My Top 5

“Top 5 MCs you ain’t gotta remind me, top 5 MCs: you gotta rewind me” – Kanye West

Every rap fan has been involved in a debate regarding their top 5 list of the greatest rappers of all time. It usually starts off with Person 1 asking Person 2 their list, Person 2 states their list then Person 1 just looks at Person 2 in disgust because their list is “wrong”. Person 1 than states their list and this is followed by both sides passionately defending their lists for however long they want. Rinse and repeat.

The following is my Top 5 list in no particular order because that would honestly take too long to decide. Fair warning, this list is based on my personal taste, so I am really leaning into my bias on this one.

André 3000

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André 3000 (Howls and Echoes

The hip hop storytelling extraordinaire and one half of legendary duo OutKast, is on this list because his lyrics paint a picture in my head every time I listen to him. But storytelling isn’t his only strength. His lyrical prowess allows him to bend words and make complex rhyme schemes which have resulted in some of the most iconic verses of all time, most notably his final verse on Aquemini. Despite semi-retiring from the rap game and never releasing a solo project like his Outkast partner Big Boi, every time he jumps on a track for a feature with another artist, people want to hear what 3 Stacks has to say. Plus the man gave us “Hey Ya!” even if it isn’t a rap song, it is still one of the best songs ever. That alone deserves a spot on this list.

Kanye West 

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Kanye West (Complex)

Take a look at Kanye West’s discography. Now compare it to any rap artist in the game and ask yourself this, “Which discography is more diverse?”. The answer is Kanye West every single time. As of writing this, Kanye has 8 studio albums to his name, and no two are alike. The producer/rapper has something for every type of hip hop fan. Songs like “Power” make you like the most confident person ever. But songs like “Heartless” make you wanna cry about that ex that did you dirty. There is no denying that the man has range. Not to mention the fact that he made “My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy” which in my opinion is one of the best albums ever. But that is a whole other list.

Drake

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Drake (Variety)

A lot of people are probably going to get mad at this pick but like I said, this is based on my personal preference. Drake is the greatest hit maker the rap game has ever seen.   According to Billboard, Drake holds the record for the most entries on the Billboard Hot 100 by a solo artist with over 160 entries. Being at the height of your career in the era of streaming and social media definitely helps him get this record though. In terms of range, Drake has made rap songs, full on pop music, dancehall and r&b all of which have garnered huge amount of success. Plus every time he features on somebody else’s song, that song is pretty much guaranteed to do well. Oh and he’s from Toronto so as a resident of the GTA, I feel it would be blasphemous to not put him on this list.

JAY Z

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JAY Z (Variety)

13 No. 1 albums. 21 Grammys. Iconic verses. Business mogul. Trailblazer. These are the things that come to mind when I think of JAY Z. JAY Z has been a trendsetter ever since he started his career. He released his debut album by starting his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records, after several other labels turned him down. He was the first rapper to fully embrace streaming when he made a deal with Samsung for the release of his 12th album “Magna Carta Holy Grail”. He has worked with pretty much every legend in hip hop, young and old. From Biggie Smallz, to Dr. Dre, to Kanye West, to Drake, and many more. But JAY Z is also a trailblazer outside of the world of hip hop. From his sports agency Roc Nation, to partial ownership of the Brooklyn Nets which he later sold, to his Rocawear clothing line and many other business ventures, JAY Z has paved the way for many of today’s artists and shown them that they can expand their reach and influence beyond music. To quote the man himself, he’s not a businessman. He’s a business, man.

Eminem

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Eminem (Studentville)

I know that I said that this list was in no particular order but if I had to pick one, I would pick Eminem as my favourite rapper of all time. I will admit that his most recent work has been underwhelming, but I would argue that it is more of a production issue rather than a decline of Eminem’s rapping ability.  Regardless, at his best, Eminem is easily one of the best to ever do it. Due to his amazing ability to write complex rhymes and use them to paint a picture, Eminem has not only gained the respect of fans but also his peers. Eminem is among the best selling artists of all time and he is the best selling rapper of all time. He was the first rapper to win an Oscar for Best Original Song for “Lose Yourself”, the song he wrote for the movie “8 Mile” which he also starred in. He had one of the greatest runs in hip hop history starting with his major label debut the Slim Shady LP, followed by Marshall Mathers Lp and The Eminem Show. All 3 of which went on to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album and the latter two went on to be certified Diamond (10x Platinum). At his best, if he jumps on a track to feature on your song, that’s Eminem’s song now. Lastly, battle rapping is a big part of being a rapper and Eminem hasn’t been involved in a rap beef he didn’t win. All of this and more is why Eminem is my favourite rapper of all time.

So who is on your Top 5 list?

Ashar Ahmed aka Thunderous Overlord

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Review: “My Dear Melancholy,” by The Weeknd

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Album Cover for “My Dear Melancholy” by The Weeknd (Genius)

Before I start this review, I’m going to say that…*inhales* TRILOGY IS NOT THE WEEKND’S BEST ALBUM. BEAUTY BEHIND THE MADNESS IS. There, I said it. Trilogy does have its moments such as High For This, The Morning and Wicked Games, songs that are still some of his best, but for the most part the album is underwhelming. The reason I’m saying all this is because 1. I want to give you, the reader an idea of what my musical taste is when it comes to the Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye), and  2. upon the release of My Dear Melancholy, many of The Weeknd’ s fans rejoiced in his return to his original dark and moody Trilogy sound after years of (successfully) making dark pop and synth pop on “Beauty Behind the Madness” and “Starboy”.

However, I am of the opinion that this album is somewhere in the middle of Trilogy and Starboy.  This album doesn’t hit you over the head with songs about how sad and damaged Abel is like Trilogy, nor does it have a large number of radio friendly pop music that will surely be overplayed on the radio like Starboy. This 6-track EP is right in the sweet spot with a little something for every Weeknd fan.

The opening track “Call Out My Name” is definitely the best track on here and has a Trilogy vibe to it, along with songs like “Try Me”, “I Was Never There” and “Privilege”. On the other hand, “Wasted Times” and “Hurt You” sound like they could have been on Starboy. So depending on which Weeknd you might like different songs.

I’m personally hoping that this album is the first of another trilogy, just like when Weeknd released three mixtapes when he first came out. But we’ll just have to wait and see.

Rating: 8/10

 

Punchlines: Why Rap is Funny

“Here’s a little bit of irony, a Ford Focus driver has ADD” – Bo Burnham

In the late 70s and early 80s, before gangster rap took hip hop by storm, rap music was much more light hearted. But even at the height of hip hop’s gangster rap era and even today, rappers have always had and continue to have, a sense of humour about themselves. Some more so than others but that goes without saying. Even Biggie Smallz, the leader of East Coast gangster rap, had a sense of humour about himself and was able to show that through his lyrics.

Rap lyrics are known to be clever, tongue in cheek, sometimes outright hilarious. It has gotten to the point where parody/comedic rap are now considered sub genres of rap itself.  Google any hit rap song from the past year and add the word “parody” at the end. Your likely to get a lot of results.

But even if you were to brush those off as simple parodies by random people (even though you shouldn’t cause they contribute to the original song’s popularity and are at times just as popular as the original song), entire careers have been formed around parody rap. Weird “Al” Yankovic, who is arguably the greatest musician satirist of all time has his fair share of rap parodies. Most notably “Amish Paradise” which is a parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.

Rappers like Lil’ Dicky, who recently released his hit single “Freaky Friday”, a song where he and Chris Brown switch bodies,  have made a name for themselves by not only being very good at rapping but also being funny while doing it.

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Cover Art for “Freaky Friday” by Lil Dicky feat. Chris Brown (Rap-Up)

Rap has even made it’s way into comedy clubs over the years, with comedians like Bo Burnham hilariously rapping about complex words, racism, himself and various other topics on stage.

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Bo Burnham (Tumblr)

The question than becomes how is rap so funny? I think the answer is in the very structure of joke-telling, both on stage as a stand up comedian and on the mic as rapper. In both scenarios, the method is identical. That method being the set-up and punchline method. Whether in a song or as a standup bit, when telling a joke there is always a leading line or phrase to start off the joke (aka the set up) and than there is the actual funny conclusion to the joke (aka the punchline). This method has even been used by rappers who aren’t even trying to be funny. It’s just how rap lyrics are often written.

I think this method is the reason that artists like Bo Burnham can perform “Words, Words, Words” in a comedy club and it works perfectly. At the same time, Weird Al can perform “Amish Paradise” in a sold out arena like a rapstar and it works just as well.

If there is anything that rivals my love for rap, it would have to be my love for comedy. So I am always appreciative of artists that are able to bring my two favourite things together and make me laugh and also just blow my mind with their lyricism.

What are some of your favourite parodies and/or comedic rappers?

Ashar Ahmed aka Thunderous Overlord

 

 

Hip Hop Saved Your Favourite Popstar

“We made you” – Eminem

Before I can elaborate on the title of this post, I would ask that you watch the video from 15:40 to the 18:10 mark (NSFW).

 

In this clip from the June 2017 interview on Everyday Struggle, the conversation is about the definition of the term “culture” in the context of hip hop, but Vince Staples brings up various big name pop stars like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift that have used rappers to either boost their popularity or even save themselves from irrelevancy. However it’s never the other way around. Like Vince said, Migos would never call Katy Perry if they were on the verge of being irrelevant,  which is what inspired this post.

After watching this clip, I started remembering other artists that were making a comeback/trying to boost their popularity by using a hip hop artist. I came up with MANY examples. A recent example would be Camilla Cabello and Young Thug collaborating on the former’s eventual first No. 1 hit “Havana”. On paper, you couldn’t find two more different artists if you tried. This was Cabello’s debut as a solo artist since she left her massively successful girl group, Fifth Harmony. So needless to say expectations were high. She collaborates with Thugger and the rest is history.

After coming up with many more examples of this exact situation, I started wondering, how long has this been taking place in the time that hip hop has become popular or even remotely successful? The answer is pretty much since the beginning.

Recently in the comments of a previous post, a reader brought up how in the mid 80s, the legendary band Aerosmith was saved from career ending irrelevance by collaborating with the biggest rap group at the time, Run-DMC, after two consecutive albums that failed to meet commercial expectations.

You might argue that collaborations like this are mutually beneficial, that both parties boost each other’s popularity. To that I say it’s only beneficial if  BOTH artists are currently equally relevant and BOTH artists actually benefit. Like when JAY Z and Justin Timberlake collaborated on each other’s albums with both walking away with a Top 5 Hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Although this was definitely more of a comeback for JT than it was for JAY Z.

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Justin Timberlake and JAY Z performing in New Orleans (OkayPlayer)

But take Bon Appetit by Katy Perry featuring rap group Migos for example. At the time of the release of this song, outside of her core fanbase, Katy Perry was not as successful as she had been in days past. Meanwhile the Migos were coming off an extremely successful release of their debut album “Culture” and they couldn’t be more popular.

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Cover art for Katy Perry’s “Bon Appetit” feat Migos

Clearly, other than the actual pay cheque, this collaboration would only really benefit one party, that being Katy Perry. I would argue that it may have even hurt the credibility of Migos in the eyes of their fans because they may look down on a group that started underground like Migos, making a song with a mainstream artist like Kay Perry. Meanwhile Perry gets a No. 1 hit. Followed by another single called “Swish Swish” featuring rapper Nicki Minaj. A song that made the Billboard Hot 100 and where Perry’s performance had people divided but Minaj’s verses were almost universally praised.

In the over 40 years that hip hop has been alive, rappers have launched and relaunched entire careers. Sometimes at a loss, at least in credibility. I am not against rappers branching out and collaborating with artists from different genres. I am against the rapper almost always getting the short end of the stick.

Ashar Ahmed aka Thunderous Overlord

 

 

The History of Hip Hop and High Tops

“I ain’t trying to stunt man, but the Yeezy jumped over the Jumpman” – Kanye West

Sneakers have a long history with hip hop. Sneaker culture has influenced hip hop and vice versa, for decades. There have been an immense number of lyrics and even entire songs talking about or referencing shoes over the decades of hip hop’s existence. It can be argued that in today’s day and age, rappers have more influence in the sneaker game than pro athletes.

The first major crossover of hip hop and sneaker culture was in 1985, when LL Cool J posed for the back cover of his debut album “Radio” in a pair of Air Force 1s, arguably the most iconic shoe in history. At the time, LL Cool J was one of the biggest rappers in the world so him wearing Air Force 1s made the shoes that much cooler.

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LL Cool J seen here rocking the Air Force 1s on the back cover his debut album “Radio” (Genius)

Then, in the mid 1980s came the next big thing. Legendary rap group Run-DMC became the first rap group to receive a million dollar shoe deal from Adidas after they released their classic song “My Adidas” and the music video for that song  had Run-DMC in Adidas jumpsuits and Adidas Superstar sneakers. One of the most iconic moments in hip hop history is when Run-DMC was performing at a sold out Madison Square Garden and in the middle of the performance, Run took off one of his sneakers and raised it over his head, which led to the entire crowd to do the same. Oh and Adidas went on to make $100 million dollars because of all of this. So there’s that.

The early 90s however were not so kind to the rappers of that time. Companies had stopped working with rappers/rap groups especially controversial ones like Public Enemy due to stories of young teens being killed over their sneakers and the perceived  association between sneaker culture, drug dealers and hip hop itself. This basically scared all the corporations away leading to a lack of collaborations during this era. Despite the lack of collaborations, the fandom for fresh kicks did not die down. In fact, it grew larger than ever before as companies continued to churn out more innovative shoes year after year.

The late 90s and early 00s saw things begin to change for the better for rap artists. Not only were major companies starting to work with rappers that had now become international superstars again, but hip hop legends like JAY Z and Sean “Diddy” Combs launched their own fashion lines, RocaWear and SeanJohn repsectively.

Despite all of this, Michael Jordan’s sneakers were still the most popular shoes in the world. But as Jordan approached the end of his career (for the third and final time), the NBA’s new superstar, Allen Iverson became the face of the sneaker world with him releasing his own shoe, the Answer 5s, with Reebok. The success of AI’s shoe led to JAY Z, 50 Cent and others getting their own shoe line with Reebok.

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Reebok Answer 5s by Allen Iverson(Nice Kicks)

From the mid 00s to now, Kanye West has worked with Louis Vuitton, Nike and launched his own successful line, Yeezy with Adidas. Pharell has had many collaborations with major shoe companies, the most recent one being with Adidas with his “Connected by Hue” line. Drake, Kendrick Lamar, DJ Khaled and many more have had successful shoe lines with different shoe companies. Companies have even brought back classic shoes as their “Retro” series.

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Drake x Jordan OVO 10s (Sneaker News)

The relationship between hip hop and sneaker culture has come a long way since the days of companies being too afraid to collaborate with hip hop artists. Artists have not only collaborated with big name companies, but also gone on to launch their own products. Sneaker culture and hip hop have and continue to influence each other. Whether it’s through lyrics or products themselves, there is no denying that sneaker culture is embedded into the DNA of hip hop.

What your favorite sneaker? What do you think about the place of sneaker culture in hip hop?

Ashar Ahmed aka Thunderous Overlord

 

 

 

Sampling: From Artistic Crime to Applauded Craft

“As you run through my jungle, all you hear is rumbles, Kanye West samples…” – Rick Ross

Sampling is defined as the taking part of any sound from a song or any recording and using it in another song or piece.

Today hip-hop is the genre most commonly known for sampling. But the art of sampling isn’t native to hip hop nor has sampling always been an accepted practice. Rock and roll artists like Elvis Presley and Chuck Barry in the 50s and 60s were sampling other songs when it was seen as a crime even though copyright laws were not as strict as they are today. They were artistic crimes and sampling was seen as theft and being unoriginal.

Thankfully, over the years there have been rules and regulations put in place to allow artists to be able to sample other music and still give credit and compensation to the artist that made the original song. Additionally, the public has become much more accepting of sampling which has allowed artists the free reign to experiment with different styles of music.

Artists like Kanye West and many producers have been able to build entire careers on their ability to turn a sample of a random song into a completely different hit record.

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Kanye West latest album “The Life of Pablo” had 20 tracks but 34  different samples (WhoSampled)

Some of the career defining songs of certain artists started of as a sample of a completely different song. For example, one of the biggest hits of JAY Z’s career is a song called “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” which features a high pitched sample of the song “Hard Knock Life” from the 1977 musical “Annie”.

Via YouTube

Via YouTube

Personally, I have no issue with sampling as long as the original artist is credited and properly compensated and that artist has given permission for their work to used in another song. I could see why others may think that sampling is unoriginal. Although I would argue that remixes are more unoriginal than sampling part of a song. In my opinion, by the time that new song is finished, the sample usually sounds nothing like the original, especially if that sample is from a different genre. This grants the new piece of music a certain level of originality.

Simply put, if it sounds good I don’t care how its made, sample or no sample.

What do you think about sampling? Is it unoriginal or it is it a new way for producers to make beats?

Ashar Ahmed aka Thunderous Overlord

What is a “good” album?

“Lyrically I’m UFC” – Kendrick Lamar

In the movie Whiplash, there is a scene where Andrew’s (played by Miles Teller) brother asks Andrew’s instructor, Terrence Fletcher (J.K Simmons) “Isn’t good music subjective?” and without skipping a beat Terrence replies “No.”. I tend to disagree with this sentiment. There are plenty of artists that are widely successful and have millions of fans around the world but whose music I’m not particularly a huge fan of. One glance on Twitter and you’ll see polar opposite opinions of the exact same artist.

So the question than becomes ‘how does one differentiate between a good album and a bad album?’

Personally, when listening to a new album, I have no concrete way of judging an album because my criteria tends to vary from artist to artist. For example, if I am listening to a new Kendrick Lamar album, I expect Lamar to tell me a story through his songs and his lyrically complex verses.

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Album cover for Kendrick Lamar’s latest album DAMN. (Genius)

But if I’m listening to a new Drake album, I expect some radio friendly pop rap, some love songs about an ex girlfriend, some hard hitting rap verses, etc.

If they fall short of this criteria, I might not like their latest work. However, that’s not to say that they won’t win me over if they try something new and execute their new idea properly. It’s just that it would have to be something really well done in order for me to forego my usual criteria for judging an album.

Some people prefer albums with only lyrically complex songs like those by the Wu-Tang Clan, while others prefer albums with songs with a hard hitting beat and limited lyrics like those by Lil Pump. I tend to lean towards lyrical songs and artists but I still do enjoy songs that just have a great beat and fun lyrics that aren’t socially conscious.

So how do you decide what a good song or album is?

Ashar Ahmed aka Thunderous Overlord