Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

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There was plenty of homegrown hip-hop to get excited about this year—well, to a point.

X.O. started the year off strong with his One.One.Ten, perhaps the most cohesive-sounding full-length the area has ever produced. X.O.’s Diamond District partner, rapper/producer Oddisee, continued his string of boom-bap beat tapes and collaborations. Fat Trel might be D.C.’s most fascinating newcomer, releasing a pair of mixtapes—Youngest Runnin Da City and No Secrets—that show a rapid maturation from skilled but generic trap rapper to more nuanced and insightful MC. Phil Adé and Tabi Bonney held down for the skinny-jeans contingent while long-standing street favorites Garvey the Chosen One and the Oy Boyz continued to churn out solid if single-minded gangster rap. Kingpen Slim, Kokayi, RA the MC, Black Cobain, Whitefolkz, and yU all released notable recordings.

But 2010 won’t go down as a landmark year for D.C. hip-hop. No year has. The city’s national profile is nearly nonexistent; its local scene still feels small and insular. And while there’s no shortage of very good rappers in the DMV, the area lacks a truly great one.

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We don’t have an artist whose personality can transcend head nods and connect on a human level—who can translate the language of the locals for a national audience, and who can produce not just songs but breakthrough hits. Simply rapping well isn’t enough.

What we do have is plenty of hometown hip-hop pride, sparked two years ago when Wale signed to Interscope. That moment opened the floodgates before anybody, Wale included, could fill a single glass of water. Artists began chasing deals and national press before most folks here even knew their names. The number of newcomers surged; it often seemed there were more artists than fans. A cursory glance at the hundreds of aspiring rappers on blogs like For the DMV Only and DC Mumbo Sauce is overwhelming. Meanwhile, local rappers lacked (and still lack) a sonic unifier, instead ricocheting between New York backpackisms and Dirty South D-boy posturing, seemingly at random.

But the idea that the D.C. area could become a marketable entity was misguided to begin with, nevermind that the area doesn’t sport a signature sound. The industry is no longer pushing the regional-rap model. There are no next hot cities, only hot records. When the majors were writing blank checks to entire metropolitan areas, it was never sustainable. Parochial scenes and sounds would take over mainstream hip-hop for a split second, then disappear. Just ask the Houston class of ’05 or the Bay Area class of ’06, whose principals have mostly dropped out of the limelight. But D.C. can’t even match those cities’ hip-hop infrastructure.

Beginning in the 1980s, D.C. rappers either fully acquiesced to the dominance of go-go music—by rapping in go-go bands or incorporating go-go into their beats—or bypassed it entirely, shedding their local identity and chasing national success. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that any self-contained microscenes began to take shape.

Some of D.C.’s current shortcomings are historical: the lack of a sound, a general failure to cross over. The more recent problem is oversaturation. If all that seems to fall on Wale’s shoulders, it’s because for all his commercial and creative blunders, he remains the city’s most visible rapper. With that comes a degree of unfair, if not wholly destructive, expectation. It’s easy to imagine that burden has fueled some of the poor decisions that have marred Wale’s career. 2010 was another hit-or-miss year for the MC, with More About Nothing, a pandering sequel to his Seinfeld-themed 2008 breakout The Mixtape About Nothing. It didn’t catch on with critics.

Wale did, however, try his best to put his city on, formally aligning with Trel and Cobain for their Board Administration collective. It was a nice gesture but did little to garner attention for either artist. He’d be wise to focus his efforts outside the Beltway—he’s currently experiencing his biggest chart success to date with a cameo on Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame’s rising hit “No Hands.” The record owes absolutely nothing to D.C., and Wale has never sounded more comfortable.

Other locals seem to be following suit, slowly branching out of the city wherever possible. Oddisee left for New York, where he’ll have a better shot at placing beats on records by established artists. The once rigid divide between Beltway rap and the Baltimore scene is blurring. Whitefolkz recently linked with Baltimore’s Greenspan and Mullyman for the appropriately titled interstate hustler’s anthem, “Megabus.” ‘Folkz has also collaborated with underground Philadelphians like Philly Swain and Tone Trump. For his sophomore LP Robots & Dinosaurs, Kokayi side-stepped local indie distribution in favor of a deal with the Internet savvy New York-based underground imprint QN5.

These artists have figured out that the quest for unity was a distraction, and they’re building as individuals instead. Even if none of them is destined for stardom, at least they’re finally focusing on the small steps. These aren’t acts of abandonment, but survival.