Five 2011 Hip-Hop Albums Better Than Watch the Throne
Why the most-hyped hip-hop album of 2011 is just that.
Buoyed by a fearsome PR campaign, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s bland celebration of fiscal bullying, Watch the Throne, dominated our cultural landscape at the time of its release, and will probably be remembered as the most talked-about hip-hop album of 2011. The shameful truth, however, is that the album was about as relevant as Jay-Z’s culturally tone-deaf “Occupy All Streets” Rocawear t-shirt: “I hear things are rough out there. Please buy this t-shirt and wear it while listening to elaborate descriptions of my wealth.” Here are five albums or mixtapes that got far less press and said far more than Jay and Kanye’s shopping list of an album.
1. Action Bronson, Dr. Lecter
Too much of what’s been written about Queens' Action Bronson has focused on his vocal resemblance to Ghostface Killah. What’s more important is that heavy-set white boy ‘Bronsolinio’ is bringing back a working-class eccentricity to rap that’s been more or less missing since Ghostface’s stunning Supreme Clientele over a decade ago. Even throwaway lines on Dr. Lecter like, “You don’t even know who fuckin’ Larry Csonka is, man” flash the kind of salt-of-the-earth bravado frequently overheard in New York subway conversations. In fact, it’s not difficult to imagine Bronson’s best disses aimed at an out-of-touch, status-obsessed Kanye West.
Listen: “Larry Csonka”
2. Freddie Gibbs, Cold Day in Hell
Few, if any, rappers have a chip on their shoulder like the one on Freddie Gibbs’. Gibbs was signed by Interscope records in 2009, shuffled along, and then dropped without ever getting to release an album. Recently signed by Young Jeezy, Gibbs’ has a new album that unites the operatic storytelling you expect from the best gangsta rap with something you don’t expect: yearning, personal urgency. The opening verse of “Rob Me a Nigga,” with its Shakespearean description of how poverty and envy influence a man’s desire to rob and steal, are among the best lyrics, in any genre, all year.
Listen: “Rob Me a Nigga”
3. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Lost in Translation
In a recent interview, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire referred to himself as “just an ordinary nigga who does extraordinary things.” That boast, within the context of contemporary hip-hop, represents a sophisticated reinterpretation of rap braggadoccio. eXquire’s lyrics fuse the kind of self-deprecating musings you get from great party rappers (think Ol’ Dirty Bastard) with colorful everyday examples of urban stagnation and poverty. Lost in Translation (accompanied by confrontationally grotesque cover art) proved to be one of the year’s biggest surprises and contains (in “The Last Huzzah”) the year’s best punchline: “Fuck the throne, watch the park bench covered in pigeon shit.”
Listen: “The Last Huzzah”
4. A$AP Rocky, LiveLoveA$AP
Let’s acknowledge something that’s been lost in the hype surrounding this guy: A$AP Rocky is a terrible writer. So why list him? Because hip-hop is music, and the dreamlike neo-ambient tracks on the much talked-about LiveLoveA$AP are consistently fresh and occasionally game-changing. Thanks in large part to producers like Clams Casino, A$AP’s music could fit side-by-side on a playlist with forward-thinking electronic composers like Tim Hecker or more sophisticated black-metal outfits like Wolves in the Throne Room. And while his vegetarianism and politics feel like PR gimmicks, his videos have a unique, authentically quirky style: “Peso” recalls the eccentric Harlem you might remember from cult films like The Last Dragon.
5. Drake, Take Care
In a year whene the internet offered a constant stream of newcomers to challenge the pillars of hip-hop, few mainstream artists were capable of launching a decent response. The oft-criticized Drake, however, was up to the task. Take Care is unlike any Top 40 hip-hop and R&B release we’ve heard in years. It’s not just that the record is atypically devoid of party anthems, or that it maintains a singular tone from start to finish; it’s that it’s a contemporary radio record that’s, well, more than a little sad. That tangible melancholy makes Take Care more in touch with the subconscious emotions of its day than more hyped and anticipated releases like Watch the Throne or Lil Wayne’s tedious The Carter IV.
Listen: “Underground Kings”