If the thug love song has a bad reputation, it’s because it deserves it. This rap micro-genre is responsible for some of the most treacly, dishonest and altogether unnecessary pop hits of the past few decades. “What,” you might reasonably be thinking upon hearing one of these, “is my favorite rapper doing on MTV whispering sweet nothings into the ear of some smiling R&B starlet, straight after he dropped a whole mixtape based around the theme of not trusting bitches?” “Why,” you may follow that thought up with, “is that talented young singer rubbing shoulders with some guy whose only interactions with women revolve around him throwing dollar bills at their feet while they grind to a Ying Yang Twins’ song?”
Those are fair questions, and the answer is probably a whole lot to do with money, fronting, and money. But I ain’t gonna lie to you. When the weather gets warm, and the girls start replacing scarves and sweaters with summer dresses, even the most thuggish, ruggish dude’s thoughts might start revolving around kicking it with that shawty round the way, and you know, maybe even treating her right. Enjoying spending some time with her. Holding hands and all that.
Yes, love is strange, and frequently it’s just straight disgusting. You start feeling all kinds of emotions, ones that if you spoke out loud, or, worse, in song, might start making your buddies doubt that “fuck the world” is your creed, and that your only fear is weddings. It’s sunny out. Here’s a mix that won’t just threaten your masculinity; it’ll go Muhammed Ali on its ass.
01. Jay-Z ft. Beyoncé – ’03 Bonnie and Clyde
I really think I’m the only rap fan who likes this song, which is ridiculous. The flamenco guitars spiriting through Kanye’s beat lend the track an eerie, lonely quality, relocating Hov and B’s fugitive romance out to the old west. It’s a straight reinvention of Pac’s “Me and My Girlfriend,” of course, but while the grimier original was more corporeal and its images more vivid, Jay glamorizes Pac’s diarizing, making it consciously fictitious. The song sounds like it was written to complement the fugitive narrative of the video rather than the other way around. So why the remake rather than the original? For our purposes, “’03 Bonnie and Clyde” better fits the Thug Love mold. By foregrounding the R&B qualities of the song, and namedropping Burberry, Birkin, and Manolo Blahnik, Jay relocates the narrative from Inglewood to Hollywood, transforming hood specificity into mass entertainment. And since the Thug Love genre revolves around the duet, by collaborating with Beyoncé, Jay adds something Pac’s original, as great as it was, lacked: a female point of view.
02. Fat Joe ft. Ja Rule & Ashanti – What’s Luv?
What’s a Thug Love collection without Fat Joe? Actually, here’s a good moment to pause* and point out why Joey Crack is so proficient at the rap/R&B crossover. When other rappers try to make these kind of songs, they sound insincere; embarrassed even. Those other, better rappers know they’ve only got Ashanti singing the hook because the record company told them they needed a single, and they’re probably as aware as the audience is that no one believes those clichés they’re growling. But Joey Crack is shameless. If he thinks he can get a hit out of a Tina Turner interpolation and some boilerplate pillow talk, then, by God, he’ll put his all into selling it. The thing about “What’s Luv” is that it’s actually great: the shuddering blips that constitute the melody are unexpectedly abrasive, Ashanti’s blank cooing actually fits the sound for once, and Ja Rule doesn’t do anything too cringeworthy.
While we’re on the subject, a note about Ashanti and Ja Rule: This is the only time that pair will show up in this mix. By rights, Jeffrey’s “Always On Time” should have been the first song I included, since it’s pretty much the archetype of the Thug Love genre, but I’m sorry, “Always On Time” is wack as fuck. I’ll pay the song’s video, because Ashanti and Ja do a great job of making flirty faces at each other, and by rights they should have been given the lead roles in a WB drama to reward their on point performance of middle-school romance, but the song is just garbage. And we’re not even going to get started on J.Lo’s “I’m Real.”
*I’ll leave it to you to make the joke.
03. Kelly Rowland ft. Nelly – Dilemma
I’ll lay out my cards right here: This is possibly the greatest Thug Love song of all time. The beat tinkles like a music box, and Kelly Rowland’s illicit love hook is heart-tugging. Nelly, like Fat Joe, is totally shameless, but he’s even more effective. He doesn’t try to pretend he’s a drug dealer, or even a rapper, really; his melodic delivery results in him practically singing his verses. But the moment that really seals this as a classic is the recurrent pre-chorus gut-punch: “Just before I turned to leave she said/You don’t know what you mean to me.” And, gosh, does Rowland sell that line. What would have been a generic love song transforms, in those moments, into a situation with genuine emotional complexity.
04. Thalia ft. Fat Joe – I Want You
Mexican singer Thalia should have become massive off this song, which was a minor yet marvelous hit in 2003, probably the best year for pop music this decade. Just as Kelly and Nelly transformed the run of the mill into something extraordinary in “Dilemma,” Thalia and Joe make “I Want You” classic through the sheer exuberance of their performance. Thalia sounds like nothing has ever made her happier than the possibility that she might get to hold hands with a chubby, pale Puerto Rican, and Fat Joe returns the favor with a booming “I don’t wanna be a playa no more!” Seriously, three minutes of this and you’ll be unable to believe the two haven’t run off to buy a house in the country and have a million grandkids.
05. Busta Rhymes ft. Mariah Carey & Flipmode Squad – I Know What You Want
This is another tune rap fans almost universally hate but I love. Rick Rock’s slinky, sinuous beat is laden with intimacy and intrigue; like “’03 Bonnie and Clyde” it works better as dramatic fiction than a representation of real life. I guess you could be disappointed at Busta’s loverman turn, but considering his disastrous attempt to remake himself as the crack-slanging king of New York a few years later, I’ll happily take him turning on the charm for an ethereal Mariah. The best moment here, however, belongs to neither of the lead performers. Rah Digga’s couplet, “We went from Lucy’s and buses to fifty cent sodas/And Novas to Hondas to Lexus and Rovers,” does a striking job of sketching out an entire relationship in two lines and a list of products. A classic Thug Love combination: the commercial and the connubial.
06. The Notorious B.I.G. ft. Faith Evans & Mary J. Blige – One More Chance/Stay With Me (Remix)
I’m trying to maintain a pretty strict standard of the thug love duet in this mix, which has necessitated omitting more than a few classic For The Ladies jams because they feature two blokes (with R. Kelly or The-Dream taking the R&B role, for instance) or because the duet is one between two singers (think Usher and Alicia Keys). The thug love duet should ideally include roughly equal time for the man and the woman, and though Biggie’s “One More Chance” goes a long way toward transforming the rap love song of LL Cool J vintage into its contemporary form, it is nonetheless dominated a bit too much by the rapper to properly be considered part of the genre. I include it because Faith Evans’s performance is reasonably forefronted and Puffy’s DeBarge flip basically wrote the rules for what the thug love duet is meant to sound like. By rights, I guess, I should have replaced this with Ashanti’s “Unfoolish,” but if I’m trying to convince you this shit is good, I’m not going to offer you some of Sean Combs’s grave-digging and I’m really not going to recommend removing Biggie’s rapping in favor of a couple verses of Ashanti’s dull chirping.
07. Mariah Carey ft. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Fantasy (Bad Boy Remix)
Even before “One More Chance,” the Thug Love genre really came into its own with ODB’s fantastic appearance on this remix of Mariah’s “Fantasy.” What’s so unusual about “Fantasy” now is how grimy it sounds in comparison to the smooth imitations that would follow it. Puff really foregrounds the hip-hop elements of the Tom Tom Club sample, and Dirty’s untethered ramblings are far more rambunctious than anything the likes of Fat Joe and Ja Rule would later come up with. Still, whether as rap, pop, or something in between, the song is as fabulous as the “Whatcha gonna do when you get out of jail” chant.
08. MF Doom ft. Apani B – Let Me Watch
If “One More Chance” was an unlikely fit for this mix, “Let Me Watch,” an underground album track by a dude whose face is made out of metal, is even more of a stretch. But “Let Me Watch” is notable more for how closely it hews to the Thug Love form. Though more narratively complex than its mainstream equivalents, its he-said, she-said tale of adolescent infatuation, replete with shared cherry sodas and phone calls interrupted by inquisitive mothers, makes Viktor Vaughn’s contribution to the genre unexpectedly apt. The slinky beat fits well with the simmering Jay-Z and Busta tunes we’ve already encountered, and if Doom had thought to get Mariah on the hook, this could have been a hit. Well, maybe the single version would have had to excise the R-rated ending, even though that is the best bit. If “Let Me Watch” is new to you, take a listen; I won’t spoil the punchline.
09. Ciara ft. 50 Cent – Can’t Leave ‘Em Alone
If Ciara’s take on the thug love song is surprisingly recent, it’s because the thug love genre is largely extinct these days. Crews like Lil’ Wayne’s Young Money, with their teenage cheekiness, have done their darndest to collapse the masculine/feminine tension that underpinned these singles, and while stars like Justin Bieber have excised the thug half, Drake has been steadily erasing the love portion. The closest analogue you’ll find in contemporary pop is straight up R&B duets from singers like the aforementioned R. Kelly and The-Dream, guys who aren’t as intent on being consistently gentlemanly as their predecessors were. Yet while “Can’t Leave ‘Em Alone” is newer than the rest of these tunes, it follows the same blueprint of freshly-infatuated girl singing and freshly-sensitive guy rapping. “My intentions are good/I can’t help that I’m hood/ I wouldn’t change if I could/You shouldn’t tell me I should” demurs 50, but none of his protestations are believable. Like her predecessors, Ciara’s fallen for a bad boy who just isn’t that bad.
10. JoJo ft. Bow Wow – Baby It’s You (Single Edit)
Speaking of bad boys who just aren’t that bad, and with emphasis on boy: Bow Wow! The little kid who hopes one day to grow up into a real rapper gets himself a thirteen year old girlfriend, and the pair produce a perfectly adorable take on first love. Bow Wow actually turns in a respectable verse here; sure, he fronts that JoJo “sees past all this Bow Wow stuff,” but he does come up with a nice, age-appropriate line about “matching charm bracelets and pendants/Who would have thought our relationship would be so tremendous?” Aw shucks, what a guy: he even promises to introduce her to the folks. JoJo, for her part, is even more convincing, fluttering, “It don’t matter where we go tonight, cause if I’m with you it’ll be all right.” By the sounds of it, this pair will be going steady until homecoming.
11. Cam’ron ft. Juelz Santana & Toya – Hey Ma (Remix)
Any of the “Hey Ma” takes could have made this mix; “Part Three,” which replaces the Commodores sample with a Willie Hutch one, and the original are as equally fitting for summer love. I went with this remix from Diplomatic Immunity because Toya’s enhanced role makes the song more of a genuine example of male/female interplay. Apart from that difference, the new take does the same old thing as the original: Cam rambles lewdly and seems more interested in shouting about Jim Jones and Freekey Zekey than talking to his lady friend, while Juelz is as brashly, brusquely charming as ever.
12. Ma$e – What You Want
Your little sister in 1998 was going to hurt me if I didn’t put Ma$e on this.