The Best Rap Albums of the Half Year

All picks filtered through a mathematical formula devised by Jay-Z’s accountant’s butler, Chauncey. Chauncey met Jay-Z through his long-time best friend, Marvin. Marvin videotapes Jay-Z...
By    July 14, 2011

All picks filtered through a mathematical formula devised by Jay-Z’s accountant’s butler, Chauncey. Chauncey met Jay-Z through his long-time best friend, Marvin. Marvin videotapes Jay-Z videotaping things for a living. It was his iPhone that captured Sean Carter capturing Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit. Marvin’s iPhone is currently being shipped to the Smithsonian. All selections are valid only till the end of this sentence. Your selections, misanthropy, and invective go in the comment section.

20. Co$$Before I Awoke [Tres Records]

Post-backpack, West coast scion of  Saafir, Defari and Rass Kass drops 19 deceptively thoughtful raps sheathed in soulful beats and Swisher smoke. Subjects covered include: agnosticism, Leimert Park, and the incineration of frauds. Production roster includes Cook Classics, Fonetik, and Exile. Guest appearances from his boy Blu and the ever-dependable Shawn Jackson. A well-sketched system of nostalgia and concrete — the portrait of an iconoclastic mind.

MP3: Co$$ – “Scriptures”

19. Smoke DZAThe Hustler’s Catalog [Self-Released]

President of the Slick Rick appreciation society (Jets chapter) drops dizzy narcotic ballads that make Cheech & Chong seem multi-faceted. Like his patron, Spitta, DZA splits South and North rap culture. New York-raised with a Lo-Life lilt, capable of rapping over classicist production, Boi-1Da or  Lex Luger beats. Guest spots from K.R.I.T, Killa Kyleon and Devin the Dude. The soundtrack to 100,000 dorm room bong rips.

MP3: Smoke DZA-”Ralph Lipshitz”
ZIP: Smoke DZA – The Hustler’s Catalog (Left-Click)

18. Action BronsonDr. Lecter [Fine Fabric Delegates]

Stubby Queens ginger who raps like a Soprano Tony Starks and eats fish, tossed salads and makes rap ballads about 80s wrestling hacks and hacking up his girlfriend. Whistling, windows down, throwback rap that feels fresh as a Farmer’s Market. Like his Twitter handle insinuates, Bronson is the Bam Bam Bigelow of rap — on fire lately.

MP3: Action Bronson-”Barry Horowitz”
MP3: Action Bronson-”Shiraz”

17. Killer MikePl3dge – [Grind Time Official/SMC Recordings]

The missing link between Willie D and early Ice Cube returns with 15 fiery sermons on political hypocrisy, hood woes, and other glossed over treachery. El-P said it best: Killer Mike makes sounding smart seem cool again. Pl3dge is the aural equivalent of a Brougham: reliable,well-made, durable, low to the ground, and classically constructed. There is also song dedicated to Ric Flair. Whoo.

MP3: T.I. ft. Big Boi & Killer Mike-”Ready Set Go (Remix)”

16. Fiend Tennis Shoes & Tuxedos – [Fiend Entertainment]

Former No Limit and Ruff Ryder refugee finds a new airplane hangar and steeps himself in the J.E.T. aesthetic: beats smooth as fuzzy dice and plush crushed velvet raps.  Steering within this narrow lane, Fiend tricked out his own James Bond Benz, playing  the lecherous uncle with the Isaac Hayes baritone, expensive drugs, and expansive tastes (turkey bacon…side of raisin toast). Like a raunchier Rick Ross, he plays the overweight lover role, jacking loops of old Marvin Gaye and Menahan Street Band songs and letting them unfurl while bragging about smoking Blue Dream and getting “high like giraffe pussy.”  Symphonic music for the high-end smoker, the sort of thing that lovers of “Indo Smoke” would’ve expected to graduate to. Butter-smooth but never soft — the ideal blunt cruise soundtrack.

ZIP: Fiend-Tennis Shoes & Tuxedos

15. Hail Mary MallonAre You Going to Eat That? – [Rhymesayers]

The trio of Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and DJ Big Wiz, combine for ther most lighthearted, self-deprecating, and fun entry in any of their discographies.  Camp Lo with the champagne and diamond heists replaced by coca-cola, Burgundy Camry’s, and 2:00 a.m. hamburgers the size of human heads. Getting stoned, goofing off, and saying the flyest shit they can conceive– paying homage to EPMD, The Beasties, and Camp Lo in equal parts. Ideal chemistry — trading off bars and tempering idiosyncracies to form a new template. Two guys rapping for the love of rapping and not trying to do anything more than make fun songs to soundtrack tuna melt and French Fry binges.

MP3: Hail Mary Mallon-”Smock”

14. BLKHRTSBLK S BTFL – [Self-Released]

Merging the Mash Out Posse’s lead pipe rap with a disjointed post-Def Jux aesthetic, BLKHRTS sound like their larynx’s have been slit with oxes and that they slaughter oxen for fun. Their beats shake with the clattering velocity of a subway car skidding off the rails and murdering dozens. Brutal, heavy, unstintingly dark bangers. They twist samples from Warsaw (Joy Division before they re-branded.), lift loops from Eraserhead, and describe themselves the most accurate one-line of the year: M.O.P. meets Morrissey. Louder than bombs.

Stream: BLK S BTFL EP @ Bandcamp

13. RittzWhite Jesus – [Slumamerican]

Greater Atlanta-raised red beard gets signed to Yelawolf’s Slumamerican, pairs up with neo-Country Rap kingpin Burn One and releases a flurry of double-timed amphetamine raps that demand evaluation on a proper system, while going 85 down 85, or 110 on the 110. Backed by slinky wood-smoked fender guitars and hard drums. Southern Gothic bounce. Jim Beam in dixie cups. Late model Cadillacs. Cognac Blunt wraps, gold flakes and candy paint delivered in the rollicking double time of a Big Boi disciple. High fives all around.

MP3: Rittz-”High Five”
ZIP: Rittz – White Jesus (Left-Click)

12. Has-LoIn Case I Don’t Make It [Mello Music Group]

Forget Random Axe. This is 2011’s winner for the Roc Marciano Award for Chain Swinging, Bell-Ringing, East Coasted, Blunts from Bodegas rap. In Case I Don’t Make It is a suffocating walloping listen, like baking in a sauna or waiting in the car with the windows rolled up in in August. Rap to make dogs die. Unabashedly cerebral but hard-core, aware of its place in tradition (the footprints of Mobb Deep, It Was Written, Black Moon, Wu-Tang all haunt this record) without biting. If you’re tired of hearing those inspirations reconstituted, Has-Lo folds them into a compelling personality — one riddled with doubts about religion, politics and life and death. Suffering string samples and anguished piano loops. Doubts and doomsday fears. Sub-Ether.

MP3: Has-Lo-”Utero”
MP3: Has-Lo-”Fiber Optics”

11. Raekwon Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang [EMI/Ice Water H20]

With the recipe finally perfected, Rae follows up the triumph of OB4L2 with subtle seasoning.  Granted, overarching narrative and feeling of importance have vanished. Dismiss this as fast food Rae all you want. He’s evolving into an ancient rap poet laureate, describing shade and trees better than Frost. Militant army jacket rap that understands how to distill the original Wu sound in its most Artesian form. Guest spots from the entire clan, Nas, Black Thought, and Rozay. 24 hours of sling motion. Running through buildings, out of breath, and always accurate: pinpointing symptoms, throwing darts….

MP3: Raekwon – Butter Knives
MP3: Raekwon-Shaolin Vs Wu-Tang

10. Curren$yWeekend At Burnie’s – [Warner Bros]

The Mariano Rivera of rap rolls up records like he has a machine. Weekend at Burnie’s is just more one-pitch mastery — 12 woozy burners dedicated to smoking weed and fucking his bitch, your bitch, or your cousin’s girlfriend’s friends bitch. In that order.  He succeeds because these are all hand-rolled with a connoisseurs taste. The lyrics are compact and densely packed, the choruses’ act as a crutch, and Monsta Beatz grows glowing synths like he kept them under hydroponic lights. Not since Cypress Hill has anyone been this convincing at making drug addiction seem like the finest solution for life’s woes.

MP3: Curren$y – “She Don’t Want a Man” (Left-Click)

9. SerengetiFamily & Friends – [Anticon]

Serengeti, the David Berman of rap, combines with its John Darnielle (Yoni Wolf of Why?) to create 11 harrowing hauntograms about divorce, drug addiction, absentee fathers, and poverty. Infinitely more real than almost anything you will hear this year and thus, it’s practically ignored by both the Bon Iver set and Brick Squad fans. (If they aren’t the same on the Internet.) Reality rap for people who don’t enjoy reality TV.

MP3: Serengeti: “Ha Ha”

8. SpaceghostPurrp –  Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6 (1991) [Self-Released]

The most patently absurd and purely enjoyable record of the year. The second song chants “Suck a Nigga Dick for 2011” and it gets increasingly ridiculous from there. 90s nostalgia trickling down to the rap kids, full of Adult Swim, Mortal Kombat, Ouija Board occultism, and Wiz Khalifa rants (he’s just like Tyga, without his tatts he wouldn’t be shit). Space Ghost reminds me of DJ Quik’s goofy swagged-out Southern cousin — weaned on Quik’s collabo with 8Ball & MJG. There’s the obvious Three Six Mafia worship and the half dozen obscure Memphis acts (Tommy Wright, DJ Zirk, insert your knowledge of the esoteric here) that are mainly cared about by Tennesseans with gold teeth, Zomby, and random rap lovers. Most importantly, as Sach pointed out, now that SpaceGhost is here, there’s no reason for Salem to exist.

ZIP: SpaceghostPurrp –  Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6 (1991)

7. ADd+When Pigs Fly – [Self-Released]

There will never be another Outkast, but A.Dd+ are after their throne —  even if they claim they aren’t out for the crown. With an organized noise falling closer to Big K.R.I.T. than the post-Stankonia genre obliteration of the Gemini and the Aquarius, their pedigree is legitimate. Production entirely handled by Picnictime, a member of Erykah Badu’s Canniboidoids, and a balance of party raps that pay homage to their Dallas boogie roots and a hippie consciousness. The album starts out: “Don’t be afraid if your brain starts to ramble.” It might as well be a mission statement for the Dallas-based duo of Paris Pershun and Slim Gravy, technicolor eccentrics who brand themselves the new “Beavis and Butthead but a little tanner.” The perfect blend of natural eccentricity and Baduizm. During a time when even the most obscure rappers are confused for superstars, ADd+ are the rarity exception, dropping a great fully-formed and free record that got almost entirely ignored.

MP3: ADd+ ft. Ms Fortune – “Greedy”
ZIP: ADd+ – When Pigs Fly (Left-Click)

6. Big K.R.I.T.Return of 4Eva – [Cinematic /Multi Alumni/Def Jam]

When K.R.I.T. first emerged, his roots showed. His unsynthesized flow only came in two forms: Pimp C or T.I. adulation. Somewhere in the last 18 months, he came into his own as an artist. You can still play spot the influence all you want. At this point, no one is channeling 95-era Organized Noize with greater fidelity or soul. Everyone wants to riff on Outkast’s flamboyant eclecticism, but Krit succeeds here because he channels the inherent melancholy of ATliens. There’s a wistful sadness swirling through Return of 4Eva. And while his nostalgia occasionally veers towards the maudlin, in a genre often devoid of sincerity, Krit’s heart on sleeve tangents seem poignant and retro without being revivalist. Like Andre and Antwan and Neil Young, he strikes the timeless chord of a young man figuring out that one day he’s going to grow old.

ZIP: Big KRIT – Return of 4Eva (Left-Click)

5. Green Ova UndergroundThe Shady Bambino Project – [Self-Released]

Hailing from the home of Oaksterdam, Shady Blaze’s hopped-up velocities melt nicely across Squadda’s B pitched down vocal clips. Production wise, the technique isn’t far from what juke producers DJ Rashad and DJ Nate are doing, or post-dubstep guys like Addison Groove, Mount Kimbie or even James Blake before he bought one too many Billie Holiday records. Ethereal samples serrated beyond recognition, downtempo pianos, drums that move at a junkie’s leisure. Lyrical content heavy on smoking and selling drugs. Or as Blaze says, “I’m not a lyricist but I go serious.” No yahoo. Bonus points for a Babe Ruth reference. Street rap with subtly avant-garde aspirations, intended to be played at high volumes while very high.

MP3: Green Ova Underground (Shady Bambino Project)-”Dirt on My Name”
MP3: Green Ova Underground (Shady Bambino Project)-”Ridin’ Wit G.O.”

4. Kendrick LamarSection 80 – [Top Dawg Entertainment]

In which Kendrick Lamar canalizes his love of Tupac and Kurupt into the muzzle of an automatic weapon and goes bang. Balancing the tightrope between street loyalty and universal appeal, Lamar writes records about his dreams for a colorblind society and his devotion to art. He writes threnodies to young, sexually abused women, clearly with “Brenda’s Got a Baby” in mind.  He gets RZA to caterwaul on his portrait of the gunsmoke- and crack-ravaged Compton of his youth. He takes brave risks and enlists fellow Black Hippy Ab-Soul for untethered raps and celestial saxophone licks that sound like something you might have heard on a Tribe Called Quest or Freestyle Fellowship record. Compton rap with fever dreams that proves that sometimes the oddest things initially seem normal. I wish more rappers would talk about money, ho’s, clothes, history, and god all in the same sentence.

MP3: Kendrick Lamar-“Hii Power”
MP3: Kendrick Lamar-“Ab-Soul’s Outro”

3. Open Mike EagleRappers Will Die of Natural Causes – [Hellfyre/Alpha Pup]

Open Mike Eagle rolls down Slauson bumping ’97 Weezer. All his favorite songs are from when phones had receivers. He stops to orders food truck tacos (heavy sour cream, no cilantro), shouts out the “ever-present gay ghost of James Baldwin.” He thinks he would’ve made a great Black Panther. Caustic and incisive, the Chicago-born, Los Angeles-based art rapper establishes himself as one of the genre’s smartest voices, one “immersed in the circus in service of the art.” Translation: he’s exhausted by the preponderance of charlatans, shock gimmicks, and “post-modern rappers who are style orphans.” A Vonnegut fanatic, Eagle plays hip-hop’s Billy Pilgrim, a rapping singing anachronism unstuck in time.

See the title track “Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes,” where Eagle visits the old rapper rest home—where rappers who once acted “active and lawless,” pop Viagra, get bypasses, and wait for their grandkids. Blessed with a buoyant baritone, a wry wit, and earworm hooks, Eagle laments, but avoids leadenness. The beats and schemes are firmly 21st century, but the ideas are immutable—all things pass.

MP3: Open Mike Eagle ft. P.O.S.-”When Pianos Break”

2. DJ QuikBook of David – [Mad Science]

The Book of David begins: “I don’t give a fuck about you, you, her, him, that bitch, that nigga, y’all, them.” That might as well be mantra for Quik – the sound of the once damned fleeing conventional logic and going on the attack. How else to explain a guest list that includes Bizzy Bone, Dwele, Kurupt, Suga Free, his old 2nd II None confederate KK, and Jon B.  Most of them enlisted in support of Quik’s scathing hilarious late period masterpiece. Using the recording booth as a venting session, he does what he’s always done: mix venom and humanity over a bed of phosphorescent funk. I’ve said enough about this record and this man. Believe the intro that proceeds Quik’s first tirade: you’re going to like this.

MP3: DJ Quik-”Fire and Brimstone”

1. Shabazz PalacesBlack Up – [Sub Pop]

(originally published in the LA Times)

Two decades ago, Ishmael Butler flapped his wings as Butterfly, one-third of the seminal ’90s New York hip-hop trio Digable Planets. Claiming coolness as its birthright and Miles Davis and two Herbies (Hancock & Mann) as elemental building blocks, its vision was smooth and subterranean: rap as ice-cold modal jazz.

Two years ago, Butler reemerged as Palaceer Lazaro, enigmatic frontman for Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, a Sub Pop-signed duo dedicated to deconstruction and dismantling “all that dying and dust.” If Digable Planets felt like a primordial daydream, the Palaces approach genre like Eric Dolphy or Albert Ayler did — free associative, raw and radical.

Following a pair of brilliant EPs, Shabazz attacks with “Black Up.” Their song titles are like McSweeney’s meet Maurice Sendak (“An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum”; “Swerve… the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding).” Lyrics dismantle everything from corporate corruption to scatterbrained swag solipsists. In particular, they fixate on light frequencies ranging across an electromagnetic spectrum.

Indeed, their sound skips across a similarly wide gulf: Think Def Jux Records’ sound meets dubstep with African hand drums, skittering xylophones, and enough bass to suffocate the asthmatic. So dense and dissonant that, like Sun Ra’s strangest space odysseys, some critics have even complained, “This isn’t music.”

But it is, and like the Tribe of Shabazz from whom they take their name, Shabazz Palaces is the sound of survival, inured against extreme climate, adamantine as diamond clusters, and levitative as any insect.

MP3: Shabazz Palaces – Swerve…the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)
MP3: Shabazz Palaces – “an echo from the hosts that profess infinitum”

Honorable Mention: Mean Doe Green – Black Suits & Shovels [Self-Released]; Kool G Rap – Riches, Royalty & Respect [Fat Beats]; The Lonely Island – Incredibad [Universal Republic]; Pistol McFly – Bong Rips & B.A.R.S [Hellfyre Club]; Self Made – Self Made Vol. 1 [Warner Bros.]; Schoolboy Q – Setbacks [Top Dawg Entertainment]; Sean Falyon – SFBE 2: West Philly 2 the World [Self-Released]; Thirsty Fish – Watergate [Mush]; Elucid – Super Chocolate Black Simian [Self-Released]; Stalley – Lincoln Way Nights [Intelligent Trunk Music] [Self-Released], G-Side – The One Cohesive [Self-Released], Snoop Dogg – Doggumentary [Capitol] Wu-Tang Clan – Legendary Weapons [Nature Sounds], Freddie Gibbs & Statik Selektah – Lord Giveth, Lord Taketh Away,

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