Fishscale (Def Jam)
Ten years after Ironman and six years after Supreme Clientele, Ghostface Killah is back on top of hip-hop. He came through 2006, his titanic Fishscale in hand, and blessed a genre ever in danger of growing stale with a staggering record that nods to the past, looks to the future and obliterates mostly everything in the present. For a man who cut his teeth as a key member of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan, his solo career should have been, by all rights, a footnote. Instead, hes here, 13 years after 36 Chambers, topping year-end lists with perhaps the greatest achievement of his solo career.
And he sounds exhausted. Ghostface has the breathless, weary growl of a man whos burning the mic at both ends, extra raspy, a man whos running, head down, under the weight of hip-hop strapped to his back. "Im trying to do two albums a year, he says, referring to his next record, More Fish, scheduled to hit streets before the New Year. "They need more of what I'm doing. I just want to make sure they get their hands on some right shit.
Fishscale is certainly that, a head-spinning marvel of street storytelling, where Ghost effortlessly mixes menace with vulnerability, fiction with autobiography and punch-lines with gut-punches, always keeping his third eye focused on the details that make this world his. Of course, none of it is accidental. "Its like knitting and sewing, youve got to really take your time on every line and every fine stitch, he says. "Youve got to know what you want to say, and make sure you say it right and make sure that everything is detailed. All that counts.
If all that marksmanship comes at a cost, its not in the music. Here, Ghost feels the welts of his mothers belt, runs through a drug deal gone bad, laments the squandered potential of the young girls to whom hes dealing coke; Ghost never takes a rhyme off. "I could take it easy and just write whatever, but it's not going to be as good, he says. "It would be a half-assed rhyme. Sometimes it might take me a couple days to get a rhyme out, because Ive got so much stuff in my mind, man, I'm doing so many things, sometimes its hard for me to think.
Therein lies the burden for 2006s reigning hip-hop champion. If Fishscale had album-of-the-year honours shored up in May, and it did, then the challenge for a man with several classics already locked away in his vault is dealing with the pressure of dictating the direction of a genre hed always influenced more inconspicuously. "People look up to me for certain things, but I don't really take it as serious as some people do, because I'm in it right now. I know what hip-hop means to people. I just want to be part of it, carrying that torch. I want to help people bring it back to where it was at. My name could be part of that history. But I can't worry about history and what I'm writing at the same time. What I gotta do is just keep doing me and let nature just take its course. Nick Patch
2. The Roots
Game Theory (Def Jam)
Album of the year, maybe, but as important, their best, most complete record yet. By dropping the blackpacker-than-thou attitude and extended riff wankery, Illadelphias favourite sons are draped in a darker tone than they are known for and the music is restrained but not constrained. Not to go all graduate thesis on this, but by narrowing the parameters of song structures, they managed to beat the mainstream at its own game. Its like the Roots finally grew some balls. Dark, angry, smart balls. Brendan Murphy
3. Lupe Fiasco
Food & Liquor (Atlantic)
After months of premature leaks and subsequent delays, crafty Chi-town lyricist Lupe Fiasco makes good on all the pre-release hype with a solid offering. Rather than lacing the record with predictable soul beats from hometown hero Kanye West, Lupe instead reaches out to his own crewmates for the crisp, innovative production work that has this record sounding entirely individual. But where the album truly succeeds is in the professed fashionistas deft, metaphorical rhymestyle, as the seasoned mic man dices up topics as disparate as skateboard lovin, absentee fathers, hip-hop excess, and cultural bigotry with some of the most effortlessly creative wordplay in the game. Kevin Jones
4. J Dilla
Donuts / The Shining (Stones Throw/BBE)
We lost one of hip-hops greatest assets, and were left with two fantastic pieces of work to remember the late J Dilaa. Released just days before his death, Donuts displayed Jay's instrumental flare by chopping hundreds of soul samples into a sloppy gem of banging minute-long loops similar to his dear friend Madlib. The Shining sees Dilla in a more familiar role, as producer for heavyweights such as Common and Pharoahe Monch who fittingly compliment his stunning musical odes to love and happiness. They will serve as blueprints for future producers to graciously bite in order to keep the spirit of Dilla alive, and how he planned to turn hip-hop on its head. Noel Dix
5. Cadence Weapon
Breaking Kayfabe (Upper Class)
Theres a reason Cadence Weapon was the breakout star this year. Whether winning over audiences with electrifying performances or redefining perceptions of hip-hop, Mr. Weapon came to wreck shop. These beats are genuinely fresh, eschewing most of the lazy tics of conventional kick-snare hip-hop production for groundbreaking work with synths and electro-pastiche thats simultaneously gritty and sophisticated. The wordplay is a dizzying outpouring of pop culture minutiae and Edmonton regionalism thats slyly witty and just plain smart. Vish Khanna
Atlantis: Hymns For Disco (EMI)
K-os has succeeded, Maestro Fresh Wes notwithstanding, in cultivating a Canadian hip-hop success story that is unparalleled in the post-millennium age. Atlantis: Hymns for Disco is a boldface and soulful mishmash of multicultural influences (R&B, soul, funk, rock, hip-hop) designed to appeal to the cultured global citizen. It rocks where it wants to, jams when it needs to, and pledges allegiance to a hip-hop nation that has seemingly forgotten its roots. The metaphysics of it all throwback and ultramodern all at once are as impenetrable as the charges that k-os isnt hip-hop. Ryan B. Patrick
7. The Coup
Pick A Bigger Weapon (Epitaph)
Commie Coup front-man Boots Riley avoids being preachy by expressing his political and social agenda in human terms through personal stories to which many can relate. Boots also delivers his message in a laidback, West coast drawl over production consisting of live instruments and samples in a groovy mix of funk, rock and rap, making Pick A Bigger Weapon even easier to digest. The best thing to happen to political rap since Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Thomas Quinlan
8. More or Les
The Truth About Rap (Public Transit)
Usually it's a sign of supreme sour grapes if an MC spends the better part of an album lamenting the state of modern hip-hop. But over 19 solid tracks, Toronto busker More or Les backs up his bitching with solid beats and reminding us that: "It's about fluency with rhyme and ingenuity." By releasing an embarrassment of riches over 19 tracks and 72 minutes, Les sounds hungry literally, as we hear on "Brunch!" and "Eat Your Food!" And what better sign that he's a class apart from today's hip-hop pack than the bottle of red wine he's rocking on the album cover? Michael Barclay
Blue Collar (Allido/J)
Blue Collars title positioned Rhymefest as the working-class rapper, which was kind of fraudulent: its hard to imagine the man who co-wrote Kanyes "Jesus Walks and whose debut includes production by West and Just Blaze mopping floors. But with the Chicago MC contradictions are part of the package: the beats are wide-eyed, giddy, and exuberant, the rhymes relentlessly irreverent and funny, with Fest moving from the extreme of self-aggrandizement to self-deprecation in a breath. Like The College Dropout, Blue Collar introduced a widescreen personality with supersized pop ambitions, but the inability to dumb down a labyrinthine complexity of character. Nick Patch
10. Murs & 9th Wonder
Murrays Revenge (Record Collection)
Ears, arms and hip-hop heads welcomed this dope collaboration. Nothing wows as much as the ode to biracial women "Dark Skinned White Girls." Only rap-as-confessional "Yesterday" or the infidelity monologue from "Love & Appreciate" dare come as close. Murs' lyrics dash from pain (trifling girlfriend) to the mundane (haircuts); it's exotic with a straightforward ease that pleases. 9th Wonder works magic with the simplicity of '90s era boom-bap. The beats shine spectacularly, content to share the spotlight. When you grow tired of the drug-infested corner, trust these two talents to mould a much-needed trip to self-conscious destinations. Pierre Hamilton
New York No More
New York City has been feeling under siege as far as hip-hop is concerned. Hip-hop from the South dominates commercial radio; even the more underground year-end top ten weve compiled features only one New York-based artist (albeit at number 1). This geographical shift, in a genre where space and territory figure so prominently, hasnt gone over too well in hip-hops birthplace. Perhaps the most direct missive was issued earlier this year by Busta Rhymes; on "New York Shit, displaying a hunger that hasnt been seen from him in years, Busta espouses his vision of the Big Apple and unravels a damn near definitive roll call of pioneering New York hip-hop artists for over two minutes. The makeshift history lesson is an exhilarating slice of hometown pride cum paranoia.
But really how effective and realistic is this approach? Aside from the South, in the past year in the U.S. alone, the Bays hyphy scene and the Baltimore club sound have reached beyond their regional boundaries. Several Canadian hip-hop artists and producers continued to make distinctive inroads at home and abroad, including Kardinal Offishall, Cadence Weapon, K-OS and Toronto-based producer Moss, who laced "Kilos, one of the most popular tracks from Fishscale. And a good chunk of the years press attention involving iconic hip-hop label Def Jam was squarely on pint-sized UK female MC Lady Sovereign.
Even a cursory summary of what is happening outside of New York proves that its foolhardy for the city to be holding on to and attempting to dictate what hip-hop sounds, looks and feels like. After all, as long as there is an acknowledgement of the fundamental tenets like being original with no biting and no fronting approaches that obviously supersede geographical and aesthetic boundaries everyone can respect the architect.
Del F. Cowie