1. Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul” (1987)
Rakim: “I start to think and then I sink/Into the paper like I was ink/When I’m writing, I’m trapped in between the line/I escape when I finish the rhyme.”
Soren’s Comments: This is one of the first lyrics I remember being compared to poetry—in the Washington Post, no less. Rakim is one of the most respected rappers of all time and his wordplay on “I Know You Got Soul” shows why he is so revered. He’s also one of the first rappers—if not the first—to use internal rhyme.
2. Eazy-E’s “Eazy-Er Said Than Dunn” (1988)
Eazy-E: “Yo, I don’t do dope, but I’m dope, not a dope/But I’m doper than anybody who tries to cope.”
Soren’s Comments: This passage highlights one of my favorite things about rap—the wordplay. Here, Eazy plays off the many meanings of the word “dope,” both in common parlance and on the streets. The first dope refers to drugs; the second means that he’s among the best. The third says he’s not stupid and the last reference plays off of his status as an artist. I always thought it was incredible how he used the same word in so many different ways back-to-back.
3. LL Cool J’s “Fast Peg” (1989)
LL Cool J: “Not knowin’ her man messed up the money/Ridin’ around, thinkin’ everything’s funny/Went in a disco, came outside/Somebody pushed her in a beat up ride/She had to pay for her man’s mistakes/They shot her in the head/That’s the breaks.”
Soren’s Comments: In my opinion, LL Cool J is the best rapper of all time. These lyrics and this song were striking to me because at the time, LL Cool J was catching heat for being braggadocios and materialistic during an era where rappers were making social commentary a focus of their lyrics. Of course, LL Cool J was also famous for making songs for and about women. This song is about the girlfriend of a drug dealer who enjoys material spoils and seemingly lives without a worry, but ultimately pays the price for her boyfriend’s mistakes. The song ends less than 1:40 after it starts, with the simple line, “That’s the breaks.” It’s such an abrupt ending and says—without saying—that this girl’s life is over and probably no one cares. There’s no epilogue, no commentary from her boyfriend or one of her friends. It’s simply over. Most rap songs were at least three minutes long at the time. LL Cool J did what his critics said he was unable or unwilling to do and to did it so dramatically and distinctively that it made me respect his artistry even more.
4. Ice Cube’s “Dead Homiez” (1990)
Ice Cube: “When there’s a tragedy, that’s the only time that the family’s tight/Lovin’ each other in a caring mood/There’s lots of people and lots of food/They say ‘Be Strong’ and you’re tryin’/How strong can you be when you see your pops cryin’?”
Soren’s Comments: In this song, Ice Cube talks about attending yet another funeral of one of his childhood friends. The Los Angeles-based rapper was in the group N.W.A that helped popularize gangster rap in the late 1980s and is now a movie star, but overlooking his influence as a social commentator would be neglecting his most powerful work. On this cut, Cube masterfully taps into the anguish that accompanies the aftermath of violent crime as well as the different ways people treat each other, depending on the circumstances.
5. OutKast featuring Slick Rick’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)” (1998)
Andre 3000: “We on our back starin’ at the stars above/Talkin’ ‘bout what we gonna be when we grow up/I said what you wanna be, she said, ‘Alive’/It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes, I coulda died…”
Soren’s comments: This is from one of my favorite rap albums of all time, OutKast’s Aquemini. In this song, Andre recounts a story about a fictitious (in name, at least) girl he was friends with growing up. The line about her wanting to be alive when she grows up is one of the most painful, powerful lyrics I’ve heard.
1. Best rap group: OutKast
“OutKast is the best rap group of all time. They are one of the few groups that really evolved sonically, thematically, stylistically, basically in every way you can imagine. I love the way they mix styles. They don’t worry about song structure. They do very creative, imaginative things. There’s lots of political commentary in their work. Everything about them is about being an outcast. They’re so different, and in my opinion, ahead of everyone else.”
2. Best rapper: LL Cool J
The best rapper of all time is LL Cool J. He was able to take something that was taboo—songs geared toward women and about women—and turn it to a trend. He caught a lot of flak for it. But his love songs are clever, imaginative, vivid. When you look at his catalog, he has songs about police brutality, bad decisions in the drug game, so many different types of songs. LL Cool J had been out 11 years before Jay-Z put out his first album. He evolved into a businessman, actor and entrepreneur. He was great in “Slow Burn” with Ray Liotta. He gets criticized because in 1987, “I Need Love” came out when the industry was about braggadocio. It was very popular, because women liked it, but the rap community was confused. But now Jay-Z, Kanye, 50-Cent, they’re all making those songs. The only notable exceptions are Ice-Cube and Scarface.
3. Personal favorite: Schoolly D
My favorite is a guy named Schoolly D from Philadelphia. He was the first gangsta rapper and the first to own his own label. He drew his own covers and made his own beats. The only thing he didn’t do was scratching. The guy was a one-man army. He’s not a household name, but a lot of rappers have all sampled him. He’s huge.