CentralSauce

For those who still regularly visit BoomBapBible, I appreciate all of your support thus far — this is a quick update to explain my hiatus.

CentralSauce reached out to me in July of this year, and I’ve had the pleasure of joining a community of creatives around the world that are fiercely passionate about everything hip-hop. We focus on in-depth, long-form journalism, and you can find some of my work below. Feel free to browse the site as well, we have an incredible and unique team that work tirelessly to provide original and engaging content!

https://centralsauce.com/author/shane

J. Cole – KOD Album Review

While fans were debating where 2014 Forest Hills Drive placed J. Cole in hip-hop’s pantheon, he quietly slipped back into the shadows and took a two year hiatus; the North Carolina native seemed more interested in growing out his dreads than actively competing with his counterparts for the esteemed number one spot. Towards the end of 2016, he dropped two tracks that reminded us how badly we needed another Cole project. The first verse of “False Prophets” addressed Kanye’s fall from grace into the sunken place — his ego-driven antics were becoming increasingly unhinged, and being sworn into the Kardashian clan only added insult to injury. The second verse reminded Wale that amidst the endless criticism that attacked his character and music, he’s far too talented to allow his anxiety to overshadow his artistry. The next track, “Everybody Dies,” called out the Lil’s and short bus rappers that dominate the airwaves of the microwave era. Cole was dropping names on both sides, and listeners were hopeful of the direction he seemed to be headed for his next release.

4 Your Eyez Only dropped in December 2016, and it was a brutal reminder of how fickle new age fans are. On one side, people were livid over what seemed to be a bait-and-switch from the two tracks he released, immediately trashing the album for being corny and boring. As for the Cole fans who enjoyed it, the sales speak for themselves. 4YEO largely explored themes of love, marriage, and fatherhood, and this translated to a drawn-out ballad featuring Cole crooning about folding laundry. I have no problem with slower, melodic hip-hop, but the music was a bit underwhelming (aside from a few standouts). It just didn’t feel like a hip-hop album. Nevertheless, you have to acknowledge that it was inspired by sentiments that come from a genuine place in his life, as Cole married his college sweetheart and had a newborn child leading up to the release. After his disappearing act, it’s safe to assume that he was well aware of the potential backlash following an album like this, but artists of his caliber usually don’t allow expectations to hamper their creative process. The final track, “4 Your Eyez Only,” was a 9-minute moment of redemption — a haunting portrait of the perpetual cycle of poverty and crime in the form of a father’s letter to his daughter. It was reminiscent of the Cole on Friday Night Lights and The Warm Up, proving that the MC was holding out.

Fast forward another two years, and Cole tweeted on a Monday afternoon that there would be a free show (first come, first serve) at the Gramercy Theatre in NYC. No phones, cameras, bags, press list, or guest list. By now, we were accustomed to this sort of mystique preceding the rollout of a major release. It turned out to be a surprise listening session for his next album, and a few snippets inevitably surfaced online — Cole sounded like he was experimenting with new flows and returning with a vengeance. He revealed that the title was KOD, an acronym with three meanings:

  1. Kids On Drugs
  2. King Overdosed
  3. Kill Our Demons

The cover had a single disclaimer at the top: “this album is in no way intended to glorify addiction.” Right below that is King Cole with his eyes rolled to the back of his head (presumably from an overdose), and he isn’t donning a typical pointed crown — at first glance, it’s inlaid with what may seem like green jewels, but upon further inspection, it almost looks like a golden strip of NyQuil pills. In a 2013 interview with New York Magazine, the rapper was asked what his favorite medication is: “NyQuil. Yo, sometimes I’ve contemplated just going to sleep with NyQuil, even if I’m not sick. The sleep is so good. It’s the new wave.” This could be a reach, but the green and red rings on his hand only heightened my suspicion. Beneath his regal, woolen robe are the ghosts of glossy-eyed adolescents indulged in various vices; it was a powerful image with dark implications, shrouded in a haze of vibrant colors.

j-cole-kod

The only other artist on the tracklist was kiLL edward, and people were intrigued that Cole abandoned his sacred ‘platinum with no features’ mantra. As expected, the internet did some Pulitzer-level investigating and found a single track on Spotify called “Tidal Wave (just a little reference)” by kiLL edward. The beat has a slow, somber bounce, and the singing is hazy and distorted. The inflections and cadence slowly become familiar, and you realize that these are actually Cole’s vocals, leading listeners to believe that this was supposed to be some sort of alter-ego. Although it was just a rough reference track, the sound had me extremely hopeful. Heaps of slander had been sent his way after the reception of 4 Your Eyez Only, and naturally, people began to question his capabilities. All eyes and ears were on Carolina’s savior (marijuana blazer). KOD was released on 4/20, possibly as a nod to the sacred smoker holiday, and it begins with a monotonous female voice explaining that “there are many ways to deal with the pain life brings. Choose wisely.” These last two words are repeated over and over, and it’s an ominous warning in what otherwise sounds like a jazzy infomercial. The voice fades into Cole bouncing over a trap beat: “This is what you call a flip, 10 keys from a quarter brick // Bentley from his momma’s whip, K.O.D., he hard as shit” — he immediately lashes out at his naysayers in the opening verse:

Wow, niggas been crampin’ my style
Blowin’ my high, they want a reply
The number one question is, “How?”
How does it feel now that you on?
How much you worth? How big is your home?
How come you won’t get a few features?
I think you should? How ’bout I don’t?
How ’bout you just get the fuck off my dick?
How ’bout you listen and never forget?
Only gon’ say this one time, then I’ll dip
Niggas ain’t worthy to be on my shit

Almost the entire first half of the album (KOD, Photograph, ATM, Motiv8) continues with Cole triple-timing over booming 808’s and snares about generic trap shit, and it’s meant to be a satire of the modern trends that dominate this new SoundCloud era of rap (down to the repetitive hooks and adlibs). This is probably the sound that turned off a lot of listeners who had certain expectations, but it’s important to consider their purpose in the context of the entire album — it’s almost like a Trojan horse that eases us into the introspective side.

In the middle of the back-to-back-to-back-to-back bangers, he slips in “The Cut Off” right in between “KOD” / “Photograph” and “ATM” / “Motiv8,” and the sequencing is important to note — it’s a glimpse of the darker aesthetic that the latter half of the album shifts to. The tempo slows down as we’re introduced to kiLL edward singing wistfully in a distorted baritone:

I know heaven is a mind state, I been a couple times
Stuck in my ways, so I keep on fallin’ down
Keep on fallin’ down, keep on fallin ‘down

He enunciates ‘down’ like ‘dyin’ in each repetition of that last phrase, and it abruptly transitions into the manic staccato of an addict’s fragmented train of thought: “Gimme drink, gimme smoke // Get me high, let me float // I’m a cloud, comin’ down // Put me down, gentle now // Gimme drink, gimme dope // Bottom line, I can’t cope // If I die, I don’t know.” Over some faint, but poignant piano keys, Cole wearily begins rapping about cutting off disloyal friends, and for me personally, this song was the first moment on the album that was a true return to form. The opening chorus of the next song, “ATM,” begins with a similar distortion and pensiveness as kiLL edward, but not necessarily in the same pitch:

Will I fall? Will I fly?
Heal my soul, fulfill my high
Cross my heart and hope to die
With my slice of devil’s pie

The brooding quickly dissipates as we hear the clicking of a money counter, and Cole repeating “count, count, count, count it…” — he’s right back to effortlessly triple-timing over trap drums about big bills, big wheels, quick thrills, and tip drills. The next song, “Motiv8,” has a similar bounce, but with a distinctly West Coast bassline. While he raps about double cups, private jets, and eating ceviche in the Dominican Republic, he sneaks in this bridge in almost a whisper:

Too many times I swallowed my pride
I’m crackin’ a smile, I’m dyin’ inside
My demons are close, I’m tryin’ to hide
I’m poppin’ a pill, I’m feelin’ alive

These brief flashes of vulnerability in the midst of all the posturing and bravado create a subtle tension that reflects the duality of addiction, and whether it’s to blue notes or prescription pills, it’s a reality that those afflicted are often afraid to acknowledge. The next song, “Kevin’s Heart,” is an incredible segue into the sobering side of KOD, and it hit a little too close to home when Cole said all he knows is how to fuck a good thing up:

She my number one, I don’t need nothing on the side
Said that I was done for good and don’t want no more lies
But my phone be blowing up, temptations on my line
I stare at the screen a while before I press decline
But she plants a seed and it still lingers in my mind
Told myself I’m strong enough to shake it and I’m trying
But I’m only human, I know loving you’s a crime
If I take this cookie now, one day I’ll do the time

Cole raps from a cheater’s perspective as a metaphor for a relationship with drugs, and the song title is clearly a play on the name of Kevin Hart. While people were wondering if the fun-sized comedian felt some type of way about this, he showed up in the music video. Someone on Twitter articulated this chess move beautifully, as Kevin Hart allowed Cole to “immortalize his infidelity” in the form of art.

“Once an Addict – Interlude” speaks on the experiences closest to Cole’s reality, as he revisits the agony of his mother’s debilitating alcoholism. kiLL edward returns below on “FRIENDS”:

I got thoughts, can’t control
Got me down, got me low
Rest my mind, rest my soul
When I blow, when I blow
Am I wrong, let them know
Feels so right to let things go
Don’t think twice, this is me
This is how I should be

Anybody who’s witnessed a close friend or loved one gradually fall deeper into addiction, it’s a horrible and helpless feeling to realize that you can’t do anything but watch as they slowly become a shell of their former self. Cole understands that kind of pain, and you can hear it in the urgency of his voice — I have no trouble believing that those names scratched out in the beginning of his verse are his actual friends.

But fuck that, now I’m older, I love you ’cause you my friend
Without the drugs, I want you be comfortable in your skin
I know you, so I know you still keep a lot of shit in
You running from yourself and you buying product again
I know you say it helps and no I’m not trying to offend
But I know depression and drug addiction don’t blend
Reality distorts and then you get lost in the wind
And I done seen the combo take niggas off the deep end
One thing about your demons, they bound to catch up one day
I’d rather see you stand up and face them than run away

On “Window Pain – Outro,” Cole vents about outgrowing friends without ambition, condemns the trend of gangbanging for clout, and reflects on his current position in the rap game with both guilt and gratitude. He closes the album properly with “1985 – Intro to the The Fall Off” — no intro, bridge, or chorus — just bars. As a veteran with more than a decade of experience on the frontline, Cole attempts to give game to the legion of new wave mumble rappers, delivering his verse like a disappointed father having a solemn sit-down with his knuckle-headed teenage son. He was once their age, a victim of the same materialistic vices and short-sightedness, and acknowledges the futility of lecturing someone who isn’t even old enough to drive. He proceeds to do it anyway, and unfortunately, it probably comes off as backhanded and pretentious to the ones who actually need to hear it. It ends with a stern warning:

Just remember what I told you when your shit flop
In five years you gon’ be on Love & Hip-Hop

The Internet has made it a trend to hate on J. Cole, and while gauging online reactions and reviews to KOD over the past week, it seemed to pick up right where it left off on 4YEO. People weren’t even giving the album a single day before dismissing it as boring and self-righteous, all the while rapping to a Lil Pump or 6ix 9ine song in the same breath. I’m not trying to knock either of these artists because there’s a lane for all kinds of hip-hop, but if that’s what you gravitate towards, don’t speak on music with a positive message and actual substance without giving it a fair chance. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that anyone who has a problem with this album has a problem with Cole as a rapper, and by proxy, most of his previous catalog as well. You don’t have to agree with his message or like his music, but this was where the Cole haters really lost me. While there is some validity in the criticism of Cole preaching to the choir with surface level points and corny punchlines, it doesn’t take away at all from the fact that KOD is a powerful reminder of why his artistry is in the same tier as Kendrick Lamar and Drake. It’s easily his most ambitious body of work, as he created an entire album to reach and speak to this lost generation. When the hip-hop community mourned the passing of young artists like A$AP Yams, Lil Peep, and Fredo Santana, it was right back to rapping about Xanax and double cups after a few weeks of Twitter and Instagram tributes. Without passing judgment on anybody for their vices, it becomes a problem when it’s done for the sake of following trends and seeking attention (especially when your influence caters to a younger demographic). KOD is a much-needed and long overdue PSA about the fuckery that runs rampant amongst the SoundCloud rappers and their constituents.

kiLL edward was an intriguing addition that lends to the darker aesthetic of this new experimental sound, and you can almost picture his alter-ego stumbling through the day in a drug-induced fog, lying in bed and fighting to suppress the inevitable cacophony of those thoughts lingering in the back of his head. As the high slowly wears off and the murmurs grow louder, that fleeting wave of clarity finally washes over him, rippling with undercurrents of doubt and depression that keep him up at night — “The Cut Off” and “FRIENDS” have slower, hazy melodies to reflect the melancholy brooding of kiLL edward.

Cole seamlessly slips in and out of three different perspectives throughout the album: the bass-heavy braggadocio of King Overdosed, the vulnerability of Kids on Drugs, and the foresight of Kill Our Demons. The female voice on the intro of “Once an Addict – Interlude” states that pain is just a lack of understanding, and while Cole may sometimes come off as holier-than-thou, this is his attempt at understanding. You have to appreciate a wholehearted and genuine effort to address such a nuanced and polarizing issue, even if it does fall flat in some places (suggesting to meditate on “FRIENDS”). From the outside looking in, Cole practices what he preaches: he champions musical integrity, refrains from substance abuse, doesn’t rely on gimmicks or seek unnecessary attention, and stays humble and grounded — the longevity of his career is a reflection of that. The rapping, singing, and songwriting on KOD all pointed to a newfound focus in approaching his craft, and he completed this album in two weeks, producing every track except one. There aren’t any fillers, I didn’t skip a single track, and even found myself bouncing to the trap shit. It got better and better with each listen, and just as a fan of quality hip-hop, I was thankful. I also can’t help but think he was inspired by Kendrick’s DAMN.  

  • The cryptic intros, bridges, and vocal distortions that act as context clues.
  • The little girl at the end of “Window Pain – Outro” attempting to reconcile God’s existence with all the evil in the world reminded me of cousin Carl’s voicemails to Kendrick.
  • Most of the themes on this album translate to the cardinal sins: the pride of glorifying ignorant trap shit, the lust of superficial, digital love and infidelity, the greed of material obsession, and the gluttony of indulgence.

That final 6-track run is virtually flawless, and Cole reminds us with passion and conviction that his ability to resonate with listeners on an intimate level is second-to-none. While the entire project may not be as cohesive and defining as 2014 Forest Hills Drive, or as great top to bottom as Friday Night Lights, it had some of Cole’s best work to date and was undoubtedly a step in the right direction. The next one has to be a classic. Anybody offended by his intent should try to understand that the crux of KOD is rooted in concern, not contempt. There are many ways to deal with the pain life brings.

Choose wisely.

Will The Real Slim Shady Please Stand Up?

I was 10 years old when I first bought The Eminem Show in 2002. I had been shamelessly singing along to the tweeny pop anthems of NSYNC and Backstreet Boys with the rest of my wide-eyed classmates, but this was the album that would introduce me to the art of rhythm and poetry. After endless rotations in my faithful Walkman, “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” was the first song I memorized from front to back — the genesis of a mental repository overflowing at the brim with rap lyrics. That same year, I was en route to the California Science Center in an ancient yellow school bus with rusted wheels that would creak and groan at every turn, and my childhood crush was sitting in the row adjacent to me. Instead of aimlessly picking at the cracked leather of the decrepit seats, I threw on my headphones and skipped straight to track 4, rapping every word just loud enough so she could hear me — in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the ideal song to woo a potential suitor. I’m sure she was still impressed.

Over the course of three frigid October nights in St. Joseph, Missouri, 17-year old Debbie Mathers nearly died during the 73-hour birth of her son, Marshall Bruce Mathers III. He spent most of his childhood shuttling from place to place with his single mother — whom a social worker described as having a “very suspicious, almost paranoid personality” — staying in public housing projects or with relatives for no longer than a year or two at a time. He occasionally wrote letters to his estranged father in California, but they always came back marked ‘Return to Sender’. When he turned 14, Marshall finally settled down on the East side of Detroit in a predominantly black, lower-class neighborhood, but he had already developed an overwhelming sense of alienation from moving around so frequently. His skin color, small frame and aloof demeanor rendered him a constant target for bullying, and one particular incident left him with a cerebral hemorrhage. D’Angelo Bailey, who was the inspiration behind “Brain Damage” on The Slim Shady LP, knocked Marshall unconscious at school; he suffered an intermittent loss of vision and hearing after bleeding out of his ear. His mother sued Roseville Elementary School in 1982, but the case was dismissed a year later.

His uncle Ronnie (who he mentions on “Stan” and “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”) was only two months older than him, and they were an inseparable pair during his early years. Marshall was 11 years old when Ronnie put him onto his first rap song, “Reckless” by Ice T, and they spent most of their time together recording tapes. A little less than a decade later, Ronnie committed suicide with a shotgun over the heartbreak of an unrequited love, and Marshall was so distraught that he didn’t attend the funeral, refused to speak for weeks, and stopped writing for an entire year. Tragically, history would repeat itself — his other uncle, Todd Nelson, also committed suicide and shot himself on Marshall’s birthday in 2004. He dropped out of Lincoln High School after failing his freshman year for the third time, but on the weekdays, he snuck into neighboring Osborne High School with Proof to hustle unsuspecting students for money (the dynamic duo developed a rap version of White Men Can’t Jump). On the weekends, he would head to the Hip-Hop Shop on West 7 Mile to participate in open-mic contests hosted by Proof. His opponents at both battlegrounds would learn to grow wary of the fair-skinned MC.

As soon as I grabbed the mic, I’d get booed. Once motherfuckers heard me rhyme, though, they’d shut up.

In 1996, Eminem recorded his first independently-released album, Infinite, at a small studio owned by the Bass Brothers on 8 Mile Road. Jeff and Mark Bass were instrumental in Eminem’s early work, and they would be heavily involved in the production for his first three albums: The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show. Unfortunately, Infinite only sold around 70 copies and didn’t get much love from the local radio stations; he was written off as an triple-timing amateur who sounded like Nas and AZ. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to hear the rapper’s early influences when he was still finding his voice.

After that record, every rhyme I wrote got angrier and angrier. A lot of it was because of the feedback I got. Motherfuckers was like, ‘You’re a white boy, what the fuck are you rapping for? Why don’t you go into rock & roll?’ All that type of shit started pissing me off.

Eminem came up with the concept of an alter-ego while sitting on the toilet, and this bowel-induced epiphany led to his second project, The Slim Shady EP, which he recorded with the Bass Brothers in the spring of 1997. He was living with his girlfriend Kim and a newborn Hailie in a crime-infested neighborhood at the time — even a stray bullet through the kitchen window wasn’t enough to pack up and leave — but after a burglar cleaned out their entire place and only spared the couches and beds, they were forced to move into the attic of Kim’s parents’ house. They couldn’t even stand upright in the suffocating crawl space, and they had a single mattress on the floor. Eminem was flipping burgers and washing dishes at a small family restaurant called Gilbert’s Lodge for $5.50/hour, clocking 60-hour weeks to make ends meet after Hailie was born, and his old manager fondly recalls him as the hard-working kid who rapped all of the orders in the back of the kitchen. He ended up taking a separate lease out with some friends, and after running through the competition at local showcases, he took his talents across the country to participate in the annual Rap Olympics in Los Angeles. The night before his trip, he came home to an eviction notice hanging on his door, forcing him to break into his own place and sleep on the floor with no heat, water or electricity. Eminem ended up losing in the finals, but an Interscope employee in the crowd was impressed by his performance and asked for a CD. The Slim Shady EP reached the hands of co-founder Jimmy Iovine, who immediately called Dr. Dre after listening to it.

In my entire career in the music industry, I have never found anything from a demo tape or a CD like this. When Jimmy played this, I said, ‘Find him. Now.’

Their initial meeting was a surreal moment seared into both of their memories. Eminem walked straight into the house of one of his idols, and Dr. Dre saw his new flagship artist adorned in a bright-yellow sweatsuit from head to toe. The very first beat Dre played for him was “My Name Is”, and almost on cue, Eminem started rapping within just a few seconds: “Hi! my name is… my name is…” — the rest was history. The original sample was written by a gay activist who had moved to South Africa (he forced Eminem to change a line mocking homosexuals), and he allowed them to use it in exchange for all of the publishing on the song. The rapper didn’t make a dime from his breakout single, but it was a small price to pay. They knew it was a surefire hit. When MTV first played the music video for “My Name Is”, Eminem was still broke and sleeping on his manager’s couch in Jersey City, but things were about to change very quickly.

“My Name Is”

 

Eminem’s major-label debut was released on February 23, 1999 under Interscope and Aftermath, and the world was introduced to his alter-ego. The Slim Shady LP was a polarizing body of work: a white boy from Detroit with a penchant for horrorcore raps and disturbingly graphic depictions of hyper-violence, but it was his sprawling vernacular, multi-syllabic rhyme schemes and cartoonish flow that had hip-hop aficionados intrigued. Dre’s new protege seemed to be a diamond in the rough, and we would later learn that glimmer of potential went far beyond his profanity-laced antics or even technical abilities. The Slim Shady LP went on to sell 5 million copies and got Eminem his first Grammy, but critics were quick to denounce an album filled with murder, misogyny and homophobia. Society was deathly afraid of the influence he would have on millions of young and impressionable fans throughout the world, and understandably so. Regardless, it was naive to assume that this was simply a case of a degenerate rapper with a sadistic sense of humor. Personally, I always saw this album as the result of a man at his wit’s end, singularly driven by a mounting desperation that finally pushed him over the edge and into the abyss. It was as if all of his life’s failures and grievances, both personal and professional, had culminated into some sort of cathartic tour-de-force that birthed the alter-ego we love to hate: Slim Shady. In simpler terms, this was his way of exacting revenge on the world that had done so much wrong to him. With absolutely no regard for mainstream appeal or political correctness, he decided to dive headfirst into the shark-infested waters of the music industry — if he drowned, he was hellbent on doing it on his own terms. Slim Shady rapped like the devil incarnate, played the race card to his advantage, and embraced his glaring flaws with self-deprecating humor and wit. He also recorded a majority of this album under the influence of ecstasy, and Dr. Dre confirmed this below.

We get in there, get bugged out, stay in the studio for fuckin’ two days. Then you’re dead for three days. Then you wake up, pop the tape in, like, ‘Let me see what I’ve done.’

With the exception of “If I Had”, “Rock Bottom” is the closest glimpse we get into Marshall Mathers on The Slim Shady LP. While the rest of the album centers on the violent escapades of his alter-ego, this song errs on the side of a more easily relatable sentiment, exposing the bare bones behind Slim Shady after the facades and bravado are stripped away. He had survived an unsuccessful suicide attempt after the disappointment of Infinite, and was fired from Gilbert’s Lodge just five days before Hailie’s first birthday (which was also Christmas). With only $40 in his pocket, Eminem wrote “Rock Bottom” that same night.

“Rock Bottom”

I feel like I’m walking a tight rope without a circus net

Popping Percocet, I’m a nervous wreck

I deserve respect but I work a sweat for this worthless check

I’m about to burst this Tec at somebody to reverse this debt

Minimum wage got my adrenaline caged

Full of venom and rage, especially when I’m engaged

And my daughter’s down to her last diaper, it’s got my ass hyper

I pray that God answers, maybe I’ll ask nicer

My life is full of empty promises and broken dreams

I’m hoping things look up, but there ain’t no job openings

I feel discouraged, hungry and malnourished

Living in this house with no furnace, unfurnished

And I’m sick of working dead-end jobs with lame pay

And I’m sick of being hired and fired the same day

Eminem dropped The Marshall Mathers LP in the summer of 2000, and it was a captivating look into his introspective side. After being thrust into notoriety at a rocket-like trajectory, his newfound celebrity allowed him to channel a different kind of anger and avoid the cursed sophomore slump. His first single, “The Real Slim Shady”, was merely an extension of the last album, as he viciously attacked pop stars and celebrities with a barrage of insults and rapid-fire rhymes, but the next two singles would encapsulate Eminem’s brilliance in a way that Slim Shady never could. “The Way I Am” was the first song Eminem produced on his own, and it was a response to Interscope asking him to write another pop song. It begins with the toll of a bell — an ominous sound that acts as an anchor and continues to linger in the backdrop — and the harrowing keys, rumbling bassline and frenetic snares set a somber, cinematic soundscape that directly opposes the bombastic bounce of “The Real Slim Shady”. This was the antithesis of a radio-friendly single, and his slightly off-pocket flow and aggressive delivery create a palpable tension as he speaks on the pressure of recreating the success of his explosive debut, holier-than-thou critics galloping around on their high horses, and overzealous fans invading his privacy.

“The Way I Am”

 

His final single “Stan” is a disturbing narrative that’s heralded as one of the greatest displays of storytelling in hip-hop history. It begins with some soothing vocals from Dido, and the first three verses are written from the perspective of an obsessed fan; you could practically feel the ink bleeding from Stan’s pen as he wrote those letters, and you were right there on the bridge as he drove his car into a lake with his pregnant girlfriend tied up in the trunk. It’s an incredible feat when you can tap into a mentality that’s so far removed from your own, and he did so with excruciating detail and emotion. Eminem gave an absolute clinic on one of the highest forms of artistry, silencing his critics and reminding young fans to take Slim Shady’s words with a grain of salt. He performed this song at the Grammys with a surprise guest in 2001, and it was a calculated response to the people that painted him as a bigot. Elton John, an openly gay artist who had no issues flaunting his flamboyance, sang the chorus in a pink-and-yellow polka dot suit with a cross dangling from his right ear, and he embraced Eminem at the end of their legendary performance — they maintain an extremely close relationship to this day. Eminem’s breath control while performing live is second-to-none, and the crescendo at 3:49 still gives me goosebumps. The “shut up, bitch” was the only slip-up in an otherwise censored version for a nationally televised performance, but there’s no room to nitpick in such a passionate and visceral moment. In 2017, the word Stan was added to the Oxford English Dictionary as “an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity”.

I loved you Slim, we coulda been together, think about it

You ruined it now, I hope you can’t sleep and you dream about it

And when you dream, I hope you can’t sleep and you scream about it

I hope your conscience eats at you and you can’t breathe without me

The Marshall Mathers LP sold almost 2 million copies in just the first week of its release and became the fastest-selling solo album in music history across all genres. Though it was more personal than its predecessor, Eminem continued to weave reality and fiction together in a whirlwind of rhymes, seamlessly slipping in and out of his Slim Shady persona while delving deeper into autobiographical elements such as his troubled childhood, struggle to cope with the repercussions of his superstardom, and unstable relationships with his mother and wife. Later that year, Kim Mathers attempted suicide by slashing her wrists after seeing Eminem perform “Kim” at a Detroit concert, a song that he promised her not to do live. When he recorded “97 Bonnie and Clyde” on The Slim Shady LP, a grisly tale about a trip to the beach with Kim’s corpse in the trunk and Hailie in the backseat, he lied to Kim and said that he was taking their daughter to Chuck E. Cheese. Instead, he went straight to the studio to record Hailie’s part. “Kim” was the first song he wrote for The Marshall Mathers LP, and it was meant to be a prequel to “97 Bonnie and Clyde”. Eminem was inspired to create his own twisted version of a love song after watching a romantic movie, and it was during a turbulent period of their relationship. Kim was using Hailie as leverage during an argument and threatened to file a restraining order against him, so he vented his frustrations in his most controversial song to date. “Kim” starts with a bloodcurdling back-and-forth between the couple and quickly escalates into a violent fantasy of revenge, and he did the vocals in one take while rolling on ecstasy. If you ever wondered what it sounds like when you mix a flood of serotonin, adrenaline and rage — open a new tab and look up the song. I refuse to download it.

I asked her to tell me what she thought of it. I remember my dumbass saying ‘I know this is a fucked up song, but it shows how much I care about you. To even think about you this much. To even put you in a song like this.’

They first met in 1987 when a 15-year old Eminem was rapping LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” while standing shirtless on top of a table. The dysfunctional pair fell madly in and out of love for the next two decades: they married in 1999, divorced in 2001, remarried in January 2006 and redivorced in April of that same year. Eminem also went through a slew of legal troubles during his first few years of fame, and he remains the only person — dead or alive — to be sued by both his mother and wife. In 1999, Debbie Mathers filed a $10 million lawsuit for slander after the release of The Slim Shady LP, and she received $1,600 in damages. In September of 2000, Kim Mathers filed a $10 million lawsuit for emotional distress over the song “Kim” and attempted to gain full custody of Hailie; she dropped the case after the two reconciled. Earlier that same year, Eminem got into an altercation with an associate of the Insane Clown Posse, the Juggalo rap duo from Detroit he was beefing with. The very next day, Eminem pistol-whipped a man for kissing Kim outside of a nightclub. The rapper caught three felonies that weekend and was potentially facing significant jail time, but he ended up receiving probation after pleading guilty to carrying a concealed weapon. He also agreed to take anger management counseling for the assault, which inspired his infamous Anger Management tour. A year later, a 32-year old D’Angelo Bailey filed a $1 million lawsuit for invasion of privacy over the song “Brain Damage”, but Judge Deborah Servitto dismissed the case using a few rhymes in her ruling as a nod to the rap star. Eminem’s personal matters were often subjected to extensive public scrutiny throughout his career, and his life began to feel more like a show or a movie — his next album showed us that he understood his role.

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He dropped The Eminem Show in the summer of 2002 and effectively cemented himself as the greatest rapper alive. He left Slim Shady on the back burner for this one, proving to naysayers that shock value was never a crutch to maximize publicity and secure sales. This was Eminem at his most lucid and mature, and it was complemented by a distinctly defiant sound — the majority of it was self-produced with heavy influences in rock and roll. The first single, “Without Me”, had the obligatory Slim Shady bounce, and the rest of the album shifts to a sobering focus on the pitfalls and confines of fame. He had reached unimaginable heights over the past few years, but as he raps on “Say Goodbye Hollywood” — “I’m trapped, if I could go back, I never would have rapped // I sold my soul to the devil, I’ll never get it back”.

  • “White America” is a powerful opening track, and the blue-eyed MC acknowledges the correlation between his genetics and success: “Let’s do the math — if I was black, I would have sold half”.
  • His hatred for his mother was usually addressed with quick barbs made in jest: “My fuckin’ bitch mom’s suing for $10 million // she must want a dollar for every pill I’ve been stealin” or “99 percent of my life I was lied to // I just found out my mom does more dope than I do”. We always knew it went far past that thin veil of humor and sarcasm, and “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” finally provides a fleshed-out, but troubling look into their relationship. While the chorus features an apology, the last verse directly attacks her failure as a mother in a vengeful tirade.
  • “Hailie’s Song” is an emotional ode to his daughter, and he recorded it after winning joint custody of Hailie in a nasty and highly-publicized court case. The song was supposed to be locked away until Hailie’s 18th birthday, but Dr. Dre managed to convince him otherwise — Dre had played it for two female friends, and they were both bawling by the end. The only person in the world that Eminem would attempt to hit these non-existent high notes for.
  • He wrote “Superman” after his divorce with Kim, and it has a slow and infectious Southern bounce. There’s a certain drawl in his cadence that reels you in, and you find yourself rapping along without realizing or caring how misogynistic the song is: “But I do know one thing though // bitches, they come, they go // Saturday through Sunday, Monday // Monday through Sunday, yo // maybe I’ll love you one day, maybe we’ll someday grow // ’til then, just sit your drunk ass on that fuckin’ runway, hoe”.
  • “Till I Collapse” is on the short list of rap songs that can convince you to run through a wall. One of the essential must-haves on your workout playlist.

“Sing for the Moment” was the first song that he wrote for this album, and it’s one of my personal favorites of all time. Over a sample of Aerosmith’s “Dream On”, he addresses the influence of his music on the youth as well as his trouble with the law (he was literally signing autographs for the cops while getting booked at the precinct). This last verse is scripture to me.

“Sing for the Moment”

That’s why we sing for these kids who don’t have a thing

Except for a dream and a fuckin’ rap magazine

Who post pin-up pictures on their walls all day long

Idolize their favorite rappers and know all their songs

Or for anyone who’s ever been through shit in their lives

So they sit and they cry at night, wishin’ they’d die

‘Til they throw on a rap record, and they sit and they vibe

We’re nothin’ to you, but we’re the fuckin’ shit in their eyes

That’s why we seize the moment, try to freeze it and own it

Squeeze it and hold it, cause we consider these minutes golden

And maybe they’ll admit it when we’re gone

Just let our spirits live on, through our lyrics that you hear in our songs

And that’s exactly what he was for me. I can still picture countless nights in my Koreatown apartment — whenever my parents were arguing in the living room, the shouting always pierced the thin walls of my room, and I would drown it out by blasting The Eminem Show on my Walkman. After buying that album, I learned that rap takes me to a place of peace and clarity, and 16 years later — nothing has changed. Regardless of what you think about the foul-mouthed MC, Eminem makes the kind of music that fans internalize and wear like a suit of armor. That’s why I have to laugh when I see gung-ho teachers and overprotective parents with fanny packs, sun visors and picket signs protesting his music at PTA meetings, or senior citizens in tailored suits reading Eminem lyrics out loud at congressional hearings. They’ll never understand that kids like me found solace in the same things that they loved to condemn and demonize. For every song like “Kill You” and “Kim”, he had a “When I’m Gone” and “Mockingbird”.

You could hear his voice shaking in the intro, and this is the kind of music that can make a grown man cry. There’s nothing quite like a father’s love for his daughter.

I seen an interview with Tupac once — he was a huge influence on my life — where he said if you see a rose growing in concrete, you’ll stop and look at it. It could be the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen, and instead of wondering how this rose grows from concrete, all you want to talk about is how the stem leans to the side and the petals are dried up. The fact that the rose is growing from concrete isn’t enough to amaze you, you want to pick out all of the things that are wrong with it.

Proof came up with the idea to form a rap group called the Dirty Dozen, formally known as D12, and what was originally supposed to be twelve rappers turned into six. They spent their early days sleeping on couches and recording in basements, and formed a group pact on nothing but their word and a firm handshake — whoever made it out first would come back for the rest of them. Eminem delivered on that promise and signed D12 to Shady Records in 2001, and their debut album Devil’s Night went double-platinum. In 2002, 50 Cent was getting phone calls in his hospital bed from record labels that wanted to revoke their contracts; they were afraid to do business with a man who was just shot nine times. That same year, Eminem happened to hear 50 Cent’s mixtape, Guess Who’s Back, and immediately offered to fly him out to Los Angeles after his recovery. The Queens rapper inked a deal with Shady Records and Aftermath, and since this was Eminem’s first solo artist, he assured Dr. Dre that he would take full responsibility if things went south. 50 Cent’s debut album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was released in early 2003, and sold 12 million records worldwide by the end of that first year. The three of them had created the perfect storm. Some people were still ambivalent about crowning a white boy as king in a historically black-dominated culture, but he dropped a bevy of legendary guest verses that made it increasingly difficult to omit his name in the GOAT conversation.

  • He was the only feature on Jay-Z’s sixth album, The Blueprint, and his performance on “Renegade” (which he produced) has become a part of hip-hop folklore. I wrote an entire editorial dedicated to this song a few months ago, and you can find it in the archives.
  • If you consider yourself a hip-hop head, you should be able to rap at least a few lines from either of his verses on “Forgot About Dre” or “What’s The Difference”.
  • “Patiently Waiting” (which he also produced) explains exactly why 50 Cent was about to run the rap game, and Eminem’s feature is widely regarded as one of his best of all time: “They think they’re crazy, but they ain’t crazy // let’s face it, shit, basically // they just playin’ sick, they ain’t shit // they ain’t sayin’ shit, spray ’em 50”. It reads like an elementary tongue twister, but it’s one of the finest displays of technicality in hip-hop, period.
  • There’s not much to say about “Don’t Approach Me” — just listen to the last verse.

8 Mile was released in November of 2002, and it seemed to be just another checkpoint in his unprecedented run. The script was based heavily on Eminem’s early days in Detroit, and it chronicles Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith’s road to redemption against Papa Doc and The Free World. The gritty biopic generated $51 million in its opening weekend. Eminem wrote “Lose Yourself” in between shooting scenes and recorded all three verses in one take (while on set), and he became the first rapper to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The soundtrack sold around 4 million copies, and the movie went on to gross almost $250 million worldwide. However, the success came at a cost — Eminem worked nearly 16 hours a day and developed a dependency on sleeping pills to combat his insomnia.

“Lose Yourself”

 

Original notes for “Lose Yourself” — Eminem wrote his rhymes like this as a safeguard. If he ever lost his notebook, a stranger wouldn’t be able to decipher it.

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In 2005, Eminem checked into rehab to overcome his sleeping pill addiction, but his efforts were in vain. Two years later, he was hospitalized for an overdose on methadone — the doctors said that he had the equivalent of four bags of heroin in his system and was about two hours from dying. In between these stints, Eminem suffered a crippling loss that I sincerely believe ruined his music, but ended up saving his life. Proof was shot and killed at a nightclub following an alcohol-fueled dispute over a game of billiards, and he lost his closest friend and confidante that night in Detroit. In a eerie twist of fate, the music video for “Like Toy Soldiers” predicted Proof’s death in 2004, as it featured a graphic scene with the late rapper bleeding out on the operating table from a gunshot wound. They lived on the same block growing up, rapped together at lunch tables and open mics, and you’d be extremely hard-pressed to find an Eminem concert without Proof right by his side in a suede sweatsuit and a bucket hat, hyping up and controlling the crowd with unrivaled charisma. At one point, Eminem had hit a dead-end and quit rapping for about half of a year, but Proof introduced him to Paul Rosenberg, who remains his manager to this day. The outspoken MC went quiet for a few years after Proof’s death, but he seemed to return with a new lease on life.

He was a brilliant cat who saw things in me that I didn’t see yet, and I guess I was smart enough to understand that he was the dude who could somehow save my life. I had been drowning for so long. Proof was like a hip-hop raft and a true brother from another mother. He had this ability to not only nurture my talent, but to see that diamond in the rough when a million people could be looking at the same thing and just not see it.

R.I.P. DeShaun “Proof” Holton / October 2, 1973 – April 11, 2006

His newfound sobriety resulted in a number of things: looking healthier than he’s ever been, a nasally rapping voice, an insufferable robotic go-go-gadget flow, increasingly experimental production, and a more pop-friendly sound. I personally wasn’t a fan of any of the albums following Relapse in 2009, and I still don’t plan on listening to Revival. But even if he regressed musically, Eminem has his best foot forward. Though they remained estranged, he finally apologized to his mother on “Headlights”, a heartbreaking song on The Marshall Mathers LP 2 released in 2013. Eminem currently has custody of Alaina (the daughter of Kim’s twin sister), Whitney (Kim’s daughter from another relationship) and his half-brother Nate (they grew up together until Social Services sent him to a foster home). Hailie Jade Mathers graduated Summa Cum Laude (3.9 GPA or higher) from Chippewa Valley High School in Michigan and was crowned Homecoming Queen; during the ceremony, Eminem didn’t want to take away from her moment and watched proudly from inside of the school. There’s still an unsettling emptiness in his gaze, but that void is no longer filled with purple pills and homicidal raps. Marshall Mathers went through hell and back throughout his life, but he finally seemed to find order amidst the chaos. When all is said and done, Eminem’s legacy will be carved in stone on hip-hop’s Mt. Rushmore. The only artist in history with 2 diamond certified albums. 10 number one albums (8 consecutive). 15 Grammys. 155 million records sold globally. Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?

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Mos Def x Jim Jones x The Black Keys

Rock and rap culture are rooted in the anti-establishment sentiment, so genre-crossovers like Jay-Z and Linkin Park or MF Doom and Danger Mouse have always worked, both thematically and sonically. Most people don’t know that Mos Def can sing, Jim Jones is the last person I would call for a collaboration like this, and I’ve never heard a song by The Black Keys — but I thoroughly enjoyed this. The best of both worlds.

8 PM in Los Angeles

Optimal listenability after the sun goes down. Enjoy.

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Jay-Z ft. Pharrell: The Making of “Allure”

This is the end of “Carlito’s Way”. You’re just trying to get one more last job in before you get out, but I’m trying to tell you that I have the beat that describes that moment accurately.

“Allure” was on The Black Album in 2003, and it was slated to be Jay-Z’s final album. To creators: this level of confidence in your content is contagious, so don’t be afraid to show out sometimes. Skateboard P was on his cinematic tip for this one, and you can see it in his energy. Hov is notorious for writing his rhymes without a pen and a pad, and you can practically see the gears turning in his head as the beat plays — he even flips Pharrell’s underwhelming “Carlito’s Way” speech into a line at the end of the first verse.

“Allure”

I put my feet in the footprints left to me

Without saying a word, the ghetto’s got a mental telepathy

My brother hustled — so, naturally

Up next was me, but what perplexes me

Shit, I know how this movie ends, still I play

The starring role in “Hovito’s Way”

 

Sleepers of the Week

My favorite track off Nipsey Hussle’s new album, Victory Lap. There’s footage of Lebron James in the locker room before Game 6 of the NBA Finals in 2011, and when he takes off his headphones, you could hear the song he was listening to — the first “Blue Laces” off The Marathon. Monday motivation.

 

In October of last year, Blu & Exile dropped “In the Beginning: Before the Heavens” as a follow-up to the underground classic “Below the Heavens” released in 2010. Feel good music.

 

Boogie is Shady Record’s newest signee, and he’s a Compton native with a penchant for relationship raps over smooth, atmospheric production.

I guess it’s back to seeing liquor mixed with agony
Steady attacking me, I live to be your casualty
Some type of strategy, you sleeping with your back to me
You text me deadly words that seem to kill my battery

The Game: Low Riders, Palm Trees and Chuck Taylors

Gang culture in Los Angeles is deeply entrenched in generations of elaborate handshakes and bright bandanas — bloodlines of banging, built on a foundation of fierce, but fickle allegiances; loyalty is dictated by street signs, colors and neighborhoods, and cemented through swollen knuckles, shootouts and battle scars. Jayceon Taylor was no stranger to this perilous life. His father and both of his half-brothers were Nutty Blocc Crips, and his mother was a Hoover Crip — a dangerous family dynamic that exposed him to the dark side of Compton at an early age. When he was 6 years old, one of his best friends was robbed and killed for his clothing. A year later, his father was accused of molesting his older sister, and he was separated from his siblings, forced by Social Services to spend the next half-decade in foster care. When he was 13, his older brother Jevon was mercilessly gunned down at a gas station; this was a 17-year old kid who had just signed a record deal, but young Jayceon was learning that this kind of senseless violence came with the territory. Two years later, he moved back in with his mother and followed in the footsteps of his other older brother, Big Fase, who had built a local reputation for himself as a Cedar Block Piru. The life of a gangbanger is a precarious one, wrought with grief and adversity, but following a near-death experience at 21 years old, it would become the canvas and the ink that he would utilize to elevate himself out of the madness.

On October 1, 2001, Jayceon Taylor was playing Madden at his apartment when he heard a knock around 2 A.M. He saw a familiar face through the peephole and opened the door, thinking it was a typical late-night sale — a quick exchange and he would be back to mashing buttons and smoking weed. Two assailants suddenly forced their way in, and after a brief altercation, he was shot a total of five times. Jayceon spent three days in a coma, and it was a grave reality check that marked a pivotal moment in his life; while laying on that hospital bed, he knew that something needed to change. Over the next six months, the Compton native meticulously studied all of the hip-hop classics and taught himself how to rap, releasing his first mixtape in 2002 with the help of his brother, Big Fase. After building some buzz, it caught the attention of Dr. Dre, and he was signed to Aftermath in 2003. He worked tirelessly on his debut album for the next two years, and his efforts culminated in a project that was largely credited with ushering in a long overdue resurgence for West Coast gangsta rap in mainstream hip-hop. Aside from the usual suspects on the East Coast, Southern and Midwestern heavyweights like Young Jeezy, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and T.I. were quickly rising to prominence, and the stronghold we saw in the ’90s with Snoop, Tupac and Dr. Dre was nothing but a distant memory.

But on January 18, 2005, Dre reminded us that his ability to groom talent is second-to-none. The Documentary sold 5 million copies in just a few months, and it was a calculated, cohesive and compelling introduction to his new protege, bringing the West Coast back to the forefront of hip-hop with a vengeance. L.A. natives were brushing the dust off their white tees, rocking their khakis with a cuff and a crease, and strutting through the streets with their chin up, chest out, and an extra bop in their step. More like a bounce, to be exact — we had another soundtrack that personified low riders, palm trees and chuck taylors. The Game’s menacing scowl, imposing figure and husky delivery added a visceral touch to his vivid street tales as a Cedar Block Piru, and it was complemented by a legendary line-up of producers: Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Scott Storch, Timbaland, Just Blaze, Havoc, Hi-Tek, and Cool & Dre. Despite the disparities in production styles, everyone did their part in accommodating the rapper’s West Coast roots. “Hate It or Love It” and “How We Do” are two of the most iconic hip-hop anthems of all time, and y’all were rapping every word with me in 2005. The opening track starts with a simple two-sentence recap of our glaring absence in the game; a proper introduction to the calm before the storm. Our sleeping giant was merely dormant, and naysayers were in for a rude awakening.

“Westside Story (ft. 50 Cent)”

Since the West Coast fell off, the streets been watchin’

The West Coast never fell off, I was asleep in Compton

 

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It’s interesting to note that the start of his rap career wasn’t rooted in passion, but rather necessity. Albums of this caliber are usually delivered by the ones who spent most of their childhood and adolescence developing their craft, driven by an early curiosity and genuine love for the art that gradually burgeons into an obsessive pursuit for greatness. The Game’s genesis was unique in that regard — he wasn’t necessarily rapping at cafeteria tables over makeshift beats during lunch, scribbling rhymes instead of notes in class, or daydreaming of performing on stages as a wide-eyed kid. He did it because he needed a legitimate hustle that wouldn’t end with bullets inside of him. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about his rapping ability on The Documentary, and that’s not to undermine the greatness of the album; it’s more about what the human mind is capable of when your life is on the line. This man went from learning how to rap in a hospital bed to dropping a classic album with Dr. Dre in a span of 3 years. The Game has come a long way since his monstrous debut, and he’s markedly improved from a technical standpoint. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard, and he’s outlasted plenty of promising prospects with far more potential.

But my main qualm with The Game has always been his attention-seeking antics. I don’t even mind the incessant name-dropping in his songs. In his defense, I can’t be too quick to judge his penchant for gimmicks — he definitely deserves credit for maintaining his relevance despite a nasty fallout with G-Unit during the height of their historic run, subsequently conceding the backing of the Interscope/Aftermath machine. Over the years, he’s developed a habit of starting unnecessary beef preceding a release, and with 8 studio albums, 5 independent albums, and 14 mixtapes, he’s had his fair share of conflict. I have to respect his hustle when it comes to the music, but the frequency was overwhelming — the quality wasn’t consistent enough to justify his output, and I quickly lost interest in listening to full-length projects from The Game. But on the 10th anniversary of The Documentary, he announced the sequel to his storied magnum opus, and began an interesting press run on Instagram. He started posting pictures in the studio with an intriguing mix of legendary artists, hip-hop moguls, and random celebrities: Diddy. Jermaine Dupri. Young Jeezy. Xzibit. Raekwon. French Montana. El Debarge. Keyshia Cole. Sway. Big Boy. Kevin Durant. James Harden. Karl Kani. Tyrese. It had to have been an industry word-of-mouth situation because people were flying across the country just for an early listening session, and these pictures were rampant with the stank face, a timeless hallmark of quality hip-hop. Needless to say, I was excited for a Game album for the first time in years. How involved was Dre? What made this album any different from the 12 other ones after The Documentary? Was this really going to be a proper follow up to one of the most celebrated debuts in hip-hop history?

Dre said this is the best hip-hop album in the last 5 years, at least… and we still here 10 years later. It’s still Aftermath, and ain’t nothing after that.

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I was a bit skeptical, but the look on Dre’s face gave some credence to such a bold statement. The Game announced that The Documentary 2 was going to be a double-disc release with 36 tracks. I had to read that twice. 36 tracks? It was a nod to the classic double-albums of Tupac and Biggie, All Eyez On Me and Life After Death, and he felt like he owed this to both his fans and himself. Considering his history, this could have gone either way. It was just a matter of waiting after the tracklist was released, but the features had me extremely hopeful: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, Nas, Scarface, Q-Tip, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, E-40, Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Future, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Anderson .Paak, and YG. Absolutely stacked.

“On Me (ft. Kendrick Lamar)

 

The opening track already brings that distinct West Coast bounce over a classic Erykah Badu sample, and features an incredible guest verse from his fellow Compton native, our beloved Kendrick. And what’s even more impressive is that 2 minutes and 44 seconds into the first song of the album, he delivers arguably his greatest display of technicality and riding the pocket in his 10-year career, reminding young K. Dot who the veteran is. When’s the last time you heard him flow like this? I’ll wait.

“Step Up (ft. Dej Loaf)”

 

He channels his Biggie flow on the 2nd verse, and if you were wondering why the beat sounds familiar, it has the same sample as “I Get Around” by Tupac.

“Don’t Trip (ft. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Will.i.am)

 

This beat was specifically engineered for the 2-step, and I’m not surprised that Dre and Cube decided to hop on this one. That bassline is funky as hell.

“Standing on Ferraris (ft. Puff Daddy)”

 

Another homage to Big Poppa with the “Kick in the Door” sample. I need to hear his Biggie flow more often. 20 years later, and Diddy still in love with the sound of his own voice.

 

After the back-to-back-to-back bangers, the latter half of The Documentary 2 eases us into his introspective side on The Documentary 2.5. This level of personal detail is unprecedented for The Game, and he seemed to approach his Westside story with a newfound focus. The nostalgic narratives are driven by illustrious, cinematic production laced with soulful melodies, and the vibe of this album is the antithesis of the bass-heavy braggadocio on The Documentary 2.

  • “Magnus Carlsen” is a powerful introduction to 2.5, and Anderson .Paak is criminally underrated as a songwriter. His voice has a distinct, smoky tone, and he flows with a velvety cadence over some gospel-like production. Paak’s conscious crooning is directly at odds with The Game’s aggressive posturing, but their back and forth makes for a compelling dynamic.
  • On “The Ghetto”, Nas and The Game show us how to navigate through inner-city politics and trigger-happy cops. They reflect on their upbringing with vivid recollections: project buildings, box cutters, broken bottles, EBT cards, block parties, and dimebags. From Queensbridge to Compton.
  • “From Adam” is in the same vein as “Start From Scratch” on his debut album, and you can practically taste the Jameson and pickle juice as he drunkenly addresses the death of his best friend and his shooting incident in ’01. The alcohol incites a genuine ebb and flow of emotions in his raspy drawl, and Lil Wayne’s feature didn’t disappoint.
  • On “Gang Related”, he reminisces on his turbulent history as a Cedar Block Piru with a mixture of pain and pride. Whether he was at Larry Nickel’s crack spot with the homies or fighting with Crips at Compton High, he embraces both sides of the lifestyle that stitched the fabric of his being.
  • The closing track, “Life”, seamlessly weaves the past and the present together in a sprawling crescendo, encapsulating the entirety of The Game’s experiences and mercurial personality.

When Dr. Dre said that this was the best rap album in the last five years — and I don’t necessarily agree with him — it’s not a stretch by any means. It’s absolutely unheard of for a veteran to deliver an album of this quality with such colossal expectations. After damn near a decade of flooding the market with lackluster projects, The Game came back on some hyperbolic time chamber shit. I had these CD’s in rotation for three months straight. Shout out to the big homie Jayceon.

Tupac Shakur: An Ode to the Rose that Grew from Concrete

I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.

Where do I start? It took 20 minutes of my thoughts racing, staring at a blank screen and All Eyez On Me (the greatest rap album of all time) playing in the background to even start writing this, unsure if I could properly articulate how monumental Pac’s impact was. He was a rapper and a poet. Vulgar and articulate. A thug and an activist. Vulnerable and arrogant. A misogynist and a momma’s boy. But above all, he was hip-hop. Tupac Shakur represented everything about the culture that people both embraced and demonized, and although he was often vilified and painted as a hypocrite throughout his life, it never mattered to the ones who truly understood.

In 1971, 21 members of the Black Panther Party, including Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, were indicted on 156 counts in the most expensive trial in the history of New York at the time. The “Panther 21” were accused of planning to carry out bombings and shootings on two police precincts and an education office, and Afeni was pregnant during the proceedings. Despite facing a sentence of more than 300 years with no experience in law, she chose to represent herself, and after an eight-month trial, Afeni and her associates were acquitted on all charges. She gave birth a month later in East Harlem to Lesane Parish Crooks, who would be renamed Tupac Amaru Shakur the following year. Pac’s stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, was an infamous revolutionary on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, and is currently incarcerated for being involved in a $1.6 million robbery of a Brinks armored truck that resulted in the death of a guard and two police officers. Pac’s godmother, Assata Shakur, escaped from prison (with the help of Mutulu) after being handed a life sentence for the murder of a state trooper, and she was granted political asylum after fleeing to Cuba. They are both known affiliates of the Black Liberation Army. Pac’s godfather, Geromino Pratt, was a high-ranking official in the Black Panthers on the West Coast and was convicted for the murder of a schoolteacher; the verdict was later overturned after it was discovered that the prosecution concealed crucial evidence, but he had already spent 27 years in jail.

I know, it’s a bit of a mouthful. And this isn’t even half of it. His family tree was rife with high-profile black nationalist radicals, and the militancy that came to be a defining characteristic of Pac was deep-rooted from his birth. Given that we know how this plays out in the end, it’s as if his path was already carved in stone.

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Pac was quiet and withdrawn as a child, spending most of his free time reading books and writing poetry. Fascinated by the endless microcosms on TV, he would often try to emulate actors in his living room, making an early debut at 13 years old in a play at the renowned Apollo Theatre. He later moved to Baltimore after Afeni lost her job, and this next chapter of his life were his most formative years. He was exposed to theater, jazz and ballet after auditioning for the Baltimore School of the Arts, and although poverty was a recurring issue throughout his adolescence, he found solace in an artistic hub that nurtured his creative side. It was a striking contrast to go back and forth between the two: no lights and broken windows on one side, field trips to Broadway plays on the other. And while most tend to be dismissive about the absence of a father figure in their life, naively allowing bravado to undermine vulnerability, Pac was always vocal about how it affected him. His only male role models were drug dealers and pimps because they were the ones that showed him love.

He dropped out of school at 17 years old and moved to Northern California, but with a crack-addicted mother, he had to find his own means to support his passion for music. He was introduced by a mutual friend to rapper Shock G from Digital Underground, a popular rap group from Oakland. The first time they met, he walked in the studio, rapped for him on the spot and walked out with a job as a roadie and backup dancer. Shock G also let him feature on Digital Underground’s “Same Song” in 1991, and after some successful exposure, Pac signed with Interscope Records that same year and released his debut album, 2pacalypse Now. His single, “Brenda’s Got a Baby”, was a poignant and visceral tale about teenage pregnancy, and it was a powerful introduction to an album filled with vivid inner-city anthems that rang through the ears of troubled and misguided youth everywhere. He was a hood ambassador and a dreamer who felt an undying obligation to speak on the rampant injustices that plagued his community. It was deeper than just rap. It was his duty. 

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I didn’t have a police record until I made a record.

The following years were the beginning of Pac’s tumultuous relationship with the law, and he began to feel like a target and a victim of his fame.

  • In 1991, he filed a $10-million lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department after being brutally beaten for jaywalking.
  • In 1992, he got into a confrontation involving guns after a performance and a 6-year old boy was killed in the crossfire. It was settled out of court.
  • In 1993, he shot two off-duty police officers after an altercation, but all charges were dropped as they were drunk and in possession of stolen guns.
  • In early 1994, he was found guilty of assault on the Allen Hughes, the director of Menace II Society.
  • In late 1994, he was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for an alleged sexual assault.

A day before the final verdict for his sexual assault case was announced, Pac was robbed and shot 5 times at Quad Recording Studios in Brooklyn. Twice in the back of his head. According to Lil Cease, Biggie’s right-hand man, he was smoking weed on the terrace with Nino Brown, a fellow Junior M.A.F.I.A. associate, and he happened to look down to see Pac walking up the block. They exchanged greetings, and he told him to come kick it since Biggie was recording at the studio around the corner. Lil Cease went down the elevator to grab him, but when the doors opened at the lobby, he saw a few of Pac’s homies laying on the floor. One of the robbers pointed a gun at Cease and told him to get back on the elevator. After his recovery, Pac accused Biggie and Puffy of being involved in the shooting and launched a vicious crusade against Bad Boy Records. This fateful night was the final coup de grace in the culmination of his Thug Life mantra.

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Pac had a God-given talent and a larger-than-life personality that transcended music, but behind his charisma and intelligence, he seemed to be fueled by a feverish combination of rage and anger. This was troubling because it was rooted in a place of genuine passion, further instilled by his increasingly militant mindset following this first shooting. It spiraled him downward a lethal trajectory riddled with paranoia and madness, inevitably leading to his untimely demise.

But when it comes to music, pain often goes hand in hand with inspiration, so some of Pac’s best work was born out of these turbulent years. He worked as if he knew his time here was limited, and his music was a reflection of that fatalistic urgency; themes of death, deception and murder proved to be eerily prophetic, especially when coupled with his manic delivery. But his work wasn’t confined to these sentiments–when it comes to versatility, Pac was unrivaled and still is. He had an uncanny ability to map out the infinite nuances of the human condition through his rhymes, and he did so with wisdom, humility and conviction. We did also get the violent, arrogant and misogynistic side, but that was the beauty of it. Although sometimes to a fault, Pac embraced the duality of life that a lot of us are afraid to confront about ourselves, and he did it with a fearlessness that was almost contagious. I feel invincible when I listen to certain Pac songs.

“Hail Mary”

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Pac’s third studio album, Me Against the World, reached number 1 on the Billboard charts while he was still behind bars. His first single, “Dear Mama”, was a moving tribute to Afeni Shakur, and to this day, remains the quintessential rap anthem for the celebration of motherhood. It was added to the National Recording Registry of Congress in 2010. His follow-up single, “So Many Tears”, was a vivid depiction of the desperation and paranoia that was slowly consuming him, and this album is widely regarded as Pac’s most personal and introspective body of work: the somber production, the minimal features, the soul-baring lyrics and even the title–all act as a powerful backdrop to a sonic confessional by a man who felt like the world was against him. And unfortunately, there was some truth to that sentiment.

“So Many Tears”

My every move is a calculated step

To bring me closer to embrace an early death

Now there’s nothin’ left, there was no mercy on the streets

I couldn’t rest, I’m barely standin’ about to go to pieces, screamin’ peace

Although my soul was deleted, I couldn’t see it

I had my mind full of demons tryna break free

They planted seeds and they hatched, sparkin’ the flame

Inside my brain like a match, such a dirty game

No memories, just the misery

Paintin’ a picture of my enemies killin’ me in my sleep

Will I survive ’til the morning to see the sun?

Please Lord, forgive me for my sins, cause here I come…

After spending 11 months in prison for his sexual assault case, Pac was released on $1.4 million bail in October 1995. Suge Knight provided the money under the condition that he signed to Death Row Records for 3 albums, and this was a decision that would mark the beginning of the end. Unbeknownst to Pac, he had signed in his blood. Suge had already garnered a formidable reputation as an industry bully with strong street ties to the Compton MOB Pirus, always seen surrounded by a sea of red, and Pac would soon wholeheartedly commit to his thug side under Knight’s tutelage. He was unable to write while locked up because the oppressive environment had killed his spirit, so he came home eager to work and fulfill his contract. Pac went straight to the studio and recorded “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” and “Ambitionz of a Ridah” the same day he got out. The latter became the opening track on the final album before his death, All Eyez On Me, and it begins by Pac taunting his enemies in almost a whisper as some ominous keys reel in.

“Ambitionz Az a Ridah”

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Even the cover was indicative of how different this project was going to be from its revered predecessor. He’s draped in jewelry with bloodshot eyes, throwing up a W to declare his newfound allegiance with Death Row, and All Eyez On Me was largely an unapologetic and braggadocios celebration of Thug Life, a far cry from the solemn and introspective Me Against The World. But Pac was a complicated and conflicted man whose multi-faceted personality spilled through his records, and this project gave us the entire spectrum of his musical repetoire. The magnum opus of his storied career. The 27-track album was completed in less than 2 weeks, and it was the first original double-disc release in hip-hop history; his work ethic was relentless, and he recorded like a man possessed. I was watching “Tupac: Resurrection”, a documentary released in 2003, and he said something that was both troubling and fascinating. Pac tried to complete at least 3 songs a day so he would have an album ready if he was ever killed–his logic was that music lives forever, even if he didn’t. After he passed, he was sitting on enough material for 7 posthumous albums.

  • “2 of Amerika’z Most Wanted” and “California Love” are iconic West Coast party anthems, and other bangers like “All About You” and “Check Out Time” will get any social function just as active.
  • “Life Goes On” and “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” are slower, nostalgic ballads about the mixed emotions that come with losing friends, whether it was to the streets or to religion. Both have become karaoke classics.
  • “Ambitionz of a Ridah”, “Heartz of Men”, “Got My Mind Made Up” and “No More Pain” are the aggressive tracks where his manic delivery and staccato flow really shine over some sinister production.
  • “Skandalouz”, “Heaven Ain’t Hard 2 Find”, “How Do U Want It”, “Run Tha Streetz” and “I’d Rather Be Ya Nigga” are the smooth tracks that reminded us Pac was still a hopeless romantic, and of the crucial distinction between hoes and women.
  • “Only God Can Judge Me”, “All Eyez On Me”, “Picture Me Rollin” and “Shorty Wanna Be a Thug” are the conscious tracks where he taps into his introspective side, and breaks down the moral ambiguity inherent in Thug Life. There’s always two sides to a story, and he was well-versed in both.
  • Pac managed to get Method Man and Redman on “Got My Mind Made Up” during the height of the West Coast and East Coast rivalry, and Daz and Kurupt properly represented for our side. One of the greatest crew cuts ever.

I still hear at least a few songs from this album played on the radio every single week, and it received a Diamond certification from the RIAA in 2014. All Eyez On Me sold 5 million copies by the end of the first year it came out, and sold another 5 million–18 years after its initial release. Timeless.

I didn’t create Thug Life. I diagnosed it.

Even if you disagreed with his Thug Life mantra, there was an underlying truth in what he spoke that was undeniable–he made the kind of music that really struck a nerve and echoed in the depths of your soul. And because of this, if hip-hop was a religion, most of Pac’s catalog would be considered scripture. He was wise beyond his years, and we’re blessed that he left us such a prolific legacy to internalize. We were robbed of so much potential, and that was only through his music; I look at the trajectory of people like Jay-Z and 50 Cent and can’t help but wonder what he would have accomplished beyond rap.

 

When I was feeling at my worst; (before fame, before Dre) I knew I could put that “Tupac” tape in, and suddenly, things weren’t so bad. He gave me the courage to stand up and say “F**k the world!” This is who I am! And if you don’t like it, go f**k yourself!

It’s a bit ironic that Slim Shady chose to censor the profanity in his letter, but it speaks volumes about the respect that Tupac (and his mother) garnered from his peers. Eminem is a hip-hop juggernaut and a bonafide legend who had an absolute vice grip on the rap game with Dr. Dre in the early 2000s, and he felt compelled to hand-write a drawing and letter with a ballpoint pen about Pac’s influence on his career. This is a man who built a behemoth of a brand on not giving a fuck, and he attributed his courage to do so, to Tupac Shakur. In 2004, Eminem produced Pac’s ninth album, Loyal to the Game, after receiving Afeni’s blessing.

Kendrick Lamar was 8 years old when he first saw Pac from the top of his father’s shoulders, and it was a defining moment that he kept close during his own meteoric rise to stardom. Pac was shooting “California Love” with Dr. Dre at the Compton Swap Meet, and this childhood memory came full circle when Kendrick shot the music video for “King Kunta” at the same location. Also, the original title of To Pimp a Butterfly was going to be Tu Pimp a Caterpillar because the abbreviation spelled out Tu.P.A.C., and the albums closing track, “Mortal Man”, features a compelling interview between Kendrick and Pac. Some found it odd to use the words of a dead man to create a fake conversation, but that was the extent of Kendrick’s fandom. More than 2 decades after he was killed, Pac’s influence still resonates with rap’s current undisputed heavyweight. But that inspiration isn’t exclusive to Eminem and Kendrick. Millions of people around the world, including myself, can draw a sense of empowerment from certain Pac records, as an uncanny feeling slowly starts to creep in that things were going to be alright. This was someone who defined what it meant to bare your soul on wax in hip-hop, so listeners can follow suit and learn to embrace our insecurities and shortcomings.

One of my hobbies is to play classic Pac songs at social functions and see how many strangers end up rapping together. Regardless of the demographic, there was always going to be a handful, singing along as if we’ve known each other our entire lives. And I can’t help but break into a smile whenever a random car drives by, bumping “Only God Can Judge Me” at an ungodly volume–this has happened more times than you would expect. Pac will forever hold a special place in my heart, and I could probably go on writing for hours, but I’ll spare y’all from my fanaticism. The first rapper to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 5 studio albums. 6 movies. 7 posthumous albums. 11 platinum albums. Over 75 million records worldwide. All by the age of 25. R.I.P. to the most influential rapper of all time.

Tupac Amaru Shakur

June 16, 1971 – September 13, 1996

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Jay-Z’s Fade to Black Tour: Biggie/Tupac Tribute

Incredible tribute by Hov during the Fade to Black tour in ’04, his charisma and crowd control is unrivaled. You can see Jay scrunch up his face and channel his inner Pac at 2:24 when Just Blaze drops “Hail Mary.” With 20,000 people rapping in unison, Madison Square Garden definitely showed love, but it pales in comparison to the tribute for Biggie. The crowd literally goes through his entire fucking verse from “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” acapella at 3:35, and they don’t miss a single line until the end. I would have given up at least a few body parts to have experienced this kind of energy live. RIP to 2 of the greatest of all time.