Hip-Hop Year in Review 2004

Hip-Hop Year in Review 2004
1. MADVILLAIN
Madvillainy (Stones Throw)
Madvillain is a beautiful match-up between rapper/producer Madlib, beat-maker for Lootpack and jazz-project Yesterdays New Quintet, and rapper/producer MF Doom the Metal Face Villain, also known as Viktor Vaughn among others. On MadVillainy, Madlib's usual jazzy production taps the essence of Doom while avoiding the cheesy '80s side of the MF sound. He's also wise to sit back and let Doom dominate the mic, making only a few vocal appearances. And Stones Throw rappers Medaphor and Wildchild are both a step above Doom's regular guests. Either way, Doom takes advantage of his talent for telling engaging stories with vivid images, and opens himself up more than usual. "We hardly speak," Doom says of the MadVillain bond. "We just speak in music language, this is the bugged shit. The language of sounds and rhymes." And it works, even if "a lot of it is real spontaneous work. I think that's what's going to separate it from the Doom album." The result: funny tales about personal hygiene ("Operation Lifesaver, aka Mint Test"), plenty of witty battle tracks (like "All Caps"), the marijuana anthem "America's Most Blunted," some politics ("Strange Ways") and a Vaughn sub-in on "Fancy Clown" for a heartrending break-up. And it's got Madlib beats, so come on! Thomas Quinlan

2. KANYE WEST
The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)
This will go down as one of the best rap debuts ever, branding Kanye West the game's most compelling new voice. Given how mediocre some of his recent beats have been (e.g., Jin's "I Gotta Love"), it's easy to forget just how stunning The College Dropout sounded, the Chicagoan's surprisingly mercurial flows are bested only by his staggering diversity of productions. While Lil' Jon owned our asses this year, West owned our ears. Martin Turenne

3. GHOSTFACE
The Pretty Toney Album (Def Jam)
When it comes to solo albums, Ghostface has emerged as the most bankable member of the Wu-Tang Clan. Sure, that's no great feat these days, but Ghost consistently sets himself apart. On Pretty Toney, he taps into the soul samples and hardcore beats that were once production hallmarks of the RZA. As the RZA's minimal appearance here suggests, Ghostface outshines his mentor in delivering a classic Wu-Tang album on his own. Vish Khanna

4. MURS
3:16: The 9th Edition (Definitive Jux)
And this is for... all you heads that appreciate real hip-hop. Underground "reality emcee" Murs spits over 9th Wonder's insane beats, making 3:16 his best work to date. Murs delivers bangin' joints like "Bad Man," "H-U-S-T-L-E" and the lyrical sure shot "And This Is For," where Murs raps about the state of hip-hop, mainstream media, people thinking they own rap and daily survival. Murs keeps it real and won't let hip-hop eat itself. Dalia Cohen

5. K-OS
Joyful Rebellion (EMI)
Taking hip-hop's re-configurative essence as his blueprint, Toronto's K-OS revels in making the ad nauseum use of the "Funky Drummer" break sound curiously fresh, smartly borrowing the Cure's "Lovecats" bass strut and making MJ influences sound cool again. But this is anything but a hodgepodge of others' musical ideas. Instead the impressive broadening of K-OS's sonic palette, anchored by his sage flows and free vocals, represents an expertly crafted musical vision, delivering on Exit's immense promise. Del F. Cowie

6. THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE
Connected (BBE)
A chance cyberspace encounter is what brought together Little Brother rhyme-slayer Phonte and bedroom beat-smith Nicolay from their respective homes in North Carolina and the Netherlands to produce one of the feel good records of the year. Connected sees a more candid and introspective Phonte offering positive perspectives on life's everyday struggles. The multi-instrumentalist Nicolay, meanwhile, points to soul as his guide in crafting a perfectly smoothed-out soundtrack over which a number of Justus League affiliates provide a little soul of their own. Kevin Jones

7. DE LA SOUL
The Grind Date (Sanctuary Urban)
In 1989, De La Soul emerged with an earthy, humorous, and honest hip-hop sensibility and that mission continues 15 years on with The Grind Date. While noticeably missing the comical interludes De La is famous for, this 12-track effort stands out as one of the stronger releases of the year. Solid production from Madlib, Jaydee, 9th Wonder, and Super Dave West combine with an interesting cross-section of guests Ghostface, MF Doom, and Carl Thomas, adding some meat to a healthy serving of De La wit and creative observations on hip-hop and life. Chris Penrose

8. THE ROOTS
The Tipping Point (Geffen)
The Roots continue to serve organic and beautiful hip-hop compositions with their sixth record, but manage to escape committing to just one sound through experimental jam sessions and some curveball production. "Star" is a slow soul classic that nicks from Sly Stone and "Boom!" is a straight-up homage to old school hip-hop with Black Thought doing an incredible Big Daddy Kane impersonation. Even a head-scratching electro excursion doesn't spoil this one. Noel Dix

9. THE STREETS
A Grand Don't Come For Free (Vice)
Beating clocks, popping pills, losing love and chasing tail, all while trying to find a stash of cash that's right underneath his nose, Mike Skinner sucks us in with his fluently verbose rhymes and rhythms, and boy is it engrossing. The Streets' sophomore album is a conceptual masterpiece that shouldn't have worked but does, and Skinner has proved himself more than a passing fancy by pulling it off. Astounding. Kevin Hainey

10. JEAN GRAE
This Week (Babygrande)
Brazen editorialist, intimate storyteller, advice oracle, musician, teacher, student, woman, human — a very real portrait of a very real Miss Jean Grae. Her sense of humour runs as thick as her raw honesty. Jean guides us through her sensitive, culpable side and describes herself brashly as a "player hand-bluffer / the shifty-eyed mutha / deep city strut walker / trucker hat-hater." She is the epitome of multi-faceted, and it is this combination of vulnerability and strength that makes her album so compelling. Susana Ferreira

9th Wonder of the World
You may not know his name, but producer 9th Wonder has his mouse clicks all over many of the year's best hip-hop records. He produced all of Murs' 3:16: The 9th Edition, contributed a couple of tracks for Jean Grae's This Week, helped take De La Soul to "Church" on The Grind Date and even showed up to record vocals for his Little Brother cohort Phonte's Foreign Exchange project, Connected. The North Carolina-based beat merchant has become the in-demand producer of the past year.

In large part 9th Wonder's appeal can be attributed to his refreshing style and approach. While his production owes a sonic debt to legendary hip-hop producers like Pete Rock, his is a distinctive, refreshing sound underground hip-hop was lacking. Little Brother, the group he is in with MCs Phonte and Big Pooh, made great strides to fill that void with their 2003 tour de force The Listening. He also struck an unorthodox blow when he remixed vocal tracks from Nas's God's Son and crafted his own version, God's Stepson. Many have imitated that career move, notably with full-length versions of Jay-Z's Black Album; by then, though, 9th Wonder was producing for the commercial version, creating beats from scratch with his laptop and Fruity Loops software.

9th's use of airy vocal samples and juicy snares to create dreamy head-nodding soundscapes is the common trait in his productions; it shows no danger of waning, given Little Brother's ridiculously solid recent mix-tape The Chitlin' Circuit. In hip-hop circles, working with artists such as Jay-Z and Murs constitutes a huge chasm, yet 9th Wonder has managed to negotiate the gap without compromising his sound. On tap is a follow-up album with Murs and another album with Jean Grae (their first, Jeanius, has already leaked online), as well as Little Brother's sophomore set. 9th Wonder demonstrates that hip-hop's blurring lines can represent the best of both worlds. Del F. Cowie