A return to the mic nine years in the making, a hip-hop supergroup of sorts, and Tom Waits beatboxing: this year's top-shelf hip-hop is equal parts anticipation, teamwork, and wha?!
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On November 4, 2008, a singular event occurred that promises to positively shape and influence the hip-hop world. It's not the election of Barack Obama as the President of the United States. Good guess, though. Rather, it's the day that Q-Tip, of the legendary crew A Tribe Called Quest, released The Renaissance, a 12-track blueprint for near-perfect hip-hop design. In an era criticized for its complacency, Q-Tip campaigned for change. Amid continued regionalism (Why y'all hatin' on the South?), vehement cultural criticism (Why y'all hatin' on BET?), and a nagging generation gap (Why is Generation X hatin' on Generation Y?), Q-Tip united hip-hoppers under a set of impeccable grooves. On The Renaissance, he pays tribute to rap artists on, as U.S. politicians say, both sides of the aisle ("Life Is Better"), explores gender dynamics ("Manwomanboogie"), and reaffirms the power of faith and positive thinking ("Believe") -- and without sounding corny. Mainly, it's the album's theme of rebirth through hardship that satisfies. For skeptics like me who find Q-Tip's quirky, helium-sounding vocals most enjoyable when diluted by the voices of other performers, the album wisely adds soul and R&B through live instrumentation and singing from Raphael Saadiq, Norah Jones, D'Angelo, and Amanda Diva. But, as a pleasant surprise, Q-Tip's genius, lyrically and production-wise, shines without the presence of guest rappers. Not even his Tribe buddy Phife could get a cameo. While hip-hop veterans scored points in 2008 (see: GZA's Pro Tools, Ice Cube's Raw Footage, Snoop Dogg's Ego Trippin', and Large Professor's Main Source), Q-Tip takes the top prize. Like he says in the album opener "Johnny Is Dead", "What good is an ear if a Q-tip isn't in it?"
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Nasir Jones has turned into something of a drama king, hasn't he? If he's not announcing hip-hop's demise, he's trying to tackle the N-word as his proposed album title. When his album title choice is overruled, he calls the album Untitled and argues, in a song called "Hero", that he didn't change anything at all! Was it his plan all along to shake everybody up with the album title? Is this supposed to be a concept album? Look, don't sweat the logistical sleight of hand, because few emcees are as lyrically gifted as Nas is, no matter how grumpy and disenchanted he seems to be. It's the music that matters. And who else but Nas could, on a single disc, admonish the media ("Sly Fox"), compare urban poverty to a roach colony ("Project Roach"), pen an ode to our wayward diets ("Fried Chicken"), and ponder the possibilities of a black president in the United States, with enough time left over for discussing the album's original N-word motif ("America", "N*gger (The Slave & the Master)", and "Y'all my N*ggas")? Conventional wisdom has it that beat selection is Nas's kryptonite. While the slick production of Untitled mostly trades the rawness of Illmatic for the sheen of pop and R&B, Nas' supposed attraction to wack beats is overstated this time. Confrontational, insightful, and poignant, Nas' poetry successfully fills the blanks left in the wake of the album's title controversy. On a different note, if you're one of those Nas haters I've been hearing about, you might want to check out the lyricism of Reks on his Grey Hairs LP. The second half of Grey Hairs loses steam, but most of the rhyming is impressive.
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As Detroit, Michigan looks to become a hip-hop powerhouse, Curtis Cross, aka Black Milk, is energizing the movement. His productivity since 2007 would make you think, as Black Milk himself proclaims, that the heyday of Berry Gordy's Motown had indeed returned to Motor City. He handled part of the production on Invincible's Shapeshifters, Guilty Simpson's Ode to the Ghetto, and Elzhi's The Preface and Europass joints. Besides collaborating with Fay Ray on The Setup, and a host of emcees for his Caltroit mixtape, he brought an arsenal of dope beats to his 2007 solo release Popular Demand. But Tronic is the sound of an artist who's realizing the enormity of his potential. Where Popular Demand's dense and pounding backdrop affirmed Milk as heir to J. Dilla's beatmaking throne, Tronic finds Black Milk casting a shadow of his own. Musically, he's branching out, absorbing elements of disco, funky drummer break beats, and flourishes of soul. Extended compositions and live instrumentation (piano, flugelhorn, trombone, bass clarinet, and more) add layers to his already thrilling sonic palette, proving that the album's brilliance is in its details. The difference from Milk's previous work is that, now, he's going for a sound that's familiar enough for you to groove to but fresh enough to sound like you time-traveled a few years into the future. With a dramatic improvement in his rapping and increased diversity of subject matter, Tronic moves this young producer closer to greatness.
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If you liked the somber contemplation of 2006's Game Theory, you might like Rising Down. I say "might" because Rising Down isn't a sequel. Where Game Theory's mood was troubled but introspective, Rising Down is cynical and bleak. The album's lens is wider than the ills of a particular citizen or a single city. It's worldwide. Personally, I enjoy cynicism in my hip-hop, but that's because I'm a pessimist. Rising Down plays right into my psychosis and paranoia, taking aim at suicide bombers and pharmaceutical companies, global warming and greenhouse gasses, racial stereotypes and radio playlists. While misery may love company, it also fuels the band's consistency, which may simultaneously serve as the album's saving grace as well as the biggest complaint against it. With Questlove drumming at max capacity and Black Thought upping the ante with each verse, Rising Down, it's a quality set that doesn't surprise you as much as it sticks to what works. And it works really, really well. My only nitpick is that I wish we could have gotten more from Black Thought and fewer from the guests. Still, it's hard to complain when Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Wale, and the rest are all great additions to the album's layered approach. Just so you know, Kidz in the Hall's The In Crowd is another album by a hip-hop group that made waves in 2008.
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Just when you think you've got hip-hop all figured out, Atmosphere's Slug (Sean Daley) and Ant (Anthony Davis) throw a curveball. Nothing about Lemons is predictable. It's a collection of rhymes full of wry wit that punctuates tales of woe, experience, and regret. It features Ant's unorthodox accompaniment, allowing Slug's laidback delivery to float over piano riffs, guitar licks, and weighty basslines. You even get a song featuring Tom Waits beatboxing. And that's after you accept the perplexing album title. The best part is the album's attention to the joys and sorrows of everyday life, chronicled through first and third person narratives. One of my favorites is "Yesterday", in which Slug serves up a heartfelt testimonial that sounds like it might be addressed to an ex-girlfriend or estranged spouse. Turns out, Slug had a different ending in mind. Sidestepping business-as-usual rhymes about being the best rapper, Lemons is fresh enough to influence future releases in much the same way that The Great Adventures of Slick Rick broadened hip-hop's scope. The physical release is also bundled with a 40-page hardcover book of lyrics and a children's story by Slug. Other 2008 releases that choose freshness over familiarity include: N.E.R.D.'s Seeing Sounds, People Under the Stairs's Fun DMC, and Dagha's The Divorce.
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In 2007, Clifford "T.I." Harris released T.I. vs. T.I.P., an attempt at a concept album pitting two facets of T.I.'s public persona against each other. It was the shrewd and levelheaded T.I. versus the hot-tempered and streetwise T.I.P. Or was it shrewd T.I.P. versus hot-tempered T.I.? It's hard to say since the "T.I." and "T.I.P." voices sounded an awful lot alike. Paper Trail, on the other hand, is the album T.I. vs. T.I.P. should have been. Mostly recorded while under house arrest following T.I.'s gun possession charges, Paper Trial earnestly meshes T.I.'s bravado with his regrets. The beats are still as grandiose and clap-happy as his previous efforts, but it's T.I.'s lyrical return to form that makes it all work. After all, you can always act tough and full of remorse when trouble's brewing. The trick is to sound at least somewhat sincere, which T.I. does on his anthem of triumph in the face of adversity ("No Matter What"), his relative discomfort with celebrity life ("My Life Your Entertainment"), his words of comfort to those in jail ("You Ain't Missin' Nothin'"), and his yodeling Rihanna-assisted pep talk ("Live Your Life"). Paper Trail is also long on chest thumping, and some of it not even from T.I., like when Ludacris adds his gigantic persona to "On Top of the World". Knowing that T.I.'s "King of the South" status is up to debate among fans, lovers of Southern American rap should also check out Ludacris' Theater of the Mind and Bun B's own mix of toughness and sincerity on II Trill.
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Tis the season for dope albums by duos using the traditional rapper-and-deejay model: Atmosphere's aforementioned Lemons, Prolyphic & Reanimator's The Ugly Truth, Nicolay & Kay's Time:Line, Pacewon & Mr. Green's The Only Color That Matters Is Green, Heltah Skeltah's D.I.R.T. (Da Incredible Rap Team), The Knux's Remind Me in 3 Days..., and Blu's collaborations with Mainframe (Johnson & Jonson) and Ta'Raach as C.R.A.C. Knuckles (The Piece Talks). Pairing former Little Brother beatmaker 9th Wonder with anybody usually yields strong results. But, on The Formula, 9th isn't cranking out beats for just anybody. In the past, he's teamed up with California rapper Murs, including a free download in 2008 called Sweet Lord. The Formula couples 9th Wonder's musical talents with rhymes from Buckshot of Black Moon and Boot Camp Clik. Deliberate and efficient, Buckshot's low-key raspy flow delightfully matches 9th's soul-leaning, bottom heavy sound. Maybe the album sticks too closely to the road most traveled. Admittedly, The Formula slid under my radar the first few times I listened to it. Multiple listens to the duo's quality handiwork paid dividends, and a well-monitored helping of guests is a bonus.
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Hip-hoppers have been trying to blend rap with jazz for quite some time now. It's hip-hop's attempt at discovering the secrets of cold fusion. The musical experiments in this field include Guru's Jazzmatazz series, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time & Space) by Digable Planets, Miles Davis' Easy Mo Bee-assisted Doo-Bop, Madlib's constant and vibrant sampling eccentricity, and the groundbreaking jazziness of A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory (take that, Midnight Marauders!). I can't say that Jazz Liberatorz -- the French production team of DJ Damage, Dusty and Madhi -- have finally achieved the long sought jazz-rap fusion, but Clin d'Oeil (French for "wink") is significant for documenting jazz's affect on hip-hop and the similarities between the two cultures. Released in January 2008, Clin d'Oeil set the year off right with a gorgeous mix of jazz, thumping beats, and lyrics from the underground's best emcees. I wouldn't have minded this album having input from French lyricists, rapping in French, but you can't go wrong with Asheru, J. Sands, Sadat X, Raashan Ahmad, Buckshot, J-Live, and Apani B. Fly. If you like producer-driven albums like this with an assortment of emcees, you should also try Jake One's White Van Music.
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Something about J-Live's Then What Happened reminds me of the early '90s. Maybe it's the producer-deejay-emcee's righteous flow with a touch of Five Percent Nation philosophy. Maybe it's the '90s-style boom bap production that goes retro without sounding so dated as to be irrelevant. It might have something to do with how much his voice sounds like De La Soul's Posdnuos, who shows up on the album for a guest spot in "The Upgrade". Maybe it's how easily he asserts his superiority to other rappers and manages to sound matter-of-fact instead of smug. Being able to back it up helps, too, which J-Live makes a strong case for accomplishing across this collection. Then What Happened? displays his range, from his frustration with the music industry to his storytelling. Much has been made of the beats on J-Live's previous albums, so it's nice to hear his production reaching upward in quality, at least enough to be deserving of what he brings to the table lyrically.
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This should've been a news headline: Four Emcees Join Forces for Hip-Hop Concept Album. Wordsworth, Punchline, Stricklin, and Masta Ace are eMC, a hip-hop super-group of sorts intent on elevating 2008's lyrical game to, depending on your point of view, either the next level or back to the genre's previous grandeur. The good news is that The Show is nowhere near as pretentious as I just made it sound. Quite the opposite, it's about four hungry wordsmiths trading bars and espousing the virtues of their everyman work ethic. It's also a concept album that uses songs and skits to document the highs and lows leading up to a concert performance. It's all there, from their introduction in rhyme to how much they love their mothers. The hunger in these songs is all the more amazing given Masta Ace's veteran status. I mean, he's been in the game since the '80s, so what's he got to prove? Let's chalk it up to the value he places on his craft, as Masta Ace sustains his reputation as one of hip-hop's most consistent performers. He might not be the most famous emcee, but he's one of the best when it comes to dependability. The group benefits from having Masta Ace at the core, as they weave their tales and punchlines over varied production from talents such as the Are, Nicolay, Ayatollah, and Quincy Tones. The Show is solid, methodical, and workmanlike.
11. Invincible, Shapeshifters (Emergence)
So...I've been complaining about the lack of presence and shine for hip-hop's female emcees for quite awhile now. Fortunately, 2008 brought us Invincible. The Michigan-based femcee possesses a relentless syllable-packing delivery that captivates and impresses. Breadth of subject matter, fresh analogies, and dope production place Shapeshifters above the fray.
12. Murs, Murs for President (Warner Bros.)
At long last, our underground hero gets a shot on a mainstream label. There's some obligatory work here from will.i.am, but it's still basically the same Murs we always knew and loved. He's still into rapping about relationships and being positive (or at least more positive than the "thugs") and it rarely gets hokey or hackneyed. As far as I'm concerned, Eric B. is still president, or maybe Barack Obama's vice-president, but Murs has a solid platform. His warm-up for his mainstream campaign trail, the 9thWonder helmed Sweet Lord, was also stellar.
Best Hip-Hop Re-issue:
Serengeti, Dennehy (Lights! Camera! Action!) (Audio8)
Containing several unreleased tracks, Serengeti's 2006 multi-character storybook named after actor Brian Dennehy was greatly improved. The first incarnation of this release wasn't to Serengeti's liking, so he reworked it until it was in line with his vision. How's that for being a perfectionist? Learn all about characters Derek, Kenny, and Kenny's girlfriend Jueles as Serengeti's detailed rhymes turn them into living, breathing people with each verse. The new-and-improved Dennehy is even doper than the original, and executed completely outside of the hip-hop norm.
Five Important Instrumental Hip-Hop Albums:
1. Flying Lotus, Los Angeles (Warp)
If you like bleats, distortion, and jams that totally represent the world of samplers and sequencers, this album's mostly instrumental portrait of the City of Angels in sound is your best bet. Surprising, refreshing, and satisfying, Los Angeles has the goods.
2. Blue Sky Black Death, Late Night Cinema (Babygrande)
The music created by producers Kingston and Young God is nowhere near as gloomy as their professional name, Blue Sky Black Death, would indicate. Rendering stories in the ethereal medium of audio, BSBD's first instrumental release is a fine collection of compositions that evoke emotion through transitions, breakdowns, horns, and tempo changes.
3. Metaform, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (Just)
The "giants" in the album title must be musicians whose source material was scavenged, layered, and reworked by Metaform. Genre-busting crate digging with a crafty edge, this album finds a danceable balance between samples and live playing, and smoothly melds the usual suspect genres (i.e. hip-hop, jazz, electronica, R&B).
4. The Apple Juice Kid, Miles Remixed (Okayplayer.com/Illroots.com)
The sheer audacity it takes to remix Miles Davis puts a producer with a goofy name like the Apple Juice Kid into one of two categories: he's either (1) too foolish to realize it won't work or (2) brilliant enough to know it will. Well, it's not option number one. It's risky to chop up an icon like Miles with the intent to reassemble the work in a way that does the original music justice, but this attempt sure makes a run for it. Quite a thrill.
5. Amplive, Rainydayz (Self-released
I liked Radiohead's In Rainbows, but I didn't expect it to end up as the subject of a mixtape. Oakland, California's Amplive chops up the album like a determined character from the Showtime's serial killer drama Dexter and revamps it in fresh instrumentals, an R&B makeover of "15 Step", and a couple of surprising rhymes. Substitute Too Short, Charli 2na, and Del the Funkee Homosapien in place of Thom Yorke for an idea of what "surprising" means.
Seven Essential Mixtapes:
1. Elzhi, Europass
Technically, Elzhi's Europass isn't a mixtape; it was supposed to be a tour CD. Several of these songs ended up on Elzhi's official release, The Preface, which is also solid. I just happen to like Europass a bit more. Elzhi's intricate rhymes are on full display here, with vivid imagery and clever wordplay to boot.
2. Wale, The Mixtape About Nothing
In 2007, Lil' Wayne successfully spotlighted the promotional opportunities to be gained from mixtape culture. In 2008, Washington, D.C.'s go-go specialist Wale turned the mixtape into a work of art. Translating Seinfeld's "show about nothing" concept into hip-hop vernacular, Wale found the intersection between a clever motif, the right samples, a slick delivery, and a gangsta cameo from actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
3. Rhymefest, Man in the Mirror
Much like Wale's mixtape, Rhymefest's Man in the Mirror lines up a killer concept: Rhymefest kicking his blue collar ethos over music from Michael Jackson and Jackson 5 records. The set's humor is enhanced by interludes featuring real audio from the King of Pop himself.
4. Tanya Morgan, The Bridge EP (Interdependent Media)
They're back -- the oddly drawn trio of male emcees (Von Pea, Ilyas, and Donwill) with the stage name of a woman. Working as a mixtape, although it's been billed as an EP, The Bridge is a tight package of nine tracks, sans filler, and consumed with varying rhyming styles, beats, and punchlines. Funny, yet seriously skilled. Think "De La Soul meets Saturday Night Live sketches" (but like 20 years ago when SNL was consistently good).
5. Royce da 5'9", The Bar Exam 2
Royce da 5'9" is a lyrical pit bull. His first installment of The Bar Exam, hosted by DJ Premier, showed us how deft Royce could be over popular hip-hop beats. There, he made them his own. On the second installment, hosted by DJ Green Lantern, Royce turns up the temperature by showing more ferocity. The real test will be his next official album but, until then, The Bar Exam 2 showcases the possibilities.
6. Talib Kweli & Mick Boogie, The MCEO Mixtape
I can honestly say I was never curious about how Talib Kweli would sound over Eric B. and Rakim's "Follow the Leader", but when I heard Kweli on that beat, I thought, "Yeah, that actually sounds right." Kweli surfs a number of recognizable rhythms, helped in his endeavor by deejay extraordinaire Mick Boogie, and assisted by affiliates Jean Grae, Busta Rhymes, Blu, Joell Ortez, and others. It's tough to be an emcee and a CEO, but Kweli is making it work from both sides, hence the mixtape title.
7. Immortal Technique, The 3rd World (Viper)
Good grief, Immortal Technique scares the crap out of me! Mainly, he makes me confront a major element in my love for music -- the desire to escape. Immortal Technique won't let you get away. A verbal boogeyman, he grabs you by the ears and forces you to stare at his rendering of reality. Through his scorched earth methodology, you'll hear about all manner of civil (and uncivil) disobedience, revolution, and even gentrification in Harlem. Once he grabs you, he never lets go.