Monday, 12 September 2011

5 Underrated Rappers

5. Royce Da 5'9

As one half of Bad Meets Evil, Royce is finally getting the exposure his talent deserves. This exposure, however, has not translated into solo album sales. Hell: The Sequel, the collaboration with Eminem, debuted with sales over 170,000, while Success is Certain, a solo album released a few weeks later, only managed to move 16,000.
In part, Royce only has himself to blame. Appearing on The Slim Shady LP, the rapper had a chance to ride on the wave of Eminem's stratospheric success. Instead, he chose to feud with Dr Dre and D12, causing Eminem to cut ties and the duo not to work together for nearly ten years. A descent into alcoholism followed, culminating in a year in prison for a DUI. Despite ghostwriting for many popular MC's and some strong critical acclaim for 2004's Death is Certain, Royce struggled to propel his undoubted talent into the mainstream. In 2008, Bar Exam 2 was named mixtape of the year by, featuring the MC  rhyming his way ferociously through popular instrumentals of that year. The buzz allowed him to join new group Slaughterhouse along with Joe Budden, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz. Though another poor commercial showing, the album was a critical success, attracting the attention of Shady Records. The idea of reuniting Bad Meets Evil was proposed, and the duo of Royce and Eminem released their first LP in June this year. The album looks set to deliver the rapper his first career gold plaque next week. The future looks bright for the Royce, but the new found success is pervaded with the sense this should have all happened a lot earlier for the Detroit born MC.

Further Listening:
Shake This
It's The New
Merry Go Round

4. The Clipse

After being introduced to Pharrell Williams, Virginia born brothers Pusha T and Malice released their first studio album Lord Willin'. Despite receiving lukewarm reviews, the project was a commercial success, and highlighted the gritty coke-rap the duo are famed for. Trouble was, however, brewing in the run up to their second album, Hell Hath No Fury. The LP was overlooked in a major merger between Jive and Sony, the label preferring to focus on more pop oriented acts. This forced the Clipse to request to be released from their contracts, eventually suing the label and culminating in a deal that let them release the album on their own label. The heavily delayed project was finally released in November 2006, over four years after their debut. Hell Hath No Fury received widespread critical acclaim, XXL Magazine awarding it the coveted 'XXL' rating, only the fifth album to receive the honour at that time. The group had perfected their own brand of thrilling drug dealing narratives. When paired with The Neptunes' experimental creative peak, the results were explosive. The pair were also featured on Justin Timberlake's hit single 'Like I Love You'. Things appeared to be looking up. Unfortunately, the album inexplicably suffered from low sales of 78,000 in its first week of release. Despite reaching the pinnacle of their careers, the bubble seemed to have burst for the duo. A series of mixtapes followed, ending with studio album Till The Casket Drops. This fared even worse in the sales chart, receiving average reviews. A revival, however, could be on the cards, with Pusha T featuring on Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, eventually signing onto his G.O.O.D Music label. A solo album is due to be released in the next couple of months. The Clipse are constantly underrated, a mixture of label politics and bad luck suppressing the recognition their talent deserves.

Further Listening:
Momma I'm So Sorry
What Happened to That Boy?

3. Tech N9ne

By far the strangest artist on the list, Tech N9ne has been steadily releasing albums since 1999. Though these projects have collectively sold over a million records, the average rap fan would find it difficult to name a single track by the rapper. Tech has a tongue twisting, technically complex rapping style, often delivered at high speed. The pace of his rhymes are often dramatically switched up to create a dynamic, disorientating effect. The genre of his songs cannot be defined neatly as 'hip hop', with many hardcore rock and metal elements in his music. Despite being relatively unknown to many hip hop heads, Tech N9ne has a small devoted following, mainly white, who pack out his relentlessly touring shows. They are known collectively as 'Technicians', and the rapper frequently pays tribute to them in his work. In addition, the rapper has his own label, Strange Music, with a roster featuring artists such as horrorcore pioneer Brotha Lynch Hung and West Coast rising star Jay Rock.
This year, Tech released his latest album All 6s and 7s. The LP is his most mainstream effort to date, blending Strange Music affiliates with superstars such as Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg. The project sold over 50,000 units in the first week, an astonishing achievement for an independent release. Tech seems unconcerned about alienating his core fan base, suggesting in an interview with XXL that they will understand his evolution and rise to fame. With more and more people paying attention, coupled with a devoted following, it doesn't seem as if Tech N9ne will stay underrated for too much longer.

Further Listening:
Am I A Psycho?

2. Bun B

When people asked to name who they think is the 'King of the South', a familiar list always crops up. Andre 3000, T.I and Ludacris are the most obvious candidates, with perhaps Scarface bringing up the rear. Very few people mention Bun B, though I would argue he has a credible claim.
It is a little known fact that Bun B has been a part of the rap game for almost 20 years. As part of duo UGK he released his first studio album in 1992. The group themselves can be regarded as heavily underrated, finally breaking through into the mainstream after being featured on Jay Z's 2000 hit 'Big Pimpin'. As famous as the song is, most casual fans are hard pressed when asked to name the other 2 rappers on the track. Bun released his first solo LP, Trill, in 2005. The album reached the Billboard top 10, recording modest sales and a fair reception. In 2008, his second solo album, Trill 2, became his highest chart success, reaching number 2 in the charts. The LP featured some much darker, introspective content, motivated by the death of his UGK partner in rhyme Pimp C. The best, however, was yet to come. Faded interest in the Houston hip hop scene meant there was little fanfare preceding the release of Trill OG. This all changed when The Source Magazine awarded the project '5 Mics', the first album in five years to achieve this rating. Despite the monumental praise, the album sold only 40,000 copies in the first week of release.
Bun B has maintained stunning consistency in all his work, with a long list of scene stealing guest verses with rappers based both in his native Houston and the wider hip hop world. In spite of this, his claim to be one of the strongest from the South is almost constantly overlooked. Anyone believing the stereotypes about Southern rap (clunky, mindless, lyrically inferior etc) will be made to see the error of their ways by listening to Bun B or indeed, UGK.

Further Listening:
If I Die II Night
Ridin' Slow
International Players Anthem (As half of UGK)

1. Talib Kweli

Jay Z said it best in his oft quoted line from 'Moment of Clarity': 'If skills sold/ Truth be told/ I'd probably be/ Lyrically/ Talib Kweli'. Kweli is undoubtedly one of the most gifted lyricists active in the hip hop scene today. Since his collaborative debut with Mos Def on 'Black Star', Talib has been persistently underrated, failing to garner the recognition his talent warrants. Frequently labelled as a 'conscious' rapper, his rhymes use sophisticated poetic techniques to convey deep political concepts. Despite often purposely keeping out of time with the beat, his rapping style is accessible and easy to get to grips with. Interestingly, the rapper rejects the 'conscious' tag, suggesting that hip hop is better understood as a whole culture without divisions.
In addition to solo albums, Talib has frequently released albums in conjunction with other artists. His two collaborative albums with producer Hi-Tek were met with strong critical acclaim, though relatively low sales, as was 'Black Star'. Kweli is equally adept on his own, releasing four solo projects. In my opinion, his strongest album so far is The Beautiful Struggle, marrying early Kanye West production with socio-political themes. Recent efforts have demonstrated admirable consistency, but sales have waned. Talib Kweli, then, remains something of a hidden treasure, known to those who yearn for substance heavy, 'conscious' rap, but sadly failing to make a strong impression on the mainstream.

Further Listening:
NY Weather Report
Around My Way
Memories Live

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