With today’s hip-hop music flooded with mumble niggas and melodies, I think it’s time to familiarize ourselves with a skill that seems to be overlooked in this day in age, which is the art of storytelling. See, any Lil Whatever can throw in catchy ad-libs and your favorite PillPoppinColorfulDread rapper might be hot this week, but the storytellers are the ones who use literary elements to leave a legacy behind. Since it’s genesis, the rap geniuses of this world have used their talents to tell tales at times when the world refused to hear them. From Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” to Pac’s “Brendas Got A Baby” and more, storytelling has been a respected mastery in music and thoroughly appreciate by yours truly. With that being said, let’s look at some of my favorite tracks that impacted hip-hop’s nation through narrative, starting with the old school…
HEREEEEE WE GO *Slick Rick voice*
I Ain’t Mad At Cha – 2Pac
2Pac was a man of many masters utilizing his creativity in different ways as a rapper, actor, and poet. The creative energy translated often to his music as being able to set certain tones and scenarios in his songs, one of them being “I Ain’t Mad At Ya.” Before Pac made” Changes” he spoke about witnessing them first hand in his loved ones as well as himself in this track speaking on ways a thug changes, and love changes, and best friends become strangers.
I Left My Wallet in El Segundo – A Tribe Called Quest
As the debut single from their debut album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” A Tribe Called Quest took use on a trip indeed walking us through their travels with “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” This song combines a fun story with a funky sample that gave hip-hop an initial taste of what Tribe was all about, bringing unique perspective and classic raps from here on out.
Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love) – Boogie Down Productions
While Boogie Down Productions may have been ahead of my time with Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love)” made in 1990, the message in this song is a timeless one that has stayed with me since I first heard it. Hearing this song as a child with my dad, my father thought KRS-One’s story of his fall from drug dealing glory could not only be a hip-hop history lesson but a life lesson as well. He turned to me and asked, “What’d you take from the song Baby Girl?” I blurted out, “He said ‘Fuck school,’ everything got worse.'” Not only did I realize my dad practiced amazing restraint for not beating my ass for cursing as a kid, the simple concept of money can’t buy happiness went over my head. Now well into my adult years, this classic and its’ concept of the “love” for materialism is misleading is not only something I’ll never forget, but one that I’ll play for my kids, and hope they don’t curse in front of me, as well.
Just A Friend – Biz Markie
Before Drake was crying over women he couldn’t keep, there was Biz Markie with “Just A Friend.” The Biz is known for his beat-boxing, his boogers, and also this big hit that’s a combination of hilarious, yet heartbreaking. In this classic, cautionary tale, Biz Markie tells the comedic story of trying to pursue a woman who gives him the false impression that she only has a friend instead of a boyfriend. In turn, Biz pops up unexpectedly and finds the girl kissing the same guy she told him didn’t matter. Biz might’ve been the first person to warn us “a shoulder to cry on, could turn out to be a dick to ride on” in his own way with this one.
I Used to Love H.E.R. – Common
Jay said originally he wanted to rhyme like Common Sense and with “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” I can see why. Common personifies hip-hop as a woman all while tying together a story to show hip-hop’s many different stages and phases over time. Common saw the beauty in hip-hop with this song and many have used this same vision to create their own ode to it. I Used to Love H.E.R. has been the inspiration behind Kanye West’s “Homecoming,” in his track dedicated to Chicago, and some of J. Cole’s songs in which he also sees hip-hop as his dream girl with songs like “Dreams” and “Power Trip.” Additionally Common’s classic has inspired the rap related romantic comedy “Brown Sugar,” in which 2 characters find love in each other through falling in love with hip-hop together. Much like Common I too believe hip-hop in it’s essence is real, and much like my love for it and the ever evolving story of hip-hop, it won’t stop.
It Was A Good Day – Ice Cube
We walk through the life of a west-coast gangsta with Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day.” At a time when simply being black in L.A. was almost too good to be true, Ice Cube paints the picture of the perfect day for him in which he wins money shooting die, has sex, scores a triple-double in basketball, drinks without feeling sick and so much more. Even the impossible happens in Ice Cube’s story, not bothered by the police as a black male. That was even more shocking than looking up and seeing the Goodyear blimp and reading “Ice Cube’s a pimp” with all the racial tension and police brutality brewing at that time. Seeing an ideal day through Ice Cube’s eyes all while a smooth Isley Brothers’ sample plays out is what makes this song so dope and one of music’s most memorable storytelling tracks.
I Got A Story to Tell – The Notorious B.I.G.
The Notorious B.I.G. is notoriously known for his narratives and wicked wordplay and displays a double dose of both with “I Got A Story To Tell.” B.I.G. had a reputation for his quick witted rhymes but in this song based on a true story we see how fast his mind works in other ways. He nearly gets caught with another man’s girl in their home and somehow lives to tell the tale, and thankfully because I was thoroughly entertained with this one. Biggie had such a short time on Earth with us but still shared many stories and gems to cherish over the years. From revisiting his paranoid past on “Warning” to epic, eerie tales like “Niggas Bleed,” B.I.G. will go down as one of the greats at keeping us on the edges of our seats.
Children’s Story – Slick Rick
Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” is far from a fairy tale but full misadventures mixed with moral for the youth. In his song, he takes his time to tell a story of 2 kids who get captivated by greed and get caught robbing. Children’s Story is one of hip-hop’s most unforgettable tracks as it’s one of the most sampled rap songs in history with countless artists using “Once upon a time not long ago” to set the tone for a story in their rhymes.
Any old school classics that schooled you with a story or two? Tell me in a comment.