Since the end of rap’s last golden age in the ’90s, critics have bemoaned the state of the genre. And sure, when Ja Rule and Nelly were running things, it was hard to disagree with the complainers. But 2008 was a great year for hip-hop—colossal, in fact. Just as one dry spell in the early ’80s ended with the arrival of Run-D.M.C., Eric B & Rakim, and Public Enemy, this year signaled the arrival of a batch of newcomers and relative newcomers who revitalized a complacent genre: the Knux, Black Milk, Jay Electronica, Black Spade, and D.C.’s Wale all delivered groundbreaking work. This was the year hip-hop turned a corner—partly because, not in spite of, the cutbacks in the music industry.
Start with the big sellers. Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak overhauled hip-hop’s sound, eschewing club beats for disorienting, “tribal”-style percussion. Barely rapping at all, West managed to go further out on a pop-rap limb than anyone since OutKast. On Tha Carter III, Lil Wayne delivered one manic, inventive track after another, all of it equally effective regardless of whether Weezy’s tone was whimsical or sentimental. Those two albums will be remembered for decades, and the same may go for T.I.’s Paper Trail, the sincere, focused album the MC finally got around to making now that he’s staring down hard time.
Aside from those records and a few others, however, hip-hop album sales continued to tank. That tracked with the rest of the industry, where, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, album sales dwindled from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $10.1 billion this year. The majors postponed many of their major hip-hop releases, if they released them at all. (We were promised Dr. Dre’s Detox, Eminem’s Relapse, and Lupe Fiasco’s LupE.N.D. in 2008, all to no avail.) But the declining prospects of mainstream acts seemed to motivate labels to take more chances. Instead of ramming proven hitmakers down listeners’ throats with large ad buys, they embraced acts who built fan bases organically.
In 2007 this shift in tactics led, unfortunately, to Soulja Boy Tell’em. But it also presented an opportunity for genuinely talented emcees like Wale. Though Wale’s socially-conscious/hipster approach couldn’t be more different than Soulja Boys’ gimmicky dance fetishism, they both scored their deals in pretty much the same way. “[Soulja Boy] kind of revolutionized one of the ways to get on, because the days of walking into a record label and giving them your demo, those have been over for about six years,” Wale told me earlier this year. “Now, it’s like: ‘Get your own buzz. Get your own thing rockin’, maybe do some YouTubes. Prove yourself like that.”
But while Soulja Boy directly pursued Bebo-trolling sixth graders, Wale reached the masses with the help of early champions (and influential impresarios) Mark Ronson and Nick Catchdubs. Wale’s 2008 release, The Mixtape About Nothing, with its slick rhymes and Seinfeld references; on his previous mixtape, 100 Miles and Running, beats from indie-rock favorites like Justice and Lily Allen. He was an unexpected signing for Interscope, home to 50 Cent and the Game, but the label is clearly operating in a different mode these days. Jimmy Iovine and company also signed New Orleans brother duo the Knux, granting them full creative control for their debut, Remind Me in 3 Days…, an album that flirted with techno and electro.
The Knux’s Krispy Kream and Rah Al Millio produced and played all the instruments on that album, and plenty of 2008 breakout artists excelled both behind the mic and behind the boards. Whiz-kid Jay Electronica practically came out of nowhere to produce “Queens Get the Money,” the lead track and best song on Nas’ untitled 2008 album. (His flow earned comparisons to Nas as well.) Detroit producer-MC Black Milk released an eerie, explosive masterpiece, Tronic, and produced EuroPass, an unfortunately neglected disc by Slum Village–associated MC Elzhi. And Saint Louis’ Black Spade debuted with a densely textured, largely electronic debut, To Serve With Love.
Those rising stars are joined by a host of lesser-known vets who had great years: G-Unit producer Jake One, Ivy League-bred hipsters Kidz in the Hall, Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire, and more. That mix of experience of and precocity made 2008 a great year for intelligent hip-hop. Throw in a mainstream record industry that’s hit the skids and stopped looking for the lowest common denominator, and you have the makings of another golden age.