I’m not going to claim to be an expert on hip-hop, but in 2011 I listened to more hip-hop than ever before. I found some new acts, as well as building my appreciation for some rappers I had underrated before. So here’s my top 10 hip-hop/rap/R&B albums of 2011. If something is missing from the list, it’s probably because I didn’t get around to listening in the first place.
Maybach Music Group – Self Made: Vol. 1
Self Made is essentially a label sampler for Rick Ross’s Maybach Music, and heavily features Rick, Wale, Pill, and Meek Mill. As a result, it’s inconsistent and not all 15 songs hit the mark, however the highs are worth listening to – especially the raspy ‘Tupac Back’ and the amusing ‘Pacman’. ‘By Any Means’ showcases Ross’s wordplay (“on the Bible, you Koran, but you can’t hide” being the highlight), but like the rest of the record, may be too gritty for fairweather fans.
Talib Kweli – Gutter Rainbows
His most accessible album yet, Gutter Rainbows may well be the best thing Kweli has put out to date. It’s not as over-prouduced as his earlier cuts, and free of the reigns of label pressure, Kweli sounds like he’s finally having fun.
J. Cole – Cole World
I first found J. Cole through Kanye West’s Good Fridays last year, but was underwhelmed by his Friday Night Lights mixtape. However, with No I.D., Jay-Z, and Missy Elliott having an input in his debut album, he’s made something that lives up to his massive potential. And in “I love it when you give me head, hate it when you give me headaches” he’s written the line of the year.
Pharoahe Monch – WAR
We are Renegades continues the P. Monch tradition of trying to jam in everything. But thanks to his clever barbs and his killer flow, he wraps it all together perfectly.
Saigon – The Greatest Story Never Told
Don’t worry, there’s no cameos from Turtle or E, instead there’s great guest appearances from Jay-Z and Faith Evans. Saigon himself claimed that this is the best album of the last 20 years. He’s off the mark on that one, but despite that TV background, he’s not as far off as you’d expect.
Danny Brown – XXX
It took me a few listens to get into XXX, the debut from Detroit rapper Danny Brown, but when I did, I began to appreciate the cleverly complex rhymes he spits on the 19 tracks here.
The Weeknd – House of Balloons
Featuring some of the best samples of the year, the Weeknd reached the masses with this free mixtape back in March. It’s much better than most major label releases, and despite being more downbeat than most R&B, it’ll keep you coming back for more.
Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Lead single ‘H.A.M.’ indicated that the Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration was destined to fail. It seemed stale and dated, but then we heard ‘Otis’ – the ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ sampling hip-hop song of the year. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all. Watch the Throne is half-decent, half-brilliant, but with highs as good as ‘Lift Off’ and ‘No Church in the Wild’, it’s good enough for me.
Childish Gambino – Camp
Another television star, but this one with a star in the ascendancy. He’s shown us clever rhymes on Community, but Donald Glover’s fourth album was so much better than I could have expected. At times personal, but mostly wry and witty, Camp is a triumph from start to finish. And it would’ve been the best hip-hop album of 2011 if it wasn’t for…
Frank Ocean – Nostalgia Ultra
A member of the uber-crass collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, Frank Ocean rises above OFWGKTA’s childishness, and with this free mixtape released one of the best albums of the year. Regardless of genre. It has a straight-up R&B feel, and is unbelievably slick for a self-release. The best part of it all is the samples: Radiohead, Coldplay, MGMT, and even the seminal ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles. But Ocean does it all so well that he transcends the originals.