Do These Much-Loathed Rap Albums Deserve Our Ire?
All These on One Receipt
Last month marks five years since electronics and media giant Circuit City closed its doors forever. As a music fan, I miss Circuit City quite a bit. Not only were their prices on CDs usually exceedingly low, presumably in efforts to get customers to enter the store and buy televisions or whatever, but they really picked up where Tower Records left off in terms of stocking regional artists from around the country that had any sort of momentum. In New York, it was often the only place to get west coast and southern hip-hop artists that the larger music chains would ignore.
As a result, during those last three months of liquidation, I was able to clean up in terms of filling the gaps in my southern hip-hop collection, as well as surprise close friends with the entire Project Pat discography for under 10 bucks. On the final day, when everything was 90% off, I had already made most desirable purchases. As a result, I took a look at what remained of the inventory and purchased five of the most loathed records of the decade in one swoop. As Christopher Morley once said, "All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim." In the name of Circuit City, it's time to revisit the most hated handful of music ever purchased.
Hate, not unlike love or disgust, is largely subjective. Thus, understanding why these records are hated, requires a proper context. The 2000s were an interesting transitional time for hip-hop. At just over 30 years, the culture was having that last rash of growing pains in terms of making peace with how worldwide it had become. As a result, while these five albums were certainly loved by enough people to make them all national hits, the sheer vitriol they inspired from so many other corners of the hip-hop map made them frequent scapegoats and punching bags from purists of all sorts. Given how fast rap moves, these albums might as well have been made a lifetime ago. It is with that clarity that these projects can be revisited and evaluated as to whether or not they deserved the flack they received.
D4L , Down For Life (2005) Asylum Records/Atlantic In 2005, it seemed just about the one thing that experimental underground rap scenes and boom-bap purists could relate on was a shared hatred for D4L's breakout single "Laffy Taffy." From the minimalist bloop-and-bleep sounding production, to the message that the crew was only concerned with partying to the silly simplistic chorus, it made "Laffy Taffy" the go-to terminology for seemingly substandard hip-hop. Even Ghostface, normally a fan of wackiness, threw shots at the group , making berating the song and its fans a part of his live show and dissing it on his critically acclaimed Fishscale album.
Everyone who said an unkind word about this record is 1000% wrong. I remember liking the record at the time for tracks like "Scotty," whose excellent use of harmonization is the closest thing to the old school rap pioneers' routines that hip-hop's produced in a decade. But, hearing it now, this entire record is massive and years ahead of its time. While member Shawty Lo has gone on to more success as a solo artist, producer, and reality TV star, sonically this record is truly innovative. While there's plenty of great regional boasting that gives Down For Life a genuine flavor, the MCs keep things fun while the production is both one-of-a-kind and stellar. Thankfully, of these five records, Down For Life has caught on the most with listeners in its aftermath, most recently getting shouted out in Young Thug's "Stoner."
Shop Boyz , Rockstar Mentality (2007) Universal Republic You can usually tell when a rap album is shaped around a single that takes off, and Shop Boyz's Rockstar Mentality is no exception. "Party Like A Rock Star" was not only the lead single and first track, but kicked off the "Rock Star" trend in hip-hop that lasted for about nine months until the whole "I'm not interested in the act of actually rapping on my rap records" trend took off (which, for my money, was the genre's darkest hour). Looking back, this particular trend marked a weird juncture for hip-hop culture's presence as a whole. This trend went beyond music into infesting hip-hop fashion and community activities. Weirdly, what set the "Rock Star" trend apart, as my friend John Neal once theorized, is that it was the one hip-hop trend that was impossible for Caucasoids to co-opt. By being a twist on predominantly white rock star culture, there was really no way for white listeners to successfully emulate it. It's sort of like being an ironic Juggalo, you just can't pull it off based on what it requires. As gleefully outdated then as the Marilyn Manson and The Osbournes name-dropping was, as well as the KISS face-paint in the video and the overly-white sounding "totally dude!" it made for an interesting juxtaposition that, for some reason, became a genre-wide trend and lead to "rock star" frequently rhyming with "cop car" and "hot bars" for the better part of a year.
While it never ventures into full-blown rap-rock or nu-metal territory, much of Rockstar Mentality has guitar or synth-guitar heavy beats. The Jim Jonsin produced "Baby Girl" does this the best, and the Pit-produced surf-rock sounding "Rollin'" is a pretty admirable for the musical risk, but surprisingly one of the few guitar-less tracks is the David Banner-laced "They Like Me." Overall, like the fad as a whole, it hasn't aged particularly well. For those keeping score at home, there is no Pet Shop Boys sample anywhere on Rockstar Mentality. Oddly enough, the one credited sample on the entire record comes from The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another."
Hurricane Chris , 51/50 Ratchet (2007) Polo Grounds / J Records One of the most ironic waves of hateration had to be what hit Louisana rapper Hurricane Chris. His infectious summer jam "A Bay Bay" was prompted by hip-hop purists as representative of everything supposedly "wrong" with mainstream hip-hop. What they tended to miss is that the song is probably the highest profile tribute to a DJ this side of the new millennium. That's right folks, if you holla "A Bay Bay," you aren't mackin' on a cutie, you're giving props to Louisiana/Texas party rocker DJ Hollyhood Bay Bay. The lyrics even champion taking a picture with a DJ over doing anything else in the club, but you don't hear him though...
The teenage Chris' performance on the rest of 51/50 Ratchet is pretty impressive. While the project is largely a club-minded record, the variation of tempos on the production is pretty surprisingly wide. And, like a true Hurricane, Chris keeps up with all of them. The hate on Chris mellowed out over the next two years with the release of his second hit "Halle Berry (She Fine)," of which viral clips like this endeared him to the hip-hop nation. But revisiting his debut, it's a pretty strong guide of how to make a club-minded album without being redundant.
Soulja Boy , Souljaboytellem.com (2007) Interscope Records People really hate Soulja Boy. Not past tense, people hate him. People hated him when "Crank That" was the biggest song in the world, people still hate him now. He's a teenager who made a dance song for teenagers to dance to, clearly this makes him history's greatest monster. In another bit of irony, at a time when very, very few rap artists were sampling, the "Crank That" explosion lead to a trend that introduced the concept of creative sampling to a new generation, with our favorites being the Rockapella-utilizing "Crank That Folgers Boy" and, of course, "Crank That Lion King."
To be fair, unlike the rest of this list, Soulja Boy deserves some degree of the blame for the hatred. While hip-hop purists might have thrown the first swing, Soulja Boy seemed to revel in being rap's Disney villain, playing a perfect heel to the point of feuding with Ice-T and incorrectly attributing the wrong songs to the veteran rapper in the process. But Soulja Boy wasn't legally old enough to buy a lottery ticket yet, so the fact that his record is largely about Bapes, doing bad in school, girls, and dancing is forgivable. While he would go on to more successfully emote these aspects of being a teenager better later on, including on the excellent "1st Day of School," Souljaboytellem.com is not an album intended with anyone who could legally purchase cigarettes in mind. We all should breathe a sigh of relief that the follow-up single "Yahhh!" wasn't as huge, as its hook is one of the most utterly irritating ever recorded.
Flobots , Fight With Tools (2007) Universal Republic While hip-hop purists widely loathed the aforementioned four releases for, largely inaccurately, being seen as "mindless club music," Flobots' Fight With Tools was berated for the exact opposite. If you made a list of the worst things that happened under the Bush Administration, the rise of pretentious political rap has to at least crack the top 10. The Denver-based rap band Flobots had been together for seven years before their debut Fight With Tools and its inescapable single "Handlebars" exploded, giving people who don't listen to hip-hop some rap music that comes with an unwarranted pedestal to absolutely look down on the rest of the genre with.
The musicianship on Fight With Tools is surprisingly tight. The Flobots are a full band, including a violinist and several contributions from trumpet and cello players. There's some alright melodies on here, too, but the rapping is so preachy and heavy-handed that my wrist aches more with each listen. To give you an idea what we have here, "Same Thing" opens with "Somewhere between prayer and revolution / between Jesus and Huey P. Newton," and goes on to include someone sincerely saying "The U.S. is NOT US!" It's a call for revolution, I guess. But, for a group with "flow" in their name, their should at least be as much attention given to the act of flowing as there is to namedropping political figures. For all the grief they give dishonest politicians, I have it on good authority that the group allegedly at no point "made a comic book," making "Handlebars" a house of lies and the Flobots just as bad as the government figures they claim to abhor.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.