The Concept of the Hip Hop Concept Album



            On my next birthday, I will be 34, so it stands to reason that my life has left me with plenty of access to hip hop music in my time.  One thing that artists USED to try and actually pull off well was concept albums.  No, I do not mean an album upon which the artist finds a reasonably central theme well and sticks close to that across the entirety of the album.  With that in mind, Ready to Die, Only Built For Cuban Lynx and the like are off of the table.  They were classically presented albums that stuck to their formulas well, but “Concept Albums” they were not.

            On the other hand, Prince Paul’s TWO concept albums A Prince Among Thieves and Politics of the Business, Kool Keith’s entire career and minor outlying and TERRIBLY slept-on Sporty Thievz Street Cinema should all personify what it is I am getting after.  It’s not to say that artists from the little-known on up to megastars haven’t TRIED, just that many fail to pull it off.  Let me lay it out for you…

Prince Paul:
A Prince Among Thieves – plays out in the format of some time in the life of a cat out for a record deal but having to navigate the realities of life and two-faced acquaintances on the way through it.  The album plays out – with the participation of hip hop legends on Paul’s own production – like the movie it is.  I hate that I never got to see it as a movie, but if you listen with your eyes closed, you get a damn good one.
Politics of the Business – not a “movie” concept, but ties itself together as a connected series of songs and skits – which Paul is the INVENTOR of – to play up the hip hop industry as a seedy-ass cesspool corrupted by money and politics.  Again, listening with your eyes closed will give you a visual that is VERY much worth the time spent imagining it.

Before anyone yells at me for not including De La Soul is Dead; this section is the best place for it since Paul was the mastermind behind it as well.  He did so in another connected series of album skits – a monster he was the father of – over the course of the album.

So married to the idea of hip hop Concept albums was Paul, that he would go on to do so later on in his career alongside Dan The Automator with the group Handsome Boy Modeling School.  To those among us who remembered Chris Elliott’s sitcom Get A Life, this title was MURDEROUSLY hilarious at the time.  That lasted 5 years and two albums, which (to me) were purchased, but are mostly forgettable.

            Kool Keith:
Dr Octagon, Black Elvis, Dr Dooom, Tashaun Dorsett, and various other monikers used in between his time with Ultramagnetic and now.  He champions random-ass stories and punching of lines in manners that really were never intended to make sense.  The fact that Keith Thornton never COULD rap very well is masked with his imagery and characters.  Therefore, he had to position it that every album he has made would be a concept album or he might be working in Kinney Shoes or Babbages before either of them went defunct.

            Sticky Fingaz:
Again, someone who never necessarily rapped “great” (WAAY better than Kool Keith, but still…), so he sold his debut as a concept.  Black Trash… sold the story well without having to visit the whole “getting beaten up on MTV” thing.  The rhymes were good enough, the beats were serviceable and the album is accepted as a working “Concept” as it is loosely autobiographical.  I can honestly say that I only listened to it in total about 5 times in the 11 years it has been out, but I didn’t dislike it.  It was what it was.

            Gravediggaz:
Take two BRILLIANT producers in RZA and the aforementioned Prince Paul and add two rappers with whom they can carry out an otherwise yet-undone lane of horrorcore rap employing a style relatable to the Wu Tang sound and you have a recipe for success.  As this was not exactly what any reasonable human being would believe the four individuals involved actually were in real life, the three albums they made before Poetic passed away had to be classified as “Concepts.”

            Sporty Thievz:
Some reading this MIGHT say “who?” and then I remind you of the guys who made “Cheapskate” and went back at TLC with “No Pigeons.”  Their first (and only, since one member was killed when hit by a car saving a little girl) album, Street Cinema, was a Ski Beatz-produced concept sold immediately in the album intro.  We were to believe that the album is representative of them spending a day in the movies, each song on the album representing a movie that they watched that day.  A bold move for then-(and still)-unknowns, it came off AMAZNGLY entertaining.
If I’m honest, it is what I listened to when I posted the tweet that made me make this post.

            Little Brother:
Make no mistake, The Minstrel Show was a concept album.  It started off as a tongue-in-cheek nudge at BET and UPN/CW – purveyors of bad black programming – and stuck to the theme of “this album is a painstaking day in the programming life of UBN network,” and interludes and album outro/encore speak to that.  The songs are purely thematic and speak to this in an order as dictated by beautifully on-point executive production.

            Jay-Z:
One, he has had ONE album that I would loosely call a “concept” album, and even then it seemed that he was trying to make up for having made Kingdom Come, which I still have not forgiven him for.  American Gangster – loosely based on the movie of the same name from the same year, qualifies because he used elements of the (mostly true) story in the movie for the album and did so without it coming off as the total stinker that Kingdom Come was.


            It can be argued that ANY album is “concept” in nature, and that what I am doing here is exclusionary.  I didn’t include Kanye’s first albums because while he PRESENTED them as concept albums, he PRODUCED them as “collection of songs with random-ass intros,” and while the intros spoke to the album theme, most of the songs did not.
The reality, though, is much different…
A dude who thinks he has a concept in his hands and one who has the vision to stick to it for enough of a period of time for the end user to see that concept is rare.  There are albums (Common’s One Day it’ll All Make Sense, for one) with messages and consistent orders that filled a needed spot in my life at a given time, but still fall into that “a collection of songs.”  That is why I have neglected to mention Outkast’s albums here.  They traditionally did a great job of making songs that fit the title of the album, but not quite to sell a story with the album.  Also close, but not quite ON the list are Camp Lo, whose Uptown Saturday Night plays like a blacksploitation film, but again doesn’t sell a cohesive story.

            As with anything, I am expecting to be disagreed with.  People will have their own opinions of what does and doesn’t qualify something as a concept album, others still will be the “irrational” fan type, committed only to the anger of not having seen their choice represented on the list.  As it were, the list is in no order of what is/isn’t the best at the “Hip Hop Concept Album” lane.  Wait, Prince Paul is the best and everyone else is without rank.  But yeah, no weighting to the list, just got it out there to list it.
What say ye?  Agree with my list, hate my fucking guts for not listing Rappin’ Duke or Smut Peddlers’ Porn Again?  Comments are welcomed.
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