Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Best Rappers Alive

Jay-Z and Nas putting their past beef aside and appearing on stage together a few months ago was a big moment, considering the media's perception of hip-hop as being a continuous string of violence-based relationships. Case in point, when Suge Knight was shot in the leg earlier this year, ABC-7 in L.A. felt compelled to bring up not only the murder of 2Pac (or "Two Pack" as he was affectionately known as) and Biggie, but also the murder of Jam Master Jay, a man who had no connections to any of the aforementioned three other than having made a career in hip-hop. So regardless of the fact that Jay and Nas' beef wasn't on that level and stayed on wax, not to mention that realistically it could've all been a marketing ploy to sell records, their peace offering was definitely a step forward. To commemorate the 2 best rappers out right now (Ghostface a close 3rd), here are my 20 favorite songs from each one's catalog, complete with random commentary:

20. Can't Knock The Hustle (f/ Mary J Blige)
19. Where Have You Been (f/ Beanie Sigel) - I gained a lot of respect for Beanie Sigel from this song, and I'd have to say he's one of my favorite MCs at the moment. The emotion in his voice is undeniable.
18. It's Alright (f/ Memphis Bleek) - Remember when Memphis Bleek had potential? It was a ways back, so don't worry if you don't. Too bad he had to go and make full albums and kill all of that. Maybe all the potential he had went to his head... and in the process, made it very oddly-shaped.

He brings it in this song though, Jay is his usual self, and that Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime" sample is, dare I say, same as it ever was...
17. Lucifer
16. Girls, Girls, Girls
15. Dear Summer - Jay's "retirement" song, if he actually had retired, was tossed onto Memphis Bleek's last album as a song "featuring" Jay, even though it's Jay by himself. Not surprisingly, it was the best song on the album.
14. This Can't Be Life (f/ Beanie Sigel & Scarface)
13. A Week Ago (f/ Too Short)
12. The Bounce (f/ Kanye West) - This is a prime example of the difference between being able to "rap", and being able to "flow" ("Dirt Off Your Shoulder" being another good example). Kanye's guest verse at the end is a bit of a downer, but to his credit, he wasn't yet a genius at this point in his career.
11. Streets Is Watching
10. Brooklyn's Finest (f/ Notorious B.I.G.)
9. Dirt Off Your Shoulder - One thing about Jay is his ability to make music catchy enough for radio and club play, but still fresh enough to rock in headphones or in the car. And the image of an overweight Timbaland playing this beat in "Fade To Black" while eating a banana and dancing is forever stuck in my head.
8. Takeover
7. 99 Problems
6. A Ballad For The Fallen Soldier - Call this one a sleeper pick. It was close to the end of the 2nd disc of "Blueprint 2", right after some of the album's weaker songs, so it was easy to miss, but it's definitely a gem. Say what you want about the Neptunes (Noreaga certainly has), but Pharrell actually adds some soul to this track, as opposed to his standard pop appeal. [By the way, that link is to an old, very long but very candid interview with Noreaga. It's nothin' for me to say that it's one of the funniest things I've read in a while. The stuff about the Neptunes and their alleged "broken hands" is about half-way down from the top.]
5. Allure
4. Dead Presidents II - The version on "Reasonable Doubt" was different from the video version. Did YOU know that?
3. Soon You'll Understand
2. Where I'm From
1. D'Evils - DJ Premier's dark production and sampled chorus ("Dear God, I wonder can you save me... I can't die...") matches up perfectly with Jay's lyrics. This song was kind of haunting the first time I heard it. For everything Jay's achieved with his popularity over the last few years - Def Jam, Beyonce, the New Jersey Nets, selling out Madison Square Garden - songs like these were his roots.
**Best Guest Appearance: Welcome To New York City (Cam'ron f/ Jay-Z & Juelz Santana) - Too bad Jay and Cam couldn't get along, considering the one song they did together was pretty good. Lately it's been playing in one of the commercials for the new "True Crime" game.

20. Zone Out (f/ Bravehearts) - Some say that Nas never really put anyone on from under his wing, but in his defense, the Bravehearts aren't that good. I'd go as far as to call them... well, bad. Truthfully, there are plenty of better overall songs that Nas' has done than this, but there's something about that reverse shit in the beat that gets me everytime.
19. Street's Disciple
18. Just A Moment (f/ Quan)
17. Star Wars - Bonus track off the "Illmatic" 10th Anniversary re-release. Vintage Nas over a spacey-type of beat, not like something you'd expect to hear him over, but it works well nonetheless.
16. The Message
15. Made You Look
14. I Gave You Power
13. Nas Is Like
12. N.Y. State Of Mind - I could've easily put every song from "Illmatic" on here somewhere, but that would've been a bit of a cop out. Nas has definitely grown as an MC since his debut in '94, but he hasn't dropped an album as cohesive or with as many great songs as "Illmatic". For everything that's godawful about The Source nowadays, they took a chance, and were dead on, by giving it 5 mics.
11. Ether - "Takeover" worked better as a song, but this was the superior diss record.
10. Silent Murder - This was a bonus track only on the cassette version of "It Was Written", perhaps as a desperate attempt to keep cassette sales from plummeting in the wake of CDs taking over. Nice song, but it clearly wasn't enough.
9. Reason
8. Get Down
7. It Ain't Hard To Tell
6. Blaze A 50 - The story told in this song could've been made into a movie, especially with the crazy twist at the end. I wonder if Nas REALLY knows Terrell Davis.
5. If I Ruled The World (f/ Lauryn Hill)
4. Rewind - Telling a story in reverse turned out to be an ill concept. And at just over 2 minutes, it's short enough to keep your attention without getting lost (I don't like to think too hard when I'm not being graded or getting paid for something). Not too many rappers other than Nas could've made this work properly.
3. One Love
2. The World Is Yours
1. N.Y. State Of Mind, Pt. 2 - Sequels often aren't better than originals, but this song is flawless. Another Premier beat - hey, everyone in the media is biased, why can't I be? The fact that it was the opening track on "I Am..." might have worked against him, since it set such a high bar that the rest of the album had no chance of living up to.
**Best Guest Appearance: Mo Money Mo Murder Mo Homicide (AZ f/ Nas) - 50 Cent had some rhyme recently about AZ making "bullshit records" - I can't remember exactly how the song went, but 50 probably sang something in the chorus since, you know, that's what he does. Sure, AZ never was as famous as Nas, but the songs they made together were always quality. "The Essence" (off "AZiatic") was even up for a Grammy a couple years ago; that's still sort of an honor. Maybe, probably no time soon, but one day, they'll actually make an album together.