Best Music of 2001 Lists
"From dark matter to the big crunch": Best of Hiphop 2001
The past year is rife with contradictions. Though OutKast's Stankonia continued to mesmerize throughout 2001, it remains one of last year's best hiphop albums. Though the Coup attracted more mass media attention than they ever have, because their original cover art for Party Music featured the World Trade Center Towers exploding, in fact, the album is strong even without the hype. Though the Jay-Z-Nas battle bores most everyone within earshot (including, apparently, the artists), it persists. And though 2001 has raised all kinds of questions concerning the role of hiphop in a New Normal, a New New Normal, even in the Old Normal, too many elements in the industry just can't stop bling-bling fronting. Still, movement is what hiphop is all about, and 2001 offered much. Below, with the disclaimer that there's never enough time to keep up, is a list (alphabetical) of the most provocative, perplexing, and sometimes, premium of the year's hiphop.
Saul Williams, Amethyst Rock Star (American)
Earnest slam poet Saul Williams brings his own swarm of rage and insight to the business of hiphop. "Penny for a Thought" opens with a fury: "Cancel the apocalypse. / Cartons of the milky way with pictures of a missing planet, / Last seen in pursuit of an American dream. / This fool actually thinks he can drive his hummer on the moon, / Blasting DMX off the soundtrack of a South Park cartoon." Call it spatial rap. Uneven as it can be, the record combines actual instruments with Williams' relentlessness, his voice as potent as any beat might hope to be.
Jay-Z, The Blueprint / Unplugged (Roc-A-Fella)
His mama loved him, his pop left him. And for yet from his grief emerged the "astonishing H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A," a playa-rapper who can run a gamut, from pop-appealing to precision rhyming, Marcy reality checking to big pimping. The Blueprint is the single hiphop album to make most all-generic critics-best lists in 2001, but don't let that put you off: the record is exceptional, with Hova's many personas coming into play. Unplugged is a hybrid creature, both intelligent production and clever commercial venture. Besides, MTV loves to promote that "crossing over" business, not to mention any act that includes "live" music with "real" instruments, and Jigga most definitely knows how to parlay.
Cannibal Ox, Cold Vein (Def Jux)
Underground darling Cannibal Ox is yet another gift to the planet from Company Flow's El-P, whose eclectic, formidable production on Cold Vein underlines the tremendous skills of MCs Vast and Vordul. Their vision of a harsh New York City (pre 9-11) is both startling and revealing. On the standout track "Pigeon," Vordul rhymes, "Eskimo metal got shit locked in oxygen shell / Words shot plated metal lung which spun kids' carrousel / Mega alarm technoloid, these boys fight four arms swinging two toes very well. / Terror toys jubilated mega noise when iron works. / Bullet shot animated mad windows with fireworks." In one admittedly feeble word, dazzling.
Jill Scott, Experience: Jill Scott 826+ (Hidden Beach/Epic)
Jill Scott traverses multiple genres, of course. But more than anyone else, she takes hiphop out of itself in a beautiful way, mixing grace and grit, imagination and insight. And her live record is so live -- energetic, sly, passionate. "I'm a poet, I like to watch stuff," she says in her introduction to "Thickness," an 11-minute lyrical thinking-through of race and gender body politics, the ways that black women are assaulted with "definitions of beauty" -- she's been degraded, exploited, not celebrated, saturated with self-hatred." Intricate and jazzy, unusually moving, the album repays repeat listens.
Gorillaz, Gorillaz (Parlophone/Virgin)
Not quite hiphop, not quite indie, not quite a group. And is there a smarter, stranger single this year than "Clint Eastwood"? ("Finally someone let me / Out of my cage / Now time for me is nothin' / 'Cause I'm counting no age.") This peculiar combination of practices and potentials are embodied in the animated characters 2-D, Russel, Murdoc, and Noodle, busting out like so many Athenas from the skulls of their very own Zeuses, Blur frontperson Damon Albarn, illustrator Jamie Hewlett, producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, DJ Kid Koala, and MC Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. (The album also includes appearances by Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, Tom Tom Club's Tina Frantz, and Ibrahim Ferrer.) The future is coming on.
Hi-Tek, Hi-Teknology (Rawkus)
Like many producers' compilations, this one lacks a clear through-line, but highlights the excellence of the "technology." Hi-Tek, whose collaborations with Talib Kweli throw open the possibilities of collaboration in hiphop. It's not the strongest record on this list, but it has singular merits. On "Sun God," (which also features Vinia Mojica), Common offers some of his best work: "Catchin the future, don't know who threw the past. / It's the year of the snake and the hidden dragon." And on "Theme from Hi-Teknology," Talib Kweli breaks it down: "Kicks and snares take 'em from elsewhere, samples is hard to find / We don't just act divine, we are / We walkin upright, you lack spine." All the while, Hi-Tek keeps on as one of hiphop's more innovative producers.
Res, How I Do (MCA)
As "neo-soul" as she's been labeled, Philadelphia's own Shareese Renee Ballard is relentlessly more complicated (as are most of the artists being lumped into that currently profitable genre). The first single off the self-titled debut album, "Golden Boys," is so full of hiphop, jazz, soul, and rock influences, that it's difficult to tag it. Restless and self-assertive, the record features exciting production and uncommon choices. In "They-Say Vision," she offers a slightly different style of romantic lament: "I wanna try that pill that people take, / Make you believe all the things that people say. / Sick of shuckin' 'round with a screwed up face. / With my heels dug in, trying to leave a trace." Both deft and adventurous, How I Do is fresh air by the lungful.
Macy Gray, The Id (Epic)
While touring for her first album, On How Life Is, Macy Gray didn't actually have enough material to work, falling back on lame covers of "Que Sera" and "With a Little Help from My Friends." With her sophomore project, The Id, the offbeat, raspy-voiced artist has cut loose to reveal a resounding depth. The first single, "Sweet Baby," is a grandly orchestrated pop single, lush and simple at the same time. The next one, "Sexual Revolution," has left the concept-police at something of a loss ("I'm so funkin' beautiful / especially when I take my clothes off"). But there's so much more. She opens "Relating To A Psychopath" with this delectable image: "On hot like hot wings, / with hot chocolate in hell, / Cold like in my isolation cell. / In the winter while kissing Mr. Freeze. / Take the weatherman / and blow him away." Macy Gray puts herself out there like no one else.
Wu-Tang Clan, Iron Flag (Loud)
On "Pinky Ring," the first single off the Wu's Iron Flag, U-God initiates the back-to-awe-you-all anthemizing: "I pull rabbits out the hat, / tricks up my sleeves." The rest of the Wu -- all 8, minus the currently imprisoned ODB -- come after, recalling the grand self-assertions of "Triumph." GZA's verse lays out the specific pain they come to bring: "From dark matter to the big crunch. / The vocals came in a bunch without one punch. / Rare glimpse from the, strictly advanced, proved unstoppable. / Reputation enhanced, since the cause was probable. / So you compare contrast but don't blast / through extreme depths, with the pen I hold fast." Since their change-the-rules 36 Chambers, the Wu have been variously preoccupied -- with comic book characters, movies, guest appearances, solo projects, prison sentences, and of course, RZA's looming alter-ego Bobby Digital. Meth has called the new record "grounded," and it does seem to mark a return to Wu-basics: elaborate lyrical tangles and RZA's resourceful production.
Aesop Rock, Labor Days (Def Jux)
Aesop Rock comes with a usual underground agenda, that is, to reject commercial hiphop. But on his first release for Def Jux, he also reveals near-uncanny mic skills and inspiring self-confidence ("Next time you want to be a hero/try saving something other than hip-hop. / And maybe hip-hop will save you from the pit stop"). Though his flat-sounding delivery puts off some listeners, Aesop Rock has much to say, in the form of elaborately detailed stories and thematic thickness. That, and his language is often astonishing. On "Daylight," he declares his purpose: "All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day, / put the pieces back together my way." And so he does, in combinations endlessly cunning and rousing. On "Battery," he worries, "And I ain't getting any younger. / My knuckles wear their bruises well. / I've yet to lose that hunger. / But only time can tell. / Prodigal Son with a prodigal wish to sew that prodigal stitch. / And crucify bigot voodoo doll on two Popsicle sticks." Ouch.
The Coup, Party Music (75Ark/Tommy Boy)
Given the dearth of overtly politicized hiphop in the mainstream (which is not to say that not all art is political in its way), the Coup stands fairly tall these days. This even though Boots Riley had to do a slew of explanatory interviews concerning their original cover art for Party Music (the WTC exploding -- you know, a metaphor for the dominance of commercial culture and soul-killing capitalism). Hailing from Oakland, lyricist Riley and turntablist Pam the Funkstress make heady, confrontational music. "Nowalaters" tells the difficult tale of Riley's fathering of a child when he was younger ("I heard a lot of bad things about teenage mothers / from those who don't really give a fuck about life. / They say it ain't so much that they starting out younger. / It's just they supposed to be more like a wife, / meaning you ain't shit without a man to guide you. / If your mama tried to feed you that shit, she lied too"). And in "Get Up," Riley raps, "It's a war goin on, the ghetto is a cage. / They only give you two choices; be a rebel or a slave. / (So what you do?) So I rebel / Like a ulcer in the belly of the beast stayin true to it." Bleed on.
Self Scientific, The Self Science (Landspeed/'Nuff Entertainment)
Perhaps best known for their appearance on from DJ Muggs' Soul Assassins 2 collection, MC Chace Infinite and DJ Khalil form West Coast underground group Self Scientific. Their debut album -- a long time coming -- is flawed but also refreshingly ambitious. The standout track may be "Three Kings," with guests Krondon and Planet Asia, sinuous and complex. And on "Love Allah," they concoct a gorgeous portrait of their hometown: Infinite offers the following: "Survival is a must in Los Angeles. / The Lost Angels, we captivated by illusion, / Hollywood, now do the knowledge, holly-tree, / From which wood was carved to weave wizardry. / And it ain't no coincidence to the sense. / The masses are influenced by these images. / My reality is Technicolor truth." Consciousness plus élan.
Missy Elliot, So Addictive (Elektra)
Miss E. continues to perform herself with inventiveness and intrigue. And she is still Timbaland's most dynamic and fun partner (the Bubba Sparxx minute in the sun notwithstanding). This album is their most dance-track-oriented, moving away from Timbaland's signature "double beats" with traces of bluesy sex; tracks range from the brilliant, bhangra-inflected "Get Ur Freak On" to the clever but verging on tedious "One Minute Man" (twice, with Jay-Z and Ludacris, who promises to "balance and rotate all tires!"). Missy is a player, for sure. (Fabulous visuals alert: Elektra has released an accompanying DVD, featuring Dave Meyers' fabulous video for "Get Ur Freak On," as well as the hard-to-find Hype Williams clip for "She's a Bitch.") So Addictive's varied production and dexterous rhymes make the album her most expansive.
Nelly, Country Grammar (Universal)
As annoyingly young -- and repetitive -- as Nelly can be on his debut album, he does come with a style his own, or at least his and producer Rich Travali's. Tough born in Austin, Texas, he's since made St. Louis his home (witness "Country Grammar": "Mmmmm, you can find me, in St. Louis rollin on dubs, / Smokin on dubs in clubs, blowin up like cocoa puffs, / Sippin Bud, gettin perved and getting dubbed. / Daps and hugs, mean mugs and shoulder shrugs. / And it's all because, 'ccumulated enough scratch / Just to navigate it"). His lyrical skills outstrip his subject matter, and he hardly looks the hard gangsta part that he plays. Interviews suggest that he's more self-conscious than the pose suggests; as he observes in the infectious "Ride Wit Me," "Makin a livin off my brain, instead of 'caine now." And his single for the Training Day soundtrack, "#1," already shows he's able to shift his weight some.
Ja Rule, Pain Is Love (Def Jam/Murder Inc.)
Born Jeff Atkins just 25 short years ago, Ja Rule has become the Prince of Pain, at once raw and polished, wounded and on top of his game. Who would have guessed that this raspy-voiced rapper would become such a Drama King, and a Movie Star to boot? Beautifully produced but not exactly surprising, the record is all about extending his reign. He says he's going for a serious film career, which his on powerful screen presence (for example, in the otherwise terrible Turn It Up) makes likely. (Peep his site for the 13 "Rules of Ja.")
Eve, Scorpion (Interscope)
With Dr. Dre producing and golden guest girl Gwen Stefani serving as "featured" player, Eve's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" had "stellar" written all over it. Eve's second solo effort rehearses rather than refines her initial pit bull in a dress affect, and frankly, features too many collabos (only two tracks are Eve's alone). She holds her own (as on "Who's That Girl?" -- "Slang, spit game, change speech, how they do that? / Watch they mouths drop, watch the crowds pop up and act out / Broads with the screw face, smash on and knock out. / Ain't changed game don't run me, I run the game"), but let's hope she puts her own talents to better uses in time to come.