I can now safely say that this is the most important year for local hiphop since 2005. What 2009 has in common with the middle year of the decade we are soon to depart is an unprecedented concentration of great albums. In 2005, Jake One, Vitamin D, BeanOne, and DJ Sabzi, the new kid on the block, shaped the sound and direction of the amazing stream of local releases—Common Market's Common Market, Framework's Hello World, Grayskul's Deadlivers, Macklemore's The Language of My World, Abyssinian Creole's Sexy Beast, and Blue Scholars' The Long March.
The current concentration of great work is very different from the one in 2005, however, and it involves several artists who weren't around back then. The new concentration has a different mood and confidence. The first concentration was something like an arrival—Deadlivers was the arrival (if not perfection) of the Oldominion program, Hello World was the arrival of BeanOne, Common Market was the arrival of all the underground doings and goings-on of RA Scion and Sabzi. The new concentration (I fear to call it wave) is not an arrival but a strong push to express the new/changed/uncertain state of things in 2009.
What the bulk of the great albums of this year have in common is each is organized by a ruling concept. This does not mean they are concept albums, in the sense of Dr. Octagon's Dr. Octagonecologyst, Handsome Boy Modeling School's So, How's Your Girl, and other works designed by Dan the Automator. No, the rappers of the current moment are not playing roles that can be easily discarded on the next concept album. We get strange truths from the concepts made by these rappers/producers—the black Han Solo, Shabazz, the Dro Bots, the Cigar Rock Star. For them, the new world around us, a world that has gone through considerable changes, demands this unified and systematic approach to rap and beats.
Here is a list of the albums that have made this year so far so memorable. All are concept albums; all are world-class hiphop productions. The first is the best, the next is the next best, and so on and so on.
Shabazz Palaces—Untitled/Self-Titled CDs
Shabazz is, of course, Ish (Butterfly) from Digable Planets. His music is pure magic. The 14 tracks by the veteran reveal a relationship with the art form that is profoundly intimate. I have seen Ish out and about on the streets of this city. And each time I have run into him, not once did it occur to me that his head is in a cloud of hiphop. After listening to the CDs, I became convinced that not a single moment in this man's life is spent without thinking about how to transform more and more of the world around him into beats and rhymes. Ish has never stopped growing—not once ceased or lost his way. Taken together, these tracks make one of the great albums of this decade.
The concept of the work is bold. After years of being associated with terrorism and intolerance, here Islam returns to the land of hiphop as an agent of progress and social justice. But it's not simply Islam; it's also a new and strange kind Afrocentrism. Indeed, my colleague David Segal calls it "Afro-eccentricism." The old Afrocentrism didn't have this kind of depth, sensitivity, and imagination. Shabazz's Afro-eccentricity is not so much about going to the promised land or returning to Africa; he is very much at home in Seattle, this small corner of the United States. No, something else is at work in these tracks. And it's not easy to understand or explain because Shabazz is so enigmatic. The codes to many of his ideas and words are not easily broken. You have to listen to the track over and over until—crack—there is the core of the beautiful work.
They Live!—They LA Soul
With They Live!, Gatsby (of Cancer Rising) and Bruce Illest (djblesOne) produce hiphop's equivalent to channel surfing. They LA Soul goes from bad movie to bad movie; from bad situation comedy to bad situation comedy; a public announcement here, something from a commercial there. What holds together these random TV clips and rhymes about all manner of things is an unrelenting commitment to the condition of innovation. The record uses the most boring (or fallen) humor and samples to make a work that's constantly popping with surprises. What is brought to life by this crew is precisely boredom. The leading concept of They LA Soul—which comes out in August, though its main and best track, "Meth Heads," is already out—is the reanimation of things that are far beyond dead.
Not enough good things can be said about Rik Rude and P Smoov's project Fresh Espresso. The concept of their debut album is to link hiphop glamour with one of the main ways the city makes its wealth, coffee. True, it's a strange and almost comic concept (Jay-Z meets Howard Schultz), but it works. The recording also proves that Mad Rad's P Smoov has hardcore hiphop skills. For example, the beat for "Diamond Pistols," which P produced, could take on Just Blaze, pound for pound.
GMK—Songs for Bloggers
GMK has made a hiphop record that fully absorbs the World Wide Web into the logic of hiphop. At the end of the work, the two (hiphop/WWW) are seen as inseparable. Hiphop is not a stranger to social-networking sites, e-mail, or even old modem noises, but GMK is perhaps the first to dedicate an entire work to this communication technology. He not only attempts to mirror the experience of surfing on the web, he also discusses the impact it has had on the production and distribution of music. The beats on the album have a beauty that is utopian, and GMK raps with the calm and ease of a person who has spent most his life on the other side of the computer screen. Smif N Wessun once rapped about maintaining a thin line between rap and reality; GMK's raps remove the thin line between rap and virtual reality.
Khingz—From Slaveships to Spaceships
At the moment of writing this article, I had only listened to Khingz's new album, From Slaveships to Spaceships, twice (I can't count the number of times I have listened to Glamour or the Shabazz Palaces CDs). But those two listens were enough to know that the album contains every bit of energy and intelligence that rapper could put into it. The record, which is in the tradition of what the British critic Kodwo Eshun calls "sonic fiction," has a density that is found at the center of galaxies. Khingz, a black Han Solo (and former member of Abyssinian Creole), begins with a blast off into space. That space happens to be South Seattle. We see Khingz's world of black skateboarders, small businesses, street corners, and multiracial interactions. The energy level on this record almost never falls. Khingz's imagination cannot stand still. We move through his often very personal spaces at what Common once called "the speed of need."
(Other great albums that have been released this year but are not in any way concept albums: Dyme Def's Panic, the Physics' High Society, and Grynch's Chemistry.)