It’s almost a given these days that people who haven’t gotten into hip-hop will have constructed a defense of sorts to use when they meet someone who is a fan. There are so many well-known examples of gimmicky, shallow, and just plain bad hip-hop songs that have become popular for one reason for another. These songs not only discourage potential listeners, they provide a clearly visible symbol for detractors of rap music to construct their arguments upon. It’s one of the frustrations of hip-hop fans that they have to constantly try to validate their taste by trying to fight through these arguments. This got me thinking about the albums on the other side of the spectrum: which albums are ones which I’d gladly display as good examples of the positive side of hip-hop? So I decided to pick a list of eight albums. For those looking to give hip-hop an honest try, I present you with this list, in no particular order.
A Tribe Called Quest — The Low End Theory
This album would also go on most people’s list of all-time classic albums. It’s accessible, with catchy and danceable beats. It has memorable lyrics, and Q-Tip’s voice goes a long way towards drawing the listener in. What’s more, it (like other Tribe albums) grows on the listener, sometimes for years. This is perhaps the best example of that strange phenomenon in hip-hop whereby a perfect confluence of wording, music, and timing can create an incredibly resounding moment which must be experienced in the right setting to be understood, yet seems to stick with almost anyone who has listened to that particular piece. These moments are the kind of thing that frustrate many hip-hop fans the most, because they make no sense and often seem rather ridiculous when explained, but become a part of a shared heritage when experienced. Cameos by Leaders of the New School and Brand Nubian are an added bonus. (look, kids, it’s Busta Rhymes when he wasn’t a freak!) The politics are relatively mainstream, in stark contrast to a lot of their contemporaries (see: Public Enemy, X-Clan), which makes this a perfect “gateway” album for new listeners.
The Pharcyde — Bizarre Ride to the Pharcyde
I can still remember when I picked up this album (always a good sign). More often than not, I’d see this album stuck in the midst of the collection of some rock or pop fan, nestled between Beck and Stone Temple Pilots. The strength of the storytelling makes its appeal universal. This album is also unique in that it takes hip-hop’s machismo and attitude and turns it on its head. Where most rappers will go to great lengths to advertise their sexual prowess and appeal, they tell a bittersweet story about their failure to catch the eyes of their potential mates. When other rappers spit homophobic lyrics and violent ghetto tales, the Pharcyde instead describe in hilarious detail getting caught in some of the most embarrassing situations you could imagine. They also offer unique perspectives on the familiar themes of the police and smoking weed.
Public Enemy — Fear of a Black Planet
While most would argue that “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” is in fact their breakthrough album, I think that Public Enemy’s third effort offers the best combination of politics, production, and accessibility. One of the things that struck me about this album is how the production is structured to keep building the momentum and power of the music, continuing for several tracks and inevitably culminating in one of several hip-hop classics: “Welcome to the Terrordome” being the first and “Fight the Power” the last. The interplay of Flavor Flav and Chuck D adds remarkably to this effect, with Flav providing the release, and setting the stage for another eventual tour de force by his more serious counterpart. In addition, the sheer endurance and consistency of this album secures it a spot on almost any list of rap’s all-time greatest hits.
Heavy D — Big Tyme
Heavy D always put a great-sounding dance track as the first track on many of his albums, and “We Got Our Own Thang” is no exception. It marks this album as immediately recognizable, from the first second (see: the Humpty Dance), for anyone who listened to hip-hop in the early nineties. Heavy has the rare gift of being a talented lyricist and tunesmith all at once. While some tracks on this album were assured of being hits, based solely on catchy production, he also leaves the listener with long strings of lyrics that cannot be forgotten (“Height: 6-3, style: swing beat,…” and so on). The cameo line-up of “Don’t Curse”, which appeared on his next album, shows that his appeal across a wide spectrum of hip-hop listeners is universal: Kool G Rap, Grand Puba, Pete Rock, CL Smooth, Q-Tip, Big Daddy Kane.
Organized Konfusion — Stress: The Extinction Agenda
It would be remiss to compile any list of hip-hop albums and leave out representation of the darker side of the culture. Organized Konfusion’s second album is extremely important because it harnesses so effectively the frustration and tension that accompanies life in cultures where hip-hop is a central component. Because it centers on the causes, instead of the effects, of this tension, this album stands out, and did not recieve nearly the amount of critical acclaim which it deserved. Nevertheless, Pharoahe Monche’s re-tracing of the flight path of a stray bullet is nearly worth the price of the album by itself. As an added bonus, there are at least three tracks hidden among the general gloom of this album that, by contrast, radiate optimism and a sense of peace, showing that OK’s prose is as wide as it is deep.
The Roots – Things Fall Apart
It’s a hard call to choose just one Roots album because they have so much great material, but their most recent release has to be the best mix of lyricism, catchy hooks, and great overall production released in hip-hop in the past few years. The message to the Roots is so subtle that it is sometimes hard to find between all of the memorable one-liners (“we got a doctorate/in cold rockin’ it…) and get-it-stuck-in-your-head basslines (Dynamite, 100% Dundee, The Next Movement), at least one of which has found its way into a recent Volkswagen commercial. However, while Chuck D. will come straight out with his opinions, Black Thought and Malik choose to let their choice of specific words and topics speak to their mindsets. As an example, compare the rather mundane lyrical content of What They Do to the hilarious and, well, brutal caricatures found in the video. Perhaps the most interesting autobiographical element of Roots albums is the mini-diary enclosed in the jacket of each album.
De La Soul – Buhloone Mind State
Again, it’s a close call which of De La’s albums is the best representation of their genius. After some thought, I have to go with their most subdued work. If I had to convince someone of the incredible power and cleverness of some of the better vocalists in hip-hop, the first person I would quote would be Pos. Some of the double entendres and extended metaphors which he utilizes to make his point simply boggle the mind (to wit, check Stakes Is High, arguably his most impressive performance: “gun control means using both hands in my land…” or “neighborhoods are just hoods/cause nobody’s neighbors/just animals, surviving/with that animal behavior” or “these brothers no longer talk shit/hey yo, these ni**as LIVE it”). His autobiographical turn on “I Am I Be” is about as melancholy and personal as hip-hop gets, providing a counterpoint to their hyper-kinetic first two releases. Great stuff.
Mos Def – Black on Both Sides
This is the most recent release on the list, just as Mos Def seems to be the brightest hope for the future of interesting hip-hop these days. Mos Def’s lyrical style is reminiscent of Posdnuos’s, so I suppose it is fitting that he got his first break in the form of a cameo on Stakes Is High. This album is stacked from one end (Hip Hop, a very personal commentary about the artist’s personal relationship with the music) to the other (Mr. Nigga, a series of powerful insights about race and racism in the 90’s). The latter song is constructed so carefully that the lyrics almost read like a well-written essay. The thesis of the essay is never stated outright, but the message is clear to even the most inexperienced listener of hip-hop, a combination that makes this track universal to any person in any era. Add the seamless storytelling on Ms. Fat Booty to these two tracks, and you have three songs which could easily be hip-hop anthems. The remainder of this solid album is just gravy.
Email: Ben Schrag
Last updated: February 23, 2001.