By William E. Ketchum III
2011 was an explosive year for hip-hop, ushering in several blockbuster albums, as well as some truly dynamic projects that flew under the radar. Fans were treated to a monumental collaboration from two of the biggest names in the genre, a thought provoking independent LP from an up-and-coming Compton rapper, a compilation disc that boasted countless hits and, of course, the fourth installment of a classic album series that instantly went platinum. Below are RapFix’s top five picks for the Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2011, listed in no particular order.
Lil Wayne -Tha Carter IV
Tha Carter IV received mixed reviews from music critics, but numbers don’t lie. Sure shot singles “How To Love” and “She Will,” along with memorable guest appearances from the likes of Andre 3000 and Tech N9ne, propelled the fourth installment of Wayne’s definitive album series to platinum sales within two weeks of its release. The LP was lead by the smash single "6 Foot 7 Foot" and its accompanying video, which found the New Orleans rapper taking inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” for his first post-prison filming. Then factor in Weezy’s "I Am Still Music," which kicked off months before C4 dropped, ended this winter and grossed $47 million in the United States alone. Wayne gave the people what they wanted this year, and fans spoke loud and clear for the Martian in 2011.
Drake - Take Care
On his sophomore album, Drake does a concrete job of fully establishing his identity, after giving fans a sampling on his debut Thank Me Later in 2010. Noah “40” Shebib leads the production, arming Drake with another set of the crew’s signature, moody sound beds and Drizzy himself delivers with melodic coos and multi-syllabic rhymes about wayward romance, the pitfalls of fame, and looking after his family and loved ones. It was never broken, so Drake didn’t fix it—but he refined his formula just enough to keep moving forward. Oh, and Just Blaze’s backdrop for “Lord Knows” is a top beat of the year.
Rick Ross and Maybach Music Group - Self Made Vol. 1
Rick Ross used 2011 to ensure that his Maybach Music Group team could start eating the same way he was, and Self Made Vol. 1 was Thanksgiving dinner. “Tupac Back” and “I’ma Boss” provided a platform for Meek Mill to make a strong campaign for rap’s rookie of the year, and Wale’s unexpected symmetry with the group lead to a successful solo disc this fall. Ross still steered the ship with his husky mic presence, and guest appearances and production from the likes of J. Cole, Curren$y, and Just Blaze only seal the deal.
Kendrick Lamar - Section.80
On his independent album Section.80, Compton emcee Kendrick Lamar employs a unique flow and a sound all of his own to craft a cohesive, stirring thesis of the affects that drug abuse, lax parenting, poverty and other detrimental factors have had on his generation of "80s babies." The 24-year-old’s clinic of lyricism, songwriting and cohesion, especially without any major rap features and his own production team, earned him a legitimate fan base and a spot on Drake’s upcoming “Club Paradise” tour.
Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne
Jay-Z and Kanye West made history on their own terms with Watch the Throne, deftly walking the line between innovation and carrying on tradition. During an exclusive interview with MTV News for his "Runaway" video, Ye first revealed that the project had morphed from an EP into a full length album. The duo pushed their creativity by rhyming over genre-bending soundbeds like “Who Gon Stop Me,” but revisited the soul samples of their heyday with “Otis.” Up-and-coming producers like Hit-Boy got new calling cards with “Ni--as In Paris,” while legends like Pete Rock, RZA and Q-Tip made their own mark with memorable contributions. Lyrically, Kanye and Big Brother Hov tag-teamed everything from braggadocio and family (“New Day”) to black-on-black crime (“Murder To Excellence”) and skewed standards of beauty (“That’s My Bitch”), with their own success as the motif for their message. Add in a buzzworthy, lock and key recording process that avoided leaks, with a groundbreaking tour, and Watch the Throne ably lived up to the hype.
Honorable Mention: Game - The R.E.D. Album
The Game didn’t have the ubiquitous radio presence and street buzz that he usually carries, but 2011’s The R.E.D. Album showed that he still has the product that pays the bills. The Los Angeles native enlisted top notch producers (DJ Khalil, Cool & Dre, Pharrell, Maestro, Hit-Boy) and buzzworthy cameos (Drake, Rick Ross, Lil B, Tyler the Creator), while showcasing his still-sharp rhyming and narrative skills. This made for another worthy addition to his catalog.