Since many recent Next Big Things in rap have proven disappointing -- see Wale, Asher Roth and B.o.B. -- it might be time to consider the possibility that hip-hop tastemakers don't know what to look for in the first place.
The rap consensus is so taken for granted that fans are as conservative as they are impatient, and critics tend to eschew the eccentricities that made their favorite rappers great in the first place. Example: overwhelming praise of Freddie Gibbs as some kind of savior -- for his ability to stay perfectly "on the beat" while chronicling his days pimping out women -- goes against everything this critic stands for.
So here's a guide to some albums you may have unfairly dismissed while clinging desperately to your copies of Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt.
Sacred cow: Last year's overwhelmingly praised "return to form" for Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. 2
Why it's overrated: It's unfair to surmise that anything released with the "Cuban Linx" tag attached would've won praise from frustrated old school heads who can't relate to the rise of Lil Wayne or Gucci Mane. But the possibilities of crack-rap have probably been exhausted by the time Ghostface Killah is rapping about receiving oral while holding a Pyrex measuring cup.
Suggested alternative: Last year's underappreciated Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City actually took Ghostface's miraculous eye for detail to surprisingly sophisticated places -- like offering a pregnant woman some shrimp after she politely turns him down, or shooting up insulin so he can get an erection.
Sacred cow: Nas' Illmatic
Why it's overrated: It's the ultimate credibility record: a half-hour of all-killer-no-filler, with no skits and oceans of fortune-cookie-sized street cred in lines like "Sleep is the cousin of death." It also takes no risks. The hooks are neither very fun nor poignant, the beats politely bubble rather than explode or jar, and the monotone coolness seals out any kind of genuine human thought. Its originality was in its posturing: the thinking-man's gangsta. Unassailable. Boring.
Suggested alternative: Almost anything Nas released in the 2000s. Make no mistake, the man's a great rapper, but he has so much further to go than the debut that's trapped him. "Made You Look," "Hero" and "Bridging the Gap" were some of the best singles of the 2000s, and they sound nothing alike. Nas is also secretly the world's best novelty rapper: he's done a blues duet with his dad, a murder tale he spits in reverse, and a gumshoe noir where he seeks out hip-hop's killer with the inflection of a Dick Tracy villain. His flips of The Sopranos theme, Iron Butterfly and Tears for Fears were more inspired than any of Diddy's remakes. And his politics have more balls than Talib Kweli, who's never taken black actors on UPN to task or portrayed the ghetto with images of women dyeing their hair with lemonade mix.
Tomorrow in Part II: Why Wu-Tang's vaunted debut and Eminem's alleged comeback don't live up to the hype.