Growing up I had an affinity with conscious hip-hop. That is to say rap music that purported itself on a higher ground or level of importance.
Since, I have understood that music is art and therefore merit is not just based on how “real” it presents itself to be.
At the time, the rapper that had me hooked the most was a Chicago MC by the name of Lupe Fiasco.
To the mainstream, Lupe is probably best known as featuring on Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” and the guy who did “Superstar” and flipped “Float On.”
A guy who was called “A breath of fresh air,” by Jay-Z, the G.O.A.T., at the start of his career, is now best known for sampling Modest Mouse. That’s fucking wild.
The music industry is not worth it kids. No one cares how talented you are.
Fiasco, to his credit, was/is extremely talented. He could get impressively lyrical with expansive metaphors or paint vivid stories reflecting on life. His best verses are truly beautiful pieces of poetry.
Being a Chicago kid, he had an on-again off-again professional relationship with then wunderkind Kanye West. As previously mentioned, he was on Kanye’s song, and Kanye produced a song for him on his own debut album.
It was a cool combination due to the fact that Lupe can be a little pensive and heady, almost like that academic stoner you try to avoid. The man snapped an eight and a half minute-long song on one of his most recent albums. With Kanye’s beats, it’s hard to stay stagnant. He is constantly pushing you forward, especially the Kanye of the mid-2000’s and his inspiration from soul songs.
Listen to “The Cool,” from Lupe’s debut Food & Liquor, also executive produced by Jay-Z. It kicks. It may not have the sample heavy feel to it that a lot of West’s work is known to have, but it fucking moves. Lupe has to keep on it more than say “Emperor’s Soundtrack.” That joint moves slowly and he is allowed to get stuck in his own head and rhymes.
Lupe at the time was also dipping his toes in skater culture, as seen by his track dedicated to the art/sport “Kick, Push.”
Who else in rap loved skating? Why Skateboard P aka Pharrell, who owned his own skate shoe line and sponsored a skate team, Ice Cream. I still don’t know what is more mid-2000’s those shoes and colorways or Kanye West’s dumb shades from the “Stronger” era.
Still, when these young kids in hip hop, all pushing distinct sounds and concepts, with shared interests, announced that they were going to be forming their own super group Child Rebel Soldier or CRS, I figured we were about to have the album of our lives.
Now, should I have raised a red flag when I first heard their fucking name? Of course. And should another red flag been raised when they went on record trying to explain who was whom in the title (I believe Pharrell was considered the child)? 2000% yes! But that first single, “Us Placers,” a sample of a Thom Yorke song, was an instant classic.
And yes, the fact that the first song of a supposed hip hop super group relied almost solely on two chords from a Thom Yorke song should have been the biggest red flag of all.
They were all so fucking cool and interesting, it was hard not to drink the Kool-Aid.
Rap is funny like that. Because these artists only have to write lyrics, and not play instruments, features are so common in this industry.
It would have been hard for AC/DC to feature Mick Jagger on a song, but if Chance the Rapper wants to have Busta Rhymes on a joint, it’s totally possible and there is a high chance that it will be great. P.S. it was/is. Shoutout to Busta.
Because of that freedom of creativity, the ideas of supergroups get thrown around much more than the actual outcome. To date, I think we are still waiting for the Black Thought, Common, Pharoahe Monch, and Talib Kweli collab, The DMX, Jay-Z, Ja Rule mega-super group, and the shortlived T-Wayne (T-Pain and Lil’ Wayne) project, among a plethora of others.
Wait, what? T-Wayne came out 8 years after it was recorded? And what was that? It’s no good? Makes sense. Autotune sucks.
Still, rap super groups are the most exciting thing in the industry that never actually happen. I am pretty sure you haven’t made it until you’ve been rumored as part of a supergroup.
For the record, they also are rarely that good.
I remember excitedly ripping the package off of the Wu-Massacre album, a group of just Method Man, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah, only to then realize that no Wu album is worth listening to if RZA doesn’t have full creative control. It’s just facts.
Slaughterhouse is cool, but that’s a case where every single one of those rappers wants to kill the microphone. You walk away from a Slaughterhouse album ready to bite the first person you see. It’s fine, but just give me a three-track EP so I don’t have to start freebasing blood pressure medicine.
It’s hard to pinpoint the best supergroup. Besides like an actual group i.e. OutKast, Wu Tang, or Black Star, is it Black Hippy? Maybe? Are they even a supergroup?
I’ve seen some people say that Watch the Thrones is a supergroup, which feels like a stretch. If you want to argue that they are, fine, but I’m not about that avant-garde rap life.
CRS was supposed to be the one that would have led us to the promised land.
But that was naive to believe it would ever get pressed up. They were all so fucking big then, creatively speaking, burning so bright, there was no way you could have gotten those three in a room for three months and come out with a cohesive album.
It’s just wishful thinking.
Yet, I think there was a group that could have done it and would have fucking triumphed.
It would have been the greatest rap supergroup of all time.
Scarface, of Facemob, Houston, TX and Geto Boys, Beanie Sigel, of State Property, Philly and Roc-A-Fella, and Jay-Z, aka the motherfucking G.O.A.T. and of Brooklyn and Roc-A-Fella.
I know, that’s a lot to breakdown. Trust me.
First, we have to unpack their styles.
Jay at this time, which for the record is about 1999-2003, was at the very height of his career. Now, the great thing about Jay-Z is that he is not a businessman, he is a business, man, and like any good business, if we were to track his market prices, we would see that the stock of Jay-Z has many ebbs and flows.
Reasonable Doubt opens strong, followed by a dip with Vol. 1, while Vol. 2 with Hard Knock Life brings all shareholders insane returns. We didn’t think he could recreate it.
By the time 2001 rolled around with Blueprint though, it was off the fucking charts. It dipped a little bit for Blueprint 2, call it the market stabilizing, and then once again blew up for The Black Album.
He has been able to reinvent himself and find interesting things to talk about as he continues to age. Case and point his new album 4:44, which not only covers his infidelity but also has mature conversations about black enterprising and entrepreneurship in a very non-Jay-Z or flashy way.
That 2000’s Jay is interesting to say the least. On one hand, he is coming off of Vol. 3 which features “Big Pimpin’,” serving as his thesis statement for that album.
“You know I thug ’em, fuck ’em, love ’em, leave ’em
‘Cause I don’t fuckin’ need ’em
Take ’em out the hood, keep ’em lookin’ good
But I don’t fuckin’ feed ’em”
It’s aggressive. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t swing.
He was clubbing and partying, enjoying his time as an A-Lister. He also has his label Roc-A-Fella start to take off and follows up Vol. 3 with a label album, The Dynasty.
While some of it feels like a continuation of Vol. 3 meets pre-emptive victory lap, I’m looking at you Parkin’ Lot Pimpin’, there is a distinct new sound on this album thanks to new Roc-A-Fella producers like Kanye West and Just Blaze. The synth heavy Swizz Beats joints were starting to fall by the way side.
It was a really exciting time for hip-hop. That new sounds pushed not just the production, but the lyrical content of the artists. And for someone like Jay, who does not write his lyrics, but spits his rhymes off the top off his head while listening to the beat intently, he really put out some amazing verses during this era. That Kanye soul pushed him out of the club and into his troubling, but fascinating past.
Tracks like “Soon You’ll Understand,” feature soulful crooning on their hooks, and bring you back to the Reasonable Doubt and Vol. 1 introspective Jay-Z with the added maturity of growing up added to the mix.
“Dear ma, I’m in the cell, lonely as hell
Writing this scribe, thinking ’bout how you must feel inside
You tried to teach me better, but I refused to grow
God damn, I ain’t the young man that you used to know”
It also helped that Jay probably couldn’t go to the club as much anymore because he was becoming a bonafide celebrity and also was arrested and pled guilty for stabbing record executive Lance Rivera at a fucking club.
He would follow up Dynasty with the aforementioned Blueprint. And while, there are plenty of bangers on the album, “Heart of the City” and “Song Cry” once again sent him reflecting on his past. It’s an era that is widely celebrated of his, and often overshadowed by the rap war he was waging against Nas. I feel like he was so confident to fight Nas was because he felt so invigorated by the new sounds being brought to him. I mean it is no surprise that “The Takeover” diss track was a Kanye West beat.
At the same time, it was exciting because of the new pool of rappers that Jay was developing for his label.
People who were fans of his knew of Memphis Bleek from Jay’s first album and the track “Coming of Age,”, but he started heavily expanding that roster during this era.
From 1996, the start of the label to 1999, they put out nine albums. They were starting out, however four of them would be billed as Jay-Z solo albums.
From 2000-2003, they would release 23 albums. Only five of which were Jay-Z albums. His arsenal of fellow musicians was rapidly growing.
At the forefront of it, during this time, was Beanie Sigel.
For context, if we are to rank the most successful Roc-A-Fella artists during their time on Roc-A-Fella, it would go:
- Kanye West
- Beanie Sigel
- Memphis Bleek
At the time though, Cam’ron wasn’t signed, Kanye was still just producing, and Beanie was the hot newcomer shaking things up.
Beans, to his credit, is one of the most intense and focused rappers I have ever heard in my life. He doesn’t just write his lyrics, he seemingly bleeds them from his soul, including his streetwise and gutter songs. I’m pretty sure in another life he was a man of the cloth just based on his passion alone.
He also played a crucial piece of the beginning of Roc-A-Fella and its dominance. On Vol. 3 we got a taste of him on Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up), a club track that the rough Philly native cut through. It was almost like Jay took him right off the streets and pushed him into the booth.
“You know how Mac come through on the club tip
E’rybody real deep on that thug shit
Cop Cris’ spray the club on that thug shit
Cop frisks suits snub in the club quick
Told y’all real high, when I come you can try
If you want, you can die, if you want to”
That same level of pure street flow and hunger led him to his debut album The Truth. Interestingly enough, if you listen to some cuts off that album, you kind of see the early patterns that drill would go on to perfect up in Chicago a decade plus later. Perhaps not as DJ and Electronica inspired as it would get, those repetitive beats and gritty lyrics send you down a similar dark trance.
Beanie could also be introspective, often reflecting on his upbringing and the streets that raised him to be the man he was in that moment. What is unique about these cuts, is that this actually some of his brighter lyrics, “Remember Them Days,” being a prime example:
“Remember we used to hustle thinking life would cheat us
Not knowing if we struggled life would treat us
Think on how mommy carried us
Where life gon lead us?
Knowing if we getting married
Our wife will need us
If at one time you could look into my mind
When I close my eyes and remember them times
No gas, had a hot plate heat our dinners
No cash, most nights ate sleep for dinner
Welfare and white landlord, that life ain’t easy
The only ones moving up was George and Weezy”
It’s depressing, vivid, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t playful, as accented by the George and Weezy line. It is also one of the few passages in the debut that does not reference using his 9 on someone.
On that same album he came out with a song called “Mack and Brad” featuring the third member of this potential group, Scarface.
Scarface, at this point in his career was actually in the most interesting place out of the three of them. If Jay was on top, and Beanie was the hot new kid, Scarface was the elder statesman.
He debuted in 1988 with his southern hip hop group The Geto Boys on Making Trouble. After making a few albums with them, he would release Mr. Scarface is Back, his debut solo album in 1991.
From there, he would become a fixture in hip hop’s underground community, being cited by many as your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, a title that yields all sorts of currency and good will, except of course actual currency.
That said, many, including Chris Rock, see him as a very influential figure in developing artistry in the genre and specifically in legitimizing the South in the then bi-coastal hip hop conversation.
The Geto Boys most famous song is a track entitled “My Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” This eerie track, which supposedly was written solely by Scarface and then handed out to his group members so as to make it a collab track, is on par with the rest of the group’s horrorcore tendencies. Horrorcore for those that do not know is hip hop that is focused on the ideas similar to those explored in the genre of horror films whether it be hauntings, uncontrolled violent chaos, or in the case of Mind Playing Tricks, deep seeded paranoia.
The track essentially chronicles the descent into madness as Scarface and the rest of The Geto Boys chronicle instances where they believe that they are being followed by a figure, who in fact turns out to be death.
“See, every time my eyes close
I start sweatin’ and blood starts comin’ out my nose
It’s somebody watchin’ the Ak’
But I don’t know who it is, so I’m watchin’ my back”
For a group that cannot spell ghetto properly, it is a very smart and artfully crafted track. It would also be borderline copied by Jurassic 5 on their track “Remember His Name.”
Face would go on to put out various albums, many of which were underrated and unsung. It was not until the 2000’s when Russell Simmons tapped him to head up Def Jam South, a subsidiary of the rap label Def Jam, that he put out his most commercial album, The Fix, in 2002. The album has some of Scarface’s most mainstream beats and samples and features higher profile guest spots like Nas. Among other songs, a stand out is a Kanye West produced track “Guess Who’s Back?”
The track features an energized Scarface, one holding court with none other than Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel.
First of all, the song bumps. Every single rapper is allowed to do what they do best in that moment, Jay-Z introduces the track and serves as the grandiose spokesperson. He confidently walks you to the chorus, effortlessly working his way through his verse. In all honesty, it sounds like Jay track on a Scarface album, but sometimes that’s okay.
Kanye has the chorus, which is admirable because this is thirsty Kanye who was not afraid of coming to Jay or Beans with a track and chorus and offering to record for them. You want to know how to make it big, work your ass off and don’t be afraid to be a sneak like Kanye.
By the time Beans comes on, it sounds like they just released him from his fucking cage and he is ready to explode on the record. He doesn’t sound like he is mixed properly, either because he was recorded over a prison phone or because he little is yelling directly into the microphone. Either way it’s fucking great.
Face has a little bit more to say, again with some ominous undertones, “from the womb to the tomb,” but he sounds more lively than other tracks. It’s a great, fun, loose Face who is not afraid to show where he is and who is even ready to big-up other rappers, even dropping the cringeworthy phrase “fo shizzle my nizzle.” Most notably, he might win with just how he says, “Get out of line and I’mma give you the blues,” at the end of the verse.
If you ever here this track playing down in LA, know that it is me because it is the greatest song to drive to.
Incidentally enough, “Guess Who’s Back,” is the second song, of three, from the should have been trio.
The third joint appears on Jay’s Blueprint 2, “Some How Some Way,” and feels like a fine B-Side. Perhaps a little too heavy on the soul sample and a little too on the nose with the theme, “Some how, some way, I gotta make it up out the hood someday.” It almost feels like nursery than a rap song. Which is fine, just not optimal.
But that’s all okay, because the first song they came out with “This Can’t Be Life,” off of The Dynasty compilation album is the greatest Jay-Z song of all time.
Featuring yet another Kanye beat, his first actually with Jay-Z. The track starts with the most introspective verse from Jay, only rivaled by “You Must Love Me” where he details shooting his brother and selling crack to his mother, “4:44” where agonizes over cheating on his wife Beyoncé, and “Lost One” which is a borderline masterpiece and focuses on his nephew dying in a car crash in the car that Jay bought him among other things.
A note on introspective Jay-Z: He is the most likeable, relevant and defendable Jay-Z. This does not mean that he is the most fun Jay, so if he is not your cup of tea that’s fine. I also think that Reasonable Doubt is mainly introspective Jay, but I’m also pretty sure that 70% of that stuff is dramatized and made up, so it doesn’t count on the short list, even though it is his best album. That’s all.
“This Can’t Be Life,” features a person looped, seemingly crying, a sped up sample of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “I Miss You.” The sample actually led Jay-Z to tell Kanye, “You a real soulful dude,” the first time he met him, per “Last Call” at the end of Kanye’s debut album College Dropout.
If you were to hear the sample and the lyrics, you would instantly believe that this song is a sad song. That this is a depressing song about the hardships that each rapper had to face on their way to come up or currently in life.
Jay-Z’s verse breaks down his early days, before rapping, and how he was getting into trouble:
“It’s like ’93, ’94, bout the year
That Big and Mack dropped and Illmatic rocked
Outta every rag drop, and the West had it locked
Everybody doing them, I’m still stretching on the block
Like “Damn, I’mma be a failure”
Surrounded by thugs, drugs, and drug paraphernalia
Cops, courts, and their thoughts is to derail us”
Those bars say everything, don’t they? Paints the picture of the time, what was happening in hip hop the thing that he desired most, and he was on outside looking in surrounded by gangs and drugs. It’s kind of a perfect visual in just a handful of lines.
Just as you thought it couldn’t get any more bleak, he literally yells, “Wait!” to the listener, followed by:
“It gets worse, baby momma water burst
Baby came out stillborn, still I gotta move on
Though my heart still torn, life gone from her womb”
It’s fucking heart-wrenching. This man who literally has nothing at this moment in his life, is hit with the most devastating news imaginable about something that was going to change his life. In the course of three lines, he destroys you.
Beanie follows up with another emotional gut-punch, starting with:
“Second oldest born, from Michelle Brown my mother
Hell bound, grew with two sisters and one brother
Pop wasn’t around, so many stories that’s another
I’m thinking damn; how my older sister goin’ make me tougher
When steel sharpens steel, I’mma keep it real”
This stuff is why I get so passionate about rap and hip hop. Sure it may not be as grammatically articulate or as flowery as formal poetry, but when done right it can be even more emotional and vivid than anything Whitman ever wrote.
From this intro, we get a clue as to who raised him, what circumstances he was brought into this world in, how he has handled said circumstances, brushing aside his father’s absence, and how his family adapted, his sisters taking on the parenting role of the household. That’s the thesis statement to his life.
Once again, the haunting chorus plays us out:
“This can’t be life, this can’t be love
This can’t be right, there’s gotta be more, this can’t be us
This can’t be life, this can’t be love
This can’t be right, there’s gotta be more, this can’t be us”
And then Scarface rounds it out by detailing how he literally just received the news, right before recording, that his friend’s son has just died.
“Said my homeboy Reek, he just lost one of his kids
And when I heard that I just broke into tears
And see in the second hand; you don’t really know how this is
But when it hits that close to home you feel the pain at the crib
So I called mine, and saddened my wife with the bad news
Now we both depressed, countin’ our blessings cause Brad’s two”
It’s just real; he lets you know what is the most important thing to him, how his friend’s tragedy instantly devastates him and also scares him of the possibility of the loss of his own son.
All of these rappers, for better or worse, are tough acts. They are streetwise and have a lot easier time rapping about the glocks they carry, crack they sold, and women they’ve bedded, as opposed to this stuff right here. This information accents their music and informs their perspective, but for the most part, they all tend to stay away from sharing this information, as compelling as it may be. That’s what makes this song, and this group so special. That all three of them removed the mask and the fronts and put out something so vulnerable.
It’s a song without ego, which is amazing because it’s a fucking rap song by Jay-Z.
I don’t want to belabor it too much longer, I think that 4500 shows how much I care about these rappers, this song, and the potential that they could have unlocked.
If we were to leave it there, that would be enough. This would have been the greatest super group ever in hip hop ever. Period.
Still, because they would have been the greatest, each of them, pushes it just a little bit at the end of the verse. Just enough to take one last look at it.
They elevate the mood and tone. They turn it from heartbreak after heartbreak, to a song that has slight optimism and emotional depth.
Face ends his with:
“And ain’t no bright side to losin life; but you can view it like this
God’s got open hands homey, he in the midst.. of good company
Who loves all and hates not one
And one day you gon’ be wit your son
I could’ve rapped about my hard times on this song
But heaven knows I woulda been wrong
I wouldn’ta been right, it wouldn’ta been love
It wouldn’ta been life, it wouldn’ta been us
This can’t be life”
It’s selfless and hopeful and pure. It finds a silver lining in death, which is on brand for a rapper who has been obsessed by it for the better part of almost 15-years at this point.
Beanie pays tribute to his own children:
“There’s only three things that make Mac not act like Beans
Amatullah Tisha, Po Aldin, Samir Amin
My seeds dog, gotta teach ’em that before I leave dog
Shit I know that I’ma see ’em when I leave dog
I come back in the afterlife
Like fuck it I done touched hell twice; what’s the meanin?”
It’s resolute. He salutes them and his responsibility to them, as a general reminder of the man he needs to become despite the hardships that him on the way up. And he is unphased at what comes at him moving ahead, because fuck it, he’s touched hell already.
Jay’s is simpler. There is not as much of a set up needed. It comes right after the lines cited previously on the miscarriage of his baby mama.
“It gets worse, baby momma water burst
Baby came out stillborn, still I gotta move on
Though my heart still torn, life gone from her womb”
Don’t worry, if it was meant to be, it’ll be soon”
I’m obsessed with how good this song is.
I listen to it all the time; happy, sad, confused, overwhelmed, it just puts everything in perspective in the course of four minutes and 45 seconds.
Those lines though, haunt me in the best of ways. I am so involved in the story and in the emotion, he and just ends it perfect.
“Don’t worry, if it was meant to be, it’ll be soon”
Who is that for?
Or is it for the listener?