There’s a voice that’s been haunting me for the past few years now. At least once a week it confronts me, usually in the form of some suburban-raised, dreadlocked vegetarian. He stops me in the street, makes small talk, and then tells me he saw my review of some rap group. He gives some slightly insightful criticism and then says that he used to be much more into rap—De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest. But he explains that all the talk of money, guns, and women has driven him from the art. “Try jungle, or maybe drum ‘n’ bass,” he usually suggests.

I grudgingly agree with his points, but then launch into an apologetic defense of hiphop and its artistic integrity. I extol the virtues of Black Thought’s lyricism or the intricacies of an RZA track. I tell him that you can ignore the superfluous cursing and the rampant misogyny if DJ Premier does the production. And besides, I explain, rap may be in a slump now, but better days are coming.

Those better days were supposed to be 1998. Looking at the roster of releases this year, you could have easily assumed that this would be the year that hiphop proved it was an art in constant progress, not a music in perpetual backslide. Prognosticators would see Lauryn Hill dropping a classic debut rap album, Heltah Skeltah matching the force of its lovely debut album, Nocturnal, with Magnum Force, and A Tribe Called Quest leaving us with one last gem. After last year’s classic Wu-Tang Forever, no less than five Wu-affiliated albums would drop—all of them worthy of heavy rotation. And, perhaps best of all, Bad Boy would release one real rap album.

The year had the makings of greatness. It could have been the ruin of the heretics who so often confront me with the statement “Rap is dead.” It could have been glorious.

Sadly, I cannot recall a more disappointing year for hiphop. Tribe’s last hurrah was a whimper, Public Enemy’s reunion was a nonevent for the rap world, and Wu-Tang fell woefully short of the high mark it had established in previous years. Mediocrity may be excused in the case of second-tier Wu-affiliates like Killarmy, but even front-liners like RZA and Method Man failed to deliver on their solo projects. Lauryn Hill, perhaps sensing the changes in the wind, decided to do an album with more singing on it than rapping. Though a few notable projects shone through, 1998’s releases were not strong enough to command the doubters and blasphemers back to the banner of rapdom.

This year marked the death of lyrical acumen. Once upon a time, you had to be a decent lyricist to be considered a legitimate underground MC, but Noreaga changed that with his debut N.O.R.E. The master griot began the first verse of his hit “SuperThug” with the lines “I light a candle/Run laps around the English channel.” (Come again?) This is to say nothing of MCs like DMX or Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz—rappers who are coherent but whose lyrics simply couldn’t take you anywhere outside of the Bronx. Cappadonna, once one of Wu-Tang’s promising young stars, has ceased to make sense. But his debut, The Pillage, upped the nonsense quota astronomically. Cappa went gold by uttering lines such as “Deep in the hill/Jack battled with Jill.”

Which brings us back to Wu-Tang, a group that previously set the bar for artistic consistency. Bad scheduling, combined with a rushed product, made 1998 an artistic car wreck for Wu-Tang, whose solo members Method Man and RZA chose to release solo albums, as did affiliates Killah Priest and Cappadonna. None of the albums matched the standard set by solo albums from Raekwon, Genius, or Ghostface Killah. Instead, the RZA and Killah Priest albums sounded rushed, the Cappadonna album was incoherent, and Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgement Day lacked focus.

One artist who could have made a clear difference in 1998 was Hill, the multitalented Fugee, but she chose to pour her energies into singing more than rhyming. In a year with so much bad hiphop out, any red-blooded hiphop head could not help but be disappointed. Hill’s solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is a decent album—although a bit too positive and life-affirming for my jaded sensibility—and it was one the best R&B albums this year. But Hill is easily one of the top five MCs in rap, and if there was ever a time that hiphop needed her intelligence and lyrical craftsmanship, it was this year.

Amid the mindless drivel that seeped through millions of stereo speakers, five albums stood out as uncommon works of art. While the paucity of talent in the rap world makes picking the top releases this year something less than a mind-wracking ordeal, the work in 1998 that was good was really, really good. It’s just too bad we didn’t get more like it.

Moment of Truth

Gang Starr

Virgin

Around this time last year, The Source did a feature on DJ Premier, in which he noted that he had plans to do a song with Jodeci’s K-Ci and JoJo. It seemed as if our worst fears were about to be confirmed—Gang Starr was finally selling out to garner a crossover hit. But the duet, “Royalty,” turned out to be an amazing cut, because Premier made two of the biggest crooners of this decade sound as rugged as Willie Dixon. More than any other feature, it is Moment of Truth’s range that makes it great. On tracks such as “You Know My Steez” and “The Militia,” Premier consistently manages to recycle his repetitive formula for head-nod. Granted, Guru is not a great MC, and Premier, despite his divine talents behind the boards, can wear on your ears after a while. Moment of Truth probably could stand to lose a few songs, but its artistry, in the face of mammoth mediocrity, is astounding.

Foundation

Brand Nubian

Arista

Because hiphop is largely a youth culture, comeback albums almost never work—as Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy can attest. Brand Nubian’s Foundation, however, marks a great return, not by virtue of the group’s having recruited Noreaga or DMX to perform a song with it, but because it has resurrected the lost art of political rhyming. The album’s production is exceptional, and Grand Puba has one of the smoothest flows in rap: “Unsung hero bring more heat than DeNiro/Never known for spittin trash shit on the mike, that shit’s a zero.”

Soul Survivor

Pete Rock

BMG/RCA

Pete Rock has made himself scarce in the rap world since parting ways with C.L. Smooth. Pete has produced a few tracks for Rakim and the Lost Boyz, but, for the most part, he’s been absent. Soul Survivor is a huge return for Pete. Usually rap collaboration albums promise more than they can deliver by featuring too many artists of different minds. But Soul Survivor is perhaps hiphop’s best collaboration record to date. With the exception of Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, Pete’s choice of MCs—Black Thought, Inspektah Deck, O.C.—is impeccable.

Aquemini

OutKast

La Face

Historically, New York has been home to the greatest MCs on the planet. Even those MCs who were dope and didn’t live in New York were clearly in the tradition. OutKast is not the first group to craft an aesthetic independent of New York, but it has crafted the most mature one. Aquemini’s production eschews New York’s rote breakbeats and incessant bass looping in favor of boisterous horns, sprawling bass lines, and, most important, OutKast’s ability to rhyme. After two solid albums, Aquemini is OutKast’s best work yet.

Mos Def & Talib Kweli

Are Black Star

Black Star

Rawkus

The best album this year came from a group that isn’t even really a group. Mos Def and Talib Kweli, darlings of the New York underground, are independent MCs who simply decided to come together as the group Black Star and make an album. But Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star works thanks to the contrasting styles of the two artists: Talib is the more capable lyricist, and Mos has the more interesting flows. In a dismal year for rap, Mos Def and Talib Kweli have struck a blow for those of us who still believe in it. CP