(As the others have noted, hip hop music is littered with language and themes that are not appropriate for all. Viewer discretion is advised.)
I’m going to come at this from a slightly different angle than some of my fellow co-bloggers, who no doubt did a fantastic drop and opened my eyes to a number of artists I am really enjoying. But two things set me apart from these fine fellows: I’m slightly to slightly-more-than-slightly younger than each of them, still a month shy of my 30th birthday; and my primary exposure to music has always been the radio, MTV, and whatever my peers were listening to. Combining these two factors, plus a bit more context (growing up in the shadow of New York City and attending schools that were predominantly African-American), means that my list is going to be more mainstream than the rest, with a slight bias towards the late 90’s and early 00’s. My list will be most representative of what you might hear on the radio, on MTV, or what the “kids these days are listening to.” I also lack the musical/historical knowledge of my co-bloggers here. So some of these songs will be offered without comment as they are simply songs I like so I listen to them.
Kanye West – All of the Lights
Kanye singlehandedly broke me out of a not-listening-to-music funk with the release of his “My Dark and Twisted Fantasy” album in 2010. Until that point, I hadn’t listened to much music in several years, for a host of reasons that aren’t particularly interesting. But upon reading the reviews of MDATF, it appeared something special was going. And something special indeed was going on. This album is fantastic. EW recently ranked it as the #8 album ever. And while that might seem a bit inflated, listening to the album beginning to end really shows how special it is. Kanye has better songs than this one, both on the album and on other albums, but this became an anthem of sorts and captures just what he’s capable of. If you watch through the end of the video and notice all the artists listed as contributing and wonder, “What the F?” you must realize that Kanye sampled and mixed all of their voices into the hook. Because he’s Kanye West. And he can do that. This video is an edited version of the album, which includes more from Rihanna and Kid Cudi. Also, the video caused epileptic people to have seizures. Because that, too, is the kind of stupid shit Yeezy does.
Kanye West – Lost in the World
The final musical track from MDATW, Kanye samples a Bon Iver song to make an absolutely ridiculous song. When the drumline hits at about the 1 minute mark, he had me. I’m a sucker for anything that can convince me it has a marching band involved. A personal note: My high school marching band was phenomenal. If our band director believed that music ought to be competitive, we (they, really… I wasn’t involved) would have won multiple competitions. But he thought competition poisoned music. He also gave our seniors the ability to lead 4th quarters at football games, during which they eschewed traditional songs and did arrangements of popular hip hop and pop songs. If you’ve never seen a talented marching band do hip hop, you’re missing out. Also, I love the movie “Drumline”.
Kanye West – Hey Mama
Despite all his ridiculousness, one of Kanye’s most remarkable talents lies in his ability and willingness to be honest, earnest, and vulnerable in his music. In a genre dominated by braggadocios machismo, Kanye is willing to show other sides. This is his ode to his mother.
Kanye West and Jay Z – Otis
Can you tell I really like Kanye? Well, this at least allows us to start to pivot towards other musicians. This is from Kanye’s collaboration with Jay Z entitled “Watch the Throne”. This song shows just what Kanye can do, taking a single hook from an Otis Redding song and turning it into one of the catchiest beats. It also shows some of Kanye’s best rapping, which was always his weakest skill. Challenged by Jay Z’s superior oratory skills, Kanye brings it and the product is possibly my favorite rap song ever. Also, the video is awesome. I always interpreted it as Jay and ‘Ye saying, “You think you’re big because you drive a Maybach? Dude, we can destroy a Maybach and not even notice.” Ballsy.
Jay Z – Empire State of Mind
Hova collaborates with Alicia Keyes for the song that ought to replace “New York, New York” at the end of Yankee games. Give someone an opportunity to connection one passion (their music) with another passion (their hometown) and you’ll get something special.
Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz – Deja Vu
Another hometown anthem. Spotify tells me no one listens to this song. Whatever, I liked it. It had a simple beat that worked. I should also say that when Shakira stole the little brassy intro, I spent a solid year getting excited that this song was making a comeback only to get bombarded by her wailing. Sigh..
Lil’ Wayne – 6 Foot 7
Weezy can be a bit of a divisive figure. Some people love him, some hate him. I love him. I love this song. He can get my head bopping.
Outkast – Rosa Parks
This is the first single from the Atlanta rap duo. I remember randomly catching the video my junior year of high school and thinking, “Holy crap. What are these guys doing?” In a good way. I remember telling a friend about them who was all like, “What? That won’t work.” So, yea, I discovered Outkast.
Big Boi – The Rooster
From the dual solo albums Outkast’s members released. I was always partial to Big Boi’s, which had some similar “wall of sound” stuff going on that Kanye would later do. Also, horns? Love it.
Ludacris – Growing Pains
Let’s stick in Atlanta for a minute. Ludacris could be a clown and made entirely too much bank wrapping about hoes and area codes. But I always thought this was his better work, as it was far more honest than the other silliness.
Wu-Tang – Triumph
Sam discussed this song on his post and I don’t have much to add, other than I love the idea that they made a 6+ minute song that doesn’t have a chorus, yet works perfectly and I wish it were long.
Lauryn Hill – Lost Ones
Hill was more well known for her soulful singing than her rapping. But her rapping was awesome.
Wale – Sabotage
Wale represents the DMV, a long ignored area in hip hop. I caught this song on the radio to learn who he was.
Wale – Slight Work
Probably a better example of the Go-Go style of his hometown.
Snoop – Gin and Juice
We’re getting into “anthem” territory here. Classic rap. The canon. A perfect example of West Coast G-Funk.
2Pac – Keep Ya Head Up
The first of the two biggest figures in rap, at least for my lifetime. Maybe I’m partial to young guys gunned down too young, but 2Pac’s talent and influence can’t be overstated. It is hard to choose a “best” or “favorite” song, so I’ll go with a few that I think demonstrate his range. I’ll also be discussing him in more depth on tomorrow’s wrap-up/bar-fight style post. Stay tuned!
2Pac – How Do You Want It
2Pac – I Ain’t Mad at Cha
Notorious B.I.G. – Big Poppa
The second of the two biggest figures (CHECK BACK FOR MORE ON THIS TOMORROW!!), Biggie was always the more resonant figure for me. I actually think I like 2Pac better, but I remember Biggie and, more importantly, his death being a bigger deal. The outpouring of grief in my school when he was shot… you’d have thunk another Kennedy died.
Notorious B.I.G. – Juicy
This is it. It’s over. This is THE anthem. When that first lyric drops (“It was all a dream”), it’s over. The party starts, the hands go up, every one knows what’s coming, everyone is dancing. Go to a house party in the 90’s and play this song and watch what happens. We should develop time travel technology just so you guys can see what that was like.
Schoolly D – PSK, What Does It Mean?
While we are in our time machine, let’s go back a decade for one more song. Just to show that I’m not solely limited to what got major airplay. Schoolly D was the original gangsta rapper. For better or worse, he made it happen with this song. This song is simpler than most of the others on this list, back when DJs were the name of the game and producers with soundboards weren’t yet a reality. But it accomplishes a lot with a simple beat and a hypnotic flow, ultimately launching what became the dominant subgenre of rap.
These songs and many others are available via a Spotify playlist created by good buddy and co-blogger Chris.