Encapsulated into a finite form (in this case, a digitally ubiquitous GIF detailing the top ten or so albums of the year for the past quarter-century), hip hop’s complex and combative, yet collaborative and co-dependent existence seems fluid, even purposeful. That’s because the evolution of music - like human culture - is perpetually affected not only by its creators, but also by the unpredictable environment within which it is governed. Let’s take a journey down the path modern day hip has taken, from N.W.A. to A$AP Rocky, and along the way reveal how each new step the genre took initially felt groundbreaking, but within the whole picture was always inevitable.
Though many heads would (justifiably) argue that hip-hop had already made its mark by ’88, landmark albums from N.W.A., EPMD, and Public Enemy raised the bar on both coasts and ushered in the competition-driven game which has been the norm ever since.
1980′s hip-hop - characterized by it’s aggression and repetition - ended on a lighter note with unprecedentedly alternative albums like De La Soul’s ’3 Feet and Rising’ which inspired groups like A Tribe Called Quest to promote positivity in the ’90s.
Often overlooked as fans skip from the late ’80s classics to ’Low End Theory’, 1990 saw the debuts of many pivotal East Coast hip hop groups including Gangstarr, Brand Nubian, and - of course - ATCQ.
Hip Hop was resided on the East Coast in 1991 but strong debuts from 2Pac and Cypress Hill (not to mention Scarface in Houston) began to shift the conversation away from who rules New York City.
Things really started to heat up for ’90s hip hop - specifically the West Coast - when ’The Chronic’ came out in ’92. This top 5 album ever drowned out spectacular efforts from Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth and The Pharcyde.
Arguably the pinnacle of Golden Age hip-hop, 1993 saw the Wu-Tang Clan reclaim East Coast supremacy with top 3 ever album ’36 Chambers’ while the West Coast fought back with Snoop Dogg’s ’Doggystyle’ and who can forget ’93 till Infinity by Souls of Mischief??
Nas and Biggie dominated the nation’s airwaves with two of the greatest releases (read: debuts) ever while Outkast and Common dropped classics from previously quiet hip-hop epicenters Atlanta and Chicago.
Though your casual fan might pass over 1995 as filler between the famous summers of ’94 and ’96, real heads appreciate the dark brilliance of Mobb Deep’s ’Infamous’, Raekwon’s ’Only Built for Cuban Linx’, GZA’s ’Liquid Swords’, and Bone Thugs N Harmony’s ’East 1999′ all which helped re-establish criminal hip-hop as the catalyst of the genre.
The seemingly unstoppable inertia hip hop experienced in the mid-90′s came to a peak in 1996, where artists across the nations from Jay-Z in Brooklyn to 2Pac dropping his opus ’All Eyez on Me’ delivered upon the exceptionally high standard of the era.
The tragedies of Biggie and 2Pac’s death put a noticeable damper on the genre as impostor emcees drowned out more deserving gems from female artists Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliot.
After a year where hip-hop seemed to lose its direction, refreshingly intelligent albums from Mos Def & Talib Kweli, Outkast, and Jurassic 5 set up the stage for ”conscious” rap to make its mark on the genre.
A solid year in hip-hop, 1999 saw the brilliance of Eminem come to full fruition with ’The Shady LP’ and his help on Dr. Dre’s classic ’Chronic 2001′, as well as someageless underground staples from MF DOOM, Binary Star, and 8Ball & MJG.
With hip-hop fully integrated at a national, genre, and - hell - racial level in 2000, the plethora of styles (from Ghostface Killah, to Dead Prez, to Deltron 3030) has never been represented so impressively.
After years of ambiguity across the hip- hop game, Nas and Jay-Z’s rivalry in 2001 not only produced two classic albums but helped re-establish NYC as the epicenter alongside respectable works from De La Soul, Immortal Technique, and Aesop Rock.
While East Coast hip-hop held its ground in 2002, it was ”underground” groups like Atmosphere, People Under The Stairs, and Blackalicious (among others) who produced some of the most memorable music of the year.
With mainstream hip-hop nearing its peak (ubiquitous releases from 50 Cent and Jay-Z magnify this), the contrast between radio friendly and alternative rap was never more apparent. Ironically, powered by Zion I, Cunninlynguists, and Brother Ali, the underground benefited with unparalleled exposure.
2004 was the year of Kanye, but more than the impressiveness of ’College Dropout’ was its effect on promoting fringe artists (i.e. The Roots) into the mainstream as well as placing ”conscious” rappers like Talib Kweli within the same conversations as top 40 machines like Lil Wayne.
The year The Game (briefly) revitalized West Coast dominance, and infamously quipped ”lookout for Detox” - album which almost a decade later we have tossed our binoculars - saw strong albums from just about every hip-hop mecca EXCEPT New York City.
The year Nas famously claimed “Hip Hop Is Dead”, a moment which I later claimed was a turning point for the genre’s current renaissance, actually produced some quality albums from legends like J Dilla, Ghostface Killah, and Living Legends - and brilliant newcomer Lupe Fiasco.
2007 was Chicago’s year, with Lupe, Common, and - OF COURSE - Kanye releasing gems, not to mention NYC and LA staying virtually silent after Nas’s condemnation of the game.
Hip hop in 2008 was largely bastardized from its NYC and LA roots, creating an indie mindset that felt foreign and aimless yet sometimes produced dope music including The Root’s ’Game Theory’, Ye’s ’808s and Heartbreaks’, and ’Murs for President’.
Still recovering from the dredges of the mid-2000s, hip hop showed fleeting promise in 2009 with solid releases from Kid Cudi and Jay-Z (?!) however still was dumbed down by artificial artists like Lil Wayne and Rick Ross.
2010 should be considered as the year that hip-hop cleared the hump - responsible for both genre-shifting works like Kanye’s opus ’MBDTF’ and Nas’s collaboration with Damian Marley ’Distant Relatives’, as well as the emergence of the next generation of greats with debuts from Drake and Kendrick Lamar.
Not since the 90′s was hip-hop’s future so promising as it was by the end of 2011 - after Kanye and Jay-Z re-established the competitive hierarchy within the game with ’Watch the Throne’, The Roots proved they could outdo their already phenomenal career, and artists like A$ap Rocky, Danny Brown, and Action Bronson helped Kendrick and J.Cole (and others) form a new era of great emcees. Not to mention, the blog game changed with the launch of WB4HH!
Yes, Seattle-born white boy Macklemore basically ran shit in 2012, however it was fellow West Coasters Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul (of TDE Entertainment) who produced three of the top albums of the year. New York wasn’t quiet in ’12 either, with quality tunes coming from Nas, Action Bronson, and Joey Bada$$.
While 2013 has yet to end, it has already produced enough dope music to make(cough) 1998 and (cough) 2004 shake in their knees. Classic releases from Kanye West and A$ap Rocky paired with coming-of-age works from Tyler the Creator, Mac Miller, and Chance the Rapper.
No single output of hip hop more purely defines its rugged sound, raw confidence, and hustler wisdom than freestyle rapping. Hell, the very “big bang” of hip hop can be traced back to 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in Morris Heights, Bronx on August 11, 1973 (seriously), where allegedly DJ Kool Herc began to freestyle rap over an extended and scratched sample initially meant for break dancing for the first time ever. To this day, the most fundamental form of one’s interaction with hip hop involves freestyling lyrics over a Youtube instrumental or – even better – the human beatbox. While these fleeting creative moments are usually embodied in dark and grainy videos of drunk frat bros rapping over each other in a sloppy cypher (we’ve all been there), a few truly gifted lyricists – famous and obscure – are able to turn the extremely difficult task of rhyming, flowing, AND weaving together a complex story simultaneously into a fine art comparable to rehearsed lyrics.
Measuring such a ubiquitous form of hip hop is out-rightly impossible – of the minuscule amount of freestyles that are actually recorded, the infinitely diverse ways to spit a verse and subjectivity towards each artist’s unique style convolute any potential semblance of a “best of” list. However, gauging freestyle raps by their overall significance is much more feasible and important. Each of the ten freestyles below helped mold not only the underground freestyle game, but the hip hop game itself, by pushing the boundaries in terms of lyrical style and flow.
The ultimate goal of any emcee with the balls to rap off the top of their head is the reciprocal “ohhhhhhhhhh!” from fans, and below are ten of the most successful attempts at eliciting that primal response:
Many heads claim the 80′s as the Golden Age of hip hop, where budding styles were formed at the apex of ingenuity and raw competition. It was this mix of qualities which spawned the freestyle battle, where two rappers would schedule a time a place to test their skills against each other in a battle for supremacy. In March Madness fashion, losers of a specific battle would effectively be knocked out of relevance, leaving a top tier of of talent who carry a larger-than-life mystique into each battle. Percee P and Lord Finesse were the cream of the crop of this generation, thus their 1989 battle in the Bronx was already legendary before it even happened. The actual battle surpassed these lofty expectations, and gave us all a unique look into the formally structured yet free-minded flows that bolstered more talent than most rehearsed verses of the time and influenced New York rap for the next decade. It’s debatable who actually came away a victor from this battle, but does it even really matter?
Supernat at the 2008 Magic Convention
The irony of the “freestyle” is that so rarely are they truly spontaneous, uninfluenced performances that the name would suggest. That’s what makes freestyle specialist Supernat such a spectacle – an artist whose gift for literally rhyming off the top of the head has made him a hip hop legend despite never having released a produced album of acclaim. The above video is just one piece of evidence of this Indiana native’s unique talent – as he virtually writes the book on free-association by pointing out objects in the crowd and mixing them into a crafted pot of lyrics. Sure, his punchlines might not bang like, say Eminem’s, and he is performing at a magic convention (not your ideal hip hop gathering), but the complexity of his lyrics within his seamless flow is almost unbelievable its so good. Perhaps a magic convention really is the fitting setting for Supernat’s live raps, as witnessing his ability to conjure up a dope verse from anything – for almost 6 and a half minutes no less! – is as mystical as hip hop gets.
Eyedea & Slug on the Wake Up Show
Practically living embodiments of “rappers come in all shapes and sizes”, Minnesotan hip hop pioneers Slug and Eyedea (you could throw fellow Rhymesayer Brother Ali in the all shapes and sizes category as well) have risen through the ranks of rap through the merit of their skill alone. Plainly seen in their visit to Tech and Sway’s Wake Up Show – the standard in on-air freestyles – is Sway’s outright surprise at these white dudes from the Midwest mastery of the mic. Both the late Eyedea – a former Scribble Jam victor – and Slug – of Atmosphere – flex their respective styles over 8 minutes with rhymes honest enough to be unrehearsed but refined enough that you would swear they were. If the look on Sway’s face doesn’t fully convince you that these two are , then the frequency of “ohhs” heard in the background will.
Big L Puts Jay-Z On
In one of my earliest posts for WB4HH, I stated that Big L was the “greatest rapper never heard“, as the Harlem lyricist was killed before signing his first major record deal. Maybe I should have revised the title to say “barely” heard, since Big L’s most known tracks are not his recorded tracks – though they are pretty dope too – but instead his impeccable freestyles most easily found stumbling through Youtube. The proof in the these grainy recordings is undeniable to the point that I assume people who don’t name Big L as one of their favorite freestylists must have not listened to this gem. The best part of this specific track, however, is a young Jay-Z pre-Reasonable Doubt with fire in his bars like he were envious of L’s ability. It’s the late Big L who ends up owning the track in one of the rare instances where Hova is usurped by a fellow artist.
Wait, 2Pac & Biggie Rhymed Together Once???
Mef commits verbal manslaughter on this hard-to-find classic Wu Tang freestyle – there’s not even a video – however like all of the Killer Bees, his true talent ultimately shined brighter with a notepad and pen.
This is reportedly the video that got the talented youngster from Brooklyn noticed, but with its sprinkled in double rhymes and sloppy control it is more than apparent that the most promising BK rapper in 2012 still needs some work to be recognized among the greats.
After hearing Slim murder it on Tim Westwood (a UK-based radio show notorious for hosting freestyles from some of hip hop’s best), your #1 on this list will be occupied. (Best raps at are around the 15:00 mark)
Consider Yourself Peeped!
In case you had been preparing for the apocalypse and thus sleeping on hip hop the past twelve months, let me start by saying that you have missed a diverse, creative, yet standard bearing blend of releases doper than the genre has seen in a decade. Driven by a blend of brilliant newcomers and resilient veterans producing music that is equally genuine as it is innovative, 2012 was a perfect storm for hip hop. With conscious rap riding on the inertia that has been building since The College Dropout, and the genre officially no longer feeling the pressure of having to be club friendly – thanks, EDM – rappers and producers alike displayed an artistic freedom and competitive nature largely removed from the overindulgence of the mid-late 00′s.
The greatest barometer of any genre of music are the albums released, as they portray not only the quality of the individual artists but also – in its reception – the hierarchy of the game, be it sales and/or critical reception. Thus, when I say that hip hop in 2012 was fantastic, what I mean is that there were a myriad of great albums dropped from artists of every shape, size, and color (literally). Whether we are experiencing a brief illumination or a new standard of rap to last like the Golden Age of the mid-90′s is still to be seen, but there’s nothing wrong with basking in the sun when its out right (and they say bloggers are too pessimistic)?
Here are the top ten hip hop albums of the 2012:
10.) Cruel Summer - G.O.O.D Music
Released: September 14, 2012
Top Tracks: ‘The Morning’, ‘New God Flow’, ‘Sin City’
Every complaint you can throw at Kanye West & Co’s long-coming collaboration album is probably merited: over half of the album was pre-released as singles, it had no central concept/theme, it was Kanye’s worst output since 808′s (or better yet, ever), however the amount of talent racked up in the credits of Cruel Summer proved to be just enough to float the project. Beyond the seminal club hits everyone had already heard a million times – ‘Mercy’, ‘Clique’, ‘Cold’ – there were few surprises on Cruel Summer, but those surprise moments showed flashes of brilliance within an otherwise forgettable album. Namely, the track ‘The Morning’ – which pulls of an incredible reggae-influenced hook between classic verses by Common and Raekwon, who spits the ironically excellent line “the jeans cost $500, fuck.” – Ghostface Killah’s out-of-the-blue verse on the remix of ‘New God Flow’, and the ominous bassline of ‘Sin City’, help remind us that Ye and crew are still sitting on the throne of hip hop.
9.) The Dreamer, The Believer - Common
Released: December 20, 2011*
Top Tracks: ‘The Dreamer’, ‘Ghetto Dreams Feat. Nas’, ‘The Believer’
Ok, so The Dreamer, the Believer was actually released in the last week of 2011, but leaving Chicago’s Prodigal Son of hip hop off this list after missing my ‘Best of 2011′ list would be a blogging crime. The Dreamer, The Believer – Common’s ninth studio album and first full project alongside producer No I.D. since the 1996′s Resurrection - is by no means a “breakout hit” or album of the year material, but instead, as we have come to expect from the veteran emcee, is a solid project that bears the standard of his conscious and alternative style. The opening track “Dreamer” might be the albums best, setting off the album’s journey-esque production with an uplifting beats that fades into a Maya Angelou spoken piece that again seamlessly transitions into a Nas featuered ‘Ghetto Dreams’ and after the ELO sampled ‘Blue Sky’. By the time you realize it, you are halfway through the album and anticipating the next verse from the multi-talented rapper.
8.) Rare Chandeliers - Action Bronson
Released: November 15, 2012
Top Tracks: ‘The Symbol’, ‘Bitch I Deserve You’, ‘Gateway to Wizardry’
One of the biggest complaints about hip hop is how over-the-top and exaggerated rappers’ claims of swag and gangsterism have to be in order to be seen as cool. The competitive nature of one-upping your rival with a bigger chain, more girls, or another (rented) Lambo is so ridiculous its hilarious when taken out of context. That’s what makes the Albanian-born Flushing, Queens resident Action Bronson – along with his partners in crime Meyhem Lauren and Roc Marciano – so brilliant, as he spits shamelessly boastful lines like “stash the work in the asshole of a Pitbull” and (my favorite) “catch me on Maury with my bitch” that straddle the line between sinister and comical so delicately. Rare Chandeliers is more than just a foray into the lighter side of being a G – which turns out to include eating “lamb laced with fennel” and taking baths where “two women wash me” – its as raw of a mixtape to come out of NYC in years. Spanning under 40 total minutes, the project consists 13 originally produced tracks by producer of the year Alchemist containing unmistakably East Coast hip hop basslines and 1980′s influenced samples while Action and crew rap hardcore 16′s that seldomly feature a hook. It remains to be seen whether Action Bronson can break through to the mainstream with his admittedly one-dimensional rhymes, but if Rare Chandeliers is a testament to his diligence and ability, I would not be surprised to see bigger things from him in 2013.
7.) Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color - Brother Ali
Released: September 18, 2012
Top Tracks: ‘Letter to My Countrymen’, ‘Need A Knot’, ‘Just Fine’
Similarly to Common, Brother Ali has staked out his own nice in the rap game with five impressive albums where his persona is that of a conscious elder statesmen figuratively saving the rap game from itself. In Ali’s case, being a nearly blind albino rapper from Minneapolis who came up beneath Atmosphere in the early 2000′s only to surpass Slug in both skill and appeal, his genuine struggle and phenomenal penmanship is more than enough banter to produce an album from. While Mourning in America is immediately recognizable as Ali’s uniquely altruistic and methodical style, much of his newest release is different than his older work. His latest LP is much more heavily politicized than Us or Undisputed Truth – just take a look at the album art – probably due to his close relationship with Immortal Technique and frequent appearances at Occupy Wall Street, his longtime friend/producer Ant retired before the album and was replaced by the talented newcomer Jake One, and yet the project seems to appeal to a more PG audience as Ali’s maturity seems to be getting to him. However, by the end of the album - specifically ’Just Fine’ which is my favorite track of this past year – it becomes apparent that a softer, less raw Brother Ali is still more talented in terms of both lyrical ability and storytelling than 99% of rappers out there.
6.) Habits and Contradictions - Schoolboy Q
Released: January 14, 2012
Top Tracks: ‘Sacrilegious’, ‘There He Go’, ‘Gangsta in Designer (No Concept)’, ’niggaHs.already.know.davers.flow’
2012 was undoubtedly the year of Black Hippy, pronounced most loudly by Kendrick Lamar’s hugely praised debut album Good Kid M.a.a.d City but also voiced by the spectacular sophomore releases by Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q. The latter Los Angeles native’s project Habits and Contradictions is aptly named, as Schoolboy’s bipolar, ADHD affected lyrics take you on a roller coaster ride from the dreary guitar plucks of ‘Sacrilegious’ to the boisterous chorus of ’2 Raw’ featuring Black Hippy colleague Jay Rock. The album embodies the idea of controlled chaos with the beyond-his-years authenticity of storytelling that seems to be s common trait among Black Hippy’s collective, reaching high and low emotional points within minutes almost seamlessly. At 18 tracks long, the project can seem a little exhausting at times, but the unique and addictively good cuts like ‘There He Go’, ‘Gangsta In Designer’, and ‘Hands on the Wheel’ featuring A$ap Rocky lift the effort as a whole and leave high expectations for Q in the future.
5.) 1999 - Joey Bada$$
Released: June 26, 2012
Top Tracks: ‘Survival Tactics’, Hardknocks’, ‘Waves’, ‘Slippin’
To say that the 17-year old Brooklyn native Joey Bada$$ has hip hop heads giddy with excitement and expectation after the release of 1999 this past Summer would be an understatement. Bada$$ – who was born AFTER the release of Illmatic – reminds many of the likes of Nas, a thoughtful rapper with a subtly brilliant flow and eye for dramatic storytelling. 1999‘s Golden hip hop feel does nothing to hint that the young rapper wants any separation from the legend, and instead proudly bears the standard of the greatest era in hip hop with hard NYC rhymes from Joey and guests and samples from Lord Finesse, MF Doom, and J Dilla. Instead of paling in comparison to the immortal beats like Lord Finesse’s ‘Slippin’, Joey Bada$$ maneuvers with the skills of a seasoned pro, penning some of the best 16′s spit all year long. Though the mixtape drags in a few areas, most noticeably in the 13-minute posse cut ‘Suspect’, as a holistic project it shows that classic hip hop’s seemingly impenetrable inner-circle might have to make some room for BK’s newest phenom.
4.) Food & Liquor II = The Great American Rap Album - Lupe Fiasco
Released: September 25, 2012
Top Tracks: ‘Form Follows Function’, ‘Cold War’, ‘Unforgivable Youth’
Naming your rebound album after a pitiful disappointment (Lasers) the ”Great American Rap Album”, and then filling its cover with nothing is ambitious, audacious, arrogant, and not to mention hugely risky. Yet, Lupe embarks to fill these impossibly large shoes on the sequel to his onus Food & Liquor (2006), utilizing his unique ability to mesh mainstream appeal with underground consciousness. Save a shameless sample of the classic ‘T.R.O.Y.’ for ‘Around My Way’, the Chicagoan emcee nearly succeeds. With top notch production and mixing meeting Lupe’s sneaky wordplay and emotion-driven storytelling on practically ever track, the album certainly doesn’t lack listenability – but the thought provocation Lu achieved on his first two projects doesn’t fully translate on F&L2. Perhaps its the wearing down of Lu’s singular approach – ‘Bitch Bad’ feels preachy, like ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life’ – or the lack of “new” topics to him to conquer - ‘Hood Now’ feels too much like ‘All Black Everything’ – but the album doesn’t really get rolling until ‘Brave Heart’. However, save it to the one-of-a-kind hip hop talent to hide the truly genius tracks of the album towards the end, including the lyrically brimming ‘Form Follows Function’ and the ballad-esque ‘Unforgivable Youth’ and ‘Cold War’ to raise the album to one of the year’s best.
3.) Life is Good - Nas
Released: July 13, 2012
Top Tracks: ‘Daughters’, ‘Stay’, ‘Cherry Wine’
Life is Good is an album that encapsulates Nas’s entire hip hop career – and not just because Nas holds his ex-wife Kelis’s wedding dress on its cover. “Life is Good” is instead better viewed as a mantra Nas is determined to follow as a talented yet unassured rap vet, which – whether the Queens native is conscious of it or not – comes through expertly through the myriad of tracks on the album. Nas splits air time between the reminiscent ‘A Queens Story’, the uplifting ‘Daughters’, the conscious ‘World’s An Addiction’, the appealing ‘Cherry Wine’ – featuring the late Amy Winehouse – and so much more with the efficiency and effectiveness that only a rap legend can provide. The album – similar to Nas’s tumultuous career - is not without its mistakes, including overdone club attempts like ‘Summer on Smash’ and ‘The Don’, as well as the already done before conscious tracks like ‘Back When’. But, as those who place the rapper in their “top 5″ echelon know too well, when Nas is on there is nary another artist who can contend with his ability.
2.) Good Kid, M.a.a.d City - Kendrick Lamar
Released: October 22, 2012
Top Tracks: ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’, ‘Money Trees’, ‘The Recipe’
As an avid hip hop fan but sucky blogger – I promise at least 1 post per month in 2013!! – it takes a truly revolutionary moment to lock me to a chair and pump out a lengthy post about how an album has changed the face of hip hop. Good Kid M.a.a.d City was THAT album in 2012 – 2011 belonged to Watch the Throne, in case you were wondering – an uber-hyped debut album from an unlikely source; a genetically defected conscious rapper with a definitive innocent streak hailing from gang-ridden Compton, California. Lamar’s appeal through during first two superb mixtapes - Overly Dedicated (’10) and Section.80 - was this underdog type of persona, an ‘Average Joe’ with a knack for writing with substantial content in his lyrics and straight poison in his pen. The reception of GKMC was so universally positive the only initial explanation is that K.Dot hypnotized the whole industry, but upon listening to the entire project – which follows Kendrick through a typical teenage day in his hardknocks hometown – the immense artistic ambition shown from the young rapper is stunning. Track-by-track, the concept album is not necessarily as approachable as your standard rap artist, but listening to every hip hop head’s new lyrical favorite master his own view of the world through the mic is a truly unique musical experience.
1.) Control System - Ab-Soul
Released: May 11, 2012
Top Tracks: ‘Bohemian Grove’, ‘Pineal Gland’, ‘ILLuminate’
Kendrick may have stolen hip hop’s heart in 2012, but it was his Black Hippy co-conspirator Ab-Soul, whose whose open-minded approach and stop-and-go slang make him immediately recognizable on any track, who crafted the years best album with Control System. Ok, yes the druggy-with-a-distrust-of-the-political-system is by no means original in hip hop, but Soul’s delicate balancing of spaced out swag and cerebral ideology, as displayed in tracks like ‘SOPA’ and ‘Double Standards’, absolutely is. As Ab-Soul’s fourth project, a level of comfort is felt both in production – the opening track ‘Soulo 3′ is paced as a warm up to the rest of the album – and lyrics – he cleverly whips “you got pro-gress, you got con-gress” on ‘Terrorist Threats’ – and holistically the album covers a range of alternative but surprisingly relevant topics without staying at any too long. I may be one of the few bloggers not to put GKMC at the top of this year’s hip hop output, but while Kendrick is likely to stay in the limelight for years to come, 2012 was the year of Soul.
Vicious Lies, Dangerous Rumors - Big Boi
Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
Respect the Fly Shit - Meyhem Lauren
The Heist - Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
From Kanye to Kendrick: Why ‘Good Kid, m.a.a.d. City’ Signifies the Longtime Coming Resurgence of ‘Conscious’ Hip Hop, and How It All Leads Back to Kanye
If you have been reading music headlines, been anywhere near social media, or had a hip-hop oriented conversation in the past few months- if you’re like me, you’ve done all three – then you are more than aware of the buzz Compton, CA born hip hop prodigy Kendrick Lamar has been receiving for his major-label debut, Good Kid m.a.a.d City. The tangible excitement from the hip hop community – born from Lamar’s acute skills as both a lyricist and story teller as evidenced in his two phenomenal mixtapes, Overly Dedicated and Section.80 - began when the album title was released this Summer and grew to an astoundingly full fruition at its release last Monday. The respect shown for the Black Hippy leader - which has so far included a 9.5 ranking from Pitchfork (the de facto gospel of indie music), over 200,000 units sold, and most surprisingly, universal promotion among fellow rap artists across the country – is arguably unmatched in the past half a decade.
So what exactly separates GKMC from being just another great album in 2012 (there have been quite a few this year already) anyway? For starters, the aforementioned skills that allow Kendrick to simultaneously analyze the holistic complexity of a situation and relay it to you on a primal level in Nas-like fashion, which provides unique depth and meaning to his music. Even in a genre so diverse in tastes, talent like Kendrick’s is something everybody can agree on. In a similar vein, Kendrick’s Rick Ross-esque album sales and recognition from fellow artists (Talib Kweli tweeted: “Congratulations to the homie @kendricklamar for making an album full of classic bars. If u front on him u probably a failed rapper”), is simply unprecedented for a conscious rapper in the last twenty years. For the majority of hip hop’s fans, Kendrick’s success means that for the first time in recent memory the game is – at least temporarily – focused on someone they can relate to rather than a business mogul or drug dealer caricature. All put together, Good Kid m.a.a.d. City – along with similarly conscious albums in 2012 by Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Lupe Fiasco, and Nas – to penetrate deeper into the mainstream and have a longer lasting impact on future of the game.
The significance of K.Dot’s recent release got me thinking, when was the last time an upcoming rapper arrested both the radiowaves and underground internet outlets in agreement, universally attracting to both the heart and periphery of hip hop fandom? Kid Cudi gained mass appeal with weed driven rap anthems, but his mix of rap and experimental pop is too off-center of classic hip hop. Similarly, Lupe Fiasco scored passionate audiences above and under ground with Food & Liquor (2006), but those groups tended to lean towards different sets of tracks from the sometimes musically bipolar rapper. To find an album that signified such a marrying of acclaim and popularity, you have to go back to Kanye West’s The College Dropout (2004).
Kanye’s debut, like GKMC, is undoubtedly hip hop through and through, thus it’s impact shifted the very base of the game. This impact included revolutionarily personal and honest themes that magnetized fans – like myself – who previously associated closer to rock and indie genres than rap, as well as uprooted the standard of masochism that was one of the weaker aspect of mainstream hip hop. It’s not as if “feelings” weren’t discussed before the first few bars ‘We Don’t Care‘, but not since A Tribe Called Quest had it been engineered to sound so appealing.
Between ATCQ and Kanye, “conscious” rap was confined in the underground, where ideas and effort often outpace pure talent and lead to good music that struggles to expand out if their ironically self-dug niches. While the underground is the blood and guts of the hip hop, it is also a staging area where nearly all artists fail to pass through. That’s what makes Kanye, Kendrick, and others who have burst through to mainstream so special and so influential – with their fame and notoriety, a part of the underground is able to show its face. With Kanye’s rise, “conscious” rap was brought back to life and made the standard for up and coming talents like Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, J. Cole, Kendrick – the list goes on – who meshed skill and honest content to produce music with real meaning and without predetermined content or geographical constraints.
At the end of the day, Good Kid m.a.a.d. City is an album – or a short story, as he calls it – that only Kendrick Lamar could have made, a coming of age story told eloquently through a mix of faith-themed candid skits and genrelessly production featuring a range of insanely dope samples. Add in K-Dot’s one-of-a-kind ability to tie in story-telling, philosophy, and vices alongside each other seamlessly, and you get a perfect recipe (pun totally intended) for an amazing album. However, the album’s positive reception and perceived overarching influence on the entire hip hop community is something that has been building since Kanye made it cool to wear a backpack again. In a way, the inertia off of Kanye’s original conscious cross-over finally met an artist with the talent to match it, creating somewhat a hip hop perfect storm.
About a year ago I wrote a post about the state of hip hop, detailing how it was no longer “dead” after Nas – and many others – validly claimed about 5 years prior. Looking back now, I realize that my expectations were too conservative for the future of the genre. But, little did I expect 2012 to shatter my expectations and be responsible for some of the better albums in recent memory, many of which are still mainstays on the radio and blogosphere. While people will surely cringe to hear me praise Kim Kardashian’s beaux (did I really just write that??), no one can deny West’s trailblazing influence in creating this new standard for mainstream success.
Who knows what the future holds for Kenrick Lamar, and hip hop as whole, but with his monumental release this past week it is surely looking optimistic. Somewhere likely in Paris, LA, or New York, Kanye West is holding Kim Kardashian’s ass and smiling.
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In the overtly image-conscious hip hop game, zero-ing in on a unique, fitting, and memorable name is not a task to be taken lightly. In many cases, clever and often genius names like Devin the Dude, Alchemist, or A Tribe Called Quest help garner attention amidst the cluttered game (just take a look at the map above) as well as depict a rapper’s, producer’s, or group’s unique brand of hip hop. On the other hand, names like Flo Rida – you really want people to know you’re from the state where geriatrics go to die? – and Drake – the assumed name for every shirtless Abercrombie & Fitch model ever - prove that the gift of discovering a fitting moniker isn’t for everybody.
While at the end of the day, skill is still king, here are ten rappers whose names help us further appreciate their dope blend of hip hop:
10.) Ol’ Dirty Bastard
It may seem a little predictable to have the infamous ODB to this greatest names list, but what “best of” hip hop category is complete without the Wu Tang Clan properly represented? The Brooklyn-born emcee famous for pioneering a singing-rapping style, picking up welfare checks in a limo, and dying of a drug overdose in 2004 kept a the childhood nickname given to him by de facto Wu Tang leader RZA because – as Method Man puts it in an interviewed which appears on 36 Chambers – there’s no father to his style. Blending this idea of originality with his gritty, shock-value style and association as a legendary member of the hip hop community, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the essential embodiment of, well, an old dirty bastard. Before he died, Russel Jones (his real name) went on a naming spree that produced monikers ranging from Dirt McGirt to Big Baby Jesus – seriously – but we will conveniently overlook these and remember him by his memorable, original title.
9.) No I.D.
Sometimes simplicity works wonders in the realm of name-making – case and point, Chicago native and super-producer behind Common’s rise to fame, No I.D. Like most great artist names, No I.D. is not only is the producer’s 4-letter title expressive of his unclassifiable and boundless production style, it also spells his name, Dion, backwards. Before the Illuminati rumorers invade, can’t it be enough for a classic producer – and current VP of Def Jame Recordings – who relies on intricate basslines and subtle samples for his specialized sound to have an equally classic and subtly clever stage name? I think so.
8.) Dilated Peoples
Los Angeles-based Dilated Peoples was one of the few underground groups of the early 2000s to see the light of day in the form of mainstream success, thanks to the popularity of Alchemist-produced ‘Worst Comes to Worst’ and Kanye West collaboration ‘This Way’. However, like so many counterparts, this short-lived notoriety was just the tip of a two-decade long career of making dope music that married their trademark West Coast attitude with a penchant for progressive yet stoner friendly beats. Hm, their play on the word “pupils” is making a little more sense now, isn’t it? Cleverly sneaking the double entendre past your typical casual listener, the Dilated Peoples insinuate their affection for getting high within a name that more seriously interpreted hints towards the trio being watchful and open-minded about the darker ills of society – think Public Enemy or Dead Prez-esque. In a game where albums nestle gangster tracks next to weed anthems without batting an eyelash, this surprisingly intelligent duality works like magic.
7.) Slick Rick the Ruler
For the man nearly unanimously hailed as “hip hop’s greatest storyteller” as well as “Guinness World Record holder for most chains worn on a daily basis”, having one of the greatest rap names ever is simply second nature. The London-born and Bronx-raised hip hop legend – whose eyepatch resulted from a childhood incident with broken glass – seemed to be destined for the mic with a slick (get it???) flow and awesomely creative lyrics that were years ahead when he released ”The Great Adventures of Slick Rick’ in 1988. While his career was marked by volatility both on and off the mic, The Ruler’s status as an innovator of “cool” in the game has never been questioned – just like the dopeness of his infamous moniker.
If Slick Rick is the standard for cleverly sounding rap names, L.A. native and Living Legends star MURS seems like a guy with little imagination and even less understanding of the macho themes of the hip hop game. However, as is descriptive of his atypical rise to fame, MURS proved that not everything is as it appears skin deep, and what initially comes off as an unfortunate nickname for your nerdy classmate Murray is actually an acronym for “Making Underground Raw Shit”. Not bad, eh? Especially considering MURS has singlehandedly carved out his own brand of rap best described as thoughtfully free-minded – a true testament to his West and East Coast influences – and, along with Felt collaborator Slug, has become a household name in the hip hop community. Whether you can still consider his latter releases, including ‘MURS for President’ and ‘Love & Rockets’ , underground and raw is up for debate, but let his massive dreads be a calm reminder that he doesn’t give a hell what you think.
5.) MF Doom
As obscure as any artist in the genre, English-born emcee and producer MF Doom (aka Zev Love X, Viktor Vaughn, Metal Fingers, King Geedorah, The Super Villain, etc…) embodies the exaggeration of “putting on a character” when he creates his unique and impressively complex style of hip hop. Infamous for sporting a Dr. Doom mask – responsible for his stage name, MF (Masked Face) Doom – almost always in public, as well as sending imposters to shows that don’t sell enough tickets for his liking, the underground legend is both hated and adored by fans for his uncompromisingly pure approach to the rap game. No matter what side you stand on, there is no denying Doom’s brilliant mind responsible for his plethora of instrumentals which mesh cartoon themes in with rare soul samples that have been “borrowed” by Masta Ace, Ab Soul, and others, as well as his collaborations with highly acclaimed artists Ghostface Killah, DangerMouse, Nas, and Madlib. Just like the character he portrays himself as, MF Doom is truly an evil genius in the hip hop genre.
4.) Snoop Doggy Dogg
…Or isn’t it Snoop Lion now? For this eternal West Coast hip hip icon it doesn’t really matter, since his aura alone is enough to explain Snoop Dogg’s hip hop fingerprint. In fact, even his “government name” – Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr. – is awesome and probably could have sufficed for a successful career. However, “cool is as cool does” and the objectively random but rhyme friendly moniker Snoop Doggy Dogg was created by the rapper from the family nickname “Snoop”. Maybe the reason his name is perfect is the fact that Snoop really does look like dog, or that he was able to name his classic debut album Doggystyle, but the reason isn’t really important when the result is universally appealing. There are few artists like Snoop Dogg/Lion for which their absence would reshape the hip hop universe, and the Long Beach legend owes at least a bit of his super-success to his amazing name.
3.) Del the Funkee Homosapien
If Snoop Dogg is the embodiment of West Coast coolness, then Del Tha Funkee Homosapien is the embodiment of its creativity and open-mindedness. People have given themselves titles since before Alexander the Great, yet only a left-brained emcee from Oakland, CA with a knack for saying what’s on his surprisingly conscience mind would have thought to call himself “The Funkee Homosapien”. An underground staple since his debut I Wish My Brother Was Here in 1991, Del has taken on a number of roles from solo artist, co-founder of The Hieroglyphics, honorary member of The Gorillaz – remember ‘Clint Eastwood‘? – to the spectacular collaboration with Dan the Automator cleverly named Deltron 3030, yet has never reigned away from his core style displayed in his initial solo albums like No Need For Alarm (1993). Though it could be argued his notoriety is somewhat skewed by his cousin, Ice Cube’s, major success, there is no doubting that Del left an permanently abstract and funkee mark on West Coast hip hop.
2.) Busta Rhymes
Brooklyn-born emcee Busta Rhymes is notorious for his complex rhyming technique, loud personality, and even louder style – the picture above is simply phenomenal – but is often forgotten among the Brooklyn legends of the mid 90′s. In fact, Busta – who got his alias from Chuck D when he named him after NFL wide receiver George “Buster” Rhymes – went to high school with Biggie and Jay-Z, premiered on A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Scenario’, and is working on his tenth album since 1996′s The Coming. That’s not necessarily to say Busta Rhymes is underrated – his erratic releases from the spectacular ‘Break Your Neck’ to the unbelievably overdone ‘Arab Money’ have always kept him a shade away from the best ever conversations – but it could be argued that his name is. Despite its simplicity and, for lack of a better term, obviousness, Busta Rhymes is an onomatopoeia for god’s sakes! Not to mention, its pretty damn clever too.
1.) Ghostface Killah
Is this really a surprise to anyone? It has been argued by some (including myself) that the Wu Tang Clan perfected the style of underground hip hop in their 1993 debut Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), from the raw lyrics and innovative sampling, to the inclusion of skits and interviews throughout the album, and even to the intelligently relevant monikers which the clan adopted. Case and point, the raw and imaginative Staten Island rapper Ghostface Killah, whose name need not be taken literally – insinuating the rap star as a secret assassin – to be appreciated for its genius. The story behind Ghost’s name is as mysterious as the aura it elicits; all we really know comes from a Method Man interview within their epoch album “now you see him, now you don’t!”. There are few things that are blindly agreed upon in the hip hop universe, but the argument over best name ever is pretty much undebatable.
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From the very first cypher that took place on some Bronx block in the 1970′s to the latest feature-filled mixtape, collaboration has remained an innate expression of the collective culture hip hop. Almost naturally, hip hop’s universality of break beats, sixteens, and passion for promotion make it uniquely seamless – not to mention convenient – for artists to call on each other to add some flavor and help finish up a given track. In fact, collaborations among artists are so virtually homogenous that a rap album released without any features is an ambitious – and risky – statement.
Made evident since the early park bench freestyles evolved into the original hip hop experiments of The Beastie Boys and Eric B. & Rakim, collaborating in hip hop has made a huge impact on the genre by opening doors to new styles and forming new dynamic bonds that uphold the web of the genre. Thus, in many ways you can judge an artist simply from where they are on this web; as who they collaborate with can be the result of a multitude of factors from an artist’s allegiances, home region, and even the stage of their career. Think about it, what other event solidified Kendrick Lamar’s status as one of hip hop’s hubs than his collabo with Dr.Dre on ‘The Recipe’?
While all hip hop features are the product of an impossibly intricate history between artists, the ten tracks below conversely shook the ground of the rap game and have continued to influence legions of artists and styles up to today:
10.) Above The Clouds – Gangstarr Feat. Inspectah Deck
In the mid-90‘s, you would be troubled to find two hip hop groups whose raw yet sculpted sounds garnered a more loyal following than Gangstarr and The Wu Tang Clan. Unique in so many ways, yet similar in their depiction of urban New York streets in order to teach their philosophies of betterment and survival, Guru, Primo, and Wu clansman Inspectah Deck found a perfect middle-ground in ‘Above the Clouds’. Exercising his savant-like producing skills, DJ Premier lays a phenomenal interpretation of your standard RZA beat – Eastern string instruments included – laced with his own notoriously dope stylings, while Guru and Inspectah Deck hammer out verses that play on both the spiritual and financial meaning of song’s title. Released on Gangstarr’s last combined effort, The Moment of Truth, ‘Above the Clouds’ is a product of the zeniths of two of hip hop’s greatest collectives.
9.) Preservation – Think Differently Feat. Aesop Rock & Del Tha Funkee Homosapien
Of any track on this list, ‘Preservation’ is easily the most obscure, but you can imagine that’s how its two underground collaborators – Aesop Rock & Del tha Funkee Homosapien – would like to have it anyway. The b-side track featured on Wu Tang’s “indie” collaborative Think Differently – their 100+ honorary members need somewhere to release their own music – sees these two similarly abstract and charismatic emcees who just happen to live 3000 miles apart trade verses back and forth as if they were best buds since high school. The extremely laid back beat, produced by Bronze Nazareth, includes a Western-esque piano and catchy horn samples that were dope enough to catch the ears of Dr. Dre who re-used it for Eminem’s ‘Crack A Bottle’ In many ways, its these kind of underground gems – peep ‘Give It Up’ featuring R.A. The Rugged Man and J-Live from the same project as well – that keep the mainstream engine of hip hop properly oiled.
6.) Da Rockwilder – Method Man & Redman
Though Red and Meth’s collusion spans albums of work, movies, and presumably many a blunt shared, its ‘Da Rockwilder’ that best exemplifies their rugged yet comical collaborative style. Clocking in at just over 2 minutes, the quintessential party-starting track found on the duo’s debut Blackout! features Method Man and Redman spitting comparably dope yet wholly unique sixteens that seem to build energy off one another. When you really think about it, there’s barely a track in existence which better reflects the liveliness and fun of the turn-of-the-millennium hip hop which helped propel the genre into the mainstream than this one – dope video included. Whether you can take them seriously or not, this legendary Wu-Tang meets New Jersey duo are for real proven innovators of the game.
8.) International Players Anthem – UGK Feat. Outkast
Often mistaken as a mega-popular track about marriage – oh it is that, too – ‘International Players Anthem’ is more seminal in that its the only collaboration between arguably the two most important Southern Hip Hop groups ever. Appearing on UGK’s final album, Underground Kingz, this track – which borrows the same sample used on Cormega’s ‘Rap’s A Hustle‘ – served as a lonely spotlight in hip hop amidst a largely dull 2007 and featured one of Andre 3000’s most eternal verses as its introduction. The greatness of 3-Stacks’ bars would diminish most other rappers’ efforts from memory, but Pimp C, Bun-B, and his fellow ATLien Big Boi do more than hold their own on this supertrack that lives up to its lofty name. Solemnly, this is the last track featuring both Outkast’s members, and was recorded and released only months before Pimp C’s tragic and sudden death on tour. But let’s stay positive; ‘International Players Anthem’ reaffirms the potential that a purely mainstream hit can still be dope, as well as the fact that these four emcees could hold their own in the same arena as the Biggie’s, Tupac’s, and Jay-Z’s of the genre.
6.) Forgot About Dre – Dr. Dre Feat. Eminem
The immortal introduction to ‘Forgot About Dre‘ is dope enough to bring chills to the spine of the most peripheral fan of hip hop, and there’s hardly a 18-35 year old alive who hasn’t belted Eminem’s clever chorus at a crowded club, but what really makes this track special is that it served as the pinnacle of Dr. Dre and Marshall Mathers’ odd, dynamic, and captivating relationship. Even amidst the plethora of noteworthy tracks on The Chronic 2001, ‘Forgot About Dre’ stands alone as statement track that just so happens to be one of the greatest lyrical and production efforts ever accomplished. Eminem’s verse alone signifies his transition from buzzworthy rapper to the standard in rhyming ability, and Dr. Dre’s bars – which are taken to be a diss at Suge Knight – are so great that rumors of Slim Shady ghostwriting them will never dissipate. However, no matter how the track was created, the timeless b-reel video of Dr. Dre and Eminem in the studio with their heads bobbing will forever serve as a testament to this unlikely pair’s enviable work ethic.
5.) Regulators – Warren G & Nate Dogg
Oozing with infectiously hypnotic grooves and deep bass, G-Funk swept through hip hop in the mid 90′s with hurricane-force on the backs of artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and who many call the godfather of the popular sub-genre, Warren G. ‘Regulators’ is not only Warren’s best work, but also the essential G-Funk track; flush with a simplistic yet melodic beat, West Coast attitude, and a late night tale about guns and hoes. Another immortal party track, ‘Regulators’ – which appeared on Warren G’s Regulate…G Funk Era – showcased for the first time Warren G’s high-pitched, slick raps and the late Nate Dogg’s infamously dope vocals as they swapped verses in an old school storytelling method that unfortunately is a relic in today’s rap game. While the G-Funk era may be long gone, this classic West Coast track about regulating the streets will forever stand alone as one of the most unique sounding, dynamic efforts in hip hop history.
4.) Road to Zion – Nas Feat. Damian Marley
Ok, so Damian Marley may not seamlessly fall into the genre of hip hop, but his one-of-a-kind Padua slang works like magic on the phenomenal crossover track with legendary emcee Nas, ‘Road to Zion’. Accompanied by an palpably energetic instrumental, Damian Marley spits his typical blend of faith, struggle, and ultimate perseverance, while Nas provides one of his greatest socially conscious and lyrically complex verses to date. On the surface these two artist may seem quite different – aside from a love for ganja – but their philosophical mindsets mesh together and create a style nearly unmatched in effort and creativity. In fact, ‘Road to Zion’ was so innovative in its development and original in its output that the two kindred emcees collaborated again in 2010 for an impressive full length effort, Distant Relatives. This track – along with Tupac’s ‘Ghetto Gospel‘ feat. Elton John, and Jay-Z’s ‘Beach Chair’ with Chris Martin – proves that hip hop artists can sometimes be made better by blurring genre lines and attempting unfamiliar sounds.
3.) Renegade – Jay-Z Feat. Eminem
When two of the game’s best rappers collaborate on a track its inevitably a momentous occasion, but when those two are arguably the most popular artists ever colliding at their simultaneous zenith in early 2001, its called ‘Renegade‘. Originally created for Em and Royce Da 5’9″‘s group Bad Meets Evil, Jay-Z – in his typical fashion – saw something great and made it his own by rewriting Royce’s verses and releasing it on his opus The Blueprint. The unlikely duo’s lyrics are emotionally powerful, contextually relevant, and undeniably competitive; a lethal combination that forged some of the greatest bars ever spit on the mic. In fact, as what is practically unavoidable considering the subjectivity of rapping, Jay-Z’s and Eminem’s verses are the point of much debate in the hip hop community. The majority – including Nas who used Em’s dominance of his rival in the legendary diss track ‘Ether‘ – agree that the Detroit emcee’s bars are virtually unmatchable by any opponent when regarding their complexity, passion, and delivery. To add in the point that Eminem also produced the superb beat may be rubbing it in Hova’s face, but hey, losing to the greatest ever isn’t the worst knock on his Resume.
2.) Respiration – BlackStar Feat. Common
When it comes to under-appreciated eras in hip hop history, the conscious movement of the late 90′s – powered by Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common, and a cast of others – is at the top. Encompassing all of the collectivity and playful competition that powered the classic hip hop of the early 90′s, along with a revolutionarily progressive approach reminiscent of Public Enemy and KRS One, the Brooklyn “backpackers” and their Chicago-based “mentor” captured magic with their 1998 track, ‘Respiration‘. Likening their respective cities to a living, breathing thing, Mos, Talib, and Com each deliver career best verses so flush with meaning and symbolism they could seamlessly double as spoken word poetry. As is the case with all of the best collaborations, comparing whose bars reign supreme over the classic NY beat is a hot topic, but in this unique case each verse is on par with the next. ‘Respiration’ is a collaboration so natural in its cohesion that its hard to believe that the three emcees enjoy diverse and successful solo careers.
1.) Brooklyn’s Finest – Jay-Z Feat. Biggie
Is it really surprisingly – once you really think about it – that the greatest collaboration in hip hop history belongs to the king-successor combo of Biggie and Jay-Z? Forget the fact that ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’ – from Hova’s debut Reasonable Doubt – is the only track The Notorious B.I.G. and his assumed mentor, Jay-Z, ever recorded together, its classic live-instrumentation beat and hot-potato-passing verse structure lay the foundation for an absolutely legendary track. On the mic, each emcee seems to build off his counterpart’s previous bars, both intertwining stories and then taking the lyrical ability to a new plateau. Thus, by the end of the track, the two Brooklyn emcees claiming true to their home borough spit some of the hottest bars. While Biggie gets the last say – rhyming “usually cuatro-cinco, shells sink low” along the way – Jay-Z’s effort on the track helped solidify him as one of rap’s elite (as well as perhaps the greatest collaborator in hip hop history). While ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’ can be viewed as an exampled of “what could have been if Biggie wasn’t tragically ripped from the game”, perhaps we should just be grateful that this gem exists in the first place.
Thugz Mansion – Tupac Feat. Nas, Furious Anger – Big L Feat. Shyheim, Scenario – A Tribe Called Quest Feat. Busta Rhymes, Diamonds Are Forever (Remix) – Kanye West Feat. Jay-Z, Auditorium – Mos Def Feat. Slick Rick
Consider Yourself Peeped
Welcome to the newest installation of WB4HH; an educational, if you will, series of posts between myself and past contributor/avid writer Loren DiBlasi (Twitter handle: @LoDiBz) detailing a comprehensive map of the most essential hip hop albums that have ever been made. From the greatest underground albums to most impactful post-2000 efforts – our goal is to organize and facilitate the hip hop game so that, whether you are a newcomer or seasoned head, you can appropriately fill out your music “Bucket List” while avoiding the regret of downloading (or worse, buying) albums that are just simply disappointing. And, what better way to start the series than shoving our chips all in for THE 10 Essential Albums Ever Made?
One of the bright sides of having a finite existence is that death urges us appreciate the things we have and explore the realms of what we don’t know. Being a hip hop devotee like myself, the meaning of this is simple: enjoy the tracks you love and never stop exploring inside the complex and convoluted genre. Because, if we’re ‘born empty-handed and leave the same’ – thanks, Slug – then what measure do we have to judge the value of our lives other than the times we experience and the knowledge we gather?
Chances are, you have heard some – if not most – of the below albums. However, when was the last time you peeped the original versions of these projects in their entirety – preferably with a glass a vino and a cigar? Just saying, to fully appreciate these landmark works is a uniquely fulfilling experience, like walking through the Accademia Gallery in Florence.
With that knowledge, here are the ten quintessential hip hop albums ever released (all releases in chronological order):
Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A.
Released: August 8, 1988
Length: 60:27 – (13 Tracks)
Recorded: Compton, California
Producers: Dr. Dre & DJ Yella
Key Tracks: ‘Express Yourself’, ‘Straight Outta Compton’, ‘Dopeman’
Effectively launching the most controversial, profitable, and mimicked genre of rap music in existence, Straight Outta Compton was the product of six Compton ex-gangbangers – Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella and The D.O.C. – with the most derogatory name in rap looking to strike a nerve in American Society. Right out of the gate, tracks like ‘Fuck tha Police’ and ‘Gangsta, Gangsta’ explode with an unprecedented aggressiveness and lack of filter, while latter tracks like ‘Express Yourself’ and ‘Dopeman’ exemplify a more creative, cleverer side of the group. The glue that helps this project stand alone and continue to appeal almost 25 years later is Dr. Dre and Yella’s innovative and cohesive sampling and scratching, which was simply miles ahead of anything at else before the 90′s. While today, the album can be criticized for initiating the monstrosity that became of gangster rap, Straight Outta Compton is a seminal work whose effect on society is a credit to its compelling, accurate depiction of the rampant crime across America during the 1980′s.
- Aric Linkins
The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest
Released: September 24, 1991
Length: 48:03 (14 tracks)
Recorded: New York, New York
Producers: Ali Shaheed Muhammed & Q-Tip
Key Tracks: ‘Scenario’, ‘Excursions’, ‘Check the Rhime’
A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 sophomore release The Low End Theory is on the high end of just about every ‘greatest’ rap list out there – and for good reason. On the short-but-sweet LP, hip-hop is fused with the laid back vibe of jazz, merging two independently cool genres in order to create one epic, awesome, 2-fast-2-furious super-genre. Back then, nobody sounded like Tribe, and the same goes for now (but not for lack of artists trying). Q-Tip and Phife are still in a league of their own, and its for this reason– and for lines like, “Industry Rule number four-thousand-and-eighty/Record company people are shadyyy”– that at 21-years-old and still going strong, The Low End Theory is a true classic.
- Loren DiBlasi
Enter The Wu Tang Clan (36 Chambers) – Wu Tang Clan
Released: November 9, 1993
Length: 61:13 (12 tracks)
Recorded: New York, New York
Key Tracks: ‘Protect Ya Neck’, ‘Tearz’, ‘Can It Be So Simple’, ‘C.R.E.A.M.’
What is often forgot about Wu Tang Clan’s immortal debut album is that it was released at a point when West Coast – and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic - hip hop ruled the airwaves while East Coast rap lay dormant with future demigods like Nas, Biggie, and Jay-Z (see below) still struggling to get out of their respective NYC neighborhoods. Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) changed all of this by revolutionizing every aspect of a hip hop album, from lyrics – verses were democratically battled for between group members – to beats – RZA’s uniquely raw yet refined production influenced the likes of Kanye West, among others – and to the basic song structure – skits became commonplace after the Wu utilized them to extend their captivating image. The finished product reignited the East Coast hip hop audience and subsequently laid the blueprint for the aforementioned artists of the East Coast hip hop renaissance, while also ushering in the hardcore and underground subgenres. Not bad for a bunch of kung-fu nerds.
Illmatic – Nas
Released: April 19, 1994
Length: 39:51 (10 Tracks)
Recorded: New York, New York
Producers: DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, LES, Q-Tip
Key Tracks: ‘The World is Yours,’ ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, ‘Life’s a Bitch’, ‘One Love’
Ironically, I’m currently in the business of writing introductions, but Illmatic is an album that doesn’t need one: Nas’ 1994 debut is not only considered to be his best album, but
one of the best and most intelligent rap effort of all time. Released when the rapper was just twenty years old, Illmatic is sure to illicit two responses: one, you’ll think “what the fuck was I doing when I was twenty”, and two, you’ll be positively drooling over the impossibly clever and meticulously-crafted lyricism behind songs like “The World is Yours” and “N.Y. State of Mind”. Really, Nas’ words were hardly rhymes; they were poetry, backed by some of the most quintessential beats in hip hop’s Golden Age. In fact, Illmatic was so powerful it – along with Jay-Z and Biggie’s classic debuts – shifted the game from Tribe’s consciousness to the streets so decisively that it never fully came back. But don’t blame Nas, it was the leagues of copycats who truly washed out hip hop with overdone themes of money, power, and women. Whether you’re a rap aficionado or are in need of some serious education, Illmatic will leave you speechless.
Ready to Die – Notorious B.I.G.
Released: September 13, 1994
Length: 68:58 (17 tracks)
Recorded: New York, New York
Producers: Eazy Mo Bee, Puff Daddy, Bluez Brothers, Chucky Thompson & others…
Key Tracks: ‘Respect’, ‘The What’, ‘Juicy’, ‘Machine Gun Funk’
Picture it: it’s summertime in New York City, circa 1994. Bill “Slick Willie” Clinton is the current occupant of the White House. NYC is the coolest city around, totally free from the limitations and commercialism which so cramp its style today– no chain restaurants or toy stores in Times Square, music blasting from just about every corner. In the outer boroughs, kids play stick-ball in the street, girls crowd the subways in too-short shorts. From a boom box, you hear the raw, fierce rhymes of The Notorious B.I.G. for the very first time.
Okay– so I may have just been describing a scene from The Wackness; but, either way, the fantasy of the New York City of the past is made all too real by Brooklyn-born emcee Biggie Smalls. The Notorious B.I.G. brought the NYC streets into the studio, thanks to his deep, guttural tone, loose flow, and tales of violence, gangs, drugs, and ultimately rags to riches that became the industry standard at a magical time in rap history. Biggie’s untimely death may have been tragic, but there’s no denying that his story is the stuff that hip hop legends are made of: and it all started with Ready to Die. To this day, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more diverse, more interesting collection of jams anywhere.
All Eyez on Me – Tupac
Released: February 13, 1996
Length: 132:18 (27 tracks)
Recorded: Los Angeles, California
Producers: Johnny “J”, Daz Dillinger, Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Rick Rock, and others…
Key Tracks: ‘Ambitions Az a Ridah’, ’2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted’, ‘Heartz of Men’, ‘California Love’
Arguably the most emotional rap effort in history – and easily the most expansive – All Eyez On Me is the crowning achievement of this West Coast legend’s brief but blazing tenure in hip hop. Recorded in under two weeks – a testament to Tupac’s unrivaled work ethic – this 2+ hour double disc album contains the majority of his most memorable tracks, including the title track and ‘I Ain’t Mad Atcha’, along with some lesser known but equally dope cuts like ‘Heartz of Men’ and ‘Tradin’ War Stories’, all which ooze the infectious swag and palpable energy which only Pac could bring over the melodic West Coast beats. While critics often cite the “filler” tracks which are almost inevitable when 27 tracks make the cut – there’s a beautiful reason why Illmatic is only just over a half an hour long – as a reason to omit All Eyez on Me from any “Best Of…” list, to appreciate Tupac is to accept his willingness to passionately approach any topic that comes to his mind.
Aquemini – Outkast
Released: September 29, 1998
Length: 74:47 (16 tracks)
Recorded: Atlanta, Georgia
Producers: Organized Noize, Mr. DJ
Key Tracks: ‘Return of the G’, ‘Rosa Parks’, ‘Aquemini’, ‘Chonkyfire’
Determining Outkast’s greatest album – the discussion can be narrowed down to ATLiens, Stankonia, and this gem – is similar to choosing the Top Ten Essential albums; you’re going to leave some really dope music out. Thus, the reason why their 3rd release – named after a portmanteau of Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s astrological signs – takes the cake by a hair (trust me, I’ve spent hours considering the details) is that no other album in hip hop history has set out with such a vast, diverse scope and been able to conquer each unique style so effectively. Representing a middle ground between their undeground, cohesive efforts and their later, pop-heavy releases, Aquemini meshes the dank production of Organized Noize with the undeniably genius and creativity of the Southern duo as they seamlessly transition from gangster track – ‘Return of the G’ – radio hit – ‘Rosa Parks’ – futuristic conscious cut – ‘Synthesizer’ – and the simply undefinable – ‘Spottiottiedopalicious’. To fully appreciate this work, however, is to listen to its ongoing influence in today’s more abstract artists like Kid Cudi and Kendrick Lamar.
The Marshall Mathers LP - Eminem
Released: May 23, 2000
Length: 72:14 (19 tracks)
Recorded: New York, New York
Producers: Dr. Dre, Mel-Man, F.B.T.
Key Tracks: ‘Stan’, ‘The Real Slim Shady’, ‘I’m Back’, ‘Drug Ballad’
One of the best selling hip hop songs ever, one of the greatest hip hop songs ever, one of the darkest and violent hip hop songs ever; what do these three have in common? They are all featured on Eminem’s phenomenal third effort, The Marshall Mathers LP (respectfully ‘The Real Slim Shady’, ‘Stan’, and ‘Kim’). There’s no question that Eminem is the greatest emcee of all-time, but the reason why Marshall Mathers – his 2nd of three personalities to receive its own album (along with Slim Shady and Eminem) – includes his greatest work is that it showcases all his lyrical maturity since The Slim Shady LP without succumbing to any of his actual maturity that significantly softens his later albums. In fact, this album includes some of the most graphic, twisted, and ultimately captivating tracks Em ever released, alongside others detailing his casual drug addictions – ‘Drug Ballad’ – and struggle in the limelight – ‘The Way I Am’. However, it is his pure lyrical masterpieces like ‘I’m Back’ and ‘Criminal’ that make this effort one of the most significant albums ever made, as well as the standard for lyrical acumen that has not (and may never) be passed.
The Blueprint – Jay-Z
Released: September 11, 2001
Length: 63:52 (13 tracks)
Recorded: New York, New York
Producers: Kanye West, Just Blaze, Bink, DJ Premier, and others…
Key Tracks: ‘Takeover’, ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A)’, ‘Renegade’, ‘Heart of the City’
If Jay-Z were George Washington, The Blueprint would be his Revolutionary War. If he were Abraham Lincoln, it would be his Emancipation Proclamation. If he were Ronald Reagan, The Blueprint would be the time when Jay-Z picks up the mic and says, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” He was good before, sure– maybe even better on his debut Reasonable Doubt. But on The Blueprint, ironically released on September 11, 2011, Jay-Z made history by declaring himself the greatest rapper alive (and what’s more patriotic than that?) and backing it up with the prototype for every other post-2000 album released. Whether or not “Empire State of Mind” makes you want to barf– everybody’s got to sell out at one time or another– there’s no denying the power of the best, the original, The Blueprint.
The College Dropout – Kanye West
Released: February 10, 2004
Length: 76:13 (21 tracks)
Recorded: Chicago, Illinois
Producers: Kanye West
Key Tracks: ‘All Falls Down’, ‘Through the Wire’, ‘Spaceship’, ‘Jesus Walks’
As a young, burgeoning hip-hop fan in the early 2000s, I thought I had everything working against me: I was a kid living in the sheltered, racially uninteresting suburbs of New York City, and I had never seen anything in the way of guns, gangs, diamonds, or weed (I don’t think I even knew what a ‘doobie’ was til, like, ’03). Everything changed when I heard Kanye West’s The College Dropout.
All it took was the first guitar strum of ‘All Falls Down’ for a whole new world to open up for me. Out of nowhere, here’s the young dropout himself, proclaiming “She’s so self-conscious/She has no idea what she’s doing in college.” Finally, there was something out there I could wrap my head around, something I could relate to; something that felt like it belonged to me. On his 2004 debut, Ye single-handedly re-invented the rap game, with track after track that became an instant classic upon its release. Tackling such previously untouched themes as materialism, emotions (?!?) and education, The College Dropout provided a much-needed rare and real peek in the new, re-defined American Dream and paved the way for many of the burgeoning artists of today.
Consider Yourself Peeped
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