It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. While rap music all but dominated the pop charts in 2003, it also yielded one of the lamest record crops (barring Outkast, God bless them) in recent memory. Even the ever-lovable Snoop Dogg was cranking out hip-pop bullshit like "Beautiful" to satisfy the suburban kids lapping up his gangsta fantasies. Meanwhile the much-maligned underground had little to offer besides quixotic musings (Aesop Rock's controversial Bazooka Tooth, Beans' inscrutable Tomorrow Right Now) and criminally ignored flights of fancy (Lyrics Born's unique Later That Day). As Missy Elliott put it, hip-hop better wake up.
50 Cent, "In Da Club, " Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Interscope)
50 Cent gets shot up, gets signed by Elvis ... I mean Eminem, drops two brilliant singles ("Wanksta," "In Da Club"), follows up with a way overrated debut (Get Rich or Die Tryin'), blows up, starts beefing with everybody, rush-releases the requisite posse album (G-Unit's Beg for Mercy), gets anointed asshole ... I mean artist of the year.
Lil' Kim, "Magic Stick" (Atlantic)
How does one of the most recognizable personalities in popular music garner a disappointing gold disc for her latest album (La Bella Mafia), then summarily lose her record deal and boutique imprint, forcing her to look for a contract with another major label? Maybe it's because hip-hop is growing into one of the most misogynistic, anti-female cultures in recent memory, and not even a woman who calls herself "Queen Bitch" and walks around half-naked is immune to the repercussions.
Jay Z, "Excuse Me Miss, "Change Clothes," The Black Album (Def Jam)
Panjabi MC "Beware" (Sequence)
I like Jay-Z. I think he's an extremely talented rapper. But doesn't anyone remember when KRS-One rhymed, "If you were to rule or govern a certain industry/All inside this room right now would be in misery/No one would get along nor sing a song/'Cause everyone would be singing for the king, am I wrong?"
Various Artists, Bad Boys II soundtrack (Bad Boy)
Sometimes it seems like hip-hop is the only genre that can generate a super-wack, overproduced, predictable, monomaniacal monstrosity (except for the banging 50 Cent and Biggie's "Realest Killers," natch) like the Bad Boys II soundtrack and still watch it go straight to number one on the pop charts.
Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, "Hey Ya!" (Arista)
I love my sister. She has an ability to see beyond the analytical clichés critics tend to use. Forget about all the homilies, all the sonnets writers across the land have penned to this talented duo. All she wants to know is, "Andre's getting kind of androgynous, isn't he?"
S.A. Smash, Smashy Trashy (Definitive Jux)
Despite gallant challenges from Anticon, Stones Throw, Quannum, and too many lesser labels to mention, the Definitive Jux fam has ruled the hip-hop underground for the past two years. It took this universally loathed (and, in some ways, unfairly maligned) would-be tribute to the "I like to party and act thugged out, but I'm cool peoples, too" formula pioneered by the Alkaholiks and marked by such lovely tracks as "Love to Fuck" and "Gangsta" for the label to finally lose its crown. Who's got next? Maybe it's...
Atmosphere, Seven's Travels (Epitaph)
White kids love 'em, black kids respect 'em, critics tolerate 'em ... It seems like nothing can go wrong for Slug and Ant. So why haven't they produced a masterpiece worth buying yet?
Ja Rule, "Loose Change" (unreleased)
I know, I know, Ja Rule fell off, Murder, Inc. is finished, et cetera. But I can't forget his lyric on "Loose Change," which has to be one of the most cruel and mean-spirited disses I've ever heard: "You claim that your mother's a crackhead/And Kim is a known slut/So what's Hailie gonna be when she grows up?"
Little Brother, The Listening (ABB)
Feel-good story of the year. This unheralded North Carolina trio sent a few demos to okayplayer.com, got signed to Oakland's ABB Records, dropped an amazing debut, and sparked a bidding war among several major labels, becoming the hottest underground act since Dilated Peoples in 1998, or Mos Def in 1999, or Slum Village in 2000 ... makes next year worth looking forward to.
David Banner, Mississippi: The Album (SRC)
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Lil Jon and the Eastside Boys, "Get Low," "Put Your Hood Up" (TVT)
YoungBloodZ, "Damn!" (LaFace)
Bone Crusher, "Never Scared" (LaFace)
You know the South is running shit when strip club anthems such as "Like A Pimp" and "Get Low" get rave reviews in such august publications as the New York Times. "To the window! To the wall!" I love hip-hop.