Like capitalism, criticism, and cursive, canons are a necessary evil—the inherent by-product of the human urge to codify and contrast, and the atavistic urge to talk shit. Rest assured, 100,000 years ago in some cold cavern decorated in wine-skins and skinned saber tooth, you could find some monocle-rocking Neanderthal ranking the best Petroglyphs of the decade.
If anything, the Internet has atomized the notion of a coherent canon for the 2000s, and don’t mistake this list’s existence as an attempt to establish one. Let it be said unequivocally: the only canons that matter are personal. But that tenet doesn’t dismiss the impulse to honor those who continue to push the art form forward (save for Common, who at this point, should be shunned with will.i.am opprobrium). During a decade in which Nas’ cane-waggling dictum of hip-hop being dead actually gained credence in respectable circles, looking back on Bush-era rap, I’m tempted to paraphrase the last line of John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest: it really wasn’t that bad.
About two years ago, Joey and I roped roughly half the Internet into voting on a Best 25 Hip-Hop Albums of all-time list. In an attempt to be inclusive, the list essentially reinforced existing group think. That said, it served a purpose: for all the publicist compliance and faux-journalism practiced on the web, the bully pulpit it affords allows everyone the opportunity to disseminate dissent and spark debate. Unless Ann Coulter or Glen Beck are involved, this is usually a good thing.
But more importantly, lists like this typically appeal to a different demographic than the people who vote on them. I still vividly recall being 16-years old, purchasing The Source’s 100 Greatest Hit Hop Albums of All-Time issue, taping it to my bedroom wall, and one by one, checking each one off in a feverish attempt to edify myself. So here’s to hoping that this one gets read by at least a few teenagers, kids who were eating Handi-Snacks when Ghost dropped Supreme Clientele or when M.O.P. and Primo synthesized the sounds of car alarms and crushed glass to create Warriorz.
This list isn’t perfect—far from it. The voter pool was biased towards who we knew well, and undoubtedly skews towards traditional East Coast backpack boom bap. There are too few Hyphy records, little Southern representation beyond the usual T.I., Scarface, UGK, Weezy, and Outkast contingent, and Devin the Dude, Boosie, and Z-Ro remain woefully overlooked. Conversely, so do Why?/cLOUDDEAD, Atmosphere, and Sticky Fingaz. And even Doom himself would be hard-pressed to claim that he deserved four albums on the list.
But despite its failings, a lot of great albums made the final cut, and even more are scattered amongst the various ballots that we’ll print in full come Friday. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that an artist should create “for the youth of his generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” So consider this a first draft, the reflection of “our thoughts, right or wrong…just what we were feeling at the time.” Surely the coming years will reveal a galaxy of neglected opuses ready to earn their rightful place in history. But we won’t know for certain until the high-tech archeologists searching for knick-knacks finally convene in 3030. So in the meantime, dig.
The ’00s was the decade hip-hop took over, splintered into a thousand offshoots and ideas, and became something wild and utterly unconstrained. No single narrative could capture this decade, and this list does not attempt to. Over the past ten years, the genre decentralized completely, with scenes all over America, and indeed the world, as culturally and artistically important as the New York boroughs that birthed it. Novelty bumped up against art, autotune and finger snaps filtered through chipmunk soul and boom-bap throwback, and the entire culture was declared dead and still kicking too many times to count. What our list says about the ’00s is that, just as with the decades before it, there is a wealth of great music still being made. While editing this list, I would find records that received only a handful of votes vying against albums that nearly all of us agreed were worthy of recognition, and among each of these was music worth recognizing, revisiting and relishing. We could have published a Top 100 and still failed to find every disc warranting inclusion, but I have no doubt that the fifty we count down this week are a worthwhile, if necessarily incomplete summary of the decade. Enjoy.
–Jonathan Bradley, Feature Editor
50. Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030 (2000)
Del the Funky Homosapien has the rare ability not only to rap about nerdy things without sounding like a nerd, but to make these nerdy things sound positively badass. This is due largely to his prodigious talent as an emcee, which includes his singular voice–a buoyant thing that’s always in motion, never stretching syllables too long but never rushing through them either, taking joy in carving the shapes of words as they leave his lips. Deltron 3030 finds Del at his nerdiest, which means at the top of his game. Over the best beats he’s ever rapped over, produced by Del’s Gorillaz collaborator Dan the Automator and with scratches from Kid Koala, Del concocts a futuristic allegory for the kind of turn-of-the-century uncertainty that society was going through in 2000, when the album was released; 3030 is pre-Obama cynicism packaged as a space-rap opera.
Rapping as an ex-mech soldier-turned-freelance rhyme mercenary gives Del an excuse to work in words like “hyperwarp” and “parsecs” and “nanoseconds” and “psychotropics” into his verses—all words that sound great in a rap song. Hearing him rhyme “digital,” “citadel,” “critical,” and “pivotal” in the same bar (“Things You Can Do”) is one of rap’s purest highs. And crucially, Del doesn’t sound like one of those rappers that try to cram fifty-two polysyllabic words in one line, as if using as many Big Words as you can makes you a good rapper. He’s just being Del, the nerdy (but not a nerd!) badass rapper who fights aliens in intergalactic rap battles while sounding cool as fuck.
49. Lupe Fiasco – Food and Liquor (2006)
Forget the “savior of rap” stuff (he isn’t). Forget the “I don’t listen to Tribe” stuff (he did). Forget all the hype and backlash and remember Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor for what it is: a good record that sounds better now than when it was released.
Back in 2006, the beats on Food and Liquor either sounded too mellow, too underwhelming, or too Mike Shinoda. Listening now, it becomes obvious that executive producer (and noted Tribe aficionado) Jay-Z realized what everyone did: Lupe needs old-school cuts that allow him a chance to experiment. And that’s what happened.
While the message could be heavy-handed at times, Lupe’s flow is unimpeachable here. Whether rapping about television addiction (?), robotic daydreams (??), or how good he smells (???), it doesn’t all make sense, but it sounds good. Of course, when it does make sense (the second verse in “Daydreamin’,” “Kick, Push”), it sounds really good.
Freed from its lofty expectations and subsequent backlash, Food and Liquor remains a well-made album that’s definitely better than you remember. It’s not the world beater some people thought it would be, but that’s inconsequential. Turns out rap didn’t need saving, it just needed good records.
48. DOOM – Born Like This (2009)
When it comes to alt-rap cult hero Daniel Dumile, most cite Madvillainy or Operation: Doomsday, respectfully dismissing this year’s Born Like This, five years in the making, as more of the same. The thrill of the former, a collaboration with prolific beat professor Madlib, I presume lies in its off-the-reel spontaneity, strangeness and audacity. But Born Like This highlights a rarer rap skill: editing. 17 tracks in 40 minutes with scraps for skits makes every syllable count, even on manufactured freestyles like “More Rhymin’,” where DOOM extrapolates the title from “tore hymen” to “Paul Simon.”
His gruff, clogged flow projects louder and less mumbled than usual, with sharper humor (“Once sold an inbred skinhead a nigger joke”) and more creative extensions of his villainous persona (especially the wicked “Batty-Boys,” which spins superhero-mocking gold from an ugly Jamaican term that translates to “faggots”). The two Wu cameos further blur the line between DOOM’s brand of stoned absurdity and RZA’s mystical jibberish, and they add variety, as does song-stealing unknown Empress Starhh, crucial variegation to a one-game rapper who has yet to release a track with a chorus. Nothing on Madvillainy or any DOOM before is as touching as “Absolutely,” the subtlest dead homies trope in some time. Likewise, nothing is as beautiful, and, oh how his beats and sonics have expanded. The late Dilla finds inspiration in Raymond Scott’s sci-fi radio jingles on “Lightworks,” while “Gazillion Ear” leads audaciously with a beat inside a beat. “Supervillainz” hilariously prances around with Autotune. Dumile even chips some of Tony Starks’ tone-deaf soul singing to cap off “That’s That,” with a lonely violin making the Paul Barman-esque “cornish hens switching positions auditioning morticians” sound moving. All of this spread, stolen or surmised during a half-decade absence—a faked death in rap years—and executed with off-the-reel spontaneity, strangeness and audacity.
MP3: DOOM-“That’s That”
47. Cam’ron – Purple Haze (2004)
“On this stage of concrete, steel and glass, cut out between two oceans (the Atlantic and the American) by a frigid body of water, the tallest letters in the world compose a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production.”
—Michel De Certeau, Walking in the City
The French scholar De Certeau asserted cities were defined not by the architecture and thoroughfares composing them, or the governments administering them, but by the citizens who navigated them, interpreting the city by experiencing it. Hip-hop has done this since its inception, particularly in its birthplace of New York City: Housing projects like Marcy and Queensbridge are elevated to landmark status, outer boroughs like Staten Island are famed as the stomping grounds of the Wu, and, for the middle years of this decade, a ragtag collection of raffish Harlemites weren’t a rap group—they were a movement. And their leader, draped in purple furs and transported in a gleaming blue chariot, was no erudite twenty-something ghetto kid; Killa Cam was an eccentric, amoral laureate; a globetrotting, cavalier fantasist serenaded by operatic fanfares and hyperactive soul.
Cam’ron was not content to navigate the New York bequeathed to him by his predecessors; on Purple Haze, he rebuilt it brick by brick with only his words, creating a dazzling citadel over which he ruled incontrovertibly. Skyscrapers and apartment blocks sprang fully-formed from his cranial folds. Based at the north end of Manhattan Island, he played golf on the “gulf of New Mexico,” drank “sake in a Suzuki … in Osaka Bay,” and draped himself with jewelry priced at the value of Mid-Atlantic real estate. In the process he charmed women, slaughtered men, and scammed bloggers and believers with his confidence tricks. It couldn’t last; Harlem was gentrifying, the drops never had propellers, and the follow-up flopped. But for that hour-plus run time, the movement was real. When the final notes rang out and the mirage dissolved, we might have even believed it wasn’t just Killa Cam; we were in love with Cameron Giles.
46. Aesop Rock – Labor Days (2001)
My dad wouldn’t like Aesop Rock’s Labor Days. Yours probably wouldn’t either. Chances are they’d just assume that Ian Bavitz was another bearded, lazy 20-something that ought to get a real job. But that’s missing the point. If anything, Labor Days is a paean to the virtues of hard work. Or did you think white Catholic kids from Northpoint, Strong Isle naturally spring up to spit double-timed razorblade raps with the facility of the fast-rap titans they were weaned on? Instead, Aesop Rock’s masterpiece repudiates the idea of forced conscription–it’s a desperate clarion call to the black void, a votive offering to escape the vice grip of the working world, a promise not to screw up destiny if offered the chance to realize it.
In the eight years since confirming Def Jux’s ascension within the indie rap constellation, Labor Days has been labeled everything from a neo-Marxian dialectic to a lodestone for gravity-bong toting liberal arts students seeking a justification for their wake-and-bake lifestyle and avant-garde inclinations. But at it’s core, it’s about being given the opportunity to channel those rumbling vibrations and white-lightning ideas rattling around your skull at three a.m. on a Sunday night, a suit and tie cackling in the closet. Aesop and chief beatmaker, Blockhead, cast skeins of cinematic strings and Gordian knot rhymes–the indie-rap Ghostface and Rza as filtered through Beat ideology and Boston University–On the Road rap spied from ostensibly the only tenement in Giuliani-era Manhattan with no use for unshaven Downtown revival effrontery.
On his next LP, Ian Bavitz admitted, “no, I’ll never write a ‘Daylight.'” He’d gotten his wish, the pieces had been re-arranged in a suitable conformation, and ditching the day job was revealed as no panacea. Aesop had wizened up to the implacable realities of life, and in the process lost that innocence sacred to everyone doggedly chasing their dreams. My dad would probably like that stuff more, but I don’t.
45. Blu & Exile – Below the Heavens (2007)
Below the Heavens is an incredibly produced album (thanks Exile) with an incredibly talented emcee (thanks Blu) that is blessed with some serious mic skills. While Exile (of 2006 Dirty Science fame) is dope in his own right behind the boards, with nice dusty, bouncy, sample reliant beats, Blu is undoubtedly the star of the show. With brashness, immeasurable confidence and a hint of comedy, he has what folks in the industry better know as “it.” And though Exile is nowhere near a new jack on the scene—he is best known for his production work as half of Emanon with Aloe Blacc—Blu may be considered exactly that. What is so refreshing about Below the Heavens is that it sounds as if it isn’t a debut album from an inexperienced emcee and producer. From beginning to end it plays as if it were a highly polished effort from a triple platinum duo.
Blu & Exile cover all the bases. From the opening bars of “Simply Amazin“, Blu sounds so hungry, it’s as if he’s runnin’ a marathon while he’s rapping. Then there are introspective cuts such as “Good Life (Show Me),” feel-good jams like “Dancing In The Rain,” the club-ready, Aloe Blacc-assisted “Party Of Two,” and the radio friendly bounce of “First Things First.” Superb.
44. Masta Ace – A Long Hot Summer (2004)
By the time A Long Hot Summer dropped, I was active on one of the few hip hop related boards I visit much, mastaace.com. It was on there that I learned that Ace was going to be dropping another album, something that we had all hoped for was coming to fruition. What we eventually heard was as good, if not better than Disposable Arts. Similar to his previous effort, Ace brings a conceptual focus to A Long Hot Summer. The first track, “Big City”, picks right up where Disposable Arts ended. Backed by a wicked Dug Infinite beat, Ace rides the acoustic canvas effortlessly as he speaks on the hustle of coming up in the Big Apple. The first half of the album is near flawless, and after Fats comes on and explains his hustle and how Ace’s character plays into it, we jump into possibly the best track found on A Long Hot Summer, the album’s second single, “Da Grind”. Produced by another Justus League beatsmith, Khrysis, the mellow beat tosses a fat strike down the middle of the plate–it sticks in your head and stays like an unwanted guest. Ace and his homie, Apocalypse, discuss how hard it is to earn your living in the rap game–the ideal soundtrack before heading out to the 9 to 5 grind.
Fats and Ace eventually discuss a “business venture”, we figure out the former’s schemes, Ace and Fats get busted, and Ace ends up in the clink. The end of the album “Revelations,” is Ace’s answer to “Dear Diary” and “No Regrets” found on Disposable Arts–had it come out before, it surely would’ve been the one everyone talked about four years later.
MP3: Masta Ace-“Da Grind”
43. T.I. – King (2006)
It’s tempting to say that if it weren’t for “What You Know” T.I.’s career wouldn’t have shot into the stratosphere, but the rest of King proves that Clifford Harris was already well on his way to appearing in Ridley Scott movies and topping the Billboard charts, even if his Roberta Flack-interpolating behemoth never existed. Revisiting King, “What You Know” still shines as brightly, but what’s most striking about T.I.’s fourth full-length is how well it synthesizes the styles T.I. had been working on since I’m Serious, and how on subsequent albums, he would return to the templates perfected and erected on King, albeit unable to recapture the dirt-under-the-nails scowl and snot-nosed unrespectability that infused songs like “I’m Straight,” where he sounds almost repulsed by the prospect of being a pop star: “You can keep the game and the fame, the haters and the lames/ Just gimme some cocaine and somewhere I can slang.”
King has the best versions of every kind of T.I. song: the Mannie Fresh Trunk-Rattler (“Top Back”), the Bankhead Anthem (“Bankhead,” duh), the Produced By An East Coast Producer Doing A “Southern” Beat song (the pair of Just Blaze tracks “King Back” and “I’m Talking to You”), the Unexpected Left-Field Collaboration (“Goodlife,” with Common). Hell, even the songs for the ladies are charming. King is the sound of a monarch assuming his throne and donning his crown — or in T.I.’s case, his almost-falling-off fitted cap.
MP3: T.I.-“What You Know”
42. Quasimoto – The Unseen (2000)
Who is Quasimoto? That’s the question Madlib posed in 2000, essentially pulling a Usual Suspects PR strategy to boost his profile and new project: An adenoidal sputter-mouth who sporadically utters a mixture of weedspeak, truncated violence, and jokes, transmitted through a perpetual state of blunted ennui. In Madlib’s most inspired foray into self-effacement, he sped up his voice in the studio, creating a pseudo move that was lo-fi and simple in its approach but deft in its execution, giving his most deranged yuks license to run wild through 24 of his most basic, bong-brained beats. Many people who discovered The Unseen did so through the now-arcane Napster, downloading each of the brief songs and piecing the album together like a jigsaw puzzle. And that’s tricky, because it is pretty easy to see how many people’s love for the album is built upon that nostalgia. But it’s interchangeable: In either situation, cherishing this album comes with internalizing the logic of its delirious universe.
41. De La Soul – The Grind Date (2004)
Consider The Grind Date a guide to aging gracefully in hip-hop. It’s not that hard to do; let Pos and Dave show you how.
Start with strong, sonically unified production. The Grind Date’s producer lineup is serious. De La are blessed with fantastic beats by Madlib, Dilla, Jake One and regular collaborator Supa Dave West, and a surprisingly dope 9th Wonder production on “The Future”. The tracks are filled with thick bass lines and hard drums. Dilla’s mix of turning signals, reverberating strings and pounding bass on “Verbal Clap” spurs Pos and Dave to spit their hardest verses since Stakes Is High. On “Shopping Bags”, Madlib slices and splices Just-Ice’s “Cold Getting Dumb” until it sounds like the beat was played on empty glass bottles. Jake One’s thunderous, piano-driven thump on “Rock. Co. Kane Flow”. Supa Dave West dependably provides soulful boom-bap backed by gorgeous vocal samples on “He Comes”, “The Future” and “The Grind Date”.
Next, add age-appropriate features. Guest spots are provided by fellow borderline AARP members Common, Ghostface and MF Doom, each of who brings his A-game. Even newcomer Butta Verses acquits himself nicely over “No”. Doom actually switches his flow up to complement the stuttering piano on “Rock. Co.Kane Flow” and Common sounds genuinely energized on “Days of Our Lives”. The album suffers when De La take an avenue through rap and bullshit on “It’s like That” with neutered Carl Thomas and Yummy Bingham’s caterwauling on the overly soft “Much More”. And yet their attempts at R&B influenced hip hop are still more listenable than most of the efforts of rap groups half their age.
Finally, and most importantly, keep it short and strong. De La heed the GZA’s advice to “[m]ake it brief son, half short and twice strong“. The Grind Date is 12 tracks, devoid of intros, outros or skits, save for a brief interlude on “Church”. Four years later, The Grind Date still provides an exemplary guide to aging comfortably in hip-hop; less trying to get into the club in your sweats, more didactism-free reflection on adult life. If only more 30+ rappers followed suit.
40. Nas – The Lost Tapes (2002)
When Illmatic dropped, it was like the rap world stopped. It was a moment when every person that was into real hip hop paused their schedules to fully ingest, process and comprehend the dopeness that was the birth of one our greatest emcess to ever touch the mike. As Nas progressed with his career, still dope, but mad inconsistent with each subsequent release, I lost more and more interest in him as the rap world resumed its hectic pace. I damn near forgot how dope he was, how dope he could be, until Lost Tapes dropped.
It was after “Ether” and it was so cohesive and complete that it reminded me how brilliant Nas was—is. He should have dropped that right after “Illmatic.” No frills, just great understated production and twelve songs that fit together as a complete CD.
39. UGK – Underground Kingz (2007)
Take the contrast between Bun B’s composed smoothness and Pimp C’s dagger-stab sneer, and lay those voices over the apotheosis of ‘70s-soul throwback, Southern-style g-funk—a mood perspiring simultaneously with menace, celebration, confidence and anxiety. That’s the immediate musical appeal of UGK, and by the time Underground Kingz came out they’d expanded their post-Tupac haunted gangsta narratives to the extent where carrying a double CD sounded deceptively easy. The guest spots help—an ’88 vintage Too $hort, a triumphantly defiant Z-Ro, Kweli spitting double-time (!), Scarface as the proud godfather, and, most famously, the best performance OutKast’s contributed to rap since Stankonia. But it’s always clear who runs the show on this record, and UGK’s presence—deconstructing the drug and sex trades, defending their home turf, representing the anti-shit-taking ethos of the streets, and coming through it all still sounding like men with consciences—makes this one of rap’s finest antihero statements. 105-degree noir behind the wheel of an Eldorado.
38. The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come for Free (2004)
In theory, it’s the worst sort of album. The self-absorbed, grandiose, convoluted concept record. Mike Skinner is a smart lad, and knew the stakes–alienating his audience and squandering the goodwill built up from his first album was a probability. Then the world got a listen of A Grand Don’t Come for Free, and all was forgiven.
Skinner took a rather mundane storyline, and turned it into one of the edgiest, most contemplative, and striking listening experiences of the decade. Carefully utilizing his casual yet captivating flow—his greatest strength—Skinner keeps his storyline grounded in a way that makes his characters come alive, as if they could be any one of your friends—or even yourself. Considering the ambitiousness of the lyrical content, the most remarkable thing about the record is its deft and sometimes graceful soundtrack. From the hopeless romantic love story of “Could Well Be In” to the paranoia and blurry vision conveyed by “Blinded by the Lights” to the populist-reflective “Empty Cans,” Skinner alleviates his story’s more melodramatic moments by endearing them with the most human of concerns, but stays away from pure sermonizing. And even when Skinner does approach the limits of self-pity and cliché on “Dry Your Eyes,” he embeds it with a chorus so strong you’d have to be born with frostbite not to feel anything.
It’s arguable that the music gets lost among the overall concept, which would be a valid complaint, especially when you consider that Skinner’s career post-Grand seems to center around entirely self-absorbed propositions. But it’s hard to complain about a record so illuminating and special as this, which, over 5 years after its release, still sounds like nothing else out on the market.
37. El-P – Fantastic Damage (2002)
Like El-P’s heroes the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s ear mashing production team, your girlfriend should rightfully hate almost every track on his debut album, 2002’s Fantastic Damage. At least the Bomb Squad produced BBD’s “Poison”.
Dance with the land sharks clutching meat, ugly!
Fantastic Damage could’ve been released during Rawkus’ heyday and still garnered fanfare and critical praise. But it just wouldn’t feel right handing in the most accurate and apocalyptic take on life post-9/11 to a bunch of guys buying used Benzes with “Simon Says” money.
Walking with a bag full of kittens, take me to the river then throw yourself in.
FanDam is Def Jux through and through, and Def Jux has opened the floodgates for successful paranoid rap that’s more Philip K. Dick than Bushwick Bill. It all started with an album about a squeegee man getting killed, a factory crafting class A type 1 parental units fueled by booze, and postcards dispatched from Dead Disnee.
Why do things we define beautiful undermine power?
FanDam’s beats are un-ringtone-able. The lyrics will never be chanted at clubs filled with drunken coeds on a Thursday night. Conceptually, FanDam is David Lynch doing shrooms with Kool Keith. Moments of carnage mutate into snapshots of metal jawed vulnerability. Lead single “Deep Space 9mm” bangs with layers of dusty digital samples almost 2 minutes before El spits a bar. “T.O.J.” is emo-rap aboard the Nebuchadnezzar. “Constellation Funk” is beautiful like the mushroom cloud in Watchmen.
Signed to Rawkus?!?
If the answer to that question isn’t “I’d rather be mouthfucked by Nazis unconscious!”, the proper response could be: “I’d rather be crafting the most blistering mission statement for myself and my new upstart indie label where upon my friends and I nearly dominant the 2000’s with shit like this!”
36. Little Brother – The Listening (2003)
Although Little Brother’s auspicious debut album The Listening might lack the populist high notes (hits!) to kick it into Great territory, it’d be difficult to find a hip hop fan who finds it disagreeable. But its contextual relevancy has come to outrank its, uh, audio “Listening” impact.
The Listening dropped in 2003. First generation Eminem still ruled the world; Dre had actually recently released an album; The Roots and Dave Chappelle and Mos Def and that whole east coast Generation: Next crowd seemed to be on the cusp of tightening up America’s cultural underbelly. Hip Hop was about to be the ideal American Alpha-male; brains, style, dollars, and a six-pack to boot. Soulja Boy was an unknown 13-year old at the time.
This was how great rap groups emerged out of the primordial ooze, the classic three man stage crew: You got your Producer/DJ, 9th Wonder, who was the next/new Dilla. Immediately recruited to play ball with the big boys on The Black Album. You had Phonte, a front man with the skills, voice, and charisma to keep haters at bay. And Rapper Big Pooh, the archetypal sidekick, pushing his skills to the limit, earning respect for his earnest effort if not for his imagination or creative substance.
You couldn’t sketch the blueprint any better. This was the tried and true model. The new wave of Golden Era. Contemporary Classic: The new De La, the new Tribe, but not encumbered by retro-nostalgia. They were among the first using new media with old grassroots traditions. They had the co-signs from everyone — artists, media, fans. This was what we thought everyone was waiting for.
And then they sold maybe 30K units. And that was it: the breakup, disenchantment, innocence lost was inevitable. Not just them, the whole culture. People were listening, but they just didn’t seem to care anymore.
MP3: Little Brother-“The Listening”
35. Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III (2008)
No individual embodies the wilderness hip hop has wandered off to like Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. Fuck the contrarian bullshit; Wayne began the 21st century a boy, an also-ran regional rapper in the Nawlins shadows of Juvenile, B.G. and the Fresh bounce. Post his forced emancipation, Wayne developed a partnership with Philly weirdo Gillie Da Kid and interned with a Diplomat camp that spent the early half of the decade jabbing the traditional punchline/metaphor with a cattle prod. Wayne focused on the pop ephemera of his childhood. He sharpened and refined an ability to deconstruct words at an alchemical level as he farted around with delivery on his Sqad Up mixtapes. You can point to
his steam-building major label records and attention garnering MP3s like tracing a constellation, but the coronation waited until the summer of 2008, when Wayne emerged a Hunter S. Thompson styled man/beast.
Tha Carter III was innovative not just in style but form, eschewing all conception of narrative or semblance of cohesion, yet faithfully steeped in Wayne’s willful strangeness. (See: Song skits like “Dr. Carter”, the self-aware “Let the Beat Build,” absurd concepts like “Mrs. Officer” turned mainstream grabs, the playful wink in the recurring Macho Man references). For the album in a song look no further than “A Milli”, ubiquitous last summer with every rapper/weed carrier/R&B schmoe trying their hand at rapping over an obscure, screwed Phife snippet ping-ponging around choppy snares, none approaching the original’s deranged aggression.
This is Lil’ Wayne’s Ficciones. A bright, shining realization of style certified on the biggest stage with a platinum plaque at a moment in which numbers that gaudy had become a distant memory. It’s crazy and courageous, absurd in a way only this generation’s Hip Hop can be. Hate it or love it, it’s an album whose impact will be felt for decades to come.
MP3: Lil Wayne-“Let the Beat Build”
34. MF Doom (as Viktor Vaughn) – Vaudeville Villain (2003)
In 2003, to use the parlance of the times, MF Doom was a known unknown. After resurrecting his career in the late 90’s with the stunning Operation Doomsday, Doom continued to work under the radar, dropping baffling side projects featuring deranged alter egos. Of these, none could compete with Viktor Vaughn and the time traveling 90’s hard rock of Vaudeville Villain. Conceived as a younger alternative to Doom, Vaughn gave Daniel Dumile an outlet to combine the hardcore rhymes of his Black Bastard Days with an updated multi-syllabic storytelling style. Imagine if Biggie never signed with Puff, was homeless for a few years and then began to write in the 3rd person and you’re halfway there.
Though ostensibly a concept album, the plot is shaky and Vaudeville Villain works best as a collection of short stories. Whether he’s robbing the elderly, going back in time to save his Donkey Kong game-watch or shooting up a wack open mic night, Viktor does it with style, humor and an eye for detail matching the best period pieces. A love letter to old school New York, the album is filled to the brim with purposefully outdated slang, dark post-Wu boom-bap and a love of language that makes V “the emcee who’s as nasty as nose hair”.
Upstaged by the stoned delirium of Madvillainy, Vaudeville Villain pointed towards another direction for Doom. Putting the premium on storytelling and gun talk instead of blunted philosophy, the Viktor Vaughn character is a singular achievement in emceeing, an album delivering a totally new style at a time when few rappers took the time to flesh out even a single persona.
33. Q-Tip – The Renaissance (2008)
Imagine that, whether by choice or not, you had the opportunity to create some piece of art. (For the purposes of this argument, we’ll assume you’re already a talented artist of some sort. A daring assumption, I know.) Given these 100+ months, would you not do everything you can to ensure that said piece of art is both successful and fulfilling? Of course you would. And wouldn’t that long time period give you the chance to perfect and distill everything you hoped to accomplish with your art? (Incidentally, this is why debut albums are generally better than the follow-up. You have 25 years to make your debut and two tops for the second.) Q-Tip is quite familiar with this proposition.
Following 1999’s vastly underrated Amplified, the Tribe frontman took those nine years to make his proper follow-up (Kamaal/The Abstract doesn’t count), and it’s all the better for the wait. Pop and boom-bap mix in proper doses. His rhymes are tight. His confidence lazily engulfs each and every track, and we’re left with Q’s best performance since Midnight Marauders. Sure, it’s maybe sacrilege to prefer this to any Tribe, but when it’s this good, that’s the truth.
32. Masta Ace – Disposable Arts (2001)
If you could have laid odds in Vegas that forgotten Juice Crew legend Masta Ace, would have enjoyed one of the most improbable career renaissances nearly a decade after his first record, then you would be undoubtedly be a very rich man. Masta Ace was a forgotten footnote of the Golden Age when he dropped his career re-defining underground classic, Disposable Arts, a record best described as The Blueprint of post-millennial indie rap.
Disposable Arts is a concept record dealing with Ace’s return to rap after being dormant for nearly five years and discovering the art form that he had left behind had become “disposable.” Explicitly dealing with his own re-education at a fictional hip hop-based community college, “IDA”, the record traverses many of the archetypal underground rap material that became staples of the movement during the decade. Confessional rap (“Dear Diary”), braggadocio sex rap (“I Like Dat”), battle rap (“Acknowledge”), Common-esque love songs (“Hold U”), crime rap (“Block Episode”) and strict lyrical exercise (“Alphabet Soup”) all sit next to each other on a thoroughly cohesive and entertaining record that turned Ace into indie rap royalty. It also features the only known, semi-tolerable appearance of MC Paul Barman in the history of rap music.
You can call this record a comeback. Hell, call it a resurrection.
31. The Streets — Original Pirate Material (2002)
With the release of Original Pirate Material in 2002, The Streets managed to pull off the rare feat of putting out an authentically hip hop album despite its representation of a culture so very foreign to hip hop’s American origins. Delivered with an accent and slang that is one hundred per cent Cockney, in a tempo as much spoken word as it is rap, Original Pirate Material is easy to dismiss as something other than hip hop. Yet perhaps more so than any other album released this decade, Original Pirate Material demonstrates the true essence of emceeing, filled with tales that any hip hop head can relate to, from girl troubles to run-ins with the Bobbies. It’s a testament to how good Skinner is at the art of storytelling that an American listener can come away from this album with an understanding that we all go through the same trials and tribulations, no matter where in the world we might be living.
30. El-P — I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007)
The migraine mid-point between Nine Inch Nails and the Bomb Squad. Math rap. Bombs + Nails = the sort of weapon built by suicide squads intent on creating obscene carnage. If last time, the damage was fantastic, now it’s fatal. El-P’s masterpiece is both explicit and subtle, political and apolitical—a snarling, maladjusted multi-tentacled beast capable of belting you in the stomach and picking your pocket in one foul swoop.
Like all geniuses, Jamie Meline has an attitude problem, a natural abrasiveness addled by a half-decade on the sidelines watching the last vapors of American dream dissipate. Those were schizophrenic times, hazily recalled in these hamstrung days of lost swagger and partially regained pride. If you ever forget what it felt like during that tabloid torpor of shaved Spears heads and Schiavo, Abu Ghraib and Ashcroft, listen to I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. Not only did El-P mainline the collective unconscious, he simultaneously established an entirely new paradigm for Five-Borough rap.
While his peers tried to re-create the New York sound, El-P tried to capture what the city sounds like: jackhammers, car alarms, horns and hangovers, the voices of everyone from Cat Power, to TV on the Radio, to Trent Reznor himself, disguised and warped like a cocaine nightmare. When the self-professed “Brooklyn baby / Waterlocked, walkin’ nervous” declared that his “gonzomatic fear was turning him Hunter S. Thompson,” he spoke for everyone who understood the idea that isn’t paranoia when they’re really out to get you. —Jeff Weiss
29. Wale — The Mixtape About Nothing (2008)
Yeah, that new Discovery album would be absolutely worthless if it didn’t provide a death blow to Sasha Frere-Jones’ well-intentioned but completely dubious complaint about how indie rock can only benefit from adopting African-American styles of music. Of course, the most obvious response was every bit as dubious, if not well-intentioned: shouldn’t it be a two-way street? Well, that’s how we ended up with XXL Freshman 10 Rap, wherein rappers who might otherwise be worth a shit co-opted everything entitled and annoying about indie rock culture, ending up with a microgenre that became a joke even compared to the likes of hip-house, horrorcore, ringtone rap and intimate crunk. At least those had some kind of commercial viability, however short-lived.
In that context, it’s all the more amazing that Wale’s Mixtape About Nothing came from this scene—where his peers had their heads firmly shoved up their ass, Wale was intelligent, thoughtful and coherent. Instead of jacking for beats by getting his fingers dusty in Stereogum’s year-end list, he found inspiration in mid-90’s East Coast knock, DC electro and trap beats, essentially distilling the essence of being a 21st century rap fan with no qualms about region recognition. Of course, a trail of collaborations with the likes of 9th Wonder, Lady Gaga and TV On The Radio is worrying to everyone hoping he ends up making a non-shitty record on Interscope, but as is, The Mixtape About Nothing at least made it feel like suffering through Charles Hamilton and Asher Roth was worth it at some point. —Ian Cohen
MP3: Wale-“The Kramer”
28. The Game — The Documentary (2005)
Imagine the 2000 Portland Trailblazers winning three championships in a row instead of the Lakers or the 2004 Yankees; a team where the most obscure everyday player was Miguel Cairo, steamrolling the Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals for their 27th championship.
Dr. Dre and 50 Cent literally bought themselves a championship when constructing The Documentary for Jayceon Taylor. This album needs to be held in a CD case for the rest of its existence; the liner notes make the comparisons to the Jailblazers and George Steinbrenner apt.
- Dr. Dre
- Scott Storch
- Just Blaze
- Kanye West
- Cool & Dre
- Mr. Porter
Read that list again.
For a newcomer who had a non-descript flow, an addiction to name dropping almost every entertainer in the business, and a fetish for lyrically placing himself in the lead roles of Boyz N Da Hood and Menace II Society, The Game hit the Powerball. Timbaland and Kanye supplied two of the heaviest bangers of their careers (“Put You On the Game”, “Dreams”). 50 Cent unveiled the most realistic depiction of his childhood ever for 20 bars on “Hate it or Love It.” And Just Blaze detonated two pipe bombs that were strictly album cuts (“Church for Thugs”, “No More Fun and Games”).
Some guys release great albums on a whim or by making the right material at the right time. The Game’s The Documentary is the most non-organic classic hip hop LP arguably ever. Anti-Illmatic in its inception, pro-Michael Bay in its content and focus group testing. It’s hip hop’s “We Are the World” and The Game is Dan Akroyd in the back row of the video, just happy to be in the same room as Steve Perry, Cyndi Lauper, and Hall & Oates.
27. Edan — Beauty and the Beat (2005)
Edan Portnoy had one goal while crafting his second album: to “put Syd Barrett’s face on Biz Markie’s body” with “Kool G Rap’s brain”. The Boston-born producer/rapper pulled samples of psychedelic rock, 60s pop, and garage rock through the filter of late 80s hip hop to shape Beauty and the Beat’s distinctive sound.
Edan’s flow is vaguely reminiscent of a young LL or G Rap, but his golden age influences become more evident on specific tracks. Bronx pioneer Percee P pops up on battle rap seminar “Torture Chamber”, ferociously ripping through the churning guitars of Pink Floyd’s “On The Run”. “Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme” is a history lesson on the evolution of the emcee, from Cold Crush to Nas. “The Science of the Two” pairs Edan with fellow Bostonian Insight as the two trade lines over murder mystery organs that mutate into a slowed-down flip of ESG’s “UFO”.
Edan strings together an impressive array of band names over the scorching guitars of “Rock N Roll”, making him probably the first rapper to mention the 13th Floor Elevators and the Pretty Things in his rhymes. He even acknowledges his psych-rap predecessors on “I See Colours”, confessing to copping the same loop Prince Paul used for “Open Your Mouth”.
The genius of Beauty and the Beat lies in its knack for framing psychedelic rock conventions in a hip-hop context. “Smile” spills over with feedback, as a backwards guitar loop accompanies Edan’s tale of a troubled musical visionary. “Making Planets” samples L.A. garage/psych band The Music Machine’s version of “Hey Joe”, which morphs into a forceful blues rock riff for Mr. Lif’s fierce guest verse. Beauty and the Beat’s quality transcends accusations of gimmickry; Edan’s fusion of 60s psychedelia and 80s hip hop is not only creative, it’s eminently listenable. Who knew rock and roll could hip hop like this?
26. OutKast — Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)
Other OutKast albums may be lyrically more inventive (Aquemini) or may have spawned more hits (Stankonia), but no OutKast album better reflects the dichotomy within the band itself. Big Boi and Andre 3000, while friends and partners, are vastly different, and these two solo-albums-sold-together, were the perfect mechanism to celebrate those differences.
Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx featured witty tales of street life, dressing smart, and partying, with amazing hits like “The Way You Move,” “Bowtie,” and “Church.” Dre’s album was more experimental, offering only one monster single (“Hey Ya”) to conventional OutKast fans. In fact, Andre produced Kelis’ “Millionaire” and Gwen Stefani’s “Long Way to Go” for The Love Below, but chose not to include these top 40 hits. The result was a moody, wild ride through Andre’s consistently off-beat imagination.
Together, these albums showcase the power of hip hop to create both traditional “songs” and genre-crossing compositions. I can’t think of any band that has ever done this better.
25. Ghostface Killah — The Pretty Toney Album (2004)
One of the great ironies of Ghostface Killah’s chameleonic solo career is the more he actively chased commercial success, the more fervently it eluded him. The Pretty Toney LP is Ghost’s most brazenly commercial move of his career and inversely, it’s also
an album that decidedly sold plastic wood grain numbers. Acknowledging this truth does not mean that the Pretty Toney LP is a bad record. Far from it. Dennis Coles simply does not make anything less than classic records and Pretty Toney is no different. The album’s pores are flush with the type of hot buttered soulful goodness that we’ve come to expect from Ghost.
Pretty Toney is like the classic R&B records that provide the lush samples throughout the album. It is dripping with sex and sweetness but with an urban grit and grime alluding to the turmoil of the times that birthed it. The album somehow makes room for the dance club assault of Missy Elliott on “Tush”, Ghost’s mournful crooning over a classic interpretation of the Delfonic’s “La La Means I Love You” on “Holla”, and the unrelenting, how-they-do-that pyrotechnics of Jadakiss-assisted “Run.” Each of these seem
perfectly at home on this fascinating record. It’s your move, Jay-Z.
—B.J. “The Good Doctor Zeus” Steiner
24. MF DOOM — MM..Food (2004)
Elusive as he may be, MF DOOM can always be counted on to drop a cohesive project, and MM..Food is no exception. Saturated by a spice rack selection of jazz, rock and soul samples, choppy drum breaks, quirky cartoon snippets and other oddball additions, MM..Food is soufflé for the alternative rap addict’s aural taste buds. Fusing the realms of geekdom and purist hip hop, DOOM makes nerd rap cool with his witty lyricism and added zest of boom bap. Though lacking in energetic delivery, DOOM’s clever wordplay nevertheless offers glimpses of comic genius throughout. Unlike most new-gen rap records, which are served as buffet tables with pick-and-choose track selections, MM..Food is enjoyed best in one sitting—a full course meal if you will—fast-forward button unnecessary.
MP3: MF Doom-“Kookies”
23. The Roots — Game Theory (2006)
The Roots talked a lot of shit after Things Fall Apart without backing it up. They’d seen their base drop out beneath them and their diehards move on to whiter and powdery pastures. When they finally got around to releasing Phrenology it triggered one of the most pervasive “meh”s ever, and it really didn’t help when they released 2004’s The Tipping Point—an album as lifeless, schizophrenic and unfocused as its predecessor. But Game Theory was an absolute triumph. By revisiting the relentless tenacity and claustrophobic desperation of Illadelph Halflife, the Roots delivered their finest work since, well, Illadelph Halflife.
There’s a gritty energy to Game Theory, a focus and sonic scope that’s as far away from the lush Fender Rhodes infested neo-soul as one could possibly hope for. Guitars and strings swell around cascading keyboards, while ?uestlove’s drums (finally) pop with an urgency he’d never quite been able to capture before. Black Thought, meanwhile, remained the prototypical underrated rapper of his time, a real MC whose mastery of rap’s technical skills—flow, breath control, word choice—had been overshadowed by the valid sentiment he had little to no discernible personality or charisma. On Game Theory, however, Thought sounded completely rejuvenated, hungry for the first time in a decade, and no longer rhyming for the sake of rhyming.
The Roots got playful (“Baby”), political (“False Media), and Beck-y (“Living in the New World”). They were still a little preachy about what is and isn’t “the real” (“Don’t Feel Right”), but still willing to let Peedi Peedi rip the shit out of “Long Time Comin.” And while the loss of J. Dilla served as explicit inspiration for the record’s eight-minute sonic exploration, “Can’t Stop This,” Game Theory’s loose playing, but painstaking attention to atmosphere was the true Jay-Dee tribute. With Game Theory, The Roots finally delivered on nearly every once-broken promise.
22. M.O.P. — Warriorz (2000)
Warriorz was the last great boom bap rap album. And not boom bap in the modernized, unquantized hand clap and filtered bassline, adult contemporary for the aging backpacker definition, but boom bap as in the sound of skulls crushed between pavement and Timberlands. The production, handled primarily by DJ Premier and Fame himself, was vintage Brooklyn headphone music. Fame and Danz, too, had fully evolved into great rappers beyond just their rowdy reps. They were funny, nostalgic and unforgiving.
MP3: M.O.P.-“Cold as Ice”
21. Common — Like Water for Chocolate (2000)
Recorded during the same sessions as D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun; Common’s Like Water for Chocolate’s very creation can be viewed as a statement. Openly rejecting gangsta bravado and all-digital production, the album instead found inspiration in the history of black music and the revolutionary politics of the civil rights movement, marking itself as a consciously mature and intellectual alternative to the chart toppers of its era. With Common rapping about love, freedom and the state of the black community, Like Water for Chocolate earned the Chicago emcee his first taste of mainstream success even as it alienated those who criticized the record as “soft” and lacking the grit of previous releases. Ten years later however, Like Water for Chocolate reveals itself to be a vital testament to one of the decade’s most progressive musical collectives.
At the album’s heart lie the grooves of James “Dilla” Yancey, then credited as Jay Dee. Building on the sparse funk and offbeat sampling of the then-delayed Fantastic Vol. 2, Dilla provided the core of the album’s production, lacing the project with heavy bass, thick drums and laid-back loops. From there, collaborators including ?uestlove, James Poyser, D’Angelo and Kariem Riggins, under the banner of the Soulquarians, would embellish the tracks with added percussion and instrumentation, giving the album a live, organic sound then uncommon to underground hip hop. The high-minded musicality of this collective, along with Common’s increasingly worldly concerns proved that hip hop could age gracefully without losing its edge or dynamic energy. Stretching far beyond the genre’s minimalist roots, the crew pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible in rap musically while still remaining committed to the uncompromising ideology of their predecessors. Though conceived in opposition to the trends of its day, Like Water for Chocolate remains vital not because of what it isn’t but because of the hip hop, funk, jazz, soul, and afrobeat that it is.
MP3: Common-“Dooin’ It”
20. Common — Be (2005)
Ever held out hope that one day your favorite artist’s stars would align for them to create an opus? They’d find creative lyrics, content that matched their maturity level and a production quality that held it all together. That’s been my journey with Chicago’s Lonnie Lynn and me—he as an artist and me as an avid follower reached that pinnacle with 2005’s Be. With Kanye handling the bulk of the production, the sound stage was set and Common excelled by doing a range of styles (the story of “Testify” and the fast-paced hum of “Go”) while managing to tackle adult content (“Faithful” and “Love Is”) and still
proved himself lyrical (“Chi-City” and “The Corner”).
MP3: Common-“Chi City”
19. Slum Village — The Fantastic Vol. 2 (2000)
There’s never been an apt comparison for Slum Village—individually and collectively, they’re simply three weird dudes.
If you look at hip hop post-Vol. 2, you begin to realize how weird a lot of MC’s and producers really are and how tired fellow Native Tongue-like cats were of being boxed into the asexual, tree-huggin’ category of “conscious rap.” The Roots, Common, Mos Def, and more immediately became more loose, more funky, more profane, and more whimsical after Vol. 2 was released. Dilla’s soul warming beats played a huge part, sure. But more importantly, T3 and Baatin simultaneously lowered the lyrical bar while raising the stakes on content for rappers who weren’t flat out gangsta nor subterranean.
Fantastic Vol. 2 is S Villa inviting the uptight, serious minded haters over to a house party, and then blowin’ trees and smashing said haters’ jawns in the spare bedrooms. “Players” is actually a diss record to some cats in the D; it’s also drenched in disco claps and has a bass line that sounds like how gummy worms taste. “Get Dis Money” celebrates success after toiling in obscurity “where the radio would never ever play some of that Detroit Motor City” funk (and it’s arguably their best song). “Raise It Up” is some ignant-ass Big Willie gangsta shit over sweet Terminator synths that welcome you and then ultimately bash your skull in.
Fantastic Vol. 2 is groundbreaking because it doesn’t require work to listen to it, yet it’s just as technically fascinating and quirky as more celebrated and cerebral albums. And that’s the best kind of innovation: when no one knows at the time that the game is being changed because we’re too busy singing “I don’t know why the fuck I’m fucking with you… you, you, you!”
18. Clipse — Lord Willin’ (2002)
Back before the Pitchforkerati followed the Thornton brothers’ every move, the Clipse released a surprisingly successful record called Lord Willin’. While not as cohesive, fabled, or lauded as its successor, it was certainly more fun. Even back then the Clipse were pretty obsessed with drugs, money, and drug money, but prior to the label troubles, they actually seemed to enjoy things. Clubs, cars, and family come to the forefront here. Unlike on Hell Hath No Fury, these things aren’t remnants of since passed simpler times. On Lord Willin’, they’re still living those simple times.
Additionally, the Neptunes are in fine form here. 2002 was the beginning of the peak of their success, so the Clipse served as their vessel for hip hop experimentation. Where Hell Hath No Fury tended to lean towards downbeat burners, Lord Willin’ showcases exuberant horns, skittering hi-hats, and bouncy rhythms. While this would foreshadow the production duo’s unfortunate Vegas infatuation, on here, with these voices, it works. The dichotomy between the subject matter and the sounds produced created a tension that consistently shocks and intrigues.
Though the fatalism that would permeate their later work (“Virginia”) is still present, it’s not so overwhelming that you feel bad for the guys. Back in ’02, they were just a couple of promising rappers with some pretty cool friends. The problems they would soon encounter may have produced a better album, but Lord Willin’ is surely the better memory.
17. Clipse — Hell Hath No Fury (2006)
Fuck the haters. Anyone who beefs with this album invariably has the same criticism: The monotony of Clipse’s drug talk interferes with enjoying the music. What’s inaccurate about that statement is that Clipse’s drug talk never lapses into tedium. The great lines on this album are unending, whether about women (“Brain like Teri, face like Eva/I ain’t forgetting them other housewives neither”), cash (“Peel money rolls ‘til our thumbs get the papercuts”), ice (“Take it to Jacob and play which hue’s the bluest”) and, obviously, cocaine (“Open the Frigidaire, 25-to-life in here/So much white you’d think your Holy Christ is near”). For 11 tracks, the Clipse use acerbic wordplay to impart their world of drug-slinging, guns, and money; simultaneously inverting the Neptunes fractured disco into fastidious atonality—recalling no wave, industrial, the more avant side of Krautrock, and noise in its patches of chilling brutality. But the Clipse flip the script with the stunning coda “Nightmares,” where over a funereal organ and gentle acoustic guitar they admit the fear and paranoia that comes with such a guiltless and cutthroat path: “Still I creep low thinking niggas trying to harm me/Hoping my karma ain’t coming back here to haunt me.” The mad real world, indeed.
16. Nas — Stillmatic (2001)
Stillmatic was wholly implied to be a return-to-form. The album was supposed to mark the reemergence of the hyper-poetic kid from the world’s largest housing projects, who was eventually ditched in favor of drug dealer and prophet personae. No one pretended not to know what album Nasir Jones was referring to with that album title; it’s only the unequivocal greatest record in hip-hop history. “They thought I’d make another Illmatic,” Nas snorts during the dramatic chipmunk-soul-tinged intro, “But it’s always forward I’m movin’/Never backwards, stupid/Here’s another classic.” Nas snuffs out the whispers of “sequel” or “retread” in the second couplet of the entire album; he’s got bigger fish to fry this time around.
Enter track two: “Ether.” Rap’s precise equivalent to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson catching a Stone Cold Stunner at Wrestlemania XV, Nas’ response to Jay-Z’s diss-track “The Takeover” delivered a blow so seismic, that even now—almost eight years later—fans the world over use the song’s title as a fucking verb. However, underneath all of the taunts of Jay and Dame Dash’s Biggie/Puffy-kinky-roleplaying, Nas reveals his vulnerability and reluctance to pull the trigger: “What’s sad is I love you, ’cause you’re my brother/You traded your soul for riches.” However, Stillmatic would be a long-shot away from one of the best rap records of the decade if it were placed squarely on the shoulders of the mighty “Ether.”
Over the course of the long-player, Jones solidified his spot as one of rap’s greatest writers with “Second Childhood”—a heartbreaking portrait of ‘hood-dwellers who struggle with the concept of growing up, and featuring what is possibly the best DJ Premier chop of the young century—and “Rewind,” a typical life-in-the-’hood tale, with the literary twist of being delivered in backwards-chronological-order. Nas increased his viability as a performer with the chilling “One Mic,” taking the quiet-loud-quiet structure long-used in rock music, and bringing it to the rap realm. More than anything, however, Stillmatic represents a mercurial talent rising from the graveyard in which fans and peers left him, brushing the dirt off his Fila kicks, and occasionally expressing his desolation prior his big comeback bout with Hov: “Wish I could flap wings and fly away/To where black kings and Ghana stay,” Nas laments, crestfallen, on “You’re da Man,” unaware that Stillmatic would guide his ascent back to the land of rap royalty.
15. Reflection Eternal — Train of Thought (2000)
Train of Thought is never “out there,” nor is it traditionalist boom-bap. There’s loads of R&B singers in the mix but it never gets soulquarian. It didn’t have Slum Village’s gusto, or Mos Def’s earnest b-boyism, or Common’s granola pimpin’. Reflection Eternal really was the new GangStarr—a producer/MC duo who crafted stunning results together unmatched separately. I’ve never heard another album like this one, nor have I ever heard anyone try to duplicate it.
The entire album sounds like it was recorded on analog tape. It’s the most gorgeous sounding indie hip hop album ever. DJ Hi-Tek created a landscape based on African percussion, soul samples, and Dilla-lite drums that knocked without stealing the show. There’s a mystic bohemian feel to tracks like “Too Late” and “Memories Live”. “Move Something” is “Ante Up” for the Okayplayer crowd. Second single “The Blast” has since been co-signed by Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent. And “Africa Dream” summed up previous sentiments from vinyl singles like “2000 Seasons” and “The Manifesto” on one buttery trumpet-fueled testament.
Talib Kweli has a lot of detractors. Too articulate and wordy. The voice of a 17 year old boy. No one’s ever seen his hair. And so on…
I agree with some of the knocks on Kweli, but the nitpicking goes out the window when I listen to Train. On an album where he goes toe-to-toe with Mos Def, De La Soul, Kool G Rap, Dave Chappelle, and Hi-Tek’s best work to this day, Kweli wastes nothing. Clunky flows are resolved with thoughtful literary ruminations. Or in the case of “Some Kind of Wonderful”, you simply get “smacked in the face with a metaphor”. The passion and hunger of the Lyricist Lounge days are there, but so is the love talk, the somber thoughts on hood life, the uplifting wishes for thy neighbor. It should be really really corny, but it’s not. It’s really authentic.
14. Cannibal Ox — The Cold Vein (2001)
I didn’t get The Cold Vein until I heard it on a 2 a.m. subway ride. The album sounds best underground, where El-P’s futuristic soundscapes harmonize with the mechanized rattling and clanking of the subway. The beats ooze New York grime, overflowing with gut punch drums and woozy analog synths. El-P’s sonic aesthetic is a natural evolution of the hard minimalism of mid 80s hip-hop production; the influence of Larry Smith (Run D.M.C., Whodini) and Kurtis Mantronix is especially noticeable. Compare Run D.M.C.’s “Hard Times” to the blurting synths and shuddering drums on “Vein”. The Cold Vein is the sound of an urban dystopia. Even familiar samples are rendered unrecognizable—El-P crushes the fun out of Al Green’s “Love & Happiness,” employing its loopy organs to signify loopy drunkenness on “Painkillers”.
The rapping is just as important to the album’s greatness. Can Ox is comprised of Harlem emcees Vordul Megallah and Vast Aire, both talented rappers with distinct styles. Vast’s arrhythmic enunciation guarantees that his sardonic wit and unusual metaphors come across, while Vordul’s breathless mix of Five Percenter talk and obscure slang is the natural progression of Wu-Tang’s chaotic jargon. Vordul’s street smarts and Vast’s goofy dorkery complement each other perfectly. The Cold Vein is a tour through the Rotten Apple, following the duo as they deal with preteen stick-up kids on “Vein”, handle inner city stress on “Stress Rap” and “Painkillers”, and join epic ciphers on “Battle of Asgard” and “Raspberry Fields”. “The F-Word” is the best song ever written about being the friend zone.
The last two tracks, “Pigeon” and “Scream Phoenix”, are linked by an extended bird metaphor: Eddie Hazel guitar accompanies the Ox, as they transform from pigeons eating pizza crusts in pissy elevators to phoenixes soaring above the city, backed by an angelic chorus.
13. Ghostface Killah — Fishscale (2006)
Y’all be nice to the crackheads, everybody listen up. It’s late night at Tony Starks’ enterprise, and a major operation is taking place. Burgess Meredith’s ghost mumbles P.Tone “ain’t been hungry since Supreme Clientele.” The response: architect music. Verbal street opera. James Bond in the Octagon with two razors. Swagger like Mick Jagger. Ghost tapping dustbones out with star writers like he fucked Celine Dion, hitting baseball spliffs, eating fries with ketchup, and fish—tartar sauce on the S. Dot kicks. Only supplies needed: two waters, a Dutch, and a cranberry Snapple. After all, there’s a history of lightning victories, conceptual breakthrough ain’t no mystery.
Sharp darts at a time when we’d been stuck with “Laffy Taffy.” Bricks so clean and uncut that everyone else seemed like they’d been pushing diet coke. A kilo is a thousand grams, it’s easy to remember now. Catch Starks in the ’80s drop, old school Mercedes with a brand new baby glock, living the role like Pac in Juice, holding the weight of four synagogues.
Breaking only for 2 o’clock appointments with a girl named Dawn, a ten in your wildest dreams, when she steps out the tub it’s like an ill flick—this ain’t the Avon lady. At night dreaming, lucid or otherwise, seeing rubies, diamonds, smothered under octopus, jellyfish sharks soar, aquaproof pocketbook, pearls on the mermaid girls Gucci belts that they rock for no reason from a different world. Spongebob in a Bentley Coupe banging the Isleys. Fishscale so pure as to elicit contact high. You don’t like this? Maybe you’re on some Curly, Moe, and Larry shit, or you wear capris.
12. Scarface — The Fix (2002)
It’s not Face’s best album but it may be his most cohesive, drawing a line from the early Rap-A-Lot aesthetic to late period Roc-A-Fella. It’s also his most mature. Face has always seemed wise before his age, but here he’s on some serious rap grandpa business, instilling wisdom. Every rapper on the planet should be forced to listen to “Sell Out” each morning when they get out of bed. “Because there’s too many pussies out here making bullshit records and ruining rap.” The Fix is the finest grown man rap album of the decade (sorry Jay).
11. Kanye West — Late Registration (2005)
He may be pompous, arrogant, contemptuous, and annoying, but it’s pretty hard to deny that Kanye West hasn’t earned his place as one of the most (if not the most) innovative and influential musicians of the decade. West’s greatest skill lies in his doing for hip hop what Stevie Wonder did for soul; making it Pop, with a capital P. He could have gone the easy route, watering down the genre to its bare essence, but instead, he fuses disparate sounds into the hip hop conventions, churning out top grade pop music that can transcend and expand its place and time.
Late Registration, to extend an analogy, serves as West’s Innervisions. But where Stevie Wonder needed TONTO’s Expanding Head Band to rein in his audience-alienating subject matter for the audience to understand his message, Jon Brion provides enough sonic flourishes to keep listeners interested when confronted with West’s more self-centered lapses. While Wonder’s message was global conscious and West’s was confliction with his inner-self, each was ultimately concerned with the world as they saw it: “Something is wrong. I have something to say. I don’t know if I’m ultimately right, but fuck you, I’m going to make you listen.”
Luckily, the music here is so irresistible and distinguished that the message sounds anything but polemic. Although this is by no means a flawless album (particularly the awkwardly cheeky moments), there’s a sense of power conveyed by the intricacies of the beats and arrangements, as if Kanye West were making the only record of the 21st century, and made damn sure that there was enough to grab on to every second. And in the end, this sort of philosophy is what makes Late Registration so universal: give your message power, but make sure the music’s more powerful.
10. 50 Cent — Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)
50 Cent has somehow gone from beloved gangster rap underdog (Vice magazine was one of his earliest champions) to tolerated mainstream icon (complaints about Get Rich or Die Tryin’ the movie were surprisingly muted) to sneered-at, underperforming rap cliché, all in about half a decade. Critics loved him when he was telling us how to rob Keith Sweat, but when he bought Rick Ross’ baby mama a fur coat, well, that was over the line. (As for the pubestached youth, they’re not entirely sure what they think of him these days.) Regardless, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ will surely still sound good in 20 years and will likely hold up as the work that most successfully harnessed the dying genre of gangsta rap’s commercial potential. Though it is more light-hearted than Eminem’s albums and tougher than Dre’s albums, it will ultimately be remembered as—to paraphrase R.A. the Rugged Man—that album you and your five-year-old, white, female cousin could both enjoy. From “P.I.M.P.”’s steel drums to “In Da Club”’s birthday-party lead-in to the masterful hip hop power ballad (all too rare, aren’t they?) “21 Questions,” there was something for every family gathering. As for the heads, well, you couldn’t find any more sinister summer-blazers than “What Up Gangsta” and “Wanksta.” The beauty of 50’s image was that, although you believed he would shoot his adversaries in the head, you also believed that the two of you would be fast friends. That’s a fine line to walk, and one he hasn’t walked since.—Ben Westhoff
MP3: 50 Cent-“Heat”
09. J Dilla — Donuts (2006)
There’s a tall stack of classic hip hop records that stand heavy with the weight of their creators’ reflections on mortality, but few of them are as immediately affected by it as the self-eulogy of Donuts. It’s the sound of a restlessly evolving producer realizing he no longer has all the time in the world, and using what he has left to summarize everything he loved about making music. It’s there in the heartbreak of a longing vocal from Dionne Warwick or the Escorts or the Three Degrees, the retro-futuristic aspirations of a vintage electronic Raymond Scott composition, the sophisticated funk bounce of Kool & the Gang, the call-to-arms siren scream of Mantronix—all connecting in the framework of what may be the perfect, final culmination of hip hop sample culture.
MP3: J Dilla-“Workinonit”
08. Jay-Z — The Black Album (2003)
As of this writing, I don’t know who won the poll. But I bet it wasn’t Jay-Z. And here’s why: Rap fans are snobs. “Real” rap fans (say that they) want to keep rap out of top 40 and away from the mainstream. Jay himself even bragged, on “99 Problems,” that “I got beef with radio . . . they don’t play my hits/I don’t give a shit.” But that’s a lie on an otherwise brutally honest album. In truth, everyone wants to be loved, and when our heroes become successful, we dig it, too.
As for content, although Biggie did a semi-autobio on his first joint, The Black Album spanned from day one to retirement—showing Jay-Z change from thug to poet, expressing love and vulnerability between bursts of braggadocio and toughness. Did Jay really retire? Of course not. No one expected him to. But the Jay who came back was a
different artist—older and more introspective.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe The Black Album will win this poll, or will be the highest-ranked Jay-Z album. But I doubt it. To most of us, that’s like putting Sergeant Pepper’s above The White Album. One is all hits, the other is cutting edge and cool. But when nobody’s around, honestly, which one do you listen to more?
—Ethan Kalett (Ekko)
07. Kanye West – Graduation (2007)
Kanye West is the hip hop Kevin Smith, a guy who works with peers more talented than he, an artist with great ideas that isn’t scared to fail, an advocate for gay rights, and most importantly a devotee of artsy dick and fart jokes.
College Dropout was Kanye’s Clerks, an album about the college you skipped out on while you’re working the grave shift, still ain’t making shit, eating Salsa Sharks and playing roof hockey with GLC and Consequence. Late Registration was definitely Mallrats, a chance for bigger things now that everyone (Miramax/Def Jam) was paying attention. Sure there were some memorable moments (break out hit “Gold Digger” is then-newbie Jason Lee as Brodie) but both failed when attempting to overcharm and please everyone. Which means Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy was most certainly Kanye’s third LP, Graduation.
Let’s be honest: we listen to Kanye for the beats, the same way we watch Kevin Smith films for the dialogue. Chasing Amy is my favorite Kevin Smith film because of its writing, just as Graduation is my favorite Kanye LP because of the hybrid of chipmunk soul and cold electronic textures via Daft Punk and DJ Toomp. Both movie and album are built on a very basic idea and they execute like a well-greased guillotine.
They are not perfect pieces: Amy looks like shit thanks to its $250K budget and “Drunk and Hot Girls” still sucks thanks to pre-Auto Tune. Ben Affleck is the least believable stoner of all time. “Homecoming” loses to “Beach Chair” for Best Use of Apple’s Dad. Hooper X should’ve gotten his own movie by now. Lil’ Wayne spits the only guest bars on Graduation and gets chomped by George McFly’s adopted black son.
But the payoffs are the most rewarding of each guy’s career.
“Flashing Lights” is still beautiful, full of color, 2 step drums, gallant strings, and a butter smooth hook from Dwele. The bridge of “I Wonder” is glossy, joyous, and sincere. The colossal pause during “Everything I Am” as you wait for OG Chris Martin to bring in Chuck D’s “Here… we go again!” still gives me goosebumps. I’ll pick “Stronger”and “The Good Life” on the JumboTron at sporting events over Supermanning a hoe any given Sunday.
808s and Heartbreak turned Kanye into George Michael. Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen have pushed Smith into near-OG status. Graduation will probably be the last “lyrical” album of Kanye’s career as Amy will be the final “lesbian describes fisting to uptight suburbanite comic geeks” scene in Smith’s canon. ‘Ye and Silent Bob added more colors to bigger projects, but their melding of precise working parts on their third projects cemented their status as polarizing pop stars who always have something to say and usually pull it off.
Snoogins! (My apologies.)
Toomp killed this shit. (That’s better.)
06. Eminem — The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
There’s never been a rapper like Eminem and you can tell by his lack of imitators. Really, who? Asher Roth? Bubba Sparxxx? Fred Durst? The only artist who’s ever worked an aesthetic even remotely similar to Eminem is ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, and you can tell by how chagrined Em was at his competition taking him on, denying Yankovic permission to make a video for his “Lose Yourself” parody. Eminem’s so vain about his wits that he doesn’t even beef with rappers, he spars with other comedy acts. If anyone’s still perplexed why he took aim at Triumph the Insult Comic Dog—a fucking puppet we all cried—it’s because no one outfunnies the funny man. It’s not the smartest tack, but it is the least fair, and most misanthropic way, which makes it gangsta.
Eminem’s career was made taking down soft targets: lightweight rappers like Benzino and Everlast, lightweight bystanders like Moby, LFO, Versace, Liberace, and weak characters like his wife and his mother. He found a kinship in 50 Cent, who also made his name taking sledgehammers to knife-wielders: Ja Rule, Fat Joe, Rick Ross. But the reason Eminem’s no ordinary schoolyard bully is because his scenarios are ridiculous to the point of satire, and satirical to the point of political, but not so political that the message goes over people’s heads; just enough people that he can snag those who are in on the joke and those who ain’t. Perfect.
No matter what I say as the Knowledgeable Critic, there will always be people who hear “Kill You” or “Criminal” as a license to hurt somebody. And there will always be people who get the joke. But most will generally understand that Eminem, while in on the joke, is hardly immune to it himself. These contradictions and imperfections keep most casual-to-excited hangers-on from admitting The Marshall Mathers LP is the scariest, most exciting, original and possibly greatest record produced during their lifetime. That’s okay, who would want it to be? Take refuge in the filler tracks with D12 or Dre bait like Xzibit and Snoop. Take comfort in the now-provocative-now-tiresome downturn that befell Encore and everything on for doing what he’s always done rather than leading us to the promised land. Eminem is selling imperfection. Hilarious, politically incorrect, human and disturbingly inhuman imperfection.
That imperfection often rides with hooks, as on the bouncy first single “The Real Slim Shady,” or triumphs of craft like the stalker fable “Stan.” But it’s mostly hunger and appetite and a nearly Olympic desire to keep topping himself, upping every ante and distending topics into creepy, vile places if that’s what it takes to close off any other remaining entrances to his summit. No matter how difficult or uncomfortable Marshall Mathers gets to listen to, it is always outdoing everything expected of it for this reason. The opening “Kill You” is the definitive depiction of the cycle: “You don’t wanna fuck with Shady/ Cuz Shady will fucking kill you/ (laughs).” Repeat to finish, past him raping his grandmother, disposing of his wife’s body, politely turning down a fan and telling him to treat his pregnant lady better, accepting fellatio from Insane Clown Posse. All of which are funny as hell, too good for rap and often comedy too. If that’s not an honor worth defending from a puppet dog, I don’t know what is.
MP3: Eminem-“I’m Back”
05. Outkast — Stankonia (2000)
For my sixteenth birthday, in February of 2000, I got a Diamond Rio mp3 player. It held 32 megabytes of memory, or about 12 songs. During my sophomore year, those songs included “Project Chick,” “Forgot About Dre,” and whatever DMX songs were current. It also held the first single off Stankonia, “Bombs Over Baghdad.” From the moment the twinkling synths were interrupted by Andre’s breathless “one, two, one, two, three, YEAH,” I was hooked. Hooked to the point where I would spend anatomy class after anatomy class memorizing both verses, wondering how to do the ragtop, and what exactly a “power music electric revival” constituted. The song sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before, and to this day, it’s my favorite rap song ever. And with Stankonia, it’s just the start.
Were Stankonia to include just its singles (“B.O.B.,” “Ms. Jackson,” and “So Fresh, So Clean”) and an hour of filler, it likely would have merited inclusion on this list. Thankfully, these songs are surrounded by even bigger triumphs. Massive, towering songs that owe their success to tiny details that teach you something new upon each listen. The change-up in “Humble Mumble.” Big Boi’s sage relationship advice contained in the ad-libs of “We Luv Dees Hoes.” The entirely new dictionary Andre creates using only different iterations of stank and funky.
Stankonia is witty, wide-ranging, and revolutionary (Kanye and Lil’ Wayne as we know them today don’t exist without this record). Previous releases had only hinted at the experimentation that pervades Stankonia. And while that freedom eventually lead to joint solo albums rife with refutations of a break-up (and a Grammy), on Stankonia Big Boi and Andre are together. And when Big Boi and Andre are together, we’re winning. That’s funky.
04. Kanye West — The College Dropout (2004)
“Do the fans want the feeling of A Tribe Called Quest, but all the got left is this guy called West?” Well, he was more than that. He was more than the first rapper with a Benz and a backpack too, more than chipmunk soul and a broken jaw, more even then songs about insecure overconsumption and conflicted Christianity. On each track of his sprawling debut The College Dropout, Kanye West proved himself to be more.
He called himself the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer of the Roc” back in those days, and made cracks about how he hoarded his best beats for himself, but West’s trademark arrogance had a different quality on his debut album, back when he really was the only one convinced he could become a superstar on par with the best in the game. Sure, back in 2003 and 2004, we knew he could produce—we had seen his name in tiny print on the liner notes on Jay-Z records—and, OK, maybe we were prepared to acknowledge “Through the Wire” was a clever idea. “Slow Jamz,” too, was irresistible and catchy and had a good joke about Michael Jackson, but it was really a Twista song, wasn’t it?
Then “Self Conscious” hit MTV—this was all beforeDropout had even dropped, remember—and it got a little harder to dismiss this guy as a beat maker with ideas above his station. He had some good jokes, (“She couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis,”) and some awkward rhymes (“She had hair so long that it looked like weave/then she cut it all off now she look like Eve”) but neither distracted from the earnestness of his critical self-analysis or the unexpectedly empathetic portrait of a young and adrift undergraduate who hasn’t worked out how to grow up. But even that could not prepare us for the album to come.
The College Dropout was made to be a classic. West could not allow himself anything less. And that is why it is too long, why it contains a couple too many skits hammering home its anti-education theme, and why it crams in too many different ideas to be the kind of cohesive masterpiece that is The Blueprint or Illmatic or Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). But it is as worthy as those records because it makes sense that an album about its creator forcing himself to surpass everybody’s low expectations should try a little too hard.
Kanye will never sound effortless. His rhymes will never sound organic like those of Nas, or have Jay-Z’s off-the-cuff insouciance. West became a great rapper because he strived, and because he cared enough to strive. The College Dropout had to be good enough lyrically to prove West was more than a producer, and it contained all the carefully contrived wordplay and punch lines he needed to get himself taken seriously. It even has, in “Never Let Me Down,” a track on which he betters Jay-Z, the best in the game.
But it’s not the emceeing that makes this record such a vital and important musical artifact of the young 21st century. It’s because, opening salvo be damned, Kanye West cares. He feels the indignity of working a bullshit retail position when he has far more talent than the manager patting him down in the stockroom. He’s genuinely outraged that “racism still alive, they just be concealing it,” and that black folks “can’t make it to ballots to choose leadership.” He needs you to understand the importance his family and his faith holds for him. And he cared that his record should be great. Through sheer force of will, it is.
03. Madvillain — Madvillainy
In the early parts of the decade, rumors of a collaborative album between hip-hop underground stalwarts Madlib and MF DOOM nearly sent fans into convulsions. The former, with his dusky break beats and obsessively crate-dug samples, developed an output so vast, it proved that even those who presumably smoke at least three-quarters of a pound of weed every day can be prolific, driven artists. As for the man born Daniel Dumile, he reemerged from a self-imposed exile wearing a mask and peppering his superlatively-complex rhyme schemes with third-person references to himself. With the classic Operation: Doomsday under his belt, it seemed as though DOOM turned not only MC’ing, but the idea of being an MC, into high-art.
The few tracks on Madvillainy that were redone in response to the leak of unmastered Madvillain joints sound a little different than in their original form; DOOM’s delivery is slower, more blunted. They come from a voice far deeper and less fiery, and yet they sound more cohesive with Madlib’s blunt-stained, art-damaged quasi-boom-bap. Listen to DOOM’s intonation as the assertive horn stabs toward the end of “All Caps” split the beat apart at the seams. What about how Villain’s low growl trudges its way through the eerie swamp of “Meat Grinder”? In these versions, DOOM’s voice compliments the music, instead of beating the beats up like before.
And really, cohesion is part of what makes Madvillainy such a classic record; the crackling vinyl that steadily courses through the melodic madness and cartoonish vocal samples is never interrupted by a glossy synth beat. The instrumentals, including and especially the sinister thump of certified banger “Supervillain Theme,“ give the vocal-driven tracks a bit of breathing room. The only hook—and the word “hook” is being used very liberally in this instance—on the entire album is a bizarre, seemingly pitch-shifted gremlin repeating the word “raid.” It can be presumed that “cohesive” could be synonymous with “anti-mainstream” here, as the back-to-basics, “shut the fuck up and rap” aesthetic is how the record raises the bar as far as rap albums go.
If The Source was still relevant in 2004, it could have literally made every DOOM verse on Madvillainy into a Hip Hop Quotable and have been set for the remainder of their tenure as a magazine. In his Pitchfork review, Rollie Pemberton, a talented MC in his own right, headed each paragraph with a DOOM lyric, something that hardly, if ever, happens in music criticism. I mean, what can you say about DOOM that he hasn’t said about himself? He holds the cold one like he holds the old gun. He’s a hopeless romancer with the dopest flow stanzas. He’s giving y’all nothing but the lick like two broads. This could literally go on for days. But even amidst the punch line-fury, DOOM can step out of “himself” and into the shoes of a vulnerable Viktor Vaughn, who berates a cheating lass, but with a clever, meta twist: “That’s you if you want a dude who wear a mask all day.”
Madvillainy is the prime example of a super group being far more than the sum of its parts. This is no cynical cash-in from two huge names; this is a statement that forced fans to scribble their descriptions of each of its creators, replacing the word “genius” with “legendary.” Madvillain is the rare work of two solo artists coming together and hashing out a masterpiece so flawless, each man has yet to surpass its brilliance.
02. Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele
I’m still uncertain as to what inspired G-Unit lapdog Tony Yayo to say Supreme Clientele was actually written by Theodore Unit lapdog Superb, but if his intent was to better “So Seductive” in terms of making people give a shit about him, the endeavor was a wild success. It’s hard to imagine too many rap blogs without a high degree of fluency in Supreme Clientele, and inevitably, Yayo’s claims were attacked mercilessly and unanimously.
But even amongst the more notable controversies surrounding authorship (Dave Grohl wrote I Get Wet! Kurt Cobain wrote Live Through This! To a far lesser extent, Gillie Da Kid wrote Tha Carter II!), this has to be the least plausible one ever. Imagine someone handing Ghostface a rhyme book with shit like “dick made the cover now count how many veins on it” with the implication, “naw, man—this is gonna be ill when you spit it. Trust me.”
The reason Supreme Clientele will be at the top of these kind of lists for years to come is that it’s the least likely record to be ghostwritten, as opposed to Ghost-written. Here, Ghostface bypassed all conventional conversational filters and just went straight from the cerebral cortex, his lyrics unhinged and unearthly, taking the listener to places that were at times frightening, but never less than thrilling. But he did so with a topical breadth that’s become Supreme Clientele’s most underrated aspect: plenty of critical favorites got weirder than Ghost, but you weren’t getting a straight up party rhyme like “Cherchez La Ghost” on an anticon. disc; on an El-P record, “Child’s Play” becomes “Stepfather Factory”; and whatever you want to call “Malcolm,” nobody was on that level. Of course, Supreme Clientele is more than happy to speak for itself : “Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious/Dociousaliexpifragalisticcalisuper/Cancun, catch me in the room, eatin grouper…” It goes great with a Remy Martin on diamonds.
01. Jay-Z — The Blueprint
Sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero ‘cause what’s a hero? Sometimes there’s a man and well, he’s the man for his time and place.
Go ahead and throw stones. He’s not spitting like on Reasonable Doubt. He bites lines. It didn’t sell like Volume 2. It’s too NY-centric. It’s maudlin and overly sentimental. “Ether” killed him. Eminem killed him. Eminem can’t produce. Kanye West and Just Blaze saved him. Kanye West and Just Blaze are overrated. Volume 3 is underrated. Chipmunk soul sucks. Who the hell is Bink? That Trackmasters beat is awful.
The Blueprint isn’t the best rap album of the decade because it’s faultless, but because it steamrolls over its faults so effortlessly. It’s the sound of a victory lap, the sound of an artist at the top of his game making the album he wanted to make, current trends be damned. It’s swagger personified. It’s Rocky beating the Russians. It’s Ali beating Frasier. It’s MJ winning a ring. It’s the fuckin’ Blueprint.
When they make Jay-Z’s biopic, they should end it here. Reasonable Doubt was Jay’s street life. Volume 1 was his transition from those streets to the fame. Volume 2 found him on top of the world and Volume 3 saw him getting restless, experimental, unsatisfied with being a pop rapper. The Dynasty was Jay putting on his fam, and The Blueprint?
That was his baby, the one with the BDP title. The one that made the Rawkus kids swallow their pride and pony up 15 bucks, the one that launched Chicago kid Kanye West’s career, the album that for one second had the entire Hip-Hop nation rallying around one king for what will probably be the last time.
Recorded in a matter of weeks and produced by a cast of then unknowns, The Blueprint set the tone for the decade, making and breaking careers. For Jay, it was his moment of glory, the album on which he finally stepped out of Biggie’s shadow and put all doubts about his legitimacy to rest once and for all. For Nas it was the spark that reignited a career. For Mobb Deep it’s the blow that derailed one. For Just Blaze and Kanye West it was a chance to bring back sampling to prominence in hip hop after nearly half a decade of keyboard beats. For Eminem it was a chance to go toe to toe with the one man who could match him lyrically and commercially. For Beanie Sigel, Freeway, The Young Gunz, Memphis Bleek and, yes, Cam’ron and the Diplomats, it literally was the blueprint on which their subsequent releases were modeled. But for Shaun Carter, the man behind the persona, it was a chance to reflect, to take stock, to look back and to grow up. The Blueprint was Jay-Z’s peak and in subsequent years, haters and aspirants to the throne would cackle that he’d subsequently gone old, soft and weak. That’s a debate for another time but one thing’s for certain: The Blueprint is where a wizened Shaun Carter’s concerns became bigger than rap.
I don’t even have to do this; you know the songs, they speak for themselves. The hulking bass of “The Takeover,” the Jackson 5 soul of “Izzo,” the buttery “Girls, Girls Girls,” the strident “U Don’t Know,” Timbaland rocking a breakbeat on “Hola Hovito,” “Heart of the City,” “Song Cry,” “Renegade,” it goes on. It’ll never get old, it’ll never go out of style and it’s absolutely timeless. It’s the fuckin’ Blueprint.
All of these are good reasons to have The Blueprint top out this list, but I’d like to share one more. On September 11th 2001, I took the bus downtown after school to pick up a vinyl copy from Off the Hook records. I’d been bugging them for weeks, asking if they’d have it on time (Canadian release dates for vinyl were always iffy) and the owner assured me they would, so I braved what then seemed like possible death in order to cop it on the first day. I remember walking through skyscrapers, people panicking, muttering, always looking up, and when I got to the store, I went in, found it and went straight for the register. The one guy running the shop was going nuts, trying to get news about family in NYC and frankly, he must have thought that this white kid was crazy thinking about records at a time like this. I went home, watched the news for a few hours and for the first time in my life, felt very, very worried. Not worried on some “I’m failing math” or “my parents are gonna break up” shit but adult worried. Like, “is this the end of the world” worried.
But then a funny thing happened.
I went upstairs, took the clear blue vinyl out of the sleeve and played the record. I’m not going to pretend it was the first time I heard it—I’d had the MP3 version for a few days—but sitting in my room listening to the album, suddenly everything was alright again and all that mattered was Jay vs. Nas and sampling vs synths. And nearly 10 years later, I know that no matter how shitty things get on any given day, I can go home, put on the album and, for 60 minutes, that’s all that’ll matter again.