#8

November 18, 2010

Invincible – Shapeshifters
hip-hop
2008

It’s a little beside the point but, I must say, in a genre that often gets saddled with a reputation for unapologetic misogyny, I love the fact that a woman might be the best rapper in the world. Ilana Weaver, aka Invincible, absolutely kills it throughout Shapeshifters, showing flow, verbal dexterity, pace, rhyme structure, breath control, wordcraft, wit, wisdom and sheer depth of vocabulary that leaves me flabbergasted every time I hear it. Go ahead, try to sing along to any of the verses on “Sledgehammer”; even with a lyric sheet in front of you, you’re likely to end up tongue-tied. Weaver introduces herself by declaring a “State of Emergency”, a mission statement which is fully realised throughout the remainder of the album. That’s one of the things that makes Shapeshifters such a marvel – it’d be enough just to hear Invincible’s flawless technique, even if she had nothing relevant to say. But she has so much to say – “Spacious Skies” is a scathing, backhanded love-letter to the USA in which Weaver expresses her Invincible - Shapeshiftersyouthful optimism turned to disillusionment after having emigrated from the Middle East as a child; the Israel/Palestine conflict gets a thorough and thoughtful treatment on “People Not Places”; “Deuce/Ypsi” addresses the challenges faced by minorities and lower-class residents living on the south-side of an otherwise affluent University suburb; “Ransom Note”, which features co-members of all-girl rap group Anomalies, reels off a list of demands to an unnamed media/communications mogul, including free citywide wireless and modern computing equipment for poor schools; “In the Mourning” is a touching J Dilla tribute, which goes so far as to explicitly shame listeners for only truly discovering his genius after his death; and the history of urban gentrification is delved into on closing track “Locusts”. When you take all that, and then top it off by throwing in a handful of great guest appearances (emcee Finale, in particular, stands out) and some absolutely exquisite production touches, which sees tracks backed by everything from flamenco to blazing electric guitar bursts to twinkling, 1950s piano, you end up with one the most substantial, important and flat-out amazing hip-hop albums of the decade. Plus, it’s her debut. I’m stunned.

 

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#16

November 9, 2010

Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030
hip-hop
2000

Deltron 3030 is a groundbreaking album of futuristic geek-hop that constantly delivers the goods, thanks to Dan the Automator’s hugely creative, kick-ass production, Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s well-baked yet highly literate delivery, Kid Koala’s expert, nimbleDeltron 3030 - Deltron 3030 turntablism, a series of A+ guest appearances (including Damon Albarn, Prince Paul, Peanut Butter Wolf and an unlikely appearance by Sean Lennon) and the huge number of SF/tech/geek references littered throughout the album (Microsoft, William Gibson, neural implants, interplanetary travel and mecha, to name just a few). Most of the songs establish various overarching details of the album’s futuristic setting, giving the album a very concrete sense of place and time, however there is also a loose story running throughout – Del plays a freedom fighter battling the regimes of a dystopian future while participating in a series of intergalactic rap battles against assorted fiendish foes, and by album’s end there’s no doubt that Del has the goods to be kicking all the ass that he claims he does. This plotline is tied together nicely via a sequence of entertaining snippets and interludes, which drive the narrative forward, further establish the environmental, political and social backdrop and infuse the album with a feeling of true cohesion. If you’re looking to try before you buy I recommend checking out “3030”, “Virus”, “Upgrade (A Brymar College Course)”, “Battlesong” and “Love Story”. It’s hard not to feel like every last element falls perfectly into place on this one, though – it’s one of my favourite hip-hop albums of the decade, and sets the bar extremely high for its perpetually delayed sequel.

#26

October 29, 2010

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
soul, hip-hop, r&b
2008

Musically complex and ignited with fiery social and political commentary, New Amerykah Part One (Fourth World War) merges elements from neo-soul (via the vocals) and hop-hop (via the beats and production) and rounds them out with splashes of funk & contemporary r&b. Sounding confident and righteously motivated, Badu doesn’t hold back for a moment, delving fearlessly into heated topics such as politics, war, immigration, drugs, violence, patriotism, race-relations, religion, health, education, law and death, and her lyricism is razor-sharp throughout. So much of Badu’s vocal performance and the album’s subject matter will leave a mark on the listener: first track Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)“Amerykahn Promise” grabs your attention with the love-meets-violence catch-cry of “Promise to you baby, I’ll love you tooth for tooth and eye for eye”, while “The Healer” sees Badu claiming that hip-hop is “bigger than religion … bigger than the government”, set atop funky beats and dreamy chime samples. “The Cell” reflects on the tragedy of addiction within the family (“Momma hopped up on cocaine / Daddy on space ships with no brain / Sister gone numb the pain the same / Why same DNA cell?”) and tribute is paid to J Dilla in the serene “Telephone”, a seven-minute slow-burner which features a soaring coda that makes for one of the albums greatest highlights. The album is saturated with this sort of powerful sentiment and unwavering conviction, making New Amerykah Part One get under your skin as much for its moving content as its irresistible grooves.

 

#38

October 15, 2010

Cannibal Ox The Cold Vein
hip-hop
2001

Cannibal Ox - The Cold VeinThe lyrical prowess displayed by Can Ox’s two emcees Vast Aire and Vordul Mega is outstanding, painting a dark picture of modern NYC life with imagery that’s highly creative and very confrontational. Their flow is equally incredible, a spoken-word style that plays out like a slow-down of Ghostface Killah’s confident vocal blasts, with Vast Aire’s deep, quiver ‘n’ lurch delivery in particular being uniquely compelling (the first time I heard it, his entry midway through “Iron Galaxy”, the album’s opening track, felt like a revelation). Whether it’s social commentary or battle-raps, Aire and Mega are never less than great, and hearing Vast spit creative and witty lines like “You got beef but there’s worms in your Wellington / I’ll put a hole in your skull and extract your gelatin” is something of which I just never tire. El-P’s production provides yet another reason to praise this release, with his slow, staggered beats and futuristic sampling surpassing all previous efforts for a career highpoint that very nearly steals the show. Mirroring the album’s subject matter, his contributions mostly have a dark and grimy mood to them, but there’s brilliant surprises at every turn, be it the blazing electric guitar overlay of “Ox Out the Cage”, the synth-orchestra-in-outer-space of “Real Earth” or the loungey, Amon Tobin-esque vibes of “Painkillers”. It’s a long, arduous listen, and undoubtably a slow grower, but The Cold Vein is remarkably rewarding listening – one of the decade’s finest, most lyrically dense releases.

 

#43

October 11, 2010

Madvillain Madvillainy
hip-hop
2004

The timing was simply perfect – it was early 2004 and both M.F. Doom and Madlib were in the midst of their musical prime. Less than a year earlier, both artists had put out exceptional projects, Madlib’s Shades of Blue, a retooling of the Blue Note catalogue, and Doom’s brilliant Vaudeville Villain, a blazing hip-hop spectacle released under his Victor Vaughan alias. The result of their collaboration was Madvillainy, an album already widely canonised as one of, if not the greatest hip-hop album of the noughties. The duo simultaneously counter the hip-hop pitfall of excess while falling straight into it, delivering a convoluted mess of 22 micro-songs that clock in at a mere 45 minutes, an album where songs stand in for skits and skits themselves are (thankfully) absent. Madlib’s sampling and production is some of the most inspired of the decade, pulling bits and pieces liberally from jazz, Saturday morning cartoons, informational film footage, classic movie scores and spliced up dialogue and mushing them together to create a noirish, comic book atmosphere that’s totally absurd and wildly entertaining, and goes the extra step of maintaining it seamlessly throughout the album’s duration. This makes Madvillainy one of the most thematically consistent hip-hop albums I’ve ever heard, and when you combine this backdrop with the villainous personas adopted (and Madvillain - Madvillainyregularly referenced) by Madlib and Doom, it means that the album feels like it has an ongoing narrative, even though that’s honestly never really the case. I love the fact that my personal highlights are scattered across the album very evenly, plus the songs are over so quickly that the so-called “second tier” tracks never really have enough time to cause anything close to a lull, thus making this a really great “single sitting” listening experience. “Accordion” is an impressive lyrical showcase atop a killer sample of the titular instrument, and features one of my favourite hip-hop similes in “slip like freudian”. the ode-to-weed “America’s Most Blunted” and the brain-melting “Shadows of Tomorrow” allow Madlib to unleash his Lord Quasimoto persona for some surreal, stoned-out fun. Meanwhile, “Figaro”, “Strange Ways” and “All Caps” are punchy, direct numbers that trim away any excess fat to showcase the strengths of both emcee and producer with no extraneous distractions whatsoever. It might not quite be my number one hip-hop album of the decade, but I can certainly see why it is for so many others.

 

#65

August 26, 2010

CommonLike Water for Chocolate
hip-hop
2000

Like Water for Chocolate contains some of the more intellectual, thought-provoking hip-hop I’ve heard, not just because it contains Common - Like Water for Chocolate“serious” content, but also because Common has a real knack for structuring and delivering his lyrics in a manner that makes them stick in your mind with a lasting impact. He achieves this over and over again throughout the album (just check out this line from “The 6th Sense” – “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want millions / More than money saved, I wanna save children / Dealing with alcoholism and afrocentricity / A complex man drawn off of simplicity / Reality is frisking me” – just one excellent snippet of many). What’s more, his flow is amongst the smoothest, most mellow and charismatic I’ve had the pleasure of hearing, and the production is absolutely slick throughout. Personal favourites include album-opener “Time Travellin'”, “The 6th Sense”, the hilarious “A Film Called (Pimp)” and the moving biographic track “A Song for Assata”. A standout album that’s got a decent chance of appealing to non hip-hop fans as well as those who dig the genre.

#66

August 26, 2010

M.I.AKala
electropop, hip-hop, world music
2007

M.I.A’s first album, Arular, never really gelled at all for me. It was musically jarring in a manner that rubbed me the wrong way, and I found it to be frustratingly inconsistent in quality. After a handful of listens it was finally relegated to the big pile of music I rarely bother to revisit. Because of this, I steered clear of Kala upon its release, assuming that I’d be in for more of the same. It wasn’t until I had a brief obsession with the ubiquitous single “Paper Planes” that I finally decided to check the album out, and even then I was hesitant about being drawn in by a singular hit. Better late than never, though, as Kala brings together Arular‘s more promising aspects – punchy rhythms, dynamic vocals, wry humour and political M.I.A. - Kalaawareness – refines them, tidies them up and streamlines them through a Indian-pop-meets-Western-dance-party sensibility. The results are a bevy of creative, dancefloor-burning tunes: “Jimmy” is a swirling Bollywood gem, “Bird Flu” and “Hustle” are both pleasingly feisty, her reworking of “Mango Pickle Down River” takes the didgeridoo samples and vocals from the original by indigenous Australian group The Wilcannia Mob and adds a couple of Maya’s own verses, a cool London grime backdrop and some sharper production, and “Paper Planes” and “Boyz” – the latter being my personal favourite – are bouncy, anthemic and brimming with attitude in a manner that makes them two of the decade’s most impossibly addictive singles.

#71

August 18, 2010

Ghostface KillahSupreme Clientele
hip-hop
2000

Ghostface Killah - Supreme ClientelePerhaps more so than any other hip-hop album I’ve heard, Supreme Clientele sounds like a spectacle. The production is robust and attention-grabbing, with sampling so big, bright and unmistakable that it hits like a Mack truck. Meanwhile, Ghostface himself is a larger-than-life beast, delivering emcee work that’s punchy, rapid-paced and utterly commanding, and his outpouring of free-flowing non-sequiters is something of a marvel (“Hit Poughkepsie crispy chicken verbs throw up a stone richie” indeed). Just check out the explosive, widescreen attacks of songs like “Apollo Kids” and “Nutmeg” – the latter of which, incidentally, is a probable victor for “best rap song of the decade” honours. In a genre that’s so often anchored around bragging and one-upmanship, albums like this one make everything around them seem timid and uncertain. It’s not uncommon for rappers to spend an album sounding like they want to conquer the world, but when Ghostface Killah does it he sounds like he’s going to succeed so effortlessly.

#83

July 27, 2010

Fashawn – Boy Meets World
hip-hop
2009

What a marvelous debut coming from such a young and talented artist.Fashawn - Boy Meets World Fashawn was barely out of his teens when Boy Meets World was released, and already he was sounding like a young Common, blessed with the same skill in engaging storytelling, bolstered by a solid sense of social awareness and some truly forthright lyricism. A great deal of the album’s content is influenced by Fashawn’s difficult childhood – he grew up in a virtually parentless home – and the steps he took to push through adversity and achieve personal success. It gives the album a fascinating duality of grim realism juxtaposed against a powerful sense of optimism, with Fashawn’s lyrics repeatedly coming back to the ideals of determination and the pursuing of dreams. It sounds like a bit of a cliché, but there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the way Fashawn tells it which makes it good-spirited and very appealing. There’s a wealth of highlights on Boy Meets World, with “Freedom”, “Life as a Shorty”, “Ecology”, “Bo Jackson” and “When She Calls” (which samples Joanna Newsom!) being some of my personal favourites. However, I’m most fond of the “traveling the open road” celebration of “Samsonite Man”, with its beautiful sample of Billy Paul’s soul cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”.

#85

July 21, 2010

Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf – Big Shots
hip-hop
2003

This is one of those releases where the story behind it often ends up overshadowing the music itself. For those who don’t know, though, Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf were an emcee and producer duo who worked together between 1991 and 1993, recording more than enough material to put together an album. Unfortunately, their work was never released at the time, and Charizma was tragically killed as a bystander during an armed robbery not long after. A few snippets were released in the interim, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Peanut Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf - Big ShotsButter Wolf, now the founder and owner of Stones Throw Records (who released underground classics by artists like Madvillain and J Dilla), finally decided to put the finishing touches on their material and release the album proper. There’s a real old-school vibe to the album, which is full of good-spirited hip-hop party jams that all sound very “of the time”, yet the material never sounds dated (in the pejorative sense of the word). Charizma was a very appropriately named emcee, with his capable flow, youthful sound and fun, feel-good lyricism making him instantly likeable. It’s incredibly sad that he wasn’t able to explore his talent further, but Big Shots makes for an exceptional epitaph.

#89

July 13, 2010

Georgia Anne Muldrow – Umsindo
soul, funk, hip-hop
2009

To me, this album feels a lot like a spiritual companion to Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part 1 (4th World War), so it’s hardly surprising Georgia Anne Muldrow - Umsindothat I adore it, given that Badu’s release is a major favourite (one you can expect to see higher up the list). Georgia Anne Muldrow’s biggest drawcard here might be the unpredictability of her songwriting, as her half-soul-half-hip-hop vocal leads each of these twenty-four (!) tracks along various unforseen pathways and surprising, meandering detours. The music, which consists of a dense melange of bubbling basslines, neo-soul vocal harmonies, strutting percussion and a host of influences derived from funk, hip-hop, electronic and world music, ebbs and flows in her wake, popping through unexpected stylistic shifts which never conform to your expectations yet always reach infinitely satisfying outcomes. Plus, there’s a handful of instantly graspable cuts, like the super-groovy “Daisies”, to keep the listener from losing themselves in the depths completely. Umsindo is complex, but it’s a truly rewarding album – an immense, sprawling work of bold creativity that rewards repeat listens with rich detail and masterful musicianship.

#100

July 2, 2010

The Roots – Game Theory
hip-hop
2006

Game Theory might be the most finely produced hip-hop album of the decade. The Roots play live musical instruments to back their emcees, rather than relying solely on sampling, giving each track an organic backdrop that shows variation and spontenaety beyond what many other hip-hop groups can ever manage. Combine this with the dense, claustrophobicThe Roots - Game Theory production and fine instrumental layering that’s present on each and every track, along with some logical sequencing and a crucial sense of brevity, and you get something truly special. The whole band have a really solid cohesion to their sound, with guitars, keys and turntables being firmly anchored around ?uestlove’s rock-solid percussion and Black Thought’s top-shelf delivery, with a generous helping of top-notch guest vocalists rounding out the package. Highlight tracks include opening salvo “False Media”, the Eastern-tinged “Take it There”, the soulful “Baby” and the exquisite centrepiece “Long Time”, which cements its place as the album’s highpoint with some sleekly dynamic basslines and some of the smoothest vocal-work on the album.