The year 2015 in hip-hop, as diagnosed by Complex Magazine, is the year of “no hits” and “long, complicated albums”. Now, whether or not you’re on board with this recent strain of music, there is a lot to be said about the density of concept albums hip-hop has seen in the past.
So for this week at StyleFreely, we present: The 10 best hip-hop concept albums of all time:
10.) Buhloone Mindstate – De La Soul
The concept: ego and popularity.
Why we chose it: for a group with as much mounting popularity as De La Soul to release this eccentric, difficult album just goes to show how ballsy they were. The album’s mantra, “It might blow up but it won’t go pop” is threaded throughout, describing the tendency in musicians to “sell out” once their status grows – something De La rejects entirely. The songs “I Be Blowin'” and “I Am I Be”, featuring saxophonist Maceo Parker, are less concerned with accessible sounds than long jazz interludes. More extreme examples of their defiance are the Japanese verses on “Long Island Wildin'”, and the group’s psychotic screaming on “Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)”. The latter song also features a satirical music video taking shots on gangsta rap: the subtitle, “it’s a rental” is shown as Trugoy the Dove rolls around in a fancy car with a posse of women.
9.) Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030
The concept: a lone computer genius turned rapper does battle against oppressive intergalactic forces in the year 3030.
Why we chose it: between Dan the Automator/Kid Koala’s spacey production and Del’s vivid imagery, scenes of Orwellian horror become fully rendered in our heads. Del’s character, Deltron Zero, as described in ‘Mastermind”, is “Truly gifted in the matters of rhythm“, and uses this gift to take on the evildoers mentioned in “Turbulence (Remix)”. Dystopian tropes like “brainwashing”, the global “elite”, and strictly enforced curfews create an overall sense of desperation and hopelessness. One of the most fully realized and textured stories ever conceptualized on a rap record.
8.) Undun – The Roots
The concept: the crimes and death of fictional drug dealer, Redford Stevens – all told in reverse.
Why we chose it: just like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, or Nas’ “Rewind“, the reverse chronology in Undun creates a unique and poignant experience. Beginning with the quiet sleep of death on “Dun”, “Sleep” and “Make My”, and ending with contemplations of his urban childhood in “I Remember” and “Tip the Scale”, Redford’s story is that of an impoverished man with his back against the wall. The somber production supports the bleak subject matter throughout, and the album ends with a three-track instrumental tableau of freeform jazz and orchestration. It truly feels like a red curtain has closed on this brief tale.
7.) The Cool – Lupe Fiasco
The concept: a zombie street hustler is tempted by a woman, The Streets, and a jealous thug, The Game, murders him.
Why we chose it: jam-packed with intricate double-entendres, puns and metaphors, this dense album will have any listener mining Genius.com for meaning, rewarding multiple listens. Understood to be the protagonist from Food and Liquor‘s “The Cool”, Michael Young History is an undead man who is subject to the allure of The Streets, who promises wealth and fame. Though the story concept is loose, the album does skewer much of what rap culture considers “cool”: violence/guns in “Little Weapon”, thoughtlessness in “Dumb It Down”, etc. The story ends with “The Die”, where Michael is gunned down by the very forces that he was attracted to in the first place – a powerful message about the encompassing world of hustling.
6.) The Minstrel Show – Little Brother
The concept: a satirical TV minstrel show for the new millennium (à la Spike Lee’s Bamboozled).
Why we chose it: in light of the rumor that BET denied showing Little Brother’s music videos because they were “too intelligent”, this album’s already-critical view of mainstream rap culture is even more appropriate. Phonte, Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder’s fictional TV channel, UBN (U Black N*ggas Network), lays waste to exploitive, dumbed-down culture in the tongue-in-cheek song, “Cheatin”, and the skit, “5 & Fashion”, depicting a boutique where you can buy “Gucci sweaters”, “breast milk” and “make child support payments“. But as scathing as its commentary is, it doesn’t derail the enjoyment of the sheer lyrical and production mastery at work. Perhaps the group’s finest achievement.
5.) A Prince Among Thieves – Prince Paul
The concept: a young up-and-coming rapper is led into a life of drug dealing to fund his debut mixtape.
Why we chose it: it’s quite possibly the purest example of a rap-opera ever made. Kool Keith, Big Daddy Kane, Xzibit and others are in tow – but they are not rapping as themselves, they are portraying roles in the story. Highlights include a rap-version Cell Block Tango with Xzibit, Sadat X and Kid Creole playing prison inmates telling their stories of conviction and incarceration. But perhaps the highest moment is the track, “The Men in Blue”, a manifesto rapped by a crooked cop (played by House of Pain’s Everlast) about his dirty hands and manipulation. A concept so good, it could be made into a movie.
4.) College Dropout – Kanye West
The concept: school, working minimum wage, being on your come-up.
Why we chose it: this is Kanye at his most relatable. From taking weed breaks while working a crappy retail job in “Spaceship” to leaving valedictorians in the dust in “School Spirit”, Kanye’s working-class hunger is the anthem of a self-made man chiseling away at his destiny. Now a media omnipresence, the album is a refreshing look at his humble beginnings: “I’m tryna get the car with the chrome wheels here, they tryna cut our lights out like we don’t live here” (“We Don’t Care”), “Doing five beats a day for three summers” (“Spaceship”), “Fit 3 in the bed while 6 of y’all, I’m talking three by the leg and three by the head” (“Family Business”). And, of course, Kanye’s production roots in soulful sampling is just timeless.
The concept: Kendrick’s escape from gang life and his rebirth in God.
Why we chose it: with only three years under his belt, Kendrick’s status as a storytelling genius was already achieved in short order with this 2013 release. Beginning in media res, the album draws us in with “Sherane (A.K.A. Master Splinter’s Daughter)”, a seemingly harmless intro about a love interest that ends abruptly with an ambush of two strangers in black hoodies. This duplicity of allure and danger is continued in “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, and eventually, Kendrick seeks an escape valve from this hostile environment. Motifs, such as his mother’s concerned voicemails, the van Kendrick borrowed from her, and a confessional prayer to God all tie the album together beautifully, painting a fully-realized narrative.
2.) Madvillainy – Madvillain
The concept: all things villainous.
Why we chose it: the marriage of DOOM’s evildoer alter ego and Madlib’s dusty samples makes for an off the wall hip-hop experience. The album begins with a premise, “America’s two most powerful villains of the next decade [are] turned loose to strike terror into the hearts of men” – a forewarning of the mercilessness of the lyrics and beats to come. The theme of villains continues in “Curls” (“Boom-bash leave the room with the stash, assume it’s in a smash, DOOM get the cash“) and “All Caps” (“All bets off, the Villain got the dice rigged“), as well as Madlib’s supply of vocal samples discussing the nature of villains. DOOM has an endless catalogue of aliases (Viktor Vaughn, King Gheedorah, etc.), but though they’re different, they share one thing: being troublemakers. And Madvillainy is where these bad habits converge.
1.) To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
The concept: Kendrick’s moral struggles in relation to the metaphor of the caterpillar and butterfly.
Why we chose it: as one of the best selling rap albums this year, as a topical release amidst the tension of Ferguson and Sanford, and for its Kendrick’s poignant, humbled message, To Pimp A Butterfly is crowned as the best concept hip-hop album to date. There are so many things that make this project great. The jazzy production, the “I remember you was conflicted” soliloquy-turned-monologue that snowballs throughout, the reinvented Tupac interview – but maybe the most resonant component is the caterpillar metaphor in “Mortal Man”. Kendrick uses the caterpillar to describe the resident of the streets, and the ability to become a butterfly if they free themselves from their “institutionalized” environment and gain knowledge for themselves, and others who are trapped.