Washington City Paper

Dec. 26, 2003 –
Jan. 8, 2004



Arts in Review 2003

Songs of Praise

A New Membership

It’s merely annoying that the world’s most meteoric hiphop star is a grinning individualist known more for his bullet wounds than his intellect—after all, 50 Cent can flip a decent verse. But the rapper is still an embarrassment, and Dre and Em really should have known better: Their protégé exudes the vibe that all his biggest fights are in the past. The bad attitude that earned 50 his battle scars seems to have dissipated before he got famous—which doesn’t leave much fun for the rest of us.


Yeah, “In da Club” was a mighty single, but those who bought into the rest of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ might want to consider this: No matter how refreshing 50 Cent’s ear-to-ear smile and casual demeanor might be to a large swath of hiphop consumers, his macho rhythms and been-there, done-that mythology are all too familiar to anyone who’s witnessed the three-decade slide of the cock-rock superstars of the ’70s. Maybe we’ll just have to ride it out, bracing ourselves for a future of nostalgia tours and soundtrack appearances. Maybe 2004 will see 50 Cent disappear. And maybe, just maybe, these 10 hiphop records will be the ones that people remember from 2003:

1. Vaudeville Villain, Viktor Vaughn. Yes, the man who lived through the early ’90s as KMD’s Zev Love X has the dreaded multiple-moniker disorder (his aka’s now include MF Doom and King Geedorah). But he also has a savant’s ear for disorienting, enticing, and tight-as-hell street beats. Vaughn’s rhymes are ace, too: When his sci-fi syllables and junk-movie homages are flowing, hiphop culture warps into an interstellar space that only he can control.

2. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, OutKast. If Big Boi is OutKast’s firmly rooted sea anemone, then André 3000 is the attendant clown fish, working against the hiphop currents to capture and share morsels of jazz, pop, and soul. The anemone, meanwhile, just stays cool, waving his arms in the air, because the funk can’t be denied. Everybody benefits.

3. Later That Day..., Lyrics Born. A novelty of sorts: An indie hiphop record that strives for listenability and succeeds simply by doing its own West Coast thing. For Lyrics Born, that means putting down hot ’70s grooves, overlaying them with a sharp worldview, and pointing the results just to the left of mass appeal. Things start slowly, but don’t most parties?

4. The Black Album, Jay-Z. This supposed swan song gets points for the supercharged “99 Problems,” but loses ’em for its single-minded attention to shaping the MC’s legacy. Still, Jay hasn’t been this efficient since The Blueprint, and he knows it.

5. Shades of Blue, Madlib. Of course it’s cool—that’s what happens when a skillful, Blue Note–worshiping producer handles jazz from the vaults. Madlib plays a subtle trick, though: Shades of Blue isn’t about chilling out to the classics. It’s about shifting our perspectives on what’s old, what’s new, and what matters, not just to hiphop but to music in general.

6. This Is Not a Test!, Missy Elliott. Timbaland and Elliott now can afford to stop pumping their collaborations full of goo, and for the most part they’re able to control the urge.

7. 8 Million Stories, Soul Position. Drum-kit-driven beats (via RJD2) intertwine with personality-packed rhymes (via Blueprint), and both are better for participating in the back-slapping dude hug. The stoners get something, too: RJ’s headphone-ready, blaxploitation-style production accents.

8. One Word Extinguisher, Prefuse 73. Hiphop DJing was born from a simple collision of technology and art, but people weren’t thinking that hard about it. Prefuse was born from one man’s desire to prolong that collision. You can hear Scott Herren thinking about it in every click and thump, but that doesn't mean he ain’t in touch with his gut, too.

9. One A.M., Diverse. What it is: A purposefully lean debut from an intelligent MC who’s probably on the verge of a creative growth spurt. What it isn’t: self-satisfied, pedantic, or unnecessarily cerebral.

10. Chicken ‘n’ Beer, Ludacris. There’s always room for obnoxiousness in hiphop, because the music allows goofballs such as Ludacris to say exactly what they want. His baritone braggadocio and hyperactive libido might never evolve, but isn’t that the point? Besides, behind those greasy beats, there’s a pop-culture mastermind hard at work.

—Joe Warminsky

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