This is my list of my favourite Hip Hop albums of 2011. It’s neither the list of the albums that sold the best nor the list of the most anticipated albums of 2011. Just the ones that this 30 something Hip Hop fan enjoyed the most, the ones that I listened to the most, the ones that made me smile and in some rare cases even dance. Although some may call 2011 a disappointing year for Hip Hop I would actually say it was a positive year. There was plenty of good music out there you just had to look for it and that’s always been the case with most genres. A number of new artists came through with good albums and a number of older artists came back to the forefront with strong albums.
10. Phonte – Charity Starts At Home
I missed Little Brother this year so this album from Phonte was much needed and much appreciated. It even had four 9th Wonder joints on it, which made it even more of a Little Brother album than the other solo joints. The music is a soulful spoonful of good ol’ Boom Bap Hip Hop with Phonte’s humorously honest lyrics. His lyrics are thought provoking with lines like “How can I sell out when no one is selling anything” and “I’m not trying to get signed, I’m not wearing a cast”. His commentary on the economic ills that are affecting not only his community but ours as well make for songs that stay with you. Yes he sings on it but it works and I enjoyed, it seemed natural and thought out especially on the Zo produced track To Be Yours. This is something Phonte has been good at since that first Lil’ Brother album back in 2003 and he is still doing it well. Hip Hop needs that everyman style in amongst all the Gangstars and mega stars.
Key tracks; The Good Fight, To be Yours and Eternally (feat. Median)
9. Common – The Dreamer, The Believer
This almost never made it in to this list due to its late release but how could I not put an entirely No ID produced Common album into this list? No ID and Common started work on this in early 2009 but Common’s acting endeavours delayed the release to December 20th 2011. Its 12 songs long with only one other emcee on board, Nas (they have spoken about doing an album together Nas Dot Com and if this is anything to go by it should be good) Common has described it as a positive Hip Hop album and it is, featuring his brand of insightful intelligence Hip Hop over No ID’s hard beats.
Common seems enthused to be rapping again and he seems to be pushing himself harder on this album than he has on the last couple of albums. No ID’s drums are hard and crisp with soulful samples surrounding them. It’s interesting how No ID started with Common and then went off and worked with Kanye, Jay-Z and a whole lot more before returning to Common. Its good to have the old Common back again let’s hope he’s back for good.
Key tracks; Ghetto Dreams (Feat Nas), Celebrate and The Believer (Feat. John Legend).
8. The Roots – Undun
This concept album from The Roots, Undun is a story about their semi-fictional character, Redford Stephens and his struggles. The group’s thirteenth album is a return to straight up dope lyrics about the struggle coupled with dope beats played by talented musicians. Yes there are guests but this is a The Roots 100% album.
There are mellow beats and fast paced tracks but regardless Black Thought shows his story telling skills. The guests on the album compliment the The Roots and never take over the tracks. On One time Phonte and Dice Raw join the group to tremendous affect over crisp drums and sharp piano stabs. Just Blaze pops up on the phenomenal Stomp the only track that Questlove does not handle the production on. The album is made up of snare-driven beats, neo soul elements, keyboard soundscapes, strings and powerful lyrics.
Key tracks; Stomp, One Time (feat. Phonte and Dice Raw) and I remember.
7. Evidence – Cat and Dogs
This is the second solo outing from Dilated Peoples front man and producer Evidence and it’s an all round good album. The album features not only Evidence’s premier tinged production style but two tracks from DJ Premier himself along with heavy contributions from Alchemist, Sid Roams and Statik Selectah amongst others. We also have a strong list of guest emcees including M.O.P., Prodigy, Raekwon, Rass Kass, aloe Black and Aesop Rock amongst others. The list of guests matches well to the tracks in the styles of Hip Hop they cover; Grimy Gangster, Indie, Emo, underground and soulful at times.
Evidence shows us that he is still the intelligent and complex emcee that took down Eminem almost a decade ago. Although Evidence started recording this in 2008 it sounds relevant and interesting. Obviously the DJ Premier produced tracks are some of the strongest on the album and intelligently he kept those to himself but the tracks with guests work very well too. A Strong sophomore album from Evidence can I only ask that we get a new Dilated Peoples one soon?
Key tracks; You (DJ Premier), Late For The Sky (Feat. Slug & Aesop Rock) and Fame (Feat. Roc Marciano & Prodigy).
6. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Someone passed me a copy of Shabazz Palaces’s Black Up album to review for my blog and I listened to it knowing nothing about the collective from Seattle but I was immediately impressed with the experimental nature of the project. Not to mention it features Butterfly from the early 90’s Jazz influenced Hip Hop group Digable Planets as the main emcee. It’s an interestingly refreshing album that places itself alongside Co Flow and some of Madlib’s many aliases in the soundscapes it creates.
There are strands of jazz-fusion below the surface and intelligently thought provoking lyrics lying atop them. Butterfly’s voice has always been somewhat hypnotic and with the music coming from so many different angles I found myself listening to the whole album on loop for hours at a time. Experimentation is a cornerstone of Hip Hop and this is something that the majority of the genre has forgotten, this group haven’t.
Key tracks; Are you… Can you… Were you? (Felt), Recollections of the wraith and Swerve
5. Torae – Fore the Record
Torae has been promising an amazing album for quite sometime and although he has always dropped strong 12”s and albums this was the one we had been waiting for. Beats provided by pretty much everyone you would want to be on there (apart from Madlib?); Premier, Pete Rock, Large Pro, Diamond D, Marco Polo, Nottz and 9th wonder. It’s a great slice of NY Underground Hip Hop just the way you want it; the Premier track kills it, the Pete Rock track has his style running through it like a stick of rock, Large Pro brings some lovely horns on his joint, 9th wonder’s joint has a sinister sample in it with crispy snares, Diamond D supplies casually dope track and Marco Polo drops a fierce track for Torae to rhyme over. Buts its not only the production that works on this album its Torae’s strong B-Boy lyrics that could only come out of NY.
Key tracks; For the Record, Do the Math and That Raw.
4. CunninLynguists – Oneirology
This is the fifth studio album by the Kentucky & Atlanta trio of Kno, Deacon the Villain and Natti. The trio started work on it in early 2010 with all the productions duties being handled by Kno before releasing it in March of 2011. Another strong album by the Down South group who have always created their own unique sound that is if anything an amalgamation of traditional East Coast and Indie West Coast sounds. It’s a sample heavy sound with plenty of vocal hooks and intricate lyrics from the heavily accented emcees.
It sits comfortably alongside their back catalogue and works as a complete album with a level of continuity that having one person behind the boards for the whole album gives. I could honestly listen to these guys for days in fact I would be quite happy with just the instrumentals. The fact that they are talented emcees is a bonus when the beats are this good.
Key tracks; Hard As They Come (Act I feat. Freddie Gibbs), Stars Shine Brightest (In The Darkest Of Night feat Rick Warren) and My Habit (I Haven’t Changed).
3. Roots Manuva – 4everevolution
I have to be honest although there were a number of UK Hip Hop albums I listened to over the year but this was the only one I felt was good enough to make it into my top 10. Roots Manuva’s latest album shows growth lyrically and production wise from artist that laid the foundations for what became Grime. However this album still stays firmly in the Hip Hop genre although at times sitting alongside Grime and Reggae.
It’s a style that Roots Manuva pulls off with aplomb; 4everevolution might be his most musically cohesive statement yet. Although his lyrics stem from his South London Manor they can easily be applied globally with lines like; “I hear you talking ’bout them trade embargoes/ You see them chicken shops? You need to bar those.” Its mature British Hip Hop that is incredibly funky and more importantly relevant. Whether he is singing in that slightly smoky voice or addressing the nation in his trademark baritone over electronically wobbly bass lines this is one of his strongest albums to date.
Key tracks; Skid Valley, Watch me dance and Much too Plush.
2 Raekwon – Wu Tang Vs Shoalin
Raekwon carried on his tremendous return to form this year with the superb Shaolin Vs Wu Tang. 17 tracks with a strong Wu Tang flavour running through all of them. Okay so there’s no Rza on it but we do have Scram Jones, Evidence, Kenny Dope, Alchemist and Wu mainstays Mathematics and Bronze Nazareth. Of course there are the usual Wu-Tang guests on it but theres also a few surprises too; Black Thought from the Roots appears on the superb Salvation, Estelle drops in on the fun Chop Chop Ninja and Busta Rhymes shows up on Crane Style.
This is a strong Wu album with interesting guests choices but its Raekwon’s rhyme’s that over the last two years have been getting better and better. He was never my favourite Wu member, Ghost always held that title but since Cuban Linx part 2 Raekwon has been putting in the effort and now its starting to pay dividends. If you liked Raekwon’s comeback album a couple of years back then the gritty Kung Fu sample riddled Hip Hop he perfected on that album is all over this one.
Key tracks; Crane Style (feat Busta Rhymes), Salvation (feat Black Thought) and Butter Knives.
1. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee part 2
Originally due to be released in 2009 it was delayed following the discovery of MCA’s Cancer. Thankfully he made a full recovery however the trio announced that Hot Sauce Committee Part 1 would be delayed and that Part 2 would be released on time although it would be made up of the songs originally intended for Part 1. Confused? Yes me too. Either way what we ended up with was one of the funkiest albums of the year that featured the Beasties both sampling and playing tracks.
Its 16 fun, funky tracks that show us the benefits of artists not taking themselves too seriously. It’s upbeat and lively with great guest slots from Nas and Santigold. It works well in the car or the club with superb bass lines and humorous lyrics from the trio. A true return to form from the Ol’ Skool jokers we all love.
Key tracks; Too Many Rapper (with Nas), Don’t play no Game I can’t Win (with Santigold), Make some Noise and Non Stop Disco Powerpack.
Kendrick Lamarr – Section .80
A strong debut album from the man Dre and Snoop are calling the new prince of the West Coast. Well worth checking out especially for some of those mellow yet profanity riddled West Coast tales.
9th Wonder – The Wonder Years
Easily the best compilation of the year. Well worth picking up with guests like Raekwon, Warren G, Phonte, Blu, Murs and Kendrick Lamar.
M.O.P. and Snowgoons
More of an EP than an album but a strong release nonetheless. These German producers showed us again that they have serious skills behind the boards and Lil’ Fame and Billy Danze just did that thing we love them doing.
Saigon – The Greatest Story Never told
A good lyricist with a good producer (Just Blaze) but the album should have come about two years ago like it was supposed to. Instead it ended up sounding slightly dated despite the stellar efforts by both parties.
Curren$y & Alchemist – Covert Coup
A strong release that fell into the same category as the M.O.P. release above. Very good but too short. Give us a full release guys.