London to Houston to Shaolin

Dizzee Rascal
Maths + English

The third album from London's biggest grime superstar was considered a do-or-die breakthrough effort: a hard-charging mix of circa-'88 hip-hop style, post-rave digitalism, NME-friendly Brit-rock/pop cameos from Lily Allen and the Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner, and the occasional Dirty South crossover. (The UGK-assisted "Where's Da G's" is proof enough that Dizzee could've easily broken through here.) Unfortunately, despite a more accessible tweak of his flow and the release of two of his best singles to date—the b-boy shoving match "Pussyole (Old Skool)" and the metallic chaos of "Sirens"—it's still only readily available in the U.S. as a digital download.

Durrty Goodz
Axiom EP

Dwayne Mahorn spent a year in prison awaiting trial for murder before eventually being acquitted, only to see his half-brother and fellow MC Carl "Crazy Titch" Dobson get a life sentence in his place. If the United States gave half a damn about grime, the return of Mahorn, a.k.a. MC Durrty Goodz, would be a major story here—especially since he's proven, since splitting with Polydor, that he can flourish artistically outside the major-label system. The Axiom EP is the most exciting grime record to come out since Dizzee's Boy in Da Corner, primarily because Goodz can rap his ass off—listen to him wreck no fewer than 10 different beats in the scene-spanning historical run-through "Switching Songs II (The Good Ol' Days)"—and do it with raw but skillful fury.

I'll Sleep When You're Dead

Every five years or so, El-P reminds us of what he can do as a producer/MC. He's stepped up his game exponentially with every full-length record—starting with 1997's Company Flow classic Funcrusher Plus, breaking through with 2002's Fantastic Damage, and peaking with this year's effort. The things that make El Producto one of the most disconcerting acts in underground rap are all here: his synth-heavy doom beats, his claustrophobic flow, and his fixation with how we, as a society, are pretty much fucked from the get-go.

Ghostface Killah
The Big Doe Rehab

It's a good sign when an MC releases his third album in 12 months and the worst you can say about it is that it's not quite as willing to be weird as the last two. Fishscale, last year's critical favorite, had more outlandish abstraction, blunted psychedelia, and/or moments of comedic relief. But The Big Doe Rehab feels like a close cousin to 2000's legendary soul-indebted swagger-fest Supreme Clientele, if a bit more lucid in the lyrics department. Little else this year can top Ghost's unnerving post-shooting traumatic stress reactions in "Walk Around" ("I was up close, so part of his nose was stuck to my Padres") or his sharp tag-team narration with Raekwon on "Shakey Dog Starring Lolita."

American Gangster

You learn a lot about Jay-Z's ability to work with a fire lit under his ass when you realize that his best album since The Blueprint—spurred by the Ridley Scott film detailing the life of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas—was finished in under a month and then released less than a week after its namesake movie hit theaters. It helps that his producers sound equally inspired; everyone from No I.D. to Diddy and his Hitmen team reaches back to that '94 goodness. But in merging Lucas's life story with his own, blurring the lines between Frank's '70s and his '90s, Jay-Z pulls off the coup of creating a gangster narrative more detailed and less clichéd than the movie that inspired it.

Kanye West

Some people predicted that Kanye would be insufferable once he really made it—and maybe they're right. To enjoy this record to the fullest, you have to be as happy with Mr. West's A-list status and constantly expanding designer wardrobe as he is. On the other hand, his arrogance is infectious, and between the regular flashes of lyrical dexterity ("Life is a huh depending how you dress her/So if the devil wear Prada, Adam Eve wear nada/I'm in between, but way more fresher") and a few slickly futuristic production choices ("Flashing Lights"'s orchestral slow-motion trance; the 6/8 Krautrock groove of "Drunk and Hot Girls"), he's earned the right.

Lil' Wayne
Da Drought 3

Lil' Wayne calls himself the "best rapper alive"—which, right or wrong, might as well be coupled with the honorific of "most contentious rapper alive." The Cash Money superstar's weeded-out, nasal, singsong style and tendency to drop into faux-Caribbean patois are enough to piss off Official Internet Rap Experts to the point of stammering rage. And then there are his lyrics: "I'm probably in the sky, flyin' with the fishes/Or maybe in the ocean, swimmin' with the pigeons"; "Put a motherfucker on ice like the Maple Leaves/That's a hockey team, and I ain't on no hockey team/But I'm a champion, where's the fuckin' Rocky theme?" Hate this, and you probably hate everything but the stick up your ass.

Sean Price
Jesus Price Supastar

Maybe the year's best underground sleeper hit, the second solo album by Heltah Skeltah/Boot Camp Clik veteran Sean Price is a key example of the current state of hardcore East Coast hip hop—independently distributed, reverent to the classic style, and completely without gimmicks. Price doesn't have any reservations when it comes to rapping about how broke and frustrated he is (from "Mess You Made": "I guess this rap shit is a thing of the past/Took the ring off my finger, sold the thing for some cash"), but the album—produced in the head-knocking soul-jazz tradition of Pete Rock and DJ Premier by the likes of 9th Wonder and Khrysis, among others—has enough battle-rap fire and hustler ferocity to make Price's broke-and-frustrated status seem inexplicable.

Underground Kingz

A rap double CD that's front-to-back great only comes around once a decade, if that—and considering the last great one, Wu-Tang Forever, involved one of rap's biggest crews, it's even more astounding that a two-man outfit could go all-killer-no-filler, especially within two years of each member releasing his own lengthy-yet-good solo record. Bun B and the late Pimp C of UGK take the simplest subjects (sex, drugs, cars) and carry them through with sheer force of charisma, flexible drawling flows, 21st-century g-funk production, and an impressive guest roster—OutKast on the year's best single "Int'l Player's Anthem (I Choose You);" Too $hort on "Life Is 2009"; Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap on the Marley Marl-produced "Next Up."

Wu-Tang Clan
8 Diagrams

Some Wu-Tang fans were disappointed after waiting six years for an album that turned out to be moody, fractured, and short on immediacy. It probably didn't help that Ghostface Killah and Raekwon more or less disowned it due to the RZA's new production tone, heavy on melodic R&B and acid rock. But give this one time: With just about every member on his A-game (especially Raekwon and a Tical-caliber Method Man), and a ton of beats that you'll suddenly find stuck in your head a week after forgetting what they sounded like, 8 Diagrams is going to become increasingly difficult to sleep on.

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