Anything you love about music, no matter the genre, can usually be traced back to one seminal recording that introduced a trend or technique that forever changed the way people make music. On the flip side of that, of course, is the fact that you can also pinpoint those moments in music history where, even if no one realized it at the time, things took a turn for the worse. Interestingly, because the masses generally aren't inspired to copy that which they don't enjoy, the awful trends in music tend to start at the same place the good ones do, hidden within great pieces of work.
Identifying these wellspring moments is especially easy with rap music, since it's only been around since the '70s. Less source material to sift through makes influences easier to spot. And when it comes to rap music history, some of the very worst the art form has to offer started with some of the finest albums the rap music genre has ever produced.
Here are four classic rap albums that accidentally destroyed rap music.
#4. Ready to Die by Notorious B.I.G. Married Rap and High Fashion
In 1993, the balance of power in rap music had shifted heavily toward the West Coast. After music made by gang members (which I refuse to identify by its accepted name because "gangster" does not have two A's) killed the "positive" rap movement with songs about selling crack, the East Coast struggled to find an identity for a few years.
To tilt the scales back in the direction of New York, it took a trio of legendary debut albums. The first was the Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang in 1993, followed by Nas' almost perfect Illmatic in the spring of 1994, and, most importantly for this entry, Ready to Die by the Notorious B.I.G. shortly after that.
Pictured: The 1983 NFL draft of debut albums.
More on the Wu-Tang and their hand in ruining rap later, but for now, let's talk Nas and Biggie. For all intents and purposes, they were opposite-sized versions of the same person right before their debut albums came out. Both had made their names by delivering jaw-dropping guest appearances on other people's records (as if there's another place to make a guest appearance), and both were the next likely torchbearers for what's affectionately referred to as "real" rap. The hype around each man's debut album was off the charts, and each man lived up to it nicely.
In every way imaginable, though, the Notorious B.I.G. delivered in a much larger way. While Ready to Die went quadruple platinum and became the album of 1994, Illmatic struggled to sell 500,000 copies (it eventually went platinum, but not until 2001). If you're looking for a reason why that happened, I have a picture of it for you right here:
Meet the man who ruins everything.
Nas and B.I.G. both had street cred for days, but only one of them had Puff Daddy, the most flamboyant record executive in rap music history, on their side. Puff (the name I choose to call him because it's the only one that's a real word) practically forced his 350-pound retirement plan to take on a more suave, player-type persona to go along with his tales of selling drugs and shooting home invaders. And man did that shit work. The album itself, much like those by Nas and Wu-Tang, was light on radio-friendly songs. But the handful it did have were promoted as singles, and the more "street-friendly" stuff was left for people who actually bought the album. While Nas and Wu-Tang stomped around housing projects wearing Timberlands in cold weather and gathering around burning trash cans like a bunch of super talented hobos in their videos ...
Because nothing is more real than homelessness.
... Biggie Smalls and his dance-happy best friend were in hot tubs with chicks and drinking champagne with R&B singers.
That looks a lot more enjoyable and, way more importantly, a lot less threatening to the "general public" than what the rest of the East Coast was up to. It should come as no surprise that, of the three acts mentioned here, the Notorious B.I.G. was the most commercially successful.
To Puffy's credit, everything about the presentation of the Notorious B.I.G. as an entertainer was executed flawlessly. In videos, he wore expensive suits and hung out with the rich and pretty. He was almost glamorous. But on record, he was just as "hardcore" as anyone else. His success in blending gritty subject matter with a more refined and classy look was lost on absolutely no one. Wu-Tang and Nas were doing great things, but it looked like the same thing everyone else was doing. Just by giving a shit about what he looked like and occasionally mentioning that in his songs, Biggie set himself apart from all the other rappers who were essentially making the same music he was.
You don't need me to tell you about the unfortunate heights to which rap music eventually took this newfound interest in expensive fashions and upscale lifestyles. That's pretty much all rap music is today. If you ever find yourself pondering who the most influential rapper of all time might be, swish that previous sentence around in your head for a little bit and then ask again.
Interestingly, someone else from that glorious rookie class would take the "stop dressing like a subway passenger" aesthetic from the Notorious B.I.G. and add something to it that he, in turn, appropriated for himself on his next album. Cliffhanger alert!
#3. A Wu-Tang Clan Member's "Solo" Album Made Rappers Think They Needed Five Names
The last thing anyone needed from a rap ensemble that fluctuates between eight and 10 members at any given time was a few more names to remember, but that's exactly what we got when Wu-Tang Clan cohorts Raekwon the Chef (already with the names) and Ghostface Killah released the super-duper classic album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (their spelling, not mine). If you think the name is stupid, wait until you see what kind of shenanigans they got up to in the studio.
Because The Godfather is a great movie and the Wu-Tang Clan at least pretend to be relatives, the group took on the crime family name "Wu-Gambinos" for the entirety of the album. The individual members also took on new names. So long, Method Man. Hello, Johnny Blaze. Goodbye, Raekwon the Chef. Hello, Lou Diamonds, which would eventually evolve to "Lex" Diamonds, presumably after someone in the group finally saw La Bamba.
The list of names went on and on. At around the 0:50 mark of this video ...
... you can hear the group, clearly enamored with the idea of getting their new monikers entered into the historical record, awkwardly struggle to get all 15 to 20 of them shouted before the song fiiiiiinally starts about two minutes later than it needs to.
Here's the thing, though: None of that matters at-fucking-all because Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was a masterpiece. Although it's more accurate to say that the name game didn't matter at all for that album. For rap music as a whole, the decision to inexplicably change Inspectah Deck's already dumb name to the even dumber but more historically significant "Rollie Fingers" sent shock waves through the rap world.
And probably through the real Rollie Fingers' world also.
Seemingly overnight, every rap collective with more than three members not only had a second name for their group, but also had alternate identities within that group. Perhaps no rapper was influenced by the album's fascination with name changes more than the aforementioned Nas. As you may know, he often goes by the name "Nas Escobar," which is, of course, a reference to slain Colombian soccer star Andres Escobar.
Now, with the accurate portion of the preceding information in mind, can you guess who the first non-Wu-Tang-affiliated rapper to appear on a Wu-Tang-related album was? If you said Mary J. Blige on the Method Man classic "You're All I Need," your definition of rap is probably racist! The correct answer, of course, is Nas. He delivered one of the finest verses in the history of words that rhyme on the Cuban Linx track "Verbal Intercourse," because this was obviously a concept album about awesome things with terrible names.
It was his brief sojourn into the Wu-Tang's alternate family that earned Nas that Escobar nickname, and he really liked it. A lot. A brief but undetermined but also perfectly Googleable amount of time after appearing on that song, Nas released his second album, which was chock-full of crime family references and mentions of that new last name of his.
You may also note that he's significantly more well-dressed here than when we saw him in the previous entry. Go figure.
Once Nas latched onto it, the extra-name fetish spread like wildfire (aka Burny Trees). By the time his second album rolled around, even the Notorious B.I.G. was in on the fun, regularly calling himself Frank White, a reference to Christopher Walken's drug lord character in King of New York. Nowadays, rappers like Lil' Wayne seem to have an infinite supply of new names they'd like you to call them from week to week. It's maddening, and it's all because of, arguably, the best Wu-Tang "solo" album of all time.