206UP.COM’s Top 10 SEA Hip-Hop Albums of 2010

As a hip-hop and baseball obsessed youth, I constantly formulated Top 10 Lists. Athletes, shoes, songs, movies — if it was rate-able, I was Top 10’in it, practically weekly. This is probably why 206UP.COM’s year-end list is my favorite post to write. Last year I waxed not-so-poetically on how, in 2005, Seattle’s underground rap scene single-handedly renewed my faith in the music. This year my affinity for Town rap became even tighter knit.

The albums, songs, free downloads, and videos that originated strictly in Seattle were enough to keep my hip-hop appetite satisfied through the whole year. Not to say excellent new albums by nationally known artists (Big Boi, The Roots, Kanye West, etc.) weren’t heavy on my playlist, or that the underground movements in other cities weren’t relevant. It’s just that hip-hop in the 2-0-6 is so grown now, more than it’s ever been, and the voices, perspectives and spectrum of sounds in our Town are talented and diverse enough to keep my ears fully attuned.

While there were some glaring omissions in 2010 (the new Physics LP being the most significant, for me), there were some other big advancements and unexpected surprises:

The emergence of La (formerly known as Language Arts) as a force to be reckoned with (at least on wax). This cat blew through like a Northeaster on his two LP’s, Gravity and Roll With The Winners, spitting outlandish braggadocio unlike any other rapper in town.

Two career-defining performances by Blue Scholars. The first was at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, which I wrote about, here. At this show, the Scholars proved to the hip-hop world that they could hang in the Mecca, legitimizing their voice on a whole new level. (Macklemore’s opening performance was definitely notable, too.) The other show folks were buzzing about was the City Arts music festival performance at The Paramount, the first time a local hip-hop group rocked the venerable theater’s stage. Blue Scholars made history, nationally and locally, with these two shows.

This year also saw artists better known for their previously established collaborative endeavors break out with successful new excursions. JFK and Onry Ozzborn both dropped excellent LP’s independent of their legendary Grayskul partnership — JFK on the straight-up solo tip and Onry Ozzborn in collaboration with Chi-town producer Zavala. RA Scion reinvented himself with his Victor Shade project with producer MTK. And Gabriel Teodros and Amos Miller connected in Brooklyn, forming the impromptu collab Air 2 A Bird after being rebuffed in London on the eve of their world tour.

But enough with the recap. The following list represents what 206UP.COM sees as the best Seattle hip-hop albums of the year. There was no real science to compiling the list and, when it comes down to it, these things are matters of pure conjecture, subject to debate and relentless criticism of the people who made them (which this blog always welcomes, by the way). Enjoy the list and Happy New Year!

Honorable mentions:

JFK – Building Wings on the Way Down
LaRue – Saturn Returns
Avatar Young Blaze – Russian Revolution Mixtape

10. State of the Artist – SeattleCaliFragilisticExtraHellaDopeness

The album equivalent of a 2-0-6 hip-hop houseparty, by design SeattleCal wasn’t exactly an official debut LP for State of the Artist, but a showcase for much of the talent in the city. The three SOTA emcees were consistently outshone by their guests and a lot of times the lyrics didn’t seem to make any sense. As strictly a party album, however, there wasn’t one better.

9. Victor Shade – Victor Shade

The re-birth of RA Scion as the rap superhero Victor Shade saw a major shift in musical tone, but not a dramatic change in delivery or aesthetic. RA’s lyrics are still dense as hell and require close examination on paper in order to understand their meaning. It all sounded great, however, over MTK’s knocking production. RA Scion (aka. Victor Shade) remains the most professorial battle rapper in Seattle.

8. Air 2 A Bird – Crow Hill

A soaring achievement considering the bare-bones tools Air 2 A Bird (Gabriel Teodros and Amos Miller) had to work with when making this album in Brooklyn. In its creation, Crow Hill captured the very essence of hip-hop: eloquent poetics, masterful improvisation and a revolutionary spirit  (albeit on a quieter and more reserved scale). This album proves that hip-hop executed with class and panache can be just as effective as the bombastic variety.

7. La – Roll With The Winners

This “debut” album from the emcee formerly known as “Language Arts” featured expert throwback production by an unknown producer named Blu-Ray, whose heavy soul sampling sounds like The Alchemist on his most nostalgic day. The highlight, though, was La’s take-no-prisoners lyrical work. Hearing raw talent like this is akin to watching Allen Iverson play basketball for the first time. At this stage in his career La is still all fearless potential, but on paper he might already be the most technically sound rapper in the city.

6. Helladope – Helladope (aka Return to Planet Rock)

Helladope’s Tay Sean is far too young a cat to be making music with this much soul and expert tribute to the R&B and funk of yesteryear. Still, he accomplished the feat with ease. Along with emcee/vocalist Jerm, Helladope’s debut album offers a fresh take on the P-funk/G-funk rap amalgamation that originated in Southern California in the early 90’s. The sound is updated here with extraterrestrial gimmickry that amuses but isn’t essential to the album’s vibe.

5. J. Pinder – Code Red EP

This star-studded EP by Seattle ex-pat J. Pinder had a professional sheen equal to most major label releases. And it was free, to boot. Unsurprisingly, the folks who built the foundation of Code Red are either consummate hip-hop professionals or quickly on their way: Vitamin D, Jake One and Kuddie Fresh, among others. Pinder’s easy flow and accessible subject matter made this album easy to ride for.

4. Dark Time Sunshine – Vessel

Vessel exists in the same category as the number two album on this list, The Stimulus Package. The lyrical work is quintessential Onry Ozzborn (here reborn as Cape Cowen) but the production is a masterful concoction of headphone-oriented beats that only a cold soul from Chicago could assemble. Producer Zavala cultivates a terrain of rich electronica that feels organic, as if grown and harvested with the precision of robot farmers. The most sonically progressive SEA hip-hop album this side of Shabazz Palaces’ 2009 masterpiece.

3. Jake One & Freeway – The Stimulus Package

At first consideration it seemed strange to include this release featuring an emcee so deeply associated with the city of Philadelphia. Fifty percent of the album artist credit is from Seattle though so how could it be excluded? The obvious truth is Jake One had as much (if not more) to do with the quality of The Stimulus Package as Freeway. Jake has a knack for creating fresh ideas while staying inside the bounds of traditional boom-bap. Stimulus is his best and most cohesive collection of beats, ever.

2. Candidt – Sweatsuit & Churchshoes

Candidt’s long-delayed Sweatsuit & Churchshoes is a refreshing and dynamic package of West Coast B-boy rap. Every local young buck in the game should take this album as the new hip-hop gospel for the way it connects Old School and New. Candidt doesn’t sound like anyone else in the city and his willingness to experiment with new sounds while keeping strict West Coast principles earns SS&CS major props.

1. Def Dee & La (fka. Language Arts) – Gravity

Producer Def Dee caught lightning in a bottle with his masterful production work on this album. Gravity pays direct tribute to NYC Golden Era boom-bap and is unapologetic in its revivalist ideology. It also manages to sound fresh and timeless, however, and is the most musically cohesive album of these ten. Emcee La officially established himself as one of the best rappers in the city. He plays it cooler than on his proper solo debut, Roll With The Winners, but that’s because the music requires him to. Gravity stands firmly to the side of Seattle’s so-called “Third Wave hip-hop,” a position that’s especially important to the purist set. All the current innovation in local rap is a great thing, but so is the creation of more traditional forms like Gravity. It reminds everyone that hip-hop made in our isolated corner of the map is inextricably linked to the region of its genesis.

Album Reviews Best of 2010