The past 12 months in hip-hop saw the rise of several upstarts making the leap from fridge player to breakout star, including Big Sean, J.Cole and Kendrick Lamar, among others. While those guys may have had their day on 106 & Park this year, the vets proved they still also run this rap shit. Jay-Z and Kanye West releasing music as The Throne, Rick Ross and his signing spree, and Lil Wayne and his Young Money army (better yet a navy?) ruled. Here, XXL separates the pretenders from the contenders, both old and new, and name the MVPs of 2011.—XXL Staff
Busa Buss was definitely back on his bullshit in 2011. The veteran MC wasn’t as ubiquitous as he’s been in years past, ceding the collaboration crown to Nicki Minaj. But he had a powerful impact (Boom! From the cannon) just the same. The voracious rapper contributed one of the greatest verses of his career to Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now”—he earned two Grammy nominations and scored the highest Hot 100 chart position of his career for anchoring the track—where Busta’s hundred-miles-an-hour flow perfectly punctuated the Diplo and Afrojack-produced number. Hot 97 jock Angie Martinez was among one of the many that paid homage to the former LONS member by covering his verse and uploading the YouTube clip. Coincidentally, Bus then made noise more recently when he inked a new (and recording contract with YouTube’s parent company, Google, and Cash Money Records last month. Look at him now.
Drizzy started the year off still riding high off of the success of last year’s Thank Me Later, where he delivered on the potential he showcased on his breakout mixtape, So Far Gone. His next project, an R&B mixtape, was shelved indefinitely, but, in its place he only gave fans the biggest record of the summer as a holdover, with “I’m on One.” The DJ Khaled single was powered by Drake’s shit-talking chorus and brazen rhymes, which may or may not have ruffled some (royal) feathers. By the time his sophomore set, Take Care, arrived last month, Drake was back to ruling the radio (“Headlines,” “Make Me Proud,” “The Motto,” and “Take Care” are all currently residing on the Hot 100 chart) and his first-week sales of 631,000 bested all rap challengers with the exception of only Lil Wayne’s CIV first-week haul over summer. The throne may just be his for the taking.
Eminem marshalled (get it?) in a new era of Shady Records this spring with the signings of Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf. (He also reeled in MTV’s Sway to host the morning show on his Shade 45 outlet.) As an executive, Mr. Mathers oversaw projects this year by Bad Meets Evil and Yelawolf, but perhaps his greatest contribution over the past 12 months was as the ringleader of the Shady 2.0 cypher during the 2011 BET Hip Hop Awards. Em proved his bars were still as hard as penitentiary steel and continues to be an ambassador for the culture by pushing wordplay to the masses. Lyrical miracle, spiritual criminal.
Hov spent the majority of this year ushering in the Watch the Throne project, serving as the spokesman during an intimate listening session held earlier this year at Manhattan’s Mercer Hotel. The skilled wordsmith navigated the terrain for the collaborative effort, as thematically the project, which many, including this outlet, praised as the hip-hop album of the year, challenged listens through its lyrical emphasis on upward mobility, cultural influence and financial freedoms. Without a proper single, the album debuted at No. 1 and the parties involved managed to successfully release the set without it leaking online. In addition to WTT, Jay also launched the career of his latest protege, J. Cole, whose debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, premiered at No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart. Lift off.
Yeezy finished 2010 by earning a bevy of accolades for his solo album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, earning album of the year kudos across the board, from mainstream rags to urban publications. The Chicago-bred MC, however, quickly switched gears and instead of promoting the album throughout 2011, he instead got to work with Jay-Z on the Watch the Throne project. ‘Ye oversaw the brilliant production of the LP and, on the other side of the recording booth, his biting rhymes helped to rejuvenate Jay-Z. While Mr. West has remained mute for most of the year in terms of press, he still made headlines, from his fashion choices (leather kilts!) to his business acumen (Big Sean’s breakout success). That shit cray!
Wayne’s world continued to be excellent. The Young Money shot caller could have made this list just off the strength of his executive decisions, namely Drake and Nicki Minaj running this rap shit. But, he more than held his own as the superstar’s fourth installment of Tha Carter series—despite receiving mixed reviews—had the biggest opening week in hip-hop this year, moving 964, 000 units in its first seven days of release. “6 Foot 7 Foot” proved Wayne still could rhyme with the best of them and “How to Love” crossed the YMCMB member over to a new audience. He also continued to chip away at Jay-Z’s throne, this time via “It’s Good.” Cash Money’s the company and Weezy’s still the boss.
She may receive third billing in her set, but Nicki Minaj is a bigger deal than most crews's top dog. After her debut was outsold by Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy late last year, the Boss Barb continued to work her project, Pink Friday, and eventually outpaced ‘Ye’s LP. As of press time, the album has sold 1.6 million copies. The Queens femcee supported her brothers in arms, first on tour with Lil Wayne, and then riding shotgun (and upstaging) Drizzy during his appearance on SNL; her own SNL debuted at the top of the year was also well received. The Pink Friday star ended the year with an impressive accolade: her single “Super Bass,” available on the deluxe edition of her debut, recently topped Entertainment Weekly’s list of best singles of 2011. The female Weezy, indeed.
Rozay caused a ripple this year, pulling out the Warner Bros. checkbook to get his George Steinbrenner on, inking Meek Mill and Wale (and later Stalley) to deals, while sliding Pill over on his roster, to launch Maybach Music Group. The new collective quickly put the pressure on other groups through the release of Self Made, Vol. 1. The project was announced and released shortly after, spawning the breakout hits, “I'ma Boss,” “Tupac Back” and “That Way.” The heavyweight MC prepped the release of his next solo effort, God Forgives, I Don’t via twin singles “I Love My Bitches” and “You the Boss” before a health scare slowed him down. One of the very few things that put the Boss on the bench this year. Hunngh!
Powered by the release of his video for “Yonkers” and a spirited performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Tyler, the Creator made a cannon ball-like splash this year, bringing his rowdy Odd Future stable with him. The Los Angeles rapper failed to ignite the charts with his label debut, Goblin, but he was omnipresent in 2011, thanks to an award tour (he won best new artist hardware at the MTV VMAs and the Sucker Free Awards) and his active Twitter account. Toss in his boardroom dealings (launching Odd Future Records, inking a deal with Adult Swim) and it’s clear the skateboarding rapper is coasting to the top of the game. Swag!
The Pittsburgh lyricist scored his breakout hit, “Black and Yellow,” last year, but Wiz followed up with his album, Rolling Papers, which debuted at No. 1 on the aBillboard 200 album chart, with more heat. "Roll Up" landed in the Top 15 on the Hot 100 and “No Sleep” slipped into the Top 10. Add in his touring success (by himself and with Snoop Dogg) and relationship with Amber Rose and it’s easy to see why the laid back star was a constant source of blog chatter. The Taylor Gang leader more than held his own after eschewing overtures from Rick Ross (to join MMG) and Drake (opening for him) to position himself next to those stars rather than behind them ([II]). Smoking.