2011 in hip-hop was a journey backwards for me. Some of today’s hottest artists, like Drake, Weezy, and Nicki all dropped good albums that I vibed to and still listen to from time to time. However, the most significant albums of 2011 drew from the spirits of an older – and in my personal opinion – more pure sound that I believed to be fading in hip-hop today. Don’t get me wrong, 2011 also had its progressive artists and I appreciated some attempts to bring hip-hop into its new stage of musicality, but I’m glad 2011 gave me an opportunity to look back and revel in a more familiar time. I must be getting older.

Honorable Mentions (Albums That I Liked, but not enough to call them “Top”):

Eligh and Amp Live – Therapy at 3

I think I’m in the minority when I say that this was a good album. I can understand why some people would shunt it to the side. I can agree with a lot of points that are made against this album, like Eligh goes too heavy on the stream of consciousness, Amp Live needs to stop thinking he’s an electronica DJ, etc. etc. Still, at the end of the day, I thought that the majority of this album was well made. Eligh was on point when he made sense and Amp Live hit the mark more so than he missed.

J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story

J. Cole has arrived, well..slightly. The fact that I’ve heard a good chunk of the album already on his previous mixtapes automatically disqualifies this album for a top spot in my book. I mean, if you’re going to drop your debut album, I think it’s best to keep as much of it as original as possible. Not to disrespect, “Lost Ones”, “Lights Please”, and “In The Morning” are all dope tracks, but they’re not new material. I still have faith that Cole will be one of those artists that will carry the torch for this new generation of hip-hop unfolding in front of us, and the album is still pretty good.

Nujabes – Spiritual State

Jun Seba might be unjustly gone from us, but it hasn’t prevented hydeout productions from gathering the last scraps of his material and giving his fans a final hurrah. Nujabes’ sound has evolved and developed, although it always stayed within its jazzy boundaries. Spiritual State sounds more like a “next stage” instead of the “final stage”, which makes it a bit more tragic to listen to, but it’s still an album that invokes the best of Japanese hip-hop. Rest in Peace Jun Seba.

Top Albums of 2011 (in no particular order)

Reks – Rhythmatic Eternal King Supreme

Seeing the production credits on this album made me squeal like a Korean schoolgirl. Seeing DJ Premier, Pete Rock, The Alchemist, and Hi-Tek leave their mark on one album was more than enough motivation to pick up a copy. The production from start to finish was all solid, the guests all held down their weight when their names were called, but Reks brought that requisite fire and hunger in his lines that put this album over the hump from “pretty good” to “great”.

Apathy – Honkey Kong

I came upon this album because of the rare Xzibit sighting, and I stayed on this album because Apathy manages to crystallize the entire M.O. and spirit of the Demigodz/Army of the Pharoah community of hip-hop. He does it as well as he’s done his entire career, with deft microphone skill and some solid production to back up his most recent effort. Punchline heavy and rapping for the sake of rapping, it’s deftly created grindhouse rap that is meant to evoke that “OOOOH” instead of that “hmmm…”.

Elzhi – Elmatic

I can only congratulate Elzhi’s ambition for remaking one of the foundational albums of hip-hop history, and I can further congratulate him on doing a damn good job. Detroit has every reason to be proud of its son, he took one of New York’s crown jewels and polish it into the Big D’s image. Will Sessions does a fantastic job reinventing the classic production, and Elzhi successfully puts his own spin on those holy Illmatic songs without desecrating the tradition.

Saigon – The Greatest Story Never Told

I’ve been waiting for this album since I got a couple Saigon mixtapes back in 06′, I’ve been waiting for this album since I saw Sai on Entourage and perform snippets of it on the show, waiting for it since his guest spot on “Rising Down”, hell I’ve been waiting for this album when I was being subjected to a slew of garbage ass New York street rappers that tried to be as dope as Sai, but could only try. My reaction to finally hearing this album might be tinted by the fact that I’ve been waiting so long, but the powerful delivery of Saigon’s lyrics and that vintage Just Blaze production will make this an album enjoyed by most everyone. This is what New York street hip-hop is supposed to sound like.

Cunninlynguists – Oneirology

Kno is getting damn good at that “hauntingly beautiful” sound. It doesn’t matter if it’s slow and drawn-out, or hi-tempo with bounce, all of his production sounds like it comes from a maliciously pensive place. I kind of miss the light-heartedness of “Will Rap For Food” and “Southernunderground”, but this new direction of Cunninlynguists isn’t unappreciated. They’re damn good at making some depressingly dope music. What truly separates them is their ability to avoid sounding overly emotional while doing it.

Pharoahe Monch – W.A.R.

P. Monch outdid himself in his most recent effort “W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)”. Perennial favorite for the “Most Underrated Artist” award every year, Pharoahe comes as complex, as spiky, as confrontational, and as intelligent as ever. Well chosen guests that kill their spots coupled with some markedly improved production since his last go-around in “Desire”, “W.A.R.” might possibly be the best album that Pharoahe Monch has put out yet.

The Roots – undun

The one complaint that has been made against this album was the length. The story of Redford Stephens seems to blaze by, and the last four songs of undun were purely musical movements without a tinge of Black Thought. But if you think about it, the cursed life of Redford Stephens was always destined to be cut short. The Roots continue to push their boundaries and Black Thought continues to consolidate his position as one of the best all-around MCs in hip-hop today. undun is a somber story that’s told beautifully, and though its short, it doesn’t make it any less significant.

Will Sessions – Real Sessions

Normally, I don’t like live performance albums. I think it’s a blunted representation of the experience of music unfolding in front of you. I know that sounds pretentious as fuck, but I believe that live music should only be taken in live, not from the TV, not from a recording, etc. That said, I have to give it up for Will Sessions. They’re a dope jazz/funk band that released this free LP of 10 recordings where they recreate beats for some of Detroit’s finest to rock live. Artists like Guilty Simpson, Phat Kat, Elzhi, DJ Dez, and Black Milk are all featured on “Real Sessions”, and it’s a well-crafted introduction to one of the up-and-coming hip-hop/jazz bands on the scene.

Kendrick Lamar – Section.80

Kendrick Lamar was the first rapper I ever reviewed on this site. I didn’t give him the most flattering review, but I do remember that this kid possessed some upside. I stand by what I said, but I would never have thought Kendrick would improve as much as he did. He’s leaps and bounds beyond his debut, so much so that I’d say he’s one of the top artists in 2011. He still has that Lambo flow that lays slick on any beat, but his lyrics have finally caught up with his delivery. If he continues tracking the way he does, then he’ll be the undisputed voice of the West Coast in a few years, I put that on.

DJ Quik – The Book of David

Speaking of the West Coast, I’m glad DJ Quik decided to come out from whatever crevice LA was hiding him in. “The Book of David” brings back some proper West Coast funk and bounce that has been missing for me for some time. I don’t know what Quik was doing during all this time, but he hasn’t lost a step behind the boards, and actually improved his presence behind the mic. On top of all this, old friends and colleagues come out of the woodwork to celebrate Quik’s return to the game, with Bun B, Ice Cube, Suga Free, Kurupt, Dwele, Jon B, Bizzy Bone, and an army of others showing up with their A games. A lot of heavyweights came out with albums this year, Jay-Z and Kanye, Weezy, Drake, and so-on. But I think it’s the old vet from the West that tops them all in 2011.