Thursday, February 9, 2012

Top 10 Breakthrough Tracks

While I am a fan of every track on this list, this is not a typical “best-of” or “KG’s favorites” list.  These tracks may not be the first bit of recognition the artists received, but each song I’ve chosen here has had an immense impact on the artist’s career following the single.  So think of this more as a “Put Them On The Map” list.

10) Kid Cudi - Day N Nite

            Kid Cudi, back when he still sort of rapped, burst into commercial fame with “Day N Nite.”  Cudi seems to be one of those era-defining artists that, along with rappers like Drake and Kanye West, popularized an emotional rap transformation.  “Day N Nite” is right at the frontlines of the metamorphosis.  Released before 808s and Heartbreaks, and before Drake had even come on the rap map, Cudi’s “Day N Nite” is certainly an inspiring track for a new generation of emotionally inspired hip hop.  The song is now a milestone for hip-hop of the new millennium, and has produced more remixes than there are grains of sand in the world. 

9) Outkast – Players Ball

            This wasn’t the first that anyone had heard of Outkast, as they had turned some heads down south before releasing their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (which I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, is a masterpiece of southern rap and is unmatched by any group to follow).  “Player’s Ball” is too great to even pick apart and extract the best ingredients.  Let’s just say that the mix of computerized production and legitimate instrumentation is the closest that human ears will ever get to a heroin rush.  It’s got funk like hip hop had never seen before, and set the standard for a rap verse in the southern underground.  I tend not to like a lot of the southern stuff, but I’ll put this song on any time. 

8) SBTRKT – Wildfire

            This is a recent one, but I see it as integral to the current electronic world.  SBTRKT needed to ready the public before putting his album out, so he eased his production into the blog world.  Who better to help him do so than Yukimi Nagano, the universally adored singer of Little Dragon.  The intro to the beat confuses me the most.  How could such a simple drum line, made with simple 808 sounds, and no effects at all, hook me so instantly? All I needed to hear next was one terrifically out-of-nowhere “oooh” from Nagano to know that this song was the real deal.  “Wildfire” continues from the intro with a clean analog sound that makes everyone want to compare SBTRKT to dubstep artists, but the absence of the loud and gravelly, distorted tone makes all the difference.  Whereas a dubstep track would lead up to a chorus that sounds like someone added heavy bass and fuzz to the dial up sounds from AOL Instant Messenger (circa 2001), “Wildfire” turns into a beautiful partnership between the gorgeous voice of Yukimi Nagano, and the clean, savory production techniques of SBTRKT.  Plus it didn’t hurt that the song caught Drake’s ear, and his guest verse propelled SBTRKT into internet-fame. 

7) Gnarls Barkley – Crazy

I’ll be damned if I don’t mention Danger Mouse once in every article I ever write from here on out.  I swear this guy is one of the best producers in music.  Of All Time. Period.  Not only is Danger Mouse responsible for the production on The Black Keys’ Attack and Release and El Camino, but he has also produced for Beck, MF Doom, Gorillaz, Broken Bells, and The Rapture.  Danger and Cee Lo were meant for each other.  Cee Lo, who had previously been known for some of his solo work and his membership of the Goodie Mob, took his opportunity with Gnarls to get heavy.  “Crazy,” along with every other song on St. Elsewhere, illustrates Cee Lo’s ability to convey what kind of sick and deranged thoughts go through his head from time to time.  The appeal of the songs, however, are due to Cee Lo’s ability to tell us these thoughts in such a melodic and unique way.  Alas, his recent hit, Cee Lo writes “I see you driving round town with the girl I love and I’m like, fuck you,” which is unfortunately not nearly as deep.  In case you went deaf for most of 2006, “Crazy” is pretty much a scarce, dramatic, but fun ode to insanity, with the kind of chorus you could end up unexpectedly singing with the stranger next to you on a subway. 

6) Busta Rhymes – Woo Hah!

            Busts is still wacko, and we love it.  However, nowadays he seems to have slowed down a bit in terms of energy and abstractness.  Perhaps he is just getting older and wiser, or perhaps he gave up doing meth or something, but his untamed and psychotic spirit is missed.  I would love to see the wavelength of an old Busta Rhymes song being recorded in the studio.  It must be all over the place.  He gets loud, quiet, fast, slow, scary, and calming all in one line of lyrics.  I’ll let Busta do his quick, indecipherable rambling (I mean that in a good way) on his newer tracks, but I’ll never forget what crazy ol’ Busta sounds like over a Large Pro beat.

5) Clipse – Grindin’

            I seriously believe that The Neptunes are some of the most untouchable producers of all time.  I put them with Danger Mouse in the admire-to-the-point-of-obsession category.  As if the beat didn’t stand alone, “Grindin’” has some of the coolest sounding verses of the 2000s.  This was way back before Pusha went solo and tried to dramatize his image a bit more, and before Malice got all religious on us.  AKA – the top of their game.  I didn’t get into rap until 2006, when I was 16.  In fact, I hated rap before I was 16.  However, “Grindin,’” released during the bar mitzvah era of my life, was one of the ONLY rap songs I enjoyed prior to 2006.  Other contenders include: “CREAM” by Wu Tang and the following entry. 

4) Blackstar – Definition

            I don’t even know how to introduce this one.  It simply has everything you want in a hip hop song.  Dope beat (courtesy of Hi Tek): check.  Singable chorus: check.  New, fresh sound & rappers: check.  The song has SO much going for it.  One of the most satisfying factors of the track is that it dances on the line between commercial and underground rap, a feat nearly every rapper wishes to accomplish.  Not only did it perfectly represent the conscious rap movement in the late 90s, but it also helped launch the careers of two of the most respected rappers of all time: Talib Kweli and Mos Def.  I’ve met Kweli and Mos haters (yes, these assholes actually exist somewhere in the world), but even they love “Definition” and know almost all of the lyrics.  I cry at night when I think of where hip hop would be if this song were never released. 

3) RJD2 – Ghostwriter

            Unfortunately, this track may have done a bit of damage to RJD2’s career, as it tends to hog the fame given to his debut album “Deadringer.”  But don’t feel too bad for RJ, he’s doing just fine.  “Deadringer,” a fantastic (mostly) instrumental album, showcases RJD2’s extraordinary knack for percussion, his complex use of vinyl and the MPC, and his curiously detailed approach to soul-influenced alternative hip hop.  “Ghostwriter” is the sort of song that you might play during a parade, if the parade were being thrown for John Waters, or Quentin Tarantino, or some other creepy cultural figure.  The chorus is epic, the verse is tame, the guitar is static but gripping, and the drums stick out because they don’t stick out.  Genius. 

2) Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – They Reminisce Over You (TROY)

            Even if I didn’t idolize PR and CL, I would have to by default because they are from the same area of NY that I am (914, what what!).  Luckily they made songs like “They Reminisce Over You,” so putting them on a pedestal is not too tough for me.  This would be another track that I have yet to find any haters of, and I have discussed it ad nauseam with several people, hip hop fans and haters alike.  I tend to be a sucker for a good intro, and Pete Rock is a fan of the hip hop prelude, which, in this case, sets the tone for the song without sounding remotely like it five seconds later.  “TROY” is dedicated to Troy Dixon, a friend of both CL and Pete Rock’s who passed away prior to the release of their debut Mecca and Soul Brother.  Perhaps the sentiments are heard through CL’s lyrics, but Pete Rock’s production is what has always carried the duo, and this track is no exception.  PR knows exactly when to drop the beat, throw the horns in full effect, double up on the snare drum, suck the bass out, inject it back in, etc.  He kills it, track after track, and “TROY” is still referenced left and right in current hip hop/media. 

1) Jay Electronica – Exhibit C

            Where the fuck is Jay at???  He came on the scene quickly and in great style, and disappeared just as fast.  I like to think that he is quietly recording his debut album, which will astound our collective ears once he releases it.  Sadly, it is more likely that he missed the window and is sitting on some great material that not enough listeners care about.  Whatever the case, “Exhibit C” may as well be it’s own career.  Produced by the legendary Just Blaze, “Exhibit C” is the ideal blank canvas for an intelligent and visual rapper like Jay Electronica, who absolutely slaughters the beat.  You’ll notice that I haven’t listed lyrics for any of the songs on this list.  It is because I wanted to save it for this one, and show you the full force of Jay’s lyrics.  “Call me Jay Electronica, fuck that.  Call me Jay Elec-Hanukah, Jay Elec-Yamaka, Jay ElecRamadan, Muhammad Asalaamica RasoulAllah, Supana Watallah through your monitor,” are lyrics delivered in such a mesmerizing breathless marathon-style that I shiver with every listen.  Jay really tries when he writes.  Most rappers say “I was broke,” but Jay instead writes “without even a single slice of pizza to my name.”  Rappers say “I speak the truth,” but Jay writes “so now I’m back spittin’ that he-could-pass-a-polygraph.”   I think Jay has it in him and I still expect to see more of him in the future, but if this is his lasting legacy, I won’t complain one bit.  

Ken Glauber