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.
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.”
The rap nerds don’t know what to do with Eminem. Ten years ago, they loudly proclaimed him a genius, the greatest MC of all time. He was a master of the 16-bar verse, and a vocal stylist who employed bounce, speed-rapping, and drawling affectations at whim. His lyrical provocations, from turning his ex-girlfriend Kim into a symbol for abusive male-female relationships to exporting Detroit street rap culture to the suburbs, drew kudos from songwriters like Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, and rock dudes that usually denigrated rappers as mumbling, inarticulate hooligans. And as acclaim followed, so did massive success, as mega-hits like 2000’s classic The Marshall Mathers LP blasted through the marketplace.
But now, the hip-hop intelligentsia has written Eminem off. For them, he’s just another aging rapper with rapidly deteriorating skills. They believe that his new album Recovery is a noble failure, an unsuccessful attempt to reignite the dying embers of his early 2000s dominance over the pop Zeitgeist. The Internet teems with mockery over some of his lyrics, with this line from the number one hit “Love the Way You Lie” achieving special infamy: “Now you get to watch her leave out the window/ I guess that’s why they call it window pane.”
So why is Recovery the biggest selling album of 2010 so far? Are critics and hardcore rap fans getting it wrong? Most of them wouldn’t readily admit it. They would rather offer Recovery faint praise, musing that at best it’s a minor improvement over Em’s last two albums, 2004’s widely panned Encore and last year’s equally derided Relapse.
If hip-hop is jazz, then Curren$y can be described as a traditionalist. His debut album, Pilot Talk, is pure braggadocio, with rhymes about fancy cars and free-flowing liquor and free-loving women. The music, loving produced and arranged by Ski Beatz, sounds like an update of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, all the way down to the New York session musicians recruited to crank out mellow grooves. It’s as if Curren$y reinterpreted the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers’ Delight” for the new millennium.
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.
Ever since his critically lionized Quasimoto adventure, 2000’s The Unseen, when he adopted a helium voice and crafted adult cartoons straight out of Fritz the Cat and Le Planete Sauvage, the L.A. musician has defined an idiom of crackling sampled loops, slightly buggered raps, and thick clouds of weed smoke. Over 15 years deep into a career that kicked off with a cameo on the Alkaholiks’ 1993 debut, 21 & Over, his enigmatic vision perseveres, even as the idealistic underground scene he once occupied — remember back in the ’90s when his old group the Lootpack chastised wannabe gangsta rappers on “The Antidote”? — has turned cynical, becoming obsessed with the same guns-drugs-porn-money quadrant it once criticized the “mainstream” for.