Around this time of year, the writers for make like Skillz and drop our thoughts on the general hip hop scene. Unfortunately, my impression of 2008 is pretty sour. When reflecting on our favorite genre of music, it just seems that each year is worse than the one that proceeded it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the thoughts and opinions of our fine writers though, as there are always those gems amongst the barrage of material thrown our way (some of which we throw away). These “Year In Review” segments are aimed to get to the meat of what you may have missed.

Much to my dismay, Kanye West went full out auto-tune on his break from the school-themed quadrilogy with “808’s and Heartbreak.” I know he has been going through some traumatic personal issues with the loss of his Mother and dissolution of his engagement but, despite his ego-matching talent, he cannot sing a lick. The synthesized voice popularized by T-Pain is not fitting for a musician that usually makes me smile with his witty bars. The singing on his latest album is the realization of the notion that these great artists think that they can make anything sound masterful (it kinda reminds me of “The Love Below“). Meanwhile, his Chicagoan cohort Common indicated that he wanted to make an album full of records that will compell his DJ to play them at the club, yet, he too, failed, by creating his worst album.

Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III” is the highest selling rap album of the year (and highest selling album, of any genre, depending on what charts you read). I wasn’t too smitten with this part of “Tha Carter” series, either. I’m not sure if Lil’ Wayne is on angel dust, or what, but the trend is that his lyricism is straying further and further away from logic. His freestyle formula results in the crazed rants of a thug with a mind-implanted Thesaurus. Sometimes the result is satisfying and sometimes it is just annoying.

There is some stiff competition for the best single of the year. Standouts include T.I.’s “My Life”; The Game’s “My Life”; Kardinal Offishall’s “Dangerous”; Q-Tip’s “Give Up” and pretty soon you will be hearing Young Jeezy’s “My President” spark the airwaves, which is probably my favorite of all of them.

Overall, it seemed like 2008 was more a year of surprises than anything. The major labels don’t seem to be backing as many efforts as they used to due to lackluster sales in the current economic crisis and new wave of music-stealing technology. There still have been no official releases from mixtape kingpins Papoose (if anyone is watching for him anymore), Wale, Stat Quo and Saigon. Hopefully the year 2009 will bring us some desirable material from the aforementioned artists, as well as a few others to look forward to, including; Lupe Fiasco, Joe Budden (slated for February), even Busta Rhymes.

Without further ado, here are my top 10 albums of the year, followed by a few honorable mentions:

10. Young Jeezy: The Recession

I know I am going to catch some flack for supporting this as one of the best albums of the year, but this adlib slanging rapper dropped his most comprehensive album with “The Recession”. That is, there are fewer low points than could be found in his previous material. Some of the production gets a little repetitive but it serves his style well. Certain standout tracks, like “Put On” and “My President,” featuring a stellar verse from Nas, make this disc worth copping, even amidst a recession.

9. Elzhi: The Preface

This album features the excellent production work of Detroit’s own Black Milk–credited with a large majority of the beats. Unlike, Milk’s “Tronic,” this one is complimented by the smooth, poetic, lyricism of part-time Slum Village member, Elzhi. I always thought Elzhi was a capable emcee, but “The Preface” takes his game to another level. He also collaborates with Motown’s best underground spitters to create a soulful pallet full of excellent tracks. Check “Colors” and “Guessing Game” and prepare to endure some true hip-hop.

8. J-Live: Then What Happened?

Got lyrics? J-Live is amongst the finest in the game at caressing your mind with knowledge. Still not a household name, this underground legend has been doing his thing for over a decade. A lack of consistency on the production tip has been his only downfall on past releases. Here, J-Live enlists the help of DJ Jazzy Jeff, Marco Polo, DJ Spinna and others to serve up a solid line-up from front to back. However, he seems to have lost just a step when comparing his persona now to previous versions of himself on “The Best Part” or “All of the Above.” Still, an effort well worth your time and dollars.

7. Ludacris: Theater of the Mind

It happens too often that emcees lose focus of their craft. Ludacris has a fairly successful acting career ahead of him if you consider his appearances in the films “Crash” and “Hustle & Flow,” but theater is only the conceptual string to his most recent release that finds Luda in top form. The concept is a little lose at times on “Theater of the Mind,” yet it, like Jeezy’s “The Recession”, is arguably his most solid work to date. His versatility and likeable word play make collaborations with everyone from Rick Ross to Common worth a listen.

6. Reks: Grey Hairs

This is the best thing I’ve heard from Beantown in a minute–with the possible exception of Termanology. “Say Goodnite” is backed by one of those entrancing DJ Premier joints and Reks just attacks the mic like a pitbull. “Cry Baby” shows the often neglected softer side of an emcee in a fantastic storytelling manner. Don’t sleep on this album.

5. Nas: Untitled

Nas follows up his conceptual work “Hip Hop Is Dead” with another disc that is “Untitled.” There was certainly a lot of anticipation to this album amongst hip hop heads, given what he originally planned to call the release. Overall, the product might not have realized the hype. Nonetheless, “Sly Fox,” a vicious (and accurate) indictment of the political skew of the network, ” Testify,” and “Black President,” which slickly incorporates a Pac sample, are gems that would bolster any great emcees catalogue While Nasir’s words are as poignant as ever on “Untitled,” the beat selection leaves a little bit to be desired and, therefore, the album is a smidgen less enjoyable than his classics.

4. Common Market: Tobacco Road

Some “in-the-know” enthusiasts might argue that the “Black Patch War” EP, also released this year, is a better representation of MC RA Scion and DJ Sabzi’s work; however, my typical direction is to analyze the LP’s. The musical duo are components of a group called The Blue Scholars. The triumphant soul and jazz samples and piano loops on “Tobacco Road” make for an effort that will surely get your head nodding.

3. Atmosphere: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

I fell in love with the collective of Slug and Ant (whom compose the group Atmosphere) when they first released “The Lucy Ford EP.” Rarely are we blessed with such a perfect mix of emotion and vulnerability in rhyme. My concern grew with each of their releases thereafter and I began to assume that I may never hear the same character from that personal favorite. Then, to my surprise, I listened to Atmosphere’s most recent release and was blessed with a excellent piece of work. “Puppets” and the ominous “Your Glasshouse” are the particular cuts that bring me back to that “Lucy Ford” feeling. A great album with only a few minor missteps.

2. T.I.: Paper Trail

It may seem weird to see T.I. amongst this lyric-heavy list. What gives? Well, it can certainly be argued that “Paper Trail” is one of the best albums full of bumpable singles ever created. It might not have the togetherness of Nas’s release, but the pounding production and T.I.’s own swag make this for an incredibly enjoyable ride. “Whatever You Like” and “My Life” have been burning up the airwaves. But, “Swagga Like Us” featuring a bevy of rap’s elite atop a M.I.A. sample is the favorite you hear people playing when they ride past. When you think it is all gloss and no substance T.I. closes the disc with the excellent “Dead and Gone.” If you consider yourself a backpacker or more of a fan of conscious rap, I would still recommend giving this disc a listen. It is not without it’s faults (see track “Porn Star”), but the peaks are awfully high.

1. Q-Tip: The Renaissance

The other half of Tribe Called Quest, Phife Dawg, subtly blasted his former partner in rhyme, Q-Tip, on his solo in 2000 entitled “Ventilation: Da LP,” for selling out in favor of dance music and purple doo-rags. It was a harsh reference to Q-Tip’s singles and videos from his last solo; “Breathe and Stop” and “Vivrant Thing,” respectively. After Tip’s previously constructed “Kamaal the Abstract” was shelved by the label it seemed the classic Q-Tip who dropped countless jazz-influenced gems over the years could be gone forever. Enter the aptly titled, “The Renaissance,” which reacquaints us with the nasal-voiced emcee spitting like the days of old. It has a little bit of everything from a jaw-dropping display of emceeing on “Dance on Glass” to the wondrous production work of J-Dilla on “Move.” Tip proves that he can hold his own, on his own, with this release as the only notable guest spots come from R&B greats Norah Jones and Raphael Saadiq. At only 12 tracks, “The Renaissance” does not leave much room for error and one could fairly argue that it does not make any. A classic? Time will tell. For now, it is my tops for 2008.

Honorable Mentions:
* 9th Prince, “Prince of New York”
* Scarface, “Emeritus”
* Akrobatik, “Absolute Value”
* eMC “The Show”
* DJ KO, “Presents… Picture This”
* Jean Grae, “Jeanius”
* The Game “L.A.X.”