I can’t recall ever having a harder time choosing my hip-hop album of the year, but I think that may be because we are at a crossroads moment in hip-hop history. In some ways every year is a crossroads, but this period feels particularly pregnant because I suspect that we as a hip-hop community are figuring out what skills will be prized as we go forward.
We may be watching a battle for hip-hop’s soul and not realize until later that 2011 was a crucial fork in the road.
In a world where Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 was many people’s album of the year and Drake’s Take Care took the crown for many others, you see entirely different perspectives on judging hip-hop at work—Kendrick’s classic, technically-sharp lyricism versus Drake’s R&B-infused sing-songy emotional confession rhymes. Which direction will rule hip-hop as we go forward? We may be watching a battle for hip-hop’s soul and not realize until later that 2011 was a crucial fork in the road.
I sense this moment as transitional because the hip-hop community at large has not reached a clear consensus on the album of 2011—there’s several LPs people are holding up as AOY, which is more fragmentation than I’ve seen in a long time, perhaps ever. This is part of the growing diversity of the hip-hop community, which leads to the lack of agreement around what skills are to be prized. And a desire to move to something new. Or a search for new air in a genre that loves innovation and is perhaps a bit starved for it. It’s easy to say hip-hop is dead or skills are dead and the skinny jeans era is a nadir but I don’t think any of those things are true.
I think we are seeing various factions within the hip-hop community fighting to have our ideas around the skills we respect most emerge triumphant. That is why there’s so many aesthetically polarizing MCs around now: people who some love and some hate because of what they do on the mic. There’s little middle ground on Drake or Tyler, the Creator or Danny Brown—you either love them, and many do, or hate them. I love Tyler and Danny for bringing us a weirdness and an intensity and a love of hip-hop. Even when they’re juvenile and pushing buttons for pushing buttons’ sake (and gross and misogynistic and homophobic) I can still appreciate their technical complexity, their lyrics, their flows and the taboo-flouting that seems so hip-hop. I love their lotion-free approach to hip-hop but I suspect that Drake as well as Tyler, Danny, and Kendrick will be around for a while and defining the future of hip-hop along with Jay Electronica, Kanye, Lil Wayne, Jay, Nas, Rick Ross, the Roots, Nicki, Em, A$AP Rocky and others.
The battle for album of the year comes down to The Roots vs The Throne.
Several veterans put out great music this year—Raekwon, Pharoah Monch, Saigon (his debut album comes after having been around for a long while), Shabazz Palaces, and Common. Each of them put out an album that some think is the album of the year but in my estimation the battle for album of the year comes down to the Roots vs the Throne.
Jay and Kanye had the biggest cultural event of the hip-hop year—Watch the Throne was the album the largest number of people talked about the most. There’s great music and great rhymes, there’s philosophical moments (“No Church In the Wild,” “New Day”) and fun brag fests (“Otis,” “Niggas In Paris”). This is expensive-sounding hip-hop with a collection of samples and producers that few others could afford to put together. But it’s an undeniably uneven document that unlike, say, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, you wouldn’t want to listen to front to back without reaching for the forward button several times.
Watch the Throne reminds me a bit of the Miami Heat—electrified by a pair of stars, burdened by sky-high expectations, giving off results both thrilling and disappointing.
It’s a smart album that doesn’t treat music as just a backdrop for an MC but is a dynamic soundscape that’s luscious and gorgeous at times and over the top at others. Watch the Throne is an album of excess. Its highs are high and it’s lows are forgettable, which is surprising and even inexcusable given that two of the biggest and most talented superstars in the game are behind the album. Watch the Throne reminds me a bit of the Miami Heat—electrified by a pair of stars, burdened by sky-high expectations, giving off results both thrilling and disappointing.
I can’t say my album of the year—the Roots’ undun—is a perfect album (I could do without the instrumental section at the end, though I know it’s necessary). But undun is an extraordinary, complex, smart album featuring one of the greatest MCs in the game, Black Thought, and several other strong MCs including most notably Big KRIT.
Where Watch the Throne is uneven, undun is more focused sonically and, of course, thematically.
Where Watch the Throne is uneven, undun is more focused sonically and, of course, thematically. I’m a sucker for a concept album—or an album with at least a sonic concept, with some unifying element, rather than a more disparate collection of songs, (hence my argument why Off the Wall is better than Thriller: taut sonic cohesion). undun gives us the story of a man we’ve seen in hip-hop many times but the brilliance of Black Thought, Questlove and their compatriots inject new life into this central hip-hop meme. He’s an everyman and he’s a rat in a cage and he’s screwed from the beginning—yet he’s not, yet he is. It’s a tragic album—it begins with death and then goes backwards to explain that death so that a melancholy hangs over the brighter songs like a rain cloud. It’s a soulful album that gets at soul’s bluesy roots. It’s an ambitious project that speaks to who we are as urban Black men in a white supremacist system and yet I see a challenge to the idea that we must be controlled by that system because the storytellers themselves are Black men who are entrepreneurial, original, independent, brilliant and charting their own course in the world in both a sonic and a business sense. undun is a document that’s short but soars as it takes us through a sad journey. I hope this is an omen of the future of hip-hop.
Written by Touré (@Toure)