Jay-Z's "Empire State Of Mind", featuring the vocal stylings of Alicia Keys is a big wet kiss shout out to New York City. Extolling all that is righteous about New York, Jay's occasionally clever punchlines save the track from itself when it threatens to go from anthemic to sappy. Seeing Jay-Z perform this song several times over the past few weeks got me to thinking about the many other rap songs that have been dedicated to rappers' love of the big city. Ever since the dawn of hip hop, MC's have felt the need to confess their love for the city that invented the art form. Jay-Z himself has dedicated a half-dozen or so songs and countless verses to his beloved Brooklyn.
Verbally representing one's borough has become so ingrained in rap vernacular that we no longer even notice this peculiar form of civic pride. Why are all these rappers trying to one-up the next man on how oppressive and bleak their home towns are? Is this really something to be proud of?
Indeed, this need to claim respect for one's town, block, projects, hood and/or suburb has spread well beyond New York to every corner of the hip hop universe; spanning from The Trap to South Central to The Nolia to my hometown of Bad Newz VA. Even though I've never visited most of these places, I feel like I know them intimately thanks to my favorite rappers endlessly droning on about their hard-rock, hard-luck upbringings. It's gotten to the point where I treat these locales like tourist destinations whenever I visit a new city: "Hey kids, stand over there by those thugs so I can get picture of you in front of the Queens Bridge Housing Projects".
Below is a list of my favorite full-length rap songs dedicated to celebrating New York in all its glory. I hope it makes for a nice playlist to entertain you on your next subway ride uptown or trek to the LES. Enjoy.
1. New York State Of Mind - Nas - The gold standard. All other records about NYC will forever aspire to be this good. Nas at the top of his game is a force of nature. Add DJ Premier to the mix and the result is perfection.
2. South Bronx - Boogie Down Productions - KRS would later concede that this song was nothing more than a PR tactic. A made up beef with a cross-town rival; battle rap as a way of getting his foot in the door and drawing attention to himself. We might've been mad at him for such blatant trickery if the record weren't so damn fresh.
3. No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn - The Beastie Boys - If your pulse doesn't skip ahead a beat or two when you hear this simplistic opening guitar riff then you need to see a doctor. Play it loud, play it often.
4. Pacifics - Digable Planets - Digable dedicated their entire (and sadly too short) careers to giving props to the bohemian side of the Brooklyn . This is their most beautiful BK love song. I remember zoning out in my North Carolina apartment while listening to the record repeatedly back in 1993 and making up my mind that I was someday going to move to Brooklyn.
5. Streets Of New York - Kool G Rap & DJ Polo - G Rap takes time out for a melancholy lament about New York's hard times and harsh realities without ever sacrificing his high standards for degree-of-difficulty when it comes to rhyme complexity.
6. New York, New York - Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five - Given all the nostalgia we carry around for Grandmaster Flash and crew, it's easy to forget that Melle Mel had mad skills. By any standard, he could really bring it. On this follow-up to "The Message" his storytelling prowess shines through. And his gift for writing unforgettable hooks like this one "New York, New York big city of dreams / but everything in New York ain't always what it seems..." is beyond reproach.
7. New York Sh*t - Busta Rhymes - "If you from New York stand up right now!" Busta and Swizz Beats craft a contagious anthem. This one makes me want throw on my "timbs & hoodie" look and go out walking around the city looking for trouble.
8. New York (Ya Out There) - Rakim - Within Rakim's catalog, I'm not sure this song gets the respect it deserves. As a piece of flawless rhythm and poetry, this has to be one of his finest efforts. Against a scintillating track from DJ Premier, Ra rips off three vivid, head-spinning verses that concisely sum up the essential ingredients that make NYC the greatest city on earth.
9. Welcome To New York City - Cam'ron - Back in the quaint days of 2002 when Cam and Jay-Z were still on speaking terms they delivered this playful track encouraging NYC to get its mojo back after the fall of the twin towers had nearly drained away all of its swagger.
10. Strong Island - JVC Force - One-hit-wonders JVC force made the most of its 15 minutes with this classic. A dorm room staple for me and a major source of pride for Long Islanders back in '87.
15 Others That Came To Mind
11. Where I'm From - Digable Planets
12. Brooklyn Zoo - Ol' Dirty Bastard
13. The Bridge - MC Shan
14. Queens - Pharoahe Monch
15. Where It All Started - Hi Tek
16. Hello Brooklyn - Jay-Z
17. An Open Letter To NYC - The Beastie Boys
18. Brooklyn - Mos Def
19. New York - KRS One
20. Where I'm From - Jay-Z
21. Crooklyn - Crooklyn Dodgers
22. Lighters Up - Lil Kim
23. Brooklyn (Go Hard) - Jay-Z
24. New York - Fat Joe, Ja Rule & Jadakiss
25. Queens Day - Run-DMC ft. Nas & Mobb Deep