The rap world will find it hard to top 2010, a year where B.o.B., Nicki Minaj and Wiz Khalifa introduced themselves to the masses, Eminem reclaimed his crown as the music industrys biggest star, and Kanye West issued his critically lauded gem My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. For now, we only have questions. Can Dr. Dres Detox live up to the hype? Will Jay Electronica finally release an album? And can Wiz Khalifa convert his hit single Black & Yellow into a popular album? Meanwhile, just as FaR*eAst Movement did last year, a few dark horses will unexpectedly emerge to steal the show.
Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch the Throne (March)
Chummy superstar collaborations rarely make for great music. For every Madvillainy, a zippy masterpiece penned by a raw and hungry Madlib and MF Doom, there are more of The Best of Both Worlds, a daffy Cristal-fueled afterthought Jay-Z and R. Kelly recorded between nightclub jaunts. Jay's involved in this one, too, and worryingly it is slated to appear in March, fueling suspicions that it was made quickly and perhaps sloppily. The key to Watch the Throne is the mercurial Kanye West. If we hear the perfectionist "toast to the douche bags" Kanye we know and love (to hate), then we may get the rare rap summit that actually bangs.
Dr. Dre, Detox (Spring)
Dr. Dre's long-delayed third album (fourth if you count the 1997 compilation Dr. Dre Presents The Aftermath) is often compared to Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy. However, Andre Young is a much better publicist than crazy old Axl Rose. The former has used marketing deals with HP computers and Dr. Pepper, among others, and press interviews to brand himself as a genius of booming beats, distracting us from the fact he has only produced two chart hits in the last four years, Eminem's "Crack a Bottle" and "We Made You." We don't think Dr. Dre's washed up, though the impending success or failure of Detox may harden our views one way or the other. The pleasant but unspectacular "Kush" is an enigmatic sign.
Wiz Khalifa, TBD (Spring/Summer)
Wiz Khalifa isn't a standout lyricist, with a topical range limited to smoking acres of trees and living an exaggerated hipster-fied version of the rap life (substitute designer T-shirts and limited-edition Nikes for white tees and gold chains). However, he has proven to be an incredible composer that can blend sung hooks, melodic rhymes and catchy beats into excellent albums like 2009's Deal or No Deal and the 2010 mixtape Kush and Orange Juice. Last year's platinum-certified megahit "Black and Yellow" may just be a prelude to what awaits Pittsburgh's favorite son.
Lupe Fiasco, Lasers (March)
In 2007, Lupe Fiasco scored his first gold album, The Cool, and his first top 20 single, the platinum-certified "Superstar." Fast forward to 2010, when the Chicago rapper was forced to initiate an online protest because his label, Atlantic Records, wouldn't release his third album, Lasers. How does a gold-selling artist not only get his album nearly shelved, but also find himself mocked by online bloggers as a minor rap star? Rick Ross has never had a platinum album, either, but he is rarely dismissed as an underground artist because he makes plenty of urban radio hits. Meanwhile, Lupe Fiasco has struggled to offer a suitable follow-up to "Superstar." Last year's "The Show Goes On" was the latest in a series of singles that failed to generate fan excitement. None of this tells us whether Lasers (formerly titled We Are Lasers) will be any good, of course, but art is often an afterthought in the music industry.
Jay Electronica, TBD (TBA)
Jay Electronica loves to torment his fans. He hasn't released a full-length project no albums, no mixtapes since 2007's Style Wars EP. Yet when he signed with Jay-Z's Roc Nation last fall, it generated headlines all over the web. On his most recent retail single, the epic "Exhibit C," Jay Electronica wrote a short autobiography, recalling a life that has included stints of homelessness, with intricate language and metaphors. He's a throwback to the East Coast underground of the mid-'90s, so it'll be interesting to see if his long-awaited album assumed to be on the fast track, thanks to Roc Nation will appeal to a mainstream audience that has lately shown little interest in hardcore hip-hop.
Shabazz Palaces, TBD (TBA)
Ishmael Butler is best known as Butterfly from Digable Planets. But Shabazz Palaces, a collective he leads under the alias Palaceer Lazaro, is far different from the Planets whimsical acid jazz. The group produces ominous-sounding dread bass and dubstep as Lazaro indicts evil Babylon and rues the corporatization of hip-hop culture. Shabazz Palaces have rarely been interviewed or photographed, and their buzz comes from a pair of 2009 self-released EPs, a self-titled effort and Of Light. In late 2010, it signed a deal with Sub Pop Records for a debut album expected this year.
J Cole, Cole World (May)
Youre excused for being skeptical of the hype surrounding J Cole. Internet nerds love him, but his first official single, "Who Dat?" sounded more like freestyling than an actual song. The blog-rap era is strewn with noble failures, from Wale's Attention Deficit to Asher Roth's Asleep in the Bread Aisle; the few who achieved success, like B.o.B and Drake, have endured sell-out accusations. Can J Cole satiate his demanding rap audience and the pop ambitions of his bosses at Roc Nation and Columbia Records?
Rick Ross, God Forgives, I Don't (TBA)
Many of Rick Ross' strongest detractors have grudgingly learned to appreciate his fictitious coke baron tales. True, he's backed by Def Jam and has access to the best beats and most talented guest stars (and maybe even ghost writers) that money can buy, but that's no guarantee for classic "Maybach Music." To his credit, Officer Ricky has triumphed over Internet gossip by delivering two consecutive standout efforts, including last year's Teflon Don, as well as hit singles like "Aston Martin Music" and "B.M.F. (Blowin' Money Fast)." God Forgives, I Don't will be his third album in as many years, and should continue his hot streak.