4 Classic Rap Albums That Ruined Rap Music
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.