There’s a reason “bring it back to ’94” had become such a heartfelt calling card for hip-hop traditionalists. While it’s always been a primarily singles-driven genre, you would be hard pressed to find a single year with more endlessly influential, important and well aging rap classics than 1994. A landmark for many reasons, we’re just reminding you early to get ready for a calendar year full of thinkpieces regarding some of the greatest collections of rhymes over beats ever made.
Illmatic: Declared a classic upon release, Nas’ debut has encompassed for many exactly what a rap album should contain. Recounting and reflecting all that he saw from his Queensbridge Project window, Nas worked with a dream team of producers to assemble the definitive rite of passage for rap listeners. While much has been written about every second of perfection that occurs whenever someone presses play, it’s comparatively understated what a factor coming out on Columbia had for Illmatic. One of the largest record labels on the planet, Illmatic was an unapologetically street record. Listen to the distilled Michael Jackson sample on “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” and realize THAT was what was intended to be the pop single. It’s a sheer miracle that Illmatic came through the Columbia channels the way it did, and the promotional push for what was such a street record helped make sure it connected with critics and listeners who otherwise may not have heard it.
Ready to Die
It’s truly unfortunate that, for all that’s gone into mythologizing Biggie’s legacy to the point where we have major motion pictures based on his life and action figures in his likeness, that same energy hasn’t gone into preserving the essential rap masterpiece that is Ready to Die. Revisionist critics and new jacks alike have scoffed at Biggie’s inclusion on countless Greatest of All Time lists solely based on this album, but the perfectly realized vision that Big and Puff had here is precisely the stuff legends are made of. Unfortunately, the dubious 10th Anniversary Edition and its subsequent re-printings have been the subject of numerous lawsuits, stripping this flawless classic of some of its most important moments. To celebrate 20 years of Biggie, we suggest digging out your original copy for remembering when “It was all a dream…”
Scarface might be the most underrated rap artist of all time. Whether as part of the Geto Boys or in his own solo career, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody that’s been in the game as long as he has and maintained such consistency. With 25 years of material to choose from, his 1994 album The Diary remains his masterpiece. A southern Rap-A-Lot classic when merely taken at face value, a closer inspection on how each subsequent track peels away layers of gangsta rap until Face ultimately rewrites his biggest hit “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” to reflect his own life, makes The Diary one of the most layered and endlessly rewarding releases in the genre.
Rap journalist Andrew Noz once said Common’s sophomore album’s greatest
strengths were due to the fact that “a changing man is more interesting than a changed man.” Years before the Gap commercials, movie roles and friendship with the President of the United States, Common was a depressed, defeated alcoholic in a Chicago basement who had no idea whether or not he was going to keep rapping or not. As a result, he seemingly made Resurrection just for himself, resulting in one of the most creatively vulnerable projects in rap.
3rd Bass’ MC Serch had a hand in two important rap releases of 1994. While it’s fairly well known he executive produced Illmatic and helped Nas get his foot in the door at Columbia, the fact that he oversaw the creation of other classics at New York’s Wild Pitch Records is less spoken about. The legend goes, after frequently rejecting everything O.C. was handing in, he finally heard the now classic “Times Up” and asked O.C. to record an entire album of that. Due to frequently going in and out of print, for a while Word…Life was among the most sought after bootlegged classics in rap until the entire Wild Pitch catalog saw an official re-release in 2009. The 20th anniversary marks a good time to revisit is and debate with friends about whether “things I saw, did or heard about…never word of mouth” makes sense.