Here we are again, at the dawn of a new year. It’s amazing how fast time goes as you start to get older and recognize your own mortality. But enough reflecting on these overly serious matters and let us focus on the state of rap music in 2007. At the end of last year I predicted that Saigon’s “The Greatest Story Never Told” would reach the pinnacle of what 2007 would offer us–Nostradamus, I am not. Industry woes have further delayed this highly anticipated debut, as well as new joints from Papoose, Joe Budden, Lil’ Wayne and Dr. Dre (I’m not holding my breath on this one any longer). However, I did guess the importance of first quarter releases from some of the old Rawkus fam (Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli and Mos Def).

The most popular singles and trends that sparked from the rap community consisted of some of the same old watered down drivel for the most part. Many of the record labels were just slangin’ the same old mess, rather than promoting some of their blue magic. The artists who are the biggest culprits? Shop Boyz with “Party Like A Rockstar”, SouljaBoy with “Crank That”, and worst of all, Lil’ Mama’s “Lip Gloss.” Could there be anything more shallow than a phrase like, “my lip gloss be poppin’, my lip gloss is cool!”? Thankfully Lil’ Mama’s full length has been marred by delays too. Though not entirely a hip-hop track, “Umbrella” by Rhianna f/Jay-Z was the big award winner in the urban music categories at all of the major awards shows, which makes me wonder if it’s not just her that is tone def, but maybe a lot of casual music listeners. Even the movie that had the most influence on hip-hop and co-starred T.I. and Common, “American Gangster”, was something of a convoluted disappointment after seeing the riveting trailers. The most saddening news came in mid-December when hip-hop music lost another important artist in Pimp C (of UGK), who was reportedly found dead in a hotel room from reasons unknown at this time. Also, the untimely loss of Kanye’s Mother Donda West was hugely disheartening news.

That’s not to say that the year was a complete loss. The aforementioned film “American Gangster” sparked the most important artist in the rap community to return to high form, completely making us forget that the mediocre effort from last year, “Kingdom Come”, exists. As always there was still a plethora of quality rap music under the radar–which is why we are here after all. Unfortunately, in light of the negative issues, I would have to say that 2007 was a pretty weak year, especially considering how several of the major releases were stacked up to drop in December. No more predictions from me–we’ll just have to see where the auditory journey takes us. With that, ten honorable mentions and my (Justin “Tha Shiznute” Chandler’s) top 10 rap albums of the year.

10. Brother Ali: The Undisputed Truth

Brother Ali is certainly not a cookie-cutter emcee. This becomes all too obvious when taking a look into his red pigmented eyes and chalky white skin, as he is definitely the first albino to reach any level of success within the hip-hop community. It’s good to see that image does not detour this talented Rhymesayer from staying the course and showing off his intricate lyrical skills. His debut LP, “Shadows on the Sun”, established him as a force to be reckoned with and though I preferred that previous release to this year’s “Undisputed Truth”, there is an obvious progression in terms of subject matter. The song “Uncle Sam Goddamn” plays out as a stirring criticism of American politics with lines like “Talking bout you don’t support a crack head / What you think happens to the money from your taxes?/ Shit the government’s the addict.” Meanwhile, there are great biographical pieces like “Faheem”, in which Ali is talking to his young son about the profound impact the little one had on his life and his regrets about not being able to keep the family whole. Brother Ali proves with “The Undisputed Truth” that he still has a lot more to say.

9. Jay-Z: American Gangster

With every Jay-Z album comes great expectation. His success as an artist and entertainer keeps him directly under a high-powered media microscope. His new work, said to have been influenced by Denzel Washington’s performance of the ultimate drug hustler in New York (Frank Lucas), is driven by 70’s soul samples and concise bars. It certainly seems odd that it took a film for Hova to draw these parallels, as prior to this album it had seemed that he had all but forgotten his own plight as a young man in Brooklyn. Music listeners can rejoice the fact that Jigga seems to have found his flow again by releasing his best album since “The Blueprint”. The horn-infused single “Roc Boys (and the winner is…)” is one of the best of the year. The sound of the album is nice for the most part, but the beats seem a little bit muted as compared to the sonic soundscapes of albums past and songs like “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” featuring Lil Wayne keep it from classic status.

8. Blu & Exile: Below the Heavens

Blu and Exile are an underground emcee/producer duo and a force to be reckoned with. Blu’s lyricism is engaging, positive and progressive, much in the ways of Lupe Fiasco, or a young Q-Tip (of a Tribe Called Quest). Exile’s drum patterns and sample work compliments his musical partner in almost every way. “Below the Heaven’s Pt. 1” is a great example of this, as the contemporary piece borrows from classic Nas material (definitely check it out). There are times that the album so smoothly transitions between songs that the backdrops might feel slightly repetitive. Do not fear that ‘indie’ label, though; the upbeat “First Things First” is the type of feel good track that can get anybody’s head nodding. Blu & Exile might still be “Below the Heavens”, at an earthbound state….but barely.

7. CunninLynguists: Dirty Acres

QN5 records tried to get this one by me. It just seems that “A Piece of Strange”, from 2006, was an album that drew a larger crowd of underground music listeners from out of the woodwork. This is another intelligent and wisely produced album from the ever-changing collective that consists of the CunninLynguists. Kno, who takes the production nod, does a great job of varying the musical pallets. And it seems obvious that other great emcees have not left the fantastic group unnoticed, as “Dirty Acres” features a strong, albeit small, set of featured artists: Big Rube, Phonte, Witchdoctor and Devin the Dude, to name the most notable. The album closes with an airy sing along track entitled “Mexico” that will leave you urging for more.

6. Evidence: The Weatherman

The meteorologist on the news might not have predicted the unbearably dry weather conditions that caused (along with some foul play) the wildfires in California, but Evidence (of Dilated Peoples) definitely forecasted hotness for his new LP. Dilated Peoples never really reached their potential after dropping several 12″ records on wax that determined them to be the next big thing from the underground back around the turn of the century. Ironically, the producer Alchemist reached into his bag of tricks for his most trunk-rattling beats ever with one of his additions, “Mr. Slow Flow” (ironic because Evidence is considered a backpack rapper). Sid Roams, Jake One, Khalil, Babu and Evidence himself help compliment the album further, giving it a cohesive and complete feeling. The mood of the album is mostly stormy and brooding, but there are some sunnier moments than expected (“Chase the Clouds Away”). This 16 track affair is what we expected from the great emcee from the beginning. It is better that it came late than never.

5. Talib Kweli: Ear Drum

Back when Blackstar was popping I thought Talib Kweli was a great compliment to Mos Def, but perhaps a lesser MC; half a decade later, I am recalculating my original perception on the matter. With “Ear Drum” Talib continues to prove his worth as one of the best ‘conscious’ rappers out there, making it no wonder that Jay-Z wants to “lyrically be Talib Kweli.” The heart-beat sounding bass line of “Everything Man” that opens “Eardrum” sets the mood wonderfully. A lot of critics argue that this disc does not have any singles on it, but they obviously did not have their ears open to the produced “Hot Thing”, or hear the mainstream appeal of “Country Cousins”, a slick track that recruits the unlikely help of UGK. Both of these cuts are better than almost anything heard on the radio. Then, the choir inspired “Hostile Gospel Pt. 1” is one of those tracks that will remain on repeat throughout the entire year and for some time to come. The only ‘problem’ with Talib Kweli as an emcee is that sometimes he seems to flow off beat a little bit by fitting in lines that do not ride so smoothly with the beat. Overall “Eardrum” is one nice album to put in your Ipod or portable CD player, grab the headphones, and put them in your, y’know….ear drum.

4. Little Brother: Getback

ABB should be applauded for helping promote good music (see #6, Evidence’s “The Weatherman”), whereas Atlantic Records should be ashamed of letting these guys get away after their last release (“The Minstrel Show”) was critically blessed, yet lightly copped by the public. With 9th Wonder, the man behind the soulful rhythms of their last albums more or less out of the picture it seemed that this North Carolina duo of Phonte and Big Pooh were left stranded. Expectations waned on this, their 3rd official effort; however the ingredients to their greatness are proven to be still there with “The Getback”. “Good Clothes” is the first single from the album and it is a knocking horn-driven song that can be judged by its title. Things get more serious on a narrative about the black race being bamboozled by America on “Sirens”. The really great aspect of these two dynamic emcees is the fact that they understand humor and articulate their lyrics in fun and enjoyable ways as exemplified on “After the Party”, which plays out like a sequel to their mixtape masterpiece “Life of the Party”. The highlight is an infectious song called “Two Step Blues” that features Darien Brockington (who appeared on “The Minstrel Show”) crooning the hook. It is an entertaining nodder that ups the ante on Cassidy’s two-step ode. While “The Getback” is not a conceptual masterpiece like “The Minstrel Show” or as cohesive as “The Listening”, it is nearly as good as both of them on a track for track basis.

3. Kanye West: Graduation

Kanye West is basically the arrogant musical genius he thinks he is. This is further proven on his newest album that was released in direct competition with a new effort by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. September 11th seems like a strange day to move the media’s attentions towards rap music, but that is exactly what happened with the much-hyped sales battle. In retrospect, this may be the most important album of the year as it was basically a microcosm of the direction that the genre is going to take in the future. Luckily, Kanye West moved more units than the lackluster 50 Cent album (I know we rated “Curtis” higher than “Graduation” on this site, for that I am ashamed). This prolific producer makes things clear right away that “Graduation” is not your standard fare as the hollow snare of “Good Morning” pierces the speakers, sampling a Elton John recording “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Even Kanye knows that he may need to enlist the help of others on the also impeccable “Everything I Am”, which features scratches from the legendary DJ Premier. “Good Life”, which was introduced on an episode of HBO’s Entourage, is a pulsating single deserving of far more success than it received. But, “Stronger” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” both did plenty to draw buyers to the stores. Most importantly, Kanye West knows how to personalize his albums so you can sympathize with his situation, creating a purely enjoyable experience. Much to his chagrin, ‘Ye still didn’t win any MTV awards, but I guess everything he’s not, makes him everything he is. “Graduation” will be looked back on as a masterful work of epic proportions.

2. Pharoahe Monch: Desire

This album has been desired ever since the Queens emcee said “Simon Says” back in his Rawkus days. Originally he was one half of Organized Konfusion along with Prince Poetry, where he proved his verbal dexterity with tongue-twisting lyricism–bending words in ways that have not been conjured up before. Finally, after long delay, came the Sophomore solo disc, “Desire”, which finds the fiery venom-spitter in a more soulful place than when we last left him. He continues to glide smoothly across the soundscapes provided to him with lyrical one-liners akin to no one else. Lines like, “rap’s like Star Wars/ Only the stars die, there’s no sequels/ Beat three cases see three PO’s (C-3PO),” work on multiple layers light years beyond what the average rapper drudges up. Even with his concept tracks Pharoahe excels as he does on “When the Gun Draws”, a song written from the perspective of a bullet. The Denaun Porter beat and insane verbiage makes it quite possibly the best rap song of the year. Meanwhile, “Body Baby” sounds like a better version of Andre 3000’s “Idlewild Blues”. From the front to the epic three part ending aptly called “Trilogy”, Pharoahe’s long awaited return was well worth the trials it took to get to a place where it could be released.

1. Lupe Fiasco: The Cool

Now for numero uno. Lupe Fiasco’s “Food and Liquor” was probably the best debut album of any genre to come out within the last couple of years and was held back from my number 1 spot by the legendary Nasir Jones. With “The Cool” he further progresses as a man and an artist, by conceptualizing through deeply ironic narratives the cost of being cool. Lupe haters argue that the Chicagoan has a robotic flow, his voice is too high and that his songs are not personal. These haters obviously are not looking at the material on anything more than on the surface level, as “Fighters” discusses the loss of his Father to cancer. Also, a listener must consider that the best artistic material is not always written using the pronoun “I”, as stories and life experiences are shared vicariously through characters, scenarios and themes. This album unfolds like a beautiful novel. Perhaps the best addition to “The Cool” is the fantastic chorus work done by Matthew Santos, who sings like Chris Martin light, on the previously mentioned “Fighters” and the lead single “Superstar”. While certainly not the greatest joint on the album “Dumb It Down” talks about the concern of the state of the rap industry and the collateral effect it has, expressing the sentiments of many that feel that there are times that the music is losing its grasp. The balance on this album is fantastic as we range from the breezy “Paris, Tokyo” to the thunderous marching sounds of “Little Weapon”. The latter is a breath-taking track in the same vein as “American Terrorist” that alludes to the numbness of violence in society on a global scale. There is a wide range of sound too, much of which incorporates rock or techno-inspired backdrops. Therefore, Lupe’s newest effort is the most risk-taking, entertaining and effortless piece orchestrated in the year 2007. Hopefully Lupe will be around for long after his series of albums comes to the L-U-P-End.

Honorable Mentions

* UGK, “Underground Kingz“: Double disc of dripping candy paint. R.I.P. Pimp C.
* Scarface, “Made“: Houston legend makes good with this short and decidedly hard record.
* Animate Objects, “Riding in Fast Cars With Your Momma“: A fun album with live instrumentals
* Freeway, “Free at Last“: The Roc-a-fella emcee realizes his potential with plenty of bangers.
* Timbaland, “Shock Value“: Derivative of his rap roots, but an enjoyable ride, not need to “Apologize.”
* Wu-Tang Clan, “8 Diagrams“: 4 1/2 times less than “36 Chambers” amongst strange new RZA sound.
* Black Milk, “Popular Demand“: Detroit producer does his best J-Dilla impression, with success.
* K-Rino, “Book Number 7“: Intense southern rapper whose skills still go relatively unnoticed.
* Joell Ortiz, “The Brick“: The best Latin rapper since the late Big Pun. It’s more of a swish than a brick.
* Common, “Finding Forever“: The spiritual sequel to “Be” is good, albeit less organic listen.