2000s Underground Rap

The idea of battling for stylistic supremacy was so core to hip-hop that it would spread to envelop the entire perception of the art form itself. And if that struggle dominated the conversation in the ’90s — the divide between commercial appeal and artistic integrity — the way things fell in the following decade seemed to cement that conflict as irreconcilable. When 2000s heads held forth about what constituted “real hip-hop” — usually on heated messageboard conversations — they sometimes made allowances for peak mogul-era Jay-Z, more often stumped for his hyperlyrical rival Nas, but inevitably gravitated to places further underground. There, they wouldn’t have to contend with younger-skewing and more club-friendly phenomena like crunk, snap, “ringtone rap,” or whatever revolving-villain mainstream trend was irritating them the most at any given moment — instead, they could tie themselves to both local scenes and national trends that continued to focus on updated refinements of traditional golden era-steeped boom-bap — at least, when they weren’t in the midst of creating something too unprecedentedly strange to either be mainstream or a throwback. Things got further complicated when “indie rap” started to become even more of an aesthetic signifier than a commercial one — that it meant retro-’88 revivalists and verbal-hemorrhage eccentrics more than it did someone selling gangsta rap CDs out of his trunk.

Meanwhile, the same critical tastemakers who tended to champion indie esoterica in the rock world appeared to reject it in hip-hop, or at least belittle it for not appealing to some vaguely defined and culturally condescending notion of “the streets.” Of all the albums on this list, only the 2004 MF DOOM/Madlib teamup Madvillainy got more votes in its release year’s Pazz & Jop critics poll (875 points from 86 voters, #11) than 50 Cent’s gangsta-platinum Get Rich or Die Tryin’ did in 2003 (560/57; #15) or Clipse’s coke-appeal Hell Hath No Fury in ’06 (673/63; #7). Most of them didn’t rank at all. It was like the skepticism of the ’90s aimed at emerging individual bohemian groups like De La Soul or PM Dawn had calcified into an enforcement of cultural strata: who are these weirdos and what makes them think anyone wants to listen to their flowery bullshit? 

This was the kind of context where an early-career Kanye West could call himself “first n—-a with a Benz and a backpack” and make it sound like an unfathomable crossover — or where Nas could release an album titled Hip-Hop Is Dead and get a lot of people to agree with him. This status anxiety permeated underground hip-hop to such an unavoidable level that it became a primary knock against it — that the avant-garde resenting the mainstream was an act of snobbery, an unforgivable sin during the first big critical reckoning with “poptimism” in the early ’00s. It didn’t help that these nuance-free examinations of the form were abetted by a fractured internet and the rapidity with which it turned strident new ideas into received wisdom, and then into cliche. Jeremiads against “guns, bitches, and bling” became so memetic that even British novelty act Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip invoked it with all the vigor of an applause line in their sledgehammer-trenchant 2007 hit “Thou Shalt Always Kill.” 

And when Kanye’s artsy Graduation beat 50 Cent’s street-rap Curtis on the charts in 2007, indie rap’s rep in the wider music community wasn’t even lifted by that rising tide — there were too many unresolved arguments, too many struggling labels, and too many post-Napster / pre-streaming online business models that couldn’t sustain themselves. A few labels were hitting a stride that would carry them for decades — Stones Throw and Rhymesayers persist to this day — but there were just as many signs that things were getting precarious. Fondle ‘Em closed down in November 2001, even as MF DOOM’s Operation: Doomsday was well on its way to entering the classic hip-hop canon. El-P’s Definitive Jux, which released a few must-hear future classics every year starting in 2001, would define the decade but shuttered two months into the ’10s; Bay Area mainstay Quannum-nee-Solesides soldiered on for a couple more years and dropped some low-key gems but never quite recaptured its circa-’99 rush of renewed promise and mostly exists as a reissue label these days. And those were just the “pure” indies; the labels and artists that got swept up into the orbit of MCA when they went all-in on alt-rap early in the decade — from individual acts like Blackalicious to entire empire-potential brands like Rawkus — were left high and dry by mid-decade when the label collapsed and was absorbed into Geffen in ’03. If this list feels like it’s front-loaded towards the first half of the decade, well, that’s just how things felt as the ground started to fall out from beneath the record business’s feet.

But let’s not get cynical here: if it might’ve seemed like a fraught time for underground hip-hop, it was also an incredibly important one, where a lack of mainstream consensus and an internet-amplified stratification of scenes and subgenres just meant that a lot of artists freed themselves even further from the compromises needed for a mass audience. This is the kind of context where you could get as esoteric as the roster of an experimental-minded label like Anticon (who are unrepresented here largely because they’re basically the indie rap of indie rap, a class of their own worthy of a reassessment in itself) or as traditional as Jurassic 5 (who got tagged as retro-old-school cornballs but made the major-label leap to Interscope regardless). And now that the two-decades-old identity crises and battles for the soul of Real Hip-Hop feel fairly irrelevant if still not entirely resolved today, we can hear these albums for what they were: diamonds made under pressure, a wildly creative phase for the music that sacrificed the possibility of fame and fortune just to open the door for a new generation. But that’s how it should work: the longer time goes on, the further above ground these once-underground albums actually sound.

Nate Patrin

The Unseen

The Unseen cover

Some vocalists might hear themselves on a recording and find themselves dissatisfied with the sound of their own voice. Few, if any, would make the same decision about it that Madlib did: take a bunch of mushrooms and record an album where he plays himself as a chipmunk-voiced, brick-wielding cartoon, a sort of Krazy Kat via “Funky Worm” Mothershipper Junie Morrison. As a “bad character” foil to his natural semi-deadpan baritone, Lord Quas followed in the steps of (and liberally sampled from) the cast of flawed-but-human archetypes in the early ’70s stage works of Melvin Van Peebles, three incarnations of beat poetry mingling together into hip-hop as a holistic exploration of the unknown and unheard — and inspiring listeners to ponder the question unseen by whom?

The Cold Vein

Cannibal Ox
The Cold Vein cover

Colorfully fantastical as a Jack Kirby two-page spread yet as to-the-core unflinching in the face of a hostile city as any finger-staining pulp novel, Cannibal Ox’s first album is a mood-altering substance in itself. Vordul Mega and Vast Aire enlisted Company Flow’s El-P to complete a portrait of NYC teetering between the waning crack years and its gentrified oligarch-ruled unreality, and all three of their voices — Vordul’s shellshocked, booming monotone, Vast’s taunting punchline mockery, and El’s cyberpunk-takes-the-J-train beats — embody a hip-hop homeland under siege from all sides.

Both Sides of The Brain

Del the Funky Homosapien
Both Sides of The Brain cover

If Deltron 3030 was Del the Funky Homosapien’s ambitious star-studded conceptual hip-hop space opera, he was a lot more down-to-earth on the solo-billed album he released a month earlier — but that doesn’t necessarily make Both Sides of the Brain ordinary. Instead, it’s a sort of inversion, where the MC is so willing to stake his rep on his phrase-turning, punchline delivery, and sheer force of unapologetic geek-out idiosyncrasy that he’ll just fill a record with tracks about whatthefuckever and still immolate the competition. It’s like Biz Markie’s everyman goofiness recalibrated for the battle-rap set: want to hear him nerd out over his video game collection 20 years before Twitch streaming? Enjoy him and Khaos Unique on “Proto Culture” giving props to a canon that stretches from Colecovision deep cuts to Dreamcast imports. Interested in hearing his advice for people with hygiene problems? “If You Must” extends bad-smell punchlines from the dozens to the hundreds and caps it off with a so-stupid-it’s-glorious hook (“You gotta wash your ass, if you must/You gotta wash your hair, if you must/You gotta brush your teeth, if you must/Or else you’ll be funk-kay“). Want a DWI PSA? “Skull and Crossbones” has him relish the grim details of car wrecks in ways that feel like Richard Pryor reciting “Warm Leatherette” to a high school Driver’s Ed class. It’s not all funny, though: his sense of craft dominates, borne out in the way his flow dips and soars and attacks the beat — most of which he also made, with a production palette that favors a kind of quick-footed funk that’s heavy on grimy keyboards. And that goes hand in hand with his tendency to hold nothing back in terms of calling out anyone lacking in either lyrical skills (which, compared to the elaborate internal rhymes in “Signature Slogans” and “Style Police,” might as well be everybody else) or basic social propriety (“Pet Peeves / FWA (Fair Weather Associates),” a multi-part suite that decimates an entire rogue’s gallery worth of gossips, haters, and wannabes).

Fantastic Damage

Fantastic Damage cover

Company Flow made some of the most confrontational hip-hop to emerge out of late ’90s NYC, so when the man responsible for half their apocalyptic lyrics and all their lo-fi/hi-stress production went out on his own, it was every bit a reinforcement of a signature style as it was a solo-debut breakthrough. Yet Fantastic Damage isn’t merely a lateral move from Funcrusher Plus — it’s an amplification of everything that makes El-P sound like an epiphany-haunted, hyperverbal doomsayer on the mic and one of hip-hop’s greatest analog-filth industrialists on the decks. The way those two tendencies collide in his work builds off this stressed, info-overload panic that sees the dystopia coming before everyone else does; listeners felt it “captured” the embattled, anxious combo of we’re fucked/what next in the immediate wake of 9/11 even though the bulk of the album was completed while the towers still stood. But the things that really haunt El are far older — think his brief but blunt retelling of a cop’s killing of a homeless man, there amidst his memories of being a hip-hop-infatuated ’85 4th-grader on “Squeegee Man Shooting” — and the way they’re exorcised is, especially from a decades-later perspective, like watching the future catch up to predictions from Philip K. Dick novels from the ’60s. So when he envisions the mass production of familial abuse (“Stepfather Factory”) or torches the remnants of whatever monopolistic culture it was that Uncle Walt was trying to build (“Dead Disnee”) or just flat-out asks “why the things we find beautiful undermine power?” (“Deep Space 9mm”), it’s with the conviction of someone buzzing off the realization that his grievances are a lot more real and widespread than he’d been told they were. And while he’s not quick to claim any easy solutions, he at least knows how to give you enough catharsis to help you think straight again.

Seven's Travels

Seven's Travels cover

For a good portion of the early ’00s, Slug was pigeonholed as “emo rap” — this was back when it was an epithet directed at a niche underground subgenre and not, say, Drake — thanks to his major lyrical fixations on relationship drama and self-effacing frustration. But Atmosphere’s 2003 album Seven’s Travels feels like something of a pivot point. After the unremitting bitterness of God Loves Ugly, he’s in the process of working out a lot of his feelings, even as (or maybe because) his audience was starting to grow from college-kid insularity to the kind of punk-conversant indie rap group that could play Warped Tour three years running. If it wasn’t clear enough from the outset — second track “Trying to Find a Balance” features Slug muttering “Atmosphere finally made a good record/Yeah right, that shit almost sounds convincing,” then spends the rest of the album actually showing off that conviction — his travelogue gets hectic the deeper it goes. It can get pretty raw, from the way “The Keys To Life Vs. 15 Minutes Of Fame” pits his successful-artist gratitude against his public-figure anxiety to the way “Suicidegirls” turns a furious girlfriend’s voicemail (“OK, and #2, being fucked up is not an excuse to piss in the goddamn fishtank”) as a way to confront how others see his hedonistic recklessness. But he has some powerful reckonings with something resembling maturity when that mood recedes just enough, taking opportunities to reflect on the difficult conflict resolutions of young love (“Lift Her Pull Her”) or find the comedic feebleness in a bad hookup (“Shoes”) or realize that the world being far bigger than he ever assumed also means there’s more room for people who understand him (“In My Continental”). And he’s got solid backup: eternal beatmaking partner Ant provides yet another slate of tracks that put him in the Greatest Producer Everyone Forgets About conversation, with the fuzzbox doom-rock hyperventilation of “Cats Van Bags” and the live-band-aided tipsy stagger of “Gotta Lotta Walls” repping the best weirdo outliers on an album that also serves up a good amount of high-caliber classic soul breaks. It all closes on a finale that still feels like the best way into his world — the two-fer of “Always Coming Back Home To You” and hidden bonus track “Say Shh,” where he looks at his Minneapolis community as a reflection of who he is and decides he wants to rep it with a genuinely humane kindness.

Temporary Forever

Temporary Forever cover

Regan Farquhar reps L.A., especially in its Project Blowed-honed sense of limitless hip-hop exploration. But as his sophomore breakthrough Temporary Forever reveals on its intro track “New Aquarium,” it’s also the L.A. of Repo Man and its disillusioned-punk cosmic-goofball logic — trying to make sense out of an insane world through its mass-culture debris and the way it rubs off on people who can’t or don’t want to opt in. And since Busdriver’s approach to sorting through it all is to embody the most hyperbolic outer reaches of both lyrical absurdity and vocal theatrics, his songs sometimes feel like baffling confrontations. There’s this nasal, almost operatic sing-song enunciation to his voice that might seem tonally offputting at first, but is delivered with such an unpredictable fluidity and fearless ease and beat-jousting precision that it makes Eminem sound like John McCrea from Cake. Which wouldn’t mean much if Busdriver wasn’t also funny as shit, thriving off this observant sardonicism that piles on the overloaded verbiage but reveals precision scalpel-twists once you figure out how to parse them. (The fast-forward flute-looping “Imaginary Places,” which served as a popular entry point for his music thanks to its Tony Hawk’s Underground video game soundtrack placement, is the best way in to an aesthetic that refuses to recognize any boundary between the profound and the silly.) Even his heavy-topic stuff has its share of laugh lines — think “Gun Control,” an examination of the racist dynamics in firearm violence and 2nd Amendment politics while dropping the line “Look on your face look just like gorilla sphincter/When the NRA gave you the middle finger,” or the breaking of Serious Artist Kayfabe on “Somethingness” that prods at the potential of his words’ pure meaninglessness. (And that’s before Rheteric Ramirez shows up with a deliberate, wildly out of pocket assault on every level of discourse about race.) That means his more frivolous ideas, like the drive-thru prank of “Stylin’ Under Pressure” and the needling of indie-game haters on “Post Apocalyptic Rap Blues,” feel even more ridiculous — but it’s the kind of ridiculous that relies on smarts, skills, and a fantastic job of picking out the kind of deliberately disorienting beats he can just mold his voice around until there’s no surfaces left without his fingerprints all over them.

First Born

Eyedea & Abilities
First Born cover

Michael Larsen shocked the hip-hop world as a teenager from St. Paul, Minnesota who dominated the late ’90s/Y2K-era battle-rap circuit before he could legally drink — but he’d wind up having to shock it again when it came time to cut his debut album alongside producer/turntablist DJ Abilities. And the thing that made First Born so striking was that it showed Eyedea as someone impossibly wise beyond his years, as though he’d gotten all the punchline-driven shit-talk out of his system and was ready to examine the deeper workings of the conscious mind. First Born is one of those indie rap records that draws from a core of bohemianism, anti-authoritarian philosophy, and a sort of Zen-koan approach to rewiring your own perspective, an approach that puts him just as close to the poets of the Beat Generation as it did the combatants of Scribble Jam. And while there’s a timbre to his voice that makes his moments of acrobatic flow and motormouthed intensity feel like interesting means in themselves — opener “One” even takes a first-verse gambit on burying his voice in the drum-heavy mix to the precipice of incoherence — it’s because he knows how much power his words actually have. And while he’s a hell of a force in the classic rapper-shows-he’s-good-at-rapping material — check out the destroy-all-comers agenda of “Blindly Firing,” which opens on the hilariously matter-of-fact couplet “What’s your definition of dope?/’Cause I think our opinions differ” — it’s the heavy stuff he’ll be remembered for. If there’s a definitive centerpiece, it’s the two-part “The Dive,” an incredible depiction of teen-years existentialism and mental health that makes your average emo anthem seem like a “what can ya do” shrug in comparison. And it hits home hard when he stops to acknowledge that one of the things that keeps him together is the sense of purpose and identity that his art gives him, as relayed in cuts like “Music Music” and “Color My World Mine.” Abilities’ production leans contemplative, frequently sinking into the more atonal or distorted side of underground hip-hop; even familiar components like the jazz piano loop of “Void (Internal Theory)” seems more intent on building unresolved tension than keeping a system bumping. (Then he reminds you he can do unholy things on the ones and twos on a scratch-routine jam like “Well Being”.) First Born is a powerful dispatch from someone who had a deeper perspective at 19 than most people have at twice that age, ensuring a crucial legacy for someone who tragically never made it as long in life as the PTSD-nursing 40-something Nam vet he finds an emotional connection to on “A Murder of Memories” — there’s a lot of pain on this album, and it’s rarely an easy listen, but always an emotionally devastating one.

Below the Heavens

Blu, Exile
Below the Heavens cover

This L.A. duo’s first collaboration earned its cult classic status from the get-go, and not just because it felt invigorating at a moment when conscious-minded indie rap seemed like it was at a low ebb. Below the Heavens was a startling revelation because it came from a largely unknown everyman-documentarian on the mic, and he clicked with his partner in clean-yet-heavy neosoul/boom-bap production in ways that sounded naturalistic enough that their teamup seemed preordained. But while this album’s myth might’ve grown thanks to the team’s ensuing five-year absence — during which Blu careened between labels and experimental concepts in search of his ideal self — it sounds even more resonant as the start of a rap career that’s still capable of capturing this album’s young-and-hungry energy when the time calls for it. Blu has rarely sounded as breezily confident as he does throughout Below the Heavens, and he radiates an easygoing charm whether he’s planning to do end-runs around getting his back against the wall (“The Narrow Path” and “Dancing in the Rain” respectively detail the pressurized stress and the joyful inspiration in his thought process) or celebrating his artistic triumph like he’s already got his award shelf laid out (“So(ul) Amazin’ (Steel Blazin’)” and “Simply Amazin’” as the classic underground-grind anthems to creative success). But you can also hear him start down the path that took him through “I’m not a kid anymore” early maturity (the formative connections of “In Remembrance”) and the class-struggle quarter-life crises that come with it (Aloe Blac collab “Good Life”) — all while tracing it back to an upbringing that, in the traumatic “Cold Hearted” and the resilient “I Am,” was too embattled to register as mere innocent-kid nostalgia. And Exile’s beats appeal on the same fundamental level of reverent warmth you can hear from beatmakers like Hi-Tek and 9th Wonder, which helps drive home how often Blu sounds more willing to join his listeners in relatable commiseration than confront them with haughty preachiness.

Champion Sound

J Dilla, Madlib
Champion Sound cover

After reaching out to each other with mutual beat-geek enthusiasm and a series of by-mail mixtape trades, Madlib and J Dilla formed the kind of musical partnership that would change both artists in significant ways. Champion Sound is a sort of producer-MC handshake where each artist raps over the other’s beats — Dilla going rugged over Madlib’s subterranean haze and Madlib playing it cool amid Dilla’s loping sub-bass. But it’s also a turning point for both producers: after a brief early ’00s phase of avoiding traditional hip-hop for multitracked one-man-band jazz, Madlib sounds re-energized and down for whatever in Dilla’s presence, while Dilla slips free of the MCA handcuffs  to workshop and refine the more experimental, indie-appeal tendencies he’d started showing on Common’s Electric Circus.

Beauty and the Beat

Beauty and the Beat cover

Edan spent the early stages of his career transmuting Class of ’88 boom-bappery into time-unstuck Möbius strip collage, with works like his 2000 Primitive Plus using sample-flip iconoclasm to treat the past, present, and future of music as compatible aesthetics instead of disparate moments on a timeline. And then, on Beauty and the Beat, he used that perspective for a big retro-tweaking concept: if cratediggers built a major sonic foundation on recordings of the past, why not lean into that and make a deliberately revisionist take on psychedelic rock using sample-based postmodernism? This is how you get an album that’s simultaneously deeply indebted to the old traditions of hip-hop culture, especially lyrically (and in a boisterous, from-the-chest delivery that feels distinctly informed by the way people rapped in 1983), while sounding like a deliberate subversion of its place in music in relation to more traditional rock forms. The weirdness feels starkest in tracks like “Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme” and his two-man mic-trade sessions with Insight (“The Science of the Two” and “Funky Voltron”), which pay both stylistic and namedropping homage to old-school hip-hop pioneers over beats that sound far closer to the soundtrack to an acid-fueled Happening than anything that ever rocked a Bronx block party. But it clicks because the sense of rhythmic drive cuts through all the freaky-deaky ornamentation, even when Edan’s emphatic voice has to pick up the slack left by beats where the drums are pared back or reduced to blurry smears (“Smile”; “Promised Land”). And when the tracks are built around the more gnarled and intense corners of psych and early metal like the Dagha-featuring band name game “Rock and Roll” or the Floydian b-boy freakout bolstering Edan’s and Percee P’s kaleidoscopic-internal-rhyme verses on “Torture Chamber,” it can damn near turn your ears inside out.


MF DOOM, Madlib
Madvillainy cover

If you can think of two pop-cult encyclopedias with wide-angle perspectives who were better suited to collaborate than early ’00s MF DOOM and Madlib, tell them to get in the studio and record something already. In the meantime, keep sinking your head inside this masterpiece of can hip-hop do this? conceptualism and lyrics that leave no proverb unmutated. Funny and deep in ways that conflate the two, which makes it a more potent weed substitute than delta 8.

Attack of the Attacking Things

Jean Grae
Attack of the Attacking Things cover

Brooklyn veteran artist Jean Grae likes to call herself a polymath, and in the twenty-plus years since she dropped her first solo album she’s explored every venture from a DIY web sitcom (“Life With Jeannie”) to a series of advice-column records (That’s Not How You Do That) to an actual secular religious organization (The Church of the Infinite You). If that feels like a lot of different angles for a hip-hop artist to take on, keep in mind that on her debut Attack of the Attacking Things, Jean was already covering pretty much every facet a hip-hop artist could embody, and absolutely killed it. The intentional comedic vagueness of the title is a deliberate feint; the vivid detail of Jean’s verses draws out the specificity in relatable familiarity until her punchlines pop and her stories haunt. And that gives her the ability to be equally compelling as both a comedic shit-talker cutting down doubters, and a vulnerable, heart-on-sleeve agonist in confessional mode. There are some real stunning moments in that latter territory, the kinds of deep stares into the void you didn’t often get from early ’00s MCs in either the underground or the mainstream — the blend of depressed anguish and determined resolve to make her parents proud on “Live 4 U,” “Lovesong” and its breathless relaying of a horribly draining doomed relationship, the incredible rawness of “God’s Gift” and its ruthless dissection of the misogynist ego from the perspective of a loathsome player. But “Get It” proves that she can hype up an upbeat cookout anthem, “Block Party” that she can agitate for liberation, and “Thank Ya” that she can roast anyone within a five-mile radius.

The Listening

Little Brother
The Listening cover

At the early crest of Southern rap’s still-present dominance of hip-hop culture, North Carolina’s Little Brother were frequently regarded with curiosity or suspicion for seeming like stylistic outliers. Their music wasn’t pocketed away in the more esoteric or artsy reaches of indie rap, but Phonte and Big Pooh were too heavy on a more traditional lyrical focus to comfortably fit in the strip clubs that broke Dirty South hits, and in the midst of peak crunk their producer 9th Wonder was in the process of establishing a Dilla/Hi-Tek-caliber soul-chopping portfolio that recalled the up-North golden era likes of DJ Premier and Pete Rock. But just like “alternative” used to be called “college rock,” this was indie rap as HBCU hip-hop, performed by a group of learning-tree scholars of the old school turned future-fixated idea men. Fortunately, it’d take some advanced level of reactionary anti-intellectualism to cast Little Brother as highfalutin granola-munching scolds: this is keep-it-true hip-hop that centers energetic joy over player-hater resentment, even when they’re reducing fickle hangers-on to the status of unwanted dickriders (“Groupie Pt. 2”) or getting sour over potential girlfriends who reject them because they don’t have big-money record deals (“Whatever You Say”) or getting in their feelings over the idea that a lot of people don’t care enough about lyricism (“The Listening”). (If that approach to interpersonal drama and artistic integrity reads a little standoffish, it never gets antisocial, and the crowd-rocking magnanimity of “Love Joint Revisited” and “Nobody But You”’s romantic reconciliation reveals that they containe multitudes.) The important thing is that they’re heads first, humanists a close second, and cynics barely at all, a trait that was there from the moment they set their lineup: “Speed,” the first song they ever recorded as a group, treats hustle-grind capital as something to be endured rather than celebrated, but also tempers it with a clear perspective on what’s actually worth grinding for in the first place. Their perception would grow deeper over time — controversial followup The Minstrel Show saw their graduation to the majors fueled by an uncompromising rejection of what they saw as a debased version of Black pop culture, much to the chagrin of BET and The Source — but it’s still true that The Listening was the kind of “underground” rap record that reached far beyond any regional or subcultural boundaries that anyone tried to limit it to.

From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots

From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots cover

It’s easy enough to trace the impact of avant-garde-leaning groups to a future that has a lot more patience for their abrasions now, but it’s still hard to consider Dälek’s second album as a product of any time further back than a few months. Maybe that’s because From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots was noisy enough to thoroughly scare away circa-2002 heads who might’ve thought El-P was “kinda weird,” while still being visionary enough to anticipate a still-existing hunger for hip-hop that scraped noise’s outer limits. The drone-tone atmospherics and feedback-damaged shoegaze density that Still and Oktopus soak in is bracing, the kind of stuff that groups like Death Grips and clipping. would elaborate on a decade later. (If you ever wondered if there’s a threshold beyond “noise rap” for anyone to go, the 12-minute breath-snatching squall of “Black Smoke Rises” drags you past it by the ankle.) And the precedents don’t end there: MC Dälek carries himself like a supremely confident yet inwardly pessimistic apocalypse philosopher, one whose accusing eye roves so far along the evidence of cruelty in W-and-beyond-era American culture — the reality-warping intersection of race and religion (“Spiritual Healing”), the emotional toll of living in a state of anti-progress (“Trampled Brethren”), the way hip-hop’s transformation from guerrilla art to grindset commerce can leave a void in the heart (“From Mole Hills”)  — that it eventually turns back inward inside his own brain. And he finds that existence wanting, too, with the visceral alienation and fatalist self-hatred in “Forever Close My Eyes” almost too raw to even withstand. But his messaging doesn’t sacrifice point-blank urgency no matter how elaborate it gets; consider how he treats the relationship between aesthetic rebellion and societal revolution in “Hold Tight” and “Classical Homicide” as an inseparable partnership.

Labor Days

Aesop Rock
Labor Days cover

It’s not that Aesop Rock is wordy, or that the words he strings together can take a bit of untangling before you can parse them on your own terms — it’s that his abstraction is there to add different angles and new conclusions to the existential questions we all wind up asking at some point. Since Aes is still in that early 20s figuring-shit-out phase in life, Labor Days is heavy with that feeling of youthful ambivalence where one grows to realize their expectations didn’t prepare them for jack shit. So while he seizes every opportunity to turn familiar observations (“I am into hip-hop”) into the stuff of rewind-demanding poetry (from “Labor”: “Tally up the alley cat aggression in this Doug E. Fresh infested/Mess of bassline lust and automatic b-boy Krylon can combust circuit”), all that impressionistic stuff still leaves an impression. Some of that’s down to how both Aes and longtime joined-at-the-hip producer Blockhead already knew how make banging beats out of the intersection of sorrow and tension. That atmosphere is key to emphasizing the emotions that Aes’s lyrical density might otherwise obscure. His disillusionment with the daily grind (the bouncy and sardonically twinkly “9-5’ers Anthem”) feels like the logical endpoint of his disillusionment with trying to connect with the wider world (the woozy, proggy stress-beat of “Flashflood”). His efforts at trying to figure out his own take on human grace in the oft-quoted jazz-folk of “Daylight” are complicated by his knowledge of how much actual work that is in itself (embodied in the world-weary ache of “Battery”). And he’s only at his most unguarded about his idealistic hopes when he channels them through the life story of a woman who lived and died by them (“No Regrets”). But at least “Save Yourself” reveals that he knows enough at this early stage in his career to declare, despite the laments of his underground cohort, that hip-hop itself doesn’t need rescuing as badly as the people who believe in it do.