By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
By Karli Evans
By Jose D. Duran
By Pablo Chacon Alvarez
Kanye's video-music-award etiquette might need some work. But his more substantial contribution this year came through his support of Kid Cudi, a Cleveland rapper pursuing a sound on hip-hop's chilly far fringes — farther into the Arctic tundra, even, than West's own glacial 2008 outing, 808s and Heartbreak. The spacey, slo-mo beats and the high-concept trappings (narration by Common; a rock-operatic five-act structure) annoyed some purists. But Cudi's melodic sense rewards patience and justifies his grand ambitions.
To the literal north, Canadian rapper k-os for years has been walking a similar line between hip-hop authenticity and indie-rock experimentalism. What really recommends Yes!, however, is implied by the exclamation point of its title: the sense that the sometimes dour k-os is having more fun than ever before.
Umsindo (Some Otha Ship)
Granted, this is only about three parts hip-hop (the other seven include stoner soul, stoner jazz, and Afrocentric drum circling). But Muldrow and executive producer Dudley Perkins have managed an evocative fusion that all but supplies its own incense.
K.O.D. (Strange Music)
Kansas City's Tech N9ne made a statement of sorts with his latest set, which showed impressive sales muscle for an indie rapper and debuted inside the Billboard Top 20. But the real statement can be found within K.O.D., which stands for King of Darkness and takes Tech's thoughtful and troubled worldview to its most extreme limits yet on tracks such as "Show Me a God." It's a deep, dark trip, inspired by his mother's illness, and it's probably too long. But unlike Eminem, whose sometimes brilliant Relapse peddled horror-core calculated to offend, Tech seldom seems to bleed his lyric sheet for sheer shock value.
A Pipe Dream and a Promise (Interdependent Media)
The pipe dream here might be that a hip-hop universe splintered into so many factions could fully appreciate the old-fashioned promise of Detroiter Finale's debut, which deliberately harks back to the more integrated, less complicated golden age. Short on flash but full of lyrical and musical substance (including productions by Dilla and the consistently craftsman-like Black Milk), this is an album for everyone who misses hip-hop's heyday or who wants to experience what it must have been like.