A Hip-Hop Playlist, Briefly
(The songs below contain bad language. If such things aren’t appropriate where you are right now, then listening to them at maximum volume is probably not a good idea.)
I am 32 now, almost 33, so frankly, whatever little I’d once been willing to invest in the outward appearance of cool is now going toward a mortgage. This embrace of life post-cool is freeing in its own way, although I’m not sure that cool ever had a passing interest in me. I like what I like. I ignore the rest.
I ignore anything that lacks the sound that I’m looking for. This is true of all music in my life. At some point, somebody told me of Duke Ellington’s famous, “If it sounds good, it is good!” standard of musical critique, and I’ve never found a reason to evolve from it. I am loathe to try explaining the sound as I understand it; critics that do often end up creating the ludicrous word soup. Instead, there is what’s below, in no particular order, although if you chose to listen to them in the order I’ve put them in, you wouldn’t die.
1. “Bombs Over Baghdad” – Outkast
At the time, I’d never heard anything like this particular track.* Ever. Nothing so aggressive, nothing so diverse, nothing so expressive, nothing so nuanced, nothing so loud. This isn’t because I lead some sort of sheltered musical life, but at the time, I remember making the guy playing the song do so over and over and over again, just so I could take it in. And everywhere I turn within this track, there’s something worth discovering, whether it’s the unrelenting delivery or the hugely illustrative lyrics.
And those lyrics. “Weatherman telling us it ain’t gonna rain, so now we sittin in a droptop soaking wet, in our silk suits, trying not to sweat…” Understood simply as an isolated image, that’s a fantastic use of the English language, but when understood to be a thorough dismissal of the band’s critics? Even better. So, so much better.
2. “Sick of Bein’ Lonely” – Field Mob
Barring a re-emergence, Field Mob will forever be associated mostly with this song. I’ve written before about my appreciation when even a single song hits; making memorable music is hard after all, and even if it only happens once, it is an achievement worth celebrating. In this particular case, there is the sheer oddity of what’s happening in the lyrics paired with that static-y beat. A close listen sees one member of the Field Mob realizing that he might have wrecked his marriage with his flagrantly irresponsible behavior, only to be followed by the group’s other member, lasciviously pursuing the ex-wife. I’m not sure I’ve ever liked anything as I like the idea of saying, “Ain’t no mo better, freakier feller…” at the top of a CV.
3. “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” – Busta Rhymes
Rhymes is famous for his flashy, over the top everything, neither subtle nor understated, the sort who almost seems as if his music is constraining him. Two of his singles though – the one above and “Dangerous” – seem like something else, something more controlled, something more specific. Whether it’s that subtle beat or the hook, Rhymes seemed to channel his ferocity here.
4. “Big Pimpin” – Jay-Z featuring UGK
There’s a lot to discuss here. The hook’s odd genesis? The plainly misogynistic lyrics? Jay-Z‘s amusing stutter on the chorus? All deserve mention. But whenever I think about this song, I’m always taken with UGK‘s verses. Though Jay-Z is widely considered to be one of the greatest ever, UGK thoroughly steals the show here. And then professionally, as quickly as they’d appeared, they disappeared from the national scene, returning to their Texas roots.
Bun B’s “Go read a book you illiterate son of a bitch and step up your vocab…” for example? That’s high-end trolling before such a thing existed.
5. “Sock It 2 Me” – Missy Elliott featuring Da Brat
The first three minutes here are potentially as perfect as anything ever. Missy – never much known for her subtlety about such things – makes quite clear what she’s hoping that you’re willing to do, going so far as to slow her chorus down to a spoken set of promises about the series of events that is about to unfold.
And then…Da Brat. She had a few very successful minutes there at the end of the 1990s, a terrible thing that we can all collectively agree was a huge mistake. Hip-hop is odd like that. I struggle to think of other musical genres that can create such visceral reactions in me, even within songs that I genuinely love. Fortunately for all of us, Da Brat stops and then the song does. Also, editing songs in iTunes in a such a way as to excise these plainly awful parts is remarkably easy.
6. “From Tha Church To Tha Palace” – Snoop Dogg
That beat – courtesy of The Neptunes, back when they were the hottest thing imaginable – is everything. And again, as with the last track, there are problems: particularly the “comedy” skit that gets thrown into the video, as if that’s anything but an unwanted distraction. Ignore that though, and this is a driving track, one that doesn’t let up despite the relatively oddity of its high-pitched chorus. And those 14-inch rims, rolling on the side? They’re good too.
7. “Soul Flower (Remix)” – The Pharcyde
Pharcyde might have been the first hip-hop group that I was ever able to consider mine in a substantive way; I was the first person I knew that liked them, the first person that I knew that owned anything by them, the first person I knew who felt like I got it. That doesn’t mean I was the first person to discover the band of course, but when you’re a teenager, having something that seems genuinely yours is an important feeling. Whereas everybody I knew was into hip-hop that seemed more serious, this seemed…less so, not in a negative way, but in a way that made it more accessible to me. The album that this song appears on – Bizarre Ride 2 Tha Pharcyde – remains one of my all-time favorites, a substantive achievement even now, almost 20 years later. (Holy shit, that’s my hair turning grayer after realizing this album is nearly 20-years-old.)
I will sadly note that after a second album that abandoned much of the playfulness for something considerably more adult (Labcabincalifornia), The Pharcyde collapsed.
8. “Fu-gee-la” – The Fugees
--The Fugees are almost certainly hip-hop’s greatest disappointment. It isn’t that they got it worked out for a single song; they created one of the greatest albums ever. And then…nothing. Lauryn Hill released a hugely praised solo album, Wyclef Jean continued to make generally disinteresting pop music, and Pras continues to plot the day that he kidnaps the other two and forces them into making a follow-up album.
-Hill is incredibly. Jean is middling. Pras is awful. And yet, I can’t praise The Score enough. I also can’t come up with a suitable thing to compare The Score to. It’s like a one-hit wonder, except that the hit is the album, and there’s no disappointing musical followup. Because there’s no followup.
-True story: Lauryn Hill was at one point so good that one night at work, my coworker and I were flipping channels and discovered somebody familiar performing live. We both stopped, mouthes agape. “Is that Lauryn Hill?” I asked. He nodded excitedly. “Stop, stop, stop,” he said. “We’re watching this.” We were like little kids at discovering this unexpected appearance. And then we realized why it was both: it was terrible. She sounded awful. It was impossible to reconnect this person we were seeing to the heavenly achievement that is The Score.
-I’ll never understand what happened. Maybe it’s for the best that way.
9. “Triumph” – Wu-Tang Clan
I’ve never known how to properly process the Wu-Tang Clan, so I’ll simply say this: a legitimate percentage of hip-hop’s greatest ever albums have come from individuals associated with the Wu-Tang Clan, most notably GZA, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah. Then there are the group’s members who have had a larger cultural impact, such as Method Man‘s little bit of everything, RZA‘s soundtracks, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard‘s…well, Ol’ Dirty Bastardness.
I have no idea if this is the strongest work that Wu-Tang ever did. There are certainly rougher, harder tracks, but this one seems to me to be the one that most captured the total talent on offer. It’s only shortcoming is ODB’s lyrical absence. A fun thing to argue about is who had the hottest verse. Oddly, I’ve always been particularly loyal to Inspectah Deck’s intro.
10. “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” – The Roots
Philadelphia’s The Roots are now Jimmy Fallon’s house band, good work if you can get it, and probably unfairly held against them by purists who think that they’ve sold out. I’m not an idiot though, so those are hardly thoughts that concern me. Instead, perhaps acknowledging the rarity of men and women performing together, as happens here, as happened with The Fugees, and has happened…when exactly? I’m sure there are more excellent examples, but it’s a rarer thing than it ought to be. Also worth mentioning: that’s Devin the Dude on the hook. He’ll be back in a minute.
11. “All Caps” – MadVillain
I’ve got two types of favorites: tracks that hit the sweetspot and tracks that I haven’t heard before. This is mostly the latter with liberal dashes of the former. And I’m not alone in this. A certain type of hip-hop fan absolutely worships everything that’s happening in Madvillainy, mostly because it’s such a departure from what was considered standard. It’s almost as if MF Doom and MadLib wanted the album to fail, and yet, in doing so, they created something genius. This track is probably the album’s best, although the sad lament of “Accordion” ain’t half bad either.
12. “I Hi” – Devin the Dude
I somehow managed to develop a serious drinking problem without ever once getting high. That fact alone tends to make somebody like Devin the Dude inaccessible; everything he’s talking about heavily influenced by marijuana. You’ll notice that the song itself isn’t exactly the most cleverly named thing. But what am I gonna do, ignore that quiet little loop there in the deep background? While the guy explains his own backstory? Telling the story of his own maturation in music? Because I can’t ignore that. It’s too compelling.
13. “Medieval” – Jemini (produced by Danger Mouse)
I stand in awe of this beat. Appreciative, enthusiastic awe. I think that’s almost entirely Danger Mouse‘s doing. It’s not that I don’t like Jemini. It’s just I’ve never run across Jemini without Danger Mouse. That speaks volumes.
(And the two songs that come before this on the album: “Copy Cats” and “Don’t Do Drugs”? They combine to form my favorite hip-hop triplet on any album that I can think of. I’m don’t think there is a more perfect 12ish minutes of hip-hop that better meets my personal needs. Obviously, those are specific to me, but then, I’m the one writing this.)
14. “Once Again” – Handsome Boy Modeling School
I’m a Dan the Automator fanboy. He produced an incredible string of albums from 1996 to 2001, my own formative years, and until Danger Mouse’s emergence, I would have proclaimed him my favorite producer. There were lots of tracks I could have picked, but this one’s accessible and off what’s arguably the work he’s most associated with, even though his production of the first Gorillaz album is almost certainly better known.
15. “Mo Money/Mo Problems” – The Notorious B.I.G., plus some other guys
I make no apologies. I never have. I never will. This song dominated at least a summer of mine and the other night, after getting a car stereo installed in a family vehicle my wife and I bought as we prepare for our third child, my 12-year-old daughter and I danced like only a father and daughter can when this came on the iPod shuffle. Ellington said if it sounds good, it is good. This sounds good.
*Worth noting: that sound that I talked about in the introduction can be found throughout Outkast’s absurd body of work. However, I’ve handicapped myself to picking just this one track, a track that, I should note, isn’t necessarily my favorite of Outkast’s. That would be “High Schoolin'”, a track that never appeared on any of the group’s albums. Instead, it was found on the soundtrack to Light It Up, an Usher vehicle that tanked.