1. Foreign Exchange: Connected
Their shared story is something of an underground legend at this point: European producer Nicolay meets up-and-coming North Carolina rapper Phonte (of Little Brother fame) on an internet discussion board, of all places. The two record an entire LP without ever actually meeting until after its completion—a true testament of the power of technology. The respective stock of Nicolay, virtually an unknown in America prior to the collaboration, and Phonte, perhaps overshadowed at times by 9th Wonder’s star, sky-rocketed following this release, and deservedly so. Nicolay’s beats are buttery smooth and soulful, and they mesh seamlessly with the quick-witted raps of Phonte. There is no better example of this duo’s range than the edgy street cut “Raw Life,” which is then followed by the ethereal “Hustle Hustle.” We should only be so lucky to see these two produce more music together in the future.
2. Ludacris: The Red Light District
“I’ll knock rappers off your list ’til I get to the top!” In lieu of the credit he deserves as a supreme and inventive lyricist, Ludacris is often overlooked as just a “party rapper” and known by some only as Bill O’Reilly’s favorite target. Well, karma’s a bitch, and Luda proves, once and for all, that he deserves to be near the top of everyone’s list on The Red Light District (and, ironically, Bill O’Reilly, the self-appointed beacon of American morals, and Ludacris’s number one antagonist, was recently accused of sexual harassment). While this release doesn’t feature anything quite as catchy as some of the club anthems from past albums, it is more evenly balanced than its predecessors. Watch for the Timbaland produced “The Potion” as a sleeper club hit as we usher in 2005. Ludacris is now releasing records at a rate nearly as prolific as Jay-Z (this is his fifth LP in as many years), and, as long they’re as entertaining as The Red Light District, nobody is complaining.
3. Ghostface: The Pretty Toney Album
“Real kids spit that shit…” This was a highly-anticipated release for several reasons. First and foremost, anytime a high profile member of the Wu-Tang Clan releases an LP, it’s a big deal, but even more so in the case of Ghostface because he has had a nearly immaculate track record of solo releases. He’s different in all the right ways, and, bottom line, he makes great records. Secondly, though, many were interested as to what his first Def Jam-affiliated release would sound like. Would they make him go pop? Would they promote him? Is RZA going to put his stamp on this record? Fans released a collective sigh when they heard The Pretty Toney Album, as Ghostface delivers his usually quirky raps over solid beats. The record is simultaneously as gutter and soulful as ever—from the crazy No I.D. produced “Metal Lungies,” to “Save Me Dear,” to the RZA produced street anthem “Run!,” everything we’ve ever loved about Ghostface is here, and then some. Many feel like Ghostface upstaged himself with his Theodore Unit mixtape release, but The Pretty Toney Album stands out as one of the best of 2004.
4. Edo G: My Own Worst Enemy
“Boston is a great place to meet bad people…” The title of this release is really a bit of a misnomer. At only ten tracks in length, it’s probably too short to be considered a full-length LP, and being that Pete Rock produces only seven of those ten tracks, it’s a bit misleading to kick-in the “featuring” part. But, at this point in time, Pete is heard from far too infrequently, so we’ll take what we can get from Soul Brother #1. This release actually marks the second time in 2004 when Pete Rock has made significant contributions to a record—the other being his own Soul Survivor II—perhaps the most non-reissued material he has released in the better part of a decade. And not a minute too soon. Edo G is not a spectacular MC, but certainly a serviceable one, who has lots to say, and he can do it over all types of beats. Edo G and Masta Ace team up for the melancholy “Wishing,” a track that could be one of the sleeper cuts of the year. He’s been in the game a long time, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be here well beyond the foreseeable future.
5. Nas: Street’s Disciple
“I take summers off because I love winter beef…” Some are clamoring about this LP, placing it second in Nas’ catalogue only to Illmatic, while others are yawning. The truth is that it’s probably not as good or as bad as some initial reactions may have indicated. However, at two discs, it is most definitely too long, and perhaps over indulges a bit in tracks dealing with his pending marriage to singer Kelis. There is undeniable hunger in Nas’ raps on this LP that he has shown only flashes of in the recent past—some even liken him to a young Ice Cube on this record. “Thief’s Theme,” “Nazareth Savage,” and “You Know My Style” are some of the stand-out, grimy tracks on this lengthy release. Overall, Street’s Disciple is certainly a worthy addition to an already impressive catalogue, but, at the risk of offending Salaam Remi, Chucky Thompson and L.E.S., the question remains: Where are DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, or even The Alchemist?
6. Snoop Dogg: R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta) – The Masterpiece
“When the pimp’s in the crib, ma…” so goes one of a few lines which precedes what has easily become the most infectious hook of 2004: “Drop it like it’s hot.” The written word doesn’t do it justice because, unfortunately, text cannot convey vocal inflection or tone; but, if you’ve heard the song but once, you’ll know just how catchy the scooping synth voice effect really is. This album title may be misleading; R & G is by no means a masterpiece—that accolade is better suited for Snoop’s G-Funk release Doggystyle from over a decade ago. But, with Snoop, the formula is simple: Give the fans more of what they like, and every one will be happy. Indeed, that is the case here as Snoop and The Neptunes come together on the heels of their wildly-popular collaborations of a couple years ago and recreate that magic once again. The Neptunes consistently push the envelope with their inventive beats and Snoop brings his usually catchy, laid-back flows. It could be Snoop’s most consistent effort since his debut. The Justin Timberlake cameo may not exactly be gangsta, but this is a solid party album.
7. 213: The Hard Way
“We hit the clubs like ‘whatever’s clever!'” Indeed, the trio of Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Nate Dogg proved to be a formidable one in 2004, regardless of how light-hearted their material may have been. This release was literally over ten years in the making—the three are friends from back before they achieved their respective superstardoms, and, for various reasons, the album never materialized until a solid decade since the height of west coast G-Funk. Regardless, the always reliable Nate Dogg supplies his soulful crooning, Warren G proves himself a viable performer in his own right, and, of course, Snoop is Snoop. With kick-ins from hot producers like Hi-Tek, Nottz, and Kanye West The Hard Way proves that these artists still have what it takes to make us nod our heads or shake our asses.
8. MF Doom: MM Food
“I suggest you change your diet…” This is the first of two appearances MF Doom makes on this particular list, and quite honestly, he was close to making a third with his second installment of the Viktor Vaughn series being omitted. Instead, though, Doom released this record in the latter part of 2004, and, although expectations were through the roof on the heels of the darling of all critics, Madvillainy, this is still a great listen in its own right. As usual, the metal-faced weirdo could do nothing conventional, and the driving theme behind this album is—you guessed it, food. Each track is vaguely centered around one of a myriad provisionary delights that one might encounter at a picnic, though each is, of course, peppered (no pun intended) with Doom’s quirky metaphors, double entendres, obscure pop culture references, and strange narratives, making nearly every one of his lyrics a potential quotable. 2004 saw MF Doom climb from underground favorite to Hip Hop legend, and this release how further cemented that status.
“I get better with each rhyme…” Encore deserves the adulation his moniker suggests. While the left coast underground is generally overlooked—at least compared to their east coast counterparts—Encore was not about to let that trend continue with the release of his 2004 LP, Layover. He’s truly the MC’s MC, and with a short list of reliable producers, this record is really a can’t miss. Jake One gets most of the props, especially because some of his beats later in the year caused heads to go back and check his past work, but Diamond D and long time Encore collaborator Architect are no slouches in their own rights. Eschewing in-your-face rhymes in favor of those of the smooth and thoughtful variety, Encore reasserted himself in 2004—that his work from the late 90s and early 2000s was not a fluke. Let’s hope Encore can continue to improve upon an already solid career and make some more dope albums.
“Some people using their noodle…” For brainy MC Talib Kweli, there is a bittersweet irony behind this album. It’s an accomplishment in and of itself for Talib simply to make it this far in his career and be releasing albums that are making noise beyond the underground. After his first two albums (Black Star and Reflection Eternal), it seemed he was destined to make great albums that would go largely unnoticed. Then, he changed up his steez a bit on his Quality release from two years ago, and, with a huge assist from Kanye West for “Get By,” got some spins on more mainstream music outlets. The Beautiful Struggle, an album which underwent a major facelift about mid-way through its production due to heavy bootlegging, picks up where Quality left off. Kweli himself has said that it was his goal all along to earn a gold or platinum plaque for this release. It’s evident throughout that Kweli was going for a more commercial audience, and, the results are mixed. Regardless, there are some real gems here with the assist from big-name producers, like Kanye West on “I Try” (unceremoniously dubbed “Get By, part II,” by some fans), the Neptunes on “Broken Glass,” and Just Blaze on “Never Been In Love.” Whether Kweli can reconcile his underground beginnings with his desire to sell more records and reach a broader audience over the coming years remains to be seen. A lot of people are holding their breaths for a reunion with Mos Def and Hi-Tek, but is that realistic at this point?