There's this funny idea in the music industry — or at least in the hip-hop slice of that glorious enterprise — that it's uncool to release an album in January, February, or March. Artists and label dicks just love talking about how they're "waiting for the second quarter to drop." As if they hold some sort of deep marketing knowledge that consumers don't understand. It's a tradition that should surely die in the digital age, but that for some reason won't fade — like Diddy. With that said, it's all good for indie rappers whose imprints are smart enough to commandeer the wide-open winter soundscape.
While Duck Down artists cut some serious tracks in 2010, owners Dru Ha and Buckshot spent much of the year celebrating the label's 15th anniversary with scores of shows and promising announcements. At the memorable South by Southwest throwdown in March, they introduced Queens laureate PHAROAHE MONCH as the newest member of the team, ensuring the dominance of hip-hop's most enduring, increasingly diverse roster. Though Monch's 2007 major-label effort, Desire, was commendable, it was nonetheless a bit glossier than Organized Konfusion geeks would have liked. No doubt on the upcoming W.A.R. (Duck Down) he won't be reaching for a radio single.
On January 25, Duck Down drops 9th WONDER AND BUCKSHOT's third collaboration, The Solution. After a rocky start, these two have found a proper formula, and their hat-trick encore will most likely be the best of the bunch. Chase that with the PETE ROCK AND SMIF-N-WESSUN triple-team Monumental on February 8 — a project that needs no description whatsoever. And be sure to check for New Zealand rap star DAVID DALLAS, who just moved to Brooklyn to record his Duck Down debut. The acquisition stunned some, but that's only because they haven't seen Dallas crush a show yet. The kid's got chops.
Also coming out of New York is Free Agent (E1) from JOELL ORTIZon February 22. Like him or not, Ortiz is one of hip-hop's sharpest writers, and maybe now that he's done getting screwed by big labels, he can enjoy a prosperous indie career. On January 11 Ortiz also drops the second SLAUGHTERHOUSE spread with Joe Budden, Royce da 5'9", and Crooked I. Even if it's just another sloppily cobbled, battle-rap bonanza, Slaughterhouse: The EP (E1) will at least remind heads that even in a class of this caliber, Ortiz steals nearly every track.
It's time to start loving TALIB KWELI again. Another major-imprint ex-pat, the rhyming half of Reflection Eternal proved with 2010's Revolutions Per Minute that, unlike his sometime-accomplice Mos Def, he's still capable of making songs that fans want to hear. It took a few years and some awful albums for him to trudge through his sappy, slow-rap phase, but Kweli has returned inspired. I've heard some of it already, and on January 25 his self-released Gutter Rainbows will show that when he's on, there's no one better.
Finally, there are at least two, way-underground discs that are essential listening this season. Grayskul fans should look for an ONRY OZZBORN solo joint on January 25 — Fake Four has yet to release anything mediocre, and Hold On for Dear Life won't likely be an exception. Onry is a word wiz who rides dark beats through daunting ghettoscapes, so be sure to follow the instructions noted in the title. On that note, also peep Save Yourself (Rapmechanics), from Chicago MC VERBAL KENT on January 11. In addition to trusty beats and killer cameos, this disc wins on the merit of politicized but non-preachy rhymes from all participating parties. As one of the few noteworthy indie-rap releases dropping this quarter, hopefully it will get some of the attention it deserves.