It's been said before but I'll say it again, hip hop in 2008 was fucking dismal. Yes there were a few solid releases but there wasn't an album that helped guide the limping genre into a new direction. Things were so slow this year that I couldn't even compile a full top ten. Most of my hip hop listening in 2008 has been almost strictly aimed at re-issues and/or finding and revisiting lesser known classics of the past, and there have been plenty to unearth.
So, what the hell was worth defending this year? Below are the albums and tracks that kept my head noddin' in 2008.
1. Flying Lotus "Los Angeles"
This one took a few listens before it ever "clicked," but, man, it was well worth the effort. I'm actually a little hesitant to even out this in the hip hop category, but this section needs all the help it can get. Though the bass-heavy beats are of the classic head bobbin' variety, the execution of the album and it's heady, in-depth production makes it much more than a mere hip hop album. The fact that it came out on Warp is indicative of this being much more than that. My ears hear the last fifteen years of Warp distilled through hip hop, dubstep, funk and (I hate to say it) downtempo. The oft-used Prefuse 73 comparison is warranted but it's hardly the only influence worth noting. Though I do note the technical bravado of early Prefuse 73, I also can't help but hear the psychedelic warbled warmth of Boards of Canada, the static drenched beatwork of Chiastic Slide-era Autechre, and, heck, there's even a hint of the playfulness of mid-90s Aphex Twin thrown in there for good measure.
I recommend snagging this one on vinyl, which is housed in a beautiful and slick gatefold with even slicker picture sleeves. Get it while you can because Warp tends not to keep their vinyl in print for long...
"Roberta Flack (Feat. Dolly)"
"Auntie's Lock/Infinitum (Feat. Laura Darlington)"
2. Onra "Chinoiseries"
I already wrote a review of this for Color, so I'm just gonna be lazy on this one...
Now that damn near every soul, R&B and jazz record have been mined for their precious samples, the forward-thinking producers in hip-hop have had to look elsewhere for their beat sources. Onra, a French-born DJ of Vietnamese descent, went back to his motherland of Vietnam and scooped up as many records as he could take back to France. The self-proclaimed vinyl junky took the few dozen records, scratches and all, and made beats out of material he was "completely unfamiliar with". The end result is Chinoiseries, a collection of 32 short (only two tracks break two minutes) instrumental hip-hop vignettes made up of old, dusty and scratched up Vietnamese pop and traditional records, which were then chopped up into tiny snippets and molded into unique and otherworldly hip-hop beats. Strings, woodwinds, and indecipherable traditional Vietnamese instruments hop along a bed of crackle and are backed by classic boom-bap drum breaks. Madlib’s Beat Konducta In India album and J Dilla’s Ruff Draft seem to have provided the inspiration for Chinoiseries, but Onra’s unique collection in Chinoiseries prove he’s an innovator and not just a mere copycat.
"Relax In Mui Ne"
3. People Under The Stairs "Fun DMC"
Though this can hardly be considered their best album (I'll reserve that for O.S.T.) it sure is far superior to their disappointing 2006 release, The Stepfather. The duo are back in their prime here and have strung together a worry-free album that reeks of the sunshine from their home state of California. Nope, you won't find any typical complaints about street life here, instead are songs about BBQ's, chasing girls, playing video games, making beats, and living the laidback life of an LA b-boy who's world revolves around hip hop. This is a hip hop album for the heads who need to put their worries aside for an hour.
"Ste. For Peter Pt.1 -The Fun-"
This next one is my hip hop track of the year!
"Ste. For Peter Pt.1 -The Grind-"
4. Dr. Dooom "Dr. Dooom 2"
The hip hop comeback of the year award officially goes out to Kool Keith, who, after releasing the dreadful Dr. Octagon 2 and several weak solo albums, dropped Dr. Dooom 2 on to the weary public. The production is courtesy of long-time associate Kutmasta Kurt and features some of his starkest material since the first Dr. Dooom album, which dropped almost ten years ago. Filled with quick-cut, low-end piano loops, Dr. Dooom 2 is a dark album which shows the cutting side of Kool Keith that's been missing on records for a looong time. He wastes no time in cutting down inferior MC's (his specialty), calling out Simon Cowell (?!), boasting (see God Of Rap below), and even takes out some time to mock himself by killing Dr. Octagon...again. Definitely not the strongest Keith release but it's easily his best since 2000's Matthew album and a welcome return to form.
"The God Of Rap"
5. Subtle "ExitingARM"
The third album by these ex-Anticon superstars is also the final in their trilogy that revolves around Hour Hero Yes. I would fathom to say that most fans wouldn't even know the last 3 albums were part of a trilogy as Doesone's hyper and nasally flow would make any storyline difficult to follow. I've always found the story to take a backseat to the incredible inventiveness of all 3 Subtle albums, so it's never really been much but an afterthought when listening. Though this album isn't quite the achievement that the first two have been, and see's the group treading very similar water as the previous two full lengths, it's still a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stifling airspace.
Mike Ladd "Nostalgialator"
This was originally released in Europe in 2004, and thanks to the folks over at Def Jux, this overlooked album finally gets a domestic release. Nostalgialator came out a year after his triumphant Majesticons LP and has a very similar vibe in the production. However, this time around the lyrics are overtly political compared to the tongue-in-cheek party anthems of the Majesticons album. Nostalgialator should hold you over until the Trusticons album is released to complete the Infesticons/Majesticons trilogy. This is definitely the sleeper of 2008...and 2004. Sleep no more.
"Wild Out Day"
Personal favorite track: "How Electricity Really Works"
Daedelus "Love To Make Music To"
Though most of this album leans towards Daedelus' heart warming electronica, there are two standout hip hop tracks featuring unknown MCs that are definitely worth your time. I'll just let them speak for themselves...
"Touchstones (featuring Paperboy & Taz Arnold)
"Twist The Kids (feat. N'fa)
Over the next week or so I'll be dropping the rest of my lists, including my favorite albums in drone/ambient, garage/psych, reissues, singles and maybe a few others...Tune in laterz