As 2010 comes to a close, members and observers of the D.C. hip-hop scene are debating who’s the hottest MC, and whether or not we have a great one. The year also saw a seemingly endless stream of mixtapes—-from D.C. Don Juan and UCB, to Kingpen Slim and Raheem DeVaughn. In 2011, listeners should expect new albums from Substantial, Whitefolkz, and The Five One, among others.
Before we pop bottles and sing “Auld Lang Syne,” here are the five DMV albums (no mixtapes) that killed my car speakers and headphones this year.
Arguably the stabilizing force of the Diamond District trio, yU delivered a nostalgic opus that was part boom bap—-reminiscent of the hip-hop I loved in high school—-and part florescent freedom music that challenged listeners to look ahead to better days. “Fine,” a quick, hypnotic loop at the album’s center, is dipped in struggle, yet nurturing enough to wash away the pain. Don’t be fooled by yU’s seemingly calm demeanor. On the battle-ready “The UP&UP,” he proves that he’s more than willing to serve second-guessers. “I reign as the humble king, crown made of copper oil/You the best, not for long, sleep until ya spot is gone.”
Jokingly called the DMV’s India.Arie by Mambo Sauce vocalist Black Boo, Levi Stephens easily stands out with his brand of alternative soul in a region dominated by hip-hop. On his eclectic debut album, the guitarist/vocalist discussed the joys of love and the despair of heartbreak with refreshing maturity and exuberance. The upbeat, commercial sound of “When I’m Rich” became an instant classic for many listeners and “Sorry For The Pain” summoned the musical spirit of Bill Withers, an artist who influenced Stephens’ sound. At the album’s conclusion, Stephens asks, “That’s it?” Let’s hope not.
The title says it all. Released on Jan. 1, 2010, X.O.’s One.One.Ten set the tone for D.C. hip-hop, as a moody, celebratory, and somewhat cocky project that showcased the Diamond District member’s love for the nation’s capital and his willingness to help it succeed musically. Whether he was analyzing his progress on the atmospheric title track or jet-setting with Tabi Bonney on the drum heavy “We Are The 1’s,” X.O. proved he’s one of the region’s top lyricists, especially when he rhymes over Oddisee‘s beats. On the horn-heavy “Blah Blah,” the D.C. native takes direct aim at the competition: “They sayin’ it, but not to me, that lets me know I got the lead/In this race, I set a pace way back in ’03.”
Lorenzo Ferguson, a Detroit/Silver Spring hybrid, had earned a solid reputation as a respected keyboardist and producer, mostly playing the background for his peers. In July, however, Zo! stepped to the forefront and released SunStorm, a seamless soul project suited for romantic nights, backyard barbecues, and two steps. In this album review, I compared his transition to Bruce Leroy‘s in The Last Dragon. Previously, Zo’s work was mostly instrumental, with the vocalists making appearances here and there. On his most recent album, the producer merged his talents with those of The Foreign Exchange. The results were very impressive.
While Janelle Monae‘s The ArchAndroidis still my favorite album of 2010, Kokayi’s Robots & Dinosaurs is most certainly my second. Maybe even 1b. If nothing else, I’m intuitive and get good feelings about certain albums before they drop. I had that feeling about Monae’s record and it blew me away. The same goes for The Phenomenal Handclap Band record that dropped last year. I felt the same way about Kokayi’s album—-like I just knew it would be dope, long before it ever blared through my speakers. It didn’t disappoint. From the mind-numbing haze of “RoxTar” to the chilling depression of “Autumn Rules,” Robots is a sonic and lyrical masterpiece that deserves all the accolades bestowed upon it so far. It tackles ageism, suicide, and heartache with unmatched precision and solidifies Kokayi’s stature as one of the greats.