Friday, November 04, 2011

Five Notes To Remember On Hip-Hop Concept Albums

Recently The Roots announced and previewed their next LP, undun. You may glean from the title’s lowercase styling that it’s a concept record. undun is “an existential re-telling of the short life of one Redford Stephens (1974-1999).”

Or as Questlove says: “Undun is the story of this kid who becomes criminal, but he wasn’t born criminal. He’s not the nouveau exotic primitive bug-eyed gunrunner like Tupac’s character Bishop in Juice… he’s actually thoughtful and is neither victim nor hero. Just some kid who begins to order his world in a way that makes the most sense to him at a given moment… At the end of the day… isn’t that what we all do?”

Mmm, yes. I do do that. Quest recently told Spin that Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves served as undun's inspiration. So in the spirit of helpfulness, and as a fan of Prince Paul, concepts, conceits, and Consuela from Family Guy, here are some things to remember about hip-hop concept albums:

1. Prince Paul invented The Concept.
 Prince Paul (with De La) was to first to really make sophisticated ironic humor in hip hop (before that it was all “Pickin’ Boogers” Biz Markie humor... not that there’s anything unfunny about booger-pickin’ with Biz Markie). A friend of mine once argued that in the pantheon of concept albums, De La Soul is Dead is like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. And Paul’s Prince Among Thieves is like Tommy. Your mileage may vary on that analogy, but it means SOMEONE SHOULD LET PAUL MAKE ANOTHER ALBUM.

2. Outkast perfected The Concept.
They started with a loose conceit in Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, but then raised the bar with every album after that, eventually ending up with the film musical Idlewild, which was lackluster on the screen, but had a solid soundtrack (there are maybe five artists who wouldn't take "Mighty O" and "Morris Brown" and whatever else and not be better off for it). Unfortunately, the goddamned concept albums tore them apart. Hopefully the Roots' yin and yang, Black Thought and Questlove, won’t let undun be their undoing.

3. The Concept didn’t help Kid Cudi, Lupe, and so many others.


5 Notes on Hip Hop Concept Albums [Grantland]

Also if you haven't peeped the first single: "Make My" The Roots "Make My" featuring Big K.R.I.T. by okayplayer


  1. I def. agree that hip hop has more concept albums than any other genre... I wonder why that is? It's less common to have an album that's just like "here's my latest collection of songs..."...personae help with this.. ...Also, isn't Phrenology kind of a "concept album," as well? All of Kanye's albums are concepts, looser or tighter...

    As an artist, I find that doing stuff like this makes it a kind of engine - a project, so you don't have to sit down at the desk every day and reinvent the wheel - you already know what you're working on... I wonder if that comes into it at all.

  2. yeah, i tend to think there's a suppressed literary quality too. like a lot of the untapped unwritten books that can't manifest cause fiction novels have less currency in the hood get siphoned into skits and mixtape conceits.

    i'm surprised a good "concept" doesn't have more impact though. i can't think of any album that blew up off the concept (as opposed to just good songs, singles).

  3. Shout out to The Goats

  4. Well, describe any time a good "concept" carries a work of art? Can you think of an example? The execution is all that matters, isn't it? Sometimes a "concept" when formulated into a tagline will have some marketing effect... But it has to deliver. In fact, it seems like the heavier the concept, the worse the work often is... If a concept does work, it's because the artist has personalized it so deeply that it doesn't feel like a ham-handed conceit. I think, as you suggest in this post, concepts are dangerous, especially to artists who are too young/green/stoned to know themselves [see: Kid Cudi]... Now, of course, the roots don't have that problem. ...and I'm psyched for the new album and all that... but I'd be more excited about a new album about The Roots own lives than I am about this Redford Stephens character. Of course, that will all change if the music delivers, which it well might.

  5. That Handsome Boy Modeling School album is considered a concept album? Huh. (I mean, I see that you're right, per usual--I looked it up...) How strange. I always liked it, and I never knew anything about the larger conceit... though it's not hard to tell that there's some character adoption going on. But I don't get what makes it truly concept. What's the story? Just the creation of characters and voices distinct from the typical voice of the artist earns it a spot in that category? Then wouldn't some of Em's albums qualify? He creates personas (personae?). I think some of the songs on "So... how's your girl?" are really solid... on both that album and their next (i love the song featuring catpower...)

    I am curious why that persona construction hasn't been taken further, or in more compelling directions, in hip hip. Are there any really interesting takes on that? Dramatic monologues that confront identity in complex and unique ways? I keep thinking about poet Cornelius Eady's series in the voice of the black man Susan Smith invented as her kids' murderer. I realize that a brilliant concept wouldn't make up for shit music, but it might actually open up new intellectual space for great music to happen.

  6. i think the a conceit can serve books or even visual art more easily than music.

    "hip hip" ...ha

  7. re: hip hip: blush.

    we're using the term conceit pretty loosely here, esp. if we're talking about a literary conceit. but whatever. i don't see why hip HOP couldn't lend itself to some of these forms. in particular, i think persona raps could get way more interesting.

  8. btw, your lists are awesome. can you make more of them? can you do an entire week of lists?

  9. There's two chronically slept on rap concept albums.

    Mr. Lif's I Phantom which tells the story of the death and rebirth of an average dude, the generational decay of his family and the eventual destruction of the entire world. All over beats from El-P so it sounds like B-Boy's in outerspace. When Tyler Perry accidentally discovers Stanley Kubrick movies he'll option the record to make his masterwork. He'll inevitably add a scene of black Jesus in drag or some other type of horseshit.

    The Streets A Grand Dont Come For Free tracks the loss of 1000 bucks in a early Guy Ritchie sort of swirling narrative. Amazing details in storytelling in dude's composition. If an American dude had made it, it would've easily won a Grammy.

    MF DOOMs entire career is performance art if you think about it.


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