A rapper never waits until track 3 or 4 to pull you in; hip-hop has no patience for that. They only get one chance to make a first impression, and the album’s opening song is their moment to shine. In order to rank the 20 greatest album-openers of the past 20 years, we’ll measure their importance by focusing on four things.
- Did it serve as a cultural explosion? (NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton”) — The track single-handedly created a new hip-hop subgenre (Gangsta Rap), as a group of South Central-bred rappers blew the doors off of the music industry.
- Did it kickstart a rapper’s career? (Nas’ “NY State of Mind”) — The song is the ultimate portrayal of mid-’90s New York, seen through the eyes of a then-20 year-old growing up in the gang-infested environment of the Queensbridge projects. The track introduced us to Nas, an MC who embodied Slick Rick’s masterful story-telling and Rakim’s lyricism.
- Does it encapsulate and set the stage for the rapper’s style? (Dr. Dre’s “Fuck Wit Dre Day”) — The epic opener off Dre’s debut, The Chronic, introduced the world to G-Funk; a sound that would serve as the blueprint for every West Coast rapper, while its influence reached as far as the East Coast.
- Does it exist as a time-capsule for where the rapper was at that point of their career? (2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az a Ridah”) — The dark, yet triumphant opener to 2Pac’s post-prison release, All Eyez on Me, was the beginning of an ensuing march toward his tragic death; as the murder ballad birthed the Death Row era-2Pac.
With these parameters set, here are the 20 greatest album-openers of the last 20 years.
20. J. Cole “Too Deep For the Intro” (2010)
Album: Friday Night Lights
Months after blowing up with his 2009 mixtape, The Warm Up, J. Cole signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. Throughout 2010, his peers (Drake, Wale, B.o.B, Kid Cudi) released their debut albums, while Cole’s was hung up by numerous delays. Since the label didn’t think it would sell, Cole decided to re-package the songs into a free mixtape. It became Friday Night Lights. The project was J. Cole at his hungriest, intent on proving he was worthy of his newfound buzz. The album-opener was perfect, with Cole displaying his slick flow over an Erykah Badu sample. It’s frustrating that industry politics prevented this collection of songs from finding their home on an album, especially since his studio debut (2011’s Cole World) paled in comparison. It doesn’t matter, though; the majority of Cole-heads can live comfortable knowing that Friday Night Lights, backed by its first track, was the project that catapulted the rapper into hip-hop’s upper echelon.
19. Lil’ Wayne “Get Em” (2006)
Album: Dedication 2
Dedication 2 put hip-hop on notice — Lil’ Wayne was the best-rapper-alive. Wayne didn’t waste time to engage listeners, using the tape’s first track to display his unprecedented machine-gun flow. On “Get Em”, he is cold, calculated, and precise as ever; spitting like a pit bull in attack mode. Over the next two years he would ascend up the ranks with Da Drought 3 and Tha Carter III, but Dedication 2 is the moment an entire genre was forced to pay attention.
18. Dr. Dre “The Watcher” (1999)
Nine years after he steered the genre into a new era with The Chronic, Dr. Dre re-surfaced. Much had changed in his absence, while much remained the same. On 2001’s opening track, Dr. Dre takes stock over the landscape, with the former King appearing displeased with the rap game he was forced to watch from atop his throne; a place that was re-affirmed on “The Watcher.”
17. Eminem “White America” (2002)
Album: The Eminem Show
By 2002, Eminem had usurped Jay-Z as the best rapper alive following the enormous success of his first two albums. His popularity brought with it a vicious assault against him — some from the highest levels of American government. The attempts to censor Eminem were based on the fear of his influence on American children and came mostly from white, suburban people who had not paid attention to rap before. This song was part of Eminem’s response to the bitter controversy, Congressional hearing and censorship his lyrics caused when they hit the mainstream White American audience.
16. Jay-Z “Intro/A Million And One Questions/Rhyme No More” (1997)
Album: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
After kicking off his debut by letting us into his life as a hustler on “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, Jay-Z took a different approach on his follow-up. At the time, he was too famous to concern himself with the day-to-day aspect of slinging rock on the corner; he was too busy charting yachts and laying waste to the competition. Over two different DJ Premier beats, Jay-Z began his second project further solidifying his place in hip-hop’s pecking order.
15. Lil’ Wayne “The Mobb” (2005)
Album: Tha Carter II
Wayne waited until track seven of Tha Carter II to call himself “the best rapper alive”, but the seeds were planted on the album’s first track. Over a soulful instrumental, Weezy F Baby spends four minutes showcasing his unprecedented flow; one that was as unmatched as it was unique. In retrospect, it was the beginning of a five-year reign in which Lil’ Wayne was atop hip-hop’s throne, too far above his peers to warrant any recognition.
14. Drake “Over My Dead Body” (2011)
Album: Take Care
Drake’s debut album, Thank Me Later, sold, yet many hip-hop heads felt he lacked credibility. That all changed on Take Care. On the album’s opening track he took the doubters head on; belittling himself for four minutes while the anti-Drake camp took notice. Sure, he isn’t the most lyrical, we knew that. But when it comes to numbers and status, Drake was already head-and-shoulders above the competition.
13. Kendrick Lamar “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” (2012)
Album: good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Fittingly, the greatest story-teller of his generation used the the first track on his debut album to set the stage for a transcendent career. Within seconds, we’re transported into the mind of young Kendrick — a 17 year-old Compton-native who’s, above all else, chasing tail. It’s all innocent, just another teenage boy with sex on his brain, until the end of the track finds Kendrick confronted by two of Sherane’s gang-banging cousins in front of her house. In hindsight, the track laid the blueprint for the album’s overarching concept, if not the narrative encompassing Kendrick’s career — that of an innocent adolescent experiencing life through the poverty, crime, and drug-infested waters of South Central LA.
12. Kanye West “Good Morning” (2007)
By 2007, there was no denying that Kanye occupied a place among hip-hop’s elites; his third album, though, was the moment he cemented his status as a global pop-star. The first track on Graduation, “Good Morning” successfully sets the tone for his most mainstream-sounding and cohesive project. Ten years on, the song encapsulates the final qualities of West’s chipmunk-soul staple, and still exists as the brightest soundscape in Kanye’s discography.
11. Kanye West “Ultralight Beam” (2016)
Album: The Life of Pablo
At the beginning of 2016, Kanye was admist the longest hiatus of his career. It’d been two-and-a-half years since his last solo effort (2013’s Yeezus); an album in which he proclaimed to be, amongst other things, “God.” And so, it’s only natural that when he re-surfaced with The Life of Pablo, ‘Ye made sure to begin the project with a prayer, only this time it felt genuine. On “Ultralight Beam”, we find Kanye at his most humble; a married man with two children, far from the God-like aura which hung over his prior project.
10. Young Thug “Givenchy” (2014)
Album: Tha Tour Part 1
Riding high on 2014’s consensus Song-of-the-Summer — “Lifestyle” — Birdman’s two-headed experimental duo, Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug, recorded a 20-track mixtape. At the time of its release, it wasn’t clear which up-and-coming star had the upper-hand; that much was put to bed on the tape’s opener. After the first minute caters to a Birdman interlude, Young Thug awakens, handling the rest of the track with an endless verse bookended by two hooks.
9. Chance the Rapper “All We Got” (2016)
Album: Coloring Book
Ironically, in a genre historically associated with sexism, with its biggest star — Drake — routinely disguising misogynist lyrics by way of sad-sack cellphone love songs, it took 23 year-old Chance the Rapper — representing a generation socially ridiculed for their disrespectful and self-righteous tendencies — to profess the most refreshing line in recent Hip-Hop memory: Man my daughter couldn’t have a better mother/if she ever find another he better love her/Man I swear my life is perfect. This proclamation, so contrary to the established sentiment among rappers to treat women like sex objects, is notable not just for what it says but for how it’s said. Chance exudes such palpable optimism that it would take a special kind of cynicism to remain unconvinced of his genuineness. This optimism — rooted in his unabashed spirituality — is the foundation of Chance’s music. There’s no denying that the seeds were planted on “All We Got.”
8. Three 6 Mafia “Sippin on Some Syrup” (2000)
Album: When Smoke Clears
Arguably no opening track in hip-hop history better encapsulates a region’s overarching sound. UGK may have been the forefathers of Houston-rap, yet they haven’t yet matched this track’s widespread influence. Released at the turn of the 21st century, “Sippin” would become a prophecy; with ‘Sizzurp’ omnipresent throughout hip-hop’s culture in the 17 years since.
7. Common “Be” (2005)
If Kanye’s chipmunk-soul grew legs on his debut, 2004’s The College Dropout, Be is the moment Ye’s sound became undeniable across all of hip-hop. On the title-track, Common’s melodic flow is backed by a triumphant sample — Albert Jones’ “Mother Nature” — which charts the path for 42 minutes of soulful bliss. It’s indisputably the highlight of Common’s career, if not Kanye’s greatest masterpiece as a producer.
6. Ghostface Killah “Nutmeg” (2000)
Album: Supreme Clientele
Ghostface’ debut album, 1996’s Ironman, was the fifth solo-offering from a Wu Tang Clan member. While most considered it a certified classic, it didn’t match up to Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx or GZA’s Liquid Swords. Although Ghostface was praised, he wasn’t discussed in the same breath as Method Man (the most-popular), RZA (the leader), Raekwon (the jack-of-all-trades), GZA (the most-lyrical), or ODB (the most-enigmatic). That all changed with Supreme Clientele. While members of the Wu had put their solo-careers on the back-burner, Ghostface eclipsed his debut. On the album’s opener, Ghost cements his case as arguably the most-underrated rapper of all-time, with a lyrical freestyle-esque tour-de-force.
5. Drake “Tuscan Leather” (2013)
Album: Nothing Was the Same
One Whitney Houston sample, flipped three times to create three different beats, is all it took for Drake to grab a stranglehold of hip-hop’s throne. “How much time is this n***a spendin’ on the intro?” — he asks halfway through. Following three chorus-less verses, with Drake showcasing the best bars of his career, the question becomes rhetorical. As much time as you god damn please, King.
4. Kanye West “Dark Fantasy” (2010)
Album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Facing adversity for the first time in his career, Kanye exiled himself to Hawaii, assembling a who’s-who list of artists to help record his fifth studio album. As always, expectations were high; and as always, he delivered. Following a Nicki Minaj-interlude, the chorus storms in — Can we get much higher? — before Kanye’s recognizable drums give way to his first verse. Simply, it set the stage for what was to come — Kanye’s magnum opus, if not one of the greatest musical works of the 21st century.
3. Jay-Z “Intro” (2000)
Album: The Dynasty
Just Blaze’s epic beat begins and Jay starts it off by saying, “This is ghetto to ghetto, gutter to gutter, street corner to street corner, project to project.” At first you think it’s just a regular intro with no raps, but then Jigga casually starts his verse with a reference best-fit for the period it was released in — “The theme song to the Sopranos/plays in the key of life on my, mental piano.” It’s an unusually dark look at the mind-state of a man who has risen to the top but can never forget where he started.
2. Meek Mill “Dreams and Nightmares” (2012)
Album: Dreams and Nightmares
Has a rapper ever sounded more hungry? I doubt it. On the intro to his debut album, Meek Mill displays his unrivaled ferocity. Over the first half, a glorious piano sets the tone for the “Dreams” sequence, as Meek reminisces on how far he’s come; before the beat flips, Meek takes it up another notch — “Ya’ll thought I was finished? — and lays waste to the competition.
1. 50 Cent “What Up Gangsta” (2003)
Album: Get Rich or Die Tryin’
In 2003, if you were to construct a rapper in a lab, with the sole intent of revitalizing hip-hop along these lines, you’d implement these characteristics:
- Storybook, cred-legitimating upbringing (mixing the violent past of the Wu-Tang Clan, the street mentality of Nas, and the drug-dealing background of Jay Z)
- Mainstream-ready charisma (think Eazy-E) while maintaining an intimidating presence (think DMX)
- Distinctive, radio-friendly voice that at the same time doesn’t convey softness (think Snoop, Biggie)
The result you’d get, and the rapper hip-hop got, was 50 Cent. On the heels of the worldwide smash that was “In Da Club”, 50 released his debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ in early 2003. The album didn’t need an attention-grabbing opener, for we already knew his story, personality, and charisma; we got one, though. What it did, simply, was reinforce the tidal wave that was 50 Cent’s rise — proving that Gangsta Rap was reborn, and in that, hip-hop would never be the same.