Graduation – Kanye West (2007)

Graduation - Kanye West (2007)

Kanye West toured with U2 at one point. Inspired by U2’s ability to lead arena crowds in song, Kanye decided that he wanted to make hip-hop music that could inspire arena crowds to do the same. The result of this decision was Graduation, which takes a more electronic vibe than Kanye’s previous two efforts. Graduation is pretty unique due to Kanye’s ambitions. I don’t think an arena crowd has the ability to rap an entire song along with Kanye, but for some reason this album makes me feel like I could. The flow isn’t new, but his beats certainly are.

Choice Cut: I Wonder

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Illmatic – Nas (1994)

Illmatic - Nas (1994)

As an MBA student, I can appreciate Nas’ desire to hustle. One of the major themes in this historically significant, lyrically complicated rap album is upward mobility. Poverty is ugly and Nas wants out, even if it means giving up sleep, the “cousin of death” that it is. But Illmatic is no mere business plan or marketing presentation. Nas was just twenty years old when he made this album, so he was facing the conflict of giving up childhood and facing adulthood – a very relatable feeling. Plus, the rhymes are smart and the beats are snappy. Pick this up!

Choice Cut: The World is Yours
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A Bothered Mind – R.L. Burnside (2004)

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“R.L. Burnside! I do what I want!” Those first words on the album are all the justification I need for a septuagenarian blues singer to let others mix, scratch, beat, and rap over his Howlin’ Wolf-style swagger. A Bothered Mind is relentlessly modern and unapologetically a novelty. It’s evidence that this old man didn’t just love the music he grew up with, but music in general and all the new ideas that sprung up with time. I aspire to have that attitude as I slide into old age over the next five or six decades.

Choice Cut: Someday Baby
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Schmo Mechanics – Glow Mechanics (2014)

Schmo Mechanics - Glow Mechanics (2014)

The Glow Mechanics are easily one of my favorite indie groups. One of the fantastic advantages of rap as a musical style is the ability to engage in complicated wordplay. It hearkens back to poetry…except with the added element of carseat-rattling beats. Let Schmo Mechanics spin you a yarn.  This is intellectual rap underscored by snappy, clean, airy beats. It’s smart rap over elevator music and it simply works. Alex and I have digged this duo big-time since we found their slick debut Introducing… in 2013 (which is free and definitely worth your 15 minutes).

Choice Cut: Aloft
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36 Chambers – Wu-Tang Clan (1993)

36 Chambers – Wu-Tang Clan (1993)

Infinitely quotable and instantly recognizable, the Wu-Tang Clan has been referenced by people from Eminem to Rhett & Link. Considering how 36 Chambers references old kung-fu movies, Dr. Seuss, Family Feud, Lucky Charms, and myriad other pieces pop culture ephemera, it’s almost like the circle of life. This record is simultaneously ugly, low-fi, hardcore, nasty and absolutely, shockingly brilliant. It’s a snapshot of parts of humanity that people don’t like seeing like the morbid humor of their skits (“And stab the shit with a rusty screwdriver! Blow!”) and tales of poverty and desperation (CREAM). It’s not for the easily offended.

Choice Cut: C.R.E.A.M.
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Late Registration – Kanye West (2004)

Late Registration - Kanye West (2004)

Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout was fresh and exciting in the world of hip-hop. West’s follow up, Late Registration, proved to be even more fresh and exciting. The amount of growth that West made in a year and a half between the albums is amazing. Featuring deeper and more personal lyrics along with better production. The production on this album ranges from songs like Touch The Sky that is very danceable to Crack Music which has a more gangsta rap sound to it. Late Registration might not be West’s best, but it is like none of his others.

Choice Cut: Hey Mama
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Paul’s Boutique – Beastie Boys (1989)

Paul's Boutique – Beastie Boys (1989)

After Licensed to Ill (and especially hit singles Fight for Your Right and Brass Monkey), the Beastie Boys had a hard time shaking their party boy reputation. Paul’s Boutique was a complicated, seamy, low-fidelity riddle of an album that initially flopped. Shifting from rapping about cheap beer to old movies, Biblical metaphors, and creative violence is a hard sell for a marketing rep. They even slipped in a Johnny Cash reference. After dozens of listens, I still catch unnoticed references and background samples. The lyrical references are like a Russian nesting doll – layers on layers.

Choice Cut: Car Thief
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