This Is Sound Year in Review Part III: 2011 Hip Hop (with some R&B) retrospective

By Danny Sedlazek
Part 1- Alternative      Part 2-Hip Hop
We saw the most anticipated collaboration of the past 10 years only to see it turn out painfully average, the  continued  dominance Young Money Cash Money commercially, and more bad Wiz Khalifa appearances than any sane man can handle. If you had listened solely to rap that appeared in the top 40, 2011 would appear to be a waste of a year.
Yet just below the surface, the scene was the best it’s been in a long time. The mixtape scene was one of the best in recent memory, from excellent releases from seasoned veterans (Weekend at Burnie’s by Curren$y and Elmatic by Elzhi to name a few) and surprisingly amazing debuts from young bloods trying to make a name for themselves.
R&B is the most exciting it has been since R-Kelly stopped making popping club music. It began distancing itself away from T-Pain and Ne-Yo club anthems and more into dark atmospheric explorations of being a tortured soul in the modern world. The best part? The future only looks brighter.
Though, in retrospect, 2011 will be known as the year of the concept albums. From Southern Dreamers to East Coast Biographers to West Coast Visionaries, everyone and their mom had an album with some underlying theme this year. You know what? Most of them were pretty good too.
But ,you might say, “Danny, I’m locked down in the cold world! How am I, with my feeble little mind, supposed to be able to navigate the hard world of hip hop?” Have no fear,  I will guide you.
Comack of the Year: Common for The Dreamer/The Believer”
Common was Chicago’s premier MC for 9 years and reached near commercial and artistic prosperity with his near-flawless album “Be” in 2005. Then…nothing. He released a lethargic retread of “Be” in 2007 and tried to become a euro-trash club rapper with the laughable “Universal Mind Control” in 2008. At that point, Kanye West was gathering all of the attention for Chi-City, and Common nearly faded away. The occasional sloppy guest verse wasn’t cutting it for someone who once was the top rapper in the game. Little did we know, Common was cooking up something with an old friend (the OG Chicago producer No ID, but we’ll get to him later) that was ready to catapult him back into his throne? With the best party anthem of the year (“Celebrate”), his usual deep philosophical sentiments (“Cloth,” “Window,” and “Blue Sky”), and some  of the most inspirational songs of the past 5 years (“The Believer” and “The Dreamer”) Common proved that even at the ripe old age of 39, you can still show those whippersnappers how to rap.
Runner Up: Nas for the bombastic single “Nasty”
Producer of the Year: No ID for completely producing “The Dreamer/Believer” and various other bangers
 No ID is one of the slept on producers of all time. He mentored Kanye West and produced all of Common’s early albums. Then he kind of disappeared throughout the early 2000s until he made a slight recovery by not only inspiring, but producing some of Kanye’s emotional opus “808’s and Heartbreak.” Still, this was No ID’s year. Producing at least half of Big Sean’s debut (including the massive hit ‘My Last’) and a banger for Rihanna, No ID got some mainstream shine. However, it was the beautiful soulful beats on Common’s album that cemented him in this spot. Sounding like an old school Kanye West mixed with J Dilla, but still retaining his own touch, No ID painted the perfect background for Common to lay down over top of. I’d venture to say that this album contained No ID’s best production ever. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least listen to a song or two off of “The Dreamer/The Believer.”
Runner Up: Clams Casino for the best street production in a long time
Disappointment of the Year: “Lasers”-Lupe Fiasco
Lupe was a golden child of the most recent hip hop generation. He was the socially conscious, lyrical rapper who stood above the seas of pointless flossing and club anthems that flooded the hip hop world roughly 5 years ago. Both of his previous albums Food and Liquor and The Cool were ambitious but successful projects that very carefully straddled deep underground and more mainstream listeners. So when he got signed to a significantly larger record label, there was a large hope that he would manage to become commercially successful, while staying true to his conscious roots. Well, he did have a couple of commercially successful singles (“The Show Goes On” and “Out of My Head”), but his conscious roots became more fleeting thoughts. Since I first reviewed it last year, the album has only become worse and worse. With some of the most unconvincing club music and the most obnoxious synths in recent memory, Lupe not only ruined alienated his underground fans but also managed to be just not mainstream enough to be a commercial hit. While he won some of his fans back with a more traditional mixtape (“Friend of the People: I Fight Evil”), Lupe is a shadow of what he once was. Let’s just hope Food and Liquor 2, with a planned release in 2012, will regain his lost ground.
Runner up: “Cole World: The Sideline Story”- J Cole for being so bland and average despite Cole’s immense promise
LOL of the year: Canibus’ apology for his laughable J Cole Dis
Canibus is name that should not ring many bells. He was “the next big thing” in 1999. He had a hot track where he completely outshined multiple legends and the MC with the most buzz on the block. He then went to release one of the hardest dis songs and dismantled the best battler of all time, LL Cool J. All signs pointed to him becoming hip hop royalty, but when his album finally dropped, it was met with critical and commercial disappointment. After that, Canibus crawled into his deep underground hole and slowly became more concerned with awkward rhyme scheme and flows than his actual lyrical content. Recently, “next big thing” rapper J Cole said he was a fan of Canibus. Now, to anyone else in Bis’ position, you should kneel and kiss Cole’s ring, instead he released one of the sloppiest dis songs of all time, “J Clone.” He complained that Cole wouldn’t work with him and outside the title, said nothing direct about Cole. The backlash was so bad, that we got an apology from Bis less than 48 hours later, and gave us the quote of the year.
Mixtape of Year: “Return of 4ever”- Big K.R.I.T.
The south has been lacking in recent years. If you exclude extremely underground releases, the “3rd Coast” hasn’t put out anything remotely good since TI’s peak 3 years ago, and even his work wasn’t that good; so, it’s ironic that the culture known for its larger than life personas would be saved by a humble boy from a small Mississippi town. K.R.I.T. put out his debut mixtape about a year ago, and it was good enough to give him some buzz. But Return of 4ever was perhaps the best project to come out of the south since the glory days of UGK. Over a beautiful self-produced background relying on old school-soul samples with a southern flair, K.R.I.T. brought us everything we looked for in a classic dirty south album. Sure there was the near-mandatory flossing, but it was presented so cleverly it didn’t seem stale and cliché. It was the soul-searching personal anthems, however, that made Return of 4ever so great. It’s rare you hear a rapper get so personal like this, nevertheless this often and with such skill. K.R.I.T. bares all and crafts a timeless portrait of a small town southern boy. I eagerly await his full length debut coming sometime in 2012.
Runner Up: “House of Balloons”- The Weeknd
Song of the Year: “Wicked Games”- The Weeknd from House of Balloon
The Weeknd is the best thing to come out of Canada since maple syrup. He exploded onto the scene with his debut “House of Balloons.” With instrumentals mixing soul, dubstep tendencies and experimental indie rock to create some of the darkest atmosphere I have ever heard, the Toronto native commanded the atmosphere with his piercing falsetto weaving tales about the darker sides of women, partying, and drug culture. “Wicked Games” is the centerpiece of the album, weaving the tale about a young gentleman looking for love in all of the wrong places, namely in drugs and a woman of the night. He knows that she doesn’t love him, but he just wishes she could pretend.  It’s a song that makes you feel dirty just for listening to it, but its emotions, vocal performance and masterful production more than make up for it. Anyone who is a fan of melodies needs to listen to this. Now.
Runner Up: “Keisha’s Song”- Kendrick Lamar
Album of the Year: Section.80-Kendrick Lamar
 If the south has been slightly dry these past couple of years for hip hop, the west has been a desert. When your best known artists are E-40 and that guy who name checks constantly (The Game), you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Everyone just wanted another Tupac. Kendrick Lamar is the next Tupac. Claiming that the fallen MC came to him in a dream and order him to carry on his legacy, Kendrick Lamar attempted to speak for Generation Y by exploring the social issues that particularly effect kids born after 1980. Whether it’s recreational drug use (“A.D.H.D.”), the lengths partners will go just to spite each other (“Tammy’s Song”) or the twisted morals of today’s world (“Kush and Corinthians”) Kendrick pulled no punches. Bringing a mix between flow, lyrical depth, technical skill and delivery unheard of in recent years, K.Dot brought everything you wanted from an MC. The production was a masterful template, some with modern techno influences (‘His Evils’) but most channeling aggressive jazz samples (“Rigamortis,” “Ab Soul Outro,” and “Hol Up.”) However, the beats never overpowered the message or the MCing. Is it a classic? Only time will tell. However there is no doubt in my mind it was the best thing the hip hop or R&B world saw in 2011.
Runner Up: “Return of 4ever”- Big K.R.I.T.
Other albums/mixtapes worth noting:

  1. “Oneirology “-CunninLynguists
  2. “Elmatic”- Elzhi
  3. “Nostalgia, Ultra”- Frank Ocean
  4. “Undun”- The Roots
  5. “Live, Love ASAP”- ASAP Rocky