Year of musical triumphs proves hip-hop “not dead”

Chris Letso

In 2006, one of hip-hop’s true legends, Nas, released an album titled “Hip Hop is Dead.” Meant as a commentary on the stagnant, declining condition of modern hip-hop, the album itself was ironically, or maybe fittingly, a bit forgettable.

Aside from a few solid releases from the underground each year, nothing about hip-hop at the time was very exciting.

Barely any new emcees possessed the profound lyrical talent that seemed commonplace in the golden era of the ’90s; the oasis of fresh, interesting voices had gone barren.

Kanye West tried his best to rejuvenate the genre with his innovative production and larger than life personality, but he lacked the truly exceptional skills on the mic necessary to become its true savior.

Turn on any so-called hip-hop radio station, and you’re bound to hear more singing than rapping, more annoying and meaningless catchphrases than thought-provoking rhymes.

Yet, outside of that radio rap world, something in the way of real artistry seems to be bubbling in this new decade, coming from both coasts and, yes, even down south.

Starting out west is the up-and-coming Odd Future crew (full name: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), a group of California teenagers making hip-hop music more fearless and experimental than anything in years.Their lyrics would make the early ’00s-era Eminem blush, and their beats are filled with lo-fi synth washes and gritty drums.

“I created OF because I felt we’re more talented than 40-year-old rappers talking about Gucci when they have kids they haven’t seen in years, impressing their peers,” Odd Future founder Tyler, The Creator, raps on “Bastard,” his mixed tape’s sparse, revealing title track.

Fellow OF member Earl Sweatshirt is only 16 years old, but his flow already rivals just about any rapper to come out in the last 10 years.

The group is deservedly attracting a cult following at a rapid pace, and its Tumblr page is like a treasure trove of free album downloads.

Meanwhile, the South has also produced some gems in the past year. Many rappers took offense to Nas’ infamous condemnation, as they thought he was singling out the South for its crunk rap movement and lack of “real hip-hop.”

Big Boi, one half of OutKast, had a similar reaction, so perhaps his “Sir Lucious Leftfoot” album was a delayed response.

Full of lavish production, with Big Boi’s classic mind-bending rapping and legitimately well-written hooks, the LP is pure fun and one of the most consistent mainstream rap releases since the ’90s.

From further under the radar came Mississippi’s Big K.R.I.T., a newcomer with introspective lyrics and self-produced beats blending East Coast soul samples with his own southern sound. “K.R.I.T. Wuz Here,” his debut album, is like a modern-day UGK record with its sometimes dark, always meticulously-crafted production.

K.R.I.T. is a true reporter for the streets and a much-needed new voice for the southern region.

Representing New Orleans in a big way this year was Curren$y, a one-time Lil Wayne affiliate. Curren$y enjoyed a rebirth in 2010 with two full album releases, “Pilot Talk” and its sequel, both of which featured excellent, smooth-yet-heavy production from Ski Beatz.

Curren$y’s lyrical content may be nothing new, but his lazy flow is infectious.

He somehow found a way to make a great song about “Knight Rider” character Michael Knight, with its simple chorus of the name “Michael Knight” repeated over and over, which has become one of the most memorable songs of the year.

A new form of the underground is rising, and thanks in large part to the Internet, infecting the outer reaches of the mainstream.

Will any of these emcees rise to cultural prominence and become the highly sought savior of hip-hop? In spite of their immense talents, probably not; they simply don’t have the wide-reaching appeal that someone like Biggie or Jay-Z had.

Maybe it will be Kanye, after all. He stepped his lyrical game up about 10 levels on his masterpiece, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and his production skills are currently unmatched.

There is another rapper, however, who is just waiting to take the scene by storm, and he goes by the name of Jay Electronica.

Originally hailing from New Orleans, it seems he currently inhabits New York, and he just found a new home on Jay-Z’s RocNation label.

After rapping over the score to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and dropping one of the best singles in hip-hop history with “Exhibit C” last December, it seems Jay Electronica is finally ready to release his debut full-length, “Act II: Patents of Nobility.”

His lyrics could rival any rapper in his or her prime, and his potential seems to know no bounds. Jay Electronica may be on the verge of taking hip-hop full circle and making his idol Nas eat his words; hip-hop may have found its new savior. If the past year has been any indication, stay tuned; we may be in for a true genre resurgence.