Thursday, August 4, 2011

Top 10 Most Underappreciated Albums of the Millennium

I don’t want to come across as some curmudgeon lambasting the Internet; I’m young, hip (questionably), and utilize the ‘net on a daily basis like I’m sure all of you do. While providing excellent access to news, funny pictures, and any video of your choosing, the increasingly important role of the Internet in day-to-day life also has had a profound effect on the music, and specifically hip hop, industry. With artists releasing new music on a weekly, daily, or even (seemingly) hourly basis, music fans in this day and age will never be at a loss when it comes to filling their MP3 players with the latest and greatest tunes.

Yet there are adverse consequences caused by this continuous flood of new music. One issue especially prevalent is the increasing rate with which certain songs, artists, or albums become “obsolete”; as new music gets put rapidly, projects that are initially overlooked and/or misjudged never quite get a fair chance at garnering the appreciation they deserve. They get pushed from our collective conscious at an alarming rate, only to be brought up again in nostalgic conversation.

What I’m getting at here is that this trend of constant replacement of old music with new leads to an influx of underrated or underappreciated material, albums that have far too quickly become disregarded or forgotten. Now, when it comes to hip hop, let me state clearly that I’m not using underrated synonymously with “underground.” I’m more talking about albums that were unfairly maligned upon their release, overshadowed by competitor’s projects, or simply overlooked by the majority of rap fans inundated with too much new material. This list is a compilation of albums that I feel fulfill that definition; if you disagree or think I’m a raving idiot, well, that’s what the comments are for.

10) The X-Ecutioners: Built From Scratch

Some may argue that turntabilism, no mater how exceptional, doesn’t translate well onto record. There is some validity to this assertion, for the lack of the visual of a DJ on the 1s and 2s can make it hard for the uninitiated to fully appreciate the mind-boggling talent that goes into expert scratching. Yet Built From Scratch, the 2002 release from the world famous X-Ecutioners, manages to alleviate this issue by balancing out the purely scratching tracks with rapper collaborations. While this album may be a little skit-heavy, tracks such as “The X (Y’all Know the Name)” featuring Pharoahe Monch, Inspectah Deck, Xzibit, and Skillz and “Dramacyde” with Big Pun plus Kool G Rap are enough to keep lyric fanatics satisfied. This album also earns points in my book for remaking the cheesy 80’s classic “Genius of Love” with Biz Markie doing the vocals and also for including what I think may be M.O.P.’s most under-discussed jam (the raucous “Let It Bang”).

Hit the jump...

9) Invincible: ShapeShifters

Despite earning mostly positive reviews, Invincible’s ShapeShifters is definitely an under-the-radar album for most rap fans. This is a shame, in my opinion, because Invincible is one of the premier lyricists coming out of Detroit (and yes, I recognize the gravity of that statement considering what a hotbed of rapping talent Detroit is). There are very few emcees who can gets as political as Invincible does on tracks like “Spacious Skies” (a critique of America) and “People Not Places” (her unique take on the Israel-Palestine conflict), as emotional on songs like “No Easy Answers” and “Ropes,” and as vicious on track such as “Sledgehammer!” If you missed this short but sweet album the first time around, go back and educate yourself.

8) Freeway: Phiadelphia Freeway

Can an album that went gold really be underrated? I say yes, and Freezer’s 2003 Roc-A-Fella debut is testament to that. The production is out of this world, with Just Blaze, at his absolute peak, producing a majority of the tracks (including my all-time favorite beat of his, “Line ‘Em Up,” and the bangin’ singles “What We Do” and “Flipside”).  B!nk and Kanye get in on the production action  as well (the latter especially shining on “Turn Out The Lights”); I don’t think there’s a weak beat on the album. The deal-breaker, then, is Freeway himself, a rapper that I can’t for the life of me fathom why anyone would not appreciate. His hunger, passion, oddly pitched voice, and all-over-the-fucking-place flow combine to create a charismatic persona that you can’t help but be drawn to. He’s sharpened up his style and refined his flow a bit since his debut, but I don’t think any album captures Freeway at this level of intensity.

7) Diverse: One AM

Listening to Diverse for the first time is certainly an overwhelming experience. His background in slam poetry is evident in his furious barrage of images, creative plays on words, and profound insights, all of which is packaged tightly together in a flow that is seemingly indecipherable in its complexity. But have no fear, this difficulty only ensures further listens, a task any true hip hop fan should be up for when looking at the types of producers who contribute to Diverse’s debut: RJD2, Prefuse 73, and Madlib. ‘Lib provides what I think is one of his masterpiece beats, “Ain’t Right,” which begins with an awesome pan between the left and right channels on your headphones that just has to be heard. A heavy rock influence can be found on the RJD2 produced “Certified,” a guaranteed head-nodder. With minimal but exceptional guests appearances (Vast Aire, Lyrics Born, and Jean Grae), this is an album that is an absolute must-have for your underground collection.

6) Nappy Roots: Watermelon, Chicken, and Gritz

For the life of me I’ve NEVER understood the antipathy towards this album. I’ve heard people say its corny, overly-commercial, too-long, and even “too country bumpkin.” I don’t know what you all are smoking (and could ya hook me up?), but this album is a gem in my book. Yes, maybe “Awnaw” was a little overplayed upon its release (and the album remix, featuring the P.O.D. guitarist, is admittedly awful), but there is plenty more on here besides the main single. All six of Nappy Roots’ original members range from competent to great on the microphone, their disparity in talent balanced out by their chemistry, and approach songs from a variety of angles: grim, humorous, introspective. The listening experience that is far from monotonous; the poppy tracks (including the outstanding “Sholiz”) are balanced out well by the more serious joints (like the single “Po’ Folks”). While reviewers seem to have the tendency to rank their later albums above this one, Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz will always hold a special place in my CD player as perhaps THE most underappreciated southern rap album of the decade.

5) Royce Da 5’9”: M.I.C. (Make It Count)

Yes, this is a mixtape, not an “album.” Sue me; it’s better than a lot of the shit that came out in 2004 (I’d even go as far to say that it far exceeds his official album, Death is Certain). There are a lot of similarities between Royce (one of my favorite rappers) and Vince Carter (one of my favorite, in his prime, NBA players). Both sometimes get, perhaps fairly, labeled as “underachievers” who never accomplished as much as they could with their immense talent, yet both, when on their A game, are unparalleled in terms of making me geek the fuck out. If tracks like “Buzzin’” don’t make you want to smack the shit out of a stranger, then you need your pulse checked. This CD showcases Royce at his best: nimble flow, great punchlines, and venomous demeanor. From the lyrical exercise in referencing childhood games on “Street Says (Street Games),” to informing listeners that they can choose between “a broke nose and an AK” on the Run-DMC sampling “Fuck A Hook,” to showing everyone how to count bars on “52 Bars,” this mixtape is jam packed with highlights. I’ll be beyond pleased if the upcoming Success is Certain is anywhere near the level of this release.

4) Supastition: The Deadline

Clocking in at barely over 36 minutes, The Deadline is a release that I’m sure many unfortunate souls overlooked. With smooth production from the likes of Dela, M-Phazes, and Illmind, the EP is a superb sonic experience front to back. Yet the highlight here is Supastition (who newer fans may know as Kam Moye), a phenomenally talented rapper from Greenville, North Carolina. Not only does he drop some truly hilarious punchlines, like on the tracks “Step It Up” and “Adrenaline,” but he also proves himself equally adept at crafting truthful and self-reflective songs that depict himself as not some affluent, blinged-out thug but as a hardworking everyman who just happens to be gifted on the microphone. His honesty makes him easy to relate to, the type of guy you could imagine kicking back and having a brew with. Songs such as “Fountain of Youth,” “I Remember,” and “If I Knew” sound wonderfully atypical in a hip hop world inundated with braggadocio and a singular focus on stacking money, making The Deadline one of the most refreshing releases of the 2000’s.

3) Wordsworth: Mirror Music

There are very few emcees who can pen a verse as well as Wordsworth, a rap veteran and underground legend whose talent at crafting lyrics justifies his nom de plume. Mirror Music runs a little long, around 76 minutes, but it’s jam packed with excellent tracks from the concept-driven “Twelve Months” (which tells the tale of two down-on-their-luck friends over the course of a calendar year) to the inspirational “Head High” featuring Kenn Starr and Oddisee. Wordsworth is a virtuoso on the microphone; his elaborate rhyme schemes, crisp pronunciation, and smooth flow are all undeniably superb. He’s clearly more intelligent than your average rapper, as anyone who has seen the YouTube video where he “battles” George Bush can attest to, and the music he makes therefore has a more mature or adult feel than many listeners may be accustomed to. This album also scores major points in my book for including the lyrics to every song in the album insert (see, actually BUYING music does pay off you free-loading fools), an addition that aids in further highlighting Wordsworth’s immense skills. Since releasing Mirror Music in 2004, Wordsworth’s only other major release was the uneven group effort with EMC titled The Show, a disappointment to anyone familiar with the high level of quality he is capable of. We’ll hopefully see another solo album of his at some point in the near future; his talents are just too enormous to go to waste.

2) Vakill: Worst Fears Confirmed

Vakill is an absolute monster on the microphone. His ability to incorporate complex, witty, and sadistic punchlines into intricately rhymed verses is almost unparalleled in rap. Seriously, go look up the title track, “Monstaz Ink,” “No Mercy,” “The Confirmation,” and “Flow Fever.” The rhyming ability he displays on these battle-oriented tracks is ungodly; it’ll definitely take you multiple listeners to catch every subtle line and pun (“So many Machiavelli mini-mes in the game, it’s a fuckin’ outbreak of small pox” being one of the more clever use of homonyms I’ve heard). There aren’t many emcees who can outshine Ras Kass and Royce Da 5’9” when it comes to straight spitting bars as Vakill does on, respectively, “Introducin” and “The King Meets the Sickest.” Yet this album is more than just a slew of witty one-liners. Songs such as “Cold War,” “When Was the Last Time,” “Farewell to the Game,” and the haunting “Acts of Vengeance” all demonstrate that Vakill is capable of being just as good of an imagist and a storyteller as he is a battle rapper. The album also flows unbelievably well, thanks in large part to the production of Panik. There isn’t a single track worth skipping; all the beats range from solid to excellent and the rhyming is never less than A+ level throughout. While this album may not break the bass in your car sound system, it will definitely shatter the rewind button on your Walkman (people still use those, right?). It’s a complex listen that isn’t easily digestible, but once you open yourself up to Vakill’s unique brand of gangsta lyricism, you’ll be hooked.

1) Tonedeff: Archetype

For my money, Tonedeff is the best rapper alive. When you think of what makes an individual rapper great, you usually think of one specific characteristic that he has mastered and turned to a trademark. What makes Tonedeff anomalous is that he has every aspect of emceeing down to a science. He can spit a battle verse likely to go over the heads of any competitor (“Case Closed”), rap at warp speed (“Heavyweight”), bring a party from comatose to bumpin’ (“Let’s Go” and “Issawn”), be hilariously self-deprecating (“Disappointed,” an incredible ode to lady woes that contains what is perhaps my all time favorite pieces of rap wisdom: “A ho fucks everybody, a bitch fucks everybody but you”) while at the same time cocky/sleazy beyond words (“Pervert”), and, most impressively, be incredibly heartfelt and touching (as demonstrated on “Children” and the masterful, evocative, personal “Porcelain”). Oh, and did I mention he is a gifted singer and good producer as well? There is not a single weak moment on Archetype, yet it seems to be an album largely ignored outside of the circle of QN5 fanatics. It’s a shame, really, because there are few albums in rap that can literally make you both laugh and cry. While all of us fans sit around patiently for Chico and the Man, his collaboration with Kno, to drop (please please please be this year!), we can thankfully return to Archetype whenever in need of a Tonedeff fix. It’s an album that can be replayed infinitely, one of those album where your personal favorite track will change with each listen depending on your mood and situation in life. I hope to see Tonedeff one day get the full credit he deserves, because Archetype is an undeniable masterpiece.