Wednesday, January 10, 2007

j3's TOP 17 HIP HOP ALBUMS OF 2006

I'll give it to you straight: 2006 was a horrible year for hip hop. It was just bad. It was so bad that I couldn't even muster up a full 20 hip hop albums worth mentioning. Instead, you get 17 albums and no honorable mentions. Yeah, that bad. Is hip hop dead? Is Nas right? What went wrong? Whose to blame?
  • Blame Dr. Dre who continues work on Detox. Yeah right.
  • Blame the labels for not getting their act together and actually releasing music that we can listen to. What happened to Papoose? What happened to those Doom projects? Where's the Fugee's reunion record? Percee P? Saigon? I heard that G-Unit was going to take over the whole world this year. What happened? Houston blew up last year, but where did all that momentum go in 2006? At least a Lil Jon record?
  • Blame the Black Eyed Peas because of Fergie's stupid ass.
  • Blame the industry for abandoning the album format and, instead, adopting the nickel-and-dime mentality of ringtones and downloads. Let's not find a way to make an album better, let's make it more disposable. Ringtones, at the very core, perfectly communicate the publics view of music--good for only 20 seconds and worth 2 dollars, but not a cent more. Hip hop ain't dead, but the album as we know it might finally be. They're not interested in making artists anymore, just radio singles when radio is a dying dinosaur.
  • Blame Steve Jobs.
  • Blame Brooke Hogan who, in an interview with XXL said the first rap record she bought was Stevie Wonder's "Greatest Hits," because she's really into "old-school stuff." After Amy Linden stated the obvious that Stevie Wonder ain't hip hop, Brooke replies, "But he's urban and I look up to the old classical, original stuff." The term "urban" is nothing but marketing drivel. It would make sense that an artist that is all marketing would find a way to call Stevie Wonder "urban."
  • Blame "urban" and the consolidation of hip hop into one pop format. Rap is not pop, if you call it that then do your damn homework.
  • Blame "snap" and "hyphy" which got exposed as the very fad's they were. Both movements were dead before Lil Jon could release his next album containing the song "Snap Yo Fingers."
  • Blame Common for that silly hoodie.
  • Blame the catalog divisions for, once again, failing to promote hip hop's storied history and classic recordings.
  • Blame lupus for taking J Dilla.
  • Blame Jay-Z, Nas, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Method Man, Juvenile, P. Diddy, Outkast, the Game, Ice Cube, Mobb Deep and Ludacris (now that's a lineup) for all releasing forgettable records. Did you know of the top 50 albums at Soundscan in 2006, only three were hip hop albums? Furthermore, the top selling hip hop album was nowhere near the top of the charts--that'd be TI's King at #17. Dismal.
  • Blame Flava Flav simply because it's easiest to.
  • Blame the following disappointments. If these five albums were half as good as they could've been, it would've been a descent year.
DISAPPOINTMENTS
OUTKAST
IDLEWILD
LaFace
Artistic freedom backfires as LaFace finds out the hard way that hip hop does have its limitations—musicals. Flop of the year for hip hop. Biggest flop, possibly, in the history of LaFace. Maybe now we can focus on 10 The Hard Way.

DJ SHADOW
THE OUTSIDER
Motown
Finally answering the question “Can DJ Shadow do no wrong?” The Outsider finds your favorite DJ savior dabbling heavy in hyphy and attempting to make the leap into the popular realm. It’s like requesting Charmin and getting sandpaper. If you want a quality DJ Shadow record, just buy the new Cut Chemist.

MR. LIF
MO’MEGA
Definitive Jux
Still better than most emcees out there, Mo’Mega simply doesn’t hold a match to this year. Tried as I would to enjoy this album, it wouldn’t happen. But check the 9th Wonder remix of “Brothaz”—sadly not available on this album.

JAY-Z
KINGDOM COME
Def Jam
Eh, uh. The Jay record everyone was waiting for, but no one is talking about. That’s because it’s a couple of singles pinched between an hour cleanly produced, hook-heavy drip hop. Seems like Jay fans were brought up the same way I was: if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.

NAS
HIP HOP IS DEAD
Def Jam
Hip hop, in fact, is not dead. But Nas just about killed it with this one. Nas’ favor for dramatics and always making a masterful opus rather than an album is why his greatness is a myth. He’s locked himself into a standard that not only he can achieve. I say the same thing every time Nas drops an album: if you want Illmatic, then go buy Illmatic.
Blame anyone, anything you want, but don't blame the following 17 artists for offering up the gems of 2006. Again, hate to be the party pooper, but I ain't gonna put in extra time and effort into a list recounting the year's best when the industry and labels don't want to put in extra time and effort to keep the music alive. You get 17 albums and no more. Don't blame me, I work with what I'm given.
THE LIST
17
STRANGE FRUIT PROJECT
THE HEALING
OM HIP HOP
SOUNDSCAN: 8,499

Waco representin’. Central Texas won’t ever be known as the mecca of hip hop, but Strange Fruit Project is out to prove that Texas aint’ all screwed and chopped. The Healing is a stoutly soulful offering that flows with reverence to hip hop’s past, but blazes trails forward to hip hop’s otherwise dim future. The Healing dances, bounces, sings and grooves and, when it’s all said and done, Strange Fruit Project shake doubters aside and make a musical statement that’s impossible to ignore. Essential for fans of Little Brother.

16
LUPE FIASCO
LUPE FIASCO'S FOOD AND LIQUOR

ATLANTIC
SOUNDSCAN: 247,068

Cleverly-crafted big label hype of the year! And it’s not bad either. I’ll be honest, I was drinking the Kool Aid when the first two singles hit. I thought this was album of the year even before hearing the full record. This guy was starting to reach a feverish, Kanye-like buzz and, in the infinite wisdom of the music industry, they kept pushing the record as the demand was building. In the end, it’s a crisp, clean corporate hip hop record. It’s like processed cheese, but even Velveeta makes for good once it’s melted down. Lupe is the street corner in the hip hop community where backpackers, college hipsters and snobby geekazoid record store clerks meet—like Kanye. In the end, Food and Liquor is a contender, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s the album of the year. I’ll put it this way it’s twice as good as haters say it is and half as good as everyone at Atlantic was saying it was.

15
SADAT X
BLACK OCTOBER
RIVERSIDE DR.
SOUNDSCAN: 1,606

Like there’s only room for one ex-member of Brand Nubian that is not Grand Puba. I kept hearing all about Lord Jamar’s 5% record, but didn’t find it as compelling as Sadat’s Black October. It’s Sadat returning to his prizefighter form—proving there’s life after old school finding refuge at Riverside Dr. With guests on production from J-Zone and Ayatollah among others, Sadat pieces together a wonderfully entertaining long-player. And while it won’t rival every record released this year, it serves as a reminder that rappers don’t retire (Jay-Z) and it truly is the size of the fight in the dog. Hopefully, Sadat remembers that on his way to prison for brandishing a firearm at a group of teenagers in Harlem. Whatta shame.


14
PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS
STEPFATHER

BASEMENT
SOUNDSCAN: 16,979

Like a brand you can count on, People Under the Stairs are the sureshots of the independent game. This, their fifth record in seven years, finds Thes and Double doing what they do best—making tasty hip hop. In all fairness, the album does sound slightly formulaic as it relies heavily on the same elements that made their first four records so damn dope. But give them their credit, to maintain a high level of quality as PUTS have with Stepfather is commendable. Although this record drags a little long with 20 tracks, it’s packaged with a DVD featuring hidden footage of Thes bidding on a replica of a vintage record player on The Price is Right. Now that’s priceless.

13
MURS & 9TH WONDER
MURRAY'S REVENGE
RECORD COLLECTION
SOUNDSCAN: 34,173

The follow-up to 3:16, the first pairing 9th Wonder and L.A. vet Murs, Murray’s Revenge is a continuation of theme which sees Murs once again showing he’s underground’s premier vocalist. Infinitely funky and enjoyable, Revenge is just that as both parties return to their prime form and carefully generate an evenflow of spectacular hip hop. Murs’ signature of wearing his heart on his sleeve yet injecting enough humor to keep the mood light coupled with 9th's insanely engaging production, solidifies Revenge on this of many year-end lists. Additionally, Justus League alum Joe Scudda and Big Pooh guest, making this an album worth copping.

12
APATHY
EASTERN PHILOSOPHY

BABYGRANDE
SOUNDSCAN: 8,173

Ask Angry Tim about Apathy and Atlantic Records and you’re bound to catch a bad one. After signing rhymeslayer Apathy, Atlantic sat on and suffocated his career pondering their next move. Their next move would never come. Still under legal bound to Atlantic, Apathy was granted permission to shop an album to indie Babygrande. For Atlantic, it would give them a chance to test the waters without spending a dime and for Apathy, it would be an avenue for him to exert the aggression from sitting around and waiting for things to pop. Eastern Philosophy is an account of a tyrannous, battle-ready emcee on the verge of something big. Apathy is a lion out of his cage hungry for a contest. Too bad Atlantic thinks there’s only room for one white rapper in the game because their locking up of the baddest emcee in the game. Damn, Atlantic’s like the David Copperfield of labels—they can make your favorite rapper disappear like a muddah. By the way, where is that Jean Grae Atlantic keeps talking about?

11
SKYZOO & 9TH WONDER
CLOUD 9

CUSTOM MADE
SOUNDSCAN: 1,829

9th Wonder always has knack for finding the perfect match. This time out, it’s with Brooklyn native Skyzoo with what is one of a couple sleepers on this year’s list. Cloud 9 showcases Skyzoo’s street narratives and eager energy over what is, quite possibly, 9th’s most collectively fresh and inspired production since The Minstrel Show. Overall, it’s a beautiful record and well worth the dough. If you’re demanding a refund on Kingdom Come, exchange it for this colossal set.

10
THE JUGGAKNOTS
USE YOUR CONFUSION
AMALGAM
SOUNDSCAN: 2,018

They were at the helm of the once-promising mid-90s underground movement, but after Elektra failed to release their debut, the Juggaknots were sent packing back to the independents. Their debut would finally see the light of day thanks to the short-lived Third Earth Records, but being the material was seven years old, the Juggaknots would have to wait for their proper introduction. Until now. Thanks to the dedicated heads at Amalgam, the Juggaknots finally got their long overdue chance to shine. Confusion is a brilliantly entertaining exhibit of the trio’s capabilities—a clever uppercut of no-bullshit hip hop. Breezly Brewin and Heroine seize every opportunity to tout their lyrical prowess as the verses of Confusion blow by at an almost reckless pace over Breezly and Buddy Slim’s arresting production. The Juggaknots have finally arrived.


09
CUNNINLYNGUISTS
A PIECE OF STRANGE
LA UNDERGROUND
SOUNDSCAN: 6,420

On their third official studio record, Kentucky’s Cunninlynguists finally caught the ears of the massive. Strange is fluid not forced and accomplishes the development of (gasp) mood and theme. Also, setting it apart from its peers, it emotes like an old Geto Boys record and exposes a more sensitive side to the normally jestering duo. Kno’s production saddles both the deeply southern, smoky Dungeon Family sound as well as thumping enough for backpackers to nod their heads to. Deacon’s assault of blazing lyricism helps complete what is, without a doubt, a proclamation of the underground’s overdue arrival to the snobby critical realm. Incredible work.
08
THE ROOTS
GAME THEORY

DEF JAM
SOUNDSCAN: 165,553

Roots’ records are always the last to get listened to. In fact, it took Angry Tim beating me over the head with it before I even picked it up. There’s a standard of excellence that comes with each Roots record and, knowing that, I typically find their recordings predictable and boring. Maybe the new digs of Def Jam did the Roots well because this record is the most cohesive, the most entertaining and the most intriguing output from the Roots since Things Fall Apart. The difference is the tempo and the compositions on the record reflect a group who finally found their identity, their footing. Nothing on the record is forced or hurried. Game Theory witnesses the sextet in a full-throttle jam session that finds Malik and Black Thought taking shots at the media, the war, the president, while ?uest intermittently pays homage to the late Dilla with his drastically improved production. Without a Scott Storch-produced radio single and the pressure of a label to exceed sales goals, the Roots returned to what they do best--innovation.

07
CUT CHEMIST
THE AUDIENCE'S LISTENING
WARNER BROS
SOUNDSCAN: 21,033

Sometimes, you gotta roll solo to see what you’re made of. Lauryn Hill did it. Busta Rhymes did it. Even Flav pulled it off--sorta. For Cut Chemist, it meant leaving the steady touring and rhythmic release schedule of Jurassic Five, joining (of all labels) Warner Bros and releasing a straight forward, ball-busting, sample-sopped, scratch-happy DJ record relatively free of wordy rappers except for a just a few. If you knew anything about Cut Chemist, you knew he had it in him. Talent oozes from everything this dude does, but nothing more communicates his contribution to the modern hip hop age like this record. And yes, not even his work for J5. Listening is a beautiful, inspired and seamless composition which exhibits Cut’s talent for track construction. More so, it cements Cut as one of the finest pairs of ears in the business as each track displays an almost genius understanding of, not just hip hop, but music as a whole. Track of the year candidate: “Storm” featuring Mr. Lif and Edan. Cut Chemist, you know the science.

06
SPANK ROCK
YOYOYOYOYO
BIG DADA
SOUNDSCAN: 7,725

The concept of minimalism in an era of hip hop where so much emphasis is put on the producer is novel at best. In fact, if you want to hear it at its best, you’d have to cross the Atlantic with artists like Lady Sovereign, MIA, the Streets and Roots Manuva. That is until this year when Baltimore’s MC Spank Rock with help of producer xxxchange perfectly combining the gigantic bass of dancehall rhythms with blips, drips and beeps at breakneck speed to deliver one of the most excitable albums of the year. It’s not fair to suggest all of Yoyoyoyoyo is all po-boy produced, because xxxchange does put together some bangers like the uberfunky “Sweet Talk” and the headnoddin’ “Coke and Wet.” MC Spank Rock is like Busy Bee with his endless shotcallin’ and spitfire lyricism. Make no mistake: it’s serious stuntin hip hop, but it bumps like a Chemical Brothers record rockin’ a 1998 New Years’ Eve house party. Don’t be a snob, just because it ain’t gotta breakbeat doesn’t mean you can’t shake ya ass to it.

05
MADLIB
BEAT KONDUCTA 1-2: MOVIE SCENES

STONES THROW
SOUNDSCAN: 19,525

It’s almost unfair how good Madlib is. Listening to the instrumental Konducta, we find ‘Lib at his finest—shining brightly as one of very few naturally-gifted producers in the game. And that’s as if his incredibly deep repertoire hasn’t convinced you yet. Supposedly billed as a soundtrack to an imaginary movie, it plays like a compilation of 35 interludes, but as you dig deeper, it truly is a masterful composition that finds ‘Lib at what is maybe his creative peak as he borrows and steals then switches and morphs sounds and samples into an explosion of hip hop goodness. What’s beautiful about ‘Lib’s creations, and this is no exception, is the noticeable unfinished, not-yet mastered rawness of the recordings—intentionally leaving tracks unbalanced and uncut. This method has become his signature and Konducta is a prime example of this technique. It’s not instrumental, it’s instru-mental.


04
PSALM ONE
THE DEATH OF FREQUENT FLYER
RHYMESAYERS
SOUNDSCAN: 2,726

The sleeper on the list. The Windy City’s very own Psalm One caught everyone snoozing in a serious way scanning only, get this, 2,700 units of Flyer since July. July! To put that in perspective, Twisted Sister’s crappy Christmas record sold six times that amount last week. Nonetheless, the optimist tells me that talent will win when the dust settles and Psalm One has enough talent to run circles around your favorite emcee. Possessing the effortless flow of a veteran, but the exuberance of a newcomer, her gift as an emcee cannot be questioned. With ferocity, Psalm spits fire and proclaims her arrival, with help from tastemaker Rhymesayers Entertainment. This right here is the real deal.

03
GHOSTFACE KILLAH
FISHSCALE/MORE FISH

DEF JAM
COMBINED SOUNDSCAN: 358,066

Since Def Jam got a tad greedy by releasing the two records separately instead of dropping what would’ve been a double album of historic proportions, I’m going rate them as one because, essentially they should be and, secondly, to advocate the purchase of both rather than either or. Def Jam gave him the “Killah” back and dude comes out swinging like a man under some freakishly frantic possession. Ghost’s mind-boggling ability to spit freshness on every outing continues to baffle critics, listeners and even his label by posting a mighty healthy 110,000 units on the first week of Fishscale. The proof is in the puddin’ and the reality is this: both Fishscale and More Fish are official. Fishscale is Ghost in prime form as he compiles more uncut dope than any one listen can fully expose. With production assistances from Just Blaze to the great MF Doom, Fishscale doesn’t miss except for, of course once again, a horrible attempt at a radio track—this time with “Back Like That” featuring Neyo. Couple it with the Theodore Unit-laden More Fish and you have a tandem that can hardly be touched this year.

02
CLIPSE
HELL HATH NO FURY
JIVE
SOUNDSCAN: 132,112

Rap’s obsession with realness has rotted into parody. Nothing in the rap game is real anymore. The only thing that is, in fact, real is how fake it is. It’s all a fantasy world where rappers are the heroes and the taxman is the villain. That was until Clipse blasted onto the scene back in 2002 with their still highly slept-on debut, Lord Willin’. After Jive almost killed their career by sitting on Hell for four years (a whole career for most rappers and unnecessarily long between debut and sophomore efforts), it would finally see the light of day. The result is an startling and sometimes even disturbing depiction of street life holding no reserve for their exploits as dealers and hustlas. Pusha T and Malice’s narratives are as entertaining as they are haunting begging chuckles from the listeners with their slang, their speak and the unending talent for creating metaphors and euphemisms for cocaine. Also notable is Pharrell who continues to prove he’s unstoppable as a producer as he produces yet another insanely delicious offering with a much sparser, barebone beat construction contributing to the omnipresent gloom that dominates the album. In Jive’s pursuit to sell millions of records and turn the Clipse into a single-centered act, the Clipse got the last laugh selling a modest 78,000 their first week with a cohesive and completely unmarketable gem of a record. With all the talk of coke rap, crack music—this is real trap muzik. Maybe now, Jive will finally dump them so they can get on with their careers.

01
J DILLA
DONUTS

STONES THROW
SOUNDSCAN: 43,840

Truly one of the most compelling instrumental hip hop records to release within the last decade, Dilla’s Donuts is, at first listen is somewhat confusing. But upon digestion and the multiple listens that will follow, this record drips of so much soul, you’re gonna need a couple of mops. Released just three days before Dilla would pass from lupus complications, Donuts sadly was Dilla’s outro. Maybe that’s what makes the recording so fascinating and arresting. With the average track lasting only a minute-thirty, there’s more beats than anyone listener can handle at a time. It’s an assault of scattered tempos, twisted genres, sirens, backspins, slow jams and breakbeats that’ll make your neck hurt for weeks. It’s almost a ghostly recording as if, perhaps, he knew this would be his last full offering before his untimely death and he's desperately trying to cram every funky sample he could into one session--sometimes with one track ending mid-beat before switching over to another completely different soundscape--like a kid playing around in the DJ booth with four walls of vinyl. The lesson being this: dope doesn’t need transition. Just play the damn record. Donuts is a suiting record for a repertoire as vast as Dilla’s because if you play it from beginning to end as it was obviously intended, it’s not 31 tracks, it’s just one 48-minute song. that's a boastful taunt to all aspiring beatsmiths saying, “Top this, homie.” Safe to say that won’t happen for quite some time. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bravo the List! Long live the list! Dead-on comments about the disposable ADD music age. I'm proud to bring to bring you 3 of the biggest losers of the year. Hey, at least I got 2 in the Top 17 list of apparent artistic integrity if not commercial scans. Once again you dust me in your musical knowledge of Hip Hop. I'm humbled. Happy New Year J3, there's always 2007....

j3 said...

merci, sheryl. merci.

Anonymous said...

The top 17 albums are indeed the best hip hop has to offer. But whats more important is the fact that you blamed it on the industry. You are so correct, I couldn't have said it better. Although you forgot to mention the big dawgs of the industry that make WAY too much money and dont produce. Why are they making millions of dollars a year, but can't seem to release a decent album? I think its too late to save the music business, so whats next?

daunda said...

man i love it. your number 1 is dead on. I got to get that verbal seed to you, if you liked SFP man you got hear verbal. as always you shoot from hip which is what the world needs. keep bangin'

Mighty Mash said...

Amen. Dilla RIP, a true genius has passed.

j3 said...

wil!!

holla at me on email and we'll converse sometime.

hope you're well, my friend and glad you liked the list.

sweeneykovar said...

hater. in 10 years people like you are gonna be bitching about current hip hop and how shit was ill back in '06. there's always been and always will be mediocrity in music, especially when there's money involved. 06 was a good year, i have a solid line up of albums from last year i can bump shamelessly and enjoy just as much as any others.

j3 said...

this fella apparently failed to read the 17 albums that i praised for their merit...oh well.

at least he read the top part.

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