December is usually a weird month in hip-hop: most critics and fans have already begun compiling their best-of-year lists, but rap artists often release new albums anyway in a bid for last-minute Christmas shoppers and kids spending their gift cards after the holidays. It didn't help that this year's slate included The Roots' Undun, a complex mood piece narrated from the perspective of a dying gangster recounting his life. Meanwhile, Common dropped The Dreamer, The Believer. Superficially, it returned to his past themes of humanism and spiritual uplift, even including a Maya Angelou cameo. But in reality, he spent much of his time shoring up his street credentials with threats of physical beatdowns, while admiring "b*tches" and attacking "fruity rappers" like Drake. Some critics loved these albums, while others (including myself) are skeptical. Yet neither is well suited to a cursory listen or two, especially in the midst of year-end reviewing and list-making.
The sounds of 2011 linger for now, but soon they'll be cast aside for 2012's release slate and a new round of debates. In the meantime, here's a breakdown of recent hip-hop.