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Top 10 Indie Hip Hop Albums of 2011

2011 has been an excellent year for hip hop as a whole, especially from the independent spectrum. With the lines between mainstream and underground getting more and more blurred, most indie rap albums released this year were either critically acclaimed across the boards or achieving breakthrough crossover status (Tyler, the Creator and A$AP Rocky being prime examples). I found it very difficult to rank the top 10 as I thoroughly enjoyed the overall energy and creativity flooding out of the indie scene so here are the 10 albums that struck the highest chords with me this year in terms of artistic progression and enjoyability.

10. Childish Gambino – Camp
Actor/comedian/rapper/producer Donald Glover made an interesting move of signing with Glassnote Records for his hip hop incarnate Childish Gambino’s debut retail album Camp. While not innovative in terms of rap style, Gambino’s electricity and brashness through the subjects of racial alienation, relationships and cultural boundaries shine through and effectively made the most polarizing mainstream-sounding rap record of the year. While extremely accessible to more commercial listeners, people either loved or hated this album. This attitude has now become the standard for most music nowadays, which give the listener the ability to dislike an entire piece of music rather than just liking a few tracks because of the artist’s choice to pander to different audiences. Personally, I really enjoyed this album because of Glover’s musicality through rapping, singing and the very lush live orchestration utilized all over the project.

9. Atmosphere – The Family Sign

The age old saying goes that hip hop is a young man’s sport. Now age 39 with decades of experience in the indie hip hop circuit, lead emcee Slug of Atmosphere challenges the standard by spitting some of the most mature raps ever in The Family Sign. While most veterans cling on to the styles that keep them sounding young, Atmosphere, now with a full time backing band on their side (and as a result a very organic sound) reflect on themes of real grown man talk, modern family issues and relationship psychology. With albums like this coming out, I wouldn’t be surprised if rap acts can continue making relevant music well into very old age like Rock bands in the near future.

8. Death Grips – Exmilitary
Hip Hop was definitely not ready for this album at all this year. While Tyler, the Creator was popularizing the rebel punk infused rap styles of Odd Future, Sacramento group Death Grips took this aesthetic to it’s most extreme level with Exmilitary. Filled with non-conventional lo-fi production that fused big beat, glitch and dubstep elements along with lyrics that were psychotically executed in ways that make screamo and heavy metal bands sound girly, Death Grips destroyed the very fabric of modern rap music and pushed it to it’s limits. One can only hope that this album will be the catalyst for artists to truly embrace raw and unfiltered energy.

7. Action Bronson & Statik Selektah – Well Done
Armed with a voice that echoes the essence of  Ghostface Killah, the 90′s Golden Age of grimey NYC hip hop was singlehandedly sustained by Queens rapper, the lovable Action Bronson in 2011. Teaming up with heavily DJ Premier/Pete Rock-influenced producer Statik Selektah, Action went for the throat on every single track on their collaborative Well Done LP. Bronson’s lyrics evoke the exact images he paints along with colorful metaphors and word choice while each and every beat by Statik perfectly suited the verbal darts being fired. The best part? Not a single complaint about the current state of hip hop music. Action is purely doing him and vividly describing that gritty NY life.

6. Murs - Love & Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation
Leaving Warner Bros to sign with Dame Dash’s new grassroots Bluroc Records imprint, Los Angeles veteran rapper Murs teamed up with legendary producer Ski-Beatz for his 7th solo album Love & Rockets. Ski ended up lacing Murs with some of the best production since 9th Wonder’s contributions to Murs’ earlier critically acclaimed albums. With a multitude of experiences traveling all over the world (Murs even admits he can’t live in one city for more than 4 years), the vagabond emcee illustrates several life experiences very fluidly over the smooth jazz sampled beats by Ski. In one of the most impactful singles of the year, Murs took on the controversial subject of homosexuality on the outro track “Animal Style”; telling a dark tale of sexual discrimination that not many rap artists would attempt.

5. Big K.R.I.T. – ReturnOf4Eva
Currently preparing his major label debut via Def Jam Records, Mississippi artist Big K.R.I.T. gave hip hop fans a nice treat this year with the fully self-produced and self-released ReturnOf4Eva LP. Loaded with banging Southern tinged beats, K.R.I.T. managed to channel several life experiences through conventional Southern metaphors such as introspection while rotatin’ his tires and reminiscence while treating his car as a time machine and much much more. The next time you think the South is ignorant, listen to this album and watch your perspective shatter in an instant. Matter of fact, ReturnOf4Eva pretty much put the nail in the coffin to that mindstate in the ears of many.

4. CunninLynguists – Oneirology
Southern underground hip hop group CunninLynguists added a gem in their discography with the excellent Oneirology. As far as conscious rap is concerned, this album takes that title literally. Oneirology, like its namesake, is an extremely poignant dissection and travel through the subconscious during various dream states and fantasies within reality. Starring as different characters within these dreams and nightmares is the cast of featured artists such as Big K.R.I.T., Freddie Gibbs, Sonnymoon, Tonedeff, BJ The Chicago Kid and more. The production is as sharp and refreshing as ever while the flows really go deep into deciphering what the characters see in their dreams. As a concept album, this is probably the most cohesive effort in that realm this year.

3. Danny Brown – XXX
With his Fool’s Gold Records debut XXX, Detroit spitter Danny Brown effectively cemented himself as one of the most distinct voices in modern hip hop. That squeaky yet menacing voice will be remembered for years to come. Relentless with an undeniable rawness, XXX was one of the most unrestricted rap albums as far as content is concerned as Danny delved deep into his struggles with drug and alcohol abuse; glorifying while also vilifying his wild lifestyle. Outlandish metaphor and word usage was utilized all over the album and the shockwaves were spread all over the blogosphere.

2. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
Riding a well built wave of accolades and anticipation is the current crowned prince of Compton, Kendrick Lamar with his earth-shattering and career defining Section.80. Released through the independent and talent loaded Top Dawg Entertainment label, Kendrick made sure that the hype surrounding him was warranted as he executed some of the most impressive tracks (backed by incredible production courtesy of TDE in-house producers and a nice contribution from J.Cole) ever released this year. Subtly traversing through a narrative concept of the lives of 2 women, Lamar used this platform to dissect and describe inner city problems and universal truths and fallacies of the modern youth lifestyle. One of the most memorable lyrical showcases of the year went down on the incredibly tongue twisting track “Rigamortis”, which was so explosive that it had people like Busta Rhymes calling for a feature spot.

1. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

While Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 was absolutely outstanding, Seattle rap duo Shabazz Palaces delivered a classic out of nowhere with the critically acclaimed left field experiment Black Up. Driven by the sharp vocals of veteran emcee Ishmael Butler (formerly Butterfly of Digable Planets), this first ever rap album released through Sub Pop Records showcased some of the most innovative takes on modern hip hop. Everything from the group’s presence to the outlandish song titles (example: “A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 Questions, I Answer)”) and very interesting sample and instrument choices turned Black Up into more of an ethereal experience than a regular rap album. As we go deeper into this new decade, Black Up definitely reignited my love of the possibilities and potential that hip hop can reach in the future.

What were your favorite indie rap albums of 2011? Let us know. Here’s to more great music coming from the indie scene in 2012!

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