Music

The Best Hip-Hop of 2009

Andrew Martin, Michael Miller, and Quentin B. Huff
Image by andreas160578 from Pixabay

This was the year of the comeback in hip-hop, 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

​5. Nicolay - City Lights, Vol. 2: Shibuya [TFE/Hardboiled]

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

LISTEN: Bandcamp

4. Oh No - Dr. No's Ethiopium [Stones Throw]

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

3. DJ Signify - Of Cities [Bully]

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

2. Blockhead - The Music Scene [Ninja Tune]

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

LISTEN: Bandcamp

1. Exile - Radio [Plug Research]

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

BEST MIXTAPES

5. Kid Cudi Dat Kid from Cleveland [DatNewCudi]

"I love the hate, I love the positive", Kid Cudi prefaces his 2009 mixtape, laughing his way through his unanimous acceptance. That kind of humor holds this mixtape together. It's Kid Cudi at his absolutely most playful, not taking himself too seriously, and so making his best music. The burlesque show stand-up routine of "I Poke Her Face" has one of the most clever samples of the year (guess what song it is?); "Look Up in Da Stars", with Wale, is the sound of two hungry artists on the verge of a breakout; Consequence's performance on the jazzy "Buggin' Out 2009" overshadows Cudi's performance, but that's also the point. This mixtape sounds like Cudi's throwing a party, and if someone else steals the spotlight for a minute, Cudi is still the ringmaster. He throws a hell of a party, too. - Michael Miller

J. Period & K'naan

Album: The Messengers: Volumes I, II, and III

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/j/jperiod-knaan-themessengers.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-09-22

UK Release Date: 2009-09-22

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List number: 4

Along with folks like DJ Green Lantern, Mick Boogie, and DJ Drama, J. Period has made a serious name in the mixtape trade. Somali-born rapper K'naan joins J. Period for three volumes of nonstop action in homage to iconic musicians with messages: Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan. It takes quite a bit of audacity to lay your vocals alongside three legends, but K'naan actually sounds like a natural addition to the proceedings. Equal parts tribute, mic skills, and smart selections from discographies, The Messengers succeeds in entertaining as much as it educates. Quentin B. Huff

Artist: Lil' Wayne

Album: No Ceilings

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US Release Date: 2009-10-31

UK Release Date: 2009-10-31

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As this year pressed on, hip-hop heads were wondering what the hell Lil' Wayne was doing. After appeasing fans with Tha Carter III and plenty of guest verses, it looked like Weezy had kind of lost it. He recorded self-indulgent singles like "Prom Queen", which will appear on his "rock" album -- the much-delayed Rebirth. It seemed like he might be moving away from the straightforward insane lyricism his fans fell in love with. It appears that he heard the rumblings, because he definitely responded with No Ceilings. It has its weak moments, such as a few recycled rhymes here and there, but it's a very strong effort overall. And most of his guests, such as Shanell, are essentially less talented carbon-copies of Wayne. But when the focus is solely on the self-proclaimed "Martian", this mixtape in nearly unstoppable. Weezy slays tracks like Noreaga's "Banned from TV" and Jay-Z's "Run This Town", turning them into even more bombastic displays of bravado. Here's hoping Wayne maintains his creativity when unleashing that aforementioned rock album and the Young Money group project. Andrew Martin

Artist: Wale & 9th Wonder

Album: Back to the Feature

Label: Phantom Sound & Vision

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US Release Date: 2009-11-10

UK Release Date: 2009-11-30

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List number: 2

Was I the only one hoping Wale would never, ever sign with a label? Not to player hate on his "official" debut, Attention Deficit, especially since I enjoyed it well enough, but I guess I'm sentimental. Wale's Back to the Feature is our Washington, D.C. go-go boy's last outing as a free agent. It brings a tear to my DIY, indie-minded eye. No, it's not as triumphant as 2007's Seinfeld-inspired The Mixtape About Nothing, but it still packs a punch. Back to the Feature loosely plays on the film Back to the Future, with 9th Wonder as the scientist behind the beats. It also amasses a stack of intriguing guest spots. If you've ever wondered what Wale would sound like alongside, say, Lady Gaga, Talib Kweli, Joe Budden, and Jean Grae -- well, now you know. Quentin B. Huff

Artist: Drake

Album: So Far Gone

Label: Cash Money

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/d/drake-sofargone.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-09-15

UK Release Date: 2009-09-28

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List number: 1

"I've got a certain lust for life", Drake sings at the opening of So Far Gone, overtop one of the most ambient beats in hip-hop history. That ethereal atmosphere continues throughout, continuously contradicting Drake's lyrics about all kinds of familiar hip-hop extravagance. "Houstatlantavegas", is a would-be club anthem that transforms into a tragic stripper opera, including the most depressing "throw your ones up in the air" ever. "Ignant Shit" samples "Big Poppa" so that it sounds like an '80s video game soundtrack, and when Drake says, "My song is your girlfriend's alarm or whatever", he almost sounds sorry. The gospel organ of "Uptown" creates a deep frustration, nearly overpowering Drake when he admits, "Now I run the game", his voice competing with his hook. All the while, a Can drumbeat pounds away, creating a brilliant kaleidoscope of styles and influences. Michael Miller

Best Albums (12-7)

Best Albums - Honorable Mention

Artist: Diamond District

Album: In the Ruff

Label: Ryko

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US Release Date: 2009-10-27

UK Release Date: 2009-10-27

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List number: 12

A bunch of albums could have received an "Honorable Mention" this year, for various reasons. Love 'em or hate 'em, Eminem's Relapse and Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 reminded us of what it feels like when an album's release date is treated like an event. Royce Da 5'9's Street Hop, jumpstarted by Royce's spotlight-stealing moments on the Slaughterhouse (Royce, Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden, and Crooked I) album, could have made the cut. So could Fashawn's Boy Meets World, Skyzoo's The Salvation, or UGK's UGK 4 Life. Diamond District (emcee and producer Oddisee joined by artists XO and YU) gets the nod because, with In the Ruff, this group made the rather bold decision to create an album that recalls the boom-bap sound of the 1990s, yet remains relevant to the contemporary landscape and also stays true to the group's origins. By "origins", I'm referring to the fact that Diamond District's members were raised in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Washington, D.C., in particular, lends a peculiar atmosphere in that it sits at the center of United States politics while also sporting crime rates and income disparities that are out of this world. Listening to In the Ruff, I can't help but wonder if maybe the politics and the not-so-great stuff are related. Diamond District offers intricate rhymes delivered with the ease that characterized the Native Tongue posse of the '90s, coupled with smart loops and bass-heavy beats in the mode of DJ Premier and Pete Rock. These guys make the '90s sound a heck of a lot better than I remember it. Quentin B. Huff

 

Artist: Ghostface Killah

Album: Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry

Label: Def Jam

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US Release Date: 2009-09-29

UK Release Date: 2009-10-05

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List number: 11

This is Ghostface Killah at his most experimental. With his foray into R&B, he treats relationships with the same macabre ferocity as he does crack and violence. "I need a girl that's stackin' and poppin'", he bellows on the opening song, as if his very life hangs in the balance in the necessity. Then, of course, there's "Stapleton Sex", a song so explicit it's nearly impossible to listen to. "I've got my gun on the floor and I'm ready to fuck", Ghostface admits before explaining, "My face is wet, got some hair on my tongue". In a matter of seconds, he manages to make sex as frightening as the crack game, a testament to his skill with words. "Guest House" is the perfect synthesis of Ghostface's wit, funkiness, and theatricality. "My dick's as hard as a callus!" he shouts with the seriousness of a condemned man. This isn't easy listening, but Ghostdini's total revision of the slow jam formula makes it one of the most important hip-hop albums of the year. Michael Miller

 

Best Albums

 

Artist: DOOM

Album: Born Like This

Label: Lex

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US Release Date: 2009-03-24

UK Release Date: 2009-03-23

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List number: 10

Taking its title from a Charles Bukowski poem, DOOM's first album in over three years is also his most focused of the decade. DOOM's incorporation of massive organ sounds, dirty guitar tracks, and jazz drumming recalls Low End Theory A Tribe Called Quest, but DOOM's confident delivery is all his own: "Know the drill, it ain't worth the over kill, flow still", he says on "Gazillion Ear", offering a worthy summation of his style on Born Like This. He's laidback, but entirely self-aware, cutting out all filler, throwing in no unnecessary words. Yes, like a good Bukowski poem, the 40 minutes of Born Like This create a combination of humor and tragedy, distilled to its bare essentials. A glorious return. Michael Miller

 

Artist: k-os

Album: Yes!

Label: Universal

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/k/kos-yes.jpg

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Canada Release Date: 2009-04-14

US Release Date: Import

UK Release Date: Unavailable

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List number: 9

This Toronto native has never been one to color inside the genre lines. k-os has shown flashes of experimentation since hitting the scene in the mid-'90s. But he's never jumped outside the box as much as he did on this year's Yes!. Yet it remains very accessible. Singles such as "4 3 2 1" and "I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman", which features fellow Canucks Nelly Furtado and Saukrates, are beyond catchy. They display k-os's ability to write a pop song without sacrificing integrity or quality. And they also display his relentless urge to grow as an artist. That quality remains true across the entirety of Yes!. A multitalented artist who raps, sings, and produces better than most of his contemporaries, k-os's discography continues to expand as a force to be reckoned with. Andrew Martin

 

Artist: DJ Quik & Kurupt

Album: BlaQKout

Label: Mad Science

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US Release Date: 2009-06-09

UK Release Date: Import

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List number: 8

"This feeling right here is like taking me back to 1995", DJ Quik says on the title track of BlaQKout. 1987 is more like it. A near-perfect meeting point of 1999-era Prince and Straight Outta Compton -- which is to say this album is really FUNKY -- BlaQKout finds these two veteran MCs alternating between their most playful (the nasty bedroom anthem "Cream") and serious ("9 x Outta 10"). The record, with its otherworldy beats that combine elements of electronica, jazz, blues, and, of course, funk, is the sonic equivalent of DJ Quik's evolution from a teenage DJ in Los Angeles to a purveyor of cerebral party rap. Its understated-ness is just haughty enough to provide a metonym for Kurupt's less-is-more approach to rapping. With BlaQKout, these two rappers -- now pushing 40 -- not only prove they are still relevant, they also show they can play harder than most other artists in the genre. Michael Miller

 

Artist: Serengeti & Polyphonic

Album: Terradactyl

Label: Anticon

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US Release Date: 2009-06-23

UK Release Date: 2009-07-27

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List number: 7

Polyphonic's the DJ. Serengeti's the wordsmith. Together, they continue with the inventive, off-kilter rhyme and beat wizardry they almost perfected on 2007's Don't Give Up. Although the title brings to mind the ancient pterodactyl, Serengeti & Polyphonic's Terradactyl is far from antiquated. Its thumping and pulsing futuristic rhythms make the affair more accessible than its sonic predecessor, largely because Polyphonic's nimble and wonderfully busy soundscapes provide the right contrast to Serengeti's lithe delivery. Serengeti is pensive, reflective, bluesy, and trippy, and although he doesn't lean as heavily on humor as in some of his solo work, his lyrical heft is abundant. Serengeti packs a punch when he's moody. Where Don't Give Up offered a sonic quilt, Terradactyl is the musical equivalent of abstract art and impressionism. The results are workmanlike, fresh, and thrilling. Absolutely dope. Quentin B. Huff

 

Best Albums (6-1)

Artist: Danny!

Album: Where Is Danny?

Label: Definitive Jux

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US Release Date: 2009-11-17

UK Release Date: 2009-10-19

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List number: 6

Where Is Danny?, indeed. To be fair, he wasn't completely off-the-radar. His 2008 full-length, And I Love H.E.R., was well-received, with good reason. And he dropped a few instrumental projects since then. But Danny!'s proper Definitive Jux debut was nowhere to be found. Pushed back time and time again, a rough version of that album eventually hit the 'Net, though that was never his intention. The IMEEM website and some writers leaked the advance. As a result, Danny's camp released Where Is Danny? for free with a fully mastered version set to drop soon in stores and digitally. Rough or not, it was clear this was not only Danny's best effort, but one of 2009's best, too. A sprawling departure from his previous sound -- gone are the soul samples and Kanye references -- Where Is Danny? plays like a drugged up mix of early De La Soul and Madvillain. Danny and Alex Goose, who produced almost every track on here, crafted one hell of an experimental record that displays both artists at the top of their respective game. Andrew Martin

Danny!: Where Is Danny?

 

Artist: Tanya Morgan

Album: Brooklynati

Label: Interdependent Media

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/tanyamorgan-brooklynati.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-05-12

UK Release Date: 2009-05-19

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List number: 5

For the last time, Tanya Morgan is not a neo-soul singer! Tanya Morgan is a rap group, a trio of three male emcees -- Von Pea, Ilyas, and Donwill. In 2006, their Moonlighting album, and its concept of a cassette tape being passed around, reminded me of De La Soul Is Dead (which is still a good listen). This time, Tanya Morgan strikes again with a loftier, more exacting concept. They've created a city called "Brooklynati", playing on their personal connections as Von Pea hails from Brooklyn, New York, while Ilyas and Donwill are from Cincinnati, Ohio. It also represents the meshing of their styles, the rapid flows of the Midwestern United States meeting the lyrical acumen of New York. Complete with skits, commentary, and a very believable Brooklynati Chamber of Commerce website, the album brings us a refreshing set of razor sharp flows from three energetic and witty emcees. The production is slicker here than on Moonlighting, and I miss the muddy and grimy we-don't-have-a-budget sound they used to have. But they more than make up for it with interesting verses and complementary guest spots. Best of all, their personalities have grown, so that each group member sounds more distinct without ruining the overall cohesiveness of the effort. Quentin B. Huff

Tanya Morgan: Brooklynati

 

Artist: Finale

Album: A Pipe Dream and a Promise

Label: Interdependent Media

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/f/finale-apipedreamandapromise.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-04-07

UK Release Date: 2009-04-07

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List number: 4

Detroit has been quietly (or loudly if you keep up with the "underground") killing the rap game for many years. From Eminem to Slum Village to Finale, the Motor City steadily churns out killer albums. And in 2009, it was no different. Finale's A Pipe Dream and a Promise is the prime example of a proper solo debut -- minimal filler, excellent production, and a variety of topics. It's also a showcase of straightforward, no-bullshit hip-hop at its finest. Armed with beats from the likes of Kev Brown, J Dilla, and Black Milk, Finale spits passionately for just short of an hour. There is no denying the brilliance of cuts like album-opener "Arrival & Departure", "Heat", and "The Waiting Game", the latter of which features like-minded rapper Invincible. And Finale's lyricism and smooth flow aside, he -- like other Detroit MCs -- displays a ridiculous knack for breath control. There must be something in the water over there. Andrew Martin

 

Artist: Raekwon

Album: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II

Label: ICEAL

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/r/raekwon-onlybuilt4cubanlinx2.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-09-08

UK Release Date: 2009-09-07

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List number: 3

Hip-Hop's Great White Whale appeared this year, and it surpassed everyone's expectations. Right down to the mirror image cover, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II picks up where Part I left off. Raekwon sounds like he's been resting, contemplating, brooding during the 15 years it took to make his sequel. His slow, menacing delivery overpowers everything here: J Dilla's two incredible production credits, the album's grand storytelling ambitions, Ghostface Killah's fiery passion -- "When I was 12 in the church I thought of packing that metal!" he shouts on "10 Bricks". When Raekwon says, "Soldiers in the front, let the heat pump", with the meditative calm of a retired crime boss (hey, he's playing a role, but he plays it well), you know a decade of mediocrity has been erased. Like The Godfather Part II, it makes the original cower in its shadow. Michael Miller

 

Artist: Brother Ali

Album: Us

Label: Rhymesayers

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/b/brotherali-us.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-09-22

UK Release Date: 2009-09-21

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List number: 2

Us is a storytelling powerhouse of an album. Brother Ali made the decision to replace his own trials and tribulations with those of others. There is no question he excelled in spitting autobiographical rhymes. But he packs the same emotion and strong lyricism into a slew of topics, including loving a woman who hates herself ("You Say (Puppy Love)") and a former friend who can't shake the life of the streets ("Games"). There's plenty of braggadocio, too. "[email protected]", which features Freeway and Joell Ortiz, has Ali rhyming like a man possessed. And even though it hosts 16 tracks of intense content, Us never drags. A big reason for that is co-conspirator/producer Ant, who, like Ali, also moved away from his calling card -- slick samples and loops with a distinct early '90s vibe. This time around, Ant called on talented musicians to interpolate samples with live instrumentation. It all makes for a very rich, engaging listening experience that's also one of 2009's best. Andrew Martin

 

Artist: Mos Def

Album: The Ecstatic

Label: Downtown

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/mosdef-theecstatic.jpg

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US Release Date: 2009-06-09

UK Release Date: 2009-06-09

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List number: 1

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. When I first heard The Ecstatic, I despised it. I was so angry I wanted to take it back to the store. I mistook its eclecticism for being unfocused and scatterbrained, wrote off its use of repetition (in place of hooks) as laziness, and misread the lyrics as gibberish. Another sad case of Overzealous Critic Syndrome. Be sure to get your vaccinations. I must have listened to The Ecstatic 15 times before I realized it was worth getting excited about. I see it now as a four part set, each comprised of four songs with a distinct movement, theme, and cycle. Far from unfocused, it showcases Mos Def at his mos' energized, bringing us poignant and pointed rhymes backed by superb production. He's still singing, still reminding us to call him Dante, Flaco, Boogeyman, or whatever, but the whole thing operates as if his "supermagic" is actually voodoo. He designed these incantations to elicit nostalgia, hope, amazement, and delight. Quentin B. Huff

 

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