Here is a word from SOA member, Mula
Clean Hip Hop for the whole family; there’s an oxymoron. Now, I’m no saint and I love the raw authenticity of Hip Hop and Rap, but this latest video from Ken Harris, Hugh Neph and my friends at Miller-Bell Media have got me jumping back and kissing myself.
Every so often, a music video takes the world by storm and who can forget Psy and Gangnam Style. If this latest release from Fat Mac Da Great doesn’t go viral, I will jump back and kiss my ****** !!!
By Brendan McDaid
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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.
With these parameters set, here are the 20 greatest album-openers of the last 20 years.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Today, the Illuminati theory is as relevant as ever, often used as a way to justify the continued success of artists—Jay Z, Beyoncé, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Kanye West—who are accused of being puppets of this mysterious web of faceless figureheads. There’s an endless stream of books, podcasts, and blogs examining the Illuminati’s use of media and entertainment to carry out its agenda, and there are innumerable YouTube videos about the Illuminati with millions of views. The Illuminati is always somehow part of the conversation when a celebrity like Whitney Houston or, more recently, Prince passes away prematurely. Its signifiers—triangles, covered eyes, devil’s horns—are consistently evoked in music videos and press photos.
What’s so perplexing about the Illuminati theory and its continued life is that it’s just that: a theory. Despite the term’s prominence in hip-hop and pop culture, there is no proof that the Illuminati still exists, and not a single artist has admitted to being affiliated with it. Then why, for more than two decades, has the existence of an unconfirmed secret society been consistently connected to the music industry? Why do the rumors refuse to go away?
Secret societies have existed for centuries, and at one point, the Illuminati was real. In 1776, a German professor named Adam Weishaupt founded the Bavarian Illuminati, also known as the Order of the Illuminati, as a response to the Roman Catholic Church’s power over philosophical and scientific thought. Weishaupt aimed to recruit from within the Freemasons—a secret society that still openly exists today—to disseminate ideas of the Enlightenment. Over the course of the next decade or so he accrued an estimated 2,500 members, according to Michael Barkin’s A Culture of Conspiracy.
Though the Bavarian Illuminati disbanded by 1787 and seemingly remained inactive in the centuries that followed, rumors of its existence continued into the 20th century. They surged when President George H.W. Bush, in a 1991 speech marking the end of the Cold War, mentioned forming a “New World Order.” Some interpreted the speech as a sign that the Illuminati had been reconstituted, or had never left.
It makes sense that hip-hop would gravitate toward such a conspiracy theory. The black community has plenty of reasons to be distrustful of the government; many so-called conspiracies have, in time, turned out to be true. For example, in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, which involved 399 black men with syphilis. The “study” lasted 40 years before a special panel intervened — the afflicted men were never informed that they had syphilis and were never given penicillin. A $10 million out-of-court settlement followed in 1974. In another infamous incident, the Church Committee, a U.S. senate commission, confirmed that the FBI’s COINTELPRO initiative carried out illegal operations to interfere with, spy on and systematically disrupt the Black Panthers and many Civil Rights organizations.
Rob Brotherton, an adjunct assistant professor at Barnard College and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories, explains that these real-life government conspiracies targeting black people planted the seeds for Illuminati theory’s popularity today. “Hip-hop served as this [soapbox] for people to talk about issues that were relevant to them, things like discrimination, poverty, the criminal justice system, which are often seemingly slanted against African-Americans,” says Brotherton, who chooses to be “professionally agnostic” about his belief in the Illuminati. “It’s a short leap to go from noticing some kind of injustice to thinking about whether there’s something behind it. Hip-hop was just a good candidate to revive this myth.”
“IT’S A SHORT LEAP TO GO FROM NOTICING SOME KIND OF INJUSTICE TO THINKING ABOUT WHETHER THERE’S SOMETHING BEHIND IT.” —ROB BROTHERTON
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Identifying Illuminati symbols is the nuts and bolts of conspiracy theorists. They claim that puppets of the Illuminati tend to evoke a handful of recurring poses and images, such as the Eye of Horus, the Egyptian symbol for the all-seeing eye (featured in Katy Perry’s video for “Dark Horse,” set in ancient Egypt). Another go-to is the pyramid: In gematria, an Assyro-Babylonian-Greek code tied to Judaism, its three sides represent the spirit realm (Jay Z throwing up his signature Roc sign, a diamond made with your hands, is one of theorists’ favorites). Then there’s the number of the beast, which refers to 666, represented by making an “OK” symbol with your hand (Beyoncé does this reference to her hometown of Houston). And don’t forget devil horns, in which you make a clenched fist and then stick out your index and pinky fingers (both Eminem and Barack Obama have been photographed making this gesture).
The deeper you look, the more you’ll find. You could go so far as to decode Blue Ivy’s name—some believe it’s an acronym for “Born Living Under Evil, Illuminati’s Very Youngest”—and that wouldn’t be the most outlandish theory. “It’s so easy to do, and it’s satisfying when you can find some symbol that seems to be hidden away,” explains Brotherton. In psychology, this is referred to as “confirmation bias.” “Once you start looking for it, it’s incredibly easy to find, especially when the supposed symbols are fairly generic. Things like evil eyes or covered eyes, a circle around the eye, pyramids—they’re everywhere. Once we find them, it’s easy to incorporate them into the belief system to say, ‘Look, I’ve found a plot.’”
Lecrae, an independent rapper who has won two Grammys and scored a Billboard 200 chart-topper with his 2014 album Anomaly, is just one of many MCs and singers who has been accused of invoking Illuminati imagery in his videos. It happened to him twice, after triangles appeared in his visuals for singles “Manolo” and “Sideways.”
“I can’t smile without somebody claiming it’s symbolic, so it doesn’t matter what I do at this point in time,” he says with a laugh. “I think about it after the fact. Like, here we go, there’s a triangle behind me. But it’s just shapes. That means every trigonometry class is the Illuminati. Every optometrist that makes you cover your eye when you go for an eye exam is Illuminati. Some of this stuff is outlandish to me.”
But, he continues, “I believe in secret societies. I joined a fraternity. There are all sorts of secret connections and relationships that go on. I just think there are people in power, and people in power can make decisions.”
Some theorists see specific uses of imagery as too spot-on to be coincidental. In his book, Sacrifice: Magic Behind the Mic, a deep dive into hip-hop’s connection to the Illuminati that investigates blood sacrifices, Isaac Weishaupt (a pseudonym inspired by the original Illuminati founder) refers to the Bohemian Grove, a California campground that hosts powerful and affluent men each year and boasts alumni like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Its mascot is a representation of the ancient Greek deity Athena: an owl, the exact one that Drake uses as his logo for his label OVO Sound. At each Grove gathering, the men perform a ritual called the Cremation of Care, a mock sacrifice to a statue of the owl. Illuminati conspiracists put this organization in the crosshairs for idolatry and Satanism.
“IT’S THE EXACT SAME LOGO OF THIS OWL THAT DRAKE BE USING. THAT’S KIND OF STRANGE TO ME. WHY HE TAKE THAT OWL, THE EXACT SAME ONE, THE EXACT SAME LOGO?” —PRODIGY
“They claim it’s a mock sacrifice or whatever. There’s a whole bunch of fuckery going on over there,” Prodigy says of Bohemia Grove. “It’s the exact same logo of this owl that this motherfucker Drake be using. That’s kind of strange to me. Why he take that owl, the exact same one, the exact same logo? I’m not saying Drake is a part of something. All I’m saying is, you want to know some weird fucking shit? Check that shit out. That whole group of people with the owl shit and just doing all this fuck shit in this world, they’re the worst people on the face of the planet. Fuck all of them and anybody that’s down with them. People need to make a petition to find out what the fuck [Drake] is using that owl for.”
But for every allegation of Illuminati, there’s a rapper or musician disavowing the rumors. Beyoncé recently shut the conspiracy theorists down on “Formation,” sneering, “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess.” In 2011, Kanye addressed rumors that he was an Illuminati puppet during a freestyle at New York City’s Blue Note Jazz Club. “A black man interested in art, speaking from the heart and playing my part/And all this Illuminati talk, like my first single wasn’t ‘Jesus Walks,’” he rapped.
It wasn’t the last time he addressed the conspiratorial chatter. “I heard a comment—a joke—about the Tidal press conference being an Illuminati moment,” he wrote in a Paper magazine cover story, referring to the string of A-list artists who gathered to launch the streaming service in March 2015. “If there was actually an Illuminati, it would be more like the energy companies. Not celebrities that gave their life to music and who are pinpointed as decoys for people who really run the world. I’m tired of people pinpointing musicians as the Illuminati. That’s ridiculous…. Fuck all of this sensationalism. We gave you our lives. We gave you our hearts. We gave you our opinions!”
Some artists play into the conspiracies, possibly to further a sense of mystique. In the making-the-video clip for the heavily Illuminati-imaged visuals for “Run This Town,” Jay Z was spotted wearing a sweatshirt brandishing the phrase “Do What Thou Wilt,” the official dictum of the Ordo Templi Orientis and Aleister Crowley, an occultist who founded the philosophical religion Thelema and believed himself to be a prophet at the turn of the 20th century.
The Illuminati’s continued existence will probably never be proven or disproven. But the fact that the rumors refuse to die points to a sense that people feel increasingly powerless in the face of rapid societal change, increasing inequality and continued injustices against minorities and poor people. It’s human nature to find a scapegoat for your problems, especially when they seem so insurmountable. If it isn’t the Illuminati behind it all, it’s certainly somebody.
“It doesn’t even matter who they are,” says Prodigy. “These people are so powerful we don’t know who the fuck they are. They’ll never let their identity be known. Money means nothing to them. It’s about power and control. It’s that old fight for your soul, against good versus evil. It’s a power trip thing. They want power and they feed off of power. If you do the research, you’ll see that something is happening. Somebody is in control of it.”