1. “Infinite”- Eminem (Infinite, 1996)
“Infinite” is a side of Eminem that is highly underappreciated and rarely acknowledged. Many know America’s both beloved and hated angry white boy, fueled by his fatherly instinct to provide all he can for his daughter while pissing off as many people as possible in the process over the radio waves. This album was recorded during a time before Eminem stopped caring about creating radio-friendly music, before the multi-platinum records, and before the birth of his daughter, Haley. Infinite introduces a different, more humble Marshall Mathers still searching for his voice, delivery, and confidence on the mic. In my eyes, this song is perfectly imperfect—yes, the production definitely needed some work, but Eminem’s sheer lyrical prowess and ability to manipulate phonemes to deliver a classic AZ-esque flow laid down the groundwork for the success that he achieved following the release of his mainstream debut The Slim Shady LP. The truth about this song and the rest of the album is that Em was too underground at the time for “Infinite” to make a lasting impact on its listeners—roughly 1,000 copies were released. Despite the mixed reviews the album received, Eminem was praised for his word play and lyrical proficiency, and the title track was just a sliver of the true ability that would propel him into being truthfully “Infinite.”
2. “Gimme the Loot”- The Notorious B.I.G. (Ready to Die, 1994)
Biggie’s Ready to Die was thought of as a two-part project—the first of which was created under Uptown records while the latter under Diddy’s Bad Boy records. Being one of the first songs created, “Gimme the Loot” represented Uptown’s half of the album’s production, characterized by shady, dark content produced by a immature and hungry BIG, straight off the streets of Bed-Stuy, Broolyn. Easy Mo Bee’s production on this track was on point; he combined components from two of hip-hop’s greatest realms into a rugged yet unparalleled project—the constant boom bap beat of the 90s accompanied by the scratches of a record, a technique coined in the 80s. What is truly remarkable about this track are Biggie’s delivery and his gift for storytelling. He depicts the conversation between a deep-voiced and more experienced gangster and a high-pitched goon (both of whom are voiced by Biggie) planning to rob “the first pocket that’s fat” and then to “stick and move, stick and move.” Although the song was intended to be a dark, roughneck depiction of the streets of Brooklyn as a crack dealer/stick up man, one cannot dismiss the thoughtfulness of Biggie’s wordplay and use of multiple personas. The Notorious B.I.G., even in his young, paranoid form, possessed the ability to command attention and control the mood/tempo of his tracks while delivering bars that could penetrate even the grimiest of beats—as seen on “Gimme the Loot.”
3. “Never No More”- Souls of Mischief (’93 Til’ Infinity, 1993)
My favorite aspect of this song is the muffled, booming bass running through the course of the song; it gives this track the extra edge of “attacking” any artist making a battle rap needs—a really “demo” feel. This is a classic song from a timeless album that anybody could listen to going into war against any crew.
4. “I Used to Love H.E.R.”- Common (Resurrection, 1994)
Common, who went by the name “Common Sense” at the time, created a song that every person listening can relate to—he illustrated a story about once being extremely close to someone he fell in love with at “ten years old” and how over time they grew apart due to how different they became. What the listener doesn’t find out until the end of the song is that he is really referring to hip-hop (called “Her” in the song, standing for “Hearing Every Rhyme”). The song always gave me an eerie, reminiscing type of feeling—one that always makes me look back at better times, similar to Common referring to his love of hip-hop. He chronicles each major stage of hip-hop and how he felt about her ever-changing personality and inner fire. At first, he fell in love with the soulful, passionate genre, and how he could find her in the parks of New York, still an underground gem that was at its purest. Common then delves into how hip-hop started garnering commercial fame through being played at parties, which evolved the larger afro-centricity movement. He talks about how he is “a man of expanding” and how he could never get in the way of her becoming a cultured woman. After “she got into R&B, Hip-House, Bass and Jazz,” hip-hop became better rounded, always on the inner city streets finding her flavor and individuality through cyphers and freestyles. In his last verse, he seems fairly dissatisfied with how hip-hop was suckered into listening to “the man,” assuming an image/gimmick and attempting to become commercialized. Common’s sheer intelligence glows on this track, and his ability to chronicle the history of hip-hop and what he fell in love with is a testament to how legendary of a storyteller he is.
5. “One Love”- Nas (Illmatic, 1994)
Nas proved himself to be one of hip-hop’s greatest contemporary storytellers, through his ability to shift perspectives and still deliver the deepest bars the genre has seen. Mirroring Slick Rick’s “Childrens’s Story,” he poses the track as a letter to a homie doing his bid in jail, updating him on what is happening in the streets. The Queensbridge MC takes a step back in “One Love” to deliver more of a positive, reassuring message still ridden with the harsh realities of inner city life (killings, drug use, a failing public school system, and the daily struggle). Throughout his bars, Nas demonstrates social consciousness by talking about his frustration at the criminal justice system; the burden families feel from the violence on the streets and the younger population becoming involved in gang activities. “One Love” carries the message that despite life’s many curveballs and trials/tribulations, you have to look after you and yours and remain united against the evil forces you may face—One Love.
6. “Electric Relaxation”- A Tribe Called Quest (Midnight Marauders, 1993)
This is personally one of my first and favorite hip-hop tracks that I’ve listened to. Featuring MCs Q-Tip (who produced Nas’s “One Love”) and Phife Dawg, producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and sometimes Jarobi, A Tribe Called Quest is one of the most influential hip-hop trios from the Golden Age. “Electric Relaxation” showcased the impeccable chemistry between Phife and Tip, characterized by Phife’s high-pitched, battle-rap flow opposed to Q-Tip’s calm and thoughtful delivery. The production of the track shared by both Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad features a sample from Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew”—that’s where the bass line that guides the song through it’s smooth, lust-filled bars comes from. “Electric Relation” is recognized as one of the original “sex jams” and has been sampled and referenced by many artists, including Consequence and Kanye West, Isaiah Rashad and Michael Da Vinci, and J.Cole.
7. “Runnin’”- The Pharcyde (Labcabincalifornia, 1995)
“Runnin’,” produced by the legendary J.Dilla (R.I.P.), is an anthem for anybody that has ever been bullied felt like a “punk or a chump,” worthless, or has lost themself. I received this track as each of the three lyricists in the group reflecting about being bullied, facing conflict and growing into manhood in their respective way. In the first verse, reflects on being bullied back in the day, hesitant to retaliate because his dad was never there to teach him how to defend himself. Eventually, despite not showing off his macho side, has learned to deal with provocation and will fight when he has to (‘I’m not tryin’ to show no macho is shown//but when it’s on if it’s on, then it’s on”). The second verse, delivered by Slim Kid Tre, describes how one has to mature and fend for himself sometimes. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest type of world, and how even if things do turn south, you have to keep your cool and not draw attention to yourself in times of oppression/living in a dangerous area. Despite not winning every fight or having things go his way, he’ll just “let the bullshit blow in the breeze//in other words just debris.” In the final verse, Imani paints the picture of remaining a “soldier” despite the weight of the world falling on his shoulders. Things as a rap artist might get hectic because of the constant demand to deliver to the people, but amidst the chaos he has to stay sharp and stand his ground. I love listening to this song, because it carries the message of “being a man” and facing your fears/inner demons; its an anthem that promotes self-confidence and empowerment, even during those times when those things may seem impossible.
8. “Let Me Ride”- Dr. Dre (The Chronic, 1991)
According to an MTV interview, Q-Tip was quoted saying, “It was listening to N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton that inspired us to make The Low End Theory, and years later I spoke to Dr. Dre and he told me that hearing The Low End Theory inspired him to make The Chronic. That's what music does.” Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, a response to A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, was one of the most influential gangsta rap albums of all time. During the boom of the East-Coast Afro-Centric movement in the early 90’s, Dre was creating in-your-face rap from the streets of South Central L.A. that opposed the black power movement out of NYC (“No medallions, dreadlocks, or black fists”). “Let Me Ride” is a gangsta rap anthem in my eyes, packed with references that any OG would know and love such as rolling around in his ’64 Impala decked out with hydraulics and Dayton wheels, showing off on Crenshaw Blvd., yet trying to avoid a 2-11 or 1-8-7 (the California Penal codes for a robbery or death, respectively), smoking chronic, and sipping Tanqueray/Cognac. An interesting thing to note is the chorus (“Swing down, sweet chariot, stop and let me ride”) was sampled from a Parliament song “Mothership Connection” which was sampled from a classic slave spiritual—an important piece of info to keep in mind knowing that “Let me Ride” was released during the ’92 South Central riots. Dre flexes his ability as one of hip-hop’s best producers, infusing G-Funk that could rock any party and socially conscious messages into his chorus.
9. “Wrong Side of da Tracks”- Artifacts (Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 1994)
The one thing I respect the most about this track and Artifacts in general was their dedication to remaining true to the roots of hip-hop. In the days of hip-hop before the genre became what we know it as today, mcee-ing, b-boying, cyphers/freestyles, and graffiti were seen as the primary outlets of self-expression in inner cities. As seen in “Wrong Side of the Tracks,” the New Jersey duo paid homage to the graffiti culture, as they were graffiti artists themselves. Artifacts gave the listener a glimpse into the life of being a graffiti artist through references to Sharpie’s Magnum markers, “tagging (quick pieces thrown up on a surface),” “bombing (more complicated and time-consuming pieces),” “black books (sketchbooks),” and “slapping (tagging a sticker and putting it somewhere).”
10. “Sound is Vibration”- Atmosphere (Overcast!, 1997)
Some of the most vivid, illustrated, intelligent bars I’ve heard in some time. The production gives the track a bit of a dreamy, soft feeling, while Slug and Spawn’s quick alternating verses find a way to stunt any hater’s attempts at stunting their progress. The Minnesota duo create a somewhat hesitant, yet extremely creative project that isn’t like the battle rap bars found in “Never No More” and doesn’t have the delivery of “Gimme the Loot.” However, Atmosphere does exactly that—they put the listener up in the stars yet brings it back to earth with carefully crafted delivery and rhymes. Together, Slug and Spawn describe how nobody’s passion can outshine theirs and be the motivation needed to create as catchy and vibe-able tracks as theirs.
11. “Heaven and Hell”- Raekwon (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, 1995)
Raekwon was a street prophet. He chronicles his seemingly everyday life of living with the “C.R.E.A.M.” mentality—Cash Rules Everything Around Me. Rae wakes up, links up with the homies, and starts scheming about making a come up because he’s in a constant bind for money; the modest life of a man just trying to make ends meet. Rae and U-God’s allies were in a feud and they were in place to take action. What’s truly interesting about this track is how the Wu member gives the listener a peek into the style/culture of back in the day; rocking bullet proof vests and tinted whips to stay low-key, Guess down jackets, Kani drawers, pushing on I-95 (infamous highway where there was frequent drug activity), seeing the enemy posted up at a Bojangles fried chicken place drinking a 40 oz., and “cigars and ball hats.” The track ends with a brief interlude explaining that one can think of life as “heaven” or “hell,” but it’s hard to even believe in heaven if life is a living hell. Rae was a fearless lyricist, and he stood by his word of “taking niggas to war.”