10 Best Hip Hop + R&B Albums of 2011

December 27, 2011

Now that the “Best Albums of 2011” and “25 Best Songs of 2011” lists are up, I’m moving into more genre-specific focuses to comment on a few more great albums from the year. First up is a look at the best R&B and Hip Hop 2011 had to offer; coming soon is a “Best Metal of 2011.” By the end of the year or the first of the new year I plan to post the other media lists, likely beginning with movies. Thanks to those reading and feel free to comment.

10) The Roots: Undun

I can’t give a full review of this one yet because I’ve only heard it in it’s entirety a few times since it’s release earlier this month. Undun came out so late in the year it missed it’s opportunity for inclusion in most publications “best of” lists and that’s a shame because the spins I’ve given it promise that it would and should have ranked significantly on such critiques. My initial impression is that this is a record like the Roots are used to making now: high quality, creative, expansive, and ever-evolving hip hop art masterpieces. I don’t think it will rank with their last major work (How I Got Over) but I may change my mind. It does seem to be a very unique blend of influences and sounds and every Black Thought verse seems to hit the mark as does the work of the superb guest stars (including a great Big K.R.I.T. appearance). Had I had time to fully digest this work I’m sure it would have at the least ranked higher on this present list but in the issue of fairness I kept it at the back of the list rather than to belatedly compare it with established winners. I do know it far outranked the previous #10 slot (sorry Lil B).

9) Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne

“Watch the Throne” is a record in which it’s superstar talents have teamed up and slipped into their current comfort zones. Which is good and bad; there are excellent beats and few have the ear for production and audio-joy like Kanye West and no one currently working can out-rap Jay-Z– he can rap 99 bars and win with every one (sorry). This album contains some excellent speaker-bangers, like the only-they-could-afford-it sampling of Otis Redding track “Uncle Otis,” or the instant addiction of “N***** in Paris.” But most such tracks are marred with lyrical issues and superficiality that shouldn’t fly so smoothly from such mainstream yet amazing talents in 2011…and how is it that the recession reeling audience are supposed to relate to popping gold-bottles in Paris? Watch the Throne is primarily hurt when the artists don’t push themselves hard enough as songwriters. But it could be that they expected the audience to forget their problems and party, which is fine but such a thing can be accomplished more intelligently and progressively. But what does work here works exceedingly well, like the stand-out track “Murder to Excellence” which has the broadest and most worthy scope of anything present here. “Made in America” works well too and focuses things on bigger topics, finding a hook for Frank Ocean to work with in the meantime. Ocean is also present on opening track “No Church in the Wild” with one of the best choruses of his career. “Lift Off” brings in Beyonce for a nice easy-going track. So all in all, Watch the Throne is a mixed bag whose limitations would likely keep it from a best of list if the incredible talents of those involved couldn’t craft art that you can’t help but like even when with some reservations.

8) Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming

Charles Bradley made one of the best songs of the year (“The World is Going Up in Flames”) situated in an album full of close runner-ups which is all the more applause-worthy in that he’s been itching to craft this record for decades. Bradley is in his sixties and this is his first release. His throaty yet smooth lived-in voice is excellently backed by the Motown throwback band the Menahan Street Band. This is old-school nostalgia Rhythm & Blues, akin to a lost Wilson Pickett album.

7) The Weeknd – House of Balloons

Mix-tape mania occurred this year, with new artists giving away work of such quality that in previous years would have been completely saved for the debut album. It’s a new mode of business, going all out for a studio-quality effort and self-releasing it to hook fans and attract labels early on. What used to be the province of hip hop artists (and often only as a way of keeping fans sated in between albums), mix-tape making has expanded and most of the best ones this year came from the R&B crowd. The Weeknd come on with House of Balloons, a woozy, drugged-out R&B album that plays seductive crooning with the energy of great hip hop and the experimentalism of superb indie rock. The Weeknd have collaborated with Drake quite a bit and it’s fitting in that few artists can make “the good life” sound so depressing and questionable as The Weeknd. House of Balloons plays like the soundtrack to the morning after a night the singer mainly regretted but accepted as inevitable, a night that he plans to go ahead with again on the slight chance it will be excellent this time. This is a round of hypnotic vocals, which roll through the ups and downs of syncopated and accelerating beats. “Wicked Games” is a stand-out song from the entire year, a song that is as addictive as its high-life downward spiral narrative, but “High For This,” and “What You Need” find other ways of accomplishing the same emotive function. A superb record that pushes R&B to its edges and makes romance sound dangerous in a way pop music is usually unable to do.

6) Beyonce – 4

Beyonce’s had quite a slew of great songs, both in her early days with Destiny’s Child and on her three previous solo outings. Her latest, 4, lacks some of the all-out smashes from earlier albums (aside from “Run the World (Girls)”), but the consistent quality of this album from start-to-finish makes it her best overall work thus far. It’s a relatively mature R&B work; it highlights her vocals and (usually) keeps the silliness to a minimum. Beyonce really incorporates some of the most diverse and unique beats and music of any top 40 mainstream pop star and this record is no different, with retro disco bounce, soft-rock guitars, a few Afro-Carribean beats, and of course the chopped and exploding “Girls.” Plus we get a verse from the too-long-absent-from-the-mic Andre 3000. 4 was, in most ways, the funnest summer record of 2011.

5) Big K.R.I.T. – Returnof4eva

Another excellent album freely given away as a mix-tape, Big K.R.I.T.’s Returnof4eva announces one of the freshest southern hip hop voices to come along in a long while. Finding a middle ground between Outkast and Ludacris, Big K.R.I.T. gives listeners both simple pleasures and serious considerations, intelligent street ruminations and parking lot swagger. The beats here are fantastic and the verses live up to them. K.R.I.T.’s late in the year second mixtape simply compiled his many guest appearances from the year, most of which lacked the nuance and smarts of the songs collected here. But a last minute verse on the new Roots record restores the promise of this widely acclaimed first blast of music. Hopefully the upcoming studio debut will be great.

4) Talib Kweli – Gutter Rainbows

Talib’s always good; sometimes excellent but always good at the very least. Last year he re-teamed with DJ Hi Tek to release an absolute classic, Revolutions Per Minute. So it was pretty surprising he returned about 6 months later with this (initially digitally only) release, Gutter Rainbows. This is a laid back Kweli record, one that is great to put on and drive to or throw on the headphones and get some basic work done. It’s Kweli just rhyming excellently effortlessly. The beats are mostly smooth and lush, the theme fitting and efficient but not overly complex. There are some excellent moments that peak out from the overall goodness– “Tater Tot,” “Self Savior” especially. There are new Talib proteges and friends given plenty of space– Sean Price, Chace Infinite and Jean Grae. All in all, just a solid album showcasing how important Talib is to modern quality hip hop.

3) J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story

Jay-Z’s young protege/signee J. Cole’s studio debut has been eagerly anticipated by those of us thrilled with the quality of his mix-tapes and singles over the past couple of years. Well, that hype can be a problem because little every lives up to such anticipation. Cole World: The Sideline Story is not quite the album it could or should have been, but it is a good debut with some really great songs and only a few major missteps. Cole is a rapper who, perhaps more than any of his fellow young hip hop artists, desperately tries to balance his “street” and “smart” sides. This was the year when many came down on “street” completely; alt-hop back pack rapper Wale dropped all artistic endeavors to join up with Rick Ross and company to rap about sex, champagne and bling exclusively. Drake decided to release an album full of “bitch” litanies with no regard to the large amount of female fans he has. So it’s refreshing that Cole maintained any of that social concern that a well-read magna cum laude graduate of St. John University like himself has somewhat built into him. Cole’s not perfect when it comes to many of hip hop’s cliches and pitfalls, and he certainly comes down the greater deal of the time for the clubs and streets on his record, but he pulls both sides of his personality off quite well.  At his best he can do both sides of himself terrifically–see “Mr. Nice Watch” with his mentor Jay-Z for the best full-on club banger here, a song with a killer beat, great hook, superb verses, and a fully convincing live-it-up-because-tommorrow’s-not-promised ethos which bursts at the seams. Contrast that with the masterful back-and-forth discussion between a boyfriend and a girlfriend contemplating abortion in “Lost Ones” or the root-of-cheating investigation “Never Told.” There’s the retro-soul swim of “Noboby’s Perfect” with a great Missy Elliot Hook and the speaker-bumper “God’s Gift.” A few years ago Michael Eric Dyson wrote a book examining the contradictions and tensions of emotions and concerns in regard to the career and life of 2pac and existentially of all of hip hop, “Holler if You Hear Me: Searching For Tupac Shakur.” Those contradictions and tensions continue to live out in modern hip hop and perhaps nowhere else was that as evident this year as on Cole World: The Sideline Story.

2) Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra

Frank Ocean self-released Nostalgia, Ultra as a free mix-tape on the web. This is top-notch material and it’s hard to believe it’s absolutely (legally) free. This is the most exciting thing in modern, mainstream R&B I’ve heard in years. While most current R&B singers lazily milk R. Kelly style sexploitation lyrics in shallow, vapid, superficially produced songs, Frank Ocean arrives with a great voice, intelligent (and varied) lyrics, and highly creative beats. There are so many great songs on this album; the memory jolting “Strawberry Swing,” the woozy self-aware clubber “Novocaine,” the socially and religiously progressive “We All Try,” the absolutely perfect “Swim Good.” The way everything fits together with sound effects and scene-setting sound effects coalesces everything here together that this might very well be one of the 10 best mix-tapes ever given away. Melody, hooks, and beats that are creative and unique enough to sound completely new and fresh, complete songs that take advantage of the genre’s past but point to its future, and everything done so unpretentiously and unselfconsciously that art kids, trend-watchers, and casual unassuming R&B fans all alike can approach and enjoy this work. All of this begs the question–how is Ocean associated with the Odd Future Collective? Sure they all do things their own way, and they do it in a way one could argue as creative. But the emotional spectrum of Ocean’s work, and the often life and diversity affirming content of his lyrics seem miles away from the typical concerns of Tyler the Creator. Well, one can only hope the forthcoming studio release of Ocean’s debut studio album will live up the bar set here. Mainstream music fans have been slowly introduced to the artist this year as he crooned the hooks for two of the better Watch the Throne tracks and he was featured in Rolling Stone magazine promising no expenses or ambitions would be spared on that upcoming debut. Let’ s hope it’s a smash and that others will take a cue from Ocean and start making creative, relevant, and original R&B again.

1) Lupe Fiasco – Lasers

Lasers ranked #1 on my overall “Best Albums of 2011” list; you can read it here.

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