Indie Vs. Major: Who's Got the Flavor

Urban music in 2006 was typified by what it wasnt as much as what it was

Strange Fruit Project, The Healing(Om Hip Hop)

Quite possibly the year's best hip-hop album (indie or major), The Healing was released on a label previously known for mindless house and downtempo chill-out compilations. Ironic, perhaps, but no more than the notion of a Texas rap group that eschewed the chopped and screwed movement, updated the neo-soul template, and stocked an album with backpacker-style sentiments that actually worked in the clubs. While Chamillionaire and his Houston brethren were ridin' dirty, SFP came clean. In the process, they collaborated with Erykah Badu and 9th Wonder, infused honest lyrics into smooth, original-sounding tracks, made a strong case for Waco to be known for something other than David Koresh, and delivered the type of classic hip-hop album you feared you'd never hear again.

Gyptian, My Name Is(VP)

J-Dilla: Dead
J-Dilla: Dead

Sean Paul may have raised the temperature of suburban teens, but for roots-loving reggae aficionados, Gyptian's debut offered cool meditation. Dancehall has long teetered between slackness and consciousness, yet fervently spiritual odes like "MaMa" and "Serious Times" tilted the scales away from sex-saturated ditties and gunman-celebrating "shotta" tunes, and affirmed the peace-loving Rasta ethos without the sometimes-contradictory statements of Sizzla and Capleton. Unlike Damian Marley, Gyptian made no attempt at crossover appeal. Remember the name—the 24-year-old Gyptian could be around for a long, long time.

DJ Shadow, The Outsider(Universal)

Despite obvious flaws—eclecticism and generic stabs at Britpop—Shadow's third official full-length was one of the year's most visionary and adventurous albums. No rap tune released in 2006 captured the anger, sorrow and pain of the post-Katrina South better than "Seein' Thangs" (featuring David Banner), and who else but Shadow could have conceived a long, bluesy riff on MySpace relationships, channeled hyphy's hyperkinetic vibe into a titanium-alloyed industrial club knock ("3 Freaks"), and made a get-your-sexy-on anthem ("Enuff") that not only united the East and West coasts, but did so without lapsing into stupidity?

Buju Banton, Too Bad(Gargamel Music)

A return to the highly influential dancehall style of the '90s, Buju Banton's latest release was both a satisfying retro-flavored throwback to a time when reggae wasn't trying to be something it wasn't and a strong musical and lyrical statement underlining the need to keep dancehall culture undiluted. Too Bad's minimal, sparse backing tracks evoked the classic "bogle" era, and though most of the album finds Banton focused heavily on moving waistlines, the veteran artist still made room for poignant commentary about social inequity ("Who Have It") and the pitfalls of the gangster lifestyle ("Fast Lane"). Most impressively, Banton only featured one cameo (from '90s star Pinchers, no less), breezing through the 17-song album with impressive energy, riding the riddims with all the cornering capability and grip of a NASCAR driver.

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