Published Nov 23, 20081. Lil Wayne Tha Carter III (Cash Money)
The endless period of prosperity that has blessed Cash Money millionaire Lil Wayne these past few years reached its stratospheric peak in 2008 with a record that firmly solidified the ever-maturing rapper's dominant status. Tracks from the third instalment of his eye-opening namesake series were already burning through speakers months before the disc's official birth date, but when Tha Carter III finally hit stores, cash registers long rusted shut from disuse were ringing the unfamiliar tune of a million-plus first week sales. If there was anybody out there still scratching their heads at how the same dude who helped coin the phrase "bling-bling" (to the great ire of cerebral hip-hop idealists everywhere) could today be trading verses with everyone from Jay-Z to Little Brother, Carter III lays all the answers on the table. Weezy steps to the mic, speech in hand, amid the ominous synth strings and precision 808 rhythms of icebreaker "3 Peat" and, from his very first breath, releases the controlled confidence that follows every twist and turn of the next 16 tracks. It's a confidence that propels him to a level of flow rarely seen through a career marked largely by banality, and one that makes even the lazy, half-written shit-talking Wayne frequently resorts to hit the spot.
To that point, there's a serious give-and-take relationship between the beats and rhymes that keeps this disc on solid ground, where one never allows the other to fall. When Weezy's creative juices lead him to the expert thematic role of MC-saving surgeon on "Dr. Carter," it hardly matters that, with a bit of coaching, your mother could've probably done better with the cut's Axelrod sample than producer Swizz Beatz did. Conversely, Wayne's voice alone was enough to strike gold with the filthy simplicity of ringtone-friendly "A Milli," and the lyrics prove as much.
Of course, there are more than enough examples of the rapper's effortlessly playful and reference-soaked lyrics and tight musical choices riding high together. Check the Weezy and T-Pain vocoder-fest on club banger "Got Money" and the bustling Kanye and Babyface connect of "Comfortable." Similarly, you can vibe through the desperately reflective New Orleans ode "Tie My Hands," or the completely over-the-top "Lollipop." While it would be near lunacy to hold Mr. Carter in the same light as Jay, 2Pac and Biggie (slow down there, Weezy), there's no question that Tha Carter III marks the highest artistic moment of Lil Wayne's career and leaves little wonder as to why he's on top of the game.
2. The Roots Rising Down (Def Jam)
Rising Down is not the Roots best work, with too many cameos and music that breathes more than energizes. But make no mistake - it's still a banger. Lyrically, Black Thought is more precise with his rhyme schemes and feistier. Musically, the band shows no apprehension to experiment with new instruments. All in all, Rising Down is proof that the Roots might be one of most consistent musical artists - period.
3. Wale The Mixtape About Nothing (10 Deep NYC)
Mixed by tastemaker Nick Catchdubs and selling for your favourite price ($FREE.99) at your favourite music shop (the interweb), The Seinfeld-themed Mixtape About Nothing improves on D.C. star-in-the-making Wale's '07 100 Miles and Running tape and further blurs the line between official albums and promotional Frisbees. The 24-year-old's flow on "Roc Boys" will draw you in, but it's his insight into the record industry and his goosebump inducing race dissertation that will assure you hip-hop is alive and kicking - it now wears Dunks and lives near the White House.
4. T.I. Paper Trail (Grand Hustle)
Few thought house arrest would silence Clifford Harris, Jr. but who expected him to become such a contemplative and earnest MC willing to admit his mistakes on record? Of course, he did so by rubbing elbows with more A-list stars than a red carpet charity event and reminding us that his upcoming prison sentence will be a breeze, ,what with his unbreakable will and bank account the size of his ego. But we wouldn't expect or want anything less, and Paper Trail is thankfully as much a celebration as it is a confession by one of hip-hop's brightest stars.
5. D-Sisive The Book (Urbnet)
Honest and heartfelt hip-hop is rare, but with his long-awaited debut, D-Sisive opens up about the personal tragedies of his life along with other touching tales to which any person who has experienced loss can easily relate. With a tight flow over creative production that matches the sombre mood, the T.O. rapper avoids excessive gloom with a dose of the battle-hardened humour on which he built his name, dropping in playful punch lines and going all out on the scathingly satirical "ThisIsWhatItSoundsLikeWhenWhiteboysListenToHipHop." D-Sisive is back and better than ever.
6. Nas Untitled (Def Jam)
In a year as historic for black Americans as 1863, Nas released his most experimental and controversial album to date, which details the black experience lived and told by him. He is, after all, one of rap's most influential figures. Upon release, many critics and fans were lukewarm to Untitled, perhaps because of the high expectations people have for Nas. But with the change in America since November 4, there is no album more relevant to the shift in social climate.
7. Bun B II Trill (Rap-A-Lot)
In May, Texas heavy hitter Bun B dropped his first album since the December 2007 passing of partner Pimp C, amalgamating the classic Southern street appeal of UGK with newfound reflection. Notable tracks include the Pimp C tribute "Angel In The Sky" and "You're Everything," an ode to the South featuring Rick Ross, David Banner, 8-Ball and MJG. Aside from the odd misstep, the album held its own against 2005's Trill, debuting at No. 2 on Billboard.
8. Black Milk Tronic (Fat Beats)
Somewhere between pumping out collabo albums with Bishop Lamont and Fat Ray and laying peameal-thick tracks for Elzhi and Guilty Simpson, producer-rapper Black Milk found enough studio hours to record his third smashing solo set. Like its predecessors, Tronic puts low-end theories into practice, clashing samples and live drums, keys and synths for a sound that is all Detroit and aimed squarely at your chest cavity. The difference? Milk has sharpened his pen game to the point where his 16s can hang alongside such virtuoso guests as Pharoahe Monch, Royce da 5'9" and Sean Price.
9. Kardinal Offishall Not 4 Sale (Kon Live / Black Jays)
While Kardi's been making moves for a decade-plus now, it is undoubtedly this, his fourth studio album, that allowed the Scarborough native to stamp his footprint firmly into the soil of American hip-hop. Blending his reggae and dancehall influences with the polish needed for commercial appeal, Kardinal successfully crafted an album that allowed him to stay true to himself while line-dancing with featured artist and Kon Live label owner Akon on late-night talk shows. Appearances by the Clipse, Rihanna and T-Pain didn't hurt the commercial viability - or the integrity - of the album, either.
10. Cadence Weapon Afterparty Babies (Upper Class)
After the surprising success of his 2005 debut Breaking Kayfabe, Edmonton's Cadence Weapon returned with a members-only party record with sharp, yet accessible lyrical undertones. With the world watching, Rollie Pemberton shone a light on his hometown, littering cutting songs about surreal, celebrity culture/music biz excess with references to local landmarks and close friends, as if poring over issues of People magazine might make Edmonton a "new Hollywood" by osmosis. With blasting, innovative beats and mesmerizing wordplay, Afterparty Babies is a stunner.