[10 December 2007]
Back in March 12, 2007, Jay-Z had the honor of inducting Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (Keith Cowboy, Kidd Creole, Mele Mel, Raheim, Mr. Ness/Scorpio) into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It was the first such induction for hip-hop. In those moments, I wonder if Jay-Z or the distinguished inductees realized their words would summarize much of the year in rap.
Jay-Z cleverly opened his speech with the famous line, “Don’t - push - me - ‘cause - I’m - close - to - the - edge,” using the audience’s participation to illustrate the group’s impact and also how the art has grown from a block party to a worldwide phenomenon. In 2007, we’ve had many examples of this, including UK emcee Dizzee Rascal, M.I.A.‘s international sampling on Kala, Canadian producer SoCalled’s mixture of Klezmer, funk, jazz, and hot beats. Later in the year, at the BET Awards, host Katt Williams would joyously reiterate hip-hop’s global impact.
In his acceptance speech, Grandmaster Flash, the pioneer turntablist and DJ extraordinaire, emphasized the connection between hip-hop and rock, saying, “It [Rock & Roll] plays a huge part in what we do.” Along these lines, this year’s hip-hop continued to fuse genres and meld disparate sounds in fresh ways, evidenced by Pharoahe Monch’s Desire, the blues in some of Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth, and Kanye West’s eclectic sound collages. Madlib’s Beat Konducta series mined the riches of Bollywood, followed by a similarly executed project, Dr. No’s Oxperiment, from Madlib’s brother Oh No.
Mele Mel’s words of acceptance were the most spirited. Calling on the “industry people who have control” to help eliminate the “culture of violence”, the legendary emcee demanded balance in terms of subject matter and encouraged hip-hoppers to bridge the divide between “old school” and “new school”. He said, “[Hip-hop] should mean more than somebody standing on the corner sellin’ dope.” Mele Mel’s feeling that “hip-hop needs to grow up” was echoed in 2007’s continuing debates over hip-hop’s lyricism and imagery. No doubt, Nas’s Hip Hop Is Dead, released at the end of 2006, has had considerable influence over the discussion, as did the Kanye vs. Curtis sales showdown in September.
Last year’s quality releases distinguished themselves from the pack by a wide margin, providing several expected entries in our year-end hip-hop countdowns: Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale, The Coup’s Pick a Bigger Weapon, Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, T.I.‘s King, The Roots’ Game Theory.
This year, there were many quality hip-hop releases. Who knows what’ll happen with the televised award shows, as the honors might be spread among Timbaland, T-Pain, Kanye, T.I., Common, and the young brotha with the popular dance, Soulja Boy, right? But I’m excited to see what critics and fans believe the top picks to be. Any of the following contenders, and many more, could understandably make the cut: UGK, Blue Scholars, Kanye West, Sean Price, Dizzee Rascal, Chamillionaire, Joell Ortiz, Aesop Rock, Little Brother, Public Enemy, Polyrhythmic Addicts, and Devin the Dude. And in the time it takes to read those names, Lil’ Wayne just released three new mixtapes.
After consuming a mass amount of hip-hop, which was often wonderful but occasionally painful, I’ve compiled a list of 75+ albums from the past year, ranging from excellent (rating: 8) to good (rating: 6). New releases are due from Scarface, Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface, and Lupe Fiasco, so I’m sure I’ll be making adjustments in that big list. In the meantime, here’s my top 10 (plus an 11th as Honorable Mention, and a few superlatives).
You can’t say you weren’t warned: exposure to Pharoahe Monch’s Desire may cause foot tapping, head nodding, uncontrollable dancing, and rapid depletion of batteries in your music player. Desire isn’t the first time we’ve seen a Pharoahe Monch-concocted dose of potent hip-hop. He began in the ‘90s, as a member of Organized Konfusion with lab partner Prince Po. Together, they unleashed three undiluted shots of dopeness before Monch released his solo album, Internal Affairs, in 1999. Desire takes the hip-hop germ and fuses it with gospel, rock, jazz, and soul, complete with choir-style vocals, majestic horns, and sick bass lines.
Central to the spread of this strain is Pharoahe Monch himself. He sings, produces, and, best of all, delivers conceptually and lyrically complex verses. Well known for stretching simple analogies into sprawling conceits, Monch compares the music industry to the antebellum U.S. plantation system (“Slave to a label but I own my masters”), personifies a bullet (“When the Gun Draws”), successfully updates Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome”, mixes Elvis with Outkast and Gnarls Barkley (“Body Baby”), explores the intersection of race, gender, and self-esteem with Erykah Badu (“Hold On”), and crafts a cleverly constructed three-part saga at the finish (“Trilogy”). Desire is the real deal. It’ll make you dance; it’ll make you clap your hands. That’s the curse of the Pharoahe.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Pharoahe Monch - When the Gun Draws
There’s a lot of talk about Talib Kweli’s ability to enjoy “mainstream” success as well as “underground” success, but there are few definitions for “success”. What does Talib Kweli have to do? License his well-known “Just to get by” chorus for car commercials? Obey his thirst? (Insert Vincent Price’s laugh at the end of “Thriller” here). Ear Drum proves he’s already successful. For one thing, it’s Talib Kweli in his element, matching melodic flows with mostly mellow beats. For another, he continually challenges us with thought-provoking yet poetic lyrics, and remains versatile enough to rhyme for the spirit, for the club, and for ladies too. Hey, Kweli, what’s the big idea trying to make us think while we dance, huh?
Want more? Check Ear Drum‘s guest list. When you perform alongside acts like UGK, KRS-One, Norah Jones, Musiq, and Kanye West and you consistently keep them from stealing the show, you’re exactly where you need to be. And then there’s my own personal litmus test: anybody who can get Ms. Sonia Sanchez to introduce their album is bad, and I don’t mean bad meaning “bad”, but “bad” meaning “damn good”. If Sonia Sanchez just said “hello” to me, I’d be having a good year, let alone adding vocals to my nonexistent rap album. Nice work, if you can get it. So, never fear, because skills will sell. And when they do, lyrically, we’ll all want to be Talib Kweli. Word.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Talib Kweli - Listen!!!
If you predicted this album as one of the best of 2007, then you’re either related to Nostradamus, you had inside information, or you’re really, really lucky. If it’s the first two, please tell me when these damn gas prices are doing to drop! If it’s the latter, can we share a lottery ticket? I’ll buy.
While Common says he found “the new Premo”, Blu might’ve found the new Pete Rock in Exile. Blu is a west coast emcee that doesn’t fit the general “west coast” stereotypes: no G-funk, no hyphy, no bouncing cars, no gang signs. Instead, he packs rhymes like a west coast Common. Further, he’s quite possibly the hungriest emcee of the year. I mean “like a wolf” hungry, with barrages of bars, punch lines, and anecdotes. One minute, he’s joking that he could make a lady start a fight with her husband so she can “leave and be with Blu”. The next, he’s contemplating the bundled emotions of prospective fatherhood. Throughout, he combines the allure of confident, surefooted emceeing with a levelheaded and grounded worldview. It seems Blu is most at peace with a pen and a pad. But don’t classify this as just another “normal” cat rapping about “everyday” life. There is that, yes, but Blu’s execution is close to flawless. Don’t sleep on this. And did I mention he’s only about 22 years old? Wow.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Blu & Exile - Soul Amazing
Perhaps Zeph & Azeem’s Rise Up could be chalked up as a series of “If only"s. If only SoCalled’s Ghettoblaster LP didn’t have that awesome cover of the little girl sipping juice (or music) through a straw from a boom box. Otherwise, Rise Up might’ve snagged top album art honors depicting Zeph (the deejay) and Azeem (the emcee) as a revolutionary version of the Blues Brothers. If only I could get radio stations in my area to play something from this album, maybe a few more people could experience how good these songs are. If only Rise Up had been a little longer, with a few more tracks to match the ones here, the duo would’ve been jockeying for a spot in my top three.
Still, they couldn’t have done it much better, and what remains is a treat, a lavish LP with a wide range of influences. You get reggae, Latin rhythms, R&B hooks, and a sample to rival Jay-Z’s Oprah Annie refrain in “Hard Knock Life” (“Play the Drum”). In addition to clever verses, Azeem puts his slam poetry talents to use with a couple of spoken word pieces. Zeph and Azeem are experienced players in the rap game, which translates into layered, sophisticated music to augment detailed and descriptive rhymes. “I’m a young Yoda,” Azeem rhymes, “Yo, my tongue does yoga.” Indeed.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Zeph & Azeem - EPK for Rise Up
Maybe you’ve heard this saying: “If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.” Obviously, we mean it more as a reminder than a rigid rule, but I’ve never liked the quote. It assumes history is monolithically “bad”, which it isn’t. What if there’s something, or someone, you want to emulate? I can think of several qualities Paul Robeson possessed that I wouldn’t mind putting back in circulation.
Hell Razah (as in “raiser” or “razor”) is all about history on Renaissance Child, and he’s concerned with the tragedies, as well as the lessons and bright spots. The dedicated Wu-Tang Clan affiliate might describe himself as a “young Marcus Garvey” who “respects Queens”, or as the “undisputed rap Joe Louis”. But isn’t that a hint of Singbe Pieh (Joseph Cinque) I detect in these lyrics?
Meanwhile, Hell Razah, the “Runaway Sambo”, dedicates a song (“Chain Gang”) to Nat Turner, and adds shout-outs to, among others, Sojourner Truth, Clarence 13X, and historian Joel Augustus “J.A.” Rogers. On “Renaissance”, Hell Razah provides a thorough hip-hop history lesson, deftly assisted by Tragedy Khadafi, Timbo King, and R.A. the Rugged Man. There’s a Brand-Nubian-meets-Wu-Tang feel (call it “Brand Wu-bian”) to this album, as Hell Razah rhymes from a Five Percenter’s “poor righteous teacher” viewpoint over grimy, edgy beats, often embellished by shrill, haunting piano. Bottom line: If you listen to Renaissance Child once, you’re doomed to repeat it. Yikes. I’m sure you saw that coming.
Multiple songs: MySpace
If an album could be a human being, El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead could be the man in folksinger Ani Difranco’s spoken word piece “Tamburitza Lingua”. He speaks of “CIA foul play” and “chemical warfare”, and he sells “hairdryers out of gym bag”, saying, “I’m tellin’ you, lab rat to lab rat…that’s where the truth is at”.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead has that type of paranoia to it, and a distilled sense of gloom, but there’s also a chuckle and an audible wink in El-Producto’s layered, weighty beats. This album is operatic, with Sci-Fi overtones, as well as keenly and valiantly underground. El-P doesn’t hold back, lyrical or musically. Whether he’s “carpooling with doom and disease”, “falling in love on a prison ship”, or adding context to his rhymes by situating them “in front of a live studio audience”, he comes after us, after himself, and after the whole world with all barrels blazing.
Analogizing El-P to Phillip K. Dick and George Orwell makes perfect sense. I’d also add poet Jayne Cortez to the list. She’s not discussed in literary circles as much as she ought to be, but I enjoy similarities between her fantastic and surreal manipulation of language and El-P’s. His “Dear Sirs” (”irds burst into flames while singing Satan’s praises / And fold into the sky and rain down ashy danger”) reminds me of Cortez’s “The Red Pepper Poet” (”[A] long stroke of black lightning / Flashing in the sky / Like a fast flying train / On its way to Savannah at noontime”). Some listeners couldn’t get into the album at first, or at all, which surprised me, because I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was the one body of work that grabbed me as soon as I heard it. I’m worried that it won’t let go until the part in the album title after “when” (in which case, I’ll do the opposite of Common and try finding NEVER).
Multiple songs: MySpace
El-P - Flyentology
Like many of us, Minnesota’s Brother Ali has had to endure difficult times. Unlike some of us, Ali is willing to share his experiences, even his mistakes. Sometimes we feel like we’re whining when we share our feelings, or worse, we feel embarrassed, like people will judge us for what we’re experiencing. In actuality, yeah, they probably will judge us, and clown us too, sometimes behind our backs, but that doesn’t stop Brother Ali. That’s one reason why The Undisputed Truth is so good. Ali lays it all on the line, exploring his marital problems, custody of his son, and his thoughts about Uncle Sam’s “billion dollar a week kill-brown-people habit”.
We often mention his albinism, but, truthfully, we’re not thinking about what he looks like when he’s turning the vocal booth into a confessional. It’s been about three years since his last confession, Champion EP, and The Undisputed Truth makes strides in Ali’s underdog lyricism. In fact, Ali comes through like The Champ, the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay, thanks to Ant’s blues-laden beats and Ali’s ability to turn those beats into detailed soliloquies. There are no guests, no skits, and no effin’ nonsense, and while Ali tells us on the DVD companion to the CD that he looks up to KRS-One, Brother Ali’s mission is different from “the Teacha’s”. KRS-One makes us think about the world and how we can shape it. Brother Ali makes us think about ourselves and how the world shapes us.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Brother Ali - Uncle Sam Goddamn
There are three things I will remember about Common from 2007. One: He knows how to apply the Hollywood Shuffle guide for finding a good script. That is, “Does your character die? If not, that’s a good script.” Common’s character didn’t die in Smokin’ Aces. He flat-lined in that one Alicia Keys video, but eventually pulled through. Two: He, along with T.I., won the CD of the Year award at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, and said it was the first time he’d received an award on television. My eyes welled up. Three: Common’s “The People” and hard knocking “The Game” became two of my favorite tunes.
The long player, Finding Forever, isn’t too shabby either. Although I, and maybe four or five other people in the known universe, wouldn’t mind hearing another Electric Circus, Common’s insistence on sticking to a winning recipe is working pretty well. Is Finding Forever better than Be? It’s a tough call. You might argue that his lyricism isn’t as hot as on past releases, but Common maintains a high standard here, even on the smooth jazz, pop, and romantic cuts.
I’m glad Common continues to do love songs. At the same time, I would’ve taken out the clanging stuff in “Drivin’ Me Wild” and stopped that faux-singing at the end of “Southside”. I dug it all, otherwise, and I suspect we only “criticize” and “nitpick” out of the utmost respect. You can trash something out of hate, but it takes love to debate the details (Dang, that sounded kind of convincing, didn’t it?). Besides, I can’t be mad at the guy who gave me a chance to listen to D’angelo again (see: “Misunderstood”).
Multiple songs: MySpace
Common - Drivin’ Me Wild
Poet, writer, actor, and activist Saul Williams has got to be one of the deepest people I’ve never met, yet the distribution for his latest album, resembling Radiohead’s much-discussed web maneuver, might overshadow his intellect and his work. Williams, accompanied by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor as producer, released The Inevitable Rise & Liberation of Niggy Tardust via website. You get a .pdf booklet with lyrics and cover art, as well as either (a) high quality digital files for FREE, or (b) your choice of CD quality formats for five dollars (U.S.). Is it a giveaway, an alternative model, or both? We’ll see, but don’t let industry politics obscure the content, which is worth much more than five dollars. Niggy Tardust takes some of the poetry from Williams’s book, The Dead Emcee Scrolls, and puts them to discordant and dissonant rock-fueled backdrops.
Artistic and creative, but with a cynical bent, the album at first sounds like a collection of experiments, yet I find it immediately accessible and wholly realized. I even liked Williams’s cover of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (…I said, hiding my face). If you’ve read The Dead Emcee Scrolls, you’re aware of Williams’s love for graffiti art. That might be why this album works like sonic graffiti, painting a mural of cultural identity and awareness over our messy historical walls. And the name “Niggy Tardust”, recalling David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust as many hip-hop names are drawn from pop culture references, is his “tag”.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Saul Williams - List of Demands
I tried to avoid it, but Jay-Z lured me into his world with an out-of-sight marketing strategy and some really solid tracks. I almost started to call him “Hov”! WTF?
Despite the movie snippets and lyrical references, we know now that Jay-Z’s American Gangster isn’t really about the American Gangster film. Instead, Jay-Z figured out how to reconcile his street tales with his much-discussed upward mobility. He positions the “wiser and more polished entrepreneurial Jay-Z” against his memories as “young hustler Shawn Carter”. A straw man! “He is I, and I am him,” Jay might say, mimicking Snoop. Frea-kin’ brilliant! And his voice naturally sounds like he’s on the verge of tears anyway, so nobody beats him at the “I know I shouldn’t have done that” game. With a stellar performance of the new material on VH1 Storytellers, Jay fleshed out his version of the T.I. vs. T.I.P. concept and turned it into his own type of Blue Magic, his “black superhero music”. Dear, Jay-Z: Please release VH1 Storytellers: American Gangster.
I can nitpick a few tracks at the midpoint of the studio release, and I’ve gotten tired, tired, tired of people sampling “Between the Sheets”, but A.G.‘s cocktail of live instruments and ‘70s samples is inspired. Thanks to Diddy, Just Blaze, the Neptunes, and others, the production skillfully borrows a page or two from the Alchemist’s cookbook for Prodigy’s Return of the Mac. That’s another album with a distant Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson connection, using imagery from the movie Hoodlum. Although you needn’t see the A.G. movie to enjoy the album, having the film around doesn’t hurt. It certainly gave me a better understanding of Jay’s little Denzel-like “my man” at the beginning of the “Roc Boys” single. Who wouldn’t want to roll like a baller? Hell, I even caught myself saying stuff like “Yo! That’s $25,000 Alpaca! You blot that sh*t!”, almost like Denzel said it, except I was talking about a fleece sweater and it was, like, 25 dollars.
Multiple songs: MySpace
When did I get this Minnesota fixation? It snuck up on me. I think it started in the ‘80s with a diminutive rocker who had a love for beautiful ladies and purple precipitation, though not necessarily in that order. After that, it’s all a blur. Next thing I knew, Brother Ali was on my year-end hip-hop list, as were fellow Minnesotans Big Quarters.
Big Quarters is Medium Zach and Brandon Allday. They’re Latino rappers, and also brothers, who create gripping, purposeful music. Originally, I loved the production of their 2007 release, Cost of Living, and I still do, because it’s smart and catchy and polished, without becoming overly glossy and slick. Best of all, it’s unique: there’s none of Brother Ali’s blues, Pharoahe Monch’s genre fusion, El-P’s Bomb Squad-ish production, or Common and Kanye’s pop. It’s distinctive, and sometimes jarring, but always a pleasure. The more I’ve listened to the album, however, the more I love the lyrics. Medium Zach is probably the smoothest of the pair, but both emcees superbly strike form. It’s tough to pick a favorite track, but I’d still go with “How to Kill Your Rap Career”, if pressed. The song tells you to do everything you’re not supposed to do, which is hilarious (“Exploit, steal, replicate / Celebrate, keep it all featherweight”, rhymes guest emcee I Self Devine). Significantly, the song describes the opposite of the Big Quarters approach.
Multiple songs: MySpace
My 10 Favorite Mixtapes of 2007
1. Mick Boogie & Little Brother, And Justus for All
2. Royce Da 5’9, The Bar Exam (Hosted by Statik Selektah and DJ Premier)
3. Von Pea, Grand Vonye (Well-crafted and hilarious!)
4. Kanye West, Mick Boogie, Terry Urban, and 9th Wonder, The Graduate (Although it contains versions of old tunes, I prefer this to Graduation)
5. DJ Soul, Assorted Donuts (a tribute to J. Dilla, using Dilla’s beats)
6. J*Davey, Land of the Lost Mixtape
7. Chamillionaire, Mixtape Messiah 3
8. Wu-Tang Clan, 8 Diagrams Mixtape
9. Median, Relief in the Making (With DJ Low Key & 9th Wonder)
10. Insert whatever it is you like from Lil’ Wayne here—Da Drought 3, The Carter 3 Mixtape, whatever, because at this point, Lil’ Weezy’s output (I’m so mad I just typed “Weezy”) is merging in my mind, like Voltron, into one gargantuan mixtape.
My 10 Favorite Instrumental Hip-Hop Albums
1. Madlib, Beat Konducta, Vol. 3-4: In India
2. Various Producers, Thisish Vol. 1, Hosted by Large Professor
3. The ARE, Dem Damb Jacksons (amazing Jackson 5-infused instrumentals, with and without vocals, but the ones without vocals are the best)
4. Oh No, Dr. No’s Oxperiment
5. Blockhead, Uncle Tony’s Coloring Book
6. Yesterday’s New Quintet, Yesterday’s Universe (another Madlib production)
7. DJ Babu, The Beat Tape, Vol. 1
9. Robert Glasper, In My Element
8. Wynton Marsalis, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary
10. No Luck Club, Prosperity.
Please note: Number 10 was originally released in 2006, and re-released in 2007, but I’m counting it. Also, the Marsalis and Glasper releases probably classify as “jazz” more than “hip-hop”, but I think hip-hoppers would really dig these albums. It’s a close call, which is why I didn’t rank them higher. Also, I’m fully aware that Wynton Marsalis is no fan of hip-hop (whoa, I just caught the irony, and I’m kind of liking it), but I had to call it the way I heard it. No disrespect intended.
Best Album Title: El-P, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. Runner-up: Public Enemy, How Do You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?.
Most Hilarious Hip-Hop Song: Devin the Dude, “Almighty Dollar”, a going-to-St.-Ives illustration of our diminishing spending power. Runner-up: Mick Boogie & Little Brother, “Never Leave”, from the mixtape And Justus for All, using doughnut fundraisers to spoof “hardcore” cocaine distribution (“Krispy Kreme will never leave the streets!… Dunkin’ Donuts… f*ck ‘em! Little Debbie… f*ck ‘em! Glazed doughnuts, chocolate doughnuts, apple fritters, whatever you need, it’s nothin’!”)
Best Use of a Rap Line in a TV Show: The Season One finale of Californication, when David Duchovny, as wise-cracking writer “Hank Moody”, warns the boy kissing his daughter, “Check yourself, before you riggidy riggidy wreck yourself.”
Dopest Verse: R.A. the Rugged Man’s verse on “Renaissance” from Hell Razah’s Renaissance Child. Incredible.
Politician Most Likely to Get Props in a Rap Lyric: Barack Obama.
Politician Most Likely to Get Dissed in a Rap Lyric: President “Dubya”.
Best Rap Reissues: (1) MF Doom MM… Food; (2) Jaylib, Champion Sound; (3) Kurious, Constipated Monkey; (4) J. Dilla, Ruff Draft.
Best Use of a Line from a TV Show in a Rap Song: David Banner’s “B*tch Ass N*ggas (The Love Song)” aka “Free T.I.P.”, sampling the Colonel Stinkmeaner character from Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks.
Best Album Cover: SoCalled, Ghettoblaster, showing the little girl sipping music/juice from a boom box through a straw. Runner-up: Pharoahe Monch, Desire.
Important Hip-Hop Albums That Transcend Critique: Tampa Bay Artists United, Justice for the Jena 6. Also, Various Artists, The Trials of Daryl Hunt soundtrack.
Most Improved Hip-Hop Artist/Group: Dr. Cornell West, Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations. Runner-up: Northern State, Can I Keep This Pen?