The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of major-label hip hop. I’m splitting this entry between all three albums, because each offers something special but all three are, at bottom, no better than industry rap. I don’t say that like it’s a bad thing—you won’t find a bigger fan than me of The Black Album – but corporate hip hop as a rule lacks a deep racial or political message: It scratches the surface, but doesn’t go deep. For depth, you have to go to The Coup, Blue Scholars, Brother Ali, etc. It also tends to have a single point of view, even if it tells that view through multiple voices. In other words, it generally doesn’t confound expectations or, if it does so, it does it in a safe manner. Again, that doesn’t mean it isn’t as good as underground rap. It just is what it is. It’s like comparing Bruce Springsteen to Arcade Fire. Bruce has the bigger influence, but Arcade Fire is more provocative.

Having said that, all three of these records are great. So why spit the baby? Because in terms of a banger—a single that can hit at a club—there’s just nothing better than Ye’s “Stronger.” When you’re looking for tunes to make your foot hit the gas pedal and peel miles of highway away in minutes, the Steely Dan samples on “Champion” or LIl Wayne’s verses on “Barry Bonds,” top anything on American Gangster or Hip Hop Is Dead (which was released too late for me to review last year). And, generally, the beats on Graduation can carry even Kanye’s dumbest, most infantile rhymes (“Klondike/blonde dyke” anyone?).

But for a Lil’ Wayne hook that shows skill and creativity, you’re better off turning to Brooklyn 2.0. For a record that proves me wrong—major label hip hop is not dead, and can still be a force with emotional and philosophical impact—every song on American Gangster speaks on many levels. Unlike Kingdom Come, which often felt forced, AG tells the tale of a street hustler who lost his soul to the game but, despite his successes, actually misses his soul. Jay-Z actually pulled off the first rap album about an inner child. And when it comes to mic skills, it’s undebatable that Jay trumps Kanye. After all, what did all the critics compare Jay-Z’s new album to? Why, his last album of course! Proof that there simply is nobody better at this than Jay-Z. But as a producer, Kanye is far more
skilled than Puff Daddy.

Which brings us to NaS. Hip Hop Is Dead is a true masterpiece, combining gritty street stories with hardcore beats and hooks. Most importantly, it is the only record of these three that has a genuine philosophy. Kanye is clearly interested only in money. Jay-Z is interested only in himself more than he is in money (and who can blame him, he is fascinating after all). And while hedonism and egotism may be perspectives, they aren’t philosophies. NaS truly seeks what he believes to be a greater good, and he attacks sell-outs like a vicious pit bull. He doesn’t invite controversy to sell records, he looks for fights because he believes in his cause. And that makes his album the greatest of the three.

Oh, and one more thing: Bonus points to Jay for not spelling it, “Gangsta.”

Kings (It’s a NY Thing)-Jay-Z and NaS

Can’t Tell Me Nothing (Remix) Kanye West and Young Jeezy (from the Graduation mixtape)

Where Are They Now? (West Coast Remix)-NaS with Breeze, Kam, King Tee, Candyman, Threat, Ice-T, Sir Mix-A-Lot and the Conscious Daughters

Where Are They Now? (80s Remix)-NaS with Grandmaster Caz, MC Shan, Raheem (Furious Five), Doctor Ice (UTFO), Kangol (UTFO), Kool Moe Dee, Sha Rock (Funky Four Plus One), Tito (Fearless Four), Lique (Isis of X Clan), Dana Dane, Pebblee and Just Ice. (My personal favorite.)

New York w/Raekwon (Prod. By Hasan Insane)-Jay-Z (from the American Gangster bootleg)

And, for old time’s sake:


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