A Plus, My Last Good Deed, Hiero Imperium.
A Plus is an all-around good guy. Intelligent but not exactly nerdy, his microphone persona isn't that of pimp, killer, or drug dealer, but rather the homie from the block who made the right choices even when others didn't. Like his fellow Hieroglyphics member Casual, A Plus alternates lyrical skills with streetwise sensibilities — he also produced the album, with Compound7 partner Agee — resulting in a style that's not quite backpack, not quite gangsta, not quite hyphy. My Last Good Deed sounds just right; if it was a food, it'd be the Three Bears' porridge. The album's best song is "Kiss the Sky," yet another R.I.P. tribute to a fallen friend, but the somber subject matter is made more bearable by guest Jennifer Johns' vocals on the chorus, which interpolates the classic "Strawberry Letter 23." In addition to being a solid example of hip-hop culture's core values, My Last Good Deed is probably the best solo effort by a Souls of Mischief member to date.
Dobet Gnahoré, Na Afriki, Cumbancha.
It's probably only a matter of time before Afropop invades mainstream America. For now, 24 year-old Ivory Coast singer Dobet Gnahoré's Na Afriki will just have to remain a special secret of the NPR/KPFA crowd. Imagine a cross between Tracy Chapman and Omou Sangare and you've just about got Gnahoré. A strong contender for world music release of the year, the album offers a seamless synthesis of several traditional African folk music styles and modern studio production — something much harder to achieve in reality than in theory. Na Afriki revels in Pan-Africanism, with Gnahoré singing in seven (!) languages, none of which is English. The music ranges from sparse acoustic numbers to jazzy, uptempo, polyrhythm fests, providing a perfect backdrop for the amazing talents of Gnahoré, a vocalist with an impressive tonal range and a penchant for writing beautiful songs about deep-rooted social taboos.
Donnie, The Daily News, SoulThought.
This is what contemporary R&B would sound like if KPFA's "Hard Knock Radio," and not the corporate suits, programmed thousands of stations across America. One of the huge nitpicks of the R&B genre is that it's become predictable and devoid of any real substance. The Daily News remedies this by mixing insightful and sometimes biting sociopolitical commentary with impassioned vocals, soulful melodies, and catchy hooks. "Over-the-Counter Culture" is probably the first R&B song to tackle America's prescription drug complex — an incredibly relevant issue, when you think about it. Other tracks, like "911" and "Impatient People," suggest that, in a year when news tried too hard to be entertainment, Donnie turned in a 2007 version of What's Going On? — perhaps not surprisingly, given that the Kentucky-bred, Atlanta-based singer is a distant relative of Marvin Gaye.
The Federation, It's Whateva, Reprise.
Finally, this album can now be purchased in stores, after a patience-testing delay on the label's part which saw no less than three different incarnations before the final tracklisting was solidified. That It's Whateva actually came out is somewhat of a minor miracle, but its production (all of it by Rick Rock) would be quite impressive in any year. The album delivers a high amount of slaps per capita, venturing way past the hyphy template the Feds established back in 2004 on their first album, into gospel, heavy metal, R&B, and techno. All the songs that sounded so incredible a year and a half ago — "18 Dummy," "My Rimz," I'll Fly Away," "Black Roses" — are still there, with a few new ones, like the chest-thumper "From Da Bay," thrown in for additional dummy-ness. You'll either love the Federation's kinetic, hyper-aggressive style or hate it; either way, they're guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction.
Galactic, From the Corner to the Block, Anti-.
In a year where the slam-dunk mega-commercial rap album never materialized, N'Awlins funksters Galactic turned in the most artistically satisfying hip-hop album of the year. From the Corner to the Block infuses the Big Easy's storied musical tradition with modern funk production and an enviable guest list of A-list lyricists and underground geniuses. Imagine a 21st-century version of the Meters, but with rappers. Most all-star collaborations sound forced; From the Corner to the Block seems entirely organic. The semi-conceptual album — every song depicts a street scene seen through the eyes of the lyricist — represents a triumph of the creative process, as well as the most original-sounding, highly musical rap album since the Brand New Heavies' Heavy Rhyme Experience. A large local contingent is featured among the guest emcees: Gift of Gab, Lyrics Born, Lateef the Truthspeaker, and Boots Riley all contribute some of their best work, which is saying something.
I Wayne, Book of Life, VP.
After busting out with the instant classic "Living in Love," I Wayne was hailed as the next proponent of roots reggae's historic legacy. Yet his 2005 debut album Lavaground failed to ignite, leading some to wonder whether he would become just another flash-inna-de-drumpan. All questions are answered on Book of Life — easily as significant a contemporary reggae album as Damian Marley's Welcome to Jamrock. I Wayne comes off as an impassioned, concerned visionary, with an entire disc's work of solid songs which hint that roots reggae is actually advancing in the dancehall age. Classic roots albums tend to be esoteric, yet on Book of Life, I Wayne effectively updates the genre's traditional themes — oppressive suffering and upliftment via spiritual cleansing — with modern one-drop riddims (with the exception of "Free the People," which revisits the Abyssinians' "Satta Massa Gana"). To his credit, I Wayne's songs are accessible without dilution; if Sean Paul represented dancehall's flashier (and fleshier) side, I Wayne shows today's reggae music can still resonate with conscious vibes.
Mistah F.A.B., Da Baydestrian, SMC/Faeva After/Thizz Ent.
As an album, Da Baydestrian has somewhat of a split personality. On one hand, it wants to be the soundtrack for a generation of overaggressive, troublesome youngsters. On the other hand, it wants to save these kids from the perils of the mean streets, or at least tell their stories for posterity. Thing is, Oakland's Mistah F.A.B. is pretty good at both roles, so we get the so-stupid-it's-fresh title track and the self-explanatory East side anthem "Sideshow" (featuring Too $hort and Keak Da Sneak), but also the elegiac testimonial "Jamonie Robinson," the poignant "Life on Track," the Tupac-esque "Deepest Thoughts," and the if-you-were-sleeping-wake-the-fuck-up jaw-dropper "100 Bars." It's almost like getting two albums for the price of one from the hyphy movement's most ubiquitous artists. More importantly, Da Baydestrian strongly implies that even if hyphy becomes obsolete, F.A.B. might be around for a minute.
PSD, Messy Marv and Keak Da Sneak, Da Bidness, Thizz Ent./SMC.
This hardcore underground-oriented album brought together Vallejo's PSD, SF's Messy Marv, and Oakland's Keak Da Sneak for a thrill-filled hoo-ride through the cuts of the Yay Area. Keak and Messy's presence adds credence to Da Bidness' premise as a meeting of Bay Area bosses, but it's onetime Mac Dre sidekick PSD who impresses the most, handling smooth, vaguely R&B-ish hooks and game-related rhymes with equal panache. Guests E-40, Mistah F.A.B., J. Stalin, and Rick Rock drop by to smoke a blunt or two, but PSD, Messy, and Keak don't really need any help assembling rowdy, edgy, and slightly ominous fare like the single "Cus, Cus." Street-savvy to the maximum, Da Bidness succeeds by updating the ol' mobb music formula while keeping the dosage of dopeness at intoxicating levels.
Turf Talk, West Coast Vaccine, Sick Wid It/30/30.
Turf Talk made his first appearance on his uncle E-40's 2003 hit "Gasoline," and has been burning rubber ever since. His apprenticeship seems completed with his second solo album, which continues the Sick Wid It tradition of ridiculously obese funk-based beats and incredibly grimy street stories. Turf's skill as a lyricist and storyteller is such that his inventive deliveries keep you guessing what's gonna happen next. Even when his topics run to the typical, his knack for syntax-splitting and the sense of perspective he conveys fascinates. There's a lot on West Coast Vaccine to like, from Mantronix remakes to EA-Ski and Rick Rock opuses, to classic collabo's with 40; the album offers plenty of thumps for the trunk without sounding like everything else. If there's a more distinctive lyricist in rap, let a brotha know — for now, Turf Talk is the shiznit.
Brother Ali, The Undisputed truth, Rhymesayers.
That a Caucasian albino from Minnesota could drop one of the year's best rap albums shouldn't surprise anyone who's followed Brother Ali's career. His last album, Shadows on the Sun, earned him a place at or near the top of the indie/backpacker bunch. On The Undisputed Truth, the battle-honed emcee skills are still there, but what's changed is an overall sense of maturity. This is perhaps best realized through Ant's production, which seems more solid and nuanced than previous efforts, but also by Ali's dedication to lyricism and songcraft. In a year where the Iraq war continued to be the top news story, The Undisputed Truth contained two of the most relevant, effective social commentaries on the subject to date: "Letter to the Government" and "Uncle Sam Goddamn." These two political bangers are enough to recommend the album, but the rest of it's pretty good, too.