It's difficult to survey the hip-hop of 2004, more bloated and self-referential than ever, and not imagine the mythical AOR wasteland of the mid-'70s. Like rock before it, hip-hop has easily won a cultural acceptance once unthinkable, and our reward is a parade of Jadakisses and G-Unit solo projects, preaching empty and ultimately safe rebellion in the same way Boston and Foreigner once spoke to beer-drinking longhairs in high school parking lots. That being the case, it was hard to hear Brits like the Streets and Dizzee Rascal and not imagine a hip-hop equivalent to the punk revolution of two and a half decades ago. Today's industry is too fragmented to be satisfyingly overthrown the way the Clash stomped REO Speedwagon, though, and just as Boston and Foreigner made some great records that will outlive every mullet revival in the future, one simply can't write off hip-hop's mainstream. Still, it's no coincidence that most of the best hip-hop of 2004 came from outside it — and the very best came from outside America.
1. The Streets, A Grand Don't Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic). For all the mythology and analysis devoted to Mike Skinner's second album, the secret of its appeal is remarkably simple. Skinner not only wrote great, catchy songs — the riff-happy sing-along “Fit But You Know It” was easily the year's best single — but he actually used hip-hop to tell stories. Little slices of love, laziness and London life appear on each track, and a larger theme about a missing thousand dollars ties it all together and transcends the difficulties of the Brit slang. When American rappers toss their notebooks of battle rhymes and street cliches for such old-fashioned yarn-spinning, mainstream hip-hop will become great again, and not before.
2. Dizzee Rascal, Boy In Da Corner (Matador)/Showtime (XL). By dropping two superior albums in 2004, Dizzee Rascal has already slain the sophomore jinx and brashly turned his Cockney rhymes toward world domination. “People are gonna respect me if it kills you,” he snarls on Showtime, and he's right. Who would have believed that Tupac's heir apparent is a teenage East Londoner who unleashes his patois over ringtone melodies and video-game bleeps? Boy In Da Corner has the better songs (especially the heartrending “Do It”); Showtime fleshes out the glitchy garage beats with more melody, suffering only from the occasional fit of second-album sulking at Dizzee's doubters. Soon there may be none left.
3. Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam). One reason the earlier punk analogy falls short is that in 1977, there wasn't anyone subverting the American mainstream from within, the way Kanye West did in 2004. The one rapper/producer with as much cred in the Billboard Top 10 as in the underground, Kanye used the stunning College Dropout to build a long-awaited bridge between hip-hop's two tribes, revealing himself in the process as perhaps the most honest MC in the game (just listen to “All Falls Down,” which says more about bling than the entire collected works of Def Jam and Cash Money). If overexposure and the burgeoning messiah complex seemingly sparked by “Jesus Walks” don't do him in, West will end up one of the most important figures in hip-hop history.
4. Madvillain, Madvillainy (Stones Throw). Remember how hip-hop heads pissed themselves with excitement when producer-du-jour Madlib met up with his counterpart Jay Dee last year? This was the collaboration they should've soiled themselves over: MF Doom's comic-book-referencing rhymes and Madlib's sampledelic, try-anything production crammed more ideas into two minutes of “Strange Ways” than could be found on most full hip-hop albums this year. Dizzying at full-length, but essential.
5. Wale Oyejide, One Day…Everything Changed (Angry Robot). A Nigerian-raised producer once known as Science Fiction, Wale Oyejide reinvented himself on his second album as a singer and MC as well as a beatmaker — a revelatory change. Atop haunting, Afrobeat-infused hip-hop, he evokes the unease that spurred revolutionary manifestos like Culture's Two Sevens Clash, Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dread Beat an' Blood, and any of Fela's more pointed work. Forget inanities like Jadakiss's “Why”: This is real political hip-hop.
6. Various Artists, The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip-Hop 1979-83 (Stones Throw). Everyone hates a critic who demands that you buy a certain album (this one) if you care at all about a particular genre (hip-hop). So go ahead and hate. In an alternate reality, Nutmeg State rhymers like Mr. Magic and Pookey Blow would have taken these amazing records to the charts and the bank, and hip-hop would never have been the same. Or would it? Listen to this crucial reissue and decide for yourself, if you care at all about…okay, okay, you get it.
7. Jacki-O, Poe Little Rich Girl (TVT). In the worst year for hip-hop women in some time (mainly because there was no new Missy Elliot album), Jacki-O's flawless interpretation of a Down South Lil' Kim stood out as much for its clever crunk-&-B production as for the expected in-your-face nastiness. Those looking for less raunch but no fewer crunked-up hooks should check out newcomer Ciara's Goodies, which has more of those than just the smashing, sassy title track.
8. Beans, Shock City Maverick (Warp). After probing hip-hop's boundaries for weaknesses in the Anti-pop Consortium, Beans crafted his ultimate bait and switch. Familiarly retro yet shockingly futuristic, the spare, gleaming electro-beats and jagged rhymes of Shock City Maverick offer old-school hip-hop viewed through a broken funhouse mirror…held to your throat.
9. 213, The Hard Way (TVT). Stripped of danger and ambition, Uncle Snoop was headed toward a permanent upper-left-corner residency on Hollywood Squares before hooking up with his old bandmates Warren G and Nate Dogg. Surrounded once again by luscious, lazy G-Funk, Snoop reclaimed the mantle of Tha Doggfather for the first time in years, creating an unexpectedly great set — comparable to catching an awesome high from the scrapings of an old bong.
10. Thavius Beck, Decomposition (Mush). The title, the dead-insect cover art, the gloomy and ironic concepts (“Amongst the Shadows,” “Music Will Be the Death of Us All”), the ambient, mostly instrumental tracks — Decomposition plays like an homage to the '90s angst of Massive Attack. And considered as such, it's a true blast from the past, one that blows open a black hole allowing you access to trip-hop's disorienting dimensions once again.