All critical lists are by their nature subjective, so it was interesting to observe the blogger infighting that occured last week when Passion of the Weiss posted its Top 50 Albums of the Decade. Given that no list is going to satisfy every listener, I couldn’t really understand why everyone was getting so heated over the “mistakes” they perceived to have been made. And don’t get me started on all the racial accusations being thrown around by a hyper-sensitive and overwhelmingly white group of music critics. That said, I too had my problems with the list, if only because my taste differs somewhat from the critics polled (no Def Jux or The Streets for me, thank you.) So I drafted my fellow (infrequent) contributor and we came up with our own list of 25 albums we feel should have made the cut. I’m not too familiar with a couple of Stretch’s picks, and vice versa, but we’ve spent enough years arguing about music to trust each other’s tastes. So here, without further ado, is Part 1 of the installment.
Note: The albums appear chronologically by year; otherwise there is no particular order.
Blackalicious — NIA (Quannum, 2000)
Listen: “The Fabulous Ones”
After dropping two solid EPs in the late ’90s, the veteran Bay Area duo of emcee Gift Of Gab and DJ/producer Chief Xcel truly outdid themselves on their first full-length, 2000’s NIA. Gab’s mind-blowingly complex rhymes flow so effortlessly that he’ll have you continuously rewinding his verses to catch every line. Furthermore, he stays versatile in that he can take a song concept and run with it just as easily as he can kick back and just spit random dope shit. The production, handled mostly by Chief Xcel (with a bit of assistance from fellow Quannum stars DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born), is chock full of funk and soul and fits Gab’s style perfectly. All in all, there are no dull moments on this joint, which deserves to be remembered as the hip hop classic that it is.
DJ Quik — Balance & Options (Arista, 2000)
Listen: “Pitch In On a Party”
While not as sonically groundbreaking as Rhythmalism (1998), Balance & Options is jaw-droppingly consistent, providing over seventy minutes of smoothed-out grooves inspired by 80’s funk, R&B and electro. Quik’s production here is impeccable, and his lyrics suggest a contentedness that seems to have eluded the super-producer in the years since Mausberg’s death. Quik’s Compton protegé appears on several tracks here, along with longtime collaborators AMG, Suga Free, and Raphael Saadiq, whose presence feels like that of old friends.
Ugly Duckling — Journey To Anywhere (1500 Records, 2000)
Listen: “Eye on the Gold Chain”
Don’t let the group name (or their skin tones) fool you. The Long Beach trio’s first full-length is what I can only describe as a refreshingly funky good time. DJ/producer Young Einstein’s beats are expertly layered with ridiculous soul and funk loops, crazy drum breaks, and perfectly executed scratches that will make your head nod till it hurts. And while emcees Andy Cooper and Dizzy Dustin may kick some admittedly silly rhymes, they have a wonderful chemistry that—when coupled with Einstein’s production—will remind you of hip hop’s Golden Age. Believe me, this is one journey you want to take.
J-Live — The Best Part (Triple Threat, 2001)
Listen “True School Anthem”
Recorded over a five-year period and shelved twice, underrated New York emcee J-Live’s debut The Best Part finally saw an official release in the fall of 2001, on J’s own Triple Threat label. It’s a damn good thing it did, because for an album of this magnitude to be lost in the vaults forever would not only be shameful, but borderline criminal. In short, this is “true school” hip hop at its very best, created by someone who loves the genre for listeners who feel the same way. Dope rhymes from a great emcee (J-Live) + dope beats from great producers (DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Prince Paul, DJ Spinna, 88-Keys) + a cohesion that many hip hop albums lack = The Best Part. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Sticky Fingaz — Black Trash: The Autobiography Of Kirk Jones (Universal, 2001)
Listen: “Money Talks” (ft. Raekwon)
Once you get past Onyx’s grimy, almost comically confrontational attitude, you realize that frontman Sticky Fingaz is actually a dope emcee. With his raspy voice and twisted sense of humor, Sticky is a beast on the mic; still, I’m sure many heads were skeptical when he decided to go solo, especially with a full-blown concept album. Few emcees are capable of creating a truly cinematic experience without boring the listener halfway through, but Sticky Fingaz, it turns out, has what it takes. Black Trash tells the story of Kirk Jones, Sticky’s maniacal alter ego, as he returns home from a bid only to get in trouble with the law again. The songs and skits intertwine to tell Kirk’s story, with his conscience (played by Omar Epps) popping up periodically to offer insight. With this ambitious and powerful album, Sticky proved he could hold his own and that he was indeed not watered down, but dyin’ of thirst. Don’t sleep on this shit.
E-40 — Grit & Grind (Jive, 2002)
Listen: “It’s All Gravity”
Rather than the hyphy-jacking My Ghetto Report Card, 2002’s Grit & Grind should have been the album that finally put E-40 on the national map. Expertly produced by such Bay Area veterans as Rick Rock, Mike Mosley, Bosko, and Tone Capone, the album marked 40’s most focused work since In a Major Way, showcasing Earl’s hilariously inventive wordplay over backdrops that didn’t pander to the uninitiated (the Lil’ Jon-produced “Rep Yo City” excepted.) 40’s done some great work these last few years, but he has yet to make another album this good.
DJ Jazzy Jeff — The Magnificent (BBE, 2002)
Listen: “For Da Love of Da Game”
The fifth entry in BBE’s stellar Beat Generation series, The Magnificent introduced the world to a completely new side of Jeff Townes. Produced by Jeff and his A Touch of Jazz studio (including Oddissee and the seriously underrated Kev Brown), the album drips with Philly neo-soul, and the guests (from newcomers Baby Blak and Pauly Yamz, to veterans like Freddie Foxxx and J-Live) turn out every track. The music perfectly blends together neo-soul and hip-hop, making it the ideal soundtrack for a latenight drive.
Devin the Dude — Just Tryin’ ta Live (Rap-A-Lot, 2002)
Listen: “Doobie Ashtray”
The most high-profile release of Devin’s career (though promoted as poorly as anything on Rap-A-Lot), Just Tryin’ ta Live found the Houston weed enthusiast capitalizing on his newfound visibility after appearances on Dr. Dre’s 2001 and the Up in Smoke Tour. With production by DJ Premier and Dre himself, among others, and a guest list including Nas, Xzibit, and Raphael Saadiq, the album touched on everything from Devin’s brokedown car (the hilarious “Lacville ’79”) to Wal-Mart-shopping aliens (“Zeldar”), as well as relationships, economic hardship, and The Dude’s usual obsessions: “weed, wine, and women.” Funny, self-deprecating, and unflinchingly honest, Just Tryin ‘ta Live solidified Devin’s spot as rap’s everyman anti-hero. Unfortunately it also set a creative bar that none of his following albums have quite been able to reach.
Non Phixion — The Future Is Now (Uncle Howie, 2002)
Listen: “Rock Stars”
Non Phixion’s complex rhymes and apocalyptic subject matter may not be every rap fan’s cup of tea, but emcees Ill Bill, Goretex and Sabac Red undeniably have skills. Each member of the group can absolutely destroy a mic, and the three compliment each other beautifully. Combine that with bangin’ beats from heavyweights like DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, The Beatnuts and Necro, and you have one of the decade’s strongest indie releases.
Bubba Sparxxx — Deliverance (Interscope, 2003)
Listen: “Comin’ Round”
On Deliverance, Timbaland fearlessly fused elements of country and bluegrass with his trademark percussion and synths, creating a hybrid genre perfect for Bubba’s tales of life in rural Georgia. Lyrically Bubba proved himself more than worthy, his country swagger and poignant storytelling voiding any lazy comparisons to Eminem. To this day, he is one of the few white rappers whom I fuck with.
Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3, coming soon!