The 20 best hip-hop records of 2011
Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, there were a lot of really good hip-hop records this year. In fact, trying to single out twenty of them is hard enough, let alone put them in some sort of numerical order. Rankings are bullshit anyway. Of couse some things are better than others and some things are just bad. I mean, there is a reason you won't find Throne, Weezy, or Tyler on here. But trying to decipher who should get the highest honors can turn into a endless game of he-said/she-said—friendships will end, divorce rates will increase, brothers won't talk for 10 years, and limbs will be lost. So I am going alphabetical-by-artist on this one. You might think of it as a cop out, but I think of it as saving a life. The 20 best hip-hop records of 2011
Action Bronson & Statik Selektah - Well Done (read our review)
Following on the heels of his first solo album Dr. Lecter, Action Bronson teams up with production workhorse Statik Selektah for his second full-length record of the year. Of the all the underground MCs on the verge of breaking through (MaLLy, Freddie Gibbs, Danny Brown, Torae, Quelle Chris, etc.), Action Bronson seems the most poised of the bunch—showing the ability to grow in terms of both subject matter and delivery. Selektah provides a variety of beats and no doubt encouraged Bronson to broaden his approach for Well Done. Much like his mentor DJ Premier, Selektah has a knack for picking just the right samples to drop in the cut.
Action Bronson - Dr. Lecter
Bronson’s cadence oddly familiar to that of Ghostface or Big Pun, skills-wize though, the argument could be made that he is actually superior. He moves effortlessly through a variety (albeit a small scope) of subject matter—pro-wrestling, weed-smoking, sports, the streets, and food. Dude makes me straight hungry. "Lock the refrigerator/there's no controlling me/steak and chocolate got their motherfucking hold on me." And he's funny too. Example: "Never mess with the blanco/and that's word to O.J.'s Bronco." Producer Tommy Mass—who is known mostly for his work with hipster-hoppers Team Facelift—created a backdrop consisting primarily of breakbeat loops. It all makes for a very ‘90s New York hip-hop vibe.
Away Team - Scars & Stripes
Coming out of North Carolina, this duo—MC Sean Boog and Khrysis—drop their latest album; showing a noticeable growth both in terms of production (all courtesy of Khrysis) and song structure. Khrysis’s beats are on some serious head-nod ish; the bass is low but not rattling—like getting punched in the chest underwater. The record is loaded with guests—Evidence, Talib Kweli, and Phonte among them—that complement Boog’s raspy dialect.
Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (read our review)
Old-School hip-hop…scratch that, rap music resurfacing at a time when contemporary popular hip-hop is in dire need of actual rappers. Complete with all the obscure cultural references (Kenny Rogers Roasters, André Leon Telly, Jerome Crooks, Splenda, etc.) and witty humor you’ve come to expect from the Beasties. Sample Adrock lyric—“The proof is in the pudding/And the pudding is in my pants/You’ve heard me rap/Now watch me dance.”
Chef Raekwon - Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang
Raekwon seems hell-bent on not repeating the lackluster outings that happened between the first and second installments of Only Built For Cuban Linx, as evidenced by last year’s Wu-Massacre with Ghostface and Method Man, and now Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. Rae comes hard as ever with a bevy of complimentary guest MCs in tow—Lloyd Banks, Nas, Rick Ross, Black Thought, and several of the usual suspects—sans RZA—from the Wu-Tang Clan. Complete with all the kung-fu movie samples and sword-slashing Wu-distinctions, the record is throwback-ish yet refreshingly contemporary.
Cool Kids - When Fish Ride Bicycles (read our review)
Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish have earned a rep for themselves as those new-school kids, supplying that old-school vibe—simplistic 808-heavy beats, high-treble claps, and a laidback flow. With Fish, the core formula hasn’t changed much but they have expanded a bit on overall sound; adding in elements of R&B, Southern hip hop, and funk. In what might initially seem like an odd pairing, UGK’s Bun B makes an appearance on “Gas Station.” It works surprisingly well though, as the beat is hazy and gangsta-lean, and Chuck and Mike slow their roll just enough that it matches Bun’s appropriately.
Edo G - A Face in the Crowd
Boston’s Edo G has been in the game for a minute now. And he’s not shy about it either. “I Was There” is an ode to ‘90s, wherein Edo pin points various people, places, and events from the Golden Era, of which he was connected. Edo’s mates from Special Teams, Slaine and Jayson drop by for one, and he’s backed by production from likes of Statik Selektah and DJ Premier. That latter of which laces him on the standout track “Stop it.”
Evidence - Cats & Dogs
It has been a lackluster year for Rhymesayers, what with veterans Atmosphere and Blueprint turning in disappointing albums, and barely noticeable outings from Grieves & Budo and Hail Mary Malone. But Evidence swooped in to save the day late in the game with his second solo outing since Dilated Peoples was put on hold back in ’06. And this is perhaps the most inspired he’s come since the Expansion Team over a decade ago—dropping clever and pointed rhymes amidst a complimentary beat selection (Preemo, Alchemist, Khrysis, and Evidence himself took turns behind the boards)—he’s risen to the top of the indie heap.
Kool G Rap - Riches, Royalty & Respect
Over two decades in the rap game, Kool G Rap proves he is still a lyricist not to be fucked with. This OG can wrap…ah, I mean rap circles around these youngins’ out here today. On this record, Kool spins tales of gritty street life—from the perspective of a” ‘70s-ass gangsta”—around beats from a number of lesser known producers. Gordon H.U.M.P. Humphrey provides a dark, DefJux-dubstep-like grind on “Going In”—A track in which G Rap cements his status as the elder statesmen; throwing cautionary warnings to those on the come-up. As well, Alchemist and longtime collaborator Marly Marl lace a track each. Don’t sleep on true hip-hop!
Midwest Konnect - The Trailer
This is what happens when California and Indiana, in an act of “divine intervention”, meet up in Minnesota, discover that not only are they roommates, but that they share a mutual admiration for J.Dilla, Native Tongues, and Golden Era hip-hip. Aquatic Son (California) and LeMons (Indiana) are dual headed monsters in their own right (both produce and rap) but when they work together something special happens—that is Midwest Konnect. This record is as impressive as it is ambitious. The Trailer is twenty-some tracks, existing in the middle ground between backpack and jiggy. Students of hip-hop’s history, capable of making big moves in the future.
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire - Lost in Translation
Okay, this one might technically be a mixtape—It has a bunch of recycled beats on it and it’s a free download—but then again it might not be—there is no annoying DJ shot-calling his own name between songs and Bandcamp calls it an “album” (yes, I know they call everything an album)—but either way, I have to include it here. If anything, because of the glorious cover art, and because, well, his name is Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire after all. Plus “Huzzah!” is the hood party anthem of the year. The hook: “Drunk driving on a Wednesday/ With three bitches and an M.P.V./ Half a gallon of Georgi Porgi/And cranberry that's the P.O.P./ The love passion, a recipe for terror/We mix that shit together, then we have an orgy.” Also there is an entire song dedicated to the chicken spot-“Chicken Spot Rock.” But mostly it’s because MMeX don’t give a fuck. Dude recorded himself getting a blowjob from a hoe, and put it on here. Seriously!? Production provided by El-P, Jake One, Necro, Esoteric, and the “Huzzah! Remix" with Danny Brown, El, and Das Racist aint bad reasons either.
Pete Rock & Smif n Wessun - Monumental (read our review)
Aptly-titled, Monumental brings together a legendary producer and two of the underground’s most revered MCs: Pete Rock—half of the duo (along with CL Smooth) responsible for early ‘90s classic Mecca and the Soul Brother—has been the monster behind the boards of your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper for a long-ass time; and Boot Camp Click members Tek and Steele— known collectively as Smif n Wessun—have been rhyming for some twenty odd years. In a genre where the focus has shifted from being skill-driven to more personality-driven, it’s exciting when an album like this comes along that celebrates the original aesthetic of hip-hop laid forth in the Golden Era.
Phonte - Charity Starts At Home
Heralded for his time with 9th Wonder and Rapper Big Pooh in the group Little Brother, North Carolina MC Phonte reemerges in 2011 with his first solo record. This is a heartfelt outing that finds the rapper flexing a variety of styles—soulful R&B vibes, emo-ish personal insights, and braggadocios rhymes, evocative of classic hip-hop. Big K.R.I.T., Evidence, and Pharaoh Monch make reciprocal appearances, and 9th produced a few of the tracks.
Random Axe - self titled (read our review)
A multiregional supergroup of sorts, Random Axe is comprised of three men who have cut their teeth in the hip-hop underground: Detroit’s Black Milk and Guilty Simpson and NYC’s Sean Price. Individually, these three carry lavish resumes, but as a clique they offer an even more impressive product. Sean P’s gruff and rugged voice and Simpson’s penetrating off-kilter flow complement each other well. Milk—a formidable MC in his own right—forgoes rapping this time, and instead concentrates primarily on the production and beat-making side.
Reks - Rythmatic Eternal King Supreme
Veteran Massachusetts rhyme slinger Reks comes hard on his third official full-length. Laced by an impressive grip of beatmakers, including Preemo, Pete Rock, Nottz, Statik Selktah, Hi-Tek, and Alchemist; Reks slings tight lyricism like it aint not thing but a chicken on a string, Burger King. “You are now in tune to the fact: Rek is the black Aristotle with beers in the backpack.” Straight no-frills rap music. Highly recommended.
Saigon - The Greatest Story Never Told
Another long-awaited debut album that finally saw the light of day this year. With Just Blaze behind the boards, Saigon maneuvers his way through a range of topics—the streets, church corruption, impressionable inner-city youth, single mothers, and prison life. That latter of which, he knows all too well. The Yardfather’s tale, while entertaining, is also one of caution. Real talk from the realist of rappers.
Sims - Bad Time Zoo (read our review)
More than a half-decade since the release of his debut album, the veteran Minneapolis MC returns with venomous tongue-lashings directed at both the over-caffeinated, plugged-in, self-serving masses and the man in the mirror—all laid upon some of the most innovative and hard-hitting beats this side of the Mississippi, courtesy of fellow Doomtree member, Lazerbeak.
Statik Selektah - Population Control
Despite several projects throughout the year with individual MCs (Action Bronson, Freddie Gibbs, Freeway, Freddie Foxxx), Statik reaches into his bottomless bag of beats and pulls off an ambitious solo album. The M.O. here is standard producer-album-format: Selektah invites a bunch of rappers to rap over his beats. But where this excels is actually in the selection of said rappers. Aside from a few big names, he brings in a ton of unknowns and up-n-comers. You can find the likes of Sean Price, Talib Kweli, and Styles P rhyming alongside Terminology, Saigon, and Li’l Fame. Smoke Dza goes it alone on “Harlem Blues”, a standout track in which Statik shows off his scratching skills.
Strong Arm Steady - Arms & Hammers
For the second year in a row this California click drops one of the better albums of the last twelve months. Aside from one track, SAS goes at it without Madlib, the production wizard behind 2010’s In Search of Stoney Jackson—instead selecting harder-nosed beats from a variety of sources like Nottz, DJ Khalil, and Jelly Role. Combine that with grimy street raps, and the result is a more heavy-hitting sound. A bangin’ record from a highly underappreciated crew.
Torae - For the Record
Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, 9th Wonder, and Khrysis are among the beat-providers on Torae’s first official solo record. You’d have to be really bad on the mic to screw this up. Like, really bad. Like, Riff Raff bad. Thankfully Torae in no way whatsoever resembles the Texas Tornado. Well, other than that they both rap. But even that is questionable. Jokes aside, Torae is on some real personal ishnit here. He’s not up in the club poppin’ bottles, making it rain, or lying about which kind of whip he’s got a lease on. This is a concept album of sorts—it’s the story of Torae’s foray the hip-hop biz, from high school graduation to present day, and even a little peak into the future. He strikes a unique balance between street-level raps and high-IQ lyricism.