Rawkus Records -- the little hip-hop indie label that could -- went through various major-label dealings over the years, eventually falling under the Geffen Records banner in 2005, in theory an unseemly partnership that did have one immediately positive outcome: a long-overdue best-of collection, Rawkus Records: Best of Decade I (1995-2005). If you're relatively familiar with Rawkus, you might find the title curious -- the "1995-2005" part, that is -- because for all means and purposes, the label became inactive once the '90s came to a close. Without a doubt, the glory years of Rawkus were the late '90s, back when the Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge series were a cultural touchstone, back when Mos Def and Talib Kweli were considered a duo rather than solo acts, and back when New York was still the undisputed epicenter of rap music. By the end of the decade, something happened -- something abrupt. Rawkus still championed the occasional Talib releases, but everything else noteworthy about the label was history: the Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge series lost significance, as did Mos Def and, to an extent, New York City. The South became the new epicenter of rap, and with that power shift came a major cultural shift as well (enter "bling-bling," "crunk," "trill," "grillz," "syrup sippin'," and the Ying Yang Twins). Those who lament the demise of everything Rawkus upheld in the late '90s (a freestyle rapping aesthetic, a hip-hop mindset, a positive outlook, a crass-less appeal, an independent approach, real talent, etc.) will celebrate this retrospective collection. It plays like a time capsule, resurrecting many of the label's late-'90s highlights and, indeed, the couple post-millennial ones it did have. The 15 inclusions are heavy on Mos Def features -- nine of the 15 tracks, to be precise -- and just about as many come from the assorted Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge compilations. While it would have been nice to have a broader range of performers -- in addition to the ubiquitous Mos, there are multiple features for Talib, Pharoahe Monch, Common, and producers Ayatolla and Hi-Tek -- the emphasis understandably is on the cream of the crop. This makes Best of Decade I a great introduction to the late-'90s Rawkus movement for anyone who missed it at the time. If that means you, you're recommended to start here and then branch off, moving on to the Black Star, Black on Both Sides, Soundbombing, Vol. 2, and Lyricist Lounge, Vol. 1 albums. Do that and you too might lament the subsequent crunkization of rap.
AllMusic Review by Jason Birchmeier