Published Nov 30, 2011Listen to our Best of 2011: Hip-Hop playlist on Rdio by clicking here.
1. Kanye West
2. Jay-Z and Kanye West
3. Shabazz Palaces
5. Big K.R.I.T.
6. Kendrick Lamar
7. Danny Brown
8. Tyler, the Creator
9. Talib Kweli
11. Lil B
12. Childish Gambino
13. ASAP Rocky
14. Nicki Minaj
1. Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella)
Twelve months later, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy holds up like botox cheeks. Hear its influence in Watch the Throne, see its fingerprints on Take Care and Camp. Sprawling and intricate, personal and universal, Kanye West's fifth studio album is his Quincy Jones moment ― a big, fat The Chronic for emotional celebrities. With the weepy AutoTune catharsis of 808s & Heartbreak out of his system, Mr. West got back to the business of making monsters, but that doesn't mean he's stopped nicking his sensitive palms on his diamond-encrusted life. Every memorable album needs memorable singles; this one has four. The SNL-flipping "Power," the sorry-for-myself sarcastic "Runaway," the insta-anthem "All of the Lights," and the moment Nicki Minaj became a star, "Monster." Better yet: Yeezy makes the monsters mesh. With assistance of some pricy helping hands ― RZA, Jay-Z, Bon Iver ― Kanye is happy to share the creative process, leaning on quiet experts like No I.D. and Mike Dean behind the boards. A dash of half-asleep Cudi moodiness, a shake of Rihanna's pop lungs, a spoonful of Raekwon's see-your-breath slanguistics, then sprinkle Pusha T on top so the rest of the world can see how dope he's always been. Still uncertain if there's bravery in bravado, but there's one hell of cook in the kitchen. Best of all is "Blame Game," a beautifully bizarre break-up record on which John Legend gently whispers bitches and motherfuckers and Chris Rock rants about the gentrification of Pussytown. It's hard not to clink glasses with a douchebag when your head's nodding this hard from the beats and shaking this much from the thinking. At the end of the day, he's killing this shit. Can we get much higher?
Editor's Note: Because My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was released on November 22, 2010, it missed the cut-off date for last year's best of the year edition. We didn't want to unfairly ignore a great album.
2. Jay-Z and Kanye West Watch The Throne (Roc-A-Fella)
A lot of the criticism lobbed at Jay-Z and Kanye West's Voltronic, gilded rap monument, Watch The Throne, was centred on its lavish motifs: etched gold cover art, the defiled $400,000 Maybach in the video for "Otis," one percenter references littered throughout the record. Okay, so released in the climate that birthed the Occupy movement this seems like bad timing ― really bad timing, even. But it's easy to get distracted by Watch The Throne's flash, its reverie of expensive, lush production ― courtesy of everyone from the Neptunes to the RZA, Lex Luger to West himself ― and list-like allusions to everything you can't have. Read between the lines though, and what you get is an unprecedented document on what it's like to be black, famous and at the uppermost echelons of wealth in America. The dichotomy between success and an alienating level of wealth is compellingly explored here, but no one will take it seriously because they're just rappers, right? Jay-Z's been a celebrated CEO for a while now (he even made a cartoon with Warren Buffet), but go back and listen to Kanye's early stuff. Remember? When he went by the tacky, nouveau riche moniker, the "Louis Vuitton Don"? Now chart it, from his early days working at the Gap, dropping out of college to make beats, culminating in an opulent album with his idol: he's the American Dream. I think he might have some important insights.
3. Shabazz Palaces Black Up (Sub Pop)
Millionaire rappers grabbed the headlines in 2011, but one of the most innovative and thrilling albums came from a relative unknown act shrouded in mystery. Shabazz Palaces were revealed to be the work of Palaceer Lazaro, aka Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, best known for being one-third of '90s alt-jazz rap group Digable Planets. Considering his old group are best known for their hit song "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," which was last heard in a Tide commercial, it's a pretty shocking, almost unbelievable reinvention. But 16 years of anonymity obviously paid off. Having previously self-released two EPs in 2009, Shabazz Palaces became the first-ever hip-hop act signed to legendary indie rock haven Sub Pop. The label clearly waited for a good reason, as Black Up is one that will stand out with the best in its storied catalogue for years to come. Assisted by multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, Butler's production straddles sci-fi, jazz and avant-garde, completely leftfield but easy on the palate, and on par with the work of someone like Flying Lotus. Butler's flow as well pushes the envelope, as he flips political, street poetry and boho rhymes with a cadence so streamlined it comes off like a freestyle every time you hear it. Black Up might not have sold millions, but it is a unique listening experience, marking one of the best and deserving comebacks in quite some time.
4. D-Sisive Jonestown 2: Jimmy Go Bye Bye (Urbnet)
Jonestown 2 rightly continues D-Sisive's semi-successful re-invention of himself as an honest rapper with heart worn on sleeve, a task best backed by years honing his skills as a highly regarded battle rapper in the T-Dot scene. Frequent collaborator Muneshine provides most of the music, his plodding productions a good fit for D-Sisive's melancholy musings and his banging underground boom bap is built for bragging, but it's his experimental nature that allows plenty of opportunity for D to test his boundaries. With lyrics layered in witty pop culture references, D-Sisive again pulls us into his past with songs about growing up poor ("Grafitti Wall") and the sorrow at his father's passing prior to his success ("Russell Peters"), but he also draws greater inspiration from the present to showcase his struggles with success and his disappointment in a difficult Canadian music industry ("If..." and "Troy's Bucket," for starters). But amongst all of the darkness and bitterness sits "Derek From Northcliffe," a fun look back on his neighbourhood that helps lighten the mood, as do the handful of battle raps, the lone love song and a crazy collaboration with Pink Eyes of Fucked Up. Too bad more rappers don't put themselves out there like D-Sisive.
5. Big K.R.I.T. Return of 4eva (mixtape)
Meridian, Mississippi's Big K.R.I.T. may have a freshly inked Def Jam contract in hand, but this incredibly cohesive mixtape is a compelling snapshot of the multiple-threat artist at the peak of his powers and on the cusp of bigger and better things. Big K.R.I.T's admirable work ethic and humble persona that have fuelled his rise come to the fore on "Dreamin'," that plays as a low-key minimalist and aspirational Southern version of Notorious B.I.G's "Juicy." Indeed, Big K.R.I.T's revelling in the pleasures of small wonders like finding loose change in the folds of a couch or idly driving around in his "time machine" is refreshing and could fill his own Book of Awesome. Matching the largely reflective subject matter is Big K.R.I.T.'s own soulfully pedantic production nestled in the comfortable nether region between UGK and Aquemeni-era Outkast, demonstrating impressive growth since last year's K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. With Big K.R.I.T. set to release Live From the Underground early next year, Return of 4eva's worthy shot at timelessness is set to become an important touchstone in years to come.
Del F. Cowie
6. Kendrick Lamar Section 80 (Top Dawg Entertainment)
Kendrick Lamar might be the most technically skilled rapper of his generation. But that isn't what makes him interesting. With Section 80, the young Compton rapper has crafted a cohesive and astonishingly eloquent examination of what it means to be young and black in the new millennium. Kendrick is honest, thoughtful, lyrically adept yet never preachy while tackling topics like relationships, knowledge and life in Compton. Like 2pac, he embodies duality fearlessly, jumping from talking about his Compton gang life on "Reagan Era" to preaching a new political movement on "HiiiPower." "No Make-Up (Her Vice)" questions the Western construction of beauty, "Keisha's Song (Her Pain)" dissects the causes and effects of prostitution and "Kush & Corinthians" tackles personal morality. The masterful rapping is backed by production which spans majestic string charts ("The Spiteful Chant"), poppy piano ("Hol' Up"), Timbaland-style minimal funk and chopped-n-screwed vocals ("Don't Blow My High") and even live jazz ("Ab-Soul's Outro"). "A.D.H.D" is Section 80's centrepiece, a clarion call to the apathetic, distracted Generation Y addicted to pills, booze and weed. Section 80 shows a genuine talent with tremendous potential to grow; for all his talk about being his generation's spokesman, Kendrick makes a strong case for himself.
7. Danny Brown XXX (Fools Gold)
Danny Brown is a compelling mess of contradictions: a skinny Detroit kid with a Blade Runner haircut who raps about crack sales in skinny jeans. Having just turned 30, the album title is a clever triple entendre; XXX symbolizes 30 in Roman numerals, serves as the street name of MDMA and historically signifies sex. This triplet of meanings encapsulates the album's thematic focus nicely: sex, drugs and growing older. XXX's first half sees Danny knee-deep cesspool of sex, booze and drugs from claiming he'll "Die Like A Rockstar" and wilding out Waka-style on the hectic "Bruiser Brigade." On "DNA," Danny theorizes that his addictions were genetically inherited and XXX takes a contemplative turn. "Nosebleeds" and "Party All The Time" are empathetic portraits of young women addicted to the party lifestyle. "Fields" is a portrait of the desolation and violence of his abandoned barren neighbourhood, where "The tv and [his] window drew the line of what was rich and poor." Danny's a versatile, talented writer who can flip from the wry shit-talk of "Monopoly" to the vivid scrap metal heist of "Scrap or Die" with ease. "30" is the perfect finish for this album: Danny perches on the brink of success, imagining his death over Eastern-tinged, ominously skronking synths and thunderous drum rolls.
8. Tyler, the Creator Goblin (XL)
This year saw Tyler, the Creator launched into the spotlight as Odd Future's de facto leader while the collective faced countless opposition from feminists and gay rights advocates everywhere. Yes, Tyler's frequent use of words like "faggot" and "bitch" can be taxing to listen to for the easily offended. Yes, the constant chants of "GOLF WANG" from fans all over the internet are annoying as fuck. And yes, if you follow Tyler on Twitter, you probably want to give him a lesson on the proper use of capitalization. But when the hype dies down (and it has to sooner or later, right?) it's the music that's going to be left behind. And with Goblin, the skateboarding, tube sock-wearing 20-year-old Tyler disappears to be replaced by a terrifyingly introspective rapper. There's still the "speaking to the emo kids" mentality with lines like "Kill people, burn shit, fuck school" ("Radicals"), but it's the sickeningly violent tracks where he seems to shine. "She" features one of the album's only repeated hooks, courtesy of Frank Ocean, putting it in the running for one of the LP's best tracks. "Yonkers" still stands out as the crown jewel on Goblin, capturing the fascinatingly disturbing feel of the rest of the album. Tyler, the Creator's persona may come off as immature, though like he says on "Sandwitches" ― "Fuck you think I made Odd Future for, to wear suits and make good decisions?" If being obnoxious is what allowed him to produce a work like Goblin, then who cares?
9. Talib Kweli Gutter Rainbows (Blacksmith)
Talib Kweli isn't your typically boastful rapper, but on Gutter Rainbows track "Palookas," he comes out with a rather apt line: "You ain't got a verse better than my worst one." Yes, it's an exaggeration, but under the veneer of braggadocio is a kernel of truth, because while Gutter Rainbows is hardly Talib Kweli's best work, it's still, as he seems to know, better than most of what's happening in hip-hop. Why? Because even as he ages, Kweli's flow remains quicker and wittier than many of rap's reigning kings without sacrificing the humanistic core of his lyrics that made his name. On the album's title track, Kweli acknowledges that he's still a "Voice for the voiceless, hope for the hopeless," and that he "spits game way too real, they don't promote it." It's for these reasons Kweli will never see the success of some of his peers despite his excellent taste in producers; here, Shuko ("So Low"), Ski Beatz ("Cold Rain"), Oh No ("Uh Oh") and a host of others all bring their A-game, giving Kweli perfectly-crafted beats over which to spit his trademark syncopated flow. So, yes, it's been a few years since Kweli was at his young and feisty best, but when you're this good in your mid-30s, there's absolutely no reason to stop; the youth still need guidance, and if they can come up with a verse better than Kweli's worst one, the game will be just fine.
10. Phonte Charity Starts at Home (The Foreign Exchange)
It was a good year for rapper (and most recently singer-songwriter) Phonte Coleman. This long-term partnership with producer Nicolay and hip-hop/soul band the Foreign Exchange has been paying Grammy-nominated type dividends, any lingering beef with ex-Little Brother alum 9th Wonder has been finally squashed (as seen via various new collaborations), and the North Carolina native finally found time to drop his first solo effort with the satisfying Charity Starts at Home. The seasoned vet delivers his grown man music approach to hip-hop with unabashed panache and swagger ― proving once and for all that rap can adapt to maturing tastes and outlooks on life. In a transformative year where young bloods like Drake look to refine the genre, Phonte stays in his underground line and shows ― when it comes to beats, lyrics and originality ― why he continues to be a highly respected MC. As an obvious year-end candidate, heads should seriously consider savouring this project; with all his other musical pursuits and ventures, who knows when and if Phonte will drop other such effort. With Charity Starts at Home, Phonte shoots for that coveted classic status and time will tell if his aim was true.
Ryan B. Patrick
11. Lil B I'm Gay (I'm Happy) (mixtape)
If you thought no rapper would be fearless enough to title an album I'm Gay, you probably aren't well-acquainted with Lil B, aka THEBASEDGOD. The California MC, who after some success as part of Bay Area hip-hop collective the Pack made his name as a solo artist by posting over 1,000 tracks to over 150 MySpace pages, is unfettered by mainstream politics and label censorship. So, yes, he could call his mixtape I'm Gay (I'm Happy), but even with that explanatory disclaimer, he wasn't going to get off scot-free; B received numerous death threats from a hip-hop community that wasn't ready for such a progressive (albeit untrue) proclamation, and some critics were quick to dismiss the title as a publicity stunt. The unprecedented response to I'm Gay was about more than just a title, though: Lil B's creative use of melodramatic, unconventional samples and thoughtful lyrics that remained positive despite touching on subjects like the U.S. justice system and global poverty marked new growth for the rapper. Arguments about the album's title are ongoing ― B maintains that his title was meant both as support for the gay community and as a declaration of his positive state of mind, while naysayers will point to new single "I Got AIDS" as proof of his penchant for exploitation ― but when you're dropping beats as good as "Open Thunder Eternal Slumber," at least there's some justification.
12. Childish Gambino EP (mixtape)
When Childish Gambino released his first free-to-web album, Sick Boi, back in 2008, it was filed under "joke rap" and written off as an amusing novelty. Childish Gambino is the rapping alter ego of actor/comedian/writer Donald Glover, and there was no way that a guy who's best-known credit at that point was as a writer on 30 Rock could get taken seriously as an MC. Three years later, it's impossible not to take Gambino seriously as an MC. For that matter, you can't dismiss his skill as a vocalist or producer, either. EP isn't just a five-song EP. It's a testament to Glover's growth as an artist. Glover isn't just an actor who raps. He's one of the best rappers to come out in the past half decade. In the burgeoning genre of emo rap, Gambino stands out as someone who can talk about feelings without coming off soft. Sure, he was picked on as a kid and underestimated as a young adult, but now this nerd is taking his revenge. The complex wordplay and high-concept metaphors on songs like "Freaks and Geeks" and "Lights Turned On" blow the doors off most other rappers in the game, and he spits with a fury that's hard to match. After EP, Donald Glover's no longer an actor who raps, he's a rapper who acts.
13. ASAP Rocky LiveLoveA$AP (mixtape)
Hot on the heels of his mega-buzz generating singles "Purple Swag" and "Peso," rap's newest phenom and Harlem's native son ASAP Rocky, releases his highly-anticipated mixtape LiveLoveA$AP, a fresh, energetic smorgasbord of Houston lean, leftfield spacey beats and young street swag all wrapped up nicely in a hipster rap package. He's not what'd you expect to hear coming out of the home of Dipset, but with his strong mic presence and laid-back drawl combined with next-level beats served up by New Jersey's bedroom producer extraordinaire Clams Casino; ASAP Rocky and his growing ASAP movement are the culmination of the new rap landscape that liberally borrows from other genres of music and fashion and where racial barriers are nonexistent. Whether zoning out on the euphoric haze of "Leaf" featuring Main Attrakionz or puffing his chest out on the anthemic album opener "Palace" which is a mash of 808's, a choir and a chopped and screwed vocal sample, ASAP Rocky shows why RCA saw fit to front the kid $3M to get rolling. Welcome to the present/future of rap.
14. Nicki Minaj Pink Friday (Cash Money/Universal)
Following a handful of impressive mixtapes, Young Money's princess Nicki Minaj dropped her debut album Pink Friday this year. She caught everyone's eye with her zany hair and ridiculous outfits, but it was her first official LP that got everybody listening. And I mean that in the sense that this is a record that was eaten up by mainstream audiences. Minaj attracted a lot of onlookers for her quirky, hard-hitting hip-hop, and while it may have pissed a lot of people off, she traded some of that in to create an album that screams "pop genius" more so than one that's going to earn her the title of rap's queen. She probably still deserves both titles though, easing between the menacing rhymes she spits on tracks like "Roman's Revenge" (holding her own against Eminem) and radio-friendly pop songs like the Rihanna duet "Fly." Other guests pushing her sound towards the pop end of the spectrum include will.i.am and Natasha Bedingfield, though the tracks with appearances from Kanye West ("Blazin'") and Rick Ross ("Hello Good Morning") remind everyone that Minaj is a witty lyricist, a talented rapper and that she hasn't lost her penchant for being weird. The latter is probably her best feature, allowing her to reach #1 on the pop charts while dropping the C-bomb and rapping about shitting on people. This poppier side might be different for Nicki Minaj, but it's still different enough from anything out there to be an engaging listen.
15. Stalley Lincoln Way Nights (Intelligent Trunk Music)
This was a big year for Ohio-born, New York-based Stalley. At the beginning of the year, he was a highly touted prospect. Now, he's the latest signee to Rick Ross' Maybach Music label, ESPN's rapper for hire and has had his music featured in a Nike commercial. None of this would have been possible if he hadn't released the masterwork that is Lincoln Way Nights back in March. Lincoln Way Nights is filled with rap anthems for America's Midwestern rustbelt. Like everything else in American pop culture, hip-hop has traditionally been focused on the coasts, East, West, and in rap, South, but Stalley has proven that there's more to flyover country than Detroit and Chicago. Lincoln Way both mourns the death of America's industrial heartlands and celebrates the power of its people. Tracks like "330" and "Pound" are both loving tributes to Stalley's hometown of Massillon and perfect showcases for Stalley's slow but complex flow. To call Lincoln Way Nights a conscious rap album is an insult. It's far, far more complex than that. It's an album of smart life music.
16. G-Side The One…. Cohesive (mixtape)
It was a breakout year for Huntsville, AL's G-Side. The One… Cohesive, the duo's fourth album released on New Year's Day, quickly went on to become a critical favourite. Cohesive is G-Side's most comfortable and accessible album. It's distinctly Southern, carried by ST and Yung Clova's fierce drawls, while defying expectations of what Southern is. Its antecedents lie in the cosmic and poignant production of Dungeon Family, grizzled and introspective insight of UGK, with the everyman charm of Little Brother. Long-time production partners Block Beataz carve out dense, blissed out beats, sampling everything from soul to indie rock (there's some lifted Beach House on here). There's also an early Clams Casino production on here, "Pictures." What makes G-Side so interesting is how they document their hustle: manager Codie G shows up on the record talking up the group's internet takeover, ST and Clova sound awed when they rap about performing in Norway and Toronto, but back in weary Huntsville an off-duty Clova makes ends meet working at the barbershop. If 2011 did anything for rap it proved those on the come up can circumvent labels. Touring, building a fan base and even landing major magazine features ― G-Side has been profiled by Spin and Interview ― is something within your own reach.