Hip hop is like “The Simpsons”: the more you know, the better it is, because you pick up on all the inside jokes being thrown around. A GangStarr record might be amazing in its own right, but being able to single out the origins of all Preem’s scratched hooks and place them within the context of a new song is priceless and adds a whole new dimension to the music. The flip side of having vast quantities of hip hop knowledge stored in your skull is that, for better or worse, you have set the bar extraordinarily high for future acts based on the quality of work they must live up to. Every year I listen to hip hop brings new and interesting pieces of music, but it becomes increasingly difficult to make a definitive impression simply because the new songs are constantly being shadowed in my mind by the older ones they draw from, intentionally or not.

That said, I’m not one for the perennial hand-wringing that goes on at the end of the year, when every hip hop head climbs out of their rusty chambers and declares the art form at a new low point and languishing on life support. We get it. The music will never be as good as it was in [insert your decade of choice here], but there was still an awful lot of good music made this year that deserves to be recognized before we officially nail the hip hop coffin shut. In that spirit, I offer up the following albums as the best of the best in ’08. Oh, and I only work with multiples of four, so you’re getting 12 instead of 10. Deal with it.

12. Killer Mike – I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II
Killer Mike never puts out anything weak, so it’s no surprise to find him on yet another year-end list. Despite his previous output, however, Mike came this year with his most consistent and powerful release yet, unleashing his inner preacher alongside his ex-d-boy narratives to create a potent concoction of hood politics on wax. Unlike another southern rapper who compared himself to the legendary Reverend, after listening to this album you won’t be mad at Killer Mike calling himself “Michael Luther King,” which is quite a testament to the role he has cultivated for himself.

11. Akrobatik – Absolute Value
You always sensed Akrobatik was on the brink of greatness and that he just needed time to reach his full potential, and the top-notch beats he obtained for “Absolute Value” seem to have elevated his game above its already lofty level. Tracks by underground faves like Illmind, J-Zone, and J Dilla helped ensure that the album had what it needed musically, and Ak did the rest, flexing his vocal muscles in every direction to produce a compelling piece of work. A true exercise in versatility, “Absolute Value” finds Akrobatik flipping myriad flows and rhyme schemes with an ease that will make listeners applaud and opponents turn green with envy. He is an emcee’s emcee who is just hitting his stride.

10. Jean Grae – Jeanius
Like her superhero namesake, Jean Grae is damn near omnipotent on the mic. With her effortless flow and mind-boggling wordplay, she has always had the skill to make you sit up and listen. The question has been whether or not she could harness her considerable talent to craft an album worthy of her ability. She did just that with the oft-delayed 9th Wonder collab “Jeanius,” which showcased all Jean had to offer over some consistently smooth production. On the yarn-spinning “Billy Killer,” the heart-wrenching “My Story,” and the shit-talking “2-32’s,” she kills each and every track. This is not one to be missed.

9. Black Milk – Tronic
Following up his debut “Popular Demand” was no easy task, but Black Milk built on all of the buzz he had created by displaying his range on this head-nodding affair. The title suggests his movement away from the staple soul sample, and despite the departure from his comfort zone he succeeds with a carefully crafted set of tracks that showcase his prowess on the beats as well as the mic. He has grown considerably as a lyricist since his earliest forays on the mic, and combined with the weightier musical material it makes for a captivating listening experience. If only all producer/rappers were this good.

8. T.I. – Paper Trail
I’ll admit it – this album has no right to be this high on my list. T.I.’s production standards have fallen way off since his early days and some of the sing-songy nonsense detracted from the album’s impact. But the best artists have a way of connecting with people at a visceral level, and staring down the possibility of a lengthy prison bid seems to have brought out the best of what Tip has to offer in this respect. He’s always been good at self-reflection with a sociopolitical bent, but on “Paper Trail” he takes it to another level, one that – dare I say it? – only rappers with names like Tupac and Scarface have ventured to. I used to laugh at T.I. calling himself the King of the South, but his latest should have you kneeling at the throne.

7. Ice Cube – Raw Footage
With every family film he stars in, I find myself saying, “Ice Cube is officially washed up.” Boy was I wrong. “Raw Footage” is a definitive statement from an artist with a career full of them. Is it comparable to his earlier masterpieces? Hell no, but it’s still darn good. Reverting to some Dre-inspired funk, Cube dispenses knowledge and reps for the potential of gangsta rap in the new millennium. As he notes on “Why Me?”, “Hell on earth is being stuck in the 80s.” With this album, Cube has proven that he most certainly isn’t resting on the mentality or success of a prior decade and still has what it takes to be relevant twenty years in.

6. Termanology – Politics As Usual
What do you get when you add a polished lyricist to beats by DJ Premier, Buckwild, Havoc, Hi-Tek, Large Professor, and Pete Rock? A fucking great listen, that’s what. There are many things to marvel at here – like how a relative newcomer secured such a line-up of producers when veterans like Nas struggle to string together two good beats – but Term himself is reason enough to check this one out. What he lacks in pure vocal presence he more than makes up for in a dexterous flow and original lyric writing skills, pairing tongue-in-cheek punchlines with highly intricate rhyme schemes. Along with the albums by Akro, Reks, and Statik Selektah, Term helped make 2008 one hell of a year for MA.

5. Immortal Technique – The 3rd World
Mixtape, proper album, whatever – Immortal Technique’s latest was a scorcher that reminded everyone the potential hip hop has to be the voice of the downtrodden. As fiery as ever, Tech directs his wrath at all and sundry with a particular axe to grind over the subjugation of underground hip hop as the Third World nation of the music world. While he makes his point well, his best tirades are aimed at the continuing unavailability of the American dream to so many who are promised otherwise. If this is just a mixtape, corporate America should shudder at the thought of “The Middle Passage” currently in the works.

4. Q-Tip – The Renaissance
“The Renaissance” could have been the subtitle for a number of albums this year as veterans like Cube, Tip, and EPMD all released killer material that reestablished their preeminence in the rap game. The Tribal one’s own resurgence owed a lot to J Dilla, although the late beat architect only provided one of the album’s tracks. The rest of “The Renaissance” was entirely self-produced, but Dilla’s fingerprints are all over the place, helping Q-Tip compose some majestic music to accompany his still relevant raps. The nostalgia factor definitely played a role in adding to this one’s meaningfulness, but it stands alone as an exceptional offering by any measure.

3. Elzhi – The Preface
“The Preface” could be seen as Black Milk’s second contribution to this list, as he produced the vast majority of the songs on Elzhi’s official debut. As with “Tronic,” the beats range in tone considerably, from eerie (“D.E.M.O.N.S”) to grandiose (“The Leak”) to outright bangin’ (“Motown 25”). Even with the stellar beats, Elzhi is the clear center of attention, weaving webs of words all over the tracks and employing clever concepts throughout. Just one more reason the Motor City is the epicenter for that hip hop next shit.

2. The Roots – Rising Down
The Roots just keep on getting better. Although it’s hard to reach the stratospheric heights set by albums like “Things Fall Apart,” in general their career trajectory starts high and continues in an upward direction with each release. “Rising Down” carries over a lot of the darkness of “Game Theory,” but the gloom isn’t as relentless as it was on their prior album and the music is sharper, more compact. Outstanding guest spots by the mighty Mos Def, Wale, and Peedi Crakk round out Black Thought’s searing lyrical attack to make for a compelling listen and the most balanced album on the list. In a normal year, that would be enough for the number one spot.

1. Nas – Untitled (Nigger)
This was no normal year, though. With Barack Obama emerging as the country’s first black president and racial rhetoric resurfacing in covert form, Nas’ “Nigger” (you and I both know this is its real name) was a flaming middle finger to the establishment that would have you believe we have moved into a post-racial era. With all due respect to the president-elect’s historic campaign, it no more signals the end of race’s impact than Jay-Z’s retirement signaled the end of Jigga’s career, and Nas’ album made that abundantly clear. While many viewed the name controversy as a ploy to get media attention, the very conflict it evoked was emblematic of the continuing legacy of a powerful word with a horrible history. On a purely objective level, Nas’ album is a ways off the pace set by others this year, with its non-descript production and questionable track selection, but no one matched him for sheer meaning conveyed through each and every word or for the intensity of expression he put forth. Nas needs no comparisons – he is in a league of his own. And with “Nigger,” he made a statement that few can compete with in any genre. When my rock-heavy father is blown away by a hip hop album, it’s time to pack it up, because you’ve found your winner. The Nasty is back in full effect.

Almost, But Not Quite

Tech N9ne – Killer: The best flow in the business gave renewed credence to the double-album.

Reks – Grey Hairs: A Hall of Fame production crew propelled the silky smooth Reks to a career-defining album.

Lil Wayne – The Carter III: Only here because it has to be, this one was nowhere near deserving of the hype it generated but was entertaining nonetheless.

The Knux – Remind Me In 3 Days: Amazing left-field alternative hip hop from a pair of New Orleans brothers who can rap their asses off. Puts the Gym Class Heroes to shame.


Anything by FlyLo: “Los Angeles” and its various offspring EPs represent the next wave in hip hop evolution.

Madlib – Beat Konducta Volumes 5 & 6: Madlib’s tributes to Dilla were worthy of their amazing honoree.

Black Milk – Music From the Color Purple: This free collection of beats was just one more part of a blazing year for Black Milk.

Damu the Fudgemunk – Spare Time/Overtime: One of the year’s best names AND best instrumental music.

Notable Mixtapes

Nas – The Nigger Tape: Possibly even better than the official album, I still can’t figure out how many of these songs didn’t make the final cut. Typical Nas, I guess.

Royce Da 5’9″ – Bar Exam 2: Even feistier than the first installment, this mixtape almost makes up for the fact that we still don’t have “The Revival” yet. Almost.

Rhymefest – Man in the Mirror: Rhymefest’s ode to Michael Jackson received a big assist from Mark Ronson, who should be on every MC’s short list of producers to call in a pinch.

Joe Budden – Mood Muzik 3: Joe Budden mixtapes are more like regular albums, but by any name “Mood Muzik 3” was a solid release.

That Other Shit

Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple: I’ll admit that I’m cheating by putting these guys in a separate category, but it allowed me to include the rest of these genre-bending albums.

Stacy Epps – The Awakening: Go ahead and try to classify her. Hip hop, R&B, electronica, even new age, but whatever the title she’s as soulful as they come.

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War): Beats by Madlib and 9th Wonder are just the tip of the iceberg on this slow burn of an R&B album.

Portishead – Third: Enough of the old Portishead with plenty of new – the best you could have hoped for from this group that most had written off.