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No Country for Old (Rap) Men: The legacy of top-heavy LPs

Is it better to burn out quickly or slowly fade away?

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Rap albums in the eighties were a strange beast. For the first half of the decade, long players reflected the fact that hip-hop was primarily a singles genre, which effectively made many albums a mere collection of the hits with a bit of filler in between and maybe a couple of quality deep cuts if you were lucky. Things started to improve by 1986, as Raising Hell and Licensed To Ill boasted the pacing and sequencing of classic rock albums, standing strong as complete statements rather than glorified compilations.

The following year saw momentum increasing – as Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, MC Shan, Ice-T and Eric B. & Rakim all released platters that were worth a listen beyond the singles – but it was 1988 that really saw rap albums hit their stride as self-contained works of art with over 20 certified classics released across the space of 12 months in what has come to be referred to as the first ‘Golden Age’ of rap.

In an effort to grab the attention of music fans who were now spoilt for choice, a new technique began to emerge where LPs were ‘front loaded’ with all the best material jammed into the opening three spots of the record. This proved to be a frighteningly effective tactic on a couple of levels. Primarily, it made a powerful impression on any potential customer skipping through the album at their local record shop listening booth, where the impulse purchase ruled. But more significantly, this style of sequencing has a powerful psychological effect on the listener whereby it so overwhelms the senses with a triple-dose of aural excellence that dopamine levels soar through the roof and your immediate instinct is to declare the album as the greatest thing ever created.

This phenomenon perfectly encapsulates my own reactions when first hearing NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Eric B & Rakim’s Follow The Leader, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s Road To The Riches, and Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live The Kane that fateful year. The first two, in particular, best exemplify the ‘top-heavy’ method, especially the debut from Eazy-E’s new group. Listening to ‘Straight Outta Compton’, ‘Fuck The Police’, and ‘Gangsta, Gangsta’ in quick succession was nothing less than mind-blowing at the time and, to its credit, the following 29 years have done little to lessen Compton‘s velocity.

So effective was that opening salvo that it’s easy to overlook how unspectacular the remainder of the album actually was. Not to say that ‘I Ain’t Tha 1’, ‘Parental Discretion Iz Advised’, and ‘Quiet On Tha Set’ weren’t entertaining, but very few rap songs have ever matched the intensity and power of that initial trifecta. But according to our collective memories, none of that even matters, because when the album is mentioned your first thoughts are of those first three songs and how awesome they are.

The question that’s been nibbling at the edges of my consciousness this past week or so is this – does an album being heavily front-loaded make it more or less of a great LP than something which is strong throughout but doesn’t reach such heady heights of brilliance? If we look at the example of Eric B & Rakim’s output, their debut Paid In Full is well regarded due to containing such monumentally important cuts such as ‘Eric B. Is President’, ‘My Melody’, ‘I Know You Got Soul’, and the title track. But throwing it on today reveals clunkers such as ‘Eric B. Is On The Cut’ (the second song on the tape, no less!), ‘Chinese Arithmetic’, and ‘Extended Beat’ squandering three of the 10 tracks on offer. Considering that even something like ‘I Ain’t No Joke’ or ‘As The Rhyme Goes On’ is better than most people’s entire discography, this isn’t exactly a deal breaker.

But when compared to something like Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em – which I consider to be the most well-rounded and consistent of the duo’s four releases – Paid In Full plays like a collection of singles. It’s their second LP, however, which was both undeniable top-heavy and also the most memorable of the bunch. Follow The Leader absolutely bolts out the gate in the same manner as NWA did, unleashing the supreme majesty that is the title track, followed by the inescapable magnetism of ‘Microphone Fiend’ before the unrelenting force of nature known as ‘Lyrics of Fury’ delivers the knockout blow. I can barely remember what happens after that mammoth opening, but it’s all but a technicality at that point. Rhythm is a better listen overall but it lacks the impact that Leader brought to the table, and as such it’s a case where the normal logical rules for such things must be abandoned in favour of gut instinct.

And that instinct tells me that Follow The Leader would be the tape that I would choose to be stranded on the proverbial desert island with, if I could choose but one from Eric Barrier and The R. Sure, I would quickly drain the batteries on the Sony Megabass Walkman as I continually rewound to the start to relive that initial triple threat, but first impressions can last forever and the memory of the power of front loaded rap album is tough to shake. Which goes to prove that in the world of rap album sequencing, it really is better to burn out quickly rather than to slowly fade away.

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