Wednesday, February 22, 2006

YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW: j3'S TOP 30 HIP HOP ALBUMS OF 2005

Here it is, kids. Don't say I never did nothing.

At the end of it, two thousand and five was much like any other year in hip hop. There were more label-staged beefs and orchestrated battles than one can even count, promising newcomers become a flavor of month and burn out by year end, legends attempt a comeback but remind us they’re half the rappers they used to be while others succeeded in proving us wrong when we wrote them off, VH1 found a few more reasons to make me watch (the Ego Trip endorsement was fantastic and the Hip Hop Honors programming had me captivated), Poof Na-Na landed another show on MTV that has as much to do with hip hop as a pair of ballet shoes, pitchforkmedia proves weekly they should stick to rating wimpy college rock records and leave the hip hop reviews to the more qualified sites (one of which is certainly not therootdown.blogspot.com) and another slew of rappers go down on some stupid ish. DMX on driving with a suspended license and a collision with a squad car, the Game for starting a commotion in a mall while refusing to remove a Halloween mask (“They thought I was Rodney King, man. It was a case of mistaken identity.”—never happens to MF Doom, dude should take queues), Dizzee Rascal for pepper spray (gangsta, gangsta!), Sticky Fingaz on gun charges, Gucci Mane on murder charges, Memphis Bleek for assaulting a busboy and Lil Kim lied in court. The list gets longer and longer, but let’s not dwell on that.

Public Enemy played a benefit concert to keep NYC’s CBGB’s open while on the very same day melees and complete mayhem ensued in New Orleans following natural disaster. Interesting. Meanwhile, Kanye left the nation and Austin Powers speechless and Chris Tucker wide-eyed with his “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment. While intended to be a very serious and sincere display of political beliefs, more people found it laughable. Except for Bush supporters. Eh, just another artist in the army of thousands upon thousands who are blasting Bush. Guess those 40 year old white women who bought his debut for “Jesus Walks” might have passed on purchasing Late Registration. He still sold a crapload of records despite his very public criticisms of the president on the week of Registration´s street.

Interscope kept everyone afloat in the early months of 2005 with Compton’s the Game and Fiddy’s sophomore record. Slim Thug was poised to be the third side in this juggerknot trifecta until fellow H-Town ace and Texas mixtape legend Mike Jones took the nation by storm with a year-old banger “Still Tippin’” featuring Slim and the brightest smile in the game, Paul Wall. After that, Houston blew up like Nagasaki. And Slim, with all of that nice Interscoping backing came up the shortest while Wall and Jones with the help of WEA/Asylum ran it paving the way for UGK’s Bun B who’s album took everyone by surprise at retail. It was certainly Houston’s year. Hopefully, we can drag out this success into 2006 before the industry sucks all the life out of the market before moving west for rap’s next big thing. Hopefully they won’t leave town before finally giving Chingo Bling a chance.

Wu-Tang made some major moves in 2006. They went underground. And you have to tip your hat to that. Ghostface seemed to lead the way by appearing on tracks with Planet Asia, MF Doom, Prefuse 73 and El-P (song of the year, ya’ll: “Hide Ya Face”—the El-P remix is blazing!) and releasing a project with protégé Trife through Traffic. He also announced possibly the most anticipated full length collaboration of 2006 with MF Doom—Metal Face meets Ghostface. We’ll get a taste of what it will sound like thanks to Ghostface selecting Doom to product a handful of tracks on his next Def Jam release. Wu projects begin popping up throughout the underground on labels like Nature Sounds, Sure Shot, Free Agency, X-Ray among others all building up to the Think Differently project where Wu collaborated in full form with independent’s finest including Vast Aire, Vordul, Doom, Ras Kass, Timbo King, Del, Scaramanga, Aesop Rock, J-Live, Rugged Man—simply bonkers.

I also find it fitting to give a boisterous round of applause to the labels large and small for their support of hip hop’s storied catalog in 2005—finally proving that rap catalog exists and has a bit of punch at retail. I can’t possibly begin counting the weekly barrage of forgettable yet hardly forgivable folk, country, drum and bass, disco, reggae, polka, inspirational, relaxation, tejano, booty bass, gospel, celtic, house, blues, metal, classical, new age, ambient, soundtrack and classic rock represses, reissues, remasters, deluxe packages, limited editions, best of’s and/or box sets I see before one would even snicker throwing a defintive Public Enemy package. Well, this year we saw that Public Enemy package happen, although superfans like myself would contend that the piece put together by UMG was about three discs short of a true Public Enemy greatest hits package. Atmosphere’s Headshots Se7en finally got released on disc so all those kids that downloaded the material three years ago finally have the actual artwork and don’t have to listen to that annoying analog hiss from the original tapes. In fact, they made it twice worth the purchase with a bonus disc. Big ups to Koch for not only recognizing the strength of the Death Row catalog, but also showing support for the dual disc format by pressing up dual disc versions of The Chronic, Doggystyle, All Eyez on Me among others. Speak ya clout, Koch. Eric B. & Rakim got a double-disc Gold Series piece while they also saw their classics Follow the Leader and Paid in Full remastered. Digable Planets got a greatest hits package courtesy of Blue Note, the kingpin of reissues. One would say that with only two records, they really don’t need a hits set, however, with their catalog being harder and harder to find at retail, this piece might re-introduce all these youngin’s to some real ish. Run DMC’s first four records got the snooty digipak treatment. It’s about damn time. Now, I can listen to Tougher than Leather and Raising Hell clearly without having to turn my volume knob all the way to nine o’clock. Plus, they come with some nice bonus tracks like the acapella of “My Adidas” and the instrumental track to “Beats to the Rhyme.”

DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is now available in a posh, beautiful deluxe edition package. Remarkable. Rawkus Records, who have been all but forgotten, released the Classic Cuts set. Of course, purists will point out the obvious omissions: Co Flow’s “Eight Steps to Perfection” and “End to End Burners” as well as Cipher Complete’s “Bring Hip Hop Back.” Whaddy gonna do? I got it: release a Rawkus B-Side Wins Again disc although not technically b-sides, but who cares anyway. Organized Konfusion got a Best of. Illson Media got all that Medina Green/Mighty Mos Def goodness out there through two killer releases. Superproducer Prince Paul’s Hip Hop Gold Dust collects all the beauty of his lesser-known catalog on one nicely sequenced disc. And, while tragically overlooked, there were gobbles of tasty hip hop roots/breaks packages put out. Probably the nicest was provided by good ol’ Tommy Boy which brings together Cymande’s “Bra,” ESG’s “UFO,” Bob James’ cowbell anthem “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun” and more all onto one splendidly wrapped CD. Then they followed it up with an ambitious 12-volume Hip Hop Essential series featuring Fearless Four, Big Daddy Kane, Ultramagnetic, De La, Rakim, Tribe, Black Sheep, Main Source, Digital Underground, Biz, NWA, BDP, LL, EPMD, PE, UTFO and AMG among a host of others. If none of those letters make an ounce of sense to you, please cease reading now. Here’s my love letter to Tommy Boy: I know those dance records and soundtracks put some paper in the pockets, but you got a collosal catalog. Act like ya know. I love you. Sincerely, j3.

Possibly the biggest props are due to Traffic Entertainment who officially made a fan for life out of me in 2005. Firstly, for recognizing the importance of the Pharcyde with the release of two catalog pieces—first a disc of instrumentals followed shortly by Sold My Soul, a two disc companion of remixes and rarities. They also reissued the original Masters of Ceremony record. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Brand Nubian wasn’t Grand Puba’s first hip hop outfit. Traffic also threw out there Stezo’s 1989 debut which is almost too much old school insanity for these ears. A bold move and certainly one that won’t make Traffic a ton of dough, but massive respect for making it happen. Add to it, they’re distributing KMD’s Mr. Hood on vinyl with plans of pressing the classic on disc. For those who don’t know who KMD is, MF Doom didn’t fall out of the sky and smack right in the middle of the hip hop scene.

We finally got that collection featuring the musical roots of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic aptly titled Chronicles as well as the secrets to those ill RZA beats in Shaolin Soul. No Limit Records finally threw in the towel on their exhaustive catalog and tossed out hits packages for Silkk, Master P, C Murder and Tru. It was like a liquidation sale. Beasties got a single disc Best of. Cypress Hill got a hits compilation coming which initial tracklisting indicates a tragically short compilation of only 12 Cypress classics. Cypress deserves at least 20 tracks and that’d be from just their first three records. Oh well, you can’t dog Columbia for trying. The Roots got two discs of rarities, live tracks, b-sides and so on.

It certainly was the Year of the Catalog for hip hop. And that’s not such a bad thing. For crying out loud, Warriors was rereleased on DVD! And if you can get your grimys on those insane action figures, I would highly suggest it (all are available at your friendly neighborhood Hastings). But when new releases are lacking both in number and quality, sometimes it’s up to those nasty nice gems in hip hop’s stacked back catalog to remind us why in the world we fell in love with hip hop in the first place. And, again, in order for hip hop’s iminent saturation to take place, it’s going to take the support of labels, hip hop listeners, artists and tight-collared execs to straight up RECOGNIZE and give the listening public what they want whether digitally or otherwise. Hip hop is the classic rock of this generation. Digital Underground is Steely Dan, De La Soul is Pink Floyd, EPMD is Led Zeppelin, Run DMC is the Beatles, Beastie Boys are the Rolling Stones and Too $hort is Joe Cocker.

Aging hip hop head rant: It’s even more important these days because rap and hip hop is the biggest thing to hit pop culture since Elvis shook his ass. And if the new kids that are getting into hip hop have no context, think Eminem is the first white rapper and 3rd Bass is 90 feet from home, we basically burned the history book which took decades upon decades to write. And their kids will think Ice Cube and Will Smith were just mediocre actors and RZA just composed the score. Saturation has to take place. If we can have five stations in one major metro spinning everything from the Kinks to the Clash, the Who to Van Halen, we can get one station that’ll play 24 hours of classic hip hop. And I’m not talking about those lame XM stations because, most people’ll tell you, they adhere too closely to the All Music Guide to hip hop. All I’m trying to say is we’ve come way too far from the days when radio stations proudly hailed “WE DON”T PLAY RAP” to let hip hop become strictly a pop format. Remember what the great Q-Tip said. “Rap is not pop, when you call it that then stop!” Without building context around hip hop for the young pop audience, rap will certainly become pop and, like all fickle pop music, it will burn out like a fad, a trend, a phase that “all kids go through.” Anyway, 80% of the rappers on your favorite local radio station would see their entire careers reduced to dust if put up against any ten minute segment from It Takes a Nation of Millions, Raising Hell, Enter the 36 Chambers or Strictly Business. Betta recognize. Sincerely yours, Jerry Maguire.

And now, for our feature presentation. My boss says, “We don’t get paid to be critics,” but that’s my day job. We’ll begin, like the previous years, with the disappointments.

THE DISAPPOINTMENTS

REV RUN DISTORTION
(Def Jam)
If you wanna hear what it sounds like when a living legend is crammed down the industry meat grinder and processed into a bland-tasting sausage, listen to this record. I never would’ve guessed the triumphant return of the Reverend would leave me so very empty. Supported with by a handful of no-name, no-rep producers and an absolutely laughable video treatment for his first single, “Mind on the Road,” Run’s return had ended before the record even dropped. And let me tell you, when this record dropped, it dropped. Tell you what, get him back in his shell-toe Adidas, deck him out in that beautiful black denim, front the cash to get Rick Rubin in the studio, completely separate him from MTV, Diddy, his family and especially his bro bro Russ and then see what kinda record you get out of Run. Ten songs lasting 23 minutes? You don’t have to be a mathematician to arrive at the disappointment Distortion is. At least his reality show is worth a viewing, I mean, if you’re like me and enjoy watching Run church his kids and then recount the day’s life lessons on his Blackberry in his candlelit bathtub during the closing credits.

Z TRIP
SHIFTING GEARS
(Hollywood)
The name won’t resonate with many, but Z-Trip is easily one of the finer turntablists in the game and a legend in his own right. So after years of jaw-dropping live sets and a multitude of marvelling mix CDs, one could only cringe at the thought of Hollywood Records’ take on a DJ record. It was constructed with the best of intentions featuring a host of emcees that the majors have never heard of like Busdriver, Supernatural, Aceyalone, Murs and Lyrics Born. That being said, Gears is less a DJ record and more a compilation where Z-Trip unfortunately takes the backseat and let’s the emcees be the star. I suppose the majors are still not ready to take the leap into a pure hip hop DJ record. Records like this make me so very thankful for Bomb Hip Hop.

SLIM THUG
ALREADY PLATINUM
(Geffen)
As the title suggests, Slim Thug was paid in full long before the majors came to town. So when Geffen swiped up the drawling rapper from H-Town, it seemed that Slim would finally blow and release the quintessential Houston record. The result couldn’t be any further from this. Enlisting Pharrell and Jazzy Pha might have been the first of a few crucial misqueues with this record. Houston’s definitive sound was thrown out and replaced with that polished radio-ready recipe. Unfortunately, leaving his hometown seeking producers to back the project didn’t prove successful as he was outsold and outplayed by compadres Paul Wall and Mike Jones who repped Houston to the fullest. I won’t front, “I Ain’t Heard of That” is killer, but Platinum proves the industry’s big-name producers won’t necessarily take you to the top of the rap game.

THE PERCEPTIONISTS
BLACK DIALOGUE
(Definitive Jux)
I’m a sucker for Def Jux. I always have been, but why all the writers jumped on this project like it was greatest Def Jux record of all time is beyond me. When I was reading the early reviews praising this record, I swore I was listening to the wrong record. I just didn’t hear the same brilliance. I love me some Mr. Lif and Fakts One is a supernice DJ, but the addition of Akrobatik, for me, just turned it all to mush. What does it matter though? The writers were all over it and a few thousand kids from the burbs donned their backpacks and became Jux fans—laying the perfect foundation for Jux’s 2006 arsenal which should include a new Cannibal Ox record as well as El-P’s follow-up to Fantastic Damage entitled I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead—already a nominee for best album title of 2006.

And now, the list. In reverse order because I’m a punk, Timbo.

THE LIST

30.REEF THE LOST CAUSE


FEAST OR FAMINE
(Good Hands)
Philadelphia had a big year in 2005. Reef was one such artist benefiting from an unusually fertile underground community in Philly. After making his name as part of Philly crew JuJu Mob, Reef launched his own thang with this solo set—the first of many debut records on this year’s list. Taking queues and influence from the the likes of Jedi Mind Tricks and Boot Camp Clik among others, Reef is an impassioned and inspired emcee whose lyrics rip, shred and slice most of this years rookies and Feast or Famine is easily more than the first than the latter. Definitely a solid first record. If you see it, cop it.

29.RAPPER BIG POOH
SLEEPERS
(6 Hole)
It was Little Brother’s year, hands down. They’ll never see a better year than 2005 both in terms of popular success and critical acclaim. They put out more projects, lent more guest spots and earned more collective press than they’ve ever seen before. And, if you’re Little Brother, you might as well enjoy it because the industry has a pattern of blowing you up until you pop and then discard you like a broken toy when you fail to follow up with the exact same record that put you on the map. So that brings us Little Brother’s Rapper Big Pooh solo set. Like a clever barbershop cat, Pooh’s effortless flow won’t make your headspin, but it’s infectious and an easy listen. Complimented by Khrysis’s 9th-influenced backdrop as well as 9th himself (of course), Sleepers, appropriately titled, is that gem amongst the rubbish in the bin. Wake up, folks.

28.GIANT PANDA
FLY SCHOOL REUNION
(Tres)
What’s in a name? If fellow Los Angeles power-trio Ugly Duckling is a name to describe the discarded and unwanted underdog of the rap game, then Giant Panda would very literally be a metaphor for a style of hip hop that’s near a tragic extinction. Will Giant Panda make it to their second record? Only time will tell. But at least we have this banging debut record. The left coast has become a hotbed for supernice good-time ensembles and Giant Panda is no exception. Simply put, this thing is a rocker. Never taking itself seriously, Reunion is a sometimes soft, sometimes slammin’ altogether carefree album that dodges any heavy subject matter and backspins itself from beginning to end. The only song that teases at some sort of social message is “Racist” which playfully and jokingly dances around a number of racial and ethnic stereotypes. Essentially, even when Reunion tries to make a statement, the only thing this album challenges the listener to do is shake what their mother gave ‘em. And, while it would be impossible to resist comparing Giant Panda to a number of their neighboring crews, Giant Panda’s Reunion is a debut worth its own mention. Great debut. Now, here’s to avoiding extinction.

27. LYRICS BORN
SAME !@#$ DIFFERENT DAY
(Quannum)
Because, I suppose, it wasn’t done right the first time, Lyrics Born enlists a number of top producers and a few additional emcees to remix, eh, rework his 2003 debut, Later That Day. Luckily, it improves on the original, in fact, it replaces it for me. And while the original charted on my list back in 2003, remix projects can’t make it higher than #27 based solely on the principle. Although Quannum would insist that it’s not a “remix” record in the true sense of the word, with eight remixes and five new songs, the majority of the improvements were made on the production end with the addition of an entire fleet of hotshots: DJ Shadow, Chief Xcel, Dan the Automator, DJ Spinna, Young Einstein, Jumbo among others. It’s good, in fact, much better than the first time out, but do it right the first time. It shouldn’t take an accomplished artist two SKUs to make one decent record. Skip the original and buy this one instead.

26. BLOCKHEAD
DOWNTOWN SCIENCE
(Ninja Tune)
There’s a fine line to be walked with instrumental hip hop records. When you don’t have the benefit of an emcee to set not only the tempo, but the mood as well, you’re already at a severe disadvantage. There are few producers who can make quality instrumental hip hop. One such producer is the great Blockhead. You might know his name from the production credits of early Aesop Rock recordings. Blockhead’s second full length record takes up where his last record left off—starting with a simple boom-crack, adding a simple delicious loop and then layering sample upon sample on top until they start tumbling over each other. A simple formula that works when the right ear is piecing it all together. If not done correctly, it will end up like the countless sleepy and underwhelming instrumental records at your favorite record store, but Blockhead is a chemist and Science is his proof that hip hop records don’t have to say anything at all to be impactful.

25.ASAMOV
AND NOW…
(6 Hole)
6 Hole had a big inaugural year in 2005. As proof, I present Jacksonville’s Asamov—a crew comprised of four proven crowd rockers who all share responsibilities as producers and emcees (impressive). The result of just a few years perfecting their sound over a few twelves and EPs is And Now… is a rare banger that yields very little skippable material. It sings as much as it rocks—the brilliant balance between the soulful melodic sense of a Little Brother and the boom bap explosion of the Perceptionists. And the obvious standout track, “Supa Dynamite” featuring an too-damn-nice Mr. Lif cameo bangs with the best from 2005. If you’re wanting to get your grimy paws on a quality hip hop record, seek it out. It’ll play on repeat for hours without spoiling.

24.AMBIDEX
THE GREAT POTATO FAMINE
(Early Spotter)
Swampscott, Massachusetts represent! Turntablists and emcees are like the guitarists of the eighties and nineties—they start popping up and every block, but luckily for the few owners of this album, Ambidex and his colleagues are far from your favorite local act. Armed with not only an impressive vocabulary and headspinning diction, but also the energy to carry the mic responsibilities for all but two tracks on this longplayer, Ambidex echoes the spectacular abilities of an early Eyedea. With help from his boys on the boards and turntables, Famine is a marvelous listen that lends as much to the lyrical prowess of Ambidex as it does to the cutting abilities of DJ Shortrock who assaults listeners with his exact and remarkable table techniques over Jerm’s solid, sample-drenched production. All contributors come correct on Famine.

23.MED
PUSH COMES TO SHOVE
(Stones Throw)
For those searching for that 2005 Stones Throw banger, look no further. Last year it was Oh No who was finally given an hour to shine and this year it’s MED (formerly Medophoar). After making numerous lyrical contributions to Stones Throw projects, MED’s debut, with sureshot Madlib at the helm, is a bona fied blockrocker pulling on the same production formula that has led all Stones Throw releases to critical acclaim—driven by a big bang of funk, cooled-out jazz and chopped drum patterns—the definitive Stones Throw sound. MED combines both the dazzling spitfire energy of a rookie and the confident swagger of a vet as he writes the tales of a weed-smoking, ass-grabbing, cop-dodging youngsta getting his hustle on—a definite change of pace for Stones Throw. Apparently they’re doing something right because even Just Blaze makes an appearance with the club-ready “Get Back.” Overall a stunning debut. Now, Stones Throw, bring on that Percee P album!

22. KICE OF COURSE
NEW EXPERIENCE
(Smacks)
After killin’ it on his Mr. Len’s Pity the Fool over four years ago, Kice’s long-overdue debut released fairly quietly in 2005. But for those fortunate enough to hear it, witnessed a verbal blast from one of the nicest emcees that you’ve never heard of. A rugged and learned Jersey rhymeslinger, Kice’s simple and confident delivery is refreshing in an underground cluttered with wordy and abstract emcees and with beats provided by CoFlow’s Mr. Len among others, his surprising debut is nothing ingenius but is a very straight and listenable LP well worth copping.

21. THE CREST
SKEPTIK
(Uprising)
Out of the middle of nowhere (actually Madison, Wisconsin) comes this blazing crew courtesy of Uprising Records in the label’s first dip into the realm of hip hop. What you’ll find from the Crest is a dizzying whirlwind of beats, breaks, cuts and scratches along with the verbal assault of emcees Jack Cracker and AD who’s style harkss the back and forth conversational styles of some of hip hop’s most famous duos. While heavily derivative of fellow midwesterners Rhymesayers, the Crest still manages to blaze their own bold trail through the underground with Skeptik.

20.PAUL WALL
THE PEOPLE’S CHAMP
(Swishahouse)
The Swishahouse slogan of “you don’t grind, you don’t shine” is no better exemplified than by Paul Wall. Coming up from the humble beginning of a Swisha streetteamer, Paul Wall grinded those gears until they damn-near fell outta the bottom. And now, at a still very young twenty-ish, Paul climbed to the top, shoved his mouth full of jewels and now has a smile that lights up entire area codes. And that shiny grill is not just Paul’s way of showing everyone that “I got mine,” its the reward for years of humping in that sweltering south Texas heat. Now, Paul’s loosening the screws in trunks across the nation. Champ will go down alongside We Can’t Be Stopped as one of the very few records that perfectly harnesses that Houston hustle and puts it to music. Paul’s day-in-day-out pursuit of cash and the resulting jewels and drank is all that a good parking lot record from the south needs to be entertaining. And the lo-pro production is as equally minimalist—that slow-and-low, lid-rattlin’ bass swell, that pushbutton high hat and that syrupy vocal scratch on the hook of nearly every song. Make no mistake, Champ not only stands alone as the most definitive Houston records of the year, but maybe of the last decade.

19.SUPASTITION
CHAIN LETTERS
(Soulspazm)
The Little Brother extended family keeps getting bigger and bigger with their Justus League family, the quadzillion projects 9th Wonder has contributed beats to in the last three years and, well, almost any hip hop act to come out of the Carolinas in the last two years are somehow, like it or not, are considered LB affiliates. Here we find Carolina emcee Supastition—unfairly lumped into the pile of hip hop artists thought to sound just like every other Carolina hip hop act. To clarify, Letters is not your typical Carolina record (although Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh do guest on a few verses). Supastition, one of the purer young emcees coming up out of the small market circuit, makes this record his own and shakes the stigma attached to Carolina hip hop acts. Letters is Supastition’s machete used to make his own much-deserved clearing in hip hop’s overgrown underground.

18.-(TIE)TEK & STELLE
SMIF’N’WESSUN: RELOADED
(Duck Down)
18.-(TIE)SEAN PRICE
MONKEY BARZ
(Duck Down)
I couldn’t really put one on top of the other so it’s a tie at #18 between Duck Down affilliates Smif-n-Wessun (Tek and Steele) and Heltah Skeltah’s Sean Price. Duck Down’s contribution to 2005 was significant in the form of three killer records: these two records and a collaboration you’ll see further down the list. But for these two records, you’ll hear three emcees from that insane 1994 class back to show heads they ain’t missing a single step—a tall order considering that eleven years in hip hop is an average of three careers from rookie year to retirement. Not that they’ve been dormant this whole time, but in terms of fully developed longplay projects, there have been none in the past six years plus. That being said, Sean Price is in prime form as the wiseass, ish-talkin’ oldtimer. But you don’t wanna test him. His lyrical skills are still sharp enough to wreck even the nastiest young whipper-snapper. Tek & Steele come equally as nice with that spit reminescent those old, grimy Black Moon verses from the Enta Da Stage days. For older heads, these two albums will be a reminder of the final years of the Golden Age era. For newer heads, it’ll serve as a proof that emcees just don’t come as hard and as true as they used to.


17.THE GAME
THE DOCUMENTARY
(Aftermath)
Promising grimy Compton gun-slinger looks to be the the hood ornament for the resurrection of the left coast, but ends up being another club hit. At least that’s what most people might have thought (myself included) when I heard the mushy, underwhelming “How We Do,” but turns out, Documentary is quite the contender—proving, once again, labels are horrible at picking singles or I wouldn’t know a radio single if it grew arms and legs, ran up to me and pimp-slapped me. Documentary, whether true or not, is compelling—each song another street corner, another house party, another drive-by, another day in Compton, USA. During the course of the listen, it reflects the sounds of the early days of hardcore thugness—before “gangster” was shortened to “gangsta,” when rap really was dangerous, when radio didn’t want touch a rap record for fear of losing advertisers. “Hate It or Love It” is the “Minds Playin’ Tricks on Me” for the new generation and the Just Blazin’ “No More Fun and Games” sounds like it was ripped right out of 100 Miles and Runnin’. One serious downside to the album is Dr. Dre’s lackluster production. It’s amazing that, as Dr. Dre’s protégé, that Dre got out-produced on every track. Hopefully, he’s saving the bangers for Detox (insert laughter and collective “Yeah right!” here). All that aside, while it remains to be seen whether or not the Game is the new King of the West, one thing’s for certain: Documentary is promising evidence that Los Angeles might be on the brink of blowing up once again.

16.SLUG/MURS
FELT 2: A TRIBUTE TO LISA BONET
(Rhymesayers)
Like they were separated at birth, Slug and Murs prove to be a perfect match once again with their second installment of the Felt tributes, this time to Ms. Lisa Bonet. Truthfully, there’s very little to this record about Lisa Bonet as much it’s about Slug and Murs getting their nuts off over some of the tastiest Ant beats to date. Never serious and infinitely irreverant, Murs plays the perfect bad influence to a maturing Slug as the two revert to childish antics to entertain. It’s refreshing to hear the two trading jabs and punchlines in what, essentially, is almost a throwaway project with one finishing up a project and another working to complete one. But even so, the result is a truly enjoyable record featuring two of the best in the game.

15.COMMON
BE
(Geffen)
Okay, I’ll admit it. I don’t like Common. Really. Something about the way he switches his style (and headgear) with every outing has left me confused and disappointed. That being said, when he hired to the top beatmaker to executive produce Be, it’s gotta be something worth listening to. I’ll put it this way: Common’s always been an excellent emcee but he’s been plagued by mediocre production on every record, but now that he fixed his production issues with Kanye (and the late J. Dilla) Common might have turned out the best project of his career. Yeah, I said it. Kanye didn’t make him a better emcee, he made him a better artist.

14.COOL CALM PETE
LOST
(Embedded)
Babbletron’s Cool Calm Pete, a Korean-born emcee, brings us Lost—a magical and intriguing solo set which finds Pedro punchlining himself from track to track with his slow, deliberate delivery and stupidly humorous jokery. Supplemented by spectacularly splendid production which veers from low-end funk based breaks to bizarre blip hop, but, in the end, it comes together in what is a surprisingly fulfilling listen.

13.BLACKALICIOUS
THE CRAFT
(Anti)
If it ain’t broke, then you’re Blackalicious. Their third record for, oddly, their third label, Craft is an excitable, irresistably charming and ultra-funky powerhouse of an album. And that’s to be expected. It draws on the same basic blueprint that has driven their previous efforts to success—a bed of soulful bordering on psychedelic soundscapes act as a perfect backdrop for the word wizardy of Gift of Gab. Gab is his usual self—employing different voice inflections and trickery to lockdown his position as one of the most gifted emcees of this generation. His marveling wordplay will dizzy listeners and have you sitting on the rewind button for a second and third listen. The biggest difference is in the production; now employing a large cast of live instrumentalists and a more daring approach to the construction of the tracks. Chief Xcel’s going where he’s never gone before—to more straight-forward almost (gasp) pop influences. Not that the record suffers because of this, in fact, quite the contrary—it makes it more accessible than both Nia and Blazing Arrow. The deeper in the record you listen, the better it gets—thicker and more organic. Don’t fret, this is the Blackalicious you know and love. Buy Craft, you idiot.

12.BUCKSHOT/9TH WONDER
CHEMISTRY
(Duck Down)
If you’re looking for proof of 9th Wonder’s mastery of the boards, look no further than Chemistry where we find the unlikely pairing of 9th and Black Moon’s Buckshot. And while unlikely, by the end of the intro when Buckshot gets his grime on over 9th Wonder’s infinitely tasty production and deafening low end (like it was ripped right out of Enta da Stage), it all comes together and leaves the listener baffled in delight for the duration of the flight. And, although the album’s title suggests it, Chemistry is not rocket science. It’s straight-forward and thick with beats laced with old dusty soul samples. Its beauty lies in its simplicity where 9th resists the propensity to overproduce and Buckshot just sits back and goes off the cuff. The finished product is a perfect blend, a flawless recipe proving to drop science you don’t have to go over anyone’s head.

11.ONE BE LO
S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.
(Fat Beats)
Back in 2000, Binary Star’s delicious first record Masters of the Universe gained the duo critical claim, but like most underground records from the late 90s and early 2000s, ultimately disappeared under a slew of quality hip hop records. So too did the duo after splitting shortly thereafter. Formerly One Man Army, One Be Lo bounces back with this lean and mean solo set courtesy of the fellas at Fat Beats. Confident and fully prepared for his journey as a one man set, One Be Lo dips, dives, swings and sings swiftly through the set exhibiting a firey lyrical ability improved from five years ago and a maturity level that puts him in the league of the Talibs and Gabs. Put don’t be so quick to file him in the “conscious” section because he can throw elbows that knock the lights out of any emcee out there. For fans of Binary Star, it’s a no-brainer.

10.OHMEGA WATTS
THE FIND
(Ubiquity)
Newcomer, Ohmega Watts made some serious waves in 2005 with this beautifully constructed and irresistably sweet debut record. Hailing from Flatbush, Ohmega’s first outing is a deep, break-heavy headnodder with layer upon layer of keys, horns, vibes and vocals. In fact, Find serves almost as well as an instrumental hip hop record because of the strong focus on the production end—one of the common attributes of records from emcee/producers, like Ohmega. And one would only expect such from Ubiquity—a label with a strong history of tasty funk, jazz and downtempo releases. Find is one of those records which perfectly draws from a numbr of influences without sounding dated or dusty, in fact, the album’s energy from the opening moments not only reinvigorates the sound of over a decade ago, but acts as a necessary bridge from the nineties’ true school to its imminent revival in 2005.

09.SAGE FRANCIS
A HEALTHY DISTRUST
(Epitaph)
He finally made it. After years in the trenches, someone finally listened. That someone was Epitaph and with their help, Sage blasted into the ears and minds of thousands with Distrust—arguably his masterpiece. Filling in the holes left by his Anticon debut, Distrust asks new questions about politics, unresolvable social issues and religion and poses new mysteries about Sage himself. Often full of rage and vengeance, Sage blisters the listener with his trademark wordplay and complex rhyme delivery while jabbing verse after verse until the bitter end with a compelling tribute to Johnny Cash. Distrust continues Sage’s plight into hip hop’s unchartered territory, wearing his emotional afflictions on his sleeve and then publicly attacking them with an explosion of noise and verse with the conviction of a preacher man. It’s because of this that Sage has always been followed with thrice the haters as fans—because he challenges the hip hop audience who had become complacent with rap’s commonly irresponsible and wreckless messages to actually think, explore the alternative to popular thought and methods. With Distrust, Sage, the self-proclaimed “thinking man’s thinking man,” doesn’t ask you agree or disagree, only to listen.

08.QUASIMOTO
THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF LORD QUAS
(Stones Throw)
Last we heard from Madlib’s strangest alias Quasimoto, was over five years ago with The Unseen. And while the first Quasimoto project was like nothing ever heard in hip hop, so too is Further Adventures which almost sounds nothing like even Unseen. It’s funkier, darker, stranger, but ultimately more enjoyable. Madlib’s ability to turn sounds, bleeps and bloops into music is insane. His projects are loose, sometimes unravelling, falling to pieces just before rebounding into incredible freshness. Further Adventures is another astoundingly confusing, paranoid Madilb project awash with static and fuzz, but like an old jazz record, it works. Experimental is Madlib’s forte and he doesn’t disappoint once again.

07.LITTLE BROTHER
THE MINSTREL SHOW
(Atlantic)
With Tribe disbanding shortly after The Love Movement, the Fugees fizzling into their various forgettable side projects and Slum Village being reduced down to two, the hip hop power trio has been a quickly endangered species. They were replaced by dynamic duos, Mos Def and Kweli, Jaylib, Latyrx, Maroons, Cannibal Ox, Blackalicious, Atmosphere so on and so forth. But in 2003, with the release of The Listening, Carolina cats Little Brother began popping up on playlists and critics’ short lists across the globe. It’s no surprise that a major came in and swept them up for their sophomore effort, The Minstrel Show. Led by 9th Wonder’s incredible soulful soundscapes, Phonte and Big Pooh spit straight like two clean-cut high schoolers trading rhymes in the far corner of the cafeteria. The chemistry is undeniable from the opening moments of “Beautiful Morning” and the headnods continue without pause til the curtain call, “We Got Now.” 9th Wonder, possibly the hardest working producer of 2005, has produced his masterwork with Minstrel—constructing the perfect backdrop for what is, essentially, more of a Tribe record than Tribe could make at this stage in their careers. Derivative? Absolutely, but at least it’s derivative of something good.

06.ATMOSPHERE
YOU CAN’T IMAGINE HOW MUCH FUN WE’RE HAVING
(Rhymesayers)
You can’t imagine the fun they’re having. And you can’t hear it either. Imagine is the seemingly sarcastic title for an album which chronicles years of heartbreak, hangovers, headaches and endless touring. And it stars arguably the hardest working emcee in hip hop, Slug. If Seven’s Travels, Atmosphere’s last studio record, details the many upsides of touring for a young, charasmatic emcee, Imagine (reportedly recorded while touring Travels) is the dark and grim B-side. Slug’s scathing sardonicism reflects the sober recovery to yesterday’s party. And, while a stark departure from Atmosphere’s previous releases, it’s refreshing to hear a change in subject matter. It might even be crucial to Atmosphere’s survival. Still, Slug’s much closer to the back of the tour bus than he is to the picket fence, but he’s growing older. Gears have been stripped, the clutch isn’t as smooth as it used to be. Regardless, the outcome on this record is as equally as compelling as the earlier Atmosphere recordings. Ant continues to wow listeners with his sturdy road-tested production—always improving upon the last record. Just when you think he’s created his best music, you hear “Smart Went Crazy” and “Get Fly” and you’re convinced Ant still hasn’t peaked—which is just plain frightening. In short, if it’s fun you’re looking for, buy the Felt 2 record. If you’re seeking what could easily be Atmosphere’s greatest achievement, Imagine it is.

05.BLUEPRINT
1988
(Rhymesayers)
While adapting the Golden-era hip hop sound years after it had come and gone has never been especially groundbreaking, it’s manifestation in modern hip hop has given us some some seriously dope music. Blueprint’s aptly titled 2005 project is once such instance. From the very backbone of breakbeats and headspinning tempos, 1988 is a fun, party-rockin’ beast where we find Blueprint bragging about his blasting boombox (“I gotta Panasonic with a set of fifteens/black with the silver grill shinin’, lookin’ clean/glove on my right hand, face all mean/I keep it by my side like Radio Raheem”) to proudly proclaiming his preference for big-butted ladies (“She’s double my body weight, double the fun, I’m doubling the pleasure like Double Mint gum”) ala LL’s “Big Ole’ Butt.” It’s like the Old School’s yearbook. It’s Big Daddy Kane rockin’ the mic, Biz Markie doing the mudfoot, Doug E. Fresh beatboxing, Eric B. running for president, it’s crowds of fun-loving kids doing the Humpty Dance. Simply, it’s a time capsule being dug up after nearly 20 years buried under the surface. And props to Blueprint for doing it—someone had to show these wise-ass kids how hip hop was done. And even if they never hear it, it serves as a delicious listen for the aging hip hop head.

04.CAGE
HELL’S WINTER
(Definitive Jux)
Sometimes, rappers have to die to become legends. But in the case of Cage, he had to die to produce the greatest mark of his career. Figuratively speaking, of course. His story is one of tragedy and sadness. The product of a horribly fractured upbringing, son to a war veteran and heroin junkie, Cage gets tossed from family member to family member like a wet rag until he winds up in a mental institution as a head case with a number of chemical addictions. Once out he picks up a mic and begins to build his personal validation through rhyming with twisted and disturbing tales of violence, mental illness, misogyny, drug use (abuse) and general misconduct. With one full album under his belt and a host of side projects, Cage arrives at Def Jux with a new haircut, a new attitude, the clarity of a philosopher and fit like a prizefighter. And Hell’s Winter is his 12-round bout. His opponent? There are a number—his neglectful parents, his Nazi grandmother, the system, the president, his former label and even himself. Packaged beautifully by the production of DJ Shadow, El-P, Blockhead, RJD2 and Camu Tao, Winter is a remarkably dark and painful journey. From “Too Heavy for Cherubs” where Cage details how, at six years old, he helps his father shoot heroin between beatings (insert goosebumps here) to his verbal lashings aimed at his previous label on “Public Property,” the album is brutally honest (emphasis on “brutal”) and, even more, Cage has claimed in multiple interviews, it’s one hundred percent non-fiction. Winter has no soul in a rhythmic sense. It’s soul is vengeful, striking with wrath—a furious force to be reckoned with. Reborn and restrengthend, if you rattle this Cage, you’re definitely gonna catch hell.

03.KANYE WEST
LATE REGISTRATION
(Roc-a-Fella)
To make a great hip hop album this day and age is difficult. To do it twice is even more of an incredible feat. To do it twice in two years is almost impossible. Equally as rare is the talent of Kanye West. Like Dropout, Kanye’s latest outing manages to both deliver four, maybe five, radio singles while also handing in some of the most stellar production that hip hop has heard in years. Registration is as honest as one would expect from the outspoken (and oftentimes absurd) Kanye—emotionally driven, spiritually fueled and unbelievably daring. And while you might not buy his mama-lovin’, church-goin’, Bush-hatin’ persona on record, one cannot deny the artistic achievement that is Registration. Both lyrically and sonically, Registration is as braggadocious, cocky and obnoxious as Kanye himself. Try and count how many times you hear “I,” “me,” “mine” or the collective “we,” “us,” and “ours”—I guarantee you’ll lose count by the third song. Told almost entirely in first person narrative, Kanye and his crew are the center of the universe and the album’s unquestionable climax entitled “We Major” is a collar-poppin’ victory dance after years on the grind in which Kanye taunts his competition: “They can’t do what we do, baby!” But even as the album draws to an end, you get the feeling this is still all a work in progress, just a kid growing up and that his masterwork is yet to come. Another hip pop masterpiece.

02.DANGER DOOM


THE MOUSE AND THE MASK
(Epitaph)
Call it a marketing ploy, an advertisement, from those crafty folks at Cartoon Network, but, don’t get it twisted—this is a true Doom record. Doom’s entire catalog is a gimmick. In tonight’s episode, everyone’s favorite masked marble-mouthed marvel introduces his favorite Adult Swim characters, from Space Ghost to the entire Aqua Teen Hunger Force crew. And, even though it seems like every review is praising the production of this year’s “in” producer, Danger Mouse (which is certainly not to be overlooked), Doom is the true star of this set—was there really any question? Exhibit A: “True, Doom rolled on through with a whole crew/that stole on you for holding old brew, who told you?/even if it's crap, mind your own business/they raps ain't got no gift like a lonely Christmas/real phony with beats that's hardly fresh/how they manage to deal is anybody's guess.” Exhibit B where Doom goes straight stupid at the end fo the record on “Bada Bing” as a mumbling madman: “Hold somethin for your daily yay habit/then go, bada-bing-bing-bing like Ricochet Rabbit/how 'bout the sicko say stab it?/there's liquor in the cabinet and a slicker for the crafted/and Heineken, I told him much obliged friend/what I gotta spend, if I only touch her thighs then?/why his eyes widened/he didn't know your man had a nice surprise hidin/took pride in ridin in a sly wiseguy grin/real recognize real/on the microphone, the wheels are mechanized steel/please, at least respect your ideals/how you got her walkin along the stroll in high heels?/he said her mamma was gettin old/God bless her poor soul now no more drama is your role.” Bananas! Only Doom could hustle a one-off project supposedly writing jingles for Cartoon Network and then spin it into an advertisement for his own career. The bamboozling becomes the bamboozled and Doom’s vaulted into the headphones of little Adult Swim geeks around the world. What’s next? Apparently he’s developing the idea of rapping in the voices of actual Adult Swim characters in a follow-up record. Along with a second Madvillain record. Along with a collaborative record with Ghostface Killah. Along with a long-awaited KMD record. Along with a, geez, does this guy every sleep?

01.EDAN
BEAUTY AND THE BEAT
(Lewis)
Every year there’s that one wildcard that quietly yet boldly changes the people’s perceptions of hip hop: what people think hip hop is, what it looks like, what it sounds like. Edan’s Beauty and the Beat is that record for 2005. Beauty draws the unlikely paralells between hip hop and the psychedelica in ways that very few albums have since, perhaps, De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising. And with Edan manning the boards and tables as well as handling the large majority of the mic responsibilities, this album is nothing short of an ingenius accomplishment not only in hip hop, but in modern music as a whole. It’s bizarro blend of sonic sounds and headnodding beats is Phil Spector meets Prince Paul, George Martin meets the Bomb Squad. It’s a stewy and sometimes sloppy composition but is immediate in grabbing hold of the listener. And clocking in at around 35 minutes, unlike it’s overly ambitious and commonly exhaustive competitors, Beauty is the perfect length—not tiring the listener into submission but assaulting ears until the album’s climax “Promised Land.” And Edan’s cocky, wiseguy poise is both parody and an act of reverence—paying homage to hip hop’s finest while standing alone as one of the most unique rhyme styles in the game. Call it backpacker. Call it nerd rap. Hell, call it whatever you want, but recognize it as equally beautiful and brilliant.


RECOGNIZE, ESE.

1 comment:

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