The Best, New Essential Hip-Hop, by Matt Conaway

7L & ESOTERIC – "DC2: Bars Of Death"

After spending the better part of 2003 involved in a bitter feud (sometimes of the physical variety) with fellow underground clique The Weathermen, Boston's 7L & Esoteric return with "DC2: Bars Of Death." Judging by the title alone, it's obvious that the feud has 7L & Eso feeling a bit on edge, and that's conveyed in the music as well, including the ridiculously hardcore "Way of The Gun," which finds the duo teaming up with Apathy, Celph Titled and Lord Digga, and the group's latest verbal rebuttal to The Weathermen, "Mercy Killing." While Esoteric gets more personal over 7L's rolling piano loops on "Rise of The Rebel," "DC2: Bars Of Death" is confrontational fight music that, for the mentally unstable (you know who you are), is a potential lawsuit waiting to happen. (Babygrande Records)

KRS-ONE – "Keep Right"
Knowledge still reigns supreme! Released via the Grit Records imprint (which KRS just happens to co-own), KRS-ONE returns with his 13th LP. Sparked by the well-received lead single, "Phucked," "Keep Right "also finds KRS revisiting his obvious chemistry with Mad Lion on the reggae-splashed "The I." With the current state of affairs throughout the world, KRS could not have picked a more appropriate time to remix his classic "Illegal Business," and while "diamonds and oil" may have replaced "ganja and cocaine" on the government's export list, there's no disputing that KRS continues to live up to his mantra of "The Teacher." While "Keep Right" lacks the production that marked his past efforts, KRS remains one of hip-hop's most recognizable voices, both politically and musically. (Grit Records)

THE ROOTS – "The Tipping Point"
With the release of their sixth LP, "The Tipping Point, "The Roots pay homage to themselves and the band's 10-year anni-versary. The title refers to the point where most artists fall off and or blatantly jump the shark, which is somewhat of an ironic twist considering this LP is The Roots' most commercially accessible LP to date. And while ?uestlove continues his search for the perfect beat, he doesn't even produce the LP's best track—that credit goes to Scott Storch for the spacey lead single "Don't Say Nothing." And who says the group is anti-sampling? ?uest lifts Sly & The Family Stone's "Everybody Is A Star" for the amazing "Star/Pointro," and "Harlem Hendo" on "Stay Cool." Yet the LP's highlight, "Boom," finds Black Thought doing deadpan impersonations of Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, which, if you're a fan of either old-school legend, you need to hear. Though a guest spot from Dave Chappelle is bound to have the group's detractors warming up the "sell-out" chants, they're the same people who've been drinking Hatorade since the group actually started selling records in mass quantities. Drink up, haters, drink up! (Geffen Records)

PRINCE PO – "The Slickness"
Once upon a time, Organized Konfusion was one of the most creative groups around. But after three LPs, the duo became burnt out due to the laborious recording sessions it took to create their brand of "thinking man's hip-hop" and eventually broke up. One of the group's former members, Pharoahe Monch, has gone on to solo stardom and recently inked a new deal with Eminem's Shady Records imprint. The other member, Prince Po, has become the member who most mainstream music fans have forgotten. Luckily for Po, there's still a contingent of OK fans out there as he begins his own solo career with "The Slickness." While his futile attempt at crossover success, "Bump Bump" featuring Raekwon, falls flat, Po takes on NYC Mayor Bloomberg with "It's Going Down" and "Grown Ass Man." Po also aligns himself with a slew of underground super-producers, such as J-Zone, Madlib and Danger Mouse, whose recent "Grey Album" mash-up, in which he mixed Jay-Z's "The Black Album" with The Beatles' "White Album, "just happened to garnish major press from just about every mainstream magazine you can think of (including a glowing nod from the jigga man himself). (Lex Records)

LEAK BROS – "Waterworld"
The collaborative union of Cage and former Artifact member Tame One (Leak Bros) generates an LP strictly dedicated to their drug of choice—angel dust. But what else did you really expect? Cage has always been on some next #### (surely Tipper Gore is not a fan, and this will not make her a convert), but "Waterworld" is truly the icing on his demented cake. The disappointing aspect is that Tame One was supposed to have this monkey off his back, but you know what they say—rehab is for quitters! Look, smoking dust was hip five years ago, and Cage and Tame need to join the rest of the multitudes who have moved on. Though the concept is different, I'm guessing Cage and Tame's version of "Waterworld" took about 235 million fewer dollars to make than Kevin Costner's bomb—but with the same never-ending supply of dipped cigarettes the jet-skiing bad guys in the flick somehow managed to unearth without ever finding dry land. (Eastern Conference Records)


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