Best Hip-Hop Album Year in Review 2003

Best Hip-Hop Album Year in Review 2003
1. Viktor Vaughn Vaudeville Villain (Sound-Ink)
Underground mystery MF Doom, formerly of KMD, emerged in two alternate guises this year — a three-headed alien called King Geedorah, but more importantly, as Viktor Vaughn, a spacy, sci-fi rap stranger from a strange rap land. For heads who were most hotly anticipating the arrival of MM Food, the proper follow-up to Doom's 1999 album Operation: Doomsday, the success of Viktor Vaughn is the year's most pleasant surprise.

"Doom and Viktor are two different individuals," Doom points out. Both personas are loosely based on the Marvel Comics character Victor Von Doom, the ambitious young scientist who becomes the Fantastic Four's arch-nemesis, Dr Doom, when an experiment goes awry. But Viktor Vaughn is from an alternate time and universe from MF Doom. "He's a younger cat, so when he comes, he's straight on some rip-the-mic shit. He might pop up at a club somewhere, grab the mic." Which is what he does on "Open Mic Night," a two-part posse cut masquerading as a live open mic event. A lot of the rest of the album is made up of battle raps from a young, hungry MC that builds the character of Viktor Vaughn, sometimes even rapping in the second person. But it's not all braggadocio; there's the humorous punch line that is "Modern Day Mugging" and the he-said/she-said ballad "Let Me Watch," featuring Apani B Fly as the love interest, Nikki. No matter the type of narrative, Vaudeville Villain is littered with Doom's witty pop-references told with a slick flow. Where Vaudeville Villain differs from previous Doom projects is the absence of the distinctly ‘80s Metal Fingers sound.

"He don't really produce too much," Doom says of Vaughn. "He really just rhymes." Instead, Vaughn went to the boys at Sound-Ink for a spacy, electronic-influenced sound that firmly anchors the album within the concept. "Viktor touched down in Brooklyn," home of Sound-Ink. "That's where he beamed in at and something went wrong with his gizmo-gadget-time-travelling thing. He met Heat Sensor at a bar in Brooklyn and it just so happens they had things in common. Heat Sensor was experimenting with time travel at the time." It also just so happens that Heat Sensor made beats; he brought along the rest of the Sound Ink producers, King Honey and Max Bill. Plus there's RJD2's "Saliva," arguably the album's highlight, although that honour could also go to the hyper "Vaudeville Villain" anthem or the creepy "Never Dead," featuring Anti-Pop Consortium's M. Sayyid. No matter the form it takes, Vaudeville Villain is a career-defining moment for MF Doom.
Thomas Quinlan

2. OutKast Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (La Face)
The number of worthwhile hip-hop double albums can be counted on one hand, but leave it to Outkast to buck tradition yet again with jarringly different solo sets. With Andre 3000 virtually abandoning MCing, Big Boi impressively holds down the post-Stankonia angle with surprisingly focused aplomb and an amplified introspective bent. Andre's falsetto-fuelled half is even more personal, with commitment phobia emerging as the recurrent theme on the chaotically enthralling disc. With the likes of George Clinton and Prince serving as eccentric muses, Outkast's artistic evolution finds them only in competition with themselves.
Del F. Cowie

3. Prefuse 73 One Word Extinguisher (Warp)
Beat-mutilator Scott Herren delivered large with his sophomore instalment, climbing the ranks of hip-hop's great producers. One Word Extinguisher is even more chaotic and snippet-heavy as he squeezes every millisecond pulsar he can into each cut. MC vocals are much less distorted and the dancabilty factor of his thumping beats has increased. Prefuse 73 has nailed another beautiful composition to his wall.
Noel Dix

4. Dizzee Rascal Boy In Da Corner (XL)
Dizzee's debut was almost too real for its own good. Riddled with bowel-shifting beats and scabrous street tales, Boy In Da Corner offers a frightening glimpse into its producer's life, shining a spotlight on East London's disenfranchised black youth. Listeners are both awestruck by the 18-year-old's prodigious skills and deeply saddened by the sentiments expressed within it. A cri de cœur for forgotten youth, Boy In Da Corner was no mere escapist entertainment; rather, it reminded us how hard life can be. And how glorious.
Martin Turenne

5. Buck 65 Talkin' Honky Blues (Warner)
With this genre-jumping masterstroke, Buck 65's inclusion on this hip-hop list is questionable, but as long as this Haligonian vagabond is riding the rails with two turntables and a microphone he'll have a home somewhere in hip-hop. The antithesis of urban music, this is a water-stained antique manuscript to be read by candlelight in a log cabin while listening to old country 78s. Known for a prolific release schedule of solo recordings, he spent a full year making this with some Halifax all-stars, and it shows in every carefully crafted note. Certainly his finest hour.
Michael Barclay

6. Little Brother The Listening (ABB)
When this North Carolina trio entitled their debut album The Listening they weren't kidding. While producer 9th Wonder showed he'd imbibed elements of revered sound providers Pete Rock, A Tribe Called Quest and the RZA into his own soulful, atmospheric brew, MCs Phonte and Big Pooh paid respect to rap's lyrical canon while authoritatively carving out their own tangible everyday personas. Not only has this superior, refreshing statement resonated strongly with peers and influences alike, it has pricked up ears for anything by Little Brother or their Justus League crew and put North Carolina firmly on the hip-hop map.
Del F. Cowie

7. The Majesticons Beauty Party (Big Dada)
Mike Ladd's latest chapter in the battle for hip-hop supremacy sees the filthy rich Majesticons crush the competition with their money clips. Beauty Party is all the fun of a commercial ass-shaker, with sexy electro beats and R&B hooks, balanced with tongue-in-cheek lyrics about excessive lifestyle and private helicopters. A dance floor-scorcher that underground heads won't feel guilty loving.
Noel Dix

8. Aesop Rock Bazooka Tooth (Definitive Jux)
New millennium b-boy Aesop Rock falls in step with the sound of his label, Definitive Jux, on this primarily self-produced album. The three contributions from regular co-conspirator Blockhead are simple, clean, and at odds with the layers of beeps, blips and samples that are the chaotic, funky productions of Aesop Rock (with one from El-P). In this environment, Aesop's abstract, complex imagery is more difficult to interpret, but his scratchy, chain-smoking voice flows best with so many sounds with which to work.
Thomas Quinlan

9. Kid Koala Some of My Best Friends Are DJs (Ninja Tune)
On his long-awaited sophomore LP, Montreal turntablist Kid Koala returns with more oddball samples, cut-and-paste narratives, and of course scratching. Some of My Best Friends Are DJs revisits the thematic terrain of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome with its awkward pick-up scenarios, dancing robots, and romantic yearnings. Unlike other scratch DJs, Kid Koala achieves the rare feat of instilling a decidedly human touch to the cross-fader free-for-all. A turntablist with a heart of gold.
Andy Lee

10. Brother Ali Shadows on the Sun (Rhymesayers)
If I told you the best underground rap debut of the year was made by an overweight albino Muslim, would you laugh? Chuckle if you must, but Ali's effort is no mere gimmick. The Minneapolis-based MC is a wickedly talented lyricist, a man whose impassioned delivery stands in stark opposition to the tenor of this ironic age. Ali's aggressive streak came to especially glaring light on "Prince Charming," a countrified tale that found the MC busting sing-song raps like a hip-hop version of Johnny Cash. Meet the new man in black.
Martin Turenne