When the year 2008 was arriving at its inevitable end, I was panicked. Not because of a belief in the Rapture or a re-visitation of the Y2K problem, but because it seemed like a lackluster year for hip-hop (it wasn’t, but again, it seemed like it). Specifically, I was panicked because I had a month left to finish my annual top 10 album lists which are now an online staple. Several albums made the cut, even ones I didn’t think I’d like initially. Anyhow, here’s my 2008 list.
Oh, FYI, the next hip-hop piece that I write will take place in September. Lastly, my hip-hop lists for 2009 – 2012 are all available in my notes on Facebook. Hit me up there if you want a view.
Artist: Pete Rock
Album Title: NY’s Finest
Label: Nature Sounds
Release Date: February 26th, 2008
Producers: Pete Rock, DJ Green Lantern
As the title suggests, this album includes the elite of New York’s rhymesayers (the sole exception being Little Brother). Though the Chocolate Boy Wonder handles 99% of the production, he also grabs the mic on seven of the album’s seventeen tracks. The first track that pulled me into purchasing the record was an unusual one: The Dipset track “We Roll” included some nice flows by Jim Jones and Max B. Of all of Dipset, these two aren’t usually my cup of tea, but they sounded nice over the jazz-infused beat. Although the Soul Survivor albums were vastly superior, NY’s Finest contains enough gems (courtesy of Papoose, D-Block, Wu-Tang, and others) to make it a welcome love-letter to the mecca of hip-hop culture.
Artist: Lil’ Wayne
Album Title: Tha Carter III
Label: Cash Money/Universal
Release Date: June 10th, 2008
Producers: Mr. Bangladesh, The Alchemist, Kanye West, Cool & Dre, Swizz Beatz, STREETRUNNER, David Banner, Jim Jonsin, et. al.
Let’s face it, throughout the latter half of the last decade, Louisiana’s Lil’ Wayne was everywhere. His popularity, his media antics, and his ability as a lyricist (yeah, that’s right I said it) led to him making guest appearances on albums from Eminem to Little Brother. Personally, during high school when Cash Money exploded, Weezy’s albums were the only ones I actually bought from that label. Why? Because he’s the only out of Cash Money’s roster back then who possessed lyrical skills, not nursery rhymes. His Tha Carter albums propelled him past the stars, and the third installment was him at his apex. Singles like “A Milli” and “Lollipop” were both club and street bangers. My favorite track was “You Ain’t Got Nothin” on the album featuring Juelz Santana and Fabolous.
Album Title: Sacrifice
Label: QN5 Music
Release Date: January 8th, 2008
Producers: Burns, Kno, Tonedeff, Fero Navi, Deacon the Villain, Definition, et. al.
In the back of my mind, I almost feel a certain conflict of interest here. Like me, Stanley Robinson (aka Substantial) was born and raised in the state of Maryland in adjacent counties. I knew of him mostly via his membership in the rap group Extended F@mm, but couldn’t find his debut form 2001. However, it was a pleasant surprise to see his sophomore album at Wheaton’s FYE. So what’d I do? I bought the damn record, of course! The cover with him performing Hara-Kiri with a sword-sized fountain pen shows his love for hip-hop as a lyricist: Live by the pen, die by the pen (the old adage of “the pen is mightier than the sword” also counts). As for the content, there’s party tracks (“Resurrection of the House Party”); love songs, battle rhymes and story telling. The strong tracks are the Kno-produced “It’s You (I Think)” and “Sign Language” a narrative from multiple perspectives. Forget Wale (are you DC or Maryland, btw?), Substantial and Logic are emcees who rep Maryland to the fullest.
Artist: The Roots
Album Title: Rising Down
Label: Def Jam Recordings
Release Date: April 28th, 2008
Producers: The Roots, Tahir Jamal, Khari Mateen, Richard Nichols, and James Poyser
The Roots remind me of Living Colour. A consistent output of quality material with varying degrees of commercial fanfare. On the cleverly titled Rising Down, The Roots expand upon 2006’s Game Theory’s darker themes to create a fiery and politically-charged album. The title track is New York-meets-Philly type of deal to it and features Dice Raw and NYC spitters Styles P. and Mos Def. On the track “75 Bars”, Black Thought just goes in on it and makes me curious why his name never shows up on when in conversations or lists regarding the best emcees. All-in-all, The Roots proved a long time ago that they are among the most accomplished and distinguished bohemian hip-hop groups to ever take center stage. I just wish they had 20 tracks per album, they feel too short.
Artist: eMC (Masta Ace, Wordsworth, Punchline and Strick)
Album Title: The Show
Label: M3 Records
Release Date: March 11th, 2008
Producers: Ayatollah, Nicolay, Marco Polo, Koolade, The ARE, Frequency and Quincey Tones
24 hours in the life of a group of rappers on tour. It sounds like a relatively simple story concept even in an album format. But it’s not that simple. As Jack Bauer has shown, a lot can happen in the span of 24 hours. The Show by eMC is no exception. Consisting of veteran rappers from NYC and Milwaukee, this hip-hop super-group is one of the few who I think can rip even the biggest current hip-hop group: Slaughterhouse. And with all these skillful rappers on this album, there’s a little-to-no need for guest spots (though Sean Price, Little Brother and Ladybug Mecca make the cut on one track each). Also, they included multiple skits that serve the purpose of tying the story together in a cohesive manner without being contrite or out place. The best tracks one should check out are “Traffic”; “Leak It Out”; and the Marco Polo-produced “Once More”.
Album Title: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Release Date: April 22nd, 2008
This album was a turning point for the Minnesota rap duo. Slug’s verses were less self-absorbed, Ant decided to forego outright sampling for the beats and (and this part really tripped me out) the album debuted at number five on the Billboard Top 200. Slug’s lyrics still maintained a concept driven quality, whether it’s blatant like “The Skinny” or just working-class narratives like “The Waitress” or “In Her Music Box”. The most emotive of the tracks is “You”, with Slug directing his grief for his deceased father. Ant also shines in the production value. Taking a cue from Dr. Dre, Mr. Davis used synthesizers and studio musicians to replay reconfigured samples that he wanted to flip. Although I consider their 2005 album to be their best release, it’s on this album where Atmosphere evolved and refined themselves musically.
Artist: Jake One
Album Title: White Van Music
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Release Date: October 8th, 2008
Producers: Jake One
More than just another producer getting his friends to rhyme on his tracks, Seattle beatsmith Jake One actually brings unlikely pairs together. And having produced for several high-profile artists from both sides of the spectrum, it kinda goes without saying that Jake One has lots of friends willing to lend him a hand. The album’s first single, “The Truth”, brought together Muslim rappers Freeway and Brother Ali to spit braggadocio over Jake’s bass-heavy beat. He also manages to play match-maker with members of both De La Soul and Atmosphere on “Oh Really”. Busta Rhymes and Bishop Lamont hook up while MF Doom makes two appearances here. All in all, Jake One has impressive drum snares and a knack for celery-chopping samples into soulful beats with a hard edges.
Album Title: Politics As Usual
Label: Nature Sounds
Release Date: September 30th, 2008
Producers: DJ Premier, Easy Mo Bee, The Alchemist, Nottz, DJ Hi-Tek, Pete Rock, Buckwild, Large Professor and Havoc
Not seen since Illmatic in 1994, but Daniel “Termanology” Carillo managed to score the most prominent east coast beatsmiths for his debut album as well. Making a name for himself with several self-distributed mixtapes, the former Unsigned Hype recipient was eventually co-signed by DJ Premier. When a super-producer of Premo’s caliber acts as both producer and executive producer on your album, you just know the co-signee has to be official. So how does Politics As Usual fare? Between solid and borderline jaw-dropping. The beats are on-point, the lyrics are mostly street tales and narratives. On Premier-produced tracks (“So Amazing”), Term just goes in on it. And even with the five guest appearances, Term still holds this album down as his.
Album Title: The Renaissance
Label: Motown Universal
Release Date: November 8th, 2008
Producers: Q-Tip, J. Dilla and Mark Ronson
At the 2008 Rock the Bells tour at Merriweather, there was a section in the tour pamphlet about Q-Tip releasing a second album in the coming months. At this point, it had been nearly 10 years since his debut Amplified was released. When The Renaissance dropped, I garnered two things upon listening to it: One, Q-Tip hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to the mic; and two, he stepped up his production game exponentially. The album’s first single, “Gettin It”, is a well-layered lush mix of bass and piano samples. They say that hip-hop is a youth-driven culture and that’s true to an extent. Most rappers who I grew up on are now over forty. But if they can still spit and keep themselves on at least one person’s radar, then age is irrelevant. The Renaissance is a reflection of Tip being a grown-ass-man with grown-ass-man tastes.
Artist: 9th Wonder & Buckshot
Album Title: The Formula
Label: Duck Down Records
Release Date: April 29th, 2008
Producers: 9th Wonder
I think I bumped this record more than any others in 2008. When 9th and Buckshot released their first collaborative effort a three years prior, it felt more like a one-time-only mixtape. I had heard 9th Wonder all throughout 2005 and recognized his pattern in terms of how he crafts beats. On The Formula however, is where I think 9th Wonder finally came into his own as a producer. Yeah, he still samples old and obscure r&b/soul music, but he experimented with using different drums and programming this time around. And Buck? His wordplay is better as is his personal positivity. The intro track is a showcase of the pair’s respective aforementioned improvements. Conceptually, 9th and Buck laid down a blueprint for New York and Southern rap artists to work together in an era of warring dichotomy (Run the Jewels, anybody?). Tracks like “Shinin’ Ya’ll” and “Whassup With U?” are among the most stellar.
Sy L. Shackleford is a jack-of-all-trades columnist for Action A Go Go. A UConn graduate with a degree in both psychology and communication sciences, he is a walking encyclopedic repository for all things Marvel Comics, movies, hip-hop, et. al.