Debatable? Of course. But I’d ride for and with these picks:
10. Kendrick Lamar: Section .80. Lamar must be the younger cousin of a cat who was really into Project Blowed and the Good Life back in the day, because he spits like a modern day combination of Aceyalone and Ice Cube. He’s the dopest on the West Coast right now (but Locksmith is on his ass).
9. Kanye West: Late Registration. This album is crazy celebratory and infectious, the beats bang, and the concepts are dope (Diamonds are Forever, anyone??). Plus, who else could put Lupe, Common, Game, and Hov on the same album? Incredible.
8. Lupe Fiasco: The Cool. There is no one who does a better job of combining next level lyricism, consciousness, and street science. Lupe is what Eminem, Murse, and Immortal Technique would be if they were all one guy. “Dumb it Down” is one of those rare songs that I can listen to quietly to analyze and loudly to bang.
7. The Roots: Rising Down. This was more of a classic Roots album, in the mold of “Do You Want More” or “Things Fall Apart.” If you’ve never heard “75 Bars,” stop reading this and go download the track right now! Might be the best thing you do all day.
6. Little Brother: The Minstrel Show. Though I’d heard several LB tracks before, this was the first album I’d heard, and the combination of 9th Wonder and Phonte makes for some beautiful ass music. This is a great concept album (as the title implies)–better than American Gangster–and it fully introduced me to Phonte, who is a top five MC right now. Easily.
5. Jay Z: The Blueprint (I). True ridin music. This is one of the few CDs I can throw on and listen to straight through. This was also the first Jay CD I ever bought (was too much of a back packer to bump him in the 90s). I still throw on “All I Need” right before I’m about to take a test or give a training. One of the most soulful rap albums of all time. You made it a hot line. Hov made it a hot song, album, career, etc.
4. Lupe Fiasco: Food and Liquor. Several years ago I was riding with my boy to a bball game in LA when he threw on “Hurt Me Soul.” We listened to that song over and over for half an hour, and to this day, I’m still dissecting the themes, figurative language, and lyrics. Not only can he spit, but this album had dope production too. Truth be told, if skills sold, everyone would want to be Lupe Fiasco.
3. Jay Z and Kanye West: Watch the Throne. This is a tough one, because there are two Kanye albums I could legitimately put here (Late Registration and MBDTF), and The Roots’ “Phrenology” album could make this list as well. But the truth is, this album is a better choice because it combines the best of both worlds: Kanye’s deft production and Jay’s insightful, witty, ever-evolving-though-thematically-constant lyricism. I despise the “N” word, but will bump “Ns in Paradise” 5Xs in a row because the chemistry of it is that entrancing. What Jay does on “Made in America,” wherein he relates the desperation and hope of a project drug dealer to the themes in the Declaration of Independence, is brilliant!
2. Jay Z: The Black Album. You knew this was coming. I’ve had three cars since this album first came out, and I’ve never taken this CD out of any of them. It has everything you’d want in a Hov album: It’s soulful, intelligent, hood, witty, funny, and the production is insane. I might be one of the few people who believe Jay never made a bad album. This one would easily be first if someone else hadn’t made a slightly better album…
1. Common: Be. If Jay Z is the Yankees (pick a year), then Common is the 2007 Colorado Rockies. He did more with less on this album (just 11 tracks; less than 45 minutes), and it literally came out of nowhere to surprise everybody. Nobody was checking for Common when “Be” dropped. “Like Water for Chocolate” and “Electric Circus” both had bright spots (I thought) but neither were sonically pleasing. Jay would be the easy, trendy pick here.
However, when we listen closely, we see that the production is just as soulful and top notch as that of The Black Album (thanks to Kanye and Dilla). And, unlike Hov, who essentially raps about drugs for 50-75% of every album, Common more fully addresses the human condition through a wider range of subject matter. He inspired us to be our best selves on the title track. Then painted vivid, visceral pictures of Chicago specifically and all ghettoes generally on “Chi City” and “The Corner.” “Go” was a sexy club banger that was as good as any of Hov’s grown and sexy radio joints (and it mighta helped a few of us talk our girls into a menage–my wife aint having it though). He freaked the choir and the metaphor of belief on “Faithful.” And he gave us classic Common battle raps and socially conscious raps on “The Food,” and “Real People.” “It’s Your World” was like the vegetables we all needed to complete the meal. Honestly, “Be” might be better than ANY Jay Z album, because it’s more complete than what Jay ever does. Be is king. And when you come at the king you best not miss!
Honorable Mention: Raekwon: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II. Raekwon is a master story teller. If we were still in Alkebulan (that’s Africa homie), dude would be one of the top griots in the village. He’s also the quintessential “New York emcee.” His lingo, his tales, his visual imagery, his subject matter–when he talks, all I can do is close my eyes and visualize the boroughs. This is a great Raekwan album AND a great Wu album, because Ghostface, Meth, Rza, Gza, and Deck all make several appearances. Ill production, dope lyrics, captivating stories. Nuff said.