Best Hip-Hop of 2006
Quentin Huff's top-ten list of mixtapers, hustlers, protesters, emcees, and self-proclaimed kings finds hip-hop very much alive and well in 2006.
I don't care what Nas says: hip-hop is not dead and I've got 2006 on my side to confirm it. This year, in addition to the albums, we witnessed Lil' Kim's release from prison and Jay-Z's return from "retirement" (though I contend he worked more as a retired rapper than some folks do in a whole career). Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar and several of hip-hop's ever-present producers -- with will.i.am, Timbaland, and Jermaine Dupri leading the way -- influenced the styles of the mainstream. Will.i.am, especially, seems to have cloned himself like The Matrix's Agent Smith -- he's everywhere! Hip-hop's continued crossover was tempered, at one end, by the underground and the streets (the streets is always watchin', yo) and, at the other end, by the important analysis and critique of its aesthetic, not by naysayers who don't understand the culture, but rather by hip-hop lovers in search of improvement. This is where some of the "Hip-Hop Is Dead" sentiment has originated. And we should welcome it, as this sort of internal pressure is the best way to rejuvenate and sustain hip-hop's originality, creativity, and purpose.
To that end, the albums of 2006 brought a mixture of fresh voices, veterans, producers, and producer-emcees over a wide selection of classic DJ-crafted beats, R&B and soul throwbacks, and funk workouts. The list of veterans, in particular, seemed unending, with a few pleasant surprises -- releases from X-Clan, C.L. Smooth, Busta Rhymes, and D.M.C. Believing this mass of music can be organized by its individual trends, I present my picks for the top hip-hop albums of 2006. This list is sure to be unpleasant, but at least it should be easy to see the madness to its method -- it doubles as a year-end awards ceremony. Each pick represents some type of trend in 2006 and "Honorable Mention" releases for each trend are also included. A few superlatives that may not have a place in the regular countdown are below:
Best Skit/Interlude: Hi-Tek's "I Think I Got a Beat", from Hi-Teknology, Vol. 2 (Babygrande) in which his son uses a toy to make the melody for a beat;
Funniest TV Appearance: Ludacris on Saturday Night Live;
Best Tributes: VH1's Hip-Hop Honors, showing respect to legends like MC Lyte, Rakim, Afrika Bambaataa, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Russell Simmons;
Best Use of a Hip-Hop Song in a Movie: Spike Lee's Inside Man and the use of Kanye West's "Gold Digger" as a ringtone on a well-to-do bank manager's cell phone;
Most Interesting Collaborations: DMC: Checks Thugs and Rock N Roll (Romen Mpire), featuring Doug E. Fresh, Kid Rock, Ciara, and Sarah McLachlan;
Most Hardcore Musical Moment: Mos Def's arrest outside the MTV Video Music Awards for holding an impromptu Katrina-themed concert without a permit;
People Hip-Hoppers Will Miss: Producer J. Dilla, rapper Proof, vocal hero Gerald Levert, journalist Ed Bradley, science-fiction pioneer Octavia Butler, author Bebe Moore Campbell, and so many others who influence art and creativity.
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Best Producer: Is there anything left to say about J. Dilla and Donuts that hasn't been said already -- and said better? The Roots dedicated their song "Can't Stop This" to Dilla and Talib Kweli's website still displays his handwritten notes on Dilla's passing, while critics and music fans continue to appreciate and mourn the loss of our man James Yancey. Everyone keeps telling me to stop over-thinking Donuts, Dilla's magnum opus, but it's kind of tough. If someone had told me ten years ago that not only would I one day consider an album of instrumental hip-hop one of the year's best, but I would also have my concept of what hip-hop is (and can be) expanded by it, I would've said, "What are you smoking?" and then, "Pass it to me so I can see what you're seeing." But Donuts is exactly that: the best. Its hip-hop is so pure we can only handle it in crumbs, 31 in fact, by a man of as many years. Dilla frantically yet methodically worked his magic of sonic collage, as if he'd been studying the visual art of Romare Bearden. Guided by his dedication to hip-hop, Dilla had reportedly completed the album from his hospital bed and, no matter how resolutely I advance my theories that the album title, Donuts, is symbolic of life's cyclical nature or represents the shape of a CD or a record, everyone keeps saying, "No, man, he just liked 'em." It must be true because every time I play Donuts for the many people I meet who haven't heard it, they lower their nodding heads and smile like Dilla does on the album cover.
Other recommended beatmakers: Unagi, It Came from Beneath the SFC 442); Madlib, Beat Konducta: Vol 1-2 (Stones Throw); Hi-Tek,
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Best Rap Duo or Group: In a perfect musical world, an artist's album releases would follow a geometric progression -- each offering would be a "classic" that's twice as satisfying as its predecessor. But in real life, we're often confronted with the Law of Diminishing Returns, wherein the output gets progressively weaker. With Game Theory, the Roots make the case for the beauty of imperfection. After all, if this were a perfect world, the Roots wouldn't have been slept on in the first place -- it's making Rip Van Winkle look like he was just taking a nap. In the real world, Game Theory isn't quite built the same as Phrenology or Things Fall Apart, but that might be a function of what's happening around its making as much as the input of its creators. In true game-theory fashion, the Roots seek to maximize their growth as they relate to the goings-on in today's world. Significantly, Black Thought's sizzling socio-political rhymes include references to Katrina, war in Iraq, wiretapping, and the streets at large in a profoundly poetic and introspective way, like a thinker studying the world from his bedroom window and sharing his impressions with us. At the same time, there's an edginess here that makes Game Theory sound so urgent, so immediate, and so right for the times.
Recommended: Outkast, Idlewild (LaFace/Zomba/Sony); Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere (Dowtown); 40 Watt Hype: Strong Feet on the Concrete (Royal Dutch Co.).
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Best Emcee / Best Street Narrative: I take issue with the suggestion that Fishscale is a "critics" album while "the masses" remain happily oblivious to it. It's not like that. Wu-Tang veteran Ghostface Killah has an amazing track record. He's already made two masterpieces, Supreme Clientele and The Pretty Toney Album -- what's he got to prove? Here's the deal. It's the fact that Ghostface Killah is as gritty in his art as he is passionate about it. You might share Quentin Tarantino's love for cinematic gore, but don't be surprised when some moviegoers find the latest Tarantino movie too intense. But, really, who cares? Ghostface is raw, a supreme lyricist who has mastered the art of storytelling -- and I mean mastered, like Ghostface is Mr. Miyagi and the listener is Daniel-san from The Karate Kid. He can make an ass whoopin' sound good, he's that good. He can write a rhyme about being underwater with a "boo"-smacking Spongebob and a Million Man March's worth of aquatic life taking part in salat (muslim prayer) -- and still not come off wack. Damn. As far as quality, Ghostface Killah is hip-hop's Howard Roark, something straight out of Ayn Rand's homage to hard work, The Fountainhead. Featuring relentless and complex rhymes coupled with hard-knockin' beats and soul samples, Fishscale is proof positive that Ghostface is, to quote him, "The Champ".
Other recommended street grit: Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (Jive/Re-Up/Star Trak); Jedi Mind Tricks, Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell (Babygrande); Xzibit, Full Circle (Koch); Method Man, 4:21...The Day After (Def Jam).
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King of the South: I'll just put it out there -- my name is Quentin and I'm a recovering T.I.-hater. That was me, yep, you saw me, staring at the ads for his movie A.T.L. with my arms folded and my mouth all bunched up like the knot of a balloon. Then came the title for his 2006 release, King, and I unleashed no shortage of "Whatever"s. But when I listened closer to his disarming Southern drawl, it was clear that T.I.'s grand hustle was the product of a grander design. Brotha got flows, y'all, and he told you so. Reviewer Matt Cibula said, "Clifford 'T.I.' Harris is one of America's greatest songwriters", and I agree. The self-anointed "King" rides mercilessly down those Atlanta, GA streets, tossing off impeccable rhymes as if they're afterthoughts. T.I. is dangerous because, like many who work to hone their crafts, he makes complex shit sound easy. Whether he's kickin' dust at haters ("I Told You So"), reminding himself of his blessings ("Goodlife"), or working his game on a sista who's in a bad relationship ("Why You Wanna?"), T.I. made me a believer this year. Whatchu know about that? Yo, I know all about that.
Recommended for the Dirty South: Scarface Presents the Product, One Hunid (Koch); Mojoe, Classic.Ghetto.Soul (MusicWorld); Birdman & Lil Wayne, Like Father, Like Son (Cash Money); Ludacris, Release Therapy (DTP/Def Jam).
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Political Rap Award: The difference between M-1's revolution and the Coup's plot to overthrow the status quo is this: the Coup wants you to know who's coming ("We Are the Ones"); M-1's trying to bust a cap in Uncle Sam's ass on the sneak tip ("Confidential"). I know this ain't the Dead Prez album you thought you were gonna get. It's M-1, like an earnest student of Sun Tzu and Marcus Garvey, laying out his strategy for liberation. It's a blueprint for sprawling, compelling music that requires you to know when to start your work ("Early"), be secure in life's essentials ("Land, Bread & Housing"), be true to your loves ("Love You Can't Borrow") and your partners ("Comrade's Call"), represent your 'hood but remember your commonalities ("Don't Put Down Your Flag"), and be patient as you develop the plan ("'Til We Get There"). Confidential reveals a diversity of styles and influences, disguising M-1's version of Nat Turner's rebellion in R&B hooks, Miami-like bounce, and gangsta boogie, while attempting to influence a collective mindset. It's "gangsta", M-1 tells us, to make sure we don't harm the babies and the grannies. It's "gangsta" to shake your rump as long it's following a mind that's fighting to get free.
Other recommended revolutionaries: Public Enemy with Paris, Rebirth of a Nation (Guerrilla Funk); Lord Jamar, The 5% Album (Babygrande); Ise Lyfe, Spread the Word (Hard Knock).
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Best Protest Album: Boots Riley, DJ Pam the Funkstress, and "various friends with things that make noise" -- the Coup -- are serious about their agenda. Shades of gray exist all over, but the Coup is certain about this: politics, power, and privilege make strange bedfellows. Big deal, Mr. Holmes, who the heck doesn't know that? Well, Pick a Bigger Weapon is important for two reasons. First and foremost, it's funky as hell. Bump this and even people who would normally be appalled ("Hussein and Bush together in bed / Giving H-E-A-D head" anyone?) won't be able to keep their rumps from shaking -- it works, I've tried it. Princely grooves blend with '70s funk to form full compositions -- funk jams, as reviewer Dave Heaton rightly calls them. Second, it's fearless music, setting the Iraq War and class disparities within its scope, and then rolling politics and sexuality in the hay together. Some listeners may not see why songs like "Baby Let's Have a Baby Before Bush Do Somethin' Crazy" and "Ijustwannalayarounalldayinbedwithyou" are essential to Boots Riley's militancy -- but c'mon, it's right there: the "f"-word in "fuck the system" has a double meaning. Pick a Bigger Weapon is protest music of the highest order. My only concern is whether its critique of King George the Second will, like Gil Scott-Heron's '80s critiques of Ronald Reagan, be so married to its times that it becomes less potent rather than transcendent.
Other recommended recordings: Various Artists, Hard Truth Soldiers: Vol. 1 (Guerrilla Funk); Various Artists, States of Abuse (Entartete Kunst); Various Artists [Soldiers in Iraq], Voices from the Frontline (Crosscheck); the song "Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story" by Jedi Mind Tricks from Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell (Babygrande).
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Hustler Award / Best in the West: So, after this countdown's earlier spiel about being positive, boosting the female presence, and getting back to "real hip-hop", the next winner is...Suga Free? A pimp? Weird, I know (well, Three 6 Mafia and the Academy wouldn't think so). Steeped in streetwise flavor from Pomona, California, Suga Free's lessons in pimpology came more from Morris Day than Iceberg Slim. Digital Underground said it best at the intro of its song "It's a Good Thing That We're Rappin'", a story about a bygone era of pimpin': "All right, parents, tuck the kids in. PG time is over." As he represented the West, Suga Free was fierce, funny, pensive, and sometimes so outrageous you'd swear the whole thing was a practical joke. Here's how he did it. First: take the philosophy (pimps up, everybody else down) of Too Short, the skewed no-amount-of-syllables barred flow of E-40, and the wit of Snoop Dee-oh-double-gizzle in his prizzle. Next: take some James Brown, two scoops of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, a few purple samples from Prince, and some smooth R&B. And finally: mix it all together, add comedian Katt Williams as the hype man, and then do exactly what the album title says.
Other recommended hustlers: E-40, My Ghetto Report Card (Reprise); Too Short, Blow the Whistle (Jive); Ice Cube, Laugh Now, Cry Later (Lench Mob); Snoop Dogg, Tha Blue Carpet Treatment (Doggystyle/Geffen).
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Dope Underground Album Award / Coolest Use of Technology Award: Wanna hustle your tunes? You gotta be crafty. But how? Lightbulb! If dudes will pay five dollars a minute to telephone "hot girls" -- I don't know this personally, I just hear things -- then maybe you can sneak something positive into the mix. Maybe the haters will give hip-hop a chance if they think they're listening to "neo-soul". Enter Tanya Morgan, a trio of male emcees who basically crafted this joint by passing WAV and MP3 files back and forth across the Internet. Ilyas and Donwill dropped verses in Cincinnati, Ohio; Von Pea rocked the microphone in Brooklyn, New York. The result is a refreshingly lyrical effort -- you're getting beats and rhymes galore. Hailed by some as the clarion call for getting back to basics in hip-hop, it's appropriate that the album ends with a De La Soul sample from De La Soul Is Dead, an album much like Tanya Morgan's in terms of humor and its relentless critique of the current state of the genre. With bass-heavy production punctuated with horns and samples, you're not likely to fool the "neo-soul" crowd that they're listening to the next Angie Stone when they hear Moonlighting, but you'll reel in the true heads.
Other recommended recordings that take the road less traveled: Jermiside & Brickbeats, The Red Giants (Rip.Smash); 7L & Esoteric, A New Dope (Babygrande); Tha Juggaknots, Use Your Confusion (Amalgam); Mr. Lif, Mo' Mega (Definitive Jux); Aceyalone with RJD2, Magnificent City (Decon Inc); Kool Keith, The Return of Doctor Octagon (OCD International); and Murs & 9th Wonder, Murray's Revenge (Record Collection).
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Debut Artist Award / Dope Mixtape Award: Kanye West might touch the sky, but Lupe Fiasco is one of the most grounded emcees to hit mainstream-level airplay in awhile. Wait a sec -- a regular dude in hip-hop? Yes -- but before you scream, "Norm!" like he's George Wendt on Cheers, understand that Lupe might come across as a "regular", but his skills are far from average. As Neal Hayes explained in his original review, Food & Liquor is packed with quality rhymes and production. Lupe Fiasco confidently works his gifts over a variety of topics as he focuses on relationships: racial, cultural, and religious relationships ("American Terrorist"); father-son relationships ("He Say She Say"); and even his own ambivalent relationship with hip-hop ("Hurt Me Soul"). Plus, we've all heard "Kick, Push", an insightful narrative about a boy and his skateboard -- now can we please have a Lupe Fiasco character in the next Tony Hawk videogame installment? My only nitpick would be those distracting gulps of air Lupe takes between bars, like LL used to do in the days of Bigger & Deffer. But damn that's picky. If you liked Food & Liquor, you should also check out Lupe's Touch the Sky mixtape, one of my favorites.
Other recommended mixtapes: DK, King Me; Joe Good, Hi, May I Help You?; Eminem, Eminem Presents: The Re-Up.
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Best Female Emcee: With her "poetry in motion", the UK's Nottingham "femcee" kicked mad game on the "other side" (if you're in the United States) of the ocean. Hip-hop outside of the U.S. is nothing new, but C-Mone's classic style is a testament to hip-hop's global influence as much as London's first-ever hip-hop concert in Royal Albert Hall in September, headlined by Jay-Z along with guest appearances by Beyonce, Nas, Chris Martin of Coldplay and, um, Gwyneth Paltrow. As C-Mone's flow covers a wide range -- politics, racism, sexism, partying, seduction -- her strength is being hard enough to beat you in a rhyme battle, but cool enough to chill with you at the club. In 2006, this self-described black widow held it down amid releases from Lady Sovereign, Remy-Ma, Shawnna, and (oh shit!) Fergie Ferg. Hopefully, we'll see more female emcees flourish in the game.