You’ve heard the saying that you never get a second chance to make a first impression? Well, for these artists, that’s complete and utter bullshit. For one reason or another, their debut albums — that most emcees pour their heart and soul into — didn’t necessarily launch them to the moon. Label situations, identity crisis or just plain immaturity are some of the reasons that these artists’ debut albums didn’t set the world on fire.
But what happened was that these emcees worked on their craft and (forgive the cliché) took it to the next level. Today, their debuts are often forgotten as their careers have surged. In this edition of The TENS, we run down our list of emcees who needed a second chance to make a truly remarkable first impression.
ROCK CITY 2.0
Royce Da 5’9” had a pretty significant buzz surrounding him after tag teaming with Eminem on the underground circuit and the work he put in as a solo emcee with joints like “Boom” and “I’m The King.” His initial debut, Rock City, was a victim of bootlegging so he went back to the lab to record and ended up dropping Rock City 2.0 much to the chagrin of hip hop heads salivating over his debut album.
In so many words, it was a mess. Although there were flashes of brilliance in “Boom” and “My Friend,” this album was like a shiny suit raped a backpack because the results were confusing as hell. Look no further than the Trackmasters produced “You Can’t Touch Me.” No, seriously, look at it.
I mean, he also had a single with Willa Ford and wore a gotdamn cowboy hat. A cowboy hat!
This contradicted everything we thought Royce was supposed to be and it felt like he was going to go the Can-I-Bus route. But once he retreated and regrouped, Nickle Nine eventually became the emcee we all thought he would be. And with the recently released Layers, he has proven that his talent still has room to grow. — Andreas Hale
CAN I BORROW A DOLLAR?
Is it possible to have two career resurrections? Ask Kurt Warner, who went from grocery bagger to Super Bowl champion, then back to struggling backup quarterback, then back to prolific passer. In essence, the future Hall Of Famer’s football life can be compared to the musical one of Lonnie Lynn’s: following the largely-ignored Can I Borrow a Dollar? in 1992, Common would go on a yearslong run in which he would release a medley of critically acclaimed (but under-selling) albums (1994’s Resurrection and 1997’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense), before nabbing his first gold plaque with Like Water for Chocolate in 2000.
Then came the crocheted pants and the commercially disastrous Electric Circus… yikes.
Needing a revival, Com would link up with another popular Chicagoan, Kanye West, sign to his G.O.O.D. Music label and release the universally praised Be in 2005. Regarded as one of the best hip hop albums of the 2000s, Common’s second comeback was in full swing. He has since gone on to be both an Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning musician, and is revered worldwide.
… We’re just going to ignore that whole Drake beef thing though, okay? — Meka Udoh
COLE WORLD: THE SIDELINE STORY
Like Royce, Jermaine Cole had a pretty significant buzz when he signed to Roc Nation and dropped two impressive mixtapes in The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights. Then things got weird. The anticipation for Cole World: The Sideline Story was peaking but there was no sign of a release date. Instead, Cole participate in a label manufactured single for Miguel “All I Want Is You” that really didn’t showcase the talent either artist harnessed. So we waited, and waited, and waited. Then we got this really weird single “Work Out” that sampled Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” and it was clear that there were some struggles that came with the debut album in terms of the audience it was trying to reach.
When it finally did drop, it wasn’t bad. But it certainly felt like it was missing something. So instead of letting Nas down, Cole went back to the lab and went to work with the impressive Born Sinner and then bodied the industry with 2014 Forest Hills Drive. He had star potential, but it took a minute for everyone to understand just how significant of a talent the North Carolina emcee truly is. — Andreas Hale
CONFESSIONS OF FIRE
Before he was the de facto leader of Harlem’s influential crew The Diplomats, Cameron Giles was Killa Cam: a member of the Big L-bred group Children Of The Corn—which included McGruff, the deceased Bloodshed, and Murder Mase. Eventually Mase, then signed to Bad Boy Records, introduced Cam to Lance “Un” Rivera, who would then sign him and Tiffany “Charli Baltimore” Lane to his Entertainment/Epic Records, and landed writing gigs for songs like Lil Kim’s “Crush On You.”
While his 1998 debut album, Confessions of Fire, would reach gold status (it’s two main singles, “357” and “”Horse & Carriage,” are still unequivocal bangers), it failed to match the hype of the rapper himself, with his second album S.D.E. (Sports Drugs & Entertainment) faring much worse. Frustrated with Epic, Cam’ron would shed both his ties to the label and some pounds (the latter, he would admit in an interview to VIBE, would happen after getting both a hernia and an ulcer due to his heavy drinking), arm himself with three friends from around the way — Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, and Freekey Zeeky — and flood the mixtape scene with a series of acclaimed street albums, before aligning himself with Dame Dash and Roc-A-Fella Records.
The rest is history: a platinum album in 2002’s Come Home with Me, and two gold-sellers in 2003’s Diplomatic Immunity and 2004’s Purple Haze,. With the rest that followed — including a memorable role in Paid In Full, the all-pink everything movement, capes, 60 Minutes, Bill O’Reilly, and countless others — Killa has become one of rap’s cult icons, and none of it would have happened had he remained stuck to the hip of Un. — Meka Udoh
It’s almost hilarious to go back and listen to Joe Budden’s debut album because it wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t indicative of the emcee that Budden is today. “Pump It Up” was such a massive crossover single and Budden just wasn’t tempered to make music of that magnitude for the masses. If you dig a little deeper into the album, there are flickers of the rapper that we know today but his biggest single nearly crushed his career. But Joe decidedly took his act underground and built a significant cult following with his Mood Muzik series, dropped a few indie albums and has really taken off over the past few years as a member of Slaughterhouse and with the Love Lost series. His popularity peaked by being on Love & Hip Hop but we’d rather just forget about that. — Andreas Hale
Before anything, Clifford Harris was branded “the Jay-Z of the South” by The Neptunes, who would produce his single “I’m Serious” from his eponymously titled debut album in 2001. Following poor sales of the LP, Tip was dropped from his label Arista Records, and like Cam’ron he formed his own imprint, Grand Hustle Entertainment, hit the mixtape circuit with DJ Drama, ether the living daylights out of Lil Flip’s career, and complete his comeback with the fantastic Trap Muzik (my favorite song of his is still “Rubber Band Man”).
Now an international superstar, T.I. is an acclaimed actor, reality show staple and philanthropist… we’re just going to ignore that whole Iggy thing though, okay? — Meka Udoh
Killer Mike embodies the saying “age like fine wine” except the wine is a bottle of whiskey and there’s nothing fine about how Mike is aging. He’s just become this incredible individual who can get rowdy, gut punch a beat and turn up a crowd while also having an insightful conversation with Bernie Sanders. But you never would have thought it when Mike first appeared on OutKast’s “Snappin’ and Trappin.” When Monster dropped in 2003, it was dope but wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking. But as time progressed, so did Michael Render. When 2013 came around, Killer Mike was established as a solo artist but that gotdamn first collaborative project that found El-P handling all of the production, 2012’s R.A.P. Music set a precedent that Killer Mike over El-P production was not to be fucked with. And then they formed Run The Jewels. Need we say more? — Andreas Hale
SUPPLY & DEMAND
Let’s be serious: nobody was ever going to take a guy named “Tity Boi” seriously in rap (ask Shorty Sh*t Stain how his career is doing). Despite being both a member of Ludacris’ Disturbing Tha Peace and half of Playaz Circle, Tauheed Epps was seemingly destined to be relegated to weed carrier status due to his original moniker. And even after releasing two albums, Supply & Demand in 2007 and Flight 360: The Takeoff in 2009, the albums made little to no noise commercially.
Side bar: “Paper Chaser” with Phonte is an overlooked banger.
Eventually, Epps would reinvent himself as 2 Chainz, take the mixtape route to success (notice a recurring theme?), sign to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label, and ultimately release the gold-selling and GRAMMY-nominated Based on a T.R.U. Story in 2012.
He is now one of rap’s most popular faces, which is even more amazing considering that his long-overdue debut album arrived when he was already deep into his 30s, proving that there is no age limit when finally experiencing rap success. — Meka Udoh
WORDS FROM THE GENIUS
Who remembers anything significant that came off of the Wu Tang Clan’s first “official” 1991 release Words From the Genius? Show of hands? Anybody? Of course not. It was cool, but nothing like what would shake up the hip hop community like 1995’s Liquid Swords. With the lyricism, the album artwork, the videos and the RZA production. Liquid Swords was simply amazing and proved that GZA was one of the finest lyricists in all of hip hop. It just took a little longer for it all to click. — Andreas Hale
Does anybody remember Juvenile Hell? Exactly.
In 1993, two high school friends (Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita and Albert “Prodigy” Johnson) changed their group name from the Poetical Prophets to Mobb Deep, dropping their debut album that—despite working with DJ Premier (“Peer Pressure”) and Large Professor—went triple plywood with the low-balling single “Hit It from the Back.”
Written off as commercial flops, the Mobb would reinvent themselves with 1995’s The Infamous…, an album which has been credited as one of the major players in the East Coast Renaissance of hip hop along with Ready To Die, Illmatic, and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). From “Survival of the Fittest” to “Give Up the Goods (Just Step),” “Shook Ones Pt. II” to “Drink Away the Pain (Situations),” The Infamous… is so masterful that that album is actually considered to be Mobb Deep’s “true” debut. — Meka Udoh