This is the first year I’ve included hip-hop on my Holiday Buyer’s Guide, but with the possible exception of indie rock, no section had stronger competition. 2008 was an unbelievable year for underground rap, and while even legends like Nas have said that hip-hop is dead, the underground is alive and doing better than ever. Whether you’re a fan of underground rap or someone who has yet to hear what real hip-hop music is like, there are number of great albums for you to choose from.
When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is an intelligent, mature, and poetic album that belongs in the collection of every music fan. Regardless of how much or how little you like rap, this is an album that you should own. When Life Gives You Lemons is an example of what rap music can be when in the hands of true artists. The amount of subtle touches in production, lyrics, and delivery of the album is staggering, and this is the type of album that is both immensely deep while also beautiful in its simplicity. That may seem like a contradiction, but it’s the contrast of ideas that gives this album depth. A few sentences cannot describe just how incredible this album is, and if you’re a music fan who has yet to experience this unbelievably beautiful work of art, there’s really no excuse for ending the year without it.
Blue Sky Black Death
Late Night Cinema
In a genre capable of such raw and powerful lyricism, it’s somewhat surprising that one of the year’s most recommendable hip-hop albums is an instrumental one. However, Blue Sky Black Death’s Late Night Cinema is more than just an album of catchy hip-hop beats. This is a beautiful and even emotionally tense album that tells a story through some of the most creative beats found in hip-hop. Late Night Cinema is reminiscent of DJ Shadow’s classic Entroducing… in the way that it creates truly unique music through pure sampling. It’s both an experimental instrumental album and powerful hip-hop poetry, and it’s far and away the best instrumental hip-hop album of 2008.
Fight with Tools
Known mostly for the breakout single “Handlebars,” which received significant air time on alternative rock stations this past year, the Flobots are actually a very different band than advertised. This is a unique political rap group that has much more in common with underground hip-hop acts than alternative rap-rock bands or mainstream rap. No other songs on this album have much of a chance to get radio play, so it’s not something that fans of catchy pop music are going to like. This is serious political rap, and the Flobots never stray from that. Musically, the use of a violin, as well as traditional rock instruments allow them to create tension that goes well with the lyrics and message. The Flobots are one of one of the most deserving groups to get radio play in some time, and this is a great album for anyone looking for hip-hop with a real message.
Even though he may not be the most recognizable member in the mainstream, Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA is truly the genius of the group. He’s a masterful lyricist with a flow to match, and he has been one of the most influential artists in the hip-hop underground. GZA’s Pro Tools is an album written from an underground perspective, and its focus is primarily on lyrics. There are few choruses, as GZA opts for mostly short songs comprised of deep poetry and clever rhymes, and it takes an approach directly opposite of mainstream rap. There’s even a full song dedicated to 50 Cent, where GZA tells him he “still window shops for lyrics” and “got rich robbing those in the industry.” It may be an obvious pun, but GZA lives up to his nickname. Pro Tools is one of the best albums this genius has done since his classic Liquid Swords, and it belongs in the collection of any true rap fan.
Children of God
Hasan Salaam is proof that even in the underground, there is no justice in hip-hop. While he’s far too intelligent and lyrical to appeal to radio rap fans, Hasan Salaam deserves to be a household name. He’s one of the best emcees in hip-hop today, both in terms to flow and lyrics. He raps with as much swagger as the best of them, his metaphors are deep, and his rhymes are real. Like Immortal Technique, Hasam Salaam is real hip-hop, and Children of God is one of the best rap albums of 2008. If you respect real lyricism and true rap music, then support real hip-hop and get yourself a copy of Children of God. It’s raw, real, and oddly inspiring.
The Hour of Reprisal
Ill Bill isn’t the only rapper that claims to be influenced by metal, but he makes better uses of his metal influences than just about anyone. Containing guests spots from metal musicians such as Howard Jones from Killswitch Engage, Max Cavalera from Soulfly, and two members of Bad Brains, as well as guest rappers Immortal Technique, Raekwon from Wu-Tang Clan, Vinnie Paz from Jedi Mind Tricks, B-Real from Cypress Hill, Everlast from La Coka Nostra, among others, The Hour of Reprisal is an overblown rap-metal record that succeeds by the strengths of its guests. Ill Bill himself is a talented enough emcee, as well as one of the most hardcore and controversial lyricists in the hip-hop underground, but it’s the guests that will make and break the album for you. If the guest list sounds like something you’d like, either on the metal or hip-hop side of things, then The Hour of Reprisal is a worthwhile to purchase this holiday season. Just make sure you can stand lyrics influenced by politics, horror films, metal, and porn.
The 3rd World
It’s unfortunate that The 3rd World is Immortal Technique’s first album in five years. It’s really more of a mixtape than an actual album, and compared to his powerful Revolutionary albums, The 3rd World is somewhat of a disappointment. However, this is a mixtape that is as good as any rap album released this year, and while not as cohesive as his past work, it contains some of Tech’s best individual tracks. Immortal Technique is real hip-hop with a powerful message that isn’t for the faint of heart, but instead for anyone willing to hear the truth in the form of hip-hop. The 3rd World is easily the most raw album released in 2008, and while it’s no Revolutionary Vol. 2, it’s one of the absolute best hip-hop albums of the year.
Nas has received some likely desired controversy and a massive amount of undeserved criticism for his untitled ninth album, originally pegged to use the n-word as its title. Regardless of what the album is called, Nas has made an album that is anything but a gimmick. This is one of the best lyrical albums released since Nas revolutionized hip-hop with his classic Illmatic, and it’s the second masterpiece of Nas’ career. While many have been quick to criticize the beats, the point of the album is in the lyrics. Lyrically, this is a poetic and analytic account of racism, both in modern times and history. Nas raps with clarity that is rarely heard in hip-hop, and the words he speaks are powerful. Nas’ untitled masterpiece is an essential album, not just because of its quality, but also for its message. Any human being willing to listen to an album for the lyrics and what the artist has to say should do so with this one. It’s one of the most important albums of the past year.
The Mighty Underdogs
Droppin’ Science Fiction
While most hip-hop albums on this list focus on deep lyrics and a serious message, the first album from “supergroup” The Mighty Underdogs is a purely fun hip-hop record. It’s far from a club album, but instead an album of clever rhymes and unique production. The songs range from soulful jams to parody to the just plain crazy, and it makes for an incredibly fun experience. Great guest spots from MF DOOM, Mr. Lif, DJ Shadow, Akrobatik, and others add to the album. There are some seriously talented people involved in this album, and it’s clear that all had a great time working on it. Trust me, you’ll have a great time listening as well.
Rising Down is a moderate step down from The Roots’ brilliant 2006 album, Game Theory, but that’s not to say it isn’t a solid album. Actually, Rising Down is solid to a fault. Every song on the album is purely solid, nothing more, nothing less (unless you include the iTunes bonus track “Birthday Girl,” which is nothing short of awful). The Roots can do better than this, but no other hip-hop group could make this album. The Roots stand out from other hip-hop groups by using live instruments and actual band members as opposed to samples, and the talent of the musicians at hand allows The Roots to get more creative musically than their peers. It also helps that The Roots’ lyrics exemplifies what real hip-hop should be. It’s not as poetic as Atmosphere or as hardcore as Immortal Technique, but it is real music with an actual message, and even just an average Roots album like Rising Down is enough to be one of the most recommendable hip-hop albums this holiday season.