Hip hop, a genre of music that we all like to associate with Eminem and music videos of guys trying to look hardcore with lots of girls in bikinis dancing with them. I'll say this outright, hip hop was one of the most difficult genres for me to get into, not because the music bothered me, but because it seemed almost fundamentally commercial. The lyrics seemed to be all about either how good the rapper is, or otherwise was aimed purely at selling albums. Furthermore, being a white boy brought up on rock music, hip hop was always the "other" music that was looked down upon.
So, why am I writing a guide about hip hop then? Because like all genres of music, if you put some effort into you can learn to appreciate and love the genre. Hip hop artists, even some of the most popular artists, are highly passionate about their music, and there's a reason for it. Their music is about more than just selling records, it's about making a name for yourself and putting back into the community.
There are definitely some strange conventions in hip hop, like talking big, dissing your rivals, having overtly erotic songs, and so forth. I don't claim to know the root of these conventions, however, what I do know is that these are almost purely conventions, like writing in iambic pentametre was for Pope. These conventions serve as a medium, and, rather than being taken seriously, are almost playful in that each artist looks for new and interesting ways to blow their own horns or write sexual lyrics.
Something else that's important in hip hop that often gets ignored is the production of an album. Yes, its the rapper that gets the credit, but the tone of a song is almost always set by the production of it, and its only when the production of a track and the vocals over it synthsesise perfectly that we get an epic track. So, let's get to the albums!
1. Cyne - Time Being
400 Years Revisited (feat. Blak Lungz)
Out of Time
One of the most beautiful albums in hip hop, ever. Laid back spoken lyrics with some of the purest electronic sounds over it, including chimes and beautiful vocal samples. Cyne is a political hip hop group, which, although I can appreciate, isn't generally my favourite genre of hip hop. However, Cyne brings a whole new side to political hip hop.
The lyrics are generally concerned with emprovement and empowerment, as well as social commentary. Rhymes are smooth, and nothing seems out of place or forced. There are two emcees, both with different and identifiable styles, and two producers whose collaborations are absolutely stunning. The clarity of some of the backing tracks are astounding, with beautiful electronic sounds coming dominating each track. A song which I feel obliged to mention here that is by cyne but not on the album, is Automation remixed by Four Tet. For those interested in electronic music, the name Four Tet will be synonomous with beautiful melodies, and Four Tet does the same thing for Cyne.
My two favourite tracks on the album are Nothing's Sacred and First Person. Nothing's Sacred uses an almost ephmeral vocal sample to form the melody, which, combined with some high intensity vocals makes the track stand out beautifully. In contrast, First Person tells the history of the emcees, with gentle melodies in the background supporting the vocals which provide the main melody in a very soulful way.
2. Brother Ali - The Undisputed Truth
- Whatcha Got
Lookin' At Me Sidways
Freedom Ain't Free
Letter From The Government
Take Me Home
Uncle Sam Goddamn
Ear To Ear
Brother Ali is everything that Cyne isn't. He's not specifically concerned politically, he's angry, and he's going to tell you about it. At first listen Brother Ali comes across as slightly raw, or unrefined, but the more you listen to the album, the more you learn to appreciate the mastery of Brother Ali.
The music is fairly simplistic. The samples are well chosen, and the music always enhances the music. However, there are rarely any interesting contrasts, the music almost always tells the exact same story as the vocals. This allows Brother Ali to truly stand out, as he goes from enraged and enpassioned to eerily quiet and subtle from song to song, and each time he changes in mood, so does the listener.
My favourite track on the album is undoubtably Here. The track consists of a repetitive "are you here to confuse me" sample used as a chorus, with a basic beat in the background, but over that Brother Ali produces one of the most lyrically stunning raps I've heard so far. After Here, all tracks can hold their own, with perhaps my second favourite song being the opener Whatcha Got which sets the tone for the rest of the album impeccably.
3. Blue Scholars - Bayani
- Baha'i Healing Prayer
North By Northwest
Still Got Love
Fire For The People
50 Thousand Deep
Morning Of America
I was stuck deciding whether this album or the Cyne one would be my favourite hip hop album. Brother Ali was definitely my second favourite album, but either Bayani or Time Being would be my first. In the end I chose Cyne because it was the first album which made me appreciate hip hop.
Why do I bring this up? Because the albums are very similar. Perhaps not musically, but the feeling you get from both, and the lyrical themes of both albums are very similar. Blue Scholars are a political hip hop duo, with songs like Bring them Back Home, Opening Salvo and The Distance being outright political comments. However, they mix it up with some personal and motivational tracks like Ordinary Guys and Still got Love which makes the album both grand in its scope, and personal in its closeness.
Compared with Cyne, Blue Scholars focus more on lyrics, and some of verses will astound you with the perfect rhymes, and sustained rhymes, as line after line flows perfectly into the next. This doesn't mean that the production isn't top notch, however. The production keeps the music interesting, and often provides a beautiful coutnerpoint to the lyrics. Songs to listen to are: Ordinary Guy and The Distance, but honestly, any song on the album can take your breath away.
4. CunninLynguists - Dirty Acres
- Never (feat. Big Rube)
Valley of Death
Wonderful (feat. Devin The Dude)
Yellow Lines (feat. Phonte & Witchdoctor)
The Park (Fresh Air)
They Call Me (Interlude)
Gun (feat. Sheisty Khrist)
Dance For Me
Things I Dream
Mexico (feat. Club Dub)
This album stands apart as a very well crafted album. It combines slow, soulful tracks with fast paced, aggressive tracks, and a few party songs thrown in between. The group isn't divided into emcees and producers, but rather the two steady members of CunninLynguists both produce and rap on the album. This seems to work for the lynguists, with each member brining his own side to the album, making it wonderfully diverse.
The production is also interesting and diverse, and seems to differ from track to track. On songs like K.K.K.Y. a vocal sample provides a stunning melody while some aggressive beats and vocals move the track along. In contrast, tracks like Gun has an acoustic guitar doing the melody, with the beats being sparse, and the chorus sung by the members, in contrast to the usual agressive rap style.
This album thus stands out as an album of many diverse songs, with all songs working out great. On some songs you'll think you're listening to a Jedi Mind Trickstrack, while others are closer to Anthony Hamilton than they are to hip hop. I can't pick any favourite tracks from this album, as it all depends on my mood.
5. Kanye West - Late Registration
- Wake Up Mr. West
Heard 'Em Say
Touch The Sky
My Way Home
Bring Me Down
Diamonds From Sierra Leone
Diamonds From Sierra Leona (Bonus Track)
So after four reasonably underground artists, I decide to end it with Mr West. And there's a reason for that: I love him. I mentioned in the begining that much of hip hop can be seen as a lyrical game, and Kanye West epitomizes that. His lyrics are fun while clever at the same time. You've never heard any artist name-drop as many fashion brands, or talk as big, or make as many clever though unnecessary references. And that's what great about Kanye, he has fun with his music.
Along with that you have Kanye, a producer rather than emcee by profession, doing the production. It doesn't matter which track you pick up, the music will always be interesting and fitting. The production differs from bluesy feeling songs like Drive Slowly to the upbeat, popish Celebration. And as a producer, Kanye has made many contacts with all the biggest men in the business, and on this album you he reaps the benefits, with guest appearances from Lupe Fiasco, Jamie Foxx, Common, Nas, Jay-z, and Consequence.
Choosing a favourite song is quite difficult, but I love Gold Digger which harkens back to old african-american work songs and folk songs. Yet the lyrics are amusingly modern, with a constant stream of references, from Louis Vuitton, to Usher and Busta Rhymes, to BMW. Another song I love is Diamonds from Sierra Leone, sampling the chorus from Diamons are Forever, the production, and the invariably clever lyrics, epitomize what makes Kanye West so entertaining.
Hilltop Hoods - The Hard Road - Australian hip hop, pure party music made interesting with some very clever lyrics. Did I mention they all have Aussie accents?
RJD2 - Getting Jukie Wid it Volume 2 - RJD2 is one of the best producers, and he graces us with collections of his productions occasionally. It features my favourite new artists like Copywrite, Diverse, and Cannibal Ox.
Common - Finding Forever - No list would be complete without the mac daddy of hip hop on it. His newest album, while not perfect, has some really good tracks on it.
You guys might notice that most of these albums are fairly new. Most popular genres evolve very rapidly, and music that was revolutionary ten years ago sounds stale to the untrained ear. Because of this, I think that its important to stay up to date in contemporary genres like hip hop and indie. This doesn't mean that old hip hop can't be appreciated, it just cannot be appreciated as instinctively.
I really hope that you guys try out some of these albums. They're all amazing. Also, let me know of any other albums you think I should have included!