2006 was a year full of many very solid rap releases, but rarely did a listener bare witness to a masterpiece. As always, there were the hot trends, like Jim Jones’ “Ballin'” trademark, and the not-so-hot trends, like “Chicken Noodle Soup”, that fade like rain and clear out. Rick Ross dropped the single of the summer with “Everyday I’m Hustlin'”, that featured countless thugged-out quotables on the original and remix, but his album was standard fare. The beef thing continued down a tiresome trail with Jay-Z vs. Dipset, Game vs. G-Unit, and several other less notables, but everyone pretty much stuck to the mixtape circuit to vent their distaste for one another. K-Fed tried his foray into rap and thankfully only a very few were pathetic enough to actually buy it. Of course, there were the disappointments, DMX was the biggest, but I’m not sure that I should expect much from him anymore after seeing his TV show on BET. T.I. went from being a star to a superstar with the “King” album, ATL (a pretty decent flick), and a verse on Justin Timberlake’s smash single, “My Love”, that had a major assist from the beat-maker, Timbaland. The South still have the market oversaturated with artists, some good, some bad, but every region had at least one stellar release, including the continuing influx from Chicago. Overall, 2006 was one of the better years from this decade for Hip Hop music and hopefully we ride that surging wave into 2007 with first quarter releases from Rawkus alumni, Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli and Mos Def. My prediction is that “The Greatest Story Never Told” by Saigon will be the best of ’07, but who knows what the future holds. For now, just check out who ended up on top this year, 2006.

10. J Dilla: The Shining

It seems that every year tragedy befalls Hip-Hop. The death of James Yancey AKA J. Dilla and Jay Dee at the age of 32 was this year’s monumental moment of sadness within the respected community. Dilla went out with a bang on this posthumous album, “The Shining”, that was released only months later. It is hard to say how far into the actual process of making this album J. Dilla was when he passed, however, it is easy to say that, no matter what, it was going to be dope. “The Shining” is one of the most cohesive albums that I’ve heard in a long time and it features some of the most intricately multi-layered instrumentals of his storied career. The way the songs just flow into one another is nothing short of spectacular. Clocking in at just over 36 minutes, J. Dilla leaves us gasping for more…..R.I.P.

9. Busta Rhymes: The Big Bang

I can already see the hate mail piling up for this one. It might be that I have a soft-spot for the previously dreadlocked warrior, because he was the first dude I ever really got into, need I remind you of “The Scenario”. However, I listen to this album again and again, even from a critical standpoint, and it is extremely solid work. After all of the marketing this album got, it remains a bust from a sales perspective, mainly because “I Love My Bitch” is a track that appeals to some, but alienates many others. The crescendo-like flow on “Touch It” makes it one of the best club bangers of the year, but when that gets old, you have “You Can’t Hold the Torch” featuring Q-Tip and many other joints to keep you going. Somewhere along the line, amidst Busta’s apocalyptic prophecies, the world reinvented itself with a “Big Bang”, this is it.

8. Rhymefest: Blue Collar

This is one of, if not the most, underrated rap albums of the year. It is quite rare to see an artist drop a debut album that exudes so much charisma and character. Sure, Rhymefest had help from a super high budget production team in Just Blaze, Kanye, and more, but it was his “Blue Collar” rap that stole the show. This is one of those albums the more you listen to the more songs just creep up on you until you are in an utter state of enjoyment. Most importantly, this music finds an audience that can relate to it, when Rhymfest states, “I know more niggaz at U-Haul than haul crack,” it speaks volumes of truth in a musical form that is so often riddled with falsehoods.

7. Clipse: Hell Hath No Fury

How many ways can hustlers sell dope? Cook it into cocaine quiches? That’s at least what Malice and Pusha T claim at one point on this sophomore release. In fact, they mention the exhausted topic of selling drugs, particularly cocaine, on just about every track. It is no different from the first album, in that, it is still amazing, because they rhyme so effortlessly and uniquely about the trap. This album was pushed back so many times, it was about as criminal as the drugs they promote. “Mr. Me Too” was released as their first single at the beginning of the summer for god’s sake. Nevertheless, Clipse promise that some of the best dope they sell is their music.

6. CunninLynguists: A Piece of Strange

From the “Southernunderground” comes a group effort by the Cunninlynguists that can be considered an awe-inspiring work. They are easily the least known of my top 10, but they have made a name for themselves now. Their previous work had some of the funniest and most clever punch-lines ever recorded, but this album succeeds in what I was skeptical they could do, by going full circle into fleshed out conceptual music. The songs “The Gates” featuring Tonedeff, their fiercely flowing ally, and “Nothing to Give” create nothing but chills. Kno, the producer, decides to step back and focus his attention on the boards, while Natti and Deacon the Villain rip the tracks. The elements of this album are all in perfect place.

5. T.I.: King

“King” is most likely going to be the only rap album of 2006 that goes Platinum within the fiscal year, though Hova is knocking at the door. People buy garbage sometimes, but “King” by T.I. is no such thing. With song titles like, “King Back”, “Front Back”, and “Top Back” all on the same album, you’d be quick to assume that the man has writer’s block, or a weird fetish for backs, but all of the aforementioned songs are scorchers. Needless to say, “What You Know” is one of the best singles of the year. This southern champ has various forms of crossover appeal in “Live in the Sky” featuring Jamie Foxx, and “Goodlife” featuring Common and Pharrell, respectively. There is no doubt that in 2006, T.I. can stake at least partial claim to the coveted prize of “King” of the South.

4. Ghostface Killah: Fishscale

First off, “Fishscale” has the coolest title of any album this year, but, that isn’t why the Iron Man is getting recognized on this list. When the classic Wu-Tang album “36 Chambers” came out everyone was debating on the subject of who the best member of the Wu was, and over a decade later Ghostface is the only one that comes correct every single time. At first I had a tough time deciding between this and his very recent offering of “More Fish”, but when I revisited “Fishscale” I remembered what I had been missing for the past few months. Between 24-tracks (though very skit heavy), including “Shakey Dog”, “Kilo”, “The Champ”, “Whip You With a Strap” and “Big Girl”, the realization of just how great this album is immerges. Remember, when Ghostface drops, you know that he will carry the flag for the Wu with honor.

3. The Game: Doctor’s Advocate

Here come the big boys. Everyone knows the story of The Game and his bitter fall out with G-Unit. Given that I’ve heard a lot of his older material, I thought it might be over for the poor guy in light of rumors that 50 ghostwrote the bulk majority of “The Documentary”, but damn, did he learn some rap lessons somewhere along the line. I don’t care if 50 Cent taught him, he may have out schooled the teacher with this one. His game plan (pun intended) hasn’t changed much, name-dropping, extremely literal lyrics about Khaki Suits and Hoover Crips are still just about the same as his last go, but that’s not a bad thing. “Scream On ‘Em” is a vicious track that features a rejuvenated Swizz Beatz on the boards. When he gets emotional on the title track, as he did similarly on his first album’s track “Start From Scratch”, it is really something special. Also, high profile collaborations with Nas and Kanye make this second album on par with his stellar debut.

2. Lupe Fiasco: Food & Liquor

This is the best debut album in years, in any form of music. Lupe kicks it with deep rhymes and pulsating beats to match. When the skateboarding anthem hit the street everyone knew that we were in for something different, but when he flips it into a more traditional rap song with “Kick, Push II”, it was jaw-dropping and goose bump inducing. “Daydreamin'” featuring Jill Scott is also a great choice for a second single. This new kid made all the right decisions with his album with maybe the exception of the Linkin Park inspired “The Instrumental”, though lyrically profound, it is repetitive and a lot of rap fans will be turned off by the source material. Another thing that marred this release was an overabundance of preemptive downloading, and the fact that some key tracks from that bootleg were omitted from the official release, most notably, “Ghetto Story”. It is hard to fault an emcee for having too much quality material before releasing their debut album though. Unfortunately, this Chicagoan didn’t move as many units as he should have for dropping a debatable classic, but if you haven’t already given it a million spins, I suggest you go pick up a copy.

1. Nas: Hip Hop is Dead

Isn’t it ironic? It’s ironic that the nasty one himself would release an astounding Hip Hop album that is entitled “Hip Hop Is Dead”. I hope it dies more often, so it can get a resurrection like this one. We only had to wait 352 days deep into the year to get the very best. I will say that it is not “Illmatic” right now, however, it is not trying to be. Nas is a veteran in this game and has changed a lot as a man, which you can conclude from his subject matter. Like every man, woman, and child, he has gone through changes in his life and chronicled them into his raw form of Hip Hop music. The long-awaited collaboration with Jay-Z on “Black Republicans”, makes for an epic track, but only is a mere glint of the silver lining on this album. Standouts are, the bass-rattling “Blunt Ashes”, “Still Dreamin'” w/ Kanye West, “Can’t Forget About You” w/ Chrisette Michele, who also gives Jay-Z serious heat on his album (“Lost One”), and “Hustlers”, another great collaboration with The Game. Honestly, it’s all pretty damn good, dare I say “classic”? It seems to get better with every spin, as the theme unveils itself throughout the span of 16 great tracks. And that is why this high-profile release has lived up to the hype and gets my #1 spot!

Honorable Mentions 1. Ghostface Killah, “More Fish.” He’s worth mentioning twice, see Top 10 (#4).
2. Trae, “Restless.” Z-Ro’s cousin may have outshined him with this one.
3. T-Kash, “Turf War Syndrome.” The Coup and Paris on some revolutionary ish.
4. Vakill, “Worst Fears Confirmed.” A brooding and venomous release, cult-classic.
5. Hi-Tek “Hi-Teknology 2: The Chip.” Producer’s compilation of top-notch rappers.
6. Strange Fruit Project “The Healing.” If you like Little Brother, you’ll like them.
7. DL Incognito, “Organic Music for a Digital World.” Proof that Canadians can rap.
8. Field Mob, “Light Poles and Pine Trees.” Underrated album, stir-fried goodness.
9. Zero Star, “Forever’s Really Not That Long.” Solid LP from the Buckeye state.
10. Jay-Z, “Kingdom Come.” Lay-Z for him, but still better than most.