End-of-Year Roundup: The Best Rap of 2011

I’ve only given it a cursory listen, but The Roots’ new album, undun, is very, very good. Any other year, this would probably mean an easy spot in my personal top three rap albums of that year. But 2011 has been something quite different–in a good way–for rap music, and, this year, a spot among the best of the best is more hotly contested. You see, rap music has been absolutely phenomenal in 2011, constantly building on itself with lovable omnivorousness and becoming something rap hasn’t been since its mid-’90s heyday: consistent. From the chart-toppers to the underground scene, here are the albums that helped make it that way.

Big K.R.I.T. – Returnof4Eva – Even though he’s only been on the scene for about a year, Big K.R.I.T. already feels like a mainstay of the Southern hip-hop scene, consistently and reliably putting out album-length excursions into Dirty South jams that simultaneously feel mindful and visceral. On Returnof4Eva, K.R.I.T. smoothly transitions from introspective, anecdotal jams like “Dreamin‘” to trap bangers like “Rotation” and “Sookie Now”.


Shabazz Palaces – Black Up – Black Up, the brainchild of Ishmael Butler of the excellent Digable Planets, feels like the apotheosis of “experimental” hip-hop in the 21st century. The long-winded and elliptical song titles, as well as the Borges-inspired lyricism, may seem like pandering to a certain audience, but that’s only if you ignore Butler’s superbly intuitive musicality. A lot of Black Up appeals to the mind, but it’s also a very physical album, particularly when the piano chords of standout “Are you… Can you… Were you? (Felt)” fall into place. Butler chooses the perfect lyric to underscore this beautiful moment: “It’s a feeling.” Indeed!


Curren$y – Weekend at Burnie’s – Would it sound strange to say that Curren$y, he of former Young Money affiliation, was “merely great” in 2011? Curren$y is perhaps rap’s most consistent artist, pumping out mixtapes that range anywhere from “good” to “really good” once or twice a month. Weekend at Burnie’s was his best this year simply because it was so him. Weekend is a very “chill” album, traced with rhymes about sitting on a couch and wearing flip-flops and all that. It was also supremely enjoyable, with Curren$y laying down slick lines backed up by consistently engrossing beats–“She Don’t Want a Man” is a particular favorite.


G-Side – The One…Cohesive I have something of a nostalgic bias toward this album—I look back on it very fondly as the album that soundtracked my trip to China during the Spring break of 2011—however, it’s nonetheless a gorgeous and smart rap album that set the precedent for later releases. “Moneyintheskyii” is the perfect encapsulation of what G-Side does so well: a beautiful, layered “cloud rap” beat over rhymes about what it really means to be an artist.


Kanye West & Jay-Z – Watch the Throne – If The One…Cohesive is about what it means to be a struggling artist in the Internet age, then Watch the Throne is about what it means to be super-rich in a way that’s almost timeless. You’ve all heard the great “Otis” at the theme park or your neighbor’s party, but it’s “Murder to Excellence” that really takes the cake, with both Hov and Yeezy digging further into the gross socioeconomic underbelly of America than they’ve ever dug.


A$AP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP/Main Attrakionz – 808s and Dark Grapes II – Reviewing two separate releases as one may seem like the result of laziness, but I contend that these albums almost act as companion pieces, with Rocky languidly building off the opaque playfulness of Main Attrakionz. Specifically what binds these two releases together is the “cloud rap” movement with which they’re associated; essentially, rap infused with soft, lethargic ambient music. With that comes an intensely enjoyable ease that infiltrates every aspect of the music, whether it be producer Clams Casino’s consistently gorgeous keyboard chords, the easygoing lyrics, or the malleable flow. Listen to “Chuch” or “Palace” and tell me this isn’t a sub-sub-genre you can get into.


Drake – Take Care – Well, you all know how I feel about this one. (Although, if you don’t, how about you hop on over and read the review?) Drake’s new album is a tour de force, an album that feels both uncompromisingly self-centered but also not at all indulgent. Drake’s use of guest spots and sequencing is, as always, top-notch (even if I could do without the Nicki Minaj song). The beats are fantastic. What else is there to say? Something like fifty full listens later, and I’m still hearing new things.


Lil B – Everything This might seem like a sort of cop-out, but I really believe that everythingmixtapes, albums, singles, videos, tweetsLil B released in 2011 was some kind of important. Almost all of 2011’s trends in rap music were found in some form in this extemporaneous stream of “Based” flow. Self-consciousness? You bet! “Cloud rap” and Clams Casino? Yes sir! Complete lack of self-editing? Absolutely! It’s still hard for me to call Lil B a “good” rapper, per se, but it’s undeniable that he’s the definitive rapper of the Internet age. Thanks, Based God!

–Alex Robertson, Arts Editor

Posted by on December 6, 2011. Filed under Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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