Not afraid to get mavericky.
So it was only recently that I really realized that I wasn't a fan of much hip hop that came out this year. In terms of albums at least. I didn't mind all that much though because the stuff I did like was good enough to hold me over, and I kinda tuned out of new rap late in the year because I wanted to follow the election (pay attention to both at once? Crazy talk.)
With all that said, I figured instead of a regular list I'd take a look at the albums I did and didn't like this year, plus a few random songs here and there from other albums I haven't talked about. In no particular order.
Lil Wayne -- Tha Carter III. The moment where Wayne officially lived up to the hype. I've been a big fan of his but I agreed with the argument that he needed to drop a great album, and then when he did a bunch of people were quick to damn it with faint praise. Which is too bad considering the guy murders everything he touches here save the stuff designed for Top 40 radio. "A Milli" and especially "Let the Beat Build" in particular are insane from a stylistic standpoint. Wayne's mixtapes last year were entertaining, but Da Drought 3 was pretty aimless, whereas here his rapping sounds much more focused without losing its unhinged appeal. Besides the flow, it's always fun to follow how he spontaneously connects the dots between lines that initially seem random, which is why I think people completely trying to evaluate him based on some wack:dope punchline ratio completely miss the point -- "Dr. Carter" doesn't suffer from him saying "sweet like cake" when he's doing a million other things on the same track, for instance. And yeah, sonically it's all over the place, but who said that was a bad thing?
Choice cuts: "Dr. Carter," "Let the Beat Build," "You Ain't Got Nuthin" (feat. Juelz Santana and Fabolous)
Kanye West -- 808s & Heartbreak. Not as good as his last two albums, and predictably it didn't win over anyone already busy whining about how 'Ye's a non-rapping drama queen, but way better than you might think a Kanye as T-Pain album'd turn out. "Heartless" is one of 'Ye's weakest singles ever and the album runs out of steam after "Street Lights," but otherwise this does a great job of pushing his sound into bleaker territory and manipulating autotune for emotional effect in a way that no one else really has been since T-Pain popularized it. I'll admit it could be a nice change of pace if his next one ended up being lighter than this and Graduation though.
Choice cuts: "Welcome to Heartbreak" (feat. Kid Cudi,) "Amazing" (feat. Young Jeezy,) "Paranoid" (feat. Mr. Hudson)
Big Boi feat. Andre 3000 and Raekwon -- "Royal Flush." AKA my token attempt to prove that this blog isn't against everything that sounds old school. Really though, it's dope even though neither Big Boi or Rae bring anything to the table. That's alright when you've got a smooth-rolling beat like this though, and 'Dre kills his spot, which sounds longer than Big and Rae's verses combined.
Lloyd feat. Lil Wayne -- "Girls Around the World." I somehow doubt I'll ever buy one of Lloyd's albums, but up to now he's had better chemistry with Weezy F. Baby than his other requisite R&B collaborator T-Pain. A great laid-back, bass-heavy jam that's perfect for late-night driving, and Wayne drops one of his best post-Carter III verses...even though yeah I realize he starts by riffing on a Rakim verse. The beat samples "Paid in Full" though, so he probably felt obligated or something.
Jay-Z -- "Ain't I" and "Jockin' Jay-Z." I have caveats here -- I think Jay's flow sucks on "Ain't I" and I don't like "Jockin' Jay-Z" that much. Still, I thought the negative reaction to "Jockin'" was overblown, mostly because it's one of the only (the only?) songs in the last year where Jay's flow sounds relatively revitalized, even though he still drops some clunky lines (especially that "my flow's pretty...sick!" bit.) "Ain't I" meanwhile is the type of vintage warped Timbaland beat the guy just doesn't make anymore. Especially dig how he constantly switches up the beat and throws new layers of stretched-out synths and guitars on top of it as the song goes on. If it got remixed with better Jay verses or another rapper then I'd be happy.
Shawty Lo feat. Young Jeezy, Ludacris, Plies and Lil Wayne -- "Dey Know (Remix.)" I still think the horn sample sounds stilted (the intro makes it seem like it's gonna be hotter than it is,) but it helps that the remix includes way more talented Southern rappers (and Plies) who all come through with hot verses. And killing Lo with his own flow, in Jeezy and Luda's case.
John Legend feat. Kanye West -- "It's Over." Would've been a better single than the Andre 3000-featuring "Green Light" if it was released as one, even though Yeezy-Pain adds nothing to the track. I would say that this is the one beat Pharrell Williams did for another artist that was good this year, but he's only listed as the writer for whatever reason. In any case, blippy "futuristic" R&B done right.
Erykah Badu -- "Honey." I'm not familiar enough with 9th Wonder's catalogue to definitively say which side I come down on in the good producer/boring motherfucker debate (I'd guess the latter based on what I've heard,) but he did his thing on this track, another good example of synth-washed futuresex/whateverR&B this year, with more of a throwback edge.
Busta Rhymes feat. Reek da Villain, Spliff Star, Lil Wayne, Nas, The Game and Big Daddy Kane -- "Don't Touch Me (Throw da Water on 'Em) (Remix.)" Works as the anti-"Speedin'" remix, since the emcees involved actually seem to give a shit about bringing their A-game. And a killer frenetic beat doesn't hurt.
DJ Khaled -- "Go Hard (Instrumental.)" I would've said the regular T-Pain and auto-Yeezy version if only for Kanye dropping one of the rap quotes of the year with "I'ma tell you like George Bush told me -- fuck y'all niggas I'm outta here," but I think the autotune madness somewhat obscures the tidal wave of a beat on this. Proof that The Runners can sound good even when they're not trying to remake "Hustlin'."
N.E.R.D. -- Seeing Sounds. What 808s & Heartbreak might be like if it wasn't such a downer and every song sounded completely different. I wasn't sure if Pharrell had it in him after some of the shit he'd put out in the last year or two, but he really put it down here, and explored a lot of different styles without overreaching. And even though they use synthesizers, The Neptunes's beats sound great with live instrumentation in a way, say, Swizz Beatz or Lil' Jon's production probably wouldn't, thanks to their emphasis on melody and bridges. Shame Neptunes production for outside artists continues to suck, but if they release an album this good every now and then I can't complain that much.
Choice cuts: "Yeah You," "Love Bomb," "You Know What" (and "Time for Some Action" for the Clipse heads)
Snoop Dogg -- Ego Trippin. Granted, the words "overlooked" and "Snoop Dogg" don't seem to gel, but if I recall right this got its ass kicked commercially by a Rick Ross album of all things. And I'll admit, I haven't really listened to it since it came out, but there're some jams on here besides "Sensual Seduction," especially in the first half. If nothing else, it's way better than the other West Coast rap album that got everyone's attention this year.
Choice cuts: "Press Play," "Sexual Eruption," "Life of da Party" (feat. Too $hort and Mistah F.A.B.)
Southern rap albums not by Dwayne Carter, whose album doesn't happen to sound that Southern. More on specific examples later. No, this isn't a product of Wayne stannery, it just seemed as though the oncoming recession (no Jeezy) affected Southern rappers' ability to get quality beats. When Rick Ross releases the album with the best good:wack song ratio of the bunch (4:11 to be exact,) mostly thanks to a few soul-sampling tracks that sound decidedly un-Southern, you've got a problem.
"Hipster rap." Actually just The Knux, since they were the only guys I heard who sounded like they had potential and therefore the only ones whose album I decided to check out. Unfortunately their debut Remind Me in 3 Days... comes off as rap/rock fusion done in the most boring way possible. I'm not a big fan of "Cappuccino" but it's aeons ahead of the rest of the songs there. I might be interested in hearing this Rah Al Millio dude on a track with Big Boi though, just for kicks.
T.I. -- Paper Trail. I might be the only person on Earth who actually liked T.I. vs T.I.P. better than King and thought T.I. was improving as a rapper, so I was hoping he'd step in to give Wayne some kind of competition for King of the South/Best Rapper Alive '08 Edition. Instead, not only did he pick some of the most drab, empty synth-laden beats of his career, but he forgot to rap like he gives a shit. If this is what he sounds like after writing his rhymes down, he might want to consider going back to the Jay-Z method.
Redeeming cuts: "No Matter What," "What Up, What's Haapnin'," "Swagga Like Us" (Jay-Z and T.I. feat. Kanye West and Lil' Wayne)
Young Jeezy -- The Recession. I've felt somewhat uncomfortable about Jeezy's music because of how overt his whole trapper not a rapper image is, as pointless as it may get to talk about which rappers in that mold are a "worse" influence, but from a purely musical and stylistic standpoint his last album The Inspiration was pretty dope through and through. And I was hoping against my better judgment that with the new album he'd expand on the drug-dealing shtick and mix his usual lyrics with some form of interesting political commentary. Unfortunately, The Recession plays like a generic Southern (t)rap album with cut-rate, plastic synth production, only with the added "insight" that we're in a recession. Apparently that was enough to trick some people into liking it.
Redeeming cuts: "Circulate," "Put On" (feat. Kanye West)
Nas -- Untitled. I make no secret of my general distaste for Nas's albums and my preference for his once-rival Jay-Z, but 2006's Hip Hop Is Dead was an exception to that rule and I thought it was pretty solid, in large part because for once Nas was rapping over beats that weren't audio NyQuil. And actually, like I mentioned in my post on this album, I was kinda surprised that Nas seemed to have some pretty clear-cut ideas here, as opposed to the pseudo-intellectual rants he usually goes on when dealing with anything political. He doesn't really provide any obvious answers to the problems he brings up, but I don't think that's the point. As a piece of music, though, the album fails due to Nas's usual problems -- sleep-inducing production and the fact that as accomplished as he is, I can never really shake the feeling that he isn't the most stylistically flexible emcee around. One of his more interesting failures though, at the least.
Redeeming cuts: "America," "N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master,)" "Fried Chicken" (feat. Busta Rhymes)
The Roots -- Rising Down. I was debating putting this under this category, because I can't say I was anticipating it all that much. Still, on paper the idea of a more dystopian take on Graduation's synth-happy production/a more accessible version of the claustrophobic material El-P does sounded like it might be interesting, and I couldn't get into the album. Thought the production could've been better layered if they wanted to capture the vibe they were going for, even the beats that initially sound intriguing like the title track and "Criminal" get tired really quickly.
Redeeming cut: "The Show" (feat. Common and Dice Raw)
THE OVERRATED (INTERNET EDITION)
Wale -- The Mixtape About Nothing. I tried to like it, really. And if the response had been "this guy'll release a dope album in the future" I might not have put it in this category. But when it started being talked about as one of the best albums of the year after it dropped I just didn't get it. The beats are monochromatic and the guy raps like he's constantly short on breath -- his voice sounds strained for lack of a better word. And I'm not expecting state-of-the-art production on a mixtape, but this isn't something I'd be able to get much replay value out of no matter how good the rapping is. Also, I was gonna mention this with The Knux too, but these "thinking man's" rappers tend to be pretty underwhelming when they try to do party shit, the songs never sound like they pop off the way they should. Not saying you gotta go "Lollipop" but I'd like to think Wale can make something more exciting than "Back in the Go-Go."
ABN -- It Is What It Is and Killer Mike -- I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II. Two of the Internet's favorite Southern rap albums of the year so far as I can tell, both sunk by cheap keyboard production. And in Z-Ro and Trae's case, emcees that I don't know sound stylistically varied enough to hold down a whole album. I'm ignorant of their solo catalogues though, so I might revise my opinion there in the future. Mike on the other hand is a rapper I might enjoy more over an entire album if he just got better production, much as I don't fuck with a lot of really angry rap. I can't handle the truth.
Redeeming cut: "Still Throwed" (It Is What It Is)
That real hip-hop shit. Sticking with the name of the blog and everything. Black Milk's Tronic was at least slightly interesting in its attempt to mesh some synth elements with its boom-bap template, even though nothing really made an impression on me. This Elzhi dude, though, I dunno. I'd describe my issue with him as my issue with Nas's style, only exaggerated to the nth degree. As in, the rhymes may look intricately layered on paper, but the person rapping them doesn't flow in an engaging way so it doesn't mean much. That and their beat selection tends to match their lack of charisma.
G-Unit -- T.O.S. (Terminate on Sight.) An easy target, but I gotta mention it anyway. Other rappers may release albums with shitty production, but 50 Cent is the only one who seems as though he actively tries to get the cheapest, most generically menacing beats possible. Who needs quality music after you've gone 6x platinum off your debut anyway? He's a business, maan.
Common -- Universal Mind Control. I was hoping against the odds that The Neptunes would deliver some kind of space-age masterpiece for Common, considering it was inevitably going to get more attention in hip-hop circles than the N.E.R.D. album, but no such luck. Based on this and a couple of the beats they wrote together on the N.E.R.D., I'm not sure how much collaborative chemistry Pharrell and Chad Hugo have anymore, though honestly this sounds almost indistinguishable from the shitty keyboard noodling and tinny drum programming Pharrell's been doing a lot of by himself over the last 1-2 years, only with Hugo showing up to throw a few mildly spacey effects on top. And I guess Common feels like he has to break out of being stereotyped as a boring conscious rapper, but stuff like "Sex 4 Suga" is just embarrassing. It's not like he's gonna shake that image when he includes some of the most vapid "uplifting" songs of his career in the second half anyway.
Fun fact: The "Punch Drunk Love" remix, which isn't on the album, is better than every other song here. Not to say it's that good, though.
Fat Joe -- The Elephant in the Room. Fat Joe is the anti-Jay-Z, mindlessly trend-hopping where up through The Blueprint Jay linked up with talented up-and-coming producers who complemented his style. It doesn't help that he's possibly the most generic and unconvincing hustler rapper alive. Probably the biggest failure of the whole "let's throw a bunch of in-demand producers together and the album'll be hot!" formula this year.
...Well Fat Joe's a pretty anticlimactic note to end on, but that about wraps up my love/hate (mostly hate) take on '08 hip hop. Might have some stray thoughts on the year for another post, but I figured I should get around to doing some kind of half-assed list first. Anyway, here's to '09 being a better year for the genre. Though this whole Ron Browz "Pop Champagne"/"Arab Money" business? Not a good first omen.