October 9: Rap special – Beastie Boys, Eminem, Nas, NWA, Outkast, A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West

This week’s update is a selection of the hip-hop/rap albums on the list. The genre is well-represented on the list: nearly 30 albums, including some I’d already heard (Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan). Let’s have a look at some of the others.

The Beastie Boys, ‘Licensed to Ill’.

The first offering from the hoarse trio was the first rap album to top the Billboard 100 and also the first by an all-white trio: surely a coincidence. Recorded before Mixmaster Mike and Money Mark joined the group, the album can often be pretty stripped down, based mainly around 808 rhythms and samples that come and go. In the same way that early hip-hop took inspiration from the music of their past by sampling classic soul and funk, the Beasties do the same thing by sampling Led Zeppelin and War. The riffs suit being rapped over. There’s also something charming in the way the guys alternate words as well as lines, finishing each other’s sentences in a way which suggests infallible solidarity. Given this album has ‘Fight For Your Right’ and ‘No Sleep Til Brooklyn’ (one after the other!), this is probably the dumbest and simplest of the Beasties’ albums. Later albums (there are two more on the list) probably add more nuance and complexity. This is a fine party album.

Eminem, ‘The Slim Shady LP’.

1999 was such an aggressive time for music: with nu-metal plaguing the charts, we also saw the arrival of Slim Shady asking “do you like violence? Want to see me push nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids?”. The cartoon depictions of murder, rape and other violence, through a prism of moral ambiguity, predictably caused outrage among parents and huge sales among kids and teenagers. For an album with songs called ‘Just Don’t Give A Fuck’ and ‘Still Don’t Give A Fuck’, it’s clear that this is phony defiance, as Mathers’ self-loathing and doubt creeps in, bleeding through the Shady persona to the gradual detriment of the album. By the next album, of course (with ‘The Way I Am’ etc) and later on (with thin-skinned songs about Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), he was fooling nobody. This album would have been improved with fewer songs and more Dre: Doctor Andre presides over the two big singles ‘My Name Is’ and ‘Guilty Conscience’ but hands over the reins after that.

Nas, ‘The Illmatic’.

Nas’s first and most highly-regarded album clocks in at a mere 39 minutes, apparently in order to prevent further bootlegging of an album leaking in more places than the Titanic, yet this brevity is to the benefit of the album. The production hints at the sort of sound RZA would later expand upon with the Wu-Tang: dusty-sounding beats, samples either obscure or obscured (a sample of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ is almost buried in the mix). It convincingly paints a picture of the hood life that Nas was aiming to depict. Light on the guests, it’s almost entirely Nas front and centre, which makes the quality of his delivery – mid-line rhyming, polysyllabic delivery – even more crucial. The best album this week.

NWA, ‘Straight Outta Compton’.

The pivotal album from Compton’s finest is probably the most front-loaded album ever: classics ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘Fuck Tha Police’ are tracks 1&2. No surprise that the rest of the album (a mix of solo tracks, full-group collaborations and space-filling remixes) doesn’t quite sustain that momentum, despite the best efforts of Ice Cube and MC Ren on lyrics and Dr Dre on beats. Surprisingly, my favourite track is the Dr Dre solo cover of ‘Express Yourself’, even if it does contain the astonishing sound of Dre claiming “I don’t smoke weed”. Clearly a stance he would come to revise by the time of his solo album, ‘The Chronic’.

Outkast, ‘Stankonia’.

Well, it’s about time I reviewed an album that came out this century. Everybody with a casual interest in hip-hop in 2001 named Dre and Outkast as favourites; this album gives some indication as to why. Typically for hip-hop albums of the era, the running time is one of the weak points of ‘Stankonia’ (over an hour), yet the group fill this time with sprawling eclecticism and, for once, skits that are actually good! ‘Spaghetti Junction’ and ‘BOB’ are among the highlights on the album, which is best known for single and mega-hit ‘Ms Jackson’.

A Tribe Called Quest, ‘The Low End Theory’.

The second album from Q-Tip and the gang features a live bassist, but it’s the sampled breaks that feel like the significant instrument here: perhaps because they’re higher in the mix, perhaps because of the judicious sampling of jazz fills. There’s also an appearance from Busta Rhymes (possibly his only appearance on the list) on closing track ‘Scenario’, which feels like it came from a different album. For all its qualities, this perhaps didn’t sound like the crucial album I was expecting, although there is another Tribe album on the list so perhaps I can still come round on them.

Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’.

Yeezus has kind of gone from cause celebre to bete noire among hipsters, presumably because of his increasingly narcissistic pronouncements, conspicuous consumption and preposterous interviews. Maybe this year’s ‘The Life of Pablo’ didn’t go very far in redressing the balance, but he has usually proven capable of putting out at least one quality jam per album (‘Stronger’, ‘Black Skinhead’ etc). Anyway at the point of ‘The College Dropout’ he was still seen as the bright young thing of rap, underpinned by wonderful standouts ‘Jesus Walks’ and ‘All Falls Down’. The album is too long (although  12-minute closer ‘Last Call’, in which West rambles about how he got signed, mysteriously held my interest), and all the big hits are on later albums. I’d say this album is okay.

Next week, I’ll be true to my Midlands location as I check out some of the metal albums on the list. There are, surprisingly, quite a lot! Which ones will I pick? Tune in to find out!

Status update: 301 out of 1001 (30%), 700 remain.

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Author: JT Wilson

Listening to all of the albums in the '1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die' book (2006 edition).

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