On Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek’s 2000 album, Reflection Eternal, Kweli asks, “Where were you the day hiphop died?” Hiphop purists like Kweli and me have a way of casting shadows over the art form, no matter how vibrant it might seem. We bemoan the accolades bestowed upon hacks such as Lil’ Kim, DMX, and Ja Rule. And we rage at magazines like The Source for not recognizing the genius of MCs such as El Producto, Black Thought, and Pharoahe Monch. To us, hiphop’s reign officially ended when Puff Daddy picked up a microphone and laid down No Way Out. But of the three years since Puffy reminded us that any idiot can make a hit rap record, this was the first when Kweli’s query seemed overstated.
2000 proved that reports of hiphop’s death have been greatly exaggerated. To be sure, this year proved that half-talented gun-talking MCs still rule commercially. But we also learned that, contrary to the assertions of industry hacks, the public will buy intelligent music. OutKast, who turned in the eclectic, challenging Stankonia in the fall, has been about the business of proving this for years. But the trend really got started in 1999, when the Roots managed to post their best record sales to dateand nab a Grammyfor the single “You Got Me.” Also last year, Mos Def managed to go gold with his debut solo album, Black on Both Sides, despite minimal airplay and only one minor hit, “Ms. Fat Booty.”
And the trend of creative releases becoming commercially successful picked up this year. Common’s Like Water for Chocolate was the biggest surprise. Although his previous records were seemingly quarantined by commercial radio stations, Common scored big this year with his single “The Light”and also ended up with his first gold album. OutKast, who tests the limits of what the record-buying public will accept with each album, landed a hit with “B.O.B.,” a song that is one part Miami bass, one part jungle, and no parts predictable. The second single from Stankonia, “Ms. Jackson,” although more conventional, nonetheless wanders far off the well-beaten path of hip-pop. But it seems to make no difference to OutKast’s many fans, and Stankonia is currently ringing in at double platinum.
And with hiphop still the flavor of the moment, nonpop acts that normally wouldn’t even register on the commercial radar are popping up in previously unimaginable places. You know that things have changed when you see a definitively underground group like Dilated Peoples giving shoutouts on MTV. The ground is shifting mostly becausealthough I hate to admit itthe Puffys of the world have exposed hiphop to people who don’t know Black Thought from Black Rob. The result is that this year we got more than our share of bad recordsbut we also got a nice sampling of decent albums by artists who might not have even been heard before the Puffy era. Hiphop in 2000 was somewhat disappointing, given the art form’s potential. But the following four albums helped demonstrate that, Kweli’s comment aside, hiphop isn’t deadit just isn’t what it once was.
Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, De La Soul De La Soul’s fifth album is probably the best use of cameos by any hiphop group to date. It’s become a fashionable ploy for hiphop artists to enlist help from other rappers with whom they have little in common besides the desire to expand their market share. The result is that we’ve gotten insane collaborations such as Kris Kross doing a remix with Redman. For Mosaic Thump, De La brought in a diverse cast that ran the gamut from underground artists such as D.V. Alias Khrist to superstars such as Chaka Khan. A few cuts come off as haphazard (“I.C. Y’All,” with Busta Rhymes, jumps immediately to mind), but more often than not the cameos sound completely natural. Tracks such as “My Writes,” with Tha Alkoholiks, and “Oooh,” with Redman, are remarkable for the sheer chemistry that De La mixes up with its guest stars. Just as important was the group’s decision to make what essentially amounts to a party album. Underground artists are usually content to leave the style to commercial acts, but De La proves that there is such a thing as underground party music.
The Platform, Dilated Peoples Dilated Peoples’ debut album is charming in its simplicity, finding the group eschewing gimmicks in favor of unadorned traditionalism. MCs Evidence and Iriscience spit out battle rhymes while DJ Babu reminds us of what we’ve lost since so many rap groups chose to abandon the DJ as an essential component. Several underground artists have tried to pull a retro-schtick move and capture the essence of rap’s golden years, but Dilated Peoples manages to invoke the late ’80s without sounding stale or resorting to cheap covers of Public Enemy or Slick Rick. Evidence, a sparse but formidable lyricist, manages to outshine his partner on the mike with each couplet: “Go focus on the star, the man who won the Heisman/Trophy will be broken, forget it, credit the linesman.” Equally important to Dilated’s sound is Babu’s turntablism; at the end of “Work the Angles,” he unleashes a torrent of cuts and scratches that’s easily the track’s highlight. Even though The Platform barely charted, the album is a more-than-capable first effort and one of 2000’s best.
Reflection Eternal, Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek Talib Kweli is an amazing lyrical talent. Although his charismatic partner in the group Black Star, Mos Def, may always overshadow him, in the long run, Kweli may just prove to be the better MC. His ability to pull together complex ideas in the space of a few bars is matched by only a handful of artists. Reflection Eternal, Kweli’s debut with producer Hi-Tek, is a fine work that gives Kweli ample opportunity to showcase his skills. “Name of the Game” finds him offering a course in speed rapping: “Tomorrow they gonna wanna borrow raps/Like ‘C’mon black, I’ll pay you back’/I ain’t no lyrical ATM even though I’m nice and I’m a mack/Better believe that, leave that crack alone/And you see that there microphone/Ain’t no place to work out your self-esteem issues, do that shit when you alone.” Perhaps even more impressive is Kweli’s reworking of Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” Yet somehow the album still manages to disappoint: The beats go flat at times, and Kweli’s lyrics go through peaks and valleys, stunning one minute and gimmicky the next. Ultimately, however, the album is a very solid debut. And even though Kweli sometimes loses his balance on the razor-thin line between clever and contrived, Reflection Eternal still offers some of the best hiphop music of this year.
Stankonia, OutKast There are times when I’m listening to OutKast’s fourth album and forget I’m listening to hiphop. Stankonia doesn’t just cross the boundaries of hiphopit completely ignores them. Rarely do you see a group take so many chances and come up right so often. The problem with hiphop todayand maybe contemporary black music in generalis that a song isn’t as much a song as it is a really funky loop. The result is that after four bars of a rap cut, you’ve basically heard the entire track. The will to challenge this sort of mechanization of music is amazingly absent, even among underground acts, and the likelihood of a group as commercially successful as OutKast straying from the status quo is virtually nil. Yet OutKast challenges the ears of its fans as consistently as it goes platinum. The group has never had a hit record that resembles anything else on the market. And beyond their musical skill, OutKast’s Dre and Big Boi are the most underrated lyricists in hiphop. “Ms. Jackson,” for example, examines the world of kids born out of wedlock through a father’s relationship with a would-be mother-in-law. Without being didactic, the group offers personal insight into one of the biggest family issues facing the black community. Stankonia is certainly not perfect, but, if only because of its ambitiousness, it’s one of the best albums of 2000. CP