1) Cadence Weapon – “Real Estate”
Most rappers can’t stretch a metaphor out for a verse, let alone a whole song. But Cadence Weapon, plowing through this track at 100 miles an hour, bounces back and forth between lines about land development and the hip hop game: “Just bought a house, can’t deal with the space / Just bought a beat can’t deal with the bass.” Hustler, Gangsta, Real Estate Agent? I buy it.
2) Lil Wayne – “A Milli”
After the colossal success of “Lollipop,” Lil Wayne was pretty much free to do whatever the hell he wanted. And what he wanted was to release one of the most unlikely hit singles in years. On “A Milli” his voice becomes an instrument, rolling out a random stream-of-consciousness over what is destined to become the most freestyled over beat of all time.
3) Big Boi (feat. Raekwon and Andre 3000) – “Royal Flush”
Andre 3000’s recent guest spots have mostly served as a platform for him to scream, “HEY! Look what I can do!” It’s a sort of infuriating reminder that one of the best rappers in the world isn’t doing a whole lot. But at least while we’re knocking on wood that the rumors of three Outkast albums in 2009 are true, we can listen to this track, which is basically an Outkast cut. It’s credited to Big Boi but it is ‘Dre who steals the show with his unconventional rhyme pattern and thoughtful lyrics: “The morals that you think you got go out the window / When all the other kids are fresh and they got new Nintendo / Wiis / And your child is down on her knees / Praying hard up to God for a Whopper with cheese.” Damn.
4) Rhymefest – “Breakadawn”
Rhymefest makes it abundantly clear on Man in the Mirror that he wants to be to hip hop what Michael Jackson was to pop music: a trailblazer. Over a Michael Jackson beat he arrived at via De La Soul, ‘fest tries to one-up Mike at every turn. Sure, Mike may have sold 50 million albums and had 7 #1 singles off one album, but ‘fest got a Grammy before even releasing his first record. But instead of trying to beat the greatest of all time, Rhymefest gleefully concedes defeat – this time. Considering how weird MJ has gotten in the last 15 years, it’s hard to remember how much he single-handedly changed pop music, how no one before or after him has ever been that transformative, no one has been able to take over the world like he did. Rhymefest sees that it’s possible, and while honoring the man who changed everything, tries to take on that mantle. Can he do it? Who knows? But what a mission to take on – if everyone in hip hop aimed as high as Rhymefest, we’d be in a great place.
5) Lil Wayne – “Dr. Carter”
Weezy takes unconventional to another level with this literal rap clinic. Embodying some sort of genius hip hop doctor (with a dismal 33 percent recovery rate) he sets out to cure whack rappers of what ails them…things like disrespect for the game (whatever that is) and lack of originality. Nobody’s going to accuse Wayne of the latter, so long as he’s babbling nonsense about “geese erections.” But take a step back from the beautiful absurdity of this song and you’ll see that he’s actually offering up a pretty strong defense of the genre to the folks who discredit it. It doesn’t hurt that he did this through his strangest concept track yet…until you get to the next track of course.
5) Young Jeezy (feat. Kanye West) – “Put On”
“Put On an ominous celebration of being at the top of the world, a tough motherfucker who everyone else fears with a beat that invites the most swagger of any song since T.I. dropped “What You Know.” Anyone else would be content to put out the “What You Know” of 2008, but Jeezy brought in Kanye. As soon as Kanye starts, autotuned up, the beat gets a little quieter and he steals the entire song away from Jeezy. Kanye is having the worst year he’s ever had, and he wants everyone to know it. Jeezy offers the swagger, Kanye offers the dark side of the fame, and between them, they tell a pretty goddamn compelling story.
6) T.I. – “No Matter What”
“Wonder how [T.I. is] facing years and he’s still chillin’?” He credits his faith in God, but it doesn’t hurt matters that he is looking forward to the most successful prison sentence since Tupac. Jail has made T.I. an international star, a cause celebre whose case makes us question the thin line between the law and good intentions, between fear of death and fear of jail. On this song he throws aside the discussion of moral dilemmas and just spits about how his optimism is responsible for his success. Whether it’s true or not, it’s refreshing to hear one of the biggest names in the game advising us to put on a happy face.
7) The Roots – “Rising Up”
If you ask Black Thought, the two most powerful people in the world are John Travolta and Oprah. On Rising Up, he sings their praises over and over again, while it seems that the Roots are just celebrating being The Roots. They sound as good as they ever did, and even bring in Wale for a guest verse (following his Black Thought tribute track on 100 Miles and Running) for goofy lines like “Good rappers ain’t eatin’, they Olsen Twinnin’.” It’s good to have the Roots around.
8) Nas – “Hero”
For the most part, Nas’ self-titled (or nameless or explicit or whatever it ended up being called) album failed to live up to expectations. Of course, since those expectations were based on hype from people like Bill O’Reilly, as well as Nas’ surprisingly impressive ability to make people think he is far more relevant than he really is, maybe we shouldn’t have been too disappointed. Oddly enough, while most of the album’s highly anticipated racial content fell flat (or at least well short of the mark achieved by Wale on “The Kramer”), Nas was at his best on this self-congratulatory track. Amid a dizzying beat by Polow da Don and a soaring Kerri Hilson chorus, Nas once again pleads his case for importance: “No matter what the CD called / I’m unbeatable y’all!” Of course it isn’t true, but you can imagine what it would be life if it were.
9) Wale – “The Kramer”
“The Kramer” starts with Michael Richards’ infamous rant at a comedy club in Los Angeles. A lesser rapper would have driven that into the awkward “can’t we all just get along” territory that South Park covered when they tackled the incident. So much of the discussion on the word “nigger” gets tuned out that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have to stage obnoxious publicity stunts in order to get any attention for their causes. But it’s Wale who manages to wake us up – first, by asking why does it matter? Second, by illustrating why it does, telling the story of the only black kid in a classroom full of whites who starts to hate himself progressively more and more because the white kids rap hip hop lyrics and don’t omit the cusses. But Wale doesn’t offer any solutions so much as a conclusion: “Under every nigga, there’s a little bit of Kramer / Self-hatred… I hate you… and myself… / Niggas…” Holy shit.
10) Gnarls Barkley – “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”
Cee-Lo claims that this song was written in the wake of James Brown’s death. This certainly makes sense, though video director Chris Milk must have missed the memo and interpreted it as a moody break-up song sung into a broccoli microphone by a bloody heart embodiment of Cee-Lo. Regardless, it is a song that can take on multiple meanings in the ear of the listener, par for the course for an act that uses catchy ditties and over-the-top goofiness to offset the overwhelming paranoia and morbidity of its lyrics.
11) Q-Tip – “Move / Renaissance Rap”
I’m not really sure if this is one song or two. On the album the track is just listed as “Move” and I originally assumed it to be a two-part song. Then a video came out under the name “Renaissance Rap.” It doesn’t really matter though. The two mini-tracks play well off each other. “Move” is an upbeat danceable number produced by Dilla. “Renaissance Rap” is Tip’s chance to show off his lyrical skills and reflect on the influence Tribe and the Native Tongues crew had on the genre.
12) Ludacris (feat. Nas and Jay-Z) – “I Do It For Hip Hop”
When rappers say they do it for hip hop, they’re using a peculiar abstraction. Every rapper who wants to claim “real hip hop” for themselves fights a losing battle, because they’re just cursing the void. If everyone is proud of themselves for championing “real hip hop,” then who are they necessarily better than? The only rappers who aren’t laying a claim to that throne are ones that no one should be wasting their time with. But Luda does things a little differently. First, he pulls off a beat that while undeniably fresh seems like it would have fit right at home in hip hop’s glory days, ambient and relaxed. But then he calls up Nas and Jay-Z, whose rivalry is long dead and who have collaborated on enough tracks that it’s no longer an event. They kick back and remember the old days and do it with enough finesse to make us remember the old days. They both have typically fantastic verses, and Luda still kicks both of their asses. Go figure.
13) Webbie – “I.N.D.E.P.E.N.D.E.N.T.”
You know what’s hard to spell? Independent. When most songs spell out words, the words in question have two syllables, max. Take “motherfucking P.I.M.P.,” for instance. But Webbie takes on a four-syllable word, and if you’re me, it took about a week to spell it correctly while singing along (I kept spelling INDENDENT or INDEPENT). But how often do you get female empowerment and a spelling lesson to a beat this good? The hip hop journalist in me just wants to be happy that someone wrote a song that was explicitly pro-female, so that I have some evidence any time someone goes on foaming at the mouth about how much they hate the misogyny in rap. The hip hop fan in me just likes the beat.
14) Bun B (feat. Young Buck and Lyfe Jennings) – “If I Die II Night”
Bun B is turning into one of hip hop’s most candid voices. It was present last year on U.G.K.‘s now epic finale, where Bun moralized on the thug life. In light of Pimp C’s death he has made the kind of comments that people in his position make too rarely, claiming that he and Pimp made it a point to talk every night and tell each other how much they loved each other. Imagine that! Telling your friend you appreciate him…and not even saying “No Homo” afterwards! He was back at it on his fine solo release, II Trill. On this track he once again decried the violence of the streets, expressed a preference of jail over death (“my kids can see me behind the glass”), and offered saga advice: “Nigga don’t know what he got till he passes on / So let him know you love him before his ass is gone.”
15) Jay-Z and T.I. (feat. Kanye West and Lil Wayne) – “Swagga Like Us”
This one was more an event than a song. A K West-produced collaboration with Weezy, T.I., and Jay-Z, and a sample from M.I.A., really couldn’t help being a bit of a disappointment. That’s a whole lot of hype to live up to on one track. Still, this is a one song demonstration of what mattered in commercial hip hop in 2008. If you want to remember this year twenty years from now, just turn on this song and you’ll have it in a nutshell: T.I.‘s jail-bound morality, Kanye’s depression-laced swagger, Weezy’s incoherent silliness, a sample from the 2007 song that turned commercial hip hop on its head in 2008, and of course auto-tune. And Jay-Z, the first rapper ever to achieve immortality within his own lifetime, uses his status to issue fashion orders. There’s a helluva lot going on here.
16) Young Jeezy (feat. Nas) – “My President”
Over the course of the year, a lot of people have discredited this song for being apolitical. I don’t think I would go that far, but it is a legitimate argument as Jeezy spends much of the song rapping about his Lamborghini and other assorted successes. The fact of the matter, though, is that Young Jeezy is not a politician. Neither is Nas, despite what some of his fans may think. More importantly, neither are the thousands of people who packed Grant Park on the evening of November 4, and no song is a better soundtrack to the jubilation of that night than this one. Sure, it may trivialize Obama’s victory to compare it to Jeezy’s blue Lambo and matching rims, but it’s hard not to smile at the sheer joy of this song. Perhaps there are more parallels between Jeezy’s rags-to-riches tale and America’s racial progress than it would appear. And if you still can’t buy it, there’s always that Nas verse.
Posted by Mike Denslow at Dec 18, 2008 03:03 PM