Top of the Hip-Hop
Or, how Dan LeRoy learned to stop worrying and love da bomb.
While year-end, catch-all wrap-ups are common to every musical genre, in no other style of music do they turn into the hand-wringing, "state of the game" examinations that hip-hop seems to provoke. (I've certainly written a few.) We worry because we care, of course. But at some point, like a thirty-something parent, those of us who are fans should probably acknowledge that the kid is all right. After all, this isn't 1989, when our ten-year-old was about to dazzle us with a new golden age but we couldn't see it yet because he was still just a kid. It isn't 1999, when we worried that our twenty-year-old was running with the wrong crowd, post-Tupac and Biggie. The more we fuss, the more we fret that every crap album or crass trend is going to be the death of our baby, the more ammo we give to those who'd like to believe in just such an eventuality. (Don't think there are any left? Visit a chat board near you.)
Overall, the past twelve months have been fairly quiet ones in the hip-hop world. (When the year's probable big story involves Kanye's VMA faux pas, that's telling.) A number of hip-hop titans attempted comebacks, some of them successful and a couple of them listed below. However, while the music was sometimes inspiring, even the triumphs rang a little hollow. To be a star in 2009, in a post-downloads-destroyed-the-music-industry era, just doesn't seem to carry the same cachet as it once did. And, of course, the balkanization of the music world continues apace; with ready access to almost anything, the idea of shared culture seems paradoxically to recede.
Nevertheless, the kid is all right. In fact, he's not a kid anymore. He's a thirty-year-old adult who, we can rest assured, will be around long after we're gone. Here are ten reasons -- not related or thematically coherent reasons, perhaps, but good ones just the same -- why.
There were certainly bigger names who re-entered the fray in 2009, but perhaps no comeback was as welcome as this reunion of hip-hop's authentic punk-rockers. Having extended the middle digit to convention in numerous prior instances, Beans, M. Sayyid, High Priest and Earl Blaize did on Fluorescent Black what all great artists do: They found a way to make their art accessible without losing their sense of adventure. So if 'Volcano" sounded like the left-field hit that the group's 2002 single "Ghost Lawns" never quite became, you could flip to the rawer-than-raw freestyle "Dragunov" and the orchestral techno of "Timpani" for reminders that APC can still be as AP as it needs to be.
The Wu-Tang Clan
Look back on press coverage of just about any Wu-related project of the past decade or so and a thematic thread will reveal itself: how much the album in question sounds like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the group's 1993 debut. It's easy to understand why: That disc remains one of hip-hop's most enduring texts. But its blend of late-night menace and kung fu mysticism has never been equaled, and some writers (this one included) have strained mightily to hear its echo in subsequent Wu-Tang projects, even when the evidence ultimately suggested otherwise. Despite its brevity (about 35 minutes) and the presence of only five Clan members, Chamber Music has more than just a titular connection to the Wu's finest moment. Live musicians lovingly re-create the sample-heavy Shaolin grooves, and Ghostface and the RZA bring most of the mystical message. This is not just a deliberate homage to the sound that launched an empire; it's a successful one, too.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II
Meanwhile, Clan mainstay Raekwon managed something even more improbable: He finally followed up his now-legendary 1995 debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, reclaiming the sequel from years of anticipation and West Coast purgatory (at one point, it was to have been an Aftermath release) and releasing an album that picks up right where he left off a decade and a half ago. That means cinemascopically intricate tales of the drug trade. Many have worked this seam since, but few have done it better.
Understand this primarily as an endorsement of Brother J, one of the most underappreciated MCs in hip-hop history. Granted, he's created some of his own problems through his choice of subject matter (black nationalism being just one), but if you're talking sheer mike presence, Brother J's peers are a pretty small group. Thus the return of X-Clan is welcome, even in this restructured mode. "These fools want bells and whistles," Brother J sneers on "Primetime Lyrics," and indeed, he fails to deliver; instead, this is a no-frills, rock-solid return for fans of old-fashioned boom-bap.
Born Like This
The man behind the metal mask, Daniel Dumile, emerges from a mysterious exile to turn in his best effort since 2004's Madvillainy collaboration with Madlib. The dense verbiage and the beats (some of them reclaimed from the late J. Dilla) are familiar, but DOOM's time away helps make them seem fresh again.
Man on the Moon: The End of Day
Kanye's video-music-award etiquette may need some work, but his more substantial contribution this year came through his support of Kid Cudi, a Cleveland rapper pursuing a sound on hip-hop's chilly far fringes -- farther into the Arctic tundra, even, than West's own glacial 2008 outing, 808s and Heartbreak. The spacey, slo-mo beats and the high-concept trappings (narration by Common; a rock-operatic five-act structure) annoyed some purists, but Cudi's melodic sense rewards patience and justifies his grand ambitions.
To the literal north, Canadian rapper k-os has been walking a similar line between hip-hop authenticity and indie-rock experimentalism for years. What really recommends Yes!, however, is implied by the exclamation point of its title: the sense that the sometimes dour k-os is having more fun than ever before.
Georgia Anne Muldrow
(Some Otha Ship)
Granted, this is only about three parts hip-hop (the other seven include stoner soul, stoner jazz and Afrocentric drum circling), but Muldrow and executive producer Dudley Perkins have managed an evocative fusion that all but supplies its own incense.
Kansas City's Tech N9ne made a statement of sorts with his latest set, which showed impressive sales muscle for an indie rapper and debuted inside the Billboard Top 20. But the real statement can be found within K.O.D., which stands for King of Darkness and takes Tech's thoughtful and troubled worldview to its most extreme limits yet on tracks like "Show Me a God." It's a deep, dark trip, inspired by his mother's illness, and probably too long. But unlike Eminem, whose sometimes brilliant Relapse peddled horror-core calculated to offend, Tech seldom seems to bleed his lyric sheet for sheer shock value.
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A Pipe Dream and a Promise
The pipe dream here might be that a hip-hop universe splintered into so many factions could fully appreciate the old-fashioned promise of Detroiter Finale's debut, which deliberately harks back to the more integrated, less complicated golden age. Short on flash but full of lyrical and musical substance (including productions by Dilla and the consistently craftsman-like Black Milk), this is an album for everyone who misses hip-hop's heyday, or who wants to experience what it must have been like.
-- Dan LeRoy