While year-end, catch-all wrap-ups are common to every musical genre, in no other style of music do they turn into the hand-wringing, "state of the game" examinations that hip-hop seems to provoke. We worry because we care, of course. But at some point, like a thirty-something parent, those of us who are fans should probably acknowledge that the kid is all right. After all, this isn't 1989, when our ten-year-old was about to dazzle us with a new golden age but we couldn't see it yet because he was still just a kid. It isn't 1999, when we worried that our twenty-year-old was running with the wrong crowd, post-Tupac and Biggie. The more we fuss, the more we fret that every crap album or crass trend is going to be the death of our baby, the more ammo we give to those who'd like to believe in just such an eventuality. (Don't think there are any left? Visit a chat board near you.) Overall, the past twelve months have been fairly quiet ones in the hip-hop world. (When the year's probable big story involves Kanye's VMA faux pas, that's telling.) A number of hip-hop titans attempted comebacks, some of them successful and a couple of them listed below. However, while the music was sometimes inspiring, even the triumphs rang a little hollow. To be a star in 2009, in a post-downloads-destroyed-the-music-industry era, just doesn't seem to carry the same cachet as it once did. And, of course, the balkanization of the music world continues apace; with ready access to almost anything, the idea of shared culture seems paradoxically to recede. Nevertheless, the kid is all right. In fact, he's not a kid anymore. He's a 30-year-old adult who, we can rest assured, will be around long after we're gone. Here are ten reasons - not related or thematically coherent reasons, perhaps, but good ones just the same - why.
10. Finale, A Pipe Dream and a Promise (Interdependent Media) The pipe dream here might be that a hip-hop universe splintered into so many factions could fully appreciate the old-fashioned promise of Detroiter Finale's debut, which deliberately harks back to the more integrated, less complicated golden age. Short on flash but full of lyrical and musical substance (including productions by Dilla and the consistently craftsman-like Black Milk), this is an album for everyone who misses hip-hop's heyday, or who wants to experience what it must have been like. 9. Tech N9ne, K.O.D. (Strange Music) Kansas City's Tech N9ne made a statement of sorts with his latest set, which showed impressive sales muscle for an indie rapper and debuted inside the Billboard Top 20. But the real statement can be found within K.O.D., which stands for "King of Darkness" and takes Tech's thoughtful and troubled worldview to its most extreme limits yet on tracks like "Show Me a God." It's a deep, dark trip, inspired by his mother's illness, and probably too long. But unlike Eminem, whose sometimes brilliant Relapse peddled horror-core calculated to offend, Tech seldom seems to bleed his lyric sheet for sheer shock value.
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8. Georgia Anne Muldrow, Umsindo (Some Otha Ship) Granted, this is only about three parts hip-hop (the other seven include stoner soul, stoner jazz and Afrocentric drum circling), but Muldrow and executive producer Dudley Perkins have managed an evocative fusion that all but supplies its own incense. 7. k-os, Yes! (EMI/Virgin) To the literal north, Canadian rapper k-os has been walking a similar line between hip-hop authenticity and indie-rock experimentalism for years. What really recommends Yes!, however, is implied by the exclamation point of its title: the sense that the sometimes dour k-os is having more fun than ever before.
6. Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of Day (Good/Universal Motown) Kanye's video-music-award etiquette may need some work, but his more substantial contribution this year came through his support of Kid Cudi, a Cleveland rapper pursuing a sound on hip-hop's chilly far fringes - farther into the Arctic tundra, even, than West's own glacial 2008 outing, 808s and Heartbreak. The spacey, slo-mo beats and the high-concept trappings (narration by Common; a rock-operatic five-act structure) annoyed some purists, but Cudi's melodic sense rewards patience and justifies his grand ambitions. See our picks for Nos. 5-1 tomorrow.