"Welcome to our elements/Ladies and the gentlemen/Enterin' our settlement/Steppin' like an elephant/Fresher than a Velamint/Anyone remember when/Music still was relevant?/Then you'll love what we present"
DISCLAIMER: This is a personal list of my favorite hip-hop releases of 2008. It's not based on Billboard sales or anything like that. It's based on my particular taste in hip-hop, which largely runs toward the underground. I welcome any and all debate, but please don't post some dumb shit like, "YO WEEZY CARTER III IZ #1, FUCK DAT! F. BABY!" Back it up.
Best Overall Albums
• Mighty Underdogs, Droppin' Science Fiction - If I had to name a top album, this would probably be it. Pound for pound, it's got the most enjoyable beats of any release I've heard all year, paired up with excellent lyricism courtesy of Gift of Gab and Lateef. "Hands in the Air" is the most instantly-catchy beat I've heard in the last five years or so (with the notable exception of "Arab Money," but my misguided love for that song is more a combination of marveling at its glorious ignorance and enjoying the World's Best Auto-Tune hook). Plus the "UFC" remix has the best DJ cut I've heard all year (DJ Shadow slicing up "Who gon' stop us/Not a goddamn one of ya" from "Mr. Me Too").
• Guilty Simpson, Ode to the Ghetto - Call him a generic fake thug if you want, but if you're really getting serious about the "fake thug" or "generic gangsterism" genre, Guilty stands head and shoulders above anyone you could name and had one of the more lyrically- and sonically-solid debuts of the last few years. Because of Stones Throw's reputation for indy-minded, more-experimental hip-hop, I suppose people may have been expecting more of that, and were caught off-guard by a commanding baritone barking about the rough-ass streets in Detroit. But banging beats by Dilla, Madlib, Oh No and Black Milk provide a rock-solid foundation for some of the best-turned phrases of 2008.
Best Return to Form
• Kool Keith, Dr. Dooom 2 - Just in time for Halloween, a nice, moderately-creepy set of tunes from the original Weezy F. Baby (and by that I mean the original nonsensical lyricist). Dr. Octagonecologyst is an all-time classic in my book, so it was disheartening to see Keith's hit-and-miss string of alter-ego solo records (Black Elvis... ugh...). Even worse was the Swedish/German techno bullshit that clogged up Return of Dr. Octagon, which Keith didn't even authorize. The second Dr. Dooom album finds him back with fellow Diesel Trucker, Kutmasta Kurt, for a set that pairs up middleweight boom-bap with paranoid, sinister instrumentation.
• Snoop Dogg, Ego Trippin' - Snoop on an album with a production team that includes DJ Quik and Teddy Riley? I'm down for that. It's easily Snoop's best, most instantly-likable album since Doggystyle.
• Q-Tip, The Renaissance - You can call it Tribe-lite, derivative or deliberately backward-looking. But airy, jazzed-up beats and one of hip-hop's premier lyricists? Sounds good to me. Tip singlehandedly proves how easy it is to do a relationship rap record without Auto-Tuning yourself into submission and pretending to be Coldplay-meets-Gil-Scott-Heron.
• Girl Talk, Feed the Animals - The inclusion of this one is debatable, since it's sort of up in the air whether or not it's truly a rap record. For sure, the front half is; the back half relies a little too heavily on techno, but there's no denying that this cat from Pittsburgh puts Danger Mouse to shame as the ultimate mash-up artist.
• P Brothers, The Gas - There isn't anything groundbreaking about this record. It's just really fucking good. Throwback boom-bap with a sinister edge, and featuring a crew (Money Boss Players, whose members guest on nearly every song) that I'd been hoping would eventually put out a full-length.
Best Albums (International)
• Jazz Liberatorz, Clin d'Oeil/Dela, Changes of Atmosphere - If there's one thing that would have made Tip's Renaissance a little less throwback-y, it might have been the inclusion of beats from either of these French groups, both of whom put out solid, jazzy releases featuring a who's-who of indy rap (J-Live, J. Sands, Fatlip, Apani B., etc.). When it comes to creating mellow hip-hop, American underground producers better watch out. France is comin' up.
• Scott Burns, Day 1 - Aussie rap? Hey, fuckit, why not, right? Especially when it comes across this well. Burns is like a toned-down version of UK rapper The Streets, but without all of the unnecessary experimentation and non-rhyme schemes. Day 1 is packed full of bouncy production that straddles the line between mainstream/underground, and "Different Things" is one of the most hilarious "opposites attract" songs I've heard.
• Heltah Skeltah, D.I.R.T. - I don't know if I can properly convey how much this album truly sucked. from the Pen & Pixel cover (where Ruck and Rock are, no shit, wearing R. Kelly Sex Masks and superhero capes) to the painfully shitty beats within. I thought I was disappointed when I listened to Magnum Force Crew? Oh, Dr. Hell No... compared to D.I.R.T., MFC is a hands-down classic.
• Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak - I hesitate to add this, because after hearing "Love Lockdown," I had a feeling it would be pretty bad. My criteria for this category was sort of "expectation vs. result." My expectations for 808s were pretty low.