Music

The Best Hip-Hop of 2011

David Amidon, Dave Heaton, Quentin B. Huff, Mike Madden, and Dean Van Nguyen

Newcomers, giants, throwbacks, and collaborators -- 2011 was the year of diversity, in which rap fans were faced with enough variety to find whatever flavor of hip-hop they wanted.

Artist: Action Bronson

Album: Dr. Lecter

Label: Fine Fabric Delegates

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List number: 10Action Bronson
Dr. Lecter

Action Bronson must rap about food more than any MC in the history of the game. The burly Queens-based, ethnically Albanian rapper does love his grub, working as a chef when not rhyming; both worlds frequently collide, like when he put out a mixtape in 2010 titled Bon Appetit....Bitch!!!!!. That his attention usually turns to food, often describing his own favourites in delicious detail, is a fascinating quirk that's stamped all over Bronsonelli's work, even if he sometimes struggles with the obsession. For instance, his candid description of his unhappiness with his weight and lack of discipline when controlling his food intake on "Ronnie Coleman" is intriguing: "If I had a little motivation, money and a hot body / I see it now, Bronson the heartthrobby," he sighs, yearning for a picture perfect physique in a way that few rappers have ever discussed on a record. But despite drawing unusual influences, Dr. Lecter is not a gimmicky album. In fact, it blusters along with an authentic New York City corner vibe, largely thanks to its production, supplied solely by Tommy Mas. The long-time Bronson affiliate provides a rag tag selection of knuckleduster beats, built unsteadily on soul samples, horn stabs, double bass riffs, and gorgeous snares that play to the MC's strengths. Bronson's style is often compared to that of Ghostface Killah, which is apt, as his sharp tongue and energetic flow whizzes through the 15 lively tracks like an unstoppable force. Dean Van Nguyen

 
Artist: Kendrick Lamar

Album: Section.80

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment

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Kendrick Lamar
Section.80

I'll be honest with you: I'm confused as to how there could be any objection to this album. Maybe it's the west's continued struggle for national relevance? Maybe Kendrick Lamar just sounds too damn weird when he raps? I guess I'll go with the latter, but Section.80 is a great album for those who are able to look past Lamar's strange vocal quirks. Like the CunninLynguists album, it tells a loose narrative about a group of kids stranded in their Compton ghetto, struggling with image issues, drug abuse, parental control or lack thereof, and even, just every so often, love. Throughout Section.80 Lamar revives the spirit of former west coast scions like Ice Cube and pre-gangsta 2Pac, describing his reality with a decisive clarity that escapes most 24-year olds. He avoids gangsta clichés, aware of their dated nature, but he doesn't shy away from admitting his relationship with those who live the life and his ability to be considerate of both the hunters and hunted in his community only amplifies Lamar's observations. Section.80 might take a little time to reveal its appeal, but once it does there's no doubt you'll have found one 2011's most fearless records. David Amidon

 
Artist: People Under the Stairs

Album: Highlighter

Label: Piecelock 70

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List number: 8

People Under the Stairs
Highlighter

People Under the Stairs' purist approach contains a heavy dose of sweet nostalgia, not just for the era when hip-hop was constructed out of essential building blocks, but for the carefree moments of life. It consists of little glimpses of happiness: the sound of music blasting out of speakers, the pleasure of a craft beer and a home-cooked meal. When they talk about "taking it back to the streets", they're talking about returning to their old neighborhood to visit their moms. Californians to their core, the elemental air of their music is the warm sun shining on an afternoon backyard party. That mood is captured especially well on their eighth LP, which in its minimalist jazz-funk grooves and its introspective lyrics conjures up that sun-kissed life of leisure. This is not just a reminder of hip-hop's humble beginnings at street parties, but of the music's sentimental heart. Dave Heaton

 
Artist: Random Axe

Album: Random Axe

Label: Duckdown

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List number: 7

Random Axe
Random Axe

It's possible that the days of the super producer are gone. Casual hip-hop listeners just don't flock to a record like they did in the '90s and early '00s on the strength of a producer alone, even if beats have become the driving force of many a fan's listening habits lately. But if any of that old standard remains, then Detroit's Black Milk is one of the few who deserves the label. Milk's spent the past couple of years shrugging off the "Dilla clone" label with a litany of soul and boom bap production fueled by some of the loudest, most face-pounding drums you'll likely ever hear on a hip-hop record. Most of the time his patterns are so disgusting, they sound like he mixed everything down and then played the drums on top of them. So it makes sense that an alchemist of such raw materials would invite two of the gullyest men to ever spit on a microphone to join him, Sean Price and Guilty Simpson.

Random Axe is the kind of ignorant-intelligent music that's fallen by the wayside a little bit in the post-Dipset landscape. While trap rappers -- bless 'em though -- rely on ignorance for the sake of it, Guilty and Sean spew it in impressively verbose ways -- Sean through complex rhyme schemes and a Chappelian sense of humor, Guilty more by being so blunt it's almost unbelievable such ridiculous things could be said so casually. Their powers combined, the trio released one of the best boom bap albums in years, an ode to the past that makes no bones about being released in the now, reverent of what came before but wholly unafraid to pave a new path to the future. Very few albums in Random Axe's mode are capable of sounding both so comfortable with the way things used to be and so confident in the way things are going. In a decade, there's a very good chance Random Axe stands tall as the most timeless release on our list. David Amidon

 
Artist: CunninLynguists

Album: Oneirology

Label: Rbc Records

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List number: 6

CunninLynguists
Oneirology

Oneirology is Greek for "the study of dreams", though when discussing CunninLynguist's career prospects it might be more accurate to call them nightmares. If you happen to follow their would-be superstar producer Kno on Twitter or Facebook, you know that he has little optimism for the financial future of the group. Despite a career riddled with critical accolades dating back to 2005's A Piece of Strange, CunninLynguists have had little financial success. Despite 10,000,000+ last.fm scrobbles, the group barely sold 6,000 copies of the album we're calling the sixth best album of the year. Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Fantasy may have raised hip-hop listeners' expectations of how epic an album's scale can be, but what very few of us seem to appreciate is just how adroitly this group matched that standard on a much smaller budget.

Oneirology is a complex, sprawling work in which Big K.R.I.T. personifies any number of bloodthirsty American leaders, Freddie Gibbs raps from the perspective of crack cocaine, and Tonedeff delivers a tongue twisting verse about, well, drunken sexual tongue twisting. And that's just the guests. Kno provides exceptionally ethereal production over which group rappers Deacon and Natti deliver the most microscopic, detailed verses of their careers, tip-toeing feverishly between conscious and southern rap tropes in a way they come off much more like human beings than rap performers. Their verses act as a dialectic, constantly pitting themselves against themselves and coming up with beautiful insights into the postmodern human condition. Maybe it's just me, but that sounds like an album worth much more than a cursory glance. David Amidon

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