The Babenzele 25 Essential Post-90s Hip-Hop albums, pt. 1
I’ve set myself to the task of compiling my personal list of “essential” hip-hop albums released from the year 2000 and beyond; obviously what qualifies an album for inclusion is entirely subjective. I’ve tried to choose records which I like and also have some uniquely innovative character or cultural influence, but mostly it’s just those that I personally prefer and which hold up to me as a satisfying realization of a compelling musical vision. That being said, here is the first installment of my choices for the top twenty five, arranged chronologically:
1) Ghostface Killah “Supreme Clientele”
The Wu-Tang Clan are amongst the most influential hip-hop groups of all time, and their ‘93 debut “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” is one of the definitive albums of the genre. As the 90s passed, releases from the collective began suffering from swiftly diminishing returns; Wu-Tang MC Ghostface Killah, however, started the next decade with an irresistable beast of a solo record, 2000’s “Supreme Clientele”. Ghostface mixes urban street narratives with deliriously surreal non-sequiturs and exuberantly abstract lyricism, all over deep soulful grooves, in his singular urgent, scattershot nasal delivery. You can all but hear the veins popping in his neck and the sweat dripping in the booth as he trades dense, free-form stream of conciousness rhymes with the RZA over an hypnotic flute sample in the opener “Nutmeg”; several different producers helm the boards here, but it has all the elegantly rugged, ruthless hunger of the the entirely RZA produced “36 Chambers” that introduced the Staten Island MC to the world all those years before.
2) Quasimoto “The Unseen”
Beatsmith virtuoso Otis Jackson, a.k.a. Madlib, is today notorious for his prolificacy, but was relatively unknown when he dropped this deranged gem; the adventures of a helium voiced, weed-obsessed, astral travelling space alien/aardvark. Or something. The sped up effect used on Madlib’s vocals to achieve the Lord Quas voice may ware quickly on many listeners, but the production here bares all the trademark Madlib effects he would soon be known and revered for throughout his myriad other musical projects across the ensuing years; mesmerizing, blunted, sonically nuanced, brilliantly truncated and full of atmospheric vinyl pop and hiss. Hip-hop hadn’t been this wierd since “3 Feet High and Rising”, and hasn’t been since, but the instrumentals alone make this album essential, and it stands as a bracingly original achievement from the man that would go on to be one of the most consistently innovative and exciting hip-hop producers of the following decade.
3) Outkast “Stankonia”
Outkast had already established their musical identity by the time they released “Stankonia”; they were hip-hop’s heir to the Funkadelic throne, boldly adventurous rap funkateers, one foot in the streets of Atlanta and the other somewhere in outer space. ”Stankonia” codified their persona more fluidly than any of their albums preceding it, and created some irrefutably awesome monster hits along the way. ”Ms. Jackson” boasts one of the hookiest hooks in hip-hop history, and the effortless swagger of “So Fresh, So Clean” makes their claim to be “the coolest mother-funkers on the planet” pretty damned hard to contest, but those tracks are only pieces of the gloriously eclectic whole; the entire album glides along brilliantly over the P-funk sturm und drang of inhouse producers Organized Noize. Any doubts about the south’s relevance in hip-hop were effectively dashed here.
4) “Solesides Greatest Bumps”
This one is pushing the parameters of this article a bit, as it’s a collection of material mostly recorded in the late 90s, but I’m including it anyway as it didn’t see release until 2000 and also because it’s a surprisingly solid collection of odds and ends from this bay area collective who went on to be an instrumental force in the post-90s world of independent hip-hop. Most famous for introducing DJ Shadow to the masses, Solesides (who have since changed their handle to Quannum Projects) is also a community of captivating, solid rappers; old school, free style battle trained hip-hop traditionalists who are also restlessly innovative. Shadow’s atmospheric, sample-driven production serves as an immaculate foundation for the nimble lyrical talents presented on this double disc compilation, ranging from b-sides, live freestyles, and accapellas isolated from studio recordings. The core trio here are Lateef the Truth Speaker, Lyrics Born, and Gift of Gab, with DJ Shadow and Chief Xcel on the steel wheels, rappers and producers/turntablists of formidable technical skill who have all collaborated with one another in various permutations before and since; at once conciously positive and party minded, all forward-thinking MCs with an earnest reverence for their Native Tongues hip-hop ancestry.
5) Cannibal Ox “The Cold Vein”
El-P had all ready distinguished himself as a singular talent in the hip-hop underground through his murky, claustrophobic production with avant-garde 90s rap group Company Flow before the release of “The Cold Vein”, but it was this album with Harlem rhyme duo Vast Aire and Vordul Mega that honed his style to a menacing razor’s edge. El-P’s beats are bleak and clamorous, all skittish drum breaks, stuttering bass lines, and anxiously discordant synth patterns coalescing into a dusky sonic tar pit, punctuated with fleeting moments of beauty and calm amidst the turbulent, electronic din. Meanwhile Vast Aire and Vordul wax and rasp about the streets of New York city through lyrics that seem to chronicle some remote, dystopian society more so than any earthly terrain, while still remaining grounded in the gritty forensic details of inner city life; the final result is a fascinating, disqueiting listening experience, a uniquely beguiling and frequently over looked independent hip-hop classic.
6) Jay-Z “The Blueprint”
Jay-Z spent the years following the release of his mid-nineties debut and career peak “Reasonable Doubt” crossing over into the mainstream one hit radio single at a time, but it wasn’t until the release of the “The Blueprint” that he emerged fully as one of hip-hop’s biggest pop stars. “The Blueprint” is a massive pop album, one of the biggest-cross over hits since “Thriller”. It was crafted with a simple approach; warm, soulful production that could bang in clubs, irresistible mile-wide hooks, and, when most mainstream rap albums were bloated with unecessary cameos, minimal guest rappers (the sole exception being a scene stealing Eminem on the track “Renegades”, a piss and vinegar ”fuck you” directed toward the morally pious crusaders against hip-hop culture). The album ranges from the spare, muscular “Takeover”, a terse diss track with nary a chorus in sight, to the exuberant bounce of “H to the Izzo”, a song that pretty much emerged from the studio as a number one hit. No big name producers here either, just young, hungry talents with an inate ear for flipping smooth, stirring soul samples into club anthems, including the debut of one young Chicago beatmaker who would soon add “rapper” to his resume and join his mentor as one of rap’s largest pop phenomona.
7) Aesop Rock “Labor Days”
Aesop Rock has spent his career on unorthodox indie rap label Definitive Jux, and while his music shares shares some of the hazy, atmospheric elements of aforementioned label-mates Cannibal Ox, he has a musical identity with no anologue in the hip-hop world. He spins his densely literate verses with a limber, baritone croak; nearly every line is a cryptic cypher to be unravelled, cumalating into verses brilliant with manifold meanings and ellegentaly byzantine metaphors and entendre. Far from rendering the music on “Labor Days” alienating or innacessable, it makes the album as a whole an engaging and richly rewarding listen. Producer Blockhead provides spacious, eerily pretty yet head nodding beats for Aesop’s urgently and restlessly intellegent rhyme schemes; the end result is one of the most musically cohesive, lyrically unpredictable independent hip-hop albums of the last decade, both opaque and confessional, knotty stanzas of free form poetry in the form of a neck snapping, boom-bap rap record.
8) Cee-lo Green “Cee-lo Green and his Perfect Imperfections”
Cee-lo Green began his career with Atlanta hip-hop group Goodie Mob, part of the nebulous southern hip-hop crew the Dungeon Family which also includes fellow Atlanta natives Outkast; Goodie Mob, however, eschewed Outkast’s brash, galactic funk in favor of spare, ominous beats and gritty meditations on life in the Georgia projects. Cee-lo’s first solo album found him leaning more towards the spaced out funk of his southern co-horts, but with a dark undercurrent intact, crafting a fascinatingly unique mutant hybrid of a debut. The album begins with Cee-lo sing rapping in his distinctive nasal rasp over what sounds like a marimba and some rainsticks tumbling down a stair well(courtesy of a Primus sample), assuring the listener that he is a bad motherfucker, and that shit is going to get crunk. What follows, however, is a far cry from a standard party album. Some songs are merely minimalist keyboard loops over which Cee-lo weaves intricate verses and multi-syllabic internal rhymes; others are expansive, sonic blasts of alien neo-gospel funk, Cee-lo’s voice bellowing from within the music in dense multi-tracked layers. It is, as it’s title infers, imperfect; some of the experiments here come across stronger than others, but the highs are brazenly triumphant and the whole stands as a singular example of one man pressing the boundaries of hip-hop and funk into the 21st century.
9) Blackalicious “Blazing Arrow”
“Blazing Arrow” is a wildly ambitious album. It covers a dizzying array of moods and sounds, and moves in bold stylistic shifts; songs bleed into one another or crescendo into epic soundscapes, flourished by drum beats furnished by the one and only hip-hop maestro ?uestlove, as well as vocal contributions from legendary proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron, and an impressive roster of cameos from like-minded west coast MCs, ranging from frequent collaborators in the Quannum fold to members of Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples. It manages to never sound pretentious or over-blown, however, thanks to the immaculate synergy of producer Chief Xcel’s flawless integration of sample-based and live instrumentation, and MC Gift of Gab’s effortless flow and humble charisma. Through all the sonic experimentation, the perspective of the album is relentlessly positive, though it doesn’t shrink from casting a harsh, caustic light on the grimmest elements of the culture it aims to elevate. Rarely, if ever, has such intrepid innovation in hip-hop been so accessible; this is music looking to shift consciousness while never letting the beat drop, and it traverses adventurous new territory with an infectious enthusiasm for the heritage it celebrates.
10) The Coup “Steal This Album”
The Coup rapper Boots Riley is an agressively ideological MC, a marxist firebrand who doesn’t shy away from offending capitalism’s faithful; he all but forced the hand of the right-wing media into issuing a fatwah onto him by penning a track entitled “Five Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.” on the Coup album entitled “Party Music”, the original, eventually shelved artwork of which showed Boots holding the detonator to a bomb exploding the world trade center. While the politics of the Coup may be forcefully blunt and crude, Boots’ secret weapon is a deft, nuanced lyrical sense of story telling, which reaches it’s apotheosis with the seven minute track “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ‘79 Grenada Last Night”, one of the greatest story-songs in the history of hip-hop. While his insolently radical politics might be dogmatic and off putting to some, his depth of empathy is evident in his literate, compelling narrative abilities. Combined with the west coast G-funk rumble of DJ Pam the Funkstress, the Coup are an infectiously jubilant, subversive blast of bay area hip-hop, incendiary and party-wise in equal, funky measure.