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Best Albums of 2011: Hip-Hop and R&B

Hip-hop and R&B had a big showing in 2011, with the genre controlling the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 for about 12 non-consecutive weeks by 11 different artists. Take that, country music! There was a lot to sift through when compiling The BoomBox’s Best Albums of 2011 list, and it seemed at times that the genre had multiplied at the speed of a gremlin in water. Indie rap made a big showing this year, several lyricists plagued with label issues finally got their albums released and veteran MCs made surprising comebacks.

This year-end list is compiled of hip-hop and R&B albums released Jan. 1 through Nov. 16, 2011, so albums like Rihanna’s ‘Talk That Talk’ and the Roots’ ‘undun’ didn’t make the cut. This list does not include EPs — sorry, Bad Meets Evil — or mixtapes — The Weeknd, Lil B, Big Krit, Frank Ocean & Kendrick Lamar — we’re waiting for that proper studio debut. But, above all, we feel that this list of 16 captures the hip-hop & R&B footprint left on this year.

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16. ‘Relax,’ Das Racist
2011 proved that Das Racist — hip-hop’s adamant outsiders — have come a long way since their days thinking outside the bun at the ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’ on Jamaica Avenue. The alt-rap trio — Dapwell, Heems and Kool A.D — brought their racially-provocative verses to sold out rooms this year thanks to a debut album that’s as diverse as the group itself. Das Racist don’t stray from their catchy grade-school raps, spitting “Michael Jackson/ A million dollars/ You feel me?/ Holler!” on the album’s homage to the late pop icon, but they succeed most in hyping their ethnic roots. The title track gives nods to Kashmir and Heems’ New Delhi roots, while ‘Punjabi Song’ booms to a Bollywood beat. The club-ready ‘Girl’ sounds like a pop track malleable enough for a David Guetta-style Ibiza dance party, before it comes back to hip-hop earth.

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15. ‘Goblin,’ Tyler, the Creator
While slapstick rap collective Odd Future have yet to drop an official studio debut, frontman Tyler, the Creator already has two solo releases under his sleeve. His sophomore effort ‘Goblin,’ which docked on the Billboard 200 at No. 5 after its May release, was fueled by his grim reaper speak-rap ‘Yonkers.’ The hip-hop hipster, who took the Twitter world by violent storm — riling Chris Brown, Tegan Quinn for starters — brought his grave-digging, misogynistic flow to the frontlines with songs like ‘Sandwitches,’ ‘She’ and ‘Bitch Suck D—.’ His fellow Wolf Gang members also show their support with several appearances across the album. In the end, the ghastly humor in his music had cheery results for golf-loving Thurnis Haley. It even got him a photo op with Justin Bieber.

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14. ‘Lasers,’ Lupe Fiasco
Lupe Fiasco
got a ton of s— — excuse our French here — for his long-delayed studio album when it was finally released. It took the Chicago native four years to put ‘Lasers’ out after a rift with his label, Atlantic Records. Fans helped propel the release, launching an online petition and rallying in protest on what was deemed “Fiasco Friday” in front of Atlantic’s NYC offices. But when ‘Lasers’ — which dons the pop-radio and surely label-pleasing single ‘The Show Goes On’ and rock-inspired ‘State Run Radio’ — finally dropped, it was panned by critics alike. Lupe says he didn’t compromise too much on ‘Lasers,’ though the label had much input that went into its creation. On tracks like ‘Words I Never Said,’ he questions war and politics, which has pushed him into the spotlight as the prolific rapper he is. The guest features like Trey Songz on the love ballad ‘Out of My Head’ and John Legend crooning along for ‘Never Forget You’ mean the only pointless thing about this album is all the negative feedback.

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13. ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part Two,’ Beastie Boys
The Beastie Boys‘ ninth studio album was postponed for the better part of two years after member MCA was diagnosed with cancer. Healthy enough again, he and his two comrades — Mike D and Ad Rock — struck back with ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part Two,’ rather than the initially announced ‘Part One.’ The organic reggae beat of the Santigold-featured ‘Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win’ picks up on the instrumentation of their Grammy-winning ‘The Mix-Up.’ They revisited their early punk-meets-rap uprisings on ‘Lee Majors Come Again’ and the album opener ‘Make Some Noise,’ the latter which was accompanied by the A-list-saturated, MCA-directed 30-minute video sequel to ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party).’ Ailing aside, the Beasties comeback reminded everyone of their definition of “ill.”

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12. Lil Wayne, ‘Tha Carter IV’
Lil Wayne
‘s fourth volume in ‘Tha Carter’ series isn’t his greatest, but after having to wait an extra eight months while Weezy sat in a Rikers Island jail cell for a gun possession charge, it satiated wagging tongues. The anthemic lead single, ’6 Foot 7 Foot,’ showed promise, but Wayne surprised fans, taking a turn from the usual money-loving and gun-slinging themes of his earlier tracks to his own take on love, especially on songs on ‘How to Love,’ ‘How to Hate’ and ‘So Special.’ ‘Blunt Blowin’ ‘John’ and ‘President Carter’ show that despite taking chances — and taking up skateboarding — there was still a little bit of the ol’ milli-loving, ‘P—- Monster’ in the sober, post-prison Mr. Carter.

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11. ‘Greatest Story Never Told,’ Saigon
For a while it seemed Saigon‘s debut, ‘The Greatest Story Never Told,’ would become just that. Like fellow rapper Lupe Fiasco, the Brooklyn-bred MC battled for his artistic integrity with Atlantic Records, which he signed to in 2004. Seven years in the works, when it was finally released via indie imprint Suburban Noize Records in February, critics everywhere gave it a standing ovation and Saigon even tweeted his surprise. While Just Blaze served as executive producer on the long-delayed album, when it finally surfaced, songs had been dusted off by additional beatmakers — Kanye West, Buckwild — and were amped with extra vocal pizzaz thanks to Jay-Z, Marsha Ambrosius, Raheem DeVaughn, Bun B, Faith Evans, Black Thought, Swizz Beatz, Devin the Dude, Layzie Bone and Fatman Scoop. Here’s to hoping Saigon’s follow-up doesn’t take as long.

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10. ‘Black Up,’ Shabazz Palaces
One of the best hip-hop albums of 2011 comes from one of the most unlikely corners of America: Seattle. Although this technically West Coast duo released their debut this year, they’re not new to the scene. Ishmael Butler spitting on the mic might sound familiar to those who were fans of ’90s jazz-rap trio Digable Planets, where he rapped under the alias Butterfly. Butler builds on the mellow syncopated influences of Digable Planets with his new group; high-hat cymbals crash alongside typewriter-staccato beats that skew this effort toward refreshing experimentalism, which leaves you wanting to spark up without any real literal hints.

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9. ‘All 6′s and 7′s,’ Tech N9ne
Strange Music co-founder Tech N9ne hit a grand slam with his skit-heavy and star-studded 12th studio album. The album brought new attention to the veteran indie rapper, including a BET cypher and props from Lil Wayne, who also raps on the album. Known for his often-disturbing lyrical imagery, which coined him the title “King of Darkness,” ‘All 6′s and 7′s’ — as Tech N9ne puts — sheds “some light with the dark,” thanks to tracks like ‘I Love Music’ and the upbeat, Busta Rhymes-featured ‘Worldwide Choppers.’ But TechN9ne still stuck to his old tricks on tracks like ‘Pornographic,’ a XXX-detailed song about making a porno; and the masochistic, B.o.B-produced ‘Am I Psycho?’ Appreciation for the rapper was dutifully noted when the album debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, Tech’s highest chart debut ever.

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8. ‘Watch the Throne,’ Jay-Z & Kanye
The biggest collaboration of 2011, hands down. This soul-saturated joint EP-turned-LP all started with a simple tweet from West a year ago, and then spun into a high-tech covert operation. To dodge Internet hackers and prevent premature leaks of the hyped 12-track album, Jigga and his rap kin took to chic hotel rooms with only a couple of engineers having access to the recorded files via fingerprints. The tight security was a success with fans going ‘H.A.M.’ for the album and it subsequently broke iTunes’ one-week sales record when more than 290,000 downloads were sold in its first week. But its downfall is that it doesn’t offer anything new in the “taking chances” category, apart from the two rapping together on a dozen consecutive tracks like ‘Otis’ and ‘N—-s in Paris.’

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7. ‘Late Nights & Early Mornings,’ Marsha Ambrosius
Marsha Ambrosius
isn’t new to the R&B scene, having spent a decade as one-half of British duo Floetry. Her ties to the hip-hop community are deep with her voice filling the background on tracks by Nas, the Game and more. Now 34, Ambrosius finally decided to go it alone this year and took listeners on a “romantic journey” with her soul-drenched solo debut, ‘Late Nights & Early Mornings.’ Her robust voice ricochets between weep-heavy and empowering on tracks like ‘Tears’ and the Just Blaze-produced ‘Far Away,’ which fared well on the charts. Her own penmanship is her strength though, especially on tunes like ‘Hope She Cheats On You (With a Basketball Player)’ and ‘The Break Up Song.’

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6. ‘Cole World: The Sideline Story,’ J.Cole
Jay-Z’s Roc Nation protégé came out punching on his hotly anticipated debut — just play ‘Dollar and a Dream III’ and you’ll see what we mean. Two years in the making, with huge media blitz fueling the hype created by J. Cole‘s preceding mixtapes — ‘The Come Up,’ ‘The Warm Up’ and last year’s spectacular freebie ‘Friday Night Lights’ — the 26-year-old North Carolina native delivered under pressure and debuted atop both the Billboard 200 and Hip-Hop/R&B charts. To add to his credit, Cole produced a majority of his studio debut, earning him the “self-made” merit. His LP has all the makings of a solid album — big name, but not too many guest stars — Jay-Z, Trey Songz, Drake, Missy Elliott — eclectic beats and lyrical wordplay. “I wish somebody made guidelines/ On how to get up off the sidelines,” the young gun raps, simultaneously proving he’s for the job.

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5. ’4,’ Beyonce
Beyonce‘s ’4′ got off to a rocky start with the release of the post-apocolyptic anthem ‘Run the World (Girls),’ which entered the charts at No. 23 and then fell to No. 76. Double digits aren’t exactly what you’d expect to see in Queen B’s court, and the diva struck back, feverishly releasing follow-up singles and their accompanying videos like ‘Love on Top,’ ‘Countdown’ and ‘Party.’ While ’4′ doesn’t have the same chart adrenaline as its predecessor ‘I Am … Sasha Fierce,’ it’s heavy with sleeper singles, namely ‘End of Time’ and ‘I Miss You,’ eclectic songs that when looking back 20 years from now, will undoubtedly make her ‘Best of’ compilations.

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4. ‘F.A.M.E.’ Chris Brown
When it comes to Breezy’s fourth studio album — released on the heels of his not-so favorable ‘Graffiti’ — it’s all in the YouTube numbers. His video for ‘Look at Me Now’ featuring Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes has generated 129 million views since premiering in March — that’s more than the lead singles for Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ and Weezy’s own ’6 Foot 7 Foot’ videos combined. Along with the visual eye candy, tracks like the poppy ‘Yeah 3x,’ sultry ‘Deuces’ and the Justin Bieber duet ‘Next 2 You’ are proof enough that Brown can not only transform ya but also his own image.

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3. DJ Quik, ‘The Book of David’
DJ Quik‘s first album in six years lives up to its opening line: “You’re gonna like this.” The Compton, Calif. rapper’s laid-back grooves and simple-yet-smart delivery recall early ’90s West Coast gangsta rap and the g-funk movement his name is synonymous with, especially on ‘Nobody,’ ‘Do Today’ and ‘Luv of My Life.’ While many gangsta rappers these days are quick to jump in with limitless profanity, Quik’s album is still bold without having to go down that road too much. The end result is the West Coast producer-MC coming off as raw and redefining “self-made,” having produced and written the entire effort; and his “old school” approach comes off more relevant than most of the new beats and rhymes released in 2011.

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2. Jill Scott, ‘The Light of the Sun’
Following a four-year hiatus, Jill Scott returns with sass on her fourth studio album. It’s hard not to move on upbeat and funky tracks like ‘So In Love,’ which breaks halfway through with a shimmery, modern day disco swagger. Doug E. Fresh lends his trademark beatbox on the stripped down ‘All Cried Out Redux’ that’s interrupted vaudeville bounce, and the nine-minute ‘Le BOOM Vent Suite.’ Scott proves she’s not afraid of anything on ‘The Light of the Sun.’ She slows things down on the second half of the LP, but still adds some jazz on ‘Quick’ and gives a big exhale on her poetry jam ‘Womanifesto.’ From the sound of things, the self-professed “queen of throne” — see ‘Shame’ lyrics — is celebrating her re-established self-worth following another failed relationship and having a lot of fun as she does it. And the fun sure rubs off.

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1. Drake, ‘Take Care’
Bravo, Drake. The Toronto native’s second album is better than his first. Picking up where ‘Thank Me Later’ left off, the rhymer smooths things out vocally on his sophomore effort, ditching rap for the title track, ‘We’ll Be Fine,’ ‘Make Me Proud’ and a few others. No overproduction here either — ‘Lord Knows’ might be the exception — with most tracks favoring mellow, drowned-out beats than anything anthemic. The overall effect is a beautiful rap&B record that can be played continuously, and is so different from anything else in both genres. As a result, ‘Take Care’ almost sounds like an indie effort. It seems hanging out with fellow Toronto soft singer The Weeknd, who shows up on ‘Crew Love,’ has paid off for Drizzy. And the rest of the guest features — the return of Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne, along with Rihanna, Birdman, Rick Ross and Andre 3000 — aren’t too shabby either.

Watch ‘Drake Discusses Fame, Family and Toronto’

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