Filed under: Albums,Not Your Average,Reviews,The Unkut 4x4,The Unkut Opinion
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Four of the best and four of the worst New York rap albums ever. Let the complaining begin!
Roc Marciano – Marcberg
The reason that Roc Marciano‘s solo debut was the best hip-hop release of 2010 is the simple fact that he ignored the plague of excessive guest appearances and all-star producers in order to deliver a focused, singular vision. Taking it back to the basics isn’t for the faint of heart, however. You can’t get over with brag raps and soul loops anymore. Where Marcberg wins is the raw cinematics it delivers, leaking paranoia and backroom deals through a haze of blunt smoke. Stream-of-consciousness verbal sprays so nonchalant you might not notice you just got murked until you hear the rattle of the shell casings spilling onto the concrete. Unorthodox beat construction that creeps up on you and puts you in a choke hold when you’re least expecting it – ‘Snow’ never loses it’s impact, no matter how many times you spin it back. Save your swag, this is Grown Man Rap at it’s most evolved.
Raekwon The Chef – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
The pinnacle of the Wu-Tang Clan‘s bid for rap supremacy in the 90’s, Rae and Ghostface constructed the most sophisticated crime narrative ever submitted to tape, all under the masterful direction of The RZA at the very height of his powers. No matter how many times you throw this album on, you’re always sure to catch another nuance or hidden chamber buried somewhere within it’s murky depths. Musically impeccable, the entire project has that unmistakable feel of a couple of master crooks pulling of the ultimate heist – that one last roll of the dice that will get them out of the game forever if everything goes according to plan. If not? Fuck it, at least they went down fighting. Crime Rap will never sound this good ever again.
Mobb Deep – Hell On Earth
Easily the bleakest audio document to emerge from the harsh streets of Queensbridge, Hell On Earth showcased stripped-back, stark sonics as beady-eyed vultures circled over the rotting carcass of street-level rap. Havoc and Prodigy took that anti-social, break a bottle over your head mind-state to a new level, as if they already knew that the rise of shiny suit Jiggnorance and slick talking hustlers was about to relegate Black Hoody and Timbs Rap to the sidelines forever. Harsh and unforgiving like winter in the Rotten Apple, the pinnacle of this experience is hearing Prodigy black-out on ‘Apostle’s Warning’, providing perhaps the finest demonstration of that Thun Language that we’re ever going to witness. Each sound is so tightly wound-up and refined to it’s barest element that it manages to transfer a sense of unease and tension to the listener without alienating you completely – you can’t help but stick around for the ride.
Ultramagnetic MC’s – Critical Beatdown
In 1986, a song called ‘Ego Trippin” was unleashed from the Ultra Lab – Ced-Gee‘s studio deep in the heart of the South Bronx, which had it’s walls famously covered in tin foil to resemble the inside of a space shuttle. This track proved to be so far ahead of it’s time that even 26 years after the fact, the world still hasn’t caught up! While the competition were caving in to record label pressure and throwing love ballads in the middle of their albums, Ultra was smoking dust and making riot music for B-Boys. The beat science displayed on Critical Beatdown was beyond the realms of this small planet, as drums, horns and bass were chopped and strtched into oblivion before being sewn back together to punch you square in the face, during an era when you could get away with just looping a James Brown 45. Kool Keith unleashed subliminal shots at every big name in the game while he pioneered new cadence and flow, introducing the off-beat rhyme style and taking rap metaphors to bizarre new heights. The perfect rap album – it will never be topped.
Eric B – Eric B
What do you do after a career as a DJ of questionable ability and a habit for taking credit for other people’s beats? You make an album of love rap’s, of course! Thanks to Rakim‘s legendary lyrics of fury, even Erib B.‘s clumsy scratching and clunky beats were bearable over the course of four LP’s. But when he decided to break north and become a soloist, attempting to transform himself into hip-hop’s answer to Barry White, the rap world did the only appropriate thing and promptly pretended it never happened. For those of you not lucky enough to own this piece of audio gold, let me assure you that your boy Eric Barrier considers himself ‘smoother than velvet’, as Big L would say. With song titles such as ‘Love Trap’, ‘You’re My Painted Picture’ and ‘Like Candy’, there’s no denying that this big fella is quite the catch, ladies! Like a big teddy bear, except this cuddly character will have you run out of town if you go and tell The Source that you gave him tracks for his his third album…
The Firm – The Album
It was the ultimate showcase of rap star power on paper – combining Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown and Cormega into a New York super-group, with the legendary Dr. Dre behind the boards to bring his platinum touch to proceedings. So why did this turn out to be one of the most disappointing hip-hop projects in recent memory? ‘Affirmative Action’ proved that the quartet had an impressive chemistry when they first combined minds on ‘It Was Written’, but it wasn’t long before industry fuckery and Nas’ new manager soon poisoned whatever potential this group may have had. When Cormega refused to sign some funny money paperwork, he was ousted and replaced by another Queensbridge up-and-comer named Nature, while the sonic bubblegum peddlers of the day (The Trackmasters) were rushed-in to quickly knock put some elevator-muzak pop rap beats. With the exception of ‘Phone Tap’, this is a steaming pile of over-produced, cynical Hollywood bullshit, all centred around the painfully cliched Mafiaso Rap theme. ‘Five Minutes to Flush’, indeed.
The Notorious B.I.G. – Duets – The Final Chapter
A good case could be made for the conspiracy theories that claim that Puff Daddy and Suge Knight were involved in the murders of their biggest artists. The deaths of Tupac and Biggie Smalls generated enormous record sales as a result, and finally gave Puffy an excuse to step from behind the desk and live his dream of being a superstar rapper, despite his severly limited abilities. As if Born Again wasn’t bad enough, the Duets album was a shameless attempt to milk the last drops of blood from the Notorious one’s bloated corpse by reheating more old accapellas and grabbing everybody from Korn to Ja Rule to jump on board. The result came off with the whiff of desperation not seen since the last call at your local over-28’s nightclub (No denim, please. Let’s keep it classy!). And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more exploitative, they start wheeling out Biggie’s kids for the skits! Never before has the acronym ‘SMH’ been so appropriate.
Grand Puba – Understand This
There once was a time when Puba was the cutting edge of lyrical technique, as he demonstrated with the mighty One For All album that he put together with his group Brand Nubian, which provided the New York with it’s theme music in 1990 before he convinced people to start sporting Tommy Hillfiger. But following a series of poor career decisions and a work ethic that was infamous for all the wrong reasons, by 2001 the Grand Man had been reduced to releasing an album via the Rap Graveyard known as Koch Records. Having contributed some fine production work to his previous projects, the cheap, cheesy sound of ‘Understand This’ was more reminiscent of ‘My First Swizz Beats’ Casio keyboard than the timeless Zulu Nation-flavoured tunes he delivered in his prime. Tinny drums and keys combine with tone-deaf singing in what can only be described as the musical equivalent of your dad wearing a shiny leather jacket and trying to chat-up 18 year-old girls at your school formal.
Originally published in Acclaim Mag’s NY issue.
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