A History Of Rappers Who Experiment With Singing

Drake, imma let you finish, but Lauryn Hill had one of the greatest singing and rapping careers of all time…           

We often associate Drake with pioneering the blend of singing and rapping in records, but in fact, emcees have been sharing their vocals for decades. There is a whole history of rappers experimenting with singing, setting the foundation for the rise in R&B fused hip hop songs that have become so popular. Without these rappers paving the way, there would be no 808s and Heartbreaks nor Drake’s sound that has opened up questions about masculinity in hip hop.

Bone Thugs-n-Harmony owned the 90’s and made an entire career based on the blend of rapping and singing, especially on their second album E. 1999 Eternal with the #1 single “Tha Crossroads.”

In 1997, The Notorious B.I.G. released his second studio album Life After Death, which featured the entire singing record “Playa Hater.”

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998 pushed the boundaries of what an emcee was capable of with her soulful lyricism and beautiful vocals on “Ex-Factor,” “I Used To Love Him,” and “Everything Is Everything."

Also in 1998, Black Star, the hip hop duo released their one joint album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star featuring the vocals of Mos Def on “Definition.”

Outkast can be given credit for pioneering the Southern hip hop sound which included their fusion of rapping, poetry and soul records. Particularly Andre 3000 utilized singing on his joint solo project The Love Below. But long before then, the duo were testing the rapping culture with singing tracks such as “Rosa Parks” and “Ms. Jackson.”

Ja Rule was certainly one of the original artists who identified as a rapper and singer providing hit singles from 1999-2004.  Collaborating with R&B singers on many of his popular records, Ja sang with them on “Between Me And You,” “Put It On Me,” “Always On Time” and the remix to Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real.”

Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez was the emcee of the female pop group TLC and their sound crossed multiple genres including R&B and Hip Hop.

Along with groundbreaking music videos, Missy Elliot is also known for records that incorporate hip hop, pop and R&B sounds. She used her voice as a diverse instrument particularly on “Hot Boyz” and “One Minute Man.”

Pharrell has never been confined by labels and that includes his career as rapper/singer. His debut album In My Mind featured his beautiful vocals, unique lyricism and brilliant production.

50 Cent experimented with singing on many of his hooks, most famously on “Just A Little Bit” and “Many Men” on his debut album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ in 2005.

Although Lil Wayne’s singing ability is questionable, he has nonetheless ventured into singing on records. Some of his most successful use of vocals were his singles “Pussy Money Weed,” “Single,” and “How To Love.”

Kid Cudi mentored by Kanye West, helped Ye with 808s & Heartbreaks which opened up a whole new genre of hip hop. The auto-tuned singing is the same technique Drake utilizes on the majority of his records and allowed for vulnerability in hip hop. Cudi then went on to drop his debut album Man On The Moon, which fused singing and rapping in similar ways. His entire career has been based on this fusion and Kid Cudi sings on every album and almost every song he puts out.

All these artists opened up a sub-genre that Drake has popularized with his second and third album Take Care and Nothing Was The Same. It is important to recognize that Drake was in no way the first to blend the two genres and it is important to pay homage to these rappers who dove into singing and simultaneously challenged the norms of hip hop. Today Drake continues to push that boundary showcasing his vocals, but also expressing sensitivity, loneliness, and susceptibility, which were topics that were taboo in hip hop.  The only reason Drizzy has been able to be received in the hip hop world is because these artists set the foundation. Now it’s Drake’s turn to see how far he can take it, striving for more blend, and shedding a different and more realistic light on masculinity in hip hop.


The Rise of Mixtape Culture vs. The Debut Album

The debut album is the most honest and raw body of work an artist releases. There are no expectations of their sound, but rather it’s our first glimpse of who this artist is, well rather was. A generation of hip hop ago, first albums were where artists shined, Jay Z with Reasonable Doubt, Nas with Illmatic, Lupe Fiasco with Food & Liquor. However, datpiff wasn’t around when these emcees were first releasing material and mixtape culture has drastically shifted our first encounter with new artists. Rappers release mixtape upon mixtape that by the time their first album drops, we already have a preconceived notion of what it should sound like and at what caliber the album will rank. It is almost impossible to hear debut albums with a fresh ear these days when we are constantly comparing them to the artist’s mixtape material.

Although I love the dedication to dropping new quality music for the free, there has to be a difference in caliber between a mixtape and an album. Too often these debut albums are falling short especially after releasing classic mixtapes. Live.Love.A$AP was Rocky to the core, it depicted his New York roots while incorporating his unique Houston inspired sound. People were excited about A$AP and eager for his debut album. But with Long.Live.A$AP, he had to bring something NEW, he could no longer be the truest form of himself as an artist. Instead he tried to be larger than life, expressing his unbelievably quick rise to fame. But the raw Harlem cat who we all could relate to began to slip out of our grasps and into commercialism.

J. Cole is another example. Did Born Sinner live up to the artistry of Friday Night Lights? There are some artists who are able to deliver quality mixtapes and still drop an amazing album, Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul succeeded. But a debut album separates the legends from the rest. There was no question after Ready to Die dropped, that Big was going to be a lasting presence in the game. Too often these days, artists are not living up to the buzz they created surrounding their mixtapes. Big K.R.I.T. said “I treat my mixtapes like albums,” which is noble, but at the end of the day the albums have to be superior. Especially when quality mixtapes are just a free download away, no one is going to be inspired to purchase a mediocre debut album.

I fear for new artists who have yet to release debuts. Will Chance the Rapper be able to live up to the critical acclaim of Acid Rap? I hope so, but our view of new artists and debut albums are so tainted now. During a time when the sky is the limit and creatively there are no boundaries, artists are already forced to create a different sound then what should have been their debut and as hip hop fans, we aren’t receiving the same quality of debut albums.

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