I stopped listening to urban radio about 5 years ago because I got so frustrated by the quality of music that was getting air play. The songs that I'm going to describe show why rap music can be so special.
Here's a list of 6 under-rated hip hop songs and what makes them great. They're unranked cause I'll probably have another list of 6 and I don't want to have to re-rank them each time.
1) Common (feat Lauryn Hill) - Retrospect for Life [from Common's 1997's LP "One Day It'll All Make Sense"]
In this song Common talks about his respect for life and other thoughts that would go through a man's mind when his girlfriend's pregnant.
The first verse has Common talking to his unborn son about the struggle with his baby's-mom getting an abortion.
"You would've been much more than a mouth to feed
But someone, I woulda fed this information I read
to someone, my life for you I woulda had to lead
Instead I lead you to death
I'm sorry for takin your first breath, first step, and first cry
But I wasn't prepared mentally nor financially
Havin a child shouldn't have to bring out the man in me
Plus I wanted you to be raised within a family..."
I haven't been in that situation, but if I did I'm sure that I'd be thinking about a lot of the same issues that Common mentions in this very powerful verse. The second verse Common talks to his baby's-mama.
"Girl I want you in my life cause you have made it better
Thinkin we all in love cause we can spend a day together
We talkin spendin the rest of our lives
It's too many black women that can say they mothers
but can't say that they wives..."
What's great about this song is its honesty. Because of the way Common breaks down his thoughts and delivers them, I believe that anyone who listens to the lyrics of this song would be hard-pressed not to be moved by them.
Top all that off with a very soulful (Stevie Wonder covered) Lauryn Hill sung hook that matches the mood and sincerity of the song.
It's anybody's guess why this song didn't get much radio play.
2) Masta Ace - H.O.O.D. [from Masta Ace's 2004 LP "A Long Hot Summer"]
From the opening seconds of the very energetic & soulful track (produced by D.A.M.S.) this song catches you. What separates this song from most other songs about the hood is that this is a somewhat positive song. Masta Ace speaks of the struggles of the hood, but at the same time makes it clear how much love he has for it.
"They got wild and rough blocks where it's hard to trust cops
Get shot on your way to school at the bus stop, damn
That kid was a fine scholar
Hear his mama whine and holler he died for nine dollars
Young mothers trying to learn the ropes
And them one dollar lotto games turn their hopes"
"They got one in every spot on the planet
And if you wasn't raised there you prolly can not stand it
Some call it the hood I'm calling it home
And there's love feel it all in my poem..."
3) Cormega - The Saga (remix) [from Mega's 2004 "Special Edition" (The original version of "The Saga" was from his 2001 LP "The Realness")]
It was hard to decide if this or (my personal favorite Mega song) "R U My N*gga" would make this list. I figured that this would be a better fit because the beat is incredible on this track where the lyrics are the biggest strength on the other track (the track is good too, just not incredible like this one).
There are other rappers who describe what goes on in the hood, but I don't think that anyone does it better than Cormega (Mega for short) because he can explain it in vivid detail without glorifying it.
"some of my friends first bids are two to fours
others are on the run with huge rewards
Mothers watch son's walk through the door
for the last time 'till they go view at the morgue
life is deep, we all just tryin' to eat
rap's a mental narcotic, I supply the streets"
What separates Mega from almost every other street thug turned rapper is that he tells you the side of their mentality that you rarely get to hear.
"when I go to make a sale
at times I wonder, are we goin' straight to Hell?
or does God realize we're tryin' to make it as well
my sleep is interrupted by food on the stove
not gun shots, we're immune to those..."
In these lines Mega speaks on his mind frame when he was selling drugs. He knew he was doing wrong and he didn't want to have to do it but he was just trying to "make it." How often do you get to hear the mind frame of a street legend so candid and vividly described?
The answer... Only every time a new Cormega album is released.
4) Jay-Z - December 4th [from Jay's 2003 LP "the Black Album"]
Of Jay's amazing catalogue of existing songs (singles, album cuts, features, etc.) or songs he'll do in the future, I don't see any song ever replacing this song as my favorite Jay-Z song. From the first couple of seconds of this song the brilliant track (courtesy of Just Blaze) sets a very dramatic yet soulful backdrop for Jay to bare his heart and soul of his life growing up.
"Now I'm just scratchin the surface cause what's buried under there
Was a kid torn apart once his pop disappeared
I went to school got good grades could behave when I wanted
But I had demons deep inside that would raise when confronted"
"Now all the teachers couldn't reach me
And my momma couldn't beat me
Hard enough to match the pain of my pop not seeing me, SO
With that disdain in my membrane
Got on my pimp game
F*ck the world my defense came..."
The last lines in the song are the equivalent of Jordan hitting a shot at the buzzer to win the championship and retiring.
"if you can't respect that your whole perspective is wack
Maybe you'll love me when I fade to black..."
If I was going to retire after an successful rap career I'd want this to be my last song and those to be my last lines.
If the lyrics weren't personal enough, then Jay's mom's stories of Jay as a child (at the opening of the song and during the hooks) should give you insight of his childhood that few artists share with their listeners. This touch is what put the song over the edge by turning a great song into a classic, but I also believe that it was the lack of a chorus that kept this song from becoming a single. As a single this song would have went against the grain because it didn't have a catchy chorus, but because of the song's quality, I still feel that this song could have been huge commercially.
5) Method Man - Say [from Meth's 2006 LP "4-21 the Day After"]
Meth has gone through a lot of changes since he first came onto the scene w/ Wu-Tang Clan. With his first solo album he had such a great voice and style that his lyrics were more of an afterthought. (Though he killed it on "Bring The Pain" and a couple of other standout tracks) This song is a great example on how he's much more polished with his lyrics. His rhyme patterns on some of the verses are something that you would expect from some lyrical greats like Rakim or G Rap.
"Ask Miss Hill, half these critics aint got half the skill
Often so hungry that they have to steal
If I didn't have my deal and didn't have this mass appeal
Then im back up in that trap slangin' crack, it's real
And that aint worth the time so search and find a new nerve
And here's 3 words stop working mine..."
In this song Meth shares his thoughts of critics who have been speaking unfavorably about his music. What's great about this song is Meth conveys his frustrations in a way where you not only sympathize, but in many cases would probably agree.
"The last album wasn't feeling my style,
this time my foot up in they ass Bet they feelin me now,
cause Tical, he put his heart in every track he do
But somehow, you find someway to give a wack review,
It aint all good, they writin that im Hollywood,
trying to tell you my sh*t aint ghetto and they hardly hood.
Come on man, Until you dudes can write some rhymes
keep that in mind when you find yourself reciting mines"
I'm not sure if it's the line about "where hip hop lives" that shut this song out on radio, or the fact that Meth publicly didn't support the song, but based on quality this song should have been one of the biggest songs of 2006.
Being backed by Def Jam, slick wordplay, smooth beat, and a catchy hook (courtesy of a Lauryn Hill sample that matches the song perfectly) I didn't think that there was any way this song couldn't blow up. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
6) Cuban Link - Letter to Pun [from Cuban Link's 2005 LP "Chain Reaction"]
When I first heard Cuban Link's "Flowers For the Dead" dedication song to Big Pun I felt that it was in the top 3 dedication songs of all time.
But when I first heard this song, I had a different reaction. On my first listen, I instantly felt that this is hands down the greatest rap dedication song ever. The lyrics are heartfelt and honest. You can hear the emotion in his voice and know that he's speaking from the heart. And anyone who's familiar with Cuban Link's music knows that he's a beast with his lyrics. Lyrically, he wasn't as far behind Big Pun as people might think.
"Life's like a roller coaster ride Just try to hold on and drive
Its all about surviving, one day we all gon die
I tried to hide all these feelings I was holdin inside
Cuz they always told me thugs aint suppose to cry
And show their emotional side But tears soak up my eyes
Cuz I never had nobody really close to me die..."
In "letter to Pun" not only does he tell Pun about how he's feeling but also takes the opportunity to inform him on what's going on with all of the other members from their old (Terror Squad) crew. The most famous member of the Squad other than Pun was Fat Joe where he describes here.
"Since u been gone Joe's been stronger than ever Still with Lorena
I can't go to bed knowing he stealin your cheddar
About a mill or better. To me, he just real as pleather
We built this together. Still and all, he had me set up
I shoulda' known better
I let it ride for too long
Let it slide for too long
Let it hide for too long
Now I'm tryin to move on
Without trying to do wrong
But my pride is too strong
I'ma ride through the storm..."
It wouldn't be a letter without a closing. As with the rest of the song the closing doesn't disappoint.
"Im just writin down how I feel, Hoping you hear me
Puttin my heart and soul in it, So you can see it all clearly
I hold you dearly in my thoughts. Cuz like you, there's no other
Sincerely yours Cuban Link, Your twin, your brother Baby I love ya"
I've always thought, that you shouldn't judge a game by people who can't play. I feel that there are a lot of people who are turned off on rap because the majority of the songs that you hear on the radio aren't of this quality.
The only way that we can change the quality of mainstream music rap music is with our wallets. If you like any of these songs then please support these songs and the artists. Purchase the songs or cds, spread the word about the artists, go to their shows, etc.
The two greatest things about djing are that (1) you get to be creative with music and (2) you get to introduce others to great music that they might not otherwise hear. After reading this and listening to my cd samples you can see that I take pride in both. 'Till next time...