J-Dilla

The Shining

(Rapster/BBE)

The passing of James "J-Dilla" Yancey was one of the saddest moments in recent hip-hop history, yet his legacy lives on. The Detroit producer — known for his work with Common, the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, D'Angelo, and Slum Village — was posthumously fêted by a huge cast of friends and associates on The Shining, a worthy companion to Dilla's all-instrumental release Donuts. Any questions about Dilla's place in the pantheon were answered by his solo tracks "Love Jones" and "Won't Do," which resounded with soulful emotion.

The Coup

Pick a Bigger Weapon

(Epitaph)

The Coup's fifth effort might not have sold aluminum, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better rap album released in 2006, even if it came out on a label more known for punk than hip hop. Besides being the Oakland-based group's most musical effort to date, Pick a Bigger Weapon addressed the complexities of ghetto socioeconomics and turf politics in a down-to-earth way, and for all the crack-rap songs in '06, "We Are the Ones" was one of the few to examine the why and the how of it all. Plus, it's hard to argue with any album that rhymes "laugh, love, fuck, and drink liquor" with "help the damn revolution come quicker."

T-K.A.S.H.

Turf War Syndrome

(Guerilla Funk)

A protege of agitprop MCs Paris and Boots Riley, T-K.A.S.H. came into his own with his solo debut. Turf War Syndrome flipped the West Coast G-Funk template into a manifesto laden with tight lyrical expositions and hardcore beats. There's also a consciousness here that goes beyond the predictability of dope-dealer rhymes to actually propose solutions to the "American Nightmare." Highlights included the reggae-flavored "Louder Than Words" and the "Shook Ones" remake "Made in America," but the entire album resonates with contemporary relevance, intelligent commentary, and an engaging delivery.

Strange Fruit Project

The Healing

(Om Hiphop)

Quite possibly the year's best hip-hop album (indie or major), The Healingwas released on a label previously known for mindless house and downtempo chill-out compilations. Ironic, perhaps, but no more than the notion of a Texas rap group that eschewed the chopped and screwed movement, updated the neo-soul template, and stocked an album with backpacker-style sentiments that actually worked in the clubs. While Chamillionaire and his Houston brethren were ridin' dirty, SFP came clean. In the process, they collaborated with Erykah Badu and 9th Wonder, infused honest lyrics into smooth, original-sounding tracks, made a strong case for Waco to be known for something other than David Koresh, and delivered the type of classic hip-hop album you feared you'd never hear again.

Gyptian

My Name Is

(VP)

Sean Paul may have raised the temperature of suburban teens, but for roots-loving reggae aficionados, Gyptian's debut offered cool meditation. Dancehall has long teetered between slackness and consciousness, yet fervently spiritual odes like "MaMa" and "Serious Times" tilted the scales away from sex-saturated ditties and gunman-celebrating "shotta" tunes, and affirmed the peace-loving Rasta ethos without the sometimes-contradictory statements of Sizzla and Capleton. Unlike Damian Marley, Gyptian made no attempt at crossover appeal. Remember the name — the 24-year-old Gyptian could be around for a long, long time.

DJ Shadow

The Outsider

(Universal)

Despite its obvious flaws — among them, hyper-eclecticism and hackneyed and generic stabs at Britpop — Shadow's third official full-length was one of the year's most visionary and adventurous albums. No rap tune released in 2006 captured the anger, sorrow, and pain of the post-Katrina South better than "Seein' Thangs" (featuring David Banner), and who else but Shadow could have conceived a long, bluesy riff on MySpace relationships, channeled hyphy's hyperkinetic vibe into a titanium-alloyed industrial club knock ("3 Freaks"), and made a get-your-sexy-on anthem ("Enuff") that not only united the East and West coasts, but did so without lapsing into stupidity?

Buju Banton

Too Bad

(Gargamel Music)

A return to the highly influential dancehall style of the '90s, Buju Banton's latest release was both a satisfying retro-flavored throwback to a time when reggae wasn't trying to be something it wasn't, and a strong musical and lyrical statement underlining the need to keep dancehall culture undiluted. Too Bad's minimal, sparse backing tracks evoked the classic "bogle" era, and though most of the album finds Banton focused heavily on moving waistlines, the veteran artist still made room for poignant commentary about social inequity ("Who Have It") and the pitfalls of the gangster lifestyle ("Fast Lane"). Most impressively, Banton only featured one cameo (from '90s star Pinchers, no less), breezing through the 17-song album with impressive energy, riding the riddims with all the cornering capability and grip of a NASCAR driver. Eric K. Arnold

It Was Free Cuz I Stole It: The year in unfair shares

Now is a bad time to be a giant music corporation, but ethically challenged music fans couldn't ask for better days. Bootlegging has always been about catering directly to the fans, and the Internet breeds the best bootleggers yet: bigger and stronger and faster than ever before, the better to handle the demands of ten million filesharers trading a billion-and-a-half songs daily.

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