-Folk- Coming Soon
-Doom Metal- Coming Soon
-Experimental- Coming Soon
2011 has been another strong year for hip-hop. Despite a few major disappointments, hip-hop in 2011 saw a number of great releases from established artists and underground newcomers alike. After making some hard cuts, I’ve come up with what I believe to be the 10 best hip-hop albums released in the past year.
The Family Sign
The Family Sign is a polarizing album, and one of the hardest albums I’ve had to grade this year. On one hand, The Family Sign contains some of Atmosphere’s best work, especially at the beginning and end of the record. It starts out with “My Key,” a remarkably beautiful tribute to the late Eyedea, and then proceeds to two equally powerful tracks in “The Last to Say” and “Became.” The lead single “Just for Show” follows, and while it may not have the power of the first three tracks, it’s an exceptionally well written song with a great lively beat. At this point, Slug’s lyrics and Ant’s beats (now featuring a full band to match their live show) are the best Atmosphere has ever been. That makes it all the more disappointing when the filler starts to set in. Slug’s incredible storytelling and passionate delivery descends into lazy and overly simple rhymes for a few tracks, and the beats start to become predictable and forced. While the album does have a few solid songs in the middle, it doesn’t really find its stride again until the third from last song. That’s when the jaw-droopingly beautiful side of Atmosphere shows up again, especially on the indescribably powerful “Something So” and closer “My Notes.” It would be easy to call The Family Sign a disappointment, just as it would be easy to call it one of the best albums of the year. The truth is, there’s a little of both here, but the former prevents this dark and deeply personal album from reaching the level of When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold or God Loves Ugly.
Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
The first non-instrumental Beastie Boys album in seven years is a return to the fun and deceptively genius sound that both rock and hip-hop fans fell in love with so many years ago. Make no mistake about it though, this is a hip-hop album through and through, just one that only the Beasties could produce. The beats are largely synth-based and are equal measures hip-hop reimaginings of 80’s alternative rock and more straightforward contemporary electro. The raps are about what one would expect from the Beastie Boys, mainly simple back and worth verses with clever rhymes about largely unserious topics. There’s nothing revolutionary or anything especially mind blowing here, but it’s a lot of fun to listen to, and that’s ultimately all that you can ask for. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is an interesting mix between old-school and modern, and it’s one that any rap, rock, or pop fan should find entertaining.
CunninLynguists are a group that continue to evolve. It’s irrelevant whether their latest album, Oneirology, is as good as A Piece of Strange or Kno’s solo Death is Silent. Oneirology exists as its own entity, in its own dream-like world, and it’s a masterpiece in its own right. Dreams make up the subject matter, and while the storytelling isn’t as clear as it could have been, Kno’s beats are some of the best you’ll ever hear in hip-hop. The beats are atmospheric and dreamy, making for a perfect canvas for rappers Deacon and Notti (and sometimes Kno and guests like Tonedeff and Freddie Gibbs) to work with. It would have been nice to hear Deacon sing more, but it’s hard to complain when just about every song is brilliant. The lyrics are also not afraid to focus on the sexual side of dreaming, and the artists tackle it in an open and mature way. All in all, Oneirology is simply a fantastic record that stands on its own as another landmark album from the CunninLynguists crew, and it belongs in the collection of every hip-hop fan.
Weird, aggressive, and as close as hip-hop gets to hardcore punk, Death Grips’ Exmilitary (released digitally for the amazing price of $0) is some of the most original music you’ll find this year. As such, Death Grips have divided listeners and will likely continue to do so. The music is loud and intense, and will simply be too much for even some open-minded rap fans. This is hip-hop that comes from an experimental and noise rock background, although that’s not a surprise considering Zach Hill from Hella plays drums. As is common with noise rock, many of the songs walk a thin line between brilliant and obnoxious, even to the point where the rapping becomes hard to separate from punk-like shouting. There’s something inherently interesting about Death Grips music though. Maybe it’s the crazy samples, maybe it’s the punk attitude, or maybe it’s just great to hear hip-hop taken to such an extreme level of experimentation. Whatever it is, Death Grips have created a raw collection of music that is unlike anything else the genre has to offer, and it needs to be heard.
Cats & Dogs
“I’m on another level / I mean another label” proclaims Evidence on the DJ Premier-produced “You.” He’s right in both cases. Cats & Dogs is the first Evidence album to be released through Atmosphere’s Rhymesayers label, and the Dilated Peoples rapper and self-proclaimed “Mr. Slow Flow” has become one of the best flow-ers in hip-hop today. His rhyming is far more technical the average emcee, and he remains smooth in the process. While Ev has gotten better, part of what makes Cats and Dogs so great are the people around him. The all-star guests all put effort into their parts, and include the aforementioned DJ Premier, Raekwon, Ras Kas, Prodigy from Mobb Deep, Aesop Rock, Alchemist, Slug from Atmosphere, Roc Marciano, and Aloe Blacc. There’s just an insane amount of talent on this record, and Evidence does more than hold his own. He’s a relatable lyricist and a great storyteller, on top of being flat-out ridiculous at times with his “slow flow.” Cats & Dogs is an outstanding hip-hop album, and maybe the best Evidence has been a part of.
Ill Bill & Vinnie Paz
Heavy Metal Kings
The long overdue collaboration album between the artists on Jedi Mind Tricks’ “Heavy Metal Kings” is missing one important member. Stoupe, the former Jedi Mind producer is nowhere to be found, and in his place are a variety of different underground beat makers. Some try (and fail) to replicate Stoupe’s unique sound, but those who go with heavier heard-hitting material that doesn’t resemble a JMT beat are all the better for it. For the most part the beats work, but it’s a good thing that Vinnie Paz and Ill Bill have come into their own as quality emcees. Both are completely over-the-top in a heavy metal sort of way, badass and ridiculous without being gangsta or any other typical hardcore hip-hop personas. Some of the one-liners fall flat, and Vinnie’s “blap bap” sounds are overused, but for the most part both Bill and Paz are exactly what fans of the two expect them to be. Heavy Metal Kings is simply a fun album that is easy to enjoy and hard to take seriously. I also appreciate the heavy metal references, many of which are likely to go over the heads of pure hip-hop listeners, but metalheads who give this one a chance will find that these guys really know their metal history.
No Bird Sing
Theft of the Commons
No Bird Sing’s rock influenced instrumentals and distinct rapping may put off some hip-hop fans. That’s a shame because at the center of Theft of the Commons is an incredibly unique record that takes rap-rock in interesting new directions. The “rock” elements here are well implemented and never obnoxious, the latter being a trait of most that mix that rock with hip-hop. Instead No Bird Sing look to rock to add complexity to music. There are tempo changes galore, and as such, changes in energy and emotion that are reminiscence of what’s found in The Roots’ music. Also like The Roots, the lyrics are thought provoking and fit perfectly with the music. A few of the songs do follow the same pattern though, which is especially noticeable after “Night Lights” perfects the building and breaking of tension in No Bird Sing’s sound. That’s a small flaw considering how unique and intense Theft of the Commons is, and it’s easy to recommend to anyone appreciates truly original and powerful hip-hop.
Spiritual State is the third full album and first posthumous album from the late Japanese producer Seba Jun. Jun, better known to the world as Nujabes, tragically passed away last year, and Hydeout productions have done a remarkable job of putting the finishing touches on his album. Unlike most posthumous releases, Spiritual State sounds finished, and shows the type of progression one might expect after the artists previous work (in this case Modal Soul and his work on the Samurai Champloo soundtrack). As is usually the case with Nujabes, the music is heavy on jazz samples, and it’s downright gorgeous. Most of the tracks are instrumental, but the usual Nujabes guests show up to deliver verses of varying degrees of quality. Cise Starr is good, Pase Rock is alright, and Substantial is bad, all par for the course. Modal Soul had a few strong guests, and while it’s probably for the best that Hydeout played it safe and kept to established Nujabes features, it’s hard not to wonder if we would have heard more varied verses had Nujabes lived. It does no good to play the guessing game though, and the fact of the matter is that Spiritual State is an absolutely beautiful album that is every bit as good as a third Nujabes album should be. It’s tragic and sometimes hard to listen to knowing that this will be the last we’ll ever heard from this incredible talent, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from listening to this gem of instrument hip-hop.
While it lasts, The Roots’ Undun could very well be their biggest achievement as artists. This gorgeous concept album is laced with thought provoking lyrics over beautiful mellow instrumentals, and it progresses in all the right ways. The story is well told and blends seamlessly with the music. It’s the type of thing that listeners may not be even notice at first, but will eventually let sink in. The problem is that the album is over far too early, and doesn’t really have a sense of closer. Maybe that’s intentional, as the album is called Undun, but it ends in a strange way that will likely leave its audience wanting more. After 35 minutes of hip-hop only The Roots could produce, the album stops everything and ends with some brief instrumental tracks. There’s certainly an argument for albums being concise, and there is no filler on Undun, but its lack of closure makes it less powerful than what it could and probably should have been. With that being said, I would recommend Undun to anyone with a passing interest in hip-hop. It’s spectacular while it lasts, and it’s one of the best albums of this legendary group’s career.
Tyler, The Creator
“Hype has nothing to do with how an album turns out, and it’s irrelevant whether Tyler or Odd Future lives up to their hype. The fact of the matter is that they’ve become huge doing things their way, and I have to respect that. What matters here, though, is the quality of the music. Goblin is certainly not for everyone, in part because it’s so different from what else is out there, but also because it’s hard to stomach some of its readily apparently flaws. It’s hard to say whether the good and bad of Goblin outweigh each other, but it’s certainly something I feel like should be given a fair chance. There are moments of pure brilliance and creativity here, and I encourage any open minded hip-hop fan to give it a serious listen. I can’t promise that you’ll like it, but I doubt you’ll ever hear anything quite like it.”
You can read my full review of Goblin right here.