5 Starter Records for New Fans of Modern Hip Hop

5. AT.LONG.LA$T.A$APA$AP Rocky

“Swagger” is a term which had a short lived stent in the modern vocabulary, before it was beaten to death by white thirteen year olds, but it is simply the only way to describe this record. Rocky’s lyricism, while witty and impressive, focuses mainly on himself, but through the self-centered style of writing, he’s able to address topics of institutional racism, corruption in organized religion, and distaste for common gender roles. asapThe record is particularly interesting to beginners in the rap game for a few reasons. The first of these is that the album conforms to what a listener would expect from a rap album as Rocky chooses not to challenge the form, so much as use it to present his themes. Another is the instrumentation on the record, which is fantastically organic and really develops the atmosphere of the album. The final is that A$AP Rocky is well known for putting together a package, and AT.LONG.LA$T.A$AP is no exception! From the lyrics, to the instrumentals, to the music videos and album cover, the entire album presents a well package look at, and celebration of hip hop culture and all that it represents. The project is easy to digest, and makes a powerful introduction to the best parts of modern hip hop.

4. 2014 Forrest Hills DriveJ Cole

J Cole is traditionally recognized as one of the best political voices in hip hop today, and for that reason, most of his fans would direct you to his more contemplative 2016 project, 4 Your Eyes Only, but it’s his previous and first double platinum effort which lands on this list. 2014 does just about everything right. Catchy hooks, powerful verses, and a strong appreciation for the predecessors 2014of the genre which made the albums existence possible in the first place. One important piece of this album which I believe is often overlooked is the tremendously diverse subject matter. At times, especially on early tracks like “Wet Dreamz” and “January 28th,” the album is almost completely commercial, focusing on topics like sex, love, and identity, but as the piece goes along, it devolves into impressive contemplations of class struggle, modern culture, and especially on “No Role Modelz,” the modern black man and his place in the world. 2014 is perfect for fans who have little to no experience with the genre because it provides, simultaneously, a look backward and forward, and the topical versatility that only hip hop represents.

3. College DropoutKanye West

Kanye is one of the most polarizing figures in pop culture today. The argument continues to rage as to whether the man is a genius, or simply mentally ill, but there was a time when almost everyone fell on the side of the former, and that time was 2004, after the massively successful release of his debut album College Dropout.CollegeDrop By far the oldest album on our list, it falls here because it is, in many ways, the birth of modern rap. If a person went into a coma directly after hearing The Marshal Mathers EP and then woke up and asked what they’d missed in rap music, you’d start here. Kanye changed the game putting together a project which featured creative vocal-based tracks, entertaining skits which served the albums interesting narrative, and lyrical verses which could stand up to most anything coming out of the old school. The album connected heavily with young people by featuring lyrics which touched on topics of student loan debt and the importance of a college degree in modern society. The album is dated, and sounds less ahead of its time now than it was upon its release, but if anything that should show just how ahead of the curve Kanye was.

2. Good Kid. M.A.A.D. CityKendrick Lamar

Kendrick is inarguably the best rapper in the game today. His 2015 concept album, To Pimp A Butterfly should be required listening for any fan of music, let alone rap, but for this list, we find ourselves looking at his major label debut, Good Kid. M.A.A.D. City. This too is a concept album, but is much smaller in scale and listeners can probably follow the story on the first listen. Essentially, a teen boy, presumed to be Kendrick, growing up in Compton finds himself thrust into a night of gang violence, drug use, and a climactic run from the police and on the albums best track, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” finds God through grandmother. The entire story paints a portrait of Compton not as a dangerous wasteland, but from through the eyes of one of its residents living his everyday life. The production is simply excellent as Kendrick brings back frequent collaborator, Derek Ali who is, in my opinion, the best audio engineer working today, to deliver the his first mainstream effort. Everything about this album is awesome, and its perfect for beginners as an introduction to the storytelling capacities that only exist in rap music.

1. Coloring BookChance the Rapper

The logical heir to Kanye’s thrown, Chance the Rapper gained massive popularity while in high school with his underground mixtape, 10 Days which he recorded himself after being suspended from school for drug possession. The tape was such a massive hit that it was eventually brought to the attention of fellow Chicago native, Kanye West, who worked with Chance to produce what is possibly the best piece of free music on the internet, Acid Rap. So why choose Coloring Book for this list? Coloring Book is the first time that we see Chance on his own, with full control over his creative process, and with coloras much money as he needs to get the job done, and God does he come through. The album is innovative, exciting, and most importantly, lighthearted! In a year marked by one depressing event after another, and in a city like Chicago, known for constant gun violence and gang activity, Chance brings black and inner city culture to life in a delightful way. With tracks that utilize excellent Gospel choirs, powerful female vocalists, and a virtual who’s who of modern hip hop artists featuring, Chance really steps out of the way on this album and lets the culture shine. Tracks like “How Great” for example begins with an entire song by a local Chicago Gospel Choir before any rapping can be heard. This project represents everything that is changing about the landscape of modern music. It, along with all of Chance’s albums is given away for free online. Chance also refuses to sign to a label and doesn’t work outside writers, but instead relies on a general sense of community between he and his friends to put together his albums. Chance is ahead of the curve, and Coloring book is an excellent way to wrap up your adventure into modern hip hop, because, above all, this album is a look into the future of a rapidly evolving genre.

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Top 5 Albums That Millennials Can Be Proud Of

5. MelophobiaCage the Elephant

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Cage the Elephant is, in every way, a product of millennial culture, particularly, our short attention span. The group is eclectic to a fault, boasting indie-folk gems like “Cigarette Daydream,” along with new-age brit-rock jams like “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” as well as a multitude of hits all along that dichotic spectrum. My biggest criticism of Cage was and still is that their projects are about as coherent as a Now That’s What I Call Music compilation, skipping randomly from one style to the next seemingly without a plan. With Melophobia, however, the group reigns their musical ADD in just enough to strike gold. The record is unpredictable and exciting, but retains a sort of tone in its lyricism and production that doesn’t leave listeners feeling bewildered. Most importantly, perhaps, each sound and style is executed flawlessly. When the crunchy “Come a Little Closer,” wraps up, listeners feel some closure. You’re ready to move and try the next door, as it were, on this track listing, unlike other Cage efforts, which leave listeners feeling as if each particular sonic path they take isn’t necessarily fleshed out enough to move on. Melophobia will live on for years as an example of the eclectic tastes that define our generation.

4. X Ed Sheeran

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X is one of the few albums that is actually quite a bit better in its deluxe form than its original. The 16 song, 65 minute project packs quite a bit into its runtime, delivering a dense and personal record. Interestingly, most of the added tracks, as well as a few from the original tracklisting seem, at first glance, only to pad the runtime of the piece, but the closer you listen, you begin to feel seriously connected to Ed, as not only a fan, but a friend. When he sings about stumbling home drunk and being alone on “I’m a Mess”, you feel for him, when he tells the story of love lost on “Nina,” your heart breaks with his, and when he professes his love on the undeniable highlight of the album, “Tenerife Sea,” listeners fall in love with the nameless woman he sings to along with him. Of Sheeran’s three studio efforts, “X” is by far the most real and visceral, touching on issues like losing family and searching for purpose in the world, issues that plague our generation to this day.

3. HozierHozier

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I quite literally can not exaggerate how much I love this record. The amount of confidence that radiates from Hozier is jarring, considering this is his first and only studio album to date. He knows you’ll be back to listen again and again, and because of that, he’s built this album as bottomless pit of quality music. A listeners first few visits reveal a fundamentally sound record that lashes out at targets like religion, institutional discrimination, and rape culture among others. These lashes, though, don’t come from eye-liner-ed punks like they have in the past, but instead a solid footed, long haired, wise man. Every instrument on this piece is played perfectly, the vocals are incredible, and the atmosphere is consistent and intriguing. The Records opening protest track sees the lyrics “No masters or kings when the ritual begins. There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin,” preceding a wonderfully sung chorus of “Amen’s.” With each visit, listeners uncover new lyrical masterpieces, subtle backing harmonies, symbolisms in tones and themes, and, from a production standpoint, nothing but good choice after good choice. This is an album made by a man who knows exactly what he’s doing and it will stand the test of time, comparable to the best projects of any generation.

2. VesselTwenty One Pilots

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As the story goes, if you say “I don’t like Twenty One Pilots” three times into your bathroom mirror, two tween girls in “Normal People Scare Me” shirts will climb out at you and pierce your septum. The point of the joke, of course, being that the TOP fanbase, or Clique, as they call themselves, is massive and objectively annoying. This is a real shame though, because the music is actually quite impressive, Vessel especially. Think back to the first time you saw the video for the records main single, “Car Radio,” and tell me you didn’t feel just a little bit of pride in your generation. When this record, the bands first release with the tween-angst powerhouse label, Fueled by Ramen, hit the shelves, its fame spread rapidly by word of mouth and social media. The duo became an overnight sensation in a way that only the social media age can produce and for good reason. This album is awesome. Period. The wide array of sounds make it a sonic rollercoaster, and while its extremely accessible, the record still makes the listener work in a few parts. Tracks like “Run and Go,” and “Guns For Hands” don’t present their melodies or lyrical premises as openly as most of the record does. On the whole, The project discusses the issue of mental health in a well written and intelligent way. And if all this wasn’t enough, “Ode to Sleep” is probably the second best opening track to any album in the last decade.

********************************Honorable Mentions********************************

The Future Is Cancelled – Captain, We’re Sinking!

How To Be A Human Being Glass Animals

Coloring BookChance the Rapper

Outgrown Things EPMovements

Strange DesireBleachers

Pure ComedyFather John Misty

********************************Honorable Mentions********************************

  1. To Pimp A Butterfly Kendrick Lamar

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Anyone who didn’t already know this has clearly not listened to this record enough. Where do I even begin? “Wesley’s Theory” is THE best opening track in the past decade and may the best of all time. Musically, TPAB brings together the absolute best jazz artists alive today, namely, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, George Clinton and plenty more. From a production standpoint, Derek Ali, a relative unknown, along with Dr. Dre, who need no introduction, put on a masterclass in sound engineering and stereo imaging that we haven’t seen in fifty years, the ambition of “Dark Side of the Moon”, with the execution of “OK Computer.” The themes on the record cover institutional racism, gender inequality, deterioration of modern black culture, police brutality, sexual and domestic abuse, substance abuse, and family betrayal, and thats just the first half. The runtime comes in just under 80 minutes, and as far as I’m concerned, K-Dot could’ve stretched the record out another three hours. The overall concept of the record focuses on a poem that Lamar composed. He reveals two lines at a time throughout the album before using his next few tracks to explain those lines in detail, and culminating in a full reading of the poem midway through the epic closing track “Mortal Man.” This album is modern masterpiece of writing, weaving massive sociopolitical ideas into a very grounded, yet complex narrative and featuring one excellent character after another, many of whom are brought to life by Kendrick himself. I have no shame in saying that this is my generations answer to “The Wall” and that it will stand the test of time for a hundred years. This kind of masterpiece belongs in a museum. This kind of commentary belongs in a college textbook. But instead, it can be found on iTunes for ten dollars, and if that’s not something my generation can take pride in, I don’t know what is.

Top 5 Uses of Music in TV and Movies

5. “Rescue Me; Voicemail”: Burn – Ray LaMontagne

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Dennis Leary’s powerful drama following the lives of New York Fireman after 9-11 is often forgotten in conversations about television’s current golden age, but scenes like this show why it shouldn’t be. As Tommy (Leary) sits on his couch alone, skipping his AA meeting to watch old home videos, excellent camera work reveals that, in his hands, he holds a bottle of vodka. LaMontagne’s tortured vocals add to an already beautiful scene as Tommy wrestles with his sobriety, before eventually pouring the entire bottle onto himself and attempting to light himself on fire. Once he learns that the vodka will not ignite, he gives up and shows up late to his meeting, wreaking of Vodka, as LaMontagne sings, “I’ll just stand here and burn in my skin.”

4. “Friends;The One Where Ross and Rachel Take A Break”: With or Without You – U2

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One of the most beloved sitcoms in American History, Friends is well ingrained in our culture for the foreseeable future, and with it, the on again, off again relationship between Ross and Rachel. Of the many breakups the pair endured, the most memorable scene features the perfect song choice of U2’s “With or Without You.” The scene, a combination of excellent writing and beautiful music, is able to date the show, and preserve everything great about the era it’s being dated in.

3.“Philadelphia”: La Mamma Morta – Maria Callas

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The next entry on this list is quite different than it’s predecessors. 1993’s Philadelphia followed the relationship of an AIDS-stricken Tom Hanks and the Lawyer, played by Denzel Washington, hired to represent him in his wrongful termination case. The other worldly voice of Maria Callas allows audiences to feel as alienated and out of place as Washington’s character when it comes to attempting to understand the LGBT culture of the 80’s and 90’s which is so well portrayed by this piece. As Hanks, barely able to stand and having withered to skin and bones, dances about the rooming, shouting the translation and explanation of the song, all the while lit by an unforgiving red light, He creates an incredibly intense scene, one that won him his second consecutive Oscar.

2. “Rocky III”: Eye of the Tiger – Survivor

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Few action series can boast the legendary soundtrack that Rocky does. From instantly recognizable themes in the first two installments to classic 80’s rock adorning one triumphant moment after another, none of these scenes can even compare to the perfection that is the Rocky III training montage, featuring Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” To this day, nothing can get butts off the couch and into the gym like this sequence.

********HONORABLE MENTIONS********

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“American Psycho”: Hip to Be Square – Huey Lewis and the News

“Fight Club”: Where is My Mind – The Pixies

“2001: A Space Odyssey”: Thus Spake Zarathustra – Richard Strauss

“Jaws”: Jaws Theme – John Williams

“The Breakfast Club”: Don’t You Forget About Me – Simple Minds

“Star Wars I: The Fantom Menace”: Duel of Two Fates – John Williams

“The Exorcist”: Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield

********HONORABLE MENTIONS********

  1. Breaking Bad; Felina”: Baby Blue – Badfinger

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Breaking Bad is, arguably, the greatest piece of art ever put to film, so it would stand to reason that the best examples of using music in a scene would be found somewhere in it’s five seasons. Vince Gilligan gave us plenty of options for this list. The use of Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion” as Walt finishes another batch of his famous blue meth or Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up” serenading Walt who sits idly in his home as multiple gruesome murders are carried out at his request. Both of these scenes, as well as many others may come to mind, but never before has a song been used so perfectly as in the show’s final scene. As Walt walks, dying, through his meth lab running his blood drenched hands over the equipment which has made him more than just a man, the lab that turned Walter White into Heisenberg, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” begins to play. This scene will never fail to give me chills as lyrics like “I guess I got what I deserve” bring the series to a close that is nothing short of perfect. Walt falls to the ground bleeding, as tears fall from the faces of any viewer with a soul and the tracks chorus, “My Baby Blue” bursts through. Simply breathtaking.

Top Five Metal/Hard Rock Albums of All Time

5. XX Rage Against the Machine

Institutional Racism, American Imperialism, and Political Protest are a few of the difficult & nuanced topics covered in just the first three tracks on this record. Throw in the unbridled anger of Zack De La Rocha and a series of guitar masterpieces by one of the greatest guitarists of our time, Tom Morello.

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HIGHLIGHTS – Killin in the Name, Bombtrack

4. Appetite for Destruction Guns N Roses

While Metallica ignited the underground roots planted by Sabbath & Zepplin, Axel Rose & Slash took hard rock in a new and more mainstream direction. Appetite for destruction raged on with tracks that focused on girls & parties, cutting them with cuts that focused on herroin addiction and the desire for success, bringing the dirty underbelly of the LA Rock scene to the limelight using an accessible sound that refused to sacrifice the wailing vocals and skilled guitar work of their front men.

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HIGHLIGHTS – Paradise City, Sweet Child O’ Mine, Mr. Brownstone

3. Ride the Lightning – Metallica

One of Metals quintessential groups, Metallica was at there best on Ride the Lightning. Coming in just under 50 min, this album skips the longer Prog Rock solos that would come later in their career & goes straight to the explosive melodies & complex lyrics that make Metallica amazing.

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HIGHLIGHTS – Ride the Lightning, For Whom The Bell Tolls

2. Paranoid – Black Sabbath

While Sabbath’s self titled debut is often considered the record that started it all, it was this follow up in the same year that truly fleshed out the concepts that would go on to be metal. Excellent instrumentals decorating the entire piece, which benefits, as well, from one of the greatest vocalists in rock history, Ozzy Osbourne.

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HIGHLIGHTS – War Pigs, Paranoid, Iron Man

********HONORABLE MENTIONS********

•Back in BlackAC/DC

•Vulgar Display of PowerPantera

•PornografitiExtreme

•Songs for the DeafQueens of the Stone Age

•Hellbilly DeluxeRob Zombie

•The Autumn Effect10 Years

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********HONORABLE MENTIONS********

Ænima – Tool

Incredible instrumentals, excellent vocals, & unparalleled, conceptual lyricism from one of the best bands to ever do it. The record is long, Sprawling and covers topics of domestic abuse, human evolution, and death. The youngest record on this list, Ænima is, in a lot of ways, a culmination of the ideas that had been developing over many years of hard rock music. Each of the four pieces of the group are some of the best in the world on their respective instruments, and when they work together as seamlessly as they do on Ænima, the world is gifted with one of the best rock albums ever recorded.

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