Marilynne Robinson said that knowing where you come from can tell you something about where you’re headed.
It’s why humans are so captivated by the origins of the universe—we think that it’ll somehow inform us of our purpose. One of my personal fears is one day realizing that I don’t have a story, because that realization translates to ignorance of myself, of my identity, of my future. If I don’t have a past, a coherent narrative of who I’ve been, is my present anything more than a collection of loosely related—and sometimes arbitrary—decisions? Abstract truths and beliefs can construct one’s worldview to a point, but the most telling truths arise from lived experience. From story.
The concept of story is one of the fundamental qualities of rap. Rap ties personal stories to specific neighborhoods, and adds nuance to reality through tightly crafted metaphor and allusion. Single songs can tell the story of an entire life, like Jay Z’s rise out of the drug game and into critical and popular acclaim, packed into the song "99 Problems" (if you like that song, we HIGHLY recommend this fun read, which weighs the song's story against criminal law). You can appreciate the things about Ghostface that make him an east coast guy, Suga Free a west coast guy, and UGK pioneers of the south. The most exciting rappers know how to pack wisdom into the artifacts and locals that make up their personal story. Rappers spin their magic by conjuring a sense of place.
Imbuing straightforward facts with allegory and symbolism, paradoxically, is what makes rap relatable. This process is the reversion of turning human beings into statistics, impersonal signifiers—good rap finds a human element in almost anything. Even Grey Poupon. For anyone lumped into a marginalized group of people who are, more often than not, viewed as mere statistics, rap can be a momentary reprieve and a reminder that their experiences have meaning. It aims to rehumanize. And yet rap somehow manages to transcend the specific and hyper-local details that make it up, so that a white kid from the suburbs might hear Kendrick Lamar’s last line in Nosetalgia and resonate with a disappointing father with unrealistic expectations, even if his family history doesn’t include processing and selling narcotics. To the beat of a more lighthearted tune, if Digital Underground can rap about a tale of getting chicken grease on your pantyhose in a limo, maybe examining the artifacts of my daily life can remind me that I have a tale to tell, too.
The element of story is why J. Dilla has more lasting power than E-40. Why Kendrick is a deeper swimming pool to dive into than Big Sean. Why Isaiah Rashad eclipses Travis Scott. Why A Tribe Called Quest can still garner the attention with their voice in 2017, while we question whether the current cast of characters like Kodak Black and Xxxtentacion will still be around in five years. All of these rappers have their place, but it’s personal for the storytellers, while the others may be in it for the mass appeal. The feeling lies with the storytellers. You feel the harsh reality in Kendrick’s voice as he delivers immensely personal Compton obituaries in Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst: “The reaper calling, I’m cottonmouth.” He knows what standing on death’s doorstep feels like because he’s been there.
Here's our story rap list. Encased here is a DJ Quik party anthem, a fantastical narrative in Deltron 3030, a love story from the Roots and Erykah Badu, plenty of tales of police brutality (see the Ice Cube track), bouts of internal struggle and suicidal thoughts from Biggie and Scarface, the tale about hip-hop itself from Common, and deadly tales of loss from Kendrick and Immortal Technique (a song which takes a very strange turn), and a morality tale from KRS-One, and more.
Tell us your thoughts! Discover a diamond in the ruff? Mad there's no Nas, or that that one stupid, obligatory Slick Rick song that's mentioned on every Reddit discussion board asking for story rap? Do you see us as sell-outs because we felt REQUIRED to include "Brenda's Got a Baby" on here (us too)? Comment below and let us know!
- Outkast - SpottieOttieDopaliscious
- Kendrick Lamar - Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst
- Mobb Deep - Trife Life
- DJ Quik - Tonite
- Warren G and Nate Dogg - Regulate
- JAY Z & Kanye West - Murder to Excellence
- Ice Cube - My Summer Vacation
- KRS-One - Love's Gonna Get'cha (Material Love)
- Eminem - '97 Bonnie & Clyde
- Scarface - I Seen A Man Die
- The Notorious B.I.G. - Suicidal Thoughts
- 2Pac - Brenda's Got a Baby
- The Roots & Erykah Badu - You Got Me
- Lost Boyz - Renee
- Deltron 3030 - Battlesong
- The Pharcyde - Passin' Me By
- Geto Boys - Mind Playin Tricks
- Immortal Technique - Dance With the Devil
- Common - I Used to Love H.E.R.
- Outkast - Da Art of Storytellin', Pt. 1
*BONUS*: Eminem - Difficult (YouTube only)