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The Root of the Matter : Philadelphia hip-hop duo the Roots talk race and justice on 2008's 'Rising Down.'

Not Dead Yet

The year's best hip-hop albums

By Gabe Meline

There's a running theory among my friends that just like the Olympics, the election and the leap year, hip-hop's quality control comes and goes in a four-year cycle. The years 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 each brought a rush of classic albums, and despite repeated announcements to the contrary, hip-hop is far from dead in 2008; as in quadracycles of years past, it's been a banner year. Here are the top albums worth buying for your head-nodding loved ones this holiday season.

For just about any hip-hop fan, The Roots' Rising Down stands near the top in 2008. While the Roots' live shows have devolved into sousaphone clowning and tedious 15-minute Bob Dylan covers, Rising Down is deep, deliberative and satisfying. Darkly themed around the 19th-century minstrel show ("Acting like a monkey's the only way to sell tickets," quips Dice Raw on "I Will Not Apologize"), the album serves as a companion soundtrack to Obama's speech on race in Philadelphia--coincidentally, the Roots' hometown. Every track is a keeper: "Criminal" lays out the obstacles to going clean with prison-friendly skin, and on "75 Bars," Black Thought slays like only a 20-year veteran of the mic can.

If you've got a Bay Area-focused hip-hop fan, look no further than Grip Grand, whose "96 Bars" ups the ante on Brokelore, one of this year's most overlooked gems. With hardly any industry push behind it, Brokelore is destined to be a lost classic, a perfectly constructed album both thoughtful and obsessive. Yes, the title is a reference to being destitute; Grip Grand resides in an imaginary place called "Brokeland," and in the song "Poppin' Pockets," he cleverly separates himself from the bling crowd. Whether calling out critics in "Love/Drama," pushing a loping groove on "A Penny," or dissecting success in "Hip-Hop Classic," Grip Grand is both humble and humorous, qualities as rare in hip-hop as his old soul samples.

For the NPR-listening hip-hop fan, there's no other choice than The Dusty Foot Philosopher, a stellar debut album by K'naan. Growing up in war-torn Somalia, K'naan learned English from Eric B. and Rakim and Nas albums, and eventually made this autobiographical record. With a sample of sloshing water which turns into the opening beat, Dusty Foot is one highlight after another: "In the Beginning" is an anthemic call to freedom; "I Was Stabbed by Satan" a sing-along rumination on fate; "Hoobale" an eerie warning against terror. Musically, the album is hip-hop's Graceland, featuring traditional African instrumentation behind K'naan's nasal, personality-riddled voice. Political, poetic and charged with empowerment, The Dusty Foot Philosopher is the best record you never heard all year.

For the old school hip-hop fan, it's hard to go wrong with Q-Tip's The Renaissance. Known as the main point man for A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip brings back excellent samples and a less halting delivery than on his misunderstood previous effort, 1999's Violator. That The Renaissance is almost entirely self-produced (excepting J. Dilla's "Move") makes it all the more an achievement for Q-Tip; old Tribe Called Quest fans aching for more flavor will especially bug out halfway through, when the absolute sickest bass line in the world--on "Manwomanboogie"--kicks in. More than a return to form, The Renaissance is an adrenaline-rush package from hip-hop's massively original voice.

For the profanity-deprived PG-13 hip-hop fan, go with People Under the Stairs' Fun DMC, which is kid-friendly without being ridiculously corny. In usual P.U.T.S. fashion, guns and hoes step aside for an album's worth of diggin' through crates, hangin' with the bros and throwin' another burger on the grill. No one on the West Coast can match the dusty-groove production of Double K and Thes One: 1970s samples reign supreme, especially in "The Ultimate 144," which comprehensively references every single classic hip-hop break in history in just three and a half minutes. Kids will dig the included bonus of a comic book, and they'll find kindred chicken-scratches in the on-point telephone-pole cover art.

For those still confused, go with the safety zone and pick up a copy of Lil' Wayne's Tha Carter III, the biggest-selling hip-hop record this year. In a year of mainstream blahs from Rick Ross, T.I. and The Game, this is the joint to cop, if only for "A Milli," the year's most left-field hit whose game-changing production and beautifully bizarre presentation are impossible to deny. Chances are they've already got a 5,765MB BitTorrent of everything the Weez has ever done, but c'mon, give 'em a tactile memento. If nothing else, it'll last until 2012.

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