September 7, 2012
This post marks a bit of housekeeping and, hopefully, a new tradition. 2010 was the first year I began to cover hip-hop music comprehensively without being limited to a certain sector (underground hip-hop, for example) or city (when I lived in Atlanta or other places). (It’s a nice coincidence that 2010 was the start of a new decade as well.) Due to my new job as hip-hop editor for Rhapsody, I listened to every rap album of note, not just the most critically-acclaimed or the ones I thought would fit my personal tastes. My perspective on which artists are the most important from an industry standpoint include quite a few that I normally wouldn’t give attention. These artists are listed in alphabetical order, and shouldn’t be confused with a list of my favorite albums from that year.
I’ve learned to grow wary of “top” and “best of” lists after years of making them both privately and for various publications. Eventually, personal bias becomes the point of the list instead of a useful guide to the best of a certain form or art. But a collection of newsmakers and noisemakers seems agnostic enough. Or maybe that’s just a cowardly response to the problem. I didn’t use any mathematical formulas to compile this particular list, so it is still just an opinion masquerading as an objective analysis. It is not a list of the top Billboard sellers from 2010, but a vague yet informed look at the ones who achieved a combination of cultural and commercial impact.
Having said that, these are the 25 noteworthy artists of 2010, along with a brief summary of recorded highlights. Honorable mentions include Lil B, Gucci Mane, Onra, Ana Tijoux, Reflection Eternal, Lloyd Banks, Travie McCoy, and Soulja Boy.
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July 17, 2012
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (November 22, 2010)
To understand why My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy earns its title, sounds both sensuously epic and a bit of a dick joke, and manages to combine deep melancholy and triumphant hubris into a stunningly intense experience, let’s backtrack to Kanye West’s debut, 2003’s The College Dropout. On “Never Let Me Down,” Kanye multi-tracked John Legend and Tracie Spencer’s backing vocals into a full-blown gospel chorus as he ruminated on how his parents participated in lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement, and how that legacy made him different. “Niggas can’t make it to ballots to choose leadership/ But we can make it to Jacob’s and to the dealership/ That’s why I hear new music and I just don’t be feeling it,” he rapped. Matched against Kanye’s earnestness, guest rapper Jay-Z’s Cristal-stained boasts were woefully out of place.
Seven years later, Kanye has become another errant choir boy. His religious upbringing and Black History Month studies help him make outrageous claims of being a pharaoh, a deity similar to Allah himself. “Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention,” he claims on “Power.” He speaks about light-skinned girls as if they were new Bentleys to be licked and humped. (Cue R. Kelly’s “You Remind of My Jeep.”) And suddenly, Jay Hova himself sounds right at home. He murders “Monster.” Even Rick Ross, who repeats his familiar shtick of personifying big-balling hustlers on “Devil in a New Dress,” is apropos to this tall tale of adult children lost in a world of designer clothes, luxury vehicles and scantily-clad women, with TMZ and Gawker keeping score. Brilliantly, Kanye couches these fantasies in a hip-hop context. By inviting the aforementioned plus the RZA, Pusha T, Swizz Beatz, Raekwon and Kid Cudi, he demonstrates that materialism and hubris are essential to understanding hip-hop culture as it is lived, if not necessarily how Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa first envisioned it. As Pusha T says on “Runaway,” “I’m just young, rich and tasteless.”
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May 27, 2012
Eminem, Recovery (June 18, 2010)
In some ways, Eminem tailored Recovery as a response to complaints that his music had grown stale, stuck between the Dr. Dre school of classic melodious thump (first heard on Em’s breakthrough single “Hi, My Name Is”) and his plodding self-produced derivations of the good Doctor’s innovations (as heard on “Without Me” and “When I’m Gone”). So Eminem turned to L.A. producer DJ Khalil (Clipse’s “Kinda like a Big Deal”), who delivered the scratchy rock-rap “Talkin’ 2 Myself” and the glam blues of “Won’t Back Down.” Drake’s right-hand man Boi-1da (“Not Afraid”), New York kingpin Just Blaze, Kid Cudi mentor Emile and Mobb Deep’s Havoc also contributed beats. The result is an album that sounds more dynamic than previous Em efforts, yet retains the cinematic bombast that, for better or worse, has become his trademark. At varying points, he acknowledges criticism of his past work. On “Talking 2 Myself,” he memorably dismisses his past two albums by claiming “Encore I was high on drugs/ Relapse I was flushing them out.” Other times, though, he sounds prickly. “Critics never got nothing nice to say,” he complains on “On Fire,” before lobbing one of several embarrassingly bad puns: “I’m so tired of this I could blow/ Fire in the hole.” Throughout Recovery, Eminem sounds like he’s still trying to figure out what type of person he has become post-rehab, much less the type of rapper he’ll be. He seems to mimic Lil Wayne’s penchant for corny punchlines, but without Weezy’s humor or lack of self-consciousness. (Indeed, Lil Wayne is the only guest rapper on Recovery. On “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” Eminem admits “I almost made a song dissin’ Lil Wayne/ I was jealous of him because of the attention he was getting.”) His stabs at classic Slim Shady shock humor sound forced and half-hearted, and he undercuts an attempt to reprise his old woman-hating “Superman” persona for “So Bad” with uncharacteristic moments of tenderness (“Relax woman, you know that I’m only kidding wit’ ya”). After the bad parody that was Relapse, he has turned deadly serious and genuinely concerned about his life, and he forces listeners to accept him as a broken man trying to put himself back together. This is a stark reversal from the self-proclaimed “white trash” brat who once gleefully air-humped the music industry, called himself a “Criminal” who “hated faggots” and dropped “Purple Pills.” Perhaps it would be an easier process if he was fighting an adversary, rather than his addictions. As a result, some may see honest introspection in Recovery’s post-rehab ballads like “Going Through Changes,” replete with soaring Ozzy Osbourne arena-metal samples. Others will hear self-pitying moans. It doesn’t help that Eminem doesn’t give a great lyrical performance – it’s hard to look past some of his awful rhymes. Yet no matter how diminished his once-fluid cadences and rhyme schemes may be, he draws you into his personal struggles with a compelling narrative. Shady/Aftermath/Interscope.
April 14, 2012
Curren$y, Pilot Talk (July 13, 2010)
Curren$y’s debut album, Pilot Talk, is pure braggadocio, with rhymes about fancy cars and free-flowing liquor and free-loving women. The music, loving produced and arranged by Ski Beatz, sounds like an update of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, all the way down to the New York session musicians recruited to crank out mellow grooves. Curren$y clearly made it on blunted terms: the album artwork depicts a lone airplane flying over a landscape of lush green marijuana foliage. So Pilot Talk is like weed talk, with several narratives hidden underneath the stoner blather. On “Example,” Curren$y claims “reimbursement for paid dues,” then claims, “I am an example of what can happen when you quit being afraid to gamble.” For “Seat Change,” he mocks girls who want to “ride with a G” but “somewhere along the line she fucked up and realized she lost her seat.” His lines are pimp slick but thankfully shorn of delusion. When he flips a bevy of yeyo metaphors for “Audio Dope,” he clearly does it in service of the concept, not to build a farcical image of himself as a drug kingpin. The image is of a neighborhood (or, more accurately, Internet) baller. Pilot Talk boasts the cream of the blog rap crop, including Mikey Rocks from the Cool Kids, Big K.R.I.T. and Jay Electronica (who sharply compares Flavor Flav’s signature bowtie to the Nation of Islam’s attire). Even much-beloved weed rapper Devin the Dude drops a verse for “Chilled Coughphee.” A writer friend of mine, Christopher Weingarten, remarked to me that when Devin the Dude jumps in with sly wit like “I can fuck a bum up quick/ But that’s some tenth grade shit,” it only underscores Curren$y’s relative lack of vocal presence. Other critics have theorized that Pilot Talk’s artistic triumph is largely due to Ski Beatz’s memorable accompaniment. An NY vet whose catalog ranges from membership in early 90s woulda-beens Original Flavor to credits on Jay-Z’s classic Reasonable Doubt and Camp Lo’s “Luchini AKA (This Is It),” Ski Beatz initially produced Pilot Talk’s tracks himself, and then hired talented unknowns like bassist Brady Watt to transform them into instrumental gems. True, any rapper would sound incredible against the majestic sunshine funk of “Address.” But give Curren$y credit for lodging its hook into your brain – “Still nothing changed but the address.” Released via Dame Dash’s DD172 imprint, with distribution from Universal Music Group.
April 14, 2012
Madlib, Madlib Medicine Show No. 1: Before the Verdict (January 2010)
Late last year, Stones Throw Records announced that it would release a full-length album of tunes by its veritable resident producer, Madlib, in 2010 … every month. Dubbed Madlib Medicine Show, the 12-part series sounds like a rap nerd fantasy. The first installment, No. 1: Before the Verdict, is particularly pointed in its message of commerce as a soul-destroying, mind-blowing shit-stem. The cover depicts a charred one-dollar bill (with a weed leaf embedded in a corner), an industrial plant spewing toxic waste, and the World Trade Center being bombed by an airplane. The interior features photos of strangely voodoo-fied Africans — one has a hand protruding from her mouth — and the cryptic message: “There were only three witnesses. Two are dead. The other isn’t talking.” Before the Verdict’s 17 tracks consist of remixes of Guilty Simpson’s 2007 album Ode to the Ghetto, and a few previews of a forthcoming collaboration tentatively titled OJ Simpson. Guilty is a decent if ornery thug rapper, but he’s clearly no match for Madlib’s symphony of 70s soul “rapps,” funky howls, vinyl hiss, DJ cuts, burps and farts, pungent jokes culled from 60s comedy albums (Redd Foxx and Millie Jackson!) and police scanner snippets. The Detroit rapper’s litanies about “Gettin’ Bitches” and “Robbery” are vocal anchors drowned by the Madlib Invazion’s furiously funky creativity. Remember when that Quasimoto album intoned at the very beginning, “Welcome to violence”? These days, Madlib doesn’t just promise it. In rave terms, he has entered his hardcore phase. No longer positive and consciousness-expanding, the blessed weed smoke is fuel for a crank personality. The transformation is compelling, hilarious and frightening. As the rap world’s version of “reality” narrows into a handful of masculine fantasies, Madlib has become the era’s pamphleteer, printing out screaming headlines like a crazed prophet of doom. Madlib Invazion, with distribution by Stones Throw Records.
March 6, 2012
B. Dolan, Fallen House, Sunken City (2010)
“I braced against the railing and looked into the sun like I was waiting for someone to burn a picture in my mind,” B. Dolan intones on “Leaving New York.” Having spent years as an understudy to Sage Francis, you’d think that Dolan would sound like that left-wing iconoclast, but on this track he sounds more like Sole, minus the lyrical jump-cuts and torrential run-on sentences. Dolan can’t match either’s technique, but he has a growling fortitude that borders on anger, and a poet’s knack for witty lines. “I’m cashing checks against the national debt/I can’t afford to live fraudulent,” he complains on “Economy of Words (Bail It Out).” Much like Francis, Dolan came to hip-hop via the spoken-word medium, albeit without the freestyle battle scars that made him a natural rap artist. There’s still some stiffness in Dolan’s delivery, and seems to be trying out other MCs styles, from the aforementioned Sole to Rob Sonic (on “Earthmovers”). Fallen House, Sunken City is produced by Alias, who flips some inspired fusion funk beats. The veteran beat maker sometimes outshines Dolan, but when the two blend seamlessly on the brutish and tragic Marvin Gaye tribute “Marvin,” their sparks burst into glorious flames. Strange Famous Records.
March 6, 2012
Onra, Long Distance (May 17, 2010)
Long Distance bears an unmistakably French touch. Its album cover depicts a nocturnal tableau reminiscent of M83’s Before the Dawn Heals Us. It swerves between post-disco soul and uptempo electro rockers like “Mechanical” (and its Euro-dance hook “Let’s make love tonight”). One of its best tracks, “High Hopes,” finds Reggie B replicating funk heroes Slave with his soft, yearning vocal delivery. On “Sitting Back,” Onra chops a vocal snippet and inserts it into a storm of distorted keyboard washes and flurries, aiming for club appeal as well as the head nod factor. For “The One,” he recruits T3 from Slum Village, who flips he flips a surprisingly sensitive tale of cheating and heartbreak over stiletto-sharp stabs and a drum machine tempo straight out of Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore.” Onra stays faithful to the boogie theme throughout Long Distance, and he also stretches it to its breaking point. At 21 tracks, it’s probably too long by a few cuts. Some of these like “Girl,” where he loops a recording of a girl lusting after him despite having a boyfriend, push the album’s pace along. And “Oper8tor,” which inserts the vocoder-ized hook from Midnight Star’s “Operator” amidst a two-minute-long stutter step, has kitschy charm. But B-side loops such as “Moving” and “Rock On” add unnecessary filler. But if Onra freely (and masterfully) exploits the current Zeitgeist for all things boogie funk, he seems to have found his identity within it. His acclaimed Chinoiseries only emphasized the difficulty of replicating Dilla and Madlib’s loop aesthetic. 2009’s 1.0.8 had a frantic, hurried feel; unlike fellow Europeans such as Dorian Concept and Hudson Mohawke, he seemed uncomfortably toying with glitch funk. Long Distance certainly has its glitch elements – check the appropriately titled “Wonderland” for proof – but it’s nestled in a seductive dance floor groove. All City Records.