To most, it's nothing but a G thing, but with all the press 'Straight Outta Compton' has been receiving, the spotlight is back on Gangsta Rap. For the uninitiated, we present 10 of the best albums the genre has to offer, spanning from its origins in '87 through to today.
The release of N.W.A’s blockbuster biopic, Straight Outta Compton has seen gangsta rap take up many column inches in the last few weeks. Demonized and attacked at its inception, thirty years later the genre enjoys a level of ubiquity and mainstream success unknown to any other aspect of hip hop. While most consider gangsta rap to have peaked towards the tail end of the nineties, the braggadocios lyrical content and commitment to ‘realness’ live on throughout various aspects of contemporary hip hop. With that in mind, we present a beginner’s guide to gangsta rap, going beyond the widely recognized classics, charting the genre's progression and influence to date: if you don’t know, get to know.
Criminal Minded - Boogie Down Productions (1987)
KRS-One’s ever changing line up of the South Bronx’s finest, Boogie Down Productions are credited with pioneering gangsta rap on the east coast, paving the way for many of the artists on this list, including Wu-Tang Clan and Big L. In this iteration KRS and DJ Scott La Rock skewer the depravity of the Bronx, spitting the tales that gangsta rap would become infamous for with a heavy eighties influence and revolutionary production.
Scott La Rock’s turntablism injects the album with an infectious grove, cutting effortlessly between samples ranging from AC/DC to dancehall legend Yellowman. "South Bronx" takes aim squarely at Queens based MC Shan in one of the greatest diss tracks penned to date (including Back to Back, sorry Drake fans). However, its "9mm Goes Bang" that sets the tone of album, featuring an infectious keyboard lead and a reggae inspired hook, KRS-One runs through the story of his run in with Peter the crack dealer with trademark nonchalance. Title track "Criminal Minded" sees KRS pay his dues to the Beatles’ "Hey Jude" on the intro before kicking into a braggadocios verse, equal parts gangster and conscious. Everybody say ‘we’re not promoting violence, we’re just having fun.’
Straight Outta Compton - N.W.A (1988)
Often hailed as the record that started it all, N.W.A’s first release turned gangsta rap from the obscure story-telling of Ice-T and Schoolly D into public-enemy-number-one overnight. The group's mix of anti-establishment energy and hard edged lyricism, with a little bit of help from the F.B.I, launched them into the mainstream consciousness at a time when hip hop was still on the fringes of society.
Straight Outta Compton is the kind of album that only comes along once in a generation. Far more energetic and in-your-face than any of its members' (still great) solo albums, the hard hitting production and fuck-you attitude running through the record give it an almost punk flavour. The singles from this album, "Straight Outta Compton" and "Express Yourself" are well known even among those with a surface level knowledge of hip hop, and the notorious "Fuck Tha Police" is one the most referenced rap songs in popular culture. Often overlooked however, is "Quiet On Tha Set" with its Run DMC-esque beat and MC Ren’s non-stop flow harking back to hip hop's origins as club music, lightening the tone of an extremely heavy hitting album.
The Chronic - Dr. Dre (1992)
Dre’s post-N.W.A debut solidified his credentials both as a rapper and a producer, launching the G-Funk sound to commercial success. Although many of Dre’s bars came courtesy of ghost-writers, including the D.O.C, who crafted "Nuthin’ But a G’ Thing", the beats on this album alone are enough to justify its classic status. Featuring Snoop Dogg on nearly every track, before anyone outside of Long Beach knew who he was; The Chronic is the foundation on which Dre’s solo career is built, showcasing not only his funk laden production but his unique ear for talent as well.
Opening track "Fuck Wit’ Dre" sets the tone perfectly. Groove heavy and consisting almost entirely of threats aimed at former N.W.A crew member Eazy E, it’s equal parts sinister and smooth, seeing Dre firmly establish his independence as a solo artist and head of Death Row Records. "Rat-tat-tat-tat" revels in its brashness, opening with a laidback sample from Willie Hutch’s "Brother’s Gonna Work it Out" before Dre asserts "we ain’t asking for shit, motherfucker we taking it", a timely reminder of the frustration with the establishment at the heart of gangsta rap. Dre’s ear for samples is so on point that the same Willie Hutch loop was sampled on one of 2013’s hottest records; Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap.
Doggystyle - Snoop Dogg (1993)
Fresh off the back of The Chronic, Snoop Dogg’s debut eclipsed his guest verses for Dre instantly and remains his best-selling album to date, having gone quadruple platinum in 2008. Another Dr. Dre production, Doggystyle is a more refined, laid back type of G-Funk compared to the bass heavy cuts on The Chronic. Snoop‘s vocal delivery and lyrical content reflects his now notorious lifestyle, dealing with "drama in the LBC" and his penchant for the ladies with typically smoked-out ease on the mic.
Every track on this album is near faultless, the skits are hilarious, the songs are hit-singles and each bar lands exactly where it should. "Gin and Juice", "Who Am I (What’s My Name?)" and "Gz and Hustlers" are the best known cuts on the track-list, but the real standouts are back to back cuts "Murder Was The Case" and "Serial Killa". Both featuring the siren-like synth leads that defined the album and some of Snoop’s gruffest verses, they present the reality of "gang-banging as an everyday thing" in a playful yet intimidating manor, letting Snoop’s (and his various guests’) verses carry the lead melody.
Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers - Wu-Tang Clan (1993)
While there’s a strong gangsta rap influence on Wu-Tang’s debut, RZA’s beats and the mix of rap styles in the Clan have put Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers into a category of its own. Packed with obscure movie references and even more obscure samples, 36 Chambers marked the rebirth of gangsta rap on the east coast and served as a template for a new wave of hardcore hip hop, gangsta rap’s marginally less criminal cousin.
Enter the Wu-Tang features the groups’ ten core members, each of them bringing a unique talent to the record, resulting in an album packed with some of the greatest bars in hip hop history. Breakout single "Protect Ya Neck" features the line “terrorise the Jam like troops in Pakistan, swinging through your town like your neighbourhood Spiderman” exemplifying the Wu’s mix of historical knowledge, gangsta-ism and humor.
However while Wu-Tang are known for their kung-fu references and tongue-in-cheek gangsta-ism, there are some genuinely heart-breaking moments on 36 Chambers. For example, "Tearz" where RZA tells the story of his little brother getting shot or on "Can It All Be So Simple" where Raekwon reveals that his dad was a heroin addict, over the top of a melancholy, stripped back beat that ranks among RZA’s best.
Ready to Die - The Notorious B.I.G (1994)
Another east coast staple, Biggie’s debut drew heavily on his experience as a drug dealer, a hustle he reported started at the age of 12. His distinct voice and bombastic flow immediately set B.I.G apart from other gangsta rappers at the time. Ranked among Time magazine’s Top 100 albums if all time Ready to Die is Biggie’s magnum opus. Its lyrics are interwoven with Mafia references and not entirely unfounded paranoia about rivals seeking to do B.I.G harm while the beats, provided by DJ Premier and Puff Daddy among others, are as funky and luxurious as the lifestyle Biggie brags about.
Featuring "Gimme the Loot", "Juicy", "Big Poppa" and "Who Shot Ya" Ready to Die is packed with hits. However the album cuts are just as good. For example, title track "Ready to Die" is a perfect demonstration of Biggie’s self-aware gangsta-ism, his admission coming across as both ice-cold and oddly confessional for a rapper of his ilk. Yet of course, Biggie is at his best when he’s at his most ridiculous. The hook on "One More Chance" consists of a female vocal begging for, as the title suggests, one more chance, with B.I.G responding simple “I got that good dick girl, you didn’t know?”
Lifestyles ov Da Poor & Dangerous - Big L (1995)
While Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre enjoyed both critical acclaim and popular appeal with their debut releases, Big L has always been a hero of the underground. Picking up where Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers left off, Big L capitalised on the popularity of horror-core, fusing traditional gangsta rap violence with a more obviously conscious sound. His east coast roots give Lifestyles ov da Poor and Dangerous a distinctive sound, more influenced by the likes of KRS-One, and even De La Soul, than N.W.A or Ice-T.
Many of the lyrics on Big L’s debut still resonate today, most notably those touching on the treatment of young black men by the U.S judicial system. "Fed Up With the Bullshit" is the penultimate track on Lifestyles ov da Poor and Dangerous yet it exemplifies L’s razor sharp delivery with the line “there are too many young black brothers doin’ life bids, cause justice means ‘just us white kids’”. Similarly "Street Struck" sees Big L warning his younger listeners to stay away from the life he has led, listing the dangers of street life that he would sadly fall victim to just four years after his debut’s release.
Big L’s death was a major event in the hip hop community; his style had birthed a new form of gangsta rap, one taken up by the likes of Gang Starr, Clipse and today, Vince Staples. These artists celebrate the hustle of gangsta rap in order to empower those forced into the lifestyle the genre chronicles, ridiculing the establishment by playing up to the caricature it has created of them.
This is the importance of gangsta rap today. While it can be fun to indulge in the comic book-esque violence of N.W.A, Wu-Tang Clan and their various members’ solo projects, gangsta rap’s power comes from the platform it gave to a section of society most of America was perfectly happy to ignore. Gangsta rappers found a way to turn their often horrific life experiences into a means of escaping from them, often lifting their friends and family out with them. As Ice-Cube points out in his track "Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It" the violence gangsta rap is so frequently criticized for is violence that stems from the needs of survival. Compared to the promotion of gun-ownership by the white middle class in the U.S, it seems that criticisms of violence in gangsta rap by the establishment are at best hypocritical, and at worst racist.
The Infamous - Mobb Deep (1995)
Although Mobb Deep’s second album The Infamous came out in the same year as Big L’s Lifestyles ov da Poor and Dangerous, the self-referential lyrics and stripped back, eerie instrumentals marked a fork in the road for gangsta rap, with Biggie’s glamorous Mafioso rap on one side and Mobb Deep’s gritty boom bap on the other. While Havoc and Prodigy produced the majority of the album themselves, Q-Tip’s influence can be heard in the jazz loops and realist atmosphere on the beats.
Most people know this album due to its huge lead single "Shook Ones Pt.II", however it’s the narrative Mobb Deep create with their lyrics that sets The Infamous apart. "Temperature’s Rising" is a letter to Havoc’s older brother Killa Black, recorded hours after his arrest for murder, dealing with the anger and worry both members of the group felt upon hearing the news rather than the details of the crime itself, a bold move for gangsta rap at the time. The melodic "Up North Trip" is equally confessional, dealing with the fear of being arrested yet sounding almost resigned to a life of crime when Prodigy spits "my heart pumps foul blood through my arteries, and I can’t turn back its part of me."
The New School
When The Smoke Clears: Sixty 6 Sixty 1 - Three 6 Mafia (2000)
While Mobb Deep and Big L were revitalising the east coast, Three 6 Mafia were down in Memphis, chopping shit up, crafting a whole new form of Gangsta Rap. When The Smoke Clears is Gangsta Boo’s last album with the Mafia and easily one of their best. Juicy J and DJ Paul’s crunk production marked a shift in the poles of gangsta rap; no longer was it a phenomena reserved for the coasts, the south was going just as hard. While the album is twenty years old it still sounds fresh and much of modern hip hop takes it influence from the sound pioneered by Three 6 Mafia throughout the '90s and early 2000s.
First track proper "Sippin On Some Syrup" is the most well-known from When The Smoke Clears. Featuring Jay-Z collaborator UKG it’s a tough yet playful cut, with the Mafia trading bouncing, staccato bars about their wealth, weed habits and women. If it was possible to condense Three 6 Mafia’s extensive back catalogue into one track, this was would probably be it.
Hell Hath No Fury - Clipse (2006)
Going far beyond the street-level exploits of their peers, Pusha T and brother Malice’s second album saw them set their sights on the world. Hell Hath No Fury is written primarily from the perspective of a big time coke dealer traversing the world, the picture of effortless success. While Pusha T claims that cocaine is merely the groups go-to metaphor for life on streets, Clipse’s manager was famously busted in 2009 for running a $10 million drug ring, alongside other members of Clipse’s entourage.
Despite this, Clipse’s on-record lifestyle is more than a little self-aware. Second track "Mama I’m So Sorry" is both a guilty apology from the two brothers for their coke dealing and a braggadocios celebration of the lifestyle it has funded, featuring the standout line ‘I philosophise about Glocks and ki’s, nigga’s call me young black Socrates.’ The Neptunes’ production on Hell Hath No Fury is as well known as Clipse’s lyrics. Pharell and co.’s beats take it to the next level, the trademark snare hits and off-beat synth pulses complimenting Push and Malice’s unique flow perfectly, particularly on single "Wamp Wamp (What it Do)". Yet, if there’s one bar on this album that sums up what Clipse were about it’s the refrain on "Ride Around Shining" the ice cold "while I’m shovelling the snow man call me frosty.”
The Burrprint 3D - Gucci Mane (2009)
In some ways this is an arbitrary choice. Gucci Mane has too many albums and mixtapes for there to be one that defines him, or crowned ‘the greatest’, however no one kept the spirit of gangsta rap alive like Gucci. Having spent the years since his 2005 debut in and out of prison for various crimes, Gucci Mane is one of the few rappers recording today whose gangsta-ism still sounds fresh.
The Burrprint 3D is the third in Gucci’s ‘The Movie’ series of mixtapes and certainly one of his best. Aided by the cinematic-trap production of Zeytoven, Gucci tackles the usual trials and tribulations of being a coke dealer in Atlanta on banger after banger. "Frowny Face" may well be the first rap song to feature a hook in emoji (“dummy brick-frowny face, rabbit food-frowny face”) and the opening verse is a prime example of Gucci’s word play and bouncing, staccato flow.
Stylistically this album has very little in common with any others on this list. However, Gucci Mane’s approach to music can be seen as the logical conclusion to what Clipse started with their ‘coke rap’ brand, introducing new elements of production and new flows to gangsta rap in order to make it his own. Gucci defines modern rap music, blurring the lines between irony and realism seamlessly. After all, he’s the only man that could make a face tattoo of an ice cream cone intimidating.
CLPPNG - clipping. (2014)
One of the most experimental hip hop records ever, clipping.’s second album is an industrial, noise influenced, cacophony of lightning speed bars and glitchy, broken beats; and it's gangsta as fuck. Consisting of MC Daveed Diggs and producers William Hutson and Jonathon Snipes, clipping. hail from LA, and push gangsta rap further than it has ever been pushed before. Despite being more endeared to the critics than to your average hip hop fan, clipping. fit within the cannon of gangsta rap comfortably.
Lyrically Diggs ticks all the boxes, updating the sinister bars of Dr.Dre and Mobb Deep for a modern audience. "Body and Blood" tells the tale of a seemingly vampiric serial killer, applying horror aesthetics to a surprisingly feminist track with the hook "If you bad bitch, let em know you ain’t out for the dough. You want body and blood". "Work Work" or "Summertime" are the most conventionally gangsta rap tracks on the album, the latter hosting an ominous feature from King L, while "Inside Out" is an undeniable banger, deconstructing both the beat and gangsta rap’s slang before rolling into a groove laden hook.
Piñata - Mablib & Freddie Gibbs (2014)
This collaboration between Indiana’s favourite son, Freddie Gibbs, and Stones Throw’s resident beat conductah, Madlib, is the perfect flipside to clipping.’s chaotic take on gangsta rap. While Madlib and Gibbs have their roots in very different areas of hip hop, their team-up is seamless. Gibbs’ vocals glide gracefully over the lavish, exotically sampled beats Madlib is famous for, and their roster of collaborators, featuring everyone from Raekwon to Danny Brown, sees every track on this album improve on the last.
Opening cuts "Supplier" and "Scarface" were clearly written to be played back to back. On "Supplier", tribal, jazz infused drums roll behind a vocal sample that sets the tone of the album perfectly before kicking into "Scarface" with another perfectly executed sample; “Blood gushing, I think I hear sirens.” Madlib’s production remains true to his underground roots but the gangsta rap influence is clear with high pitched synths and crisp cymbals cutting through the mix to emphasis Gibbs’ soft-spoken, but hard-edged flow. However it’s dreamy, laidback cut "Thuggin" that stands out most on Piñata; laying down hard truths with the indulgence and ease that defines gangsta rap when Gibbs spits “we’re not against rap, but we’re against those thugs. Can’t be legit when every nigga in your clique sold drugs.”
Written by Michael Vinti for Highsnobiety.com