We’ve got about three hours left in 2011, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to sneak a couple more posts in before the new year begins. For the third installment of The Fresh Heir’s “Year in Review” Series, I proudly present the Top 20 Hip-Hop Projects of 2011
First things first – why not call this post “Top Albums” or “Top Mixtapes”? Well, because I wanted to include both in one list. In today’s digital age, it’s becoming more and more difficult to distinguish between an album and a mixtape. Aside from the fact that you can buy one in your local Best Buy while you simply download the other for free (legally) in a matter of minutes, often times the quality of the music is very much on par. So rather than creating two separate posts for “albums” and “mixtapes,” we have our top “projects.”
Another note – these are in no way the best hip-hop projects of the year. I mean, is there really such a thing? I’ve talked to hundreds of people, whether they were friends, classmates, fellow hip-hop writers, etc., and there wasn’t a single person that had the exact same Top 10 – forget Top 20 – list as someone else. It’s cool to choose favorites and debate why one project might be “better” than another, but at the end of the day, opinions are opinions, and that fact above anything else is what makes hip-hop and music in general so great.
Last thing before we get underway… admittedly, I did not get a chance to listen through every project I intended to. Unfortunately, that’s just how it goes when you’re a one man band leading a busy life. If you’re reading this and wondering why a certain project didn’t make the list, there’s a chance I just never listened to it – so please, feel free to comment with any suggestions or recommendations.
But without further ado, let’s get into The Fresh Heir’s Top 20 Hip-Hop Projects of 2011 (Click project cover art for download/purchase link):
20. The Div – Pac Div
The trio from SoCal has been dropping quality mixtapes with consistency for the past four or five year, and Pac Div delivered yet again with The Div - the group’s debut studio album. Hard-hitting beats and the unique individual styles of Like, Mibbs and BeYoung packed the album with punch from start to finish.
Listen To: Posted, Top Down
19. Elmatic – Elzhi
Jason Power, aka Elzhi (formerly of Slum Village), dropped Elmatic this past May – an homage mixtape in honor of Nas’s historic debut album. It takes incredible skill to do a classic justice with a remake, but Elzhi pulled it off. The project was produced by Will Sessions, and be prepared to enjoy a feature from Royce da 5’9 if you’re about to listen to Elmatic for the first time.
Listen To: Memory Lane, Life’s A Bitch
18. Lincoln Way Nights – Stalley
The most recent MMG signee delivered Lincoln Way Nights back in February, and what was initially just a mixtape with a totally new, experimental sound to me has since transformed into one of my favorite projects of the year. The Massillon, Ohio native has a smooth, rambling flow, and every track on LWN has its own unique, almost cinematic feel to it.
Listen To: Pound, Lincoln Way Nights (Shop)
17. From The Westside With Love II – Dom Kennedy
One of my favorite hip-hop artists finally had his first iTunes offering this summer, and I was thrilled to be able to put some money in Dom K’s pocket for Westside II, which I downloaded and was listening to within five minutes of its release. While the project is far from flawless, Dom proved yet again that he is one of the most consistent rappers alive, and he continues to be right up there with the most slept on… somehow. Nothin’ like the west coast flow.
Listen To: Platinum Chanel, Graduate
16. Cole World – J. Cole
Looking back at the glowing review that I wrote the day Cole World: The Sideline Story dropped, I really don’t know what I was thinking. It was one of the first reviews I had written, and I think I just made the mistake of getting overly excited about the fact that J. Cole’s debut album had finally arrived, so I didn’t really look at it under a critical light. I like Cole World, but by no means do I love it. In fact, I find myself rather bored with it, especially when comparing it to Friday Night Lights and The Warm Up. Still, Cole World was a solid debut, and it deserves a spot in the Top 20.
Listen To: Dolla and a Dream III, Lost Ones
15. I’m Gay (I’m Happy) – Lil B The Based God
No, this is not a joke. Yes, I really like this album. Read The Fresh Heir’s original review of I’m Gay from back in July if you’re looking for my instant reaction to what turned out to be, for me, the “pleasant surprise album of the year.” Everyone knows that Lil B is capable of some Grade A nonsense, but in all seriousness, this is a great project. The production is top notch, the positive themes strewn throughout serve as a fresh change of pace, and the Based God actually stays on the beat as he raps.. for the most part. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is give this album a chance.
Listen To: Game, I Hate Myself
14. Charity Starts At Home – Phonte
J. Cole wasn’t the only North Carolina native that released an album on September 27th, despite popular belief. Phonte’s Charity Starts At Home is an extremely high quality offering featuring production from 9th Wonder and features from Elzhi, Pharoahe Monch, and Big K.R.I.T., among others. Phonte’s storytelling is on point throughout, and Charity Starts At Home is simply one of those albums you can listen to and enjoy any time of any day.
Listen To: The Good Fight, The Life of Kings
13. The Greatest Story Never Told – Saigon
The debut studio album that took five years to release finally dropped in February, and while it’s hard to say anything could be worth a half a decade wait, The Greatest Story Never Told certainly lived up to the long, drawn-out hype. Saigon’s debut was primarily produced by Just Blaze, but it also features production from Kanye West, Scram Jones, and Buckwild, and guest appearances range from Black Thought to Bun B to Jay-Z, and more. The album is deep, soulful, and intellectual, and as a whole the project feels as complete as any.
Listen To: It’s Alright, Gotta Believe It
12. House of Balloons – The Weeknd
The first of three highly-touted mixtapes The Weeknd dropped this year ended up being my favorite. Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, burst onto the forefront early this year, and the Canadian crooner has since captured the undivided attention of hip-hop and R&B/soul fans alike. Call it whatever kind of music you want, but House of Balloons is an incredible project – brilliant and disturbing at the same time with spacey, blown-out production that will leave you in a trance for days. The Weeknd will without a doubt be one of the biggest names in music by the end of 2012.
Listen To: High For This, The Morning
11. XXX – Danny Brown
This is a project I didn’t catch onto until just recently. I heard of Danny Brown shortly before he was announced as an XXL Freshman of 2012 candidate, and at that point I figured I needed to download XXX, which I had heard good things about, and give it a listen. As it turns out, the Detroit rapper’s mixtape shocked me – both in its content and in its quality. There are bars that will make you laugh and lines that will make you sick to your stomach. Danny Brown raps about women and drugs, but he does it so creatively and with such a staggered, urgent delivery that everything he says is just downright fascinating.
Listen To: 30, Adderall Admiral
10. Goblin – Tyler, the Creator
Tyler the Creator’s second offering may not have been as strong as Bastard, but it’s been seven months since Goblin dropped and I’m not sick of it yet. Wolf Haley’s conversations with Dr. TC throughout the album are as entertaining as they are disturbing, and Goblin has great balance from start to finish in terms of Tyler’s struggle with sanity and the order of tracks, stylistically. Tyler is everything from funny to emotional to straight up bizarre on this album, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy 95% of it. A few of the tracks just drag on too long, but overall Goblin is fun and was a solid effort from Odd Future’s frontman.
Listen To: She, Nightmare
9. Watch The Throne – Jay-Z and Kanye West
Well, everyone’s heard this one. I included it in my Top 10 because the production is absurd, and half the tracks are fantastic. WTT falls into place at #9 and not #, say 2 or 3, because the other half of the songs are lazy and underachieving. I really like the album, but I’d find it hard to believe that there’s anyone out there who thinks WTT is Jay-Z and Kanye at their best. The themes of black empowerment are clear and strong throughout, but aside from that, there just isn’t much to this album. Regardless, at the end of the day it is Jay-Z and Kanye, and they did put together an impressive album.
Listen To: Niggas in Paris (10 times for full effect), Murder To Excellence
8. Cold Day In Hell – Freddie Gibbs
Gangsta Gibbs has been one of my favorites for a minute now, so it came as no surprise to me that Cold Day In Hell ended up being one of the best projects of the year. The Halloween Day release, sponsored by LRG, provided me with exactly what I needed to get through that first cold Boston weekend in November, and I haven’t taken Freddie Gibbs’ latest work out of rotation since. The Gary, Indiana native’s flow and passion are reminiscent of 2Pac, and there’s no doubt Gangsta Gibbs is holdin’ it down for all the thug rappers still carrying the torch. Cold Day In Hell is chock-full of hard-hitting tracks from start to finish, but there are also slower, more laid back songs like “Natural High” that show off another side of Gibbs and present him as a truly multi-faceted hip-hop artist.
Listen To: B.A.N.ned, Menace II Society
7. Take Care – Drake
As I touched on in my review, Drake is without a doubt the most polarizing hip-hop artist in the game today. He’s incredibly loved and incredibly hated. He’s a rapper, but he’s also a crooner. He lives the life, but he seemingly endures countless struggles and is viewed by many as over-the-top with his emotions. Is Take Care a rap album or an R&B album? Does it really matter? People will have their own opinions about Drizzy regardless of anything I or anyone else says, but for me, Take Care is a great album… no matter what kind of album it is. It’s mood music – either you like that or you don’t. The way Drake did it on this album, I liked it. It’s such an easy album to just kick back and vibe to, and it’s definitely more of a focused project than Thank Me Later was. Drake’s R&B side is stronger than his “rap” side on this album, but overall it’s a great record.
Listen To: Look What You’ve Done, The Ride
6. LiveLoveA$AP – A$AP Rocky
Another artist that has burst onto the scene is Harlem’s own A$AP Rocky, and his first big release, LiveLoveA$AP, was hands down one of my favorite mixtapes of the year. As I pointed out throughout my review, one of the hottest producers out right now, Clams Casino, might have stolen the show on A$AP Rocky’s tape with his otherworldly beats, but I don’t think anyone could have made them sound as good as A$AP did. The NY native’s flow is confident and catchy, and the project turned out to be one of the most quotable of the year. Mixtapes and albums don’t always need to be deep or super-intelligent to be the best – A$AP Rocky put out a incredibly unique, trippy project that has an unquestioned distinct style, and he quickly became one of the most talked about artists of the last couple months.
Listen To: Palace, Trilla
5. Nostalgia/ultra – Frank Ocean
Like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean is another R&B artist that came out of nowhere early this year, and thanks to Odd Future’s buzz, Nostalgia/ultra got the shine it deserved. Frank Ocean made me fall in love with R&B again for the first time in years with this album which features some of my favorite tracks of 2011 (Swim Good, We All Try, There Will Be Tears). Nostalgia/ultra is deep, it’s emotional, it’s beautiful, it’s edgy, it’s beyond creative…and it’s truly a classic.
Listen To: Swim Good, Nature Feels
4. The Dreamer/The Believer – Common
Arguably the most uplifting hip-hop album of 2011, Common’s The Dreamer/The Believer was a buzzer-beater for many “Top Album” lists, as it didn’t release until just under two weeks ago (12/20). Nevertheless, Common’s ninth studio album is right up there with his best (which is saying something), and it might be the easiest album to chill out and vibe to that’s dropped in a long time. The No I.D. production is just as epic as it sounds, and Common just delivers with hit after hit. And, I mean, the guest features are Nas and Maya Angelou…
Listen To: Cloth, Blue Sky
3. undun – The Roots
The incredible concept album that tells the short story (in reverse) of Redford Stephens, a complex youth who struggles to define himself within a troubled inner city environment, is just the kind of elegance we’re used to from The Roots, but they really outdid themselves on undun, their 13th studio album. For lack of a better word, the album is beautiful, and as is typical for The Roots, the instrumentals are just as phenomenal as any other element of the project. The features that include Big K.R.I.T. and Phonte, among others, are suitably strong, but Black Thought’s bars throughout still manage to command the buzz.
Listen To: One Time, Stomp
2. Return of 4Eva – Big K.R.I.T.
There is nothing about Return of 4Eva I don’t like, and Big K.R.I.T. has quickly become one of my favorite hip-hop artists alive. No two tracks sound alike on this mixtape, and the themes of believing in dreams and balancing success with “the real” are superbly strong throughout. The production on Return of 4Eva is so clean, and K.R.I.T.’s southern drawl and passionate delivery are contagious. This should be an auto-download if it’s not already in your collection.
Listen To: Dreamin’, American Rapstar
1. Section.80 – Kendrick Lamar
I don’t even know where to begin with Section.80. I said in my review on July 6th that it was probably going to be the album of the year. Here on the last day of 2011, I feel pretty confident that it’s going to be one of, if not the best, album of the decade. I included five Section.80 tracks in my Top 40 Hip-Hop Songs of the Year post, and I could’ve easily included five or six more. The project has made Kendrick into the legend Kendrick already is six months later is an absolute masterpiece, and to be totally honest, I rarely go a day without listening to at least a handful of tracks off of it. The entire project is frighteningly cohesive, and every song tells a unique story that together combine to form a greater one, and a theme that seems to mean something different to every listener.
Listen To: ADHD, Keisha’s Song, Poe Man’s Dreams, HiiiPower, Hol’ Up, Rigamortus, The Spiteful Chant