By Aaron Williams–
Last year was a big one for the world of hip-hop. While 2011 saw the continued commercial success of rappers like Rick Ross and Kanye West, it also saw young up-and-comers like Big Sean and J. Cole share the spotlight with some of the titans of the game.
Amongst all the new music that hip-hop brought listeners this year, several albums rose to distinguish their selves from the other releases.
5. Drake, Take Care
Drake’s sophomore effort leaked early to an immense amount of hype. The album abandons the heavy R&B themes found on Thank Me Later and instead provides ample moments for Drake to embellish on his skill as a lyricist. The Canadian rapper once again relies on producers Noah “40” Shebib and Boi-1da to supply him with beats. He also recruits frequent collaborators like Lil’ Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross to bolster his album with verses on songs such as “HYFR” “Make Me Proud” and “Lords Knows.”
There’s even the usual Rihanna single for radio play that seems to find its way on every mainstream hip-hop album released recently. Fortunately for Drizzy, the album’s biggest highlights are when Drake shines alone. “Under Ground Kings” “The Ride” and “Practice” make for Take Care’s best tracks. The collaboration with fellow Toronto native The Weeknd on “Crew Love” is not to be missed either.
4. Kendrick Lamar, Section.80
Kendrick Lamar’s career took off over the summer with the release of his digital album, Section.80. K-Dot delivered a critically acclaimed first album that relies on the strength of the Compton emcee’s storytelling ability to propel it’s themes forward throughout the work. No better example can be found than the gripping tale of the murder of a young prostitute told on “Keisha’s Song.” Kendrick Lamar’s production on tracks like “Chapter Six” and “Poe Man’s Dream” make for an easy and relaxing listen as K-Dot flows seamlessly over lackadaisical beats and horns.
Kendrick is no one to be slept on. His ability to deliver biting lyrics and social commentary on tracks like “Ronald Reagan Era” cannot be understated. “Rigamortus” proves that Kendrick Lamar is no lightweight, as he flies through his flow over bellowing bass at an almost nonhuman speed with lines wittier than the last. Section.80 highlights Kendrick Lamar as one of 2011’s most talented newcomers.
3. Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne
There may not be a better 1-2-3 punch on any other hip-hop album released in 2011 than “Ni–as in Paris” “Otis” and “Gotta Have It.” Legendary emcee’s Jay-Z and Kanye West joined forces over the summer to release a joint album that has had heads bobbing ever since. Yeezy and Hov celebrate their own lavish lifestyles on Watch the Throne and there are certainly a lot of self-indulgent moments for both parties. While the album can sometimes turn into a brag session of the luxury, cars and women the two enjoy, tracks like the RZA-produced “New Day” offer a breath of fresh air where Jay-Z and Kanye rap about their unborn sons instead of their watches and clothes. Though some proclaim Watch the Throne as a modern classic, tracks like “Lift Off” and “Made in America” cause the album to fall short of that mark, no matter how much fun it is to blast “Who Gon Stop Me.”
2. Big K.R.I.T., Returnof4eva
Rapper/producer Big K.R.I.T. brought hip-hop heads his own unique taste of alternative southern rap on Returnof4eva last spring. K.R.IT. speaks with a humble nature on numerous tracks and preaches against the materialism that permeates American rap culture on tracks like “American Rapstar” where he spits, “They say money makes the world go round, you ain’t lost til you lose your crown, and they don’t love you til you’re underground or when you’re maxing out your bank account.”
K.R.I.T. drips nostalgia from his production and rhymes on “Time Machine” and sings to “party like it’s 1999!” on “Get Right,” while still managing to keep his tone and subject matter serious on other tracks like “Dreamin’” and “The Vent.” R4’s best banger is saved for last, when Ludacris and Bun B jump on a remixed track with K.R.I.T. for a jam that may be light on the lyrical content, but drops heavy on the bass.
1. The Roots, undun
On undun, their eleventh studio album, the Roots follow up on the existential themes introduced in their previous release, How I Got Over. Undun is the life story of the fictional character Redford Stevens, told backwards from his death through his struggles with cocaine addiction. Long time Roots’ collaborators Phonte, Dice Raw, Truck North and Bilal return to assist Black Thought in narrating Redford’s journey. “I wonder when you die, do you hear harps and bagpipes if you born on the other side of the crack pipe?” Dice Raw asks on “One Time.” Undun is gritty. It has a depth to it unseen on most hip-hop releases. It ranks near the top of the Roots’ darkest albums to date with tracks like the mystifying “Sleep” that will haunt the listener and “Stomp,” where Greg Porn’s rhymes about addiction and self-contempt paint the bleak picture of a man who has lost hope.
That is not to say undun is all despair. Tracks like the single “Make My,” where Big K.R.I.T. lends a verse, are uplifting with refined production from Questlove and a neo-soul filled hook from Dice Raw. “Kool On” seems almost out of place in the middle of the album with its up beat tempo and celebratory spirit. Finally, “Tip the Scale” is the metaphorical ballad of a cocaine addict consumed by his addiction. “Homicide or suicide, heads or tails, some think life is a living hell, some live life just living well, I live life trying to tip the scale, my way” Dice Raw sings on the track.
Sufjan Stevens’ “Redford” follows the anguish of “Tip the Scale” and begins a series of instrumental movements that close out the album as well as the story of Redford Stevens. Undun is not an easily accessible album, but it is one that, if listened to carefully, will hold you until the final climactic note.
Photo courtesy Def Jam