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


February 26: Gang Starr, Ice Cube, N*E*R*D, Raekwon, The Roots, Run DMC, Snoop Doggy Dogg

This week I’ll be covering some of the prime rap and hip-hop cuts on the list. This is the second time I’ve specialised in this genre, after looking at seven of the best in October. Let’s see what’s on offer today.

Gang Starr, ‘Step in the Arena’

The second album from the East Coast duo is widely renowned: IGN calls it the greatest hip-hop album of all time. There’s certainly a valid argument for it, with Guru’s style a clear influence on, for example, Lyrics Born, while DJ Premier mixes up the tempos and the styles behind him. Like most 1991 hip-hop, it’s predominantly funk samples, but there’s up-tempo sounds and downbeat cuts, and even some Bomb Squad kettle whistle sounds. The duo’s only appearance on the list, this is well worth your time. Sadly there’ll be no reunion though: Guru sadly died a few years back, apparently while at odds with Premier.

Ice Cube, ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’

Following the acrimonious split of NWA, it was getting tricky for Cube to work with Dr Dre, so instead he approached Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad to handle the beats and loops, and had Chuck D and Flavor Flav show up on a couple of tracks. Not surprisingly, the album sounds like a Public Enemy album but with a greater focus on gangster rap lyrical themes and attacking racist institutions. It’s okay but exhausts itself before it reaches its climax. ‘A Gangsta’s Fairytale’ is notable for its lyrical conceit: it tells the story of da ghetto in the style of Mother Goose, with a child showing up to frame the verses.

N*E*R*D, ‘Fly or Die’

I assumed this was rap because of the band’s ‘Rock Star’ and involvement with Kelis, but this is in fact more along the lines of Pharrell’s later career, with a greater emphasis on singing and live instruments (Williams plays drums and Chad Hugo plays guitar; both are competent but rough). ‘She Wants To Move’, the best-known song here, is reflective of the overall style. Of course, the duo’s songwriting omnipresence means that, here in 2017, all music sounds like this mainly because all of it is written by the pair.

Raekwon, ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’

Rae is of course one of the Wu-Tang Clan, and the rest of the members are present here: most notably RZA on production and Ghostface Killah as the deuteragonist. The album’s legacy is hard to deny: as well as creating the mafioso world that Jay-Z used to massive commercial success, it introduced Cristal into hip-hop vernacular. It’s long as hell though (upwards of 70 minutes) and takes forever to get going: over three minutes elapses before a beat drops. With this personnel, though, it’s hardly a dud: highlights include the vibraphone funk of ‘Criminology’ and the 8-bit bleeps of ‘Glaciers of Ice’. Also, ‘Incarcerated Scarfaces’ is a pleasing title to say.

The Roots, ‘Phrenology’

Like N*E*R*D, The Roots use live instruments to add a bit of dynamic edge, and like the Raekwon album, they sprawl over 70 minutes. Jazzy hip-hop is the band’s main style, but they maintain interest for the duration by diversifying and mixing it up: the tape-skip sounds of opening track ‘Rock You’, the pounding Prodigy-ish ‘Thirsty!’ and the thrash-metal of ‘!!!!!!!!’ are just three examples. Nelly Furtado and Jill Scott also pop in. This is a good album!

Run DMC, ‘Run DMC’

Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay really strip the essence of “two MCs and one DJ” back to the very basics: apart from the full band ‘Rock Box’, there is almost nothing on these tracks but 808 drums, scratching and vocals. It’s a stark strategy that leaves most of the work to the rappers: luckily their interplay (swapping lines and even words) is meticulously planned and executed. Surprisingly it stays compelling despite the starkness and, by dispensing with all the dated aspects of late-80s rap, sounds fresher than you might expect.

Snoop Doggy Dogg, ‘Doggystyle’

With his blunt-passing, fo-shizzle-mah-nizzle slang and TV appearances, Sasha Banks’s cousin is somewhere between national treasure and laughing stock these days. In the early 90s, though, he was just getting started spraying G-funk in your ears. Everyone sounds motivated on ‘Doggystyle’, the maniac in black’s debut: Snoop’s laid-back delivery and Dre’s squelching bass and squealing synth leads are on point. Naturally there are loads of cameos from the Dogg Pound and the album doesn’t outstay its welcome. A pleasant surprise.

If we haven’t covered your favourite rap album yet, there’s plenty more to follow: still 19 rap albums on the list I haven’t heard yet.

Next week: I’ll be looking at some of the albums widely considered classics, but which I’ve never heard.

Status update: 429 listened to (43%), 572 remain.