2011 was a fantastic year in music. From re-occurring superstars to intriguing newcomers to revolutionary mixtapes it’s safe to say we were plenty spoiled this year. If you haven’t already noticed, I’m a sucker for lists, picks, rankings or reviews. I like to consider myself a huge hip-hop fan but might not be a “hip-hop head” by definition. My iTunes library doesn’t consist of X rapper with Y mixtape found on some random underground hip hop website. I’m not listening to X Bay Area rapper’s mixtape and bumping his low quality tracks. Case in point: my taste in music could be (and will be) very different than yours.
You’ll notice my lists consist of mostly hip-hop and R&B albums. It’s what I listen to. Don’t be mad because I didn’t list the Foo Fighters or Maroon 5’s albums in my favorites of the year. Don’t be mad that “Marry The Night” or whatever shit single Jessie J released isn’t one of my songs of the year. I don’t work for Complex, RapRadar or RapUp, I have no agenda. These are my favorites of 2011. Will some of you think my taste is “mainstream?” Probably. Will Watch The Throne receive multiple awards? You bet. Take these for what they’re worth, they won’t be the last awards I ever do. Let’s do it.
Album Art of the Year
An album’s cover art was much more influential in the days of actual CD’s. You would walk into a Sam Goody, Circuit City or whatever record store that’s no longer open and browse the shelves for what looked like a cool album. Your decision to purchase an album wouldn’t solely be decided by its album cover, but it sure as hell had an influence. This year’s winner is clearly Watch The Throne. I bought three copies of the album: one digital, two physical and hopefully a vinyl if I can find one. The cover, designed by Italian fashion designer Ricardo Tisci, perfectly embodies the grandiose style of Jay-Z and Kanye West (i.e. “The Throne”). The gold cover is accompanied by a four sided insert that features “The Throne” as beastly figures, an angelic figure, American flag and a sensual zebra-esque pattern. That darkened zebra pattern can also be found on the disc itself (not to mention my Twitter background…shameless plug #1). With help from Kanye West’s art director Virgil Abloh, Tisci designed an inherently simple yet beautifully complex package that is clear representation of what The Throne is all about.
Honorable Mentions: House of Balloons, Section.80, Blue Slide Park
Video of the Year
Can you blame me? Big Sean’s single “Dance (A$$)” doesn’t require much thought or lyrical breakdown. The beat is catchy, the hook is one word and the newly crowned remix features one of the hottest MC’s in the game. Say what you want about Nicki Minaj’s act (the constant blinking, the hair, the clothes, the nipple slip) but she’s one of the hottest acts in music today. Oh yeah…AND SHE CAN RAP. Let me be clear: “(A$$)” isn’t the perfect example of her verbal skill (more physical skills) but it shows you that she can and is changing the game as it relates to female’s in the hip-hop arena. Regardless, she is used merely as an object in this particular video. For guys, it doesn’t matter. For girls, well, who knows. Either way, I was feeling this song since Finally Famous was first released and my feelings only get bigger and better (woah dere boi) because of this video. Enjoy.
Honorable Mentions: “All of the Lights,” “Monster,” “The Motto,” “Yonkers,” “Make Some Noise”
Verse of the Year
When “Lost Ones” first leaked the internet went abuzz. This wasn’t some radio hit or club banger in the making but rather a deep, emotional, hard-hitting confessional. Cole speaks for the thousands of young couples in America dealing with unprotected sex, birth and abortion. Originally recorded in 2008, “Lost Ones” was mastered and released on Cole’s debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story. Whether the story that Cole is telling pertains to the listener or not, the message that Cole is crying out for is not for the faint of heart. It’s the deepest and most emotionally gripping verse of the year. Listen to the words, watch the video and always remember the lost ones.
Honorable Mentions: Jay-Z on “New Day,” Kendrick Lamar on “The City,” Common on “Sweet,” Kendrick Lamar on “HiiiPower”
Mixtape of the Year
TONS of great mixtapes were released in 2011. Whether it was R&B or hip-hop there were multiple mixtapes that deserved your full attention. Nevertheless, my favorite mixtape of the year was House of Balloons. HOB is the first of three mixtapes in the epic trilogy summoned by Canadian born Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd. While most artists today build hype from underground tapes, sign with a label then release their debut album. The Weeknd instead formed the OVOXO label with Toronto-mate Drake and decided to release three free mixtapes through that label with no promotion at all. To compare The Weeknd to any current or past artist would be a complete disservice to his craft. I can safely say that The Weeknd reminds me of no one else I’ve ever heard in music. Whether it was the mysterious promotion (or lack thereof) for the tapes, the talk of hardcore drugs, sex and partying, the sonic atmosphere that you’re transformed into once you play it, HOB changed the scope of R&B for years to come. While the next two chapters in the trilogy were also released this year, there’s no question that HOB is the most complete and alluring of the three.
Honorable Mentions: Nostalgia, Ultra, Fear of God, Thursday, Echoes of Silence, Cabin Fever, KRIT Was Here, The Soul Tape
Rookie of the Year
While The Weeknd definitely made an imprint on the R&B genre in 2011, there was one other artist who when mentioning “R&B” and “2011” you couldn’t go without saying: Frank Ocean. As a member of OFWGKTA, or simply Odd Future, Ocean released Nostalgia, Ultra, one of the best R&B projects in recent memory. In addition to his own projects Ocean has also co-written songs for Brandy, John Legend, Beyonce and Justin Bieber. What brought Ocean to new heights in 2011 were his two features on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne. Even though I tend to lean towards House of Balloons over Nostalgia, Ultra, Frank Ocean is the bigger artist and has made a bigger public imprint on the game than The Weeknd. “Novacane” and “Thinking About You” were almost immediately considered classics. The not one but two features on Watch The Throne easily excelled his career and while we’re still waiting for his follow up to Nostalgia, Ultra, it’s safe to say that R&B has found a star.
Honorable Mentions: Tyler, The Creator, Childish Gambino, A$AP Rocky
Worst Album of the Year
After Kush & Orange Juice and Cabin Fever I had really high hopes for Rolling Papers. I’m not your typical Wiz Khalifa fan: I don’t smoke, I’m not 80 pounds and I actually go to school. Regardless, I thought his sound was good and was anxiously waiting for what Wiz had for us next. What he had was a radio inspired piece of garbage that had many people wondering what happened to pre-label Wiz. I wasn’t expecting greatness, I just wanted what Cabin Fever and Kush & OJ gave me: solid beats, decent flow and a fresh sound. Instead we got songs like “No Sleep,” “Roll Up,” and “Wake Up,” songs aimed at the mainstream that could barely be considered hip-hop. While “The Race” and “Hopes and Dreams” are the highlights, the lowlights overshadow any quality tracks this album may have had. I still have some hope for Wiz though. I hope to see that Wiz-Big Sean-Curren$y mixtape that was being discussed. As far as studio albums are concerned, let’s hope Wiz has learned his lesson. Sadly, as long as the money is coming in from the Taylor’s, we shouldn’t expect a dramatic change. Sigh.
Honorable Mentions: Carter IV, Lasers, We The Best Forever, Radioactive
Song of the Year
I first heard of the potential of “Niggas in Paris” while reading a review of an early Watch The Throne listening session. The listening session, held at The Mercer Hotel in New York City, was hosted by Jay-Z as some tracks off Watch The Throne were played for an exclusive group of critics and friends. The reviews were unanimously positive, but one track stood out above all. The Hit-Boy produced “Niggas in Paris” provided listeners to a “Blades of Glory” sample, a banging beat and the 2011 maxim of the year: “That Shit Cray.” The love for the song reached astronomical heights during Kanye and Jay-Z’s nationwide tour, playing the song multiple times each stop and reaching a personal record 11 times in Vancouver. 11 times! The single is slated for a music video release at some point and is finally hitting radio waves now. But real fans of The Throne were immediately enamored with the track the night Watch The Throne digitally released. The combination of a banging beat, perfect bass hits, lyrical ingenuity and “Blades of Glory” inspired hilarity make for a simply incredible track and my song of the year.
The Throne performing “Niggas in Paris” in San Jose:
Honorable Mentions: “HiiiPower,” “Novacane,” “Rise and Shine,” “Lord Knows,” “No Church in the Wild,” “High For This”
Album of the Year
I got my first taste of J. Cole on his mixtape Friday Night Lights. The sound, the flow, the lyrics, I immediately fell in love with everything J. Cole brought to the hip-hop table. Songs like “Too Deep for the Intro,” “The Autograph” and “Best Friend” were my early favorites from the Jay-Z prodigy. Naturally, listening to Friday Night Lights forced me to download The Warm Up. I was equally as impressed. J. Cole, on the contrary of most artists today, makes his name from his lyrical skill. Storytelling, rhyming patterns, metaphors; J. Cole has it all. Combine his sick flow and advanced lyricism and you have a deadly hip-hop combination. I immediately became a fan for life.
The “New York” feel to his tapes and Sideline Story also make J. Cole one of my favorites in music today. It’s clear he can tell a story, but to tell a story through a unique sound, through his specific flow and talk about such heavy topics is true skill. Cole also produced 12 of 16 tracks on Sideline Story, a truly incredible feat knowing that most beats today are transferred from artists and producers. Cole is his own producer. He’s truly one of the most talented artists in the game today. The hype of being the poster boy and first signee to Roc Nation was astronomical. Combine very successful mixtapes and you have one of the most hyped debuts in hip-hop history. Sideline Story delivered and exceeded any previous expectations.
From the very start of the album you are transformed into a member of Cole’s entourage as he’s about to tell you his story, how he got to where he’s at today and why he does what he does. From there you are taking a journey through Cole’s world. Every song has its own purpose, every bar carries emotion and each track is a heartfelt piece of art that must be heard. To name out specific tracks wouldn’t do the album justice. Sideline Story is a unifying, unique piece of storytelling. While the album serves as a sequel to his previous mixtapes it stands above and beyond them. J. Cole personifies what it means to be hip-hop. His debut album is the first chapter in what hopefully is a long and illustrious musical career. Producer, rapper, lyricist, storyteller: it’s a Cole world, we’re just living in it.
Honorable Mentions: Section.80, Watch The Throne, Take Care, The Dreamer, The Believer, Undun
A throwback piece I wrote earlier this year and also one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. First posted on my previous blog, this piece compares the careers of Kanye West and Lebron James, with a little help from Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This was written well before the Heat lost to the Mavericks in the NBA Finals, well before Lebron was crucified for his 4th quarter performances (or lack thereof) and well before Mark Cuban spent roughly $110 thousand in drinks at a local Miami club. Enjoy.
“Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem/Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams” – Kanye West
Lebron James. Kanye West. Both carry outstanding talents in their respective careers. Both have been claimed at one point to be the very best at their positions. Both with ego’s big enough to satisfy the entire cast of Jersey Shore…twice. Both have experienced incredible success. But both have made terrible public decisions that have hindered their otherwise limitless potential.
It began with Kanye blurting out the now infamous words: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a Hurricane Katrina telethon. Some years later, Kanye stormed the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Video of the Year. Although I had no problem with Kanye storming the stage in defense of Beyonce, the public crucified him for ruining the so-called “moment” for Taylor Swift (Who is one of the most overrated artists in music today, but that’s for another time). People in the industry have always supported Kanye West’s talents as a gifted producer and talented rapper. But the incident with Taylor Swift has tarnished Kanye’s potential success with the common music listener.
Lebron James has actually had a much tamer career compared to that of Kanye’s. Lebron, unlike Kanye, has really only made one mistake throughout his whole career. Granted, one, huge, giant, immense, Big Momma’s House sized mistake (seriously, another Big Momma’s House movie? Really?). “The Decision” was seen as a public offering portraying Lebron as some figure he really wasn’t. He’s a basketball star. That’s it. He’s not the President. He can’t hold his own press conference to announce to announce a decision he made. He disrespected his former organization, his former teammates, and his former city and has (for the meantime) ruined his title as the “King.” No one can question his talents, but they way he decided to display where he will play basketball was a joke.
Although both have recently gone through the darkest stages of their careers, it’s now safe to say they are back at the top of their games. Lebron, still loathed by most of the NBA and its fans, has put up huge numbers in Miami (It does help playing with Wade and Bosh) and has brought the Heat on the precipice of something huge. In November, Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his first album since the VMA incident. It has received national praise and if released before the Grammy deadline date would surely be nominated for numerous awards. Kanye has also been hard at work with Jay-Z on a duel album entitled Watch the Throne, which drops sometime in March. [edit: now releasing August 8]
After listening through My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy back and through multiple times (41 to be exact), this masterpiece can be seen as a perfect embodiment of the career of Lebron James. In a very symbolic way, each track is a specific stage in the up and down career of the “King.” Both being good friends, it should come as no surprise that both these integral symbols in pop culture today are very much one in the same. Here, with the help of Kanye West, is the career of “King” James:
Dark Fantasy. The career of any athlete begins with one goal: to become world champion. After declaring for the draft out of high school, it was soon after that we knew Lebron would become a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a franchise synonymous with mediocrity. A perfect entrance: playing for his hometown team with the entire city behind him. Although living his dream of playing in the NBA, his new goal, winning an NBA Championship, is now a dark fantasy. It’s the K2 of challenges: become an immediate superstar with the weight of a franchise and city behind you. Although being blessed with the greatest combination of physique, speed and instincts in the history of the league, his dark fantasy soon begins.
Gorgeous. It didn’t take Lebron long to become the face of the NBA. He soon caught the attention of the world with his fantastic play for a franchise not known for hoisting world class talents. He quickly became a global icon. Signing with Nike, designing shoes, starring in commercials, putting up great numbers and showing the league what he’s made of, Lebron took the NBA and sports world by storm. Lebron became a gorgeous figure, both on and off the court. He became a global phenomenon. His appeal to every type of NBA fan; from young to old, white to black, East to West; made Lebron the most sought after sports figure in American society to date. His soon developed relationships with Jay-Z and Kanye West became public, and it was clear, this kid is here to stay.
Power. As Lebron took the league by storm, it soon became apparent that he had the “power”. The league soon became the Lebron show. Yes, there was Kobe, there was Shaq, there was Carmelo, there was Dwyane Wade, there was Andris Biedrins (just making sure your paying attention)…but even though the league was full of stars, we are a society of the newest and freshest. Why does Apple make new iPhones every year? Society craves the latest and greatest. Lebron fit the bill. New, fresh, hot, entertaining; Lebron carried all the traits of the iPhone 4 (without the reception problems). Whatever Lebron did, the kids wanted to do. Whatever he worse, listened to, watched; the kids wanted to be Lebron. He had all the power in the world, and like Lebron driving in the paint, he couldn’t be stopped.
All of the Lights. As Lebron grew and matured as a player, so did his team. The Cavs quickly became relevant again and the playoffs (“Playoffs!!!!?????”) became a reality. The lights became brighter as Lebron became greater. Any rookie can come in the league and put up great stats, but they have to take their game to the upper echelon, the playoffs, to truly become a legend. The ball was in Lebron’s court now. High flying dunks and acrobatic plays can only take you so far (Ahem…Vince Carter). All of the lights were now on Lebron. With every playoff series came the same thought: If he never wins a title, he’ll never become a legend. This questioning began early in his career, and has continued on to this day. All of the lights were very much bright, and to this day, the lights still are on.
Monster. There has been one performance that has stood out in Lebron’s pursuit of greatness: Game 5 against the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 Playoffs. The term “monster” could have been applied to Lebron earlier in his career, but greatness in the playoffs overshadows the regular season any day. Facing a stout Pistons defense (sounds funny nowadays huh?); Lebron scored his then (and current) playoff high 48 points. Great game right? How about one of the greatest playoff performances ever? If the 48 points weren’t enough, King James carried his team by scoring his team’s final 25; which included the end of the 4th quarter, OT and 2OT. Every great player has his “moment,” the moment where he officially arrives. The moment where we say: “This guy could become great”. On that night, we could say Lebron arrived, and he was a monster in every way imaginable.
So Appalled. Although Cleveland became a perennial playoff team since his drafting, Lebron was unable to bring a title to his hometown team. It soon became obvious that there was a good chance that Lebron could leave the Cavs after the 09/10 season. The idea of Lebron leaving Cleveland was non-existent to Cavs fans though: “Could he really leave his hometown team?” “No way…he’s OUR guy!” The ship seemed to have sailed once the Cavs were trounced by Boston in the playoffs that year. Lebron’s body language, the way his team played during the series and his un-willingness to harness his crown was clearly displayed. We saw it coming. The end was near for Lebron in Cleveland. “The Decision” only heightened the anger of Cavs fans, and they more than anyone were so appalled at what they were seeing, and what would soon come.
Devil In A New Dress. It took Lebron just one sentence to change the entire sporting landscape. As an outside observer, most weren’t surprised by his decision to leave Cleveland. For Cleveland fans, well, it didn’t take long for their newfound hatred to the so called “King” to be displayed publicly. Videos of shocked Cleveland fans at local bars and the burning of his jerseys were uploaded on YouTube in the hundreds. For Miami fans, it was the greatest day of their lives. Lebron, Wade AND Bosh? Impossible to fathom early in the off-season. “The Decision” might as well been named “The Public Crucifixion of Cleveland.” Although most agreed that Lebron was good as gone, it was his public display of arrogance and egotism that caught the world off guard. Why hold this public offering at all when a simple press conference or phone call would have sufficed? Why hold it at a Boys & Girls Club in Connecticut of all places? His ego got the best of him. He thought he was bigger than what he really was. What did the world think of Lebron when he made his decision? Well, just a devil in a new dress.
Runaway. Lebron was one of the most universally loved figures in all of sports before “The Decision”. He was used to being the good guy, the one people rooted for, the one people paid extra to see, the new Michael Jordan, the new face of the NBA. He was in no way prepared to become the runaway of the league. It became clear soon after “The Decision” that Lebron would no longer be so universally loved, but rather a symbol of arrogance and stupidity. In his first game as a member of the Miami Heat, Lebron was rewarded with a barrage of boo’s that he had never heard before in his life. He was now alone. Even though he shared the spotlight with two other superstars (Yes, I consider Bosh a superstar), the Heat became “The Lebron Show”. Has he embraced the role of the villain? “I enjoy it,” LeBron said, “I’m very comfortable. I’ve kind of accepted this villain role everyone has placed on me. I’m OK with it. I accept it.” We’ll see Lebron, we shall see.
Hell Of A Life. What became one of the most historic off-seasons in NBA history quickly came to an end with the Lebron decision. The hype was over. The decision was made, and the world had to live with it. It was now time to talk ball. What seemed liked minutes after Lebron made his decision; NBA pundits began claiming them as the best team ever, a dynasty, an 80 win team and basically writing off the rest of the NBA. Why not? The Heat acquired two superstars to join their already spectacular superstar of their own. Lebron, Wade, Bosh: the new super team in the NBA. Three of the most talented players in the league joining forces? Unheard of. With all the cap limitations and luxury tax rules how was this possible? Well, they have three superstars and nine serviceable players, that’s how. Never has so much individual been constructed onto one team; a truly historic event in the history of the NBA happened. Lebron joined forces with his two friends in South Beach and they were about to live a hell of a life.
Blame Game. “Who’s fault” are the first words uttered by Kanye West in the song. Whose fault was it? How could this super team happen? Who do we blame for this madness? Well, we could blame the Cavs. They failed to acquire the right players to compliment Lebron and push them to championship level. Dan Gilbert’s obsession with J.J. Hickson restricted them from acquiring a talent like Amare Stoudemire and instead acquired players like Antawn Jamison, Ben Wallace, Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. We could blame the sheer desperation of numerous teams in the NBA. The Knicks, Heat, Bulls (just to name a few) all tried to clear as much cap space as possible in their pursuit of the “King”. The Knicks, the most successful in clearing up space, failed to lure Lebron, but they got a nice consolation prize in the aforementioned Amare. Finally, we could blame Pat Riley. The legendary former coach and NBA executive was the mastermind behind this plan. He lured Lebron and Bosh. What he said to them is unknown, but to lure two superstars to his team was remarkable. A simple decision soon became a blame game.
Lost In The World. Soon after “The Decision” the Heat held a ridiculous welcoming party for their new superstars. They were now entirely enthralled in their new “Us Against The World” mentality. They werelost in their own world. They thought they could coast by the regular season, coast through the playoffs and coast to a NBA championship. “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven!” Yeah, Lebron seemed pretty confident in his new team to say the least. They found out soon enough, in their first regular season game, that you have to beat the best to become the best. Boston held the Heat to a mere nine points, yes, that’s not a typo, NINE points in their first quarter of play. Boston embarrassed the lost and confused Heat as they mopped the floor with the quickly crowned super team. This was a clear shot in the arm as the Heat soon found out that talent alone can’t win titles. They were lost in their own world, and only they can get themselves out of it.
Who Will Survive In America. The road to the NBA championship is a long and grinding journey. There will be successes, there will be failures. There will be winning streaks, there will be losing streaks. There will be injuries, there will be grittiness. There will be disappointment, there will be surprises. Only the strongest survive. The team with the greatest amount of unity, harmony and chemistry complimented by a great basketball philosophy will win the championship. Who will survive? We still don’t know. What we do know is the similarities between the two biggest egos in pop culture today. A sir King James and one Kanye Omari West. Don’t let their arrogance get in the way of their greatness. If you already respect the greatness, keep doing so. If you can’t stand them, well, keep on hating, because honestly, they could care less. They adopt this hatred with open arms, and the more you hate the better. Keep on hating, and they’ll keep doing their thing.