Thunder, Lightning, Strike: The Go! Team's 
    antidote to hip-hop cynicism.
Thunder, Lightning, Strike: The Go! Team's antidote to hip-hop cynicism.

Hip-hop, Year Two AJ

If hip-hop had a theme song in 2005, it wasn't "Gold Digger" or "Lose Control" or "Candy Shop," or any tune that contained Mike Jones's phone number. Instead, it was that old standard by the original rapper himself, Lou Reed: "I'm Waiting for the Man." The man in this case being Jay-Z. All claims (including his own) to the contrary, he was never the Greatest of All Time. He was, however, the greatest rhymer of his era, and although he more or less left the game in '03, his shadow continues to lengthen.

This year, many tried to escape it, and they all failed. Kanye West delivered a second album that couldn't meet the crushing hype he himself created, then made a memorable television appearance that illustrated the difference between speaking truth to power and speaking directly out your ass (see "Hip-hop Trends in 2005," below). Common, one more Electric Circus away from packing his major-label tent and joining the indie carnival, recorded a handsome comeback that nevertheless grew more snoozable every time it spun. And no one is going to confuse 50 Cent with a great MC, even if he peddles a copy of his next album to every single human on the planet -- and he's a brilliant enough marketer that you can't rule it out.

Of course, the complaint here is valid only when considering the big picture. A tighter focus reveals hip-hop thriving in dozens of niches. And even if none of the resulting albums can completely refute the sense that, as a whole, the genre is still stuck in a holding pattern, each suggests a different, dazzling future for this always-mutating musical form.


Hip-hop year-ender

1. The Go! Team, Thunder, Lightning, Strike (Columbia): For the second year in a row, it took an act from the UK to demonstrate what's missing from so much American hip-hop. In 2004, it was the storytelling of the Streets' Mike Skinner; this time around, it's London's Go! Team providing a reminder of the days when the music could still be innocent fun -- a time no one under 25 could possibly recall. Much has been written about how Thunder, Lightning, Strike seamlessly amalgamates brassy '80s TV themes and sentimental '70s pop, but not enough has been said about the way it affirms the simple pleasures of those cynically handled genres. There's more happiness on this record than in 12 months of thuggery and bling. And no one should apologize for reveling in the Go! Team's joy.

2. Kanye West, Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam): The inevitable and inevitably unflattering comparisons to The College Dropout aside, you can't ignore an album whose musical (and occasional lyrical) ambition places it above 98 percent of the competition, and the collaboration with chamber-pop jeweler Jon Brion was truly inspired. Is Kanye still a genius? Yes, just ask him! Trouble is, he has become a patently unlikable one.

3. Atmosphere, You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having (Rhymesayers): Slug's success as the first emo-rap pinup has spawned a cottage industry of imitators, and the inevitable backlash really hit home with this album. (He didn't do himself any favors with the ham-handedly ironic title.) Few disagreed about producer Ant's killer beats, which reference old-school inspirations like Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane, but Slug's lyrics were subjected to withering scrutiny. For the most part, they can stand it -- "Little Man," which nakedly details two generations of parental failings, might be his best song ever.

4. Serengeti, Gasoline Rainbows (Day By Day): While we're talking about the widely discredited term "emo-rap," however, this is one album for which the description really makes sense -- and that's meant in the best possible way. There isn't a trace of self-consciousness on this brilliant disc, allowing Geti (Chicago's David Cohn) to do damn near anything he wants. Part eclectic hip-hop, part catchy indie rock, part humorous observations, part heartbreaking confessions, it's one of those rare releases that seems to grow with you, as well as on you.

5. Brooke Valentine, Chain Letter (Virgin); Amerie, Touch (Columbia): These records, each knee-deep in deserving singles, tie for the title of the year's best party album. Whether you preferred Valentine's sophisticated crunk-and-B, or Amerie's Grammy-worthy turn as Best Substitute Beyoncé, you couldn't go wrong. And both albums scored (largely unnoticed) points against the prevailing image of the female puppet performer; each woman co-wrote much of her own material.

6. Buck 65, This Right Here Is Buck 65 (V2): This right here is an introduction-to-America compilation of Canadian MC Rich Terfry's best work. But it fits together amazingly well and shows why his style -- which takes every dusty folk-rap idea of Beck's to its logical conclusion -- has already made him a star on the Continent.

7. David Banner, Certified (Universal): Here's a guy who has made three excellent albums, two of them Top Ten hits. Not only is he a fearsome mike presence, but he may be the best producer in the South, taking crunk into inventive realms where most apparently fear to tread. (Plus, while he seconded Kanye's Katrina screed, he's also done admirable work raising money for the hurricane's victims.) Is he still underrated because he comes from Mississippi, or simply as a result of being confused with lesser Southern artists? You decide. Just listen first.

8. Various artists, Run the Road (Vice): Last year, the Streets and Dizzee Rascal showed British hip-hop had not only come of age but had, in some ways, surpassed its American ancestor. This collection of greatest grime hits from the UK is proof that there's plenty more where those two came from, if stateside listeners will ever be ready for grime's Cockney slang, cell-phone electronica and an enthusiasm that's all too rare on this side of the hip-hop pond.

9. Muggs and GZA, Grandmasters (Angeles): Just because nearly every reviewer who liked this bicoastal collaboration called it "the best Wu-Tang album in years" doesn't mean that description isn't true. Muggs expertly adapts his blunted beats to the spooky Staten Island soundscapes favored by the GZA, a truly great MC who had been MIA for far too long.

10. why?, Elephant Eyelash (anticon): This spot could have been filled by Edan's Beauty and the Beat, the Woodstock rock-rap fusion Common's Electric Circus should have been. So why give it to why?, now a full-fledged band with a harmony-filled album that has as much in common with Apples in Stereo as Aesop Rock? Because it's a great record that deserves to be on some "best of" list this year -- why not this one? -- Dan Leroy

Hip-hop Trends in 2005

On the surface, 2005 was another banner year for hip-hop. There were at least a couple of classic albums (Beanie Sigel' s The B. Coming and Kanye West's Late Registration) and a slew of great ones (Madlib's The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, Young Jeezy's Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 and the Game's The Documentary) and a steady procession of club-banging singles (Trina's "Don't Trip" and Ying Yang Twins' "Wait [the Whisper Song])" as well as weepy ghetto ballads (G-Unit's "Hate It or Love Ut" and Damian Marley and Nas's "Road to Zion").

But beneath the surface there was an underlying restlessness, a cultural and an aesthetic agitation that was both hidden and violent. The nation's crumbling political situation added a certain postmillennium tension, but there was also a collective desire for the genre to move beyond 2004's crunk and pop-hop template. Some looked to hip-hop stepchildren such as grime, one-drop reggae revivalism and reggaetón, while others banked on the emergence of the new and exciting scene in Houston to liven things up. In this spirit, let's examine the three major trends that shaped this year in hip-hop.

Still Tippin': The emergence of H-town rap. Yeah, "Still Tippin'" is two years old and (at this point) more played out than R. Kelly's last girlfriend. But when hip-hop historians look back at 2005, chances are that it will be remembered as the year that H-town rap broke. Sure, our fair city's hip-hop scene was poppin' long before the Geto Boys put the South on the map with 1991's "My Mind's Playin' Tricks on Me," but though great and even innovative music had been coming out of the region from artists such as DJ Screw and UGK, Houston rap was viewed as too insular, too esoteric and just too Southern.

But all that changed with "Still Tippin'." The song introduced Houston's new rap vanguard -- Paul Wall, Slim Thug and Mike Jones -- and though it wasn't technically screw music, its austere synth swells and simple yet menacing beat did seem to announce the arrival of a new hip-hop aesthetic. The corresponding video was the icing on the cake. The video's grainy, low-budget look and communal focus seethed an unearthed, underground vitality that was reminiscent of Dr. Dre's 1992 classic "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang."

The promise of "Still Tippin'" went largely unfulfilled. Unlike Dre's early-'90s Cali revolution, Houston would neither largely reconfigure how hip-hop sounds nor produce any genuine superstars. Sure, Bun B's Trill was great, but it paled in comparison to his earlier UGK material. And Mike Jones's Who Is Mike Jones was little more than a series of marketing gimmicks disguised as an album. Though Slim Thug's Already Platinum was decent enough, with most of the production duties handled by the Neptunes, it wasn't exactly an H-town album. And after all the excitement and hype that followed Paul Wall, it was disappointing to discover on The People's Champ that he was merely a mediocre rapper with a shiny grill. In the end, Houston felt like more of a pleasant diversion than a genuine transformation.

Stop snitching! Hip-hop goes to jail. In 2005, it seemed as though every week another hip-hop figure was getting arrested, going to jail or whining to the hip-hop press about the bias of judges or the unfairness of his parole hearing. Philly MC Cassidy celebrated his first Top Ten hit -- the infectious early-summer jam "I'm a Hustla" -- by allegedly going on a killing spree in his old neighborhood. After foisting the noisome "So Icy" on an ice-saturated public, Atlanta MC Gucci Mane was arrested not once, but twice -- first for murder and later, in Miami, for aggravated assault. And while Beanie Sigel's The B. Coming may have been criminally overlooked by fans, he certainly wasn't ignored by the law. By the time his album dropped in March, he was in jail for a litany of charges too extensive to list in just one edition of this paper.

Whew. And the beat goes on…Meanwhile, the angels at Murder Inc. (home to Ja Rule and Ashanti) were indicted on money-laundering charges involving '80s drug lord Supreme McGriff; over in Texas, UGK's Pimp C remained behind bars for brandishing a firearm; and up-and-coming Miami rapper Dirtbag returned to jail for violating his probation.

But it was Lil' Kim's perjury case that took the cake. During her trial, she denied being at the scene of a crime despite numerous eye witnesses and a surveillance tape that clearly demonstrated otherwise. It was the tragically logical conclusion of the "Stop Snitching" campaign that has become hip-hop's unofficial motto.

But it's too simple to throw up your hands and declare that "rappers are out of control. " The truth of the matter is that rap listeners are just as culpable as rap artists. What qualifies as bad behavior for most of the world is considered proof of authenticity by an increasingly jaded hip-hop audience. Do you have multiple bullet holes on your body? A rap sheet longer than Infinite Jest? Do you wear a bulletproof vest and carry a firearm at all times? If you want to be in the hip-hop industry, you might consider moving all these things to the top of your to-do list. After all, it's a lot easier to blast a cap in some fool's ass than it is to write a classic verse.

What Kanye said. Yes, we know. The subject of Kanye and Katrina has been covered ad nauseam, and nothing that we're going to say here is likely to change your perception of it. But regardless of how you feel about what he said, you have to give West credit for reintroducing mainstream hip-hop to politics. (Or is that politics to mainstream hip-hop?)Sure, hip-hop's underground ghetto is a breeding ground for scorching polemics -- this year alone saw the release of the Perceptionists' Black Dialogue, Immortal Technique's Revolutionary Vol. 2 and Sage Francis's A Healthy Distrust -- but their messages are generally either convoluted by an esoteric and self-defeating focus on "inside baseball" hip-hop politics or lost in a choppy miasma of bad beats and/or nonexistent distribution.

In contrast, what Kanye said was clear, simple and nearly ubiquitous. And while most of the focus was on West's condemnation of Bush, it was perhaps more important that he confronted the still-taboo issue of race in America. It's revealing that for the West Coast rebroadcast of the program, his comments were edited out. To paraphrase Ice T, we have freedom of speech just as long as we watch what we say, and when rappers step out of line -- when they stop talking about bling, bitches, pimpin' and hoin' -- then the censors will swoop in. And as hip-hop grows more violent and restless, West may very well be the music's last, best hope and the most dangerous man in the industry. -- Sam Chennault


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