Hip-Hop: Year in Review 2006

1. Ghostface Killah
Fishscale (Def Jam)
Ten years after Ironman and six years after Supreme Clientele, Ghostface Killah is back on top of hip-hop. He came through 2006, his titanic Fishscale in hand, and blessed a genre ever in danger of growing stale with a staggering record that nods to the past, looks to the future and obliterates mostly everything in the present. For a man who cut his teeth as a key member of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan, his solo career should have been, by all rights, a footnote. Instead, he’s here, 13 years after 36 Chambers, topping year-end lists with perhaps the greatest achievement of his solo career.

And he sounds exhausted. Ghostface has the breathless, weary growl of a man who’s burning the mic at both ends, extra raspy, a man who’s running, head down, under the weight of hip-hop strapped to his back. "I’m trying to do two albums a year,” he says, referring to his next record, More Fish, scheduled to hit streets before the New Year. "They need more of what I'm doing. I just want to make sure they get their hands on some right shit.”

Fishscale is certainly that, a head-spinning marvel of street storytelling, where Ghost effortlessly mixes menace with vulnerability, fiction with autobiography and punch-lines with gut-punches, always keeping his third eye focused on the details that make this world his. Of course, none of it is accidental. "It’s like knitting and sewing, you’ve got to really take your time on every line and every fine stitch,” he says. "You’ve got to know what you want to say, and make sure you say it right and make sure that everything is detailed. All that counts.”

If all that marksmanship comes at a cost, it’s not in the music. Here, Ghost feels the welts of his mother’s belt, runs through a drug deal gone bad, laments the squandered potential of the young girls to whom he’s dealing coke; Ghost never takes a rhyme off. "I could take it easy and just write whatever, but it's not going to be as good,” he says. "It would be a half-assed rhyme. Sometimes it might take me a couple days to get a rhyme out, because I’ve got so much stuff in my mind, man, I'm doing so many things, sometimes it’s hard for me to think.”

Therein lies the burden for 2006’s reigning hip-hop champion. If Fishscale had album-of-the-year honours shored up in May, and it did, then the challenge for a man with several classics already locked away in his vault is dealing with the pressure of dictating the direction of a genre he’d always influenced more inconspicuously. "People look up to me for certain things, but I don't really take it as serious as some people do, because I'm in it right now. I know what hip-hop means to people. I just want to be part of it, carrying that torch. I want to help people bring it back to where it was at. My name could be part of that history. But I can't worry about history and what I'm writing at the same time. What I gotta do is just keep doing me and let nature just take its course.” Nick Patch

2. The Roots
Game Theory (Def Jam)
Album of the year, maybe, but as important, their best, most complete record yet. By dropping the blackpacker-than-thou attitude and extended riff wankery, Illadelphia’s favourite sons are draped in a darker tone than they are known for and the music is restrained but not constrained. Not to go all graduate thesis on this, but by narrowing the parameters of song structures, they managed to beat the mainstream at its own game. It’s like the Roots finally grew some balls. Dark, angry, smart balls. Brendan Murphy

3. Lupe Fiasco
Food & Liquor (Atlantic)
After months of premature leaks and subsequent delays, crafty Chi-town lyricist Lupe Fiasco makes good on all the pre-release hype with a solid offering. Rather than lacing the record with predictable soul beats from hometown hero Kanye West, Lupe instead reaches out to his own crewmates for the crisp, innovative production work that has this record sounding entirely individual. But where the album truly succeeds is in the professed fashionista’s deft, metaphorical rhymestyle, as the seasoned mic man dices up topics as disparate as skateboard lovin’, absentee fathers, hip-hop excess, and cultural bigotry with some of the most effortlessly creative wordplay in the game. Kevin Jones

4. J Dilla
Donuts / The Shining (Stones Throw/BBE)
We lost one of hip-hop’s greatest assets, and were left with two fantastic pieces of work to remember the late J Dilaa. Released just days before his death, Donuts displayed Jay's instrumental flare by chopping hundreds of soul samples into a sloppy gem of banging minute-long loops similar to his dear friend Madlib. The Shining sees Dilla in a more familiar role, as producer for heavyweights such as Common and Pharoahe Monch who fittingly compliment his stunning musical odes to love and happiness. They will serve as blueprints for future producers to graciously bite in order to keep the spirit of Dilla alive, and how he planned to turn hip-hop on its head. Noel Dix
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Article Published In Dec 06 Issue