“Makin’ hula-hoops of Saturn’s rings”: top hip-hop CDs in 2002
Many of the year’s most memorable events took place off wax. Snoop gave up smoke; Nelly reigned over his own imaginary town; Tupac had a hit album; Bad Boy invented the remix; Redman rapped on Xtina’s “Dirrty” and appeared in the Thai-child-porn-posters video; Suge got out of prison; R. Kelly’s bust on 21 counts of child pornography ruined the release of his collaboration record with Jay-Z, The Best of Both Worlds; principal-for-a-day Jay-Z and Pepsi pitch-girl Beyoncé are in love; and Eminem dissed Triumph the Insult Dog and Moby at the same MTV Video Music Awards, a feud wreaking ongoing havoc for the latter: most recently, rumors are circulating that the punks who beat up Moby on the street outside the Boston Paradise Club on 11 December are “Eminem fans.”
Amid the hubbub, records dropped. Listed below, some of the most notable, in alphabetical order.
Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow (MCA)
Smart, fun, and rousing, Blackalicious makes complicated combinations of rhymes and beats, and, beyond that, of styles. With unexpected instrumentation—strings, saxophone, trumpet—the tracks expand beyond usual sounds and tones. This refreshing mix inspires lyrics that speak to uplift, with joy in brilliantly imagistic wordplay, as in “First in Flight,” featuring Gil Scott Heron. MC Gift of Gab raps, “If you keep workin’ for your search you will find the end. / Though at the end, you find it only begins again.” Heron comes with the punch line: “Cause all we got is rhythm and timin’. / We go beyond the edge of the sky.” On “4000 Miles,” Chali 2na (of Jurassic 5) and Lateef the True Speaker initiate a “journey through music,” as Chief Xcel raps, “Now who said that underground is only just one more? / I’m sellin’ time and space and matter, makin’ hula-hoops of Saturn’s rings.” Latyrx, the “real big talker,” expands the thought: “Your mind is captured with tactics to get you back to the fatness. / And you still want to battle. / Just how long does this last? / We have the fashion to classic the pure love satisfaction / Is when the magic is captured live-action ain’t tangible with.”
Common, Electric Circus (Universal) The fifth LP from Common, Electric Circus, was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s old studio. Appropriately, given Hendrix’s own generous—or maybe voracious—predilections, Electric Circus shows love for all kinds of music. With tracks written and arranged by fiancée Erykah Badu and a wide range of styles and approaches, Common expands his repertoire. For one thing, the record features an astonishing guest list, including Common’s fellow Okayplayer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson on drums, Prince on guitar and keyboards (for “Star *69”), production by the ubiquitous Neptunes, vocals by Mary J. Blige and Sonny of P.O.D. In “Electric Wire Hustler Flower,” he raps over Dilla’s ‘70s-style guitar work, describes a kind of interior life and evolution (Common is nothing if not evolutionary): “Somebody screamin’ in my mind, I’m tryin’ to find if it’s me. / Or voices on the master, they design to be free. / Same revolt, can’t be found on TV, or radio, it’s livin’ in me.” It’s something of a strange ride, headed in enough directions at once that it repays multiple listens.
Missy Elliot, Under Construction (Gold Mind/Electra) Missy introduces her record with a call to intelligent self-reflection and re-evaluation, with sobering references to Aaliyah, 9-11, and Lisa Lopez. Declaring herself “under construction, a work in progress,” she describes her changing perspective, and sense of scale. From here, she and Timbaland look back to old school compositions and twist them up so they’re brand new again. The ingenious energy of the album is infectious (as the first single, “Work It” surely attests: aside from the backwards lyrics, Missy’s political wit is everywhere: “Don’t I look like a Halle Berry post-ah!?”). Mixing her own insightful, seductive reassessment of pain and history (“Ain’t no fakin’ the funk”), she trades verses with Meth on a reinvented “Bring the Pain”: “I’m in your life to come and let you explore / And take you on a tour” (Take me! Take me!). On “Gossip Folks,” with Ludacris (her clever guest on “One Minute Man”), she shows how to handle haters, without excess sweat: “I don’t go out my house, shorty / You just waiting to see / Who gon roll up in the club and then report that next week.” On “Slide,” she explains it all: “My Lamborghini disappears like Houdini. / Two Twenty can’t see me in the bottle like a Genie. / Tinny, Whinny, now hate me like you hate to eat your Wheaties. / Now here’s a freebie, I’ma let you see me on tv, / Accepting my Emmy on a Grammy in Miami.” She’s always played well with others: with Jay-Z, on “Back in the Day,” she shows off as part of an entertainingly resourceful “new tag team.” And for the tribute to her lost sisters, Aaliyah and Lisa, “Can You Hear Me,” she performs with Chilli and T-Boz, respectful and hopeful through the pain of loss.
Eminem, The Eminem Show (Interscope)
The Eminem juggernaut seems unstoppable: for his performance as Bunny Rabbit in 8 Mile, critics are imagining (in print) that he might give Nicholson a run for his Oscar money in 2003. However wild that dream may be, he has roused the music industry as much as a single person might: whatever Benizino might say, Em appeals across boards for a range of reasons, not only because he complains about his sad, apparently endless childhood (for her own reasons, Debbie Mathers reminds us that he lived with mom until he was 26 years old). Whatever. When Em and Dre hit the studio, expect skills and surprises. The Eminem Show, his clever ruminations on what it means to be him, has sold 6.9 million units and counting. He knows the business: saving the world from “wack unlyrical lyrics,” Rap Boy brings insight and urgency to the industry that eats talents like his for breakfast. Encouraging independence of thought and self-criticism, he’s one of the few hiphoppers to speak directly to kids, who ritually consume without real choices: “Unlike some, never been the type to bend or budge. / The wrong button to push, no friend of Bush.” Likewise, no friend of Dick or Lynne Cheney, those little Limp Bizkit bastards, Chris Kirkpatrick, Mariah, et. al. He has, however, moved back in with Kim.
Talib Kweli, Quality (Rawkus/MCA)
On “Put it in the Air,” Talib Kweli explains his relationship to the mainstream industry he’s trying to crack with his album: “They say my rhymes is too heavy, I come thicker than the fog. / You get it when I retire and battle my catalogue. / Writin’ rhymes in my captain’s log, BlackStar date. / MCs fake like Egyptian Gods in Stargate, / Lovin’ the hate, bubble all types of weight in they rap. / I draw blood like mosquitoes y’all annoy like gnats.” The man can rhyme, no doubt. If Quality is flawed by occasional overproduction (“Gun Music”) or indulgence (“Talk to You”), it also features Kweli’s signature rapid-fire flow. On “Guerrilla Monsoon Rap,” he performs with Black Thought, the great Pharoahe Monch, and Kanye West, and their skills pummel: “I black and blue emcees - actin’ new to me, get smacked stupidly, / That lack skills, like the black community lack unity. / Still my rhymes heard like Ali, the phrase, / Step off the stage to shouts of ‘Kweli boomayyay!!’” And how many MCs you know would rap about the ways his children’s births—the events themselves—reshaped his life? On “Joy,” featuring his BlackStar partner Mos Def, he describes the pregnancy, the contractions, the rush to the hospital (“I was out on tour when the water hit the floor!”). Most impressively, on “The Proud,” he considers the difficulties of patriotism, post-Diallo, post-9-11: “America kill the innocent too, the cycle of violence is sad. / Damn! Welcome to the world, we here. / We’ve been at, war for years but it’s much more clear. / We got to face what lies ahead.”
Mr. Lif, Emergency Rations and I, Phantom (Definitive Jux)
Boston MC Mr. Lif’s summer release EP, Emergency Rations, directly confronts U.S. policies leading up to and surrounding the terrorism of 9-11, pulling no punches. On “Home of the Brave,” he raps, “Bush disguises blood lust as patriotism, / Convincing the living to love ‘Operation Let’s Get ‘Em’. / But when he realized we don’t support their attacks. / They needed something to distract, hmm, anthrax.” The concept album I Phantom develops themes and images of everyday life, here and now. On “Live From the Plantation,” he describes workers’ frustrations: “Whether you work at the candy store / Or slave at the office, / The purpose of our life is just to serve the economy.” In “Earthcrusher,” his ever-attuned imagination goes apocalyptic: “In this atmosphere to which nobody adapts, / No more petty crimes, nickel sacks, / Rap shows or raves, / Sunshine and bullshit holidays. / Just radiation and tidal waves.” Unsettling, smart, and relentlessly engaged, Lif is a rarity today: a politicized artist.
Nas From Illmatic to Stillmatic: The Remixes (Columbia/Sony July 2002)
The Lost Tapes (Columbia/Sony)
God’s Son (Columbia/Sony)
Busy bee Nas has had a huge year, between beefing with Jay and releasing three albums. First, for anyone contemplating remixes, it helps to have solid tracks to revisit: it’s all good to hear “One Mic” again: “What you call a infinite brawl, eternal souls clashin’ / War gets deep, some beef is everlastin’ / Complete with thick scars, brothers knifin’ each other / up in prison yards, drama, where does it start?” Second, if each of the three albums has limits, each also has real worth. All underline his celebrated skills, most often brilliantly. If the title for the latest cd rehearses the MC’s penchant for seeing himself in Christlike terms (according to his “Top 25 Countdown,” assembled for BET, Nas’ favorite video is—yecch—the one he made with Diddy for “Hate Me Now”), his work with his Bravehearts crew can also be generous and crafty, with producers including Salaam, The Alchemist, Eminem (“The Cross”), and Alicia Keys (she also sings and plays piano on the adventurous “Warrior Song,” addressing his mother’s recent death). When Nas does tell stories, no one can touch him—complicated and contemplative; if he doesn’t sling hooks or flip rhymes like Jay, his word pictures are vivid, intricate, and inspiring. He flashes impressive attitude in “Made You Look” (“You a slave to a page in my rhyme book”) and on “Last Real N**** Alive,” he walks through recent hiphop history (his own, anyway), with props to Biggie and Wu Tang, critiques of Jigga (of course) and Puffy, noting the limits of art: “There’s some ghetto secrets I can’t rhyme in this song. / There’s some missing pieces I had to leave out.”
Meshell Ndegéocello, Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (Maverick)
Is there a more intelligent, more poetic, more passionate artist on the planet than Meshell Ndegéocello? Produced by guitarist Allen Cato and Meshell, the new album traces her musical and soulful roots, with guest appearances by Talib Kweli, Caron Wheeler, Marcus Miller, and Michael Hampton, and samples from Angela Davis, Gil Scott Heron, and June Jordan. On “Dead Nigga Blvd. (Pt. 1),” she challenges a “community” that’s destroying itself: “So tell me, are you free? / While we campaign for every / Dead nigga boulevard / So young motherfuckers can / Drive down it in your fancy cars.” On “GOD.FEAR.MONEY.” and “Pocketbook” (beautifully remixed by Rockwilder and Missy, with Redman and Tweet on vocals), she extends the critique of a culture in thrall to money, and on the latter, offers some clever rhymes of her own: “Baby girl got her own thing, / She know everybody, / High class, mediocre to riff-raff. / Love is the root politic, / She read between the paragraphs, / She knows what she makes after taxes.” Meshell describes Cookie as “Master P meets Bitches Brew,” a deeply felt interrogation of what she calls the “co-opted idea of blackness,” through the many kinds of music that she so loves.
The Neptunes/N.E.R.D., In Search of… (Virgin)
The Clipse, Lord Willin’ (Star Trak/Arista)
Technically a 2001 release, N.E.R.D.‘s In Search of…, in which our hiphop production heroes play rock stars, remained in heavy rotation through 2002. As influential and popular as it is, the record is only one element in the constellation called the Neptunes, or on occasion, N.E.R.D. (No One Ever Really Dies), which consists of producers Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and the incarcerated-on-weekends Shay. Tapped to produce by Teddy Riley while they were still in high school, this past year the Neptunes brought magic to anything they touched, including tracks for Busta, LL Cool J, Justin, the Clipse, Snoop, Mariah, and a performance by Britney of “Boys” for the first post-9-11 Fourth of July shindig in NYC. Pharrell’s smooth hook, amid the pretty-bodied dancers and before bijillions of people out there in tv-land, just about made the entire excruciating business bearable. (Same same for his appearance in Justin Timberlake’s MJ-channeling in the video for “Like I Love You.”) But even for all Pharrell’s star quality, the Neptunes are producers first. And Lord Willin’ is more or less the Neptunes’ next album, with lyrics/vocals by fellow Virginia Beach denizens Malice and Pusha T (Gene and Terrence Thornton), and Pharrell on all the hooks. Clipse’s topics and rhymes are regular as can be—drugs, booty, posturing—but the production is tight. On “Virginia,” Pusha T raps, “In my ‘Home Sweet Home,’ I keep chrome next to my bones, / Alters my walk to limpin’ / Since I love the feel, I guess I’m passionately pimpin’.” On “When the Last Time,” Pharrell croons, “When the last time you heard it like this? / Smoke somethin’, drink somethin’, get ripped, / And make the girls in the party just strip.” But okay: if the stories are old, the production is witty, weird, and ever inventive.
The Roots, Phrenology (MCA)
This turn by the Roots features the following crewmembers: MC Black Thought, drummer ?uestlove, beatboxer Scratch, keyboardist Scott Storch, bassist Leonard Hubbard, keyboardist Kamal Gray, and guitarist Ben Kenney. The music is combines punk, funk, and hiphop (primarily: the Roots’ hybrid forms, as always, are creative). It can feel big, as on “Rock You,” the first track. Nelly Furtado guests on “Sacrifice” (which Black Thought opens with, “Listen, I got you phobic off of this like arachnids, / Drastic, it ain’t plastic it’s Pro-Blackness. / Grown man tactics, no pediatrics”) and neo-soul posterboy Cody Chesnutt’s on “The Seed (2.0).” On the first single, “Break You Off,” featuring Musiq, Black Thought describes his lady-love: “Rolling down the highway, / Listening to Sade sing, ‘The way the smooth operator move my way’ / You sitting beside me, / Looking like Friday Foster, / Pam Grier structure look at your body.” While “Quills” and “Pussy Galore” are less impressive, and the tough-guy rap, “Rolling with the Heat,” featuring Talib Kweli, includes this colorful self-description by Black Thought: “I’m a FED like Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, / Willy gank, spit the killer dank dialogue / Pyro-maniac like Dr. Molotov.” Imperfect as the disk may be, it’s ambitious and energetic in ways that too many artists don’t imagine being.
Snoop Dogg, Paid Tha Cost to be Da Bo$$ (Priority)
Snoop has a special way with the beat, seeming a quarter-step behind but right on top too: smooth, droll, and so entrancing. And if he’s not getting love from the Muppets, he’ll find it everywhere else following the release of Paid Tha Cost to be Da Bo$$. And even if he’s making over a fan’s den for VH1’s Rock the House (who would have imagined Snoop as a cuddly doggy-portrait and armchair provider for VH1?), he’s got charisma and self-confidence to burn. And on this record, at last, after several lackluster efforts (most with No Limit’s uninspired production team), he’s pretty much irresistible. He’s certainly helped by his new collaborators (and some old ones): working with “the big Neptizzle” on “From tha Chuuuch to da Palace” and “Beautiful,” Snoop refines his relationship to beats. As big and ornate as they might come at him (those horns, those live drums), he comes back with poise and comedy. Who is the man with that dance? “Bam, boom, what you gon’ do, cuz? / Guess I’m rollin’ in with them baby blue chucks, / And I still got my khakis creased, / I’m still rockin’ on these beats, and got a bad rep on the streets.” On “Batman & Robin,” he picks up on currently fashionable comic book images with RBX and Ms. Afro Puffs herself (it’s good to hear her voice): “Plat! Means more than one million sales / That’s ‘nuff shot to lick, you get done up / Plus we got the Bat gats, so why would you run up?” Why would you indeed? Snoop has paid the cost, no doubt.