Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2011

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Fev 12 2012, 21h01

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Random Axe - Random Axe
Key Tracks: Random Call, Another One
It’s a promising debut from the hip-hop trio, but not quite good enough to be among the top 10 albums of 2011. Rappers Sean Price & Guilty Simpson do little to distinguish themselves as anything other than average, though Black Milk’s skilled production is worth a closer listen. His choice of warm, analog drum sounds forms a welcome foundation.

Travis Barker - Give The Drummer Some
Key Tracks: Can A Drummer Get Some, Beat Goes On
For his debut solo album, producer and former Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker recruited a diverse and respectable bullpen of collaborators ranging from Raekwon to Lupe Fiasco to Busta Rhymes. For the most part, he succeeds in meeting two considerable challenges: 1) creating a good rap/rock record without insulting either genre, 2) building appropriate soundscapes to accommodate the different rappers’ individual styles.


TOP 10 HIP-HOP ALBUMS OF 2011

10. Wugazi - 13 Chambers
Key Tracks: Ghetto Afterthought, Sleep Rules Everything Around Me
While not quite in the same league as 2010’s epic Beatles & Wu-Tang mashup, Wugazi is a well-executed marriage of sounds between the Wu and indie 90s alt-rockers Fugazi. Mashup or not, hip-hop and hard rock together often get an unfavorable rep based on past flops (Limp Bizkit, anyone?), while there have been plenty of high-quality successes to speak of in the genre. 13 Chambers is well-produced, sure, though the success of this album may be even more attributable to the timeless impeccability of Wu-Tang’s original vocal tracks. They sure do make solid ingredients for mashups in any genre.

9. Lupe Fiasco - Lasers
Key Tracks: Till I Get There, State Run Radio
Early in his career, Lupe Fiasco established a likeable, goofy bespectacled persona rapping about innocuous hip-hop subjects like skateboarding, video games, and television. The 2011 Lupe is a bit more hardened by fame and angered by politics, for better or worse. State Run Radio strikes a respectable balance between social consciousness and wit (and is also great on a running playlist). On the other hand, his aggressive banger Words I Never Said, a carbon copy of three other Skylar Gray-sampling hit-seeking hip-hop tracks in the past year, extends flatly into angry political territory. Musically, it sounds like it should work, but he’s not KRS-One or Talib Kweli and his lyrics don’t always articulate what, exactly, he’s so displeased about or offer ideas about how to fix it. He’s still at his best when he’s the fun-loving goofball Lupe. Tracks like Coming Up and Till I Get There ride bouncy piano chords to keep you bobbing your head without requiring you to think too hard. Cheesy R&B abounds on this disc, but it’s mostly harmless as long as the messenger isn’t too self-righteous and the melodies aren't too auto-tuned. For Lupe Fiasco’s next act, he’d be best served finding an identity and sticking with it.

8. Raekwon - Shaolin vs. Wu-tang
Key Tracks: Molasses, Silver Rings
Even without his talented bandmate/producer RZA, Raekwon manages an aesthetic true to the Wu-Tang canon and indeed his own previous solo albums. This album’s signature sound--sparse airy arrangements with eerie string and brass samples--proves to be a refreshing change of pace from the noisy and overproduced hip-hop that has dominated the genre in recent years. He has been wise to resist joining that movement. Another notable attribute of this album is its deliberate, slow tempo. What’s the rush? Hip-hop’s not a race to see who can cram the most syllables and sounds into a 3-minute package. It’s fitting that one of this album’s best tracks is called Molasses. Now, if only Rae would get rid of all those dang intros, outros, and skits...

7. Common - The Dreamer, The Believer
Key Tracks: Lovin' I Lost, Ghetto Dreams
Common slid his album under the door at the very last minute (Dec 20), and it’s surely worth consideration among the year’s best. He brings his signature unrelenting lyrical style--often brash, but undoubtedly skillful--on every track. The most accessible track, Lovin’ I Lost, surely would’ve been in everyone’s summer playlists blaring out their sunroofs had he released it in June. Nas, in one of several cameos this year, steals the show with his verse on Ghetto Dreams. Impeccably produced, the album just feels like it took all year to polish up for release.

6. Pharoahe Monch - W.A.R.
Key Tracks: Let My People Go, Evolve
Overall, W.A.R. may claim the best rap lyrics of year, line after line tackling social issues and jabbing the entertainment industry with deft rhetoric. Thankfully, he doesn’t always take himself too seriously; Pharoahe drops plenty of silly-but-clever nuggets throughout like “I make headlines / like corduroy pillows.” and “pardon if it sounds a little wheezy / not Wayne ... I got asthma; it's not easy.” The highlight is the defiant Let My People Go, backed by a gospel choir and some killer church organ riffs.

5. Phonte - Charity Starts At Home
Key Tracks: Eternally, The Life of Kings
“He’s the captain that told me to kneel” -- that’s just one of a boatload of witty double-take-inducing lyrical gems illuminating this album from start to finish. Its strongest tracks reunite Phonte with 9th Wonder, former bandmates in NC’s underground ensemble Little Brother. Eternally wisely leaves the R&B at the door, keeps the accompaniment in check, and lets Phonte (and collaborator Median) put their top notch prose front & center. The frequent hometown hat tips to Durham (“Bull City”) and broader NC fall favorably on Carolinian ears.


4. Talib Kweli - Gutter Rainbows
Key Tracks: Palookas, Wait for You
Though he doesn’t break any new artistic ground here, Kweli falls back on the tried & true formula behind his first three solo albums. Wait for You rides a tight breakbeat while Talib celebrates those who take time to create quality music (and admonishes the sellouts). Tater Tot, after a forgettable extended intro, plays out like a head-spinning Tarantino action flick complete with a goofily named lead character. The enduring banger on this album is the thrilling Palookas. In it, Kweli reminds everyone, rightfully so, the rarefied position his lyrical prowess inhabits with the ultimate diss: “you ain’t got a verse better than my worst one.”


3.Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne
Key Tracks: Otis, Murder to Excellence
In Gotta Have It, Jay and Kanye wonder aloud, “Ain’t that like LeBron James? Ain’t that just like D-Wade?” Much like the Miami duo, Watch the Throne combines the talents of two of the most gifted and accomplished names in the history of the game. Though despite the combination of undeniable talent, their exponentially-multiplied swagger and in-game preening while they’re on the same court can rub people the wrong way after awhile. In fact, most critiques of this album dock it points for its excessive celebration of wealth and fame during tough economic times. I won’t--I mean, when did humility become a trait we demand of rappers? Are there any humble rappers? The Obscure B.I.G.? ABD Dre? Mostly Def? Jog DMC? For the most part, the bravado here is warranted. If you can write the line “Photo shoot fresh / looking like wealth / I’m ‘bout to call the paparazzi on myself” and drop it in tastefully over an Otis Redding sample, by all means you deserve to say it. Kanye plays a deferential LeBron to Jay-Z’s Wade and indeed still has a thing or two to learn about playing a complete game from his mentor. Despite Jay’s criticism of the practice, West still stubbornly insists on singing his own hooks through heavy auto-tune, which unfortunately renders parts of the album unlistenable. Regardless, there’s plenty here to love.

2. The Roots - Undun
Key Tracks: Kool On, I Remember
Hearing this album described as “an existential concept album about the fictional character Redford Stevens, who is named after a Sufjan Stevens song,” I fully expected an overambitious faceplant. What a pleasant surprise, then, to discover what could be The Roots’ strongest album yet. Each snare hit by ?uestlove serves as a pointed reminder how--even in hip-hop--today’s synthetic and overprocessed rhythms will never surpass in quality a talented drummer behind an actual set. Undun’s guest rappers, Phonte & Dice Raw in particular, contribute skillful verses every bit as good as those by the legendary Black Thought. That’s a tall task. For Kool On, Undun’s catchiest track, The Roots cropped the sickest eight bars of guitar noodling ever, aligned a soulful “whoa” sample, and wisely decided not to muddy it up with anything else. A few tracks (including lead single Make My)--despite moments of brilliance--suffer from poison in the well in the form of cringeworthy singing. Though overall, the album is tremendous and a breath of fresh air in a year with very few hip-hop standouts.

1. Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
Key Tracks: Make Some Noise, Here's A Little Something For Ya

After failing to release a really good album since 1998’s “Hello Nasty,” most critics had put the Beastie Boys out to pasture. 2004’s “To The 5 Boroughs,” the group’s last non-instrumental disc, failed on all fronts, and all but rang the death knell on an otherwise illustrious career. A full seven years later, the band somehow reemerged from the graves their critics had dug for them, all in their mid-forties, but all sounding like re-energized twenty-something versions of themselves. Ad-Rock kicks down the door to start the album: “yes, here we go again / give you more, nothing lesser / back on the mic is the anti-depressor” -- and just like that, it’s so on. Lyrically, they’re back on top of their one-of-a-kind game, fully validating MCA’s line in Make Some Noise, “my rhymes age like wine as I get older.” There will always be a place for their unique style. Hip-hop needs upbeat, whimsical pop-infused acts, and it needs them to have more talent than the Black Eyed Peas.

Fans of the band recognize their rightful place in the annals of hip-hop history and the particular importance of their now-classic untouchable fifth and sixth albums, Check Your Head and Ill Communication (1992 and 1994, respectively). That was twenty years ago and the group already had ten together under their belt by then. Put it this way, the only dark raunchy tracks Tyler had Created by 1992 were in his diaper. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two could’ve come out in ‘93, its unadulterated sound completely unswayed by any of the unfortunate trends that slowly came to dominate the genre over the course of the past two decades. After twenty-plus years, artists in any genre are never able to quite recapture the sounds and spirit of their best work, no matter how hard they try. Somehow, Beastie Boys have done it.

This comeback is so unthinkable, the closest comparison I can think of would be as if Michael Jordan returned to the NBA and made the All-Star team this year (side note: until this year, Jordan and the Beasties’ careers aligned almost perfectly in terms of when they hit the scene, when they were at their best, and when they were last relevant in the game.). This is not just a victory in the seniors division. Not a lifetime achievement or a comeback of the year award. This is legitimately the finest hip-hop release of 2011. Clearly, there’s a lot left in the tank and the Beasties made some noise in a big way this year. Here’s hoping they keep it going.

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