As someone with the relatively hipster tendency to only listen to albums as complete wholes, I must say that many hip hop releases stretch the limits of my patience. I don’t know what it is about the genre that makes the artists believe that their fans want nothing more than to hear an album full of painfully unfunny skits, garbage attempts at crossover singles, redundant posse tracks, and a slew of ‘”bonus” songs that weren’t good enough to be integrated into the sequence of the actual album so they become tacked on haphazardly at the end. There are too many quality releases that become ruined by this flood of filler material, as artists seem hell-bent on giving listeners nothing more than the longest album possible.
This list is inspired by the artists who avoid this common pitfall and who create albums that are quick listening experiences rather than lengthy auditory journeys. These are the albums that you can listen to in their entirety without devoting a large chunk of your busy schedule to them. All entries are under 45 minutes because, well, 45 seemed like a good number. Pretty scientific, huh? In a culture that lives by bigger being always better, it’s time that these streamlined releases receive the shine they deserve. Please feel free to debate, argue, refute, criticize, or even, if you feel inclined, praise this list and the rankings in the comments below.
10) Dangerdoom: The Mouse and the Mask (39:50)
Any night owl with a penchant for, well, White Owls, is likely familiar with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Home to some of the oddest, most depraved, and funniest shows on television, this block of late-night programming seems like the last place where one would expect a hip concept album to derive inspiration from. Yet that is exactly where the tandem of Dangerdoom, composed of left-field rhyme maestro MF Doom and the gifted producer Danger Mouse, gathered most of their material for their acclaimed 2005 release. The album is replete with sound bites from Adult Swim classics (including Sealab 2021 and Harvey Birdman) as well guest appearances from Aqua Teen’s Master Shake, who leaves a series of increasingly pissed-off (and increasingly hilarious) voicemail messages scattered throughout the tracks. While those unfamiliar with the source material may be a little lost, the quirky rhymes of MF Doom, the great guest verses by Ghostface Killah and Talib Kweli, and the incredible beats by Danger Mouse (especially the Cee-Lo assisted “Benzie Box”) are enough to satisfy any hip hop fan. hit the jump...
9) Murs: Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition (35:14)
While their follow-up efforts were a little underwhelming, the duo of Murs and 9th Wonder released one of the best albums of 2004 with Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition. The album features 9th during his peak as a producer; I dare you to find a single beat in here that doesn’t make your head nod instantly (I’m especially drawn to the beautiful vocal samples on the back-to-back “”Walk Like A Man” and “And This is For…”). Yet the star of the show is Murs, who manages to juggle being humorous (the laugh-out-loud funny “Freak These Tales”), heartfelt (“The Pain”), and even a little raunchy (“Bad Man!”). Whether he’s sharing tales of struggling to get by on the inspiring “H-U-S-T-L-E” or ripping mics with Phonte on “The Animal,” there isn’t one moment where Murs stops spitting his heart out. Both quotable and easy to relate to, 3:16 is a quick listen that is worth repeated spins by even the most jaded of listeners.
8) Bone Thugs-N-Harmony: Creepin’ On Ah Come Up EP (29:46)
Of all the albums to make this list, Bone Thug’s debut is the one full of the most “wasted space.” If you take out the intro, the creepy yet unessential “Mr. Ouija,” and the “Moe Cheese” instrumental outro, the total running time is under 25 minutes. Yet those 25 minutes are heart stopping and breath taking; while I’ve never loved Bone Thugs as much as other rap fans, their talent displayed here is undeniable and unique. “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” is, in my book, required listening for any new rap fan; the combination of the eerie synth and their rapid-fire flows is an amazing listening experience. With only one guest appearance (from the late Eazy-E), the EP has a cohesive sound and style that must have absolutely blow minds back in 1994. It’s not a pleasant listening experience, as dark and violent imagery pervade throughout, yet one that is infinitely satisfying for those days when you just want to throw your headphones on and scowl at pedestrians.
7) Aesop Rock: Daylight EP (37:23)
I can’t image how sick and tired Aesop Rock is of performing “Daylight,” a track that everyone who is just delving into underground hip hop acts like they are the first person to discover. Yet while it’ll continue to be, for better or worse, his most beloved song, I’d argue that it isn’t even the best track on this 2002 EP. The honor goes to the spectacular, grimy, frigid, hopeless, and angry “Nickel Plated Pockets,” a track that everyone should throw on their MP3 players and walk around a city in the nighttime listening to. Seriously, you owe it to yourself. There’s a lot more here to love as well, including the excellent instrumental “Forest Crunk” and the creative lyrical reversal of “Daylight” entitled, predictably, “Night Light” (which I’ve grown to play far more than the original). The EP also features what is perhaps Aesop’s most personal track, the heart-wrenching bonus cut “One of Four” in which he describes his mental breakdown and thanks the close friends that helped him survive through the dark times. While his style certainly isn’t for everyone, taking the required time to dissect every line and fumble over every obscure image is truly a rewarding experience, one that is especially manageable in sub-40 minute bite-sized portions.
6) Jurassic 5: Jurassic 5 EP (22:06)
Back in the days of the original Playstation, I was obsessed with a game called Grind Session. Despite being a shameless Tony Hawk knockoff in terms of gameplay mechanics, the game featured an amazing soundtrack that introduced me to hip hop for the first time. Appearing on one of the levels was the undeniably catchy “Jayou,” a short track that showcases J5 at their absolute finest. This EP is the shortest entry on this list, yet is the one that provides perhaps the most fun listening experience. From the opening “In The Flesh” through the classics “Concrete Schoolyard” and “Action Satisfaction,” there isn’t a moment on here that won’t make you smile. Forget those who claim that J5 was corny or that their whole “throwback” style was lame, they made undeniably enjoyable hip hop that sounded like nothing else while retaining positivity and levity in their music. Also, all aspiring DJs and vinyl collectors should study “Lesson 6: The Lecture,” a track the reminds listeners at how talented both Cut Chemist and Nu-mark are.
5) The Roots: How I Got Over (41:44)
There is not a single album I played more in 2010 than How I Got Over, and it isn’t even close. While many Roots fans may argue that this album represented a step in the wrong direction for the band, who abandoned their more traditional hip hop sound that they displayed on Game Theory and Rising Down, I’d say that HIGO is one of their best releases right up their with the likes of Things Fall Apart and Illadelph Halflife. The sequencing is phenomenal, as each track flows effortlessly into the next, and the music has a refreshing rock influence that sounds perfectly natural in the capable hands of the group. From bleak (“Walk Alone” and “Dear God 2.0”) to inspirational (“Now or Never” and “The Day”), the album covers all the emotional bases you can imagine, all of which are handled masterfully by Black Thought. I don’t think there is a single emcee in rap today quite at his level of talent, as tracks like “The Fire” and the bumpin’ “Web 20/20” demonstrate; he truly is a monster on the microphone. Creative and innovative, How I Got Over represents what hip hop in this day and age should be like: combining traditional skillful rhymes with outside-the-box production that adapts to and draws from the ever-changing landscape of contemporary music.
4) AZ: Doe or Die (44:53)
You want to say that AZ never lived quite up to the impossibly high bar he set for himself on “Life’s a Bitch?” Fine, I’ll give you that. But I’ll be damned if you claim that he never dropped a dope album that displayed his immense talents. Doe or Die, his 1995 debut, is a hands-down classic in my opinion. His style is an instruction manual on how to flow, as he easily strings together elaborate rhymes and vivid descriptions with uncanny smoothness. The tracks “Gimme Yours” and “Rather Unique” are essential listening, as AZ absolutely destroys two of Pete Rock’s best beats. There’s also the epic collaboration with Nas, “Mo Money, Mo Murder,” which may not be on part with their classic track from Illmatic but is damn close. I feel like this album always gets left out of discussions of mid-90’s New York masterpieces, which is a tragedy. AZ never became a multi-platinum superstar and many of his subsequent releases were bogged down by weak production, but Doe or Die is proof enough that he deserves recognition as one of the most technically proficient and lyrically gifted emcees of his (or any) era.
3) The Beastie Boys: License to Ill (44:24)
In case you’ve somehow forgotten, look at some of the tracks from this seminal release: “Rhymin & Stealin,” “She’s Crafty,” “Girls,” “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party),” “No Sleep till Brooklyn,” “Paul Revere,” “Hold It, Now Hit It,” and “Brass Monkey.” Holy. Shit. That is an absolutely murderous lineup of songs. Whatever your opinion is on The Beastie Boys (though I’d be dumbfounded to hear that someone doesn’t like their music), I’ll bet you anything that you’ve shamelessly bugged out and danced wildly to one of those songs at least once in your life. Though decades old, License to Ill doesn’t sound as nearly as dated as some of the other releases of the era due to the timeless nature of the Beastie’s humor and energy. Far from hardcore, gritty lyricists, The Beastie Boys showed how hip hop didn’t necessarily need the “street” element in order to be credible, exceptional, and popular. While some of their later releases are more experimental and creative, License to Ill can’t be ignored as an amazing debut that forever altered the hip hop landscape.
2) Blackalicious: A2G EP (24:52)
While not a classic in the same sense as some of the other entries on this list, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t include this gem of an EP near the top of countdown. While this wasn’t the first hip hop purchase I made (that honor, somewhat embarrassingly, goes to Spiritual Minded by KRS-One), but this was the one that made me love the genre. Gift of Gab is, for my hard-earned, sweat-soaked dollar, the best pound-for-pound rapper in the world. I’m not talking about number legendary songs or overall status/impact in the hip hop culture pantheon, I’m talking about pure rhyming ability. Nobody else can pull off lyrical feats like “A to G” or “Alphabet Aerobics” (yeah, I’m looking at you Papoose), craft a catchy cautionary tale like “Deception” (aided by superb production from group member Chief Xcel and a great sing-along chorus), and demonstrate uplifting positivity as showcased on “Making Progress” like Gab. Nobody. There is no way to pick a favorite from amongst the seven songs here; I’d venture to say that unlike any other album I own, this one may be the only that is truly “perfect” with not a single wasted second. While their full-length releases garner the most acclaim, A2G is Blackalicious at their streamlined best. If you haven’t had the chance to listen, I promise it’ll be the best 25 minutes of your day.
1) Nas: Illmatic (39:44)
Did you really think something else was going to be number one? It boggles my mind that there are people who I know, who I see and speak to on a daily basis, that have never heard this album. There is no arguable way you can claim to be a hip hop fan, even a slight one, and not have this in your collection. That’s straight up criminal. This album is endlessly quotable and never gets old despite my seemingly infinite number of listens. The formula is simple; Nas raps solo, besides the legendary AZ guest appearance on “Life’s a Bitch,” over some of the most timeless beats crafted by the creme de la creme of early 1990′s hip hop producers (Q-Tip, Premier, Pete Rock, etc.). It’s a superlative lyrical performance unlike anything you’ve heard before or will ever hear again and the album that overshadows every subsequent Nas release. It’s literally flawless, containing perfect verses and masterful sequencing, and is well deserving of the best rap album of all time moniker.
Non Hip Hop Honorable Mentions
The Slew-100% (38:34)
Kraftwerk-Die Mensch Maschine (36:18)
Yppah-You Are Beautiful At All Times (37:11)
The Black Keys-Rubber Factory (41:30)
Herbie Hancock-Head Hunters (41:52)