15
Nov
09

Two Double-O One

For those of you who read and commented on part one of this saga, big up yourself. Please keep the feedback coming.

For those of you who are wondering what the fuck your feasting your eyes on, this is part deux in a series of my reflection on the hip-hop industry over the past decade. For further explanation, you can view my long-winded introduction in premier edition of this here project, which can be found below. Enjoy, and feel free to leave me a couple pennies in the c-section.

And now…

2001

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Jay-Z – The Blueprint (Roc-a-fella/Def Jam)
At about 10:15 am on September 11th, 2001, I was let out of 12th grade law class. I immediately went to seek out a close friend who had visited the local record store during his first period spare. “Did you hear what happened?” he asked when I finally tracked him down. “No. Please don’t tell me Blueprint was pushed back,” I responded. “No,” he said, “two planes crashed into the World Trade Center this morning!” After a brief silence, I mustered the best response I could think of: “No shit. But how about the new Jay?” Obviously, once discovered the immense significance of what was really going down, my statement seemed outrageous. But that is what this release meant for me. In the peak of my Jay-Z obsession fanhood, he could do no wrong in my eyes. Still, after disappointing with his previous two releases (Volume 3 and The Dynasty), this was the release that ascended Hov to his throne. He was the best, and by striking down his most heated competition, on “The Takeover,” it was clear who would finally take the top spot, too long vacant after Biggie was taken from us. The soulful score, helmed by a host of budding superstar producers including Just Blaze and Kanye, helped Jay get back to the essence of what made him a top dog and was a fitting soundtrack to help get The Big Apple through a period of immense confusion and anger. Jay literally laid a blueprint for how to make a classic, showing the diversity that has kept him in the decks of folks from Marcy to Monaco. Raw or reminiscent, misogynistic or meaningful, extravagant or essentialist, Hov had something for everyone, simultaneously maintaining the type of continuity that distinguishes a classic record. Though its impossible to fuck with the hungry and hustling Hov that we got on Reasonable Doubt, I can’t argue with those who claim The Blueprint is the quintessential release in Jiggaman’s epic catalogue.

I also felt it important to mention Jay’s 2001 Unplugged album, possibly the best live hip-hop album every put out. With ?uestlove and The Legendary Roots Crew providing organic, instrumental backdrops for some of Hov’s greatest hits, this MTV experiment was an incredible success (and, lucky for us, was captured in on camera – Part 1, 2, 3, and4). Even synth-heavy beats like “I Just Wanna Love You” and “Jigga What, Jigga Who” come off clean, bringing a new perspective to some of Jay’s most memorable material. Though the whole live band playing beats shtick is a little cliché these days, it was quite novel at the time, and the performance’s charm has not warn off one bit. Bonus points for the stinging beat changes on “The Takeover.” For anyone in need of a quick catch-up on the trajectory of Shawn Carter’s early career, this collection should be in your future.

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Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein (Definitive Jux)
In the introduction to this project, I thought it fair to bring to view my hate distaste for Definitive Jux product as a whole. With The Cold Vein, Vast Aire, Vordul Mega, and El-P crafted a notable exception. Over a series of beats that sounds as much like leftover Blade Runner score as traditional New York boom-bap, Vast and Vordul commence to dropping science through their off-kilter deliveries. Every minute of The Cold Vein, perhaps more than any other hip-hop album in your iTunes library, has a convincingly epic quality, each track seemingly outdoing the last and culminating in the albums booming hidden track “Scream Pheonix.” Like most Def Jux releases, however, this album is probably not for everyone: though El-P’s production is nostalgic enough to have even the oldest heads nodding, the provocative, sometimes nonsensical lyrics aren’t as easy to digest as even the most stimulating of charting releases. And for some, that’s something they can’t feel with a Braille book. (Sidebar: This “Stress Rap” fan video is high comedy. Clap for ‘em.)

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Jay Dee – Welcome 2 Detroit (BBE)
Though I had heard the name Jay Dee mentioned on occasion, it wasn’t really until the release of Welcome 2 Detroit that I started to really pay attention. To be straight, up until this point I was more inclined to think of pint-sized So So Def boss Jermaine Dupri than James Yancey when the tenth and fourth letters were brought up in succession. Needless to say, things changed beginning with this project, the first in London-based BBE’s amazing Beat Generation collection. The series, designed to give creative control to some of hip-hop’s most respected beatsmiths, was the perfect setting for Dilla’s coming out party – no homo – and showed the world that Jay was just as comfortable in the booth as he was behind the boards. As much of a fan as I remain of Dilla’s work, I will be the first to concede that he is no wizard with the pen and pad. Still, who better to lay bars than he whom fostered the creative vision in the first place? Really, the fact that Dilla doesn’t drown in such blockbuster production is a credit to his mic skills, and one listen to a track like “Think Twice,” a loose cover of a song by jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd, and it becomes crystal-clear that Dilla is hoping to be judged on standards inconsistent with those of the typical emcee.

(Sidenote: It’s a crying shame that Dilla’s version of “Fuck the Police” was forced off Welcome 2 Detroit due to some label cats catching feelings. In the wake of more racial profiling and police corruption in The D, Dilla went in on the boys in blue, showing no mercy in the process: “Yeah fuck ‘em. / Applaud any nigga that buckin’ ‘em, / cause we could lose a few of ‘em / We got enough of ‘em.” Damn. That is a rallying cry if I have ever heard one. But even after including a disclaimer at the beginning of the record in hopes to sneak it on then project, Dilla’s verbal ass-whoop was unfortunately left to toil in White Label purgatory.)

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Masta Ace – Disposable Arts (JCOR Records)
OGs know the name. After making a grand entrance to the game alongside Marley Marl and The Juice Crew on pioneering posse cut “The Symphony” in ’88, Ace was revered in hip-hop circles for his witty punchlines and promptly became one of the featured artists under the legendary Cold Chillin’ banner. But Ace soon became disillusioned with the rise of gangsta rap and the Left Coast, venturing out from the comforts of the respected Cold Chillin’ family to make music that he felt had more of a purpose. The results? Equally as well received, though on a much different tip than anyone had really expected. The trademark wit remained despite the fact Ace went with heavy bass and hard rhymes (strangely and clearly influenced by West Coast G-Funk) to carry him through ahead-of-their-time releases in ‘93 and ‘95, making a memorable cameo with one-off “supergroup” The Crooklyn Dodgers in ’94 (don’t sleep on this gem, with an incredible beat from the Tribe family). Then, Ace and his Incorporated fam went and got themselves put on the back of a milk carton, essentially disappearing from the scene save a few white-label singles. In fact, I swear I saw Ace’s mug pop up in that Soul Asylum video during this period. But after being baited into a petty beef by some unmentionable shit-stain in ‘01, Ace reemerged with a familiar fire for Disposable Arts, a loose concept album that takes direct aim at, pardon the pun, the garbage in the game. Though the album certainly suffers from some a cast of unknown and sometimes amateur-sounding producers, Ace was clearly keeping his pen to paper during his absence from recording and comes with a time-honoured yet complex rhyme scheme that re-established him as one of the most lethal emcees in the industry (take a listen to epic diss track “Acknowledge” to peep game) and clarified why one Marshall Mathers sites Ace as a primary inspiration. The albums only single, “Don’t Understand” featuring Greg Nice, resonated with me in a way that only a select few ever have and remains a favourite of mine to this day. I could continue to go on about this one, but for the sake of your time and mine, I’ll close by saying that anyone who fancies themselves a connoisseur of rap lyrics (shit, poetry, for that matter) would be making a mistake by not getting your hands on Disposable Arts.

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Nas – Stillmatic (Ill Will/Columbia)
After entering the game with as much promise as any emcee before or since, Nas fell, as Hov later pointed out, from top-ten to not mentioned at all. Ya’ll know the early resume, but in early 1999, Nas released I Am, a serious departure and regression from his first two efforts, and followed it up with the unmitigated disaster Nastradamus late in the same year. The glitzy crossover attempts were not a good look for an emcee that once went to hell for snuffing Jesus as a preteen. His status as one of NY’s Finest was really starting to come into question. Then, after years of exchanging subliminal jabs with Jay-Z, Nasir decided he would throw some rocks at the throne, in the process reigniting the signature Nasty Nas fire that long-time fans had become so familiar with. The beef with Hov had obviously invigorated Nas, as on Stillmatic, the quest to return to the top of the game brought out the hunger that made his early LPs undisputed classics. On “Ether,” Esco’s answer to Hov’s verse on “The Takeover” and perhaps Stillmatic’s most memorable moment, Nas goes in on Jay for everything from his sexuality, to his weed-carrying Roc-a-fella team, and even his inability to grow a ‘stache. Debate persists about who struck the hardest with their respective diss tracks, but the fact that Nas was back and able to even hang with Jiggaman was a good sign for his career arc. In spite of questionable lead single selection, Stillmatic was a return to form for QB’s Finest, and evocative album cuts like “One Mic”, “2nd Childhood”, and “You’re the Man” had us remembering why we once hailed Mr. Jones as the Street’s Disciple.

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Daft Punk – Discovery (Virgin)
Listening to Daft Punk’s Discovery is like ploughing a Hollywood line of blow through your ears. It is the audio equivalent of Tony Montana’s final moments before plunging into the fountain. It is invincibility music, and come hell of high water, shit will leave you feeling on top of the world. And though it lies well outside my typical tastes, I simply can’t omit any album that inspired the above description. At the risk of falling flat on my face, I’m not going to pretend to know much about house or electronic music in general. That said, I did purchase Daft Punk’s debut Homework in ’96 after seeing their groundbreaking video for “Da Funk” and always had a soft spot for their hypnotizing singles and innovative videos. As great as this album is on its own, perhaps the reason I consider it in such high regard is how it has seemingly influenced some of my favourite artists: Thomas and Guy-Manuel were donning masks for the music’s sake long before Zev Luv X threw on the metal face and became DOOM. Without Discovery, there may have been no Justice, or Ed Banger Records at all for that matter. And established hip-hop cats from Kanye to Bussa Bus have incorporated elements of Daft Punk songs in their own singles. One could argue that the whole Auto-Tune craze (for better or worse) or the new wave of electro-inspired rappers like Kid Cudi would not have been as well received if the sound had not been made so accessible by the popularization of electronic music, headed by, of course, Daft Punk. Whether or not the music fits into your proverbial teacup, it is hard to argue against Discovery being canonized for its influence on not only electronic music, but across all genres.

(Interstella 5555, a feature length Japanese anime film set and created to visually capture the essence of Discovery, is the kind of ambitious project that I admire and wish more contemporary artists would aspire to construct. The link has the flick in its entirety and comes highly recommended.)

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Pete Rock – PeteStumentals (BBE)
Follwing up Welcome 2 Detroit as the second release in BBE’s Beat Generation series, The Chocolate Boy wonder was faced with high expectations for his first solo jawn since the classic Soul Survivor. Being one of the greates producers to ever lay finger to MPC, he was up to the task. P.R. admits that Dilla’s release encouraged him to go back into the studio to put some finishing touches on some of his left over Golden Era material(circa early 90s), but what came out was an entirely different project than W2D. Long known as one of the best producer/emcee hybrids, Pete unplugged the mic this time around and let his signature, snare-and-soul production do the talking. The result is a captivating series of four-plus minute cross-sections for new aspiring producers to study. Soul Brother #1 breezily shows ‘em how it should be done – raw and rugged yet smooth and soulful – horns, drums, and samples working perfectly together to leave the impression that no voice on earth could possibly do these tracks justice. It is quite a task to make a listenable 70-minute album with minimal vocal contributions (made by Pete himself and protégés The UN), but with captivating beats like “Pete’s Jazz” and “Somethin’ Funky”, Pete did more than that. He created a soothing entry into the hip-hop production pantheon that acts as a shining reminder of a Golden Era long since past. Bonus points go to BBE for adding long-time collaborators CL Smooth (“Back On the Block”) and Freddie Foxxx (“Mind Frame”) to the second pressing of the album. Both tracks go hard. Pause.

Hi-Tek - Hi-Teknology
Hi-Tek – Hi-Teknology (Rawkus/Priority/EMI)
Hi-Tek is a rare entity in hip-hop: an artist whose contribution has been largely under hyped. After laying production for nearly half of 1998’s Black Star collaboration between Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Hi-Tek kept his name in the streets by providing beats for some of the game’s most respected lyricists (the remarkable “1-9-9-9” from Rawkus’ Soundbombing II compilation comes to mind as a shining example.) After finally putting his name to a full-length project with Kweli for 2000’s Reflection Eternal project, Hi-Tek decided it would be a good time to get some solo love and recruited some of his high-profile homies for Hi-Teknology. Though the album wasn’t a particular hit with either critics or the record buying public, Hi-Tek’s astoundingly consistent production and a guest list of the subterranean’s best make this a surprisingly dope listen today. Singles “Round & Round” featuring Jonell and “The Sun God” featuring Common (which remains, to this day, one of my favourite instrumentals ever) stand up exceptionally well, as does the banging album cut “Tekzilla” thanks largely to Hi-Tek’s simplistic yet versatile production style. Perhaps it springs from his Midwest roots (Hi-Tek is one of the few cats proudly representing Cinncinati, Ohio), but it is tough to geographically categorize Hi-Tek’s unique sound, allowing him to evolve from an instrumental force in some of the most important New York records of the past decade to presently holding a permanent spot on Dr. Dre’s roster of Aftermath staff producers.

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Ghostface Killah – Bulletproof Wallets (Epic/SME)
It’s a testament to Ghost’s remarkable consistency (or is it my Stannery?) that Bulletproof Wallets, an album mired in pre-release drama, can make this list. Sample clearance issues forced Epic execs to remove three songs from the release last minute (though “The Watch”, “The Sun”, and “Good Times” thankfully all later showed up on mixtapes), and the album sleeve track listing ended up erroneous and out of order as a result. Luckily for listeners, The Wally Champ’s always entertaining lyrical exploits leave little use for the skip button. While Bulletproof Wallets doesn’t come close to touching Supreme Clientele as a complete package, the album has plenty of high points thanks in part to another solid effort by RZA and his cronies on production (not to mention the Wu-Tang debut of a highly effective Alchemist) and some show-stealing verses by Ghost’s Clan brethren. With Rae riding shotgun (The Chef guest stars on five of the albums 13 tracks), Ghost’s unmatched charisma is on full display, and while a couple crossover attempts seemed forced anduncomfortable, Bulletproof Wallets is best appreciated in its entirety and shows the continued evolution of one of the best around. Oh, and if anyone knows where to find a replica of Pretty Tone’s absurd gold eagle armband from this era, holla at your narrator.

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Jadakiss – Kiss tha Game Goodbye (Ruff Ryders/Interscope)
Since his days as one of Mr. Combs’ shiny suit wearing Bad Boy weed carriers, it was clear Jada had it in him to be one of the best. He stood toe to toe posthumous Christopher Wallace on wax (dropping arguably the song’s hottest line in regards to Jewish fiscal habits) and had co-signs from some of the biggest names in the industry. J to the Muah seemed destined to shine on his debut, especially considering the production Dream Team assembled by the good folks at Interscope that included Timberland, Swizz Beatz, Just Blaze, Alchemist, DJ Premier and The Neptunes. Though the album features its share of misses, it also featured two of the hottest (and to this day best) singles of 2001 in the Pharell and Chad laced “K.Y.O” (dyn-o-mite NSFW version) and Alchemist heater ”We Gonna Make It”, not to mention pair of certified street anthems with “Put Your Hands Up” and vintage Preem banger “None of Ya’ll Better.” Jada comes correct with his gritty slow-flow and punchlines that oozed swagger long before term became a part of your cool aunt’s vocab. Whether or not ‘Kiss ever reached his potential on this or follow-up efforts is debatable, but even with the bar set so high, Jada managed to produce a pair of signature singles and a quality release 77-minute that just sneaks into the elite of ‘01.

(Sidenote: For fans of “We Gonna Make It” or Alchemist production in general, Ras Kass’ “Home Sweet Home” is a must-hear. Shit is hotter than Sole with gonorrhea in Ghana and a good look into Rassy’s vast and wasted potential.)

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Kardinal Offishall – Quest for Fire: Firestarter, Vol. 1 (MCA)
I’ll cop to it right now and say this inclusion is made more on sentiment than anything else. After signing a deal with MCA thanks to producing some of the most successful Canadian hip-hop content in nearly a decade, Kardi was handed the T.O.rch to represent for the T-Dot. And he certainly hit a homerun for our city. When Kardinal emerged on the scene, his style was a part traditional hip-hop, part Patois-spittin rudebwoi that introduced the urban music world to a more authentic taste of Toronto than Maestro Fresh Wes or Choclair had before him. The album’s lead single “Bakardi Slang” even went as far as to break down some T.O. specific street jargon (though he forgot to provide insight as why everyone in the city can be known as “Guy”), most of which arises from the city’s heavy island presence. The follow-up single “Ol’ Time Killin’” has grown into a anthem for heads from St. John to Van City, and the video, a collaboration with fellow Canuck director Little X, is arguably the greatest to ever come out of the Great White. It was also a good indication of how far K.O. had come since early in his career: We were making George and Wheezy moves in this rap shit – no more Willie Escos or vomit-inducing 3D animations for our hip-hop ambassador. Regardless of the album’s status amongst critics and fans on a wider scale, Quest for Fire remains a personal classic and a seminal release for the too-often dormant Toronto hip-hop scene.

Don’t Sleep On…
Wu- Tang Clan – Iron Flag
De La Soul – AOI: Bionix
Ludacris – Word of Mouf
Atmosphere – Lucy Ford
Fabolous – Ghetto Fabolous
Timberland & Magoo – Indecent Proposal
Busta Rhymes – Genesis

Wrap it Up, B.
To borrow from Pusha T… UHHGK. Granted, it is difficult following up a banner calendar year like 2000 in terms of both quality and quantity, but shit got downright ugly in ’01. Not only did the quality of product decline, but so did the sales figures. Did the events of September 11th really take so much attention away from culture that the industry suffered, or was it bigger than that? The number of honourable mentions was cut in half not by choice, but because of a lack of worthy candidates (and admittedly, even those that do make the cut here are contentious). In retrospect, 2001 was a massive turning point: we witnessed some of the clearest signs that Napster and CD burners had finally become a viable threat to the music industry as we knew it, especially in hip-hop and youth oriented genres. The sales figures have never really recovered from Y2K levels, while SoulSeek, Kazaa, torrents, and iTunes continued to play more vital roles in our music consuming needs. We would, of course, see the growing effects of these structural changes in the years to come, as budgets would shrink and star-studded production line-ups (see Jada) would continue to become scant, reserved strictly for undisputed top-dogs. Though product wasn’t as consistent in ’01 as it had been in year before (or most of those that followed), it was certainly top heavy, producing arguably the essential hip-hop record of the decade. Beyond Hov’s masterpiece, we saw the resurgence of one of our generation’s best poets, a short-lived renaissance for Canadian hip-hop, and an undeniable underground classic, as well as the establishment of an important series showcasing some of the best maestros the genre has produced. That said, there is little doubt that the music world will remember 2001 as the year Jay-Z was finally able to fight off competitors and formally establish himself as the ruler of the rap game.

Salute, King Hov. Hope that throne has been comfy.

Until next time.

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