1. R. Kelly, Chocolate Factory (Jive)
In spite of 50 Cent's meteoric rise and Jay-Z and Beyoncé's constant radio presence, the album of the year undoubtedly belongs to R. Kelly. After seeing his career fall into serious peril after a very public sex scandal involving teenage girls and the now legendary video tape, R. Kelly released this superb set of redemption songs that reaffirm his status as the king of R&B (sorry Bobby). With none of the pretense or contrived affect of the now stale neo-soul movement, Robert conjured the real soul gods to produce songs like "Ignition Remix", "You Knock Me Out" and the instant classic Stepper-Set tribute "Step in the Name of Love".
2. Jay-Z, The Black Album (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam)
After releasing the disappointing Blueprint 2 album, Jay-Z has been on a lyrical rampage all year, making numerous guest appearances, dropping vicious freestyles, and releasing the S. Carter Collection Mixtape. Despite his apparent rebirth, Hovito made it clear that his next album, The Black Album, would be his last. A far cry from Jigga's original Black Album concept, which was to release a low key album without trendy producers, marketing, and videos, this album is more like a high priced elegy for his brilliant career. While this album is not perfect -- songs like "Justify My Thug" should have been left in DJ Quik's mind -- its slick production ("Threats"), deeply personal narratives ("December 4th"), and top shelf lyrics ("Lucifer") place it miles ahead of the competition.
3. OutKast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below (Arista)
Once again, hip-hop's most creative group changes the game. This time around, Andre 3000 and Big Boi each made solo albums and packaged them together. Dre, clearly bored with hip-hop, followed his artistic heart and crafted a near flawless combination of jazz, drum and bass, rock, and funk while rapping only a few lines. Big Boi, stayed closer to his hip-hop roots and layed down a more traditional but nonetheless high quality hip-hop album . The only problem with the project (and the reason that it's not the album of the year) is that, while it is different than most, it occasionally feels like it's trying too hard to be avant-garde. Nevertheless, with tracks like "Hey Ya", "The Way You Move", and "Flip Flop Rock", Ice Cold and Daddy Fat Sacks are easily among the year's best.
4. Beyoncé, Dangerously in Love (Sony)
The release of a Beyoncé solo album came as little surprise to anyone who watched Destiny's Child over the years. From the beginning, despite the talents of her many group mates (Kelly Rowland's stinker album notwithstanding), the group could just as easily have been called "Beyoncé and 'em". Now on her own, Young B spreads her creative wings, experimenting with a variety of styles and sounds that somehow manage to please everybody without being too thin. Among the album's best tracks are "Baby Boi", "How I Like It", "Me, Myself, and I", and of course "Crazy in Love".
5. 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Trying (Interscope/Shady/Aftermath)
Although he's occupying the five spot on this list, there's no doubt that this was 50's year. You couldn't listen to the radio for five minutes without hearing one of the singles from his big label debut, like "P.I.M.P", "21 Questions", or the year's radio smash, "In the Club". Buoyed by Dr. Dre and Eminem's beats and a little help from his squad G-Unit, 50 sold more than 6 million copies of Get Rich. While 50 clearly holds back lyrically, he provides more than enough heat to make this a must buy hip-hop album.
The Other 5
(In alphabetical order)
Anthony Hamilton, Comin From Where I'm From (Arista)
When we first heard his vocals on Nappy Roots' "Po' Folks" and Tupac's "Thugz Mansion", we knew that Anthony Hamilton was something special. On his debut album, he gives us ladles full of old-fashioned Southern soul. On breathtaking pieces like "Since I Seen't you", "Charlene", and "I'm a Mess", he lets us know that he has arrived. After listening to the title track, "Comin From Where I'm From", we can only hope that he's not going anywhere for a long time.
Kindred the Family Soul, Surrender to Love (Hidden Beach)
After years of laying it down in venues all around the country, most notably the Tuesday night Black Lily shows at Philadelphia's Five Spot, this husband and wife duo finally released their debut album, Surrender to Love. Unfortunately, their label, Hidden Beach, has done a poor job promoting this magnificent throwback album. Surrender to Love's only flaw is that it doesn't match the intensity and sheer majesty of Aja and Fatin's awesome live shows. Tragically, unforgettable songs like "Stars", "Rhythm of Life", and their lead single "Far Away", will probably fall under the radar of most top 40 listeners.
Little Brother, The Listening (Abb Soul)
Unavoidably drawing comparisons to A Tribe Called Quest and the early OutKast with cuts like "The Yo-Yo", "Whatever You Say", and "Speed", Little Brother's spectacular debut album has given them a well deserved underground cult following. Now that Little Brother producer 9th Wonder has entered Jay-Z's fold of producers (he produced "Threats" on The Black Album), we can only hope that the rest of the world will stand up and pay attention to these North Carolina MCs.
Ludacris, Chicken and Beer (Def Jam)
For years Ludacris has been one of the most underrated lyricists in the game. On his third release, Chicken and Beer, he gives an even more potent mixture of style and substance with his clever lyrics and comic delivery. The album's major flaw, however, is its uncreative production that Ludacris often has to fight through in order to demonstrate his lyrical gifts. In spite of the bland beats, songs like "Hip-hop Quotables" and the first single, "Stand Up", are so addictive that you'll be coming back for more.
Neptunes, Clones (Arista)
After years of giving away hits, hip-hop's hottest producers released their debut album (N.E.R.D., after all, was their band's album). Although Clones was disappointing by Neptunes standards, songs like "Frontin'", "Light Your Ass on Fire", and "Pop Shit" more than made up for the album's few misses.
Fabolous, Street Dreams
State Property, Chain Gang Volume II
Nappy Roots, Wooden Leather
Erykah Badu, Worldwide Underground
Artist of the Year: R. Kelly.
As much as we may hate to admit it, R. put it down this year. In addition to releasing Chocolate Factory and The R In R&B, he penned numerous songs and produced artists like B2K, JS, and Nivea. Now if he can just get the rest of his life together.
Runners up: 50 Cent, Beyoncé, & Sean Paul
Song of the Year: "Crazy in Love"- Beyoncé
Who could resist the infectious sounds of Beyoncé's runaway hit? More importantly, who can forget that video and Young B's awe-inspiring "uh-oh" dance?
Runners up: "In the Club"-50 Cent, "Step in the Name of Love"- R. Kelly
Producer of the Year: Neptunes
While conventional hip-hop wisdom says that the Neptunes should have run their course, 2003 gave no indication that their shelf life was coming to an end. With hits like "Frontin'", and the addictive "Beautiful", it looks like Chad and Pha-Real will be around for a long time.
Runners up: Kanye West, 9th Wonder
Group of the Year: Outkast
Despite their solo ventures, Andre 3000 and Big Boi remain as tight as ever, making great music and continuing to change the face of hip-hop at the same time.
Runners up: State Property, Kindred
Hottest Verse: Jay-Z - "Young, Black, and Gifted - S. Carter Collection Mixtape
After a powerful introduction by Minister Louis Farrakhan, Jay-Z drops knowledge Celebrity Gramscian style and delivers the year's hottest lines at the same time:
"I'm Americas worst nightmare/I'm young, black, and holdin' my nuts like cheah/Y'all was at the pub havin' a light beer/ I was at the club havin' to fight there/Y'all could go home husband and wife there/ My mama at work tryin'a buy me the right gear/ Nine years old uncle lost his life here/ I grew up thinkin' life ain't fair/ How can I get a real job China White right there?/ Right in front of my sight like 'here/yeah/There's ya ticket out the ghetto take flight right here/ Sell me you go bye-bye here'/ There's a different set of rules we abide by here/ You need a gun, niggas might drive by here/ Y'all havin' fun racin' all ya hot rods there/ Downloadin' all our music on your eye parts there/ I'm Chuck D, standin' in the crosshairs here/ Y'all straight, chicks got horse hair here/ Y'all ain't gotta be in fear of ya bosses here/ You lose your job, ya pop rich y'all don't care/ So I don't care/ Y'all actin' like y'all don't hear/ All the screams from the ghetto, all the teens duckin' metal here/ That's why steam like a kettle here/ Tryin' to take our minds to a whole different level here/ Yeah, we real close to the devil here/ Gotta be a better way somebody call a reverend here/ Yeah, we must really be in heaven here/ Somebody tell God that we gotta couple questions here/ My little cuz never got to see his seventh year/ And I'm so used to pain that I ain't even shed a tear"
Hip-Hop/R&B Albums to Look Forward to in 2004:
Common - The pre-Badu Common, that is.
Jill Scott - No sophomore jinx for the North Philly phenom.
Dead Prez - Can they find a label to release their critically acclaimed second album?
Lauryn Hill - Crazy or not, Lauryn on her worst day is still way ahead of the pack.
The Roots - They promised us that we wouldn't have to wait 4 years between albums.
Nas - Now that you-know-who is retired, will we see Nasty Nas or Nastrodamus?
Beanie Sigel - Will Jigga's heir be on the streets long enough to finish his third LP?
Destiny's Child - Hate on them if you want, these sisters bring it every time.
Justin Timberlake - Stop frontin' please. The boy is bad.
Jay-Z - We can hope, can't we?