The Radio Don’t Play the Shit I Used to Love: 2011 in Hip-Hop

People are still making rap music!  Can you imagine?  Maybe it’s not a trend after all.  Foxy grandma even noticed some beats being jacked when she was watching Glee last week.  Thank goodness for the internet, where we can keep on arguing about ‘relevance’ and ‘credibility’ until the return of cows.  Meanwhile, here’s my ten favorite hip-hop albums of 2011, which I have compiled with a saddening lack of empathy for the feelings of Tyler the Creator.  Your comments, they are ever welcome.

THE BEST HIP-HOP ALBUMS OF 2011

1.  Big K.R.I.T., Return of 4eva [Def Jam]

2011 was an unusually rich year for the art of the mixtape — Action Bronson, Burn One, and Delo all delivered terrific examples — but no one came close to K.R.I.T.  His combination of old-school sensibilities and contemporary styles elevates his approach to Southern rap miles above what most of his peers are doing, and he’s unafraid to express emotionally vulnerable consciousness without forsaking a sense of fun.  Simultaneously thoughtful and bumpin’, Return to 4eva is a slow roll to Heaven.

2.  Kendrick Lamar, Section.80 [Top Dawg Entertainment]

Born and raised in Compton, weaned on 2Pac, and working under the tutelage of Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar could have ended up another gangsta-bullshit retread.  He turned out anything but, absorbing all those influences but feeding them into his own jazzy flow and raw lyrical honesty.  Section.80 is a wall-to-wall stunner, bookended with two perfect tracks:  the snarling, energetic “Fuck Your Ethnicity” opens the album and the glorious statement of purpose “HiiiPoWeR” closes it.  Essential listening.

3.  Raekwon, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang [EMI]

In an older world, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang would have ended up the great Wu-Tang album that never was, the rugged and raw street-beef 21st-century version of hip-hop’s greatest collective that got thrown over in favor of the RZA’s increasingly fuzzy pop experiments.  But luckily, in the Digital Age, nothing is lost forever, and lucky us:  we get to enjoy the group in genius-meltdown mode with 8 Diagrams, and we also get Rae absolutely tearing it up ’90s-style with this hatchet-in-the-face production.

4.  Kool G Rap,  Riches, Royalty, Respect [Fat Beats]

If 2011 had a secondary unifying theme after the dominance of mixtape culture, it was the triumphant — and often unexpected — return of hip-hop icons of the old school.  Kool G Rap hasn’t exactly been invisible all these years, but nobody expected the 43-year-old to come out swinging so hard over twenty years after his debut.  Solid but not intrusive production — and the canny choice to let his roughneck style do the heavy lifting instead of an over-reliance on guest stars — make this a terrific surprise.

5.  Das Racist, Relax [Greedhead]

Haters, as we are often reminded, are gonna hate.  Das Racist’s goofy braggadocio is tainted with self-reflection, and their willingness to dabble in stylistic quick-changes stinks of post-modernism instead of ‘authentic’ eclecticism, so there’s always people who are going to denigrate them as hipsters and poseurs.  But they’ve been creating unforgettable, funny, accomplished songs for three years now, and every time they try something new, they’re pretty reliably great at it.  What more do you want?

6.  Royce da 5’9″, Success is Certain [Gracie Productions]

To address the white elephant in the room, yes, “Writer’s Block” is a mess, and while you can argue Royce owes Eminem his career, the sooner he gets out from under Marshall Mathers’ thumb, the better off he’ll be.  That said, Success is Certain is dynamite whenever Royce lets himself go:  he’s learned to control his flow and tighten his focus, and the result is a swell combination of flash and substance.  Working with a handful of sympathetic producers, he’s made the best album of his career.

7.  Shabazz Palaces, Black Up [Sub Pop]

It’s hard to know what’s more baffling about Black Up:  the fact that it marks the mysterious return of the artist formerly known as Butterfly from Digable Planets, or the fact that one of the best rap albums of the year is on Sub Pop.  But one listen to the slick, sinister flow he displays, which stand out against the jagged, fractured, staggering beats, makes it clear that whatever its pedigree, Black Up belongs here.  Where Kool G Rap scores by sticking to his guns, Butterfly reinvents himself to dazzling effect.

8.  Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch the Throne [Roc-A-Fella]

One of the most anticipated hip-hop albums of the last decade didn’t turn out to be the world-beating juggernaut it was predicted to be.  It’s a bit unfocused, occasionally incoherent, and not the dead-certain success you’d expect from two huge talents at the peak of their fame.  But who cares?  It’s still a fine album, and it demands the kind of attention it’s gotten just by virtue of the talents involved.  And while the rest of the album can’t measure up to “Niggas in Paris”, there’s no denying its monster hit status.

9.  People Under the Stairs, Highlighter [Piecelock 70]

In the internet age, bands as big as Radiohead and as small as, well, anyone other than Radiohead have learned that once you build your audience, you can keep things on lock by going directly to your fans instead of trying to please everyone with the meddling of record company marketers.  Such is the case with talented revivalists People Under the Stairs, whose latest album is a self-released love letter to the folks who have been supporting their old-school approach for over a decade.  A delight.

10.  Random Axe, Random Axe [Duck Down]

The shabby history of rock ‘n’ roll supergroups proves that getting a bunch of talented people together to create something new isn’t always a recipe for success.  Random Axe doesn’t escape that rule; it’s often shambolic, disorganized and unsure of what it wants to be.  But it’s got three tremendous talents (Sean Price, Black Milk and Guilty Simpson) running roughshod all over it, and they’re clearly having the time of their lives, so when the album clicks — as on “The Hex” and “Understand This” — it’s gold.

Tomorrow:  rock & pop.

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