Let's face it: most mainstream modern rap music is derivative, repetitive, and misogynistic. Artists use and re-use the same tired themes, ideas, and concepts, and do not even bother to stretch beyond these, instead sticking to the same old formula of loud beats and monotonic invocations of their bitches and material possessions. Turn on MTV. Are any of these artists really distinguishable from one another? Listen to the beats blasting from other automobiles as you ride along. Is there anything of real value there?
Mainstream rap has so codified itself into a strict set of rules that to the outside listener, it sounds completely stale and derivative. It's no wonder that so many people offer that they'll listen to "anything but rap;" for many, this repetitive and often meritless music doesn't warrant a second glance.
But once you get past this outer veneer, there is good rap music.
I submit for your perusal twenty five albums that show the huge variety of cultures, sounds, and perspectives represented by rap music. Most of these albums do not subscribe at all to the modern stereotypes of the genre; these recordings include several albums focusing on any number of major social issues (poverty, crime, even religion's role in secular life); others are truly experimental, including a concept album about the life of a gynecologist in the year 3000.
I strongly invite you to research these albums, listen to some samples on Amazon, perhaps download an mp3 or two, and open your eyes and ears and mind and soul to the gorgeous tapestry of these seminal examples of rap music. These recordings are ordered chronologically, meaning that you shouldn't assume that the first one is the "best" by any means, and I've noted the label and ASIN of the most available release of each one. Each album is also reasonably widely available, meaning you shouldn't have to go to too much legwork to find any of these. I've also selected a single track from each one that, if you're interested, would be a great introductory track to the group's work. I invite you to give a listen to all of these; there is intellectual and creative magic in all of them.
Also, this is far from an "essential" rap list; instead, these are merely twenty five selections that have the potential to increase one's respect and appreciation for the possibilities and achievements of rap music. For this reason, I've neglected to include many of the "landmark" rap albums (Nas' Illmatic, NWA's Straight Outta Compton, and Dr. Dre's The Chronic, for starters) simply because so much of what followed them was derivative of their sound and content, to the point that even though the albums themselves are genius, they've become almost typical of the genre.
Onwards with the list...
Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
(original release: 1970-1972; RCA; ASIN: B000002WAW)
It's difficult to say with authority what the "first" rap record is. Some might chart it to some of the rambling blues recordings from the 1920s; others point to such items as Rapper's Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang; one of my closest friends swears that it is Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. For my money, I go to Gil Scott-Heron's albums from the early 1970s, and this is the best of them.
The album takes the form of a poetry slam set to jazz music with Scott-Heron reciting lyrics that expound on various cultural issues, from racism to prison reform to child welfare to individual liberty and responsibility. Scott-Heron has a smoky baritone voice that just floats over the top of the jazz riffs like ashes from a chimney on a cold winter morning in a small industrial town.
Scott-Heron is an obvious forebear to later socially conscious acts; it's hard not to see the connections to later acts like Public Enemy and The Roots. If you enjoy this album, you should also look into The Last Poets, Scott-Heron's contemporaries who were recording similar things at the time.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is perhaps his best known work - and for good reason: besides being an excellent track in its own right, it sums up his sound in a very succinct fashion. It is a powerful piece, often quoted on this site and elsewhere; visit the node for lyrics and much more detailed information.
Afrika Bambaataa, Looking for the Perfect Beat
(original release: 1980-1985; Tommy Boy; ASIN: B00005ABF6)
Afrika Bambaataa was one of the earliest rap pioneers and one of the first to achieve any mainstream success, although he had largely faded out of the mainstream by the time Run DMC hit it big. Rap at that time was primarily released as singles; it simply didn't have enough support to warrant full length albums. Thus, Bambaataa's work is best found in compilations, such as this one.
Many of Bambaataa's tracks were heavily influenced by electronica and featured heavy use of synthesizers and other elements; he often sampled such groups as Kraftwerk and Can in his music. Lyrically, Bambaataa usually stuck to the common theme of rap at the time, which was to invite the crowd to get up and dance, but the beats sound so original even today that they sound like they come from some kind of alternate universe where a warped version of the early 1980s is still evolving and transpiring.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Planet Rock is the first rap song I remember hearing and it sounded like some sort of alien landscape. The song is based around a sample of Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express and is rich in that early 80's electronic sound. In other words, to some ears it might sound a bit dated, but I find it as amazingly powerful today as it was twenty years ago.
Grandmaster Flash, Message From Beat Street
(original release: 1981-1984; Rhino; ASIN: B00000338D)
Grandmaster Flash was perhaps the first culturally relevant rapper. He took the party beats and rhythms of rap at the time and was the first (with any degree of success) to transpose these elements with social commentary. The end result, found in the recordings on this compilation, is something that's not really found anywhere else: the synthesizer sound of the end of the disco era found on a lot of the rap "party" records of the time, but with lyrics expounding on societal problems.
Rap would soon begin to undergo a number of sonic transformations that would result in the generic beat-heavy sound of today, but Grandmaster Flash's early 1980s recordings sit at a fascinating point in the evolution of the genre, a point where you'll find no other recordings really like it. It's almost a combination of the first two recordings on this list: the cultural relevance of Gil Scott-Heron crossed with the audioscapes of Afrika Bambaataa.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: The Message, perhaps more than any other song I've ever heard, changed my perspective on the power of music. I'd heard the blues, I'd heard tons 1960s protest songs, and I'd heard some of the epic rock of the 1970s, but nothing came close to the raw power of Flash's seven minute long diatribe about the sorry state of the inner city. Backed by only a very basic electronic beat, the focus is the lyrics, and they are amazingly powerful. In terms of personal impact, The Message is in the highest pantheon of music of all genres.
Run DMC, Raising Hell
(original release: 1986; Arista; ASIN: B00000J7IT)
This album, in one fell swoop, summarizes everything that is right about the early days of rap. Clever rhyming (Peter Piper), a good dose of humor (My Adidas and You Be Illin'), some experimentation in mixing rock and rap (Walk This Way and It's Tricky), and some worthwhile social commentary (Proud to Be Black) are all found on this disc. It manages to be accessible, while at the same time not misogynistic nor repetitive like so much of what was to follow.
The fact that this is one of the landmark records in rap history is not the reason this album can be found here. It's here because it's simply a joy to listen to from beginning to end. There is not a weak or repetitive track on this entire album, and the eclectic sound allows anyone to find something to enjoy.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Peter Piper is one of a small handful of tracks I play for friends when I am trying to demonstrate the lyrical rhythms and wordplay of quality rap. The song is constructed as a tribute to the creativity of the group's DJ, Jam Master Jay, and the lyrics use a pastiche of references to Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm to emphasize the point. Not particularly deep and meaningful, but full of some of the catchiest wordplay you'll ever hear.
Beastie Boys, Paul's Boutique
(original release: 1989; Capitol; ASIN: B000002UUN)
This album demonstrates the power of sampling; it was recorded prior to changes in copyright laws that essentially forbade the use of found sound in recordings without permission of the copyright holders of the original recording. For the most part, every song is constructed out of samples from a huge variety of sources: film soundtracks, spoken word recordings, and a bevy of classic music recordings from the likes of the Beatles, Johnny Cash, the Ramones, Isaac Hayes, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Chic, Public Enemy, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley, Alice Cooper, James Brown, and countless others.
Because of the free-for-all nature of sampling at the time and the subsequent lockdown on such things, you'll never again hear anything like this album; the Grey Album has absolutely nothing on this masterwork. Yet it's all tied together by the extremely complex rapping of the Beasties on this album; their respect for the multitude of samples and their ability to weave pop culture references together into a pop-infused vocal Frankenstein of epic proportions is unbelievably impressive. It's truly sad that you'll never hear anything like this again: if it were attempted today, it would be prosecuted into oblivion before anyone would have the chance to hear it. Even albums as impressive as The Avalanches' Since I Left You (the best comparison, I think) cannot really compare since virtually all of the samples on the latter recording are highly obscure.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Sounds of Science almost sounds like a direct sequel to Simon and Garfunkel's Sound of Silence. Although many of the songs on this album are at a high level, the epic close to this album over the guitar riff sampled from The Beatles' The End and the humorous bordering on ridiculous lyrics (the last line is "Dropping science like when Galileo dropped the orange") make this something to behold.
De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising
(original release: 1989; Tommy Boy; ASIN: B000000HHE)
Rap has a reputation of being rather negative and nihilistic in its message and presentation. Even when rap attempts a positive message, this message is often borne out of a darker place. 3 Feet High and Rising constructs a universe out of the opposite to that idea, that there is a positive universe inside of all of us. For that very reason, De La Soul were decried loudly as sellouts and very quickly faded into obscurity, eventually growing their own rather negative streak that would crop up on their great follow-up De La Soul is Dead.
It is this bubbliness, this positive nature and stance, that makes this album stand out. It manages to be pure fun while at the same time dense and complex; while you're bobbing your head to samples from Schoolhouse Rock and The Turtles (who, by the way, sued De La Soul due to unauthorized sampling, which led directly to the crackdown on sampling), the album is carefully constructing a dialect and mythology that ties this entire album together in a strange universe where rap groups are performing at some sort of giant late 1980s neon Woodstock. How else do you explain the cover of this album, done in neon yellow and pink and covered with hand-drawn daisies?
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Magic Number is an incredibly clever reworking of the Schoolhouse Rock anthem Three is a Magic Number, retaining the catchiness of the original while expanding on the song to make a grander statement of unity. Be careful: this is one of those songs that burrows into your mind and refuses to escape.
Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet
(original release: 1990; Def Jam; ASIN: B0000024IE)
This album is political rap. It's really had to say much more than that; no album ever has represented a full political philosophy and perspective like this one does. It works because of the urgency of the music, though; the whole album is thrust forward from beginning to end with this frightening force, almost as if the group has the hounds of hell at their feet.
Their message might be a bit militant for some, but the group backs up their political philosophy time and time again, sneaking in the evidence with effective referential wordplay and clever sampling in places. There is a rage here, a fury at the ills of society; such a fury encapsulated is a true artistic achievement. The simple fact that you're able to bob your head at some of these songs (911 Is A Joke, Welcome to the Terrordome, and Fight the Power come to mind) speaks to the greatness of this album.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Welcome to the Terrordome is simply one of the most frightening pieces of music I've ever heard. It drives along like few things I've ever heard and the raw rage at the world in Chuck D's vocal delivery is amazing. After several listens, the lyrics themselves sneak up on you as they paint a detailed picture at a man clearly upset with race conditions, particularly within his own race. Powerful, powerful stuff; this song alone will make it clear why Public Enemy is often seen with such reverence.
A Tribe Called Quest, Peoples' Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm
(original release: 1990; Jive; ASIN: B0000004WA)
This album is widely considered to be the birth of underground rap; it was released at the very point where so-called gangsta rap was pushing its way into the mainstream, and its repetitive messages of rage, nihilism, and misogyny would push most rappers with other messages and concepts firmly into smaller labels and smaller releases; it's hard to sell five million copies when you aren't blatantly appealing to suburban white kids who want to believe they're pimps.
This album is full of very mellow beats; it would be impossible to blast this album out of your speakers while driving down the street. Instead, you have a vibrant horn section and some very clever lyricism, particularly with Can I Kick It?, which maintains two separate rhyming sequences that each go on for better than a minute, never failing to rhyme with the line before it, while bouncing along to a memorable rhythm. Much like De La Soul, the goal is far from nihilistic; it's a celebration of life; the only difference is that A Tribe Called Quest excels at the vocal narrative, weaving long and complex tales along with the upbeat arrangements.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: I Left My Wallet in El Segundo demonstrates what can be done with the vocal narrative coupled with a mellow yet upbeat sound. The lyrics tell a complete story while you nod your head to the sound, relating a road trip to the Mexican border with friends and a wallet accidentally left behind. All the pieces just come together on this one, creating a song that's hard to forget.
Arrested Development, Three Years, Five Months and Two Days in the Life Of ...
(original release: 1992; Capitol; ASIN: B000003JBE)
At the time when I first heard this album, gangsta rap was beginning to capture the mainstream, with Dr. Dre's The Chronic selling copies like they were hotcakes. Aside from the gangsta rappers, however, rap mostly consisted of pop rappers such as Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. Yet, there was also room for Arrested Development and their all-too-short career, which consisted of this album, a live album, and a second studio album that only saw release after the group had separated.
The only way to describe Arrested Development is to call it folk rap; there's really no other way to state it. I've never heard another rap group that would fit in perfectly at the Newport Folk Festival besides this one; if you appreciate the folk music of the 1960s, this is an album you should look into. Much like that earlier protest music, most of these songs are about social and political issues, ranging from how to deal with the homeless, race relations, the trials of being a single mother, and so forth. Even the song titles from the album evoke a folk mentality: Children Play With Earth, Raining Revolution, Fishin' 4 Religion, and Give A Man A Fish appear back to back on the album. The whole album has an earthy feel to it, an organic sensibility that seems almost alien in the rap world. These people had a great deal of musical talent, from the vocals to the instrumentation; it's a shame that they didn't continue to make music.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Mr. Wendal is a powerful discussion of the homeless, coupled with wonderful vocalization (in places, the rap blends into some wonderful singing for a bit, then returns to the rap form) and instrumentation (it sounds like a folk music rally is going on behind the vocal performers). There are many good songs on this album, but Mr. Wendal is perhaps the most powerful of all of them.
Digable Planets, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)
(original release: 1993; Capitol; ASIN: B000000W31)
Digable Planets took rap in another direction in 1993 and saw a bit of mainstream success out of it, scooped up along with the "alternative" explosion of the early 1990s, and thus this album became something of the last hurrah for underground rap for a long time. This album is a fusion of rap and the 1950s jazz and beatnik community, fusing the Miles Davis cool jazz sounds with the vocal techniques of rap, and somehow it all works.
The group unabashedly dives headfirst into liberal philosophies (exposed on such tracks as the pro choice anthem La Femme Fetal), adopting names such as Butterfly and Ladybug, and thoroughly bathing themselves in an aesthetic completely outside the expectations of the rap community. Their music is unusual, too, sounding much like a jazz band with a clever lyricist at the front. In many ways, their sound harkens straight back to Gil Scott-Heron and such early vocal narrativists. The jazz music is catchy, though, and somehow this fusion of disparate elements just seems to work.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) was Digable Planets' single gasp at mainstream success, and for good reason: it's got a distinctive and catchy sound, fusing what's good from the realms of both jazz and rap. The entire song comes off like some sort of poetry slam at a jazz club; you can almost imagine the dark nightclub with people sitting around with drinks in their hand, nodding their head along in time with the music.
The Genius / GZA, Liquid Swords
(original release: 1995; Geffen; ASIN: B000000OUJ)
The Wu Tang Clan is one of the few underground rap groups to break through with significant mainstream success. A rather large New York collective, their album Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) introduced a significant new perspective to rap, that of martial arts as a metaphor for life and performance. Heavily interspliced with clips from martial arts films and filled with eight vocalists taking turns, 36 Chambers sounded new and amazing (and in fact probably deserves a slot on this list). One member of the collective, The Genius / GZA, took this metaphor to an entirely new level on their own album, Liquid Swords.
It is fitting that the member of the Wu Tang known for the most intelligent lyrics and most creativity in production would create an extremely dense and mindblowing album, using the struggle of serfs against a ruling shogun and the executioner torn between the two sides but respected by both as an overall theme. The effect it creates is that of a rap album created by Akira Kurosawa, full of symbolism and imagery that manages to make the struggles of feudal Japan combine seamlessly with our modern lives.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Liquid Swords starts off the album with a lengthy exposition from a child, setting the mood and story of the album before evolving into a driving number, backed by what sounds like a soundtrack to a lost Kurosawa film, placing the proverbial executioner into a modern setting, that of 1990s New York City. Distinctive, effective, and intelligent, much like the rest of the album.
Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagonecologyst
(original release: 1997; Dreamworks; ASIN: B000005AM7)
This is, quite simply, one of the strangest albums I've ever heard. Dr. Octagon professes to be a gynecologist from the planet Jupiter in the year 3000 and the album is constructed around this concept, allowing Octagon to wax poetic about all sorts of issues from genetics to the integration of technology into everyday life to... well, bizarre doesn't accurately capture the plain weirdness of much of this album.
"Dr. Octagon" is in fact a duo, that of Kool Keith (who we'll hear from again) as the rapper and Dan the Automator as the producer. Kool Keith is perhaps the strangest individual ever to put a rap album into widespread release and his fetishes and quirks are on wide display here, almost to the point of being uncomfortable; he's also a master of the non sequitur and free association, his stuttering style mixing together ruminations on acne, genetics, and caffeine addiction like soap on a rope. The Automator, on the other hand, creates the sonic backdrops of this album, and they sound like they belong to some sort of dystopian future where psychotics like Dr. Octagon are allowed to practice medicine. Basically, this album is simply too bizarre to describe; if you think rap music is all about flashy cars, pimps, and hos, this will change your mind directly.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Earth People is one of the most deluded yet mesmerizing rants I've ever heard. For a good chunk of it, I have no idea what the hell Kool Keith is stuttering on about; the free association and sheer randomness of it moves along with too much chaos for me to follow. The lyrics come off like some of Beck's better material: non sequitur after non sequitur inside a futuristic rhythm that flows like honey.
Wyclef Jean, The Carnival
(original release: 1997; Sony; ASIN: B00000DSN0)
This is, quite simply, the best album in the rap genre I've ever heard. Admittedly, it treads the line between r&b and rap (and world music, for that matter) in places, so some may question why this album can be found on this list. It is amazingly strong from beginning to end; to this day, it's the only rap album I'll listen to on repeat without skipping a single track.
So, what makes The Carnival such a great album? Never once does it fail to surprise, to twist things around in ways you didn't expect. It's a rap album at its core, but it slips into r&b, world music, jazz, and so many other elements that it almost feels like a whirlwind tour of all of the music that has ever influenced Wyclef Jean. The cultural influences are thick as well: it moves from being as American as apple pie to being soaked in Haitian, Cuban, and Jamaican influences at the blink of an eye. It manages to soak all of these influences together into a new kind of stew, something amazing and eclectic.
If you decide to buy one album off of this list, let this be the one.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Gone Till November is, quite simply, my favorite song recorded in the last ten years. There are so many great tracks on this album, but Gone Till November is one of those sublime moments that accentuates everything that is right with music. Someday, I plan to write up this song in detail and attempt to explain with my frail writing voice all that this song means to me, but I can assure you now that I will fall short.
Black Star, Black Star
(original release: 1998; Rawkus; ASIN: B000067CLT)
This is a fascinating political concept album done by two of the best modern artists in the genre, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. The album focuses on the messages and teachings of Marcus Garvey, as evident from the symbolism on the album cover and the name of the collaboration (taken from Garvey's shipping company), and takes these ideas into a modern context. Weighty, intellectual stuff, yet the smooth voices and rhythms of the two performers along with the very sparse jazzy backing enable these ideas to take center stage.
While not nearly as militant as Public Enemy, Black Star does indeed have a very strong central message: take some pride in who you are and do something about your situation. Both have the same goal, that of an energized populace, but while Public Enemy's message focuses on aggression and revolution, Black Star's message is that of self-reliance. A very intelligent commentary, and sadly one that is often ignored, hence this album's obscurity.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Re: Definition shows the vocal quality of both performers with some very intelligent lyrics, referencing without hesitation such historical and cultural elements as Willie Lynch's "Making of a Slave" speech and Prince as an inspirational cultural figure. The production here is very sparse, letting Mos Def and Talib Kweli have center stage, and their lyrics make the case that such respect is deserved.
Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
(original release: 1998; Sony; ASIN: B00000ADG2)
In many ways, this is the female-oriented parallel to The Carnival. Lauren and Wyclef were both members of The Fugees, a group whose 1996 album The Score sold several truckloads of copies. The Score is a very good album and perhaps deserves a slot on this list as well, but to my ears it was overshadowed by these two albums by members of the group, much like the final Beatles' album was overshadowed by the amazing first solo albums by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and especially George Harrison.
While I feel that Wyclef's album is musically stronger than Lauryn's, this album deserves a great deal of credit for being one of the few rap albums led by a well-spoken intelligent female with a strong message that can carry her own weight without overbearing production or relying on sexual innuendo. It is truly a pleasure to listen to this album; Lauryn presents a well-formed picture of a woman who can stand on her own two feet, a woman who feels no need to flaunt her sexuality. It's a picture that is so rare in the rap genre; the fact that this album is very strong from a musical perspective as well speaks even more to the beauty of this album.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Doo Wop (That Thing) sums up, both lyrically and musically, everything that is great about this album. A driving rhythm is formed around a lengthy commentary on the breaking down of relationships, of misplaced and unwarranted expectations. It is refreshing to have a female voice expounding worthwhile and thoughtful lyrics.
Handsome Boy Modeling School, So... How's Your Girl?
(original release: 1999; Tommy Boy; ASIN: B00001ZWEF)
It is difficult to describe this album without immediately creating some preconceptions in the minds of the reader, so just bear with me for a moment while I try to explain this album. The album is a concept album based on the short-lived Chris Elliott sitcom Get A Life, which stumbled through a year and a half on Fox before getting cancelled. On this show, references were made to a "handsome boy modeling school," where ugly and antisocial people could go to learn how to be "handsome." From this concept, an album was born.
This album is basically a haphazard collection of all sorts of eclectic people and random things thrown into the vague overall umbrella of a rap album. At its base are "Chest Rockwell" (Prince Paul) and "Nathaniel Merriweather" (Dan the Automator), but the album is so loaded with utterly random guest appearances (how often will you hear Chris Elliott, Sean Lennon, Cibo Matto, and Del tha Funkee Homosapien on the same album?) and a great amount of sonic diversity that it becomes something else entirely. It essentially becomes the type of album that you'd play at a party with friends well-versed in pop culture who can disassemble this album into its huge array of parts.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Sunshine perhaps best sums up the experience of Handsome Boy Modeling School. This track alone features appearances from Sean Lennon, samples of Chris Elliott, folk rocker Paula Frazer, and Father Guido Sarducci. It's so random and eclectic that it's almost a must-listen.
The Roots, Things Fall Apart
(original release: 1999; MCA; ASIN: B00000I5JL)
The Roots are something of an anomaly in the rap community. Perhaps their most unusual feature is that they're actually a full band: a drummer, a keyboardist, a rhythm section, and even a "human boom box," one of those gifted individuals who can use their mouth to sound like samples, beats, and record scratches. Because of this, perhaps more so than any other "rappers," The Roots are able to really experiment and try new things with their sounds. Their lyrics are quite intelligent and introspective as well, featuring two very well spoken lyricists who know how to play well off of one another.
This album is perhaps the best example of The Roots, though all of their later albums are quite good. The title, taken from the Chinua Achebe novel, in conjunction with the cover art perhaps expresses what the overall gist of the album is: a discussion on the urbanization of America. It tends to be an overall theme, though, and it doesn't get weighted down by it: many of the tracks have something of a cool jazz feel to them. As a whole, this album comes off as a rap album for "coffeehouse chicks and white dudes," as Common says in the liner notes for the album.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Act Too (The Love Of My Life) features Common as a guest vocalist, and the track as a whole comes off as something of a Where Have All The Flowers Gone for the rap community, lamenting all of the hatred and wondering where the love went. It's executed largely in metaphor, only belying the true meanings in occasional direct references to other rap peformers such as Ice Cube. I might be overvaluing this song, however, as I've listened to many live bootlegs of The Roots and the occasions when they perform this live with Common are nearly sublime.
Common, Like Water for Chocolate
(original release: 2000; MCA; ASIN: B00004S51H)
I have long conversations with one of my coworkers about the rap scene. He views things much like I do, that much of mainstream rap over the last several years has been terrible. Why do I tell you about this guy? His summary of Common describes the man better than I ever could: "Most rappers are boys; Common is a man."
This album is one of the most mature rap albums in existence and manages to twist most of the standard ideas of the rap genre onto their ear. Where most rap albums focus on the loudest beats, Common uses a very jazzy, breezy, laid-back style; where most rap albums brag about their nihilism and material possessions, Common tries to understand the world around him. Where most rap albums brag about their bitches, Common identifies women as being guiding lights in his life. In other words, this album has a level of maturity that's largely impossible to find in mainstream rap.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: The 6th Sense opens with a familiar line: the revolution will not be televised, and carries on with the very astute observation that the nihilistic content of most rap music affects others in unforeseen ways. The intelligence and introspection of the lyrics, accompanied with a very jazzy piano that somehow puts me in the mindset of Thelonious Monk, takes rap to a level of intelligence that's rarely heard.
Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Both Sides of the Brain
(original release: 2000; Red Urban; ASIN: B00002MDOC)
It would be wholly irresponsible of me to make a list of surprisingly accessible rap albums and not include one of the most e2 referenced albums of all time. If Everything2 had a house rapper, I think that few would argue that it would be Del tha Funkee Homosapien. His ability to spin together webs of disparate elements of pop culture into three minute bouncing rhythms is truly amazing; the lyrics alone match some of the more creative writeups you'll find on this very site.
Del's vocal style is relentless and his vocabulary is immense. Taken together, Del could almost fit into a poetry slam if it were not for his penchant for occasional bouts of silliness and his huge dollops of pop culture references, ranging from Battlestar Galactica to specific obscure Japanese video games. More than anyone else in the entire rap industry, Del is the guy I wished lived down the block so we could kick back in his living room and play Xenogears for hours; this is the album for the Microserfs/Generation X group.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Proto Culture is an extended rap on video games, particularly console games, and is the song from which the famous (at least, famous around these parts) line We got the kind of games you can't rent at Blockbuster is derived. It would be very easy for someone to do such a song without any legitimacy, simply referring to their skills at games like Madden NFL, but Del has none of that: this is perhaps the only rap song you'll hear that references both Herzog Zwei and Xenogears. This is a level of geekiness that people like MC Chris will never reach, and yet it flows and bobs along as well as any rap you'll ever hear.
Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030
(original release: 2000; Tommy Boy; ASIN: B00004YYXL)
Believe it or not, Del tha Funkee Homosapien was involved with two mindblowing albums in the year 2000. This is his second one, a concept album with a few similarities to the classic Dr. Octagon. This time, the year is 3030, and our protagonist Deltron Zero participates in intergalactic rap battles in which clever rhymes enact psychic damage on their opponents. Seriously, this is the setup for the album.
The entire album is stuffed with ambient electronica which fills in the gaps between Deltron's raps, which are the vocabulary intense and highly dense wordflows that are almost expected from Del tha Funkee Homosapien. This entire album allows him to pontificate on a wide variety of topics, mostly familiar to fans of science fiction: bionic modifications to humans, the future of criminal behavior (i.e., viruses), and so forth. If there is a science fiction geek buried inside of you somewhere, you'll find much to like with this album.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: 3030 is a seven minute long electronic rap extravaganza that basically describes the world of 3030, including the psychic rap battles mentioned above. It is weird, futuristic in sound, and contains another "e2 famous" line: we keep the funk alive by talking with idioms.
Jurassic 5, Quality Control
(original release: 2000; Interscope; ASIN: B00004THKW)
One of the biggest laments that I've placed at the feet of most mainstream rap is the needless nihilism and misogyny that fills the music. Being a pimp, even in the supposedly more benign modern definition of the word, is not a positive thing; it's a lifestyle based solely on the deprecation of others. This is why I long for groups like De La Soul and Arrested Development and I laud their albums; rap does not have to be nihilistic and negative. Jurassic 5 takes this idea and runs with it, becoming in themselves the heir apparent to the classic De La Soul sound.
So we've established that this is relatively upbeat music bathed in some of the traditions of pre-gangsta rap, but the element that takes this album to the next level is the lyricism. The group features four rappers who trade back and forth, waxing poetic about the role of mass media and the responsibilities of being an adult in the modern world with a deep eloquence and compassion that I can really only compare to people like Common. The happy, old-school bounce to the music belies some very dense and intelligent lyricism, making this album one of the best I've ever heard.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Jurass Finish First blew me away the first time I heard it and continues to do so every time I hear it. A combination of a very catchy piano hook on top of a very interesting and intelligent rap encouraged me to write this song up in detail a while back.
(original release: 2000; La Face; ASIN: B00002R0MA)
While their 2003 double album Speakerboxxx / The Love Below finally cast Outkast into the mainstream spotlight (thanks to a dominant performance at the Grammys and the memorable Hey Ya single), Outkast's particular flavor of rap is best found on their previous album Stankonia. This album's strength is in its individual songs and its humor; Outkast creates bite sized nuggets that manage to put a smile on your face more effectively than any other group out there, and this album demonstrates it time and time again.
In fact, the real strength of this album lies in a handful of tracks by themselves that, if released without the rest of the material, would constitute one of the greatest EPs ever made. That's not to say that the rest of the album is filler, but instead says that a handful of truly great individual songs stand out from the rest of the album. Humble Bumble, Ms. Jackson, and especially B.O.B. stand out as utterly stellar singles that simply raise the bar in terms of pure giddiness.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: B.O.B. (i.e., Bombs Over Baghdad) was recently selected as Pitchfork Media's best single of the first half of the decade, and for good reason: it bounds along like a freight train out of control, the rap coming so fast that I literally could not make out all of the words until I played the song at a slower rate and realized that indeed there are words being pronounced here, actually composing a sensible word structure and commentary that actually has a good deal of humor buried in it. It drives along like a dance track that would make a twelve year old on Ritalin pass out from exhaustion, and when the children's chorus singing "Bombs over Baghdad" comes in, it just caps off this amazing piece of music.
Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow
(original release: 2002; MCA; ASIN: B000065DJ4)
Blazing Arrow is an example of the possibilities of rap seeped in the musical traditions of the last thirty years. Many rap albums are seeped in old school rap; a number of others use jazz-funk as a major part of their sound. On Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious digs much deeper into the American musical consciousness and comes up with something amazing.
Blackalicious particularly mines the 1970s in all of its musical glory, ranging from straight-up pop to Philadelphia soul to even the earliest progenitors of rap (Gil Scott-Heron shows up on here as a guest on one track). The awareness of musical and poetic changes since then abound on this album as well: Zach de la Rocha shows up on a track, as does poetry slam legend Saul Williams. The lyrics are intelligent and witty and exude a warmth that's rather rare in rap music, almost harkening back to 3 Feet High and Rising. Essentially, this is a record of surprising and entertaining elements that come together in a rap record that leaves the tired cliches of the format behind in the dust.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Blazing Arrow is the song that made me fall in love with this band. I am rarely surprised by music, but the density and intensity of the lyrics, the 1970s pop vibe, and the sheer surprise of a sample of Harry Nilsson showing up on a rap record added up to an experience that can really blow your mind.
Dizzee Rascal, Boy in da Corner
(original release: 2003; XL; ASIN: B00015HV4C)
It would be wholly wrong to say that there aren't a lot of interesting things going on in the fringes of rap, and this is one of them. This is the premier example of grime, a particular flavor of rap that originated in east London and combines rap with elements of various flavors of electronica and a splash of industrial rock, creating a wholly new sound that comes off as almost alien to ears in the United States.
The entire album has a sparse, guerilla feel to it, the songs often composed of seemingly random sounds stapled together in ways that leave a lot of empty space for a vocalist to work. Many songs do have an overall framework, but this is taken straight from the drum-n-bass sound of club music, meaning this album is in many places quite danceable, which is unsurprising given that this came out of east London. Where this album really takes shape, and the reason it's risen out of the obscurity of the rest of the grime subgenre, is the genius in the vocals of Dizzee Rascal. The man has some ferocious vocals buried deep in a British accent, giving the album something of a punk feel, some sort of latter-day rapping form of the Sex Pistols is my description, though that doesn't capture this sound.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Fix Up, Look Sharp is the best summary of the Dizzee Rascal sound that can be found. Very sparse music; what little there is here is a basic drum-n-bass electronic track, but what really carries this is the bizarre vocal delivery of Dizzee Rascal, who comes through here sounding as if he dropped onto this planet from some sort of parallel universe. The thickness of his British accent and the sheer strangeness of his halting delivery style makes this sound like a rap record tossed through a blender.
Kanye West, The College Dropout
(original release: 2004; Roc-A-Fella; ASIN: B0001AP12G)
Kanye West is arguably the biggest mainstream star in rap as I write this. This is Kanye's debut album, one that was predestined to be a big seller due to his rather large reputation as a producer, and he used this opportunity to lay out a huge number of ideas that essentially aren't dealt with on the rap stage. He discusses why he dropped out of college and the problems with academia; he discusses the problems with both mainstream and underground rap, often in sequential lyrical lines; most impressively, he discusses Christianity and its role in his life and musical career.
This album is an example of what's good in the overall rap scene. Kanye takes some elements of mainstream rap that are worthwhile, scoops in several big mouthfuls of the underground sound, sprinkles it all heavily with his own perspectives and thoughts, adds in a few key samples in places, and comes up with a delicious rap sundae that summarizes so many of the good things in the genre. This album is excellent from top to bottom.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: Jesus Walks is simply my favorite song of the last year or so. Kanye directly tackles what is perhaps the most taboo topic in rap head on; he unabashedly points out that he is a Christian struggling with his faith and makes the very astute point that if it was not for his already-existing fame his public admission of this fact would be completely ignored by the mainstream. He mixes in heavy gospel tendencies in this track, coming up with a sound that stands out even among the luminary songs and albums mentioned in this list. The sheer audacity in releasing this as a single is impressive; the fact that mainstream radio played this is even more impressive, given that it's a gigantic critique of the narrowness of most mainstream radio.
If you'd like to build a compilation to listen to the recommended songs from this writeup, here's your recipe. The vast majority of these are available as downloads from the iTunes Music Store, so fire up iTunes and listen to some thirty second excerpts of these songs.
EXPAND YOUR MIND: THE POSSIBILITIES OF RAP
- The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - Gil Scott-Heron
- Planet Rock - Afrika Bambaataa
- The Message - Grandmaster Flash
- Peter Piper - Run DMC
- Sounds of Science - Beastie Boys
- Magic Number - De La Soul
- Welcome to the Terrordome - Public Enemy
- I Left My Wallet in El Segundo - A Tribe Called Quest
- Mr. Wendal - Arrested Development
- Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) - Digable Planets
- Liquid Swords - The Genius/GZA
- Earth People - Dr. Octagon
- Gone 'til November - Wyclef Jean
- Re: Definition - Black Star
- Doo Wop (That Thing) - Lauryn Hill
- Sunshine - Handsome Boy Modeling School
- Act Too (The Love Of My Life) - The Roots
- The 6th Sense - Common
- Proto Culture - Del tha Funkee Homosapien
- 3030 - Deltron 3030
- Jurass Finish First - Jurassic 5
- B.O.B. - Outkast
- Blazing Arrow - Blackalicious
- Fix Up, Look Sharp - Dizzee Rascal
- Jesus Walks - Kanye West
After discussion with several other fans of rap, and particularly those disgusted with what passes as mainstream rap these days, I assembled a list of fifteen additional albums that might serve as a supplement of sorts to this list. If you've listened to the above and are craving more, here are fifteen more discs to whet your appetite for the better parts of rap.
Various Artists, The Roots of Rap (original release: 1923-1939(!); Yazoo; ASIN: B000000G8U): This disc is a selection of traditional African-American folk and blues recordings from the earliest days of recorded music. The selections here are specifically chosen to accentuate the fact that rap is merely a morphing of this material, and it clearly places modern rap in a long history of music. I was particularly blown away by Luke Jordan's version of Cocaine Blues.
Various Artists, Kurtis Blow Presents The History of Rap (original release: 1970-1988; Rhino; ASIN: B00000343D, B00000343F, and B00000343H): A three disc set that is a phenomenally strong overview of the earliest days of rap. The first disc, in fact, only includes one song that would really even be defined as rap; the rest of the disc is merely precursors, including the funk of James Brown and Booker T & the MGs. I have a very strong affinity for the earliest rap recordings, and this three disc set is a great selection of tracks.
NWA, Straight Outta Compton (original release: 1990; Priority; ASIN: B000003B6J): Gangsta rap may be the most played out musical genre in history, but this is one of the foundations of the genre, and it has such a frenetic rage and profound social commentary wrapped into the lyrics that it stands head and shoulders above all those that follow it.
Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine (original release: 1991; Sony; ASIN: B0000028RR): The best example of the mix of rap and rock comes from the debut album of Rage Against the Machine. Built around a militant politicism that is just to the right of Public Enemy, this album combines the seething energies of heavy metal and the driving rage of Chuck D to create a new sound, one that would be watered down by imitators for the decade to come.
Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (original release: 1992; Delicious Vinlyl; ASIN: B00005A09L): The best way I can think of to describe this is to take De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising (discussed above) and inject a huge dose of humor into it, along with the faintest of political consciousness that doesn't take itself overly seriously. This is one of the last of the "positive" rap albums from the early 1990s and one of the best.
Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (original release: 1993; RCA; ASIN: B000002WPI): This album came out in 1993, just as the "west coast" sound was selling millions of copies of the early gangsta rap albums. Rather than take that approach, however, the Wu-Tang Clan instead used martial arts as a metaphor and each of their eight members used a particular "style" as their vocal delivery, almost singlehandedly shoving the metaphor of "rap battle" into the mainstream. This album launched literally dozens of solo albums from the members of the group.
Tupac Shakur, All Eyez on Me (original release: 1996; Polygram; ASIN: B00000163G): Tupac Shakur was the best lyricist to ever grace mainstream rap; unfortunately, the production of this album has been copied by every mainstream rapper since, making it sound on the surface much like modern mainstream rap. Give it patience, though, and listen to 2Pac's lyrics; the genius will be revealed.
Aceyalone, A Book of Human Language (original release: 1998; Project Blowed; ASIN: B000006C6A): Aceyalone is perhaps the best example of the "poetry slam" sound, at least from those who are willing to establish themselves in the rap genre. Aceyalone's lyrics have much more in common with poetry and the works of individuals like Gil Scott-Heron than much of contemporary rap, and this album is perhaps his finest.
Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (original release: 2000; Interscope; ASIN: B00004T9UF): This album was nominated for the Grammy for album of the year, and with good reason: the lyrics on this album are in many places quite complex and thought-provoking, particularly on the widely-heard Stan, in which Eminem discusses quite well the many facets of obsession. Eminem's primary fault is that too often he winds up sounding like a twelve year old kid on Ritalin, which he often does on his most well-known songs. This is easily his best work, though, and he is unquestionably the most noteworthy rapper of the last decade.
Viktor Vaughn / MF Doom, Vaudeville Villain (original release: 2003; Traffic; ASIN: B0000BZYTJ): It's hard to describe this album other than to simply say it's a concept album set in a slightly warped version of the Marvel Comics universe; Viktor Vaughn / MF Doom is essentially Dr. Doom of Fantastic Four fame. Very unusual; what's even stranger is that Viktor Vaughn / MF Doom has released several albums along these lines, with this being arguably the best of them. Also recommended is Vaughn's collaboration with Madlib, called Madvillain.
If you judge rap music by the destructive, misogynistic, and repetitive nonsense that you hear on the radio, take a deep breath and bury yourself into one of these albums. The creativity, intelligence, and musical talents just might surprise you.