The best hip-hop moment of 2006 came when Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar for “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp.” Juicy J, DJ Paul, and compatriot Frayser Boy seemed as surprised as anybody when the Hustle and Flow anthem got the statue, jumping up and down and gleefully shouting out their hometown of Memphis, Tenn. It was a decidedly un-street way to behave, and it was great. But that was back in March, in celebration of a song from 2005. And it’s been downhill for hip-hop ever since.

The numbers are as good a place as any to start the buzzkill. There’s been only a handful of platinum hip-hop albums this year, and, even then, T.I. and Ludacris have only creeped past the mark. Last year, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Young Jeezy, even the Black Eyed Peas all sold at least 2 million records—50 leading the way with 4.85 million copies of The Massacre. None of this year’s most likely offerings from the West Coast—Ice Cube’s Laugh Now, Cry Later, Snoop Dogg’s Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, the Game’s Doctor’s Advocate—have even come close. Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come had an enormous opening week, selling 680,000 copies, and has struggled ever since. OutKast’s period-piece curveball Idlewild, which was released in August, hasn’t even gone gold.

Even stats geeks would agree that those digits don’t tell the whole story—singles and ringtone sales have been strong. And while it’s hard to find a signature rap release of 2006, there have been plenty of solid records, at least down South.

Atlanta’s T.I. stepped up for his hometown with King., the best of his young career. “What You Know,” with its insanely catchy ornate hook and his elongated enunciation, was the best rap single of the year. Nawlin’s Lil’ Wayne teamed up with his surrogate father, Birdman, for the hit “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” and found the time to release several legendary mixtapes and guest on multiple singles and remixes, including “Hollywood Divorce,” one of the few standout tracks on Idlewild. Even the career of Bubba Sparxxx, Georgia’s favorite hick-hop whipping boy, enjoyed a stay of execution when “Ms. New Booty,” his pin-cushion-themed dance-rap song, had surprising success as a club hit.

The South has also expanded its regional boundaries. In the past years, Southern hip-hop was centered on Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, and Memphis. This year has seen the resurgence of Miami rap, thanks to Pitbull, DJ Khaled, and Rick Ross. Clipse and high-school collaborator Pharrell Williams have helped bump up the profile of the Virginia Beach area.

So why has the South (relatively) sizzled while the rest of the country fizzled? Most successful Southern hip-hoppers still operate under the same models that they did when they were underground independent artists. They understand how hard they have had to work and how lucky they had to be to get where they are. Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, the year’s most critically acclaimed album, is a perfect example: The group’s sophomore LP got lost in the shuffle when Arista, their original label, was absorbed by Jive/Zomba, which kept delaying the record in favor of more commercial acts. (It might have been a smart move: Hell Hath No Fury’s sales faded 70 percent in its second week of release.) While Jay-Z boasts of his riches, Clipse sings about “Riding around shining while I can afford it.” This sign of gratitude is charming and endearing. It’s just enough to give you hope for the future of hip-hop.—David Dunlap Jr.