December 19, 2009
The Best Rap Albums of 2009: Part 1
THIS WEEK IN HIP HOP
In terms of rap music, 2009 has been both utterly depressing and magnificently awe-inspiring. Through the years, music has slowly become more and more diverse but also more and more fragmented. That fact has never felt more palpable than now. Think about it: in 2019, what will we think of 2009? A decade from now, what song from 2009 will we be able to say “Now THAT was our song”? What song will come on the radio unexpectedly in 2019 (if we still even have radios by then) and unite us all in head-nodding, booty-shaking, lyric-mouthing merriment? It’s a scary thought to think that 2009 might not have contributed anything more to the collective hip-hop canon (if we still even have that by 2019) than Drake’s “Best I Ever Had.”
On the other hand, this fragmentation has led to a ton of really great music. Since we aren’t buying records en masse anymore, most artists kind of stopped giving a fuck about scoring radio hits and have taken rap into bold new territories. DJ Quik busted out the world music crates. Mos Def crafted a cohesive album with approximately one and a half hooks altogether. Gucci Mane came up with 1,000 synonyms for his jewelry. Ghostface Killah formally legitimated the art of “Rap & Bullshit.” Some kids from LA revived hyphy while doing the Running Man backwards in bright skinny jeans. Fuck, even Soulja Boy started experimenting with backpack rap. Yes, God exists. And he’s got his swag turned on.
But before we jump into this “Best Of” list, an editorial note: this is one moonlighting critic’s personal taste in rap, which carries with it plenty of limitations. Not the least of which is time and energy. Try as I might, it takes special circumstances for any one person to really keep up with rap. This is not at all a definitive list. It’s merely a jumping off point to share good music with you. Actually, I’m hoping fellow Jezebel Music rap head, Matt, tells me I’m completely full of shit and then clues me in on everything I missed. And I hope you do the same for me too. (For “The Best Rap Albums of 2009: Part 2,” go here.)
10. Lil Wayne & Juelz Santana | My Face Can’t Be Felt
Lil Wayne fans have been hailing the No Ceilings mixtape as Weezy’s triumphant return to rapping form after a year or so of coasting on the superstardom afforded from Tha Carter III. And yeah, he has come back to snapping some pretty good punchlines. But I think his greater strength is in the raw emotion and truth he spills out from time to time. To date, two of the most memorable musical moments of Lil Wayne’s career have been the pained, pleading, nearly-crying hooks to Playaz Circle’s “Duffle Bag Boy” and The Game’s “My Life.” My Face Can’t Be Felt contains more of these vulnerable moments, including the heartbreaking “How Can Something” in which Lil Wayne confesses in great writerly detail the pain of love lost and what that’s meant for the child that’s left in between the two estranged lovers.
9. Alchemist | Chemical Warfare
Somewhere down the line, boom-bap rap music got to be really boring. I guess after hearing the same samples and the same drums looped in the same way over and over again, the booms and the baps lost a little, um, boom and bap. However, Alchemist’s experimentations on Chemical Warfare rekindle some of boom-bap’s fire. Alc often dices the samples into miniscule bits, twisting the mangled melodies into newfangled, indecipherable grooves, and then shooting them out with the energetic pace of a gatling gun on steroids. Alchemist lacks as a writer and as a rapper, the skits are annoying, and the album is bloated. But the guest rappers are decent enough to make the rapping palatable. And songs like “That’ll Work” just KNOCK, brimming with hyped up energy and aggression.
8. Raekwon | Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … pt. II
Besides artistic experimentation, another highly fortunate consequence of the shrinking music market is that many more artists are content settling for a smaller niche audience and they now have the tools to survive independently. Which is how Cuban Linx II came to be. Raekwon took complete ownership of this project by assembling an all-star cast of producers and guest rappers, penning some of the best rhymes of his career, releasing the album on his own vanity label, and then personally reaching out to the smallest pockets of rap fandom all across the country and the Internet to promote it. There’s a sense of urgency and desperation in the making of this album that seeps into the music itself. And it’s infectious. Raekwon’s meticulous attention to his dense, classical New York-style lyricism coupled with an impeccable selection of hard-hitting, grimetastic , boom-bap beats is amazing. In every vivid detail of every line of every story, you feel Raekwon’s heart in it. He’s put his whole rap fossil self into this and he’s gonna go out blazing. It’s like a rap version of the movie, The Wrestler.
7. Gucci Mane | The Movie 3-D: The Burrprint
Some would say that one’s success could accurately be gauged by the number of haters he/she has. If that’s the case, Gucci Mane is destined for superstardom soon. This year, there has not been any one rapper more divisive than Gucci Mane, leading to all sorts of claims about the death of rap, modern-day minstrelsy, and what-have-you. The truth is, Gucci Mane has an extremely thick, Southern molasses drawl and a lot of rap heads probably can’t get over their biases regarding people with thick, country accents being somehow more ignorant. If they could get over that, they might appreciate the creative concepts and pretty hilarious don’t-give-a-fuck-ness in Gucci’s writing. For example, at various points on The Burrprint, Gucci plays out a conversation between himself and the mirror on the wall a la Sleeping Beauty, commends his shadow for being the only real dude around him, complains about being bossed around by his rhyme bars, and flaunts his wealth by bragging about how fat he is. The beats, I’m assuming mostly provided by Gucci’s frequent collaborators Zaytoven and Drumma Boy, often mix playful whimsy informed by Atari and Alice In Wonderland with brooding synths, dramatic bombast, and stuttering 808 drums for this darkly comic effect. Once you bask in the audacity of his asshole-ness, you’ll get it. Bling, blaow, burr!
6. Ghostface Killah | The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City
After helping Raekwon perfect crack rap with the original Cuban Linx album in 1995, Ghostface returned to the genre with gritted teeth for the second half of this decade to serve his fanbase. This year, it’s possible that Ghost maybe stopped caring about appeasing his hardcore rap niche. Or maybe he became overwhelmingly bored with crack rap. Or maybe he fell in love with a lot of different women. Either way, Ghostface took a risky left turn with Wizard of Poetry, a decidely “for the ladies” R&B-rap album. Say what you will about the glossy, modern R&B production. Admittedly, my hardcore rap self was put off at first. But Ghostface has flourished lyrically. Women have never been more respectably portrayed in rap without the rapper sounding hella corny. Ghostface takes on a variety of characters and in doing so, achieves a remarkable feminine voice. Much is made of the raunchy “Stapleton Sex” but few bother to mention “Lonely,” in which Ghostface speaks from the perspective of a son who reveals to his father the legit reasons why his mommy left him for a better man. Or “Baby,” in which Ghost speaks from the perspective of a pregnant wife, recounting the mundane details of her day to her husband. This just does not happen in rap. While Wizard of Poetry is plagued by inconsistency, these genre-expanding moments are incredible enough to carry the dead weight. by Quan Vu