Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2019 incredible. In this edition, Key photographer and writer Matt Shaver takes a look at the records that pushed hip-hop forward in 2019.

The tail end of the year is notable for back-to-back cultural and religious celebrations.  In 2019, WXPN joyfully added another one that we can all be thankful for: Culture Cypher Radio.  Hosted by John Morrison, the program is a celebration of all things hip-hop, from the music that made it, to the music that inspired it.  Hip-hop is middle aged now, and while it doesn’t always handle this gracefully, it is also not in the dire spot that some pundits would have you believe.  Cries of “hip-hop is dead” and “Why can’t rappers rap anymore” litter the blogospheres and Twitterverses, but the facts are a bit more complex, and highlight that the genre is alive and well, no matter what your tastes are.

As we careen helplessly towards the end-of-the-year festivities and begin to prepare for the official change over to 2020 and a new decade, here are five albums that celebrate hip-hop, the culture, what it has been, and what it can be.

Apollo Brown – Sincerely, Detroit

There are two distinct characteristics that are infused in to Apollo Browns style that make him the personification of what most people mean when they say “hip-hop.”  First, he purposely uses dated production methods – using older gear to produce his beats.  Second, he insists on being in the room with the rappers with which he collaborates, working with them side-by-side to craft the sonic palette and to kickstart creative juices.  Sincerely, Detroit is a celebration of this work ethic on a massive scale – 56 emcees spread across 20 tracks infused with classic samples, head bobbing beats, and the sound of needles on vinyl pumping through its veins.  The cast of characters is pure Detroit royalty, from heavy hitters like Royce Da 5’9 to underground legends such as One Be Lo, the whole show is a love note to the city and the genre.

Gang Starr – One Of the Best Yet

Posthumous albums (especially those where the deceased has no insight over the process) are a delicate balancing act.  Lean too far in any direction and there’s a risk of cheapening the legacy.  Thankfully, in Gang Starr’s case, DJ Premier is a part of the legacy, and knows how to handle it with the care and respect it deserves.  Cultivating from a collection of recordings by the late Guru (Keith Elam), he carefully paints a tapestry of classic hip-hop assisted by a wonderful cast of supporting players.  I can’t believe in 2019 that I get to say one of the year’s best guest spots is by Jeru The Damaja.  Old and new friends stop by, but the real star of the show is DJ Premier’s beats (some of his best work since Moment Of Truth) providing a vehicle to deliver some more of Gurus silky smooth raps.  It’s sad to know that this could be the end of it, but joyous because we get to hear from a great talent one more time.

Rapsody – Eve

Marlanna Evans is one of the finest contemporary MCs on the planet.  Her discography is flawless, and Eve continues her upward trajectory.  If it ever felt like she was holding back, there are no doubts that she has now fired every creative neuron in her brain.  Naming each song after personal heroes, Rapsody isn’t afraid to confront both social and personal ills, external forces, and internal demons.  Each song isn’t strictly about its titular character, but uses them to as a launching point to skillfully address the problems that continue to plague us today.  She expertly surrounds herself with friends who can elevate that message (Queen Latifah rapping again in 2019!!!), and crashes it down to earth for all of us to enjoy.  Keep year ears and mind open, what Rapsody is saying is important.

Add-2 – Jim Crow The Musical

Hip-hop may be an international phenomenon now, but it’s inextricably rooted in Black culture.  As many forces try to erase this to “sanitize” it for mass consumption, an equal number of emcees stand up to remind us all of where it all comes from.  Add-2 has built a narrative album centered around the Black experiences in America – sometimes that’s uncomfortable, angry, joyful, and hope runs through no matter what the tone is.  Self-produced by Add-2, the songs would be right at home in the turn of the century Rawkus era.  The narrative shaped is a sharp criticism of contemporary and historical America, it’s not trying to deepen the divide, but help provide a path to healing by forcing us to face the world we’ve built.

Little Brother – May The Lord Watch

I don’t think anybody expected to be writing about this album in 2019, but Phonte and Big Pooh have always been full of surprises.  Their first album in 10 years is a celebration/condemnation of hip-hop’s middle age status.  Too old to go clubbing?  LB feels you.  Gotta work a job driving Uber to make ends meet?  LB feels you.  Trying to strike a balance between living healthy and living happy as you get older?  LB feels you. Two distinct styles of the very same coin – Phonte raps are silky smooth and rapid fire, while Big Pooh prefers a more rough and rugged style, they are backed by a fantastic set of guest producers (notable is the lack of original member and beat maker 9th Wonder.  He worked on the above Rapsody album) who all understand what hip-hop is, and how great Little Brother is at delivering it’s message with love and humor.  Anyone who considers themselves a true Hip-Hop head is sure to enjoy this album.