We take another look back at some of the best hip hop albums of the past decade. 2002 is up this time with Sage Francis, Nas, El-P and MC Paul Barman amongst others.
Sage Francis – Personal Journals (April 2002)
In a different way,
The only thing that stays the same is change.”
Sage Francis represented a growing movement of emcees who dispensed with hip-hop traditions of braggadocio and battle rhymes. Instead, drawing influences from the indie and emo genres, they laid bare their souls for us. Growing pains, relationship inadequacies and loneliness were all fair game.
Weaving this together with his undoubted prowess as a spoken-word poet, Paul ‘Sage’ Francis presented a persona that was formidable.
Whilst there were many similarities in his rhyme flow to other slam poets, what marked out Personal Journals was its completeness as an album. Never does Sage stray from the discipline. This is a music album, and these are all songs. No poetic cul-de-sacs here, no monologues grafted onto beats.
The one poem, Hopeless, is unashamedly naked and acts like a skit. Production by Sixtoo, Alias and Odd Nosdam gives the album a classic anticon sound – and a strong hip-hop core.
Unlike Saul Williams’ Amethyst Rock Star a year previous, this was an album tightly-focused around a handful of key themes and, crucially, underpinned by a charismatic sense of humour that drew you in. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on Eviction Notice.
A stark, candid tune about an acrimonious break-up featuring a post-modern voiceover describing the tune on the bridge, it has the potential to be insufferably pretentious. Yet Sage’s charm pulls it together, “I’m in the house y’all, And ain’t no new boyfriend gonna kick me out y’all”.
Personal Journals was Sage Francis’ only album on anticon records, yet it is a cornerstone of their portfolio. They are the perfect fit. It’s an album that makes you smile, makes you think and leaves you moved.
Crack Pipes / Different (Live)
Smoke and Mirrors
El-P – Fantastic Damage (May 2002)
“Oh you didn’t know that the apocalypse was here? You didn’t realise we were in the middle of World War III and that we’re all gonna die soon?”
(Revenge of the Robots DVD interview)
Fantastic Damage dropped in the aftermath of the events of September 11th 2001. It truly felt like we were in the last days. Enduring images of the attacks were repeated ad finitum on your TV. Clumsy responses by the Bush Administration, both diplomatically and militarily, seemed only to exacerbate the problem. On top of that, there was the Patriot Act, the ‘terror alert’ colour scale and Guantanamo Bay detention camp. George Orwell’s 1984 looked less like a novel and more like an instruction manual.
Fantastic Damage was written, and produced right in the epicentre of the madness – solely by El-P. He walked these panic-gripped streets and captured them on record – like Hans Solo frozen in carbonite. From start to finish, the sound is urgent, paranoid, and claustrophobic.
The listener is constantly overloaded, forever assaulted by feedback, robotic squeals, synth rhythms and basslines – all underpinned by classic boom-bap beats. If Armageddon had a soundtrack, this would be it.
On the mic, El-P comes like the paranoid, sci-fi obsessed conspiracy nut you’d want him to be. Blending influences of Public Enemy and Kool G Rap with his passion for the work of authors like Philip K. Dick, Fantastic Damage is sometimes street rap, sometimes futuristic fantasy and other times a metaphor for political thought. No more paranoid is El-P than on Deep Space 9mm, no more candid than on Stepfather Factory, no more hopeless than on T.O.J.
If I had to choose just one album from the last ten years for my desert island, Fantastic Damage is the one. Fantastic Damage is like broadcasts from a resistance movement, and utterly consuming for it. Until next time, stay strong, stay alive.
Deep Space 9mm
Atmosphere – God Loves Ugly (June 2002)
“For those who wanna ride,
Come on climb aboard,
Imma be an asshole,
For as long as I’m ignored”
Bitter, horny, arrogant, insecure, highly-strung, crass. Show me a man in his late 20s who isn’t all these things and I’ll show you a liar. It’s the truth, and the truth was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Atmosphere’s Slug just put it on wax.
On Atmosphere’s God Loves Ugly, Slug is turned up to eleven. The album is almost exclusively an opportunity to savage himself and women. Written amidst the fallout of a break-up, it is self-flagellatory, misogynistic and aggressive. If it wasn’t executed so well, if we couldn’t all sympathise – even just a little bit – it wouldn’t be such a damn good listen.
Behind all the bitterness, all the anger, the relationship wreckage, bumps a collection of beats that are delicately beautiful, heartbreaking in their melancholy. Ant weaves 60s and 70s soul samples with mournful piano loops, reminiscent of mid-90s RZA at his finest. Never has a requiem to a relationship sounded so expertly crafted.
A criticism leveled at God Loves Ugly is that it’s a tough listen, it’s unrelenting and the themes are repetitive. Granted, it’s not an album you’d put on every day. But when the right moment comes, there’s not a better cathartic experience than dropping F*ck You Lucy at top volume and drinking til you puke.
Video & track
God Loves Ugly – Promo Cartoon
Fuck You Lucy
Mr Lif – I Phantom (September 2002)
So meteoric was its rise, and so prolific the artists on roster, that Definitive Jux had an almost folklore-like context by the time I Phantom dropped. Mr Lif’s superb EP Emergency Rations also provided the backdrop this high-concept longplayer. Within the opening track, references are made to Lif still being on the run, and to ‘Carlos the midget’, the infamous gun dealer from Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein.
The grand narrative to I Phantom follows Lif from death, through resurrection to a nuclear holocaust. There’s plenty of room within this arc for Lif to spit his trademark politically-conscious raps, and he doesn’t disappoint. Railing against wage-slave existence, consumer culture and the effects on family relationships, he tips his hat to Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy and Gang Starr with both style and content. By the time he tears into global power politics on Earthcrusher, he’s back in the territory where he ripped it on Emergency Rations – and the standards are just as high.
El-P’s strong influence is there for all to hear. Not only is he dominant on the production credits, he worked with Lif to create the concept of the album. It’s, therefore, no surprise to find themes such as the apocalypse in I Phantom as they are in other El-P projects. Here, however, the production style is decidedly more funky. Beats are cleaner and more stripped back, leaving tracks like Return of the B-Boy as straight-up bangers as well as full of lyrical dexterity.
A Mr Lif live show has always been as much about having fun as getting preachy, and that ethic is reflected in I Phantom. It’s just as easy for Lif to rock a party as it is for him to spit knowledge – a beauty of hip-hop that should never be underestimated.
Live From the Plantation
Return of the B-boy
MC Paul Barman – Paullelujah! – (October 2002)
All too rarely an album is released that’s just pure fun. Even rarer a find is a great ‘funny’ album. Yet Paullelujah! achieves both feats comfortably. So expertly crafted is the record, so well written the raps, so accurate the observations that it transcends the concept of a comedy album and just becomes a great hip-hop album.
A Jewish American emcee, Paul Barman draws on a myriad of influences past and present to create his material. The irreverence of Woody Allen, the frat-boy brashness of the Jerky Boys and South Park, the toilet humour of a Kevin Smith film and, strangely, a hint of the classic Playstation game Parappa The Rapper all jump out – and the result is a joyful slice of fun.
Sometimes he’s gloriously juvenile, like on his ode to flatulence, Burping & Farting. Other times hilariously self effacing, like on the sarcastic ‘players anthem’ Cock Mobster. Throughout it all, he’s verbally adroit. Even when he moves toward the dangerous ground of sincerity he excels. Old Paul is an impassioned self defence, whilst Talking Time Travel is genuinely touching.
Prince Paul and MF DOOM laid down tracks for Paullelujah!, and the fantastic tunes will keep you coming back to this album. Now over eight years old, I still find it on regular rotation. There’s a lot to be said for an album that makes you happy.
Count Bass D – Dwight Spitz (December 2002)
“Jazz ain’t the past,
This music’s gonna last,
And as the facts unfold,
Remember who foretold,
Will be the decade of a jazz thing.”
(Gang Starr – Jazz Thing)
When you choose a name that’s a pun on a legend like Count Basie, it’s pretty clear where your loyalties lie. With Dwight Spitz, Count Bass D created an album full of a dreamy warmth that just makes you sit back and smile. Crackling vocal samples, ripe synth melodies and peaceful, wiseguy raps take you on a nostalgic, laid-back journey through black jazz and soul.
The resulting sound is lush and voluptuous. Dwight Spitz is made with a love and tenderness so rare in hip-hop albums. The rich instrumental backdrop recalls the sultry qualities of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, the eccentricities of a Madlib joint, the record collection of Jay Dilla.
On the mic, he sounds every inch a dude – exuding an effortless cool that’s infectious. There are obvious influences to his style, Guru, Phife Dawg and Q-Tip come through in the pace and content of his flow. But there’s also an unmistakeable likeness to the GZA, in his vocal tone if not subject matter. His affinity with MF DOOM and Edan is not just for the sake of keeping good company either, he has much in common with them.
It would be easy to continue noting the references weaved into the album. Yes, it reminds you of DAISY age rap, of Mos Def, of Common but, most importantly, Dwight Spitz is just a pleasure to listen to. Hit play and start smiling.
How we Met ft. Edan
Nas – God’s Son (December 2002)
Is it a choice with our heads, or with our hearts? Is God’s Son really one of the best hip-hop albums of the last ten years, or are we tipping a nostalgic nod to one of hip-hop’s greats? Plenty of people might think the latter. God’s Son clearly never scales the heights of Illmatic. But should Nas be judged by a bar that he himself set so high? For almost any other artist, God’s Son would be seen as an absolute triumph – and it should be no different for Nasir Jones.
He comes out of the blocks fast. No intro skits on this joint. Straight into one hard tune. Get Down’s unashamedly pop sampling of James Brown’s The Boss wins you over immediately – then Nas drops storytelling that rap had been sorely missing for years. By the time you hear the opening click-clack of Made You Look, you know he’s back. Fierce, straight hype bars from start to finish and a beat that breathes new life into the classic Apache loop, make this one of the biggest joints of the decade.
The beef with Jay-Z rumbles on, thanks to Last Real Nigga Alive, and the hypnotic, cyclical production on Zone Out sounds like a prototype of Lil’ Wayne’s A Mili. Sure, there are moments where you need to give him a little slack – I Can, Thugz Mansion and Dance are naive at best, schmaltzy at worst. Yet he just about keeps it on track and finishes with the absolutely stunning Heaven – where Jully Black’s voice ties together a truly beautiful tune.
So is God’s Son a must-listen from the last ten years? Well, put it this way, the list would be weaker without it’s presence.
Made You Look