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.