Vote for the Hardest Rap Album of All Time
The Hardest Albums Already Eliminated, Reviewed
GZA – Liquid Swords
I couldn’t stop staring at the artwork for Liquid Swords. Antic, slapstick violence is common in children’s cartooning, but the semi-realistic decapitations on the album’s cover touched one of my adolescent, humanist nerves. In the foreground, a combatant in GZA-logo’d hoodie is swinging a sword at the neck of his opponent, the blade on the verge of striking. The implied result is obvious. Still, there’s an unreleased tension. You never see the severed tendons or gushing gore of the soon-to-be beheaded, just the inevitability. This is what Liquid Swords is about: immovable, permanent tension.
The hook on “Cold World” serves as thesis for Liquid Swords:
Babies crying, brothers dying and brothers getting knocked
Shit is deep on the block
And you got me locked down in this cold, cold world
The universe of Liquid Swords isn’t just cold, it’s caked in black ice, gritty and reeking of dried blood’s iron-y aroma. This is brick through a window rap–the material trappings of late-period gangster rap are noticeably absent, substituted for holding cells, Carhartt jackets, and white knuckle pain.
Liquid Swords was stewarded by RZA (before he made a soul-stealing deal with Adrian Younge/Yakub), who produced the entirety of the album and recorded GZA’s vocals in his Staten Island basement. Liquid Swords landed squarely in the midst of RZA’s unimpeachable mid-90’s reign; the humble setting, GZA’s master penmanship, and RZA’s sample twisting atmospherics birthed an album dirt-caked and grimy. The Shogun Assassin sample that opens Liquid Swords makes it clear that violence is imminent–the sword’s been swung, the blade has momentum, and all that’s left to come is head-loosening impact. —Torii MacAdams
M.O.P – Warriorz
Regardless of the outcome of this poll,
M.O.P’s Warriorz is the hardest rap album of all time.
Let us count the ways
1. The second single, and biggest hit of M.O.P’s career, was “Ante Up,” a song celebrating the joys of kidnapping men who wear jewels. I’ve seen chicks go batshit in clubs in Philly for 15 years straight when “Ante Up” comes on, let alone the remix.
2. “I’ll have your ass layin up for months, on a beat machine with a shit bag and a I.V., TRY ME MOTHERFUCKER!” – Lil Fame, “Warriorz”
3. The acapella of “Ante Up” is so hard that chopped up pieces of it alone made numerous Madlib and J Dilla beats gully by osmosis.
4. “YOU FUCKIN WITH THE ORIGINAL BACKSTREET BOYS!” – Billy Danze, “Calm Down”
5. True story: Lil Fame was walking through Brownsville in the rain, and found a pile of records spilling on the street. Fame grabbed them and found the Foreigner record that became the sample for “Cold As Ice.” M.O.P’s third single off Warriorz was literally built from the gutter.
6. “Brooklyn ya heard? I yapped the gold cross off John Paul III” – Lil Fame on “Calm Down”
7. There are five beats produced by DJ Premier on this album. You know what other beats DJ Premier made in 2000? Freddie Foxx “RNS,” CNN “Invincible,” Common “The 6th Sense,” Screwball “FAYBAN,” The Lox “Recognize,” and Big L “Platinum Plus.”
9. Unlike Mobb Deep, steely eyed nihilists with razors in their blood, M.O.P screams on your ass like your dad. They are the closest approximation to Run-DMC: a loud mouthed duo with boundless energy beloved by hardcore rap fans and crazy white boys with guitars. They even shunned jewelry and dressed fresh off the block. They make gym music, stickup music, fight music, and music to do drive by’s inside of a tank (remember the “Handle Ur Bizness” video?).
10. “Keep a rugged dresscode, always in the stress mode (THAT SHIT’LL SEND YOU TO THE GRAVE), SO?” – Billy Danze, “Ante Up”
Chief Keef – Finally Rich
Chief Keef and Young Chop won with brute force. Clipped brass shrapnel, serrated strings, Satanist church bells stuttering like gavels, onomatopoeic growls, mangled throaty autotune like coughed-up arsenic—Atlanta trap as imagined by a cyborg blues singer’s drugged out rapper cousin on payday. That the punchlines and boasts came so concise, so bare, upset those with more rappity expectations for the midwestern streets that birthed the choppers, but ugly minimalism was always the point. “Broke niggas make me vomit,” Cozart said, on the song named after his child. It’s an apt artistic manifesto for an artist less interested in lyrical nuance than the tragic, jagged sounds of his own laughter and guns.
The details never mattered anyway. Chief Keef walked in the mall and simply bought all the stores because greed is an instinct, a survival tactic, not a shopping list. When cash is this fleeting, quantity over quality. “Everything designer, but it’s mismatch,” was an assault on jiggy dudes with time to plan out their outfits. Raris and Rovers, convertibles and Lambos, but really any foreign car will do. Keef only gets specific to talk about targets, Aiki, JoJo, all who threaten O Block. Guns clap, paper gets taller, for his mother LoLo, his daughter KayKay. The paranoid hedonism of a family man. Never has dad rap been so dangerous. —Tosten Burks
Dizzee Rascal – Boy in Da Corner
Dizzee Rascal comes from the ends not the hood. He was a stabbed not shot. He yelped out bars a decade before Danny Brown and Young Thug and provided the blueprint for the former. Forget that his U.S. audience was mostly composed of anglophile Urb readers, all that matters is that he was east London’s first urban star, a problem for Anthony Blair and a country that likes to sell itself as the home of Harry Potter and James instead of rampant alcoholism and low upward mobility.
E3 fucked with him, even if the album’s entire mission statement was that Dizzee desperately wanted to leave E3. Boy in Da Corner, once you parse the accents and slang, is the classic rise-to-the-top, by-any-means story, same as 50 or Biggie but untouched by crossover conceits or edge-blunting soul samples. Instead, the emotion comes from Dizzee’s tortured yelp while the mechanical sounds of cheap computer software whirr away in the background.
And whirr they do: the beats are dark, ugly, druggy monsters that are inspiring producers a decade down the line. Merging UKGarage to Three 6 Mafia’s sludgy southern hip-hop, Dizzee was doing monstrous basslines and unwieldly tempos back when most music critics were stuck lamenting boom bap. It even won a Mercury Prize, practically strong-arming tasteful critics into rewarding something that didn’t sound like a Blur clone. Now that’s gangster. —Son Raw
Boosie & Webbie – Ghetto Stories
Let’s be clear: there is actually nothing harder than finger fucking with your diamonds on. It’s the hardest substance coupled with the most obscene and painful sexual torture that the Marquis De Sade never invented. Somehow, Boosie, Webbie and Pimp C make it seem like immensely pleasurable hedonism. Then they’ll take pictures of it and send them to their homies locked up in Angola. Hardness and generosity are not mutually exclusive.
Let’s be even more clear: Ghetto Stories is on this bracket as a stand-in for every Baton Rouge album that probably could’ve dominated the entire Southern regional. New Orleans had No Limit and Cash Money. BR had the Concentration Camp. Do we really need to play this game? When C-Loc went to jail, like every single great Baton Rouge rapper has at some point (save for maybe Max Minelli), Boosie got scooped up by Trill and paired with Webbie, a teenaged gunman so savage that Boosie’s mom was praying for Webbie because “he wild with that chrome.”
Ghetto Stories was the 2003 debut. It’s hard in the terrifying craziness that can only come from teenagers without a conscience. N.W.A. were nihilists for capitalism’s sake. Boosie and Webbie were nihilists because they never knew anything else. Boosie is probably the hardest rapper to emerge since 2Pac died and if you don’t believe me, I have several notebooks from his murder trial to show you. But the truth is that you’re only as hard as the environment you’re raised in.
When I was in Baton Rouge, I took a trip on a Monday morning in May to see Garfield St (“G Street”), where Boosie was raised. Down by the levee, across the tracks. The street sign was flattened as though a hurricane had just hit. A portable basketball rim collapsed in the street. Most of the homes had boards on the windows. And a few teenagers pushed bikes across the street, absent from school even though it was in session, no fear in their eyes, no reason not to jack the next person who wandered past the tracks. It was the only time in my life I ever felt like I shouldn’t get out of the car in broad daylight. It reminded me of City of God. It reminded me of Ghetto Stories. —Jeff Weiss
UGK – Super Tight
“I’m from that Texas—I ain’t your blood and I ain’t your cuz.” Did you know where Port Arthur was? I didn’t. It’s about 90 miles due east of Houston, and it sounds like an awful place. Do you want to visit a city where Bun B picks your girl up ten minutes after you drop her at her front door? You think you should cross Pimp C? He was doing so bad, he had to sell his fucking Jag. (Rodney really fucked him up at first; at least he didn’t go home in no hearse.) The feds went there once, and even when Misters Freeman and Butler had to lay low, the Hall & Oates samples learned to scowl and the crack got stashed in big-ass coffee cans.
There are life lessons on Super Tight, and they fit in single text messages: It’s supposed to bubble; Tell Moody-Harris they’re gonna have to come and get him; Give me mine, give me mine. (Oh, Moody-Harris is the funeral home, the one at 5th and Dallas.) So what makes Super Tight so hard? Anyone can be from the hardest block in the most destitute city. But the then-young men of UGK come out shining, grinning behind wood grain while the world burns around them. Crooked cops lurk, jealous boyfriends blow up your pager, but you can’t sweat in the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim jersey. They came out in ’94. —Paul Thompson
N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
N.W.A. weren’t the first to commit street knowledge to wax. Instead, they were the first to prove that knowledge was more powerful and profitable than anyone (except Jerry Heller) could’ve imagined. For the latter reason, some argued that Straight Outta Compton was exploitative, that the narratives were carefully calculated shock fare. But they missed the point. Even though the album probably wasn’t unadulterated autobiography for Cube, Eazy, Dre, or Ren, the stories spoke for disenfranchised black men in marginalized cities across the country.
Compton became emblematic of every urban war zone, places where tanks demolished front doors, crack destroyed families, militant factions fought over state owned concrete, and police officers turned government sanctioned thugs and killers. Over Dre and Yella’s barrage of hard, funk-inflected beats, N.W.A. frightened white America into paying attention as much as they educated them, simultaneously inspiring future generations to do the same. When you’re double platinum with little radio play, when you’re banned from performing at concert venues, when the F.B.I. is on your dick, the past is irrelevant. —Max Bell
Spice 1 – 187 He Wrote
The East Bay-bred son of a Black Panther bestowed himself with the name, Spice. It stood for “Sex, Pistols, Indo, Cash, and Entertainment.” Just the essential artillery. How hard was Spice 1? Hard enough to be Too Short’s most adamantine discovery. Hard enough to be one of the few with Kevlar street cred to clown 2Pac on the set of Gang Related when he was dressed up to play the role of a police officer?
If you look in the mirror and say Spice 1 three times, Robert L. Green appears and presses a pistol to your temple and a blunt to your lips. You better not cough. If other G-Funk albums remind you of parties and pimping, this only reminds you of riots, chalk outlines, and yellow tape. You need infusions of blood after one listening.
Dre needed to insert clips from an actual insurrection. Spice 1 merely needed to tell you about his visions of corpses and body bags, even flipping the occasional Jamaican patois just to bridge the gaps between Kingston killers and the dregs of Oakland. He kept breaking it down until we understood, but the cold-blooded ideas couldn’t be misinterpreted.
Just look at the names of these songs: “I’m the Fuckin’ Murder,” “Dumpin’ Em In Ditches,” “Gas Chamber,” “187 He Wrote,” “Don’t Ring the Alarm (The Heist),” “Clip & The Trigga,” “Smoke Em Like a Blunt,” “380 On That Ass,” “Mo Mail,” “Runnin’ Out Da Crackhouse,” “Trigga Gots No Heart,” “Trigga Happy,” “RIP,” and “All He Wrote.”
There is not a single ray of light on this album. The number of bodies per second qualifies for serial killer status. They could’ve just played this for Robert Durst and he would’ve confessed years earlier. But this isn’t horror-core gimmickry. This is the East Bay gangsta, 22-years and already an OG. He not only knows where the bodies are buried, he pulled the trigger and disposed of the corpse. No fingerprints left behind.
What really separates the hard from the homicidal is a mission statement: one song to sum up the sociopath. 187 He Wrote has at least two. There’s “Running Out the Crack House,” where Spice goes on a mission in search of the enemies who killed his friend. He gets caught and spits in the retinas of a crooked cop trying to steal his drug money. They sic a K-9 on him, take him downtown, and ask him to snitch. All the while, the crack rocks have been stashed in his mouth. He swept the 1993 Street Pulitzers.
Then there’s “Trigga Gots No Heart,” the hardest song from the hardest soundtrack from one of the hardest movies ever made (Menace II Society). Just watch the video and realize that O-Dawg was taking tips from Spice. Oh, and ‘Pac called 187 He Wrote the hardest album ever recorded. You calling him a liar? —Jeff Weiss
Come back early next week to find out which album is named the Hardest of all time,
and also to read the rest of the write-ups