'Shine' by John Legend
"Shine" was tacked onto John Legend's collaborative album with the Roots, Wake Up! The song was recorded for the end credits to the documentary Waiting for Superman, which spotlights America's public school crisis. Water the seeds and they'll grow, ya know?
Captions by Alvin Blanco
'Who's That? Brooown' by Das Racist
Tongue-in-cheek rappers Das Racist (The Root surveyed them in "The Rise of the Black Hipster" last year) dial back on the jokes, sort of, but keep with the obscure pop-culture references for their version of "All Brown Everything."
'Window Seat' by Erykah Badu
This song's video portrays Badu walking through Dealey Plaza in Dallas and shedding all her attire before being shot by an unseen assassin, an allusion to the murder of John F. Kennedy. The explicit video was supposed to promote artistic expression. Hey, art is supposed to be open to interpretation.
'Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour)' by Jay-Z, Rihanna, Bono and the Edge
Rihanna, Bono, the Edge and Jay-Z put their music where their mouth is, creating "Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour)" in the wake of Haiti's devastating earthquake. All proceeds from the track — which was part of the Hope for Haiti Now campaign and album — were passed on to several charities aiding the impoverished country.
'Who Will Survive in America?' by Kanye West featuring Gil Scott-Heron
For every sentimental "Hey Mama," Kanye West drops verses bragging about his high-taste lifestyle and desire for white chicks (see "Monster"). But on "Who Will Survive in America?" Kanye lets the legendary Gil Scott-Heron (OK, it's a sample) drop his poem "Comment #1," which is partly about student-activist groups handling their business in Harlem.
'Dear God 2.0' by the Roots
Who says hip-hop can't be pious? The legendary Roots crew created their own version of indie rockers Monsters of Folk's "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)" that finds lead rapper Black Thought waxing poetic on life's ills (acid rain, dirty cops, poverty). No lighthearted fare in this letter.
'My Generation' by Nas and Damian Marley, featuring Lil Wayne and Joss Stone
Lil Wayne joins Nasty Nas and Bob Marley's youngest son as they kick the truth to young black youths on this track from their collaborative album, Distant Relatives. In addition to the save-the-children theme, the meeting of reggae and hip-hop makes for a progressive family reunion.
'Strange Planet' by Homeboy Sandman
Indie rapper Homeboy Sandman's album The Good Sun was one of the year's sleepers. The lyrically acrobatic MC drops rhymes that reference how we treat (and mistreat) the earth and ourselves so effortlessly, any card-carrying tree hugger would be proud.
'Life Change' by Clipse
Clipse is known for lyrics steeped in cocaine references, but even drug kingpins can be God-fearing. Malice, one-half of the duo, will soon release a memoir, Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind and Naked, about being saved, so consider this tune an early sound track.
'The Ghetto' by Freddie Gibbs
Gary, Ind.'s Freddie Gibbs delivers rap sermons about his destitute hometown better than Michael Jackson ever could. On "The Ghetto," the gangsta rap revivalist lets listeners know that it isn't sweet in the streets, while slickly rapping about the how and why. Hip-hop can still be the hood CNN when it wants to, after all.