A couple of weeks ago, an expert on the Harry Potter series told an audience of high school kids how lucky they were to have this Big Shared Experience--these seven books and 41,000 words in common. What does Harry Potter have to do with hip-hop in 2008? In an age when many year-end lists should be subtitled "Ten More Albums You've Never Heard of and Will Never, Ever Hear," plenty.
Technology has made the world smaller, and in response, we've found smaller and smaller worlds to inhabit. Think of a specific era--in some cases, a specific artist's work from a specific era, or even a specific year--and someone, somewhere is re-creating those very sounds. Which is fine, and sometimes a lot of fun. It's just that those folks who are still striving for the Big Shared Experience were the most interesting stories of the past year in hip-hop. They were the people who believed that hip-pop didn't automatically equal T-Pain, or the real pain of automatic IQ loss.
There were several such moments in 2008.
808s and Heartbreak
West's fourth album almost completely dispensed with rapping, perplexing and vexing scores of fans and supporters. The music itself was low-key, chilly techno that featured West's Auto-Tuned croon as the most prominent element; inevitably, what support West loses from his fan base will be replaced with critical hosannas for 808s, even though the recycled 1980s licks and equally familiar (and tiresome) "It-ain't-easy-bein'-rich-and-famous" sentiments mean it's merely solid and not spectacular.
Yet West's stated rationale for creating the album is fascinating. He has spoken of wanting to reach the level of a McCartney or a Bono and has presented what is essentially a pop record as a step toward that goal. We shouldn't read too much into the statement, perhaps--he's already at work on a follow-up, supposedly, which might well end up a return to verse--but you could also view it as a rare admission of hip-hop's limitations (or at least its limitations without the olive branch of pop). And almost 20 years after hip-hop took over the world, that's a startling idea.
That a star of West's magnitude would court scorn in this way is the sort of chance only a great artist can take and survive--a potential Prince Under the Cherry Moon moment.
Gym Class Heroes
Another keynote moment of 2008 came while listening to rough mixes of this album aboard the Heroes' tour bus last summer. Frontman Travis McCoy is an inveterate and enthusiastic tune selector; his iBook was constantly pumping out his favorites of the moment. One track that stood out ended up being left off The Quilt. Produced by hip-hop titans Cool & Dre, it was a song called "Cold Revolver" that featured McCoy on bass and was a dead ringer for the Cure. More to the point, McCoy spoke of how Cool & Dre viewed the song as a chance to stretch beyond their usual audience. In other words, it apparently wasn't a move made solely for the benefit of GCH.
The comment made more sense after spending some time with the Heroes on the Warped Tour, seeing the racially mixed crowds moshing to a Lamb of God cover and hearing the band's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink (in a good way) new album. There have been the usual naysayers reluctant to see their cult band go global (something McCoy addresses in "Don't Tell Me It's Over"), but The Quilt's mashup makes the same point, in its way, as West's 808s. Neither is hip-hop with hooks to make a buck; both are the products of intelligent artists who refuse to be slaves to the same old boom-bap or the same old boom-pap in their quest for wider acclaim. In short, they want it all: credibility and commercial clout. Both efforts are worth supporting.
When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
The same point was made, in slightly more subtle fashion, by this Minneapolis duo, whose new album saw Slug and Ant broadening their scope and leaving pure hip-hop behind. The live instruments and the veiled 1980s pop influences could hardly get the two accused of selling out; some of the music, in fact, was highly complex. Yet when Slug spoke earnestly of his transition from autobiography to fiction in his lyrics--as a step toward making more accessible music in primary colors like "yellow and orange...and fucking baby blue!"--it was hard not to think he'd reached the same conclusion as Kanye and GCH.
In his own way, perhaps, so had Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne. On Killer, he used the biggest, baddest pop iconography possible: The cover and title play off Jacko's classic Thriller, with amusing results. But what made this double album most compelling was its perspective: At age 37, Tech hasn't outgrown the silly sex story (check "Waitress"), but he also has a mature perspective that's rare in hip-hop. "Hope for a Higher Power" is a dark-hued, intelligent look at belief, while "Crybaby" offers perhaps the best response ever to those who have made hip-hop a series of warring regional factions: "The ones that wanna hold us back/Ain't been outside their cul-de-sac."
Mick Boogie & Terry Urban
Viva La Hova
(Detached... At Ease)
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Technically, it represents a regional scene, but the genre-bending hip-hop experimentation coming out of Cleveland on a regular basis is all about building bridges, not burning them. Boogie and Urban are the nation's indisputable mixtape kings, and their Jay-Z/Coldplay mashup Viva La Hova is as intriguing as all those Grey/Brown albums a few years back. (Has anybody created a greater assortment of interesting, free popular music as these two guys...ever?) And production duo the Kickdrums are equally ambitious on the Roxy Music-referencing "Love Is a Drug," a taster for their fine full-length.
The Beauty in Distortion/The Land of the Lost
It's as much electro and new-wave as it is hip-hop (then again, that fusion worked like a charm for Spank Rock), but there were few more invigorating sounds in '08 than the real-life mashups of this Los Angeles duo. On these twin EPs, frontwoman Jack Davey and instrumentalist Brook D'Leau find room for Daisy Age rap, Missing Persons hiccups, and the touch of their obvious influence, pre-slavery Prince.
Q-Tip is an artist who's been burned at the crossover game: His Amplified was derided as a pop sellout, while 2001's brilliant, jazz-inflected Kamaal the Abstract never saw release. But Renaissance strikes a happy medium between those two extremes and classic Tribe Called Quest hip-hop, making it as strong and accessible an album as he's created yet.
It might be stretching a point to include Tronic on this list, since its sound draws heavily from hip-hop's more insular golden age (although it's filled with organ and other live instruments). But it belongs in large part because of the fantastic production; with this disc and his work on Slum Villager--and fellow Detroiter--Elzhi's The Preface, Black Milk makes a case for himself as producer of the year.
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The Cool Kids
The Bake Sale
Even though Bake Sale sounded as defiantly retro as any release this year--its spare, drum-machine-driven sound reminiscent of Eric B and Rakim and EMPD--Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish are doing more than just revisiting the sounds of hip-hop's golden age. Those sounds are the vehicle for a witty lyricism more interested in referencing the BMX-and-Fruity-Pebbles culture of Middle America than gangsta esoterica. On "A Little Bit Cooler," Mikey said it best: "I'm a rebel/Eating a bowl/Of them Fruity Pebbles, Fruity Pebbles, Fruity Pebbles/How gangsta is that?/Not gangsta at all." Expect a (pop) hit in the near future; these guys are too smart and savvy for it not to happen.