Looking Back at a Decade of Indie-Acceptable Hip-Hop Tokenism

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Remember that festival line-up formula jpg that did the rounds a couple of years back? It sets out a hilarious generic line-up by categorizing the type of bands you find on every festival bill (“increasingly mainstream headliner,” “good headliner playing shitty latest album,” “fat bearded jam band,” “African tribal music everyone will clap politely for,” etc). Anyway, we got to thinking that a similar formula applies to end-of-year best album lists — and, specifically, that there’s always precisely one token hip-hop release lurking in or around pretty much every rock-centric top ten. Join us as we embark on a retrospective of the last ten years’ worth of such albums, and ponder what it all means.

2002: The Streets — Original Pirate Material

Eminem’s best days had gone by 2002, but fans in search of a rapper with a similarly dry wit (and similarly colored skin) only had to look across the Atlantic, where slyly witty Brummie Mike Skinner was getting dubbed “the British Eminem” left, right, and center in the UK press. The hype soon spread to the USA, and Original Pirate Material was by far the US indie world’s favorite hip-hop album of 2002 — Pitchfork published an apparently serious review that claimed “it should come as no surprise that the British, notorious for chewing on our music before spitting it back over the Atlantic in a shiny, new form, have also turned their sun-starved faces to the arena of hip-hop,” suggesting that the work of Roots Manuva, Massive Attack, Coldcut, etc. had never crossed the desk of Overlord Schreiber. Anyway, this fulfils a couple of recurrent criteria for indie-acceptable hip-hop: he’s credible without being, y’know, scary; he’s socially conscious without being mawkish; and his lyrics are exotic enough to be interesting to skinny suburban kids, but also relatable enough to keep everyone interested.

Honorable mentions: N*E*R*D — In Search Of…, Missy Elliott — Under Construction, Eminem — The Eminem Show

2003: Jay-Z — The Black Album

Earlier this year, we did a post on a selection of artists who we considered to have been influential on the development of music in the 2000s. One of them was Jay-Z, although as we noted at the time, this wasn’t so much for his music as for his ubiquity, and his ability to break outside genre boundaries to appeal to a wider audience than some of his arguably musically superior contemporaries could ever hope for. (Quite how he manages this is a mystery — after all, he and Kanye West have just released an album wherein they basically spend an hour rapping about how rich they are, and somehow people are buying it instead of calling him the hip-hop Mitt Romney.)

Anyway, there’s no doubt that the indie world loves him — while The Black Album can probably be judged retrospectively to be inferior to both his previous work (The Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt were better) and some of the year’s other hip-hop releases (in particular, Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below), at the time, this was the hip-hop album that you were definitely supposed to like.

Honorable mentions: Outkast — Speakerboxxx/The Love Below; Dizzee Rascal — Boy in Da Corner; The Roots — Phrenology

2004: Kanye West — The College Dropout

The other thing we noted about Jay-Z in our influential artists post was that the musicians he championed tended to go on to bigger and better things. Kanye West benefited hugely from his appearance on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, and The College Dropout enjoyed similarly broad appeal — shit, even Rolling Stone named this their best album of 2004. You can see why indie kids like it — West eschews gangsta clichés for pop culture references, snappy wordplay, and a healthy dose of humor, while also retaining a sufficient amount of… street cred, for want of a better term. Also, his ego hadn’t assumed galactic proportions yet.

Honorable mentions: Eminem — Encore; Lil Wayne — Tha Carter; Jadakiss — Kiss of Death

2005: M.I.A — Arular

It’s worth remembering what a fascinatingly outlandish figure M.I.A cut in 2005, all streetwise rapping, iconoclastic posturing and political rhetoric. The fact that she was also half of an unfeasibly attractive and cool couple (the other half, of course, being Diplo) didn’t exactly hurt, either. For a brief period, she looked like the future, and you can understand why pretty much everyone got swept up in the hype. That the whole thing may well have proven a triumph of style over substance shouldn’t be a cause for rewriting history. (And Arular is still a pretty great record.)

Honorable mentions: Kanye West — Late Registration; Common — Be; Missy Elliott — The Cookbook

2006: Ghostface Killah — Fishscale

2006 was a strange year for hip-hop — apart from the obligatory Jay-Z release, there were no huge crossover records for the indie world to latch onto. There was, of course, Nas’s provocatively titled and generally excellent Hip Hop Is Dead, but sadly NYC’s finest MC is one of those artists who seems destined to be largely ignored outside the world of the hip-hop cognoscenti. Instead, the indie world latched onto Ghostface Killah’s sprawling drug dealer concept album Fishscale, with Pitchfork giving it 9.0 and calling it an album that’d “turn off casual listeners even as it intoxicates hip-hop purists.” They were dead right, in our opinion, which makes it all the more curious that this album attracted such acclaim.

Honorable mentions: Lupe Fiasco — Food & Liquor; The Roots — Game Theory; TI — King

2007: M.I.A — Kala

The M.I.A juggernaut rolls on. Who could have predicted that it’d be derailed a couple of years later by a combination of Lynn “Hatchet” Hirschberg, a Governor’s Island thunderstorm, a bowl of truffle fries, and a montage of faux YouTube videos?

Honorable mentions: Jay-Z — American Gangster; Lil Wayne — Da Drought III; El-P — I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

2008: Lil Wayne — Tha Carter III

As we’ve discussed, it’s easy to see why some rappers are attractive to indie kids. Others, though… Quite why the indie world embraced Tha Carter III with such gusto is an interesting question. There’s the argument that deep down, inside every Pitchfork devotee there’s a frustrated lover of pop music struggling to get out. And there’s also a definite element of car-crash fascination to Wayne himself, with his facial tattoos, prison sentences and narcotized croak, something that seemed to intrigue critics (“He might’ve scored the year’s best record if he’d been more technically precise or thematically coherent,” opined Spin, who dubbed this record their second-favorite of 2008, “but then we wouldn’t have been as endlessly mesmerized — or implicated.”)

Still, three years later, we have to say that listening to this album remains a generally bewildering experience — the metal riffs! The Auto-Tune! The Hummer limo! The bit where he rhymes “venereal disease” with “menstrual bleed”! The song about Wayne accidentally shooting himself while playing with a gun and looking himself in the mirror! When he was 12!

Honorable mentions: Kanye West — 808s and Heartbreak; Flying Lotus — Los Angeles; The Roots — Rising Down

2009: Raekwon — Only Built for Cuban Linx… Pt II

Cf. 2006. It seems that in fallow years when there are no standout releases to be hyped to death, when the question of what to include in the end-of-year list comes around, the answer is “a relatively obscure but thoroughly worthy Wu-Tang related release.”

Honorable mentions: Jay-Z — The Blueprint 3; Drake — So Far Gone; Eminem — Relapse

2010: Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Of course.

Honorable mentions: Drake — Thank Me Later; Nicki Minaj — Pink Friday; Flying Lotus — Cosmogramma

2011: Drake — Take Care

Not all the end-of-year lists are out yet, but we’re tipping Drake to be this year’s contender. He ticks pretty much all the boxes: his songs are full of the same pop sensibility that characterizes everyone from Lil Wayne to M.I.A, and he’s cuddly but apparently credible to boot. The #5 slot on Pitchfork’s album of the year list? Sure, we’ll put $10 on that.

Honorable mentions: Kanye West & Jay-Z — Watch the Throne; The Roots — Undun; Tyler, The Creator — Goblin