My good friend, Jeff, and I are on the eve of a six-year project–all the brainchild of Jeff, but with my full participation. Most hip-hop heads place the golden era of the genre between 1988 or 89 to 1994. So we are celebrating 1989-1994 hip-hop by listening to and reviewing every album that came out during those years in real time. In other words, the album(s) that came out in the first week of January 1989 will be listened to and reviewed on the first week of January 2014 and so on. We will be listening to everything from genre-defining LPs to the bottom-of-the-barrel, completely-forgettable albums during the next six years. We even have a fairly standardized system of rating each album: The Spoonie Scale. All that being said, he and I love hip-hop enough to embark on the journey and we will be recording our journey with reviews, mixes, articles, and other goods over at Son of Byford.

Jeff is not as much concerned with hip-hop after the 90s–with a few exceptions like El-P (who makes an appearance on this list) and albums by MF Doom, Madlib, and others.  I may be the one who consistently continues to hold out hope that hip-hop will continue to be prophetic and an enduringly-creative process; though, overall, I am probably more disappointed with output of late than I am pleased by it. I still was able to find some albums this year that struck me as worthy of repeated listens. The first three albums are standouts in my mind and I have actually rated them according to where I think they deserve to be on the list. The remaining albums are in no particular order.

sho-baraka-talented-xth#1 | Sho Baraka’s Talented 10th

Sho Baraka was, up until this album, on Reach Records–founded, in part, by fellow 116 Clique member, Lecrae–and his first two efforts, though good in their own right, were, in my opinion, a little too “clean” and, as he seems to allude to on “Chapter 9: Jim Crow,” maybe bent more towards being youth group appropriate. Talented 10th, though, saw Sho Baraka stepping away from Reach Records to make an album that dealt with harsh realities and darker issues within and without the church. The above mentioned track was one of the more direct, compelling and in-your-face examinations of race in America (and the church in America) that I have heard in hip-hop in a long while. He drew fire from evangelicals for the track’s use of the n-word and the occasional language that appeared throughout the album–though, to his credit, it is always purposeful and never gratuitous when it does appear.  Other tracks deal with the state of hip-hop, the breaking down of swag culture–or materialism–in hip-hop culture, and the economic forces that lend to the breakdown of inner cities and the African American communities affected by it.  This album is prophetic on many levels and it has some stunning beats and samples to undergird its strong message.  Regardless of it’s darker edge, hope still seizes and flows underneath this whole effort by Sho Baraka.

1374636684_purwk#2 | Kanye West’s Yeezus

I am the last person to have expected to enjoy and name a Kanye West album in my top hip-hop albums for the year, but something about this album grabbed me. In my mind, once Kanye and Jay-Z got past their first couple of albums, they really lost their unique voice and embraced, instead, the celebrity more than the craft–that, however, is simply my opinion!  However, I found in this album elements that I tend to be drawn to.  Sparse, industrial soundscapes and seemingly random segments that appear as quickly as they disappear.  The beats are strong on this album and his use of samples seems more like an intentional breaking down of the usual method of sampling because of its choppiness (samples are often being weaved more seamlessly into the whole of the track).  The lyrical content of the album is such that it provides for a multitude of ways to interpret and critique it. There are certainly teeth-grinding moments with Kanye, but something about the lyrics, and his selfsame vulnerability, give what could be seen as bravado more of an edge of the question: haven’t you [the listener] ever thought, done or felt these things as well? The answer that is begged, I think, on the album is clearly: yes, we all have.  This was a surprising album for me and one that I will continue to enjoy beyond 2013.

Warning: Explicit Content

uYsa4bv#3 | Run the Jewels’ [Self-Titled]

I am a bit amiss to recommend this album to the general public, but I would be lying if I didn’t put this album on my top three choices.  El-P (El-Producto) has been in the game since the early nineties with Company Flow and has released a string of solo albums along with several production credits to boot. He may be the most interesting hip-hop entity still in the game. Last year saw the release of his third solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, and the album he produced for ATL rapper, Killer Mike, called R.A.P. Music. Both of these albums ranked high on my hip-hop list last year. This year, however, found El-P and Killer Mike teaming up to create the act, Run the Jewels. This was their first released record and it was offered to the public for free. There are appearances by Big Boi (from Outkast) and Prince Paul (De La Soul, Handsome Boy Modeling School) which make for interesting and surprising moments on the record. Where this album shines is largely due to El-P’s production which is always recognizable, spacey and dark, but never dull or repetitive. In other words, this album appears on my list for the music/production and the delivery technique/wordplay more than the lyrical content which can be rather offensive and without much ultimate meaning.

Warning: Explicit Content

#4 | J Cole’s Born Sinner

This album reminds me of the kind of hip-hop that A Tribe Called Quest and Black Sheep used to do: laid back, groovy, while still being conscious of what was going on in the world.  J Cole is becoming one of the best hip-hop lyricists of recent days and this album is a stellar entry into his catalog.

#5 | Beautiful Eulogy’s Instruments of Mercy

Straight from Humble Beast Records comes the second album from the crew Beautiful Eulogy that consists of long-time Christian rappers, Braille & Odd Thomas, and their “DJ/producer” Courtland Urbano.  Though I am more of a fan of sample-based turntable-ism, these guys have some creative compositions that are often surprisingly sparse and airy in beats and blips.  Braille & Odd Thomas work some heavy theological content into each track with mixed results, but they succeed more often than fail.

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#6 | Cannibal Ox’ Gotham

I was hesitant to include this on my top hip-hop albums, but it was hard not to.  If you haven’t heard their The Cold Vein, then you have missed one of the best underground hip-hop albums ever made.  This album, though considered an LP, consists, in large part, of material from the past, reworked or reproduced.  This doesn’t keep it from playing fairly well as a whole album.  The key to enjoying Cannibal Ox is picking up on the amalgam of allusions that Vast Aire and Vordul Mega drop in their flows; everything from mythology to Christian symbolism to pop culture and everything in between is used to create dark, spacey worlds for the listener to inhabit.

#7 | Ohmega Watts’ Pieces of a Dream

My final selection is by an artist that, much like Cannibal Ox, had a terrific underground hip-hop album in 2005, The Find.  Though not as good as his first album, this one returns to the traditional sound that originally made me a fan.  Ohmega Watts grew up being influenced by all the Native Tongue crew acts–De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep, etc.–and it is extremely easy on both The Find and on Pieces of a Dream to hear those influences coming through.  This album, along with J Cole’s, are good albums to cruise down main street America pumping with the volume and bass turned up without getting stopped by the five-o.