The nice weather is long gone–the ostensibly immutable Los Angeles sun blotted by kidney colored clouds and cold rain. So Prafit's ode to the sizzle of July feels like an antique postcard documenting endless light, chicken breasts smothered in BBQ sauce, and basement parties. Disco Vietnam's beat sounds invincible like summer: celestial choirs, twinkling xylephones that sound like the ice cream man's siren, primary colors blending. The answer lies in the coda–Prafit pausing, reflecting that when the weather's this nice you don't want it to stop. It's a wish only understood in the perfect shadows of a 7:00 p.m twilight–that by some fluke, time will wait for at least a little bit. –Jeff Weiss
24. The Game ft. Lil Wayne-“My Life”
Lil' Wayne spends so much time filtering his voice through Auto Tune that he probably even keeps the vocal effect activated while he talks to his mom, but along the way he's found some pretty special uses for it. The icy, detached hook for “My Life” is one of his best; the electronics warp his weary tones as he begs God to explain why Wayne should live in a world where others die. “Like, what the hell am I doing right?” he asks, bewildered, wringing more emotion from his eight lines than many rappers do from entire albums.
Game, for his part, lends the song his usual mix of clumsiness (“My life used to be empty like a glock without a round”) and emotional clarity (“I needed my father, but he needed the needle”), and even, when he offers to share his mother with Kanye West, both at the same time. Game does contribute a few inspired moments of his own, however, and none more so than an unexpectedly effective Dante-esque fantasy, in which the rapper parks his Impala inside the gates of hell and smokes marijuana with Satan, while the pair listens to gangsta rap played backwards. It probably sounds like that Lil' Wayne hook.–Jonathan Bradley
23. Murs-“Can It Be (Half A Million Dollars & 18 Months Later)”
“It's been 2 years…of waiting man!” Murs shouts at the beginning of Can It Be”–and it was worth the wait. His best single since 9th Wonder assisted “Bad Man,” Scoop DeVille builds on The Jackson 5's “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” while MURS kicks urgent granola righteous raps that veer closer to latter day Common than The End of the Beginning. The interplay between the rhymes and a young MJ vocal set up a litany of things that have corroded under MURS' watch: indie hip hop, homies on coke and heroin, the economy. An alternate title for this song could've been “Shit That Pisses Me Off–“the passion and pain in MURS' delivery co-sign that idea–Zilla Rocca
This is the year of 808s and Heartbreak, but the evolution of Kanye's production has been lost in the hype–the way he's explored both texture and sound, the way he's finally got his drums pounding. Yeah, Jay's flow is very 2007 Weezy (who bit 2004 Jay, which makes this very Beatles/Beach Boys circa '66), but it's the first new sound we've heard from him since The Black Album. “Brooklyn We Go Hard” is the only Hova '08 track that remains interesting beyond one listen. Jay always performs well when he has a purpose and paired with Santogold's fresh legs (no Mannie) and the motivation to come correct on the Notorious soundtrack, the special inspiration paid off. — Trey Kerby
“Fuck You” is Southern rap via Son House or Robert Johnson, and perhaps with a bit of Hank Williams' “Rambling Man” thrown in. Built around spare guitar-plucking and a mournful harmonica, B.O.B, Lil' Boosie and D.G. Yola tell fair-weather friends that they never needed them anyway, but, of course, it's a front. Boosie, in particular, adroitly uses his nasal bleat as a conduit for guarded defensiveness. “All I need is my voice and some fine weed,” he snarls, but it doesn't disguise his hurt at being unable to hang out with buddies now that he's a famous rapper and all. “Yesterday, me and my dog got loaded,” he relates. “Cracked a joke on my dog, my dog exploded.” Part of the appeal is that with the exception of Boosie, none of these rappers is particularly successful, so when, in the hook, B.O.B. sings “They say that I'm changing, cause I'm getting famous,” it sounds less like celebrity whining and more a description of friends drifting apart. In the mini-genre of songs about rappers rolling one deep, this is up there with Z-Ro and Trae's “No Help” as one of the best. —Jonathan Bradley
Few rappers come more honest than Bishop Lamont. We learn this immediately, with “Grow Up's” naked confession that “[Bishop]] used to think fucking up was cool until [he] didn't pass high school.” Later, he calls out a grown-ass man with “a wife at home…wasting gas tryin' to bust a bitch.” Sure, the entirety of his second verse kicks a typical rap-sucks-nowadays homily. But what isn't run of the mill is how cleverly Bishop ties this to emotional immaturity. The shit talk entertains, but the way he articulates the genre's callowness makes it stick.
Behind the boards, Dre displays what a weird head space he's in right now, pairing a gentle guitar arpeggio to thumping claps, spacey, humming synths, and strings and harps. The result is a delicate balance between the underground and the mainstream that suits the self-proclaimed backpacker signed to Aftermath, an oxymoron if there ever was. But the real hero is Bishop, who writes his own “2nd Childhood”, a vivid portrait of how hip hop's immaturity leads to poor lifestyle choices.. The candor is refreshing, especially in a genre where a rapper can make headlines by persistently denying his past.--Aaron Matthews
The Clipse have to be the most frustrating artists in all of hip hop. For every unabashed, snarling antisocial anthem they make like “Keys Open Doors”, they make another equally flaccid facisimile like “Fast Life” from the insipid Re-Up Gang full-length this summer. Luckily, “20 K Money Making Brothers On The Corner”, a vicious, frothy, foaming at the mouth posse cut, is the former. The Brothers Thornton et al. deliver their trademark, coke-infused verses with the type of the fiery hunger and passion that keeps me coming back to them despite all of their well-regarded lack of subject diversity. When they make cuts as angry and furious at this, it doesn't even matter what they rhyme about… and Jesus Christ, where the hell has Dame Grease been since “It's Dark And Hell Is Hot?!” I forgot he even produced “Stop Being Greedy.” –B.J. Steiner
The people surprised to see Ludacris score a Primo beat are the same folk who conveniently forget that the boom bap architect is himself a Houston native. Trivia aside, it's logical that the regional rap boundaries between different sects are beginning to blur, and 'MVP' is proof positive that the process can produce some truly great music that transcends geographical constraints.
But there's no denying that this particular song is redolent of New York, Premier's midtempo string-laden backdrop evokes smoky Brooklyn basements and flickering shadows on subway stations. Luda rips through well-executed braggadocio with aplomb, and though his claim to be the “first southern rapper on a Premo beat” may be misplaced, (I imagine Scarface might have something to say about that), it doesn't detract from a no frills cut that pulls few punches on its way to getting your head nodding.–Dan Love
Creating an underground banger was no easy task in (8)08: do you look towards the mainstream? Do you ignore it and act like it's '95 all over again? Or do you find inspiration in other genres of music and risk alienating your core audience? Black Milk chose none of the above for his lead single, synthesizing his unique vision into its hardest, most direct manifestation yet. First: the titular drums don't just knock, they explode, setting the stage for the horn heavy groove complete with subtle shakers, Dilla-esque sirens and (if you listen closely) old school James Brown grunts in the background. By the time the chorus hits, any self-respecting hip-hop head is bouncing off the walls, feeding off the energy and stuck with a vicious case of head-nod. Meanwhile, BM's in-the-pocket raps are surprisingly on point, elevating the man from a producer/rapper that rarified space where his beats and rhymes just interlock. While Milk's rhymes are more musical than substantial, by picking up on the verbal-gymnastics of collaborators Royce and Elzhi, he makes a convincing case for adding accapellas as well as instrumentals to his records. Forget The Dilla comparisons: 2008 saw Black Milk stand on his own two and deliver one of the craziest, most original joints of the year. Props are in order.–Sach O
16. Lil Wayne-“Let the Beat Build”
In order to understand why “Let the Beat Build” is the best song on The Carter III, you've got to pay attention to the myriad styles Waye employs. In the first verse alone, he goes from Rawse to Jeezy to post-retirement Jay-Z to turn of the century Jay-Z, then tackles the whole second verse in standard Weezy cadence before going full retard for the finish. Sure, the lyrics reek of standard Wayne silliness (he's a Blood, he deals, he has bodies) is, but his song structures is unsually strong here and his brief attempt at humility is endearing: “used to think my shit don't stink, boy was I wrong.” Yes, it's followed immediately by the declaration that he “approves million dollar deals from my iPhone,” but at least he tried. When focused and dedicated to actually rapping, stuff like this makes Wayne's “best rapper alive” claims not seem entirely ludicrous (no Chris Bridges). –Trey Kerby
There's something implicitly throwback about Danny Swain. In a world, where every rapper with a camera phone and a You Tube account feels the burning urge to bombard you with a mixtape a month, random Zshares and the occasional video of them singing in the shower to “Pop Champagne,” Danny lays low–all too aware that grinding and shameless self-promotion aren't necessarily synonyms. Instead, he pops up once a year to drop one very good album and somehow stays patient enough to not write death threats to El-P for continuing to hold up his depressingly delayed Def Jux debut.
“The Groove” is his most impressive work yet, with the 25-year old Atlanta/Charleston resident excavating an obscure sample of Janko Nilovic's “Tapatapa”from a weird 1970s French Music library and turning it into the best Friday night anthem this side of the Hold Steady. Danny plays the hammy party starter–bragging about his guitar hero skills, thanking himself for solos, cranking that “Danny Boy,” (which, presumably is something done only in South Boston, in the cloak of night). If you can't feel the groove here, you probably don't have a pulse. –Jeff Weiss
Ghostface saves the mermaid-fantasias and child abuse dialectics for the solo albums. When he gets together with the Chef, it's like what happened when you hung out with the kid your mother told you not to mess with. Singing Staten Island stick-up slang in the key of blue and cream, Rae sets it off–uptown in October (“late Fall, dime season”) pushing heroin surrounded by an inexperienced crew of 14, who don't know how to act–toting machine guns (“macs”), razor blades (“Gilletes”) and tons of cash (“stacks.)” The bloodhounds are on him, the paranoia's palpable, but the always icy Rae knows they'll take the town.
On the other side of NY, Ghost is holed up, high on blunts and Irish whiskey, with a white pregnant girl going down on him. Suddenly, the door busts open and a man with a gun licks off a round, enraged that Starks snatched his chick. The Wally Champ blasts back, leaving the girl looking like Cameron Diaz in Something About Mary. Trying to talk the shooter off the ledge, Ghost cautions him to chill–what does he expect from the same girl they ran trains on last week. (I'm guessing in a Days Inn?) Clocking him in the face and disarming him, Tony takes control and within seconds is ordering his humiliated rival to go the freezer and put a steak on his black eye, or at least some bologna. It's not until Ghost forces him to go to the corner to pick up a 40 (cold and wrapped in a paper bag), plus the taunting admonition to buy a diaper and a bib, when we realize that the would-be assassin is his own 25-year old son. –Jeff Weiss
13.Kanye West ft. Young Jeezy-“Amazing”
In 2005, “Amazing” would have been a chest-thumping anthem (“Never gave in/Never gave up”) with huge drums, a blaring soul sample, and probably a tuba solo from Jon Brion. However, after the hellish year that Kanye West has had– and the two major losses he suffered– we have this, a funeral dirge with minor-chord piano stabs, slurred vocals, clicking, clacking rim shots, and a hook with a chord progression that sounds eerily similar to Coolio's “Gangsta's Paradise.”
What could have been yet another celebration of 'Ye's greatness turns into a pep-talk gone unconvinced, standing in front of the mirror, desperately trying to psych himself up, showing that sliver of vulnerability that runs through the undercurrent of some of his songs. Young Jeezy tries to shift the mood by adding some well-needed Jeeziness, but even while doing so, Kanye's mood alters this guest verse, with Jeezy carefully watching his blood pressure and looking over his shoulder at the looming shadow of federal prison.–-Douglas Martin
What's so frustratingly great about El-P is that whenever he spits that simpitico, kindergarten simian Windex raps, he fucking KILLS IT! “Mike Douglas” joins the classic, “We're Famous,” as an exercise in calling out rappers who piss him off–only this time, critics get the dick too. “Everybody's afraid to say that it just sucks to watch talented motherfuckers pretend to sell drugs.” His flow is almost old school but definitely smug and amusing. The beat feels like an outtake from Funcrusher Plus thankfully not tarnished by Big Juss; pulsing dark synths are accented with occasional tweaked vocal stabs on the verses, and the hook features the Electric Prunes meets “Masters of the Universe”-style dramatic strings. Not much left to say except go ahead and “keep the crack raps up, that shit is double plus whatever the fuck!” —Zilla Rocca
While most of his class of '99 peers are mired in navel-gazing narcissism, their quirks ossifying into rote formulas, Aesop Rock continues to tap untrodden and fertile territory. Recorded for the preternaturally gifted, artist Jeremy Fish's, “Ghosts of the Barbary Coast Exhibit,” Aesop's lyrics conjure daguerrotype visions of the Gold Rush-era center of San Francisco vice, The Barbary Coast–or as the narrator at the song's beginning calls it “that sink of moral pollution…where men drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco and engage in vulgar conduct.”
While None Shall Pass played like short stories anchored in personal revelation and unflinching recollection, “Ghosts of the Barbary Coast” is pure historical fiction. The details are correc:, hobos stalking the lonely hinterlands of Pacific and Broadway, a jagged, filthy wharf filled with knives, pornography and bloated, bleached bodies. It's not pretty, it's just brilliant. Plus, any song that can use the word, “trollop,” without sounding stupid, is fine in my book. –Jeff Weiss
The feral intensity that Royce da 5'9″ spits on the second verse of “Jockin' My Fresh,” assures that it's little coincidence that Jay-Z is sampled on the hook of this standout from Royce's second Bar Exam mixtape. After all, Nickel Nine absolutely bludgeons this DJ Green Lantern-helmed beat–which has the gritty bounce of a driving scene from an obscure 70's cop flick– with the belligerent arrogance, internal-rhymemindfuckery,and— let's be honest— all-out GREATNESS of vintage-era Hov. Not to mention the womanizing: “Bitch, we ain't friends/I ain't Phoebe Buffay!”–Douglas Martin
“Don't Touch Me” is everything we love about Busta Rhymes in 3:33 song form: his impeccable ear for beats, his penchant for cramming 58 words per bar while staying on beat, and his energetic hooks that make you want to beat the shit out of everyone who works at Whole Foods. Unlike his Aftermath Era output, “Don't Touch Me” sounds like Busta had fun and wrote it within 15 minutes of grabbing the beat from Sean C and LV, while blowing dust off his old Leaders of the New School Adidas jacket. How many other jawns from Bussa Bus reference a Cressida? The video is his best since “Dangerous” and the album Blessed never dropped, reducing Busta to what he's best at: making hype singles. –Zilla Rocca
How do you improve on a song that's an already pretty damn good on it's own? Break out the rolodex and call literally everybody you have ever met in your life and ask them if they'd be willing to spit a hot sixteen over it? That's what the Kidz in The Hall did when attempting to remix, their (quasi-) hit single, “Drivin' Down The Block”, this year. It worked out absolutely masterfully as each new remix provided a new spin to the song. The West Coast Remix transformed “Drivin' Down The Block” into vintage Death Row G-Funk. Pusha-T, Bun-B and the Cool Kids provided menace, growl and swagger to the proceedings. And as for El-P, he morphed the song into an apocalyptic trunk rattler perfect for when the inevitable zombie apocalypse transforms earth-realm into a demonic hellscape. Rarely, do remixes these days get so disparate and veer so widely from their original sources. In a world when 80,000 emcees lazily spit over “A Milli” and then call it a remix, the “Drivin' Down The Block” Remixes remind us of a time when Pete Rock, Primo (and Puffy) used to regularly take a hot song and just make it hotter.–B.J. Steiner
7. Q-Tip–“Move/Renaissance Rap”
From the forceful Dilla production, to Tip's inimitable flow, to the low-fi Rik Cordero video, 'Move' is one of the greatest songs from one of the greatest albums of the year. Simple yet devastating, the track marries together a driving bassline, triumphant horns and deftly chopped vocal snippets in the creation of a sweltering disco/hip hop hybrid that's as good as any other material that the pair have ever put together.
But there's more to it than just dancefloor groove, with neat floursihes that keep it firmly under control. The bridge that follows the first full chorus pulls the track back from its otherwise relentless momentum–and just when you thought you were about to ride out on the beat Tip and Dilla completely flip the script on your sorry ass and drop you in an entirely different musical landscape that proceeds to whistle its way to a conclusion through darkened tunnels. It's a masterstroke that enables the song to straddle that elusive space between the commercial and the underground and a fitting illustration of what makes Tip and Dilla so great in the first place.–-Dan Love
Fans of the Detroit sound have been spoiled this year and 'Motown 25' arguably captures that aesthetic as well as any other single cut in 2008. One of only a handful of tracks to appear on both Europass and The Preface, the Black Milk production filters soul through industrial robotics to create a behemoth that ensures his spot as one of hip-hop's leading producers. Heavily swung kick drums and brutal snare hits give the song its mechanistic bounce, but it's the multiple layers that provide an infectious density and richness that make “MoTown 25” a ripe candidate for rewind.
Lyrically, Elzhi turns in an undeniably great verse, but Royce steals the show with a vicious delivery and complex patterns adding sheen to Black Milk's twisted metal. Bangers don't come much more bangin' than this, and in a year where some of hip hop's grit was often hard to find, 'Motown 25' fed the appetites of those who like their music raw and uncompromising.–Dan Love
Few singles ever intended new artists to the masses better than “Cappuccino.” The skronky horns, indie-rock riffs and 8-bit video game bloops sounded like little else in rap circa 08. Brothers Krispy Kream and Rah Al Millio sound like ten-year veterans, not upstart rookies from New Orleans who now call L.A. home. The OutKast comparisons ae too easy and give little credit to the Knux, who possess more charisma and charm than the rest of the hipster rap class. The remix speeds things up, the platonic ideal between a Souls of Mischief and De La Soul collaboration circa '93. Daring to use a new beat rather than tacking on a big-name guest rapper, The Knux realize that increasingly rare phenomenon: the remix that improves on the original.–Renato Pagnani
With most new rappers concentrating on flyness, quirkiness and self-conscious attempts to be different, it seems that New Orleans' Jay Electronica has the intelligent thug lane all to himself. Part Chuck D, part Nas, part Dilla and all certified OG, Electronica has been making noise for a minute but Exhibit A is the starkest testament to the man's potential yet. Flowing relentlessly about the struggle, Jay name-drops Obama, Kurt Cobain, FEMA, Judas, Nat and Harriet the Candyman and Jesus Christ without ever coming off as a punch line rapper. Instead he uses these references to paint a bleak picture of the hood and to big himself up as the man who'll lead it into righteousness. Meanwhile, Just Blaze found time to drop a brooding piano-n-synth based banger in between Numa-Numa sessions. Easily the most threatening beat he's dropped since his Rocafella days, the darkness splits the difference between Havoc and Lil Jon perfectly with some choice movie quotes added for good effect. Without flooding the market like some of his contemporaries, Jay Electronica is primed for a banner year in 2009, assuming he puts an album out. Let's hope.–Sach O
3. Nas-“Queens Get the Money”
Jay Electronica is exactly the kind of producer Nas should be working with and “Queens Get the Money” is the exactly the kind of song Nas should be making at this juncture of his career. Dan Bejar-like self-references to past glories abound (“Needed time alone to zone/ The mack left his iPhone and his nine at home”), the slightly off-kilter pianos and look-Ma-no-drums! production from his spiritual apprentice bring out something instinctual from God's Son, something primal, both in the fierce precision of his single extended verse and the way it sounds like a one-take miracle. Nas has always been adept with religious imagery, and here he once again brands himself a messiah sent to banish “false prophets” from the rap landscape. “Queens Get the Money” is “N.Y. State of Mind.” updated for the times–the only thing it's missing is its own Illmatic.—Renato Pagnani
You have to wonder at this point what form of twisted, unholy alchemy keeps two souls as widely different as Antwan Patton and Andre Benjamin making such brilliant music together almost fourteen years after their debut album. It's totally and completely inexplicable that the two men who made songs as different as “Kryptonite” and “Prototype” on their own could mind-meld and make songs as perfect “Royal Flush.”
Everything on “Royal Flush” from Big Boi's hungry and furious rhymes, to Raekwon's detached, king-like authority to the way the drums seem to smash so hard that they sound like their causing the beat to decay and crumble sounds like the way great hip hop should sound. And that's not even mentioning, Andre's continued streak of unblemished, lyrical manslaughter that has been going on for almost two years now. This song is a worthy sequel to the threesome's 1998 monster collaboration, “Skew It On The Bar-B,” in every way imaginable. Dre and Big Boi, please get the heads of your asses and make another album together. The world needs you.–B.J. Steiner
Despite being the best rap song of 2008, and the most poignant, articulate commentary on race relations of the calendar year, I've only listened to “The Kramer” three times start-to-finish. To a black welfare kid growing up in North Carolina who first got the word “nigger” shouted at him while he was walking to elementary school by two teenage skinheads in a car, hearing the word still stings. Especially when, just one year later, you're on the corner watching crooked cops hog-tie one of your neighborhood friends (he was eleven), adding the adjective “dirty” to said racial slur, and tossing him into the back of a squad car.
Of course, there's something that makes a black person uncomfortable when they hear a Caucasian utter or shout the dreaded N-word, whether it's Michael Richards in '06 or Axl Rose in '88, but it's even more so when you're a black teenager in a Tacoma, Washington suburb, and your friends who happen to be No Limit Records enthusiasts don't edit the word “nigga” when they're rapping along. The kid in Wale's verse whose confusion and distress were caused by the word could very well have been me. Or even one of your black friends. Or maybe it's hard for me to willingly listen to the song because, in a way, Wale's right: “Under every nigga, there's a little bit of Kramer.”–Douglas Martin