In the last few days I've had three different conversations with people who needed some crucial information. One person was experiencing a "hip hop rebirth" and wanted to know if anything good had come out this year. Another told me that he wanted to start "getting into rap music" but "didn't want anything too old." The last person wanted me to confirm whether not the first eight months of 2006 do indeed constitute the worst stretch of hip hop music since the days of MC Hammer. (Ironically, 2006 are also the days of MC Hammer, as the world's greatest bankruptcy cautionary tale is attempting a painful comeback.)
All told, these conversations all seemed to be driving at the same thing: an in-progress review of the year in hip hop. Since every column needs a gimmick, I decided to list the eight best rap albums released through the first eight months of 2006. So here they are (in reverse order), with a crucial disclaimer: There have been about 25 memorable mix tapes released this year, none of which I will be including here. It is simply apples and oranges, but I also think that is where the industry is heading. If you want new quality rap music, you need to start getting to know websites like hiphopgame and MixUnit.
8. History in the Making by J.R. Writer. I'm not a huge fan of Cam'ron and the Dipset, but I think the Harlem crew has finally found an ace in the hole in J.R. Writer. After throwing out a bunch of mediocre rappers over the past few years (namely Jim Jones, Juelz Santana and Hell Rell), they finally produced someone worth listening to. Writer's only real problem is that he sounds a bit too much like head honcho Cam, but considering he's arguably the superior rapper he is able to overcome this pretty easily. The track "Zoolander" is ridiculous and "That's a Bet" with Paul Wall shows Writer's versatility as he rhymes easily over a Dirty South beat. I thought the best thing about the album is that despite a steady onslaught of cameos and guest appearances, Writer consistently outshines his cohorts on every track. Anyone who can dominate a Diplomats collaboration is off to a good start. This isn't a perfect album, but I thought it was better than the offerings from the likes of OutKast and Rick Ross, particularly because it presented a New York rapper who actually might have the ability to help break up the stranglehold the South has on rap music.
7. 4:21 … The Day After by Method Man. This is the Method Man album I've been waiting for. Just when he reached the precipice of irrelevancy (he was one more terrible release away from simply being reduced to "Redman's Sidekick"), he dug down deep and came through with what I feel is a fantastic album. The key – as always – is in the production. Rather than just assemble an all-star team of producers (although heavyweights like Scott Storch, Havoc, and Mr. Porter drop beats on the album) or rely on relative unknowns, Method Man leaned heavily on two veterans to lay the blueprint for the album. He got four tracks from old Wu-Tang comrade The RZA, which brings a gritty, Staten Island sound that Wu fans will recognize right away. He also picked up four tracks from beat legend Erick Sermon which provides more of the bouncy, Redman feel. These two significant portions of the album give it a base from which to branch off. There is the Versatile-produced "Walk On" featuring Redman, which successfully incorporates electric guitars (one of the better efforts at doing so outside of Kanye West), the made-for-heavy-radio-play "Is It Me," and a few heartfelt slow jams (including a syrupy sweet track featuring Genuine that I could have done without). Without The RZA and Erick Sermon setting the tone, those varied tracks would have felt meandering and out of place. Instead, they felt like nice additions to a consistent body of work. 4:21 … The Day After is not only Method Man's finest work to date, it is also yet another example of why the producer is arguably the most valuable part of the equation in hip hop today.
(A quick tangent here. The producer-as-most-valuable-element-of-song sentiment was perhaps best expressed by Joe Buddens on the track "Fire" when he taunted, "Now I know why producers charge so much for their tracks, they do all the work, ya'll just supplying the raps." The irony there is that he was rapping over a Just Blaze track that completely outshone the rapping. Kind of hilarious, really, but I do agree with the sentiment.)
6. The Healing by Strange Fruit Project. I never thought I'd see the day that an underground rap group from Waco, Texas would forward one of the best albums of a given year. However, that is exactly what has happened with The Healing. The members of Strange Fruit Project craft rhymes filled with witty wordplay, positive ideology, interesting anecdotes, and the occasional boast to create some very memorable tracks. They have a sound reminiscent of Common and the three members of the group all have their own unique style. In my opinion they are superior to the likes of J-5 and Dilated Peoples and nearly on par with Little Brother (the fabulous North Carolina trio that is actually featured on the track "Rise"). It helps that they enlisted the help of sensational producer 9th Wonder as well as relative unknown but extremely talented beat makers such as Illmind, Nicolay, and Vitamin D. All of the tracks sound like big budget productions while maintaining their underground feel. That, my friends, is not easy to do. Be sure to check out the songs "Soul Clap," "Get Live," "Special," and "Pinball."
5. Fishscale by Ghostface Killah. Until Method Man came through this week, his fellow Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface and the aforementioned J.R. Writer were pretty much the only major label New York artists making an imprint on hip hop this year. Fishscale is a fantastic album featuring an eclectic mix of songs, relentless lyrics from Tony Starks, and a diverse mix of both substance (Ghost covers a wide range of topics) and style as the album is backed by very solid production. The track "Be Easy" is classic Pete Rock and doesn't sound anything like the normal squeaky, grimy Wu-Tang number. I'm actually surprised it didn't get more airplay. In fact, the fairly liberal use of Pete Rock tracks was probably the highlight of the album, as the veteran producer also provided the banger (as the kids are calling hot tracks these days) "Dogs of War" which features approximately 800 guest rappers and the obligatory Raekwon duet "R.A.G.U." By centering the album on Rock's smooth production, Ghostface was able to move in opposite directions with this other tracks. He enlisted critically acclaimed producers like MF Doom and J Dilla on the one hand and hit makers like Just Blaze and Cool and Dre on the other. The net effect is that the album feels consistent without being boring, and artistic without being sparse. More than anything, there are just a lot of really good songs. The Just Blaze track "The Champ" is particularly memorable as crashing horns and smoking lyrics ("Who wanna battle the don? I'm James Bond in the octagon") are merged with some memorable Clubber Lang quotes from Rocky III, offering us one of the best battle rap tracks of the year. The only flaw I can find with the album is that there are too many skits that get old really fast and prevent repeat listens all the way through.
4. King by T.I. I'm not a huge fan of Southern rap, but there is no denying the quality or importance of T.I.'s second major label album. When Urban Legend came out last year, leading off with the Jay-Z sampled single "Bring 'Em Out," I chalked T.I. up as just another southern rapper riding the "Crunk" movement to a big payday. However, when he followed it up with "King," I realized he was for real. From the dramatic cover art to the seamless collection of diverse tracks, he knocked this out of the park. It doesn't hurt when you can enlist everyone from Just Blaze ("King Back") to Swizz Beatz ("Get It") to the Neptunes ("Goodlife") to Mannie Fresh ("Front Back") to handle the production. The best way I can summarize this album is to say it is the South's equivalent to 50's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" – an instant classic that will, over time, become too popular for its own good and become diluted in the long run. Either way, it is safe to say that T.I. and his brand of Trap Muzik is here to stay.
3. Murray's Revenge by Murs and 9th Wonder. I give this album extra credit for giving the producer equal billing as co-artist. As I mentioned in the Method Man breakdown, this is an era of hip hop dominated by the producers, so it is nice to see one of the industry's best get his due. Of course, it is easier to highlight the producer when he's arguably a bigger name than the Indie artist he's working with, so maybe I'm making too much of this. After all, 9th Wonder has produced tracks for the likes of Jay-Z, Nas, and De La Soul. If you like West Coast rap, backpack rap, Indie rap, whatever, then go pick up this album. It will not disappoint.
2. Blue Collar by Rhymefest. The chief criticism I saw of Rhymefest's album is that the production surpassed his skill on the mic. Okay, fine by me. I don't care if the rapper outshines the producer or not, I just want to find an album full of great music. Rhymefest's Blue Collar is just that. With tracks from Kanye West, No I.D. (the best producer you've never heard of), Mark Ronson, and Just Blaze, this album sounds like the result of some sort of beat-making competition. There are a few notable exceptions, but almost every song on here is terrific. And as for Ryhmefest, I think people are being too hard on Chicago's latest find. Yes, he sometimes gets lost between trying to be the underdog and trying to out-brag even the likes of his cohort Kanye, but for the most part he has a very nice flow and some witty and intelligent lyrics. He has a unique voice that translates well on different types of songs, from the heartfelt tales to the club songs to the battle raps. I think this album is going to hold up over time and be remembered more fondly than it is being received in the here and now.
1. Second Round's On Me by Obie Trice. I suppose you need to know that I am unabashed Obie fan. So if you hate my choice for top album of 2006 (so far), tough. The funny thing about this album (although not surprising considering the tone of this article) is that it serves as a victory for Eminem just as much as it does for Obie. The reason is that Obie Trice is Em's prized artist. Marshall Mathers discovered him (supposedly from listening to just one verse), signed him to Shady/Aftermath, and paternalistically handled Trice's first album with kid gloves (as evidenced by the fact that Eminem and Dr. Dre produced almost every track on Cheers). This time around, Eminem lets Obie run free. Yes, Slim Shady still produces almost half of the tracks (including memorable cuts like "Wake Up," "Violent," "The Ballad of Obie Trice," and "There They Go"), but he eases up long enough to allow the likes of Emile, Akon, and Witt and Pep to produce three of the four leads tracks. The net result is that the album still feels cohesive, but it doesn't all run together like his last offering. Overall, if Obie has one flaw it is that he is too relentless in his approach. Every song features rapid-fire lines filled with complex rhymes, poignant tales, and angry rants. For some, it is too much aggression. For me, it is a much-needed relief from the crooning R&B influence and nightclub placation that is plaguing hip hop. Even when Obie serves up the obligatory Sean Paul club jam ("Jamaican Girl"), he still kills it. Pllus, outside of his mentor, nobody is able to rhyme multiple syllables like Trice. I submit that Obie Trice is the most underrated rapper out there and that he is sitting on the best album of 2006. I'm sure many of you disagree, so let's hear it.
(Apologies to: "The Shining" by J-Dilla, "Idlewild" by OutKast, "Port of Miami" by Rick Ross, "Eastern Philosophy" by Apathy, "The Big Bang" by Busta Rhymes, "Cali iz Active" by Tha Dogg Pound, and "Cash on Delivery" by Ray Cash.)Powered by Sidelines