Another year gone and I’m honestly wondering where it went. Amid memories and thoughts of friends made and lost, the music I listen to at a level that borders a dangerous obsession is inextricably tied to my recollections of the life of Pete in 2011. Every year I promise myself that I will ease up on my compulsion to listen to darn near every rap release that drops, but with the help of Spotify I managed to listen to more new music this year than ever before. I’m going to begin this year in review as I did my last—with eulogies for two hip hop legends from a fan who can’t assess them as people, but merely as artists I felt I came to know and love.
First, to Heavy D, one of hip hop’s most unappreciated essential figures. The easiest way to assess a fallen musician is to look at his influence, and from that perspective, the Overweight Lover’s legacy seems truly incredible. As a heavyset ladies man, he paved the way for Biggie and Pun; as a rapper-turned-actor, Will Smith and countless others are heavily indebted; as a reggae enthusiast, everyone from Boot Camp Clik to DJ Quik owe much; and as a producer and exec, Sean Combs and Jay-Z were influenced. However, I find merely examining one’s influence hardly does justice to a career spent producing art. Heavy D was a master of rap delivery, but perhaps more significantly he was one of the most purely charismatic figures hip hop has ever known. He was positive but never preachy, willing to experiment with sounds ranging from new jack swing to reggae, and maintained undying respect among his peers, an amazing feat given his crossover success and frequent lightheartedness in an era when MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were hip hop’s most targeted figures. Hev boasted one of hip hop’s most impressive discographies, the latter half of which remains criminally underrated, and kept recording and acting through his final days, which included a quietly if well-received reggae album and a spot in the Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller vehicle “Tower Heist.” Rest in Peace to one of hip hop’s great entertainers.
Secondly, to Nate Dogg, one of my favorite musicians of any genre. Nate was pigeonholed early on as hip hop’s hookman, a label that he carried, for better or worse, through his career spanning nearly two decades. I’m not sure that hip hop, or my life for that matter, would be any different without his unforgettable contributions to such classics as “Ain’t No Fun,” “Area Codes,” and “Gangsta Nation” (not to mention “Xxplosive,” “Where I Wanna Be,” and “How Long Will They Mourn Me?”…okay, I swear I’m done), but I like to think they would. Ice Cube was right on when he quipped, “It must be a single if Nate Dogg singing on it,” and the mere presence of his sinister vocals had the unduplicable, unquantifiable quality to turn any song into a classic.
Still, the hookman label managed to sell Nate short. A bona fide bluesman born into a world of bandanas and lowriders, Nate was one of the architects behind the g-funk sound, a movement out of Long Beach that for my money is still one of the most purely beautiful hip hop styles yet devised. His solo material remains oddly overlooked, particularly “G-Funk Classics, Vols. 1 & 2,” a two-disc set of material from Death Row’s mid-90s developmental hell that, were it released on time, I’m confident would stand tall among the label’s classics. His tracks painted the same Long Beach that his childhood friends Snoop and Warren did, but he humbly celebrated the simple joys of life: weed, friendship, and of course music. When Nate first came to prominence, gangsta rap and R&B enjoyed an uneasy relationship, lending anyone who straddled that perilous line to be labeled soft or illegitimate. There was nothing soft about Nate’s crooning, and he helped inject a much-needed element of soul to the sometimes comically bleak genre. Rest in peace to a man who served as a constant reminder that even the hardest of gangsters has real soul.
In my capacity as hip hop appreciator, the Year in Review is one of the duties I take most seriously, because I could write reviews until I’m blue in the face but you’d never have any idea of what I think truly stands out or deserves recognition. Here we go with my picks from the year that was.
One Be Lo’s “L.A.B.O.R.”
“L.A.B.O.R.” is an undeniably great album bearing every mark of one of hip hop music’s greatest talents. Despite its brilliance, however, it’s fairly forgettable and doesn’t compare particularly favorably with his best work. The year’s most divisive album if only for me individually.
The Mo City Don breaks no new ground on “Meth,” but it contains some of the best production he’s had in years courtesy of Beanz N Kornbread and is chock full of bona fide bangers even if the album itself isn’t his most distinctive.
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.
Vakill’s “Armor of God”
The name of Vakill’s game is unadulterated lyricism. Add some strong production from Jake One and Molemen and you’ve got yourself a menace of a record.
M.O.P. & Snowgoons’ “Sparta”
M.O.P. outsourced the production of “Sparta” to European heavyweights Snowgoons, who turned in ten furious beats ideal for Danze and Fame. After seventeen years together, it’s quite admirable that M.O.P. is self-aware enough to know that a little tinkering with the formula can yield such great results.
yU’s “The Earn”
Brotha Lynch Hung’s “Coathanga Strangla”
Nappy Roots’ “Nappy Dot Org”
yU, Brotha Lynch Hung, and Nappy Roots were responsible for three of the very best albums of 2010, and they subscribed to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy by quickly churning out follow-ups with much the same formulae. To a slightly varying extent each was every bit as good as its predecessor, so if you missed them in 2010 feel free to sub them into the top ten that follows as you see fit.
Pete’s 10 of ’11:
10. Pharoahe Monch’s “W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)”
A meaningful, cleverly-produced album from one of hip hop’s elder statesmen, Pharoahe Monch’s latest is a meticulously-arranged piece of futuristic concepts and protest music featuring excellent guests across the board. “Evolve” is a stirring Exile production laced with emphatic rhymes and a nice balance of female vocals and bells, while “Black Hand Side” is a soulful winner featuring an uncharacteristically contemplative Styles P and Phonte. The theatrical closers “The Grand Illusion” and “Still Standing” stand among the year’s most unforgettable. There’s a timelessness to this record that few among Pharoahe’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.
9. Saigon’s “The Greatest Story Never Told”
Conceived at least half a decade ago, Saigon’s is an epic, go-for-broke debut in the tradition of “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” “The College Dropout,” and “The Documentary,” replete with legitimate anthems, rags-to-riches ebullience, and A-list production. What’s particularly fascinating about it is the knowledge that Saigon’s tale wouldn’t conclude with the happy ending of 50 Cent, Kanye, and Game’s. After years of delays, he took the project to Suburban Noize and although it certainly is a few years dated, it doesn’t disappoint. Saigon’s hustler mentality and penchant for dramatic narration 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 album’s second half is home to a procession of sentimental gems and startling odes to street life: “Clap” with Faith Evans is an inspiring study; “Believe It” sounds like it belongs in the credits of his biopic; “Better Way” is a gorgeous downtempo number; and “Oh Yeah (Our Babies)” and “And the Winner Is” close the album in grand fashion. “The Greatest Story Never Told” recalls the best of the last decade’s rap successes, but carries an undeniable air of sadness about it given Saigon’s failure to achieve the glory promised him by rap’s major label gatekeepers.
8. The Doppelgangaz’ “Lone Sharks”
New York duo Matter ov Fact and EP’s latest LP might be the best Cella Dwellas never recorded. EP’s laidback beats evoke a young Havoc, with fleeting soul samples, murky basslines, sparse percussion, and tenuous piano lines, and both MCs provide rich, visual lyricism with just a hint of tongue-in-cheek humor. Their eerie, grimy sound somewhere between Brooklyn and the Twilight Zone has a smooth polish and is so focused the album never sags. They sport great back-and-forth chemistry on “Rap $ Unemployment” and the hilarious “Like What Like Me,” and EP’s musical genius shows on gems such as “Get Em,” “Doppel Gospel,” and “Dumpster Diving.” A real sleeper for 2011.
7. Apathy’s “Honkey Kong”
The most amazing thing about Apathy is that with each go-round you know exactly what you’re going to get yet he never fails to impress anyway. He’s a vicious East Coast spitter who always manages to truck out fresh concepts and excellent production enough to make each of his albums a landmark event. The supporting cast on “Honkey Kong” is phenomenal, with rhymes from Xzibit, Action Bronson, Ill Bill, Slaine, Vinnie Paz, Celph Titled, and Reef the Lost Cauze among many others. Make no mistake though—this is Ap’s show through and through, and it features some absolutely tremendous performances over rock-solid production, and practically everything sticks. Highlights abound in the form of the Evidence-laced “Check to Check,” Premo’s neck-snapping “Stop What Ya Doin’,” the Xzibit duet “The Recipe,” and the Statik Selektah-produced reality check “It’s Only Hip Hop.” Throw in the bonus “Primate Mindstate” EP and you’ve got yourself an albino monster of a release. Peace Connecticut.
6. 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” is a ridiculously well-rounded, consistent effort that will make listeners pine for the days of New York’s dominance without sounding even a minute dated, and while this would ordinarily be a career-defining performance, the same can be said of practically everything Joell puts to wax.
5. 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 incredibly consistent 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. While the first half is more upbeat, with synth-pounding gems such as “Rotation” and “Sookie Now,” he assumes a more reflective tone for the second half, culminating in the humbling “The Vent.” 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.” K.R.I.T. has huge mainstream potential yet continues to collaborate with a wide range of the underground’s best and brightest, absolutely killed every guest spot he had in 2011, and until he releases any music to convince me otherwise I can honestly say I haven’t been as excited about a new hip hop artist in a long time.
4. Blue Scholar’s “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. Sabzi employs wild sonic experimentation to such uniform success that it’s incredible. The synths slither through speakers, incorporating numbingly complex syncopation with sounds from across cultures and others all his own for a ridiculously expansive, innovative sound on full display for the curious “Lalo Schifrin,” the humbly beautiful “Yuri Kochiyama,” and the empowering closer “Fin.” Geologic has come so far in terms of his presence and delivery, and “Cinemetropolis” finds a mature, self-assured MC voicing sentiments to inspire a revolution. The opening title track is the sort of show-stopping opus to make you stop whatever you’re doing just to listen, but the mood soon mellows for tracks like the deep summer ode “Marion Sunshine,” with Geo becoming a force for “Tommy Chong” and “Chief Sealth.” “Cinemetropolis” is an epic success that realizes Blue Scholars’ massive potential and is mind-blowing in its approach and execution.
3. 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. One of the most consistently evocative records I’ve heard, even the more abstract tracks are absolutely dripping with melancholy. 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. His characterization of depression seems painfully accurate—not so much helpless despair as detached carelessness. Recalling an instance when his father admitted he never even wanted kids, Has doesn’t rage Eminem-style, but simply maintains, “What a bitch…didn’t deserve that.” 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.
2. 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. “Nobody” might be the collabo of the year, a pimp’s manifesto with old friend Suga Free, and elsewhere guests are provided by Ice Cube, Bizzy Bone, and Bun B who all roll through to pay tribute. The warm-weather jewels “So Compton” and “Nobody” as well as the striking ballad “Time Stands Still” also stand among his finest work.
1. CunninLynguists’ “Oneirology”
Both a beautiful album and a beautiful-sounding album, “Oneirology” is an amazing piece of music from an already ridiculously lauded entity. Here Deacon, Kno, and Natti enter the realm of the ethereal with a mystifying, tantalizing listen ripe with concepts and gorgeous production. “Hard as They Come (Act One)” is hard-hitting yet still sounds as if it emanates from a dream rather than a speaker, whereas “Murder (Act Two)” finds a perfect balance between reverberating trumpets, pulsating synths, and a phenomenal verse from one of 2011’s MVPs, Big K.R.I.T. “Stars Shine Brightest (In the Darkest of Night)” is four minutes of brilliance sure to convert any nonbeliever to Kno’s production, while “Dreams” is a dramatic third act setting the stage for the incredible closer “Embers.” Each track on “Oneirology” is stunning individually, and taken together make for a heavy, addictive listen. CunninLynguists take it to the next level with “Oneirology,” an album that I know will continue to provide me with thrills and wonder for years to come.
As always, many thanks to the readers and fellow writers for their eyes and feedback. Anyone looking to hire an outrageously accomplished college grad this spring, or just say what’s up, my email’s on the “Contact” page.