Warning: This list may be very different from the normal end of the year hip-hop lists you’re probably used to reading. It seems like I have a very different opinion of what makes good hip-hop. Most critics dubbed the new Kanye and Big Boi albums as the year’s best, while consumers flocked to buy the new Drake and RIck Ross records. None of those albums made the cut, but I’m confident that the ten great releases in this section can prove this hip-hop was not dead in 2010.
To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EP's
While technically billed as a “double EP",” To All My Friends… is as long as a full length album, and it’s one of the best hip-hop releases of 2010. Much like other Atmosphere EP’s, the songs are more single based and generally more upbeat. There is no concept tying the tracks together, and as such it feels like listening to an extended Sad Clown EP. Fortunately, that’s a good thing. Slug and Ant have done some of their best work outside of Atmosphere’s major releases, and it’s great to hear the more fun and playful side of Atmosphere for longer than four or five songs at a time. Also true to from are Slug’s outstanding lyrics. He keeps it simple on To All My Friends…, but every word is necessary and used with meaning. “The Best Day” is an example of this, as well as the highlight of the 12 tracks, as it’s hard not to relate to Slug’s storytelling. Sometimes a simple song reminding you that everyone goes through their own shit is just what you need to get through the day.
A Badly Broken Code
Although it had the advantage of coming out in January, I’ve listened to A Badly Broken Code more than any other album released this past year. Dessa’s full length debut is downright addicting, and contains layer upon layer of subtlety. Dessa excels as both a rapper and a singer, but her biggest talent is how she mixes them together. She’ll switch from rapping to singing to spoken word when delivering her lyrics, giving her already beautiful lines another layer not usually found in hip-hop. At times her voice can sound like that of a poet, as she has put thought into how she delivers each and every syllable. There is such a strong attention to detail in this album, and not just from Dessa. Each producer has clearly put a lot of work into their track, and it’s necessary to do so with Dessa’s unique talent. The beats are not your typical hip-hop affair, and it’s great to hear some varied work from Doomtree’s talented production duo of Paper Tiger and Lazerbeak. A Badly Broken Code is an all around exceptional album full of unique music and gorgeous lyricism. This one of the year’s most essential releases, regardless of how much you like hip-hop.
The 3 Day Theory
After releasing what seems like an infinite number of poor mixtapes and albums over the last few years, it would be easy to write off Killah Priest. This Wu-Tang affiliate showed incredible potential on GZA’s classic Liquid Swords, but that was back in 1995. Since then, Priest has been more miss than hit, especially when it comes to choosing producers. That makes it all the more surprising that The 3 Day Theory is actually worthwhile. The beats are interesting for a change, the guests are varied and plentiful, and Killah Priest actually sounds interested in what he’s doing. The lyrics are much more personal than anything Priest has done in some time, as he reflects on his past and his love of hip-hop, and his voice is lit with the passion of a veteran artist finding love for his craft again. The 3 Day Theory is a very solid album as a whole, and while not every verse hits the mark there’s a lot more good than bad. This is one of the better hip-hop albums of 2010, as well as one of the year’s biggest surprises.
Death is Silent
Kno, best known as the producer behind the underground hip-hop group CunninLynguists, refers to himself on the haunting track “Graveyard” as the “emo Primo.” While “emo” is used almost sarcastically, Kno’s description of himself isn’t far off. His talent as a producer rivals DJ Premier, although Kno’s beats are of darker nature and often drift closer into DJ Shadow territory. Needless to say, the beats on Death is Silent are fantastic. Each beat is layered with clean samples building and changing in the most interesting and subtle ways. Kno uses slow keys, vocal samples (often from films), and instruments that come and go at the most opportune time. Everything is simple, and yet few producers can achieve such beauty in their beats. Kno’s attention to detail is astounding, as every element of his beats is used to absolute perfection. Everything is so clean, so smooth, and so beautiful.
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Nas & Damian Marley
The long awaited collaboration between rap legend Nas and genre-bending reggae artist Damian Marley (son of the legendary Bob Marley) more than lives up to its hype. Both musicians are artists in every sense of the word and it shows on Distant Relatives. The theme of the album is Africa, both in terms of its music and its lyrics. The music is as African as hip-hop can be, combining tribal singing with traditional African drums. Everything comes across cleanly, and the beats paint an interesting canvas for the artists to go to work. The lyrics aim to not only educate listeners about the struggles of the continent, but also celebrate the rich culture of Africa. This creates a deep lyrical offering, but never one that is overly preachy. There is fun to be had, and the two are never at odds. Even the guests focus on the concept at hand, albeit some better than others. Lil Wayne provides what is easily his best verse in some time on “My Generation,” but both he and that track are the weak link of the album. Thankfully, Wayne’s prescience is more than made up for by Somali emcee K’naan, who delivers what may be the verse of the year on “Tribes at War.” However, the real strength of Distant Relatives lies in its two main attractions, as both Nas and Damian deliver some of their best material to date. Considering the legacy both men have created for themselves, that is certainly high praise.
Solitary Confinement is an album made for fans of hardcore hip-hop by fans of hardcore hip-hop. There is no deep meaning or relevancy to most of the lyrics, and it doesn’t really shock or offend in the way that hardcore emcees like Vinnie Paz or Ill Bill (who is featured on the album) can. Instead, Rhyme Asylum have created an album that is hardcore purely for the sake of being hardcore, and it succeeds because it sticks with that mentality to the end. This is niche hip-hop, ripe with senselessly violent one-liners, and again that’s is exactly what this kind of rap is about. Few hardcore hip-hop albums are as entertaining as this one, and if you’re into violent rap with raw beats and lyrics you should give Solitary Confinement a listen.
How I Got Over
Emcees often write about the golden age of hip-hop, reminiscing of the days before the art of rhyming became commercialized. Many greats have taken us back to the time and place of hip-hop’s finest hour, but few have managed to return us to the state of mind one feels when they first fall in love with the genre. The latest album from The Roots achieves the latter. How I Got Over is a true breath of a fresh air, not just in terms of lyrics and beats, but in terms of the passion and love for hip-hop that bleeds from its core. This is a hip-hop album through and through, and it’s something any fan of the genre, young or old, can fall in love with.
Sadistik & Kid Called Computer
The Art of Dying
The Art of Dying is caught somewhere in between an EP and a full length album. At 35 minutes, it’s long enough to be an album, but those 35 minutes just aren’t enough for the masterful music emcee Sadistik and producer Kid Called Computer have created. Just about everything that’s here is an exceptional. From the trip-hop beats that could work brilliantly on their own to Sadistik’s unbelievable flow and gut wrenching lyrics, The Art of Dying is just plain outstanding. That makes it all the more disappointing when the album ends after just six tracks, building up to an epic conclusion that just isn’t there. As unfortunate as that is, what’s here is incredible, and it’s an essential listen for anyone who loves great beats and honest lyricism.
Shad’s third studio album is a refreshing return to the jazz rap roots of conscious hip-hop. The music is lively and filled with subtle nuisances rarely found in modern hip-hop, but Shad’s all around skill as an emcee is what truly makes TSOL shine. His lyrics are honest and mostly uplifting, complementing the jazzy beats with a positive message, and his wordplay is every bit as deep as the classic afrocentric emcees he’s influenced by. TSOL is a very strong hip-hop album, both musically and lyrically, and any fan of hip-hip should give it a listen.
Season of the Assassin
It’s really quite amazing how far Vinnie Paz has come. Ten years ago, there’s no way that anyone could have believed the lead emcee behind Jedi Mind Tricks’ Violent by Design would go on to record an album as personal and conscious as Season of the Assassin. There are some battle oriented songs, and Paz stills loves to rap about death, hate, and heavy metal, but there are a number of deeply personal moments that set Vinnie’s solo record apart from his Jedi Mind Tricks raps. “Keep Movin’ On,” is an example of this, and Paz’s beautiful verses are aided by the incredibly talented Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) on the chorus. Not every track is good as that one, and the always terrible Paul Wall shows up to ruin “Paul and Paz,” but Vinnie Paz’s mixture of hardcore and conscious lyricism makes Season of the Assassin a solid album that can be recommended to any just about any hip-hop head.