2011 was a historic year for hip hop, taking a giant leap forward as an influential global culture and voice of the voiceless. From the revolutions in Egypt to the Occupy movement, from the growth of the independent artists to the upstarts flooding the internet with new sounds, the music took on a new life with the evolution of the age.
Common Breath’s list of the top 10 hip hop songs of 2011 takes into consideration the entire spectrum of hip hop culture, from the commerical growth of independent artists to the global media’s recognition that the music has become an integral part of the lives of the young. Despite the obvious commercial digressions the year suffered through, hip hop continues to elevate, and these tracks were pillars of the soundtrack to a pivotal year in history.
#1 – Omar Offendum, The Narcicyst, Freeway, Amir Sulaiman and Ayah “#Jan25″
The spread of the revolution throughout the world was perhaps the single greatest achievement in 2011, with people connecting themselves to the greater web of humanity by demanding freedom for their brothers and sisters. “#Jan25″, named for the trending topic on Twitter, was a reflection of this movement, with the featured emcees mobilizing their words towards unity against a seemingly unconquorable demon. No longer ignored, no longer laughed at, the people are in the midst of a fight that began on January 25.
#2 – Lowkey “Soundtrack To The Struggle”
2011 was Lowkey’s year to shine. With the much anticipated release of his album Soundtrack To The Struggle, he gained international attention as a voice of the people, celebrated across the world for his powerful words and unrelenting dedication to truth. His video for the album’s title track was released in December, hailed by many of his followers as the best song on the album. A poet for humanity, Lowkey’s music is properly tuned to the spirit of the age.
#3 – Tech N9ne “He’s A Mental Giant”
Tech N9ne was a giant in 2011, after years of succeeding independently with a dedicated underground fanbase, “He’s A Mental Giant” from his album All 6′s and 7′s forced the mainstream to pay attention. Or perhaps it was the empire he has built for himself in the heartland of the United States. Without compromising his approach, he enjoyed both critical and commercial success, cementing his position as the number one independent hip hop artist in the world.
#4 – Arabian Knightz with Shadia Mansour and Fredwreck “Not Your Prisoner”
After the country of Egypt erupted in revolution on January 25th, the oppressive government shut down access to the internet, citing the social networks as the organizing force of the people. When the connection returned, Arabian Knightz quickly upload this song to YouTube, prompting the mainstream media around the world to recognize it as an anthem to the revolution. The global impact of Egypt’s revolution changed the world in 2011, and “Not Your Prisoner” was a pivotal example of hip hop’s impact on the world.
#5 – Black Milk and Danny Brown “Black and Brown”
Though the song first dropped in 2010 on Black Milk’s critically acclaimed Album Of The Year, the track was re-released as a single on the Black And Brown EP, a complete project based on audience demand for further collaborations between these two leading Detroit hip hop artists. While Black Milk was busy defining the soulful electro hip hop sound in post-Dilla-troit, Danny Brown emerged as the hottest rap star in the world, based on his raw talent, a unique delivery and his dedication to the craft.
#6 – Immortal Technique “Toast To The Dead”
Immortal Technique was hip hop’s voice of Occupy Wall Street, New York City’s revolutionary lyricist who for years has been dropping knowledge on the government criminality and financial industry gangsterism that has consumed the nation from within. “Toast To The Dead”, produced by the late J Dilla, was a soulful moment from his album The Martyr, released via the internet for free to make sure it was accessible to the people. A dedication to the people who have lost their lives in struggle, Immortal Technique’s words will live strong and survive the tests of time.
#7 – KRS-One “We Must Become One”
KRS-One is a master teacher of hip hop culture, and when considering the most impactful songs representing the culture in 2011, the message within “We Must Become One” stands as a true testament to how far hip hop has developed. He exudes the true school aesthetic, focusing his words and energy on concepts such as constructing economic plans, international networking and education for the youth. After twenty albums, KRS-One still has his eyes on the prize, developing hip hop as a global culture for the enlightenment of the people.
#8 – Kendrick Lamar “ADHD”
A rising star in hip hop, Kendrick Lamar emerged in 2011 as a voice of the disaffected youth, spirited and soulful yet pained by the trappings of a landscape devoid of substance and a peer group bordering on fatalistic. “ADHD”, named after the generational stigma designed to classify young minds as problematic, is a trip into the world of the next generation’s struggle to find meaning in the world. Bodies numb from the cocktail of drugs and alcohol, minds diluted within the internet information age, Kendrick Lamar offers this wakeup call to the world.
#9 – Stic Man of dead prez “Back On My Regiment (Swole Like Tookie)”
Mind, body and soul, these are the three fundamentals points of development for every human on this planet, long acknowledged by the revolutionary group dead prez. “Back On My Regiment” is a motivational opus, reminding everyone of the benefits of physical fitness and the need for strong health during turbulent times. The real strength of the song is its quality, powerful drums matched by heavy bass for a street sound crafted to resonate on the hardest of blocks. The track is from Stic Man’s solo album The Workout, produced to support his initiative RBG Fit Club.
#10 – Elzhi with Will Sessions “The World Is Yours/Represent Intro”
Detroit is known for breeding emcees with superior lyrical skills, and Elzhi has long been recognized as one of the premier artists flipping lines in the Motown tradition. His Elmatic EP was a celebrated underground release in 2011, reinterpreting the classic Nas Illmatic album, but perhaps the most important aspect of the album was his collaboration with the Will Sessions band. Their funk background adds a depth to the production that lends soul to the lyrical style, culminating in a beautiful and atmospheric instrumental transition to the track that follows.