The Top 10 Michigan Hip-Hop Albums Of 2011

As I’ve shown in my coverage on MichiganHipHop, NPR and more, 2011 has been a banner year for hip-hop from the Wolverine Spartan State. More than any other time I can remember, all sides of the Mitten’s rap scene have found success: the soulful sound, the hardnosed boom bap, the mainstream gloss, and everything in between. Below, I’ve written my list of the top 10 Michigan hip-hop albums* of 2011. Read below for more. I’m sure many of you all are going to disagree with my choices (or at least the order), so go ‘head and leave your gripes in the comment section or forever hold your piece.

1.) OneBeLo, LABOR [Stream/Buy Here]

OneBeLo has always been one of the best emcees that the state has to offer, but it upsets me when he isn’t mentioned alongside Eminem, Royce Da 5’9″ and Elzhi in the upper echelon of Michigan rappers. His new disc, LABOR, only further proves my point. In an incredible display of showmanship, Lo uses an assortment of songs titled after animals and occupations to metaphorically convey the issues and narratives that make the world go round. “Pigs” speaks on corrupt law enforcement, “Rabbit Food” whimsically plays on the names of various fruits and vegetables, and he uses “The G.O.A.T.” to have a conversation with God. The concept is tightly woven but not restrictively so, the punchlines and rhyme schemes are top of the line, and the intensity of the production ably backs his rhymes.

2.) Danny Brown, XXX [Stream/Download Here]

Danny Brown’s last album The Hybrid sounded considerably ahead of its time in 2010, but his risky, trailblazing debut with Fool’s Gold Records makes last year’s underground classic sound like a relic. The Detroit native uses his unique, teetering delivery to rhyme about a life of addiction, pressure to succeed, and inner-city poverty, with electronic minimalism as the soundtrack and his 30th year of age as the motif. I give a more thorough explanation in my HipHopDX review, but there’s plenty of reason behind SPIN magazine ranking it as the top rap record of 2011.

3.) Big Sean, Finally Famous [Stream Here, available at major retailers]

I know many people are going to be upset with me ranking Finally Famous this high,  but fact is fact: Big Sean’s debut is exactly what a pop rap album should be. It had three of the best singles of the year (“My Last (feat. Chris Brown),” “Marvin and Chardonnay (feat. Kanye West),” and “Dance (A$$)”); No I.D. made sure the production palette was cohesive and engaging; and major guest appearances from Pharrell and The-Dream don’t disappoint. Despite a small collection of topics, the disc also does a good job of telling Sean’s inspiring success story, and Sean’s stylistic, carefree rhyme style shines throughout. Read more in my HipHopDX review.

4.) Elzhi, Elmatic [Buy Physical or Digital]

It’s December, so we all know the story by now: former Slum Village member Elzhi reinterpreted the songs from Nas’ classic debut Illmatic, and enlisted the Will Sessions band to create live renditions of the timeless beats by DJ Premier, Q-Tip and others. But as I said in my review, what’s particularly memorable is how evoked emotion and made all of these songs his own by putting his own spin on them. Virtually each of Nas’ NYC references are substituted for their Detroit equivalent, and Elzhi’s usage of vocal inflections and imagery makes the songs sound even more authentic.

5.) Black Opera, Overture [Buy on iTunes]

No real backstory to these rappers’ previous catalogs, but that’s exactly how they like it. An anonymous group of musicians that describe themselves as “a collective of Artistic Freedom Fighters, who openly & fluently express Creation through Music, Visual Art and Parables of Truth. WE are The Black Opera, a cast of characters narrating OUR perception of Timeless issues and Universal subjects that connect The Past, Present and Future.” Their debut album, Overture, does exactly that with its lucid rhymes and hard beats, but it’s really the album’s mysterious vibe that keeps ears glued to the speakers. The music videos breathe even more life into these songs though, so watch them HERE. Their new album, EnterMission, just dropped, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

6.) Danny Brown and Black Milk, Black and Brown [Stream/Buy Here]

Danny Brown has two albums in this list. The reason is simple: he appeals to completely different fan bases with two projects within the same year. Even though the EP only runs about 22 minutes, it manages to squeeze in a great collection of percussive, sample-contorting Black Milk beats and witty Danny Brown vulgarities. A great snack for the boom bap fans that hopped on the Danny Brown bandwagon during his 2010 album The Hybrid.

7.) Royce Da 5’9″, Success Is Certain [available at major retailers]

Royce Da 5’9″ has been consistently proven himself as one of the most talented emcees in the industry, and 2011 was the year when the mainstream hip-hop world would finally begin to see the gem that the underground had crowned years prior. His Slaughterhouse group signed to Shady Records and he recorded an entire EP with Eminem, but he still had some heaters on his solo offering as well. This is less angry than its definitive 2004 predecessor Death Is Certain, but Royce’s cohesion, lyrical depth and scowling delivery are just as potent. Armed with beats by the likes of Alchemist, DJ Premier and Mr. Porter, Nickel rounds the bases about his relationships with Eminem and the late Proof, reflects on past mistakes, and flexes his signature shit-talking. The only flaw to me was that the album’s best songs – “Writer’s Block,” “Second Place” and “Legendary” – were leaked so early, the other eight tracks didn’t carry as much weight. Success Is Certain is still a stellar effort though, and I’m loving it even more after revisiting it months later.

8.) Random Axe, Random Axe [available on major digital retailers]

The album from the supergroup of Black Milk, Guilty Simpson and Sean Price took years to see a release. But as I said in my HipHopDX review, the result was exactly what fans of all three of them wanted: tough, no frills hip-hop with no gimmicks. This isn’t as complete as their previous solo material (i.e. Black Milk’s Album of the Year, Guilty Simpson’s Ode to the Ghetto, and Sean Price’s Jesus Price Superstar), there’s still plenty to enjoy here. It’s enjoyable to hear Black use a rougher production alternative to his recent big band feel, and witnessing Sean P. and Guilty tag each other into the ring to trade their brawny, darkly humorous bars is a sight to see.

9.) Bad Meets Evil, Hell: The Sequel [available at major retailers]

In a way, the Bad Meets Evil EP suffers more for what it isn’t than what it is. Michigan hip-hop fans witnessing timeless songs from Royce Da 5’9″ and Eminem as solo artists while waiting for a collaborative project between the two longtime friends, but Royce said in interviews that the songs here weren’t recorded with the intention of releasing an album. As a result, these don’t have the intricacies and attention to detail of their best records. But there’s also a bright side: Royce and Eminem having fun and recapturing their chemistry is still better than 90% of rap artists at their very best, and songs like “Fast Lane” and “Take From Me” showcase that talent. It was gratifying to many hip-hop heads that such a raw collection of songs that weren’t radio-friendly (aside from the Bruno Mars-assisted “Lighters”) could still succeed on the charts, while earning Royce his first gold plaque and thrusting him into the mainstream spotlight that a veteran with his skill set deserves.

10.) Tie: Ro Spit, The Glass Ceiling Project [Download/Stream Here, Buy on iTunes]

Many emcees from Michigan can identify with hitting a wall in their career, seeing the other side but unable to break through. Apparently, this album is Ro Spit’s attempt to get to where he wants to go. The disc combines the self-assurance expected of a top sneaker boutique’s co-owner with the pure rhyme skills of a Subterraneous Records alum, resulting in a display of strong songwriting, even stronger soulful production, and guest appearances from a nearly complete who’s who of the mitten’s most notable emcees.

Doss The Artist, #9Lives [Stream/Download Here]

MTV Hive
 covered Detroit emcee Doss The Artist earlier this year, and his #9Lives album/series of leaks does more than justify the article. Doss’ nasally, acrobatic bars sound right at home over his collection of extraterrestrial soundbeds by Hir-O, jAYd and ACB. His stylistic offerings are like sushi: an acquired taste, but amazingly addictive once you realize that raw isn’t always bad. His last album, the Hir-O-produced Computer Blue, took a month for me to get into and nearly than a year to put down once I “got” it.

*When I say “albums,” I don’t only mean retail LPs, but any projects with original music. I also must admit, there are several albums that are missing from this list that I wasn’t able to give a proper listen to: Quelle Chris’ Shot Gun & Sleek Rifle, 14KT’s A Friendly Game of KT, Young Scolla’s Seconds Away, Passalacqua’s Zehbehzay Summer, and other albums would have likely made the cut if I heard them. Also, I try to maintain some journalism objectivity, so the BLAT! Pack projects that hit the ‘Net this year – JYoung The General’s Black History Year: Installment Two, YungClassix’s Life On The Grid, KuroiOto’s MAXWellness, and Hir-O’s The Freakstrumental Joint – aren’t on this list either. But those are all incredible too; listen to those HERE.

  • Quelle Chris’ Shot Gun & Sleek Rifle was one of the top albums this year bar none. other than that, GREAT LIST Michigan got it in for 2011.