Year in Review: The Best Hip-Hop of 2009

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Like any other form of music, hip-hop requires an honest effort to find the highest-quality of music. If you went with what was solely played on top 40 radio you’d be terribly lost. Luckily, with the world of internet, there are many ways to experience music and even, to sample before purchasing. With that said, I want to encourage everyone to always seek out good music. Never settle for what you’ve always stuck by and never, ever dismiss an entire genre or style simply because you haven’t heard it enough.

The following albums are, in my opinion, the best hip-hop releases of the year. There’s enough variety for everyone with a few instrumental albums, some eclectic choices, a stunning debut, some concept choices and the rightful, return to form of two hip-hop legends. Join in me in greeting the finest music this outstanding genre had to offer.

Fash_bmw_front_hi_res1. Fashawn – Boy Meets World
(One Records, 2009)
For most hip-hop aficionados, an album is best when it’s tightly wound and cohesively packaged. Fashawn’s debut, Boy Meets World, is testament to what can happen when you pair a solid, impressive producer with one exceptionally gifted MC. Through these fifteen songs, Santiago Leyva fully immerses himself into a world that finds him versing about his troubled youth, women problems and the universally challenging aspect of fitting in. The best moment comes on “When She Calls” as Leyva dares to sample Joanna Newsom and terrifically pulls it off. It’s a fitting arrival to the music scene after he’d taken such an arduous road to get here; just barely turning 21-years old, let me be the first to say welcome to the world boy, it’s yours for the taking.

Blockhead-TheMusicScene 2. Blockhead – The Music Scene(Ninja Tune, 2009)
Those familiar with any of Aesop Rock’s music are well aware of Blockhead’s head-nodding production. Defined, dedicated and downright driven, the hip-hop producer has taken on a new role with his fourth album, The Music Scene. As the title suggests, this is an album filled with various elements of music; each joined at the hip by Blockhead’s undeniable skill. Without so much of an MC needed, this is where instrumental hip-hop should look towards – remarkably understated, it’s a superb piece of work during a day and time where that almost seems impossible. Each song stretches well over four minutes but combining a superfluous amount of talent and striking beats, Blockhead features funk, soul, doo-wop, atmospherics, soundtracks and many more into one unifying theme of greatness.

mos def3. Mos Def – The Ecstatic
(Downtown, 2009)
Remember when Mos Def sampled Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead” on his classic “Ms. Fat Booty”? And there wasn’t much he needed to modify either, he and Ayatollah left it unadulterated, allowing the glowing singer’s chops to reign over everyone. Now, more than ever before, the New York-born MC returned with an album that proves just how important having good ears really is. See, those same ears that decided to pull that aforementioned sample are the same ones that found Madlib and his brother, Oh No, along with Preservation, to produce the music on The Ecstatic. An album that never lacks in terms of brilliance, Mos Def is utterly fantastic: richly invigorated, vitally significant and forever memorable – as he sings on the ending genius of “Casa Bey,” “You can’t stop my go, I’ve been born to be where I am.”

dr-no-s-ethiopium14. Oh No – Dr. No’s Ethiopium
(Stones Throw, 2009)
The basis sounds absolutely delectable, make an album with only samples borrowed from Ethiopian music and turn them into hip-hop gold. Sound easy enough? When you have a brother like Madlib, then it’s only natural for you to set your sights on achieving something ridiculously glorious. Oh No, Michael Jackson, never strays away from blending an Ethiopian guitar lick or even throwing in chanting vocals over his bouncing beats. And while they come off more as Warp than Stones Throw, there is an incredible amount of flair and style thrown in for good measure. The menacingly ominous vibe of “Pussy” is rightfully juxtaposed with the horror-stricken romp of “Scary,” but it all comes full circle with the tribal drums and vocals of “Adventure.” A concept album that is fully indebted to the great country Mulatu Astatke reigns from – I think even he would approve of this Doctor’s genius thesis.

big-tone5. Big Tone – The Art of Ink
(Tres Records, 2009)
Showcasing a crucial hand on the subject of great music, Big Tone’s The Art of Ink is an album that proves just how vital the balance between production and MC really is. Before getting into the soulful Motown homage of “Chocolate,” Big Tone quotes important discussion on the subject: “Soul music is powerful, soul music makes you believe. Soul music gives you hope in the way that you feel and the way that you wanna feel.” With that, the music reveals a wonderful sample of Mayer Hawthorne’s “Maybe So, Maybe No” and L’Renee’s sultry vocals. He’s found something imperative and essential to all good hip-hop music and that is the emotional side that soul provides. There’s a lot of promise from here on out but in the meantime, The Art of Ink is nothing short of spectacular.

Brother-Ali-Us

6. Brother Ali – Us
(Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2009)
Never shying away from attempting to guide us in the right direction, Brother Ali’s latest triumph, Us, is no different with a clear message, “There’s no me and no you, it’s just Us.” Back-dropped by the exceptional production of Atmosphere’s Ant, Ali is left to MC about lost souls that will never reach their goal (“Slippin’ Away,”) the inevitable search for acceptance and in turn, want (“The Travelers,”) and even lets loose to show how relaxed one can be when celebrating their life (“Fresh Air”) – Us covers every possible topic under the bright yellow sun. Uplifting and inspirational, the positive themes never take away from just how good the music is: while Ant is delving father into live instrumentation and at the same time, quietly becoming one of the best hip-hop producers around, Ali is praiseworthy, vigorous and staggeringly stunning.

serengeti7. Serengeti & Polyphonic – Terradactyl
(Anticon, 2009)
Chicago rapper Serengeti, David Cohn, has always endeavored to take his brand of hip-hop as far away from the norm as possible. Labeling mainstream hip-hop as “depressing” and consisting of “the same redundant ideas,” he’s taken a completely different viewpoint on his second collaboration effort with Polyphonic. Following the idea of making uniquely innovative hip-hop, Terradactyl firmly stands out from the rest with its electronic and worldly touches. While Cohn’s spoken delivery is still readily noticeable, its accentuated with rolling toms, flourishing cellos and violins and ethereal, almost entirely other-worldly beats. Cohn compromises nothing and thus, Terradactyl is not the kind of album that will be loved by all but for those that do “get it,” it’s an entirely rewarding listen that never ceases to amaze and astound.

TanyaMorganBrooklynati8. Tanya Morgan – Brooklynati
(Interdependent Media, 2009)
Tanya Morgan is a throwback to older hip-hop acts that not only featured a similar-thinking collective but creative, worthwhile skits. Rather than branching out, they pride themselves on their two MC, Donwill and Ilyas, one producer, Von Pea, attack. Like a harder hitting A Tribe Called Quest, Brooklynati is the subject of a concept album capturing life in various fictional cities. While the idea seems farfetched, Tanya Morgan is a legitimately strong outfit in the way they are able to convey their theme and tone by means of illustrious music. The dazzling bump of “Alleye Need” is a welcome introduction, in case you haven’t experienced them, and it combines all of the fine elements that makes Tanya Morgan a hip-hop group to look out for: brash and confident, soulful and brisk, catchy and captivating; these fine gentlemen know exactly what they are doing.

k-os9. k-os – Yes!
(Universal Music Canada, 2009)
k-os’ Kevin Brereton has always been about making hip-hop that can be just as equally unconventional as it is enthralling. And because of that, it’s difficult to truly label this as a hip-hop album because of its sprawling and eclectic sound. Yes! begins with the theatrical chorale and compelling “Zambony” and ends with the funky, almost reggae stomping, “The Avenue” and somewhere along the way, we get a snazzy hi-hat snap and guitar lick taken directly off of Andy Summers’ guitar on “The Aviator.” He’s defiantly bold and courageously so, he’s once again placed the focus on not just how varied Yes! sounds but rather, on the aforementioned enthralling novelty.

Raekwon-Only_Built_4_Cuban_Linx_210. Raekwon – Only Built for Cuban Linx, Pt. 2
(Ice H20, 2009)
By the time the hard-hitting “Cold Outside” rolls around, we’ve all realized that the Chef has victoriously returned. Living up to every possible expectation, Raekwon had fans and alike waiting with bated breath for his follow-up to the now, seminal album, Only Built for Cuban Linx. As expected, Ghostface Killah shows up more than a handful of times to completely steal the show: he kills with his fire-spitting flow, his unmistakable cadence and his expert delivery. But what makes part two such a success is the way the production continues to simply support without ever taking over. When your MCs are this talented, they should do all the work and Raekwon and Co. prove, once again, that the Wu will forever be supreme in the world of hip-hop.

Honorable mention, in no particular order:
Clipse – Til the Casket Drops (Columbia, 2009)
K’naan – Troubador (A&M, 2009)
Q-Tip – Kamaal the Abstract (Battery Records, originally recorded in 2001, official release 2009)
Various Artists – Wu-Tang Clan Meets The Indie Culture, Volume 2: Enter The Dubstep (Ihiphop Distribution, 2009)
Ghostface Killah – Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City (Def Jam, 2009)
DOOM – Born Like This (Lex, 2009)
J Dilla – Jay Stay Paid (Nature Sounds, 2009)
Hudson Mohawke – Butter (Warp, 2009)