Saturday, June 28, 2008

back to backs


all week ive been taking my friends to task with one simple question:

what are the greatest back to back hip hop albums ever put out?

now of course there is criteria that the albums must fulfill. for one, they obviously have to be in sequence. there can not be an album put out between them that disrupts the flow of "from great to greater" [although in special cases we can overlook EP's, though i dont think this loophole needed to be exercised]. the second album must be of equal or greater quality than the one released before it. both albums must stand up over time, they cant have been "good then, but dated now". the albums cant be too regional or nichey, they must be universally accepted as classics by all fans of hip hop. lastly, they can not have just one or two singles on them, but the rest of the album be trash, they must be good all the way through.

its not easy when you think of it, at least in terms of hip hop. i can think of ten rock and pop acts off the top of my head that have achieved this feat in their respective genres [the beatles with revolver to sgt pepper, the pixies with surfer rosa to doolittle, radiohead with the bends to ok computer, prince with1999 to purple rain, michael jackson with off the wall to thriller, etc etc] but it is a rare occurrence in hip hop. maybe because the audience is so fickle, possibly because most hip hop acts work with different producers each album, so dont get to grow musically as a unit with one person. maybe because hip hop just doesnt like to allow its artist to mature too fast and change too much between records. im not sure, but it took some serious brain racking to come up with a list of more than two or three artist/groups in hip hop that have successfully matured and grown sonically from album to album.

before i list the back-to-backs me and a couple well versed cohorts came up with, ill go over some that were considered but didnt qualify. this will give you an idea of the rigidity of the question and how we determined just what albums really stood up. also, it'll provide examples of what could be argued [and was indeed argued] and could be controversial since left out.

Notorious BIG - Ready to Die to Life After Death was thrown in the ring, but after thinking about it we had to conclude that, although Ready to Die is, hands down, a classic, Life After Death just wasnt as good. not to take anything away from Biggies second full length, it was just a little too bloated and its singles werent as strong as anything from Ready to Die. in the end it was a week link and couldnt be included.

Too Short - Born to Mack to Life is... Too Short can be seen as classics by many. and without a doubt they are. and Life is... is definitely a better, more mature album that expanded on the sound Too Short laid the groundwork on in his first major release. Born not only has the classic opus "Freaky Tales," but also "Dopefiend Beat," which would introduce the drawn out "biiiiiiitch," howl into popular culture that to this day, i still hear people hollering. and Life is... has, of course, the title track, still to be heard in clubs running up and down the left coast, as well as "Dont Fight The Feeling," probably Shorts most lyrically clever song [and no one has ever mistaken Short for being lyrically clever before or since], but outside of the Bay Area, neither album is widely regarded and many would dismiss both, if not at least one, of the albums as just mediocre. of course all us bay area kids know that both albums are bona fide classics, but for this list, it just didnt make the cut.

Cypress Hill - Cypress Hill to Black Sunday was proposed and then, upon reflection, immediately dismissed. although Black Sunday has the bigger single with "Insane in the Brain," the album itself pales in comparison to their self titled debut. Muggs is a great producer, but he never captured the sonic excitement and originality of the debut, and the lyrics of both B-real and Sen Dog just devolved into fake gangster posturing and rapping about weed.

now on to the list of albums that did make the cut. clearly some of these can be argued, but most of them just cant.

A Tribe Called Quest - Low End Theory to Midnight Marauders - This is the sequence of albums that inspired the conversation and the bar from which all other contenders were measured. this could be called the greatest back to back albums in hip hop ever, and id be willing to argue it until im blue in the face [please dont make me, blue isnt my color]. Like one of my friends said, you dont skip a track on these albums because it is bad, but only because you want to hear another track more right then. with Low End Theory, Tribe took their sound [and most all of hip hop as well] to a new level, building the songs on strong bass lines and hard jazz drum breaks. no hip hop fan could argue that it wasnt earth shattering when it came out. every single, every album cut, was perfect. the only thing more mind blowing than the Low End Theory album was that they followed it up with an album that was not only as good, but could possibly be even better. which was something no one ever thought they would be able to do.

Run DMC - King of Rock to Raising Hell - This one was another no brainer as everyone knows that King of Rock is a total classic that, because of Rick Rubins stunning rock guitar mixed with hard old school drums based production, pushed hip hop further into the mainstream than most any record at the time. to this day when you hear the term "King of Rock," you, ironically enough, think of hip hop. thats how strong that single, and album is. but with Raising Hell Run DMC took their sound even further sonically into what hip hop would eventually become. not only did it have the massive crossover hit, "Walk This Way," which single handedly rejuvenated Aerosmiths career and is still a staple on every single rock list ever written, but it made hip hop viable to brands outside of music with "My Adidas," which firmly entrenched hip hop into the corporate and fashion worlds.

Ice Cube - Amerikkas Most Wanted to Death Certificate - this was one that some people might want to argue, but i would then have to shoot them. after leaving NWA everyone wondered what Ice Cube, the groups best rapper, would do. then he hooked up with Public Enemy's sonic architects, The Bomb Squad, and made an instant classic that was revered not only on the west coast, but also the east. his mixture of south central gangster tales and black revolutionary lyrics were surprising, clever, and most importantly, smart. its incredible that he followed it up with an album even more personal, more gangsta, and more revolutionary with Death Certificate. he never matched the cohesiveness of his first two solo albums, but he never needed to. he contributed two albums whos worth still goes unmatched by any so called gangster rapper.

De La Soul - De La Soul is Dead to Buhloone Mindstate - Like Tribe, these two albums were preceded but a classic debut, but like Tribe, De La didnt really come into their sound until the second album. we had many an argument over this one. De La is Dead was too long for some, had too many skits for others, and just not enough strong singles for the rest. but as a whole, in terms of concept and one large, unifying idea, the album works, and no one would argue that. The follow up stripped the skits and just put together a tight collection of brilliant, interesting, fresh and smart songs that still sound amazing today.

LL Cool J - Radio to Bigger and Deffer - this one got some sideways glances, but no one would speak up to challenge its inclusion on the list. you would be a fool to not consider Radio a bona fide hip hop classic. "Rock the Bells" alone has stood up over the test of time [and in the past few years a major hip hop tour has co opted the line for its own title], as well as has the title track. play the album cuts at a club and guaranteed you will get a stellar reception. Rick Rubins production has never been as hard and stripped down as on Radio. but LL, as the artist on this list are supposed to do, raised the bar on his second record. the love song, and there was one on Radio as well, not only was better, but became a smash hit on the radio and at school dances [where kids were unsure of weather to slow dance or fast dance, it was an awkward time for some] and the lead single, "I'm Bad," still gives goosebumps when it is played. LL, with his second album, went from star to super star, and deservedly so.

and others that were considered that i havent written about because im either a) too lazy or b) not entirely firm on their placement. i would include the Beastie Boys Check Your Head to Ill Communication, but because they morphed so much into their own band, i couldnt say they were actually hip hop albums. Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Fear of a Black Planet were definite contenders, but i just couldnt call weather Fear matched the obvious importance of It Takes a Nation [though i will concede that both are absolutely brilliant albums and probably should be on the list]. Boogie Down Productions Criminal Minded to By Any Means Necessary was considered, but although both albums are classics, i just cant say that they were worth writing about again [please let me know if im making a mistake], and lastly, the first three outkast albums are hands down, fucking marvelous pieces of work, im just too lazy to write about them. consider them on the list.

any contributions from you, dear reader?

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:gray matters: by jkg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at downtownalleys.blogspot.com.