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Regional beats, comeback kids, and songs about partying defined the hip-hop nation in 2006.

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According to The New York Times, 2006 was the year rap went regional.

There's plenty of evidence to support this claim: Ever since the Dirty South shook off the bicoastal stranglehold of the mid-'90s, hip-hop has developed burgeoning scenes in no less than a dozen major markets.

These towns have their own sounds, their own slang, and even their own subgenres. A staple of late-night TV humor used to be exploiting a senior citizen's unfamiliarity with hip-hop; now you have to explain to Grandma the differences between the laid-back groove of "snap music" and old-fashioned, high-energy crunk. And the punch line is this: Her grandkids probably can't explain 'em either.

Then along came Jibbs' "Chain Hang Low," jingling like the last ice-cream truck of the long, hot summer. With it, many of those regional divisions seemed to fade, and listeners were reminded of hip-hop's power to unify. The melody, drawn from the traditional folk tune "Turkey in the Straw," appealed to Grandma, while the beat repped the stuttering sound of St. Louis without turning off fans from other locales.

But there was much more to hip-hop in 2006 than just the music's splintering into scores of subgenres. Let's spotlight a few of the year's other notable trends:

The comeback: Jay-Z's return snagged most of the press, but it wasn't the most notable. A couple of veterans who'd been on cruise control for a while finally awoke, and these sleeping giants turned in two of the better albums of '06. Snoop Dogg's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment worked because Tha Doggfather finally applied himself, while on Fishscale, Ghostface finally found some topics and tracks that matched the intensity of his high-pitched, borderline-crazy voice, emerging with a coked-up, freaked-out winner. And Virginia's long-absent Clipse emerged from purgatory by year's end with the sometimes stunning Hell Hath No Fury.

The comeback moment of the year, however, involved not only Ghost, but his Wu-Tang brethren. On February 7, the Clan's post-ODB era began in New Haven, Connecticut. The reunited group, plus super-sub Cappadonna, was maddeningly erratic, and the club was so oversold that a dropped Zippo would have spelled another Great White disaster. Yet somehow, the RZA managed to assemble all his bandmates in the same room and even got the lackadaisical Method Man to act like he cared.

The mixtape: From its humble origins as a street-corner hustle, the mixtape has become an even more vital part of the hip-hop artist's arsenal. Filled with rare tracks, remixes, and exclusives, mixtapes don't just build anticipation for an upcoming album anymore; they deserve consideration on their own merits. And no one puts them together like Cleveland's Commissioner, Mick Boogie, who oversaw some of 2006's best and brightest mixtapes.

Although he did yeoman work all year, and teamed up with titans like Jay-Z and Eminem, the best of Boogie came on some of his lower-profile projects. More Money More Murda, his Mobb Deep mix, shredded the album it was supposed to help promote, featuring some live Roots collabs and remixes filled with New York grit.

For the record, the Commish would like to point out his own notable '06 trend: "The return of good albums. Hip-hop has been lacking in album quality for the last two years," he says, "but this fall has been tremendous. Great full-lengths from Jay-Z, Nas, Clipse, OutKast, Game, Snoop, and UGK are closing out the year with a bang. Who says albums are dead?"

The Brits: In fairness, 2006 can't be counted as the sort of watershed 12 months we witnessed two years ago, when Dizzee Rascal and the Streets and their grimey countrymen planted the Union Jack in hip-hop's bloated American carcass, with no intention of ceding territory again. And they haven't; while Mike Skinner was only at three-quarter strength on the Streets' The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, his Cockney wisecracks were still more fun than three-quarters of his Yank counterparts. Anyone Skinner failed to offend, the wee, witty Lady Sovereign -- Def Jam's nod to the British Invasion -- took care of. Meanwhile, one of the most slept-on releases of the year came from U.K. vets New Flesh; Universally Dirty mashed up dancehall, grime, and even soca to give British hip-hop yet another brand-new beat.

Deep thoughts and partying (and sometimes, deep thoughts about partying): There's room for both viewpoints now in hip-hop's increasingly diverse underground, which is good news indeed. Sure, critical darlings Spank Rock made Too $hort safe for all the eggheads who thought they were too $mart for him the first time around. But even so, no album of 2006 was more fun than the high-concept/low-art Yoyoyoyoyo.

Also fun in their own thoughtful ways were albums from the Bay Area's Ise Lyfe, whose SpreadtheWORD suggests he might someday take over Mos Def's mantle as hip-hop's activist poet laureate, and Georgia Ann Muldrow, an adventurous L.A. artist who reassembles urban music in novel ways on Olesi: Fragments of an Earth. Both discs make great soundtracks for the parties in your mind.

Self-promotion: Every year in hip-hop is the year of self-promotion, but today's kids certainly have it down pat. Just ask Jibbs his favorite hip-hop trend of '06, and he barely blinks before answering.

"I would definitely say that the hottest trend," he offers, starting to chuckle, "was people that got their chains hangin' low."

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