Lancie enjoys gushing about the music he likes, panning the music he dislikes, and writing it so that the reader wins either way.
Hip-hop has a bad rap. Gangsters, violence, drug use, bragging about riches and hoes, and thug lyfe (complete with #hashtag) all spring to mind instantly at the mention of it. "You listen to rap? Wow, you must be edgy." This is not without reason—such subjects became the face of hip-hop in the 80's, and still persist today.
Putting aside squicky subject matter, there's also the easily adopted misconception that rap is mostly unintelligible, a slur of gibberish that sounds cool only to teenagers who couldn't care less. There are people who think that hip-hop is only good for peaking your anger and your frustration, and want no part of it.
One of the gravest ironies of hip-hop, I feel, is that it's a vicious cycle. Hip-hop demands you listen closely. When you do, it helps to explain why it is what it is. But if you don't, the slant against it persists, and so it wails harder against you, because it gets frustrated at you for not giving it a "fair chance". Put another way, you'd get it if you did, but if you don't, you wouldn't.
It's not a genre that tries to reach out, or at least largely fails to do so in a mainstream way. From the outside, it seems inaccessible unless you're just that kind of person. Which is a shame, because like with any other genre, there's more to it than broad strokes. There's an exceptional focus to flow and rhythm, because it's the lifeblood of such music. I find hip-hop songs to have much better atmospheres than other genres like country or even today's pop, which is already gearing itself towards atmospheric fills. And, of course, it's got a wealth of sotrytelling and social commentary, making it fertile plains for those who want weight in what they listen to.
This article aims to bridge the gap with a few introductory songs. This list is not a measure of quality or even historical significance; it's a collection of songs that I feel showcase what hip-hop has to offer while still having clear lyrics and accessible themes. With any luck, they also subvert or even exceed expectations. I'm always open to suggestions, so feel free to let me and fellow readers know of any more in the comments below.
#1: Biz Markie's Just A Friend
Named the Clown Prince of Hip-Hop, Biz Markie's Just A Friend is the first on the list. You may have heard the 2000-poppy Austin Mahone cover, or the brief reference to it in the movie The Book of Life.
In it, Biz tries to figure out why his girlfriend is strangely distant, and all the while she assures him that the man she's always with is "just a friend". His singing and rapping skills are not the greatest. He barely catches his breath on one line just a minute into the song, and the chorus is infamously lousy—but this wailing is also what makes the song the silly fun catchy ride that it is, and you can't help but rally to Biz' side for how naive and sincere he is. A little cringe, a bit more aww, and by the end of the song it's real tempting to just sing along. Fair enough, there are a couple of unfamiliar phrases like "hundred proof" and "9/10 pants", but context is enough to figure out what they need to mean.
#2: Atmosphere's Sunshine
Released in August 2015, Atmosphere's soothing piece takes its hook from nearly two hundred years ago: more precisely, the first line of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Song of India from his 1896 opera, Sadko. The song takes an easy pace, detailing the singer's trip from painful hangover to appreciation for the day, the sunshine, and life in general.
Easily identified with, laid on to a classy chill beat, and a guy that just sounds happy to be doing what he's doing, and to be who he is. Also uses 99% plain English (what's a Musab line?), so very comprehendable. Worth a listen regardless if you like hip-hop or not.
#3: Eminem's Lose Yourself
Eminem comes with a lot of baggage, and is probably responsible for a lot of first impressions towards hip-hop. It is, as his fans will tell you, what makes him him, and he harnesses it in Lose Yourself to achieve something amazing.
"Hey, wait, isn't this the 'Mom's spaghetti' song?" Why yes, yes it is.
Aside from the fact that it's spawned a minor meme, there are two key draws. First is the topic: it's about giving your all, losing yourself as you pour yourself into one single chance, the only one you might get. It's sink or swim, and coming from a man with much worse circumstances:
All the pain inside amplified by the
Fact that I can't get by with my nine-to-
Five and I can't provide the right type of
Life for my family, cause man, these God damn
Food stamps don't buy diapers
it's one of the most motivational songs you can get.
The other draw is Eminem's excellent writing. While the musicality, the catchiness of his songs have been hit and miss for me, his rhymes and his flow are, by and large, top notch. There's none of that rhyming "me" with "me" (Without Me) here; he strings his lines together in groups of 8 so smoothly that you can't really sing one without immediately going into the next, and the next, and the next. This video explains it in more detail: the rhyming scheme is jaw-dropping impressive, and it generates powerful immersion that grabs your attention as you latch on, and delivers the most addicting aspect of hip-hop in a highly relatable package.
As with most Eminem songs, it comes with a sprinkling of pop culture references that may or may not make sense to you ("There's no Mekhi Phifer" refers to another actor in the movie), as well as some mushed sections ("moodog chained" is actually "mood all changed"); the lyrics in the link above have annotations that explain everything, including explanations from Eminem himself. A slightly higher comprehension challenge for a much meatier song.
#4: Outkast's Ms. Jackson
An unusual rap structure, a sick beat and a hook that cheekily riffs on Wagner's Here Comes the Bride make for a classic. The first stanza is about 70% understandable, and thanks to Akon's "apology" song it's really easy to take everything, including the chorus, as sarcasm... but it's not. Amidst the upbeat tempo and carefully placed fills is a weariness, a resignation towards a rarely-discussed situation in music: handling the fallout of a divorce, and having to deal with the mother-in-law as well. There's a frankness, a sort of maturity developing through the lines:
On the oak tree, I hope we feel like this forever
Forever, forever ever, forever ever?
Forever never seems that long until you're grown
And notice that the day by day ruler can't be too wrong
It's a refreshing change of pace from chasing girls and proclaiming never-ending romance, but it isn't snide or hopeless about it either. It feels like it comes from a very real place in how evenly the subject is discussed (as an aside, this was based on the singer's own struggles), and honesty in art always earns respect.
#5: Will Smith's Gettin' Jiggy With It
Is it any surprise that this would make the list? Will Smith, well-known for his no-cuss policy in his music, started "The Jiggy Era" with this in 1997, when hip-hop came into the foreground toting bling and swagger instead of gritty guns and drugs. It's both the most and least "offensive" on the list. Aside from the fact that the lyrics are the hardest to parse on the list, on one hand, the whole song is about Will Smith bragging about how great a dancer he is, tearing up the club floor with his style. On the other hand, the song is about Will Smith bragging about how great a dancer he is, tearing up the club floor with his style. It's a combination of irritable puffed-chest bravado and Will Smith "just playin' is all", like the sugar coating on a mildly bitter pill.
What helps to wash down the whole lot is his cool delivery and the groovy track. Very solidly 90's with a bassline as jiggy as he is, replete with disc scratching and trumpet riffs that make the song pop. Too overloaded for pop, too much swagger for disco, it finds its place in the beautiful chaos that was 90's hip-hop. "Seriously, this is hip-hop?" is the expected reaction, from both fans and newcomers alike, and the answer is, well, yes. Hip-hop lite, maybe, but still hip-hop all right, and a great way to ease into the genre.
Kendrick Lamar's Money Trees, Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe, Mortal Man: The first two tracks were the ones that pushed me from mere curiosity to full-fledged fanhood. All three have sick hooks, a great backing track, and create a deep immersion with Kendrick's controlled delivery. The third is probably the most pop-like with its deliberate repetition, comes with a damning twist, and is overall a real surprise that makes you think: "I didn't know you could do that in a song!"
It pained me not to include anything of his in the actual list, but I'm tentatively considering a review of To Pimp a Butterfly, so that time will come.
Eminem's Mockingbird, When I'm Gone: Yes, the controversial angry blonde who swears a ton has a hidden side to him, and both these tracks are glimpses into something uncommon: a look at a father's relationship with his estranged daughter(s). Paired with raw pain and regret, the tracks are heavy on the emotions (though, remarkably, not as much on the foul language), and add depth to a persona we thought was easily dismissed. They're not on the list because of their weight; an important part of pop's accessibility is that it arrives, does its thing, and leaves. It doesn't expect to linger like these do.
Coolio's Gangsta Paradise, I'll C U When U Get There: Funnily, these encapsulate his journey through gangster life; the first is the quintessential gangster rap that lays down the circumstances and the struggles that drive them to do what they do. The second comes from a place of "I've seen it all"; he's made it to the top, runs his own group, it's implied he's gone clean, and is now exhorting his fellows to rise above it all like he has.
The former is something any new fan will find for themselves eventually. It's like discovering disco and coming across Bee Gees, it's a given that it will happen. The second is a stronger contender, simply because it's about no longer being a gangster, but ultimately excluded for more musically interesting choices. Unless you had a particular hankering for Pachelbel's Canon in D, give it a listen and see if you agree.
Macklemore's Downtown: A surprisingly apt choice that I forgot about until the end of writing this. Thrift Shop and Can't Hold Us were both widely-loved hits, characteristic of modern hip-hop that favours additional musical layers than the sparse beats of Coolio's songs; they flow smoothly, and create the right mood for what they each set out to do.
Downtown is, in my opinion, the best of the lot, worth listening to simply for the operatic levels of vocals by Eric Nally, the closest we'll ever get to Michael Jackson/glam pop's resurrection. More pop than hip-hop, Macklemore raps about the joys of riding a moped. Not the first thing that comes to mind when discussing hip-hop, which is why it would have been great on the list, if not for some tricky sections that, to the untrained ear, mean zilch ("Throwing up the West Side as we tear in the air / Stop by Pike Place, throwing fish to a player"). Still great, though.
Again, this is not an exhaustive, objective list, but a collection of songs I feel are very palatable to people who wouldn't normally like hip-hop, including all the connotations it brings.
Got suggestions? Want to share stories of how you feel about hip-hop, before/after the article? Let me know in the comments below, and follow if you're interested in reading more variety articles like this.
© 2016 Lancie Herald
Lancie Herald (author) on July 02, 2016:
Duly noted. Thanks for the catch! I've fixed that.
Foreverblue on June 03, 2016:
"There's no Mekhi Phifer" is the name of actor who played his best friend in the movie!!!!! Cmon man.
Lancie Herald (author) on May 22, 2016:
Hi bob - that's a good point, and definitely was one of the biggest turnoffs for me pre-hip hop. I think you'll find that "Lose Yourself" subverts that wonderfully - throughout the song, there's this back and forth theme of knowing that he's good, even reaching some sort of success, only for it to fall apart too soon, and this is undercut continuously by his awareness that he is stricken with poverty and this - by being good, better, the best - is his only way out of it. Of course, if you'd rather avoid it altogether, "Sunshine" and "Ms. Jackson" would be your choices.
I do believe there's a cultural reason for the extra swagger, the extra bravado - it's a form of empowerment to claim and highlight your own victories when the prevailing environment belittles and demeans you - but that doesn't make it easier to accept at first, true. Thanks for commenting, hope you liked the article!