YEAR IN MUSIC: This year, hip-hop experienced a major renaissance — and underground troubles
YEAR IN MUSIC The past year brought dozens of excellent albums, and hip-hop sounds topped the list. This wasn't inevitable. Please recall 2009, when critics cited precious little rap in their favorites, save for Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ... Part 2 and Mos Def's The Ecstatic. But in 2010, both rockists and heads reserved space for Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Big Boi's Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son of Chico Dusty, the Roots' How I Got Over, Drake's Thank Me Later, and Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma. And let's not forget minor but important recordings such as Curren$y's Pilot Talk and Yelawolf's Trunk Muzik 0-60.
This winning slate confirmed that major label-backed rap is undergoing a renaissance. Nearly every artist made an impact by keeping their eye on the mainstream, from security guard-turned-bad actor Rick Ross recruiting Erykah Badu and Cee-Lo Green for his Teflon Don, to Bun B allowing Canadian teen idol Drake to call himself an "honorary member of UGK" on the former's Trill O.G. Some complained that these rappers focused too much on claiming the hearts of soccer mama grizzlies and teens raised on Bratz dolls. But after years of boorish thugs peddling D-boy anthems and R&B gimmicks, this new pop sensibility sounded refreshing. (The sole exception may be Ludacris, who found success with Battle of the Sexes by offering a slick and familiar mix of strip club anthems and babymaker suites.)
B.o.B's The Adventures of Bobby Ray was the most extreme product of these pop mirages. The Atlanta rapper scored two No. 1 hits ("Nothin' but You" and "Airplanes"), but divided critics and fans by recruiting emo-rock burnout Rivers Cuomo and Hot Topic heroine Hayley Williams for his collection of gooey ballads. At its best, The Adventures of Bobby Ray had a charming innocence; at worst, it sounded like pandering. But at least it offered well-written tunes. In contrast, Nicki Minaj's grating Pink Friday mashed bad 1980s John Hughes-approved synth-pop and soaring Rihanna choruses into a barely coherent mess. It proved that despite Nicki's talent for ear-catching stunts, from her star turn as the bisexual chick who'll do you and your man on Usher's "Lil' Freak" to her cipher-destroying rhymes on Kanye West's "Monster" and Ludacris' "My Chick Bad," she was still a disappointingly underdeveloped songwriter.
Lost in the intense debate over the rap major domo was the demise of Definitive Jux. Once the mighty inheritor to the Fondle 'Em tradition of B-boy nonconformity, and the source of key early-2000s works by Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and Mr. Lif, it sagged under the weight of subpar and underpromoted releases before label head El-P mercifully pulled the plug last February. The news lit up the Internet for a day or two and then was seemingly forgotten. When Noz from cocaineblunts.com asked Yelawolf if he was "heartbroken" over Definitive Jux's demise, the Alabama rapper answered: "I didn't even know it ended. Well ... I'm not heartbroken about it." How ironic that Yelawolf was once a lyrical-minded backpacker too, before switching to gritty tales of deep South meth dealers.
There were other disturbing signs that Definitive Jux's indie-rap scene was no longer ground zero for fledging MCs, from conscious rap advocates Little Brother breaking up, to Minneapolis freestyle ace Michael "Eyedea" Larsen dying at the tragically young age of 28. "Underground rap is dead," noted Sean Fennessey in a Pitchfork essay hyping Los Angeles collective Odd Future. "In its stead, a different brand of homespun rappers have taken hold. Consider Lil B and Soulja Boy, who have been prolifically working the Web ... to achieve their own kind of teenage heroism."