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A big part of the art of MCing is being able to deliver swaggering brags and boasts—but beyond the sport of one-upmanship, some of hip-hop's smartest rappers have turned their talents to the more nuanced challenge of crafting a top-to-toe concept album. It's a creative endeavor that can be tricky to pull off, as the lyricist needs to find a way to either keep to an overarching narrative (and one that's not simply autobiographical) or spit from a pool of thematically linked vocab throughout the project. Even after the writing is taken care of, the production still needs to match the characters and emotions to ensure the whole project gels and stands up to repeated listens.
In celebration of those rappers with advanced pen skills, here are 10 concept album sure-shots that hit home, whether they're pitching from futuristic sci-fi worlds, ensconced within the organized crime world or even parodying hip-hop itself.
Masta Ace is a concept king. Throughout his career, the Brooklyn-raised wordsmith has showed a talent for imbuing his albums with grand themes: 1995's Sittin' On Chrome is hooked around Ace's cousin coming over from Los Angeles for a visit; 2001's Disposable Arts involves a character being released from prison and enrolling in the school of the title; 2004's A Long Hot Summer is set against the blistering heat of his home Brooklyn blocks and weaves in rap music industry commentary. But 1993's Slaughtahouse is Ace's most daring attempt, as the smart spitter and his crew satirize gangsta rap. "Here come the craziest niggas on earth / Cutthroats ever since birth / Blood and guts are gonna spill / 'Cause it's murder, murder, murder and kill, kill, kill!" brags MC Negro on the title cut before Ign'ant MC adds how he's rocking "Strictly Raiders and Kings gear / Only wear black and I don't know how to act." Hard-core intelligent hip-hop in full effect.
Original hip-hop oddball Kool Keith has never been shy about embracing personas, but in 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst he remains a fan favorite as he raps from the point of view of a deviant doctor from Jupiter specializing in other-worldly gynecology. As Keith dons his white coat and stethoscope to cure conditions like chimpanzee acne and moosebumps while offering rectal rebuilding services, Dan the Automator comes through with a selection of beats that tap into the peculiar off-kilter proceedings; turntablist Qbert delivers razor-sharp scratches, and Sir Menelik proffers select super scientifical guest raps. Over 20 years from its original release, Dr. Octagonecologyst endures as the sort of stuff to give an SVU officer funky nightmares.
Having invented the hip-hop skit for De La Soul's debut album, 3 Feet High And Rising, it's a wonder it took Prince Paul so long to drop a fully fleshed-out concept album. (1992's Resident Alien project was shelved before it ever received an official release.) Released in 1999, A Prince Among Thieves casts Breezly Brewin in the lead role of Tariq, a rapper on a mission to rustle up funds to record a demo tape ahead of a meeting with the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA. Naturally, the plan goes awry as Tariq becomes involved in the drug game and meets an all-star cast of cameo characters along the way: Kool Keith plays a crazed weapons dealer, Big Daddy Kane steps up as the super pimp Count Macula, and Everlast excels as Officer O'Malley on "The Men In Blue." Fittingly, De La show up on the jaunty, '80s-styled "More Than U Know" and kick an extended metaphor about crack addiction.
When Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… was released in 1995, the album inspired a whole generation of rappers to cast themselves as mafia figures operating in organized crime rings—but no one did it as evocatively as Rae and his capo Ghostface Killah. The genius of the album is the way it takes a broad narrative—in this case hustlers plotting one last big score before getting out of the drug game—and brings it to life with vivid and violent details. Recasting themselves as Lou Diamonds and Tony Starks, the duo paint dramatic scenes like Rae's 16 shots shattering rival coke dealer Mike Lavonia's piranha fish tank on "Knowledge God," and Ghost's Beretta threatening to "splatter your Goose, scatter your feathers" on "Guillotine (Swordz)." These crime rhymes go down against RZA's musical backdrop that becomes an exercise in mystical mood music. The mafiosa trend quickly became played out during the years that followed, but there's nothing corny or cliched going on with Rae's debut album—it's just a masterclass of cinematic rap music.
A triple threat team-up consisting of the rapper Del The Funky Homosapien, producer Dan The Automator and turntable wizard Kid Koala, the Deltron 3030 experience imagines a future world that's dictated by monolithic corporations with an agenda against both hip-hop and human rights. Taking on the character of Deltron Zero, our MC host traverses through a dystopian sci-fi milieu where he battles rival foes and drops commentary on the New World Order-style situation surrounding him. At one point he's moved to vent, "Never let a computer tell me shit." The action takes place over Automator beats that use lush swatches of synths to muster up the closest thing to an interstellar rap opera you'll ever hear.
Food, villainous food. That's the order of the day on MF Doom's 2004 Rhymesayers release. Track titles like "Hoe Cakes," "Rapp Snitch Knishes" and "Fillet-O-Rapper" act as pointers for the lyrical goodness that's about to flow forth, as over 15 largely self-produced tracks Doom drops some of his most buttery verses to date. Technically, the metal-faced rapper isn't making songs about sustenance, but rather using food-based slang and imagery to convey his own skewed take on the world while often casting doubt on those he sees as fake: "You could either ignore this advice, or take it from me / Be too nice and people take you for a dummy," he spits on the Whodini-sampling "Deep Fried Frenz." Pair the album with one beer for ultimate supervillain synergy.
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After the success of the indie rap classic The Listening in 2003, the North Carolina trio of Little Brother found themselves in the unlikely situation of being offered a major label deal by Atlantic. It's a platform Phonte, Big Pooh and 9th Wonder used to broadcast a satirical concept album based around the UBN TV station. (The acronym breaks down as U Black Niggas Network, and it's channel 95 if you're in the Raleigh area.) The rhymes that follow are quick to criticize and spoof African-American music industry marketing tactics while also lamenting the group's own outsider status. On the elegiac "Still Lives Through," Phonte notes how "most of our albums are poorly promoted" and rarely receive press coverage, before pivoting: "Today's fan is tomorrow's rap critic / One day they giving you the thumbs up, the next / They telling 9th to go on switch his drums up the best." Or as Big Pooh expresses it on this spiritual update to Masta Ace’s Slaughtahouse: “I love hip-hop—I just hate the niggas in it."
The Roots have always considered themselves as smarter than your average hip-hop group and 2011's Undun showcases Questlove and company's rap smarts to the fullest. Over 14 neo-soul inspired tracks the band relays a day in the life of the fictional Redford Stevens in reverse chronological order. The tale kicks off with the sound of Stevens' heart monitor flatlining, before Black Thought conveys the kid's deathbed thoughts, while other songs backtrack to plot his path to becoming a drug dealer. As the album closes out with a four-part instrumental section, it resonates as a moving study on the way everyday life choices can quickly turn out to have terminal consequences.
When Onyx marched onto the scene in the early ’90s, the raspy-voiced quartet from Queens were all about commanding followers to get rugged and throw their guns up in the air. For group member Sticky Fingaz' 2001 solo debut, he managed to take that same visceral energy and harness it to a story about Kirk Jones, a fictional protagonist, who's freshly released from prison and is forced to readjust to the changed world on the outside. At times it's all about Jones' pent up frustrations—"My Dogz Iz My Gunz" is a testosterone-spiked blast of gun-fu—but over the course of the album deeper dimensions to the character are presented, like on the soulful "Sister I'm Sorry" where Jones apologizes to the lady in his life: "I don't want my child being ashamed of me / Like "Mommy, where's daddy?” / Wonder what became of me / Swear to life I don't know how ya'll made it all these years / Can't even look you in your eyes without mine filling with tears." Then the set ends with "Wonderful World," a svelte update of the Louis Armstrong standard kicked through a hip-hop lens.
This 2013 collaboration between the Wu-Tang Clan's most highly strung rapper and Los Angeles-based retro producer Adrian Younge is full-on audio pulp action. The plot involves Tony Starks dying and being resurrected as Ghostface Killah—a "black superhero with the immortality"—who sets out on a payback mission against the Deluca crime family who've wronged him. Production-wise, Younge's beats drum up a vibe somewhere between an Italian horror outing and RZA's work on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (The Wu's head honcho also puts in an appearance as an occasional narrator.) Naturally, the body count and blood splattering quota is off the literal meat rack: On "Murder Spree" Ghost calls in assists from his Wu brothers as they discard freshly disembodied limbs off the side of a boat and document six million ways to terminate foes. As our hero so eloquently puts it, “Ghost carve through your skin tissue ’til the bone gristle.”
Phillip Mlynar writes about the holy trinity of rappers, cats and food. He once got drunk on pints of black and tans with MF Doom in the name of journalism.