Ever since I saw Doomtree last year and heard a few new tracks from Sims, I’ve been eagerly anticipating this album. Debuting new material in a live setting can be tricky, especially at a raucous hip hop show. I knew this album had the potential to be really good though, because not only did I enjoy the songs as they were happening, they stuck with me afterward. Now that the album is finally here, I can enthusiastically announce that this album exceeded all my expectations. We’ve had some good instrumental work in 2011, and now we have our first great emcee album of the year.

Bad Time Zoo is amongst a remarkable release run from Doomtree, going back to 2009 with P.O.S.’s Never Better and Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code, our pick for 2010’s album of the year. Sims worked with fellow Doomtree member Lazerbeak before, and he made the decision that he was the only producer he wanted on the album, creating a cohesive listening experience. This turned out to be an excellent choice, as the two demonstrate remarkable chemistry. When I spoke with Sims last November, he was gushing about Lazerbeak’s production, and it’s easy to hear why. He provides a varied soundscape, bringing in elements of indie rock, punk, R&B, funk, reggae, and jazz, but nothing ever sounds out of place or overpowers Sims’ voice. Instead, I feel like the music pushes and challenges Sims as an emcee, which he more than meets.

If people aren’t aware of Sims as an elite emcee already, they will surely get to know him now. This album could be used as a template for those curious as to what makes a top-tier emcee. Sims demonstrates a deep understanding of lyricism and rhyming, rewarding his listeners by taking elegant ideas as a starting point, and then bending and twisting the words into interesting patterns and adding colorful imagery. Listening to the bridge in “Burn It Down” has yet to get old as I’m fascinated by how much information is packed into these short phrases with what seems like an easy rhyme.

Sims also doesn’t provide any easy answers. When he explores a subject matter like liberalism in “One Dimensional Man,” a quick listen might make you think he’s just attacking the left, but a closer listen reveals that he’s pushing everyone to dig deeper and really question their actions and their intentions and not take the easy way. Owning a hybrid car is not a free pass to be an asshole.

Perhaps the biggest surprise on this album is the song, “LMG,” a love song that manages the rare feat of expressing appreciation for a partner without sounding ridiculous and cheesy. He also raises some interesting subject matter in the chorus, as he proclaims, “I love my girl, she makes me feel sexy, she makes me feel warm.” It’s an interesting flip of the script that doesn’t get much discussion in pop music. We get songs from female artists all the time about feeling sexy, but we rarely get the opposite. It’s a subtle touch that I really appreciate.

It’s a difficult task to create an album that fires on all cylinders for the duration of a full-length record. On his second solo record, Sims gives us something that works well from start to finish. It’s challenging yet accessible, takes us through a wide range of emotions, and rewards on repeat listens. I don’t know what the rest of the year holds, but as of today, this is my favorite record of 2011.