The ten best storytellers in hip-hop
The art of storytelling has existed since before recorded history, so it's somewhat surprising that the practice didn't take off in hip-hop, an originally oral tradition, until the late '80s. Since rappers discovered just how captivating a well-told story could be, the storytelling track has become a staple for almost any album. Like a rite of passage, you must be able to tell a good story if you want to be considered a top-tier rapper. Storytelling has only begun to explore the depths of its potential with weird, sci-fi adventures llike Deltron 3030 or Homer-esque epics like Lupe Fiasco's story of Michael Young History, but some rappers, even without venturing into especially unknown territory, have elevated themselves above the pack as exceptional storytellers. Keep reading for the ten best storytellers in hip-hop.
10. Andre 3000
Although Big Boi and Andre 3000 both brought their individual strengths to OutKast's "Da Art of Storytellin'" series, Andre has always had more of a flair for a visceral communication of emotion and vivid imagery, which make for some compelling stories. Lines like "I remember her number like the summer" and "Look out the window. Golly, the sky is electric blue" are such clear expressions of a moment that they place you right in the middle of the story. And while some storytelling rappers tell stories that seem to exist only for their own sake, OutKast's always seem to be indicative of some greater significance.
9. Big L
Part of Big L's appeal was his authenticity. Whether he's talking about pulling heists for money, doling out street lessons or reflecting on real life struggles, he always impresses his dark, witty personality on his music. Like in "The Heist," when Big L is about to bust in on his wife and her lover with his crew and start killing, he has to pause on the stairs to say, "I'm out of breath. Them cigarettes gon' be the cause of my death." It's out of left field, but funny and appropriate. When the rapper talks about his mother's drug problem in "How Will I Make It," and then says "his dad went out for a fast snack" and never returned, that's the biting humor of the late Big L.
8. Immortal Technique
"Dance With the Devil" might be the most powerful story ever told in hip-hop; it's gripping and almost enjoyably inevitable until the staggering, tragic end. "Peruvian Cocaine" is a posse cut where the rappers play roles in an elaborate, politically damning tale of how cocaine gets moved from Colombia to the U.S. "You Never Know" is a beautiful love story that ends in the heartbreak that all of Tech's stories seem to end in.
DMX has an intensity level that gives importance to everything he says, and his ragged voice adds character. He also speaks from the heart, and when he laments his inability to take control of his life in "Slippin'" and the "Damien" series, you believe it, and because of the way he says it, you pay attention. DMX's flow is very natural with enjambment that veils his rhymes behind the more important themes, and his stories are rich in vivid imagery -- "I keep 'em scattering like roaches when the light goes on" from "Crime Story" -- and dark epiphany.
6. Lupe Fiasco
Lupe is known for his storytelling with tracks like "Kick, Push," which speaks to the existential crisis of the misfit and "Bitch Bad," which tackles the lofty subject of gender relations in hip-hop. But Lupe's greatest achievement in storytelling has been the abstract and epic saga of Michael Young History, a boy abandoned by his father, raised by metaphorical characters The Streets and The Game to eventually become The Cool. Though which of Lupe's songs touch on this tale is debated, it is generally accepted that the story begins on Lupe's debut, Food & Liquor with Michael's childhood on "He Say, She Say" and ends just a few tracks later with (spoiler alert) his resurrection on "The Cool." The meat of the story is stretched across his first two studio albums and possibly beyond containing at least six tracks and according to this interpreter, eighteen.
As far as storytelling is concerned, The Slim Shady LP is one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- albums ever: "Brain Damage," "As the World Turns," "My Fault," "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," and especially "Guilty Conscience" are all creative and entertaining stories that would make the cut as nearly any album's token storytelling song. Eminem's very best story, though, didn't come until The Marshal Mathers LP with "Stan," a Shakespearean-level tragedy compressed into a less than seven minute song.
4. Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie had a way of luring you into his world effortlessly with his tone and voice and the ways he puts words together. His flow is conversational. So when he raps a story, it's like you're seated at a smoky poker table, and he's on the opposite end telling it directly to you. In "Somebody's Gotta Die," Big plays a gangbanger who gets caught up in the rush and ultimate tragedy of revenge. He raps "I Got a Story to Tell" about his affair with the girl of a Knicks player. It sounds like it's probably true.
3 Raekwon and Ghostface Killah
It was too hard to choose between these two as the storytelling rep from Wu-Tang, so we paired them, partially because a lot of their best storytelling is done together like on their album Only Built for Cuban Linx. These two give a cinematic quality to their rhymes thanks to the quirky details they provide, like in "Shakey Dog," when Ghostface describes two men "on the couch watchin' Sanford & Son, passin' they rum, fried plantains and rice, big round onions on a t-bone steak." It's as if a polished novelist wrote the scene.
Like the other East Coast rappers that grace this list, Nas has the uncommon ability to place images in his listener's mind, like in "NY State of Mind," when his gun fails to fire, it's like you can see the jammed gun in your own hand. What sets Nas apart from even the best storytellers is his creativity in creating unusual conceits like "Rewind," where he tells a story in reverse, or "I Gave You Power," where he speaks from the perspective of the gun, ascribing human qualities to it that are surprisingly powerful and resonant.
1. Slick Rick
If Rakim is godfather of the modern flow, Slick Rick is the godfather of the modern story rap. Although by now, there are rappers who can arguably tell a story better than Rick, nobody does it with the charismatic flair that Rick does, and nobody creates entertaining dialogue like he does. His debut album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, introduced mainstream hip-hop to long-form storytelling. The album boasts a variety of tales from Rick escaping kidnap to make it to a show to a brief encounter with a fine woman at a pizza shop to a cautionary tale about robbery framed as a bedtime "Children's Story" that has been imitated countless times both in name and in theme.
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