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The Top 10 Rap Albums of 2011

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What a year for hip-hop. In 2011: We went to Camp, read the Book of David, and Watched the Throne. Here they are, ranked from 10 to 1, the best rap albums of 2011 and what they really sound like.

10. Childish Gambino - 'Camp'

Childish Gambino - Camp
© Glassnote

Say "hello" to the most polarizing hip-hop album of 2011. Gambino's preoccupation with cultural alienation managed to alienate some. (How's that for irony?) The flip side, though, is that his self-deprecating take on those same issues scored him 52,000 new fans. If Camp is nothing but gripes about racism, it would easily degenerate into a monotonous song. But it's not. And Gambino is also a bitingly funny, preternaturally clever lyricist that recalls College Dropout-era Kanye West.
Sounds like: an episode of Chappelle's Show

9. Saigon - 'The Greatest Story Never Told'

© Suburban Noize

Does The Greatest Story Never Told sound a bit dated? Yes. Was it worth the wait? Yes. Does it boast superb production? Hell yes. Just Blaze plays a key role here, but give Sai some props too for bringing his A-game and delivering a strong performance despite the odds against this album.
Sounds like: New York City on a Thursday

8. DJ Quik - 'The Book of David'

© Mad Science

When The Book of David first arrived, I checked it briefly and came way unimpressed. But Ivan Rott swears by it. Ivan knows a thing or two about West-Coast rap, so I took heed, gave Book of David another spin. Then another. And another. It grew on me and now I can't even tell you why I resisted at first. All I know is that I have contracted a mild case of tarantism from "Luv of My Life." When I listen to this album, I just want to get drunk and dance like crazy.
Sounds like: your father's record player after a kiss

7. Killer Mike - 'PL3DGE'

© UMG

We love to label people in hip-hop--conscious, gangsta, hipster, emo. Good luck labeling Mike; he's as loose as B&T jeans on Bow Wow's frame. But you'll no doubt recognize him as one of the most distinct rap voices Atlanta has ever produced. You'll never question his grit, his passion, or his ability to breathe fire on the mic. Just check the 2011 standout "Burn" for proof.
Sounds like: Vesuvius the night before eruption

6. J. Cole - 'Cole World: The Sideline Story'

J Cole - Sideline Story
© Roc Nation

It's scary to think that J. Cole is still discovering his voice. He shines when the topic borders on substance, struggles when the occasion calls for vanity. But when he's on he's really on. Highlights: "Lost Ones," which tackles abortion over lush keys and "Rise and Shine," a triumphant entry in the sideline guideline. Forget the throne, watch one of the greatest rap talents of this generation.
Sounds like: a Cosby sweater

5. The Roots - 'undun'

Remmember Death of Adam? Redford Stephens is Adam if Adam was addicted to the streets (instead of groupies) and if your favorite uncle narrated Adam's death backwards just to make things interesting. The concept is familiar, the album skeletal; the execution, however, is damn near flawless. The real star of undun, though, is the music: an endlessly thrilling bed of dizzy Fender Rhodes, lush strings, and immaculate drums.
Sounds like: the villain being violated by a bigger, meaner bad guy in a Tarantino movie

4. Phonte - 'Charity Starts at Home'

© +FE Music

Grown-up rap is dangerous business. You sound boring or grumpy. Or worse, both. Phonte derails expectations by bathing Charity in a tub of witty, Twitter-ready quotables to stanchion all the philosophical stuff. That's a tricky thing to do effectively. Thankfully, Tay's been around the block long enough to understand what works and what doesn't. And so he proceeds to capture, with virtually no slips, the sentiment of a dispirited generation.
Sounds like: plastic sporks and cabbage soup

3. Jay-Z and Kanye West - 'Watch the Throne'

Watch the Throne
© Def Jam

Infallible chemistry. Social commentary. Robust production. Curious storytelling. Stellar songwriting. Expensive taste. Sumptuous swag. Ugh..nice watch. Tom Ford suits. Sheepskin coats. New money. 808s and Blueprint. Bow. Down.
Sounds like: two tickets to that thing you love

2. Kendrick Lamar - 'Section .80'

The West-Coast was mostly synonymous with G-Funk and crime boasts. Until this year, when 24 year-old Comptonite Kendrick Lamar reimagined the region as an egalitarian hybrid of jazz, soul, and southern-fried raps. And there is, within this fusion, a strong current running all through the "crack babies" theme. If you say you like rap and don't have Section .80, you're a Celine Dion fan.
Sounds like: Sunday morning jog on the trail

1. Shabazz Palaces - 'Black Up'

Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
© Sub Pop

The greatest display of artful ingenuity on Black Up arrives at the halfway mark, on a song dubbed--you ready for this?--"Endeavors For Never (The last time we spoke you said you were not here. I saw you though)." It's pocked in a cloud of trombone, tuba, dreamcatcher, and what sounds like two bare wires copulating. You can't stop nodding, even though it sounds like nothing you've ever nodded along to. And that quality is the rule on Black Up, not the exception.
Sounds like: a tall glass of Swedish lemonade

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