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Beats Per Millennium - Top 25 Albums of 2008

Top 25 Albums of 2008

Here they are. Our 25 favorite hip hop(ish) albums of the year.

25) Bun B – II Trill
The tragic death of Bun’s partner and best friend, Pimp C, left the Houston legend on his own for a follow-up to last year’s epic U.G.K. swan song. So he picked up a phone and called some friends; Lil Wayne, Lupe Fiasco, and Rick Ross are among the incredibly diverse and star-studded cast that drops by to help Bun. But none of the guests are able to upstage the star of the show. Bun B continues the whole thug-with-the-heart-of-gold thing, talking up love for family and friends and talking down corrupt police, pastors, and politicians. He even takes what may or may not be a gentle stab at Barack Obama on “Get Cha Issue” (ok…probably not…the song was released early enough that the word “change” in reference to politicians was still fairly generic and didn’t necessarily bring Obama to mind. But it’s still fun to pretend this is what he meant.) There’s also all the love you would expect for Pimp C, a man Bun is not bashful to confess his love for. Pimp gets and emotional shout out on “Angel in the Sky” and a not so emotional (though probably more fitting) one in “Pop it 4 Pimp.”

24) The Very Best – Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are The Very Best
This collaboration between the Malawian born singer and the European production crew represents what I love about hip hop, even if the music is not necessarily labeled as such. Mwamwaya sings in his native tongue on remakes of M.I.A.‘s “Paper Planes” and Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” Radioclit fuses Akon vocals with M.I.A. – perhaps the figurehead of hip hop globalization – on a killer remix of “Boyz.” Elsewhere, there is just too much good stuff to name on what is easily one of the most enjoyable (and freest!) listens of the year. Plus, it all builds up to a reworking of that Michael Jackson song from Free Willy!

23) Santogold – Santogold
It seems that most of the best new hip hop artists are the ones who are not easy to classify. Santogold is one in a series of artists who get that “I don’t really consider her hip hop” treatment. Usually I tune out of these conversations since they tend to be overly simplistic: singing = rock, rapping = hip hop. But with all this genre-bending going on it’s becoming harder and harder to discern hip hop from other styles of music. And that blending of genres is at the very heart of hip hop. Santogold shows off her many styles on her debut LP, giving us both melodic ballads and M.I.A. sound-alike sass.

22) Jazmine Sullivan – Fearless
There could be no better album title than Fearless for Jazmine Sullivan. This 21-year-old is showing the music industry that she has come to bring passion and soul back into music. Leading with her first hit single, “Need You Bad,” Sullivan expresses her painful struggle of love for a man through a reggae/R&B beat featuring Missy Elliott. Everyone has heard it. Much like this one, most of Sullivan’s songs portray her strong, confident voice through various musical genres. No two songs on her album sound the same. You better believe Jazmine Sullivan has proven to be Fearless or she’ll “Bust Your Windows.”

21) Mariah Carey – E=MC2
If anyone knows how to pull on heartstrings while perfecting the definition of a diva, it’s Mariah Carey. E=MC2, her 11th studio album, has hit singles topping the charts one right after the other. From “Touch My Body” to “Bye Bye,” Carey shows just how much variety this album holds within. There are songs on the album that hold a catchy beat and lyrical sensuality and then those dramatic, passionate ballads we love to hear from her. And as her life trails back up to happiness, so does her career. Just like a butterfly, Mariah Cannon – oops, I mean, Carey – once again flutters in success.

20) Cadence Weapon – Afterparty Babies
Cadence Weapon is the biggest smart-ass in hip hop right now, stealing that title from the Beastie Boys. The operative word there is smart, because he straddles a lot of lines without becoming a stereotype, too smart to be a geek rapper or a hipster rapper or a pretentious “indie” rapper. He’s packed an album with a lot of fun beats and manic delivery that show Cadence Weapon being Cadence Weapon, an admitted afterparty baby. He doesn’t make his first single about oral sex to get extra play in the clubs, but he’s willing to put on a suit and mug for the camera for a faux real estate commercial.

19) Ludacris – Theater of the Mind
Ladies and gentlemen, we now present to you Ludacris in Theater of the Mind. Six albums later and this man is still rappin’ strong. The only difference is now he’s collaborating with an assortment of artists to further his own creativity. Luda told MTV News that “every song you hear sounds like a scene from a movie,” and he is exactly right. His witty lyrics help create the lucid scenes in this storytelling album, making each song unique from the next. But one thing almost all of these songs have in common is tension through his sharp, ingenious punch lines. Leave it to Ludacris to fill your mind with formulas that no other rapper could compose.

18) Ne-Yo – Year of the Gentleman
Men, take notes. Ladies, hold your breath. Ne-Yo has officially captured the hearts of thousands of girls all over. Year of the Gentleman is an album that portrays all the love and respect a man should have for a woman. The smooth, silky voice of Ne-Yo is delivered ever so beautifully throughout the album while touching upon the ways to appreciate women and find them irresistible. Soft beats and charming lyrics are caressed with the delicate sounds of strings and piano. And lets not forget the fresh and sophisticated style adapted from Rat Pack. Whoever said nice guys finish last should definitely take a listen to Year of the Gentleman. Ne-Yo will not be finishing last this year.

17) Usher – Here I Stand
After four years of laying low in his music career, Usher returns with another seductive album, only this time he merges his new husband and father role with his original ladies man role. On “Trading Places,” Usher sings about switching the responsibilities of a man and woman in a relationship so vividly that I’m sure those who have heard it gave it a try. And that’s not all. His sexy voice aids in his graphic and sensual lyrics that show fans the lovemaking side of him. But even though he is melting hearts with rhythm and blues beats, he is still dropping club beats better than anyone in the genre.

16) Atmosphere – When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold
Atmosphere finally released a top-10 album, and boy is it ever good. In the first Atmosphere album in years that I’ve gone back to more than once, the instrumentation becomes live and more vivid, and Slug stops diddling on about his own insecurities and how much he hates Lucy Ford and instead becomes a Midwest storyteller, documenting in a few case studies the decline of the rust belt, everyday people making their way. And so, Atmosphere is breaking away from the confining walls of the “indie hip hop” genre, and instead taking the mantle of what hip hop was originally all about – documenting life in the streets. His streets just happen to be in Minnesota.

15) Cool Kids – The Bake Sale
I usually have mixed feelings about including an EP on a year-end list, especially when that EP is mostly composed of songs that existed before the year began. But I’ve rarely anticipated the physical release of a group of songs the way I did in this case. Finally the whole world had a chance to see why hip hop fans in Chicago and the blogosphere have been calling the Cool Kids the next big thing for what seems like a decade now. Let’s hope that these guys blow up before they wash up. They can start with a full length album.

14) The Streets – Everything is Borrowed
This is The Streets album for people who don’t like The Streets. I have no doubt that people who like The Streets will like it too, though they’ll probably like it less than A Grand Don’t Come For Free. But this is the album that convinced me to give him another shot, to maybe listen through his first three albums to see if I like them any better. If I don’t, well, I can say without hesitation – this is the best album he’s ever written, and if you don’t mind a little (a lot) of introspection, it’s well worth your hard-earned money.

13) Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It
Motown isn’t dead, as far as Raphael Saadiq is concerned. He’s the most observant student of the genre to release an album this decade, taking every lesson learned in the 70s and polishing it to perfection. If he’d released this 40 years ago, he’d be mentioned in the same breath as The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. Unfortunately for him, he’s a follower, not a trailblazer – but fortunately for us, that doesn’t make it any less fun to listen to.

12) Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
Miss Badu is the definition of consistency. This is her fourth studio album and she has yet to miss. Her music is soulful and the content is purposeful. “Hip hop is bigger than religion,” she sings on the “The Healer,” recognizing the culture as a worldwide force with the power to enlighten. Thankfully, it is also bigger than rap, and until Lauryn Hill decides to come out of hiding and do something about it, the First Lady of Neo-Soul is also the First Lady of Hip Hop.

11) Wale – The Mixtape About Nothing
“If you love substance, you love Wale – but most niggas love nothin’, that’s why I made this tape.” Who would have thought one of the best mixtapes of the year would come from a D.C.-based rapper who loves “Seinfeld”? Wale refuses to be pigeonholed, and in the process he delivers a freestyle over the beat from Roc Boys (And The Winner Is…) that makes you forget the original, a Jerry Seinfeld-inspired “What’s the deal with…” rap over the theme from the show, and the best race relations track of the year. If you’re looking on this list for the artist most likely to get huge fast so that you can say you listened to him before he was big, you’d better get on this now.

10) Young Jeezy – The Recession
The Recession was not Young Jeezy’s magnum opus, but rather a signal that he’s got one in him. There’s an undercurrent of worry riding through the whole thing, from his self-doubt in “Circulate” to his burnout in “Vacation.” But it’s the end of the album that really delivers on the promise he hints at through the rest of the album: the epic “Put On,” half glory, half fear and doubt over a humongous beat which was the first sign of the Kanyecolypse that came with 808s and Heartbreak, and “My President,” a Barack Obama tribute song recorded the night he clinched the Democratic nomination that serves as a counterweight to the rest of the album, Jeezy and Nas at their most hopeful. I’ll be damned if there was anything else I was listening to election night.

9) People Under the Stairs – Fun DMC
In the right circles, People Under the Stairs is a legend. The beats are fresh, the melodies are fresher, and the LYRICS! OH, THE LYRICS! They put everyone to shame. This new album, FUN DMC, is basically no exception. It is a hot album. Each track on the album sounds a little bit like something or someone else. This is because it covers Jamaican, east coast, west coast, old school, new school, and tons of other important musical movements and sounds in hip hop in the past twenty years. And that’s why people await People’s albums, and that’s why I think this album was successful.

8) Rhymefest – Man in the Mirror
Rhymefest almost killed himself a few months ago. Plans for his puppet show with Kanye West almost fell through, his future at J Records was uncertain. He chose life, in the end, but the same couldn’t be said about the material already recorded for El Che, the followup to his 2006 debut Blue Collar. That included the perplexing track he did with Lil Jon as well as the potentially perplexing track he promised with Jadakiss. It seems like 2008 started on such a high for Rhymefest that there was nowhere to go but down: the fantastic Man in the Mirror, released on January 1, 2008, is not just a dedicated Michael Jackson tribute, but also a self-portrait of a Grammy winner who couldn’t sell enough records, who wants to change the world of hip hop and is looking to music’s last revolutionary for pointers on how he should do that. It’s enough to make you miss the old Michael Jackson instead of just deride the brain in a plastic human shell that has replaced him.

7) The Roots – Rising Down
The Roots’ spiral into darkness continued on the follow-up to Game Theory. Here, the Roots share the stage with a surprisingly large number of guests, including Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli, as well as all the Roots Crew syndicates you’ve come to expect. But the most memorable appearance of all is when Wale picks up the mic on “Rising Down” for a guest spot that could do for him what “Scenario” did for Busta Rhymes. Elsewhere the Roots just keep doing what they do. Black Thought spits fire on the group’s most overtly political album to date, while the band sounds tight as ever and primed to be the best house band in the history of late night television.

6) Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak
I’ve heard the argument made that the traditional Kanye hatred about his big old ego and his famous temper is because Kanye is a crossover sensation and non-hip hop fans aren’t used to hip hop egos. I don’t think that’s all of it – Kanye is a special case, as his bursts of ego are typically teeming with emotion that make him more a more palatable person rather than a brand pushed by a record label. A brand is so faceless and easy to ignore, but Kanye, by means of appearing to be an actual, real person, inspires both extreme love and hate that you don’t get about other rappers. Listening to Kanye’s body of work, in retrospect, it seems inevitable that something like this had to come. If this came from any other rapper, it’d be completely out of left field. Here, it seems like something Kanye had to make, lost love or not. Is it better or worse than any of his other albums? Maybe. But it’s just as essential for anyone who’s fascinated as much by the man who makes the beats as the beats themselves.

5) Q-Tip – The Renaissance
If you think about it, The Renaissance is a perfect title for this record. The real Renaissance (or should I say the IRL Renaissance?) was a return to classical ideas of the Romans and Greeks after a millennium of instability, wars, and aimlessness. And while we at BPM usually don’t buy into the “real hip hop” gripe pushed by hip hop snobs, it’s here we’ll make an exception. Q-Tip came back about a decade after he appeared shirtless on the cover of his last solo album, Amplified, and rather than trying to make an earnest pitch to the mainstream, he reminds us of the laid back jazz rap that made him famous. At the end of the night, it’s relaxing, refreshing, and enough to induce nostalgia in even the fiercest proponents of the mainstream.

4) Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
The Odd Couple probably should have been a sophomore flop for Gnarls Barkley. After “Crazy” became a mega-hit they certainly had the feel of a one-hit wonder. But St. Elsewhere turned out to be a fine album, Gnarls Barkley continued to be a group (as opposed to another one-off side project for Danger Mouse), and the duo returned this year with another record. And what a record it is! Danger Mouse serves up another collection of fun throwback beats and Cee-Lo Green, who has established himself as the soul singer of this generation, complements them nicely with his lyrics of paranoia and depression. The music – and the duo’s whole demeanor – serves as a mask for the introspective torture of the content. Cee-Lo seethes in teenage rage (albeit a tad sarcastically) on “Whatever,” bemoans his ugliness by falling in love with someone who can’t see him on “Blind Mary,” and mourns the loss of James Brown on “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul.” He needn’t look far for the answer. And since none of Danger Mouse’s or Cee-Lo’s various projects are half as compelling – or commercially successful – as this one, we can expect to hear soul music’s savior through this outlet for a long time to come.

3) Girl Talk – Feed the Animals
Pretty much everyone is agreement that they enjoy Girl Talk’s frantic mash-ups and energetic live shows. But I’m not entirely sure that very many people realize just how good he is. I’ve never heard the phrase “Yeah, his music is really fun, but it’s not like he’s anything special” uttered more in my life. This leaves me scratching my head for three reasons. First of all, just when the hell did we decide that there was nothing special about having a lot of fun? How joyless do you have to be say shit like this? Second, Gillis has sculpted another soundtrack for the ADHD Age. Album sales are down as the kids are just downloading their favorite songs from the radio and the club; why not take it a step further and just pull out their favorite parts from the songs they like? Gillis is far from the first mash-up artist, but he is easily the best, a true student and lover of pop music. Third, and probably most importantly, Girl Talk gives music snobs a chance to smile and dance. Underneath all our over-analysis and smart-ass comments about today’s teen heartthrobs, we really all want the same thing: the freedom to shout out “Supaman dat ho!” while we drive around town. And that’s perfectly acceptable…as long as there is a Thin Lizzy riff playing underneath it.

2) T.I. – Paper Trail
Not many would argue that 2008 has been a bit of a down year for rap. Without a whole lot of compelling mainstream releases, radio play and the headlines have been dominated by a small handful of uber-successful artists. If there is a silver lining to all this it is that the guys on top of the world right now are the ones who are the most interesting and are, hence, making the best music. Kanye West and Lil Wayne have kept their names at the top by being basket cases. Oddly enough, T.I., the member of mainstream rap’s dominating trifecta who is actually going to jail, kept us interested by seemingly having it all together. Sure, there is the same inner turmoil you hear from most rappers who make the transition from the street to the fame. Much of rap’s allure is in its honest humanity and T.I. certainly wrestles with the demons in his life: witnessing his best friend’s shooting death, losing a daughter to a miscarriage, facing prison time. But what sets him apart from most rappers is the clarity with which he deals with it all. When he sets aside a whole song to tell his side of the felony he does not resort to the typical finger-pointing and conspiracy theories. Instead he very simply lays down why he made the choice he did, maintains that this was the right choice, and accepts responsibility for his actions. By not succumbing to the temptation to make it about race or fame or a set-up, T.I. allows us to have a more productive dialog on these issues. Elsewhere, he sounds simply ecstatic, professing his faith in God and love for life. It doesn’t hurt that producers continue to give him their best beats and featured guests their best performances. Ludacris kills “On Top of the World,” shouting out Samuel L. Jackson on yet another celebration of “making it.” Justin Timberlake lends his skills on the epic finale “Dead and Gone.” And, of course, Rihanna complements T.I.‘s bouncy optimism with a stunning bridge on “Live Your Life.” Do you really want to know how T.I. faces years and smiles like he’s fine? Because he’s so good right now that he made the Numa Numa Song sound good.

1) Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III
Was there even a question?

Yes, actually. Do you remember where hip hop was before Tha Carter III came out? I spent weeks trying to figure out who Flo Rida was and why he was at the top of the charts. Then Wayne came out and 2008 was saved. He was on every album, on every hot single, sold millions of records and got Grammy nominations and played the season premiere of SNL. Wayne was ubiquitous and was getting solid reviews from anyone and everyone. But there were a lot of solid albums this year. Where did Wayne hit it out of the park?

Was it “Tie My Hands,” the most impassioned ode to the victims of Katrina since “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People?” Was it “A Milli,” a top ten single that had no hook and a half-second vocal sample repeating through the whole song but features some of Wayne’s all-time best flow? “Dr. Carter,” a track with the best beat of the year as far as I’m concerned (and again, no hook) that goes through three tremendous verses that one almost has to classify as movements? That’s not even mentioning his journey from outer space in “Phone Home” and his stoned-out-of-his-mind tirade against Al Sharpton in “Dontgetit.” The album isn’t perfect, but it’s everything that hip hop should be – wildly unconventional, consistently surprising, surprisingly consistent, fantastically creative, catchy, and frequently even substantive. One could debate for a long time about whether Tha Carter III was the most technically proficient album, but it’s far more than the sum of its parts, and if in 20 years some alien comes down and asks us what we were listening to in 2008, what was the essential record of the year, there’s no question I’d point to Tha Carter III. And then I’d ask the alien if he knows Weezy.

Posted by Mike Denslow at Dec 20, 2008 12:31 PM