Best of 2000: Cynthia Fuchs

Best Hip-hop Albums of 2000

Hip-hop endures. Whatever the hubbub, hip-hop simultaneously accommodates and alters the cultural landscape. While superstars appear on magazine covers and TV screens, new voices keep coming, reminding us that change is good, that the culture is wide and generous enough to accept and inform all. Below, the noteworthy albums of 2000, in alphabetical order.

Bahamadia, BBQueen (Goodvibe)
Bahamadia’s EP is as near to perfect a combination of craft and passion that you might hear this year. Ms B collaborates with Rasco, Planet Asia, Chops, and DJ Revolution on “Special Forces” (she opens energetically: “Poems stay calm, approachin it / They be flop and over it / Back on my feet just like I’m ‘posed to get”), and then, on the smooth “One-4-Teen”, she works with Slum Village producer Jay Dee. On “Commonwealth (Cheap Chicks)”, she affirms her girls and her life, round-the-way.

Blackalicious, Nia (Quannum Projects)
The Sacramento-based pair, producer/DJ Chief Xcel and lyricist The Gift of Gab, make consistently thoughtful and provocative music (and on this album, they also welcome guest production by DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born). Gab’s words are both clever and weighty, as on “Trouble (Eve of Destruction)”: “I’m a drama dropper, stomping all up in your zip code / Schizophrenic, you’re panicked, running from my epilogue / Rap is like an insect crushed that I be steppin on / Lethal weapon armed, deafen all y’all heads / Up to the point of where your nervous smoking pall mall grits.” You don’t get better.

Common, Like Water for Chocolate (Universal/MCA)
A gifted lyricist and hard-working artist, Common comes with a rare confidence and self-knowledge. Lots of MCs assert their prowess on the mic, but Common almost seems to be sneaking into your psyche, at once convincing and, as his name once proclaimed, sensible. Maturing, he maintains both his self-respect and openness to new ideas (an unusual combination, no doubt). DJ Premier produced the first single “6th Sense”, a reminder of hip-hop’s political challenges (“We gonna help y’all see clear / It’s real hip-hop music, from the soul, y’all”). He raps real life stories, with “Song for Assata”, “A Film Called (Pimp)”, featuring MC Lyte, and “Funky for You”, with Bilal and Jill Scott. If you can forgive his occasional and unfortunate phobe-posturing (he, of all people, you wish, should know better), Common shows himself as that hip-hop rarity, a man of compassion.

Dead Prez, Let’s Get Free (Loud)
Even if you put aside the brilliance of this group’s video for “Mind Sex”, Let’s Get Free brings its own riches: and M-1 dig into race and class politics with verve and nerve. On “Police State” and “Behind Enemy Lines”, they take on brutal oppressive tactics; on “They Schools”, they root out the subtler and more pervasive forms; and on “Be Healthy”, they even advise against fast foods.

Ghostface Killah, Supreme Clientele (Razor Sharp/Epic)
Ghost has genius in him. On Supreme Clientele, he rises above the pressures ever heaped on Wu projects, and delivers a concoction of beats (most by RZA) and wildman rhymes that uplift the soul and entertain. He speaks to and with X on “Malcolm” (“Hoodied up, blood in my eye”), and on the heavily rotated single “Apollo Kids”, he offers life lessons to the wannabes: “As we approach, yo herb, the Gods bail / These Staten Island ferryboat cats bail / Fresh cellies, 50 thief up in the city / We banned for life, Apollo kids live to spit the real.” But for the most part, he does what he does — he tells amazing stories amazingly.

Jurassic 5, Quality Control (Interscope)
Hailing from Los Angeles and formed out of two separate crews, J5 — DJs Cut Chemist and Numark, and MCs Chali 2na, Zaakir, Akil, and Mark 7even — remind you that hip-hop can be good fun as well as good work. Lively beats, sensuous grooves, and layers of flow infuse the record. They get their digs in (on “World of Entertainment”, “Welcome to the world of showbiz arrangement / Where lights, camera, action is the language”), but they also wax, um, poetic, as on the title track, “J5 finds a way to remain supreme / Coming verbally Hardison as if my name was Kadeem”.

Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek/Reflection Eternal, Train of Thought (Priority/Rawkus)
Talib Kweli may be best known as the other half of Black Star (with the now ubiquitous Mos Def). But Kweli has his own style and energy, in part revealed in his increasing reputation as an righteous freestyler. With DJ/producer Hi-Tek, he’s made an impressive debut, showing range and depth — aggressive beats and languid songs of respect and love. Never mind that he has the nerve to cover Nina Simone’s “For Women”, and do all right with it, he also considers hip-hop’s life-and-death shiftings on “Good Mourning”, and wrangles unusual rhymes and images that speak volumes — on “This Means You”, “Flashlights lookin for a brighter day in New York”, on “Soul Rebels”, “We still gonna blow like the horn played by Horatio / The stakes is three feet high and risin’ like De La Soul”.

OutKast, Stankonia (LaFace/Arista)
Big Boi and Andre 3000 are on some kind of mad roll. Revving up to 160 BPM for “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” or apologizing a trillion times for “Ms Jackson”, OutKast brings a wicked combination of emotion, energy, and self-reflection. They are rowdy and rude, but also strangely bewitching, convincing you of their earnestness even as they slip that yoke and run off to play some more — on “So Fresh, So Clean”, “I’ma show you how to wild out like Jack Trippa / Let me be bambino on your snippas”. Ow.

Rah Digga, Dirty Harriet (Elektra)
Rah Digga is as real as they come. As the Flip Mode Female Out Front, she’s had avenues open up, but also had to bear some unnecessary burdens. Her debut album shows that the hype meant something — she can rhyme and, perhaps more usefully at this stage in her career, she’s a singularly fierce presence, like, she explodes on the mic. She can be a namedropper (on “Curtains”, she raps, “Fuck with they heads like Kahlua, milk and vodka / Then tell they punk ass to move on like Silkk the Shocker / Word to my godfather, who bombs harder / Be out to get the paper like Inga and Shawn Carter”); a straight-talker (on “Do the Ladies Run This”, “With my skills stay on your toes like high heels / And handle bars like bikes ’bout to blow like inner tubes / See me in the tube in the views to interludes / Never see me in the nude, Blade gon’ bend the rules”); and on “Harriet Thugman”, she’s a force to be reckoned with: “I be that bitch niggas wantin in the lab / Rhymes comin, rhymes goin like I was a dollar cab”. She will be back.

Jill Scott, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1 (Hidden Beach/Epic)
The first time I saw Jilly from Philly, she was on stage singing the hell out of the hook on the Roots’ hit “You Got Me” (which she had written, but which Erykah Badu sang for the album). Scott stopped the show, and it was a very good show. A few months afterwards, she released her own album — lush, smart, and lovely, every bit as mesmerizing as that memorable performance. Produced in part by DJ Jazzy Jeff, the album features mature, deftly-forged sonic delights, like “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)” and “A Long Walk”.

Wu Tang Clan, The W (Sony/Columbia)
“Check out my gravel pit.” Indeed. Whenever this group gets together, something miraculous happens, even if only for a minute. Though the guest appearances — a first for the group as a group — are a draw (Busta Rhymes is typically squirrelly on “The Monument”; Snoop, however, is an apt straight man for ODB on “Conditioner”), the whole does not rely on tricks or on past success, but on the shapeshifting skills of the collective. Informed in every way by RZA’s propulsive, intelligent production, the album showcases individual skills as well as the group’s. “Gravel Pit” showcases the lyrical arts of Meth and Ghostface (who also shows his lyrical brilliance on the haunting “I Can’t Go to Sleep”). The group even extends to the reggae bandwagon, looking respectful rather than merely trendy, with Junior Reid, on “One Blood Under W.” All over the record, you find bits of brilliance. The Wu-ness of the Wu — it’s unstoppable.

Honorable mention
Slum Village, Fantastic, Vol. 2 (Barak/Goodvibe)
Emerging from the chaos of Detroit, Slum Village’s debut album is pulsing and shrewd. Producer Jay Dee (who’s worked previously with De La Soul and Common, among others) also MCs here, along with T3 and Baatin. Too often, they’re playing playas, but they do so over outstanding beats and lush, inventive boardwork.

Special Prize for Bringing the Joy
Erykah Badu, Mama’s Gun (Motown)
It’s true that in this album, Badu Badu Badu keeps the hip-hop is at a minimum for this album, almost like a background trace. But there’s no mistaking that it’s crucial to her exuberant mix of styles and signs. Amid the funk-soul-jazz-pop rhythms, and oh-so-sinewy lyrics, you can catch beats and hints, elusive and skitchy, and always inspired. Thank god for Badu.

Special Prize for Bringing the Noise

Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (Universal/Interscope)
Though the album is uneven and repetitive (okay, he hates Britney Spears, faggots, and the ICP: got it the first time), it has achieved the following: it has birthed sharp-witted and self-conscious videos (“Stan”, “The Way I Am”) and a brilliant MTV Video Music Awards moment — Eminem and his Slim-Shady-mimicking minions marching into the theater en masse. The album exults in its own gay-bashing, self-hating-and-loving, melodramatic schizziness while holding up that same schizziness as a mirror to the hypocritical culture that spawns it. If it only does that much — make people talk about shit — Marshall Mathers has made a contribution.