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' 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 2003, his shadow continues to lengthen.
This past year, many tried to escape it, and they all failed. Kanye West delivered a second album that couldn't meet the crushing hype he created himself, 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"). 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 resultant 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.
1. The Go! Team, Thunder, Lightning, Strike (Columbia): For the second year in a row, it took an act from the U.K. 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-ever song.
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.
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7. David Banner, Certified (Universal): Here's a guy who has made three excellent albums, two of them Top 10 hits. He's not only a fearsome mic presence, but is perhaps 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 Katrina victims.) Is he still underrated because he comes from Mississippi, or simply as a result of his 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 U.K. 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 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?