This article about the history of rap, and Nathan Rabin’s relationship to it, at the Onion AV Club is reductive and sort of laughable. Check it out for some more context. Or don’t. No biggie. But Rabin’s point is that as he grew older, rap stayed the same, and eventually chased him out of the genre.
That is the exact opposite of my experience with hip-hop. For me, rap has been an explosion of infinite possibility. Every year brings me some new obsession or style, and even when I revisit older albums, I find the foundations for modern albums or idiosyncratic outcroppings that were never followed up on. I can’t imagine becoming bored of rap, or thinking that rap devolved, because rap, for me, is in a state of constant and rapid-fire evolution.
I thought about doing a serious rebuttal to Rabin’s piece, personal though it is, because I disagree with so much of it. Half a second after having that thought, I got super bored with the idea. Instead, here’s a few of my rap memories. My memory’s not great, but music is one of those things that sticks with me. I want to try to illustrate rap’s infinite potential, my indelible love for the genre, and how I can chart my growth by way of rap history. For the record, and to provide a bit of context, I was born in 1983 and grew up (for all intents and purposes, if not literally) in Georgia. (Maybe this is a dumb idea, but I did it and you’re about to read it. Love to love to love ya, love ya, love ya!)
2002: There was one album that caused a seismic shift in my listening this year. It was The Clipse’s Lord Willin. Specifically this song:
All you gotta do is pound out this beat on a table to get my head nodding, and it’ll keep nodding for a week. I was working at Burger King on base when it dropped, and we’d bang it on the radio, on CD, and on the metal tables we used to make those stupid sandwiches on. We couldn’t even do that high pitched “grind-ing!” but we still gave it the old college try. It was the perfect antidote to all those Harlem shaking New York rappers who were still talking jiggy, and is still basically the gutterest rap song ever. Magic happens when you put the coke dealers with the skateboarders, I guess.
2003: 2003 is definitely defined by OutKast. Stankonia was great, but Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was something else. They dropped a combo funk and R&B album, and it somehow worked. And there was this, of course:
I think in a lot of ways, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is an actual endpoint for rap music. Rap has always been about reinventing and reinvigorating the past. The entire history of black music is enclosed within rap music, from the blues to James Brown, and this double album is what happens when those influences are not just foregrounded, but made the point of the album. Speakerboxxx goes from funk to electro to soul to crunk and back around again, while Andre gets his Prince and his Michael Jackson on in The Love Below There’s a really good essay lurking around somewhere on that subject, but from “Ghettomusick” to “Hey Ya!,” it’s hard to think of an album from 2003 that was harder than this. It’s such an amazing album, man. It felt new.
2004: Goodie MOb officially fell off in 2004, and that was unbelievably depressing, but a lot of people really stepped up to fill that gap for me. dead prez’s Revolutionary But Gangsta worked that black nationalist niche I love so much, but Jadakiss’s “Why” not only re-introduced me to Anthony Hamilton (also present on Heltah Skeltah’s Magnum Force!) but was the hands-down best political rap song that year.
Two of my favorite artists really arrived in 2004. TI and Kanye West both had killer years, which ended up being just foundations for even better albums a couple years down the line. TI’s Urban Legend had “Bring Em Out,” “ASAP,” and “U Don’t Know Me,” which I stayed putting on mixtapes. It was a comeback album, kinda, since he’d already started his habit of getting locked up between albums, and it was crazy ill. TI’s not lyrical, but he’s a skinny dude with heart, and it shows. His voice is way bigger than you’d expect, and there’s something seriously charming about dude. Put him on a DJ Toomp beat and he shows up with a fire that just can’t be matched. His trademark shout/growl “Yyyyyyyyeah!” is one of the hypest things in rap, second only to Jeezy’s “ha-haaaaaaa!” and Nore’s “WHAT!” in terms of being an iconic ad-lib. And it turns out if you put dude on a Swizz Beatz track, like on “Bring ‘Em Out,” things get even more hype.
Kanye blessed us with The College Dropout, which had a bunch of bangers, but was just a warm-up for his incredible and nigh-perfect Late Registration in 2005.
2005: I rediscovered Saul Williams in 2005, after a brief dalliance in 2000 or 2001. I loved “Coded Language” back then, so I was really pleased to find that his Saul Williams album hit just as hard. It’s an album that feels like conscious pop music, a revolution that you can dance to. I threw “Telegram,” “List of Demands,” and “Black Stacey” onto every mixtape I made that year, and “African Student Movement” still really goes.
2006: I discovered Khaled in 2006. Rather, I was introduced to Khaled by a friend when I stayed over and was forced to watch the video for “Holla At Me”. I wasn’t really checking for mainstream rap at this point, content to sorta mope in the corner on my own, so Khaled’s “Holla At Me” was stunning. For one thing, Paul Wall was back after “Sittin Sideways,” and he still had the internet goin’ nuts. The biggest surprise, though, was that Lil Wayne had transformed from the kid who hung around with Cash Money into a real spitter. He had an ill flow, and I totally didn’t expect that transition. Fat Joe came through with a solid verse, too.
“Holla At Me” was my intro to Rick Ross and Pitbull. I definitely hadn’t heard “Hustlin’” by this point, and I remember thinking that big goon was just aight. I liked that low, menacing flow he had, but he wasn’t really spitting anything interesting, and son had way too many punch-ins. Pitbull was excited, but… incoherent? He showed up and I tuned out.
2007: Andre 3000 ran my 2007. There’s not even a question here. He had at least five guest appearances that were worth five mics on their own. He completely outshined every single rapper on Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” remix, including a Jim Jones at the top of his game. I liked Andre as a rapper, but I didn’t realize that he was the type of rapper that could chew up other emcees and spit them out with little to no effort.
And then there was “Walk It Out,” Unk’s hit joint. Andre went first on this track, too, and Unk is lucky that Big Boi and Jim Jones were on this song. Otherwise, he would’ve been renegaded to death. Unk is wack, basically, and Andre leads off a verse that’s just tangentially related to the song and is ill as anything ever was. Capo gets it in, and Big Boi does too, but they just can’t compete with Andre.
Or “International Players Anthem,” the UGK song. Or Devin the Dude’s “What A Job.” Or “You,” Lloyd’s single. That verse on “You” is insane, real talk wrapped in an awesome verse about love. 2007 was the year Andre left rap at the top of the game, and he did it like it was nothing.
2008: I was positively obsessed with “Birthday Girl” by The Roots, and “75 Bars,” throughout 2008. But if I really had to pin down one memory from 2008… it would be Killer Mike saying “But allow me to weigh in on a couple of issues right now. Allow Killa Kill to say my part right now, homey. First and foremost, I wanna say: niggas, stop making fucking Obama songs if you can’t get in an interview and sound halfway motherfuckin’ intelligent.” on “The Devil Is A Lie.”
But past that, it’s Royce da 5’9″‘s “Shake This.” It was an unexpected and painful song from one of my favorite rappers, and the only dude who can reliably keep up with Eminem.
It’s one of those songs you just vibe to. It’s relatable, it’s honest… it’s inspirational music, as opposed to aspirational. It’s about not screwing up ay more and getting the job done, which is something I need to be reminded of on a regular basis. For one of the dudes who really started making me pay attention lyrics to drop this song, as opposed to someone like Slug from Atmosphere who I expected to be this open, was tremendous. It reignited my love for Royce in a major way.
And “Shake This” led me to “Onslaught” (“We up in this bitch like Tranzor Z” whoa), where Royce and Joe Budden buried their light beef and ignited SLAUGHTERHOUSE, which is basically a dream come true for me in terms of talent and make-up. Like, this track “The One”? That’s my rap. Mad lyrical, mad grimey, mad sleazy. And Buddens and Ortiz going back and forth on that Lox tip is mega-ill.
2009: I got into Blu way late, but 2009 is about when I really started clicking with him. I think I grabbed a mixtape off 2dopeboyz or something, and then it was off at the races. Blu was a guy that I could personally relate to in a lot of ways, from how he keeps releasing noodly, not-quite-finished albums to his steady work ethic. He comes off as a regular guy with more creativity than he knows what to do with, so he experiments constantly. That’s why one of his albums is about 50% chiptunes and 50% raw raps.
That regular guy-ness is something I really dig. Our experiences don’t overlap too much, I don’t think — I’m from Georgia and I write, he’s from Los Angeles and he’s a musician — but I can still look at him and see a kindred spirit. There’s this lo-fi DIY aspect I really appreciate.
2010: It’s gotta be that boy Yelawolf, because of songs like this:
As an introduction to a rapper, “I Wish” is killer. Yela’s a country rapper, so his accent is real familiar, but his subject matter and flow is something else entirely. Add the driving and sparse beat to the cool chorus (I love when they mix up the chorus a little) to Yela’s verse (which is heat rocks from word one) to CyHi and Pill’s ill features. What’s the result? Something crazy, a song where all three artists go in and leave you thirsty for more.
It helps that it’s southern, of course. I’ve got a fondness for country rap, and these guys are part of the new vanguard. This is speakerbox music, and makes me wish I still owned a car. That’s one of the things I miss about back home, and I definitely make it a point to go for a drive or two solo every time I go back. “I Wish” is so aggressive in tone that I bet it knocks.
2011: I didn’t see Danny Brown coming. His flow is a combo of some of Vordul Mega’s more out-there verses and Ol Dirty’s flow, real off-kilter and shrill. Some words get squeaked, others get grunted, and no verse is the same. He’s weird, even to my ears, but he grew on me really quickly. He’s clever, which is one of my must-haves for a rapper, and he knows how to write a song.
It’s that off-kilterness that’s so attractive, I figure. I never know where his songs are going to go in terms of flow and lyrics. He opens XXX with “Colder than them grits they fed slaves” and I’m instantly interested. Over the course of the rest of the album, he does party joints, emotional joints, cold-hearted joints… he’s got a real range that I enjoy, and his metaphors are juuuust weird enough to force me to pay attention more than I do with artists I’m more familiar with.
2012: And Danny’s verse on “The Last Huzzah” is partially responsible for me running into Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire, king of sleaze rap and the dude who dropped the single best verse of 2011 on “Two 22′s b/w Twenty-two 2′s”, which came out on Christmas Day.
I was in Los Angeles for Christmas, and made a conscious decision to stay off the internet. I only got on to see if a Jean Grae tape I’d been looking forward to had dropped and went for eXqo’s tape because it was there. I was blown away, because it’s seriously heat rocks and I didn’t know he was that ill. It made me go back and reconsider Lost in Translation, his prior mixtape, and start grabbing any little freestyles or bootlegs I could find. He’s in a lane of his own, with broad subject matter, a fantastic sense of humor, and great storytelling.
I don’t know how anyone can look at rap and say that it isn’t constantly innovating and evolving for the better. All of these are off the top of my head, pure stream of consciousness, and this wasn’t even hard. I cut other anecdotes because they had me way off-topic. Every year I find something new to fall in love with, and I find a new artist who leads me to other new artists or rediscover an old artist (like Fiend from No Limit) who’s back and hungry.
Rap will never stagnate.