Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order)
Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two [Capitol]
Here’s something I only tell my closest friends. To me, the Beastie Boys classic debut License to Ill sounded kind of dated and “old school” when it came out, back in 1980s. Yeah, it was dope. But c’mon — it wasn’t like the Beastie trio of Mike D (Michael Diamond), MCA (Adam Yauch), and Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) were flowing with the verve and pizzazz of Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, or even LL Cool J. Please. Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two is no sequel, neither in terms of its titling (the release of “Part Two” will precede that of “Part One”, if there is one) nor in terms of updating the Beastie formula. That’s because the formula doesn’t get updated. And why should it? This sh*t is so much fun, from the eardrum-shaking “Nonstop Disco Powerpack” (“We’re gonna rock the house until the break of dawn”) to the lite-punk of “Lee Majors Come Again”.
Beastie Boys boast over big beats and infinitely danceable grooves, vocal effects intact. It doesn’t hurt that Nas shows up on “Too Many Rappers” (“…and still not enough emcees”) to join them in a fresh circuit of mic-passing, and he’s so at home he sounds like he’s the fourth Beastie. Santigold drops by too on “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”, which sounds like it could be distantly related to Kelis’ “Trick Me”. So when “Make Some Noise” opens the album like a sped-up version of the Inspector Gadget theme, you know what decade the Beasties stay in: the timeless one. Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two may have its flaws, but it’s the kind of album I only share with my closest friends. — Quentin B. Huff
Blitz the Ambassador – Native Sun [Embassy MVMT]
One function of a country’s ambassador is to spread goodwill and understanding to the country’s neighbors and associate nations. Ghanaian emcee Blitz the Ambassador has been serving this function for a few years now, and in doing so he has done a great job of spreading goodwill without too heavily proselytizing his worldview. He has important things to say — in addition to offering the ego-driven display of skills that is a vital part of hip-hop’s aesthetic — but his need to say it is tempered by the brilliant stylistic and musical fusion that accompanies his raspy delivery.
On 2009’s Stereotype, Blitz worked his magic over jazz vibes and groovy melodies. Native Sun is a more pensive affair, a release befitting Blitz’s “ambassador” moniker. “You got a city behind you, I’ve got a continent,” Blitz declared on Stereotype. Native Sun provides a smart blend of African rhythms and afrobeat, alongside a flow that would be comfortable at the upper echelon of New York rap. The album’s title Native Sun also plays on the title of Richard Wright’s Native Son, but with a more positive statement of identity at its core. This merging duality between African-ness and American-ness gives Blitz’s approach here the opportunity to embrace a new rap paradigm — or at least one that inspires as much as it absorbs. And his collaborators are ambassadors themselves: the French singers of Les Nubians, Rwandan singer Corneille, Rwandan/Canadian rapper Shad, Congolese/Belgian rapper Baloji, and Brazilian rapper BNegão. Native Sun is a beautifully raw portrait of an emcee completely comfortable with himself and in charge of his powers. — Quentin B. Huff
Drake – Take Care [Cash Money/Young Money/Universal]
Drake‘s Take Care dropped too late for most of us to consider it for our list, and perhaps it would have proved too divisive a record among the staff anyway. But for my money Take Care is easily a top ten release by most measures. It’s absurdly easy to digest, thanks to the smooth tone of the production led by Noah Shebib and padded out by T-Minus, Doc McKinney, and Illangelo of the Weeknd, Jamie xx, and Just Blaze. And its transition from a hip-hop-centric first half to a heavily R&B second is without peer, as both worlds coexist as though they should have never been separated in the first place. Add Drake’s exceptionally candid lyrics about his family, relationships, and aspirations on top — along with his tasteful ear for melodies and hooks — and you’ve got an album that can appeal to almost any market without feeling like it’s pandering to any of them. In honor of Drake’s inimitable corniness, I’d even go so far as to say Take Care is 2011’s album that tastes like chicken. — David Amidon
The Roots – Undun [Def Jam]
“John Donne, Anne Donne, undone,” the great English metaphysical poet John Donne once wrote. He was describing his family’s dire financial situation, and in doing so he packed his woes into five simple words, and along the way found humor and cleverness in his ills. Donne’s ambitious use of imagery and figurative language always reminds me of the Roots, hip-hop’s postmodern metaphysical rap band, and the title of the band’s 2011 opus, Undun, sent me there again. As “dun” is slang for a close friend, this release aptly serves as a concept album — the group’s first-ever — centered on the demise of the character Redford Stephens. At a taut 38 minutes, Undun is a tightly packaged tour de force that travels backward from grave toward cradle and sounds equally compelling when the playlist is enjoyed in reverse. Videos and apps that embellish the narrative are also available.
Undun displays musical complexity, featuring bouts of soul, boom bap, blues, and ingenious fits of jazz and classical, but it is still neatly packed lyrically — almost appallingly so, really. That an album so focused on death could nevertheless be executed so joyously is a feat and a treat. Then again, maybe the Roots just need a group hug, considering their output has been all melancholy since 2006’s Game Theory and they haven’t shown any signs of coming out to enjoy the sunshine across Rising Down (2008) and How I Got Over (2010). Undun, which scans to me like a sequel to How I Got Over (which I also like listening to in reverse), is no different, relying on a proven core of snappy and inspired rhythms from Questlove, and extended rhyme exercises from hip-hop’s renowned emcee’s emcee Black Thought, along with an energized rotating cast including Dice Raw, Phonte, Big K.R.I.T., and Truck North. Had this album been released before we put this list together, it no doubt would have been in contention for the top ten. — Quentin B. Huff
Tyler, the Creator – Goblin [XL]
As the leader of controversial teenage rap collective, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, who’ve spent the past 18 months as darlings of the alt-hip-hop world, Tyler, the Creator’s first major-label release Goblin was as much anticipated by his detractors as his fans. Not since Eminem exploded into the mainstream’s consciousness a decade ago has a rapper been so wildly derided for his wicked lyrics and perceived prejudices. “I’m not a fuckin’ role model,” he declares on Goblin’s title track, but Tyler’s profile has been on a steep rise. He spent the first half of 2011 unexpectedly gracing mainstream magazine covers, filling column inches, and performing to larger audiences. All of a sudden it seemed like more than just a handful of bloggers were listening. Shit got real.
But Goblin is not The Marshall Mathers LP. There’s nothing ready-made for radio or regular MTV rotation like “The Real Slim Shady” or “Stan”, two unmissable pop culture phenoms that infiltrated the consciousness of even the most closed-eared American. Instead, Tyler has produced a long, ambitious, and testing record, giving a three-dimensional deconstruction of his own bitter, self-loathing, and delicate psyche. As with his first album Bastard, Goblin plays like an elongated therapy session between Tyler and his therapist (known as Dr. TC, also played by Tyler via voice altering software) and in this environment he’s becoming increasingly candid in his lyricism. The pressures of fame and hype surface, as well his bemusement at controversies he’s stirred (“You fucking critics are making my nerves hurt / Since I’m saying fuck everybody I guess that I’m a fucking pervert,” he declares on “Window”).
Of course, Tyler being Tyler, there’s a certain shock value attached to some of his lyrics, but, for the most part, they can offer some insight into his thought process. Tyler’s demons are laid bare as he reveals his awkwardness with girls, as well as in the tears shed over his absent father. Indeed, it’s away from the yells of “kill people burn shit fuck school!” we’re allowed into the mind of this talented, intelligent 20-year-old, punctuated by the fact that Tyler takes on most of the production duties himself and his musicianship continues to grow as he fills his arrangements with eerie synths, reverberating bass thumps, and jazzy piano chords. — Dean Van Nguyen