10. Wale - 'The Eleven One Eleven Theory'
Technically, Wale released two albums this year. The other one is good, but I will argue that this one's better. This Wale has one goal in mind: to win over the harshest of critics. So he orders a string of unusually bare knockers and unusually groovy crawlers and proceeds to straddle them with some of his best lines since stealing the show on Self-Made. He compares his dick to a gavel, salutes subjugated college players, and shrug dirt off his shoulder. Like most mixtapes, you'll be asked to endure a few clunkers ("Fairy Tales," for instance) en route to the jewels, but it's a rewarding listen overall.
9. Preemo - 'The Magic Bullet'
You remember Preemo, don't you? He gave us Concrete Dreams last year and earned a spot on this year's 10 to Watch list. Not one to rest on his laurels, the H-town rapper kicked off 2011 with a concept mixtape. The Magic Bullet (title is a reference to the JFK assassination theory) unspools more threads from Preemo's life as an emerging poet, a devoted father, and a passionate hip-hop head. One part heart-tugging rhymes, one part dusty beats, 100% enjoyable.
8. Fashawn - 'Higher Learning Vol. 2'
Fashawn follows up 2010's Ode to Illmatic Higher Learning Vol. 2. HL2 highlights a batch of new material from the budding Freshman, including the “Manny Pacquiao” tribute and the J Dilla-inspired “Closer” (over “So Far To Go”). Guests include: GLC, Tony Williams of G.O.O.D. Music, Gilbere Forte’ and J. Cole, who’s on board as a producer as well.
7. Delo - 'Hood Politics Vol. 2: Acknowledgment'
Crank this up at the light and risk being hounded by po-po who think there's a terrorist in your trunk. "The pump's in the satchel/The two handguns is hidden off like Bombay." And that's on HP2's least threatening song, the Devin the Dude-assisted "Ridin'." Don't be fooled by the tough talk, Delo is not a one-note instrument. He reps Houston on "Back Up in My City," his chopping skills on "AAAAGGGHHH," and his daughter on "Khloe."
6. A$AP Rocky - 'LiveLoveA$AP'
Thematically, it's a woozy getaway weaved together by stories of success and the end goal of winning on an even bigger level. For young Rocky, who grew up without and sold drugs to make ends meet, a $3 million contract is cause for celebration. Still, he sounds even more determined now that the world is listening. His mixtape shows plenty of promise and his flow is still evolving. But there's some serious skills on display here, notably on "Purple Swag" where he oscillates between a Houston flow and a Bone Thug-esque cadence.
5. Elzhi - 'Elmatic'
My only gripe is that the rhyme patterns mimic the OG too closely. Everything else on Elmatic is the stuff of genius. Will Sessions' exquisite instrumentation and Elzhi's barrage of flawless rhymes make a perfect live-rap marriage. And like Nas did with AZ, El invites Royce da 5'9" as the sole guest MC on Elmatic. If your Illmatic CD ever skips from overuse, as mine has been known to do on occasion, slide this in your system and you shouldn't witness much dropoff in quality. Limited supply of physical copies is avaliable via Elzhi.com.
4. Skyzoo - 'The Great Debaters'
Skyzoo is an intricate lyricist--one of those cats that can rap circles around his peers and all that yadda yadda clichéd nonsense music critics usually yap about super lyrical cats. Problem is, he has no story to back up his talent. And as much as we hate that phrase, the music business is all about "your story." Say, for instance, Skyzoo once sold coke and we later found out he was actually a correctional officer, now there's a catchy lie. Grand Slam, baby. Take it to the bizzank. When you listen to The Great Debater, however, you'll hear a super lyrical guy capable of rapping a perfect donut around his peers. Nothing more. No story. That that singular factor is the halfway house between underground glory and mainstream perks is, on a microscopic level, a sad phenomenon. Neither is ideal if you're dreaming about breaking big, but would you rather be underpaid or overrated?
3. Freddie Gibbs - 'Cold Day in Hell'
2. Danny Brown - 'XXX'
Most street albums typically consist of half-ass songs scattered around four or five decent tracks. You're listening to the tape and can't seem to figure out why you're feeling defrauded even though you didn't spend a dime on the stuff. XXX flips that sentiment on its head. One song in and you're already feeling guilty you got this for free. 10 to Watch alum Danny Brown goes off on this. The drugs are designer drugs, the beats are well designed; the rhymes are vivid, the references rich and diverse and cliché-free.
1. Big K.R.I.T. - 'Return of 4eva'
After releasing 2010's best mixtape, K.R.I.T. serves up a fresh batch of southern fried hip-hop on Return of 4eva. As he's been known to do, the Mississippi MC blends revivalist hip-hop with modern production, summons southern greats like UGK and Ludacris, and invites the listener to take a nostalgic trip in his "Time Machine." The second half of Return of 4eva reveals K.R.I.T.'s conscious side with songs that condemn racism, illiteracy, and materialism. Textbook stuff, but K.R.I.T. makes it sound breathtakingly fresh.