Think of the first James Bond movie you ever saw as a kid. Was the opening action sequence, a staple of the franchise, not the most thrilling thing your young eyes had ever witnessed? In a few short minutes you learned everything you needed to know about 007: he’s clever, he’s lethal, he has toys cooler than anything your parents let you buy, he has women you can only dream of, and he never ever gets hit by the innumerable bullets shot at him. Those crafty escape or chase sequences set the tone for the rest of the film, bringing you right into the action without giving you a chance to catch your breath and steady yourself.
Similarly, the opening track on an album is a crucial component to the overall listening experience. Unfortunately in hip hop, there is the bizarre tendency to begin albums with pointless yammering, unfunny skits, or weak tracks that the listener will end up skipping on every subsequent run-through. This list is a compilation of opening tracks that avoid those pitfalls. A great opening song sets the mood, brings the listener into the world of the album, and begins things with a bang. As a rule, I didn’t count songs that aren’t officially the first track that pops up on your CD player (sorry “N.Y. State of Mind,” “Magic Number,” and “Bring the Noise”). So with that in mind, let us begin our discussion of the best openers in hip hop history. Hit the jump...
10) “Reality Check” by Binary Star off Masters of the Universe
This is one of my favorite songs to blow the minds of hip hop newcomers with. At first things sound pretty generic: some light piano playing over a basic beat backdrop. Then, about a minute in, One Be Lo (back then known as One Man Army) begins his astoundingly well-crafted opening verse over a phenomenal beat switch and there’s no turning back. Both he and Senim Silla rap like they have absolutely nothing to lose and each intricate verse is full of enough rewind-worthy moments that the four minute song becomes more like a seven minute dissection of cadence, rhyme structure, and wordplay. A truly impeccable way to begin one of the greatest lyrical albums of all time, “Reality Check” is guaranteed to floor even the most seasoned of listeners.
9) “Good Morning” by Cage off Hell’s Winter
As we’ll see later on in this list, El-P is an absolute master at creating opening songs. Musically, the track begins with what can best be described as the sounds of an Arctic wasteland bleeding into a haunting and distorted voice wishing the listener a good morning, a left-field combination that sounds a lot better in stereo than it reads on paper. Then, after building the tension for a full minute, El Producto releases his pounding drums and Cage absolutely rips the rock-infused beat to shreds. “Homeless cardboard cribs, cops shoot civilians/ Vendors, rap stars, Wall Street billions,” he begins, ripping the listener from the comfort of his or her headphones and thrust them into a gritty and frightening New York City. This album showcases Cage at his undeniable best, as he strikes the perfect balance between the drug-induced imagery of his earlier releases and the rocker attitude of his follow-ups. If anyone has plans on shooting a movie in New York and has the budget for the rights to this song, I couldn’t imagine a better track to use for an opening scene.
8) “Latyrx” by Latyrx off Latyrx: The Album
Okay, that label for the eponymous song to a self-titled album is a little clumsy, a fitting description since this song is sure to trip up new listeners. DJ Shadow provides the beat; if that bit of information doesn’t get you excited than I’m not sure what will. The real draw here, however, is the (literal) combination of rhymes spit by Lateef and Lyrics Born. The rhymes dizzyingly overlap one another, as the first few minutes of the song contains separate verses simultaneously coming out of each headphone channel. Entirely disorienting upon first listen, it helps to have the CD insert in hand to follow along with what’s being said in each verse (another reason why it’s better to buy than steal music). This song also gains points for being the perfect litmus test for listeners; if you find yourself turned off by the weirdness, than this masterpiece Solesides release simply isn’t for you and you might as well move on to something else. As was previously said, a good opening places you right in the world of the album, and nowhere is this done more effectively and jarringly than with “Latyrx.”
7) “You Know My Steez” by Gang Starr off Moment of Truth
“Who’s the suspicious character strapped with the sound profound?” begins Guru on the opening track to Gang Starr’s classic 1998 release. Unlike the previous entries on this list, there are no gimmicks here: no weird vocal samples, no long beat buildups, no tricky rhyme styles. This track is straightforward hip hop, pure and simple, one that is infinitely quotable and mesmerizing. I remember being in the eighth grade and walking around the halls before classes started, listening to Moment of Truth for the first time. I’ve had a handful of quasi-religious musical experiences in my life, and hearing “You Know My Steez” for the first time was one of them. I kept rewinding the track back and playing it over and over, afraid that there was no way the rest of the album could live up to how great the opening was (I was, thankfully, embarrassingly wrong). There’s nothing new I can say about Gang Starr that you all haven’t already heard, so I won’t even try to touch upon their legacy and impact. I just know that for me, personally, this song marked a turning point in my fledgling hip hop listening habits and for that I am forever thankful to Premier and Guru (R.I.P.).
6) “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” by El-P off I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
For the longest time, I hated El-P’s music. Sure, I recognized that he had some unique beats but I could never fully immerse myself in his rhyming style enough to give his music much of a chance. All this changed when I heard “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” for the first time, the opening track to one of the most inventive, dark, beautiful, and surprising hip hop albums ever (yes, ever) released. At seven minutes, it’s by far the longest song on this list, but it is also perhaps the most engaging. The sadness, anger, and paranoia conveyed by El-P combine to create a jaw-dropping and epic retelling of bumping into an old friend on the subway. I can’t even begin to describe the beat, which is the sort of the haunting and rock-driven track that only El-P is able to pull off. Though the chorus is sung, all the anguish contained in it makes you feel like it should be screamed. There is not a single wasted moment over the course of the seven minutes, as El’s lightening fast delivery and musical changeups will certainly require multiple listens to digest and interpret. While I can’t say that this album is for everyone, anyone who wants a listening experience unlike anything else they’ve encountered in the hip hop world should throw this track on and see what dark emotions it stirs up.
5) “Put It On" by Big L off Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous
Perfect flow. Hilarious punchlines. Crisp delivery. “Put It On” showcases the Big L at his most clever and serves as the perfect opening track to his 1995 album. Some revisionist may label him a one-trick pony, a rapper overly reliant on funny lines and cute rhyme schemes who avoids deeper and more “meaningful” songs. Fuck that noise. Fronting like that will get half the bones in your body broken, as L himself says. Not every rapper has to delve into world politics, make elaborate allegorical tracks, or comment on the state of American society. Some rappers are good at one thing: spitting bars. And L happens to be incredible at it. The beat instantly transports the listener back to the golden era of hip hop, and L’s style sounds as smooth today as it ever did. While not the best song on this incredible album, “Put It On” sets the tone exceptionally well and let’s new listeners know exactly what to expect.
4) “Bring Da Ruckus” by Wu-Tang Clan off Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
“Bring Da Ruckus” was the first rap song I ever learned every word to. I can’t even describe how I felt when I first heard it, except that I was very sure my parents would not be happy with what their only song was blasting through his headphones on those rides to school. There is no better way to introduce someone to the power of the Wu than this track: the movie sample, minimal beat, and aggressive demeanor are all classic trademarks of the group. Then, of course, there are the lyrics. Ghostface, Raekwon, and GZA all showcase the best of their microphone abilities, but as it is on many Wu efforts, Deck steals the show. As much as I love the opening two verses, I remember always twitching in anticipation for the beat to drop out and Deck to come in with, “I rip it, hardcore like porno-flick bitches/ I roll with groups of ghetto bastards with biscuits/ Check it, my method on the microphone’s bangin’/Wu-Tang slang’ll leave your headpiece hangin’.” 36 Chambers was one of the first rap albums I ever bought, and those bars forever made me a fan. While everyone probably has a different favorite song off this seminal release, I’ll always be partial to this exceptional opening track.
3) “Iron Galaxy” by Cannibal Ox off The Cold Vein
Yes, I recognize that I’m ranking this ahead of some undeniable hip hop classics. I however refuse to apologize for doing so; this track is unbelievable. The beat, again concocted by El-P, is both space age and gritty and must be heard on a great pair of headphones to be truly appreciated. But the real stars of the show here are the emcees: Vordul Mega and Vast Aire. Hearing Vordul’s long opening verse for the first time is quite the experience, as his unique style and obscure imagery make for a startling beginning to the album. As much as I love the way his rhymes and lines tumble into one another, the true heart-stopping moment here is when Vast Aire begins his first. By the time he gets a few lines in and says, “You were a still-born baby: momma didn’t want you but you was still born,” I completely lost my mind. Nobody with a delivery that methodical should ever be that gripping, but Vast somehow defies all logic and pulls it off. The Cold Vein has come to epitomize white/backpacker/hipster/whatever-pejorative-you-choose hip hop, and while that label may not be desirable in a hip hop universe obsessed with keeping things “real” and “street,” it serves as a testament as to how incredible the album is. Though released over a decade ago, “Iron Galaxy” still sounds ahead of its time, and while Can Ox may never release another album together at least they’ll have this masterpiece always to their name.
2) “Liquid Swords” by GZA off Liquid Swords
As I hinted at in the opening paragraph, I’m not a fan of albums starting off with skits or extended vocal samples. If I wanted to be talked at, I’d tune into the radio dammit. But “Liquid Swords” is an exception, as the terrifying child recounts the story of her father for the first minute of the song. As a fan of horror movies, very few things give me goosebumps and creep me out and this song sure did the first time I heard it. There has never been a more atmospheric opening track, nor a song that does a better job enveloping the listener into the upcoming album experience. Throw in a stellar RZA beat and the normal lyrical prowess of GZA and you have an absolute classic on your hands. Liquid Swords is one of the best Wu solo releases (right up there with the first Only Built 4 Cuban Linx), and the title track opens things marvelously. Cinematic, tense, and disturbing, “Liquid Swords” is not for the faint of heart or the easily frightened.
Okay, so I wasn’t around when this album dropped. Everything I know about its cultural and musical impact has come from documentaries, interviews, and my personal conversations with older rap fans. So while I recognize “Straight Outta Compton” as a groundbreaking song, it’s appeal to me has less to do with how revolutionary it was and more with how it is, well, a damn good song. It’s one thing for people who were in their teen years at the time to remember every word to this track. It’s another that people my age, who maybe weren’t even conceived when the song first hit airwaves, only need the prompting of “Straight outta Compton: a crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube” to rattle off the rest of the lyrics without breaking a sweat. That speaks volumes to the staying power and appeal of this track, as I’ll be the first to admit that most hip hop fans my age are woefully ignorant about the artists that paved the way for the culture to be as it is today. There’s a tangible energy to this song that you just don’t get in tracks currently, a buzzing anger and threatening demeanor that is equal parts disconcerting and alluring. A requisite listen for any hip hop fan, Straight Outta Compton is in the pantheon of greatest hip hop albums ever, and there is no better way to set the tone than with this powerful and hard-hitting opener.