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Aesop Rock - None Shall PassAesop Rock - None Shall Pass
Aesop Rock has been impressing the backpacker crowd with his intricate lyrics and dark, dirty, melodic production ever since he self-released Music for Earthworms back in 1997, helping to define the East Coast underground scene and validate the presence of white rappers. And even though he moved to San Francisco in 2005, prompting some outcry from New York purists, all thoughts of bright, funky West Coast beats and lyrics can be put to rest, because None Shall Pass, the album being heralded as the true follow-up to the seminal Labor Days, is as powerful as anything the MC has ever created. Read more >>

Brother Ali - The Undisputed TruthBrother Ali - The Undisputed Truth
Brother Ali, the albino MC signed to Rhymesayers, made a lot of noise when his debut, Shadows on the Sun, came out in 2004, and his follow-up, The Undisputed Truth, just proves that there was a reason for all the acclaim. Ali shows himself to be one of the most talented MCs in contemporary hip-hop, in both the underground or mainstream. Unlike other conscious rappers, he isn't so concerned about proselytizing, about making a point, that he forgets that an important part of hip-hop is having fun and dancing, at least for those few minutes, for those looped 16 bars. Read more >>

Freeway - Free at LastFreeway - Free at Last
Almost five years after releasing a near-classic rap debut, Freeway finally gets his second shot, and there's some unsurprisingly frank talk about his surroundings not being identical. Since Philadelphia Freeway's early 2003 release, there was the Damon Dash/Jay-Z Roc-A-Fella rift, so Free addresses that, despite it being old news. He was, after all, caught in the middle and did not switch labels. Then there's "It's Over," which could be the first track to mention the producer not responsible for its beat; in fact, both Just Blaze (who produced ten Philadelphia Freeway tracks) and Kanye West (who chipped in with two) are saltily put on blast for either not getting back or being too busy. Read more >>

Hezekiah - I Predict a RiotHezekiah - I Predict a Riot
Though Hezekiah may not have the name-recognition fellow Philadelphians the Roots enjoy, that isn't for lack of talent or effort. On his second record (and first on the newly rebirthed Rawkus), I Predict a Riot, the producer/MC makes a compelling case for his upcoming reign. Following the 9th Wonder school of beat-making, albeit with more emphasis on his own keyboard work and less on sped-up soul samples, Hezekiah crafts warmly melodic lines that don't get too tied up in their own breeziness to actually make a point or forget the hook. He brings in hand percussion, guitars, and a variety of talented vocalists (Bilal, Jaguar Wright) to further emphasize the strength of his beats, which doesn't lie in their ingenuity -- they're pretty straightforward, and not overly intricate -- but simply in how well they're executed, each layer, each note, there for a reason. Read more >>

Prodigy - Return of the MacProdigy - Return of the Mac
As a member of the hardcore crew Mobb Deep, Prodigy lost some fans the minute they signed with 50 Cent's G-Unit, and their first full-length for the label, the merely fair Blood Money, didn't help in the least. Prodigy's solo album, Return of the Mac, is the return to form that follows with sinister beats, cold rhymes, and most importantly the Alchemist. The Mobb's long-time producer only handled one cut on Blood Money, but here he's in charge of every track. Steeped in history, the rapport between rapper and producer creates a world unto itself, one reflected in the album's artwork, where bravado style and the good life shine in a world of broken concrete and busted windows. Read more >>

Kanye West - GraduationKanye West - Graduation
Graduation's pre-leak talk wasn't as substantive as it was with Kanye West's first two albums. As with just about any other artist's third album, it had to be expected. The College Dropout was one of the most anticipated debuts of the early 2000s, while Late Registration had people wondering why Kanye would feel the need to work so extensively with multi-instrumentalist rock producer Jon Brion (the J Dilla of the chamberlin) and whether or not Kanye's hubristic tendencies would get the better of it. With Graduation, there was Takashi Murakami's artwork, a silly first-week sales competition with the decreasingly relevant 50 Cent, and chatter about synthesizers running wild. That was about it, but it all seemed loud and prevalent, due in part to a lack of high-profile rap albums released in 2007. Graduation is neither as bold nor as scattered as The College Dropout, and it's neither as extroverted nor as sonically rich as Late Registration. Read more >>;

Wu-Tang Clan - 8 DiagramsWu-Tang Clan - 8 Diagrams
With anticipation so high it caused debate not only among fans but among the group itself, Wu-Tang Clan's fifth studio record, 8 Diagrams, found itself at the center of attention as 2007 wound down. First there was the announcement of the successful obtainment of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" sample (which was later corrected to "interpolation," as it was actually played by Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante with help from George Harrison's son, a Wu enthusiast himself, Dhani). Then Raekwon did a highly publicized online interview in which he accused the RZA of taking a dictatorial stance regarding the shape of the album, calling him a "hip-hop hippie" who was moving the Clan in the wrong direction. Read more >>

Check out Part 1