Country and rap are more similar than a lot of people would like to admit. Both prize rags to riches narratives, both began as a way for people to talk about life experiences, and, especially lately, both liberally borrow techniques and styles from each other. There are a lot of great country music albums out there, but are 10 rap albums every country fan should hear.
10. College Dropout, Kanye West
Yeezy’s debut mixes soul, RnB and even some gospel and country influences to create his most accessible album for non-rap fans, with the exception of Late Registration. This was back when Kanye wrote songs about things other than how great he was. Listen to “Through the Wire” for an example of songwriting as a way to get through a horrific experience— something any country fan could appreciate.
9. The Pinkprint, Nicki Minaj
Rap as a genre isn’t the best place for women, but neither is country music these days. Minaj made her debut by rapping Kanye, Rick Ross and Jay-Z under the table on “Monster”, and she’s showed no signs of stopping. She’s the closest thing rap has to a Dolly Parton— someone who consistently prove she is better than her male competition while simultaneously building a business empire as her career flourishes. “Feeling Myself”, a collaboration with Beyonce, illustrates that point perfectly.
8. The Black Album, Jay-Z
Raised by a single mother after his father left him. Forced to pursue a rather unsavory means of making money as a teen. Turned his hobby for rapping into a multi-billion dollar music empire. Married Beyonce, the other single most powerful person in the music business. If Jay-Z isn’t the best example of the American Dream so often sung about in country music, I don’t know who is. His “retirement” album, The Black Album, is an autobiographical snapshot of his lie, which touches on the story of his rags-to-riches career and the familial drama that came with it. The man is rap music’s Johnny Cash.
7. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill
Hill’s debut album is a mix of rap, hip-hop, soul, RnB and reggae, but the subject matter is inherently country. Recorded in 1998 after she became pregnant with Rohan Marley’s child following a Fugees tour stop in Jamaica, Miseducation is all about Hill’s pregnancy and its aftereffects, including how it changed her dynamic with The Fugees and her relationship with God.
6. Ready to Die, The Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie’s legacy can clearly be seen in country music today, and it goes far beyond Luke Bryan singing “Big Poppa” at concerts. Ready to Die was his only studio album released before his murder in 1997, and like his protege Jay-Z on Black Album, Ready to Die focuses on the criminal activity that brought him into the spotlight. Country is known for its storytelling abilities; country writers of today could benefit from listening more to this album. Every song sounds like it’s really happening, but simultaneously sounds like it’s happening in a movie. Check out “Gimme the Loot” for a prime example of the storytelling abilities on display.
5. Paper Trail, T.I.
Paper Trail was Clifford “T.I.” Harris’ mea culpa album written while on house arrest and awaiting trial for federal weapons charges. He acquired three machine guns in 2006, fearing for his life after seeing an associate get murdered. He ended up getting sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service and a year in prison in 2009. Paper Trail isn’t just a great album for country fans because of the sentiments that started it. T.I. is full of reflection, anger, guilt and fear at everything going on around him, and put out the best album of his career as a result.
4. The Eminem Show, Eminem
Yes, his raps are misogynistic. Yes, his jokes and punchlines are juvenile on this album. Yes, he raps about murder and crime. But let’s not forget even Johnny Cash recorded “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Delia’s Gone,” about how “If I hadn’t have shot poor Delia, I’d have had her for my wife.” Eminem became more raw and political in this album, talking about censorship, gun control and his childhood. He was writing about what he knew at the time, which was exactly what outlaw country artists were doing in the 70s.
3. It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy
Public Enemy’s second album paved the way for rap music to become more socially conscious. Often billed as rap music’s answer to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, It Takes a Nation of Millions is worth it for country music fans because this was one of the first mainstream records to sample a variety of sounds, something that is routine for rap (and some new country) today.
For better or for worse, Public Enemy helped influence the hick-hop sound that’s becoming more popular these days. And, since It Takes A Nation was one of the first rap albums to really touch on social issues, Public Enemy changed how the genre was seen, much like how the post-WWII generation of country music listeners shifted from hillbilly boogie to bluegrass, folk and honky-tonk. It’s worth a listen just for the historical context.
2. Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A.
The 70s had outlaw country and the 90s had its counterpart, gangsta rap. Straight Outta Compton was one of the first albums to cause a Parental Advisory label, stemming from the album’s explicit lyrics about sex, drugs and street violence. The recent film adaptation of N.W.A.’s rise to fame revived the album’s popularity, but Compton should be heard by country fans because it’s basically what outlaw country artists would have written if they had been black. There’s not a whole lot of difference in the lyrics of, say, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Gangsta Gansta”— one is just way more romantic about a dangerous lifestyle than the other. N.W.A. were the outlaw country artist of rap music.
1. Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, Kendrick Lamar
Arguably the best rap album of the last decade, Lamar’s major-label debut is a cinematic masterpiece about a night out in Compton gone terribly wrong. It also happens to open and close with The Sinner’s Prayer, hinting at the religious nature hidden under the surface of this album. The story is relatable— the titular “good kid” tries to do good despite the peer pressure around him. By telling such a simple story, Lamar examines the culture at large and paints a picture of redemption. That’s a storytelling tradition that transcends genres, and any country fan would appreciate the effort.