The hip-hop music we heard in 2011 was a letdown compared to last year, when nearly everyone seemed united in recognizing the brilliance of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Drake's Thank Me Later and Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma, among a few others. It didn't hurt that the best-reviewed albums of 2010 also tended to be that year's biggest sellers.
This year has been different. The scale of disagreement has varied, from the heated criticisms lobbed at Lupe Fiasco's Lasers and Tyler, the Creator's Goblin to the curious mixture of disappointment and pleasure inspired by Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne. It's telling that the latter has popped up on best-of lists despite being a lesser sequel to the aforementioned Fantasy. Since we can't agree on the music that truly moves us, Watch the Throne ascends on its placeholder status; at least we concur that it's good, though not great, while the rest of the crop withers under venomous debate.
As always, it came down to the culture's definition of itself. What constitutes good hip-hop? While critics debated Throne's merits, we generally had an easy time navigating it because we accept Jay-Z and Kanye West as historic artists. While we might worry over Kanye's appropriation of pseudo-indie totems like Bon Iver and Frank Ocean, and groan over Jay-Z's politically dangerous rich-man blues, we don't question whether the duo deserves to record together, or whether they make quality hip-hop music. Compare that to the toxic reception given Theophilus London, who was unfairly dismissed as a vacuous fashion plate for his Timez Are Weird These Days. Instead of picking over its breezily fun electro-pop arrangements, some claimed that London shouldn't make music at all.
It would be wrong to say that hip-hop culture is the only music community that asserts "wack" rappers shouldn't be allowed to exist--witness the fury around suspiciously prepackaged indie-pop tarts like Lana Del Rey, or the nasty postmortems for over-the-hill bands like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth (the latter of which are still officially together, but barely). However, rap nerds seem to take special pleasure in negating art. When Fiasco garnered the worst reviews of his career for Lasers, it wasn't enough to say that the album was an anarchist pop-rap experiment gone awry. Some reviewers claimed that his critiques of President Obama and the electoral process (on "Words I Never Said") and ham-fisted stadium-rock amounted to blasphemy. (To be fair, Lupe initially disowned Lasers in pre-release interviews, claiming his label interfered in its recording.)
Childish Gambino's Camp is arguably a better album than Lasers, yet it generated the same hostility. Incidentally, Camp and Yelawolf's Radioactive were released on the same week, November 22. Both suffer from weak tracks and poor musical choices: Radioactive segues into weirdly bland pop-rap and aggressively alienating bro-step, while Camp is drenched in gloppy string arrangements like a clumsier version of Kanye's College Dropout. However, Radioactive drew kinder reviews because we like Yelawolf, a scrappy Dirty South vet who has paid his dues through bad label deals and mixtapes like Trunk Muzik 0-60. However, we're not sure if we like Donald "Childish Gambino" Glover, whose glittery Hollywood resume as an award-winning comedy writer and actor on the sitcom Community contradicts his repetitive claims that he's an outsider due to being black and middle-class. Camp isn't a complete failure, though, and Childish Gambino's lyrics about being ostracized in high school and struggling to define himself ring true.
Perhaps the difference is that Childish Gambino, Lupe Fiasco and Theophilus London reached out to an audience that isn't considered "hip-hop" enough, like the pop-punk kids that frequent the Warped Tour every year and the so-called "guido" bros that pound liquor in megalith nightclubs. Meanwhile, a counter-narrative of universal acclaim formed around online mixtapes like Big K.R.I.T.'s Return of 4va (the retail EP R4 The Prequel used excerpts from it and 2010's Krit Wuz Here) and independently distributed Bandcamp albums like Thurz' L.A. Riot and Kendrick Lamar's Section.80. It's easy to get cynical about the universal acclaim around them. Section.80 soared up the Internet matrix because we supposedly discovered these subterranean works organically, not through marketing efforts by labels, although the online press awarded them amounts to a kind of marketing. But is that record any better than, say, The Cool Kids' When Fish Ride Bicycles? Kendrick Lamar makes music that is vibrant and life-affirming, and he reflects L.A.'s diversity, from the gangbangers in South Central to the bohemians in Echo Park. But Section.80 sounds febrile and underdeveloped, too, and suffers from rambling, unstructured material. Meanwhile, The Cool Kids' first release in three years was freighted by our expectations. We wanted the group to beguile and surprise us the same way they had with The Bake Sale, not simply refine that record's low-end boom into the lovely ode to summer that Bicycles turned out to be. As a result, they sounded like relics from the late-aughts hipster-rap era.
None of these criticisms would matter if these artists did a better job of convincing us of their albums' worth. I have never liked Rick Ross as an artist, but I couldn't help but like his 2010 album Teflon Don, his absurd rap/drug kingpin fantasy set to J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League's moneyed urban pop and Lex Luger's D-boy symphonies. The same could be said for Drake. I initially viewed him as a middle-class braggart in the vein of weed-and-money brats like Big Sean (Finally Famous), Mac Miller (Blue Slide Park) and Wiz Khalifa (Rolling Papers). Yet Drake won me over with 2010's Thank Me Later. His songs about dealing with the pressures and pleasures of instant fame, and aching for old-school love and romance, were refreshingly sincere. He didn't exactly accomplish the same feat with its virtual sequel, this year's Take Care, but he got close enough.
I can't say the same about J Cole's Cole World: The Sideline Story, despite his sympathetic and detailed stories about arguing with girlfriends and reuniting with his long-lost father; or Tyler, the Creator's Goblin, despite his coldly hypnotic synth tracks and lyrics about adolescent depression. Cole wrote impressive rhymes for Cole World, but his production style sounded clunky and tentative. He didn't know whether to aim for hip-hop classicism or make pop hits and justify his major-label contract, even though the former goal was more clearly in his sights. While Cole World was earnest to a fault, Goblin was recklessly self-indulgent. Tyler pushed everything to the extreme, from rapping about the dark recesses of his male id to pounding out one bleary computer laptop beats after another for nearly an hour and a half. I freely admit that I appreciate J Cole's working-class, true-school persona much better than Tyler's skateboard-hipster angst. I wouldn't have cared if Goblin was a better album.
In time, these arguments won't matter either, and all we'll have left are nearly 400 albums of note, and thousands more via CDBaby and God knows where else. It will be a mass of voices waiting to be rediscovered long after 2011's minor controversies have been forgotten.