Best Music of 2003 | Cynthia Fuchs

Cynthia Fuchs

"Techniques That Freaks These Boys": Top Hip-Hop CDs in 2003

Often surprising, ever shifting, hip-hop this year produced Jay-Z's retirement, Tupac's re-resurrection, André 3000's self-multiplication, R Kelly's best sales numbers, and a minute's worth of Secret Service investigation into Eminem. Britney collaborated with the Ying Yang Twins and Minister Farrakhan made a public display of intervening into the Ja Rule-50 Cent beef. Showing again the multifarious ways it can serves as pulse and problem, news report and funhouse mirror reflection, hip-hop continues to incite criticism -- from corners as far apart as Spike Lee (who said, "I've always felt you can feel the progress of African Americans by listening to their music. Some of this 'gangsta rap' stuff, it's not doing anybody any good. This stuff is really dangerous") and Bill O'Reilly (who said what he always says). Still, hip-hop inspires love and creativity. The music matters. The culture changes lives. As Missy Elliot exhorts on "Let It Bump," "Try to catch up, 'cause your mind is slow." Listed below, 10 of 2003's most notable events on CD, in alphabetical order.

Erykah Badu, Worldwide Underground (Motown)
"Push up the fader, / Bust the meter, / Shake the tweeter, / Bump it, well, well, well." Erykah Badu's EP dropped back in September with little fanfare -- no big push on MTV and no two-and-a-half song stand outside the Today show studio. The lowkey release is in keeping with the artist's aesthetics and politics -- intelligent, intricate, and real. Using her powerfully thin and limber voice as an instrument in league with her production team, Freakquency (James Poyser, Rashad "Ringo" Smith, and RC Williams), as well as some featured artists like Lenny Kravitz, Badu has crafted eight remarkable tracks, keenly insightful and shrewdly innovative.

Missy Elliot, This Is Not a Test! (Gold Mind/Elektra)
En route to her opening track, "Pass That Dutch," newly slender Missy announces that she's grabbed her pad and pen and begun, yet again, to write from within, and you know you're in for another rowdy ride. The perpetually self-reinventing Miss E. -- "rhyme spitter" -- is returned for more "work," a combination of rousing wordplay and Timbaland's multi-timed beats. It appears that Missy's the best friend you can have in this industry, most respected and most powerful too (even if the raving cornfield jig looks suspiciously riverdanceish). On "Wake Up," she raps over a stark, almost ooky beat, "Cain has sent me talking real facts / Down the hill like Jill and Jack. / Got speak what yo weak mind lacks. / Ya heard that? I'm creative to the fullest." No argument there. Even the "interludes" speak their own little truths.

50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Shady/Aftermath)
All love to Dr. Dre. 50 Cent comes with stylish swagger, admirable humility during interviews, and made-for-TRL-girlies gunshot-dimples, but the album comes courtesy of Dre, whose virtuoso production (along with Phillip Atwell's astonishing eye for music vid composition) makes Shady/Aftermath's first-off-the-blocks protégée record the year's must-have. The sheer number of pop chart singles is extraordinary, from In Da Club" to "Many Men" to "21 Questions" and beyond. That he's made thug life look cute is not a little unnerving, but he's got stories to tell and solid business sense. Perhaps his most relevant move was to make Kevlar fashionable: "Lord I don't cry no more, / Don't look to the sky no more. / Have mercy on me."

Jean Grae, The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP (Babygrande/Orchestral)
Jean Grae has all kinds of attitude. Earnest and clever, she's working through her frustrations with a kind of determination that looks, on occasion, narrow. On "Block Party," she declares, "It's hectic, from asbestos-filled classrooms / To the stench of death that's still in New York. / The air is thick with it, but it reaches further, / Like the world murder rate." She articulates a particular time and place, aching and outraged. It won't be long before her production keeps up with her compelling lyrics.

Macy Gray, The Trouble With Being Myself (Epic)
Macy Gray's confessionals are moving -- in more ways than one. The new album is a ballsy, brainy, supple piece of work. While she inspires and goads, she also soothes and warms. For all the special brilliance of her vocals, she speaks to a version of "everyone," wounded and anxious and courageous. "Practicing all day what to say to you," she sings on "Speechless," But it never seems to come out right. / Just to know the feeling is so perfect for me and you, / And I want to feel it for the rest of my life. l.o.v.e." On someone else, this would look mushy. On Macy Gray, it's raw and utterly seductive.

Kelis, Tasty (Virgin)
Ever holding down in-between, the most excellent and seductive Kelis displays energy and playfulness to burn -- other artists who take themselves too seriously might learn from her light touch. Of course, she's aided immeasurably by her good smart friends in the business, from fiancé Nas (who plays naughty thoughts games with her on "In Public") to the Neptunes (producers for multiple tracks, including the sweet "Sugar Honey Iced Tea" and enchanting first single "Milkshake") to Raphael Saadiq, who appears on "Glow" and "Millionaire" and produces too. Kelis' elusive vocals float over all tracks, part kinky, part perverse, wholly convincing. Her milkshake is better than yours.

MF Doom as Viktor Vaughn, Vaudeville Villain (Sound-Ink)
More abstract lyrics and complex beats from maestro Doom. This concept album tracks the story of Viktor Vaughn, drug dealer, thief, and aesthetically inclined language magician. Dynamically intelligent, the character is also complicated and maddening: on "Let Me Watch," Viktor sees himself as the prize to be won: when his date starts making demands, he resists and turns passing self-reflective: "Gettin' on my last nerve, she did it. / All this talk and shit and we ain't even hit it yet. / It's uncharacteristic of the Vik." But entirely characteristic of MF Doom, whose creative powers have him bouncing off walls.

Meshell Ndegéocello, Comfort Woman (Maverick)
Like many folks, after 9/11, Meshell reconsidered. Unlike many folks, she conjured a singular beauty. Rich, undulating, pulsing with her usual heavy bass, the new album is one of the few to emerge this year that repays re-listening. There's always something new to savor, in the layers it constructs and investigates, at once self-referential and also, carefully, stretching out: "Love Song #1" is sweet and thick, while "Liliquoi Moon" (from the Biker Boyz soundtrack) is contemplative and generous. The album, as many listeners have noted, is "peaceful," a coming to terms with the impossibility of containing chaos, a consciousness of limits and also, their uses, as motivations and self-preservations. Later tracks, "Thankful" and "Fellowship," offer readings of systems, and such reading, in its way, brings hope.

Neptunes, Clones (Arista)
"I call you Pha-real cause you the truth!" So sez Jay. Uneven, quirky, a little lurchy, Clones leaves room for improvement. But quite simply, any album that includes "Frontin'" is one of the year's best. (Pharrell's silky thin falsetto, pushed up against the rush of Stevie Wonderish production, is pretty much gorgeous.) Terrific, peculiar, envelope-pushing production is the Neptunes' usual, and if they're wearing themselves out some -- working with everyone from Justin to Britney to Snoop, the Clipse and yes, Famlay -- they're beginning to recycle themselves. Still, even recycled, the Neptunes have more to funk with than most overextended artists.

OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
The outstanding album of the year, the double disk from OutKast has allowed expressions of Big Boi's political outrage (on "War," "When will we all, awake up out this dream? / Come here and smell the Folgers, the soldiers are human beings. / Man actin' as if he was the supreme bein'") and, more strangely, a recuperation of André's performative chutzpah -- is there an awards venue where he has not jumped up for "Hey Ya," in any number of magnificent outfits? His take on love may be skeptical (for "Dracula's wedding," he offers, "You're all I've ever wanted, but I'm terrified of you, / My castle may be haunted, but I'm terrified of you"), but his instincts are ever-sharp. The conceptual split makes for all sorts of thematic connections, and an album that is simply stunning in its mélange of breadth and insight.

Honorable Mentions

Ms. Dynamite, A Little Deeper (Interscope)
Ms. Dynamite (Niomi McLean-Daley) speaks her mind. She does so with style and intelligence, over sinuous beats. Formerly with North London's So Solid Crew, she's newly emerged as a solo artist with all sorts of concerns. Working with producers like Salaam Remi and Michael (Punch) Harper, she reveals estimable range, but she resists trivial subject matter. Her love songs are about the difficulties of honesty and intimacy, rather than Hallmark of sex. And her social justice-y anthems are vigorous and engaged: in "Watch Over Them," she charges, "Damn hypocrite, don't be disillusioned, / Yeah, life is tough, but that's not no solution. / You g'wan like ya brave. / That's an illusion."

Jay-Z, The Black Album (Def Jam)
"Music business hate me 'cause the industry ain't make me." On "Moment of Clarity," Jay-Z makes peace with his father. One of the many autobiographical slices on his reportedly last album ever (now that he's on his way to co-owning the Brooklyn Nets), the track is at once insightful and self-inflating, combining Jay's predominant personae, the hustler and the artist. While it's unlikely the "business" hates him, this album is full of spectacular production (infamously different for each track, a sort of present to himself, to work with everyone he asked -- who would say no?), even if it doesn't sound so new or push borders. He knows himself in a way that other artists (not to mention mere mortals) may never, and that includes limits as well as skills and wishes.

Paris, Sonic Jihad (Guerilla Funk)
"The world is a stage, / Most truth is a lie. / In this propaganda matrix the sheep just die / For these murderous conservatives with corporate ties." In "Sheep to the Slaughter," Paris lays out the planks for his ongoing campaign: post-9/11, we're all bamboozled. Laced through with soundbyte samples and old-fashioned, lush production, Sonic Jihad is relentless. Sirens in the background, he declares himself on "Field Nigga Boogie": "Take it back to the days when we raised us up, / 'Fore coward-ass rap made the game corrupt. / P-Dog in the cut back to bring the pain, / Puttin' wood on they ass can't stand the rain. / And bring heat over beats, and scratch the itch / In a no-spin zone, fuck a scandalous bitch, / It's the return of the Bush Killa, back to bust."

Best hip-pop single, despite and because of the daunting overplay:
Beyoncé, featuring Jay-Z, "Crazy in Love" (Dangerously in Love, Sony)

From moment one, the song was destined to last. The production on this number could not be finer, and while it's true that any measure of the track will be shaped by the dazzling video by Jake Nava, the girl is on fire, almost literally: announced by the horn-section sample from "Are You My Woman," her full-throated trilling is vibrant, her lyrics inscrutable: "The way that you know what I thought I knew, / It's the beat my heart skips when I'm with you." Is it any wonder that Hova threw in with this lovely self-realization?

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