A concept album can be defined as an album with a unified theme. In other words, it could be an album where a story is told from the first song to the last, or contain a few songs connecting a particular theme or story. Or it could an album where the performing artist(s) delve into a whole different personality or persona and pretend to be such over the length of the album.
In today's day and age, with so much emphasis on hot singles, concept albums (especially hip-hop concept albums) are quickly becoming an endangered species. Albums as a whole have grown less important with the mixtape revolution that began to spawn circa 2002, allowing artists to stay connected with their fan base by dropping material as frequently as they wanted as opposed to having to wait for some record label A&R telling them when their album was finished and they could have it released. Most recently, we've seen the newer format of the "playlist" being released by artists which have been loosely defined as a "soundtrack to one's life"??!!? Whatever. Sounds like a cop out just in case the body of work is disappointing, it can struck from the official discography. Music consumers as a whole seem to have shorter attention spans and don't want to invest 60+ minutes hearing out an artist lay out a theme/story, unless that artist already has a lot of equity built up with that listener; and sometimes even then it works extremely well, and at other times it can fall flat (see: Kendrick Lamar & J.Cole). And to be honest, it is a lot easier creatively and artistically, for a performer to put out an easy-on-the-ears single accompanied by album filler, as opposed to a body of work of 10+ songs that's meant to be consumed as a whole.
So here's part one of a list of hip-hop concept albums that are personal favorites of mine (in no particular order) that I feel any fan of hip-hop would enjoy and be thoroughly entertained by:
1. Prince Paul- Prince Among Thieves (1999 Tommy Boy Records): Legendary hip-hop sampling pioneer Prince Paul employs the services of Breeze Brewin' of the Juggaknots and his buttery, smooth flow to tell the tale of an ambitious MC on the rise who gets caught up in the treacherous trap of the streets. Breeze effortlessly pushes the narrative over an array of dope, diverse beats and highly amusing skits. Other legends' contributions are sprinkled throughout the project such as De La Soul, Kool Kieth, Chubb Rock, Killa Sha, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Everlast, Sadat X, Xzibit, and others.
2. Little Brother- The Minstrel Show (2005 ABB Records): For the sophomore LP from North Carolina trio of Big Pooh, Phonte, & 9th Wonder, they seemed to want to exorcise some demons and vent some frustration with their experience in the entertainment industry (Google "Little Brother BET controversy" or "Little Brother The Source album rating controversy"). What resulted was a masterfully crafted album that used satire to skewer the collective modern black entertainment industry Bamboozled-style. Various sub-genres of rap, "black" television channels, black shopping habits, even the format for the modern R&B single at that time found themselves in the group's cross-hairs with hilarious, but thought provoking results. If you haven't already, please check out the "greatest colored show on earth"!
3. Masta Ace- Disposable Arts (2001 JCOR Records): Juice Crew alum Masta Ace comes back from a seven year hiatus to bless us with this gem of a concept album and just a great hip-hop album, period. Using his simple, straight forward flow and signature vocal tone clarity, Ace lays out a detailed story of a young man released from prison who has to get acclimated again in the streets and neighborhood he left behind while he was in prison for some time. He engages with old, familiar faces who are pulling him in different directions and he ultimately decides to do something constructive with his life while the cast of characters around him eventually meet less than desirable outcomes.
4. The Streets- A Grand Don't Come For Free (2004 Locked On Records): British rappers have never been my cup of tea (no pun intended), but UK wordsmith The Streets lays out a musical page-turner of a plot involving a shady friend, a shady girlfriend, and a missing $1000. His suspicions and reactive nature take him down some twists and turns over the course of the album/story, but it all culminates into a feel good conclusion that doesn't seem too Hollywood nor too iconoclastic.
5. Mr. Lif- I Phantom (2002 Definitive Jux Records): Boston MC Mr. Lif went all out and deep on niggas with his full length debut LP I Phantom. Lif guides the listener into and through the world of a young man coming of age who falls victim to all the trappings of young adulthood before finally repressing his rebellious spirit to go to school, get a 9 to 5 job, and settle down with a wife. Little does he know, the straight and narrow, corporate life comes with its own variety of evils and pitfalls as well. On top of that, Lif also narrates mankind's descent into madness and self-destruction in the most literal way, aided by technology. This album is not for the casual hip-hop listener.
6. RZA- Bobby Digital In Stereo (1998 Gee Street Records): Wu Tang Clan producer and unofficial leader RZA came out the gate on the conceptual tip with his debut solo LP, fully immersing himself into his alter-ego of Bobby Digital. This character seems to be part superhero, part bionic man, part pimp, and part space age rapper. RZA lets his hair down with polished, keyboard and synth driven beats accompanying raps about weak MCs, getting drunk, and chasing women. I admit, that may not sound too left field for a rapper, but it's not what you do, it's how you do it. The flow of the album, guest appearances, and next level production all made for an entertaining trip into one of hip-hop's greatest minds.
Part 2, coming soon...