No “No Sunshine”? No “Get It on the Floor”?
Here’s something that isn’t particularly surprising: two of the biggest and best-marketed rap greatest-hits albums come from white rappers: Eminem’s Curtain Call and the Beastie Boys’ The Sounds of Science. Greatest-hits albums are one of the biggest economic pillars of the music industry; unlike most new albums, they tend to keep selling long after their first week in stores. For any number of reasons, though, rap has yet to really dig itself into the greatest-hits market. For one thing, rap is a famously fickle genre, and famous rappers tend to have much, much shorter periods in the spotlight than famous rap groups. It can be tough to find a rapper or a rap group with an entire hour’s worth of hits to compile. Rappers also bounce around labels more than rock groups, which, along with the usual sample-clearance issues, makes licensing these tracks an expensive proposition as often as not. There are certainly exceptions: Gang Starr’s great hits-and-rarities double-album Full Clip remains one of their best-selling efforts, and Big Boi and Dre Present…OutKast, a pretty good if schizophrenic and chronologically confused pre-Speakerboxxx best-of, managed to sell platinum. More often, though, record labels totally fail to tap into the potential of the greatest hits album. When these things do show up, they’re rushed and vaguely preposterous contract-fulfillment nonentities like Cappadonna’s mind-bendingly inessential Cappadonna Hits, or else they’re attempts to make a few extra dollars off inactive artists. The Fugees’ Greatest Hits came out in 2003, about seven years after their de facto breakup, and that group only released two proper albums. The Dirty Story: The Best of Ol Dirty Bastard came out when ODB was in prison, after he’d only released two albums. There’s no good reason for either of those albums to exist.
Sometimes justifiable greatest-hits albums do come out, but they get absolutely no marketing push at all. Lately, I’ve gotten promo copies of best-of albums from DJ Quik and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, both of which are pretty good and neither of which I would’ve had any idea existed if they hadn’t showed up in my mailbox. The big, towering exception here is 2Pac’s nine-times-platinum Greatest Hits. That’s really the perfect storm. 2Pac had a gang of hits spread out over a number of maddeningly inconsistent albums. He was iconic and inarguably important. And he was dead, so you knew you weren’t going to get anything like Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” just barely missing the cutoff for his Greatest Hits. (There have been plenty of 2Pac albums released since Greatest Hits, of course, but there’s not one essential song on any of them.) Other than 2Pac, though, the two most successful rap greatest-hits albums come from two artists whose race allows their records to be marketed the same way rock records are. It’s a damn shame that only 2Pac, Eminem, and the Beastie Boys are considered worthy of that sort of treatment.
I was in Target this weekend buying a new vacuum cleaner, and I noticed a CD display of DMX’s The Definition of X: The Pick of the Litter, an album whose existence I’d somehow managed not to notice. I bought it. A few other people must’ve done the same thing, since the album is sitting right now at number 26 on the Billboard album charts. Imagine what might’ve happened if Def Jam had actually told a few people about the album. In virtually every way, DMX is a perfect candidate for a greatest-hits album. He’s an absolute mess now, his arrest record seeming to grow every year. Last year, he released his first album away from Def Jam, and it bricked. But his run of five Def Jam albums in six years was ridiculously strong; every one of those albums debuted at number one. Only one of those albums is consistently great: his debut, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. But his later albums pile filler around some devastatingly fiery singles. Even as his quality-control fell all to shit, he still had a few great moments: “Where the Hood At,” “X Gon’ Give It to Ya.” Throughout that run, he did most of his work with a very small stable of producers (Swizz Beatz, Dame Grease), so the record has a sonic cohesiveness that’s completely missing from, say, LL Cool J’s Mr. Smith. (Bonus: Swizz’s old sample-free production style makes sample-clearance headaches go away.) The Definition of X mostly ignores chronology, but it doesn’t much matter; these songs would basically sound the same in any order. Even his for-the-ladies singles like the Sisqo collabo “What These Bitches Want” are utterly unhinged and stark. More to the point, though, for a minute there DMX was an absolute icon. After the “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” video came out, I started noticing a whole lot more plastic Japanese motorcycles in the Baltimore streets. A friend of mine used to work at a cafe on Charles Street, and she once told me a story about seeing a consistent stream of motorcycles blasting up the road the night the Hard Knock Life tour came to the Baltimore Arena. DMX encapsulated his era way more than someone like Eminem, and that puts the nostalgia-factor of an album like this through the roof. Few stars have fallen as quickly and definitively in the past few years as X’s; his public flameout has only been a few notches below that of Britney Spears. But those of us who graduated high school or hit drinking age during DMX’s reign are older now, and we’ve got money to spend. Considering that Island Def Jam is still making that Legend money, you’d think they’d take advantage of that fact.