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