2006 was a sad year for music. Don’t mean to start off this Flashback Friday retrospective with such a downer of a sentence, but c’mon…Tower Records (which is where I bought most of these albums) closed its doors for good, J. Dilla died on my 23rd birthday, and 2006 was the beginning of the death knell for physical music. While most music chains are either closing or drastically downsizing their space and inventory, mom-&-pop music stores like CD Depot at US-1 in College Park remain constant caterers to the passion of music lovers/collectors.
Anyway, here are the Best rap albums of 2006, from top to bottom. Also, Hell Hath No Fury by the Clipse is not included on here. Why? That album is exempt from my list simply because the quality of it was so high that there’s still not even a classification for it. Also, my best of’s from 2007-2008 will be published in the next couple of weeks.
Artist: Ghostface Killah
Album Title: Fishscale
Label: Def Jam Recordings
Release Date: March 28th, 2006
Producers: MoSS, Pete Rock, MF Doom, Lewis Parker, J.Dilla, Just Blaze, et. al.
The day this album was released, Best Buy was selling it for $6.99. At first, I thought Def Jam didn’t care enough about their artists to release an album that was reasonably priced. But a week later, I learned it was a marketing ploy similar to the one described over a year later in 2007’s American Gangster: “I sell a product that’s better than the competition at a price that’s less than the competition.” Ghostface Killah’s raw & uncut Fishscale was exactly that. What’s more is that this is the first album of his in which all the rhymes and narratives from the Staten Island emcee actually make sense.The production was varied and had no RZA this time around. Canada’s MoSS had the best beat on the Raekwon-assisted “Kilo”, and while I would have preferred for MF Doom to create new beats for the four tracks he produced, the fact that he selected some quality beats from his Special Herbs series made up for it. With singles like “Back Like That” and “Be Easy” (the latter was included in an episode of Entourage), this album should’ve gone at least gold during its year of release. But who cares? Most of the time, low sales means good quality anyway. Ghost is consistent in that regard and it shines. For me, this was the best hip-hop album of 2006.
Album Title: A Piece of Strange
Label: LA Underground/QN5 Music
Release Date: January 24th, 2006
The third outing by Kentucky-based rap trio CunninLynguists was a good listen at first. Later myself, fans, and strident hip-hop fans heralded it to be their opus, their Illmatic. With obscure sample-based production and cohesive/clever rhymes weaving a storyline throughout, the album and CL became my favorite hip-hop album and artists respectively. Though not without some minor flaws, the album is a bright spot in the southern hip-hop movement and hip-hop in general. Don’t believe me? Read my summary on it here.
Album Title: Eastern Philosophy
Label: Babygrande Records
Release Date: March 17th, 2006
Producers: Apathy, Celph Titled, Chum the Skrilla Guerilla, Q-Tones, 8th & Vertygo, DJ Cheapshot, et. al.
After years of dropping stellar mixtapes, being part of two hip-hop super-groups (The Demigodz and Army of the Pharaohs), and remaining in artistic limbo while signed to Atlantic Records, Connecticut rapper Apathy took a different path and released his first solo record on his own terms. Applying the phrase “eastern philosophy” to hip-hop is apropos considering the mid-90’s feel of the record. And the album’s title is especially more telling when you consider that casual and even passionate fans had wrote off the New York/East coast rap scene at the time. Apathy is a monster behind the mic and the boards, crafting topical and battle rhymes and beats over production rooted in urban nostalgia. The album’s first single, “The Winter”, has been embedded in my head when I now experience the bitter New England cold. “The Buck Stops Here” is a narrative from the POV of a dollar bill. With his fellow Demigodz brethren providing vocal assists, Ap brings forth a seasonal soundtrack that actually goes together well with any time of the year.
Artist: Lupe Fiasco
Album Title: Food & Liquor
Label: 1st & 15th/Atlantic Records
Release Date: September 19th, 2006
Producers: Prolyfic, Kanye West, Soundtrakk, The Neptunes, Mike Shinoda, et. al.
Hearing Lupe Fiasco spit a verse on Kanye’s sophomore album a year prior left me salivating for more from the Chicago emcee. I got my wish the jazzy single “Kick, Push”. It had a catchy beat and choir, but actually listening to the lyrics and seeing that it was about skateboarding made me anticipate his debut all the more. He brought topics to the table that mainstream major-label emcees almost never get any play for. The Mike Shinoda-produced “The Instrumental” is an indictment of the mass media-derived social learning theory while “American Terrorist” attempts to clear up misconceptions about Islam in post-9/11 America. What makes Food & Liquor unique? The album was sprung from a brain that’s too individualistic and idiosyncratic to fit in with modern hip-hop, and yet it managed to carve out its place.
Artist: J. Dilla
Album Title: Donuts
Label: Stones Throw
Release Date: February 7th, 2006
Producers: J. Dilla
No emcees, just a producer. Not a vinyl record was issued that James Yancey couldn’t sample and flip. The album was released to near-universal critical acclaim due to the beats. J. Dilla was always quirky and soulful when it came down to his flip game. So much so, that other producers referred to him as “your favorite producer’s favorite producer”. Dilla died three days after this album was released. A sad day in hip-hop since the man could make anyone sound good over his beats. Also, he could chop and reconfigure samples with so much imagination. Though instrumentals sound choppy and all over the place, there’s actually a cohesion to them. Enough cohesion that experienced emcees laid down vocals on the instrumentals presented here years later. Eight years after his death and Donuts, Dilla remains on a pedestal at hip-hop venues all over the country.
Artist: The Roots
Album Title: Game Theory
Label: Def Jam Recordings
Release Date: August 29th, 2006
Producers: The Roots, J. Dilla, The Randy Watson Experience, et. al.
Released same day as label-mate Method Man’s 4:21 (The Day After), the first Def Jam outing by The Roots was not what I expected. More heavy and much more darker than any of its predecessors, Game Theory explores and the progressive music style that can be applied to hip-hop. With bohemian live instrumentation, the group also incorporates posthumous production from friend and close associate, the late J. Dilla. The album itself is definitely a head-nodder despite (or perhaps because of) its experimental feel. Despite not having a charting single, The Roots have always created albums that emphasize quality over quantity. These veteran hip-hop artists are survivors because of their ability to adapt their own style without selling out, thus maintaining their relevance in myriad music circles.
Album Title: Worst Fears Confirmed
Label: Molemen Records
Release Date: January 31st, 2006
Producers: Panik, Memo and Chemo
Donald “Vakill” Mason is the one Chicago emcee who I think can give Common a run for his money. Chicago’s rap scene draws heavily from elements in the east coast hip-hop scene, from beats and rhymes. Vakill’s sophomore album, aptly titled Worst Fears Confirmed, is the kind of album that low-grade emcees who think they can spit should fear. Vakill…you are a monster. Making clever puns and punchlines that weave seamlessly into the urbanized soundscapes painted by in-house Molemen producers, Vakill is a brutal battle emcee with a mind for creative storytelling (the album’s closer “Acts of Vengeance” springs to mind). For some reason, all of his stories end in death, but the level of detail and flow he squeezes into them is astonishing. Going toe-to-toe with lyrically deadly guest stars like Ras Kass and Royce da 5’9″ shows that Mr. Mason has no compunctions about collaborating with expert marksman emcees of that caliber.
Album Title: King
Label: Grand Hustle/Atlantic
Release Date: March 28th, 2006
Producers: DJ Toomp, Just Blaze, Mannie Fresh, Swizz Beatz, The Neptunes, Travis Barker, et. al.
When “Rubberband Man” came out 3 years prior, I dismissed T.I. as just another typical trap-rapper from the south whose rhymes were on par with Mother Goose. Then I heard “Doin’ My Job” and concentrated on listening to his technical prowess as a rapper. He’s got the chops to rap, no doubt. But on King, Mr. Harris places himself at the top of the world. To some, that’s arrogant. But he’s got the street cred (jail, drug-dealing, weapons, record-label owner, etc.), rapping ability, and is a shrewd businessman. 2006 was the year of T.I., he had a hit movie out (“ATL”) and I actually liked his album better than the ones released in ’06 by contemporaries Nas and Jay-Z. The strength of DJ-Toomp’s “What You Know” propelled this album to the top and cemented his place as a diversified emcee.
Album Title: whutduzFMstand4?
Label: QN5 Music
Release Date: October 3rd, 2006
Producers: Tonedeff, Kno, Elite, Deacon the Villain, Domingo, Static and Croup
Brooklyn rapper PackFM of Extended F@mm has a way of making you laugh while making a point at the same time. On his debut album, he brings his A-Game to every track. On “Lessons”, he gives a semi-autobiographical story from his high school days to where is now. The message? You don’t need education, you can make it on your own. Clearly an underground album from beginning to end, the lyrical themes include frustration with the music business, ugly women (“Ugly Woman”) and being a graffiti writer on “Click Clack Spray”. With 16 tracks and only five guest stars, none of them outshine Pack. As the lead single indicates, Pack will “Forevershine”.
Artist: 40 Cal.
Album Title: Broken Safety
Label: Diplomat/X-Ray Records
Release Date: August 8th, 2006
Producers: Rek Beats, Charlamagne, Dame Grease, et. al.
Calvin “40 Cal.” Byrd is part of what I call the second-stringers of Harlem’s Diplomats, along with Hell Rell and JR Writer. I don’t mean that as an insult, but the three of them usually take a backseat to the more commercially-prominent members like Cam’Ron, Jim Jones and Juelz Santana. 40 is undeniably crafty with his wordplay, despite the constant and sometimes annoying gangster. The production included the familiar soul-sampling and synth beats. On the songs, the clever ones are “T.V. Show” in which 40 uses several movie and TV titles as battle rap puns. And then there’s “Weed Song”, where 40 paints a Love Connection-esque scenario in which he has to choose the best woman (weed strain) he’s compatible with. Of all the Dipset solo releases of 2006, this one was my favorite.
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.