Ideally I would like to say I heard every rap album released during the past year. 15 years ago such a task may not have been impossible to do, but in an age where we are bombarded with anywhere between 30 and 50 nationally released albums every month its hard to say I’ve even heard all the notable albums released during the year. Some have evaded my reach due to availability and my refusal to pay more than 15 dollars for any CD, shipping included. Others have failed to hold my attention for more than one listen outside of a few songs (Fabolous, Ja Rule, and Lloyd Banks come to mind). And while I will admit I probably have missed a few albums worthy of making the list (My apologies to Masta Ace, Xzibit, and De La Soul, I’ve heard nothing but good things), the following countdown is a pretty comprehensive collection of rap albums from all coasts, walks of life, and sub-genres that should have found their way onto your play list in 2004.
TOP 10 RECORDS OF THE YEAR
1. Ghostface: The Pretty Toney Album
Two Wu-Tang Clan albums occupying the top spots is something I never expected entering 2004. But in a year that in my opinion lacked a true classic album such as last year’s “The Black Album” or Scarface’s “The Fix,” Ghostface Killah continued his tradition of being the only Wu member who consistently drops great albums. Musically, “The Pretty Toney Album” was as close to perfection as any Wu album and better than any Hip-Hop album dropped this year. The lush mix of pianos, vocals, and strings on “Biscuits” is unmatched by anything released by Kanye or Pharrell. The sweet soul on “Save Me Dear” and “Tooken Back” is not Ghost succumbing to the current trend but instead taking it back to 1994 when The Rza and the Wu first made it popular. The beat and rawness of “It’s Over” is enough to give you goose bumps and the hectic energy on “Run” might make you break a sweat just listening. The only track that may have failed to make the mark was the dance floor single “Tush.” Beat-wise the single was catchy and even the song itself was good for what it was, but the blatant attempt at a radio hit may be the only thing keeping “The Pretty Toney Album” from being universally hailed as a classic. Classic or not, Ghostface’s gritty rhymes gave the Wu another reason to proclaim “The Wu Is Back!” in 2004.
2. Masta Killa: No Said Date
Anticipation can not describe the feeling felt by those who have been awaiting the release of Masta Killa’s solo album. When rumors first circulated concerning the release anticipation did fill the air, but that feeling slowly turned to annoyance, apathy, and eventually complete ignorance. Almost unexpectedly, and almost ten years late, Masta Killa finally delivered on his promise with the humorously titled “No Said Date.” The classic Wu-material that packs MK’s solo debut makes the wait well worth it. Tracks like “Grab The Microphone,” “Love Spell” and “Masta Killa” displayed MK and the Wu in their best form in years. The album as whole is noteworthy as it featured almost the entire clan dropping guest appearances and The Rza reclaiming his rightful place behind the boards for 3 of the albums best tracks. The Wu as a whole may never return to its former glory, but albums like “No Said Date” will keep the legacy alive and keep setting the standard for dope Hip-Hop that can make you think without losing its street credibility in the process.
3. Madvillain: Madvillainy
Praising underground rappers has almost become the popular thing to do among college students and hip-hop fans in general. Many an average emcee has used the underground tag as a crutch to gain a larger fan base than his or her mic skills befit. Hidden in this mess of college radio play-lists and coffee-house concerts can be found the genius that is Madvillain. On their own, the members of this super-group are capable of making amazing music. Combined, Madlib and M.F. Doom produced one 2004’s most unique and original albums. The mix of Madlib’s jazz-inspired production and M.F. Doom’s gruff-voiced and abstract flow transcends any labels or preconceptions. The song structure is unconventional as is Doom’s rhyme structure, but that only adds to the mystique surrounding the music’s makers. In its essence “Madvillainy” is dope rhymes and dope music that does not need to concern itself with topic or concept to convey its brilliance.
4. Kanye West: The College Dropout
Kanye West’s catapult to fame is no longer news. Matter of fact, by now his production may be wearing thin on your ears and you may be regretting just how popular being conscious, positive, and chanting “Jesus” has become because of him. But despite the fact “College Dropout” may have lost a little shine over the last few months, one good polish will reveal why Kanye reached superstar status in 2004. Doing things heroes like Mos Def, Common, and Talib Kweli have been unable to do, West made you dance and garnered wide radio airplay without selling out or compromising his values. He made it cool to be self-conscious, love Jesus, and brought old school soul back in style. Combining some of the best beats of the year with some of the most positive messages, Kanye proved determination and drive can fill in where college failed.
5. Nelly: Suit
Creating the perfect blend of Hip-Hop, R&B and Pop is not easy. Just ask the countless acts who have sent their single to radio only to get no airplay. Nelly did just that on his single “My Place” and used the same recipe for most of the tracks on “Suit.” Filled with some of the smoothest jams of 2004 (Rap or otherwise), “Suit” provided something for everyone. The ladies were sure to be pleased with the aforementioned “My Place” and the Pharell assisted “Play It Off.” Being caught with “Pretty Toes” or “Woodgrain and Leather Wit A Hole” blaring from your car stereo was not a death sentence for guys. Nelly even took country grammar to a whole new level by hooking up with Tim McGraw on “Over and Over.” Thugs and purists may refuse to give in to their smoother side, but they’ll be missing out one of life’s guilty pleasures – Hip-Pop too good to ignore or get out of your head.
6. Mac Dre: Ronald Dregan – Dreganomics
While some rappers get props after death simply because of pity, Mac Dre earned his spot on this list with his second release of the year (Dre released a whopping 5 albums in 2004 if you count his two Best of sets). With usual West Coast heavyweights dropping disappointing or barely average albums (213, Westside Connection) and with DJ Quik nowhere to be found, Mac Dre stepped in to deliver the best of the West for 2004. Filled with high-energy party anthems such as “Feelin’ Myself,” “Jump It,” and “Get Stupid (Remix)” “Dreganomics” was more of a guide to having fun than a political message. Street tracks like “Don’t Snitch” and “On The Run” let people know that despite his laidback attitude Mac Dre was no sucker. Dre’s mock run at the presidency was a convincing bid for a charismatic candidate more concerned with enjoying himself and bringing the funk than with image (The man dressed as a genie for one album cover, how‘s that for confidence?). R.I.P.
7. Devin the Dude: To Tha X-Treme
Another emcee with a not so secret affection for the sticky green is Houston’s own Devin The Dude. His third album provided further evidence of why the Rap-A-Lot mainstay has gained a legion of loyal fans throughout the years. Devin didn’t change his formula for 2004 sticking to the bass-heavy funk, laid back soul , and smooth flow that made him famous. Though he didn’t break ground thematically, Devin’s tales about relationships, hanging out, and living life are the perfect theme music for those who like to live life to the fullest and don’t care what others think.
8. Cypress Hill: Till Death Do Us Part
Cypress Hill does not need to land at the top of the Billboard charts to sell records, they just need to wait for their loyal fans to put down the bong long enough to make a trip to their local record store. Despite what was probably the least advertised release of their career, Cypress Hill delivered an album of hip-hop potent enough to please any junkie. “What’s Your Number?” had a pop appeal that made it damn near impossible not to sing along while “Ganga Bus” was a weed-anthem that threatened to blow your high with an infectious energetic dancehall beat. The crew even kept up with the times hooking up with Tego Calderon to deliver “Latin Thugs,” a jam that bumped both in English and in Spanish. “Til Death Do Us Part” delivered its message loud and clear; Cypress Hill only gets better with time and they’ll be doing what they do best as long as they can.
9. Kamikaze: 2 Broke 2 Ball
“If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around, does it make a sound?”
This age-old philosophical riddle could best describe Kamikaze’s situation in 2004. Kamikaze dropped more of a bomb in 2004 with “2 Broke 2 Ball” an album that despite its universal appeal failed to make any noise outside of his home state and a few hardcore fans. Those who did tune in were treated to what was quite possibly the most honest album released in 2004. In a world where realness and respect is mistakenly measure by the number of times an emcee has been shot or the size of his rims, Kamikaze kept it real by admitting he struggled like the rest of us. Whether those struggles were monetary, with the ladies, or with family, Kamikaze exposed a vulnerability we all share and made it ok to admit that for most people a roof over our head is far more important than wheels that spin or the latest fashion trend.
10. Eightball & MJG: Living Legends
The skinny pimp and the fat mack returned in 2004 with a new label and a new appetite for tearing up mics. Heads may have turned when this legendary duo signed to Diddy’s Bad Boy records, but the resulting album showed that the relationship was strictly business. The lead single “You Don’t Want Drama” proved that the Memphis rappers could adjust to the times and turned out to be as crunk as anything coming out of ATL. Other tracks such as “Look At The Grillz” and “The Streets” remained true to 8Ball and MJG’s style and helped cement their status as legends. Furthermore, the pairing with Diddy not only gave hope to the label after the dismal showing from Da Band, but also gave Southern emcees and East Coast record labels incentive to hook up on a regular basis.
TOP 5 SLEEPERS
1. Cam’Ron: Purple Haze
If this list was merely a tally of the number of times a certain album found its way into my CD player “Purple Haze” may have topped the list despite its December release. Instead I must step back for a moment, put down the Sizzurp, roll up my shirt to thigh length, and reassume my role as an objective music critic. He may lack the lyrical dexterity to ever make a truly classic album, but this Harlemnite delivered one of the most entertaining and catchy albums of 2004. Having the balls to remake Cyndi Lauper may have been enough to garner consideration for the list, but doing it well sealed his fate. “Girls” aside, “Purple Haze” is filled with surefire bangers from start to finish. “Down and Out” begs to be one of 2005’s party anthems, “More Reasons” is destined for radio airplay, and “Adrenaline Rush” reunites Twista, Psychodrama, and the Legendary Traxster. There is definitely something for everyone on what has turned out to be Cameron Giles’ best album to date.
2. Nas: Street’s Disciple
I am sure ranking Nas relatively low will cause controversy among some, but the self proclaimed “Street Disciple” failed to deliver the classic album we all know he is capable of. The two-disc set definitely contained enough great material to comprise a one-disc classic, but the excess of this album only highlighted Nas’ deficiencies. Songs like “American Way” and “Suicide Bounce” embody Nas at his best, a thoughtful and gifted emcee with the potential to change the world. But tracks like “These Are Our Heroes” and “The Makings of a Perfect Bitch” expose Nas as a hypocrite who lacks the charisma and sincerity that allowed people like 2pac to be forgiven for such contradictions. (Case in point – Nas disses UPN while he is providing the music for a cheesy urban miniseries on cable TV. UPN definitely drops the ball most of the time – remember “Homeboys in Space?” Still shows such as “Girlfriends” provide something not found anywhere else on T.V. – a smart comedy about Black professionals.)
3. Twista: Kamikaze
Patience is a virtue, and for Chicago MC Twista patience finally paid off big in 2004. The world’s fastest rapper has transformed from devout Muslim, to pimp, to gangsta, and finally to mainstream star during his long rap career. Though he scored some success with sex anthems such as “Get It Wet,” “Po Pimpin’,” and “Emotions,” it wasn’t until 2004 when Twista became a household name. From the feel good summertime vibes of “So Sexy” to what is quite possibly the jam of the year (fast or slow), “Kamikaze” was everything but a suicide mission for Twista. With Kanye and the Roc backing him, Twista showed that his flow was more than a gimmick and made himself an overnight celebrity.
4. X-Ecutioners: Revolutions
Retail albums released by DJ’s are usually nothing more than glorified compilations hoping to sell because of name recognition. The X-Ecutioners on the other hand-craft music that is all their own. Rather than depend on throw-away tracks or filler material to scream over, the X-Men are involved from start to finish on their projects. Filled with enough scratching and turntable trickery to please any vinyl junkie and drawing from various genres and styles, “Revolutions” is an example of what the Hip Hop DJ was meant to do – create something new out of what he or she is given.
5. Jim Jones: On My Way to Church
While I will admit I am a BIG Dipset fan, even I was surprised by the quality of Jim Jones debut. Unapologetically gangsta and as charismatic as his namesake, Jim Jones delivered an album that pleased longtime fans and forced doubters to give props where they were due. “Certified Gangstas” made sure the N.W.A. legacy stayed alive for at least one more generation of hip-hop heads. “End of the Road” gave Southern heavyweights Bun-B and TI a chance to shine and the Midwest was represented well on “Two Towers” with an inspired verse by Bizzy Bone. In between guest appearances Jones showcased his impeccable taste for beats and an honesty and realness that is sure to have converted even more followers to the Diplomats congregation.