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Year-End Lists

SPIN’s 40 Best Rap Albums of 2011

(Photo: Johnny Nunez/Getty, Jay/Kanye; J.R. Mankoff, Danny Brown)

We tried our best to chart 2011’s sprawling hip-hop universe in infographic form, we deconstructed the New Underground, we debated “Drizzy: Rap or R&B or Just Plain Annoying?,” and we toured with Odd Future, courageously trying not to add to the number of adults saying “swag” in public. What eventually emerged from that journey was this list of 40 albums: Billionaires bragging about Basquiats and Compton kids telling girls not to wear make-up; Afrocentric avant-poets and trap-rap nihilists; stylish teenage buzzbands and white dudes who were bragging about gray hairs 17 years ago. In other words, we planked on a million records and here’s the result.

December 17th

Trouble is Atlanta rapper Alley Boy’s top henchman, but here’s an interesting twist: Trouble may be the better rapper. December 17th is titled for the day in 2010 when he returned home from jail, and unsurprisingly, Trouble is one of many nascent street-centric rappers struggling to find a foothold in the confession-heavy Drake era. He just may find it, though, since he possesses a sly, confident wit and an ear for booming, galvanizing Waka-sized hooks. In the year when Lex Luger’s gunshot sounds finally took over, it was Trouble and his shell-cocking single “Bussin” that stood out amongst a large group of wave riders. JORDAN SARGENT
Family and Friends

The rogues’ gallery in Serengeti’s rhymes includes a past-his-prime UFC fighter, a bigamist, and a father/son team who bond by shooting dope together. The Chicago rapper illustrates these broken lives by contrasting fanciful details with a matter-of-fact delivery: For “Dwight,” he unfurls a dissolving marriage as a first-person narrator, asking, “What happened to bookstores that would take in a bore? / Beautiful bay windows drawn closed, Eleanor.” Backed by the quirky vocals and winsome indie-pop beats of Why?’s Yoni Wolf and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s Owen Ashcroft, Family and Friends is immersive and poignant, the hip-hop equivalent of a Raymond Carver short-story collection. MOSI REEVES
Kool G Rap
Riches, Royalty, Respect

The greatest rapper who ever copped to working at Key Food in rhyme, Queens legend Kool G Rap claimed his best work back in hip-hop’s fabled late-’80s Golden Age. His 2011 reintro may be centered around Blaxploitation-era tropes, but at no point does a man who’s been cited as an influence by Jay-Z and Biggie sound outdated. Kool G Rap still kicks cinematic street sermons with aplomb and tricky rhyme schemes, but here the intensity of his flow is smartly tempered by production that samples from ’70s soul. It’s hip-hop embracing nostalgia in the right way. PHILIP MLYNAR
J Rocc
Some Cold Rock Stuf

Good thing nobody told J. Rocc that turntablism isn’t cool anymore. On his solo debut, the veteran DJ quietly subverts the expectations for a genre of music forever in the shadow of crate-digging masterpiece Endtroducing… and Return of the D.J.‘s manic scratching and beat-juggling. Here is an addictive full-length mix of dreamy soundscapes, proggy samples and clever diversions into dance (“Party”) and horror-movie mood music (“The Truth”). In a year that found instrumental hip-hop soaking in digital hiss, the glowing vinyl crackle of Some Cold Rock Stuf was a bold, necessary anachronism. BRANDON SODERBERG
Juicy J and Lex Luger
Rubba Band Business 2

Total match made in hell: Three 6 Mafia belter Juicy J’s misanthropism sounds like it comes from a man with nothing left to lose, and as a result, no man is left standing after he sprays threats (and occasionally bullets) all over producer Lex Luger’s demonic bass sproing (women are entirely absent from this hustler’s nightmare). It’s the veteran Memphis rapper’s signature gangsta nihilism, but pairing him with a similarly assertive producer makes the fecklessness of dudes who sound willing to die in the game all the more real. It’s classic bass-and-bazookas music; and apparently Wiz Khalifa thought so too, as he signed Juicy J to his Taylor Gang on the strength. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD
Death Grips

Drummer Zach Hill’s experimental hip-hop project with keyboardist/programmer Andy “Flatlander” Morin and MC Ride is an uncompromising sonic assault ofshouts, bellows, crusty hardcore punk squalls, and astringent digital noise. It outstrips anything Alec Empire could have imagined, eschewing leftist sloganeering for anarchic violence, whether it’s battling the cops on “Klink” or drowning in drugs and sex on “I Want I Need It (Death Heated).” MC Ride is an intimidating, pugilistic force who hardly needs our respect, lyrically. But his gusto garners it anyway. M.R
Gun$ Garcia
Bad Bitches Bomb First

In a year when Nicki Minaj, however formidable, was touted as the only girl, Philly DJ Gun$ Garcia’s compilation showcased some of 2011’s best women rappers ïÃ,¿Ã,½Ã¯Ã,¿Ã,½” maybe rap’s truest underground. Obviously boss Harajuku Barbie is here, but seniors Trina, Rasheeda, and Kandi Burress beast out with some of the new chicks to watch, like Harlem young’n Azealia Banks, millionaire mall-queen Kreayshawn, and teen prodigy Dominique Young Unique. They’ve got disparate styles but mutual power themes, underscoring that some of next year’s freshest stuff is just women bosses reporting for duty, as usual. J.E.S.
Cam’ron & Vado
Gunz N’ Butta

Another year, another Dipset release. More “doggie” and more “sliiiiime” and more coke and more dizzying punch lines and more kinda cringeworthy hashtag raps. But what makes Gunz N’ Butta special, however, is a cohesive feel, as the majority of the production was handled by araabMuzik, whose mix of Italo-horror chimes, human-after-all MPC workouts and blood-boiling blam-blam give this the atmosphere of one relentless, ominous, 59-minute beatdown. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire
Lost In Translation

Brooklyn stick-up kid mentality, lyrical heft of Biggie Smalls, an Ol’ Dirty Bastard slur, and enough Georgi vodka to floor the owner of a Russian bath: Meet Mr. eXquire, and “don’t forget the ‘Muthafuckin'” without that it’s nothin’.” On Lost in Translation, eXquire dreams of being both Sam Spade and the Incredible Hulk to the sound of New York sci-fi ruin, courtesy of producers El-P and Necro. He’ll rob you and blow the money on fried chicken, french fries, and a stack of comic books. Then he’ll hire a porn star for the video shoot. JEFF WEISS
Beastie Boys
Hot Sauce Committee Part 2

Hello Nasty already re-envisioned the tracksuit-clad 1983 that the young Beasties squandered on hardcore, so now they’ve created an alternate, megazooted 1983 that rewards the art-fuck contingent. The trio basically crawl inside Rammellzee and K-Rob’s cult 12-inch “Beat Bop,” stretching its dubby, distorted, feedbacky dementia into a full-length album, their voices constantly spiraling down plate-reverb wormholes and ducking Q-Bert farts. Being their own goony selves, of course, this game of imaginary retromania comes complete with no shortage of funky nonsense (“The proof is in the pudding and the pudding’s in my pants”) and at least one hard-rocker that approximates what “Walk This Way”would’ve sounded like if the trio had joined up with I Against I-era Bad Brains. C.W.
Tity Boi
Codeine Cowboy: A 2 Chainz Collective

The gangly, charismatic artist with a low-key flow and unmarketable name, Tity Boi became one of Atlanta’s more unlikely musical figureheads with the success of last year’s Trap-A-Veli 2 and this year’s Codeine Cowboy. The slow rise wasn’t due to a lack of ability: A rapper as clever as your uncle’s jokes (“Racks on top of racks like I was hanging in a closet”), the-artist-currently-known-as-2 Chainz has scored charting hits with Playaz Circle and witnessed superstardom firsthand as Ludacris’understudy. But in 2011, he turned left, offering up a syrup-laden afterparty vibe and subtle humor. From the slow-jam perfection of “Feelin You” to “Spend It,” which featured the year’s most incessant chorus, Codeine Cowboy put the ATLien out front for the first time. DAVID DRAKE
Marciano + Oh No + Alchemist
Greneberg EP

Intentionally sloppy, defiantly needleworn, warts-and-all sample stew from three dudes who clearly thrive on the sounds of record pops, tape hiss, and degraded YouTube glitches: That’s filth-fidelity beatmaker Alchemist, rare-groove archivist Oh No, and Walkman-ready head-knock machine Roc Marciano. Together in various duo and trio formats for 18 minutes, this EP is a cohesive slurry of wobbling synth noise, seasick breakbeats, and “Sewer Gravy”: Meanwhile, the threesome giddily fiddle with intricate, Tinkertoy rhyme schemes — all pressed to a picture disc, notoriously the worst-sounding vinyl format available! C.W.

J Cole
Cole World: The Sideline Story

Roc Nation affiliate J Cole tackles hard topics (abortion, addiction, patriarchy), but still navigates swaggering, radio-friendly songs with ease. His Trey Songz-assisted “Can’t Get Enough” is one of the year’s sunniest jams, and Cole clearly wants his music to mean a whole bunch to everybody. It’s a lofty, touching goal in an era of rap narrowcasting, and Cole World‘s knotty emotional range proves he’s got a fighting chance. However, it’s the album’s final five songs, aimed squarely at his personal demons, that hit hardest. B.S.
W2 Boy

Working-class G-Side collaborator connects the Huntsville, Alabama group’s ambitious The One…Cohesive to its seething follow-up iSLAND with a manifesto about legal hustling, delivered in the booming, frustrated bellow of a Jeezy-style trap-rapper. The punk-rap dissection of body image on “Society Sayz” is pretty much unprecedented, and the crack-slinger takedown “Simple Economics” (“Y’all ain’t all trapping, somebody’s lying / Because if everybody’s selling it, then who the fuck is buying?”) is at once cutting and hilarious. Rap doesn’t always need to be edifying, but it feels special when a good guy knocks this hard. B.S.
Tyler, The Creator

In a year of dastardly opulence, Tyler’s ragged-edged debut emerged after a meteoric eight months for the Cali collective, and taught a valuable lesson: Ferocity pays. Controversial and divisive even though the Odd Future leader takes the piss out of his “serial killer, rapist” persona in the title track, the alternately funny, contemplative, and provocative Goblin is a testament to the continuing power of hip-hop to make America mad ïÃ,¿Ã,½Ã¯Ã,¿Ã,½” all over Tyler’s beautifully claustrophobic production. Adjusting to newfound success is a theme, too, but the vagaries of fame aren’t all that bad. He’s got a glut of girls because, as noted on the title track, he’s informing them, “I’m Wood Harris.” Sorry, Tyler, you’re probably more famous at this point. J.E.S.
Dayton Family
Charges Of Indictment

Flint, Michigan’s underappreciated splatter-rap icons reunite the group’s founding lineup for their first album since 1995’s What’s On My Mind ïÃ,¿Ã,½Ã¯Ã,¿Ã,½” and it’s appropriately a bloodbath. Still frustrated and fighting to survive in the economically depressed town that Michael Moore uses for documentary fodder, the Dayton Fam pack Indictment with a combinaiton of cop-ducking, snitch-slapping reality rap, and plenty of gruesome horrorcore fantasies. The rumbling, crawling bass bombs and jittery hi-hats make Lex Luger sound Aubrey-soft and the bloodlust of songs like “Prostitute Killa” and “Blood on My Knife”make Tyler, the Creator look like a perfect gentleman. While firmly rooted in serious struggle, Charges of Indictment is still the type of all-caps “fuck everything” rap record that you carve into your school desk. C.W.

In which a rapper from Detroit attempts to rewrite the Bible, at least in hip-hop terms. Tackling Nas’ cherished Illmatic track for track, one-time Slum Village member Elzhi personalizes the lyrics while sticking to the original’s masterful flow patterns. In El’s world, “Memory Lane” isn’t reminiscing about Queens crack kingpins and seeing his man shot for a sheepskin coat; it involves watching Eminem battle at the Hip-Hop Shop and meeting J Dilla. Elmatic is an audacious move, but one that avoids sacrilege by virtue of the same talent that endeared the original to the world: pure, untestable rhyme skills. P.M.

Freddie Gibbs
Cold Day In Hell

Gary, Indiana’s gulliest continues to steal everything from your girl to your chain to your life on his latest gaggle of real-reality gangsta-rap gems. Boasting one of the genre’s most technically proficient deliveries, Gibbs surrounds himself with airy, spacey beats (which complement his usual no-nonsense boom-bap), and an assortment of worthy guests (Alley Boy, new label boss Young Jeezy). Few rappers serve up street struggle stories as convincingly as Gibbs, and this latest batch is his most convincing yet. LUKE MCCORMICK
Inglorious Bastard

Gunplay is a master synthesist, a livewire blend of peak-Gucci Mane lyrical style with the headbanging intensity of Waka Flocka’s exuberant anthems. His entire existence seems like a celebration of excess and intensity, with the goal of making pill-popping foolishness as entertaining as possible. Gunplay’s trampoline flow springs over Lex Luger and Lex Luger-esque beats alike, but he succeeds where others fail by mashing words and images with a distinctive ballistic flair: “I bust her heart / Tell her ‘kiss my ass’ and bust a fart.” DAVID DRAKE
Lincoln Way Nights

Stalley’s got a no-frills style. He’s a frugal storyteller and rarely forces his voice into a growl that’s unnecessarily brusque. It’s something like economy, and it’s perfect for the Ohio-born rapper’s working-class concerns, which are measured and focused, even when he’s playing offense. Lincoln Way Nights‘ “intelligent trunk music” hums with laidback nighttime funk, plaintive emotion, thoughtfulness, and occasional moments of genius ïÃ,¿Ã,½Ã¯Ã,¿Ã,½” “She Hates the Bass,” for one, which makes a hop contest and a shiny donk sound like a late-’80s love song (his girl is jealous). J.E.S.
Schoolboy Q; Ab-Soul
Setbacks; Longterm Mentality

Formed from Watts, Carson, Compton, and Crenshaw, the four members of the Black Hippy crew melds Souls of Mischef with The Chronic, plus a hint of psychedelia. And in 2011, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul practically owned Underground Rap. A former college running back and Hoover Crip, Schoolboy ricochets off beats like he’s breaking tackles, with coiled density and rugged agility. Like the title of Setbacks suggests, Quincy Handley nimbly chronicles the struggle endemic to South Central: Opening cut “Figg Get Da Money” paints a somber portrait of hookers and Colt 45, sherm on every corner and schizos from Vietnam. But he doesn’t forget to take you to the party either. The narcotic bounce of “iBETiGOTSUMWEED” and “Druggy’s Wit Hoes” (feat. Ab-Soul) are equally suited for dorm rooms and dope boys, while “Rolling Stone” even bounces with a Zombies sample. Often overlooked at the expense of the more well-known Hippys, Ab-Soul is an afro-rocking, absinthe-swilling, blunt-waving bundle of energy. On this year’s breakthrough mixtape, Longform Mentality, he fleshes out his self-aware, loose-cannon role, claiming to be Jimi Hendrix missing “his band of gypsies and purple haze.” J.W.
Curren$y & Alchemist
Covert Coup

On Covert Coup, Curren$y manages a sharp, engaging detour from the weedhead blues that he and producer Ski Beatz perfected on the Pilot Talk series. The lo-fi gangsta pulse and intoxicatingly sinister air of Alchemist’s soundscapes inspired the New Orleans spitter to lob his most heartless rhymes to date. “We bust raps like D-boys bust gats,” Curren$y chants alongside newly-freed felon Prodigy on “The Type”; and on “Blood Sweat and Gears,” he trades verses with Dirty South vet Fiend, bragging,”Your bitch stay talkin’ and you steady eavesdroppin’.” The album coolly paints rap life as both a burden and a blessing. M.R.
Shady Blaze
Rappers Ain’t $?#?!?% Without A Producer

Forget a double-time rap, Shady Blaze makes the case for some kind of high-velocity triple-time lyricism on his third mixtape. The Main Attrakionz collaborator stuffs so many syllables into his bars that Twista in his prime would be begging for a rewind. The beats (produced by Blaze, Clams Casino, and a host of others) float around in the same weed-choked atmosphere of his Attrakionz kin, but knock even harder, giving everything a more sinister tone, as his rapid-fire rhymes pinball from conversational observations to ego-boosting to vivid narratives of a rough-and-tumble Cali come-up. L.M.
Cities Aviv
Digital Lows

On Digital Lows, the Depeche Mode and Modest Mouse samples over boom-bap production constitute more than hipster catnip. As the beats begin to unfurl, amped-up, Memphis-bred stoner-spitter Cities Aviv comes through and bodies each darkly hazy track. With a poison-tipped, humor-laced intensity, he bemoans coke lines in dirty bathrooms and compares himself to Super Mario villains, turning a brash debut into a statement that’s both hilarious and menacingly human. L.M.
Clams Casino

After his magic-mushroom comedowns defined the woozy sound of Lil B, producer Mike Volpe self-released this collection of instrumentals that moaned and exploded like slurring electronica. Within months, noisemaker John Xela put out the mixtape on vinyl via his Type imprint and witch-house label Triangle released an EP of original Clams compositions called Rainforest. By the end of the year, frat-bro fave Mac Miller was even rapping over Clams jams on his No. 1 debut Blue Slide Park. This bleary sonic smear barely scans as rap music, but Instrumentals is arguably 2011’s definitive sound. B.S.
Revenue Retrievin’: Graveyard Shift

As the music industry collapsed, Vallejo vet Earl Stevens doubled, then quadrupled down. One part of a four-record onslaught delivered inside of 12 months, Graveyard Shift is the most consistent of E-40’s Revenue Retrievin’ series. There are only two rules: craft and variety. Craft, in that E-40 remains one of hip-hop’s most intricate and acrobatic performers, with a strong eye for detail. Variety, in the sense that each track juts in a new direction, from sugary anthem “Club on Lock” to Tech N9ne feature “Fried,” which sounds like someone attached a car battery to the track before recording. D.D.
Charity Starts at Home

Tastemakers may have rediscovered this former leader of backpack-rap heroes Little Brother thanks to his neo-soul project Foreign Exchange and frequent shout-outs from unabashed fan Drake. But Phonte Coleman never stopped making hearty, soulful hip-hop that sticks to your ribs. Rejoining estranged LB producer 9th Wonder, he builds with Big K.R.I.T. and Pharoahe Monch, addressing strained relationships (“Who Loves You More”) and sympathizing with unemployed folks (“The Good Fight”). As he puts it on “Everything is Falling Down”: “Don’t need a new style / Being dope is always in fashion.” M.R.
Main Attrakionz
808s & Dark Grapes II

Rappers Squadda B and Mondre M.A.N. turned aloof Oakland flow into high art here, flinging trap-savvy lyrics (and the occasional esoteric reference) onto static-charged, often wispy beats. Willfully shambolic and weeded-out, the duo could’ve rested on the laurels of their hypnotic vocals, but unrelenting barbs stand between you and their cushy comfort zone (“Been through it so long, catch a flashback / Radiation in my flow, catch a cataract”). Plus, gangsta talk over a Glasser sample (opener “Bossalinis & Fooliyones Pt. 2”) sounds positively ethereal, all onomatopoeic gunshot clack-clacks in breathless slow-mo. Their debut New York performance was at a contemporary art museum: No problem. J.E.S.
Tennis Shoes & Tuxedos

A one-time No Limit soldier and Mystikal manquïÃ,¿Ã,½, the 35-year old Fiend has been handed new wings by fellow NOLA native Curren$y and rebranded as “International Jones,” hopping out of Master P’s tank to offer throaty champagne toasts. Tennis Shoes & Tuxedos finds him cool as the leather in first class, with his scarred rasp rehabilitated into a Barry White baritone. Aided by Big K.R.I.T. and the Jet Life crew, he harvests a brassy soul feast of Marvin Gaye and Menahan Street Band samples, fantasizing that he’s James Bond, driving Benzes while draped in Dolce & Gabbana. Fiend has never been so smooth or self-assured — somebody get him a line of Beluga blunt wraps. J.W.
Killer Mike

On his fifth album, the Dungeon Family’s minister of information offers eight different rhymes for “Mr. Hannity,” burning churches and threatening cops in the name of equality and justice, with the same pitch-perfect blend of righteous indignation and street swagger that produced southern-rap heroes like David Banner and the Geto Boys’ Willie D. Over a mournful soul croon, Mike Bigga confronts Rockefeller drug laws, pedophile priests, Oprah, corporate takeovers, and money makeovers ïÃ,¿Ã,½Ã¯Ã,¿Ã,½” but don’t mistake him for a didactic hero of hiphoprisy, since he’ll still tear the club up with Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, “sweating hot with your slutty daughters.” C.W.
Mouse On Tha Track
Swagga Fresh Freddie

Trill Entertainment, the Baton Rouge imprint renowned for bubbly, perennially fun gangsta rap that still aims for the gut, has seemingly lost its way after the incarceration of label figurehead Lil Boosie. But as was often hip-hop’s story in 2011: Enter the visionary weirdo producer to make things interesting again. Mouse On Tha Track, best known for manic and melodic hits like Boosie’s “Zoom” and “Wipe Me Down” (featuring Foxx and Webbie), delivered a solid hour of ridiculous, joyous, infectious bounce music, easily living up to that Photoshopped, candy-colored wonderland image on Swagga Fresh Freddie‘s cover. B.S.
DJ Quik
Book of David

Book of David continues a project that David “DJ Quik” Blake started years ago, creating elegant, grown-folks party rap and wedding it to vibrant and sometimes searingly personal lyrics. A restless artistic mind, Quik consistently indulges small-bore experimentalist impulses to keep things intriguing, an act so effortless it seems as if he does it to entertain himself more than any particular audience. But it’s the pure coastal beauty of tracks like “So Compton” that captures what makes his sound magical: an unparalleled ear for wistful melodies and sumptuous grooves. D.D.
Don Trip & Starlito
Step Brothers

Step Brothers is not a commercial album masquerading as a mixtape. There are no singles here, no Lex Luger beats, no R&B singers, or 2 Chainz features. There is rapping, and a lot of it, two Tennesseans driving each other to crack the wittiest punch line, or to just be there when shit gets rough. Step Brothers thrives on insularity: It sounds like a forgotten tape of basement ciphers that someone might stumble upon and release a decade after the two became stars. That is, at least, until the final track, where Lito and Trip spend 15 minutes shredding everyone else’s beats. J.S.
Jay-Z and Kanye West
Watch The Throne

“Niggas hate ballers these days,” says Jay-Z, ruefully. Watch The Throne is an apologia for the one percent, but he and Kanye rebuff #occupiers with Otis Redding in full-blown melisma, then segue into dubstep and ’70s art rock, as BeyoncïÃ,¿Ã,½ promises to take us to the moon. Meanwhile, flashbacks to the pre-Grammy deprivations that the duo endured lie just beneath the grandeur. “If you escaped what I escaped / You’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too,” muses Jay. M.R.
Kendrick Lamar

Pinpointing a generation’s woes (drug abuse, racism, poverty) while avoiding preachiness, 24-year old Comptonite and Dr. Dre protïÃ,¿Ã,½gïÃ,¿Ã,½ Kendrick Lamar may be the most gifted rapper Los Angeles has produced since the Riots. Oscillating from sour-lipped growler to slick-talking seducer, Lamar “penetrates the hearts of good kids and criminals.” Case in point is “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” a six-minute fire-and-brimstone rant over free jazz, where Lamar boasts about baffling people with his ability to discuss “money, hoes, clothes, God, and history, all in the same sentence.” J.W.
Big K.R.I.T.
Return of 4Eva

Much like his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, beat-making auteur Big K.R.I.T. nestled at the midpoint between UGK’s Port Arthur, Texas, and T.I.’s Atlanta. But the second of his three stopover mixtapes since he inked his Def Jam deal reveals some undeniable commercial potential behind this hungry scuffler’s country-rap cassette nostalgia, candy-coated soul samples, and luxurious twang. Whether politically charged, emotionally drained, or just speaking on speakers, every track rides slow and gleams like it’s an international player’s anthem.C.W.
Das Racist

For their first commercial release, this New York meta-rap trio officially move from P’Zone-fueled novelty geniuses to formidable MCs fearlessly traversing the Heart of Snarkness via neon-colored blasts of pixelated ringtone noise, Auto-Tuned chortling, and party-rock anthems. It’s wildly 2011, like a wry Twitter feed of rap-nerd jokes and contemporary hipster runoff. But beyond that, it’s the highest-profile record from an emerging, loosely connected fraternity of rappers (including Despot, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Action Bronson, a newly keyed-up El-P) who represent the most energizing force in New York indie-rap since Def Jux’s heyday. C.W.
Shabazz Palaces
Black Up

Nearly 20 years after dissolving ’90s jazzbos Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler reemerges as the leader of this Seattle collective. Wrapping a black-power fist in a velvet glove, he critiques the white power structure and its supplicants (“Forgot they lynched us,” Butler growls on “Yeah You”), while leading a powwow set to bass drops, Afrobeat percussion, and MPC flurries. They may invoke the fiery nationalism of the Last Poets, but they’re savvy enough to welcome anyone who wants to join the dance. M.R.
The One… Cohesive

Frequently described as a Horatio Alger fantasy, hip-hop is really about self-actualization. So these ‘Bama strivers believed and dreamed of rap stardom while struggling to pay the phone bill. And on The One… Cohesive, they slow-cook country rap over Block Beattaz’s expansive production and scrape the sky. Still, it’s the memories of working dead-end jobs on “Came Up,” dismissing hometown haters on “Y U Mad,” and toiling on tracks in basement studios that form the album’s Dirty South soul. M.R.
Danny Brown

Some Internet-fueled hip-hop hustlers may have struggled to stick out in an abundant 2011 market, but Detroit’s Danny Brown has more singular tics than a professional wrestler. There’s his adenoidal honk of a voice, his Flock of Seagulls waterfall haircut, a deep insight into his hometown’s grittier alcoves, and a knack for verbal gymnastics amid feedback- and noise-flecked beats (one song samples ’70s prog-punk legends This Heat). But above and beyond all that, he simply raps like a motherfucker (occasionally about fucking your mother). C.W.

40. Trouble, December 17th (Duct Tape Ent.)39. Serengeti, Family and Friends (Anticon)38. Kool G Rap, Riches, Royalty, Respect (Fat Beats)37. J Rocc, Some Cold Rock Stuf (Stones Throw)36. Juicy J and Lex Luger, Rubba Band Business 2 (HypnotizeMinds)35. Death Grips, Exmilitary (Self-released)34. Gun$ Garcia, Bad Bitches Blast First (Self-released)33. Cam’ron & Vado, Gunz N’ Butta (E1)32. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Lost In Translation (Mishka)31. Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (Capitol)30. Tity Boi, Codeine Cowboy: A 2 Chainz Collective (DTP)29. Roc Marciano + Oh No + Alchemist, Greneberg EP28. J Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story (Roc Nation/Columbia)27. Kristmas, W2 Boy (Slow Motion Soundz)26. Tyler, The Creator, Goblin (XL)25. Dayton Family, Charges Of Indictment (Hatchet House)24. Elzhi, Elmatic (Self-released)23. Freddie Gibbs, Cold Day In Hell (LRG)22. Gunplay, Inglorious Bastard (Maybach Music Group)21. Stalley, Lincoln Way Nights (Maybach Music Group)20. Schoolboy Q, Setbacks (Top Dawg Ent.);Ab-Soul, Longterm Mentality (Top Dawg Ent.)19. Curren$y & Alchemist, Covert Coup (Jet Life/Warner Bros.)18. Shady Blaze, Rappers Ain’t $?#?!?% Without A Producer (Green Ova)17. Cities Aviv, Digital Lows (Fat Sandwich)16. Clams Casino, Instrumentals (Type)15. E-40, Revenue Retrievin’: Graveyard Shift (Heavy on the Grind/EMI)14. Phonte, Charity Starts at Home (Foreign Exchange) 13. Main Attrakionz, 808s & Dark Grapes II (Mishka)12. Fiend, Tennis Shoes & Tuxedos (Self-released)11. Killer Mike, Pl3dge (SMC)10. Mouse On Tha Track, Swagga Fresh Freddie (Self-released)9. DJ Quik, Book of David (Mad Science)8. Don Trip & Starlito, Step Brothers (Grind Hard/Sittin’Phat)7. Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch The Throne (Def Jam)6. Kendrick Lamar, Section.80 (Top Dawg Ent.)5. Big K.R.I.T., Return of 4Eva (Self-released)4. Das Racist, Relax (Greedhead)3. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up (Sub Pop)2. G-Side, The One… Cohesive (Slow Motion Soundz)1. Danny Brown, XXX (Fool’s Gold)