When the topic of 90s rap is brought up, the three main years that are spoken of enthusiastically usually fall into the ’93, ’94 and ’95 categories. For many, including the “purists,” the year 1996 just doesn’t work up enough shared interest.
Which is a shame, considering that besides this being the year that the Olympics were held in Atlanta, GA, the StarTAC Motorola cellphone being introduced into pop culture and the Nintendo 64 console appearing in households across the world (competing with the Playstation), many “heads” seem to forget that the Hip-Hop universe was also blessed with a legion of amazing albums.
For those of us who are old enough to remember, February 13 seemed like just your ordinary Tuesday. I personally was either a freshman or sophomore (forgive me, my memory is shot) and after school was over, I, along with a few friends, caught the bus down to the local Tower Records (because, new music Tuesdays) to check the latest Source magazine and get a sneak peek at (read: covertly rip open) the latest Penthouse magazine which we tucked away inside said Source mag.
After perusing a couple more dirty mags—including Hustler—my friends and I headed over to the rap section to check out the newest additions. The CDs/cassette tapes that stood out were 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me and the Fugees’ The Score. Those two were automatic “steals”—and we did what most normal novice thieves did: we took both discs to the far back “easy listening session” where absolutely no one goes, removed the wrappers and security sensors, then slid them behind in the magazine sections, where the security cameras had a “blind spot.” When the coast was clear, we calmly shoved them into our oversized Enyce jeans and walked out.
Fugees – The Score
[Words by JES7]
That first listening session for The Score—the Fugees’ sophomore LP—was an almost supernatural experience. The opening, spoken word intro by Ras J. Baraka (current Mayor of Newark, NJ) absolutely set the tone.
All of the Brick City. That’s my family, we gonna settle the score, once and for all. I’m not gon sit around and let these suckers kill me softly. I’m going out, and I’m going out like a bandit. And all these zealots out here trying to steal and trying to bite and take what I got. Like all of these big record companies, these corporations, these stores they try to rob me. Naw man, I’m going to get mine….
The album then jumped into some of the most incredible lyrical acrobatics emanating from the very self-assured L-Boogie:
You can’t create, you just wait to take, my tape’s
Laced with malice, hands get calloused
From grippin’ microphones from here to Dallas
Go ask Alice if you don’t believe me,
I get Inner Visions like Stevie
See me, ascend from the chalice like the weed be
Indeed, be like Khalil Muhammad
MC’s make me vomit
I get controversial
Freak your style with no rehearsal
Oooh, contraire mon frere
Don’t you even go there
Me without a mic is like a beat without a snare
Lauryn raps on “How Many Mics,” while Wyclef boldly (and prophetically) claimed:
Appetite to write like Frederick Douglass with a slave hand
Street pressure word to poppa, I ain’t goin’ under
One day I’ll have a label and make deals with Tommy Motolla
Lauryn made collective fans fall madly in love when she sang her heart out on her cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly”—which, let’s be honest here, damn near shits on the original. When she concluded her verse on “Zealots” with:
And even after all my logic and my theory
I add a “motherfucker” so you ignant n*ggas hear me…
I absolutely lost it. The deal was sealed, while Pras took aim at Jeru the Damaja and squeezed off with the following four bars:
And for you bitin’ Zealots
Your rap styles are relics
No matter who you damage
You’re still a false prophet
“Fu-Gee-La,” which interpolates Teena Marie’s 1988 single “Ooo La La La” is a lyrical exercise that asserted their rightfully earned spot at the top, while the western-themed “Cowboys” visualized Pras, ‘Clef & L Boog—alongside fellow Jersey natives the Outsidaz—saddling up and readying for war.
To close out, I’d like to share my absolute favorite cut off the album, the closing song “Manifest/Outro” which showcased each member’s palpable hunger.
2Pac – All Eyez On Me
[Words by Patrick Glynn]
By the time 1996 rolled around, even if it wasn’t directly known at the time, Tupac Shakur was a pillar in the pop culture world—a premiere rapper, an activist, a movie star. Tupac recently signed to Suge Knight’s notorious Death Row Records after the label head helped him get out prison after nine months of a lengthier bid. In his personal and public life, all eyes were most definitely on 2pac.
My first introduction to All Eyez On Me was years after it came out. (I was pushing 3 by the time in landed in stores in February 1996.) There was this really shitty website called Ebaum’s World that was the best website in the world when I was 10 years old. It had a parody of 2pac’s “Changes,” and once I discovered what the video was parodying, I took to the infamous Limewire to listen to more. It’s kind of weird looking back realizing the first time I remember hearing about 2pac was via a semi-racist parody of a song released over a year after this large influence was murdered, but I guess we all have our ways.
One of the first sounds that’d always pop up on my PSP—the first device I had that was able to carry more than just a CD or two portably—were the haunting keys and declaratory and threatening lyrics of “Ambitionz Az A Ridah”:
I won’t deny it, I’m a straight ridah. You don’t wanna fuck with me.
Obviously at 22 (and years before), All Eyez On Me can be understood and appreciated far more than when I was ready to claim Nelly as the best rapper who ever lived. The album stands as the climactic moment of a career that—like that of his East Coast counterpart who was slain less than a year before—ended far too soon.
After “Ambitionz,” the mood lightened, but the feeling of success and superiority never left. “All About U,” a tune dedicated to the women who do whatever it takes to be with the popular kinfolk in the rap world to gain power, came with an on-top-of-the-world feel despite a recent rape charge. He stepped above the “I can be with any woman I want” mantra rap as a go-to when describing success.
I hate to minimize an album to two songs (especially just the first two), but “Ambitionz” and “All About U” set the tone for the themes and sounds—bullshit that comes with being at the center of millions of worlds alongside genre-defining West Coast gangsta rap and funk—set on display across the 25 songs of the double-album. In 1996, very few people in the hip-hop world had reached the level off success 2pac had rapping, but being able reach a high level of success while being as outspoken and truthful as he had been left an impact that still lasts. All eyes were on 2pac, and they still are. He stood on the shoulders of Ice T and N.W.A. aware of his voice, and he was going to use it as much as he wanted. That voice, his swagger, that message. They’re still permeating hip-hop today.
Check out some of my favorites from All Eyez On Me below.