The Best Hip-Hop of 2009

Andrew Martin, Michael Miller, and Quentin B. Huff

2009 was the Year of the Comeback, filled with powerful storytelling, dense lyricism, and sprawling departures.

If 2009 doesn't go down as the year when one of hip-hop's biggest stars interrupted a young country singer's acceptance speech at the MTV Video Awards, then it should be known as the Year of Returns and Comebacks. Albums by Mos Def, DOOM, Eminem, DJ Quik & Kurupt, and Ghostface Killah certainly fit the bill, not to mention the sequels the genre produced this year, such as Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, and Method Man & Redman's Blackout II. Many of these albums also contribute to what my co-author Michael Miller aptly refers to as "middle-aged rap". Hip-hop has gotten older, and so have the artists who helped to build and extend its cultural relevance. The dilemma is figuring out what position to play in the coming years: hardcore lyricist and storyteller (Raekwon, Ghostface), eccentric genius (Mos Def, DOOM, Madlib), elder statesman (KRS-One & Buckshot, Rakim), comic relief (Method Man & Redman), or business mogul and name brand (Jay-Z, P. Diddy). No word yet on which way Dr. Dre has decided to go.

At the other end of the spectrum, hip-hop's up-and-comers are creating an exciting buzz while minimizing the impact of hip-hop's intrinsic generational divide. These artists are also active on the mixtape circuit, cultivating loyal followings and mastering the flexibility of today's distribution models. It'll be interesting to see where rap's momentum goes with these talents at the helm.

Perhaps the best thing about hip-hop in 2009, at least for me, is that there are quite a few albums I can listen to straight through, from start to finish, without complaining about the number or sequencing of the songs. In this age of compiling playlists of various artists and buying tracks for individual download, it's impressive that we have artists deliberately and successfully crafting sets that are meant to be enjoyed as whole albums. Quentin B. Huff


Best Instrumental Hip-Hop Albums

Artist: Nicolay

Album: City Lights, Vol. 2: Shibuya

Label: TFE/Hardboiled


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US Release Date: 2009-09-15

UK Release Date: 2009-09-15

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List number: 5

Dutch beat creator Nicolay is versatile. He crafted soul-oriented hip-hop with Kay on 2008's Time:Line, and also works his R&B flavor with singer-emcee Phonte Coleman on their Foreign Exchange projects. Volume Two of City Lights is Nicolay's way of taking us on a vacation. Here, he's captured the sounds and, most impressively, the rhythms of Japan. Carlitta Durand adds her sweet vocals to a couple of songs, but the limelight properly belongs to Nicolay's well-ordered and pristine compositions. It's not a totally smooth trip, as there are a few bumps along the way, but Nicolay is definitely expanding his sound. Pack your bags and get ready for a journey. Quentin B. Huff


Artist: Oh No

Album: Dr. No's Ethiopium

Label: Stones Throw


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US Release Date: 2009-11-24

UK Release Date: 2009-11-24

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List number: 4

Look at what Madlib's younger brother, Michael "Oh No" Jackson, is digging up now. On the cooled heels of 2007's exotically moody Dr. No's Oxperiment, Oh No excavates a new set of crates in search of musical artifacts from Ethiopia. This series of brief but potent musical segments would probably be ripe for the picking by some talented emcee, but then that would distract your attention away from the cultural connection. Oh No creates the illusion of the Ethiopian sound the way a writer skillfully uses dialogue in a story. There's just enough here to mimic the real thing, but not so much that it loses its power and resonance within the work as a whole. Quentin B. Huff


Artist: DJ Signify

Album: Of Cities

Label: Bully


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US Release Date: 2009-01-20

UK Release Date: 2009-01-20

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List number: 3

Of Cities is made specifically for one setting: Laying on your back with good headphones on and, if you feel so inclined, with some kind of buzz. Although DJ Signify's fantastic record holds up in other settings, it's made for a fully isolated, totally focused listening experience. Otherwise you might miss the subtleties of the layers within this lo-fi near-masterpiece. It makes sense that it dropped in January, when those of us experiencing a true winter are battling the blues. There is no escaping the fact that this album remains mostly gloomy, haunting, and almost industrial across its 16 tracks -- three of which feature vocals from Aesop Rock or Matt Kelly. And while it remains suited for indoors, staring-at-the-ceiling listening, it still works should you decide to take it with you on a walk traversing the elements, or driving around in the dreariness of a snowy town or city. Andrew Martin


Artist: Blockhead

Album: The Music Scene

Label: Ninja Tune


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US Release Date: 2009-11-03

UK Release Date: 2010-01-18

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List number: 2

Are you exhausted by the current state of the music industry? Does the mere mention of it leave you feeling depressed? Sick of taking different color pills to enhance your mood? Try listening to Blockhead's The Music Scene. This album comes with 12 shots of carefully detailed and layered instrumentals. Breakdowns, vocal samples, and tempo changes enhance Blockhead's orchestral arrangements. It's not just a beat tape full of loops. It's an album chock full of smart basslines and rhythmic surprises, along the lines of Blue Sky Black Death's Late Night Cinema. Great for headphones, car stereos, boom boxes, clubs, arena speakers, and laptops. Side effects include smiling, waving your hands in the air like you just don't care, and spontaneous dancing. Not for use with ringtone raps, Auto-Tune, or Don Imus broadcasts. Funky fresh PopMatters criticism not included. Quentin B. Huff


Artist: Exile

Album: Radio

Label: Plug Research


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US Release Date: 2009-02-24

UK Release Date: 2009-02-23

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List number: 1

You wouldn't be entirely off-base to think of Radio as a nothing more than a gimmick. A producer sampling sounds from AM and FM stations to make beats? Never mind it being a gimmick -- could it even work? As Exile's fully instrumental Radio shows, yes, it can work. And no, this is not a gimmick. Using his MPC, this California producer hijacked music, talk radio, and everything in between while crafting this imaginative album. From start to finish, Exile makes music that is equally engaging and intriguing. This could have been a mere showcase of his clearly honed skills. But instead the songs are actual songs. And anyone would be hard-pressed to dismiss his perfect use of Little Dragon's "Twice" for the track "San Pedro Cactus". What's most interesting about this project is the fact that these beats, no matter how out-there, could still be rapped over. And the Lessondary crew, which features Tanya Morgan, will prove that point when it drops the Lessondary Radio project in 2010. Andrew Martin


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