That guy yawning in the background obvously doesn’t realize he’s in the presence of the guy who made Status Ain’t Hood’s #1 album of 2005’s third quarter
I did this every three months on my old blog, just as a way of keeping track of everything that had come out during that part of the year, helping me sort through everything so it wouldn’t be this huge chaotic pile when I had to throw together an end-of-the-year list. This is, of course, a completely subjective list, way more reflective of my personal preferences than any sort of objective standard of quality that doesn’t exist anyway. It’s been an insanely great three months; I’m amazed that I had no room for Blood on the Wall or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or DJ Quik or the Juan Maclean or Rod Lee or the Slim Thug mixtape.
1. Kanye West: Late Registration. This shouldn’t be a surprise. It has nothing to do with Kanye’s etiquette-smashing telethon appearance or last weekend’s SNL bit where he ran into Mike Myers in the hallway, though admittedly neither of those things hurst this album. The skits are still jarringly awful (though they’re still better than the College Dropout skits), and a few tracks (“We Can Make It Better” in particular) drown under their syrupy, overblown, melodramatic string-section pretensions. The “eighteen years, eighteen years” bit on “Gold Digger” is fucked up, though it’s not even one of the top fifty most fucked up things I’ve heard in rap songs I’ve enjoyed this year. He’s still mostly not as good as his guest rappers. But Kanye West has done something really powerful with this album; he’s made a rap album of tremendous warmth and vision and sweep without forgetting the part where it’s a rap album. Critics have made a big deal about how Jon Brion has given West’s compositions a serious heft and a lighter-than-air grace, and that’s true, but it’s also true that West has brought Brion’s floating chimes and impressionist tones into the service of actual pop songs in ways that not even Fiona Apple could do; he’s grounded them in his burbling drums and moaning soul samples and hardass guest rappers. And Kanye has improved enormously as a rapper himself. His delivery has found a crisp, fluid confidence, and he’s mostly purged his lyrics of “Jesus Walks” condescension and constant references to his broken jaw. He’s also avoided the trap that dorky-ass rappers usually fall into when they become stars where they start talking about moving keys and shooting you in the face (see: Paul Wall). What’s left is a strong and complex and articulate worldview. He loves his mom but still bullshits her about going back to school. He knows diamond-consumption is killing people but can’t let go of the thrill of it. And his rags-to-riches story is still more heartfelt and infectious than that of just about any former drug dealer. Late Registration also has a few hundred smaller treasures (Jay and Nas on consecutive songs, the strings switching the beat up on verse four of “Gone,” the sample that interrupts Common on “My Way Home”), but the real treat is seeing this guy rising to the top without losing his mind, turning rap into what he probably always wanted it to be.
2. Young Jeezy: Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. Jeezy’s nihilism is sort of the flipside of Kanye’s humanism; Let’s Get It is one endless celebration of Jeezy’s drug sales, the album T.I. always should’ve made. Absolutely nothing interrupts Jeezy’s relentless drug talk; there’s precious little remorse or regret to be found, though there’s dejection on “Talk To Em” and tension on “Don’t Get Caught.” Jeezy’s not a good rapper on the level of, say, Mr. Lif or Kurupt or Sadat X, but he’s a great rapper in ways that those guys never could be. He sounds huge and immortal and bulletproof; his greasy rasp sinks into beats and makes them sound like these eternal documents of hardness. He’s the action-movie villain you end up rooting for, just because he’s so much smarter and more interesting and better-prepared than the hero–Dennis Hopper in Speed or Land of the Dead, but with the added weight and desperation of race and class. He doesn’t talk about selling drugs because he likes being evil; he does it because it was one of the only options available to him; there’s revelry and glee in his voice, but there’s also a sort of grim determinism. I can’t really speak on Jeezy as a person (even though I interviewed him and everything), but as a persona, he’s likable and detestable and ultimately fascinating. Musically, Let’s Get It is a towering, impenetrable fortress of glistening surfaces and royal horns and ghostly synth tones and impossibly huge drums, like all the best parts of Just Blaze and latter-day Mannie Fresh and DJ Oomp blended into this regionless, hegemonic thump, only interrupted for the insanely sunny pop insanity of “My Hood,” which will probably be the single of the year if it ever becomes a single (and if Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” never becomes a single).
3. Three 6 Mafia: Most Known Unknowns. I get funny looks every time I let people know that the Three 6 Mafia is my favorite rap group, that their miles-deep ignorant gothic crunk means way more to me than any New York rap, but this isn’t exactly a unique position when you go south of the Mason-Dixon line. On the album’s intro, DJ Paul says that it’s called Most Known Unknowns because the press and the music industry have continued to ignore the group’s contributions to rap music, even though they’ve created a regional empire and left an indelible imprint on the aesthetic of Southern rap. It’s true; slower, heavier Lil Jon tracks like Lil Scrappy’s “No Problem” would be unimaginable without the influence of Paul and Juicy J’s gelatinous horror-soundtrack production. If Three 6 is under-appreciated, it’s probably because their music doesn’t make sense in discrete three-minute chunks. It’s an immersion thing, floating black-hole snarls piling up on each other into this dense, hallucinogenic mass. Even though it’s a great track, I was disappointed when I heard “Gotta Stay Fly,” the album’s first single; it seemed like the group was leaving behind the haunted house for chopped-up Kanye soul. But it turns out that they’re just following a progression they started a few months ago with Me Being Me, the solo album of their protege Frayser Boy. They’ve added a layer of melancholy melody to their heaviness, and so Most Known Unknowns is sad and beautiful in a way that none of their albums has been before. It’s not quite as great as Da Unbreakables, the 2003 album that remains the most complete realization of the group’s aesthetic, but it’s close.
4. Kano: Home Sweet Home. I got a lot of shit for my first post, where I had the nerve to say that Kano had a better live show than Roll Deep. Check the comment section; heads are quick to tell me that I know nothing about grime and that my opinion means nothing. The thing is that they’re basically right. Plenty of critics follow every fluctuation in the grime scene, keeping up with all the chaos and talking about it as the next coming of punk or rap or hardcore techno, the future of music. I’m not one of them; grime isn’t my beat. I think of it as an interesting rap subgenre, compelling evidence of rap’s continuing global takeover and fracturing into regional scenes. From where I’m sitting, it’s produced one great album (Dizzee Rascal’s Showtime) and a handful of great singles and good albums. I don’t seek out every mixtape import; I just don’t like it enough. I’m a rap guy, and that’s why I really, really like Kano. From a rap guy perspective, he’s an amazing rapper, quick and precise and charismatic and fun. I like how he questions his own next-guy status on “Sometimes” and slams bouncers on “Typical Me” and gets all gooey on “Brown Eyes.” And from a rap guy perspective, the production on Home Sweet Home is as varied as it is great: Latin horns and pianos on “Remember Me,” “War Pigs” guitars on “I Don’t Know Why,” goofy big-room house on “Nobody Don’t Dance No More.” And “Ps and Qs” is easily one of the best grime singles I’ve heard, pinpoint fast-rap delivery and casual fuck-yous over this gorgeously breathless laser-ping beat. If more grime sounded like this instead of like M.O.P. bellowing in Jamaican accents over car alarms, maybe I’d pay more attention.
5. Sufjan Stevens: Come On Feel the Illinoise! It took a while for me to really hear this album because I couldn’t get past “Chicago,” simply the best song of the year. “Chicago” is just glorious, an achingly gorgeous epic of smallness, swelling and falling and expanding and just filling the air. The part in the middle where he sings “I’ve made a lot of mistakes” and the choir comes in on the chorus makes breath stop for a second every time. It’s still hard for me to listen to the album without stopping and playing “Chicago” over and over again; it’s what I’m doing right now. But the rest of the album is nearly as full of perfect little string bits and swoony choruses and tingley bells. Illinoise is an indie-pop Late Registration, an album of staggering sweep and ambition that doesn’t sacrifice any of the pleasures of its genre. The simpering, twee cuteness of indie-pop is still fully in effect, and that sounds like a complaint, but it really isn’t, since the escape-from-reality factor is really what I like about indie-pop. Illinoise is the best record of its kind since Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, and it deserves all the laudatory reviews it’s gotten, which is quite an accomplishment since there have been a whole mess of them.