By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
1. The Streets, A Grand Don't Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic). For all the mythology and analysis devoted to Mike Skinner's second album, the secret of its appeal is remarkably simple. Skinner not only wrote great, catchy songs -- the riff-happy sing-along "Fit But You Know It' was easily the year's best single -- but he actually used hip-hop to tell stories. Little slices of love, laziness and London life appear on each track, and a larger theme about a missing thousand dollars ties it all together and transcends the difficulties of the Brit slang. When American rappers toss their notebooks of battle rhymes and street cliches for such old-fashioned yarn-spinning, mainstream hip-hop will become great again, and not before.
2. Dizzee Rascal, Boy In Da Corner (Matador)/Showtime (XL). By dropping two superior albums in 2004, Dizzee Rascal has already slain the sophomore jinx and brashly turned his Cockney rhymes toward world domination. "People are gonna respect me if it kills you,' he snarls on Showtime, and he's right. Who would have believed that Tupac's heir apparent is a teenage East Londoner who unleashes his patois over ringtone melodies and video-game bleeps? Boy In Da Corner has the better songs (especially the heartrending "Do It'); Showtime fleshes out the glitchy garage beats with more melody, suffering only from the occasional fit of second-album sulking at Dizzee's doubters. Soon there may be none left.
3. Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam). One reason the earlier punk analogy falls short is that in 1977, there wasn't anyone subverting the American mainstream from within, the way Kanye West did in 2004. The one rapper/producer with as much cred in the Billboard Top 10 as in the underground, Kanye used the stunning College Dropout to build a long-awaited bridge between hip-hop's two tribes, revealing himself in the process as perhaps the most honest MC in the game (just listen to "All Falls Down,' which says more about bling than the entire collected works of Def Jam and Cash Money). If overexposure and the burgeoning messiah complex seemingly sparked by "Jesus Walks' don't do him in, West will end up one of the most important figures in hip-hop history.
4. Madvillain, Madvillainy (Stones Throw). Remember how hip-hop heads pissed themselves with excitement when producer-du-jour Madlib met up with his counterpart Jay Dee last year? This was the collaboration they should've soiled themselves over: MF Doom's comic-book-referencing rhymes and Madlib's sampledelic, try-anything production crammed more ideas into two minutes of "Strange Ways' than could be found on most full hip-hop albums this year. Dizzying at full-length, but essential.
5. Wale Oyejide, One Day...Everything Changed (Angry Robot). A Nigerian-raised producer once known as Science Fiction, Wale Oyejide reinvented himself on his second album as a singer and MC as well as a beatmaker -- a revelatory change. Atop haunting, Afrobeat-infused hip-hop, he evokes the unease that spurred revolutionary manifestos like Culture's Two Sevens Clash, Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dread Beat an' Blood, and any of Fela's more pointed work. Forget inanities like Jadakiss's "Why': This is real political hip-hop.
6. Various Artists, The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip-Hop 1979-83 (Stones Throw). Everyone hates a critic who demands that you buy a certain album (this one) if you care at all about a particular genre (hip-hop). So go ahead and hate. In an alternate reality, Nutmeg State rhymers like Mr. Magic and Pookey Blow would have taken these amazing records to the charts and the bank, and hip-hop would never have been the same. Or would it? Listen to this crucial reissue and decide for yourself, if you care at all about...okay, okay, you get it.
7. Jacki-O, Poe Little Rich Girl (TVT). In the worst year for hip-hop women in some time (mainly because there was no new Missy Elliot album), Jacki-O's flawless interpretation of a Down South Lil' Kim stood out as much for its clever crunk-&-B production as for the expected in-your-face nastiness. Those looking for less raunch but no fewer crunked-up hooks should check out newcomer Ciara's Goodies, which has more of those than just the smashing, sassy title track.