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My debating career, which once flourished on YouTube, has taken a permanent backseat. YouTube is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The VEVO videos are extended gutters and the gutters are full of teenyboppers and when the drains finally scab over, a new 5-seconds-before-you-can-click-‘Skip Ad’ advertisement comes on. The accumulated filth of all their “Thumbs-ups” and redundant comments will foam up their inboxes with equally-redundant replies, and all the keyboard gangsters will look up and shout “Thumbs-up if you agree!”…and I’ll whisper “No”…and click Thumbs-down.
So that’s why this list exists.
Because once upon a time, I actively tried converting people into hip hop, tried to justify its tendencies, and not that I kept a journal, but to the best of my limited knowledge of the situations and my limited desire to keep chasing up on it to make sure the shit worked, and if it didn’t I didn’t wanna know about it. Yet over the years I have come to empathise more and more with the wise words of Chris Rock: “I love rap music, but I’m tired of defending it.” I came to realise that I cannot be the one to cause the swaying – that’s the artists’ job…or Michael Buble’s.
So here you have it, a taste of my conversion arsenal of songs that are good for a non-hip hop head inquiring about what would be the best start. At the very least, these may hopefully be an exception to the rule if you have a sour taste in your mouth about hip hop.
DISCLAIMER: It is no coincidence that a healthy portion of these songs are pre-2000s.
The Roots – What They Do (featuring Raphael Saadiq) (Illadelph Halflife, 1996)
Since forever and a day ago, the biggest criticism of hip hop was that “it requires no musical ability” and was to no surprise the one I came across most. It was also my favourite criticism to squash when I unloaded this baby on them, complete with live instruments and the epitome of what it meant to have a posse cut. The Roots have long been one of the outstanding bands of hip hop, for more reasons than just having ‘The’ at the start of their name, or their being one of Paul Shaffer’s newest rivals thanks to their gig as the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
Since it was one of the genres that was at the…pardon the pun, root…of hip hop, jazz and its musical arrangements have never left hip hop, even if they’ve been isolated and re-purposed. This entire album, like the two before it, is not only testament to the fact that hip hop is not restricted to samplers, but added to the foundations laid by A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul for what would contribute to the earthy, organic feel of hip hop that was advanced further not by just these fellas, but by artists like J Dilla, Erykah Badu and Common (all part of the Soulquarians collective).
As commentary on the irony of how fake and fabricated the images of so many rappers were (/still are), the song had a neat music video to go with it. Of course, VEVO can’t have this, so they removed the clever little captions that came with it. But that hasn’t stopped Vimeo. Enjoy.
Eminem – Sing For The Moment (The Eminem Show, 2002)
I should really say ‘Slim Shady’. Y NO EMINEM?! Because the new and diminished Eminem hardly fits the mold of an artist that has the potential. I’m by no means the first to make this complaint, but there is only so much of “I’m gonna get my life back together” that one can tolerate; no shit, we listeners love us some tortured artists, it’s what has made us love and loathe every great musician beyond their music, as has been the case with Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Jaco Pastorius. We didn’t care how deep into a grave they dug themselves, we take the good with the bad as they seemingly influence one another. But I digress.
He didn’t always adhere to a staccato flow and tender to fans whose parents would still raise an eyebrow at them listening to PG-rated Em (even though it probably wasn’t too long ago that those parents themselves were blasting The Marshall Mathers LP from their walkmans, specifically the Marilyn Manson remix of The Way I Am). But what made him stand out other than his pigmentation and chainsaw-wielding antics, to go hand-in-hand with brilliantly brutal lyricism, was his constant social commentary. He didn’t preach, he stated a perspective. And he was a voice for socially awkward kids in shitty life situations.
Naturally, like 2Pac before him, and NWA before him, he became a scapegoat for everything that was wrong with America. The beauty was that nobody was exempt from his crosshairs, whether they deserved it or not, because this made him everything you loved, hated, but most of all, feared if you were a conservative parent in middle America.
We loved him because he exercised his right to freedom of speech (despite parental refusal to admit it), hated him because he wasn’t using conventional ‘white music’ to do it, and feared him because your kids were loving it.
And this is one of his many, many responses. With an Aerosmith sample infused. I wouldn’t recommend anybody go far beyond this album.
Lupe Fiasco – Put You On Game (The Cool, 2007)
This here embodied any and everything which made the ideal rap lyricist; easily accessible yet deceptively complicated. It’s one of my personal favourites, because as a listener it feels good to be respected and not have your intelligence insulted. I don’t feel I need to say much as this all speaks for itself, other than it’s a delight to see that with his latest album he is on the path back to this after somewhat of a hiatus from making respectable hip hop.
The man utilises virtually every traditional poetic technique here, but metaphor above all. You may need the context of the album to understand this better, but since we can always chalk it up to things like this being ridiculously subjective and based on interpretation, why not give yours a whirl?
CunninLynguists – Beautiful Girl (A Piece of Strange, 2006)
Keeping with the love for metaphors, here’s one particularly more straightforward and light but nonetheless thoroughly engaging and entertaining track. This one coming from one of the greatest hip hop groups rarely heard, but heard pleasantly with each release. Suited to when we want to switch over to something new for our stoner sessions. WOOPS! Did I just give the metaphor away? Ah well.
Jay-Z – Can’t Knock The Hustle (featuring Mary J. Blige) (Can’t Knock The Hustle, 1996)
Before you decide to jump down my throat and attack me with the number of things Jay-Z has done wrong in his career, need I remind you that: A) the man is arguably one of (if not the) wealthiest and most influential artists in the industry, so evidently he’s done plenty right with his career without having to solely rely on his image as a rapper, and B) materialism and braggadocio are not necessarily bad, and the one thing that separates genuine enjoyment from guilty pleasures is the administration of class in its execution.
Jay-Z has always been able to brag with a classy, suave quality, and has been entirely self-aware of the extent to which it goes as well as when it’s time to stop bragging and do something different; refer to 30 Something.
Of course, 99 Problems is the default go-to track for people who want to hear some Jay-Z, and we can attribute much of that to the team of himself and the legendary Rick Rubin handling the production. But defaults get old, and there comes a time to switch off the Preset button.