I still remember downloading Drake’s So Far Gone project on DatPiff. I was wearing a T-shirt that had Barack Obama’s face photoshopped onto Dwight Howard’s body doing his signature superman dunk from the ‘08 NBA Slam Dunk Contest (yes, that shirt actually exists). As the moody 40 instrumental on “Lust For Life” played through my beat-up Skullcandy headphones and took me into the mind of the Canadian actor-turned-rapper, I had a feeling 2009 would be a special year for hip-hop. A new crop of artists was ready to take what their predecessors had bestowed upon them, leaving their mark on the game.
“I got 99 problems and they all bitches.” That is how Kid Cudi opened his 2009 debut, Man on The Moon: The End Of Day. As a ninth-grader, that bar didn‘t change my life—even though at the time I would have told you it did—but it did signal a 180-degree shift from Hov’s original lyric. While JAY-Z’s generation of emcee was about confidence and traditional masculinity, Cudi stood for a crop of creatives who seemed much more comfortable expressing vulnerability and insecurity through their lyrics.
In Jay’s era, to admit you had a problem with one woman, let alone 99 of them, would have been unheard of. On “Girls, Girls, Girls,” Hov had success with every type of woman, from flight attendants to narcoleptics. But as a high-schooler in the middle of a small city in Canada, who was struggling to get a text back, Cudi‘s admission made me feel like there was someone out there making music directly for me.
2009 also saw the rise of the “Middle Child” generation—rappers who grew up listening to Jay, Nas, Biggie, Tupac, Eminem, etc. but who lived a different lifestyle than their heroes. They could take inspiration from the greats but still insert their unique perspectives. The most significant difference between the two generations was the Internet. While Kanye had to wait patiently for Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam to give him a shot as a rapper, J. Cole recorded mixtapes and released them directly to the people, for free.
It felt like anything was possible in ‘09. You could blow up thanks to a blog post or a magazine cover. You could discover your new favorite artist through a feature and then dive into their mixtape catalog on DatPiff. Rap fans felt like they were in on these little secrets the mainstream media had yet to discover. Maybe I was naïve, but in 2009, it felt like artist growth was organic and fan-driven.
Despite all the glory that artists on the come up enjoyed in 2009, the year also marked a musical decline for some of the most prominent rappers of the previous generation. From 50’s Before I Self Destruct to Eminem’s Relapse, we saw favorites losing touch with their audiences. Eminem himself admitted his ’09 album release was “Ehh.” 50 didn’t make another rap album for six years (and most fans willingly choose to forget Animal Ambition). Although Lil Wayne delivered his classic No Ceilings tape to close out the year, he also announced he would take a step back from rap to focus on making a rock album. Oops.
Even hip-hop’s most prominent groups took steps back. Killa Cam announced in an interview that he was done rhyming with Juelz Santana and Jim Jones; Playaz Circle released their final group album, Flight 360: The Takeoff, allowing 2 Chainz to reinvent himself as a solo act; Clipse released their last album as a group, Til the Casket Drops, to close out 2009, which paved the way for Pusha-T, the solo artist, to spit all the amazing luxury drug raps that have soundtracked the past nine years and 11 months.
Speaking of Push, we can’t mention 2009 without talking about his G.O.O.D. Music boss. Kanye West didn’t release an album, but his name was inescapable in headlines. Remember the MTV VMAs? Looking back, I’m less intrigued by the actual moment and more interested in what that moment did for music. After the award show, Ye retreated from the public eye and went down to Hawaii to work on what would become his greatest body of musical work to date, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Hearing the first piano key from “Runaway” a year later marked the start of a new Ye era, and if not for 2009, we may have never received it.
As for the man who put Kanye on, Hov dropped The Blueprint 3. While the album spawned some of the biggest hits of his career and included my personal favorite Kanye verse of all time on “Run This Town,” fans and critics alike were let down with the album as a whole. The Pitchfork review was especially harsh:
“After all, The Blueprint 3 is so certainly Jay-Z’s weakest solo album, you’ll be tempted to wonder if Kingdom Come was somehow underrated.”
Love or hate BP3, Jay understood a new era in hip-hop was coming, and he used the album to metaphorically pass the baton. Hov worked with Kid Cudi (“Already Home”), Drake (“Off That”), and on “A Star Is Born,” he shined a spotlight directly on his latest Roc Nation signing, Fayetteville, North Carolina native, J. Cole.
The events that took place and the music that was released are manifesting themselves a decade later. Ten years after releasing his standout mixtape, J. Cole experienced the most successful year of his career. Kanye is recovering from his most damaging public outburst since the Taylor Swiftgate, and trying to prove once again that music trumps everything else (pun intended). Tyler, The Creator released what I’m calling his best album, IGOR, ten years after his breakout tape, Bastard.
I’m not the only fan of 2009, either. This past February, Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y released an album paying homage to the magic of ‘09 on the same Friday that Drake re-released So Far Gone on streaming services. And a decade on, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Freddie Gibbs, and long-time DJBooth favorite, XV, who this past June dropped his first project in over five years, are all still releasing new material.
2009 was a magical time. As much as I would love to go back ten years, even just for a moment—to bottle the magic I felt that year and take it with me today, I believe another 2009 is just around the corner. Maybe I won’t be lucky enough to experience the magic twice, but some kid out there will, and I’m excited for them.