Also, I'm not doing the whole "rank the albums from 1-5 thing." There isn't one album that stands out as my favorite this year (last year, the Roots How I Got Over was far and away my favorite). Thus the albums below, in no particular order, are simply the five that I liked and listened to the most.
Lupe Fiasco - Lasers
Even a watered-down Lupe is a breath of fresh air in hip hop, though. His socially conscious, positive vibe is much-needed in a genre that too often seems to value over-indulgence and narcissistic materialism. Sure, on this album there are some overwrought pop-hooks. But enough of Lupe's independent spirit and sharp social criticism is allowed to shine through to make Lasers worth the listen.
Representative Song: The Show Goes On
Kendrick Lamar - Section.80
Make no mistake, Kendrick speaks the language of the street. What separates him from other rappers, though, is his perspective of a world that is bigger than the street. He doesn't glamorize the lifestyle he sees around him, but instead describes it in all of its tragic detail. As he raps: "I won't sugercoat it...you'll die from diabetes if these other n***** wrote it." There are no club bangers on this album, just hip hop that is creative, powerful, and honest.
Representative Song: HiiPower
The Roots - Undun
Instead, this album works because of the overarching theme linking the songs. There is a determined resignation, an overall gloom and darkness with occasional fading flickers of hope, and when combined with Questlove's production skills, it makes for great hip hop. There may not be an easy-to-follow song-by-song story here, but there is certainly a mood and a feeling that The Roots capture so precisely that it's difficult not to be moved and to feel the same sense of tragic determination conveyed in Undun.
Representative Song: Tip the Scale
Saigon - The Greatest Story Never Told
Saigon's level of maturity and perspective is head and shoulders above that of many of the rappers who claim to represent "thug life." His lyrical dexterity is not strong, but he makes up for it with his gruff blend of inspiration and honesty.
Representative Song: Bring Me Down
Jay-Z and Kanye West - Watch the Throne
One interesting thing I found when listening to this album compared to that of Lupe, Saigon or Kendrick Lamar: It seems as if Kanye and Jay-Z have reached the point in their careers where their connection to real "people on the street" is basically over. They rap about social issues from the distance of the throne. Even when they rap about black-on-black crime in "Murder to Excellence," they seem to do so from the perspective of someone who watched a CNN special about it, not someone who was personally affected. From a pure musical skill level, these two are still near the top. But their connection to the spirit of social protest that is entwined in hip hop is basically over.
Representative Song: Otis