July 23: Dizzee Rascal, Missy Elliott, Eminem, Jungle Brothers, Jurassic 5, Run-DMC, A Tribe Called Quest

This week, we’ll be spitting some fly rhymes over some dope-ass beats as it’s time for another selection of the rap albums on the list.

Dizzee Rascal, ‘Boy In Da Corner’

As Dizzee is the elder statesman of grime these days, but his own cuts are shamelessly intended at the mainstream audience, it’s strange to go back to 2003 when he was just 19 and releasing this compromise-free cut. ‘Boy In Da Corner’ mostly dispenses with hooks and even rhythm, his beats being juddering, skittering and harsh. An introspective album, acknowledging the outside world only when it’s lashing out at it, it sounds pretty timeless even in the wake of Stormzy and Skepta.

Missy Elliott, ‘Under Construction’

One of only two female rappers to front an album on the 1001, Missy doesn’t feel daunted by rapping about her sexuality (“pussy don’t fail me now”) or her body (“my attitude is heavy ‘coz my period is heavy”). Teaming up once again with Timbaland, the album once again contains Tim’s familiar brand of bass synths, hypnotic loops and stop-start rhythm, occasionally interrupted by Missy explaining her motivations for the previous song as if it was an Alexei Sayle sketch. Method Man, Jay-Z, Ludacris and Beyonce all show up, but none steal the limelight away from Miss E herself. This is a good album.

Eminem, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’

Who even uses the term ‘LP’ anymore? Released in 2000, this echoes the then-mainstream taste for OTT cartoon violence (nu-metal, WWF, Jerry Springer: fin de siecle tension everywhere) while simultaneously picking up beefs, lashing out at haters and addressing his mercurial rise to fame over a whopping 77 minutes. As with the Slim Shady album, Em seems conflicted, simultaneously craving attention with his Shady persona and being narked at the attention when he gets it: this album contains both murder fantasy ‘Kim’ and “I was just joking about that murder fantasy lol” take ‘Stan’. It still sounds pretty palatable musically, but it’s very much a time capsule from 2000 in other ways: references to Limp Bizkit, Columbine, Carson Daly, and, well… the album is also unmistakably homophobic, whether or not the author is. It’s one thing to offer the excuse “that word was thrown around so much, you know, “faggot” was like thrown around constantly to each other, like in battling,” but what about the skit where he imagines Insane Clown Posse giving him oral sex, or the line in ‘Marshall Mathers’ where his mom’s attorney is “just aggravated I won’t ejaculate in his ass”? This was a very well-regarded album at the time, but it feels like it’s best left in the past.

Jungle Brothers, ‘Done By The Forces of Nature’

Sixteen tracks over an hour with no skits or resting, the Jungle Brothers offer a similar line of colourful samples (funk, rock, jazz, swing) and surreal rhyming to associates De La Soul (themselves referenced in the first song and featured on the fifteenth). They’re as interested in black culture as Public Enemy, but while PE are interested in combating oppression and misrepresentation, the Brothers focus on love and history. It’s a long album but, appealing to the feet and the brain, this is worth checking out.

Jurassic 5, ‘Power In Numbers’

The LA sextet (yes, sextet) were always interested in going back to the old school, so must be delighted that, now that their debut album is nearly 20 years old, they themselves are eligible for the honorific ‘old school’. I had ‘Jurassic 5’ but didn’t feel like I particularly needed any other albums by the posse, a feeling which listening to ‘Power In Numbers’ doesn’t completely eliminate. There is some good stuff on here: the Tarantino twang of ‘A Day At The Races’ sounds great, while ‘After School Special’ at least has an amusing punchline when the kid rappers angling for a verse in the intro get put on the track and flap it. But then something like ‘Thin Line’, a Minnie Riperton-sampling song about friendzoning with Nelly Furtado, feels like an obvious attempt at a big hit: and it wasn’t even a single! More funky and lyrically focused than ‘Jurassic 5’ but probably 20 minutes too long.

Run-DMC, ‘Raising Hell’

‘Raising Hell’ was a big deal at the time, featuring as it does ‘Walk This Way’, the gateway drug for MTV to start playing rap, and other famous singles ‘It’s Tricky’ and ‘My Adidas’. But like Grandmaster Flash, these historical landmarks don’t necessarily translate to an album that still sounds compelling this century: it retains the minimalism and adds kooky samples, but it feels like it’s lost some of the unique feel that ‘Run-DMC‘ has. It was a big influence on people like LL Cool J, yet the trio’s best trick – the word-swapping exchanges between the two rappers – only really influenced the Beastie Boys.

A Tribe Called Quest, ‘People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’

An album almost as long as that title at 62 minutes, Q-Tip’s production apprenticeship during the De La Soul recording sessions is conspicuous in Tribe’s day-glo sample-and-scratch combination. There’s some familiar stuff going into the Akai: ‘Can U Kick It?’ is of course based around a Lou Reed track, ‘Bonita Applebum’ uses the same sitar twang as the Fugees’ ‘Killing Me Softly’, and ‘Push It Along’ features a rare Beatles sample (from ‘All You Need is Love’). As I listened to this in the same week as the Jungle Brothers, it felt like familiar territory: the jazz influences and live bass of ‘The Low End Theory’ is a more distinctive take on the genre.

Next week: We’ll be delving into unfamiliar territory by looking at the Asian albums on the list! I’m sure there’s plenty.

Status update: 576 listened to (58%), 425 remaining


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.