2004 was a milestone year for me. I had reached the age where I could now legally assess my drinking prowess, the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl and my UConn Huskies (the men and women basketball teams) won their respective NCAA championship games (a feat they duplicated earlier this year and will do so again come 2024). Though all I did was work during the summer as a Honda dealership valet, I made a name for myself as a music connoisseur. If someone asked me to find an album, I’d do it and sell it to them. If someone wanted to have a music conversation with me, I’d go back-&-forth with them all day.
Some excellent hip-hop albums were released during that time period as well. And in the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I want to present the top 10 hip-hop albums of that year that were the soundtrack of my summer as a newly-minted 21-year-old. FYI, this list is in order with #1 as the best.
Artist: Jean Grae
Album Title: This Week
Label: Babygrande Records
Release Date: September 21st, 2004
Producers: Sid Roams, 9th Wonder, Joey Chavez, San Boogie, et. al.
Brooklyn’s Tsida Ibrahim (aka Jean Grae) is probably the best female emcee in the past 15 years. With a flow and cadence that’s feminine but tough, she crafted this album like excerpts from her diary. Like several rappers, she chose a famous Marvel Comics character as her nom de rap. Unlike that character, this Jean Grae doesn’t need to attach her name to anything “Phoenix”-related to stay relevant, and yet she spit fire all on this album. Combining battle skills with a sometimes vulnerable heart, Jean Grae can hold her own in a male-dominated arena.
Artist: Terror Squad
Album Title: True Story
Label: SRC/Universal Records
Release Date: July 27th, 2004
Producers: Scott Storch, Cool & Dre, Scram Jones, DJ Khaled, Buckwild, et. al.
On their sophomore album, the Bronx’s own Terror Squad (Fat Joe, Remy Ma, Armageddon, Prospect and Tony Sunshine) had the biggest hit of the summer (and the year) with the Scott Storch-produced “Lean Back”. While the single sold over one million copies and received a Grammy nomination, the album itself didn’t even go gold. But, as we know, sales aren’t the determining factor as to an album’s quality. While I believe that this album should’ve received a gold plaque, it still gets points for being a summer album and a welcome addition to the east coast rap scene.
Artist: Lloyd Banks
Album Title: The Hunger For More
Label: G-Unit/Interscope Records
Release Date: June 29th, 2004
Producers: Havoc, Ron Browz, Eminem, Scram Jones, DJ Hi-Tek, Timbaland, et. al.
Of all the members of the 50 Cent-helmed G-Unit, Queens-based emcee Lloyd Banks made a name for himself shortly before his debut. With clever punchline rhymes and a penchant for that gangsta lifestyle, he was deemed rookie-of-the-year by rap luminaries. His debut album was solid on the music, but not so much on the punchlines (“Banks is colder than the other side of the pillow“?). Like the aforementioned Terror Squad album, Lloyd’s debut was full of street tracks that doubled as club bangers.
Artist: Ghostface Killah
Album Title: The Pretty Toney Album
Label: Def Jam Recordings
Release Date: April 20th, 2004
Producers: Nottz, The RZA, No I.D., True Master, Darrell “Digga” Branch, et. al.
With his Def Jam debut, Ghostface proved that he is the most consistent Wu-Tang member dropping solo material. Complete with hilarious street narratives and sample-drenched beats, the Jadakiss-assisted “Run” evokes this notion along with a ghetto getaway-from-the-cops chase. Ghost still has incomprehensible slang and non-sequiturs, but that’s all part of his charm. On the self-produced “Holla”, he rapped over an entire song by the Delfonics. Sounds impossible, but he pulled it off, and the album, beautifully.
Artist: Madvillain (Madlib & MF Doom)
Album Title: Madvillainy
Label: Stones Throw Records
Release Date: March 23rd, 2004
I bought this record because someone told me about a song on this album in which an accordion was sampled. That sounded too unlikely, but I bought the record and was more than surprised. Quirky, off-beat, choir-free and unconventional, Madlib’s ability to flip damn near any sample and Doom’s monotone, but multi-syllabic indiosyncratic rhymes made Madvillainy one the most acclaimed albums of the year. The cover is also a take on Madonna’s first album. When juxtaposed with this album’s anti-pop music structure, you can appreciate the irony.
Artist: Young Gunz
Album Title: Tough Luv
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Release Date: February 24th, 2004
Producers: Just Blaze, Kanye West, Bink!, Scott Storch, Chad “Wes” Hamilton, EZ Elpee, et. al.
I initially wrote this duo off as Roc-A-Fella’s 3rd stringers. Although they hardly stray away from the North Philadelphia ghetto from which they hail, they came out with a solid debut nonetheless. “No Better Love” appealed to the R&B crowd while Just Blaze’s “Friday Night” was skeletal but hard. The best tracks on this record are often the ones that feature guest appearances. The album could’ve gone further if the label gave them the same attention that was given to Jay-Z, but Chris & Neef fared well on their first outing.
Artist: De La Soul
Album Title: The Grind Date
Label: Sanctuary Urban/BMG
Release Date: October 5th, 2004
Producers: Jake One, J. Dilla, Madlib, Supa Dave West and 9th Wonder
The people that run Black Entertainment Television were and still are prodigiously stupid. On seminal rap trio De La Soul’s seventh album had a Madlib-produced song called “Shopping Bags (She Got From You)” was a precursor to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger”. However, BET refused to play the former because they believed the group was not relevant to their target audience. North Carolina’s Little Brother fell victim to the same treatment a year later with BET deeming them as “too intelligent for our audience”. De La Soul are now among hip-hop’s elder statesman, but that doesn’t take away from the uniqueness they bring with each album. Appearances from Ghostface, MF Doom, Common and Flava Flav added to the album’s creativity and calendar-based theme (12 tracks, 1 for each year).
Artist: The Roots
Album Title: The Tipping Point
Release Date: July 13th, 2004
Producers: Scott Storch, ?uestlove/The Roots
The Roots might as well be a permanent fixture in my top 10 lists: Anytime they drop an album, it’s never been bad. Even though this album is the length of an EP, it’s still a satisfying collection of live instrumentation, battle rhymes and social commentary. Black Thought is criminally underrated as an emcee while drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson seems to get the lion’s share of attention. But regardless, the lead single “Don’t Say Nuthin” was ideal for a drop-top ride for the whole summer.
Um….read this: The Missed Education of Kanye West
Artist: Masta Ace
Album Title: A Long Hot Summer
Label: M3 Music
Release Date: August 3rd, 2004
Producers: Dug Infinite, 9th Wonder, Khrysis, Marco Polo, Koolade, DJ Rob, et. al.
This is the album that bumped Kanye’s debut out of the number one spot. With a good concept lacing the tracks together in a fluid manner, Masta Ace’s third solo outing is a prequel to his stellar 2001 sophomore album Disposable Arts. Although no singles were released, I went and bought it after reading a review for it on rapreviews.com. With soulful beats and a pensive mind, Ace could make 20 concept album and they’d all still be dope.
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, hip-hop, et. al.