10. Method Man-4:21 The Day After

Over the past year and change Method Man has done everything possible to make people forget about the perpetually stoned and smiling, Deodorant-hawking sitcom starring persona he’d long cultivated. From bemoaning a lack of critical respect, to beefing with Wendy Williams to ranting about slights from new label boss, Jay-Z, Meth seemed hungry and eager to prove himself once again. With 4:21, he successfully channelled this rage into his best album since Tical.

This is the album that Meth should’ve released in 1998. Full of anger and rage at those who slighted him, he sounds revitalized, his swaggering slur flow still vicious after all these years. Sadly, few people noticed Meth’s second-half resurgence (save for Oh Word), as the album received mostly middling reviews. But in a year where Ghostface rightfully garnered the lion’s share of attention among members of the Wu, Method Man also deserves praise for continuing to stay relevant 12 years after his debut. Filled with vibrant guest appearances from Redman, RZA, Raekwon and other members of the Wu, 4:21 has as many strong songs as almost any hip-hop album made this year.

MP3: Method Man-“Presidential MC’s” (featuring Raekwon and the Rza)

9. AZ-The Format

12 years after his stunning verse on “Life’s a Bitch” made him the Next Big Thing, AZ finally delivered the album that everyone always knew he had in him. His previous five albums had their moments but none matched the sheer consistency of The Format. Commencing with the soft horns and hard drums of “I Am the Truth,” AZ’s flow sounds confident, self-assuring and kinetic. The lyrics might dwell a little too much on tired guns, drugs and jewels tropes, but the symphonic throwback production allow you cut AZ’s lyrical redundancies some slack.

“Sit Em Back Slow” is nothing short of thrilling, with AZ collaborating with the long dormant M.O.P, whose Li’l Fame and Billy Danze remain one of the finest duos in hip-hop (until 50 Cent ruins them like he ruined Mobb Deep). “Rise and Fall” finds Little Brother dropping by, as Phonte and Big Pooh, successfully complement AZ’s buttery flow. And the DJ Premier-produced “The Format” makes you think it’s 1996 instead of 2006. The Format might not break any new ground, but it remains a captivating and entertaining listening, filled with mostly great beats and technically masterful rhyming.

MP3: AZ-“Sit Em Back Slow” (featuring MOP)

8. J Dilla-Donuts
It’s impossible to listen to the gorgeous soul-drenching instrumentals on Donuts without thinking about “What if” questions. What if Jay Dee hadn’t died in February from complications stemming from Lupus? How would his sound have evolved? How many great hip-hop songs will we not hear, now that one of the greatest producers of all time has been silenced. Lucky for us, we have Donuts to serve as a fitting epitaph for the man who produced epic songs like The Pharcyde’s “Runnin,” most of Common’s best album Like Water For Chocolate, De La’s “Stakes His High” and many many others.

Donuts is the missing link between the great soul and R&B classics of the 60s and 70s and the breakbeats and energy of modern-day hip-hop. 31 instrumentals brimming with angelic horns, infectious piano loops and funkdafied drums (No Da’ Brat). While Dilla’s death remains a tragedy, particularly in light the fact that he was only 32, Donuts, completed on his death bed, remains a testament to his prodigious talent, his awe-inspiring soulfulness and the indelible legacy that he left behind.

MP3: J Dilla-“The Difference”

7. The Roots-Game Theory
Left for dead after the twin failures of Phrenology and The Tipping Point, Game Theory marked a return to form for one of hip-hop’s best (and most pretentious) groups. While it might not match the brilliance of Things Fall Apart, Illadelph Half Life, or Do You Want More?, the fact remains that the 4th Best Album from the Roots is better than most groups’ masterpieces.

The Roots work best when they steer clear from bombastic and often pedantic cultural rants, and focus on hard-hitting drum beats, aggressive bass lines and Black Thought’s technically superior (if not slightly dull) rhyming. In that vein Game Theory mostly suceeds. Sure, there’s the dull sophistry of “False Media” and the Dave Matthews outtake-sounding “Livin’ in a New World” but more often than not, Game Theory drops bangers like “Don’t Feel Right” and “Long Time Coming.” The album might not boast classic singles like “Concerto of the Desperado,” “The Next Movement” or “The Seed” but Game Theory was a welcome infusion of smart hip-hop in a rap world filled with cocaine carictures.

MP3: The Roots: “Long Time Coming” (feat. Peedi Peedi)

6. Murs & 9th Wonder-Murray’s Revenge

On the first track of Murray’s Revenge, Murs declares “I’m better than your favorite rapper/but it don’t take much these days to master the mic/most of these rappers trapped in the hype/they makin’ whole albums only half of it’s tight.” Truth be told, dude’s got a right to sound aggrieved, considering he might be the most underrated rapper in hip-hop, having released back-to-back classics in 2004’s Murs: 3:16 and this year’s Murray’s Revenge. Plus, anyone who’s seen his wildly energetic live show knows him to be one of the finest performers in rap.

In Murray’s Revenge, Murs delivers his finest work yet, projecting an intelligent, complex and tough-minded personality. Unlike the one-dimensional MC’s that abound in hip-hop, Murs’ album showcases the myriad sides of his personality, with paeans to “Dark Skinned White Girls,” the lost loves of his life, and barbershops. His “L.A.” is the finest anthem written about the City of Angels since 2Pac’s “To Live and Die in LA.” (watch the video here) The talented 9th Wonder handles beats and in Murs he finds a kindred spirit, as both seem refreshingly anachronistic and soulful. Murs has already gone on record saying that he wants to be a superstar and its only a matter of time before the 28-year old breaks free from the “underground” stigma and actually becomes everyone’s favorite rapper.

MP3: Murs & 9th Wonder: “L.A.”

5. Lupe Fiasco-Food and Liquor

No hip-hop album made this year grew on me like Food and Liquor. The first time I heard it, I thought it was a fine, mostly uninspired debut. The sound of someone worth paying attention to, but far from a classic. On repeated listens, the album reveals itself as one of the finest hip-hop records of the decade. Patterned after It Was Written, Food and Liquor certainly has its moments of Nas-esque filler, most notably in “Outro” the 12 minute thank you note tacked onto the end. In spite of its self-indulgence, Food and Liquor secures Fiasco’s place as one of the 10 finest rappers in hip-hop.

Simmering with lyrical complexities that only come unraveled with time and repeated listenings, Fiasco is a master of puns, similes and assonance. His intelligence shows throughout, especially on thoughtful tracks like “Real,” “The Cool,” “American Terrorist,” and the stunning Jill Scott-assisted “Daydreamin’,” where Fiasco drops perhaps the most damning and sarcastic dismissal of post 2000 hip-hop yet rendered:

“Now c’mon everybody let’s make cocaine cool/ we need a few moree half naked women up in the pool, now hold this Mack 10 that’s all covered in jewels, and can you please put your titties closer to the 22’s/And where’s the champagne? We need champagne!/Now look as hard as you can with this blunt in your hand/And now hold up your chains slow motion slow the flames/And cue the smoke machines and the simulated rain.”

Food and Liquor Review

MP3: Lupe Fiasco-“Daydreamin'”

4. Camp Lo-Fort Apache (The Mix Tape Album)

Nearly five years after their last album and a decade since “Cooley High” heralded their arrival, Camp Lo returned to planet Earth to drop the year’s best mixtape. This long hiatus makes Lo’s Fort Apache: The Mixtape Album seem even more impressive than it already is. The record is the sound of the artists shaking off cobwebs with swagger intact, verbiage Technicolor bright, and flows vicious and Richard Roundtree-smooth. While most of NYC wasted the last decade squandering their goodwill with half-baked skit-laden albums, Camp Lo’s time off only made them hungrier to stake their claim and to build upon their legacy.

In interviews, the duo have described the mixtape as 80s themed—with a touch of 70s Hollywood. It’s made clear on the first track, the fierce stick-up minded “82 Afro’s.” From there, the duo take the listener underground into their paisley colored hideouts packed to the gills with ebony-skinned girls in tight jeans and afros, towering mountains of vacuum-sealed drugs, and gargantuan speakers hemorrhaging funk. “Suga Willie’s Revenge” finds Lo riding hard 80s style drums with a sinuous and infectious flute sample. Over the thudding bass, Lo put their elegantly tangled vernacular on display: (“It’s that blue funk personified / I’m the Congo in the vibe / I’m the voodoo come alive / I’m the fly frantic / Live across the transatlantic / With the panama slanted / On this true enchantment.”).And with the A Piece of the Action LPslated to drop next year with production from Ski and 9th Wonder, Camp Lo have a shot to assert themselves as the best duo in hip-hop. That is, if they aren’t already.

MP3: Camp Lo-“Bed Rock”

3. The Game-Doctor’s AdvocateHere are reasons you can no longer cite to dislike Doctor’s Advocate. 1) The name dropping. 2)The Dre Fascination.

It’s time to get over it. Game has improved so much that it’s no longer ridiculous for him to make the Nas, Biggie, Pac comparisons. Do I think he’s that good yet? No. Is he close? I’m not exactly sure, but Doctor’s Advocate is an important second step in that direction. The album is a masterpiece of scorching 4-alarm blazing beats, confident rhymes, diamond tough vocals and a sense of raw alienation that led Ian Cohen to rightfully compare it to the Marshall Mathers LP.

As for Game’s frequent Dre shout-outs, half of the album was recorded before the split with Aftermath, so it’s understandable that he’d honor his mentor. So uh…yeah…. Doctor’s Advocate is pretty much outstanding. Even if that album cover really needs to go.

Doctor’s Advocate Review

MP3: The Game-“Ol’ English”

2. Ghostface Killah-
More Fish

Fishscale is Ghost’s Physical Graffiti, another triumph, and a victory lap of sorts bringing everyone up to date with More Fish, Ghostface’s version of Houses of the Holy. I.E. the album destined to be perpetually underrated in light of the phenomenal success of its immediate precursor. Both however are excellent. The ominous psychedelia of “Block Rock” fits as the updated “No Quarter.” While the light-hearted romping “D’yer Maker” seems the rock equivalent of “Greedy Bitches.” More Fish is yet another late-career triumph for Tony Starks, who like his British counterparts, will go down as one of the greatest.

MP3: Ghostface Killah-“Block Rock”

1. Ghostface Killah-
There’s nothing left to be said about this album or Ghostface Killah really. All you can do is debate whether or not he’s the greatest of all time. At this point, he’s released five classics, or as many as Biggie, Pac and Nas combined (Ready to Die, Life After Death, All Eyez on Me, Makaveli, Illmatic). As for Jay-Z, he has four in Reasonable Doubt, In My Lifetime Vol. 2, The Blueprint and The Black Album. But let’s be honest with ourselves, only Reasonable Doubt and Blueprint can hold a candle to the consistent brilliance of Ghost’s five gems.

In Fishscale, Ghostface released arguably his greatest work. It might not have the gritty underground vibe of Ironman or the cerebellum shattering Rza beats of Supreme Clientele, but Fishscale is Ghostface as Barry Bonds, taking the juice late in his career to smack 73 bombs. “Shakey Dog” ranks among the finest hood stories Ghost has ever crafted. “Kilo” sounds like it could’ve came from the Only Built For Cuban Linx outtakes. “9 Milli Bros.” is every rap nerd’s fantasy, a fierce Wu-Tang posse cut over a stoned MF Doom beat. “Whip You With a Strap” is filled with childhood anecdotes so vivid and colorful that you’d think Ghost had been studying The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Underwater” ends up starting a new hip-hop movement: psychadelic rap.

Maybe I was wrong before. Maybe Fishscale isn’t Physical Graffiti. Maybe it’s the rap analogue to another work from brilliant artists on the latter half of their career: The Beatles’ and the White Album. Both are works of genius, as the musicians experiment and switching styles up on each song. Because they can. To show exactly how Good they are. So I suppose all this talk about rock’s G.O.A.T. brings me back to myoriginal question. Is Ghostface the greatest of all-time? It’s definitely up for interpretation. But if I you wanna’ know what I think, the answer’s yes.

MP3: Ghostface Killah-“9 Milli Bros.” (feat. Wu-Tang)

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