Tag Archives: Hip Hop

Kanye West: College Dropout and Late Registration

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 4, New York: Kanye West is a genius. I think that’s pretty unassailable. As a producer, as a rapper, as a conductor of album-length musical experiences. He’s also one of the contemporary lyricists with the most authenticity. Each album is a reflection of what is happening in his life, for better or for worse. Each song, even a club anthem, is a short slice of autobiography. That makes the arc of Kanye’s albums dizzying as his life has changed so much over the last ten years. He rockets from nobody to somebody to ego to just-plain-strange and records it along the way.

My two favorite Kanye albums are the first two: College Dropout and Late Registration. In these two, he’s still hungry, eager to prove himself. The first is exactly that: his chance to show the world that he’s more than a producer, that he’s a rapper in his own right. And it’s shot through with that ambition. It leads to some really incredible songs: “Get ‘em High” with guest spots from both Talib Kweli AND Common is just so good. “New Workout Plan” is fun and fantastic. “Through the Wire”, in which he raps the whole song with his jaw wired shut? C’mon.

In Late Registration Kanye is still hungry, but the tone shifts to “holy crap I can’t believe this is actually happening.” The historic story-telling of the first album is still apparent here (it finally disappears by Graduation). This second album is full of solid gold HITS(!)— ”Golddigger”, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, “Touch the Sky”, but still so many songs that call back to his life before fame. You still know this guy, you remember him from the last album, and you’re totally rooting for him.

I was in my twenties and living in LA when these albums came out. It was invigorating to suddenly have such a great new voice in hip-hop and we drove around listening to these albums on repeat. I still grin and shake my head in disbelief to the stanza in “Get ‘em High” where Kanye just drops the beat out and raps over silence. Twice. He is so good. “Gone”, from Late Registration, was totally my jam for a long, hot minute. I’d listen to this one song on a loop. I’d drive around the block a couple extra times just to hear it one more time. The orchestral arrangement, the tinkly rock piano, Killer Cam’s guest spot. The refrain (“We starve at home / we ride on chrome”) is still in that humble theme of these first two albums, still congruent with the second albums “Broke Phi Broke” skits. It’s great.

I’m not ever going to be a successful musician. I’ll never be a hot rapper. But in that time with these two albums, I could sort of identify with Kanye. He was talented and hard-working and he made it happen. My friends and I, we were rooting for him. We were struggling in obscurity, we were broke phi broke, we thought we were talented, too. And here this guy had made it and was humble and ambitious and having fun all at the same time. Every creative person in their twenties wants to be the Kanye that just released College Dropout.

Kanye remains a genius. He’s never stopped making incredible music. It’s just harder to identify with songs that reflect the singer’s life when that life has become so difficult to identify with. The ego that leaks out in Graduation. The raw sexual orgy of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The stark loneliness of fame in Yeezus. It’s interesting to watch, sometimes great to dance to, but it’s unrecognizable. But Kanye we still love you. And we’ll always have these two fantastic albums.

Root for Kanye again and buy his first two albums.

Jay-Z: The Blueprint

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 26, Chicago: When you talk about the best rappers of all time, my mind (and my heart) always goes to Biggie. For a long time, I wrote Jay-Z off because I didn’t really care about the radio hits. Don’t get me wrong, I knew all the words to “Big Pimpin’” and could never pass up a chance to dance to “Crazy in Love”, but it wasn’t canonical. It was getting into this album that changed my opinion on Jay-Z forever.

My favorite song continues to be “Heart of the City”. I love that beat and the hook is so infectious. This song, like so many on this album is filled with memorable zingers like “Sensitive thugs y’all all need hugs”. So great.

There is of course “Takeover”, which despite disciples of Nas who might claim it was bested in the rejoinder, is still my favorite battle rap song of all time. That beat snipped out of the Doors, that whole verse for Nas with its absolutely specific detail about the business of the game (“I know who I paid, dog / Searchlight Publishing”), and that super hot final line in “half a bar”. And then “Girls, Girls, Girls” which despite its casual racism and expected overt sexism, remains a fun-as-hell song. (The jam, of course, is the second version over that Pretenders sample; Young Kanye you really were a genius.) And “Renegade”, which as Nas notes, is really Eminem’s song. And how. So. Many. Hot. Tracks. On. This. Album.

Really dedicate yourself to some Jay-Z and listen to this album.

Style Wars

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 24, Flying from LGA to ORD: The scene is 1982 New York City, and this super-sincere film crew is out by the subway tracks shooting shot after shot of amazingly painted trains on 16mm film. That film becomes Style Wars and it is the most awesome portrait of early graffiti, breaking, and rapping you’ve ever seen. Oh sure, you might have seen Beat Street or Wild Style (or, forgivably, Crush Groove), but this, my friend, this is the source text.

They’re all there: From Seen to Skeme. Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew. White kids, black kids, Latino kids— it’s a real all-city movement. And the cops are there too (including the guy who states flatly: “Is it art? I don’t know, I’m not an art critic. But I can sure as hell tell you, that’s a crime.”) The great soundbite that begins the Black Star song “Respiration” is here in all its filmed glory: a super young and skinny Skeme talking about bombing a train. And the art on that train is amazing. What geniuses, these kids!

It’s a lot of fun to re-watch this movie. There’s just so much great stuff here. This was the first time I’d watched Style Wars as a New York resident and the part that newly resonated with me was the brief series of soundbites from New Yorkers complaining about the graffiti in the trains. And frankly, I agree. It looks disgusting in there! It’s easy to imagine not ever understanding this movement as a New Yorker— when would you ever see whole cars if you lived in Manhattan? All you’d really see would be tags upon tags upon tags in the hot metal tube you had to cram into on your way to work.

Dig into the hip hop creation story with a little Style Wars. Available from your friendly neighborhood Internet superstore.

Black Star: Mos Def & Tali Kweli are Black Star

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 23, New York: As the first track began (“The mighty Mos Def is a real life documentarian. / Talib Kweli, real life documentary”) I immediately wrote in my notes: “This might be the best album of all time?” It just might be. Talib Kweli and Mos Def are truly incredible behind their respective microphones. The guests across the album are all fantastic; I could listen to Jane Doe rap for hours. The beats are stellar, the message is important but the album is still fun. It’s a masterwork.

But let’s say you disagree. Let’s say there’s some other album out there that has your heart by the tail. Well let me at least make a case for “Respiration” to live in the all-time-greats canon of hip hop. Holy crap this song is incredible. The Spanish-language hook? The Style Wars sample at the intro? That line “blasting holes in the night til she bled sunshine”. Wow. Not too mention— this song has Common!

I spent my entire early twenties praying to the lords of rhyme that we might have a hip hop supergroup of Kweli, Mos, and Common. Pretty please? I remember hearing a rumor about a Rawkus Records supergroup: Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, Pharaohe Monch, Hi-Tek, maybe more. I believed that rumor a little bit too hard. In the end it was probably just the wishful thinking of other Rawkus fans.

But looking back now at the full discography of Rawkus, it’s incredible. So many of my favorite hip hop albums. Mos Def and Kweli, of course. But Beatminerz, Big L, Soundbombing, High & Mighty. All such fantastic stuff. Thank you, Rawkus Records. But most of all, thank you for Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star.

You should own this album. It’s important both to you and to humanity that you are listening to “Respiration” on a regular basis.

Mos Def: Black on Both Sides

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 22, New York: I’ve been too busy to stick to my strict consumption schedule. Work got hectic, the weekend was well-booked, and so I dragged my feet on posting about this album and I missed my goal of seven for last week. Also, honestly, it was because I wasn’t done listening to Black on Both Sides yet. It is just too good.

When I first discovered Mos Def it was when I was realizing there was more to hip hop than the radio and here was this voice that was honest, sincere, compassionate, and holy crap could he rhyme. A track like “Mathematics”? Stop it. Just stop. “Ms. Fat Booty”? “Got”? Gawd. Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) is a god among men. There’s not a single track on here that doesn’t impress.

Mos Def – Ms Fat Booty (1999) from Golden Era Videos on Vimeo.

And this is one of the first self-aware hip-hop albums I’d heard. An album with a point (or a few). I’d missed Public Enemy, safely ensconced in the dirty south. But here was an absolutely invaluable lesson in race and identity. Here was a complex and challenging use of the word-that-began-with-n-that-I-should-never-use, not just as a generous sprinkling to emphasize the choruses. Here was a whole song about the political power of clean water. Here was a song arguing for a black history of rock and roll that ended with a bad-ass punk rock bit.

Listening to this album today is such a treat. I probably listened for four days straight, every time I put my headphones to my ears. Music is lucky to have the occasional album like Black on Both Sides, and America is lucky to have a voice like Mos Def.

If you’ve never heard Black on Both Sides, you must amend that and do so now with your One-Click-Purchase.

Ghostface Killah: Supreme Clientele

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 17, New York: Honestly, I don’t know why it’s this album. There are so many Wu-Tang solo albums and so many of them that are so great. There’s Method Man, there’s the GZA’s Liquid Swords, there is (and there will always be) the ODB, whose “Baby, I Got Your Money” will never, ever fail to move me in a dancefloor direction. But Supreme Clientele, for some reason, is totally my jam.

Maybe it’s the whole Ghostface canon, though this is by far my favorite. I am completely a sucker for Ghost’s nonsense rhymes (“Yo, this rap is like ziti / facing me real tv / crash at high speed / strawberry kiwi”) and his great story-telling raps (or the ones that are just stream of consciousness reminiscences). The beats on the album are slick, even when they’re sometimes a little obtuse and weird. Ghost pulls that shit off.

Ghostface Killah – Apollo Kids (feat. Raekwon) from Tarik Azzougarh on Vimeo.

I also love about Ghostface that he has so many identities. Where other rappers (so many) have adopted Tony Montana as their second/third nickname, Ghostface chose Tony Stark. Which actually gives him two additional identities: Tony Stark AND Iron Man. Then he waves clips from the old Iron Man cartoon throughout the album.

Rappers are totally superheroes. They have alter egos and costumes and super powers and fantastic wealth and crazy origin stories. Ghostface pulls it off the best. That’s why it’s this album.

Go listen to Supreme Clientele and try to come back and tell me Method Man and Redman are better.

Beastie Boys

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 14, New York: “Sabotage” was my original entry point into the Beastie Boys library. There was that incredible music video and it was all over my MTV and it was loud, fast, and awesome.

I never bought Ill Communication as a teenager. It wasn’t until I had been in college for a bit that I really discovered the Beastie Boys, amidst what was for me a hip hop renaissance. A glorious period of a year or two in which I kept discovering incredible music that was so different than what I’d grown up with. There is a veritable gulf between the 69 Boyz and Black Star and I spent this time of my life happily rowing across it.

For the Beastie Boys, that re-discovery most likely began with Paul’s Boutique and that’s where I started this time. Listening to Paul’s Boutique now, as at any time, the first thing that washes over you are the samples. So many samples! The ones you know and the ones you don’t; they are so deeply layered into this album. And the music is so funky: “Egg Man” is incredible (“when I say dozen, you know what I’m talking about boyeeee”); “Sounds of Science” with its wildly long build-up and utterly satisfying breakdown; and of course all that “Boullaibaisse” including rapping over the Isley’s Brothers most delicious riff.


If I had to pick a favorite Beastie Boys song, it would probably be “Sounds of Science”.

From Paul’s Boutique on to Check Your Head, which experiments more widely with instrumentation. Then I went into Hello Nasty, with even stranger, further experiments in instrumentation. And yet so many classic lines: “Dogs love me cause I’m CRAZY sniffable.” “I’m the king of Boggle / There is none higher / I gets eleven points / off the word quagmire.”

Back to Ill Communication. If I had to name a favorite Beastie Boys album it might be this one. It’s so widely varied, yet feels to me like the most sonically consistent. Its experiments capture the same energy as songs like “Sure Shot” and “Root Down”. The punk rock of “Heart Attack Man” sort of makes sense with “Sabotage”. And of course: “Get It Together” with Q-Tip (“Phone is ringin’/ Oh my god.”)

What’s I found fascinating about the Beastie Boys is that no matter how widely they experimented on each album, the core was always the same: three dudes rapping in that late-eighties group rhyme pattern. They finish each other’s verses, they all chime in to punctuate a syllable. While hip hop changed around them, they stuck to that, and frankly, kept it pretty fun.

I’ve been listening to the Beastie Boys for the whole week, waking up with their songs stuck in my head and every day digging deeper into the library. But it was crushing to remember as I was working my through these albums that this is a finite canon. Absolutely heartbreaking. #RIPMCA

If for some reason you’re just getting started, probably your best bet is to buy the Beastie Boys Anthology.