By Soren Baker, Chicago Tribune
Even though it remained a dominant musical force in 2003, hip-hop struggled. Despite a few exceptional releases this year, the genre had few new, quality voices. Another disappointment was the output from even the most respected outfits, which was less potent than normal.
To remain as the pulse of America's (and arguably the world's) young, hip-hop, like the rest of the music industry, needs to make artistic strides in 2004. Nonetheless, the top 10 rap/hip-hop albums of 2003 demonstrate that some hip-hop artists are still keeping the genre vibrant.
1. Ludacris, "Chicken-N-Beer" (Def Jam South): This Atlanta rapper comes off like the class clown that got the girls, wore the best clothes and, well, had everything else too. His criminally clever couplets earned the ire of conservative television host Bill O'Reilly, but it's hard to get upset with Ludacris because he's so funny and so talented. Ludacris' third major-label album contains the edge, muscle and comedic flair that typifies his earlier, equally enjoyable, work. Lead single "Stand Up," produced by Chicagoan Kanye West stands as one of the best hip-hop singles of the year, while Ludacris' charismatic microphone presence shines throughout "Screwed Up," a warped homage to his love for intoxicants.
2. Nappy Roots, "Wooden Leather" (Atlantic): This Kentucky rap sextet's major-label debut, 2002's impressive "Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz," established them as a humble hip-hop crew who wear their country heritage with pride. The second national release from Skinny Deville, R. Prophet, Scales, Big V, Ron Clutch and B. Stille improves on their already addictive formula. With a tag-team rapping style that gives each rapper just enough time to develop his own identity, Nappy Roots brings a sense of introspection and soulfulness to such cuts as "Work in Progress" and "Leave This Morning."
3. OutKast, "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" (Arista): Hip-hop's best group decided it needed to go its separate ways to grow. As was the case with the first four fantastic studio releases from Antwan "Big Boi" Patton and Andre "3000" Benjamin (a.k.a. Dre), this genre-bending double disc set ventures into realms where hip-hop artists rarely travel. Big Boi's "Speakerboxxx" portion sticks closer to OutKast's signature, bizarre exploration of politics, life and hip-hop, while Dre's "The Love Below" traverses a trippy brand of hip-hop-inspired R&B and funk centered on his grappling with love and its ramifications. If it were trimmed down from its mammoth two-hour-plus length, it surely would have been the rap album of the year.
4. Jay-Z, "The Black Album" (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam): Often regarded as one of hip-hop's most talented acts by the rap press, this Brooklyn rapper shows why he's earned and sustained such acclaim on his eighth studio album, which he proclaims will be his last. Jay-Z shines throughout the 14-cut affair, whose highlights include the dramatic "What More Can I Say" and the sinister "Moment of Clarity." As good a businessman as he is a rapper, Jay-Z wisely used superior soundscapes from Kanye West, Just Blaze and others, enhancing his already impeccable presence.
5. Defari, "Odds & Evens" (High Times): An affiliate of talented but unfortunately underrated rap acts King T, Tha Liks and Xzibit, this Los Angeles rhymer makes his case for stardom on his stellar second album. Defari mixes social commentary, sly humor and clever phrasing into his engaging lyrics. He sends a love letter to the positive male role models in his life on "For the Love" and offers an intimate look into his marriage on "Diamonds in the Rough." His braggadocio songs, including "Spell My Name" and a "Behold My Life" remix, also resonate.
6. Paris, "Sonic Jihad" (Guerilla Funk): The fifth album from this fiery Bay Area rapper contains the type of incendiary political commentary all but absent from most modern hip-hop releases. Over self-produced, funk-inspired beats, Paris targets the Bush administration and questions its motives for the war in Iraq on the startling "What Would You Do?" and tells the sad tale of a person of color who joins America's armed forces only to be handicapped and later shunned by his country on the remarkable "AWOL." He also targets hip-hop's obsession with materialism and exploitation on "Lay Low" and "Ain't No Love." Informed fury with a purpose rarely sounds this good.
7. David Banner, "Mississippi: The Album" (SRC/Universal): Sure, Mississippi wasn't a premier hip-hop locale, but Banner opened the nation's eyes to his home state on his explosive major-label debut album. An accomplished rapper and producer, Banner sizzles throughout his jarring 16-cut collection. His hit single "Like a Pimp" was more about being confident than hoarding prostitutes, while the riot-starting "Might Git Cha" was another Lil Jon-produced ode to chaos. The socially aware "Mississippi" showcased Banner's thoughtful, socially aware side. If he were a preacher, hellfire and brimstone would dominate his searing sermons.
8. 50 Cent, "Get Rich Or Die Tryin'" (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope): Rap fans' allegiance to the hard-core, the downtrodden and the underdog explains part of 50 Cent's appeal. After all, he made getting shot a selling point for his authenticity. But 50 Cent could easily have been just another thug rapper if the songs on his major-label debut album weren't so catchy. Dr. Dre, Eminem and others deliver a spectacular batch of polished beats that helped make such singles as "Wanksta" and "In Da Club" seemingly omnipresent. 50's easily digestible voice and thug image make him marketable. His music makes him a star.
9. Three 6 Mafia, "Da Unbreakables" (Hypnotize Minds/Columbia): This Memphis-based rap group calls themselves the "Kings of Memphis." In the rap world, at least, it is a claim hard to argue. The fifth album from the Tennesseans (trimmed down from six members to producers-rappers Juicy "J" and DJ Paul and rappers Crunchy Black and Lord Infamous) delivers bone-crushing beats and equally menacing lyrics throughout. The group leaves little to the imagination on such brutal cuts as "Beatem To Da Floor" and "Mosh Pit," two songs from their most savage side. They temper their angst on the bouncy "Shake Dat Jelly" and the distorted "Rainbow Colors."
10. Lil' Kim, "La Bella Mafia" (Atlantic): This Brooklyn rapper got a much-needed career jolt when 50 Cent joined her on her hit single "Magic Stick," which helped garner plenty of attention for her third album. The attention was warranted, as Kim delivered a strong party cut with the brassy "The Jump Off" and showcased her imaginatively sinful sexual desires throughout much of the collection. After losing her stride with 2000's lackluster "The Notorious K.I.M.," an ode to murdered mentor The Notorious B.I.G., Kim rebounded with a collection that was as captivating as her eye-grabbing outfits.