He might not have a choice, of course: Now that the effects of leaks and digital piracy are hitting the ill-prepared industry full force, gold albums are starting to look great, and even going "wood in the hood" isn't quite the admission of failure it used to be. But as much of the fractured hip-hop nation gathered itself in November for another event that cut across party and geographic lines — the return of Jay-Z — it was worth remembering that trends can be as fleeting as the music that often drives them.

And now, having doled out that sage advice, we will proceed to ignore it completely, as we spotlight a few of 2006's other notable hip-hop trends.

It was the year of the comeback. Hov's inevitable return got most of the ink, but it wasn't the most notable. A couple of veterans who'd been on cruise control finally awoke, and these sleeping giants turned in two of the better albums of '06 (as well as of their careers). Snoop Dogg's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment worked because Tha Doggfather finally applied himself. On Fishscale, Ghostface finally found some topics and tracks that matched the intensity of his high-pitched, borderline-crazy voice, and emerged with a coked-up, weirded-out winner. And Virginia's long-M.I.A. Clipse seemed ready to emerge from purgatory by year's end with the sometimes-stunning Hell Hath No Fury.

The comeback moment of the year, however, involved not only Ghost but his Wu-Tang brethren. On February 7, the Clan's post-ODB era began in New Haven, Connecticut. The reunited group, plus supersub Cappadonna, were maddeningly erratic, and the club was so oversold that a dropped Zippo would have spelled another Great White disaster. Yet somehow, group leader The RZA managed to assemble all his bandmates in the same room and even got the lackadaisical Method Man to act like he cared. Call it the Miracle at Toad's Place.

It was the year of the mixtape. From its humble origins as a streetcorner hustle, the mixtape has become an even more vital part of the hip-hop artist's arsenal. Filled with rare tracks, remixes, and exclusives, mixtapes don't just build anticipation for an upcoming album anymore — they deserve consideration on their own merits. And no one puts them together like Cleveland's Commissioner, Mick Boogie, who oversaw some of 2006's best and brightest mixtapes.

Although he did yeoman's work all year, and teamed up with titans like Jay-Z and Eminem, the best of Boogie came on some of his lower-profile projects. Case in point: his Mobb Deep mixtape, More Money More Murda, which shredded the album it was supposed to help promote — through some live Roots collabs, and remixes filled with the New York grit that Prodigy and Havoc's G-Unit debut lacked.

For the record, the Commish would like to point out his own notable Ô06 trend: "The return of good albums. Hip-hop has been lacking in album quality for the last two years," he says, "but this fall has been tremendous. Great full-lengths from Jay-Z, Nas, Clipse, Outkast, Game, Snoop and UGK are closing out the year with a bang. Who says albums are dead?"

It was the year of the British. Sort of. In fairness, 2006 can't be counted as the sort of watershed 12 months we witnessed two years ago, when Dizzee Rascal and the Streets and their grimey countrymen planted the Union Jack in hip-hop's bloated American carcass, with no intention of ever ceding territory again. And they haven't; while Mike Skinner was only at three-quarter strength on The Streets' The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, his Cockney wisecracks were still more fun than three-quarters of his Yank counterparts. Anyone Skinner failed to offend, the wee, witty Lady Sovereign — Def Jam's nod to the British Invasion — took care of. Meanwhile, one of the most slept-on releases of the year came from UK vets New Flesh; Universally Dirty mashed up dancehall, grime and even soca to give British hip-hop yet another brand-new beat.

It was the year of deep thoughts and the year of partying (and sometimes, deep thoughts about partying). There's room for both viewpoints now in hip-hop's increasingly diverse underground, which is good news indeed. Critical darlings Spank Rock might have merely made Too $hort safe for all the eggheads who thought they were too $mart for him the first time around, but even so, was there an album more fun in 2006 than the high-concept/low-art Yoyoyoyoyo? Didn't think so.

Both fun in their own thoughtful ways were albums from the Bay Area's Ise Lyfe, whose SpreadtheWORD suggests he might someday take over Mos Def's mantle as hip-hop's activist poet laureate, and Georgia Ann Muldrow, an adventurous L.A. artist who reassembles urban music in novel ways on Olesi: Fragments of an Earth. Both discs make great soundtracks for the parties in your mind.

It was the year of self-promotion. Well, every year in hip-hop is the year of self-promotion, but today's kids certainly have it down pat. Just ask Jibbs his favorite hip-hop trend of '06, and he barely blinks before answering.

"I would definitely say that the hottest trend," he offers, starting to chuckle, "was people that got their chains hangin' low." Dan Leroy

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