I listen to an inordinate amount of hip-hop music, my friends can attest to that. I have a soft spot for anything that flows smooth and has some bump. As far as judging MC’s, I respect anyone who spits substance. Songs with complexity and significance that correlates with the rapper’s contemporary life should be the lyrical goal for all hip-hop artists. Although, it’s not as important to be politically correct and rational as it is to be honest in hip-hop. Authenticity weighs more than anything.
Since I’m a devoted ‘list-maker’, I decided to compile my five ‘best’ hip-hop albums
5) Just Tryin’ ta Live, Devin the Dude (2002)
Maybe it was the sluggish work ethic that resulted in a three-year gap between albums, or perhaps people were repulsed by vulgarity with a southern drawl, but for some reason Devin the Dude’s second solo album flew blindingly under the radar. However, Just Tryin’ ta Live is bursting with eccentric brilliance that is both hilarious and candid at the same time.
Devin takes the listener on a bizarre journey that begins with him espousing the persona as an alien who smokes weed and shops at Wal-Mart (Zeldar). From then on, Just Tryin’ ta Live wittingly illuminates a lifestyle of debauchery and irony. This album is essentially a satire of all rap albums, but done with a very clever approach. Hilarity ensues as Devin continually has his marijuana confiscated by crooked redneck cops, gets turned down by skeptical club bouncers who don’t believe he’s famous, and even frightens young kids who are traumatized over his live shows.
When you pull back the excess of absurdity, The Dude’s flow is recognizably distinct and capable. It reminds me of an early OutKast album, which we could all use more of. Unfortunately Just Tryin’ ta Live was similar to all Devin’s albums and failed to receive much commercial success. Maybe this is why I love this album (and all of his albums) so much, because he didn’t really care what everyone else wanted to hear. Not many rappers stay true to themselves even when their music flops.
“Doin’ the same thing we did yesterday
Makin’ beats, getting’ high
Chasin’ freaks, feelin’ fine
It’s just the same old shit
But I think we ain’t gon’ quit
Makin’ a rhyme, climbin’ the hill
Stayin’ alive, just tryin’ ta live”
-‘Just Tryin’ ta Live’
Best tracks: R&B, Would Ya, Doobie Ashtray
4)The Eminem Show, Eminem (2002)
Eminem attracted all feasible attention to himself with his earlier LP’s, which were overfed with mentally volatile allusions, drug use, and death threats. Let’s say these represented figurative plates, utensils, and placemats set on an expensive dinner table waiting for critics to sit down and dig in. When Marshall dropped The Eminem Show, he essentially walked up to the table, doused it with a container of gasoline, and lobbed a lit match onto it.
It quickly became apparent that this loud-mouthed white kid from Detroit had much bigger plans than to take shots at B-level celebrities. Eminem had created a movement; a society of rebellion and youthful rage, aimed at swinging back at the concerned parents and teachers who shunned his music.
“Picket signs for my wicked rhymes, look at times.
Sick as the mind as the motherfuckin’ kid it’s behind”
-‘Cleanin’ Out My Closet’
The album is luminously crammed with a mixture of Marshall’s personal musings (relationship with his daughter, racial role, rise to fame), and bouts against the naysayers of his life (basically everyone involved with the FCC). Substance wise, this album is comparable to none. When you combine Eminem’s unrivaled flow and wordplay, self-produced impenetrable beats, and his focused desire to surpass the media hysteria – you’ve got yourself one damn good album.
Best tracks: Business, Superman
The album is a stunning autobiographical production that is narrated with the awe-inspiring flow of Big. The rhythmic drums and eerie sounding hooks bring such realness to the album that nothing released since has been even comparable. The palpable authenticity makes Big feel more like an ordinary storyteller on the streets than a famous rapper. Mixing the dark side of the ghetto with the upside of fame and fortune was done impeccably by Smalls. His violent demeanor is evident in some tracks, but his likeable charisma is evident in all.
Ready to Die is timeless rap that will be appreciated long after even my generation is gone. It’s the definition of classic, and a remembrance to my favorite MC of all-time.
“Now I’m in the limelight ’cause I rhyme tight
Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade
Born sinner, the opposite of a winner
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner
Peace to Ron G, Brucey B, Kid Capri
Funkmaster Flex, Lovebug Starsky
I’m blowin’ up like you thought I would
Call the crib, same number same hood
It’s all good”
Best tracks: Respect, Suicidal Thoughts, Juicy
2)The Blueprint, Jay-Z (2001)
The Blueprint was the first and final affirmation that Jay-Z does in fact, run shit. Hov’s voice gushes prominently clean over the marching base lines and retro soul samples (which were produced mostly by a young Kanye and Just Blaze). The album has a focused sound so his lyrics resonate with a resilient, yet reserved pace. Jay-Z albums always require dynamic ears to really appreciate his message, but this time around the samples provided more room for comprehending the established MC.
The long-awaited synchronization of Shawn Carter; rapper-gangster-business man-lover materialized inside this album. Some forget that Jay climbed his way to the top of the drug game before the rap game. Before selling mixtapes from his trunk, he was peddling crack rocks on the street corner. He makes it clear in The Blueprint that just because he has a chauffer and a spending account doesn’t mean he’s turned soft. He’s going to have his cake, and eat it too.
“From the womb to the tomb
From now to my doom
Drink army from one cup pass it around the room- that’s the ritual
Big Gran I ain’t forgot you fool, and all that bullshit you tryin’ to get through
This is crew love, move music or move drugs
Rival crews, get cha black suits up
I’ll never change”
No one spits the truth like Hov does, or has done it at the pace he continues to do. On the track ‘Renegade’, Jay directly confronts the critics who condemn him with the help of Eminem (who’s last verse is perhaps the greatest verse in all of hip-hop).
“How you rate music that thugs with nothing relate to it?
I help them see they way through it, not you.
Can’t step in my pants, can’t walk in my shoes”
To me, Jay-Z is the king of hip-hop, and The Blueprint is his inauguration speech.
Best tracks: Takeover, Never Change, Song Cry
1)The College Dropout, Kanye West (2004)
If I were asked to explain the universal outlook of contemporary hip-hop, I would say throw on College Dropout and take notes. Before the debut album even dropped Kanye referred to himself as ‘hip-hop’s savior’, a self-acclamation, which would undeniably become true.
Kanye introduced rap to a new bravura that obligated critics to stop undermining MC’s merely because the content often celebrated materialism and self-indulgence. Rap should be evaluated by the honesty of the artist, and how well the music represents the persona. West rhymes with genuine conviction, only to frequently contradict his convictions in the next verse. Ye’s continual self-deprecation leaves the listener with a very messy, conflicting understanding of who Kanye West is, but only because he is an extremely difficult person to comprehend. West is remarkably gifted at emulating his character through his music, even if that character is a conceited, self-conscious asshole that has been an outcast his entire life.
“I say fuck the police, that’s how I treat em’
We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom
We’ll buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need em’
Things we buy to cover up what’s inside
Cause they make us hate ourselves and love their wealth
That’s why shorty’s hollering, ‘where the ballas’ at?’
Drug dealer buy Jordans – Crackhead buy crack
And a white man get paid off of all of that
But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou
Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob’s with 25 thou’, before I had a house and I’d do it again
Cause I wanna be on 106&Park, pushing a Benz
I wanna act ballerific like it’s all terrific
I got a couple past due bills, I won’t get specific
I got a problem with spending before I get it
We all self conscious I’m just the first to admit it”
-‘All Falls Down’
Every song on the album is an authentic extension of his temperament and stance on life, put to captivating, melodic beats that would remain appealing even without West’s brilliant wordplay. Say what you want about Kanye, but nothing was given to him- he earned all of his acclaim. Hip-hop’s relevance and intellect would be nowhere near where it is today without The College Dropout.
Best tracks: Family Business, Last Call, All Falls Down
Midnight Marauders, A Tribe Called Quest
Things Fall Apart, The Roots
GangStarr, Hard to Earn