Indie Vs. Major: Who's Got the Flavor

Mainstream urban music was largely defined this year by the over-the-top commercialism of product-placement tie-ins—Jay-Z and Pharrell for Hewlett-Packard, Jay-Z and Q-Tip for Bud Select, Lady Sov for Verizon—which overshadowed several disappointing major-label albums. The overhyped Timberlake/Timbaland collaboration FutureSex/LoveSounds broke no new ground whatsoever in its slavish emulation of Michael Jackson and Prince. The other big news in R&B this year was no news at all—unless you consider Cherish noteworthy, which you shouldn't.

In its old age, hip-hop has become young—literally. Yung Joc and Young Jeezy became the latest Southern rappers to become breakout stars. Meanwhile, D4L's “Laffy Taffy” and Lil Jon's “Snap Yo Fingers” heralded the unforeseen rise of “snap” music—a subtler variant of crunk. There wasn't much substance in this year's strip club anthems, even when bombastically overproduced (Ludacris' “Money Maker”). While Southern pimps were buying diamond-studded grills and celebrating the joys of booty, New York rappers whined about their labels' lack of promotion or emulated the South's success (Fat Joe). Meanwhile, the Bay Area's celebrated hyphy movement overwhelmed the region's prolific underground scene.

Regarding the contrast between mainstream and underground, there was no question: the most consistent and innovative hip-hop and reggae albums of the year were indie label projects, hands-down. The few major-label albums that cut the mustard (E-40, Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow, Lupe Fiasco) all had what could be called an indie sensibility. Furthermore, the album that honored the legacy of “boom-bip” hip-hop the most—picking up the torch of A Tribe Called Quest—came not from NYC, but Waco, Texas: Strange Fruit Project's The Healing.

As for reggae, Sean Paul got all the mainstream love. But apart from three or four hit singles that continued to widen Paul's fan base, if not his monotone phrasing, his crossover-minded The Trinity alienated the core dancehall audience that made him a star. In any case, he was outclassed by newcomer Gyptian and veteran Buju Banton this year.

On to the year's best urban records:

E-40, My Ghetto Report Card(Jive)

More than just the album that validated the Bay Area's hyphy phenomenon on a national level, My Ghetto Report Card was a gold-selling effort that nicely balanced commercially accessible singles and gritty street-level favorites. The mix of hard-as-nails beats (courtesy of Rick Rock, Lil Jon, and 40's son Droop-E) and 40's inimitable flow proved a winning combination, while the introduction of new slanguage (“Gouda”) made the album an educational as well as entertaining experience. One of the most impactful rap releases of 2006.

Cut Chemist, The Audience's Listening (Warner)

A former Next Big Thing, the scratch-happy turntablist movement has been overshadowed by the simplicity of ProTools and the ironic contrasts of mash-ups. Yet while mash-up compilations like Hail the DJ offered a stable full of one-trick ponies, former Jurassic 5/Ozomatli DJ Cut Chemist brought composition back, meticulously piecing together obscure found sounds and ridiculously big beats. The result is an album full of juxtaposed melodies, rhythms and vocals that not only reveled in creativity but held together thematically, whether referencing Kraftwerkian electro-funk or bossa nova.

Traxamillion, The Slapp Addict(Slapp Addict Productions)

Billed as “a soundtrack to the hyphy movement,” San Jose's Traxamillion delivered one of the tightest, most effective hip-hop albums of the year, an unrelenting aural assault so infectious it could make your grandmother “go dumb.” In addition to assembling an all-star team of Yay Area rappers (including Too $hort, Mistah F.A.B., and the Team) to spit over his ass-moving keyboard-and-bassed-out beats, Trax proved he's no slouch on the mic his damn self, rhyming on “Skrape” and “Bring It Back” without embarrassing anyone. Let's see Jermaine Dupri or Timbaland try that.

J-Dilla, The Shining(Rapster/BBE)

The passing of James “J-Dilla” Yancey was one of the saddest moments in recent hip-hop history, yet his legacy lives on. The Detroit producer—known for his work with Common, the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, D'Angelo, and Slum Village—was posthumously fted by a huge cast of friends and associates on The Shining, a worthy companion to Dilla's all-instrumental release Donuts. Any questions about Dilla's place in the pantheon were answered by his solo tracks “Love Jones” and “Won't Do,” which resounded with soulful emotion.

The Coup, Pick a Bigger Weapon(Epitaph)

The Coup's fifth effort might not have sold aluminum, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better rap album released in 2006, even if it came out on a label more known for punk than hip-hop. Besides being the Oakland-based group's most musical effort to date, Pick a Bigger Weapon addressed the complexities of ghetto socioeconomics and turf politics in a down-to-earth way, and for all the crack-rap songs in '06, “We Are the Ones” was one of the few to examine the why and the how of it all. Plus, it's hard to argue with any album that rhymes “laugh, love, fuck, and drink liquor” with “help the damn revolution come quicker.”

T-K.A.S.H., Turf War Syndrome(Guerilla Funk)

A protg of agitprop MCs Paris and Boots Riley, T-K.A.S.H. came into his own with his solo debut. Turf War Syndrome flipped the West Coast G-Funk template into a manifesto laden with tight lyrical expositions and hardcore beats. There's also a consciousness here that goes beyond the predictability of dope-dealer rhymes to actually propose solutions to the “American Nightmare.” Highlights included the reggae-flavored “Louder Than Words” and the “Shook Ones” remake “Made in America,” but the entire album resonates with contemporary relevance, intelligent commentary and an engaging delivery.

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)

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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