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Swept Away: 20 Underrated Hip-Hop Albums

by ben rubenstein, dave heaton

"Underrated" is a completely subjective term. Any music fan has an opinion on who and what it applies to. The 20 albums discussed below represent two hip-hop fans' perspectives on which albums deserve more attention. Some are independent-label albums that came out to little fanfare but definitely have their admirers; others are what I'd call shadow albums - they exist in the shadows of the albums that are considered classics, they're always passed over in comparison to the musician's other works. Some are thought of as disappointments by critics and fans, while others have their devotees but can use more. All are compelling, rewarding creations that deserve your attention.

Note: Ben picked 10 albums and wrote about them, and Dave picked 10 albums and wrote about them (and wrote the introductory paragraph). Albums are in alphabetical order. Want to share your own picks for most underrated hip-hop albums? Send them to for potential inclusion in a follow-up article.

Aceyalone, All Balls Don't Bounce

Freestyle Fellowship was one of the most respected, innovative groups in all of West Coast hip-hop, a reputation earned mainly from their seminal 1993 album Inner City Griots. Since their dissolution, Aceyalone has been the most prolific solo MC, and All Balls Don't Bounce, his debut, remains his strongest statement to date. Boasting solid, if sparse, jazzy production and Ace's signature plaintive, tongue-twisting flow, this album was just recently re-released after being out of print for years and it still sounds fresh. Aceyalone has a way of putting down other MCs in a way that still seems friendly, like he's a kindly mentor just trying to get the point across that he is, unfortunately, always going to be better. In "Anywhere You Go", he makes this clear: "anywhere you go, I am gonna find you/and every time you flow, I'll be right behind you/just to let you know and constantly remind you/you can never be as dope as I am, god damn". It's difficult to argue with this bragging, as Acey effortlessly weaves his way through bouncy, jangling grooves on tracks like "Mr. Outsider" and the complex "Arythamaticulus". Never one to shy away from real issues, Aceyalone is at his most honest on classic old-school joints like "Mic Check", "Annalilia?" and "Headaches and Woes". He manages to make every track his own with little pretense or posturing, simply placing his unique stamp on each song through his conversational delivery. Some of the best tracks are those in which fellow Project Blowed MC Abstract Rude contributes a verse or two; the head-nodder "Knownots" (also featuring Mikah 9) features three incredibly loose-tongued rappers playing off one another with infectious results, and "Deep and Wide" is a catchy chill-out song that flows perfectly on its cymbal-heavy beat. It's a shame that this album was off the shelves for so long; too many hip-hop fans were deprived of this enlightening experience. All Balls Don't Bounce finds Aceyalone at the height of his free-form powers, and captures all the energy of the pioneering MC without being spoiled by overproduction or lyrical affectation. - ben rubenstein

Antipop Consortium, Arrythmia

Ah, the hip-hop avant-garde. Ever since Kool Keith arrived on the scene with his penchant for the weird and inappropriate (especially as the inimitable Dr. Octagon), the genre has never been the same. From fuzz-filled, discordant beats to surreal, subversive word choice, hip-hop has found ways to continually surprise listeners. While it doesn't always work, this type of hip-hop has revitalized the music, ensuring that rhymes and beats will never become stale as long as there are personalities like Dose, MF Doom, El-P, and the Antipop Consortium around. This last group, made up of Beans, Priest, M. Sayyid, and producer E. Blaize, made a name for itself in the underground NYC scene by combining futuristic, computer-driven beats with lyrical mayhem to somehow form a consistently interesting sound. The height of this short-lived collaboration was 2002's Arrythmia, a bizarre amalgam utilizing every sound machine in the known world and containing some startlingly hard-edged raps that prove the worth of trying new things. From the surprisingly straightforward (aside from the ping-pong ball beat) "Ping Pong" to the delightful playfulness that is "We Kill Soap Scum", the album is full of twists and turns that leave your head spinning. On "Dead in Motion", the rappers contribute fuzzed-out, abstract verses over bleeps and intermittent jagged feedback, noting, among other things, the desire to be "a name you equate with great". As evidence of this aspiration, tracks like the pounding "Human Shield", "Conspiracy of Myth", in which each MC floats his verse on top of the beat as if from another universe, and the spooky "Focused" cause a sense of bewilderment that makes an immediate impression. It's impossible to forget this album, what with the crisp, almost comically intricate production and wickedly obtuse banter that nonetheless materializes into something both lucid and intelligent. On "Silver Heat", Beans offers, "I exist as contradiction", and this statement makes more sense as Arrythmia moves along, growing on you after a few listens. Instead of being self-consciously different, APC is defined by experimentation, and that's why their music works so well. Pairing seemingly incongruous noise and words together is how they create, and it's this type of joyous free thought that, while not for everyone, makes music evolve to excite new generations. - ben rubenstein

Arsonists, As the World Burns

One of the toughest things to do in hip-hop is to successfully blend the contrasting styles (and egos) of numerous MCs into a group effort. Various crews exist throughout the genre, but only a select few (Hieroglyphics, Wu-Tang Clan, and Freestyle Fellowship, for example) have been able to achieve the chemistry to consistently perform well together. To master the group sound on a debut album, however, is an even greater accomplishment, and Arsonists manage that feat on As the World Burns, a truly concerted effort in which their brand of abrasive, rugged East Coast hip-hop shines. The group, composed of MCs Jise-One, Freestyle, Q-Unique, Swel Boogie and D-Stroy, piece together various witty, rough rhymes with old-school, bass heavy production to produce one of the most confident debuts in recent memory. Each MC contributes his own unique viewpoint to tracks that flow effortlessly and never drag the album down. On "Backdraft", Arsonists live up to their name by throwing down red-hot rhymes on top of an irresistible horn-driven beat. "Shit Ain't Sweet" is a dark masterpiece in the Wu-Tang tradition, and "Underground Vandal" pays homage to the group's underground roots with a stylish piano backdrop. Arsonists clearly take their cue from the old-school, as evidenced by classic tracks like "Session" and "Lunchroom Take-Out" (a freestyle battle session). As much as the group shows their allegiance to pure hip-hop, the MCs aren't afraid to experiment a little, as "Rhyme Time Travel" sees Q-Unique contributing three verses in the respective rap styles of the late 70's, 80's, and 90's, and "Pyromaniax" features an electronic guest and carnival beat. From start to finish, As the World Burns feels like a polished, fully thought-out album that could have come from hip-hop veterans; coming from a group only in its beginning stages, its impressive music holds even more weight. Arsonists prove that even through traditional techniques, talented MCs can breathe new life into hip-hop with purpose and flair. - ben rubenstein

Atmosphere, Overcast!

Before Slug became the darling of the emo-crowd, and before a girl named Lucy began to dominate his songs, Atmosphere was a three-man outfit, an outgrowth of the Rhymesayers collective that saw Spawn sharing MC duties as Ant produced the tracks. If today's Slug seems a little too emotional, even soft, the rapper that appears on Overcast! is undoubtedly more acrid and loose, while still retaining that complex, introspective flow that lets the listener into his life. The album is a perfect mix of the fierce bravado of Rhymesayers' early Headshots releases and the later, more playful sound. Overcast! is important not only because of the extremely high quality of the music, but also because it illustrates the journey Slug has made as a rapper. Highlights include the lyrically rich "Cuando Limpio El Humo", the incendiary anthem "Scapegoat", the call-and-response "Multiples", the snide "Current Status" with Beyond, and "WND", a story about hip-hop stereotypes as only Slug could tell it. The hidden track, a hilarious send-up of trailer park living, closes the album on a high note. Unfortunately, Spawn doesn't bring a whole lot to the table, with the exception of his memorable performance on "Complications", but his deliberate flow makes for some interesting interplay with Slug's witty rhymes. Ant's production is predictably strong, if a bit more traditional than on subsequent albums; the album is heavy on boom-bap drums and piano loops, which provide a suitable backdrop for the rhymes. There are any number of quotable lyrics, and the mix of jocularity and serious introspection produces a compelling package. There isn't really a weak track on the album, and it serves as evidence of Slug's incredible versatility as an MC; from battle raps to self-conscious flows, he can hold his own while adding his own unique flavor to every song. More than any other Atmosphere album, Overcast! demonstrates how hip-hop can be smart and unforgiving while still remaining accessible to the average head. - ben rubeinstein

Boogie Down Productions, Edutainment

KRS-One continually refers to himself as "The Teacher," but Edutainment is the one album where he made that task the basis for nearly every song. Because of that the album is filled with ideas - challenging conversations about American history, the criminal justice system, materialism, and racism. He pulls no punches, does his best to provoke and make listeners think. None of this would matter, though, if KRS wasn't one of the best MCs ever, a sharp-as-nails battle rapper with a larger-than-life presence on the mic. Here he sounds less egotistic, less attention-starved than he would become later on. And the simple, stark beats do everything to amplify the force of his words. As great as Criminal Minded was, as much of a classic as By All Means Necessary is, Edutainment might be KRS's finest moment as an MC and a thinker. - dave heaton

Brother Ali, Shadows on the Sun

For most of the hip-hop world, Brother Ali's second album, Shadows on the Sun, flew under the radar for months, lost in the shuffle of other releases even for uber-aware listeners like myself. In late 2003, as an inebriated college senior in the throes of my last midterms, I took the time to attend an Atmosphere show at which Ali was one of the opening acts. Though I had heard good things, and his performance did nothing but give credence to rumors of his sizable talent (and stature), it took another six months for me to really sit down and listen to the album. Having done so, I've found that it's one of the most addictive listens of the past few years, and certainly ranks among Rhymesayers' top releases. With a confident, no-nonsense flow and a flair for anthemic choruses, this albino MC has produced an LP full of braggadocio, true-life tales, and intense wordplay that is as comfortable in the deep underground as it is beside the latest mainstream releases. Backed by Ant's most consistently engaging production since the Lucy Ford E.P.'s, Ali makes the album an unabashedly personal statement that he is willing to stand by. "Forest Whitaker", a bouncy, autobiographical song regarding Ali's albinism, says it perfectly: "I'm a be alright, you ain't gotta be my friend tonight (You ain't gotta love me!)". This confidence extends throughout the album, especially on "When the Beat Comes In", a building, bass-heavy track in which Ali spits "it's funny, I'm the albino, but y'all pale in comparison". But Brother Ali's not just a battle MC; he has some real issues he wants to tackle on the album, including domestic abuse ("Dorian"), stalking boyfriends (the clever "Prince Charming"), and respect for artists ("Pay Them Back"). For this MC, hip-hop is as much a business as it is an art because it's how he supports his family (as he reiterates on the irresistible "Back Stage Pacin"). As such, he takes every track seriously, and his sincerity comes through clearly on tracks like the stunning "Shadows on the Sun" and "Blah Blah Blah" featuring Slug, both of which feature inspired production from Ant, who utilizes everything from chopped horns to well-placed keys on the album. Though the two MCs have widely varying styles, Ali seems to bring out the anger in Slug (check "Cats Van Bags" on Seven's Travels), especially on the superb "Missing Teeth", which ends far too quickly. With Shadows on the Sun, Brother Ali creates one of the strongest, most enduring albums to come out of the underground in a long time, and it seems like he's just getting started. - ben rubenstein

Busta Rhymes, Anarchy

Anarchy is Busta Rhymes' hidden classic, a blatant attempt at sounding more "street" that ended up having a singular sound all its own. The beats and atmosphere here are a mix of sci-fi weirdness and in-the-gutter grit, and Busta is as on fire as ever. There's sonic chaos here that's perhaps a mark of the album's loose apocalyptic theme, but it's pulled together in an energetic, truly forceful way. Jay Dee, Swizz Beats, Just Blaze, Nottz, Large Professor, Rockwilder, and others all contribute production to the album, yet everything holds together with one messed-up, jagged sound. Highlights include the surprisingly thoughtful Busta/Jay-Z/DMX collaboration "Why We Die," the Stereolab-sampling "Show Me What You Got," and "Ready for War," a hyper-as-all-get-out jam with M.O.P. - dave heaton

De La Soul, Stakes Is High

With Stakes Is High, the always-cryptic De La Soul took a risky 180-degree turn by making an album that was as direct and stripped-down as they come. What could have been a disaster was instead a brilliant effort, with the MCs showing off their skills in a forceful way, but without altering their personalities or clouding their strengths. As much as I love their imaginative first three albums, Stakes As High at times feels like their best, even though it paved the way for them to make some awkward stabs at commercial success on their next two, more disappointing albums. Posdnous and Trugouy have always been underrated MCs - here it's impossible to overlook their skills. And they're supported by consistently pleasurable musical tracks that are smooth, soulful, and funky. Throw in some serious, thoughtful lyrics (about the state of hip-hop, the state of America, and the state of the human soul, no joke) as well as humorous good-time lyrics, plus a few truly memorable guest spots from the likes of Common, the then-unknown Mos Def and the still-unknown Truth Enola, and you've got an underappreciated classic. - dave heaton

Digital Underground, Sons of the P

Digital Underground is still most associated with "The Humpty Dance" and the rest of their debut Sex Packets, but their finest hour came an album later, with Sons of the P. It's their album that's most explicitly informed by their love of Parliament and Funkadelic (from the title and the mock Frankenstein album cover to George Clinton's guest spot on the title track), but it also carries on the P-Funk legacy of using funk to start parties and spark brain cells. Sons of the P is a party album which also has weighty messages about the history and current state of the black community, embodied by the first track "The DFLO Shuffle," a classic wish to escape from pain and oppression. Digital Underground here isn't just Shock G/Humpty Hump, either - this is the DU that's equally marked by 2-Pac and Money B, among others. It's a fun, funky affair - flooded with Funkadelic samples - that also has a dark edge and a sincerely uplifting side. - dave heaton

The Dynospectrum, The Dynospectrum

Contrary to popular opinion (MTV), hip-hop is not just party music; with the right mix of hypnotic beats and reflective lyrics, a late-night drive through the snow can be as perfect a setting for an artist as a sweat-filled club. This type of heady concoction is exactly what the Dynospectrum succeeds in achieving, as its self-titled album is one of the most consistent, moody pieces of hip-hop in years. Consisting of Sept Seven (aka Slug of Atmosphere), Pat Juba (I Self Divine of the Micranots), General Woundwart (Musab, formerly Beyond), and Mr. Gene Poole (Swift 90 of Phull Surkle) and producer Ant, this underground supergroup presents 16 tracks of dark, complex, intelligent lyricism backed by sparse, atmospheric strings, drums and keys. Many tracks are not so much group efforts as they are avenues for each MC to speak his mind on a similar topic, whether that be the greed of the hip-hop industry ("Decompression Chamber"), relationships ("Evidence of Things Not Seen"), or simply the weak state of rapping ("Permanent on Surfaces", "You Can Lose Your Mind", "Anything is Everything", many more). While the verses are often meandering and may not fit together perfectly as songs, the rapping is so good that it hardly matters, as each unique MC allows us a glimpse inside his special way of thinking. The album is so heavily loaded with headstrong verses from each rapper that perfectly flow with the crisp production that any review would be remiss without at least one quote. As Mr. Gene Poole states in "Southside Myth", "every word's intended to slash tendons", and that's just what this biting wordplay does to your ears. As evidence, take Slug's lines from "Appearing Live", one of the more upbeat tracks: No longer content with just beheading the monsters/Now I'm intent on letting 'em see where their flaws are/Acknowledge the scent taste what fate has to offer/Make 'em repent and then damage they posture". Clearly, this isn't your run-of-the-mill hip-hop album, and it's also not for everybody. But for those who can get past the deliberately insular lyricism and straightforward production, there is a gem lying in wait. After a few listens, The Dynospectrum shows itself as a near-perfect expression of a profound love for subtle poetry, head-nodding beats, and unforgiving philosophy. - ben rubenstein

Eazy-E, It's On (Dr. Dre) 187 Um Killa

Ok, so it's not technically a full album. And Eazy has never been praised much for his lyrical ability or his unique disregard for politeness. But that said, I've never had so much fun listening to gangsta rap. This EP was intended as the final blow in the ongoing rift between former N.W.A. members Dre and Eazy, and, as such, it contains some of the most biting put-downs ever recorded as well as some highly comical elements that the rapper may or may not have intended. "Real Muthaphuckkin G's" is a definite classic, with sharp insults like "Talkin' about who you gon' squabble with and who you shoot/You're only 60 pounds when you're wet and wearin' boots". Ironically, for this track and several others on the EP, Eazy adopts Dr. Dre's synth-heavy G-funk as his backdrop-whether this was meant to accentuate his abusive words or is simply evidence of Eazy's considerable laziness, the beats make every track a treat to listen to and put the listener right in the middle of the time-period that aroused all of this rage. Really, for over-the-top vulgarity, this is the pinnacle (at least, this side of 2 Live Crew), and Eazy milks every track for all it's worth, like on "Down 2 Tha Last Roach", where he espouses the great value of marijuana, and, of course, manages to work in a dig at Dre, sampling a line in which the rapper/producer says he doesn't smoke. He even revamps the classic "Boyz N The Hood", which is a welcome addition to this collection, as it contains some of the most solid rapping in Eazy's catalogue and, in a twist, stays away from the topic of Dr. Dre. There's nothing like hearing Eazy talking about rolling around in his '64 Impala, imploring, "don't quote me boy 'cuz I ain't said shit". As if there wasn't enough fun, the album's centerpiece is "Gimme That Nutt", maybe the best hip-hop song about sex excepting Akinyele's "Put It In Your Mouth" (I realize that's a sensitive subject, so I'll leave that debate to the experts). Learning the words to this song taught me a lot, and I'd recommend these lines in particular (to the tune of "Green Acres"): "Cuz in some pussy is the place to be/Always fuckin is the life for me/Spread them legs open far and wide/Fuck this shit just let me put my dick inside". Ah, life lessons from the one, the only Eazy-E, a true gentleman who taught us that you don't always have to settle your battles with violence; instead, you can put out a whole CD worth of abusive material and provide hours of listening enjoyment. All I can say is, thanks. - ben rubenstein

Eric B and Rakim, Let the Rhythm hit Em

Rakim is rightly considered one of the greatest MCs of all time, but all too often the conversation stops at Paid in Full and Follow the Leader. Those albums are classics, but so is the duo's third album, 1990's Let the Rhythm Hit Em, which is at least as good as the others. Eric B's dense funk grooves complement Rakim's sonorous voice perfectly. The album is filled with imposing beats and powerful rhymes, and it all adds up to an unparalleled experience. On the title track and songs like "No Omega," "Run for Cover," and "Untouchables," Rakim sounds more direct and rugged than ever - less in-the-stars philosophical than before, his words evoke the grit, mystery, and beauty of the city as evocatively as the beats do. "Mahogany" is one of the classic hip-hop love songs, while "In the Ghetto" finds Rak walking through city streets and thoughtfullu contemplating the state of the people around him. Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em is one of those albums that words don't even get close to describing. - dave heaton

Genius/GZA, Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface stripped the Wu-Tang sound down to its essence, placing GZA's razor-sharp rhymes over stark but infectious beats. It's both a typical and completely atypical Wu-Tang album, with music more overtly melodic and accessible yet still complex and dark. The Wu's next wave of producers - Mathematics, mostly, and Arabian Knight - push the Wu style forward into the future in a minimalist, progressive way on should-have-been classic tracks like "Amplified Sample," "Breaker, Breaker" and "Stringplay (Like This, Like That)." This is uncompromising music that's also made to get feet moving and heads nodding. GZA's next album Legend of the Liquid Sword took him back in a denser, more abstract direction reminiscent of his classic debut Liquid Swords. It was an obvious attempt to distance himself from Beneath the Surface, which was perceived as an all-around failure. Yet it stands to me as not just GZA's finest hour but one of the most solid of the Wu-Tang solo albums. - dave heaton

Hieroglyphics, Third Eye Vision

Considering the collective experience of the ten members of this Oakland group, it should come as no surprise that Hieroglyphics are able to maintain a strong cohesion throughout their 1998 masterpiece, Third Eye Vision, despite the many voices and ideas that permeate the album. Gathering together West Coast heavyweights like Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Domino, Pep Love, and the Souls of Mischief, the loose consortium stays true to its roots while submitting clever, catchy songs that flow effortlessly. Shifting from light-hearted posse cuts ("Miles to the Sun", the King Arthur/Monty Python spoof "Mics of the Round Table") to harder underground tracks ("One Life, One Love", "The Who"), Hieroglyphics demonstrate their considerable ability to adapt to the varying styles of their many songwriters and producers. The key to this album is that each member is given time to shine while contributing pieces that fit well in the overall whole. Take, for example, Del's bumping "At the Helm", in which the loose-tongued MC (a cousin of Ice Cube) admonishes, "Life is a blast when you know what you're doin/Best to know what you're doin 'fore your life gets ruined/Life is a thrill when your skill is developed/If you ain't got a skill or trade, then shut the hell up". The track flows perfectly into the xylophone-esque beat of "The Last One", as more MC's pick up where Del left off and reiterate the Hiero mission to eradicate wack rappers. Most of the lyrical content surrounds this topic, though the MC's are able to coat their barbs in slick, interesting wordplay, especially on the two main highlights, "Oakland Blackouts" and "You Never Knew", both of which sound like classics from the outset as they drift on lazy, old-school beats. On the latter track, Souls of Mischief's Phesto D proclaims, "Hieroglyphics/Hip-hop is vintage/Invented in days back/Rekindling in ways that many thought was lost". Third Eye Vision is an homage to the hip-hop tradition, and as such, it recalls some of the finest days the genre has ever seen. There's something for every fan here, and it's impossible to deny the energy that pervades the album. While all the members have had some measure of success as solo artists (particularly Del), Hieroglyphics' collective power is unmatched. - ben rubenstein

LL Cool J, 14 Shots to the Dome

14 Shots to the Dome was the last LL Cool J album where he didn't sound like he had something to prove, the last time he sounded really comfortable on wax. Or, I should more correctly say, the last time he sounded comfortable as an MC. Coming after the extreme success of his (non) comeback Mama Said Knock You Out, it spotlighted an LL who was more comfortable sounding rough and rugged than he had been in a while, or even again would be, for 14 Shots's disappointing sales accelerated LL's lover man persona...meaning every attempt at hardcore rhyming since then has been forced and obvious, an "I'm still an MC" ploy that usually (but not always) rings hollow. Listening to 14 Shots now, LL is so casually on top of his game that it's amazing this album isn't considered one of his best moments. On tracks like the razor-sharp openers "How I'm Comin" and "Buckin Em Down," he sounds like a wiser, more accomplished version of the young punk that so vigorously claimed "I'm Bad" back in the day. And musically the album is miles from the quiet-storm pop/R&B ballads that have become his specialty on more recent albums, with classic soul sounds flavored with a touch of jazz - some of the best are genius products of the mind of Marley Marl, like "Soul Survivor," which deftly weaves samples of LL classics into a bright, jazzy track, but the tracks produced by QD III and Bobby "Bobcat" Ervin are just as worthwhile. Don't write LL off until you've heard his classic early albums, but don't believe that his career as an MC's MC ended back in those days, either. - dave heaton

MC Lyte, Bad as I Wanna B

MC Lyte is a supremely gifted MC: a consummate storyteller and a hyper-articulate mic master. Her first two albums, Lyte as a Rock and Eyes on This stand almost without question as her classics, and all of her albums since then represent the very definition of "uneven." Yet her 1996 album Bad As I Wanna B is one I return to again and again. Lyte's always swinging between the underground and the over, trying to be a commercial success on one hand while maintaining her status as an MC's MC with the other. Bad As I Wanna B represents a point in her career when she was trying her best for a commercial hit. The album's biggest single was its lead-off track, the R&B-soaked love ballad "Keep On, Keepin' On," featuring Xscape. That song, like the album overall, is slick and accessible, with a sound slanted towards modern-day pop R&B. To be honest, its accessibility is the major reason Bad As I Wannna B is so rewarding - the album is sublimely catchy from beginning to end, and at 39 minutes (even including two remixes of songs we've already heard) it has a directness and playability that too often goes missing in our time of 70+ minute albums filled with skits and filler. But Bad as I Wanna B wouldn't be so reliably entertaining if it wasn't for Lyte's rhyming skills. Here she's comfortably confident - she raps mostly about partying and seducing, but does it in a capable, pleasurable way throughout, whether it's on the head-knocking jam "Cold Rock a Party" (or its surprisingly good Puff Daddy remix) or "Druglord Superstar," a story of the dangerous life that retains a rough edge and honesty amidst the glossy sheen. Bad as I Wanna B represents the populist, shake-your-ass side of hip-hop, but it's still raw and hard-hitting. - dave heaton

The Pharcyde, Labcabincalifornia

Each Pharcyde album represents a different phase for the group, and a different line-up. As such, it requires an adjustment from listeners. The biggest example is their second album Labcabincalifornia, which came as a shock for fans expecting another album filled with bugged-out humor and hyper rhymes, like their classic debut Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. Taken on its own merits, though, Labcabincalifornia is just as remarkable as their debut - if you listen to it in the right frame of mind, you might even prefer it. Mellow as all get out, the mood is laid-back cool and introspective (in style and occasionally in lyrical outlook); there's more of an R&B vibe as well, with the MCs occasionally sliding into low-key singing. Labincabincalifornia stands as one of the best hip-hop albums for kicking back on a weekend afternoon or for zoning off in your mind late at night (or whenever, really). Most importantly, despite its more relaxed demeanor, the album is a captivating showcase of rhyming skills - the Pharcyde excel at a loose style which emulates the feeling of a freestyle, and at times that's demonstrated here even better than on their more extroverted first album. - dave heaton

The Roots, Do You Want More?!

Opening with the classic "Proceed", the Roots' second album at once fulfills the potential that had been hinted at throughout their days as street-corner musicians in Philadelphia, playing a rhythmic mix of jazz and hip-hop that owed its energy to precise instrumentation and lively rapping by its two main MCs, Black Thought and Malik B. The Roots have an unrivaled rapport here, matching stuttered raps full of braggadocio to challenging, jazzy drums, guitar and keys. On "Distortion to Static", Malik B (who later left the group due to drug problems, the focus of "Water" on 2002's Phrenology) contributes some of the most tongue-twisting, clever wordplay the group ever produced, keeping pace with some seriously complex, tempo-changing music. Moreso than on any subsequent album, the Roots seem to be having a lot of fun. "Mellow My Man" features Black Thought and Malik B trading rhymes over jazzy drumming from ?uestlove and crew, and even rap over a string bass solo, displaying the kind of playfulness that is lacking on Illadelph Halflife and Phrenology. "Datskat" is just what it sounds like, a relentlessly funky horn and drum-driven affair that features some inspired scatting by Thought. This album also helps to initiate some fans into the experience of the Roots' live show, as "Essaywhuman?!!!??!" can make even the most stoic listener break into a sweat because of the intense energy of the improvised jam. Other highlights include "You Ain't Fly", on which even ?uestlove contributes a verse about rationalizing rejection, and the gem "Silent Treatment", which shows even Black Thought has a soft side. As has become their custom, the Roots end the album with a spoken word poem by Ursula Rucker, "The Unlocking", a personal, rage-filled performance that adds power to the experience of Do You Want More?!, as if it needed any more. Though the Roots continue to be inventive in the studio and on the stage, this is the album that defined their singular sound and saw the perfect marriage of words and music, giving credence to the idea that their could indeed be such a thing as a hip-hop band. - ben rubenstein

Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Not everyone can tell a good story. People who are able to relate a funny anecdote while keeping all the facts straight and maintaining a certain amount of suspense are, simply put, artists. Slick Rick first displayed his artistry on the classic "La Di Da Di" with Doug E. Fresh, still a gold standard for yarn-spinning hip-hop. With his full-length debut, 1989's The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, MC Ricky D (as he also liked to call himself) displayed a love for humorous narratives with a strongly sexual overtone. Marking tracks with his effortless, off-the-cuff delivery, which Snoop Dogg would later take to new heights, Slick Rick offered up an album that shined because of its simplicity. The opener, "Treat Her Like a Prostitute", is an unapologetically misogynistic tale of three men who get played by their girlfriends, as Rick serves up the obvious moral. While he was anything but politically correct, the smirk with which he delivered his hilarious stories made it all palatable. "Children's Story", a robbery caper featuring a beat that was later used for Montel Williams' chart hit "This Is How We Do It", demonstrates Rick's flair for creating many different characters and voices in the span of four minutes. Further evidence includes the raunchy "Indian Girl (An Adult Story)", in which the protagonist goes face-to-face with a certain talking female body part, and the epic "Mona Lisa", where, over a whistling beat, the rapper shows his foolish love for a girl he meets in a pizza parlor. There are few missteps on the album, though the sweet-talking cautionary tale "Teenage Love" is a questionable choice for a guy who has so much to say about careless sex. But Rick bounces back to his true form with "Teacher Teacher", maybe the most infectious song on the album, focusing on his ability on the mic and the trouble it causes. Hearing him rap with his half-English accent and fearless confidence makes up for whatever moral flaws Rick might possess. So you can forgive the mindless banter on the irrepressible "Lick the Balls": "Who stands, who falls, who crowds the halls / This one the DJ calls….lick the balls!", because it's all part of the world Slick Rick creates with his words. As Great Adventures shows, there's nothing wrong with a little harmless fun when it comes to telling a great story. - ben rubenstein

A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhymes and Life

The conventional wisdom says that A Tribe Called Quest recorded three classic albums and two mediocre ones (or a mediocre one and an awful one, depending on who you ask). But if you ask me that's all wrong. Forget for a second that I consider Tribe to be one of the three of four best hip-hop groups of all time (ignore my inherent bias, in other words), and listen to me when I assert that 1996's Beats, Rhymes and Life should be just as legendary as anything else they released. It's a step in a different direction, but by no means a wrong turn. When Tribe released the first single from Beats..., "Ince Again" featuring Tammy Lucas, it was instantly clear that they were headed in a direction more informed by current R&B, though the song is built around a jazz sample, not an R&B sample, which hints right away at the contradictions here. For a more R&B-flavored Tribe song still sounds nothing like R&B. Rather they were off in a direction that felt both more connected to the modern sounds of the streets and more connected to outer space. Take a song like "Get a Hold," with its light, drift-away vibe and its heavy funked-up bass and drums. Or "Jam," which gets a party mood from its optimistic-sounding drums and melodic guitar part but also has an extraordinary feeling of dimension to it - listen for the weird percussion layered into the background. The more you listen to Beats... the more you hear (and the more you notice that in places the album is even more jazz-oriented than The Low End Theory). This complexity is in part a mark of the birth of the Ummah, the album's production team of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jay Dee (he now ranks as one of the most-loved producers in underground hip-hop but then was essentially unknown - the fact that Beats... bears many of the same sonic touches that he's now loved for makes the album's non-classic status even more head-scratching). But the album's complexity also comes from the rhymes - which bear the same infectious wordplay as on previous Tribe releases but are on all counts more mature and deeper. Tribe always had a reputation for "positive" lyrics that was only partly earned. Here they evade that positivity notion but successfully probe all sorts of serious issues, from black-on-black violence to personal struggles with anger and complacency, while being as snappy and casually wicked as ever. They're aided, too, by the presence of roughneck emcee Consequence, who as a temporary fourth member added another interesting level to the group.-dave heaton

Issue 23, May 2004

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