Trapped In The 90’s: Hip Hop’s Obsession With The Past


Earlier this year, Spin Magazine released a landmark issue celebrating their 30 year anniversary. It was a list that counted down the 300 best albums from 1985-2014 — all 30 years of the magazine’s existence. Lists of this magnitude aren’t fun for the strict ranking; they’re fun for the dialogue they start, a chance to process history while it’s happening or revaluate more established classics. These big catchall lists are more amusing than provocative. The big guns one would expect all hang around the top ten. Nirvana, The Smiths, Radiohead, and Daft Punk all get to share the glory. But underneath this ranking is lurks something more interesting. There are 55 hip hop albums on this list, and given that the first iconic rap LP’s occurred near the ’84-’85 period, those 55 albums rank as a list of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. It’s interesting to see on its own. Here’s the top 10 (with their ranking in the original list as well).

  1. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan (1993) [2]
  2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West (2010) [8]
  3. The Blueprint – Jay-Z (2001) [13]
  4. Fear Of A Black Planet – Public Enemy (1990) [15]
  5. Paul’s Boutique – Beastie Boys (1989) [17]
  6. Aquemini – Outkast (1998) [21]
  7. Illmatic – Nas (1994) 23]
  8. Ready To Die – The Notorious B.I.G. (1994) [27]
  9. The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (1991) [32]
  10. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – Public Enemy (1988) [36]

As a list on it’s own, those ten albums are about as good as you can get in the genre, but looking through the whole list reveals some interesting things about how we process Hip Hop history.

  • Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is absolutely the greatest album of all time. As I’ve written before, there’s no other album that can create an entire universe for a listener to fall into. Rap was never the same after it.
  • Spin don’t got no love for the west coast? Well let it be known then!  Only six albums from L.A. crack the top 50 and they’re all legends: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., 2Pac. Kendrick’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City is apparently the greatest L.A. album ever, ranking in at 12th. There’s nothing from the Bay Area.
  • The golden age is over. Usually these lists are the type that idolize the first golden age of rap (1988) or that glorious ’93-’96 period, but albums from all over the hip hop timeline populate the list. No one doubts how good Kanye’s MBDTF is, but I never thought I’d see the day where it was the second greatest album ever.

No list is perfect, and this one is certainly flawed. It’s fun to see the whole of hip hop history be grappled with because there’s a big divide between classic and current rap music. Every new generation of every genre has to hear their elders complain about how much better music was back in the good old days, but given the speed of change in rap music, the generation gap is particularly acute.

Hip hop is a dynamic, evolving genre. It’s the sound of ebb and flow, volcanic tensions constantly dissolving into one another. One of my favorite dichotomies is the fight between past and present. Rap is inherently youthful, resting on the shoulders of young teenagers who vividly reimagine their world every couple of years. But it’s also music as archeology; the genre was literally born by repurposing the records that came before it. An artist can say more with with how they place a sample or a lyrical reference than with an actual bar of their own.

That tension manifests itself outside of the actual music. When Time Magazine ran an article and interview with Vince Staples where he claimed that the ’90s got too much credit in rap, the internet blew up. Old heads came at him saying that he was the problem in Hip Hop and he had no respect for the genre. The outrage even culminated in a war of words between Vince Staples and 90’s rapper Noreaga (aka N.O.R.E), the exact type of New York brass knuckles lyricist that’s been swept away by contemporary tastes. The irony is that Staples clearly has a ton of respect for hip hop, knows all of the classics, and can absolutely rap his ass off. The only L.A. rapper on the 2014 All-Star Rap Squad, Staples rewarded my trust in him with one of the seminal albums of the year, Summertime ’06.

Vince Staples doesn’t deserve all of the flack he’s received, but there’s a reasonable frustration from the older hip hop heads. In every other genre, the great records of the past have been able to institutionally enter the classic canon. Whether through enshrinement in a hall of fame or a countdown on VH1 or a list in Rolling Stone, rock and roll found a way to embed itself into the cultural consciousness. The fact that hip hop has made it so far into popular culture without acceptance by any of these gatekeepers is impressive on it’s own, but it’s also had a terrible side effect. The music business continually treats rap music as a continual fad, so only the young guns are given commercial opportunities. Old rappers don’t get radio play or label support. It’s one thing for new rappers to rebel against the old generation, it’s another thing entirely to grow up without knowing who they are.

Pitting past against present is a false binary. These rappers exist in completely different contexts. There’s only a handful of rappers working today that wouldn’t be laughed off of a stage in the 90’s; conversely there’s only a handful of rappers from the 90’s who would even get a record deal today. It’s crazy to fault a genre this propulsive for changing every year. It’s absurd that rap doesn’t have its own hall of fame and golden oldies stations (although we’re trying–word to KDAY). But that’s why these lists like SPIN made are fun. We get to span eras and see how the genre has evolved. Vince Staples might not sound like a 90’s rappers, but like many of his peers, his music is grappling with the ghosts of rappers past. The old king is dead, long live the new king. Here’s to the next 30 years being just as revolutionary.


Best Albums of 2012 (Part 1)


So before I go into the whole business of letting everyone know what’s going on in hip hop, I feel the need to recap 2012.  It was a phenomenal year, filled with incredible music, and raised the bar for the whole rap game.  Other than the fact that I’ve been thinking about this list obsessively for the past six months, I’m posting this list because its helpful to know the benchmarks that everything right now is influenced and judging itself by.  Also, they’re all banging albums and if you’re a fan of the genre then all of them should be on your ipod or spotify playlists.  After each write up, the music videos from the album are presented in the order they’re released.  I find it helpful so you can see how the artist is choosing to visually represent the work they made.  There might be a lot or a little.  So if you wanna hear the album without putting in the effort to getting it, there you go!  Without further ado, here is part 1.

10: E-40 – The Block Brochure: Welcome To The Soil

There were so many great albums released this year that this spot was probably the hardest to pick.  It could have gone to either of Curren$y’s projects, or any of the free EP’s he released last year.  It could have gone Alchemist’s Russian Roulette, his concept album made entirely of russian jazz samples and the best rappers in the game.  It could have gone to Flying Lotus’ alter ego Captain Murphy for his creepy awesome cult mixtape.  It could even have gone to Chief Keef’s mind numbing debut album (look I just made an honorable mentions list within the list).  But I’ll give it to E-40 for a variety of reasons.  First off, 40 water is the most criminally underrated music artist of all time with a lengthy quality catalog that is only paralleled by dinosaur acts like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.  Second, I’m from the bay area and he’s pretty much a god here and responsible for only the best of Bar Mitzvah memories.   Third, and most importantly, this album is great from start to finish.  About 3 years ago, E-40 has gone on one of the most prolific streaks of music making I’ve ever seen.  Since 2010, he’s released 9 albums!!  The sound is all similar, with production headed by Yay Area legend Rick Rock and 40’s own son Droop-E.  It’s stripped down and knocks hard and doesn’t give any credence to what was popular on the charts.  But on The Block Brochure, the rest of the world has finally caught up.  This triple album traces the influence that 40 and the bay has on the current ratchet sound of California, with the bulk of the songs falling right in line with current favorites DJ Mustard and company.  As for the ambassador himself, he remains one of the greatest rappers of all time, spitting circles around everyone else in the game.  Over the gamut of the album, he shifts from storytelling to party anthems to nostalgic odes to weed tributes.  He invites west coast legends, rising stars, and of course all of his bay area friends, but not once gets overshadowed.  But the highest praise I could give is that this album doesn’t fall under the curse of the double album.  Usually with any double (let alone triple) album, its an overindulgence, and the record would have been way better if they trimmed the fat and made it a regular album.  But with The Block Brochure, 40 maintains a level of quality across 54 songs that most rappers couldn’t maintain for an EP.  Salute!

9: Nas – Life Is Good

Nasir Jones is a legend and a permanent fixture on rap rushmore.  You know that.  But his catalog doesn’t always express that.  In the last half of the decade, Nas had some growing pains.  He had trouble adjusting into the elder statesman role his age demands.  The knock on Nas has never been his rapping skill; when he’s on point there’s about three people in history who can compete with him.  The problem has been his choice in beats and his overblown concepts.  Frankly, he was trying too hard.  Trying too hard for radio play, trying too hard for critical acclaim.  But with Life Is Good, Nas took a page out of E-40’s book and just rapped.  Lining up with two producers, Salaam Remi, a frequent Nas collaborator and the only one who’s been able to get him any kind of hits, and No I.D., a chicago legend who has become the de facto “old school” savior, Nasir made a great album by rapping about what he knows about.  This is ostensibly his breakup album, detailing his divorce with R&B singer Kelis and the complicated emotions that follow.  But it’s more than that.  It’s a coming of age album, as Nas reflects on his past, his marriage, his daughter, and how far he’s come.  His eye for detail never falters.  He’s exhausted from sleeping with women half his age who enjoy taking third leg from a legend.  He’s riding the subway, his mouth burning from hot pizza, looking like the black Jack Dempsey smoking blunts wrapped tight like dreads.  He’s watching his daughter instagram a box of condoms and wondering if he’s not the strictest parent.  And throughout all the pain of the divorce, he’s mature enough to realize that life is still good.  That’s way more of an adult realization than any forced metaphor on race.   The main prize of the album though is that the production is FINALLY good enough for a rapper of his skills.  He raps over gritty 90’s beats, lush orchestral arrangements, and the hottest reggae sample this side of “Mercy.”  The album would be higher on the list, but unfortunately the album falters in the middle with too much of a reliance on boring R&B choruses.  Either way, if this album doesn’t satiate your Nas lust, then nothing will and you should stay trapped in the 90’s.

8: Future – Pluto

I don’t even know if I’m allowed to put this on the list.  I mean, the guy hardly even raps.  He warbles, he croons, he croaks, he sings, and he yells, but rapping isn’t that high on his agenda.  Nothing could have prepared me for this album.  Future first appeared on the radar when he did the hook for YC’s “Racks.”  Then he managed to score his own hit, “Tony Montana,” which ended up big enough to grab Drake for the remix, and then some mixtapes followed.  But he always seemed like a weirder T-Pain, not an creative auteur that would change the way radio sounds.  But here is Pluto, and its better than anyone could have predicted.  Future comes from the Dungeon Family, the legendary ATL crew that houses Outkast and Goodie Mob, and he earns the connection.  He completely embraces autotune, using it to enhance emotion rather than mute it, and pushes the rap/singing hybrid into newfound territory.  Everything he says explodes with passion, whether he’s moving cocaine or serenading the girl of his dreams.  This is Rocky theme music for androids, lovemaking music for robots.  But the catch is the humanity, the beating heart, that’s pumping throughout the whole record.  At it’s best, the love songs are so vivid and honest that they bring a whole new level of beauty to the confines of the genre.  At it’s other best, it has R. Kelly singing about fishnets and parachutes.  Don’t mistake this for a soft love record either, every single song sounds like a number one hit, and Future has the best ear for hooks this side of Drake.  Pluto bumps in the clubs and in the bedroom…AT THE SAME DAMN TIME!


7: Action Bronson – Blue Chips

Bronsolino is one of the most intriguing figures in hip hop right now.  A fat, white, Jewish albanian from Queens who raps about food and sounds like Ghostface.  Blue Chips is where he cemented his persona and raised his pen game to become one of the best new rappers in the game.  No one tops Bam Bam on the punchlines and the references.  His rhymes are more sick than Magic Johnson’s dick. He’s twisting joints like a contortionist.  His lungs are filled with the purple from the jungle.  He’ll blam blam any piggie trying to put his fam in the can.  Every line is rewind worthy.  Try to catch all the food references.  In just the first song, he talks about chicken breasts, lamb, hibiscus, and tacos.  But he’s always been a great rapper.  What makes Blue Chips so special is his chemistry with the producer Party Supplies.  One of Bronson’s best qualities has been his collaborations; every project he makes is entirely produced by one person.  He has worked with esteemed beatmakers like Statik Selektah and Alchemist, but Party Supplies brings the best out of him.  You can hear the songs being made.  You can hear Action stumble his words and take it back and try again.  You can hear Party Supplies turn up the sound on his mac.  And it gives the record this breezy, joyous quality that defines what a mixtape should be (and it’s a real mixtape which means its free, which means you should download it right now).  They’re 5 minute beats, one take raps.  The tape has a pleasing cohesion, all the beats sounds like they’re from 50’s tin pan alley tunes.  Bam Bam knows exactly what to do with each beat, and the highlights on the tape is when he drops his funny act for vivid narratives that correspond with the schmaltzy production.  “Thug Love Story 2012” and “9-24-11” transform dean martin-esque corny ballads into stunning storytelling that’s downright beautiful.  The moments are fleeting, but they hit the hardest.  Blue Chips balances the humor with the serious, the ugly with the beautiful, all while maintaining its effortless quality.

6: Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

It’s hard to say what the best part about this album is.  Is it the fact that Killer Mike made political rap relevant for the first time since Dave Chappelle used Dead Prez as his theme music?  Or is it that the cross-regional collaboration between the ATLien and NYC producer El-P opened the floodgates for all types of musical partnerships?  Maybe it’s that Adult Swim funded the whole thing, meaning that thoughtful, incredible hip hop can happen without the means of a major label?  Or possibly that Killer Mike says “I’m glad Reagans dead” and that’s the greatest sentence that has ever been recorded.  R.A.P. Music stands for Rebellious African Peoples’ Music, and Mike’s magnum opus is a throwback to the days of Public Enemy and Ice Cube when every record felt like a direct attack at the American government.  The fact that he’s done it when Obama is president is even more impressive.  But making political rap isn’t an accomplishment in itself.  Making political rap without being condescending or pandering to your listener, that doesn’t bore you and actually feels relevant is incredible.  From crystal clean presentations outlining Reagan’s corruption to shootouts with crooked cops, Killer Mike makes politics matter again, which is refreshing in an era where every other rapper is saying don’t vote and buttheads like Lupe Fiasco make butthead comments only to raise their publicity.  And that all doesn’t even touch on how good Mike’s rapping is or the stunning production.  He raps with elegance of a black elephant, dexterous and powerful, able to trample any of El-P’s turbulent beats.  He rides out a doubletime flow on “Go!,” flaunts his storytelling on “Jojo’s Chilling,” pays his family tribute on “Willie Burke Sherwood,” and creates a downright anthem on the title track.  “Reagan” might be the greatest music video of all time.  El-P, known for his industrial apocalyptic production, meets Mike halfway here, creating beats that are distinctly his but still have a southern thump.  “Southern Fried” is even his attempt at a dirty south beat and its wonderful.  R.A.P. Music is incredible, or as Killer Mike would say “what my people need and the opposite of bullshit.”


Any other year any of these albums could have been #1.  Think how good the rest of the albums are.  And click on the follow me link at the bottom in order to get a notice whenever I post something new!