Having now cracked the top 10, we're getting into the heavyweights of the year that was 2011. As usual we need a recap to see where the journey has taken us.
30. 4- Beyonce
29. The Dreamer, The Believer- Common
28. Just Once EP- How to Dress Well
27. Alien Observer- Grouper
26. Step Brothers- Don Trip & Starlito
25. Cole World: Sideline Story- J. Cole
24. Weekend at Burnies- Curren$y
23. Suck It and See- Arctic Monkeys
22. Celestial Lineage- Wolves in the Throne Room
21. The Whole Love- Wilco
20. Bad As Me- Tom Waits
19. Live, Love, A$AP- A$AP Rocky
18. Helplessness Blues- Fleet Foxes
17. 21- Adele
16. Wounded Rhymes- Lykke Li
15. Hilarious- Louis C.K.
14. Cults- Cults
13. Goblin- Tyler, the Creator
12. Tomboy- Panda Bear
11. Strange Mercy- St. Vincent
10. Parallax- Atlas Sound
9. Nostalgia, Ultra- Frank Ocean
#8 House of Balloons- The Weeknd
There’s a point inn “Wicked Games,” one of the strongest cuts from The Weeknd’s debut mixtape where he tellingly confesses “get me off of this, I need confidence, in myself.” It’s a stark moment of truth and intimacy on a tall-tale of an R&B record. If even half of the stories he tells on this drug-fueled, sex-addled, regret-laden mixtape are true, he doesn’t need a little bit of help, he needs to go away for good.
The Weeknd’s world is a frightening-one where nights of ecstasy-induced sex “High for This,” are not only recalled with chilling casualness, but encouraged. “You don’t know what’s in store, but you know what you’re here for,” he coyly sings over muted drum hits, the voice of an angel masking a devilish lothario. “Don’t be scared,” he tells her. But in a place this hazy and amoral how could she not be. Where singers like Drake or The-Dream show remorse in their actions, the Toronto-based Abel Tesfaye as The Weeknd has none. This is the only life he knows and he’ll do anything to keep it.
“I ain’t washing my sins,” he boldly states on “The Knowing,” a lulling musical-moment in a storm of skittish-depravity. That knowing in this case comes with the caveat that he too has been unfaithful to his partner, remaining gleefully quiet about the whole ordeal. It’s a situation endemic of the entire tape. On display is a house too toxic for us to ever enter, but far too compelling to not make an attempt. A house where the malignant moments of the night prior aren’t frowned upon, but celebrated with a smirk.
"Wicked Games" (NSFW)
#7 Take Care- Drake
Even with all of its success, Drake’s debut Thank Me Later couldn’t help but feel like a step-back from the phenomenal So Far Gone mixtape. The album featured the hand-wringing introspection Drake is well-known for, but the cash-in sounds of songs like “Fancy,” cheapened that introspection. The album came across as a collection of songs, lacking any continuity.
The greatest triumph of Take Care is that it sounds like an album. The muted star-tale “Cameras,” effortlessly transforms into the somber R&B of “Doing It Wrong.” The scorching Nicki Minaj feature “Make Me Proud,” blows up into the mammoth Just Blaze track “Lord Knows.” “Lookin’ for the right way to do the wrong things,” Drake raps alongside Rick Ross. The moment of justifying bad-behavior sits amidst shards of self-importance and paranoia that puncture Drake’s monstrous verse.
That conflict is at the center of Take Care, even in the singles. “I might be too strung out on compliments, overdosed on confidence,” he raps on “Headlines.” For all the likeability his confidence cultivates, it’s also a weakness. His confidence can’t help him on the drunken stupor of “Marvin’s Room,” and he’s left pathetically pleading. Those compliments buy him nothing here and he resorts to singing “you can do better.” The bombastic “HYFR,” can’t even rescue Drake’s ego, crushed by the memory of all his “exes.”
“I’ll be there for you, I will care for you,” he raps on the steel-drum sound of the title track. It’s a promise he knows he can’t fulfill, he’s been wounded too many times, “trust issues” clouding his mind. Despite his new-found confidence in his rapping and in his life, this is still the Drake of “Fear.” “Security follows me everywhere, so I never actually am alone, I just always feel alone.” For all the fame, females, drinks, and dollars, Drake is still chasing a dream he can never buy.
#6 undun- The Roots
“To make it to the bottom, such a high climb.” Hip-hop is obsessed with stories of “grinding to get it,” earning money any way you can. Some rappers sold drugs to get to where they are now, others stole, and some threw their entire lives away for a simple shot. For every triumph, there are at least 10 tragedies. For them the ladder to success is filled with broken rungs, impossible to climb. So goes the story of the fictional Redford Stephens on undun.
Redford’s daily grind is one of violence; he earns his keep as a stick-up man. “I did it all for the money Lord,” guest Big K.R.I.T raps on the electronic ripple of “Make My.” Here K.R.I.T. and Black Thought as Redford are looking towards the finer things. They’re aware of the costs of this life and would gladly give it all up for “peace of mind.” As reticent of his career as Redford is, he knows he can’t afford to “go soft.” “Weak-heartedness cannot be involved,” Phonte raps on the militant beat of “One Time.” One slip-up for Redford in this life is death.
Death is an integral part of this album, the Grim-Reaper greeting Redford with the sound of flat-lining on the album opener. The consequences of this album are all-too real. Even as Redford celebrates in the sultry sanctum of “Kool On,” he keeps a gun close to his side, never sleeping. The weight of the “grind” is a load many rappers are unwilling to bear, but here The Roots lift it up, dropping it right on their protagonist’s poverty-stricken shoulders.
For Redford Stephens, destiny is uncontrollable. The only hope he has in breaking free from the shackles of destiny is suicide, an option considered in the drum-steady “Tip the Scale.” “Homicide or suicide, heads or tails,” Dice Raw sings. In Redford’s world, no matter how the coin comes up, his life has already been decided. He’s stuck trying to tip a scale that will never even out.
Far too many people in the real-world face the situation detailed in undun. They aren’t written about or remembered, their names the only thing they really had. The Roots pay this plight great attention here, painting an ugly picture few want to see. To Redford, right and wrong aren’t absolutes, but opinions. It’s easy to view him as little more than a petty-criminal, but in his world a life of crime is a life of survival.
"Tip the Scale"
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