Those who’ve been checking RapReviews within the last six months may have wondered on occasion, “What’s up with all these new records getting 8.5s and up? Has the staff softened up in their old age?” The answer from where I’m standing at least would be a pretty definitive no—in case you’ve been living under a rock, 2011 has been an absolute monster year for rap releases, featuring an incredible slew of impressive debuts, gems from familiar names, and full-length collaborations from tenured veterans enough that literally any listener should be able to find something that makes it a landmark year. Although typically the fourth quarter is home to a calendar year’s most anticipated records, the first six months of 2011 yielded a crop of rap albums arguably as strong as were seen all 2010. It’s hard to appreciate greatness as it’s happening, but I’m confident that years from now we’ll look back at this year as one that brought more worthwhile music, if not full-blown renaissance in many cases, as any in recent memory—heralding the rise of Tyler, the Creator and Big K.R.I.T.; late-career opuses from legends DJ Quik, Raekwon, and Brotha Lynch Hung; and records from Random Axe and Bad Meets Evil actually seeing the light of day. With an exciting class of young artists, old favorites still making great records, and big names churning out the sort of collaborations we used to dream about, it’s hard not to be pumped about rap in 2011. With apologies to a large list of artists who dropped truly commendable projects between January and June, here’s the best of the first half.

PETE’S PICKS – Honorable Mentions:

Reks’ “Rhythmatic Eternal King Supreme
Reks returns with a strong performance over phenomenal production from the likes of DJ Premier, Pete Rock, the Alchemist, Hi-Tek, Nottz, Statik Selektah, Fizzy Womack, Sean C & LV, and Sha Money XL among others. Not that you could ever go wrong with beats like those, but Reks continues to assert himself among the East Coast’s most potent and truest MCs, one who balances charisma with the fact that he takes his craft astonishingly seriously.

Killer Mike’s “Pl3dge
Mike Bigga’s always done things his own way, and the latest addition to his “Pledge” series captures one of hip hop’s most impenetrable forces inspired by lyrics rich with social commentary.

Raekwon’s “Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang
Rae continues to soar on the fumes of 2009’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II,” and “Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang” is another clever exercise in nostalgia. He’s aided by old pals Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Nas, Inspectah Deck, Busta Rhymes, Mathematics, Erick Sermon, and Scram Jones as well as new partners-in-crime including Rick Ross, Jim Jones, DJ Khalil, Lloyd Banks, Black Thought, Raheem DeVaughn, the Alchemist, CilvaRingz, Bronze Nazareth, and Evidence. Albums like these make blatantly clear that the dominance of the Wu-Tang Clan is nowhere close to fading, because their ability to not only constantly reinvent themselves but to rebrand old sounds with heavy doses of irony is practically unparalleled.

Bad Meets Evil’s “Hell: The Sequel
While really only an EP, “Hell: The Sequel” is the union of Detroit’s two greatest MCs more than a decade coming. Rarely have two lyricists this vicious found the time and incentive to put forth a project of this magnitude. Royce delivers as fans have come to expect him to, so the most pleasant surprise may be that Eminem is in full out attack mode. The beats hit hard and both rappers turn in performances that are as much fun for the listener as they must have been for the duo.

Tyler, the Creator’s “Goblin
Perhaps the year’s most infamous and divisive hip hop album, Tyler lives up to his considerable hype with a blockbuster album catapulting his Odd Future crew to superstardom. Tyler’s ridiculously violent, graphic, misogynist lyrics are abetted by his signature production style, with music that sounds like it’s either emanating from the crypt or a twisted 1940s flick. While much of it is tough to stomach in many situations, it’s a truly hypnotic record and I’m confident its influence will prove greater than we now realize.

Tech N9ne’s “All 6s and 7s
Few artists of any genre can claim the simultaneous prolificacy and consistency of Tech N9ne, completely disregarding the trailblazing nature of his music. “All 6s and 7s” is further brilliance from the pioneer.

Cunninlynguists’ “Oneirology
A mystifying, tantalizing listen, “Oneirology” is a genre-bending piece from a crew we expect to provide just that. Dwelling in the realm of dreams, it’s an ethereal, often gorgeous work of music and stands among their best, if not already most underrated, material.

Random Axe’s “Random Axe
The much anticipated union of underground giants Black Milk, Sean Price, and Guilty Simpson delivers on all fronts. Perhaps what is most satisfying about “Random Axe” is that they succeed where most supergroups fail, finding a sound and style all their own and independent of each individual member’s. Black Milk’s clever production is perfectly suited for these mic-wielding virtuosos, and tracks such as “Random Call,” “Black Ops,” and “Monsta Babies” should convince any doubters.

Pete’s 10 of the First Half:

10. Elzhi’s “Elmatic
“Elmatic” is a faithful tribute to Nas’ rap bible. Hip hop has reached a fascinating point where tributes like this can be mesmerizing and ingenious because most every rap fan young and old has had the earth-shattering “Illmatic” experience and holds events, memories, people, and emotions they immediately and inextricably associate with it. El’s interpretations of “Illmatic” songs show his brilliance as an MC, using Nas’ original subject matter as a loose blueprint for his technically impeccable rap. El has reached the plateau of AZ in that he’s such a virtually flawless rapper that we practically expect it (to think he was once the afterthought of Slum Village!), but perhaps the most charming aspect of the album is the cleverly arranged music performed by the Will Sessions Band, taking the compositions of Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip and adapting them for the eight-piece jazz ensemble.

9. Saigon’s “The Greatest Story Never Told
It’s better late than never for this album that was expected around the time Saigon was playing Turtle’s homey on “Entourage,” and after years of delays he took the project to Suburban Noize of all places and finally unleashed it for the masses. It also didn’t disappoint in the slightest. Saigon’s hustler mentality and penchant for dramatic anthems recall New York’s godfathers of the late ‘90s, and we haven’t heard Just Blaze get down like this in years (possibly because he actually hasn’t). Layzie Bone, Bun B, Q-Tip, Black Thought, Jay-Z, and Devin the Dude all kill their guest spots, and “The Greatest Story Never Told” shines as an epic, go-for-broke rap debut the likes of which we haven’t seen perhaps since “The College Dropout.”

8. Pharaohe Monch’s “W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)
Pharaohe Monch’s latest is a meticulously-arranged piece of futuristic concepts and protest music, featuring impeccable production and excellent guests across the board. There’s a timelessness to this record that few among Pharaohe’s peers can aspire to, and “W.A.R.” is the type of album to transcend genres and attract listeners who would rarely give hip hop albums a second glance, while simultaneously sating his fans from the Organized Konfusion days.

7. Talib Kweli’s “Gutter Rainbows
The hip hop gods look down on Talib Kweli and smile with pride. “Gutter Rainbows” carries on the Native Tongues’ torch as well as any record of the past decade; a mature, tasteful-sounding album with a consistently positive outlook and excellent guests and production. Talib’s technique is a treat that never seems to lose its novelty, and “Gutter Rainbows” features a fine-tuned veteran performance from a rare artistic talent. From the sunny vibes of “Mr. International” and “Friends and Family” to the timeless revolutionary sounds of “Cold Rain” and “Self Savior,” “Gutter Rainbows” is Talib at his best.

6. Brotha Lynch Hung’s “Coathanga Strangla
The second part of a planned trilogy, “Coathanga Strangla” may in fact exceed its predecessor “Dinner and a Movie.” Brotha Lynch’s career rejuvenation has occurred via an ingenious approach of graphic slasher rap and bone-chilling production courtesy of his new friends at Tech N9ne’s Strange Music, and his latest is seeping with delicious posse cuts, stunning narratives, and phenomenal music. The brilliance of latter-day Lynch lies in that the line between horror and comedy is so blurred that the listener hardly knows what to make of it.

5. Joell Ortiz’s “Free Agent
Joell comes into his own with his latest solo drop, an album bursting at the seams with hilarious punchlines, fresh concepts, banging production, and enough East Coast swagger for a small city. Joell is as technically astute as they come but he’s an entertainer first, a priority that never escapes “Free Agent” on unforgettable tracks such as the L.O.X. collabo “Put Some Money On It,” the Fat Joe duet “One Shot (Killed For Less),” and the touching “Good Man Is Gone.” The most memorable track, though, might be “Checkin’ For You,” which shows Joell’s versatility with a brilliant piece of vocal acting. “Free Agent” will make listeners pine for the days of New York’s dominance without sounding even a minute dated.

4. Has-Lo’s “In Case I Don’t Make It
Philadelphia producer/rapper Has-Lo’s debut is a low-key tour de force chronicling a man’s long bout with depression. At times, Has recalls a sleepy Wu-Tang rapper with tracks like “Build Jewelz” and “Sub-Ether,” but the bittersweet meanderings of “Everything Is,” “Years Later,” and the title track supply the moments that make this record unforgettable. Has-Lo’s wistful nostalgia for a happy childhood he never knew and admissions that he can’t even imagine a world without depression are illuminating to the point that one can’t help but relate. Has-Lo takes his troubles head on, but his greatest triumph may be that he never outright asks for the listener’s sympathy; he just tells how he feels. As a producer his brooding, sample-heavy sound is the perfect quiet storm for his lyrics, and with “In Case I Don’t Make It” Has-Lo joins the ranks of Bushwick Bill and 2Pac not in sound or content but in the sense that his music captures a rapper and a man truly on the edge.

3. Blue Scholars’ “Cinemetropolis
“Cinemetropolis” is Blue Scholars’ most ambitious effort to date, billed a “visual soundtrack” and using the interplay of Geologic’s rhymes and Sabzi’s beats to create remarkably graphic pieces of music. It’s not the concept that makes the album brilliant so much as the music itself, though—Sabzi’s legend continues to grow as he offers some of his most expansive and visionary production to date, and Geo’s improvement as an MC is remarkable. Highlights such as “Lalo Schifrin,” “Yuri Kochiyama,” and “Fin” mark the fulfillment of this duo’s immense potential.

2. Big K.R.I.T.’s “Return of 4eva
K.R.I.T.’s latest step toward world domination comes in the form of another free release containing some of his finest work to date. K.R.I.T. is a revivalist who embodies everything once great about hip hop from the American southeast—the backwoods mysticism of Dungeon Family, the space-age pimpery of 8Ball & MJG, and U.G.K.’s third coast funk—in a wildly accessible package. As a rapper, singer, and producer, the soul and precision K.R.I.T. injects in his craft never fails to impress, and the smooth contemplation of “King’s Blues,” “Another N.I.G.G.E.R.,” and “Highs and Lows” find a young visionary at his best. When he inked a deal with Def Jam late last year many speculated that we had seen the last of his free-download opuses, but he’s shining bright as ever with “Return of 4eva.”

1. DJ Quik’s “The Book of David
“The Book of David” is one of the most accomplished pieces of DJ Quik’s legendary catalog, drawing inspiration from the past while looking unabashedly toward the future. Much of the album revisits the feel-good, palm tree-swaying California vibes of his mid-90s classics “Safe + Sound” and “Rhythm-Al-Ism,” and Quik also shows his growth with a successful array of tracks for the streets and the bedroom. While fans know to expect some of the finest production hip hop has to offer, Quik shows marked improvement on the mic here, delivering bars boasting the refinement of a veteran two decades in. From the gorgeous Jon B. collabos “Do Today” and “Real Women” to the speaker-pounding street anthems “Ghetto Rendezvous” and “Killer Dope,” highlights abound. The warm-weather jewels “So Compton” and “Nobody” as well as the striking ballad “Time Stands Still” also stand among his finest work.