When Kendrick Lamar released DAMN a few weeks ago, everyone lauded the song “FEAR” as the gem of the album. While it is a beautifully crafted song bot lyrically and production-wise, when I heard the last song of the album, I literally cried.
“Duckworth” is a masterpiece.
I must admit that I am partial to storytelling, but the way the song folded the elements of the entire black existence into a linear narrative that not only told a specific story, but created a metaphor for Black life–was overwhelming. A few days later a friend who is a huge fan of K-Dot asked me to rank this album among all his others. I declined, because–in my opinion–no one can judge anyone’s work this soon. Part of what we regard as “greatness” is time and impact, and although this instant gratification generation would have us believe that whatever happened last week is the “greatest ___ of all time,” greatness can only be measured with historical perspective. Remember when the Miami Heat was going to be the greatest basketball team of all time and Cam Newton was going to break every record in football? It seems like Lil Wayne was the greatest rapper alive five minutes ago, until Kanye was, and then Drake was, and then J. Cole… It might not seem like it right now, but DAMN might be 808s and Heartbreaks in a few years.
“Duckworth” also made me think about storytelling in hip hop, and made me want to rank the greatest hip hop stories of all time, so we assembled our emergency team of hip-hop experts (none of whom were busy, because hip hop is… you know) and asked them to list their favorite hip hop stories. Then we had to throw out the obscure songs they had on cassette tape from one of their homeboys’ mixtapes. What we were left with is a list that ranks the top ten story songs in hip hop based on originality, narrative, and structure. If the story didn’t have a beginning, middle and end, it lost points (sorry “A Day In The Life Of Benjamin Andre”). If it told a great story, but was a horrible song (Brenda’s Got A Baby”–I know you’re gonna argue, but I dare you to make it 1:20 into the song before you say “fuck this,” or Immortal Technique’s “Dance With The Devil” might be the most intricate story ever recorded, but as a song, it sucks) or if it was a great song, but the story was commonplace (Rakim’s “Mahogany” or Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di”), it didn’t make the list. We also factored in historical impact, because even though Karl Malone scored more career points than Jordan, we know who was better.
Here is the list:
10. Children’s Story – Slick Rick
While this isn’t the greatest story ever told, it might be the most infamous story in the history of hip hop. Slick Rick might be the second-best storyteller in rap history (we’ll get to number one) and this story makes it evident why. In fact, Alex Trebec ever hosted a game show that awarded the winner a Black card, I’m sure one of the final Jeopardy questions would be:
“Who was the man who shot dope, but didn’t know the meaning of water or soap?”
9. Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos – Public Enemy
The blackest, most militant story ever recorded. Alex would ask “I got a letter from the government the other day. When I opened it, and read it what did it say?”
8. Water – The Roots
This one is a little obscure, but is even more personal than “Duckworth,” or the Jay-Z song that almost made the list “You Must Love Me.”
7. I gotta story to tell – Notorious B.I.G.
Hip hop does not suffer from a lack of songs about robberies (although Big L’s “The Heist” and “Casualties of a Dice Game” are two of the best), but Biggie makes this tale both gangsta and comical at the same time.
6. Stan – Eminem
I know this is a black site, but the truth is the truth, and Marshall Mathers weaves a story about a delusional fan that gave us the nickname for crazy accolytes. We’ve even written about them here.
5. Kick Push – Lupe Fiasco
The song that put Lupe on the map uses the physics of skateboardingas a metaphor for dealing with the obstacles of life. What? You just thought it was a song about skate parks?
4. Murder Was The Case – Snoop Doggy Dogg
This is the greatest producer in the history of hip hop (you can argue, but no other producer’s through line has as many tentacles) at the height of his powers with something that hip hop had never seen. Listen to the story and the production, and it merges into one thing–a movie. (Here’s some trivia: Which famous comedian killed Smoop in this video?)
3. Nas – Rewind
Nas is a lyrical genius, and this song explains why. It might be a typical gangsta tale, but the execution is flawless, because he tells the story backwards.
2. It Was A Good Day – Ice Cube
Here’s the declaration: Ice Cube is the greatest storyteller in the history of hip hop. Here’s a partial list: Gangsta’s Fairy Tale, Once Upon A Time In The Projects, My Summer Vacation, Robbin Hood, Nappy Dug Out, What Can I Do, Who’s The Mack, Alive On Arrival, and so much more. I won’t even mention the dongs like “Dopeman” that he wrote for NWA and Eazy-E.
But none of them compare to It was a Good Day. It is impossible to play this song and not feel good.
1. Common Sense – I Used To Love H.E.R.
The greatest story in hip hop is about (spoiler alert) hip hop. It it at once a history of a musical genre, a critique, a love story and a sad tale. I often argued that Common should have retired when he made this song, because he could never do anything better. I might have been wrong, because he has a burgeoning career as the stiffest, most unconvincing actor ever on a movie screen, but he might get better, who knows what the future holds…
I mean… Doughboy fucked around and got a triple-double.
Honorable Mentions: Beatie Boys “Paul Revere,” “Sooperman Luva” (all of them) by Redman, Common’s “Stolen Moments” (all of them) Outkast’s “The Art of Storytellin’ “…All of them