Last time, despite suggesting I wasn’t going to, I focused mainly on percussion beats. Although I can’t make an argument about which, between percussion and instrumental/sampling, makes for a better hip-hop track, I know that most of my favorite hip-hop songs fall into the latter category. That is the category I will focus on today.
Aesop Rock – Daylight. I first heard this track when I was beginning to get into hip-hop, and it was pivotal in redefining what hip-hop could sound like, to me. I find this is an experience that all new hip-hop fans must go through at some point, be it through Macklemore, Kanye West, or any other slightly unusual hip-hop artist¹. There are two things about Daylight that are immediately apparent to a new hip-hop listener: that’s a really good sample, and Aesop Rock is one of the most astounding lyricists in all of hip-hop. Amusingly, it is the latter that I’ve found to be Aesop Rock’s defining characteristic, because I have not enjoyed the production on most of his other tracks. For me, Daylight is his best song.
Aesop Rock is a “lyrics man,” but not quite the same way that somebody like Milo is a lyrics man. With rappers like Milo, you get a flurry of references and witticisms, but there isn’t a lot of what I would call subtlety. You either get the references, and the song makes sense (or as much sense as it’s going to), or you don’t get it. Aesop Rock is far more abstract. His metaphors are complicated, personal, and often require several listens (or reading through the lyrics) if you want to track down what he’s trying to say. Some people absolutely hate that about him. All I’m saying is that I enjoy Daylight.
Nas – Memory Lane. (or the Will Sessions reproduction with Elzhi) This was a great sample by Nas, and I personally can’t decide whether I prefer his version or Elzhi’s version, so I’ll talk about both. I view Nas as one of the archetypal East Coast rappers. For me, that means highly proficient technical rap ability and strong lyric writing². As such, it is not every day that you get a genuinely memorable beat out of him. This is one of his best. Elzhi is from Detroit, but he is also a very technical rapper when it comes to delivery, and his version of Memory Lane is one of his strongest tracks. It was recorded with Will Sessions, who are a live band that covers old school hip-hop songs. I can’t quite place why, but their version seems to hit harder than Nas’.
Freddie Gibbs – How We Do. First off, this song reuses a beat from ’93 Til Infinity, by Souls of Mischief, which is a fantastic song by a fantastic rap group. However, I’ve already talked quite a bit about it in this blog post, so I’m going to talk about Freddie Gibbs’ version today. There are no buts about it: Gibbs’ style of hip-hop is gangsta rap. It is a genre that I do not listen to very often, and he has some songs out there that would make one question his abilities as a rapper, but this track assuages those concerns for me. His sense of flow is very good, and the lyrics are pretty good too. And of course, the beat is excellent. One interesting thing I’ve noticed about Freddie Gibbs and his music is that his sound is actually uncannily similar to Tupac — and that isn’t something I just say arbitrarily. They sound quite alike in many tracks. He is possibly one of the most Tupac-esque gangsta rappers around at the moment.
Das Racist – You Can Sell Anything. Well-known producer Diplo wrote the beat for this track, and it is one of the most outstanding productions I have heard by him. Das Racist are an interesting treat as a group, because their songs combine technical proficiency in a lot of areas that you sometimes don’t get all at once: production, lyrics, delivery. Both Heems and Kool A.D. are excellent rappers and lyricists, and their beats are almost always well-chosen. They go for “funny” more than “deep,” which throws a lot of people, but I enjoy it.
Lupe Fiasco – Hello/Goodbye. I know this is one of my favorite beats, because to this day I can still remember where I heard it: a So You Think You Can Dance audition by hip-hop dancer Gev Manoukian, in 2008. An interesting factoid I picked up later on, when I got into trip-hop, is that the beat was produced by UNKLE, one of my favorite groups. As for Lupe Fiasco, I do not really listen to him. I find that the takes himself too seriously, and the tone of the tracks I have listened to is “preachy” and aggravating. However, I enjoy this track. It feels like even his rapping is just another instrument in a greater song, rather than the song being a backing track for his rapping. In hip-hop, that is rather atypical.
In retrospect, I’ve noticed that a lot of the artists or tracks I’ve mentioned in this article are ones that I’ve brought up in the past. This is to be expected, as hip-hop artists I’ve listed as favorites would undoubtedly also have written some of my favorite beats. If I think of anything interesting that I forgot about in this or the previous post, I will do another.
¹Unusual, of course, if your only exposure to hip-hop is through whatever style is most prevalent on the radio at that given time. People seem to get unduly offended when I suggest that there is anything unusual about an artist like Macklemore. I assume this is because they address me from the perspective of one who has listened to a lot of hip-hop, and they forget exactly what kind of material the average listener was exposed to, pre-Macklemore. As for Kanye West, that is a completely different story; it is, however, the case that many people got into hip-hop because of him.
²When I contrast with what I see as the canonical West Coast sound, where the lyrics always felt kind of stupid, but the beats were often much more creative