Readers will love these artists’ unbound lyricism
Occasionally, people ask me for rap recommendations. They've read my columns and know that I write about the music, and they're curious. But their experience is limited to what's reported in the news or played on the radio. Neither tends to be the best representation of the form.
So I mulled it over and put together a short list of rappers that readers would like. But two notes before we begin.
First, I abhor the argumentative nature of “best of” or ranked lists, so this list isn't exclusive. I’m just tossing out some suggestions.
Second, the idea of narrowing down rappers to a handful readers would like is ridiculous and a little insulting. I can’t imagine a list of “classical musicians for readers” or “jazz bassists for readers.” Best to consider this more as an introduction to five rappers whose qualities readers would likely admire. Got it? Good.
Besides, think of it this way, Independent reader. This column is going to help you discuss Kendrick Lamar with your kids, and that will either delight or horrify them. Either is a win-win situation.
In no particular order:
- Nas. One of rap's greats. Arguably more lyrically skilled than the Notorious B.I.G., but with Tupac’s fixation on social issues. I’d recommend his song “I Can,” which ruthlessly samples Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and is an example of the empowerment that hip hop can provide, particularly to black children. Or, if you’re feeling particularly irritated by the current political climate, then listen to “Sly Fox,” Nas’ dis song aimed directly at Fox News. With seven platinum albums, you could expect an occasional dip in quality from Nas, but, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once boasted, "I can never write anything truly bad." I'd argue the same is true of Nas, and readers will latch onto his complex lyricism and experimental storytelling.
- Aesop Rock. Do you like mysterious imagery, hidden meanings, and wide-ranging allusions? Then, readers, do I have a rapper for you! Ever since one of his earliest works — "Shere Khan," which referenced L. Frank Baum, Giacometti, and Ian Fleming, among others — Aesop Rock has crafted a unique and irreplaceable spot in music. He's a legend of the New York underground hip-hop scene, partly because of his work with the well-respected Def Jux label, partly because of his willingness to do (and do well) whatever interests him — a workout album, a contribution to a book of poetry by Nikki Giovanni, a co-album with the folk singer Kimya Dawson. If I had to compare him to any writer, I'd consider him rap's version of William Faulkner…if Faulkner was from New York. And didn't write about the South. And rapped. Well, they both have beards, so that's a good starting point.
- Snow tha Product. A relative newcomer, Snow has gaining attention in hip-hop circles either because of her tendency to outshine whoever she shares the stage with, her openness in her music, or her fierce embrace of her Mexican heritage and outspoken politics. She frequently deviates between rapid-fire delivery without pause as she switches from English to Spanish, as seen in her standout verse on the Hamilton mixtape. Readers actively seeking to step outside their own boundaries, and who are engaged in today's fierce fights about immigration and voting rights (and all the other backward-moving crap we have to protest), would do well to check out Snow's work. She has the talent, intelligence, position, and fearlessness to become one of America's most important voices.
- Kendrick Lamar. In all likelihood, you've already heard of Kendrick Lamar, even though you may not have heard his songs. Let's change that by listening to one of his best, "How Much a Dollar Cost," which also happened to be President Obama's favorite song of 2015 (I know!). If this column is an introduction to rappers, that song is the introduction to Lamar — his study of poverty, race, and religion all in one song delivered by Kendrick's signature, singular emotion and dizzying lyricism. I remember reading a description of one of Shakespeare's early plays, and the writer describing Shakespeare at the time as having "youthful unrestrained language." I'd say the same is true of Kendrick Lamar — now only 30 years of age, and thrillingly taking us on his journey to discover what depths he's capable of.
- Atmosphere. The duo of Slug and Ant (rapper and DJ, respectively) has been one of the pre-eminent names in underground hip hop for over 20 years. No rapper — hell, no musician — has been more fiercely introspective than Slug. He started off his career as a fire-breathing battle rapper but refused to be confined by that label. Listen to Atmosphere's early breakout song, "Scapegoat," for an example of Slug's brilliant mix of the personal and political. Or "Between the Lines,” and see how he slips into the souls of an exhausted cop, a disturbed woman, and a depressed musician. Or "Pure Evil" for Atmosphere's haunting, Chekhovian take on police brutality. Or "The Abusing of the Rib," for a crushing look at addiction. I've written before that Atmosphere is one of the most underrated artistic voices of our time. I'll continue writing it.
That's a starting point. Got anyone I should add? Not to be argumentative but, if you leave a suggestion below, I'll tell you why you're wrong.
E.A. Aymar's latest novel is You're As Good As Dead. He's also involved in a collaboration with DJ Alkimist, a DC- and NY-based DJ, where his short stories are set to her music. To learn more about that project, visit www.eaalkimist.com.