On All 6’s and 7’s, Tech N9ne claims he’s a “Cult Leader,” with a following of suburban delinquents that mimic his facepaint designs and his violent, operatic dirges. Promising a similar fate for hip-hop’s mainstream, he adds, “I’m gonna show these non-believers what mass lab-producing means.”
But as hell-raising séances go, All 6’s and 7’s can’t compare to Tech’s 2001 debut, Anghellic, where he rapped alongside a firing machine gun. “I’m beyond the boobies and the champagne,” he claims on “Love Me Tomorrow,” pronouncing it “champain-ya.” Instead, the 39-year-old Midwestern rapper offers star power. Admitted Tech fan Lil Wayne and T-Pain discuss “animal magnetism and sado-masochism” on the bawdy “Fuck Food,” while E-40 and Snoop Dogg trade “Pornographic” tales and Yelawolf and Busta Rhymes join the nine-man speed-rapping race “Worldwide Choppers.”
Lil Wayne could have made a much worse album than Tha Carter IV. Certainly, he seemed primed for a disaster. 2010’s widely derided Rebirth was a sophomoric pop-punk experiment. Its follow-up, the I Am Not A Human Being EP, marked a retreat to his modus operandi as a Dirty South rhyme animal, but it sounded rote and joyless, and he seemed distracted by a pending prison stint for weapons possession (which he completed early this year). After those relative failures – both went gold on Lil Wayne’s brand name and his unquenchable base of fans – Tha Carter IV seems less likely to draw the same excitement and interest as 2008’s Tha Carter III. And while teaser singles such as “John,” “6 Foot 7 Foot,” “How to Love” and “She Will” were decent, none of them equaled the classic minimalist attack of Volume III’s “A Milli” or the inexplicably popular pillow-hump ballad “Lollipop.”
Childish Gambino’s Camp is a bit of a mess. It veers wildly from poignant emotions to maudlin histrionics, often in the same song. On the album’s penultimate track, “That Power,” Childish Gambino encourages the Freaks and Geeks comparisons with a poem about serenading his childhood crush at the end of summer camp, that annual ritual of pubescent awkwardness, only to be mocked by her and her friends. It will have you recoiling in sympathetic embarrassment and reaching for the Kleenex at the same time. “I wish I could say this is a story about how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man, more cynical, hardened, mature and shit,” he says. “The truth is that I got on the bus a boy, and never got off the bus.”
On the cover artwork for his second album Take Care, Drake holds a pair of chalices. He’s dressed in a black shirt with the top buttons undone, revealing his hairy chest, and he wears a thick gold chain around his neck. “Bracelets and rings/ All the little accents that make me a king,” he says on “Lord Knows,” before adding that his only role models are Hugh Hefner, Michael Jordan, and his YMCMB bosses Lil Wayne and Baby the Birdman (Young Money – Cash Money Billionaires). Meanwhile, his eyes stare soulfully at the table in front of him, as if he were deep in thought. It’s as if he wants to tell us that he has dark moments of the soul.
Take Care is a thematic follow-up to 2010’s Thank Me Later, but it’s much closer to the pop Zeitgeist. It caps a year when a host of artists echoed the ambient blend of R&B and hip-hop he introduced on Thank Me Later, including Frank Ocean and the Weeknd (who appears on several Take Care tracks). Big Sean and J Cole embraced the clean-cut, proudly middle-class, fame-for-fame’s-sake ethos that Drake trumpeted; he didn’t invent it (that honor goes to Kanye West), but his success has come to personify it. Much of the hardcore rap audience views these suburban braggarts suspiciously, taunt them as being too “soft,” lob homophobic slurs and claim that they’re pop sellouts. Smartly, Drake doesn’t bother answering these trolls. He’s too focused on extending the cultural moment that began with Thank Me Later, and exploring a vague melancholy that emerges in his relationships with women.
This list of noteworthy artists of 2011 has been compiled well after the fact, much like its 2010 predecessor. But unlike that year, which saw clear “winners” like Eminem, Nicki Minaj and Drake, 2011 was fragmented, with lots of players but few big, dominating names. I suppose that Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross are perennials. But what to make of those artists who had chart success, like Ace Hood and Young Jeezy, but didn’t generate any real excitement? Then there were artists that moved us for various reasons, such as the Game’s batshit interviews to various websites, the Beastie Boys’ late MCA’s public battle with cancer, and regional rap heroes E-40, Trae and DJ Quik. There were various Internet fancies: Main Attrakionz, Mr MFN Exquire, Roach Gigz, G-Side, and Death Grips. And there were a surprising number of one-hit wonders, like YC, Tinie Tempah and, most notoriously, Kreayshawn.
With so many candidates, this year’s list could have been easily expanded, but I think keeping it at 25 names leads to a more rigorous process. As before, they were chosen from using an abstract yet informed opinion on industry impact and commercial success. It is not a “best of 2011” list.
Honorable mentions include Stalley, Shabazz Palaces, Common, Snoop Dogg, New Boyz, Gym Class Heroes, Action Bronson, Flo Rida, Pusha T, Meek Mill, Childish Gambino, Sole, Dev, Blu, and Serengeti, in addition to the ones cited above.