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Fat Joe & Rap's Almost Album of the Year

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In between Big Boi's "Sir Luscious Leftfoot" and Kanye West's "Dark Twisted Fantasy," hip-hop's album-of-the-year discussion focused on a rotund rapper whose lyrics detailed the cocaine trade. The big fella built a career on a few dancefloor smashes and even more tracks that made stereos thump and blunts miraculously blaze. Featured on a number of DJ Khaled posse cuts, he helped cement Miami as a certified rap capital and managed to piss off 50 Cent in the process. After fighting (street) credibility issues, he released an album late this summer and everyone said that the music was good enough to forget all those anti-rap "indiscretions."

2010's favorites were a "Degrassi" dude, a reformed addict, and a guy merging ballet with rap videos, so maybe hip-hop just had a warm year. Perhaps it was easier this year to bounce back from a suspect past, even if you've named your career after a notorious, real-life gangster. But it's still impressive that the big guy bounced back, and to think, all it took was a gem of an album. The big guy that everyone loved this summer was Rick Ross -- HuffPost even wondered if he was living Biggie's dream -- but maybe it should've been Fat Joe.

The Bronx emcee who got his start with the DITC crew and later signed another rotund rapper in Big Pun--touchstone references for hip-hop purists -- didn't finish the last decade with a lot of critical (or even vocal) support. At least for anything that wasn't "Lean Back." Perhaps Fat Joe's pop tracks with Ashanti aren't the cardinal sin of Rick Ross' previous employment as a correctional officer, but it was still enough to write off Fat Joe. He only claimed to know the rapper Noriega, certainly not "the real Noriega." Fat Joe's "Make It Rain" may have been a banger-of-the-year nominee in 2006, but can anyone even remember one of Joey Crack's lines? The ape-shit insane verses from R. Kelly and Lil Wayne-in-Terminator-mode were the driving forces behind the song's "3 million iTunes sold."

That download figure is from the the DJ Premier-produced "I'm Gone," one of many stand-out tracks from Fat Joe's latest release, "The Darkside, Vol. 1." Anchored by a heavy snare and familiar piano tickle, "I'm Gone" plays tribute to Gang Starr's Guru and allows Fat Joe to recap his own career. It's a wistful song and one that's surprisingly indicative of "The Darkside" as a whole. Fat Joe hasn't morphed into a different emcee -- his typical content certainly hasn't strayed from the norm -- but he seems to believe it a whole lot more.

Just behind raps about money and crack, shout-outs to Big Pun might be Fat Joe's next favorite topic. He's rarely missed a break-in-the-beat opportunity to name-check Pun, a man born Christopher Rios and deceased at nearly 800 pounds, who sprinkled some classic hip-hop verses and a hard life lived somewhere in the middle. When Lil Wayne (in hook mode) assists on "Heavenly Father", Fat Joe's sentiments about his fallen friend seem to surpass the peace sign in front of Pun's mural that his shout-outs usually recall. It's there, without anger or threat in his voice, that he essentially blames the same woman Pun reportedly beat up for the man's death. "Cheated with his brother/God damn, this bitch ill/Probably the reason my nigga left the wheel," Joe raps about the relationship and motorized scooter that Pun died in.

"The Darkside" certainly isn't solely a soul-cleansing venture -- there's too much dirt on the earth for that. Some of the album's best tracks aren't about warmly remembering things, they're about coldly taking them. "Kilo" may jack the exact children's show sample and blatant theme from Ghostface's song of the same name, but producer DJ Infamous ably swaps out the anxiety and hypertension of the original for a shot-gun-in-the-jeep anthem. That an inspired Cam'ron and quintessentially snarling Clipse are added to the mix allows Fat Joe's track to stand on its own, knee-deep in crack. But even when Joey Crack finds a gutter to stand in, he somehow still turns it into a party. On "Ha Ha (Slow Down)", Young Jeezy may rap about leaving "this bitch a murder scene" while Fat Joe declares himself "uglier than Precious," but they still sound triumphant over Soul II Soul's best and Belly-beginning acappella. There are also tracks called "If It Ain't About Money" and "Money Over Bitches." And they're both really good.

Last year's Old Guy Who Brought It Back was unequivocally Raekwon. His "Cuban Lynx" sequel felt like it was unearthed from a 1995 vault, alongside Jennifer Aniston's haircut and a gallon of economic prosperity. The new old guy's album certainly has plenty of that mid-'90s NYC swagger to it, but doesn't feel like another token from the box of archived goodies -- thanks in large part to the production and Joey Crack's refusal to stay irrelevant. It may not be enough to oust Big Boi's virtuoso verses on the funktastic "Sir Lucsious Left Foot" or Kanye West's art-baiting effort from hip-hop's conversation about the year's best album, but "Tha Darkside, Vol. 1" is certainly better than the crap, err, I mean crack, that Rick Ross dished out.