1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Besides the recently leaked trailer video for the song “Monster,” there has been a momentary lull in new Kanye West-related material. After several excellent television performances and a slew of G.O.O.D. Friday single releases that led up to this epic disc, it’s good to have some quiet time in order to gain some perspective on MBDTF. And what is clear is that this disc’s initial avalanche of praise is wholly deserved. West’s balancing act of self-deprecating humor and unabashed egoism is in full bloom here, and so is his vast musical vision—multilayered orchestrations (“Lost In the World”), bombastic anthems (“Power”), pop minimalism (“Runaway”), and the expert use of a gaggle of collaborative voices. His presence in the rap game is a present, and that’s not ass kissing.
2. Eminem, Recovery
Eminem returns to form with this release, dispensing with that annoying voice effect he leaned on for last year’s misguided “comeback” Relapse. Instead he shows an intense introspection and biting wit in equal measure, and a more pronounced commercial sound. But the collaborations with Rihanna (“Love the Way You Lie”) and Pink (“Won’t Back Down”) don’t soften Eminem’s sharp edges by any means. In fact, he’s more determined to maintain his silver-tongues talent, and prove that his drug problems and rap identity issues are behind him. On “No Love,” after a killer verse from Lil Wayne, Em assures: “I'm alive again, more alive than I have been in my whole entire life/ I can see these people’s ears perk up as I begin/ To spazz with the pen, I’m a little bit sicker than most, shit's fixin’ to get thick again.” Believe him this time.
3. The Roots, How I Got Over
Showing that their foray into late night talk show territory didn’t signal an embrace of some sort of career purgatory, The Roots’ ninth studio album is an accomplished, filler-free effort. The disc is packed with hefty social commentary and dark yet expertly arranged musical textures. Joanne Newsome (“Right On”), John Legend (“Doin It Again,” “The Fire”), and Jim James from Monsters of Folk who lends his haunting vocals on “Dear God 2.0” are among several stellar cameos that complement Black Thought’s strident flow. With How I Got Over, The Roots prove that their brand of serious-minded hip-hop is more vital and vibrant than ever.
4. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
Since Speakerboxx wasn’t proof enough for some label execs to trust that Big Boi could hold his own without Outkast partner Andre 3000, the Atlanta rapper’s solo debut took years to see the light of day. But when it did drop this year, a rejuvenated Big Boi had the last laugh. “Only the strong survive, and the weak wind up falling by the wayside,” he says resolutely on “Shine Blockas” featuring Gucci Mane. His vindication is sweet given that Sir Lucious Left Foot is such a great slab of Southern funky attitude and raunchy good time vibes. Standouts include “Shutterbug” produced by Scott Storch, and “Be Still” featuring Janelle Monae and synths that soar toward heaven.
5. Curren$y, Pilot Talk
Once a Lil Wayne protégé, New Orleans rapper Currensy has found his voice on this disc. The topics don’t extend much further beyond women and weed, but the pairing of his twangy delivery over an incredibly pristine-sounding array of Ski Beatz-produced tracks make Pilot Talk one of the most enjoyable listens of the year. Currensy’s lackadaisical flow sounds perfectly matched to the sparkling production, especially on a song such as “Audio Dope II” where even his casual boasts mean business: “Kick the shit out of beat till it die/ Call CSI.” That is Currensy’s appeal—he never seems like he’s breaking a sweat, yet you don’t feel cheated with the result.
6. Reflection Eternal, Revolutions Per Minute
On Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek’s return as Reflection Eternal, the Cincy-Brooklyn duo manages to recapture some of the magic of earlier releases. The best moments include Kweli’s anti-oil spill sentiment on “Battle of the Black Gold” and the woozy feel of “Liftin’ Off,” a song about the magnetic pull of drugs. And when they team up with Mos Def and a couple of the next generation’s lyrical heavyweights, J. Cole and Jay Electronica, on the horn-driven posse cut “Just Begun,” Kweli and Hi-Tek show they are wise enough to help usher in like-minded talents as well.
7. Das Racist, Sit Down, Man
Their viral joke rap hit “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” almost had the opposite intended effect on Das Racist. While gaining them considerable Internet fame, the song threatened to peg them as a mere novelty act. But with Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, the more cohesive of two excellent mixtapes the group released for free online this year, Haminshu Suri and Victor Vasquez have shown legitimate MC skills with their smart-alecky free associative rhymes that are over-stuffed with pop culture references that come whizzing by even on repeated listenings. On “hahahaha jk?,” check The Office metaphor: “I’m on the block like street meat/ Call me Dwight Schrute the way that I eat beats.” Keep up if you can.
8. Drake, Thank Me Later
Whether or not you deride Drake for making navel-gazing emo-rap, his star power is undeniable. And given that he’s a former child TV actor from Canada makes his domestic dominance all the more remarkable. (A Lil Wayne co-sign helped too.) Still, Thank Me Later shows his knack for infusing melodic raps with brooding emotion about his rising celebrity (“The Resistance”) and iffy relationships (“Find Your Love”). The disc is full of inescapable hits including the brag-fest “Up All Night” with Nicki Minaj and “Over,” his toast to his ascendant career. Can’t blame him for that.
9. Big K.R.I.T., K.R.I.T. Wuz Here
This Mississippi rapper shows indie talent runs deep down South. With hugely engaging rhymes and bouncy beats, he stands as a legitimate heir to Dirty South lyricists such as 8ball and MJG and Bun B. He reps hard for his region with tracks like the club-quaking “Country Shit” but balances that with “Children of the World,” a survival tale that touches on ghetto growing pains. Krit is also not afraid to slow down the tempo to show his sensitive side on the breezy R&B joints “Moon & Stars” with Devin the Dude and “I Gotta Stay.” His singing voice is not Drake-level smooth, but the slight imperfections just add to his allure.
10. Black Milk, Album of the Year
Since J Dilla died in 2006, the mantle for Detroit’s best living producer is arguably Black Milk’s to lose. And with release it sounds like he’s got that title in a chokehold. He showed guts to slap such a presumptuous title on this disc but he wasn’t too far off with his assertion either. The effort features refreshingly soulful production (“Over Again” with Monica Blaire) and some seriously hard drum kicks and lively instrumentation. Tracks such as “Distortion” and “Black and Brown” featuring an emergent Danny Brown are the standouts. And cameos by Elzhi and Royce da 5’9” help elevate the disc to Top 10 status.