5. DOOM, Born Like This (Lex) The man behind the metal mask, Daniel Dumile, emerges from a mysterious exile to turn in his best effort since 2004's Madvillainy collaboration with Madlib. The dense verbiage and the beats (some of them reclaimed from the late J. Dilla) are familiar, but DOOM's time away helps make them seem fresh again. 4. X-Clan, Mainstream Outlawz (Suburban Noize) Understand this primarily as an endorsement of Brother J, one of the most underappreciated MCs in hip-hop history. Granted, he's created some of his own problems through his choice of subject matter (black nationalism being just one), but if you're talking sheer mike presence, Brother J's peers are a pretty small group. Thus the return of X-Clan is welcome, even in this restructured mode. "These fools want bells and whistles," Brother J sneers on "Primetime Lyrics," and indeed, he fails to deliver; instead, this is a no-frills, rock-solid return for fans of old-fashioned boom-bap.
3. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II (IceH2O/EMI) Wu-Tang Clan mainstay Raekwon managed something even more improbable: He finally followed up his now-legendary 1995 debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, reclaiming the sequel from years of anticipation and West Coast purgatory (at one point, it was to have been an Aftermath release) and releasing an album that picks up right where he left off a decade and a half ago. That means cinemascopically intricate tales of the drug trade. Many have worked this seam since, but few have done it better. 2. Wu-Tang Clan, Chamber Music (Koch) Look back on press coverage of just about any Wu-related project of the past decade or so and a thematic thread will reveal itself: how much the album in question sounds like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the group's 1993 debut. It's easy to understand why: That disc remains one of hip-hop's most enduring texts. But its blend of late-night menace and kung fu mysticism has never been equaled, and some writers (this one included) have strained mightily to hear its echo in subsequent Wu-Tang projects, even when the evidence ultimately suggested otherwise. Despite its brevity (about 35 minutes) and the presence of only five Clan members, Chamber Music has more than just a titular connection to the Wu's finest moment. Live musicians lovingly re-create the sample-heavy Shaolin grooves, and Ghostface and the RZA bring most of the mystical message. This is not just a deliberate homage to the sound that launched an empire; it's a successful one, too.
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1. Antipop Consortium, Fluorescent Black (Big Dada) There were certainly bigger names who re-entered the fray in 2009, but perhaps no comeback was as welcome as this reunion of hip-hop's authentic punk-rockers. Having extended the middle digit to convention in numerous prior instances, Beans, M. Sayyid, High Priest and Earl Blaize did on Fluorescent Black what all great artists do: They found a way to make their art accessible without losing their sense of adventure. So if 'Volcano" sounded like the left-field hit that the group's 2002 single "Ghost Lawns" never quite became, you could flip to the rawer-than-raw freestyle "Dragunov" and the orchestral techno of "Timpani" for reminders that APC can still be as AP as it needs to be.