Aquemini – OutKast (1998)
The infamous Aquarius and Gemini double threat released this album to acclaim they couldn’t even concieve in 1998, and although cauldron creation songs like “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and “Da Art Of Storytellin’ (Pt.1)” might stand out as their Mount Rushmore records, it’s the album title track that steals it for me. This song’s nocturnal presence gives it almost a spooky vibe. It starts as though it’s creeping up on you as the bassline rises from the murky depths of silence, lazy, but prominent as it thumps away, giving support to a hypnotic hook. “Even the sun goes down, heroes eventually die, horoscopes often lie….”. The image is strong, depicting two prolific writers shrouded by the dungeon walls that surrounded them, using the uncertainty of life to reinforce the certainty of their brotherhood – “it’s him and I Aquemini”. By the time the beat drops the listener is utterly at the mercy of the song, both comatose by it’s darkness and alerted by Big Boi and Andre’s delivery. The jewel in the crown of this epic comes in it’s almost theatrical encore. The beat and the instrumental cuts to almost silence, only to be thrust back into mix alongside an unhinged horn break and the words “The name is Big Boi”, but then Andre delivers one of the most impressive verses ever written. It’s a personal favourite, and it’s mind bending brilliance never loses it’s potency. Seriously, listen.
Runnin’ – The Pharcyde (1995)
This song has all the elements of a perfect hip hop song. Charismatic MC’s, cutting edge production from a young J Dilla, and one of the most infamous hooks in hip hop history. The marriage of west coast collaborative The Pharcyde and J Dilla resulted in a near flawless album, with production that, at the time, the world wasn’t particularly ready to here from the legends that made “Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde”. The reviews were average to good, and the general feeling was that the more serious tone to the album was a sign that the group were losing their chemistry. No one feels like that anymore. This is undoubtedly one of the biggest songs Dilla ever produced, and it’s definitely a fan favourite amongst Pharcyde fans as well. The Spanish guitars that loop over the track sound as though they have no right to be on a hip-hop song, but as soon as you hear them you never want to return them. Dilla made a beat that broke all the rules but became a cornerstone for the genre. When his envied, off kilter drums kick in the song has already transcended into greatness. The beat has lead you here, but now the MC’s need to keep you here. And that they do. The harmonised “Can’t keep running away…” is one of the most seamless hooks in history. It feels almost as if it’s part of the sample as it fits the track like a glove, with perfect melody. The Pharcyde deliver verses stuffed to the brim with entertaining lines, micro narratives, and intricate word play revolving around the idea of pushing back against the bullies of the world, and it’s epic.
Family Business – Kanye West (2004)
Hate him, love him, disagree with him, agree with him – the debates can go on for centuries, but one thing is for sure, Kanye West has one of the best Discographies in recent musical history. Facts. So, narrowing him down to one song was almost farcical, but I always knew it would be “Family Business”. Kanye is an artist of many eras. His foundational music was all about chopping up the soul. He was the producer that could give you the 21st century soul anthem if you gave him a chance, with his chipmunk sample staple that oozes warmth. He was a counterculture, the guy that gave hip hop a softer outlet. Not everyone that listened to rap lead the life 50 Cent and G-Unit were rapping about, and Kanye offered hip hop a route back into the sounds of A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock, and No ID. He was the everyday rap artist, in his pink polo, that offered unseen levels of relatability. From there he has pioneered the autotune, emo style singing/rap that dominates the charts today, he’s made a genre melting pot of musical classic, he’s toyed with experimental and Avant Garde, and now he’s in his Christian music phase (the less said about that the better). But for me if I had to choose, its horrible and difficult, but I would say that soulful Kanye holds the most special place in my heart. “Family Business” to me is the epitome of what made “Old Kanye” so beloved. Beautiful piano riffs, chilling gospel vocal performances, and soul samples create a soundscape that’s completely beautiful, but it’s Kanye’s writing that makes this song. This song isn’t about his family, it’s for his family. He speaks as though it’s a private conversation that he’s having with his relatives at certain points, creating a song that not only peels back the layers of the artist, but leaves the door to his family life slightly a jar, and the listener sees the good, the bad and the complicated. It gives the song such immense relatability and beauty, as he discusses in a very nonchalant but sentimental manner the impact of family conflicts, losses, and cherished memories. It’s lyrics like:
“Now that your gone it hit us / super hard on Thanksgiving and Christmas this can’t be right […] Somebody please say grace so I can save face / And have a reason to cover my face”
that explain why Kanye was so beloved by so many. The production is stunning, the writing is poignant and personal, and it’s all Kanye, open and bare.
Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst – Kendrick Lamar (2012)
This was one of the first songs I ever heard from Kendrick Lamar who I think is without a doubt the most important artist of the last decade. He’s a poet, and he is the rapper that I challenge anyone who is cautious about the legitimacy of hip hop “lyricism” and writing to listen to. You will change your mind, and the “Sing About Me” portion of this song would be a perfect example. I don’t know why this song stays with me so much. To Pimp A Butterfly is by far the more complex, significant, and flagrant album, but this song is just so raw to me. Musically it’s utterly simple. It’s a sparse and depressing beat that loops for 7 minutes, but that’s all it needs to be. It croons along, creating a metronome like quality for Kendrick to write one of the most lyrically potent songs of the last decade. Storytelling in rap is what drew me into the genre, and it’s definitely a dying art in contemporary hip hop, but titans like Kendrick and Cole strive to keep it alive, but no ones does it like Kendrick.
This song is made of three sprawling verses. The first is from the perspective of Kendricks friend from his old neighbourhood. He’s talking directly to Lamar in a frenzy of idolisation and appreciation. Kendrick uses his friend’s monologue as a portal to depict the bleakness and desperation of the environment that he’s managed to escape, and as the friend is talking to Kendrick about hoping to find a passion like he did, he’s gunned down mid-sentence, and the bar is finished with vocal silence before the morbid chorus comes in. It’s shocking and gives the listener a short time to reflect on what has been said, and then comes the 2nd verse. This verse is not so positive and is from the perspective of a sex worker in Kendrick’s former neighbourhood. In 2011 Kendrick wrote a song called “Keisha’s Song”, which depicted the tragic death of a sex worker from his home, and this verse is from the perspective of her sister. Interestingly the story takes a very different turn. She’s outraged at Kendrick’s ignorance and selfishness, cursing him for ever involving her sister’s narrative in his music, as it’s a road that she is yet to travel. The lyricism and word play is off the charts, but it’s the story that’s devastating. Her pride is self-destructive. Her anger at Kendrick’s judgement throws her further into the corrupted system to the point where her voice fades away in the mix as her anger sizzles, signifying her demise. Kendrick takes the mantle on the third verse, seeing the song out with his own perspective on these matters, and on his own mortality. He ponders whether he’s afraid of death, and whether the legacy he leaves behind is enough. It’s songs like these that just put Kendrick in the elite class of rappers. He is truly a poet, and his unflinching dedication to his writing is magnificent.
To Live And Die In L.A – 2Pac (Makaveli) (1996)
2Pac’s influence and legacy is almost greater than one can fathom. His tragic but utterly important life has become the stuff of legend, and his name is infamous, but the music holds up it’s end of the deal – its amazing. He never got to see how this album was received as he was murdered before it’s release, but despite this not being my favourite 2Pac album, this single is irresistible. It’s a straightforward dedication to his city, and that’s not even the slightest bit original. Even before hip hop, people have been writing love songs and ballads to Los Angeles and California until the world’s ears bleed, but like no one can write another “Hotel California”, no one can depict their message quite like Tupac Shakur. His love letter to the city that fostered him feels like driving around the entire of what I Imagine real Los Angeles is like. He leaves behind the Hollywood Hills and Bel Air and takes the listener on a journey through micro experiences that he has had in a song that’s celebratory nature is yet to be matched. He shows you the city that he knows. The danger, the beauty, the divide and the unification. The song plays out like a movie, he’s in and out of court and he’s constantly finding inspiration to make music with his peers. This is not a song that showcases what 2Pac was famous for – introspective, political, and impassioned lyricism. But the song has a feel to it that is just inescapable. This is in part thanks to the sunny production that takes some help from Princes “Do Me, Baby”. Its gorgeous, warm and anthemic and 2Pac’s delivery and tales of his antics in the city of angels make it a favourite.