Beats & Rhymes: Year in Review 2007

Beats & Rhymes: Year in Review 2007
1. Kanye West Graduation (Roc-A-Fella)
For all of his well publicised award show blow-ups, headline-grabbing ego trips, and expressed deservedness of every number one spot with a trophy attached, there’s little denying that Kanye West sits about as high up on hip-hop’s status and success totem poll as you can get. Despite a mouth that you’d think would make the most public of failures a near-ordained inevitability, Kanye continues to deliver with disgusting consistency, backing up each childish tirade with cuts that add yet another impermeable coat to his champion sheen. This year was not different, as West not only hand-crafted Chi-town brethren Common’s first Billboard number one record, but also managed to hatch the biggest industry-snatching plan in recent years with the all-out hype assault that surrounded his third release, Graduation.

Slating his return to store shelves for the same day as 50 Cent’s, with the two battling it out for sales supremacy (as staged a conflict as that turned out to be), was a genius move that effectively put the producer/MC’s most mature record to date in the hands of damn near everyone. Graduation reflects a near perfect balance of each of Kanye’s most explosive traits: an expertly trained ear for accessible and enveloping production magic, and a deft lyrical arsenal that pairs witty metaphor and everyday reflections with enough ball-gripping braggadocio to make you declare unabashedly that this man is the shit.

West’s latest productions play heavy on rich synth sounds and the melding of his trademark classic soul tendencies to a newfound love of futuristic vibes, with the Daft Punk-assisted lead single "Stronger” being a clear but hardly exclusive example. Thick synth chord washes and stabs run throughout the record, bolstering the clever, theme-anchoring Steely Dan snippet of "Champion,” and providing the late night street scene atmosphere of "Flashing Lights.” Where traditional samples are concerned, Kanye transforms more than a few gems into some of the disc’s more enveloping moments, the most prominent being the beautiful Labi Siffre material that serves as the foundation for the catchy "I Wonder.” Kanye blows out Siffre’s quant piano/vocal pairing into a bottom-heavy kick drum and keys exchange before calling on the string work of legendary Philadelphia soul arranger Larry Gold to carry the cut away.

While multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter Jon Brion held the Louis Vuitton Don up on his last outing, West turns to the more likely guns of Timbaland, DJ Premier and Nottz for some punching up this time, particularly on tracks that require a little extra microphone attention. Kanye teams up with cameo king of the moment Lil Wayne and his gravelly flow on "Barry Bonds,” manages to find a good use for T-Pain’s digitized vocals on the moving-on-up tune "Good Life” and launches the new official screw-faced battle cry with "Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” But it’s the rare showing of heartfelt humility the crafty rapper saves for the album’s closer that most surprises and impresses. With "Big Brother,” Kanye sends an air-clearing letter through song to Def Jam head honcho Jay-Z, breaking down their jealousies and insecurities, and offering a rare emotional glimpse at the dealings of two of the game’s most respected heavyweights. If Graduation truly closes out Kanye’s education-themed trilogy, then it’s a fitting end and a positive reflection of an artist growing to match their bestowed stature. Kevin Jones

2. Common Finding Forever (G.O.O.D.)
Common’s second album on G.O.O.D had a highly anticipated buzz — and for good reason. Finding Forever, titled after timeless music, proved to be one of the best for 2007. Common has finally mastered the balance of singles ("The Game” and "Drivin’ Me Wild” featuring Lily Allen) and Common-esque tracks for the long-time fans. His selection of production from Kanye West, J Dilla and Will.I.Am, with a DJ Premiere feature, was impeccable. Check out "So Far To Go” for a perfect glimpse into Forever. Tara Muldoon

3. Little Brother Getback (ABB)
When you really think about it, Little Brother’s name couldn't be more apt. When the criminally underappreciated The Minstrel Show withered from mainstream indifference, one couldn't help but wonder if North Carolina's finest could ever hope to reach the hip-hop heights of their "spiritual big brothers” A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. But by taking its cue from its EPMD-inspired album cover, the 11-track Getback dishes out the now-classic Little Brother template: dope beats and good rhymes served with frank realness. Even with 9th Wonder’s limited involvement, Phonte and Big Pooh deliver the goods, and one of year's better albums. Ryan B. Patrick

4. Abdominal Escape from the Pigeon Hole (Do Right)
Diverse subject matter and lyrical prowess vaulted Abdominal high above his competition. But perhaps it was because with "T-Ode,” a paean to Toronto, Abdominal made it known that he buys his records at the same place as his fans. Most of what’s found here will resonate with listeners who push pedals more than they push dope. That's the joy of this record: he remembers that hip-hop need not be so serious at all times and pokes fun at anything and everything, sounding like a one-man Jurassic 5. Pierre Hamilton

5. Talib Kweli Ear Drum (Blacksmith/Warner)
For the first release on his new label Kweli gets producers like Madlib, Pete Rock, Kanye and Hi-Tek to set the table, then invites a diverse range of chefs, from KRS-One to Jean Grae, Roy Ayers to Musiq Soulchild (where’s Mos Def?) to help him in the kitchen. He double-times the killer "Country Cousins” alongside UGK, gets a hot hook from Norah Jones in "Soon the New Day” and blasts out tracks like "Hostile Gospel Pt. 1” and "Listen” that are certified conscious-head-nodding neck-snappers à la "Get Up.” Brendan Murphy

6. Aesop Rock None Shall Pass (Def Jux)
Aesop Rock injects his dark paranoia with a sliver of optimism and light-hearted fun after moving to sunny San Francisco. His dense and image-heavy lyrics are delivered with more emphasis and enthusiasm evident within his deep and raspy monotone flow; his El-P lite productions are also less noisy and more funky, and he further benefits by the return of Blockhead’s boom bap. While None Shall Pass may be his most accessible and mature album to date, Ace Rock still takes chances by closing out his album collaborating with John Darnielle, front-man for lo-fi rockers the Mountain Goats. Thomas Quinlan

7. Buck 65 Situation (Strange Famous)
Buck 65 sounds like a brainy, mid-40s university professor with a PhD in history and a hard-on for hip-hop. His most recent lecture features 16 bangin’ tracks that examine post-war America in the year 1957. It's not house party music, but it’s educational and entertaining and more wicked than his last two records were weird. Halifax’s Skratch Bastid lays down backdrops so rich with texture that they'd make for interesting instrumentals even if Buck’s unconventional verses didn't populate them. See "The Beatific” and "Cop Shades” for the strongest evidence, but this disc proves hip-hop can still engage the mind. Pierre Hamilton

8. Blu & Exile Below the Heavens (Sound In Colour)
One of the strongest and most unexpected hip-hop debuts this year came from Los Angeles duo Blu and Exile, whose album Below the Heavens was released to critical acclaim despite scant promotion. Over Exile’s lush and soulful production, MC Blu flows effortlessly about the plight of the everyman, creating an album that is not just consistent, cohesive and musically impressive, but easily digestible to the casual listener. Some of the album’s strongest tracks, such as "Blu Colla Workers,” "Dancing in the Rain,” and "So(ul) Amazin' (Steel Blazin'),” helped push the album based on merit alone — something rarely done in 2007. Andrea Woo

9. El-P I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (Def Jux)
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead starts like a cacophonous apocalypse, and mellows out in dystopian aftermath. What El-P does with effects and samples is unique and easily distinguishable in a suspect line-up. Like an acidic Public Enemy, he layers each beat and enhances the experience with palpable echoes and dramatic sound effects. On previous projects, his flow was imprecise and loose, but here, perhaps influenced by his Jukie employees, he pierces every note with a clean stab. El-P sounds misanthropic, but it’s because he loves you so much that he makes such nefarious music. Omar Mouallem

10. Shad The Old Prince (Black Box)
With all the poise of a seasoned vet, Shad hit heads with one of the strongest Canadian hip-hop records ever. The achievement is particularly significant when comparing The Old Prince to 2005’s When This is Over. The London, Ontario MC far exceeded the promise of his first record, refining the wit and attention to detail within both his production tastes and multi-layered wordplay. The freebie 2007 sampler La Cassette Mixée #1 was an astonishing display of Shad’s leaps and bounds and further evidence of his confident mastery of hip-hop is all over The Old Prince. Don’t sleep on it. Vish Khanna