Posts Tagged ‘hip-hop classics’

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DMX

May 8, 2017

After getting in some heated debates on Facebook, it became apparent that I needed to assess the career of DMX next to either support my claim that he’s overrated or discover that maybe I’m wrong and he didn’t fall off as hard as I think he did. 

 It’s interesting to me that so many people can consider DMX one of the greats considering that he’s still active but hasn’t really been relevant since 2001 – that’s over 15 years of making music no one is really listening to! It’s one thing to be talented and overlooked, but considering DMX’s tremendous success in the past one has to assume people stopped listening because he stopped making good music.

I can admit that I have skipped pretty much all of his music since The Great Depression was released in 2001, but it was my contention that if it was any good someone would have recommended it to me. Still, it is unfair of me to make that claim with certainty unless I listened to all of it myself, so I spent the last several weeks going through pretty much the entire discography of DMX in order to assess his place in hip-hop history with all the relevant information, and that includes all the music he’s released since his life has become overcome by drug addiction and frequent arrests.

Legacy: DMX actually grades pretty strong here. After the deaths of Tupac and Biggie, I would argue that X grabbed the torch as hip-hop’s premiere artist from May 1998 up until Eminem took over in November of 1999 on Dr. Dre’s 2001. His first three albums hold up well in 2017 and the fact that a number of his fans act like the last 15 years of his discography never happened almost makes it seem like the golden era of his recording career is all that matters – and if one wants that to be true, it actually can be.  DMX can’t tarnish his legacy no matter how hard he tries to.  All his personal issues are either ignored or forgotten and it really seems as though most people don’t even realize he’s released three bad albums since The Great Depression. B+

Consistency: And here’s where 2003 to 2017 can’t be ignored. Almost everyone would agree that It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot is the best DMX album. From there, I’d argue that each album that follows is progressively worse, all the way up to Undisputed in 2012 where he really had nowhere else to go but back up. Even though he peaked with his debut album, X was very consistent on his first three releases. However, he falls off a cliff after that and never even hints at returning to elite levels of rapping throughout the rest of his career. D

Longevity: Realistically, DMX had a peak that lasted from 1998 to 2001, when he released his first obviously disappointing album. He has sporadically released new music since then, but the general public has paid little notice and he has received no critical acclaim. Even his most dedicated fans can’t make strong arguments in support of his later work. DMX has been a recording artist for 20 years now, which sounds good for longevity,
but he has been irrelevant for more than half of his career now. D

Lyrics: Even at his peak, DMX was not a strong lyricist. On “Fuckin’ Wit’ D” – on what many would consider a classic album – he actually rhymes: “Stuck in a tree, is what you will be/ like a cat, and I’m the dog, at the bottom, looking up, ‘yo, what’s that?'” He rapped those lines when he was at his best. Check out this article that details the vocabularies of a number of hip-hop’s most notable artists. You can click the link and see how the survey is conducted, but I can save you time and tell you this: out of the 85 artists considered, DMX ranks last. DEAD LAST. Like, no one considered has a smaller vocabulary than DMX –  and Too $hort is the only other rapper that is even close. And when you listen to the music, you can see why: if Dr. Seuss was a gangster rapper, he’d sound like DMX. No matter which way you want to look at it – he wasn’t clever, he wasn’t funny, his rhyme structures were simple, and he wasn’t deep or metaphorical – DMX has always been incredibly simple when it comes to lyricism. F

Songwriting: Once upon a time, DMX was a great songwriter. In fact, X is a fantastic example of how different the elements of lyricism and songwriting really are: even though he was rarely saying anything of substance and his actual lyrics were elementary, DMX’s hit-making abilities from 1998 to 1999 were almost unmatched. To be fair, he was getting laced with some stellar production at the start of his career, but he had an uncanny understanding of how to capture a beat’s mood and craft a hook that made his songs memorable. Unfortunately, it seems as though drugs sapped that creative juice some time around the making of The Great Depression and never returned. I have to consider the whole body of work here – and more than half of it is bad – but in his prime DMX was probably an A- in this category. C

Rapping: Rapping was another strength of prime DMX, as he was able turn subpar lyricism into enjoyable and infectious music and that is something that wouldn’t be possible if he wasn’t rapping his ass off. DMX had an unmistakable presence on the mic and seemed to attack every verse with a fury that was rarely present in his contemporaries. But again, as he got involved with drugs and continued to get arrested throughout his career, he lost almost all of his vocal edge and on his later records he sounds like a ghost of his former self. C

Voice: DMX has one of the most distinguishable voices in hip-hop. Back in the late 90s, his verses were unmistakable. Grimy and gruff, with a strong mic presence and his instantly recognizable growling and barking ad-libs, you always knew when it was DMX’s turn to spit. B+

Replay Value: Having revisited his whole catalog over the last few weeks, it’s clear that his first three albums all hold up pretty well. I could put them on shuffle and listen to almost every song. The rest of his albums I could barely listen to once. C-

Features: DMX was a popular featured artist in the late 90s, but has very little memorable guest appearances since the turn of the century. He helps make The Lox’s “Money, Power, & Respect” and Mase’s “24 Hours To Live” true hip-hop classics and he was frequently awarded the coveted last verse on posse cuts. Perhaps the coolest feature I found in all my digging was on Mic Geronimo’s “Time To Build,” a 1995 boom bap rap song that also features Ja Rule and Jay-Z, before any of them blew up, and finds DMX doing a pretty good ONYX impression while probably still trying to find his own identity as an emcee. He has some other songs with Jay-Z and Ja Rule as the supergroup Murder Inc. and they are solid, but I’m not sad that concept never really materialized. B+

Discography:

It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot (1998) – Okay, I’m going to voice an unpopular opinion here, but this album is overrated. Don’t get me wrong… I love it, but it’s just not a real classic and most people I talk to don’t hesitate to give it that status. So how did that happen? I really think it’s because DMX debuted at a time when Puff Daddy, Mase, and No Limit Records were dominating rap music. Puffy and Mase were Charmin soft and, in 1998, the most popular No Limit artists (Master P, Silkk The Shocker) sounded like a parody of gangster rap, so when It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot was released, no popular rap artist was really making hardcore hip-hop. DMX filled that lane and he did it really well. He attacked the mic with passion and gave zero fucks about what he was saying: “and I’m gunnin’ for your spouse/ trying to send that bitch back to her maker/ and if you got a daughter older than 15, I’m a rape her/ take her, on the living room floor right there in front of you/ then ask you seriously – ‘what you wanna do?'” It’s wild that a multi-platinum artist could say something like that on a record. This album came out when no mainstream artist was making this kind of rap music and I think, because of that, people remember this album as being better than it really is. It’s definitely an enjoyable listening experience and really only has one weak track (“Crime Story”) but if you look at a true hip-hop classic – like Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle – you can find a number of songs that are better than every song on It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot and the weaker songs compare favorably with the best songs on this DMX album. Sorry X fans, this is a very good album, but it’s not a hip-hop classic. 7.5/10 (Highly Enjoyable/Essential Listening)

Blood Of My Blood, Flesh Of My Flesh (1998) – This album is actually better than I remember and the fact that DMX released two good albums within seven months of each other is pretty remarkable. While “Slippin'” is the only song I think is truly great, X once again puts together an album with only one weak track, the ill-advised Marilyn Manson collaboration on “The Omen.” This album is a master class in crafting memorable hooks, as DMX takes multiple mediocre songs and makes them enjoyable with hooks you can’t help but repeat in your head. 6/10 (Recommended)

…And Then There Was X (1999) – Another album that was better than I remembered it being. I thought the noticeable slip started with this release, but this is actually pretty solid. “One More Road To Cross” and “What These Bitches Want” are excellent songs, “Angel” is very good, and most of the album is enjoyable. …And Then There Was X does contain one of DMX’s most memorable hit songs in “Party Up (Up In Here)” which, while not one of my favorites, is outrageously infectious. “Good Girls, Bad Guys” is the only song I hated, which means that DMX only has three truly weak songs on his first three albums. I think the highlights on this album are better than Blood Of My Blood… but overall this album is just a tad bit weaker. 6/10 (Recommended)

The Great Depression (2001) – And here’s where things really start to go bad. Of the 17 songs on this album (skits excluded, bonus songs included), I genuinely like four of them: “A Minute For Your Son,” “School Street,” “Trina Moe,” and “Who We Be.” The way this album is sequenced makes it sound even worse: the first three songs are good, the last song is good, and everything in between is mediocre. Actually, as I listen to it again, “We Right Here” is a good song too. I’d wager that if one made a greatest hits playlist for DMX, it would include zero songs from The Great Depression. In addition, DMX has nearly twice as many weak songs on this album (5, by my count) as he did on his first three albums combined. 4/10 (Lackluster)

Grand Champ (2003) – DMX had a chance to redeem himself here after disappointing on his last album and things start off promising enough, but this album’s sequencing mirrors that of The Great Depression as the best songs are the first few songs – and it goes downhill from there, although “The Rain” is a later track that is pretty good. “Where The Hood At” is a true banger, but the vast majority of this album is totally forgettable. To give an idea of how weak this album is, fire up “My Life” on iTunes or YouTube and realize it’s one of the best songs on here. 4/10 (Lackluster)

Year Of The Dog… Again (2006) – There were two songs on this album that I kind of liked: “Blown Away” and “Goodbye.” The rest of the album ranges from forgettable to pure torture. I really struggled to listen to every song on this album because it was so bad. If his previous two albums were disappointing but showed hints of his former stardom, this is the album that really puts the nail in the coffin of his career – he had nothing left. 3/10 (Crap)

Mixtape (2010) – I have to be honest here, after listening to two disappointing albums and an undeniably bad one, I didn’t have the heart to listen to an unofficial DMX release well into his demise. I skipped this and I’ve literally never heard one person even mention it, so I can’t imagine it’s worth listening to.

The Weigh In EP (2012) – See above.

Undisputed (2012) – I did give this a full listen and I have to say it’s better than Year Of The Dog, but X still sounds like a ghost of his former self. Considering everything DMX was going through in his personal life, it’s actually pretty remarkable that he even put out another album. He sort of touches on his issues on “Slippin Again,” but DMX was never a great lyricist and he has trouble conveying his feelings here. He keeps saying “I wish you knew” in reference to what his life is like, but even after writing a song about it, we still don’t know much. To some degree, DMX sounds reinvigorated on this album in comparison to his previous few releases, but it’s another forgettable effort from a man who needs to be in a rehabilitation center more than he needs to be in a studio. 4.5/10 (Lackluster/Decent)

Classic Albums: 0
Peak: 1998-1999
Current Status: Barely alive. He was actually found without a pulse and not breathing in February of 2016 from what seemed to be a drug overdose. I’ve read that he has cancelled shows in 2017 because of a “medical emergency.” X and Swizz Beatz have posted on social media about new DMX music coming in 2017 and it is rumored to feature Dr. Dre and Kanye West. While it would be cool for DMX to release something good, it seems unlikely at this point in his career and I’m honestly much more interested in seeing him get healthy than I am in hearing new music.
All-Time Status: Outside my Top 50.

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The Notorious B.I.G.

April 20, 2017

I’m going to start a new section on my blog that profiles notable hip-hop artists and grades them in all the important categories in an attempt to a) break down their resumes, b) highlight their strengths and weaknesses, and c) figure out where they stand on the all-time list. Initially I was going to make a post that counted down my top ten rappers of all-time, but I think this route is more realistic and encompassing – I can highlight one emcee at a time and probably try to make one post every two weeks or so, plus I can post about rappers that aren’t necessarily candidates for my Top 10. This will be different from my fluid 2016 Rapper Rankings, which is a breakdown of the current hip-hop scene only.

I decided to start with The Notorious B.I.G. because I could digest his entire catalog in a short time and he’s largely considered one of the best rappers to ever do it. Since this is my first post of this nature, I will explain each category I am using to evaluate hip-hop artists before grading Biggie in that particular element.

Legacy: How much of an impact did the artist have on hip-hop? What kind of imprint have they left on rap music? Where do they land among the all-time greats? Will they be remembered 20 years from now? Biggie obviously checks all the boxes here. Christopher Wallace died on March 9th, 1997 and released two studio albums during his career, both of which are largely considered hip-hop classics. Even though his peak was cut tragically short, Biggie is almost universally considered an all-time great and has been revered and referenced throughout hip-hop for the past 20+ years. A+

Consistency: Simply, how consistent was this emcee throughout their career? Did they continually put out high quality albums or were there some bumps along the road? In Biggie’s case, he died young, early in his career (he was 24!), and we’ll never know if he was already peaking or if he would have enjoyed the long career some of his notable peers (Nas, Jay-Z) have. Unfortunately, B.I.G. only released two albums, but they are both fantastic and he never disappointed. A+

Longevity: How long have they been making music? How long was their peak? How long have they been relevant? As previously noted, Biggie died young, so we’ll never know what he could have done, but from 1994 to 1997 he was unquestionably one of the premiere emcees in the game. R.I.P.

Lyrics: How strong was their pen game? We are talking about BARS only here. This category encompasses storytelling, cohesion, similes, metaphors, punchlines, cleverness, humor, bragging, battling, belittling, rhyme schemes, etc. Basically, how well could they write? Biggie wasn’t the most complex lyricist; in fact his writing style was actually pretty simple. However, his storytelling ability is legendary and he grades strong in the humor, bragging, and cleverness departments. A-

Songwriting: Not to be confused with lyrical ability, songwriting is something different… something that makes a hip-hop artist more of a complete package. I’m talking about their ability to craft good songs. Just because you can write good verses, doesn’t mean you can make good songs… or albums. This category includes which beats they decide to rap to; how well they write and execute hooks, choruses, and bridges; can they make catchy tunes? There is definitely a lyrical element to songwriting, but making good music is the focus here. Biggie was obviously a master songwriter – to this day, “Big Poppa,” “Juicy,” and “Hypnotize” are some of the most memorable hip-hop songs ever created. Even some of his lesser songs like “Nasty Boy” and “Playa Hater” are enjoyable because of B.I.G.’s ability to make catchy music. Biggie was able to switch gears as well as any rapper ever has been, fully capable of making completely grimy hip-hop and radio-friendly megahits. A+

Rapping: This category refers to spitting only. How well can this rapper rap? How well do they ride the beat? Do they switch up their cadence? Approach various production differently? Biggie Smalls was born to rap. He sounds at home over basically any beat you ever heard him on, making it all sound completely effortless and natural. While I don’t think Biggie was an elite lyricist, his rapping and songwriter abilities more than made up for it, as he made everything sound amazing. A+

Voice: To me, this is one of the least important categories when it comes to rap, as anyone that actually makes it in hip-hop usually at least has a capable voice. However, it is worth mentioning as not all voices are created equal. Biggie’s voice is instantly recognizable and perfectly suited for his style. I wouldn’t say his voice is exceptional, but it didn’t need to be. B+

Replay Value: What kind of listening experience does the artist offer? Can you listen to their music repeatedly? Does it hold up 5 years later? 20 years later? I still listen to Biggie’s catalog regularly and it holds up incredibly well – it is truly timeless. A+

Features: How well did the artist do as a guest appearance on someone else’s song? Were they highly sought after? Are they frequently the highlight of someone else’s song? Unfortunately, Biggie’s short career means that his list of guest appearances is also relatively small. Still, whenever featured on a song, Biggie was unquestionably the highlight of the track, demolishing guest verses on Puff Daddy’s “Victory” and “Young G’s,” and Da Brat’s “Da B Side,” and his back-and-forth with Jay-Z on “Brooklyn’s Finest” brings a tear to the eye when you think about what The Commission might have been. B.I.G. also had a number of solid R&B features. B

Discography:

Ready To Die (1994) – One of my all-time favorites – a no-brainer, timeless classic. “Big Poppa,” “Juicy,” and “Everyday Struggle” are some of my favorite rap songs ever created. This is a completely realized record with no weak points, numerous classic songs, and Biggie sounds like a fully mature hip-hop artist at the ripe age of 22 on his debut album. Truly remarkable.
10/10 (Classic)

Life After Death (1997) – There’s a classic album in here somewhere. At 24 tracks, I think there are some notable weak points like “Nasty Boy,” “Playa Hater,” etc., but even Biggie’s filler is somewhat enjoyable. Life After Death is like a super-sized version of Ready To Die, once again weaving effortlessly between grimy street tales and radio-friendly hits. I feel like B.I.G. really stepped up his storytelling skills on this album and his flow on “Hypnotize” is nothing short of amazing.
9.5/10 (Potential Classic/Classic)

Born Again (1997) – Full disclosure: I only listened to the first ten songs when I revisited this album. I just can’t get into it. Biggie’s biggest strengths were his songwriting and rapping abilities and when you take random verses and try to paste it over a random beat to create a song he never intended to make, well, those particular strengths go absent and you get a subpar and forced product like Born Again. Of the 10 tracks I listened to, only “Dead Wrong,” which featured a fantastic verse from Eminem, was truly memorable. Since B.I.G. wasn’t involved with this project, I won’t hold it against him and I won’t rate it either.

Duets – The Final Chapter (2005) – Jesus. When they start titling your posthumous albums like a horror movie franchise, you know your name is being tarnished. I seriously listened to Eminem’s crappy verse on the first song and just turned this off. This was released 8 years after Biggie’s death and is littered with guest appearances and has absolutely no impact on his place in hip-hop history.

Classic Albums: 1.75
Current Status: Deceased, March 9th, 1997
All-Time Status: Top 7