There is no denying that rap music in 2011 can be described as eclectic, thoughtful, raw, braggadocious, and high-spirited. From coast to coast, MCs doled out gems that captured the sentiments of the year – WAR (or in this case, W.A.R.), PEACE (think monster, cross-country collaborations), EVOLUTION (and eliminating the generational rap gap), and much more.
And now, after surveying the vast scene, we unload our top rankings of all of the great music we’ve listened to and loved over the course of 2011 – a strange yet wonderful year. Take a look and weigh in on “AllHipHop.com’s Top 40 Albums of 2011” – and be sure to peep their equally impressive cover artwork:
#40 The Cool Kids – When Fish Ride Bicycles
2011 saw the duo of Sir Michael Rocks and Chuck Inglish finally deliver their long in-the-making, and overdue, debut album to positive acclaim. A concern of most fans who had been riding with the Kids since the beginning was how much their sound would change over the years it took to create When Fish Ride Bicycles. In July, all doubts were smashed as the album delivered what fans had been anxiously waiting for. Slick production from Chuck, dope appearances from the likes of Bun B, Ghostface Killah, Asher Roth and Pharell, and the lyrics and subjects that made them “cool” in the first place.
#39 Pac Div – The Div
The Palmdale, California, trio show once again why they are a breath of fresh air in the rap industry. Pulling influences from the past like the West Coast’s eclectic Pharcyde, the MCs represent the new hipster movement that has invaded Cali and beyond. On The Div, the group displays great chemistry, rhyme skills and a knack for dope beats. What more can you really ask for?
#38 Childish Gambino – Camp
When he’s not making cameo appearances in Muppet movies or co-starring on popular TV shows, Childish Gambino is a rapper, and a good one at that. Throughout CAMP, Gambino addresses criticism from his haters on topics ranging from not being “Black” enough or “’hood” enough to being called “gay” and “soft,” stemming from his career as an actor and comedian. He wins by going from topic to topic in a versatile lyrical manner, and he demonstrates his ability to come hard on a track with clever wordplay and punchlines. Check “You See Me” and “Hold You Down” if you need more convincing.
#37 Statik Selektah – Population Control
Statik Selektah has built his name over time with two main things – dope DJ’ing skills and sought-after production. These two forces combine on his near-epic Population Control, which, hands down, wins the award for the album assisted by some of the best MCs of the day. Seriously, it has tracks from Big K.R.I.T., Freddie Gibbs, Christian newcomer LeCrae, Bun B, Action Bronson, Saigon, Styles P, Termanology, and the list goes on. “Play The Game” against Statik, and you’ll probably lose.
#36 Curren$y and Alchemist – Covert Coup
When the Jet Life rapper meets the genius of Alchemist, it’s a strong showing on Covert Coup, a continuation of Curren$y’s good collaborations from 2011. He teams up with Mobb Deep’s Prodigy on “The Time,” and though most of the other tracks are fast and furious in run time, Curren$y Spitta is up to the task. Songs like “Double 07” show off his metaphorical skills when laced by Alchemist’s beats, and he pays homage to his Smokers Club lifestyle on lighthearted selects like “Smoke Break.” Coup accomplished.
#35 Snoop Dogg – Doggumentary
West Coast veteran Snoop Dogg keeps pressing on in the rap game as he released his 11th album this past spring. Doggumentary saw a reunion between The Doggfather and longtime producing pals Battlecat, Fredwreck, and Meech Wells – and it’s no surprise that those collaborations produced the album’s highlights. On “Wonder What It Do,” Battlecat resurrects the smooth soulful Boz Scaggs song, “Low Down,” and gives it a slight funky twist. Longtime fans desire more of that kind of music from Snoop, as opposed to the dreadful Superman collaboration with country legend Willie Nelson.
#34 DJ Khaled – We the Best Forever
DJ Khaled’s We the Best Forever produced some of the best rap collaborations of the year. Pairing up Rick Ross, Drake, and Lil’ Wayne for “ I’m On One” proved to be radio gold, while “Welcome to My Hood” dominated the club scene and featured a bevy of some of the hottest artists around, including Ludacris, Birdman, Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, T-Pain, Twista, and Mavado. Though some of the tracks slowed the monster momentum, Khaled proved on this album that he just might be the best at assembling awesome collabos.
#33 Trae Tha Truth – Street King
Houston’s Trae Tha Truth is surrounded by friends on his 2011 offering, Street King. Heavy with featured guests, it may be the way he’s choosing to show off his industry muscle – by pulling in some major names, including Outkast vet Big Boi, Lil Wayne (on a dope track called “That’s Not Luv”), Wiz Khalifa, and Wale, literally just to name a few. With all of the talent, and some great production, Trae bullied his way onto our streets looking as if his kingdom is here to stay.
#32 Random Axe – Random Axe
Random Axe marks the first release from the group of the same name. The single, “The Hex,” paid homage to the album’s executive producer, artist manager, and AllHipHop.com contributor, Hexmurda, who suffered a massive stroke in 2009 and is still recovering. URB Magazine commented that Guilty Simpson and Sean Price are “blessed with two of the best voices in Hip-Hop.” All tracks on the album were produced by Black Milk, who has yet to gain the critical-acclaim that his production deserves.
#31 Mac Miller – Blue Slide Park
The debut album from Mac Miller sold an impressive 145,000 copies in its opening week, but even more impressive was the fact that it was done independently. This also set a record for the highest selling release for an indie artist. While the production is a bit lacking at times, the wide-eyed, young Mac does a good enough job on the mic to make it one of the more interesting, worth-listening-to albums of the year.
#30 Curren$y – Weekend at Burnies
Curren$y delivered a solid Warner Bros. debut with Weekend at Burnies by sticking with the formula that helped him rise from independent artist to major label darling. Weekend at Burnies features Curren$y’s descriptive word play, comical one liners, and visually-stimulating storytelling – and, although the album only clocks in at just a little over 40 minutes, Curren$y makes the most of his time by rhyming effortlessly over Monsta Beatz.
#29 Freddie Gibbs – Cold Day in Hell
Now one of CTE’s finest, Freddie Gibbs is bringing gangsta music back to Hip-Hop. Despite the Internet, backpack, snapback rapper trends going on in the genre today, Freddie keeps it G on this project and speaks exactly how he feels. Taking you on a trip through the rough Gary, Indiana, streets, this seems to be Freddie’s most significant and well put together project to date. Highlights on the project include the tracks, “Rob Me a Ni**a” ft. Alley Boy, “187 Proof,” “Twos and Fews” ft. Young Jeezy, “My Homeboys Girlfriend,” “St8 Slammin’ “ ft. Juicy J, “Menace II Society” ft. Dom Kennedy and Polyester, “Neighborhood Hoez” ft. 2 Chainz…. Yeah, you get it. This project is simply bangin’.
#28 Yelawolf – Radioactive
Shady signee and Alabama’s self proclaimed, trailer-park raised “slumerican,” Yelawolf dropped a bomb this past year on the rap game, emerging as one of the more interesting characters on the scene. With his skateboard influenced style and Southern twang, Yela has become a staple for Internet blogs and websites. Featuring a host of artists, including Eminem, Kid Rock, Lil Jon, Killer Mike, and Mystikal, this debut effort by Yelawolf sold 41,826 copies in its first week, debuting at a respectable #25 on the Billboard Charts.
#27 Pharoahe Monch – We.Are.Renegades. (W.A.R.)
You just may need a gas mask to breathe through the lyrical assault that longtime rapper Pharoahe Monch brought this year on the album, We.Are.Renegades (W.A.R.). Always known for his intelligence and propensity for hanging out with other smartypants (think Jean Grae and Talib Kweli), Monch didn’t disappoint on his third solo album in 10 years. He brings the words again on songs like “Calculated Amalgamation” and “Assassins” featuring Grae and Royce Da 5’9”, then trips fantastically into Jill Scott on “Still Standing.” If this is W.A.R., we don’t want peace.
#26 Murs x Ski Beatz – Love & Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation
Murs had a good year, combining his talents with people like Ski Beatz and D.C.’s Tabi Bonney, and finding himself on AllHipHop.com’s “Top 25 Underground Artists of 2011” list. Still, he didn’t spend much of the year underground with Love & Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation, an album chock full of Ski Beatz goodness. “Trevor An Them” is a storyteller’s dream, if Murs’ title doesn’t already get you, and “Hip Hop and Love” and “Eazy E” pay respects to the game. This is a rap rocketship ride if we’ve ever seen one.
#25 Tyler the Creator – Goblin
Cast aside all of Odd Future’s headline-stealing antics and tabloid tantrums, and Tyler the Creator has a definite something on his solo effort, Goblin. From videos that visually push the limits of our imaginations, to lyrics that make us gasp, Tyler’s Goblin was one of the year’s best – even if we don’t all know what he’s really about. He couples up with Frank Ocean on “She,” a strange love ballad of sorts, and then lets us really know he’s some sort of genius on tracks like “Tron Cat.” We don’t get it, but we like it anyway.
#24 Pusha T – Fear of God
In what many are regarding as a contender for “mixtape of the year,” G.O.O.D. Music’s Pusha T elevates his game as a solo artist and spits crack. Literally. You know how the Clipse, VA’s finest, does it. Weighing it up and shipping out the “EGHCK” on new and classic instrumentals, Pusha T uses his words to cut through the tracks with an uncanny vigilance that screams a new level of status and elevation. Taking European trips, eating exotic foods, wearing designer clothing, and in general, living the G.O.O.D. life., Pusha T gives other rappers the “Fear of God.”
#23 A$AP Rocky – Live.Love.A$AP
Harlem’s boisterous boy, A$AP Rocky, leader of the growing A$AP movement, seemed to bust out of nowhere in 2011. The New York resident is oddly Southern in both his look and delivery, but it works for him on tracks like “Trilla” and the popular “Purple Swag.” Living and Loving A$AP Rocky is a hard thing to do – he seems to want nothing more than for us to like his music and then leave him alone. But we won’t go, Rocky, and songs like “Pesos” is one of the reasons why.
#22 Tabi Bonney – The Summer Years
Believe it or not, the “Chocolate City” has another strong rap talent by the name of Tabi Bonney, who has recently been associated with Roc-A-Fella’s Dame Dash. Another African import, Bonney displays a smoother more musical side of his city than Wale, leaving behind the negative themes and rising on just good beats and lyrics. “Hip Hop and Love” finds its way over from Murs’ album, and gems like “On Jupiter” sample his famous musician father to add a special touch.
#21 9th Wonder – The Wonder Years
Producer extraordinaire 9th Wonder should make amateurs want to pack up their studio equipment and go home. On The Wonder Years, he displays his gift again and again. Wu-Tang vets make an appearance, along with rapper Phonte from his Little Brother past. Then he gets all orchestral on “Enjoy,” an enjoyable mixture of his beats holding up heavyweights Kendrick Lamar, Murs, and the O.G., Warren G. In our book, and probably yours, too, 9th Wonder can do no wrong.
#20 Drake – Take Care
The first buzz single from Take Care was “Marvin’s Room,” a melo-dramatic ode to ex-girlfriends that Drake has become synonymous with. Following was “Headlines,” a braggadocio favorite that has been certified Gold, and pretty much let us all know what the album had in store – a lot of Drake’s singing voice. Take Care features production by 40, Boi-1da, Just Blaze and Toronto crooner, The Weeknd, and entered the charts at a boss #1 and was recently certified Platinum.
#19 Raekwon – Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang
Raekwon served up a perfect slice of Wu-Tang pie with Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. Sticking with Kung Fu inspired tracks and cinematic samples, the Chef worked with longtime Wu affiliates, Bronze Nazareth, Cilvaringz, and Wu-Tang bat logo designer Mathematics, as well as a bevy of unknown producers, to perfect this masterpiece from the Staten Island great.
#18 Tech N9ne – Welcome To Strangeland
Tech N9ne continued to dominate the underground with the fourth release of his Collabos series, Welcome To Strangeland. With perfectly-placed guest spots from Jay Rock, Krizz Kalliko, and Brotha Lynch Hung to name a few, Welcome to Strangeland oozes raw emotion, soul, lyrical dexterity, and spirituality, making it a standout from everything else that was released this year.
#17 Wiz Khalifa – Rolling Papers
Rolling Papers debuted at unbelievable #2 on the Billboard 200 chart – unbelievable if you’re a tattoed kid named Wiz Khalifa from the Steel City. The album kicked off with the monster hit single, “Black and Yellow,” a tribute to Khalifa’s native Pittsburgh, which spawned countless remixes, remakes, and spoofs. Rolling Papers followed up with pop and herb-infused tracks like “Roll Up,” and the super slow and G’d up “On My Level,” featuring West Coast legend Too Short.
#16 Wale – Ambition
He may have switched up the sound from his go-go infused past just a bit, but from all indications, D.C. rapper Wale’s star is on the rise. “Lotus Flower Bomb” with Miguel’s beautiful begging on the hook is still dominating radio, and “Legendary” proves that he’s just as braggy as ever on Ambition, his first album on the MMG imprint. “Double M Genius” and “Don’t Hold Your Applause” follow suit, and of course, there are a ton on MMG features here. Wale may come slightly new with this one, but his appeal comes from a familiar place that feels good and possibly, “Legendary.”
#15 Talib Kweli – Gutter Rainbows
Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli puts together some of his best music to date on the Blacksmith label with this effort. Encompassing finely tuned production, live instrumentation, and quality, well-written songs, Kweli has fun with this project and keeps it up date and informative as always. Cunning, edgy, and refusing to sacrifice quality by dumbing himself down, Kweli offers fans a neo-soul/Rawkus sounding project that solidifies his well known ability to drop solid solo projects. And while many people are waiting for the next Blackstar album, we want to hear what Kweli brings on Prisoner of Conscious, his next project which he calls a departure from what fans may expect.
#14 Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer
Cee Lo Green brought back that signature, soulful Motown sound with his third studio album, Lady Killer. With bonafide hits like the edgy, “F*ck You,” “Fool For You,” and “Old Fashioned,” Cee Lo’s Lady Killer is a timeless album from a timeless, eccentric Hip-Hop entertainer. With his gender-bending styles and otherworldly voice (and don’t forget the rap skills), we can hardly stand the wait until Green’s next musical adventure unfolds.
#13 The Game – The R.E.D. Album
Maybe it was the fact that he’s fallen in love, or maybe it’s the grown-man evolution we can see him going through, but The Game’s R.E.D. Album didn’t get nearly the attention it should have in 2011. Still, critics recognized it for what it was – one of the Cali rappers strongest releases to date. Producers Cool and Dre kick things off just right with “The City,” “Good Girls Gone Bad” makes us think, and “Born In The Trap” reminds us where he’s from. There are a lot of features and even Dr. Dre, but there are also a lot tracks (over 20) and The Game can easily stand on his own.
#12 Maybach Music Group Presents: Self Made Vol. 1
It was hard to move an inch this year without being run down by the dominance of Rick Ross and his Maybach Music Group family. One of the best collaborative projects of the year found the Ross dominating the airwaves with songs like “Tupac Back” and “I’ma Bawse,” featuring himself and Philly hot boy/MMG signee Meek Mill. Thrown in Wale, Pill, and hella R&B musicality over lofty lyrics and bravado for days, and MMG was an unstoppable force in 2012.
#11 Phonte – Charity Starts At Home
Charity Starts At Home is the first solo album by former Little Brother/Foreign Exchange member, Phonte. A gumbo of great lyricism and production, the album features four tracks from the master, 9th Wonder, who once served as the main producer for Little Brother. Charity also boasts worthy appearances by comedian Affion Crockett, Eric Roberson, Zo!, Pharoahe Monch, Evidence, and Big K.R.I.T., on “The Life of Kings.”
#10 Big K.R.I.T. – The Return of 4eva
From intro to outro, Def Jam’s Big K.R.IT. gives fans an introspective look at the world of candy paint, wood grain, Southern fried beats, and epic swangin’ tracks, all while remaining humble, cool, and collected. Featuring his counterpart Big Sant, fellow Mississippian David Banner, Chamillionaire, Raheem Devaughn, Ludacris, and Bun B, this project brings every Hip-Hop fan back to the sounds of Outkast’s Aquemeni and UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty, mixed in with a little Three 6 Mafia, and 8 Ball & MJG. Return of 4eva makes you want to ride around in your glass house on the way to go eat some steak, skrimp, and lobster, and will be regarded as a classic someday – if it’s not already.
#9 Big Sean – Finally Famous
There is no denying the success that Big Sean has had in 2011, and it’s well-deserved. In June, Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint released Sean’s debut, Finally Famous, one of the most thorough and well-reviewed albums of the year. When your first single features Chris Brown, and your next single features your mentor and boss Yeezy, where do you go from there? The answer was one of the year’s biggest songs which had new life breathed into it by Billboard’s Rising Star, Nicki Minaj. Simply put, Finally Famous had some of the year’s biggest hits.
#8 Lupe Fiasco – Lasers
How do you top your first two critically-acclaimed albums: Food & Liquor and The Cool? Easy – you don’t. So, on Lupe’s third studio offering, he didn’t try too. Instead he provided fans and listeners with a much more broad and eclectic sounding album that included the conscious lyrics and subject matter he’s now for, all while providing a musical landscape of electronic beats, guitar riffs, and everything in between. Those who didn’t get everything they wanted can sleep easy – Lupe’s currently in the studio cooking up Food & Liquor 2.
#7 Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
In all of time, there may have never been a young MC to receive so many positive co-signs so fast as Kendrick Lamar. His Section.80 left us wondering why it took us any time at all to discover his talents, since he must have been rhyming from the womb. “Fuck Your Ethnicity” has all of the things you might expect from a Compton-based rapper, but with all of the uniqueness that makes Lamar stand out in the crowd. If that doesn’t serve as proof, the track “Ronald Reagan Era” might. After all, Lamar is the very best of what you get when you mix “Reaganomics” with Black ‘80s babies raised on Hip-Hop.
#6 Bad Meets Evil (Eminem & Royce da 5’9”) – Hell: The Sequel EP
What better way to show the world that whatever “beef” existed between two artists was squashed, then to release one of the most purely lyrical albums of the year. Backed by production from the industry’s top hit makers like Jim Jonsin, Bangladesh, Mr. Porter, and more, Em and Royce delivered an album packed 99.9% to the brim with what fans had been clamoring for since “Bad Meets Evil” first played on The Slim Shady LP. Of course, the album had to provide something for the mainstream, and who can fault Em and Royce; the album went Gold in no time and even earned Royce his first radio single, the Bruno Mars-assisted “Lighters.”
#5 Common – The Dreamer, The Believer
We dreamt that good Hip-Hop still existed, and we believed that Common could deliver it if he ever took a break from his active acting schedule. The Chi-Town spitter didn’t disappoint on The Dreamer, The Believer, which boasts No I.D. production, appearances from the likes of poet/goddess Dr. Maya Angelou on “The Dreamer” and the standard wisdom from “Pops,” along with slick-tongued tracks like “Sweet,” apparently aimed at the softness of a certain Young Money MC. Gimmicks aren’t needed, though, if you’re as good as Common, and this album is G.O.O.D music at its best.
#4 J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story
This is the album fans have been anxiously awaiting since Cole’s critically acclaimed mixtape, The Warm Up, dropped and news broke that Jay-Z had signed the North Carolina native to his RocNation imprint. How do you debut at #1 on the sales charts without having a smash record? Through hard work, dedication, humility, and a strong fan base from the beginning. If sold-out shows nationwide, a feature from not just Jay-Z but from the reclusive Missy Elliott as well, and a #1 album don’t show you what this guy’s got in his arsenal, then you need to listen again.
#3 Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter IV
One of the most talked about singles from Tha Carter IV was “6 Foot, 7 Foot” featuring Cory Gunz. And, followed strongly by “John,” featuring Rick Ross and “How to Love,” which found Weezy singing, it was apparent that Lil’ Wayne was finalizing his place somewhere high in rap history. His fourth single, the seductive and wishful “She Will,” featured frequent label collaborator, Drake, and was near perfection in terms of its word play (“Go on, pop that for a real n*gga). Deservedly, Tha Carter IV is up for a Grammy in the Best Rap Album category.
#2 The Roots – undun
Building a concept album isn’t easy – finding a way to weave a story through an entire project while remembering to be clever, stylistic, and melodic is a major feat – unless you’re a band called The Roots. The Philadelphia natives return with another winner on this, their 13th studio album, and they’re more convincingly good than ever, with shine from songs like “Make My” featuring Big K.R.I.T. and Dice Raw. “Tip The Scale” with a welcome Wu-Tang-like feel to it, but the real star here is Black Thought, who brings words upon words no matter what the track – see “Stomp” for signs of his greatness.
#1 The Throne (Jay-Z & Kanye West) – Watch The Throne
This mega-star collaboration remarkably avoided an early Internet leak and sold 436,000 copies in its first week. In today’s music sales, that’s an impressive number that should have been higher, given the star magnitude and hype surrounding the album. Watch The Throne is a solid, musical odyssey that, at times, seems like an extension of last year’s #1 Album of the Year, Kanye’ West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with Jay-Z added into the mix. The giants mostly have fun throughout their opus, especially on standout tracks including “Otis,” “N*ggas In Paris,” and “Who Gon Stop Me,” while “Lift Off” featuring Beyonce’ was the low (but still good) point.
Here are some other worthy mentions – our KNOCKOUT NOTABLES OF 2011:
2 Chainz – T.R.U. Realigion
Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee 2
Black Milk and Danny Brown, DJ Drama – Third Power
Elzhi – eLmatic
Jean Grae – Cookies or Comas
Juicy J and Lex Lugar – Rubberband Business 2
Smoke DZA – Rolling Stoned
Torae – For The Record
Z-Ro – Meth
Webbie – Savage Life 3