December 26, 2009
The Best Rap Albums of 2009: Part 2
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 1” go here.)
5. Juicy J | Hustle Till I Die
For Three 6 Mafia, 2009 was the year that the group went back its horrorcore roots (after all, “Three 6” = “666”). DJ Paul released an album called Scale-A-Ton. Juicy J dropped Hustle Till I Die. Imagine about 15 variations on the main theme from The Exorcist. Then set that to Southern rap drum programming. That’s the meat of Juicy J’s album. This is dark, heavy gothic crunk full of dissonance, minor chords and keys, ominous strings, and a level of aggression that, rather than letting up, usually only intensifies. Juicy J is an extremely dynamic producer. His beats frequently mutate mid-song into more exciting – albeit more grotesque – abominations. “My Niggaz” slows from an energetic bounce to a menacing, sledgehammer-like thump. The minimalistic “Purple Kush” consists of little more than some tinny drums, pulsating bass, and incessant chanting…until the second verse when guest rapper Gorilla Zoe raps through a bass-heavy voice filter…and then the third verse when grim church organs creep in, turning a relatively fun weed track into something wholly unsettling. Hustle Till I Die will get you amped to beat the crap out of someone and use their blood in a demonic ritual.
4. Playboy Tre | Liquor Store Mascot
Like his rhyming partner, B.o.B., Playboy Tre comes from the Outkast school of moralistic, humanistic rap, full of humility and introspection. But he tempers it with a healthy dose of personality. Playboy Tre is funny, whether he’s shouting out the 100 billion and one rappers leaving annoying self-promoting messages in his Myspace comments, rejecting his friend’s request for Tre to pass a piss test for him, or sampling his grandma’s favorite gospel music to get drunk and holler at chicks. That’s a great quality to have when you’re expressing the depressing realities of the ghetto and your life in it. Tre carries the pain with him everywhere and has to laugh (or drink) to keep from crying. The production is solid throughout, filled with bouncy 808s, triumphant horns, and bombastic synths. But production plays second fiddle to the sobering drunken clarity and self-deprecating humor that oozes out of Tre.
3. Diamond District | In The Ruff
While it looks like Wale’s album might not have been the album to put DC on the national radar after all, In The Ruff by rap group Diamond District from the DMV area (referring to D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) has certainly left a tangible mark on the hip-hop consciousness. The trio, consisting of rappers y.U. and X.O. and anchored by producer-rapper Oddisee, bills In The Ruff as a DMV interpretation of the classic ’90s East Coast boom-bap sound. Normally, I’d be running for the hills. But Oddisee is good enough of a producer to know that the really classic ’90s rap was more than just a looped-up soul sample, a break beat, and a scratched hook. There was always more going on in the details and that’s where n The Ruff succeeds: the non-existent hook of “Back To Basics” that lets the keys breathe for a second, the almost arrhythmic steel drum accents on “I Mean Business,” the vinyl crackle and how the chopped vocal sample in the background plays with the main vocals on “Off The Late Night.” Oddisee puts a little extra complexity in his productions and it makes them all pop.
2. DJ Quik & Kurupt | BlaQKout
It was a little disheartening to see how few people seemed to care that two certified West Coast legends collaborated on an entire album together. But then that must be their fault that they’re not from New York, don’t politic with fly-by-night rappers, and don’t broadcast their entire lives on a blog. Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like Quik and Kurupt give a shit one way or the other. BlaQKout is an unbelievably warm, summer album that follows the two on a laid-back ride into the ladies’ panties. DJ Quik is in full show-off mode with a number of production tricks: vocal clipping, obsessive sample chopping, Middle Eastern folk music samples, ring modulator-filtered helium voices. Yet, it never loses its warm center. G-Funk abounds on BlaQKout with lush strings, electric guitars, and groovy synths and those new tricks just augment the old ones, thus expanding the language of G-Funk. Lyrically too, the album belongs to Quik in all his quirkiness: from existentialist contemplations on rap to hilarious disses of Internet gangsters and former crew, and bipolar debates about sleeping around. Quik gives you a peek inside the complex mind of a genius.
1. G-Side | Huntsville International
G-Side probably has no business being anywhere near the top of a “Best Of” list, especially when they are virtually unknown except to a few nerdy bloggers. Meanwhile, great veteran artists like Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and DJ Quik have dropped outstanding music this year. Still, this is the only new music this year that has brought me to the brink of tears with its devastating beauty. And so it wins. Fittingly, the one other time that happened to me this year was with a song by Goodie Mob of the Dungeon Family. G-Side continues the Dungeon Family’s tradition of humanism and ghetto upliftment on Huntsville International. But they do so with the musical language of today. In-house producers The Block Beattaz have managed to inject a palpable sense of warmth into pristine electronics, which just perfectly meshes with G-Side’s impassioned appeals to their people to stop killing themselves. There’s been no time this past year when I was as inspired to lead my life responsibly as I was when hearing this album for the first time.
by Quan Vu