With the arrival of At.Long.Last.A$AP this week, New York rapper A$AP Rocky has finally released his second album. They say you wait your whole life to make your first album, then you have nine months to follow it up. In hip-hop, first albums are one part autobiography and one part mission statement. Sophomore albums tend to be a little more complicated. There’s pressure to prove you can do it again, and you’re facing more outside influence. Now you’re dealing with fame, corporate interests, and an audience who may not want its preconceived notions challenged. The first time someone hears you, they’re a listener; the second time, they’re a fan.
There are all kinds of second rap albums: commercial failures, bloated bombs, cult classics, underrated masterpieces. There are also a handful of sophomore LPs that are considered some of the best rap albums ever made. With all due respect to Dr. Dre’s 2001, Nas’s It Was Written, Biggie’s Life After Death, and the countless other great second rap albums, here’s a brief look at some of the Grantland staff’s favorite sophomore efforts.
De La Soul, De La Soul Is Dead
Alex Pappademas: To be a critic is to have a dysfunctional romance with a thing you love. BAM. I just thought of that. I don’t even know if it’s true. I do know this: When I became a semi-full-time rap-music critic back in the 1930s, it was largely because of this pigeonhole-chafed, self-defeatingly self-aware nervous breakdown of a record, which is basically a 73-minute I’m rubber, you’re glue argument about the state of hip-hop circa 1991 and the vexed question of De La Soul’s place therein.
It did for being a sarcastic weirdo full of passionate conflictedness what Port of Miami did for controlling the Miami-Dade County cocaine trade; it made me want to devote my life to listening to rap music in order to find more rap music that felt like this, which meant the joke was on me, since there wasn’t any. Getting into hip-hop through this album was like getting into movies through Pierrot le Fou, which is why most of my writing about rap music is insufferable. There isn’t even any more De La Soul music like this — their 1993 follow-up Buhloone Mindstate is a just-about-perfect record, but I like this one better, because it’s so far from perfect. The cover image (limp daisies in a cracked pot) is an I-don’t-believe-in-Beatles repudiation of the flower-child iconography that made 3 Feet High and Rising a novelty hit; on the record inside, squabbling voices gather and agree to disagree. Every lyric is a gnomic Mad Fold-in that reveals a middle finger; every song has “Spy vs. Spy” fights in the margins. “Talkin’ Bout Hey Love” and “Bitties in the BK Lounge” are he-said-she-said songs that end in stalemate; “Pease Porridge” starts with haters accusing De La of falling off after “Potholes in my Lawn” and breaks halfway through for a color-commentated fistfight; “Afro Connections at a Hi 5” is a gangsta-rap parody as wide of the mark as the Minutemen’s Project: Mersh; and the one big hit single, “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey),” is about being tormented by struggle rappers telemarketing their demo tapes. Meanwhile, in one of the two (2!) sets of between-song skits, a Greek chorus of school bullies — anticipating great ’90s music critics Beavis & Butt-Head — offers up thoughtful assessments of the record as it unfolds. (“Oh, man — this album sucks. It’s starting to sound just like MC Shan’s.”)
All this entropy, plus producer Prince Paul on the beat, throwing out audaciously obvious pop samples (Tom Waits’s “Diamonds on My Windshield,” Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved,” Serge Gainsbourg’s “En Melody,” Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park,” Frankie Valli’s Grease theme) like they were going out of style, which — thanks in part to a legal precedent created by Paul’s imprudent use of the Turtles’ “You Showed Me” on 3 Feet High’s “Transmitting Live From Mars” — they actually kind of were. Like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, … Is Dead was a commercial disappointment that everyone now claims to have always liked. I am the only person who says this and isn’t lying.
Ice Cube, Death Certificate
Sean Fennessey: Anger is a hammer. It blunts and flattens. It doesn’t allow for nuance or daintiness. It hits and it can hurt. Ice Cube’s voice is a hammer — heavy and unrelenting, with a wood-grain grip. His second album, Death Certificate, hits like a sledge. Its messages are mighty: fuck Bush. Fuck crack and the government that flooded his neighborhood with the drug. Fuck sexually transmitted diseases and their provenance in low-income communities. Fuck the health care system, which won’t care for those in need. These are the empowered visions of a great artist who knows the strength of his voice. Hit. Hit. Hit. Men and women die in Ice Cube’s world. Keep your hammer at the ready.
There are other messages, too, and less insightful — decrying the presence of Korean shop owners in black neighborhoods, defying the American military while praising gang violence, slut-shaming a generation of women. Again, no nuance. Hammers don’t heal.
Ice Cube is an imperfect role model, but he was an amazing rapper. By my count, “A Bird in the Hand,” from Death Certificate, is the most overwhelming synthesis of voice and production in rap history — it’s a throttling call to action. “Your plan against the ghetto backfired,” Cube snaps on the song. You can practically see him bang his fist on the table and then smirk that Ice Cube smirk. The world’s a joke, he tells us, but let’s at least say so and have a laugh.
“With my team on Death Certificate, we worked during the day, which made the records more upbeat, people had more energy,” Cube said in 2011.
Working with the producer who first introduced him to Dr. Dre in 1987, Anthony “Sir Jinx” Wheat, as well as the trio known as the Boogiemen — Rashad Coes, Mark “DJ Pooh” Jordan, and Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin — Cube made an angry album seem oddly buoyant, and at times almost maniacally gleeful. “You can new-jack swiiiing on my nuts,” he exclaims on “The Wrong N---- to Fuck Wit,” an anti-R&B jeremiad that is as ecstatic as it is musically antiquated. Ice Cube could be wrong like that and get away with it. He pummels you into submission, smiling all the while.
The Fugees, The Score
Amos Barshad: The Score was so big that it destroyed lives. It was the mid-’90s, and the monoculture was years away from the first cracks (via thanks, Justin Timberlake!) in its then-formidable defense systems. Back then, you were still going to field trips to the Lowell mills with Velcro CD sleeves and a Discman, and then freaking out when you forgot them on the school bus. The “Can’t Hold Me Down” single you could let go, but The Score you just had to rebuy.
It went six times platinum, dominated MTV for years, made hip-hop examine and redefine the outer limits of its capabilities. Wyclef went and had a hit solo record. Lauryn Hill (happy 40th, Lauryn!) went and made an all-time classic. And Pras just went ahead and owned the Bulworth soundtrack.
But the true mark of its grandness is that now — nearly 20 years later — its three creators are effectively wandering in the wilderness. Maybe it was the intense personal and romantic entanglements from which the thing was birthed. Maybe it was the reverberations of its release. Whatever “there” is, they don’t want to go back to it. The Score was such a grand second rap album that there never was third.
Devin the Dude, Just Tryin’ ta Live
Shea Serrano: The best thing to do is to just state it plainly, because so much of this is not plain: Devin the Dude is a genius. He is profoundly smart and even more clever and even more loopy. He makes music that is like how it feels during the weird part of very late at night when it’s not quite the end of nighttime but also not quite the beginning of the morning. His music hums along — this gorgeous and warm ethereal goop of sounds that’s almost always packaged as humorous, but is rarely ever anything less than philosophically intense. Imagine a fur coat dipped in caramel. Imagine taking a nap inside of a nebula. Imagine doing a slow-motion cannonball into a pool of melted wax. That’s Devin the Dude’s music. And no proper tape he’s released has ever been as representative of that as has 2002’s Just Tryin’ ta Live.
The first track on JTtL is called “Zeldar.” It’s two minutes and 43 seconds long and is a circular song-skit about a show-and-tell event on Mars. The person performing it, Zeldar from the planet Beldar, tells a story about how he got trapped on Earth (“[I] got a hole in my megaboop”) and accidentally discovered marijuana. The third song is called “R & B” and Devin performs half of it as himself and the other half of it as a “redneck” who likes to sing, and so they volley melodies back and forth. The fourth song, “Lacville ’79,” is entirely about Devin’s raggedy car and contains the two most profound descriptive lines about a car I’ve ever absorbed (“My passenger-side window — sometimes it just don’t wanna raise,” and “My electrical rearview mirror don’t move like it ’posed ta”). The 11th song is called “Doobie Ashtray,” and I know the title conveys one idea of what it’s about, but actually it’s a sly peak at existentialism and I probably listened to it about 100 times before I realized that.
I love Devin the Dude. I love Devin the Dude so much. This one time I was listening to Just Tryin’ ta Live while I was driving and there’s a part when he mentions a street in Houston called Chimney Rock and I for real literally was driving past the Chimney Rock exit as he sang about it, and I had never felt more connected to the universe when it happened. I also had never felt more confident that a supreme being was trying to talk to me through my radio.
MF Doom, Mm … Food
Danny Chau: Twenty seconds into MF Doom’s second solo album, Mm … Food, you hear a sound bite from the 1942 movie Bowery at Midnight. “Here you will find food for your body as well as comfort for your troubled mind,” the disembodied voice of Bela Lugosi says. In the movie, Lugosi plays a professor who moonlights as a soup kitchen owner; the business served as a conduit for criminal activity. It’s a mission statement; it’s a parallel origin story. It’s the first of Mm … Food’s myriad seven-layer metaphors, waiting to be dipped into.
I’m a sentimentalist, so for my money, Mm … Food will always be Doom’s finest work.1 I don’t think any of his other solo efforts so clearly establishes his lexicon, or so clearly traces the contours that encase his extremely relatable interests. As a kid, my Monday ritual was polishing off a tall bag of Doritos in one sitting as I watched Monday-night Raw. Doom’s gluttony was my own; so was his fascination with caricatures of good and evil.
Doom lays down some of the best food-related rhymes ever on the album, but, in my opinion, he’s been usurped at the top by Future, who, in a feature verse on Young Thug’s “My Everything,” rhymes “popular” with “binoculars” and “tilapia.”
It’s an album that wears its insignificance proudly. In 2004, Doom told Grantland’s own Alex Pappademas in an issue of Spin that he hoped the album would show “respect for human life.” It’s a grand thing to say, but in the context of the album, it feels a little more matter-of-fact: Some days all you need to achieve a fullness in life is a fullness in stomach.
Kanye West, Late Registration
Alex Shultz: In my haste to escape Barnes & Noble before a fellow 12-year-old from school spotted me hanging out with my mom, I accidentally purchased the edited version of Late Registration. Mom had no interest in driving me back to B&N to swap albums, which annoyed me to no end until I listened to “Hey Mama,” at which point my icy pubescent heart temporarily melted. I have no doubt that “Hey Mama” is the best mother-centric song in existence.
Late Registration is one of the last pieces of evidence of a fully vulnerable Kanye. Those instances have become increasingly rare. “Hey Mama,” and “Roses,” in particular, are Kanye admitting he doesn’t quite have it all, that he remembers what it was like before he became the biggest musician on the planet. The whole album is worth a listen a decade later. The radio hits (“Gold Digger” and “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”) still deliver, as do the outstanding collabs with Paul Wall and GLC on “Drive Slow” and Adam Levine on “Heard ’Em Say.” My favorite song is “Touch the Sky,” because those horns make me want to turn the volume in my headphones to infinity.
My only qualm with Late Registration is the track order. “Gone” is technically the last song, which makes sense, because it ends with a lyrical mic drop: “Hold on I’ll handle it, don’t start panickin’, stay calm / Shorties at the door cause they need more / Inspiration for they life, they souls, and they songs / They said, ‘Sorry Mr. West is gone.’” Except he’s not really gone. The deluxe version has a “Diamonds” remix afterward and a hidden track, “Late.” That’s the real conclusion to the album. Not surprising, perhaps. If there’s one thing we’ve learned since West’s sophomore effort, it’s that he’s going to speak his mind until he’s damn well finished.
A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory
Steven Hyden: Sometimes, the best you can hope for from a second album is that future generations come to mistake it for the first album. The first Tribe LP, 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, has plenty of classics, most notably “Bonita Applebum” and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” But The Low End Theory became the group’s entry point pretty much immediately after it came out in 1991. Travels broke ground, but Theory claimed its own territory, taking the jazzbo excursions of the debut and somehow making it sound like party music accessible to anybody. When I started college in the middle of the Wisconsin northwoods five years later, The Low End Theory was one of those records that was more or less issued to incoming freshmen. No matter the small-town backwater from which you hailed, you were aware of what industry rule no. 4080 was. We knew almost nothing else out there in the sticks, but we were schooled in conscious rap.
Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury
Chris Ryan: Hell Hath No Fury is the sound of patience running out. I first heard it in a recording studio in an anonymous Virginia office park. Pusha T, who, along with his brother Malice, made up the group Clipse, was rapping along to every word of his long-delayed second major-label album. When Clipse released their debut, Lord Willin‘, they were minimalist, plainspoken coke rap purveyors, almost supporting actors in their own movie; the Neptunes’ production was the star. Mired in a contract dispute, Malice and Push went underground, began releasing the seminal We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape series, and became two of the best rappers alive. Hell Hath No Fury was an urban legend — the lost second Clipse album. Watching Pusha pantomime the lyrics to “Ride Around Shining,” you could see the music almost bursting out of him — this album would be released, one way or another.
When Hell finally came out, you could kind of feel people back slowly away. It was a critical success, sure, and “Mr. Me Too” got some radio burn. But it was like the moment at a party when you’re trading bullshit anecdotes with someone you don’t know very well and they suddenly tell you about serving time in Lompoc or something. Shit gets dark.
Almost 10 years on, it’s probably Clipse’s most complete statement, the nail in the coffin of coke rap, and, weirdly, a redemption story. Clipse’s darkest effort gave them a second life — especially Pusha, who has enjoyed a lot of solo success. Maybe that was always going to happen. They just needed to let it out.
Kelly Clarkson, Breakaway
Rembert Browne: There’s no way around it: Breakaway by Kelly Clarkson is a classic album. In the first 14 minutes, she takes you on an aughts roller coaster with four gigantic singles. Straight bangers.
First there’s the “let me go climb a mountain with no harness because I believe in myself and also Gaia protects” title track. And then Track 2 shows up, one of the songs of the decade — and the true beginning of Dr. Luke — “Since U Been Gone.” And then it gets irresponsibly lit (because Dr. Luke and Max Martin are not done being a musical San Andreas) with Kelly going full pop-punk on “Behind These Hazel Eyes.” And then when you’re ready to punch a wall and give a bunch of hugs, having felt so many things, she brings you down to earth, rubs your back, and sings her ballad “Because of You” directly into your eyes, causing you to weep into a bag because you’re no longer in control of your heart. Your heart is Kelly’s now.
AND THAT’S ONLY THE FIRST FOUR TRACKS.
KELLY HAD FIVE SINGLES.
NOT FIVE SONGS THAT PEOPLE KNOW.
FIVE LEGITIMATE SINGLES.
WHAT DOES SHE THINK THIS IS, COUNTRY GRAMMAR?
Remember “Walk Away”? Yes, that’s also on this album. And for the diehards, remember how the album ends? With a little live track called “Beautiful Disaster.” Kelly just belting. The pipes and runs are on full display, concluding an album that truly makes you forget her American Idol past. An album like this was her only choice. At that time, Kelly was American Idol and American Idol was Kelly, and the only way that would ever stop being the case — and she would start to be taken seriously — is if she were to put out a tremendous sophomore album. And did she ever.