#2. LL Cool J's Bigger and Deffer Gave Us the Rap Ballad
It's probably because he's since gone on to join Will Smith and Ice Cube in that holy trinity of rappers who spend more time acting than rhyming these days, but there was a time when LL Cool J was a total badass. Way back in 1985 when other rappers were still hip-hip-hopping and you-don't-stopping their way through songs mostly intended to start the party, LL Cool J (whose Wikipedia page has to be one of the most neatly organized and easy to use I've ever seen) was screaming his way through aggressive fare like "Rock the Bells" at the mind-blowingly tender age of 16.
The album that produced that song, Radio, ended with kind of a strange twist, though, in the form of a tune called "I Want You," which is a young James Todd Smith's awkward attempt at mixing his trademark bravado with tender longings for love. It's fucking terrible and corny, and you should only listen to it if you need a laugh, which you shouldn't, because I'm working right now.
Alternately, if you feel like you need to jam, have a listen to LL Cool J absolutely nailing the rap ballad formula just a few short years later.
That's "I Need Love," and you show some goddamn respect when you're listening to it, because it's perfect.
The runaway success of this song inspired damn near every rapper working at the time to try and replicate it with a ballad of their own, and unfortunately, maybe five of them were worth hearing. The rest were consistently terrible.
For example, check out old school legend Big Daddy Kane effectively destroying his career by proving that he's not as qualified as LL to make pretty rap songs or take his shirt off on television in the video for the objectively awful single "To Be Your Man."
You probably don't even know who that guy is, and it's probably that video's fault. The song is a standout on the once dominant rapper's sophomore album, but only because it is far and away the worst song on an otherwise great record. I remember seeing this video for the first time and, even at the age of 12, thinking, "Why would you release that as a single?"
Trying to capitalize on LL's unlikely success in the slow jam market got Big Daddy Kane labeled as an "R&B rapper" way before that was acceptable among rap fans. He disappeared from sight a few years and subpar albums later. But when the likes of Mary J. Blige and Bell Biv Devoe (stop laughing, they were more important than you realize) started blurring the line between the two genres, the door was opened for the rap ballad to make a "triumphant" return. And now, we get shit like this:
That's future "Where Are They Now?" subject Nelly and daddy-issue-drenched country star Tim McGraw masking their hair loss and pouring out their emotions together on an acoustic rap ballad, which doubles as the worst example of this particular type of song I could find (and also just the worst thing I've been able to find in general).
You have LL Cool J to thank for that awful song. And also partly for NCIS: Los Angeles, since we're keeping track.
#1. De La Soul's Early Albums Gave Us Between-Song Skits
If you look at the track listings for De La Soul's first two albums, the monumental 3 Feet High and Rising and its just as important follow-up, De La Soul Is Dead, you'll note that both were apparently fantastic values. The former checks in at a lofty 24 songs, and the latter shatters that mark with an insane 27 songs. Obviously, those are double-album numbers, but each is just a single disc. So what gives?
You can't afford not to buy them!
Unfortunately, much to the dismay of countless rap fans for over 20 years now, both of those albums introduced the concept of the "skit" to rap music. Take a look at the De La Soul Is Dead track listing again, this time with the added feature of each track's running time.
You'll note that eight of the "songs" are less than a minute long. Additionally, as anyone familiar with the album can attest, a lot of the stuff in the two-minute range is fairly useless also, even if it's not explicitly labeled as a "skit." If you wanted to be generous, you could label all of that stuff as "experiment." And when you subtract all of that away, you're left with 13 actual songs. Mind you, damn near every one of them is a winner, but still, if we're speaking in the strictest terms, over half of the tracks on De La Soul Is Dead are pointless filler that most people listened to once and never revisited again. Like this, for example:
That formula was intact on their first album also, where only 14 of the 24 listed tracks are what anyone going into the experience looking for sonic enjoyment would label as "songs." But it was that second effort that really kicked the improv half of the De La Soul experience into high gear. These skits were distracting and unnecessary and stand as the only knock against two otherwise groundbreaking-in-the-good-way classics. And yet, for some reason, once De La Soul introduced the idea, between-song skits became a staple of rap music.
One notable early adopter was Dr. Dre.
Seen here in what might not be a recent picture.
Following De La Soul's "success" with mixing nonsense people don't want to hear with great songs, the fabled producer and future president of the headphone guild followed the exact same strategy with NWA's Ice Cube-less follow-up to Straight Outta Compton. That album, the unsafe to say in public Niggaz 4 Life, featured five "songs" that clocked in at two minutes or less.
And song #8 is about Mr. T!
He carried the practice through to a slightly lesser extent on the legendary album The Chronic, which only featured two skits, but one of them was nearly three minutes long, so the math still works. By contrast, Straight Outta Compton, which was released months prior to De La Soul's debut, was presented as a tight package featuring 14 songs, none of which were less than three minutes long.
He's just one example, though. Rap music and between-song skits today are like rap music and designer clothing labels. They've been together for so long, the chances of them parting ways anytime soon are slim to none. For as long as any of us enjoy rap music, we're also going to have to enjoy editing absolutely pointless tracks out of our iPod playlists on a regular basis. Rappers love skits. There's just no getting around it.
Those of us who aren't in the business of making albums will likely never understand why this is the case, but at least we know who to blame.