Frontier Psychiatrist

The 10 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2011

Posted on: November 28, 2011

Chris Brown, Kanye, Drake

Of all the lists that this website produces over the course of the next few weeks, I expect to receive the most angry and confused comments about this one.  As I see it, 2011 is the year that mainstream hip-hop let us down.  High profile releases from the likes of Lil’ Wayne, Lupe Fiasco, The Game, and Pusha T (to name only a few) left me wishing I still bought CDs so I could use them as coasters.  Meanwhile, as month after month of flaccid rhymes and bombastic beats hit record store shelves, a new hip-hop underground began to emerge through a series of independent releases and free mixtapes.  These are the records that had me coming back over and over when I needed a jolt this year, and the list below (compiled with the help of super-staffer Peter Lillis) reflects this predilection.  As such, there are some notable and, I will admit, potentially egregious omissions.  Allow me to list the most glaring of these up front:

Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne

I am willing to give these two transcendent artists the benefit of the doubt and refrain from saying that this record was a blatant cash-grab.  But, as I wrote back in August, this record comes off as rushed and incomplete even by the most favorable reading.  There are some genuine high marks, no doubt (“Welcome to the Jungle,” “Murder To Excellence”), but the misses are so wide as to disqualify it from serious year-end consideration.  If you dont believe me, just try to sit through the entirety of the Beyoncé-featuring “Lift Off” with a straight face.

Jay-Z and Kanye West – “Murder to Excellence”

Tyler, the Creator – Goblin

I am something of an Odd Future true believer, and I spent a lot of time with this record.  In the final analysis, however, despite some significant high points, I left this record reminded of the fact that Tyler is still only 20 years old, and as such is still prone to self-absorbed and sophomoric nonsense.  Too much of this record seems designed to aggresively alienate the listener, in the process creating a previously non-existent group of objectors to whom Tyler can lift his middle finger.  I’m still optimistic that, as the years go by, we’ll get more “Sandwitches” and less “Bitch Suck Dick,” but there’s enough of the latter here that I can’t include it on the year-end list.

Tyler, the Creator feat. Hodgy Beats – “Sandwitches”

Drake – Take Care

This may be the album with which I struggled the most in 2011, and after countless listens I can confidently state: I don’t get it.  Last year Terry Selucky wrote an excellent piece on Drake’s debut entitled “Drake Makes Us Feel Old,” and I can confidently state that Take Care makes me feel at least one year older.  Perhaps my view of hip-hop is permanently skewed by my early exposure to it in the 1990s, but I still expect a little aggression and nihilism from my rap superstars.  But young man, I’m just not interested in how confused you are.  There are certainly high points to this record (that Jamie xx sample on the title track, Kendrick Lamar’s spectacular verse on “Buried Alive Interlude,” Andre 3000’s more spectacular verse on “The Real Her,” and Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on “Doing It Wrong”), but for the most part this record continues to leave me cold and unmoved.  I am clearly in the critical minority, and perhaps in 5 years I will be ashamed at the error of my initial evaluation.  But, for now, I find the comparisons to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy somewhere between laughable and preposterous.

Drake feat. Lil Wayne and Andre 3000 – “The Real Her”

The disclaimers are now complete.  On to Frontier Psychiatrist’s best hip-hop albums of 2011.  Feel free to share your thoughts (no matter how outraged or outrageous) in the comment box below.

10. Pharaohe Monch – W.A.R.

Pharaohe Monch essentially invented underground hip-hop some 20 years ago as one-half of the duo Organized Konfusion.   That seminal group parted ways in the late 1990s, but Monch has soldiered on as a solo act, releasing three records over the last 12 years.  His most recent, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) is characterized by his typical lyrical wizardry and social consciousness.  Be prepared to rewind; you’ll have trouble keeping up with Monch’s breakneck flow.

Pharoahe Monch feat. Jean Grae and Royce Da 5’9″ – “Assassins”

9. Nacho Picasso – For The Glory

For those of us for whom hip-hop was not an intergral part of our culture in adolescence, the initial attraction to the genre was often wordplay.  Like nothing before it, hip-hop combined the ability to be linguistically clever with the ability to be shamelessly adolescent.  No rapper today exhibits this ability quite like Seattle’s Nacho Picasso, a.k.a. Young Henry Rollins (!), whose debut mixtape For The Glory was released earlier this fall (and can be downloaded for free on his bandcamp page).  From Dionysus to George Carlin to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, NP’s rhymes run the cultural gamut, supported throughout by hazy, smoke-filled beats.   A promising debut from a promising talent.

Nacho Picasso – “Burn Bridges”

8. Das Racist – Relax

These guys are tremendously polarizing, and I can understand why. I spilled a lot of ink earlier this year delving into this album’s many multi-cultural references, and perhaps such labyrinthine lyricism is a turn-off.  To my ears, however, this is the genius of hip-hop: the power to shape one’s cultural experiences, however unique and varied, into song.  Also, this shit is bumpin’.

Das Racist – “Selena”

7. Action Bronson – Dr. Lecter

It might bother some listeners that this guy sounds EXACTLY like Ghostface Killah, but I’m not one of them; after all, good artists borrow and great artists steal.  Of course, Bronson’s work is far from pure theft: he raps much less frequently about organized crime than does Ghostface, and much more frequently about cheeseburgers.  Imitation and silliness aside, however, this record is a reminder of what hip-hop, and specifically East-Coast hip-hop, sounded in the mid-1990s, a time when new classics seemed to emerge every month.  It doesn’t break much new ground, but it sounds fantastic, and it’s guaranteed to get you fired up like a shot of intravenous Red Bull.  Sometimes that’s all you need.
Action Bronson – “Moonstruck”

6. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire – Lost In Translation

In recent years marijuana has become the undisputed drug of choice in the hip-hop community, but apparently such fashions mean little to Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire.  On his debut mixtape Lost In Translation, eXquire makes it clear that he shares his drug of choice is one he shares with Frontier Psychiatrist: alcohol.  Unlike FP, however, it seems unlikely that eXquire is the role of the Hapsburgs in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.  No, when the phrase “Drunk drivin’ on a Wednesday” is repeatedly intoned on lead single “Huzzah,” one gets the sense that eXquire’s interest is more functional than historical.   All of which is a long-winded way of saying: this is one sociopathic bastard.  He could make Drake cry just by staring at him.  Which is ok by me.

Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire feat. Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown, & El-P – “Huzzah! (Remix)”

5. A$AP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP

The last three albums mentioned were produced by a new breed of New York rapper, but no rapper has been more at the New York forefront over the last 12 months as A$AP Rocky.  On the strength of virtually no published material, Rocky inked a $3 million deal with Sony/RCA, then managed to justify the signing with this excellent mixtape.  Little that is here will sound earth-shattering, but Rocky’s big-screen persona and confident flow, combined with the outstanding production of Clams Casino, ASAP Ty Beats, SpaceGhostpurrp make LiveLoveA$AP a positive predictor of things to come.

A$AP Rocky – “Peso” (produced by ASAP Ty Beats)

A$AP Rocky feat. Main Attrakionz – “Leaf” (produced by Clams Casino)

4. Mellowhype – BlackenedWhite

With the exception of Frank Ocean’s revelatory Nostalgia, Ultra, this was the best release from Odd Future in 2011.  Initially released as a free download at the end of 2010, BlackenedWhite was remastered and expanded by Fat Possum Records for its official 2011 release, and the benefits of some professional assistance are evident.  Eliminating some of the original’s more disposable tracks in favor of new tracks “64” and “Igotagun,” the album’s 2011 version is the closest thing we’ve heard to a Neptunes release since Hell Hath No Fury.  And, while it certainly doesn’t reach the heights of that modern classic, BlackenedWhite sidles up beside Odd Future landmarks like Bastard and EARL by focusing on the crew’s greatest strength: pure demented fun.

MellowHype –”64″

3. Lushlife – No More Golden Days

On its surface, No More Golden Days sounds unbearably gimmicky: a young Philly emcee with a few mixtapes to his name rapping over au courant acts like Gang Gang Dance, Frank Ocean, and Clams Casino.  In the wrong hands the idea could have been a disaster, but with Lushlife’s impeccable flow and unshakeable confidence, this free mixtape becomes a model of what is possible for hip-hop in the 21st century.  While the best hip-hop breaks down barriers between genres, No More Golden Days refuses to acknowledge them, embracing the concept of music as exchange of ideas.  All while spitting some pretty sick rhymes.

Lushlife – “Motivation” (beat by Clams Casino)

Lushlife feat. Andrew Cedermark – “The Romance of The Telescope”

2. Clams Casino – Instrumental Mixtape + Rainforest EP

To say that the services of Clams Casino are in demand would be a gross understatement.  His work appears on album #3 on this list, as well as album #5, as well as countless other releases from 2011 including works by Main Attrakionz and Lil B.  But, despite all of the high-profile production work he’s done for rising MCs, his instrumental work stands on its own merits among the best hip-hop of 2011.  Rendering samples by artists like Bjork and Adele unrecognizable yet somehow more beautiful, CC presents us with a blueprint for the hip-hop cognoscenti’s immediate future.  The 17 tracks on these two releases are guaranteed to leave you spellbound.  Turn down the lights and turn up the volume.

Clams Casino – “Numb”

1. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

When I first listened to Black Up, the full-length debut from Shabazz Palaces, I was certain I was listening to something truly unique and innovative.   I wasn’t so sure, however, that I was listening to something good.  This record is so disorienting on initial listen, with its vestibule-rattling bass and rapid shifts of tone, that it is almost impossible to evaluate.  After listening a second time, however, and then a third, and then dozens more times over the course of 2011, I can now claim with confidence that Black Up is a rare work of genius in the world of hip-hop.  If Clams Casino’s work is a blueprint for the hip-hop cognoscenti’s immediate future, then Shabazz Palaces’ debut is a blueprint for its distant future, a work that will one day be seen as stunningly prescient, as magnificently foward-thinking, as simply foundational.  It may take you some time to agree, but trust me: it’s worth the wait.

Shabazz Palaces – “Swerve… the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)”

L.V. Lopez is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist.  He recently shared the top covers and music videos of 2011 as well as some great missed albums from 2010.  He grows weary of writing pithy blurbs.  


28 Responses to "The 10 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2011"

Great list and extremely well written. Here are some essentials I would suggest. Childish Gambino – Camp (album of the year, hands down), Game – R.E.D. Album (best mainstream effort all year), XV – Zero Heroes (break out release), Lupe Fiasco – Lasers (not his best effort, but in a vacuum it tops half of the stuff on your list in my opinion).

ahahahahah Game? Childish Gambino? Lasers? you must be joking. there’s a lot of albums i think should be on here but i’ll restrict it to a minimum. of 5 😛
Co$$ – Before I Awoke, CunninLynguists – Oneirology, Thurz – LA Riot, Big KRIT – Return of 4eva, Elzhi – Elmatic & Blue Scholars – Cinemetropolis…

Enter the backpacker? What is Co$$ bringing to the table? As much as I love genre cross-pollination, his flow seems forced on most of the beats from Before I Awake. Subject matters are also repetitive and where is the world play evolution? I guess I am an inflection purist and discourage monotone (dragging s’s and flipping hard r’s does not count) delivery unless you’re bringing content like Talib or Wu-Tang. He is good, but top 10? No way. I am a Big K.R.I.T. fluffer but him, along with Elzhi (isn’t his album cheating anyway?), both have some growing pains to get over. Their next efforts will be more realistic considerations given their flows gain definition and direction despite their writing being solid on paper. I would agree that Cunninlynguists should be an honorable mention at least. Only listened to L.A. Riot once, but I was underwhelmed from top to bottom. Stick to U-N-I, lock down a style that isn’t flipping between a weak ODB and a West Coast Nas, and get some beats that don’t sound like they were produced by Dre’s 14 year old intern. I think I just hate how he spends 30 seconds of every song talking or telling us its about to start and the hype doesn’t seem to delivery. Cinemetropolis is a great album, but hip-hop is all about innovation, which is why it has lasted this long, but will we be looking at this album as one of the defining moments in 2011’s hip-hop history? Maybe. Probably not.

As for hating on Camp or Childish Gambino in general, I can not understand how a self-produced (down to the choir vocals) album with that level of world play, genre transcendence, unorthodox subject matters, relentless punches, emotional context (“realness”) and an entire thematic concept can not be considered. No one is rapping or exploring hip-hop like Donald Glover right now. Factor in the fact that he can sing and reproduce the material in the live setting with a live band…the top 10 formula is all over this. To write it off is hasty and shows signs short sightedness just to appear to hip and not biting on the new hype – even if it is well deserved. Take your backpack off and start looking at music without bias. =)

Where’s Detroit at? Danny Brown and Dopehead have put out two fantastic records.

I initially had XXX and Black & Brown together at #10 initially but took them off at the last second. Probably a mistake.

NIce list. Just one question: you do realize that’s Chris Brown, not Jay-Z in the pic at the top, right?

Shhh…I thought I could slip that by people…

[…] producer Clams Casino’s Instrumental Mixtape and Rainforest EP combined to hit #2 on our best hip-hop albums of the year, and yet his best beat didn’t find its way onto either of those releases.  Originally […]

[…] lot of adjectives could be used to describe our #1 hip-hop album of the year, Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up.   “Accessible” is not one of them.  If there is […]

Very nice list. My top ten includes Blu, Kendrick Lamar, and The Cool Kids.

Loved the Blu tape but technically this was released in 2009 without much change, so we couldn’t include it. I also loved Kendrick Lamar; just didn’t quite make it. I need to give The Cool Kids record a few more listens.

Good point with Blu. I will replace it with Eric Roberson-Mr. Nice Guy. This will satisfy my chill side.

Solid list, well written and good choices.


[…] Up, our #1 hip-hop album of 2011, is probably the most difficult record on this list.  Indeed, those looking for a soundtrack to […]

Wheres Kendrick lamar? Section 80 is one the best albums ive heard in a LONG time!

Good list! Slightly different from me, but I like your explanations. Check out my Top 10 Albums here:

[…] reflected in our Best Hip-Hop of 2011 list, the past year proved something of a renaissance in New-York-area rap.  It’s a pleasure, […]

Cinemetropolis… duh

The Roots – Undun?

mainstream shit

[…] a 21-year-old cloud rapper from Miami who is probably best known for his production on A$AP Rocky’s debut.  I had not been impressed with his solo material in the past, but his performance was […]

nyc list bt yet u 4gt game, pusha t, common n B.o.B

[…] emceeing with the best in the new hip hop underground, teaming up with newcomers on the scene like Mr. Motherfuckin Exquire, Danny Brown and Despot. His newest solo record, Cancer for the Cure (5/22) is a rally cry on his […]

[…] in an introspective manner. Since then, he’s had great features on tracks from Das Racist, Action Bronson, El-P and Mr. Muthafuckin Exquire: the 2012 hip hop dream team (minus Kendrick Lamar, who plays at […]

[…] favorites such as The Men, Clams Casino, Ty Segall, Flying Lotus, Vampire Weekend, Youth Lagoon, Kendrick Lamar, Lower Dens, Schoolboy Q, […]

[…] favorites such as The Men, Clams Casino, Ty Segall, Flying Lotus, Vampire Weekend, Youth Lagoon, Kendrick Lamar, Lower Dens, Schoolboy Q, […]

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Sons of Dionysus

A Transmedia Novel of Myth, Mirth, and the Magical Excess of Youth.