10. Paul Wall: The People’s Champ

“The People’s Champ” is about as vapid as rap can get without losing credibility. Paul Wall talks about his cars, his ice, his rapping skills, or his women for the entire album, but he maintains a childish likeability through his unabashed exuberance for the subjects. It would not be on my list, though, without the production, which lays the bass on thick and does not relent for a second. A variety of in-house musicians combine for a surprisingly united affair. “Ridin’ Dirty” is a dizzy, dripping track that is aided by a great chorus from Trey Songz, and “Sittin’ Sidewayz” is just unexplainably good. A couple of omissions would have made it tighter, but even Kanye’s Wall-assisted “Drive Slow” sounds comfortable surrounded by Houston’s finest basslines. If nothing else, Paul Wall is endearing simply because of his drawl, and a random assortment of guests keeps “The People’s Champ” moving from a lyrical standpoint. Just throw this one in your trunk, I promise it’ll stay there for a while.

9. One.Be.Lo: S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.

One Man Army went from one of the original great underground groups, Binary Star, to an under-recognized solo career beginning with some mixtapes and capped by this marvelous debut. The production is surprisingly appealing, a group of unassuming but banging beats for One.Be.Lo to tear apart. He is a fabulous emcee, discussing topics of great importance alongside vicious battle rhymes. Through it all, he has complete command of each beat, and he shows throughout “S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.” that he is one of the best technical rappers out there. He has actually gotten better since “Masters of the Universe,” and he is so versatile that he seems capable of nearly anything. Excessive length holds this down from a higher spot, but there are very few throwaways among the twenty-two tracks. Check One.Be.Lo out live and you’ll be hooked, but until he comes to town, here’s some fiery music from one of rap’s least noticed minds.

8. Kanye West: Late Registration

Kanye has done nothing since “The Blueprint” that makes me think he’s less than the best producer in rap. Maybe he just got bored with it all, but I still don’t really see the point of hiring an orchestra, not to mention acclaimed producer Jon Brion, to help him in his most ambitious project. “Late Registration” is a study in excess, and it’s no mistake that the two best songs, “Gold Digger” and “Drive Slow,” are also among the simplest. There are too many songs on this record, and far too much elaborate orchestration, to mention it among the very best of the year. Still, Kanye is an excellent musician, and he shows a flair for the unexpected by enlisting Maroon 5’s Adam Levine on the wonderful “Heard ‘Em Say.” The flaws in “Late Registration” are magnified on the overblown “We Major,” a dream collaboration with Nas, which devolves into an excessive seven-minute study on nothing in particular. The filler is all in the name of ambition, so it’s easy to forgive, but one problem remains. Kanye was able to hide his lackluster mic skills on “The College Dropout” by surrounding himself with stars and using intriguing subject matter. Here, though, it becomes obvious. He drags out the last syllable of nearly every bar in an attempt to sound unique, and for most of “Late Registration” he just rambles along with no direction, contradicting himself without the intrigue that made KRS-One so perplexing. I’d love to see more “Gold Digger” and less “Addiction,” but for now, this opus will do. There’s plenty of brilliance scattered inside here.

7. Zion I: True & Livin’

This is a beautiful album. The duo of Zion and Amp Live crafted the music using actual instruments, and the result is a smoothed sound that doesn’t sacrifice the edge associated with rap music. “Doin’ My Thang” is an excellent mission statement from the veterans, and “Bird’s Eye View” is one of the more successful discussions of hip-hop as an ideal that I have heard. The guests are sparse but aid greatly, from Talib Kweli and Aesop Rock to West Coast underground legends like Del and Gift of Gab. Eighteen tracks is not even too much, because even the songs that are easily skipped are far from duds. It’s nice to see such a group do such fine work late in their career, at a point when most artists have fallen from relevance.

6. The Game: The Documentary

I don’t think that Game is a very good rapper. He has shown the world his freestyle skills, but his rhymes on “The Documentary” were too concerned with name-dropping those around him to allow him to develop his own voice as an emcee. This, of course, doesn’t matter when you have Dr. Dre on your side. And Kanye West. And Just Blaze. And Havoc, Timberland, Hi-Tek, and Buckwild. You get the idea. The production on this album is absolutely ridiculous. Dre keeps it firmly within the confines of trunk-rattling West Coast rap, and the outside producers all contribute bangers. The hooks are memorable, the beats are jarring and catchy, and Game does a mediocre job on his solo debut, which is all that is really needed.

5. Common: Be

Anyone who mentions this album in the same sentence as “Resurrection” needs help, but Common’s alliance with Kanye West brought out the Sense in him. The opening title track is one of the best songs of the year, and “Chi City” and “The Corner” stand out as well. Even borderline moments such as the syrupy “Testify” are just subdued enough to work. Common is an exceptional emcee, conveying wisdom simply through the sound of his voice, and his wide grin on the cover is a reminder of how happy life can be. This is the essence of “Be,” an indiscriminant celebration of life and everything contained within. The short length frustrates me, and the cheap live version of the potentially classic “The Food” was a cop-out, but this collaboration of Chicago heavyweights sounds surprisingly natural. Common has given me yet another reason to trust him as I would an old friend.

4. Atmosphere: You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having

You can’t imagine how happy this album made me. I completely wrote Slug off, and despite Ant’s generous hints of his capabilities earlier this year, I never expected such explosive, entertaining music. The uptempo fast life suits Atmosphere more than I could have anticipated. Slug keeps on being Slug, albeit with a part-time prozac habit, and he is alongside Ant during his transformation from second fiddle to one of the underground’s very best producers. “Get Fly” exemplifies this growth, as he takes a seemingly ordinary set of sounds and patterns them to smash down doors with glee. The production doesn’t permit Slug the time to be contemplative, and it honestly wouldn’t have mattered if he had stopped rapping altogether. Luckily, he’s still pretty dope, so the sick beats are enhanced even more. I cannot even begin to think about what the next Brother Ali album might sound like; it’s too overwhelming.

3. Cage: Hell’s Winter

This is a visceral, temple-pounding ride through Cage’s mind. He has become one of the best rappers in the world, a sarcastic, biting, and brutally honest explorer of his own psyche. The most personal moments are the best, as he turns his terrific imagination inwards, providing the listener with details of his own struggles that are almost too tragic to believe. The Definitive Jux production machine churned out a heavy list of bangers for “Hell’s Winter,” capped by a rare DJ Shadow appearance. This album is almost too confrontational, as both the music and the lyrics assault the victim in a genuine manner. An underlying melody floats each song, however, and Cage’s growth past his admittedly riveting attempts to “fuck your head up like cornrows put in by blind giants” reveals a completely different artist. The bombastic delivery is there, but a man now stands where a shock emcee once was.

2. Danger Doom: The Mouse and the Mask

I adore MF Doom, but even I can admit that he owes much of the credit for his last two successes to his beatsmith friends. The Adult Swim tie-ins blend seamlessly with the music on this record, turning what I expected to be a downfall into a blessing. Danger Mouse has created a flawless collection of cartoonish beats that maintain complexity, anchored by a set of carnival loops that still manage to sound like traditional hip-hop. MetalFace does his usual thing, using the cartoon theme to merit adventures even further down his lyrical rabbit hole. My favorite? “Wearing all that gold, it’s still funny, like going to the store on your own rrrrainbow money!” Doom falters a bit in places, favoring alliteration over any semblance of logic, but cartoons aren’t always supposed to make sense. Three exceptional guest shots from Cee-Lo, Ghostface, and Talib Kweli didn’t hurt either. I love this album, and I’ve only seen Aqua Teen Hunger Force once.

1. Edan: Beauty and the Beat

Maybe I couldn’t grasp this record’s brilliance the first time around because of the irritating promo dubs strewn throughout my advance copy. I might have simply not realized how unique this music is. Regardless, “Beauty and the Beat” now rests a helluva lot closer to a 10.0 in my book now. My only qualm with the record is the length (noticeably shorter than “Illmatic!). Edan’s groundbreaking mix of psychedelic samples and abstract rhymes with old-school drums is not easy to decipher, but it contains several of the most satisfying moments I’ve ever encountered in rap music. “I See Colours” is the only song I’ve gotten my girlfriend to like, and “Promised Land” flips Edan’s own lyrics from Count Bass D’s “Dwight Spitz” over an enchanting string loop. I struggle to find fault with a rapper who says things like “throw a microphone fifty feet in the air and catch it, somebody throws a baby, OH SHIT! Do a spin move and catch it, and the crowd goes crazy.” This record is simultaneously funky and perplexing, and Edan evokes rap’s history in the subtlest of ways. But don’t worry, if you don’t know who King Tim III is, the point of “Beauty and the Beat” won’t be lost.


Blackalicious: The Craft

Chief XCel and Gift of Gab keep getting weirder, but luckily not worse. This is too experimental for some, but it really is an excellent record.

Sage Francis: A Healthy Distrust

Sage’s second official solo album is almost too sonically dense and bizarre, but he is a stunning lyricist. “Gunz Yo,” a Danger Mouse production, is among the greatest rap songs ever made.

The Perceptionists: Black Dialogue

With help from El-P and some Boston friends, this is engaging rap music with a political angle, a solid effort all around.

Z-Ro: Let the Truth be Told

From Rap-a-Lot Records, this is a complete, satisfying record from the underside of Houston’s commercial juggernaut.

Murs & Slug: Felt 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet

Slug and Murs are quite dissimilar, but Slug found his swagger and his machismo, and together they gloated over some twisted soul music from Ant. This was dwarfed by Atmosphere’s later release, but remains a fine record.