This year, as always, I struggled with whether to give more weight to the albums I admired as complete works, or the ones that contained the greatest number of blazing singles.
Album artistry won out, for the most part. The Renaissance, 808s & Heartbreak, and New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War, for example, are discs that I listened to from beginning to end, over and over again. T.I. and Lil’ Wayne’s projects, on the other hand, were included off the strength of a few insanely catchy tracks on each one. The yodeling O-Zone sample on “Live Your Life” and the man-made siren sound effects on “Mrs. Officer” made up for the less exciting moments on Paper Trail and Tha Carter III.
Still, some albums were such bricks that not even the sickest, most unbelievably catchy singles could save them. So, as much as it pained me to overlook the trashy goodness of T-Pain’s “Can’t Believe It” and “Chopped n Skrewed,” they couldn’t quite make up for the rest of Thr33 Rings. Sorry, Teddy P. Maybe next year.
1. The Renaissance, Q-Tip (Universal/Motown)
See Dunlap’s brilliant analysis of The Renaissance for everything you need to know about this disc, which more than makes up for Amplified.
2. Smoke Sessions, Vol. 1, Devin the Dude (BCD Music Group)
Devin is still stuck in the time of The Chronic, and that’s a good thing. While his peers are all blathering on about how much cash they got, Devin uses his stoner delivery and storytelling skills to rhapsodize about a different kind of green.
3. Lay It Down, Al Green (Blue Note)
This wouldn’t make my list of the best Al Green albums of all time, but I’m in awe of the production work that ?uestlove and James Poyser put in here. They channel Willie Mitchell and capture the feel of Green’s Hi Records years.
4. The Bake Sale, The Cool Kids
I, like Dunlap, initially dismissed Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish as overrated Clipse clones. But you know what? I like that The Bake Sale delivers the walloping bass and alien beats of Hell Hath No Fury, but replaces the icky drug talk with rhymes about parties, mag-wheel dirt bikes, and pagers.
5. The Recession, Young Jeezy (Def Jam)
I’m with Goins on this one. Jeezy’s thoughts on the economy, healthcare, and Obama make this the most topical disc of the year, despite all of the flossy car and money talk. Tune out the part about the Bentley and focus on the part about auntie’s kidney.
6. Tha Carter III, Lil’ Wayne (Cash Money)
Yes, he’s totally commercial and his image is contrived, but Weezy F. is still churning out some of the most inventive wordplay in hip-hop. He’s a poor man’s MF Doom, and in a year when the masked one didn’t make much noise, this disc filled the void quite nicely.
7. New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War, Erykah Badu (Universal Motown)
Everyone knows that whenever Erykah dates a fellow artist, some of her crazy rubs off on ‘em. So what happens when, instead of sharing, Erykah stores up all of that nutty for five years and then unleashes it on an album? This.
8. 808s & Heartbreak, Kayne West (Roc-A-Fella)
It took me a long time to even give this one a chance, because it incorporates so many elements that I typically despise: gratuitous Auto-Tune, singing rappers, and, if I’m being totally honest here, Kanye West. Yet, somehow all of those things, along with trippy production and a lonely Little Prince vibe, resulted in one of the strangest, most inventive discs of the year. Go figure.
9. Tronic, Black Milk (Fat Beats)
This work from the Detroit-based Dilla pupil has me thinking it might not be so cold in the D after all.
10. Paper Trail, T.I. (Grand Hustle/Atlantic)
“Swagga Like Us,” and “Live Your Life,” are great, but “Whatever You Like” is my favorite track on this album. Despite lines like “Late night sex/so wet, so tight,” T.I. comes across as sweet and old-fashioned. It’s about time a rapper told men that it’s acceptable to spend a little cash in order to romance women instead of making guys feel like chumps if they spring for anything more than a value meal and a Red Box rental. Thanks, Tip!