From the weary, head-shaking laments of former rap giants to the slightly unhinged (usually grammatically incomprehensible) rants left under seemingly every other Drake or Lil’ Wayne video on YouTube, hip hop is no stranger to proclamations that it is dead, dying or has long since deceased, and such claims seem only to have been hyperbolically escalating since the mid-noughties; in 2006, Nas even went so far as to release an album apparently intended to confirm it – the unambiguously titled Hip Hop is Dead. While there is no question that the genre has undergone a maelstrom of changes since its heyday (the seventies, eighties or nineties, depending on who you ask), I would argue that it’s continued evolution is in fact what has kept it from dying; instilling it instead with a necessary capacity for versatility and progressiveness, and making it perhaps one of the most exciting genres in modern music.
These are five of the most innovative hip hop albums from 2010 onwards that prove there is definitely still life in the old dog yet.
1. Eminem – Recovery (2010)
Recovery saw an explosive return to form for Eminem, who’s uneven-at-best 2004 album Encore, followed five years later by the agonizingly sub-par Relapse (a tedious, painfully prolonged medley of dodgy accents, so-so beats and cheap shots at ancient rivals) had caused a unanimous sense of both bewilderment and slightly panicked despair even among long-time super fans such as myself. Sharply sweeping aside the disillusionment of an increasingly dubious fan base and the mounting contempt of critics by whole-heartedly agreeing with them, he raps “Fuck my last CD, that shits in the trash” on ‘Cinderella Man’ before exhaustively annihilating any lingering doubts throughout the majority of the albums sixteen tracks, proving that his best is far from over with the same combination of balls-to-the-wall venom (which is not diluted in any way when turned on himself), startling personal candidness and breath-taking lyrical prowess that elevated him to rap stardom in the first place.
‘No Love’, which samples from the early ’90s Eurodance hit ‘What is Love’ in a surprising stroke of genius. It sees him lyrically running rings around the comparatively torpid Lil’ Wayne, while elsewhere other guests also serve to enhance his prowess and add depth and dimension his flow – most notably Rihanna’s contribution to the tale of doomed and dysfunctional love on ‘Love the Way You Lie’, which became the ubiquitous summer sound of 2010. Songs like ’Going Through Changes’ walk us through the difficult past few years of his life with a lyrical exorcism of personal demons reminiscent of ‘Cleaning Out my Closet’ but with none of the anger; spanning his drug addiction, attempted suicide, the prison of fame and the intense grief at the murder of his best friend Proof in 2006 (honoured individually in ‘You’re Never Over’), Em spares no detail, again showcasing his unique knack of converting his own vulnerability into something far more compelling than your average bragging rights, adding another dimension to the marvel that is his ability to bounce back from rock bottom as strong as ever.
Star Track: Going Through Changes
2. Atmosphere – The Family Sign (2011)
With Slug cementing his already stellar reputation as hip-hops most vivid storyteller, The Family Sign saw the Minnesotan indie-rap duo reach full maturity with an emotionally weighty album that was decidedly less humorous than their previous two releases, but perhaps all the more remarkable for it. Astonishingly introspective and even existential in places, the duo set about steadily touching upon a gamut of themes and subjects too often overlooked or only emptily alluded to in a genre where polished braggadocio is all too frequently becoming the dominant form of expression.
‘The Last to Say’, a heart-breaking tale of domestic abuse and its destructive effect across generations, sees Slug bringing the pain and hopelessness of this self-perpetuating cycle of violence to life with frank sincerity over a stripped back beat and menacing guitar chords. A varied but always thoughtfully developed focus on the complexities of personal relationships dominates many of the albums tracks, manifesting itself more abstractly in the intriguing, metaphor-laden ‘Became’ (which sees Slugs spellbinding narrative skills at their sharpest), with a touching sense of measured lament in the ballad of unrequited love ‘Who I’ll Never Be’. A pseudo-detached, sardonic bite in ‘Your Name Here’ sees Slug enact a supposedly underwhelming encounter with an ex after some years have passed.
Of course, the album does have its weaker tracks – ‘Bad Bad Daddy’, the tale of a negligent alcoholic father, doesn’t quite manage to live up to the potential of its premise; and the flashy beats and cookie-cutter couplets of ‘She’s Enough’ really have no place on the album given its altogether more lofty ideals. Overall, it is an exceptional credit to the groups catalogue, and beacon of hope to those looking for something more from hip-hop in the post-noughties money-and-bitches terrain.
Star track: The Last to Say
3. Lupe Fiasco – Lasers (2011)
While a certain strain of more puritanical Lupe fans baulked at an album decidedly more commercial-sounding than his previous two, genuflection to some of the pop conventions of the moment does not automatically equate with selling out to mainstream demands – and in this case, I believe Lupe managed to strike the balance fairly well. The smooth R&B vocals of John Legend on ‘Never Forget You’ serve to enhance Lupe’s melancholic, but rose-tinted elegy to humble beginnings; while the synth-y choruses and electro-pop beats of ‘Beautiful Lasers’, ‘Coming Up’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now’ do nothing to detract from his typically confident flow and winning lyrical prowess, even if you occasionally get the feeling that the tracks could have coped equally well without them.
‘All Black Everything’ is an intriguing re-imagining of American history without the slave trade and the resulting centuries of socially sanctioned oppression and racism, envisioning a world where “Crips never occurred nor bloods to attack them/ Matter of fact, no hood to attack in/ Somalia’s a great place to relax in/ Fred Astaire was the first to do a backspin”.
‘Words I Never Said’ is a relentless, all-out lyrical attack on everything from War on Terror to the Obama administrations education budget cuts and policy on the Gaza strip, right through to his concerns about our increasingly neurotic, self-medicating culture (“Pills with million side effects/Take ‘em when the pains felt/Wash them down with Diet soda/Killin’ off your brain cells”).
The album has occasional weaker moments in tracks such as ‘Break the Chain’, where the techno-esque beats and autotuned hook become tiresome when accompanied only by mediocre lyrics and forgettable collaborations (Eric Turner and Sway). Overall, Lasers represents another sustainable triumph for an artist who has forged a career as hip hops politically engaged underdog (with an ear for head-nodding hooks).
Star Track: Words I Never Said
4. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist (2012)
An album that managed to be at once shrewdly humorous, astutely socially conscious, refreshingly self-aware and catchy as hell (occasionally all within the same song) is what set this effort apart from any other release of the year 2012 – and it was by no means a lean year for hip-hop, with Kendrick Lamar, Nas and Action Bronson all dropping long-awaited albums. Debuting at #2 on America’s Billboard Hot 100, Macklemore also stormed the singles charts with the albums first single ‘Thrift Shop’, an entertaining, upbeat ode to second-hand clothes over a rollicking saxophone based instrumental, that doubles as a gentle dig at hip hops current obsession with a rappers designer label credentials (“They be like ‘Oh that Gucci, that’s hella tight’/ I’m like ‘Yo, that’s 50 dollars for a T-shirt’ “).
‘Same Love’, the most recent single, also challenges the more serious attitude of homophobia which is sometimes still prevalent in hip hop culture, and succeeds in being not only a chart-topper but potentially a game-changer. Astonishingly moving, it is a quiet song that packs a substantial emotional punch, and one can only hope its chart ubiquity will have at least some form of positive impact on the gay marriage debate still raging in the USA (and attitudes towards such matters in general).
The rest of the album continues churning out thoroughly memorable tracks with themes pitched haphazardly on the spectrum between these two examples, from the elative triumph of ‘Ten Thousand Hours’ (the albums opening anthem to the pair having finally ‘made it’), to the plainspoken introspection of ‘Starting Over’ and ‘Neon Cathedral’, both dealing with frontman Ben’s former substance abuse problems.
Star track: Same Love
5. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap (2013)
With meanderingly woozy psychedelic beats sometimes reminiscent of those found on Kanye West’s seminal first album The College Dropout, and a lyrical flow that at certain moments thrillingly resembles a young Eminem (circa the unhinged brilliance of The Slim Shady LP); Acid Rap is one of the most unusual and experimental hip hop releases of recent years in spite of some clear influences, and potentially my favourite album of 2013 – period. Although barely out of his teens, the 20-year old Chicago-born rapper exudes the confidence of a veteran in a voice that retains its assured, tongue-in-cheek distinctiveness through the rasping croon of ‘Jucie’ to the nasal chorus of ‘Cocoa butter kisses’.
Elsewhere on the album, Chance laments the increasingly violent culture of his home city (more young men were killed in Chicago last year than in Afghanistan), blasting the media’s apathy in ‘Pusha Man’ (“They merkin’ kids here, they murder kids here/Why you think they don’t talk about it?/ They deserted us here”) and narrating himself, half tripping, being haunted by the demons of his dead friend on Acid Rain.
Overall, however, Acid Rap is characterised by a free-wheeling kaleidoscope of ideas that should be too much for just one album but somehow aren’t. Relayed with the verbal dexterity of a future rap legend and the eccentric, hallucinatory imagination and shrewd wit of a former high-school pothead possessing wells of untapped intelligence.
Star track: Acid Rain
Childish Gambino – Camp (2011), Drake – Take Care (2011), Kanye West & Jay Z – Watch the Throne (2011), Kanye West – Yeezus (2013), Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP II (2013)