Published Jan 01, 2006COMMON
Common's poetic lyricism, clever wordplay and distinctive, raspy voice, along with his willingness to expose his own flaws and vulnerabilities, have distinguished the Chicagoan amongst a sea of mic-wielders for over a dozen years. But all of this was put into question with the release of 2002's Electric Circus. Critically savaged and a commercial failure, Common's fifth album wasn't as bad as it was made out to be. Undoubtedly patchy, it had its moments but Common's experimental MCing seemed to be ultimately neutered and overshadowed by the ambitious musical vision incorporating new wave and psychedelia. Literally, Common had to go back to square one to reassess his musical path. Be is the result. For his triumphant return to form, Common embarked on a journey back home. The most obvious aspect of this homecoming is that Common employed Kanye West to produce the bulk of Be. While West has been, in addition to his own successful solo career, a ubiquitous hired gun producer, it's obvious the Be sessions weren't flippantly phoned in. After all, the two shared a binding history: No I.D., the producer of Common's seminal '94 LP Resurrection, schooled West on how to create beats. West's work on the album is lean, soulful and judiciously ornate, providing the perfect sonic foil, supporting yet not overshadowing Common. Appearances by Detroit production maestro J-Dilla, Montreal's DJ A-Trak on turntables and rap godfathers the Last Poets are intricately weaved into the album's sonic fabric. Common deftly spins hard-knock yarns, yet always manages to find a glimmer of hope in the most sobering situations. His gritty sidewalk reportage vividly and touchingly relays the plights of those bound by class inertia. Female deities, recalcitrant men, hustlers and prostitutes inhabit Common's tales in equal non-judgemental measure without the glossy exploitive sheen applied by many commercial rap acts. Through articulating escapist fantasies, a yearning for self-affirmation and inspirational torch songs, Common proposes a way out, but not without first manifesting a brimming hometown pride. Occasionally Common's observations on love and life can border on being maudlin, but honesty, his trump card, prevents the proceedings from devolving into mindless pap. It's this same quality that acknowledges that while he has gone back to his roots for this album you can't ever really go back home. "This ain't 94, Joe/We can't go back," he pointedly surmises on the fiery "Chi City" and he's right. While Common's flow is more seasoned and reflective than ever and Be is one of the finest entries in his catalogue it's evident he's far from finished. After all, Common's intriguing personal progression has always been openly documented in his music, exhibiting his adherence to his inner muse, whether people like it or not. Del F. Cowie
2. KANYE WEST
Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella)
Though Kanye the man may be becoming harder to like, there's no questioning the Chi-town native's dominance. Late Registration was West's chance to prove he still had something to give after blowing the industry wide open with College Dropout, and when he succeeds he remains at the top of the game. It's not perfect simplistic sample use and the MC's penchant for recycling some of his greatest punch lines from previously released b-sides make the album seem a bit rushed but doubters waiting for a fall-off didn't find one. Kevin Jones
3. LITTLE BROTHER
The Minstrel Show (Atlantic)
The now well-oiled machine of Little Brother and the Justus League take full advantage of their first major label opportunity. On The Minstrel Show, producer 9th Wonder handles the majority of the work with the top-notch soulfulness that now precedes his good name, while Phonte maintains his status as one of the illest MCs around. Big Pooh walks onto the set of this faux TV program just itching to prove that he's not the third wheel, delivering when it counts most. Kevin Jones
4. DANGER DOOM
The Mouse and The Mask (Epitaph)
The use of cartoon cameos is a little questionable, but the much-anticipated collaboration between indie rap darlings Dangermouse and MF Doom lives up to its high expectations. Danger's action-hero beats are a perfect fit for Doom's laidback comical delivery and sits well with more serious rappers such as Ghostface and Talib Kweli. Kids will love it, but the Mouse and the Mask also has a taste that grown-ups can appreciate. Noel Dix
Beauty and the Beat (Lewis)
This concept album mixes '60s and '70s psychedelic rock with hip-hop. Each song blends into the next an important thread when your beats go off on long instrumental tangents and use vocal samples that sound like something from your parents' record collection. Lyrics range from the first hip-hop tribute song to higher concepts that weave the titles of rock groups into an imaginative story. Edan is not only experimenting but trying to bend the sound of hip-hop in a new direction and he might just have created a hip-hop classic. Daryl Stoneage
The Craft (Anti)
Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel add another ambitious notch to their belt. The Craft continues to push the envelope, but Blackalicious blows the hinges off with their use of orchestral samples and harmonies. It's hard to imagine this already advanced crew bringing something fresh to the table, but they managed to pull it off once again. Noel Dix
7. BEANIE SIGEL
The B.coming (Roc-A-Fella)
Beanie Sigel has matured as an artist and become harder as a man. This year's The B.Coming is his best album yet because he used it to capture the pain and contradictions of his troubled rap star life. Real life mirrored his art when Beanie was incarcerated on a weapons charge. Beanie's criminal past and present make his candid, reflective raps on The B.Coming more eerie they're his most introspective yet. With his industry clout, and that of his Roc-A-Fella family, his whole situation becomes more sad. Joseph Galiwango
8. THE PERCEPTIONISTS
Black Dialogue (Definitive Jux)
This is head-nodder music that snaps your neck back. The forces behind its fists of lyrical fury are two of Boston's veteran MCs, Mr. Lif and Akrobatik, joined on the wheels of steel by DJ Fakts One. True to their name, the Perceptionists snap from political polemics ("Memorial Day") to euphoric stupor ("Frame Rupture"), weaving them together tighter than a strand of DNA, punctuating their flows with lucid enunciation. The beats brace you for the down-to-earth narratives they plant in your mind. Pierre Hamilton
9. ROOTS MANUVA
Awfully Deep (Big Dada)
Inhale, exhale, turn up the sound, feel the bass you are listening to Awfully Deep, an album with all the feelings of a dancehall session in Brixton, England. Thunder claps and lasers mixed with gritty bass lines and grimy beats sets the stage for Rodney Smith to destroy any soundboy inna de area. This third album secures Roots Manuva's position, as he continues to put out solid material and conquers stereotypes, creating a unique sound. Dalia Cohen
Hell's Winter (Definitive Jux)
Defecting to Definitive Jux was just what the doctor ordered for Chris Palko. His label debut sees a more mature Cage, with dark, El-P productions perfectly suited to his brooding lyrics. While there is still plenty of sex, drugs and violence, Cage adds detailed realism to his political/social commentary and autobiographical tales to reveal what gave birth to the sensationalist lyrics of his previous albums. With Hell's Winter, Cage has finally come into his own as an artist. Thomas Quinlan
Hip-Hop Gets Along
At Jay-Z's "I Declare War" show in late October he instead declared peace with long-time foe Nas. Who knows what the motivation was? Maybe that a fractious beef between two New York MCs seemed irrelevant in the face of 2005's Southern hip-hop juggernaut, or maybe it was just cold hard cash. Whatever it was, rumours were soon circling that their joint performance of Jay-Z's own "Dead Presidents" might be the precursor to something more, something that was highly unlikely not so long ago.
And why not? These joint projects where a previously solo artist works with another for the duration of the album seem to work out. On this year-end top ten list, this type of project figures highly. The success of Be is largely the product of a Kanye West and Common partnership. While it may seem natural now for Chicago's native sons to work on the project, it initially seemed odd that Common's bohemian style was aligned with Kanye's flashy approach. Even more unlikely is Kanye's own collaboration with composer and Fiona Apple collaborator Jon Brion. While there were other artists appearing on Late Registration, the record simply would not have sounded as good without Brion. MF Doom's collaboration with Danger Mouse is more likely because Doom seems to be open to these types of projects. The king of the quizzical non-sequiturs had already delivered Madvillainy, his joint project with Madlib (which occupied last year's top spot). Honourable mentions should go to the Perceptionists, a joint project between Boston artists Mr. Lif, Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One, and Buckshot & 9th Wonder's Chemistry.
Of course, collaboration in hip-hop is hardly radical or new. With the idea of in-house production and DJing long being usurped, the release of a major label album without the presence of a profile-boosting cameo or a crewmember benefiting from nepotism these days is an anomaly. The overwhelming glut of mixtapes has exacerbated this issue, taking this approach to its logical endpoint. Often, the featured artists, despite the importing of thematic devices, are more important than continuity or sequencing. That's not to say these joint projects don't benefit, as mixtapes do, from some form of hype themselves. The more unlikely the project and participants are, the more excitement it generates. But the difference here is that these are album-length projects, not phoned-in deals derived from one studio session. They are actually conceptually solid albums that are in most cases greater than the sum of their parts, and notable for their overall coherence. They also mark an evolution in hip-hop collaboration; in the past a collaboration album would involve scores of featured artists converging around one figurehead.
Evidently these joint projects are in vogue and are showing no signs of going out of style. Not surprisingly, MF Doom has his finger in a couple of pies; he is apparently at work on another Madvillain project and rumoured to be working on yet another joint project with Ghostface. His Danger Doom partner Danger Mouse is also working on Gnarls Barkley, his joint collab with the inimitable Cee-Lo. And who knows, maybe that rumoured Jay-Z and Nas collaborative effort will happen too.
Del F. Cowie