Of all the lists that this website produces over the course of the next few weeks, I expect to receive the most angry and confused comments about this one. As I see it, 2011 is the year that mainstream hip-hop let us down. High profile releases from the likes of Lil’ Wayne, Lupe Fiasco, The Game, and Pusha T (to name only a few) left me wishing I still bought CDs so I could use them as coasters. Meanwhile, as month after month of flaccid rhymes and bombastic beats hit record store shelves, a new hip-hop underground began to emerge through a series of independent releases and free mixtapes. These are the records that had me coming back over and over when I needed a jolt this year, and the list below (compiled with the help of super-staffer Peter Lillis) reflects this predilection. As such, there are some notable and, I will admit, potentially egregious omissions. Allow me to list the most glaring of these up front:
I am willing to give these two transcendent artists the benefit of the doubt and refrain from saying that this record was a blatant cash-grab. But, as I wrote back in August, this record comes off as rushed and incomplete even by the most favorable reading. There are some genuine high marks, no doubt (“Welcome to the Jungle,” “Murder To Excellence”), but the misses are so wide as to disqualify it from serious year-end consideration. If you dont believe me, just try to sit through the entirety of the Beyoncé-featuring “Lift Off” with a straight face.
I am something of an Odd Future true believer, and I spent a lot of time with this record. In the final analysis, however, despite some significant high points, I left this record reminded of the fact that Tyler is still only 20 years old, and as such is still prone to self-absorbed and sophomoric nonsense. Too much of this record seems designed to aggresively alienate the listener, in the process creating a previously non-existent group of objectors to whom Tyler can lift his middle finger. I’m still optimistic that, as the years go by, we’ll get more “Sandwitches” and less “Bitch Suck Dick,” but there’s enough of the latter here that I can’t include it on the year-end list.
This may be the album with which I struggled the most in 2011, and after countless listens I can confidently state: I don’t get it. Last year Terry Selucky wrote an excellent piece on Drake’s debut entitled “Drake Makes Us Feel Old,” and I can confidently state that Take Care makes me feel at least one year older. Perhaps my view of hip-hop is permanently skewed by my early exposure to it in the 1990s, but I still expect a little aggression and nihilism from my rap superstars. But young man, I’m just not interested in how confused you are. There are certainly high points to this record (that Jamie xx sample on the title track, Kendrick Lamar’s spectacular verse on “Buried Alive Interlude,” Andre 3000′s more spectacular verse on “The Real Her,” and Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on “Doing It Wrong”), but for the most part this record continues to leave me cold and unmoved. I am clearly in the critical minority, and perhaps in 5 years I will be ashamed at the error of my initial evaluation. But, for now, I find the comparisons to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy somewhere between laughable and preposterous.
The disclaimers are now complete. On to Frontier Psychiatrist’s best hip-hop albums of 2011. Feel free to share your thoughts (no matter how outraged or outrageous) in the comment box below.
Pharaohe Monch essentially invented underground hip-hop some 20 years ago as one-half of the duo Organized Konfusion. That seminal group parted ways in the late 1990s, but Monch has soldiered on as a solo act, releasing three records over the last 12 years. His most recent, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) is characterized by his typical lyrical wizardry and social consciousness. Be prepared to rewind; you’ll have trouble keeping up with Monch’s breakneck flow.
9. Nacho Picasso – For The Glory
For those of us for whom hip-hop was not an intergral part of our culture in adolescence, the initial attraction to the genre was often wordplay. Like nothing before it, hip-hop combined the ability to be linguistically clever with the ability to be shamelessly adolescent. No rapper today exhibits this ability quite like Seattle’s Nacho Picasso, a.k.a. Young Henry Rollins (!), whose debut mixtape For The Glory was released earlier this fall (and can be downloaded for free on his bandcamp page). From Dionysus to George Carlin to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, NP’s rhymes run the cultural gamut, supported throughout by hazy, smoke-filled beats. A promising debut from a promising talent.
These guys are tremendously polarizing, and I can understand why. I spilled a lot of ink earlier this year delving into this album’s many multi-cultural references, and perhaps such labyrinthine lyricism is a turn-off. To my ears, however, this is the genius of hip-hop: the power to shape one’s cultural experiences, however unique and varied, into song. Also, this shit is bumpin’.
7. Action Bronson – Dr. Lecter
It might bother some listeners that this guy sounds EXACTLY like Ghostface Killah, but I’m not one of them; after all, good artists borrow and great artists steal. Of course, Bronson’s work is far from pure theft: he raps much less frequently about organized crime than does Ghostface, and much more frequently about cheeseburgers. Imitation and silliness aside, however, this record is a reminder of what hip-hop, and specifically East-Coast hip-hop, sounded in the mid-1990s, a time when new classics seemed to emerge every month. It doesn’t break much new ground, but it sounds fantastic, and it’s guaranteed to get you fired up like a shot of intravenous Red Bull. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Action Bronson – “Moonstruck”
In recent years marijuana has become the undisputed drug of choice in the hip-hop community, but apparently such fashions mean little to Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire. On his debut mixtape Lost In Translation, eXquire makes it clear that he shares his drug of choice is one he shares with Frontier Psychiatrist: alcohol. Unlike FP, however, it seems unlikely that eXquire is the role of the Hapsburgs in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. No, when the phrase “Drunk drivin’ on a Wednesday” is repeatedly intoned on lead single “Huzzah,” one gets the sense that eXquire’s interest is more functional than historical. All of which is a long-winded way of saying: this is one sociopathic bastard. He could make Drake cry just by staring at him. Which is ok by me.
The last three albums mentioned were produced by a new breed of New York rapper, but no rapper has been more at the New York forefront over the last 12 months as A$AP Rocky. On the strength of virtually no published material, Rocky inked a $3 million deal with Sony/RCA, then managed to justify the signing with this excellent mixtape. Little that is here will sound earth-shattering, but Rocky’s big-screen persona and confident flow, combined with the outstanding production of Clams Casino, ASAP Ty Beats, SpaceGhostpurrp make LiveLoveA$AP a positive predictor of things to come.
4. Mellowhype – BlackenedWhite
With the exception of Frank Ocean’s revelatory Nostalgia, Ultra, this was the best release from Odd Future in 2011. Initially released as a free download at the end of 2010, BlackenedWhite was remastered and expanded by Fat Possum Records for its official 2011 release, and the benefits of some professional assistance are evident. Eliminating some of the original’s more disposable tracks in favor of new tracks “64″ and “Igotagun,” the album’s 2011 version is the closest thing we’ve heard to a Neptunes release since Hell Hath No Fury. And, while it certainly doesn’t reach the heights of that modern classic, BlackenedWhite sidles up beside Odd Future landmarks like Bastard and EARL by focusing on the crew’s greatest strength: pure demented fun.
On its surface, No More Golden Days sounds unbearably gimmicky: a young Philly emcee with a few mixtapes to his name rapping over au courant acts like Gang Gang Dance, Frank Ocean, and Clams Casino. In the wrong hands the idea could have been a disaster, but with Lushlife’s impeccable flow and unshakeable confidence, this free mixtape becomes a model of what is possible for hip-hop in the 21st century. While the best hip-hop breaks down barriers between genres, No More Golden Days refuses to acknowledge them, embracing the concept of music as exchange of ideas. All while spitting some pretty sick rhymes.
To say that the services of Clams Casino are in demand would be a gross understatement. His work appears on album #3 on this list, as well as album #5, as well as countless other releases from 2011 including works by Main Attrakionz and Lil B. But, despite all of the high-profile production work he’s done for rising MCs, his instrumental work stands on its own merits among the best hip-hop of 2011. Rendering samples by artists like Bjork and Adele unrecognizable yet somehow more beautiful, CC presents us with a blueprint for the hip-hop cognoscenti’s immediate future. The 17 tracks on these two releases are guaranteed to leave you spellbound. Turn down the lights and turn up the volume.
When I first listened to Black Up, the full-length debut from Shabazz Palaces, I was certain I was listening to something truly unique and innovative. I wasn’t so sure, however, that I was listening to something good. This record is so disorienting on initial listen, with its vestibule-rattling bass and rapid shifts of tone, that it is almost impossible to evaluate. After listening a second time, however, and then a third, and then dozens more times over the course of 2011, I can now claim with confidence that Black Up is a rare work of genius in the world of hip-hop. If Clams Casino’s work is a blueprint for the hip-hop cognoscenti’s immediate future, then Shabazz Palaces’ debut is a blueprint for its distant future, a work that will one day be seen as stunningly prescient, as magnificently foward-thinking, as simply foundational. It may take you some time to agree, but trust me: it’s worth the wait.
L.V. Lopez is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently shared the top covers and music videos of 2011 as well as some great missed albums from 2010. He grows weary of writing pithy blurbs.