DRAM
Duane Prokop

Big Baby DRAM Is Prepping For A Big Comeback

With new songs like "The Lay Down," DRAM is preparing to transform his sound.

In 2016, music connoisseurs were graced with the introduction of acts who injected fun back into hip-hop . These new rappers like Aminé, Lil Yachty and DRAM steered clear of hardcore trap beats, and instead supplied the industry with exultant, infectious records. DRAM stood out with multiple hits that year, including “Cha Cha,” “Broccoli,” and “Cute.” But as much as the Hampton, Virginia native and his fans hold his debut album Big Baby D.R.A.M in high regard, he is now ready to flip the switch and show a different side of his musicality with his upcoming sophomore album.

“For the whole history of me releasing music ever since my first mixtapes in 2014, I've had a couple of records that were so jubilant, uplifting and uptempo, just automatic feel good,” the 31-year-old shared. “There's no denying that those records in the past have been phenomenal, but that was for that moment.”

Although no physical sit down occurred with DRAM for his conversation with VIBE, it was easy to envision his signature smile on his face through the phone as he shared his album-making process from over the last three years, as well as his endless side hustles. From delving deep into songwriting, to partnering with Sprite and LeBron James, he has kept busy and obviously music has consistently stayed on his mind. But he's taking a new direction musically.

An illustration of this is “The Lay Down.” DRAM's latest single shows him shifting from his jovial, happy-go-lucky persona into a passionate, seductive lover. The bedroom jam shows off his vocal chops as he shares vocal harmonies with H.E.R. over a beautiful, soulful production by WATT that's highlighted by a soaring guitar solo at the song's climax. It's one of the greatest songs of 2019, and it shows just how comfortable DRAM is with his versatility.

Although his sophomore album has no specific release date, nor a title available to the public (he apologized for the vagueness), DRAM is ready to welcome his fans into a new, previously slightly hidden chapter of his music career.

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VIBE: I know you're currently working on your second album, but you've also kept yourself busy this past year with things outside the album making process. Last year you worked with LeBron James and Sprite, recently you worked with them again for a remake of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" for the upcoming holiday season. What has it been like to collaborate with King James on your Sprite partnership?

DRAM: It's just really dope how, it places us in the same vicinity. I don't know, it makes me chuckle because he throws me a can of Sprite every time I see it. I got on these glasses, looking happy as hell. It makes me happy to see it.

In working with Lebron and Sprite do you feel like you learned something from him? What did you admire working with him?

I just admired how the whole thing went down to be honest. That everybody agreed to do it. I think what I took from that is that you can rub shoulders with just about anybody as long as you be about yours and do what you came to do.

Getting into your music, it's been a minute since you've released a project, three years to be exact. You recently just celebrated the three-year anniversary of Big Baby D.R.A.M. In these three years how much have you changed artistically and as a person?

I think it's more so about growing up. Growing up into what this has become. I can think about it as me putting out a merch project, like a newborn baby. And now I'm at the age of like a toddler, like preschool. No longer having the spoon or the bottle, maybe even have a sippy cup and a bag of chips. It's just more mature. Things that would excite me and things that I would be eager or nervous about, it's almost second nature now.

You become accustomed to the lifestyle that comes with putting out an album or doing the things of album mode. Going out and doing shows, and now it's no better time. It's so time for the next effort. The question is, what's going to be next for me and it's really just growth. Evolution, a slight change of perspective in a sense.

For sure. And then back in 2016, you were releasing records like “Broccoli” which was more feel good and kind of poppy. Now, you just released “The Lay Down” with H.E.R. and Watt, which is more soulful. Why have you decided to go that route? Was it a smooth process for you to go from making records like “Broccoli” and “Cute” to “The Lay Down?”

For the whole history of me releasing music ever since my first mixtapes in 2014, I've had a couple of records that were so jubilant, uplifting and uptempo, just automatic feel good. But then as a body of work, its majority is sensual, thought-provoking, emotion-provoking records, such as “Caretaker,” “Wi-Fi,” “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” which was centered on the first Sprite campaign that I was on. These records are really what the core, diehard DRAM fanbase, that's where, in the grand scheme of things, the whole scale. As the years went on, you aim to grow towards what you really want. There's no denying that those records in the past have been phenomenal, but that was for that moment. That was what it was.

Now what's leading the way, it's the records that’s still with the substance, that keeps the actual diehard fans here and there. It's like for the outsider, it's such a sudden change because if you haven't really delved into the world of "Big Babes" then you wouldn't get it. To the point where the fans that's been there for quite some time, they're right on key. Anyone else who comes just there for that, the instantaneous party, you might stick around or wanna kick back with a Daiquiri, or go back and drink your drink somewhere else.

Getting more into your track with H.E.R. and WATT, what was it like working on “The Lay Down” with them? Was the process of making that song different from any of your other songs?

Oh no! Like I said, it's second nature. It really just comes. I'd like to say, I can't really think of myself just off of one lane, I know that I concentrate more toward the sensual, what I was saying previously. There's no box to put me in. Just last week I was in a session helping a very prominent rapper. I'm coming up with lines for somebody else in a rap song. This whole campaign, it's really just whatever I put my energy towards, and I'm just very thankful that I have the strength and the feeling that I can do it.

Do you feel like the industry tries to box artists into the specific genre that they first come out with?

I'm not gonna sit here and be the one that's going to give you a huge leftist, huge rightist position. I think it's all on what that person that's there, is the entity, the artist. So no matter who else is behind them, no matter how much shit is going on behind them, it's all on that person and what they choose to do with their craft. Somebody can go into the game and really be in it for the heart and once the money starts, and then it's like all right boom, boom, boom, and then they say they want to change, and they're like "well let me go back to that thing" because the coin is good, everybody wants to get that coin back. Make sure you invest and save, you're not watching them do enough of that, you still want to keep it around. Some people will go into the trash can, before they compromise their brain.

I think it's all about balance and knowing your fan base may be slightly different from your true desires that you want to get out there. The thing is lace up and weather the storm if that's what you want to do or sit back and chill in the breeze if that's what you want to do. Don't be mad when the clouds start coming.

You recently said in a Twitter post that you feel that no one really sings anymore and that there aren't any "true sangers" out there. Why do you think that is?

You know, it's very croonery, very “monotone-y,” it's not daring, it doesn't sound like anyone is willing to jump off of a cliff and see if that parachute thing comes up with hope and a prayer. Trust me, some hope and a prayer gets you down there if you really believe. Nobody's channeling, I feel like in the correct manner. There's some people that are really killing it and making phenomenal music in what they do. What I'm saying is that there's a certain type of energy, a certain type of presence that is no longer being made, being honored. I'm just here to let that continue to live on, and it never die.

Do you feel like there are still singers that are out today that give you goosebumps, that you feel aren't monotone-ish or anything like that?

When I hear that girl named Yebba Smith... it's this girl named Yebba. She's like low-key, but she's probably a lot of people's favorite singers’ favorite singer. She's gonna f**k up a lot of sh*t. Her sh*t is fire. I stumbled across her at a session at my publisher house, we have the same publisher and she was in the other room and I was like damn bro. They played me her sh*t, I had to walk over to the other room and meet her. When I hear her sing that sh*t f***ing....damn! And that's what we need, that's what I'm talking about. All that other sh*t, it's cool, but c'mon now we need that energy.

I know you also mentioned in your tweet that you've also been focusing a lot on songwriting, I wanted to know what your songwriting method is like and if it's always come easy to you?

Anything can inspire to do something musically. I can hear a door shut funny and have a note and be like oh sh*t. Or something like the phrase “gotta be quicker than that” or something. I like to just use the things that I really feel inside. When I hear it and then when I say it, it's gotta match. It's like a secret language that I'm speaking with the beat. I just want to make it feel right.

What more can your fans expect from your second album? What do you hope that they take away from it?

Take away the growth of where I am mentally, where I am musically and to kind of get a better understanding of why I've been in kind of a recluse type of state in these years and the things that I've been going through in regular life.

Why the three-year wait for your sophomore album?

It needed that you know. I don't want to sound like that, by saying I don't want to sound like that of course it's probably going to sound like that, but it takes time for these type of things. I believe that the bodies of work that I've been putting out and more specifically, the first mixtape and then the first album, that really changed a lot of today's music, to be honest. You gotta give them some time to really cycle out so you can really see how much you've influenced music. I promise to God the three-year wait was worth it.

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Jerritt Clark

Lil Mosey Talks ‘Certified Hitmaker’: ‘I Want The Top Spot’

Most kids' milestones leading up to their late teenage years include gaining their parents’ trust to stay home alone, talking to their crush at the school dance, and avoiding that big, red pimple in the middle of their forehead on picture day. But by the time Lil Mosey turned 18, he had already earned his own music festival, a co-sign from Ice Cube and a spot on the Billboard charts.

 After releasing a handful of songs on his Soundcloud page, the 17-year-old rapper saw his career skyrocket in 2017 after his song "Pull Up" became a viral hit and garnered millions of streams on Soundcloud and YouTube. The streaming numbers grew considerably after a pair of successful follow-up singles ("Boof Pack," "Noticed") and before he knew it, Lil Mosey became an online sensation.

The buzz that surrounded these singles trickled into the following year as the Seattle native signed a deal with Interscope Records and earned a spot on Juice WRLD's WRLD Domination Tour. His debut studio album, Northsbest, debuted at number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was met with a positive reception from fans and outlets like HotNewHipHop and XXL. To cap it all off, the baby-faced rapper landed a spot on XXL's coveted Freshmen Class this past June. 

Lil Mosey entered a new phase in his career with his latest album Certified Hitmaker. It's a bold title but one that fits him. The 14-track album is filled with melodic trap bangers like "Rockstars" and "Live This Wild" with features from Gunna, Trippie Redd, AJ Tracey, and Chris Brown.

For the most part, Certified Hitmaker follows the same formula as its predecessor in which the baby-faced star talks about living life and having fun---the things a 17-year-old normally does. "This is my style and how I'm living. I'm at the point now that I can do whatever I want with music," Lil Mosey tells VIBE. "But I'm still trying to show off my style and show off my way of music. I'm still trying to put that out there."

VIBE caught up with Lil Mosey to speak more on Certified Hitmaker, how recording with Chris Brown inspired him, staying level-headed in the music industry at such a young age, bringing a festival to his hometown of Seattle, which NBA player he compares his career to, and more. 

It’s been a year since you’ve dropped out of school to make rap a profession. What has your first year in the music industry been like so far?

I think it’s been a big year. I learned a lot and I became an adult. I went out on my own and lived real life experiences. I learned a lot when I first blew up when I was 16 and since then the year got bigger. I learned a lot of things like the business side and where the money goes and everything. 

You’ve been hitting the festival circuit crazy lately. How do you manage with the grueling tour schedules at such a young age? 

I just know I have to do it. To me it’s fun actually so I just have fun with it and just try to show off. Every show matters and all my fans are going to be there. I have to be there for them. They came out for me.  

When did you know things were really popping off? 

Before “Pull Up” I started blowing up off Soundcloud and that’s when I really started taking it seriously. After “Pull Up” I moved out to LA and once I did that I knew to keep my foot forward and keep going. I never stopped and it took me to where I’m at now.  

What do you miss about the regular life of a teenager?

Before I blew up I was still living how I live now. I don’t feel like too much has changed, I mean yeah there’s been a lot of changes like how I go about stuff. But it’s been fine. I like doing what I do as an adult.  

You’re following in huge footsteps like Sir Mix-A-Lot and Macklemore. How does it feel to be the next big thing out of Seattle? 

It feels good. There aren’t a lot of people from Washington that go crazy so like just to put on for the whole state feels good. Not just Seattle but all the cities and towns that are near there. It feels good to be the one to do that for them. 

You really are putting on for your city. You brought the Northsbest Fest to it. What’s it feel like doing that for your hometown? 

It’s lit. I didn’t grow up off any festivals in Seattle so I’m just trying to bring some fun and something they’ve never had before. 

Are there plans to make it a big thing on the level of like the Astroworld Festival or Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival?

I’m trying to make this as big as possible. Sooner or later, hopefully, it’s going to be the biggest thing Seattle has ever seen. I basically already had a festival on my tour. We were already lit and had multiple heads performing with me. We wanted to add like five more people and we were lit. I was just trying to bring something special to Seattle. I really want the next one to be bigger than the last. This next one is going to be a lot bigger for sure. Hopefully we can move to an outdoor venue and really go crazy. Either an amphitheater or something big like the WAMU Theater.  

You’ve gotten crazy numbers on YouTube, earned a spot on XXL’s Freshmen Class list, been on an international tour and you’ve hit the Billboard charts. What else are you aiming for? 

I want the top spot. I want to be number one. I need my whole album to go platinum and I need some more plaques too. I’m really trying to go crazy.

How do you keep yourself level-headed after getting wins like these? 

I just think at the end of the day that this isn’t all that’s in store for me. If this shit doesn’t go the way I want it to go I’m obviously going to push my hardest to make it work. But there’s a lot of other stuff I have to do besides just music. I want to open businesses, invest in different things, and put more time into modeling and acting. I keep in mind that this isn’t the only thing that I do. I can do a lot more stuff. It doesn’t matter as much as some people might think it matters to me but it matters for sure.

What’s a day like in the studio for you? 

I just go through my day and when I feel like hitting the studio I go. I’ll start freestyling and thinking about what I can make and stuff. I just play through beats I’m fucking with and start freestyling over them. I don’t force myself either I try to have fun. If I go crazy then I go crazy. Some nights I’ll make about five songs in one night.  

You stuck to the same formula for Certified Hitmaker, why is that?

I feel like I created my own sound and style. I'm using this sound to show people that this is the wave. I feel like I'm definitely a melodic artist. I try to use a lot of rap elements but my main thing is melodies. I feel like what really brings them in is the melody of the song. They don't even need to know what I'm saying it'll just be replaying in their head multiple times. 

You went from flipping “You” on Northsbest to having the “G-Walk” record with Chris Brown on Certified Hitmaker. What was that like having that experience with him?

It was fire. With Chris, I pulled up to his crib and it was a straight-up vibe. I walked around his crib and he had girls making food and stuff [laughs], it was some real rockstar superstar shit. It's cool seeing all these artists I've been around before and shit. It's inspirational. He started playing the song over and over for 10 minutes and then he started freestyling that bitch. I was looking at him like this nigga is crazy. Definitely seeing other artists do that and seeing that there are other ways to record besides like taking your time and always trying your hardest, you can also just feel it and go and have fun.

I notice the album has an outer space vibe from the album cover to the spacey production. At the end of the album you can hear a voice say “Mosey you have landed in the land of make believe.” Is there a story you’re telling here?

Yea all my projects connect. That's for the next chapter though, The Land of Make-Believe.

Is that the title of your next project?

Yeah. We're going to have some shit on the way for that. It's going to be crazier and more vibes.

There have been people talking about an alleged beef between you and Lil Tecca. Were you talking about him in that Instagram freestyle you dropped? And if there isn’t any beef would you collab on a record with him?

Nah. I wasn't even thinking about Tecca on that shit. I'm not going to keep talking about it. I said what I said. He's his own person and I don't know anything about the way he creates his music. As far as collaborating I'm not sure, probably I don't know.  

Looking at your live performances your fans go crazy for you.You’re giving out three free shows in the cities of Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle. What’s the story behind that? 

It's basically showing off the album and giving the kids the opportunity to see me live and watch a good ass show. I'm doing it off the love for them supporting me the way they do. I'm going to give back to them what they're giving me. I love going crazy with them. When I see them running towards the stage when my set starts and shit at festivals, that shit be lit. That shit be turning me up. When I see them go crazy it makes me go crazy for sure.

I know you were big on basketball growing up so who would be your NBA comparison? 

I feel like Lebron James, man. I feel like the king right now. I feel like LeBron in his prime. I feel like I put in too much work over everyone else. 

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Theo Wargo

Jay-Z's 50 Most Underrated Songs

The following sentence is guaranteed to make you feel old: Jay-Z turns 50 on Wednesday, December 4, 2019.

Arguably the most celebrated hip-hop artist of all-time, Shawn Corey Carter, has lived multiple lifetimes as he comes to the halftime of life. He’s been a street hustler, a misogynistic, materialism fueled lyrical mastermind, a real musician, a successful businessman, a husband, a father, and a teacher. Looking back on a musical catalog that spans some 25 plus years, there's a substantial amount of standouts, from “Takeover” to “Hard Knock Life” to more recent triumphs like “Family Feud.” What about the tracks that fell through the cracks? The ones that had momentary flashes of adoration but have faded as the years have gone by? Here is a definitive list of Jay-Z’s 50 most underrated songs.

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“Lucky Me” – In My Lifetime Vol. 1 (1997)

Arguably Jay-Z's most underrated song, "Lucky Me" is less about the sonic soundscape and more about the lyrics, which may be Jay's most introspective on wax, rivaling even that found on the profoundly personal “4:44.” The song sees Jay reflecting on the perils of fame and the legacy he wants to leave behind:

"And ain't nothing changed so even in my afterlife I show it up/Don't grieve for me, my art remains/Like a dart from the speaker to your heart/Spiritually through the portal now my words is immortal"

The song is easily missed on the flashy and braggadocio filled '...Vol. 1’, but it's one of Jay's most notable songs and timeless in its content around the trappings of fame and what it truly means to be Hov.

“Dopeman” – Volume 3...Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

Playing out like a movie on record, the Digga-produced "Dopeman" is underrated in more than one sense. The tension-filled, anthemic production provides a canvas for Jay to testify in a mock trial as the state brings charges against Jay's "criminal enterprise" known as Roc-A-Fella Records. The songs second verse is a time capsule looking back at late 90s hip-hop and the music business that was:

"Your distribution's Polygram, and through your connects/Def Jam, you pushed over five million SoundScan/And not to mention, your cohorts and henchmen/Dame, Biggs, Lyor, Kev and Russell Simmons/And we ain't gon' talk about Murder Inc./that just establishes a deeper, darker criminal link."

Storytelling in rap isn't a lost art per se, but storytelling that puts the listener in the courtroom and builds suspense throughout the song is rare, and "Dopeman" is one of hip-hop’s best examples of storytelling as a part of the art form.

“Young, Black & Gifted Freestyle" – S. Carter Collection (2003)

Appearing on Jay-Z's only official mixtape (don't we wish now that Hov was more prolific in the mixtape game?), "Young, Gifted & Black" features one of Jay's most fluid flows as Jay goes in over Big Daddy Kane's "Young, Black and Gifted" instrumental, originally produced by Marley Marl.

Some of the freestyles most memorable bars include:

"I'm America's worst nightmare/I'm young, black, and holdin' my nuts like "Geah!"/Y'all was in the pub, havin' a light beer, I was at the club, havin' a fight there"

"Downloadin' all our music on ya iPods there/I'm Chuck D, standin' in the crosshairs here"

“Caught Their Eyes” Feat. Frank Ocean – 4:44 (2017)

As anticipation built for the release of Jay's 4:44 album and guests and rumors began to swirl, fans locked in on "Caught Their Eyes" with Frank Ocean. The song doesn't immediately stand out as one of 4:44's most lyrically dense; however, the No I.D.-produced track expertly sampling Nina Simone's "Baltimore" is hypnotizing to the ear. And this isn't to say that it doesn't deliver lyrically either. Jay's 2nd verse is a glimpse into the music business, and Hov's relationship with the late Prince as Jay doesn't shy away from calling out those who he believes profited from the singer's death:

"Now, Londell McMillan, he must be color blind/They only see green from them purple eyes" "You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his houseI'm surprised you ain't auction off the casket"

“Cashmere Thoughts” – Reasonable Doubt (1996)

In a 2011 interview with Complex, “Cashmere Thoughts” producer Clark Kent said the song was a joke of sorts with him and Jay talking pimp sh*t back and forth at the beginning. But the song is anything but a laugh as the song sees Jay pre-super stardom spitting pure pimped out, braggadocio lyrics saying his words are “worth a million” like he was spitting them through platinum teeth. Clark Kent’s production on “Cashmere…” is wildly underrated as he beautifully spins Hamilton Bohannon’s “Save Their Souls” into a groovy street soundscape for Jay to talk his sh*t.

“I Know What Girls Like” Feat. Puff Daddy and Lil’ Kim – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)

“I Know What Girls Like” isn’t a great song, but time has rendered the jiggy-era track from “In My Lifetime Vol. 1” more impressive. Save for the stomach-turning chorus, verses from Lil’ Kim and Jay-Z are everything late 90s hip-hop was: flashy, filled with innuendo, and hosting enough brand name drops that pretty much every listener felt poor as hell listening to the song.

“Safety deposit in the walk-in closet/Marble faucets and matching Rolls Royces” spits Lil’ Kim in a time in Hip-Hop when Bad Boy and ‘The Roc’ ruled the world.

“If I Should Die” (Feat. Da Ranjahz) – Vol.2...Hard Knock Life (1998)

Roc-A-Fella artists before there was actually a Roc-A-Fella, Wais and Haph AKA Da Ranjahz appear on the Swizz Beatz-produced “If I Should Die” off Jay’s breakthrough album Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. Beat wise it’s a time capsule to Swizzy’s stutter-step, spastic production, and what makes the song underrated isn’t so much Swizz or Jay but rather some underappreciated verses by the aforementioned Wais and Haph. Haph (or Half Dead as he was known then) especially comes through with some vicious, vivid bars to finish off the song:

“I'll be down in hell scorchin' preparin' for life/Afterlife still torchin' and blazin' these mics/It'd rain for 40 days and 40 nights/And I'd return on the 3rd like Christ/(Without my physical portion)/My spirit a poltergeist for sureI'll be back through the Heights tomorrow/Blood over y'all fake ni**as door”

“Snoopy Track” (Feat. Juvenile) – Volume 3...Life and Times of S. Carter

Sounding like an engine revving at the starting gates of the Indy 500, the Timbaland-produced “Snoopy Track” off Jay’s Vol. 3 released in December 1999 is an impressive coming together of Hov’s growing NYC rap domination, and Juvenile’s Cash Money bred southern slick talk. It would be easy to make the argument for “Snoopy Track” being of Jay’s top three most underrated songs if it weren’t for what is ultimately hollow lyrical content, but pure uncut dope nonetheless. Juvenile assists on the song's hook while Hov tells tales of “Spanish cats with the keys of coca” and liking women with Gucci shoes and “new coochie.”

“There’s Been A Murder”– Volume 3...Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

If you've forgotten this gem from 'Vol. 3…", one only needs to go back and look at the lyrics of this hidden masterpiece which reads like the script for the yet-to-be-produced Jay-Z biopic:

"Follow the life of this reckless minor/At sixteen in the 600, unlicensed driver/Playin', cops and robbers, like shots can't stop us/Flippin' a bird to the choppers (f**k you coppers!)"

The song gets its charge from the Alana Davis-sampled chorus with the aching refrain of "think there's been a murder…" Lost in the tales of drugs, gun, murder, and hustling is the fact that the song is the first time Hov "killed Jay-Z" with the 2nd being on "Kill Jay-Z" off his 4:44 album.

“Soon You’ll Understand”– The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)

Relationships are complicated, and Jay-Z attacked them head-on with "Soon You'll Understand," one of the few solo tracks on Jay's should-have-been-a-compilation 'The Dynasty…' album. Rumors suggest the song is about model Shenelle Scott, a model who Hov was once rumored to have a child with. Song's intended target aside, the haunting Just Blaze production allows Jay to paint pictures of relationships lost amidst guiding exes in his black book:

"But still when your boyfriend ditched you, life's a bi**h you cried/Over my right shoulder, I told you to wipe your eyes/Take your time when you liking a guy/'Cause if he sense that your feelings too intense, his pimp'll die"

“Girls, Girls, Girls Part 2” – The Blueprint (2001)

A hidden treasure for Hip-Hop purists, Jay-Z’s “secret” track from his hip-hop classic The Blueprint album is a chest of historical music facts. Most people know about the uncredited Michael Jackson background vocals. The song is also one of Kanye’s first beats for Hov and along with MJ, features background vocals from Chante Moore. Pt. 2 brings substantially more soul than its album single counterpart “Girls, Girls, Girls,” thanks to a smooth Persuaders sample of their song “Trying Girls Out”.

Where the original “Girls, Girls, Girls” was more accessible for the masses, “Pt. 2” is dripping with soul and brings a stronger lyrical performance from Jigga:

“I'm lookin' for a Southern girl that cook like Patti LaBelle/Big ghetto booty, scarf over her doobie/Chanel under the Louis, Gucci over her booty”

“Bi**hes & Sisters” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

“ Sisters work hard, b**ches work your nerves” said Hov on his criminally unnoticed “B**ches & Sisters” bonus track from his bloated The Blueprint 2… album (but hey, “mid” for Hov is the peak for many). Sampling N.W.A.’s classic “A B**ch Iz A B**ch” and Kim Weston’s 70s cut “When Something is Wrong with My Baby,” the song sees Jay breaking down the differences between “b**ches” and “sisters.” Some examples? “Sisters tell the truth, b**ches tell lies,” “Sisters do it slow, b**ches do it fast”...you get the point. For his part, Just Blaze gives Jay a horn-fueled banger to spit game on what could be considered one of the Roc-A-Fella honcho’s last overtly misogynistic songs.

“Guns & Roses” Feat. Lenny Kravitz –The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

It’s not everyday Lenny Kravtiz guests on a Hip-Hop track. The forgotten banger from Jay-Z’s only truly average album ‘The Blueprint 2…’ is chock-full of interesting facts that make this one a must revisit track from Hov’s catalog. First off, the song samples Cake’s “Arco Arena.” What makes the Cake sample even more impressive is it was crafted into the song’s track by the late hip-hop pioneer Heavy D. In one of his last interviews in 2011, Heavy D told Tim Westwood that he played the track for Jay-Z in Los Angeles as they drove around. Jay crafted the lyrics in his head. Little known fact: Hov and Lenny performed the song on Saturday Night Live in 2002.

“Meet the Parents” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

Because of the mixed reaction to its initial release, not much credit is given to Jay-Z's The Blueprint 2… album. Not only did it follow up one of the essential albums in music's history with The Blueprint, but the collection was bloated with substantial filler. That being said, it's time to give Hov and Just Blaze their flowers for some of what they did on the project. Case in point: "Meet the Parents." Just Blaze's synthy, gloomy backdrop was the perfect track for Hov to speak on the perils of street life and telling a story with the ultimate lesson of being there for your children. One of the song's more emotional moments is Hov's nod to the passed on B.I.G. and Aaliyah:

"So, give Big a hug, tell Aaliyah I said hi/Till the next time I see her, on the other side"

“Do U Wanna Ride” Feat. John Legend – Kingdom Come (2006)

As the story has been told, Jay-Z's close friend Emory "Vegas" Jones was sentenced to 16 years in prison, missing Jay's meteoric rise to the top of the entertainment world. But like a good friend, Jay never abandoned Emory, ultimately helping secure his early release with a job offer at Rocawear. Now a successful executive at Roc Nation and entrepreneur with his  ‘Bet on Yourself' Puma collaboration, Emory has turned his life around.

It wasn't always this good, however, and Jay's Do U Wanna Ride from his Kingdom Come album was a letter to his incarcerated friend, even beginning with a recording of a call Emory made to Jay while locked up. The song was said to have been critical in keeping Emory's spirits up while serving his sentence. As Hov says on the song, any time Emory called him while inside he just wanted to hear Jay "talk fly" and Hov does just that on the song's 2nd verse:

"International Hov, I told you so/ 40/40s out in Tokyo/ Singapore, all this from singing songs"

“30 Something” – Kingdom Come (2006)

Getting older is unavoidable, but aging gracefully is within your hands. Jay-Z's 2006 track "30 Something" aimed to shine a light on aging Hip-Hop fans, including Hov himself. The song set out to teach Jay's aging audience how he has managed to transition gracefully into adulthood. Think of it as a precursor to Jay telling fans about the artwork he bought for one million with early investment advice around stocks and clubs:

"I don't got the bright watch, I got the right watch / I don't buy out the bar, I bought the nightspot/I got the right stock"

Dr. Dre mans the boards and while Dre's production on "30 Something" won't have anyone confusing it with "Still Dre," it's reliable and shines on the song's remix with Ice Cube and Andre 3000.

“People Talkin'” – MTV Unplugged (2001)

After making history with his MTV Unplugged live album backed by The Roots playing his hits, Jay-Z placed this gem as a hidden track at the end. Armed with a beautiful sample flipped by frequent collaborator Ski Beatz, Hov celebrates his rarity and his excellence in hip-hop through that point of his career. "Damnit man, this is a gift from God," he insists. Amen.

“Heaven” – Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

When people list Jay-Z's "hardest" songs, it's unlikely they reference the Timbaland, The-Dream, and J-Roc produced "Heaven" from 2013's often panned Magna Carta Holy Grail album. But when Jay spits "arm, leg, leg, head - this is God body" with ferocity, Hov launches into an examination of religion, life, and death that can only be described as one of Jay's more underappreciated songs. Hov even tackles the Illuminati rumors head-on providing a believable explanation: "Conspiracy theorist screaming Illuminati/They can't believe this much skill is in the human body."

Fun fact: The song was supposed to feature Ghostface Killah and Raekwon.

“Somewhereinamerica” – Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

"Somewhereinamerica" should be remembered as one of Jay-Z's most poignant on racism and the state of race relations in America. Unfortunately, it's more often remembered for the line "Cause somewhere in America/Miley Cyrus is still twerkin'" which was followed up by a Miley tweet and subsequent Hov acknowledgment.

Hov seemingly brushed off the line as a slight at Miley but looking at the context of the song's lyrics, it's obvious it's a sharp commentary on not only white appropriation of black culture but the out front racism of new America: "New money, they looking down on me."

“This Life Forever” – Jay-Z: The Hits Collection, Volume One (2010)

For the Jay-Z purists, "This Life Forever" is about as pure as it gets for a song that didn't appear on 'Reasonable Doubt.' The underrated street hustler's tale appears on the 1999 soundtrack for the unreleased film Black Gangster based on the 1972 novel by Donald Goines. Much of the credit for the purity of "This Life Forever" goes to Queens producer Ty Fyffe whose hard drums give Hov the canvas to spit lyrics like: "I'm the truest ni**a to do this, ni**a, and anything else is foolish/Like those who stay high, under God's grey skies/My lyrics is like Bible, made to save lives"

And when Jay says, "All day, socks explode and sweatpants pockets is bulging" you can see a young Shawn Carter on the corner moving his work while dreaming of what could be.

“Imaginary Players” – Reasonable Doubt (1996)

The Prestige produced “Imaginary Players” could have easily found itself on The Blueprint. The Rene & Angela-sampled track is dripping with soul as Hov speaks on his pre-and post-rap riches and his love of finer things. It’s interesting to look back and see the brands name-checked by Hov back in the late 90s - Cartier, Versace, Hummer, and Rolex. “Imaginary Players” is really that “down south Master P, bout it, bout it” sh*t as the listener rides shotgun with Hov early rap fame and seeing visions of what the future holds.

“Always Be My Sunshine” Feat. Foxy Brown & Babyface – In My Lifetime Vol. 1 (1997)

Wait, underrated? Wasn’t this is one of Jay-Z’s most successful songs? Not really. “Sunshine” peaked at #95 on the Hot 100 and #16 on the rap charts. And chart struggles aside, the song was the one in Jay’s career that seemingly everyone loves to hate, including former Roc-A-Fella executives. In an interview with the ItsTheReal podcast in 2017, Roc Nation’s Lenny S. said, “We were kinda digging out of a hole after “Sunshine,” and the video didn’t help…”

But is the hate warranted? Ring off “Sunshine” at any party and no one is going to tell you to turn it off. The Prestige-produced track samples MC Lyte, Alexander O' Neal, Kraftwerk, and The Fearless Four providing a sugary canvas for Jay and Foxy Brown to trade playful lyrics while Babyface lends his vocals to the song’s hook. No, “Sunshine” is not Blueprint quality Hov, but it is one of the jiggy era's more enjoyable guilty pleasures.

“Rock Star Freestyle" – S. Carter Collection (2003)

With a nod to Run-DMC’s “King of Rock” to kick off the freestyle, Jay’s destruction of N.E.R.D’s “Rockstar” beat off the ‘S. Carter Collection’ mixtape was the official signal to Jay’s “retirement” when the Roc head honcho rapped “Rap’s my hobby, spending money’s my job.”

Hov had reached such heights at the time of the freestyle that a comparison like “bigger than U.S. steel” (U.S. steel was at the time the 15th largest steel producer in the world) didn’t seem so far fetched. By no means Hov’s most magnificent set of bars but a forgotten moment off of Jay-Z’s only official mixtape.

“Glory” Feat. Blue Ivy

In the music blog era, the drop of “Glory,” Jay-Z’s tribute to the birth of his daughter, was a huge moment. At the time of its release, Rolling Stone called the record “rushed,” but a more accurate description of the song is “pure.” Featuring the first sounds of his newborn daughter, the Neptunes-produced track is one of Jay’s most-open lyrically on wax. The feelings of a new father seep through lines like “Your mama said that you danced for her/Did you wiggle your hands for her?” and deeply personal bars around previous miscarriages suffered by Jay and B. “False alarms and false starts/All made better by the sound of your heart.”

But it’s the song’s 2nd verse that genuinely cements this as one of Jay’s most underrated. Where the first verse sees Jay reflecting on his daughter’s birth, the second speaks to some of Jay’s trials growing up, including those with his father: “Your Grandpop died of ni**a failure/Then he died of liver failure/Deep down he was a good man.”

“The City is Mine” Feat. Blackstreet – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1

What makes “The City is Mine” notable is that it feels like New York City at night. When Jay says, “I snatch your girl if your arm ain't strong enough/plus y’all don't stay in the studio long enough” you can visualize the late-night NYC studio sessions followed by club nights into the wee hours of the morning in the early Roc days. The song, like much of the shots at Pop stardom on ‘...Vol. 1’ was a moderate success and sure, the Teddy Riley production and Blackstreet helmed chorus isn’t the hardest you’ll ever hear Hov coming. However, much like “Sunshine”, the song’s lyrics still hold to what made people fall in love with Jay-Z in the first place: clever wordplay, vivid lyrics, and a sense of motivation for the listener who saw the street hustler beginning to rise Rap’s ranks.

“Party Life” – American Gangster (2007)

Somewhere between underrated, despite overall incredible reviews, and misunderstood, you will find Jay-Z’s American Gangster album. A concept project inspired by the film of the same name starring Denzel Washington, the album was steeped in 70s soul and funk with Diddy and The Hitmen helming the boards for six of the album’s tracks.

“Party Life” isn’t one of the tracks that jump out immediately from the project, but it encapsulates the build of the project. Diddy and team more or less jacked Little Beaver’s “Get Into the Party Life” for the song which Jay-Z chews up and spits out, using a slower, almost Southern drawl flow with tales of parties, sex and enough classic gangster references to fill a novel:

“I make it look good to be this hood, Meyer Lansky/Mixed with Lucky Lefty, gangster effortlessly”

“Dear Summer” – Memphis Bleek: 534 (2003)

In 2005, two years had passed since Jay-Z released what many believed was his swan song with The Black Album. So that made "Dear Summer," his solo song on Memphis Bleek's album 534, particularly resonant when it dropped. Over a nostalgic production by Just Blaze, Hov writes a breakup letter to the summer, in homage of the way that he would drop a new record or start the album cycle during the summer of every year. Thankfully, he would return full force the following year with Kingdom Come, launching a new era of his already storied career.”

“Ignorant Sh*t” Feat. Beanie Sigel – American Gangster (2007)

Yes, Just Blaze killed "Ignorant Sh*t." Yes, both Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel skate on this track like they play for the New York Rangers. And yes, "Ignorant Sh*t" is underrated - underrated in the sense that it should forever be referenced for being one of Hov's brightest moments. Digging deeper into Jay's lyrics on the 'American Gangster' track, Hov gets in between the bars on this one:

"Then, actually, believe half of what you see / None of what you hear, even if it's spat by me / And with that said, I will kill ni**as dead"

It's like Jay pulled back the curtain on hip-hop the same way CM Punk pulled back the curtain on pro wrestling during his infamous pipe bomb promo, exposing the scripted nature of much of what you hear on a record.

"Oh My God" – Kingdom Come (2006)

With its hints of “U Don’t Know”-like rowdiness and ferociousness, but with a bit of a lighter feel, the Just Blaze-produced “Oh My God” is a standout from Hov’s Kingdom Come album. Just’s masterful sampling of “Whipping Post” (originally performed by The Allman Brothers Band) anchors the chorus screams of “good lord” as tension builds into each verse. The 3rd verse is the highlight with Hov recanting visits to Africa and having dinner with Italian designer Roberto Cavalli:

“I got crowned king down in Africa/Out in Nigeria, do you have any idea/Sold out shows out in Seoul, Korea/Jo'burg, Dublin, Tanzania/Lunch with Mandela, dinner with Cavalli”

“I Made It” – Kingdom Come (2006)

Never one to shy away from braggadocio bars, "I Made It" off Jay's Kingdom Come album is one of those rare moments where it's less about making a hit and more about therapy. The therapy, in this case, is what feels like Jay-Z finally exhaling the countless hours in the studio, trials and tribulations and trappings of success to proclaim that he had “made it.” The first two verses recap Jay's relationship with his mom Gloria Carter with the 3rd bringing the song to the present day, giving the listener a glimpse into Hov's current relationship with Mrs. Carter:

"CEO of Carter Foundation, wow! I know pop looking down/I know Colleek somewhere up in the clouds like/Go get 'em Grandma make me proud"

Colleek is the reference to Jay-Z's nephew who passed in a car accident in 2005. Jay references the incident on "Lost One", another standout from his Kingdom Come album:

"My nephew died in the car I bought / So I'm under the belief it's partly my fault"

“Bam” Feat. Damian Marley – 4:44 (2017)

4:44 is arguably Jay-Z’s latest hip-hop classic filled with painfully personal lyrics around infidelity, loss, and redemption. “Bam,” while one of the album’s more shallow moments (i.e. it doesn’t talk about family or cheating on Beyonce), the song is underrated for one primary reason. Where much of 4:44 is meant to make the listener think and look inwards at their own life, “Bam” serves one primary purpose: to show that Jay-Z can still get a listener amped and bang their head. – nothing more, nothing less. It sees Jay leaving the family talk alone and getting back to that Pyrex talk telling tales of stuffing a million in a sock drawer and having ARs before A&Rs.

“Anything” –  Beanie Sigel: The Truth (1999)

When Beanie Sigel dropped his Rocafella debut The Truth in 1999, label boss Jay-Z provided his client with an assist by placing the solo song "Anything" on the album. The song had similar vibes to "Hard Knock Life," the breakout single from his album Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life that dropped the year before: clunky drums, a sample of a child singing on the hook, and lyrics that reminisce on his time growing up in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects. The song also appeared on the European version of Vol. 3...Life And Times of S. Carter as a bonus track.

“Intro” ‘The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (1999)

A Jay-Z album intro track is always a thing of beauty. From the classic that is “Intro / A Million And One Questions / Rhyme No More” off Vol. 1 to “The Ruler’s Back” off The Blueprint, it’s always a guarantee that the opening darts on the board from Hova are sure to be fire. “Intro” off The Dynasty… album is one of Hov’s intro tracks that many people don’t immediately look at as a “go-to,” but once it’s played, memories of just how fire it is coming rushing back. If “Intro” was on The Blueprint or Vol. 1 or one of any other more memorable Jay albums, it would be a more recurring play. It isn’t a stretch to say that the production on this is some of Just Blaze’s most exceptional work ever.

Interesting fact: The singing in the sample that occurs every four bars was a mistake due to two separate loops playing at the same time. In the end, it’s one of the most memorable parts of the song and cements this as one of Jay’s underrated intros.

“100$ Bill” – Various Artists: Music From Baz Luhrmann's Film The Great Gatsby (2013)

Don’t feel too bad if your first response was, “what Jay-Z song is this?” Jay’s contribution to The Great Gatsby soundtrack didn’t exactly light the music world on fire, but it’s worth a revisit if for nothing the way Jay dissects the “roaring 20s” and compares it to modern-day. When Jay compares himself to Mark Twain as a writer or to Malcolm X as a revolutionary, it’s like Hov verifying his pages in music’s history book. Producer E*Vax gives Jay one of the more awkward, skittish beats of his career, which makes this one a little less pleasing to the ear but worth a revisit nonetheless.

“In My Lifetime” (Remix) – Various Artists: Streets is Watching (1998)

“In My Lifetime” (Remix) is 90s hip-hop encapsulated in 4 minutes and 37 seconds of pure bliss. Nothing but an incredible Jaz-O rework of the original track produced by Ski and a fresh-off-the-streets Jay-Z enjoying life “lettin the Cristal breathe at the Barnacle Bar.” The song continues the theme of early Jay-Z struggling with his past experiences with lines like “I’m a prisoner of my crimes.”

“A Week Ago” Feat. Too $hort – Vol 2 ... Hard Knock Life (1998)

MIA producer J Runnah helms the beat on Jay-Z and Too $hort's collaboration off Jay's Vol. 2… album. Fueled by a beat centered around 80s-like rock guitars and devastating piano keys, Hov and $hort tell the all too common street tale of a former partner snitching when the chips are down:

"I ran to the spy store to add some more features on my phone/To see if I had bugs and leeches on my phone/Can't be too safe, 'cause ni**as is two-faced"

The song is said to be directed at Jay-Z's former friend DeHaven Irby who Jay has accused of snitching on songs in the past.

“What We Talkin’ About” Feat. Luke Steele – The Blueprint 3 (2009)

“I ain't talkin' about gossip, I ain't talkin' about Game/I ain't talkin' about Jimmy, I ain't talkin' about Dame/I'm talkin' about real sh*t, them people playin'”

With those bars, Shawn Carter took yet another step in leaving the old Jay-Z behind. This underrated album cut from The Blueprint 3 features MGMT's Luke Steele on the song's hook. "What We Talkin' About" is Jay's shot at the critics and the fans for that matter, asking for the old Hov or wanting to know about perceived shots at the throne from other emcees. While the song isn't the pinnacle of Jay album intros, there are still some true lyrical gems to be found here, including Jay reminding people of his part in getting Barack Obama elected to office: "A small part of the reason the president is black."

“I Can’t Get Wid Dat” B-Side

The first comment under the YouTube video for Jay-Z’s “In My Lifetime” b-side is “I wanna see Jay z rapping like this in 2019.” And with good reason. “I Can’t Get Wid Dat” is a lesser-known Hov time capsule to his “wiggity wack,” Das-Efx like early 90s flow. The crazy thing about “old” Hov is that the vocal inflections and vibe have never been lost. In a way, this track from 1994 captures why Jay-Z is still at the top of the hip-hop world in going into 2020: presence, a raw but crisp delivery, and the ability to ride any track, including this Clark Kent banger, to critical acclaim and adoration.

“You Must Love Me” – In My Lifetime, Vol 1 (1998)

"You Must Love Me" type hip-hop music is unfortunately not made too often anymore. Sure, rappers make songs about life's trials, growing up in stressful situations and doing wrong to those close to them, but how authentic is it truly? "You Must Love Me," a Kelly Price-featured gem that gets somewhat lost in the "jigginess" of Hov's In My Lifetime..., feels real. It feels so real that the listener can envision Jay stealing from his mom's purse, shooting his brother, or having "girlfriends" smuggle drugs on planes. It’s one of those rare moments where a song becomes so vivid that it makes the listener feel like they’re hearing things they shouldn’t know about.

“It’s Like That” Feat. Kid Capri – Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life – (1998)

Nothing revolutionary content-wise, this standout from Kid Capri’s Soundtrack to the Streets album also appeared on Jay’s third album Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. Produced by Kid, the song sees Jay politicking on his street origins and singling out the only rappers he f**ked with at the time:

“You dudes is too soft, why I don't f**k with you all I might bark at X, or spit at The LOX/But, other than that, I don't be f**kin' with cats”

“I Did It My Way” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

In hindsight, “I Did It My Way” could have been a bigger song for Jay-Z had the label ante’d up on sampling the Frank Sinatra version of “My Way” rather than the Paul Anka version, which Hov communicated at the time was the cheaper route.

“All Around the World” Feat. LaToiya Williams – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

The lyrics from “All Around the World” aren’t going to sit in any hip-hop hall of fame, but this forgotten track from Jay’s The Blueprint 2… album is fun. And many times “fun” hip-hop is cast away shortly after its release due to its lack of substance, but there are some great bars on this song – not because of the content but Jay’s uncanny ability to use flow and cadence to make something stay in the listener’s head:

“London, England, South of France/And all points between they know about your man / Konichiwa ladies when I'm out in JapanI'm a Tokyo Giant like Ichiro, I am”

“Runnin', then I wake up in Martha's Vineyard/St. Bart's this year, I think I'm gon' spend Christmas/Reminiscin' 'bout the time my mom couldn't spend Christmas”

Whether the Ichiro line or Hov’s double-play on “Christmas,” the song’s concept is simple, but there are more to the bars than what’s on the surface.

"Blueprint 2” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

Ask most hip-hop fans, and they'll tell you that the classic rap beef that was Jay-Z vs. Nas is primarily wrapped up in Nas' "Ether" and Jay's "Takeover" and "Supa Ugly" (which was so disrespectful that Jay's mom made him apologize). But Jay-Z's "Blueprint 2" off The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse is a wildly underrated chapter in the story of one of Rap's most historic beefs. Yes, the chorus is beyond awful, but the song contains some of Jay's best body blows at Nas:

"Is it Oochie Wally Wally or is it One Mic?Is it Black Girl Lost or shorty owe you for ice?"

"And the little homie Jungle is a garden to me"

"Can't y'all see that he's fake, the rap version of T.D. JakesProphesizin' on your CD's and tapes"

The almost comically apocalyptic backdrop from producer Charlemagne isn't "Takeover" level punishing, but it serves the purpose for Jay's last shots in the battle.

“Show You How” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

The appropriately titled “Show You How” is the essence of Jay-Z’s famous line “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them” off his classic Black Album song “Moment of Clarity.” The song provides the listener specific instructions on how to ball-out like Hov and go after what you want in life. But it’s the fairer species who may have gotten blessed most by Hov on this album cut:

“And ma don't give him nothin', unless he's treatin' you special/Soon he'll get desperate, and go down and bless you/And when he come up for air, with a mouth full of hair/Just grab your coach bag and get the f**k outta there, yeah”

“Minority Report” Feat. Ne-Yo – Kingdom Come (2006)

It’s hard to believe that “Minority Report” isn’t celebrated more when it comes to Jay’s broader catalog. Similar to Lil’ Wayne’s underrated “Tie My Hands”, the challenging subject matter on “Minority Report,” centered around the devastating Hurricane Katrina that battered New Orleans in 2005, opens up wounds around race in American that many listeners likely don’t want to revisit too often. Which is a shame because the song contains some of Jay’s most meaningful bars, including one of the truest ever spoken on record at the onset of the song - “People was poor before the hurricane came...”

As much as the song is about America’s response to the hurricane, it’s also about Jay-Z looking inward at his response to the tragedy and questioning if he did enough: “Sure, I ponied up a mil' but I didn't give my time/So, in reality, I didn't give a dime.”

“Nickels and Dimes” – Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

At the time of Magna Carta Holy Grail’s Samsung-sponsored release, Jay-Z produced a series of videos where he talked about the meaning behind the album’s songs including the underrated “Nickels and Dimes”:

The song’s theme is one many can relate with who have found success in life despite close friends, family, or even strangers for that matter continuing to struggle day-to-day. How do the successful reconcile a beautiful experience with a dark mess left behind? Jay gets knee-deep in trying to answer the question on the Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua-produced track, including considering the beauty of the struggle:

“Something 'bout the struggle so divine/This sort of love is hard to define/When you scratching for every nickel and dime”

But Jay isn’t there anymore; he’s further away from the struggle than most people on earth with a net worth north of $1 billion. And this is why Jay is brutally honest in saying that sometimes he feels “survivor’s guilt,” and instead of simply giving money to the less fortunate, he wants to provide opportunity.

“MaNyfaCedGod” Feat. James Blake – 4:44 (2017)

A bonus track from Jay’s critically-acclaimed 4:44 album, “ManyFacedGod” features James Blake, hip-hop's favorite white boy crooner next to Bon Iver. The trip-hop-like beat was produced by the aforementioned Blake and English producer Dominic Maker and continues the theme of Jay reflecting on a significantly rough patch with his wife, honing in on the timing of the release of Beyonce’s critically-acclaimed Lemonade album which many see as the onset of infidelity accusations levied against Hov:

“Look at all we been through since last AugustSkating through the rumors like, "Aw, sh*t!"Still came back, f**ked up the red carpet/Shows how big your heart is”

The production on the track is one of the song's more underrated elements as it lays out a gloomy, painful layer for Jay-Z to pile on with truly deep-cut bars like "Woulda broke me down had you got away/It woulda broke me up, you took my child away/I'm glad we found a way"

“Things That U Do” Feat. Mariah Carey – Vol. 3...Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

If Jay-Z's "Sunshine" is pop sugar-filled radio candy, "Things That U Do" off 'Vol. 3…" is a truck full of raw sugar dumped on a pile of pink lollipops. In other words, it's up there with the most poppy material Jay has ever done. That being said, the song is still an undiscovered gem in Jay's catalog, driven by the riddled flute backdrop from Swizz Beatz and surprisingly substantive lyrics from Hov. Mariah's airy, somewhat forgettable chorus leans into a third verse from Jay that touches on his entry into the game and his versatility as an MC:

"Don't matter to me the Garden or flowin' on Clue...You know I've traveled through zones/Homes spazzed like a bad back/I came into this game on Jaz's back”

“Fallin’” – American Gangster (2007)

“Fallin’” is everything a song should be on a concept album like Jay-Z’s American Gangster. Vivid, poignant, and with lyrics at the forefront. The production from Jermaine Dupri isn’t minimalist in the most real sense, but it isn’t overpowering and lets Jay’s tales of taking the street game one-step too far room to breathe. The song is centered around the “alphabet boys” closing in on Frank Lucas, the legendary gangster the American Gangster film is centered around, and Jay references some other famous gangster flicks to communicate just how close Frank had taken it to the edge:

“Damn, you f**ked up like your favorite movie scene/Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface, Casino/You seen what that last run did to De Niro in Heat”

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Courtesy of Def Soul

SisQo Shares Memories Of 'Unleash the Dragon' For Album's Anniversary

The late '90s was a magical time for R&B, with a plethora of talented acts infiltrating the genre. Among these new jacks was Dru Hill, a quartet out of Baltimore, Maryland with vocal chops reminiscent of the ensembles of yesteryear. Comprised of SisQó, Jazz, Woody, and Nokio, Dru Hill stormed the charts in 1996 with their self-titled debut, which struck platinum off the strength of hits like "Tell Me," "In My Bed," "Never Make a Promise," and "5 Steps." Riding high off the success of their debut, Dru Hill hit the movie soundtrack circuit hard, contributing singles for Soul Food ("We're Not Making Love No More") and How to Be a Player (“Big Bad Mama”) the following year. By that point, SisQó had emerged as the breakout star of the group, with his distinct vocals and palpable charisma quickly catching on with fans. He also began making waves with his songwriting, most notably his work for fellow DMV native Mýa, whose first two singles, "It's All About Me" and "Movin' On," were powered by his penmanship.

Returning alongside his groupmates with their 1998 sophomore album, Enter the Dru, SisQó and Dru Hill's careers skyrocketed, with the album peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard charts and earning double-platinum certification within months of its release. Featuring standouts like their chart-topping Rush Hour soundtrack single "How Deep," as well as ballads like "These Are The Times" and Beauty," Enter the Dru marked another victory for Dru Hill and positioned them as one of the hottest groups in all of music. However, Dru Hill would begin to splinter with the defection of member Woody in early 1999, leaving the direction of the group in limbo during the height of their success.

Taking matters into his own hands, SisQó capitalized on the buzz surrounding his name and decided to keep the fire burning with his own solo album, Unleash the Dragon, which was released on November 30, 1999, on Def Soul. A departure from the traditional Dru Hill sound, Unleash the Dragon, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, included a mix of ballads and amped-up club bangers and cast SisQó as a captivating dance machine with a voice thunderous enough to crush the buildings. Featuring the singles "Got To Get It," "Incomplete," and the seismic anthem, "Thong Song," Unleash the Dragon was one of the biggest R&B releases of the year, selling upwards of five million units in the U.S. alone and minting SisQó as a bonafide megastar.

With twenty years having passed since its release, VIBE spoke with SisQó about recording Unleash the Dragon, struggling to make the transition as a solo artist, the lasting impact of "Thong Song," label drama and much more.

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VIBE: When were you first approached to record a solo album and what's the backstory behind that?

SisQó: I was not really approached to do a solo album, basically what happened, it was right around the time all of the labels were consolidating. Back in the late '90s, early '00s, a lot of the labels were combining into one label and we were kinda being pushed onto the Def Jam imprint. We had previously worked with Def Jam and had great success with the song that we did, "How Deep," for the Rush Hour soundtrack. When we did that record, at the time, we had gotten paid more than anyone else to record a soundtrack song. So that song was our first No.1 single across the board and I believe it was a part of the Latin invasion, if you will, and that was all on Def Jam. We had also had another platinum success with the How To Be A Player soundtrack.

Dru Hill had just gotten on their label so they wanted a Dru Hill album. And we had just had prior success, like I said, with the song "How Deep" from the Rush Hour soundtrack and then we had a song with Will Smith called the "Wild Wild West." If you look at the video [for “Wild Wild West”], you'll see there were four of us in the beginning of the video and only three of us at the end. Woody [one of the members] decided that he didn't wanna sing with the group anymore. He had pretty much quit the group on the set of the "Wild Wild West" video and needless to say, it was pretty rough. That's why if you look at the video, I got my hat pulled down so far so you can't see my eyes 'cause I was really [upset].

We were really broken up because we had just gotten off our very successful European tour that *NSYNC and 98 Degrees were opening up for us on. We were at the pinnacle of our success, but when Woody quit the group, when we went to do the second leg of our tour, our American portion of the tour, the fans were very confused. They were used to the four of us being Dru Hill so attendance at the shows was kind of dwindling.

At that moment, I basically came to the label and was like, 'Hey, man, I think maybe now might be a good time for me to do a solo album.' And of course, they didn't want a solo album because that was a gamble for them because they had never seen any prior success with myself as a solo artist and only saw success with Dru Hill. And it was like a new genre for them because they were a hip-hop label. So I took my own money, recorded my album and basically went up and asked for a meeting with the label. I played them my album, "Thong Song" included, I guess they realized that I had something special and they decided to put the album out. And over 10-12 million albums later, maybe I was right (laughs).

Being that you were used to creating and performing in a group setting, what was the adjustment like making the transition as a solo artist?

The studio part was easy because we had been working together since we were fourteen years old. We came right out of high school right into the entertainment industry so we found several different ways to work. The recording part, that part was very easy, the part that wasn't so easy was when it came time to do the video. Hype Williams had shot "Got To Get It”. They shut Hollywood Boulevard down just to shoot my video. So we're on the roof and I'm about to do this performance. Hype Williams, one of my all-time favorite directors, is doing my video, everything's set up. They were like, “And... action!” and I just froze. I froze and I'm not really a shy person, anybody that knows me can tell you that, but yo, I got cold feet. I don't know if Hype still has the footage, but I literally looked back and didn't see Dru Hill and I just rolled out. It might've been a low-key panic attack, I don't know. I was like, “Yo, I can't shoot, I can't do the video.” He was like, “What?” I was like, “Yo, get the car, I'm out.” We had two days to shoot this video and I'm up there like, “I'm not doing it.”

So I hop in the car, I go back to my hotel room and then my brother was like, “What's going on?” I was like, "Yo, I don't think I can do it. What if people don't like the music, what if they don't like me? I don't know if I can do it without Dru Hill." He was like, “Yo if you don't do it now, you'll spend your life wondering could've, should've, would've and you'll regret it for the rest of your life.

“That's the worst thing you could do so why don't you just go up there and just do it, at least you can say you did it.” I was like, “You know what? You're right.” I showed up the next day and we went and shot the video for ”Got To Get It” and the rest is history. I never got cold feet like that [again], but that very first time, I was messed up."

In light of your previous success with Dru Hill and the hype surrounding your solo turn, did you feel any pressure to live up to expectations, especially with y'all going through your internal beef?

Well, we didn't have any internal beef. As a matter of fact, when I got my deal, I made sure the entire group got paid. I don't know if there is another group member or boy-band member that when they went solo made sure that their group members got paid. I might've been the first one in history to do that. Within my contract, when they paid me for my album, I made sure my group members got paid. I was like, 'If y'all don't pay my group members and me, then I'm not gonna sign with y'all so I basically made sure everybody ate while I was eating. Not to mention that I opened up the album to any member of the group that wanted to do a song so they can get publishing. A lot of people don't know that album was on my own label so I own my own masters. Everybody's making it seem like it's something new, but technically, I was one of the youngest artists to ever own their masters, a lot of people don't know that to this day. Like, the "Thong Song' is on my label.

Your album kicks off with the title track, which features a guest appearance from Beanie Sigel, who was a relatively new artist at the time. How did that particular collaboration come to life?

Beanie Sigel being on that record, that was really Def Jam. Beans was fairly new and I knew who Beans was. I had no idea that he was gonna be a part of my record. I thought it was dope for him to want to be a part of that 'cause me being on Def Jam, a lot of times I would see the Def Jam artists around so we would talk to each other in passing from time to time. But Beans being on the record, I thought that that was dope 'cause I felt like Beans had a lot of street cred. And him being on the “Unleash the Dragon” record, I think it gave the words I was saying a little more validity 'cause of him being so street and a part of JAY-Z's camp and what have you.

The album's second single "Thong Song" was an international smash and helped launch your career to unprecedented heights. What was the inspiration behind you dedicating a song to lingerie?

At the time, no one had really seen one before, myself included. I had gone on this date and the girl had the thong on and I was like, “Yo, what is that?” And she was all nonchalant, “This old thing? It's called a thong.” So basically, when I was putting the album together, I had got to this one song that had this track produced by this group of producers called Tim & Bob. It wasn't even a full song, it was a sample of about, I wanna say, thirty seconds maybe and it was at the end of a CD with a bunch of tracks on it. And this one specific sample was on there and that was the only one out of the whole CD that I liked so I called them and asked them if they could loop it and send it back to me. They looped it, sent it back and I basically freestyled the whole song to the "Dump like a truck"  'cause I didn't really know what I was gonna put right there.

And after I saw that girl’s thong, I told all my boy, “Yo, you gotta see this thing that I saw." He was like, "What are you talking about?' I was like, “Yo, I don't know what it was, but it's like some dental floss, it was like these tiny draws called a thong.” He was like, "A what?" I said, "A thong." I'm from Baltimore, so these are inner-city dudes. So all of a sudden everybody rolled out, going on a pilgrimage to find that one ring... it wasn't a ring though, it was a thong. The next day, my boy came back like, "Guess what this girl gave me?" I thought that she had handed him something and he said, "That thong-thong-thong-thong-thong!" I thought it was super funny that he made this big deal over this thing and even to this day, a thong is a big deal. If you're in some kind of relationship and the person that you're with come out with a thong, that is gonna be a story that you tell your friend the next day. Facts.

The song itself was a success, but it is also remembered in large part for its accompanying music video, which was a watershed moment for the video vixen era. How would you describe the activity on set and what are some memories from that shoot you can share?

Man, that's a whole separate interview, it was a lot going on (laughs). It's a whole other story with the stuff that went on that video. We just got our biopic green-lit by BET. I wanna save some of the stories for the biopic, but I can share one thing. When we had to do the auditions, it was about two days of just different women coming into a room, us pressing play on "Thong Song" and them just shaking off in thongs for two days straight. We had like five tapes of like several hours of different women from Miami and from all over the world that wanted to be in that video and at the time, it was crazy 'cause you couldn't even show a thong in a video. If you look at the "Thong Song" video, you notice you never see a straight-on thong 'cause you couldn't show it. Like when I'm walking on the beach [in the video], the girls are upside down so you're not really seeing a butt in a thong. And then when they're on the beach playing ball, it's like from the side, so you never really see a straight-on thong. After that video, the FCC kinda lightened up and then everyone went bananas. The only thing you didn't see was maybe an areola in a video and you even saw that on BET After Dark [Or BET: Uncut], so you're welcome (laughs).

The "Thong Song" can also be credited with popularizing thongs on a mainstream level and becoming synonymous with sex appeal. How did it feel to play a part in that and helping women feel more liberated?

I feel like women took their power back with "Thong Song," which was the magic of the record. It could've been looked at as misogynistic, which some people tried to make it that. But women took it as empowering because I believe women realized that and found the power that they had in their sexuality. When we were growing up, there was a lot of chauvinists, women were only being objectified in different ways and it was very hard for a lot of women to find their voice. And I feel like younger women of that time, they took that moment and seized it and now women are running everything. They took that like, "Oh, okay, we're gonna use this to kick the door open" (laughs). And that's awesome.

I read somewhere that Lil Kim was originally slated to be on the album version of "Thong Song." Is there any truth to that?

That story got mixed up. What happened was Lil Kim and I did the song "How Many Licks," I had written the chorus. So when I did the record, a lot of people don't know. If you're on a label and you have ownership of the label, basically you and whoever your distribution is, which was Def Jam at the time, basically have ownership of the music. Not only the music but the artist and artist's likeness and how the artist is portrayed and what have you. In order for Def Jam to be on board with me being a part of Lil Kim's album, I had to do some kind of favor for them. The favor that I did was to do a remix to the "Thong Song." Now granted, everybody knows that "Thong Song" didn't need a remix, but they wanted to put the remix on the Nutty Professor soundtrack. So I was like, "Okay, cool, y'all want me to do this remix, then y'all gotta sign off on me being in Lil Kim's video." They were like, "Okay, well if you're gonna do that, we want you to do this song for DMX, and that was "What These Bi***es Want." I did those two songs for them in order for them to not have a problem with me doing Lil Kim's video, but unfortunately, they got amnesia when it came time for me to be in Lil Kim's video and that kind of started the friction between myself and Def Jam.

Aside from your own singles, "What These Bi***es Want" was another song that really boosted your own profile as well as DMX's. What was it like working with DMX on that song?

Nokio, one of the members of Dru Hill, he's one of the producers on that record. I didn't know X that well and I had already done my favor for Def Jam which was the "Thong Song (Remix)" so I wasn't really interested in doing an extra favor for Def Jam. But Nokio had sent me the record and asked if I have an idea for it. Just out of respect for my brother, I was like, "You know what? I'ma go 'head and lace this joint and hopefully Def Jam won't have amnesia when it comes time for them to make good on their part of the bargain." But we all saw how that panned out.

The song recently gained new life and was reintroduced to a new generation of listeners via the #DMXChallenge on social media. What was your reaction to the song becoming a viral sensation twenty years after its release?

Let's just put it this way, it's good to have hits. Because you have a whole bunch of younger cats, a whole new generation who might not have even known the song or might not even have been born when it came out that got introduced to the song. That was cool, I was really happy to be a part of that song at that moment. It's crazy though, I just got back from Australia and they don't know the song as much as people know it over here. That's wild how different songs impact people in different ways.

Another song from Unleash the Dragon that caught on with the public was "Incomplete." How did that record fall into your hands?

Even to this day, people don't even know Montell Jordan wrote "Incomplete." I didn't even want to sing "Incomplete" initially because it sounded too much like Dru Hill, but to be fair, I hadn't really listened to it. I just heard the first couple of piano licks and was like, "Nah, that's too much like Dru Hill." If you notice, I sing in Dru Hill so it's undeniable that my voice is there and I can't not sound like me, but my music doesn't sound like Dru Hill's music. Like you can never hear Dru Hill singing "Thong Song," it's not a Dru Hill [type of] record. Back then [former Def Jam executive] Kevin Liles had asked me, "Just listen to the song... I mean, have you even heard the song?" I said "Nah, 'cause I didn't want anything that sounded like Dru Hill." And he was like, "Yo, just listen to the song, if you just listen to the record and you still think that it's bullsh*t, I won't try to force you to sing it." I listened to the record and then soon as I heard that line, "Got a bank account bigger than the law should allow," I was like "Yeah, I'm singing that." (laughs)

If you could choose three of the album cuts outside of the singles that struck a chord or are among your favorites, which three would you name?

I would say "Enchantment Passing Through" because the great Elton John had written the song and I produced and arranged it with Nathan Morring, my MD (music director) from my band and Dru Hill. And that song, I think, is just an incredible record. The song I did with my female group [LovHer], "Is Love Enough" was an incredible record. And the song "How Can I Love U 2nite" which I did with Nokio, which I feel was the best ballad that I sang as a solo artist that was written and produced by him.

What can the public look forward to from SisQó moving forward?

On Black Friday, you'll be able to pick up my brand new EP called SisQó Genesis. It's got three new songs and a song from the last album I did, The Last Dragon. I'm basically doing a series of EPs where I'm releasing three separate EPs and one new song from The Last Dragon and maybe I'll compile 'em all together and make one album. It's basically a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Unleash the Dragon album, that's why I called it SisQó Genesis.

Twenty years later, how does it feel to see the album still being talked about and celebrated as a classic body of work?

When we did the album, I had gotten nominated eight times for a Grammy. At the time, I was told that was the most that anybody had ever been nominated. And then a couple of years ago, Beyonce had gotten nominated nine times, which broke my record, but it was almost twenty years that I held that record so that was pretty cool. Even though I didn't win a Grammy, for some people who may not know the music so well or relegated the album to the most popular record, "Thong Song," for the whole album to still be recognized today, it really makes you feel good as an artist that you can still be recognized. It's a validation of your artistry and every artist just wants to be validated in their art.

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