Friday, March 20, 2009

Top 10 One Album Wonders

In a 2005 Rolling Stone feature Chris Rock was asked to list his Top 100 Hip-Hop albums, and when commenting on The Pharcyde’s “Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde” he stated that Hip-Hop is the only genre of music with “One Album Wonders” (Meaning artists that produce one great album with a string of successful singles that greatly impacts the entire Hip-Hop landscape and just when they seem poised to establish themselves as “the next big thing” they vanish from our collective consciousness as quickly as they appeared in “Unsigned Hype”).  While I disagree that The Pharcyde falls into this category because their second album “Labcabincalifornia” produced the hits “Runnin’” (eventually featured on HBO’s Entourage) and “Drop” (whose video cemented Spike Jonze as one of the premier video directors of the 90’s) and sold respectably despite being released at the height of the East-West feud, Hip-Hop has produced it’s fair share of “One Album Wonders.”  

There are several reasons why groups/mc’s are doomed to “One Album Wonder” status, some stop working with the producers that made them hot and can’t seem to get their groove back (most Wu-Tang members, Snoop, Craig Mack), some focus on outside interests more than music (Foxxy & Kim), some are victims of timing as the game changes radically as soon as they are ready to release a follow-up (Black Sheep, Jeru) and some just lose their damn mind (Lauren Hill).  The following list of Top Ten “One Album Wonders” are artists that released well received debut albums that spawned several singles and seemed poised to make noise for the foreseeable future, but for whatever reason couldn’t deliver on the promise displayed on their breakthrough LP’s.  There are no “One Hit Wonders” here, Paperboy, Rob Base and Skee-Lo don’t qualify and artists that died after their debut album (Big Pun or Big L) or artists that faced career ending tragedies, either physical (The D.O.C.) or legal (Slick Rick) are also excluded.  This is a list of 10 artists that put out bangin’ debut albums and could not parlay that into an extensive musical legacy without extenuating circumstances (death, loss of voice, deportation, etc) preventing them from doing so.  

The following artists may have ultimately disappointed us by not fulfilling the promise they showed on their celebrated debuts, but the impact they had on the culture and the quality of music they put out was undeniable, even if they left us all hungry for more.

TEN: Any Wu-Tang Member except Ghostface Killah (94-97)

Tical,” “Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version,” “Only Built For Cuban Linx...” and “Liquid Swords” are classics.  “Tical 2: Judgement Day,” “N***a Please,” “Immobilarity” and “Beneath The Surface” are forgettable at best any any other albums by Wu-Tang’s “Varsity Team” are barely listenable.  There are two main reasons for this drastic drop in quality for post-”Wu-Tang Forever” solo releases. The first is that as the Wu-dynasty increased in size and scope Rza’s production became increasingly scarce on follow-up albums because he was so busy scoring movies, putting out JV projects like Suns of Man and Killarmy and releasing solo material, which left the bulk of the production on these albums to Rza-esque producers like Carlos “6 July” Broady and Tru-Master that were not quite ready for the big leagues.  Secondly, most people (myself included) have a maximum capacity of how much music we are capable of liking from one artist, I personally estimate this capacity at 100 songs (one of the reasons rock groups stay relevant so much longer than Hip-Hop acts is that they do not inundate fans with a steady stream of mixtapes, downloads, guest appearances and freestyles so the fan does not grow tired of say Metallica or The Rolling Stones nearly as quickly as they become bored with The Lox or Fabolous.  This is why the release of every U2 album is a major event for fans, but a new album by Jadakiss is somewhat anti-climactic because his fans have been listening to dozens, if not hundreds, of leaked tracks, diss songs, collaborations and songs that won’t make the album because of sample clearance issues for months before the physical album is available for purchase.)  While most groups with longevity spread this 100-song limit over most of a decade Wu-Tang released well over this number between 1993 and 1997 and by the time the double-album opus “Wu Tang Forever” ran it’s course, most fans were so exasperated from kung-fu references, wearing Wu-Wear and hollering “SUUU!” that they simply had nothing left for later albums by these talented MC’s. 

*NOTE: This does not apply to Ghostface Killah, he has released a string of quality albums without much assistance from RZA or other Wu members and has developed into by far the most consistent Clansman.  ANYBODY that claims they called “the kid with the ski mask” being the most relevant member 15 years after Wu-Tang’s monumental debut album is a LIAR!  Nobody, not even me, could have predicted this.

NINE: Capone-N-Noreaga (1997)

In the aftermath of the 2pac and B.I.G. murders and the glossy, sample-heavy dominance of Puffy in the summer of ’97 these two thugs from Queensbridge wanted to remind the world that New York didn’t go soft and not everybody was rocking shiny suits and guzzling champagne.  Their debut album, “The War Report,” featured production from NY’s legendary Marly Marl (a master of aggressive music responsible for the late 80’s Juice Crew and LL Cool J’s return to relevance “Mama Said Knock You Out”) and was an unflinching look into the mind of young New Yorkers ready to take the crown from their more established and polished peers.  Anthems like “T.O.N.Y.”, “Bloody Money” and “LA, LA” (a response to Tha Dogg Pound’s “NY, NY”) stirred up the thug in everybody like nothing since Mobb Deep’s “Shook One’s Pt. II.”  And while this record would eventually be named as one of the factors that prolonged the East/West rivalry, the dopeness of this incredibly aggressive and confrontational debut can not be overlooked.  

Following “The War Report” Capone was incarcerated for much of the late 90’s and NORE (no doubt a name change spurred by a desire to crossover to new audiences) established himself as a solo artist that introduced the world to production giants The Neptunes with his hit “Super Thug.” The group reunited in 2000, for the imaginatively titled “The Reunion” but except for one searing DJ Premier cut, it was clear this group’s time had passed.  In the 2000’s Capone has released several solo albums to minimal success and NORE has abandoned his thug tendencies to become “a fat, drunk, half-Puerto Rican reggaetone dancer” according to one Atlanta Fatburger patron.  Seriously, NORE has released a few quality singles this decade(“Nothin’” and “Oye Mi Canto”), but his “verses” have basically devolved into hundreds of “What What’s” and a few barely coherent threats, which most fans viewed as a far cry from the guy that murdered the classic Marly Marl beats on his debut album.

A new CNN album is slated to release in spring 2009, but it is doubtful that this will capture the magic that was “The War Report.”  

EIGHT: Craig Mack (1994)

In the wake of the release of the “Notorious” movie it is hard to believe that when Bad Boy Records debuted in 1994, Biggie was not the only star on the label.  The first smash single from Sean “Puffy” Combs’ upstart company was an undeniably funky and futuristic banger called “Flava in Your Ear” that was the soundtrack to the summer of ’94 for most of the Northeast.  After Craig Mack got everybody talking about this new company, he proceeded to drop the stellar “Project: Funk Da World” and really start the Bad Boy revolution that would continue with the release of B.I.G.’s massive single “Juicy” and classic album “Ready to Die.”  While “Project: Funk Da World” is often overshadowed by Biggie’s debut it should be remembered that the album spawned the club-rocking single “Get Down” and mixshow favorites “Makin’ Moves with Puff” and “When God Comes” in addition to the remix of “Flava In Your Ear,” containing the  classic verse from B.I.G. that made even non-believers admit he was worthy of being crowned “King of NY,” an appearance by LL Cool J that had Hip-Hop heads hyped for his upcoming “Mr. Smith” project after a disappointing album and laying low for a few years and introduced Busta Rhymes as a solo artist and Rampage the Last Boy Scout as the first member of his Flipmode Squad, signaling to fans that Leader Of The New School were truly over and Busta Rhymes the solo artist and Flipmode Squad were the future.  While I have always refuted Bad Boy’s claims to have “Invented the Remix” this song did popularize the format of putting 5 sick MC’s on the hottest beat of the moment in an effort to prolong the shelf-life of the single and promote the guest stars, a format that would eventually be used to death in Hip-Hop. 

Following the release of his debut album on Bad Boy, Craig Mack left the label and basically disappeared for most of the late 90’s.  He has appeared sparingly on various remixes (“Special Delivery”) over the last decade but has not attained any where near the cultural icon status of his Notorious label mate.   

While Biggie proved to be the much bigger star and have a huge impact on music even now, over a decade after his untimely death, it’s hard to argue that the Bad Boy movement was not bolstered by the success and quality of Craig Mack’s “Project: Funk Da World.”

Seven: Jeru The Damaja (1994)

In the heyday of the West Coast’s G-Funk Era and the rise of Puffy’s Bad Boy empire, one man from East New York stood as a voice of reason and Hip-Hop’s conscience in the the midst of mass marketed “gangsta rap,” rampant commercialism and the near eradication of the socially conscious Hip-Hop of the late 80’s.  Jeru’s debut single “Come Clean” in the summer of 1993 stood in stark contrast to the slickly produced “gangsta rap’” and R&B influenced club hits dominating radio and MTV. The beat, provided by a then-in-his-prime DJ Premier was murky and strangely reminiscent of a leaky faucet, the lyrics were straightforward and mocked the outlandish super-thug persona adopted by many MC’s of the era and there was no noticeable sample or R&B-like chorus to spur radio play. “Come Clean” eventually became the anthem for Thinking-Man’s Hip-Hop and the song still excites crowds at underground/experimental Hip-Hop venues because of the  obvious link between the aesthetics of the record and the current “Back Pack Rap” scene.

 The album that followed, “The Sun Rises in the East” (released in the spring of ’94) more than lived up to expectations.  The album was entirely produced by DJ Premier and spawned such classics as “Mental Stamina,” “Da Bi****z” and “D. Original” in addition to “You Can’t Stop The Prophet” a parable where Jeru embodies everything that is right battling everything that is wrong in the world, songs this ambitious are rare to say the least.  

Jeru’s debut was somewhat lost in the myriad of classic albums released in 1994, but he did make a decent impact and earned legions of hardcore followers. His 1996 follow-up (“The Wrath of the Math”) was somewhat lackluster because it had minimal input from DJ Premier and the new producers were not able to provide sufficient backdrops to Jeru’s witty, intellectual lyrics.  Also, by 1996 the “Gangsta Rap” and commercialism that the MC railed against on his debut had become widely accepted parts of Hip-Hop (hell, even Nas cashed in with “It Was Written”) and most fans were to busy buying Versace and poppin’ bottles to be bothered with the rapper’s critique of the culture. 

Jeru The Damaja continues to put out independently distributed music and tour but has not become the cultural force many predicted during the release of his debut album.  

SIX: Das EFX (1992)

Das EFX hit the Hip-Hop scene like a friggety-freight train in the spring of ’92.  Their debut single “They Want EFX” introduced the world to their “Diggity” rhyme style that combined raggae toasting, sublime pop culture references and straight up spitting in a cohesive package that simply blew people away.  Backed by EPMD’s high-octane Hit Squad (EPMD, Das, K-Solo and Redman) the duo went on to release the classic “Dead Serious,” which clocked in at under an hour and had only 10 songs, but all 10  are considered classics and were played on radio and mixshows throughout the summer of ’92 (you have to look to artists like Dr. Dre or Kanye West to see this kind of slugging percentage).

EPMD broke up at the end of 1992 and sadly, Das seemed to have picked the wrong side of the beef.  Erick Sermon went on to have phenomenal solo success as both a performer and producer in addition for producing a string of hit albums for Redman that helped the Funk Doc become an icon while Parish Smith languished as a solo artist and was unable to sustain interest in K-Solo and Das EFX. The combination of weak production (without Sermon’s influence) and the prevalence of stiggity-stuttering by biting MC’s made fans not want EFX quite as much as they did during the summer of ’92.  Das released the disappointing “Straight Up Sewaside” in 1993 and then made a bit of a comeback with 1995’s “Hold It Down” featuring production from DJ Premier and cameos from Mobb Deep and KRS-ONE, but never regained the momentum of “Dead Serious.”     

FIVE: Black Sheep (1991)

During the same summer that De La Soul dropped “De La Soul is Dead” and A Tribe Called Quest released “The Low End Theory” the artistic renaissance of the Native Tongue era was further established by Black Sheep’s “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing.”  The album showcased the duo’s trademark sense of humor on tracks like “U Mean I’m Not...,” and “Strobelite Honey” ( a track anybody’s whose ever hollered at a girl in a dimly lit club can relate to), playful sexuality (“Similac Child”), critiques on the fickleness of Hip-Hop heads (“Flavor of the Month”) and the monster single “The Choice is Yours,” a song that still ignites dance floors with Dres’ “Engine, Engine number 9 / On the New York transit line.” The album was so complete and well-rounded that it appealed to fans far beyond the Native Tongue’s traditional fan base, the dark humor, overtly sexual subject matter and presence of true club bangers made this album a classic in various circles and the record had such a prolonged shelf life that they were still releasing singles from the project well into the fall of 1992, a full year after it’s release.

Black Sheep attempted to duplicate the success of “A Wolf...” with 1994’s “Nonfiction” however by this time Hip-Hop had taken on a distinctively harder persona and the playful wordplay and humor associated with the group were no longer in vogue.  The group has  released a few independent albums over the last decade and a half and occasionally performs “The Choice is Yours” at Old School shows but did not become the force to be reckoned with many expected in the early 90’s. 

FOUR: The Game (2005)  

The Game’s 2005 debut, “The Documentary,” featured an all-star team of producers and guest MC’s including Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Eminem, Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige, Kanye West, Just Blaze, Timbaland, Faith Evans and Mobb Deep’s Havoc and somehow this new kid from Compton stood out amongst this three ring circus to shine as the undeniable star of this massive collaboration of the hottest names in the industry during the early 2000’s.  The Game was every Hip-Hop head’s dream artist: he could  out-rap your favorite rapper, he could tell stories and be emotional in his rhymes, he had access to the best beats, he had the best song writer of the era helping make his cipher-killing lyrics palpable to a mainstream audience and he had the marketing muscle of the biggest label in the game pushing him into the national consciousness.  “The Documentary” appealed to everybody from underground heads hungry for lyrics to commercial radio and video outlets because of it’s ability to combine Game’s intricate lyrics with 50’s ear for crossover hits and beats from the hottest producers of the decade. 

The album became an instant classic when it was released and spawned hits like “Hate It or Love It,” “Dreams,” “How We Do,” “Westside Story” and “Put You on The Game” in addition to the multiple album cuts that are widely considered classics in most circles.  The “name dropping” that was later ridiculed was refreshing at the time and showed fans that he was a true Hip-Hop head with a real sense of history for the culture, this was in stark contrast to the trend of “Trappers” and “Hustlers” that were only rapping as a means to “get paper” and seemed to hold rappers that focused on lyrics and expression in contempt. 

Sadly, The Game’s career was over almost before it started,  during the release of “The Documentary” he had a public falling out with 50 Cent stemming from his remarks about some of 50’s sworn enemies and the questionable decision by Interscope to release Game’s debut mere weeks before the 50’s sophomore LP “The Massacre.”  The rest of 2005 was confusing for fans as he was kicked out of G-Unit, back in G-Unit and then finally excommunicated from the entire Shady/Aftermath camp.  While it is unclear exactly what happened to cause this rift it was abundantly clear that Dr. Dre, Eminem and Interscope president Jimmy Iovine were siding with the biggest cash cow on their label and would gladly cast off an upstart rapper with questionable commercial appeal in order to preserve a relationship with the man that sold 10 Million copies of his debut album.  

The year’s following “The Documentary” were filled with beef (Memphis Bleek, Joe Budden, too many other mc’s to name, his family and possibly Jay-Z), reconciliations (Budden and possibly Jay-Z), countless guest verses and mixtapes, two lackluster major label albums, bizarre live performances (Hot 97’s 2005 Summer Jam, among others), disturbing body art (a butterfly, really?), possible mental illness and a maniacal dedication to disrespecting his old label mates with the extremely long and drawn out “G-uNOT” campaign.  

While The Game is as talented a lyricist as Hip-Hop has ever seen it appears he is doomed to the realm of great rappers that can not create songs and albums that resonate with fans and without the assistance of Dr. Dre and 50 Cent he is doomed to be categorized with Canibus, Chino XL and Rass Kass instead of Jay-Z, Nas and Eminem.  

THREE: Lil’ Kim & Foxxy Brown (1996)

Female MC’s have always had a hard time establishing themselves in the male-dominated Hip-Hop scene, but in the mid-90’s “Big Mama” and “Brooklyn’s Don Diva” blazed a trail for female rappers that was unprecedented and has yet to be surpassed.  Before Kim and Foxxy female rappers fell into two categories: roughneck tomboys that acted overly masculine to prove their worth to male peers and audiences (MC Lyte, Roxxane Shante, BOSS, etc.) and righteous defenders of women’s rights that consciously fought for respect and female empowerment (Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Yo Yo, Salt-n-Pepa).  With the release of “Hardcore” and “Ill Na Na” these two MC’s completely changed the parameters of what was acceptable for a female rapper, they were uninterested in proving they could spit hot 16’s with their male counterparts or educating the youth about the plight of women in a male dominated society with a history of objectification of women.  Instead, they completely embraced this objectification and rapped from the perspective of sex-crazed freaks in an effort to appeal to the more base desired of the predominately male Hip-Hop fan base. It was as if the strippers in Magic City or the extras in the “Big Poppa” video grabbed the mic and started graphically detailing every male fantasy known to man over hot, party-ready beats.  While this kind of Hip-Hop had been done before (most notably by Miami’s 2 Live Crew), it had never been done so vividly by women and had never had the ] production values of these two releases. While it is obvious these “MC’s” did not write their own lyrics and had copious amounts of help from some of the greatest rappers of all time (Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas) along with beats that were so bananas they may have been hits with anybody spitting over them, these two albums had a huge impact on Hip-Hop culture throughout the 90’s and 2000’s.  

Following their debut albums, Foxxy and Kim got into a long running beef that resulted in a shooting in NYC and still do not speak to or about each other.  Professionally, both have released several albums but neither seems overly committed to the art of rhyming as both have focused on outside interests like fashion, modeling, “Dancing With The Stars,” hating on “Notorious,” hearing loss and beating up nail technicians as opposed to focusing on quality music.  Since they have been out of the music game an entire generation of female MC’s that focus on sex appeal as opposed to rhyme skills has emerged and the two trendsetters have been surpassed by female MC’s that are more attractive (Trina), better rappers (Lil’ Mama) or just nastier (Khia) than the two that started it all.  

TWO: Snoop Doggy Dogg (1993)

Snoop was a beast on Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” and helped propel laid back, funk fueled tales of gang culture and drug use to the top of MTV’s Top 20 Countdown and he has clearly established himself as a permanent (no, not his hair) fixture in pop culture with various television, film and related products, but as a solo MC the “Doggfather” has never come close to matching the artistic and commercial heights attained by “Doggystyle.”  The fact that an album called “Doggystyle” shared Billboard chart space with releases from Nirvana, Mariah Carey and Rod Stewart is a testament to just how charismatic he was as a performer and how amazing his early creative output truly was.  “Doggystyle” was the most eagerly anticipated debut rap album in history at the time of it’s release because fans wanted to see if he could be more than Dr. Dre’s wingman and establish himself as an individual star.  The album was released to rave reviews, staggering sales figures and lived up to even the harshest critic’s standards.  The beats were more refined and accessible than those on “The Chronic” and proved that Dre had mastered the technique of using funk samples, groovy baselines and live keyboards to concoct soundscapes that appealed to listeners from LA to NY geographically and from Compton to UCLA socioeconomically.  Snoop’s lyrics were more mature and refined and he showed clear progress as an MC from the clearly raw talent displayed on “Deep Cover” and much of “The Chronic.” To ensure all bases were covered the duo included something for everyone, from party-starters that still get huge responses in clubs (“What’s My Name,” “Gin & Juice” and “Ain’t No Fun”) to incredibly hard street narratives (“Murder Was The Case” and “Serial Killer”) and a remake of Slick Rick’s classic “La Di Da Di” that not only met the approval of typically hard to please East Coast fans, but became a classic in it’s own right.  The impact of “Doggystyle” was enormous, Dr. Dre cemented his position as the best producer in Hip-Hop, Snoop became an international celebrity, Death Row records became one of the cornerstones of 90’s Hip-Hop, the West Coast became the epicenter of Hip-Hop and the smoothed-out “G-Funk” of this album would inspire countless imitators like Warren G, Domino and Coolio.  

While as an ENTERTAINER Snoop has been relevant since the release of “Doggystyle,” as a RAPPER he has never come close to the commercial and critical success of his classic debut.  Following Dr. Dre’s departure from Death Row Snoop released the embarrassingly titled and hard to listen to “The Doggfather,” then left the label to release three more god awful albums on No Limit during the late 90’s (note: these were bad even by No Limit’s typically low standards) , following the stint with Master P he released a few more weak albums, some lame side projects (“Doggie’s Angels” Really?) a few mediocre singles with The Neptunes (“Beautiful” and “Drop It Like It’s Hot”), got embarrassed by Eminem on “B***h Please II” and did a T-Pain impersonation on last year’s inexplicable hit “Sexual Seduction.”  With the exception of his contributions to Dr. Dre’s classic “2001” and few hot collaborations Snoop has been largely unimpressive as a solo artist since his debut and is responsible for exactly as many classic LP’s as Das EFX, Black Sheep and...

ONE: Lauren Hill “The Miseducation of Lauren Hill” (1998)

While females have always had a hard time finding a place in the hyper-masculinity of Hip-Hop and some have found ways to attain superstar status at the expense of their self-respect (see #3) Lauren Hill ended the 90’s with the best manifestation of how a women could present herself in Hip-Hop and then vanished from the spotlight as quickly as she appeared. While the Fugees massive 1996 hit, “The Score,” established Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michael as not only stars but talented musicians, it was not until her solo debut two years later that the world would be held captive by the breathtaking talent of Lauren Hill.  

As an artist she was sexy, but not slutty, stoic but not militant and presented an image of Afrocentric womanhood that was authentic enough for women to relate to and feminine enough to attract male listeners.  Musically the album addressed the emotion of “Love” and all it’s facets including: infatuation/lust (“That Thing”), betrayal (“Lost Ones”), break-ups (“The Ex-Factor”), spiritual love (“Forgive Them Father”) and the love from a mother to a child (“To Zion”) and while no other Fugees were involved with this project contributers like Mary J. Blige and Carlos Santana more than filled the void to make this album appeal to fans of R&B, Soul, Pop and Hip-Hop. “Miseducation” was a massive hit, selling millions of copies, becoming a soundtrack to the lives of countless fans both male and female and garnering 5 Grammy Awards (a record at the time), however it appears this widespread acclaim and notoriety has worked against Hill and turned her into somewhat of a recluse that releases music sporadically and has increasingly bizarre public appearances.  

With the exception of a handful of iTunes only downloadable songs, two Fugee “reunion” songs and 2002’s ill-received “Unplugged” album (a record mocked by 50 Cent as having “no beats” on “Love Me,” his first collaboration with Eminem) Hill has basically retired from the music business and is no longer a public figure despite putting out one of the best albums of all time.

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