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The Quarterly Report: The best hip-hop albums of 2009, thus far

April 16, 2009 | 12:17 pm

The first quarter is typically a more barren season for major rap releases, and 2009's first quarter was no different. With major labels increasingly drawn to the Michael Bay blockbuster model, the indies were there to pick up much of the slack.

Doom__ Additionally, the perpetual deluge of singles disseminated via blogs ensures that there's more great hip-hop being released now than at any time in the last decade. The challenge is finding it -- here are a few tips. 

1. Doom, “Born Like This” (Lex Records)

The skeleton key to “Born Like This,” pictured, lurks in the coda of “That’s That.” With an off-kilter, Biz Markie bellow, Doom declares, “Can it be  I’ve stayed away too long? Did you miss these rhymes when I was gone? As you listen to these crazy tracks / Check the stats, and you know where I’m at.”

Indeed, axioms about absence are rarely more apt, as Doom’s redoubled dedication to craft -- after a two-year exile -- imbues “Born Into This” with  steroid-inflated statistics. Check the enigmatic lyrics replete with political and personal interpretations, as well as the shadowy graveyard beats from Madlib, J Dilla, Jake One, and Doom. Then there are the voices of Slug (Atmosphere), Ghostface Killah, Chef Raekwon, and Charles Bukowski, floating in and out like disembodied spirits. Even fellow misanthrope Thom Yorke emerges from his London fog to remix “Gazzillion Ear.”

Plagued by the sour aftertaste of an ill-conceived cartoon collaboration (2005's pairing with Danger Mouse on “The Mouse and the Mask”) and accusations of paying impostors to perform in his stead, Doom returns to remind us why he’s amassed one of the decade’s deepest discographies. In a blog age besotted with fast-food rappers, Doom’s successful comeback illustrates the most basic rule of supply and demand.

2. UGK, “UGK 4 Life” (Jive)

See the full review here. Or consider the sentimental import of Bun B faced with the death of his partner, Pimp C, opting to eschew any notions of crass commercialism and instead crafting a poignant and near-perfect tribute to the lost Chad Butler, as well as the group itself. “UGK 4 Life” not only justifies the hyperbole implied in its title, but it also stands on its own as an instant classic.

3. Lil Boosie, “Superbad: The Return of Mr. Wipe Me Down” (Self-Released)

Think of Baton Rouge, La.-raised Boosie as a contemporary Southern incarnation of Eazy-E, with his unorthodox helium voice, diminutive frame and endless quest for the finest drugs, cars, guns and girls. Harboring a blood-curdling rage against law enforcement that rivals his Compton counterpart, it’s little surprise that the best song on Boosie’s latest mix tape shares a titular similarity with an infamous and unprintable N.W.A. anthem. Not lacking for a wry and weird sense of humor, Mr. Wipe Me Down’s version of “Superbad” possesses an endearing raunchiness that would make Jonah Hill proud.

4. Camp Lo, “Stone and Rob: Caught on Tape” (Traffic Entertainment Group)

Few rappers caught a case of “Illmatic” syndrome like Camp Lo did. Like Nas, the duo of Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede released a now-canonized debut, 1997’s “Uptown Saturday Night," and have spent the rest of their career unfairly immured by constant comparisons. No matter how slickly they strut or how vividly they render their blaxploitation fantasias, cynics will always carp that they aren't living up to their first impression. Ultimately, Camp Lo's diamond heists might hit the same spot twice, but they're rarely short of superb.

5. Exile, “Exile Radio” (Plug Research)

Best known for “Below the Heavens,” his acclaimed 2007 collaboration with Blu, Echo Park-based Exile finally steps out of the long shadow cast by his Warner Bros.-signed partner. Though 2006’s “Dirty Science” featured guest raps from the likes of Slum Village and Ghostface Killah, Exile's sophomore solo effort relies on record samples swiped from the Southern California airwaves. Setting these found vocals atop a bedrock of jagged, electro-laced beats, “Exile Radio” is the rare hip-hop instrumental record that successfully articulates a story.

And the final five:

6. Finale, “A Pipe Dream and a Promise” (Interdependent Media). Backed by beats from Flying Lotus, J Dilla, and Black Milk, this Detroit MC proves that the Motor City’s woes don’t extend to rap music.

7. Blu, “Her Favorite Colour” (Self-released). A slight but soulful stopgap from Blu only serves to stoke  anticipation for his official Warner Bros. debut.

8. TiRon, “Ketchup (Self-released). Los Angeles’ best rapper flies beneath the radar.

9. Del the Funkee Homosapien, “Funk Man (The Stimulus Package)” (Self-released). It’s Del.

10. Harmonic 313, “When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence” (Warp). Australian producer cooks up glitchy and gorgeous soundscapes in the vein of Prefuse 73.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo: Lex Records