Criticism has always been a part of our musical world – but as hip-hop has become a central component of popular music, critique has intensified.
Who’s your top 5, dead or alive?
Is 50-Cent a top 25 MC?
Who’s the best lyricist?
Does lyricism even matter?
Hip-hop has created a pastime out of criticism. A fun sphere where everyone can debate and discuss. It has built a sub-culture that I love. A place where art can be explored.
However, in all the discussion and examination of hip-hop, a theory glares out to me that has been relatively ignored: A rapper’s freshman or sophomore album is usually their best piece of work.
Here’s my case.
While art and music is a highly subjective field, we have created things that help objectify it. Music publications and blogs; we read Rolling Stone, Complex, The Source, etc., all of which help analyze and objectify music. We may also have certain media personalities, critics, or even artists/celebrities that we look to for opinion.
I remember as a high school freshman in 2007, sitting down in front of my TV and watching hip-hop media folks on MTV list the “Hottest MCs in the Game.” While I didn’t agree with every rank, I still saw their list as a sort of holy guide.
hip-hop has created a pastime out of criticism
Whether you agree with other’s opinions or not, you can’t deny that we are constantly looking for ways to objectify music. So why not use these attempts at objectifying music to help prove my objective theory that a rapper’s freshman or sophomore album is usually their best.
In 2012, Rolling Stone published their list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” I combed through that list for the hip-hop albums and pulled a top 10 hip-hop albums ranking from their larger list.
The list is as follows:
- It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back (1988) – Public Enemy
- Late Registration (2005) – Kanye West
- Raising Hell (1986) – Run DMC
- Ready to Die (1994) – The Notorious B.I.G.
- The Chronic (1992) – Dr. Dre
- Straight Outta Compton (1988) – N.W.A.
- Low End Theory (1991) – A Tribe Called Quest
- Licensed to Ill (1986) – Beastie Boys
- Paid in Full (1987) – Eric B. & Rakim
- Run-D.M.C. (1984) – Run DMC
Of those top 10 albums, 9 out of 10 are the artist’s first or second album. The only album that breaks the mold is Run DMC’s Raising Hell.
Let’s take my own personal top 5 favorite rappers/rap groups list; which is as follows:
- A Tribe Called Quest
- Kanye West
Now my favorite album from each artist:
- Illmatic – Nas
- Midnight Marauders – Tribe
- Late Registration – Kanye West
- Reasonable Doubt – Jay-Z
- Purple Haze – Cam’ron
3 out of 5 of those albums are a freshmen or sophomore release. Purple Haze and Midnight Marauders break the mold.
we are constantly looking for ways to objectify music
Now, you may be saying, “Hey! He just wrote whatever albums he wanted to make sure the majority fell in his theories favor!” Well, I also asked two of my hip-hop head friends to list their top 5 rappers, along with their congruent favorite album from those artists.
Here are their results:
Friend #1’s Top 5
(He didn’t want to give me an all-time list. Instead he gave me a kind of new millennium top 5)
- Kendrick Lamar
- J Cole
- Lil Wayne
- Big Sean
Favorite album from each artist:
- Good Kid, M.A.A.D City – Kendrick
- Born Sinner – J Cole
- Take Care – Drake
- Tha Carter II – Lil Wayne
- Finally Famous – Big Sean
4 out of 5 of those albums are a freshmen or sophomore release. Tha Cater II was Wayne’s 5th studio album, but let’s be honest, Wayne is an enigma in many ways.
Friend #2’s Top 5
- The Notorious B.I.G.
**Can you tell he’s from Atlanta?
Favorite album from each artist:
- ATLiens – Outkast
- Ready to Die – The Notorious B.I.G.
- Illmatic – Nas
- Thug Motivation 101 – Jeezy
- T.I. vs T.I.P. – T.I.
4 out of 5 of those albums are a freshmen or sophomore release. T.I. vs T.I.P. was not a freshman or sophomore release, but my friend struggled picking between T.I. vs T.I.P. and T.I.’s second album, Trap Muzik.
By twisting a subjective, artistic practice into objective scales, we can see that a rapper’s first or second album is usually their best work. At this point, people reading this might start yelling at me, saying, “OMG! You just turned a beautiful art form into science, into… MATH!” **INSERT HORRIFIED GASP** But wait, hold on a second, can’t math and science be a form of art too?
OK, so why is a rapper’s first or second album usually their best? Why is this the case?
When I was getting off the phone with Friend #1, he said to me, “Bro, you’re right, rappers really shouldn’t make more than two albums.” That struck me. I’m not trying to say rappers shouldn’t make more the two albums. I want as much hip-hop out there as my ears can consume.
But why is artist integrity cut short for rappers? What happens?
You often hear people say that rappers lose authenticity as their careers progress. But is that because they are forced into “street” narratives that they can no longer be authentic to? Nas created Illmatic, an album that vividly painted a picture of life as a young black man in Queens, but how is a 45 year-old Nas supposed to stick to a story that he no longer lives? We don’t expect the Beatles to continue to talk about childhood crushes through their career. In fact, Rolling Stone ranks The Beatles, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band as their #1 album of all-time. Sgt. Peppers is the Beatle’s 8th studio album. Rolling Stone’s second ranked album is Pet Sounds, by The Beach Boys; their 12th album. This is really a hip-hop phenomenon, and it’s caused because these hip-hop artists are set up to fail.
how is a 45 year-old Nas supposed to stick to a story that he no longer lives?
While the pioneers of hip-hop have been pushing the boundaries for years, the genre has remained virtually the same in the American music vernacular. However, with albums like Kendrick Lamar’s, DAMN, which tackles issues of race, mental health, and identity, and Jay-Z’s 4:44, an album about marriage, infidelity, and being a father; Hip-hop artists are forcing the masses to respect topics that are authentic to the artists themselves, not authentic to the stereotypes of the genre.
DJ PREMIER VS THE RZA
Music continues to make this unprecedented global quarantine an unexpected treat. On Easter Eve two of the grittiest producers of our generation treated us to a trip down memory lane. DJ Premier and The RZA served up a slew of timeless joints blow for blow. Every cut invoked memories of a time when the critics and fans were universally aligned in appreciating creativity.
Over 150 thousand people zoned in and listened to these legends drop over 40 tracks of pure excellence! The tracks featured the likes of The Wu-Tang Clan, Gang Starr , Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, Kanye West, Jeru the damaja, M.O.P, Big L, Mary J Blige, Christina Aguilera and many more. It was a Masters class in Hip Hop phonics and the genre’s students around the globe were all tuned in to hear it!
For the unfortunate ones that managed to miss this moment of history, here’s a visual representation of some of the subject matter presented!
Mass Appeal – Gang Starr (The ultimate drive through other people’s neighborhood joint)
Liquid Swords – GZA (This made a lot of MC’s re-evaluate their penmanship)
MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know – KRS-One (DJ’s go to record to make sure their speakers were up to the task)
Wu-Tang Clan – Protect Ya Neck (If getting jumped was a record)
Nas Is Like – Nas (The record that made everyone rewind the first line like wtf did he say?!)
Brooklyn Zoo – Ol Dirty Bastard (The Brooklyn invitation to let everyone know you there)
Yes you definitely played yourself if you decided to cut instagram class tonight! The aforementioned treats were only a couple of lessons shared during this session of night school.
Shout out to the Principals (Swizz Beatz & Timberland) of battles in enhancing our quarantine curriculum by inviting these Professors of Hip Hop. Not only did they raise the bar in competition and quality but they surely injured some necks after the evening’s engaging lecture!
This class originally began with a syllabus calling for one A at the end of the semester. But the students rightfully revolted by keeping it Hip Hop and changing the rules to award the whole subject matter an A+. So on behalf of everyone with an ounce of flavor in their blood, THANK YOU PREMIER & RZA! We appreciate you!
Janita in Love
ECR Music Group recording artist Janita releases her new single “I Do” today, apropos of Valentine’s Day, and you won’t be able to get it out of your head.
The follow-up to “Bliss I Once Had This,” “I Do” is the second single off her new album, Here Be Dragons, dropping May 1st. It’s an honest-to-goodness anthem of love, saying more with less, and building to a gorgeous frenzy upon that killer rhythm section of Justin Goldner on bass and the incomparable Miles East on drums. Damn, that bass, tho.
Is there anything you can say to someone that’s more affectionate than I see you, I got you? Isn’t that the kind of love we all dream of? In that way the song is as much about the subject as the singer, adding to its depth and beauty.
“I have a restless soul, an innate curiosity which pushes me to learn, and to change. Uncharted territory is terribly exciting for me. I often feel like I’m on the edge of something new, even with those I’ve loved for years and years. ’I Do’ is about the renewal of one’s love for someone––love being the most thrilling of all uncharted territories––and a renewal of one’s commitment to exploring all the corners of the map of that relationship.”
Both Janita and producer Blake Morgan are the rare breed of artist that continue to grow in leaps and bounds with each new record, when you wouldn’t expect things could get any better. Janita says more in a two word chorus than many musicians do in a whole song. And Blake’s production has only gotten smoother, smarter, and more focused with every release. “I Do” is another shining example of the continued thoughtful collaboration between the two.
Do you believe two artists can find the perfect partner in each other? I do.
Catch Janita’s album release on April 30th at New York’s legendary Rockwood Music Hall.
Eric’s Top 10 Records of 2019
As usual, this is a “best of” from records I actually purchased this year. If I didn’t buy it, it’s not on the list. Now get off my lawn.
Anak Ko – Jay Som
My favorite album of the year, easily. Jay Som (Melina Duterte) hides gifts in each track that reveal themselves with every listen. (more)
“I’m where I can feel it, I’m where I can feel.”
Big Thief – Two Hands
Big Thief are on fire and released two great records this year. “Not,” from their latest, is pure poetry – particularly this live performance. Seeing a band this connected is a beautiful thing.
“It’s not the meat of your thigh, nor your spine tattoo, nor your shimmery eye, nor the wet of the dew.”
Jaime – Brittany Howard
Brittany Howard’s first record outside of Alabama Shakes is full of magic – from the classic soul of “Stay High” to the funkadelic “History Repeats.” It may be physically impossible to stand still during the last minute and a half of this song.
“I just don’t want to be back in this place again.”
Self Titled – Better Oblivion Community Center
Skillful collab between Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers is some honest-to-goodness songwriting. “Dylan Thomas” is a pure pop nugget I listened to more than my doctor this year.
“I’m strapped into a corset, climbed into your corvette, thirsty for another drink.”
Beneath the Eyrie – Pixies
The new record is as cohesive as their early work, yet nothing like it. Bassist Paz Lenchantin plays the Nancy Sinatra role in “Ready for Love.” (more)
“I’m succeeding as a failer.”
Lux Prima – Karen O & Danger Mouse
Producer Danger Mouse teamed up with Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for a collection of sprawling space rock. Think Air’s Moon Safari for a new age.
“I’m nowhere, I’m no one, I’m nobody… there’s nobody but you.”
Old LP – That Dog
“Don’t bother to say goodbye, just walk away.”
Itekoma Hits – Otoboke Beaver
My go-to record when feeling aggressive this year was by Japanese punk rockers Otoboke Beaver. These ladies are magically unhinged.
Lets Rock – The Black Keys
The Black Keys made a quick and dirty record this year in search of the next “Louie Louie.”
“Tell me lies, la-la-la-la-la-la-lies.”
Means to Me – Long Beard
Leslie Bear’s jangly dream-pop would be a treat for any Harriet Wheeler fan.
“Only you can make me feel like I need something more to do.”
- King of the Dudes (EP) – Sunflower Bean
- Abbey Road Anniversary Deluxe – The Beatles
- South Of Reality – The Claypool Lennon Delirium
- Groove Denied – Stephen Malkmus
- My Finest Work Yet – Andrew Bird
- Then I Try Some More – Johanna Steinberg
- Nostalgia Kills – Jill Sobule
- Years To Burn – Calexico & Iron & Wine
- Fool – Joe Jackson
- Help Us Stranger – The Raconteurs
- Anima – Thom Yorke
- Minidisc [Hacks] – Radiohead
- The Center Won’t Hold – Sleater Kinney
- Sunshine Rock – Bob Mould
- Planet England (EP) – Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Partridge
- Hyperspace – Beck