The year in hip-hop was a strangely disorienting one. As I leaf through the year-end summaries appearing on websites and in magazines, all echo the same thing: the genre is no longer chained to the traditions (some would call it stasis) that we knew before, when the mainstream belonged to self-described thugs like 50 Cent and the Roc-A-Fella crew, while the underground belonged to "backpackers" like the Definitive Jux and Rhymesayers camps.
The starkest difference lies in the underground, where the true-school emcees influenced by mid-'90s hip-hop held sway for so many years. Today, indie rap doesn't mean much as a singular ideology and sound. It's the '90s thug-rap revivalism of Roc Marciano and Action Bronson; the swag-rap outsider art of Odd Future and Lil B; the L.A. street aesthetics of the Black Hippy crew (Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul); the smart-aleck New York bohemianism of Das Racist, Junk Science and Homeboy Sandman; the goth-rap of Tech N9ne's Strange Music camp; the Dirty South revivalism of Big K.R.I.T. and G-Side; and even the frat-rap braggadocio of Mac Miller and Chris Webby. And yes, some of the old-school heroes from back in the day -- like Madlib, Aesop Rock and Quannum's Lyrics Born and Lateef -- are still grinding it out. The indie-rap scene of the late '90s and early 2000s was more diverse than we give it credit for: how else could horrorcore rappers like Jedi Mind Tricks and Necro coexist with Jurassic 5 and Mr. Lif? However, the new underground of today seems boundless and ungovernable by comparison.
As the culture changes, we're being forced to adjust our expectations. I've written early and often about the lack of a centerpiece to rival 2010's crop of gems. Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne tried to provide that centerpiece, or what I sardonically described in my review as "the scepter of the hip-hop diaspora." While it's a much better album than I initially gave it credit for, it remained less interesting than the little folks scrambling beneath them, trying to find their voice and making memorable music in the process.
Other fomenting trends reached critical mass. "Neon rap," as rap website Hiphopdx.com snarkily described it, hit the top of the Billboard charts with Pitbull's Planet Pit and LMFAO's Sorry for Party Rocking, after percolating for years with Spank Rock, Kid Sister, the Ed Banger crew and others. The suburban party kids continued to grow in numbers, led by Drake, Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean. Operatic trap-rap beats enjoyed a comeback thanks to producer Lex Luger, and the dream-like beat sequences of Blue Sky Black Death, Clams Casino and Araabmuzik generated critical opprobrium.
Collectively, it sounded like chaos. Last year, I placed my hopes in those aforementioned party kids, but if this year's albums are any indication, they turned out to be somewhat shallow and money-obsessed. (I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.) But I predicted in my 2010 year-end post that hardcore gangsta rap would make a comeback, and that didn't really happen, either, despite a resurgence of interest in vintage Three 6 Mafia and buzz artists like 2 Chainz (formerly known as Tity Boi of Playaz Circle) and French Montana. There were plenty of albums I liked, and I had trouble narrowing this list down to 25. But there were none that I truly loved, and the list order for my favorites could just as easily change tomorrow. As I tried to figure out where the culture was going next, hip-hop in 2011 seemed enigmatic and rudderless, if not necessarily out of control. (Cue EPMD's "Rap Is Outta Control.")
I can't wait to see what happens in 2012.