Real Talk: The Top 15 Albums Of 2011

12.30.11 5 years ago 116 Comments

Graphics: BEWARE

What is an album anymore? As more artists begin to take their careers independent, the idea of a glitzy, major label LP begins to lose its luster. Mixtapes and self-releases have become the new barometer of an artist’s likeability, while the archaic model of signing with a major label then releasing a hyped, polished collection of songs and expecting to move 500,000 physical units has been relegated to history.

This is 2011 and times are a-changin’. Yet, just because we now exist in the Internet age doesn’t mean the Hip-Hop “album” is completely irrelevant. Let members of the first week numbers fan club tell it, major acts still consider albums to be their litmus test to producing quality. And, of course, there were the phenomenal overlooked efforts, too. And there were some not-so-stellar offerings, but we’ll sweep those under the rug.

Albums — in some form or another — are here to stay. Here’s the best of the best that this past year had to offer, whether major or indie. Like all of our lists, the order is irrelevant. Support and pay attention to good music.

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Who: Thurz
What: L.A. Riot
Why: 4 Cigs
Label: London Live | Producers: DJ Khalil, THX, Ro Blvd., Aaron Harris

The Good: Transporting listeners back to 1992, Thurz didn’t err on the side of caution with the ambitious L.A. Riot. The Los Angelino sought to recapture the events leading up to and during the riot, as well as the general mood of the city during. The opening trio of “Molotov Cocktail,” “Rodney King” and “F**k The Police” are vivid and aggressive representations of that fateful summer. Thurz more than holds his own while sparring with Black Thought on “Riot” and on “Prayer,” Thurz finally cleared the air on U-N-I’s break up.

The Bad: After harnessing a firestorm and energy while recreating what transpired back in ’92, it would have been nice to see Thurz stay in that mind frame a bit longer instead of giving us songs like the playerlistic “Big Ball” and popish “The Killers.” Both are decent songs in their own right, but didn’t ensure the album closed out with the same intensity that it started with.

The Lovely: When the year started a new U-N-I album seemed unlikely even being released; let alone a solo album from Thurz. By switching up the direction of his music and not suffering from the mental fatigue of consistently dropping three verses that a lot rappers encounter when going the solo route, Thurz reinstated his name as one to watch out West and anywhere else he pleases. — MZ

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: Big K.R.I.T.
What: Return Of 4eva
Why: 4 Cigs
Label: Cinematic Music Group/Multi Alumni/Def Jam Records | Producers: Big K.R.I.T.

The Good: Big K.R.I.T.’s authenticity is undeniable. There is nothing in Return of 4eva that’s sound fake, or forced. The intense emotion on “Dreamin’” and “American Rapstar” strike a chord with the listener that captivates and swallows them whole. When R4 is spinning, you are Big K.R.I.T. and his life becomes yours as he demonstrates his successful, multi-faceted approach to rap in just about every song. It’s the Mississippi twang that sets R4 apart from the rest of this year’s releases.

The Bad: “Bad” is such a strong word, but the weaker songs on Return of 4eva are simply the ones that aren’t great enough to stand out. “Amtrak,” for instance has a great beat, but K.R.I.T.’s soulful lyrics don’t quite do it justice. Additionally, “Highs and Lows” is another record that’s smooth and introspective, but becomes skippable in the context of the rest of the album. You’re bound to have fluctuation when there’s over 20 songs on the menu.

The Lovely: Overall, R4 is an intense, thought-provoking experience that gels with the listener right out of the gate. His versatility is unmatched, proven by the complex verses laid over perfect, mood-setting beats, all done by K.R.I.T. himself. And despite a few unneeded songs, Krizzle shows his musical growth from 2010’s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here as his lyrics and sound have been refined for future takeovers. — Raj

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: Drake
What: Take Care
Why: 4 Cigs
Label: Young Money/Cash Money Records | Producers: Noah “40” Shebib, Drake, Just Blaze, Boi-1da, Jamie xx, T-Minus, Chase N. Cashe, The Weeknd, Illangelo, Doc McKinney, Supa Dups, Chantal Kreviazuk

The Good: Simply put, Take Care is a blockbuster success in sheer scope. When you fit one of the year’s best R&B songs (“Marvin’s Room”) on an album that also boasts arguably the most titanic rap record of 2011 (“Lord Knows”), you exhibit the work of an artist that has the determination and capacity to pull off both tracks — as well as most of the other variations of pop-rap&b that are packed in between. Drake and his production team (led again by studio guru Noah “40” Shebib) prove equally deft at crafting blare-it-out-your-speakers rap anthems (“Underground Kings”) and stripped-down R&B ballads (“Doing it Wrong”).

The Bad: Take Care is an ambitious album, but with ambition often comes overreaching. At 18 tracks, clocking in just under 80 minutes, Take Care is a bloated affair. Tracks like “We’ll Be Fine” and “Make Me Proud” — not altogether terrible but ultimately inessential records — could have easily been left on the cutting-room floor. Their inclusion makes front-to-back listens difficult in a single sitting.

The Lovely: It’s no wonder Drake named the album Take Care. He remains one of the few rap stars who takes pride in paying attention to the art of album-making. If not as catchy or compulsively listenable as Thank Me Later, Take Care is a mature and nearly fully-realized expression of an artist firmly planted in his artistic zone. Drake’s Hip-Hop remains quite often very melodic and moody. When he promises on “The Ride” that his “Junior and Senior will only get meaner,” you believe him. — Samir S.

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: Yelawolf
What: Radioactive
Why: 3.5 Cigs
Label: Shady/Interscope/Ghet-O-Vision, DGC | Producers: Eminem, WillPower, Jim Jonsin, Diplo, Tha Hydrox, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Phonix Beats, The Audibles, Emanuel Kiriakou, Borgore, Mr. Pyro, Blaqsmurph, Poo Bear, Sasha Sirota

The Good: The unapologetic, unabashed, unlikely Hip-Hop superstar known as Yelawolf keep his Chevy running from last year’s Trunk Muzik victory lap to get Radioactive. The crass debut roared with fury (the Eminem/Gangsta Boo-fueled “Throw It Up”) and Alabamian pride as heard on “The Hardest Love Song In The World” and “Let’s Roll.”

The Bad: As tough as it is to swallow a jagged little pill of truth, the fact remains that the gateway to today’s mainstream radio is through a woman’s preferences. As a result, Radioactive sacrifices a chunk of its rawness in favor of an assortment of decent, albeit offsetting, blatant single material. The J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League sells Yela a wolf ticket with “Write Your Name,” sculpted from the rib of “Aston Martin Music,” while chipper selections in “Good Girl” and “Animal” suffer from campy choruses aimed at Top 40 consumers.

The Lovely: At the beginning of 2010, Yelawolf was in the same boat of every rapper kept afloat on their own personal budget, dreaming of setting their sail to a bigger island. By fusing his undeniable originality with the marketing power of Shady Records, a star was born and Radioactive is toxic enough to incorporate his existing fans while exposing newbies to his powerful radiation. — TC

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: Phonte
What: Charity Starts At Home
Why: 4 Cigs
Label: Foreign Exchange Music | Producers: Phonte, 9th Wonder, Khrysis, Swiff D, Fatin 10 Horton, Stro Elliott, S1, E. Jones, Zo!

The Good: Phonte is one of the most consistent and multi-talented MCs in the game. From the opening “Dance In The Reign” and “The Good Fight,” Tigallo ultimately creates a potent, jam-packed album that stands up next to his Little Brother and Foreign Exchange work. Te’ eschews hoes and clothes that don’t fit the needs of a married man in his mid-30s and instead raps about reality.

The Bad: On paper, an Phonte album featuring guest verses from Pharoahe Monche and eLZhi should birth some collaborative classic tracks. Unfortunately, their offerings are mostly underwhelming and nowhere near the quality of a much-superior Phonte. Big K.R.I.T.’s spot notwithstanding, the guest rappers could have left their charities at home and let Phonte do the heavy lifting.

The Lovely: Almost a decade ago, Little Brother made an album that stood as the blueprint for the everyman rapper that Drake and Kanye were able to capitalize on to set their paths to success. In 2011, it’s happened again. Ask any man, especially a married one, to listen to “Ball and Chain,” “Not Here Anymore” or “Sendin’ My Love.” You can bet he’ll tell you he’s been right there. Phonte speaks directly to a rap audience of nine-to-fivers and brings their story to the forefront. We are the 99 percent and Phonte is our spokesman. — David D.

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: Common
What: The Dreamer/The Believer
Why: 4 Cigs
Label: Warner Bros./Think Common Music Inc. | Producers: No I.D.

The Good: It’s Common. His latest LP is tight on tracks (only 12), thumps with the soul-infused production of fellow Chicagoan No I.D. and sees invigorated lyricism from the rapper-turned-actor. Album opener “The Dreamer” gets a Flying Lotus-inspired rattle and “Celebrate” incorporates the cheer and optimism the Windy City native is known for. “Blue Sky” is a guaranteed radio single and “Ghetto Dreams” is a Hip-Hop fan’s wet dream, as Nas tags along. Pause.

The Bad: It’s Common. Not that there’s anything wrong with one of Chicago’s greatest Hip-Hop exports, but all of his best efforts sound exactly the same: heavy on the aforementioned soul and dripping in sap. He’s not as hyper-polarizing as the man he’s currently in a feud with, but his work compares similarly. For listeners not looking for 50 minutes of feel-good preaching, The Dreamer, The Believer won’t be an enjoyable listen — if they choose to press play at all.

The Lovely: It’s no secret that Com’s preferring his role as an actor and celebrity than musical wordsmith. But the fact that he backtracked to drop an album worth good replay values still says volumes about him as an artist. Common’s always been as good as his friendship with the album’s main producer and together, there’s definitely a lot of magic left. — Ryan J.

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: Jay-Z & Kanye West
What: Watch The Throne
Why: 4 Cigs
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam | Producers: Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, RZA, The Neptunes, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, No I.D., Jeff Bhasker, Mike Dean, Hit-Boy, 88-Keys, Don Jazzy, S1, Sham “Sak Pase” Joseph, Southside, Anthony Kilhoffer, Ken Lewis

The Good: From the gold-plated jewel casing to the earnest lyricism of first single “Otis,” Jay-Z & Kanye West’s Watch the Throne commanded attention spans with the poise of true professional recording artists. By exposing their worst on “New Day” and the pro-Black hymn, “Murder to Excellence,” the pair showcased deft while the electrifying “Niggas in Paris” held down the more easygoing listeners.

The Bad: When you pit arguably the best rapper and best Hip-Hop artists of all time in the same arena, the mere thought of an endless stream of classic records is enough to make your head explode — word to Clayton Bigsby — and Watch the Throne simply isn’t that. The royal rap tandem seemed more concerned with getting their leak-proof album to the masses to launch their lucrative tour instead of reigniting classroom debates on who had the most notable quotables. Obvious commercial reaches in “Lift Off,” and “Who Gon Stop Me” never made it to radio runways, leaving a bit to be desired.

The Lovely: Minor musical flubs aside, Jay & Ye had most of the collective rap world holding their breath for its release without nary a promotional gimmick or premeditated outburst. Breaking the first week iTunes sales record (before being bested by payola shortly thereafter), provoking a renewed interest in collaborative albums and handpicking the hottest beat of the year in “Niggas in Paris” is hardly something to be taken lightly. It’s an undefined form of monarchy. Talk about title accuracy. — TC

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: Young Jeezy
What: Thug Motivation 103: Hustlerz Ambition
Why: 3.5 Cigs
Label: Def Jam/Corporate Thugz Entertainment | Producers: Drumma Boy, Warren G., Lil Lody, Lil C, Midnight Black, Marz, D. Rich, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Mike DuPree, M16, Mike Will

The Good: Fresh off first week numbers that any Hip-Hopper would dime their man out for, Young Jeezy officially satisfied the streets with the no-nonesense TM103. As is the status quo with any release from The Snowman, Hustlerz Ambition is about as rough, rugged and defiant an album as you’ll find in 2011. Songs like the 2 Chainz assisted “Supafreak” and Future’s “Way Too Gone” exhibit Young is still very much in tune with the clubs. And  “Waiting” and “Trapped” show his heart hasn’t strayed from the block which turned him into the ghetto legend he is today.

The Bad: The one pitfall to TM103 happens to be the lack of that one breakaway single that his previous albums had. “Ballin’,” “I Do” and “Leave You Alone” all either have had their spins on radio or will in the coming weeks. Yet, to say there was one record from this album which firmly planted its feet in the sand as the “face” of the project (think “Put On” from The Recession or “I Luv It” from TM102) would be false.

The Lovely: Where the forecast appeared cloudy only mere months ago, Young Jeezy put to the rest the biggest misnomer of his career with the release of TM103: that he fell off. For many, he’s still the street’s spokesman for everything to drug prices to the everyday struggle those cracks in the pavement represent. It’s safe to say Young’s catalog can hold count against damn near most to ever try this rap sh*t. — J. Tinsley

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: The Roots
What: undun
Why: 4 Cigs
Label: Def Jam | Producers: ?uestlove, James Poyser, Sean C & LV, Richard Nichols, Ray Angry, Khari Mateen, Rick Friedrich, D.D. Jackson

The Good: Having always been known as consummate musicians, The Roots upped the ante with their latest album, undun. From the moment that listeners press play and hear the simulated flatline turn into a heartbeat, everything is sequenced beautifully. Lead character Redford’s world is presented in vivid detail both from the instrumentation and the vocals the emcee’s recorded over them. You can’t help but marvel at the final product including the sorrowful “Sleep” and bubbly “Lighthouse.”

The Bad: With so many voices and no real defined roles, it takes undivided attention to keep up with everything that’s going on. undun is a concept album, which allows some room for interpretation, but the simple premise of running back the events of Redford’s demise could have been a bit more elaborate. Additionally, it would have been nice to hear more of Black Thought given how focused and potent his bars were whenever he stepped up to the mic.

The Lovely: At this stage in The Roots’ career no one would have been mad if they had just mailed in another album. God knows how they pulled this off in between their permanent gig serving as Jimmy Fallon’s house band and touring. Very few people have put in more work than the legendary Roots crew and that short list doesn’t even include any side projects. Instead of idling, The Fifth Dynasty challenged themselves musically and kept things fresh. — MZ

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: Danny Brown
What: XXX
Why: 4 Cigs
Label: Fools Gold | Producers: Brandun Deshay, DJ Houseshoes, Nick Speed, Frank Dukes, Paul White, Skywlkr, Quelle, Squadda Bambino

The Good: It’s not uncommon for an artist to gain media attention and then falter under the spotlight. Only the rare few are able to shut out the glaring, critical eyes and pressure to produce in order to create work representative of what gained them acclaim in the first place. Danny is one of those few, as seen and heard on the explicit ode to his thirty years of life, XXX.

The Bad: Technically, there is no “bad” with Brown. A common detraction against XXX would be the disjointed nature of the production. But, Danny – the entertainer and person – is cut from a different cloth and never been shy about his influences originating in genres other than rap. The diversity in sound and Danny’s ability to navigate each track skillfully and make it enjoyable are what separate him from the pack.

The Lovely: — Picking the album’s best track (i.e. the feverish “Pac Blood” or rhyming exhibition of “Monopoly”) is equivalent to playing with a stacked deck. While all the tracks seem only loosely connected, most can stand on their own merit. “Radio Song” best showcases Brown’s ability to interpret any proposed theme his own. Clear Channel should meet him halfway and add this to playlists nationwide. — Gotty™

[Fools Gold | Amazon]

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Who: Kendrick Lamar
What: Section.80
Why: 4 Cigs
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment | Producers: J. Cole, Terrace Martin, THC, Willie B., Sounwave, Tommy Black, Tae Beast, Dave Free, Iman Omari, Wyldfyer

The Good: On Section.80, Kendrick Lamar switched from introspective to malicious, austere to flamboyant, and cocky to vulnerable, sometimes in the same song. “Rigamortus” is lyrical exercise after a double dose of HGH. We were reminded that emotion doesn’t have to be “emo” on “Kush & Corinithians.” He defined urgency on “HiiiPower.” He came. He saw. He conquered.

The Bad: On a few too many occasions, the production is simply crushed under the density of K. Lamar’s lyricism. On “Poe Man’s Dream (His Vice)” Lamar describes himself as a devil and an angel, and compares his eyes to the sun that warms our earth. Imagery that intense deserves something more dynamic than a simple, repetitive kick/snare/keys combo. “Blow My High” doesn’t quite work for the same reasons. Nitpicky? Not really. This was damn close to being a classic, and the little things count.

The Lovely: When the biggest complaint about an album is that it was only few missteps away from masterpiece status, you know it is a great body of work. Section.80 stands out, not because so many of his peers have the depth of a liquor store cup, but because it proves that he is talented enough to compete with anyone in the world fearless enough to pick up a microphone. They know that the beast is already out of the cage, and it won’t be long before he comes looking for their spot. — Greg Whitt

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: TiRon & Ayomari
What: A Sucker For Pumps
Why: 4.5 Cigs
Label: The Cafeteria Line | Producers: Exile, Oddisee, TiRon, Ty$, Chordz 3D, D.K., DJ Dahl, Iman Omari, Tiffany Gouche, DJ Drewbyrd, Andrew Lloyd, beatnich, J.LBS

The Good: On A Sucker for Pumps, an album that is filled with complexities and contradictions that all of us has seen at some point in life, TiRon and Ayomari don’t sugarcoat anything. Especially on songs like “All My Love” and “Her Theme Song,” which lack lame proclamations of “fuck bitches, get money” or “love at first sight.” Best of all, the project doesn’t drag out, as the duo opted for a smooth, concise approach that blasts the listener with stellar production that beckons the repeat button.

The Bad: If there even is a negative to said about A Sucker For Pumps, it is perhaps that the L.A. pair chose a very un-Hip-Hop topic to set their album around, and it may take the populus a while to warm up to it. That said, once you enter their world, there’s no leaving it without learning a thing or two.

The Lovely: Every single person has a different experience with love and romance, and as a result, despite listening to the exact same album, each listener’s perception of what they hear is strikingly unique. The whole project sounds phenomenally fluid and thus, TiRon and Ayomari have officially begun their journey on becoming experts at matters of the heart. — Raj

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: Childish Gambino
What: Camp
Why: 4 Cigs
Label: Glassnote Records | Producers: Ludwig Göransson, Childish Gambino

The Good: Childish Gambino shouldn’t make good rap music. He’s an actor with a soft voice and short shorts that references The Land Before Time and Full House. But take all the Twitter slander out of the equation and Camp is a brutally honest look at a unique American perspective: the “Oreo” that loves Hip-Hop but has white best friends and Asian girlfriends. You’re just kidding yourself if you don’t think Glover is a more than capable MC and let’s not forget the lush instrumentation that layers out the album.

The Bad: Camp does get pretty repetitive at times. There are tons of Asian chicks, perverted talk and more than enough complaining about getting called gay. Also, Gambino’s voice is an acquired taste as he could stand to get rid of that Weezy growl. It’s is just one of those albums that you’re not going to like if Gambino’s voice drives you crazy.

The Lovely: There just isn’t an album like Camp anywhere on the market right now. His take on race as heard on “Hold You Down” is more complex than most. While the audience maybe more niche than some Hip-Hop acts, he speaks directly to that crowd and tackles a bevy of social issues with reckless abandon and uncanny witty metaphors. Finally, he stands next to Drake as a dual-threat singer/rapper master songmaker. Gambino’s meolodies are remarkable throughout. — David D.

[iTunes | Amazon]

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Who: J. Cole
What: Cole World: The Sideline Story
Why: 3.5 Cigs
Label: Roc Nation/Columbia | Producers: J. Cole, No I.D., Brian Kidd, Elite, The University, L&X Music, Canei Finch, Ron Gilmore

The Good: J. Cole accomplished something that many of his contemporaries could not; he managed to break through with his debut album and come out with his integrity intact. It’s all there on Cold World: The Sideline Story: the vivid storytelling (“Sideline Story”, “Lost Ones”); the honest introspection (“Breakdown”); and top-flight emceeing (“Dollar and a Dream III”). Cole even handled the reigns behind the boards — to great effect (“Rise and Shine,” “God’s Gift”).

The Bad: Surprisingly, the weakest moments on Cole World weren’t the radio-ready singles but artlessly clubby album cuts like the disappointing Jay-Z collabo “Mr. Nice Watch” and unfocused title-track. And perhaps in an attempt to make his debut set more commercially accessible, Cole toned down the intricacy of his lyrics, minimizing one of his biggest strengths as an MC.

The Lovely: It may not have been the classic debut that Cole and his fans had hoped for, but Cole World: The Sideline Story is a solid foundation of content and style on which to build. For an album that shot to number #1 in its first week of release with close to 220,000 albums sold, Cole World solidifies Jermaine’s position as one of the more promising young artists in the game. — Samir S.

[iTunes | Amazon]

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And last but definitely not least, Saigon discusses his breakout album, The Greatest Story Never Told and its 4.5 Cig rating with TC.

TSS: Do you think with the album you did accomplished exactly what you intended it to?

Saigon: Yeah man, I was real blessed. The most gulliest thing was to show that I was already past it because when you’re dealing with these corporations and you’re giving them music that you know, and everyone around you knows is great and they don’t get it. You believe in what you’re doing and they hold you to the wayside, and you find out when it’s all said and done. So now that the album is out and people can finally see that it’s dope, it’s like I was right all along. If they would have followed my lead we would have won.

TSS: Well, here at The Smoking Section, we’ve only given out a handfuls of 4.5’s like yours, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II and Kanye’s MBDTF — out of the countless albums we’ve reviewed. What is it about 4.5 and 5 Cig-rated albums that makes them so hard to come by?

Saigon: Everybody is chasing trends and following them dollars. Everyone is doing what they think will put them in a certain place and has their priorities fucked up. Having money is like seeing a bad broad and never fucking her. Then when you fuck her, it doesn’t have the same appeal. It’s like “O.K., what else is there?” I got all the money, drove all of the cars and fucked all the groupies…what else does life have to offer?

I feel the goals that I have are bigger than money. It’s all about having the people that come up under me know the realities of the society that we live in. Society tries to trick us. Turn on the TV right now and everything is advertising. It’s all sell, sell, sell to the middle class and the rich get richer. I feel that with the economy being bad, it’s all about the rich getting richer than everybody else. It’s a capitalist society, but they won’t tell the people. When you look at Hip-Hop, [it] celebrates capitalism like crazy. We’re like cheerleaders waving our pom-poms saying “Capitalism, I’m better than you because I have money.” And that’s not what Hip-Hop is about; it’s out of whack.

TSS: Alright, so you’ve got your 4.5 from TSS, where does Saigon go from here?

Saigon: Now that I know I’m on y’alls radar, I’m getting the whole five next time [Laughs]. We take it to the streets because every movement starts with the people. I started some shit called the Good Guy Gang and it’s about catching the shit that goes by unnoticed with the future. It’s all about the kids man. We gotta set an example for the next generation. I feel like the generation before us dropped the ball man. These motherfuckers taught us how to be everything but what we were supposed to be. I remember my mother saying, “Boy, you’re not going to grow up to be like these pimps, hustlers and thugs out here on the corner.”

And if you look at Hip-Hop, that’s what we glorify. The biggest rappers in Hip-Hop are a gangbanger, a big time drug dealer and a big time pimp. You guys can put the names to the titles. Those are the rappers in Hip-Hop and they’re making all of the money and have all of the influence. Why is that? That’s backwards for the Black community. It’s like the tail wagging the dog and that’s wrong. — TC

[iTunes | Amazon]

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