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Best Hip-Hop of 2007 Changes the Game

This wasn't the strongest year for hip-hop, but 2007 still featured some excellent releases that pushed the genre's boundaries, as well as a few records that reveled, old-school style, in great beats and rhymes. These are the albums I enjoyed the most this year.

1. Kala

M.I.A. took a huge leap forward on her second album, combining hip-hop, club music and occasional rock references with a dizzying variety of other styles from around the world. The sound evokes a lively street corner in a major international city, with her deadpan vocals cutting through the hustle and bustle and lyrics ranging from the playful to the provocative. Pop music that's genuinely cutting-edge, even revolutionary. (Listen: "Paper Planes")

2. 8 Diagrams

The first album in six years from the legendary Staten Island crew is one of the year's boldest and most adventurous hip-hop records. While all of the group's rappers are in fine form (and Method Man is much more than that), the RZA steals the show with some of his most cinematic production. His trippy, almost psychedelic soundscapes are as intricately crafted as they are borderline bizarre. (Listen: "The Heart Gently Weeps")

3. Graduation

While he'll never be known as one of the world's great rappers, Kanye West continues to shine as a producer. On his third album, he masterfully blends his trademark warm soul grooves with European electro-house, techno synth textures and an even broader range of cleverly used samples, ranging from Laura Nyro and Mountain to Can and Daft Punk. (Listen: "Stronger") WE WERE UNABLE TO GET PERMISSION FROM THE LABEL TO STREAM THIS SONG

4. American Gangster

Taking inspiration from the film of the same name, Jay-Z gets back to what he does best, though his drug-dealing tales are now more reflective than they were in his youth. Lyrically, he's in peak form, dispensing a variety of clever, tongue-twisting rhymes with peerless authority and an untouchable flow. He also takes time to answer rap's critics with a savvy defense of artistic expression. (Listen: "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)") WE WERE UNABLE TO GET PERMISSION FROM THE LABEL TO STREAM THIS SONG

5. Space Music

This young Seattle trio gets back to basics on its high-energy debut of straight-up hip-hop, with one of Seattle's great beatmasters (Bean One) providing hard-hitting production for brash, street-smart battle raps. The Seattle hip-hop scene was hot in 2007, with excellent albums from Blue Scholars, Grayskul, Cancer Rising, the Physics and Gabriel Teodros. (Listen: "Clap Clap")

6. Big Doe Rehab

The latest from the Wu-Tang rapper isn't as strong as last year's classic album Fishscale (or Supreme Clientele, for that matter), but it's still loaded with soul-flavored hip-hop bangers that place Ghostface's engrossing street stories and high-anxiety rapping front-and-center. (Listen: "We Celebrate") WE WERE UNABLE TO GET PERMISSION FROM THE LABEL TO STREAM THIS SONG

7. Desire

Eight years after his landmark solo debut Internal Affairs, one of hip-hop's great lyricists makes up for the long wait with a challenging, idiosyncratic album that showcases complex, creative rhymes ranging from the personal to the political. His retooled sound incorporates a variety of soul, funk and gospel influences. (Listen: "Body Baby" ) WE WERE UNABLE TO GET PERMISSION FROM THE LABEL TO STREAM THIS SONG

8. Bayani

The Seattle hip-hop duo follows its excellent self-titled debut and the equally strong Long March EP with a stunning album that sets the bar ever higher for Northwest hip-hop. Sabzi's production is still warm and soulful, but it's more confident, varied and distinctive. Geologic continues to grow as a rapper, combining his smooth, laid-back flow with smart, plain-spoken rhymes rooted in being a self-professed ordinary guy. His blue-collar perspective shines a bright spotlight on race and class issues, while also providing stirring inspiration for the city and country to do better. (Listen: "Back Home)

9. Gutterfly

These veterans of Portland's hip-hop scene offer up an ambitious concept album that operates as a soundtrack to a non-existent blaxploitation film. Gutterfly is highlighted by smart, socially conscious rhymes, funky beats and adventurous production steeped in '70s funk and soul. (Listen: "Gutterfly")

10. Remixes Vol. II

The second volume of hip-hop remixes from this New York indie duo shows that Ratatat can play with the big boys, revamping a great selection of bad-ass hip-hop bangers from the likes of T.I., Young Buck and The Notorious B.I.G. with a variety of imaginative beats and textures. (Listen: Memphis Bleek's "Alright")

Copyright 2007 KEXP

Don Yates