Top 50 Albums
1. Madvillain – Madvillainy
2. Nas - Street's Disciple
3. Ghostface – Pretty Toney
4. Cam'ron - Purple Haze
5. De La Soul - The Grind Date
6. Masta Killah – No Said Date
7. Mos Def – The New Danger
8. Murs - Murs 3:16 the 9th Edition
9. Dizzee – Showtime
10. Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip Hop 1979-1983
11. Wiley – Treddin’ on Thin Ice
12. Kanye West – College Dropout
13. Consequence Take 'Em to the Cleaners
14. Haiku D’Tat – Coup De Theatre
15. Theodore Unit - 718
16. Young buck - Straight Outta cashville
17. Streets – A Grand
18. Rjd2 - Since We Last Spoke
19. Crown City Rockers – Earthtones
20. Maroons – Ambush
21. Shock G – Fear of a Mixed Planet
22. Lil’ John – Crunk Juice
23. T.I.- Urban Legend
24. Prince Po: The Slickness
25. Jay Dee - '05 Beat CD's #1-3
26. Romanwksi -- Party in My Pants
27. DJ Rels
28. FE: Connected
29. Royce the 5'9 - Death Is Certain
30. Lil’ Wayne – The Carter
31. DM - The Gray Album;
32. MIA/Diplo - Piracy
33. Devin the Dude - To the X-Treme
34. The Alchemist - 1 st Infantry
35. The Pharcyde - Humboldt Beginnings
36. Talib Kweli - The Beautiful Struggle
37. Lloyd Banks -- Hunger For More
38. R. Kelly -- Happy People
39. DJ Krush – Jaku
40. Isley Brother’s Remix Project
41. Jean Grae – This Week
42. Trick Daddy – Thug Matrimony
43. Gift of Gab - 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up
44. Lil Flip - Gotta Feel Me
45. Roots – Tipping Point
46. Monk Hughes -- Tribute to Weldon
47. Twista - Kamikaze
48. PBW - Stones Throw Comp
49. El P - High Water Mark
50. Prince -- Musicology
Artists of the Year
An Invisible Doom
Meeting MF Doom at a hotel bar in San Francisco, the first thing that I notice is his face. He has an assuring smile that he flashes often and slight cheekbones that puff out into large, chubby cheeks before sliding down to a slight and unassuming jaw-line. But it’s Doom’s large, piercing eyes that are his only instantly recognizable feature. See, this is a man who has lived behind an inch-thick metal mask for the past five years. And while his face remains anonymous and mysterious to most of his fans, he has established himself as underground hip hop’s greatest MC.
You can thank the Madvilliany album for that last distinction; the album is primal and immediate, beautiful and strange, a tribute to the seemingly disparate genres that inspired it and a rejection of the mentality that says such genres should be kept segregated.
In many ways, Madlib is the Pollock of the hip hop world, slinging chanted nursery rhymes against heaving jazz samples, manically applying swabs of calypso onto boom-bap breaks. There are no choruses on Madvillainy, allowing for 22 songs in 46 minutes, and all the tracks are linked by short interludes that grow increasingly abstract. The album is a trip down the back alleys of our musical consciousness, where high and low art mingle, snippets of childhood recordings interact with Sun Ra and Sonny Rollins.
In this hall of mirrors, where various personas drift in and out of the scene, Dumile's MF Doom takes center stage, although here we find a more refined portrayal of the character. Doom still has a knack for recycling and warping antiquated clichés -- like in "Great Day" when he instructs us to "Put ya'self in your own shoes" -- and for engaging in extended vocabulary workouts that employ polysyllabic, inner, and slant rhymes, ample doses of alliteration, and sudden line drops, such as the one in "Meat Grinder": "Trouble with the script/ Digits double dipped, bubble lipped, subtle lisp/ Midget/ Borderline schizo/ Sorta fine tits though." Yet there are times when Dumile peers through the dadaist carnival of words and speaks directly, honestly. In "Accordion," he acknowledges his age, rapping, "Living off borrowed time the clock ticks faster," before later concluding that it's "nice to be old."
Throughout the album, Jackson and Dumile sound both confident and intuitive, and that can be attributed to the aforementioned "freestyle approach," in which there is little time for either hesitation or self-consciousness, much less the complications and clashes that often arise with this sort collaboration. For Madvillainy, Jackson allowed Dumile to enter his sphere, and the MC responded by forcing all of the voices inside of him to suddenly rush out and into Jackson's fractured productions. The finished product works so well that at times Dumile sounds as if he could only exist in Jackson's self-contained world, as if there were some essential, spiritual affinity.
Nas: the man, the myth, the perennial Greatest (Emcee) of All Time, the Mohammad Ali of this rap shit. His debut album, Illmatic, is considered by many critics (including myself) as hip hop’s best. His sad, sleepy eyes did little to convey his aerobic, skintight flow. And on songs such as “Memory Lane” and “One Love,” Nas sounded as he could’ve been 60 or 16; a shortie on the corner slinging rock or a revolutionary perched on the steps of capitals. But while the Malcolm and Martin of this generation (Biggie and Pac) were slain in the streets, Nas survived. And though the man may have endured, the legend has wilted in the uneven light of albums that have ranged from mediocre (Nastradamus) to very good (God’s Son).
On Streets Disciple, Nas suggests the presence of a black culture that lies in opposition to the American mainstream — politically, aesthetically, and emotionally. Granted, that culture has been crippled by oppression ("A Message to the Feds"), the false promises of the political process ("American Way"), and racial abandonment ("These Are Our Heroes"), but Nas finds salvation in his family (the appearances of his father and master bluesman Olu Dara), strength in himself (“Street's Disciple”), and a cultural identity in hip hop ("U.B.R.", and "Bridging the Gap”). It's a credit to Nas’ ability as a lyricist that he's able to hold all of this together. And while the two-disk set feels slightly bloated — and some of the production is bland — in many ways Streets Disciple serves as a high-watermark in a dazzling career.
Whether used to slap-box with Jesus on "Daytona 500," sing his mother's praises on "All That I Got Is You," or issue paeans to his favorite celestial being on "The Sun," Ghostface Killah's strained, throaty voice hints at an unspoken desperation, a creeping paranoia that each line he spits may be his last. Ignoring the rules of what you can and can't say in rap, his songs create a ghetto-surrealist, stream-of-consciousness collage that suggests equal parts Romare Bearden, Jack Kerouac, and Slick Rick. While other members of the Wu-Tang Clan have gradually lost their luster -- trading in their Shaolin swords for sticks of deodorant (Method Man hawks the stuff in TV spots) -- the recently released album Pretty Toney reasserts Ghostface Killah's status as one of hip hop's premier MCs.
Cam’ron struts into the room in a haze of purple, pink, and diamond-encrusted platinum, shrouded in neck-snapping, bitch-slapping bravado; mounds of fluffy-white yayo; and a menacing sneer if you’re a ho’ or a queer. And if the antithesis of conscious rap is unconscious rap, then Harlem MC/ fashion magnet/ grisly ghetto poet Cam’ron proves himself the epitome of the somatic superstars on his recently-released Purple Haze - a cd that takes the gangsta mindset to its hyper-masculine, logical conclusion. It’s not a pretty affair, especially if you happen to be a female, but it’s so perfectly infectious that its near impossible to turn away from.
Throughout the album, Cam’s slow-and-salty rhymes lull the listener in with their Dr. Suess-gone-gully simplicity before slapping the nightcap off with sheer and unrelenting brutality. Cocaine-cartel anthems such as “Leave me Alone” and “Killa Cam” invert the genre’s cliches in a cubist blender of nearly nonsensical pronouncements and endless repetition. It reaches its epoch -- or its nadir -- on the stoopid-stellar “Killa Cam,” where Cam rhymes: “Yellow diamonds on my ear, call ‘em lemonhead/ Lemonhead, end up dead, iced like Winnipeg/ Gemstones, Flinstones, you can say I’m friends with Fred.”
With Cam’s penchant for wordplay and his preference for quirky, old-skool samples (on Purple Haze, he pilfers Marvin Gaye, The Ohio Players and the 80’s classic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), he oftentimes resembles that other ghetto surrealist, Wu Tang’s Ghostface Killah. But as where Ghost occasionally steps out of his violent, dadist free-fall to betray a softer, more philosophical side, Cam is unrelenting and unapologetic. Songs like “More Gangsta Music” and “The Dope Man” are like slow-motion money shots of bloody, ghetto glamour. Of course, one never sees the bloody and tragic aftermath of his violence and misogyny, the ravaged bodies of the drug trade or the haggard daughters of abuse. But for those of us who are not literal minded -- and it’s hard to be with Cam -- the end result is wildly entertaining and damn near classic.
When cultures collide, it can be both violent and ugly; and as Mos Def’s most recent, The New Danger, demonstrates, the same holds true for musical genres. Over the course of one disk, The New Danger traverses nue-rock, r&b-tinged electro, street hop braggadocio, and latter-day “conscious rap.” And though the concepts presented by the work are interesting, the actual music is a bit more difficult of a proposition.
In many ways, The New Danger is the red-headed stepchild of Andre 3000’s The Love Below. As where Andre’s critically-anointed classic mixes and matches genres in an attempt to uncover latent pop sensibilities – unearthing the cultural nexus of head-snapping beats, infectious hooks, and love-lorn romanticism – The New Danger is a dirtier and more polemic journey. Mos Def isn’t reaching across cultural and musical boundaries as much as he’s attempting to reclaim them by any means necessary.
Bolstered by the inclusion of Bernie Worrell (P-Funk) and Doug Wimbish (Living Color), the album’s rock tracks – including “Zimzallabim" and "Ghetto Rock" – attempt to reclaim the genre for African American culture. And while the songs are conceptually compelling, the actual music – which recalls the early thrash of Bad Brains as covered by a supped-up 311 – is a different story. It isn’t that it’s bad, per see, it’s just that one is left wondering if this is the most effective manner for Mos to convey his message.
Fortunately, the album’s hip hop tracks fare a little better. As an emcee, Mos’ appeal has always been about more than just his words; what elevated Mos out of the underground ghetto was that voice; a Jamaican-tinged rasp that sounds (depending on your perspective) either ultimately self-confident and stubbornly arrogant. That sense of authority is pervasive on The New Danger. With it’s sly reference to Hair, the Kanye West produced “Sunshine” finds Mos Def in top form, defiantly declaring that he “made it go without a brand new car/ made it fresh without a brand new song/ and gives a fuck about what brand you are.” After verses like these, the listener is left hoping that Mos would make things easier for us all and focus on hip hop.
The Future of the Past
While producer 9th Wonder and rapper Murs have taken different paths throughout their careers, they've both emerged near the top of the underground rubble. The latter slung his everyman, confessional lyrics for years in the Bay Area basement before signing to Def Jux in 2003; the former was catapulted to fame after premiering the calculatedly nostalgic sounds of hip hop trio Little Brother on the Internet message board Okayplayer.com, thus capturing the ear of the Roots' drummer, ?uestlove. Little Brother was quickly signed, and like a cyber-Cinderella, 9th found himself making beats for Jay-Z's swan song, The Black Album. Although they may have traveled different roads to success -- one through the streets, the other through the Internet -- the artists' intersection on Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition proves enjoyable, albeit old-fashioned.
On 3:16 Murs is alternately confessional, contradictory, and confrontational. "And This Is For" finds him taking on racism within the hip hop community: "What's the reason that my album doesn't sell like his?/ Don't front like you don't know why the hell that is." And while many modern MCs flaunt their contradictions, Murs revels in paradox more than most: On "The Pain" he confesses his shortcomings with the ladies, admitting that he's "more Coldplay than Ice-T"; while on "Freak These Tales" he comes "off tour and got some stories to tell," namely of groupies. Still, Murs seems genuine despite the apparent inconsistencies, and his rarely wavering flow and throwback style -- which favors emotional and narrative nuances over acrobatic linguistics and enunciation -- are compelling.
9th Wonder's production occupies the sweet spot between DJ Premier's chopped-up technique and Pete Rock's fuller soul loops, although on 3:16 he seems to increasingly drift toward the former. The hard drums and shivering atmospherics of "The Animal" sound cold and looming, while "H-U-S-T-L-E" and "Walk Like a Man" swagger with a delicious funk step. Most important, 9th's production perfectly matches his MC's technique, and Murs' sinner/saint pose even bears a close resemblance to DJ Premier's Gang Starr partner, Guru. Truth be told, 9th and Murs are the equivalent of hip hop comfort food: familiar and easily digestible. But 3:16 is evidence that old formulas still work.
De La Love
“We love the fact that you go to the shows and see 32-year-olds with their little brothers. But first and foremost we make music for ourselves,” Dave recently told me. “The music is about who we are as people. As long as we’re going to open up our hearts and souls and give that, you’re going to get something new and fresh. When you start not caring about what’s going on around you, you become stale. With every album, we put ourselves and our experience into it.”
That philosophy is front and center on The Grind Date, their first studio album in three years and their first album on Sanctuary Urban Records Group – the fledging record label helmed by Beyonce’s father, Mathew Knowles. While their previous two albums – the first two installments of the AOI trilogy – were more conceptual and abstract, The Grind Date is a straightforward banger in the tradition of Stakes is High, their ’96 album that served as an anecdote to that era’s jiggified nonsense.
“We didn’t want to overproduce (Grind Date), we didn’t want to put too much creative padding on it,” Dave says. “There was no big theme or topic. We wanted to keep it raw, just beats and rhymes. The artists we have on there are just all about kicking rhymes and putting them to beats.” Pos, for his part, agrees with Dave’s assessment, adding: “We wanted it to be more straightforward, and we didn’t want to surround it with a bunch of skits or anything. It felt good to do it like that.”
To accentuate that meat-and-potatoes/ beats-and-rhymes approach, the group enlisted some of hip hop’s premier lyricist. Microphone colossuses MF Doom, Ghostface, and Common all grace the album, adding a palpable weight to the affair and inducing what can only be called a backpacker’s wet dream. The always on-point Ghostface delivers the goods – even giving shout outs to the Hussain brothers, Uday and Qusay – on what will certainly go down as one of the sickest guest spots in recent memory, “He Down.” And Common delivers his usual slice of Chi-Town soul on “Days of Our Lives.”
Pos was excited about Doom’s verse on the standout “Rock Cocaine Flow,” in particular. “Doom is family,” Pos tells me. “and when a song presented itself that we could hear Doom on, we were all like ‘let’s do it.’”
In addition to the guest spots by what Dave calls, “some real MCs,” the album also features some of underground hip hop’s finest producers: Jake 1, Madlib, 9th Wonder and, of course, J Dilla. Dilla, in particular, delivered the goods. The swaggering boom bap of “Verbal Clap” is his strongest production in years, and was sited by both Pos and Dave as a group favorite.
Here's the first installment of my year-end wrap
up thing. I'll post the albums and movies up later this week. Books if I have the time.
(In no order, except for the one in which I remembered them...and I'm sure I forgot a lot.)
Fabulous – Breathe
Ghostface ft. Jadakiss – Run
Nas – Thief’s Theme
T.I. -- Rubberband Man -- I'm not sure if this was released as a single this year, but it's the hottest single of either one.
T.I. - Bring Em Out -- Almost as good.
Game – How We Do
Jay Z – 99 Problems
Snoop – Drop it Like It’s Hot
Ja Rule Ft. Jada and Styles P -- New York
Lil Scrappy – No Problem
Mos Def – Sunshine – I know that it’s not a single, but I bumped it regardless.
Terror Squad + Friends – Lean Back Remix
Jadakiss f/ Styles P., Common, Nas and Anthony Hamilton - "Why?" (remix)
Go DJ – Lil Wayne -- I’d be lying if I said that Mannie was ever one of my favorites, but he did release some heat this year.
J-Kwon – Tipsy – Ubiquitious. Hated it, loved it, and hated it again. But it was there.
Lil’ Flip – Game Over
Madvillain – No Caps -- on the strength of the video alone.
Lyrics Born - Calling Out (Remix) – Best underground anthem in ages.
Memphis Bleek – Just Blaze, Bleek and Free. Classic.
Royce Da 5’9 – Hip-Hop -- One of the best.
De La Soul -- Shopping Bags
Talib & Game -- Motherfucker
Young Buck [ft. 50 Cent] - Let Me In
Cee Lo - I'll Be Around
Method Man ft. Busta Rhymes – What’s Happenin’ – One of my favorite Bollywood samples of the year, even if the verses are meerly servicable.
Lil Flip-The Ghetto – I liked this one more than Game Over.
10 Favorite things of 2004
Family and Friends.
A big shout out to Nirmala, Dad, Cesar, Matt-O, Mom and everyone else that have given, received and nurtured support, love and respect.
I can finally dig out from behind my mounds of CDs.
What else we got?
speech at the DNC. A beacon of light.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s
Memoir – Living to Tell the Tale. The world’s greatest living novelist delivers another sure shot.
Maybe better than the Marquez book. The most intricate and uncompromising show that I’ve ever seen. There are times when it’s too painful to watch.
ACT's Presentation of Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, and William Burrough's The Black Rider
. It's transcendent and eerie; a dance into an inner-oblivion; a swirling war between the superego and the id set at the brink of hell; a marriage of 20th Century Surrealism, German expressionism, and Silicon Valley multimedia.
Fuck America; I’m from San Francisco.
Cuz I’m an optimist.
I couldn’t write for a month after it. I was depressed, drinking too much, and hateful. Even now…it’s hard to cope.
The liberal media.
For not existing.