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Sunday, May 19, 2024
Tribe Called Quest

"Bonita Applebum" by Tribe Called Quest captures a moment of infatuation with rapper Q-Tip central to the track, remaining mellow and gentle.

The Art of the Hip-Hop Love Song

What genre comes to your mind when asked to think of love songs? Maybe radio pop, with an earworm for a hook and catchy production. Or maybe something more singer-songwriter, an instrumentally sparse ballad that dramatically lays out a tragic story.  You could’ve even thought outside the box and went with emo rock, which often has a focus on a depressingly hopeless sound conveyed through whiny vocals. But even further outside the box, hiding in plain sight, is the hip-hop love song. Often overlooked and criminally underrated, the best hip-hop love songs demonstrate both musical and lyrical mastery, but with a more laid back style. They provide a unique lens on the topic of love and the emotions and situations that come with it, incorporating humorous undertones and witty lines.  

By turning down the severity, love and romance are depicted to listeners as just as emotional but more casual and lighthearted. This slant on one of the oldest types of songs provides important variation in how we view a topic as complex as love. For the purpose of these breakdowns, a “love song” will be operationally defined as a song that’s lyrics’ main focus is trying to secure the romantic company of another person. With that, here are seven of the most important and masterful hip-hop love songs.

"Step to my girl" by Souls of Mischief, 1998

This song is a masterpiece, top to bottom. A-Plus lays down a simple-yet-unforgettable beat, which consists of a chopped up Grover Washington, Jr. song and a melancholy saxophone riff. It’s a soulful sample, which helps the song feel emotional before anyone even starts rapping.

“Step to my girl” is possibly the most poetic hip-hop love song ever written. The lyric sheet is crowded with complex rhyme schemes. One line bleeds into the next, and the rhymes are spaced out unpredictably and unevenly, ensuring the listener pays attention by limiting repetition. There’s no one overarching story as there is with other notable hip-hop love songs. Instead, Tajai, A-Plus and Opio each desciribe their love life in very genuine terms. Some complicated topics are mentioned, such as psychosocial emotional development: “She paid no mind as jerks lurked constantly / And my insecurity turned into maturity.”  The song also examines relatable, everyday human jealousy with lines like: “Hey yo man / Don’t even look at my girl on a slow jam.” Individually, each rapper talks about how desirable their female companion is and being violently defensive of her — A-Plus threatens to blow up your house in your sleep.

Souls of Mischief clearly have a lot to say about love, and this song has everything from hilarious digs at those romantically missing out to deep social commentary. Ultimately, “Step to my girl” is so captivating because it feels remarkably genuine, never fabricated and empty.

"Shame" by Freddie Gibbs & Madlib (featuring BJ The Chicago Kid), 2014

Another example with an incredibly soulful beat and texture, “Shame” appeared on Piñata, the masterful collaboration between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib. Producer Madlib is known for being a crate-digger when it comes to finding samples, and his reputation precedes him on this song. He weaves an intricate tapestry of chopped up soul, and BJ The Chicago Kid lays down a catchy hook in between Gibbs’ verses. The gospel-like background vocals round out the soundscape, and the result is a smooth, sleazy, seductive-sounding track.

The reason that Freddie Gibbs and Madlib are such a dynamic duo is that their sounds and styles are perfect for each other. Gibbs’ low voice and unrelenting flow is the perfect compliment to Madlib’s sample-collage instrumentals. Gibbs’ lyrics sound laid back and mellow while still being wordy and impressive. He discusses the many women in his life and the situations that reality gets him into, once again not following one specific story.  Gibbs recounts tales of drug deals turned intimate and 2 a.m. breakfasts with a seemingly ever-revoling door of women. Combining that with the general smoothness of lines like “And she cop a seven every Friday / Chuck the deuces at her baby daddy as I pulled up out the driveway” results in romantic-focused lyrics that have enough variety and charisma to be compelling. 

"Just a Friend" by Biz Markie, 1989

The ultimate cautionary tale of hip-hop love songs, “Just a Friend” follows the romantic fling between Biz Markie and a girl he met on tour. Backed by a funky Lee Dorsey drum break and a flirty piano sample from Freddie Scott’s 1968 song “(You) Got What I Need,” Biz recites his story in three verses. This beginning, middle, and end feel gives the story some structure and helps listeners visualize a story arc.

As opposed to other hip-hop love songs, the entirety of the lyrics tell a story from start to finish, a story Biz claims is based on true events. Essentially, Biz meets a very attractive girl after a concert, and they immediately hit it off. They go through the natural progression of becoming a couple: “Spending a lot of time, so we could build a relationship, or some understanding / How it was gonna be in the future we was planning.”  And everything seems perfect for a while. Ultimately, things go downhill when she returns to college and they fall out of physical touch. The whole song is a cautionary tale, but this in itself is a warning as well about the perils of a long-distance relationship.  Biz then decides to pay her a surprise visit and walks in on her and another man. The last line of the song serves as a word to the wise: “So please listen to the message that I send / Don’t ever talk to a girl who says she only has a friend.”

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While other rap songs that discuss women and a rappers’ love life have their fair share of sexual and romantic boasts, Biz tells a painful-yet-humorous story that doesn’t depict him as some invincible pimp. His tale of finding a seemingly perfect girl, only for it to end in adulterous heartbreak, makes Biz seem vulnerable and emotional, like all humans are.

"Passin’ Me By" by The Pharcyde, 1992 

Just like Biz Markie on “Just a Friend,” The Pharcyde aren’t afraid to show some romantic weakness on this classic from Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. Bootie Brown, Slimkid3 and Fatlip each detail their own experiences being secret admirers from afar over a walking bassline and some chords on an organ. That coupled with plenty of record-scratching, percussive samples, and clever lines make “Passin’ Me By” a fantastic track. 

While each rapper tells their own story on this song, they’re very similar in nature and content. Up first, Bootie Brown describes his grade school crush — his teacher, naturally.  Brown recounts his efforts to gain her attention, despite always being outshined by her more reasonably-aged husband, Lee. In a verse that’s as comical as it is creepy, (“I would raise my hand to make her stagger to my desk and help me with my problem, it was never much / Just a trick to smell her scent and try to sneak a touch.”), Brown’s high voice perfectly embodies the hormone-fueled heartache of young love.  

The next two verses are just as superb, furthering the secret admirer perspective the song lays out. What’s impressive is they are still able to deliver amusing, intricate lines while rapping from this perspective, like when Slimkid3 raps “Back as kids we used to kiss when we played truth or dare / Now she’s more sophisticated, highly edu-ma-cated, not at all overrated, I think I need a prayer.” There’s plenty of lines that embody the hopeless feeling that comes from being ignored by your romantic interest, most notably “I guess the twinkle in her eye is just a twinkle in her eye.”

"Big Poppa" by The Notorious B.I.G, 1994

Biggie’s first real pop hit off Ready To Die, “Big Poppa” almost sounds out of place in the context of the other songs on the album. It’s far less gritty and much more suave.  Despite it being one of Biggie’s most popular songs, it has a completely different sound than much of his other work. Producer Puff Daddy throws a high-pitched synth melody over a funky sample from Cincinnati soul group The Isley Brothers. This creates a smoother texture than the gritty boom-bap we see on the rest of the album, and the song serves as Biggie’s take on the west coast style of rap known as G-funk.

“Big Poppa” depicts an average night in the club for Biggie, and he describes how his night progresses through clever and specific lines. We know he’s there to drink and relax (“The back of the club sippin Möet is where you’ll find me”) but above all, he’s a ladies man.  Biggie distinguishes himself from the average player: “Who they attracting with that line, ‘what’s your name, what’s your sign?’” He even lets us in on his own line of questioning: “Ask you what your interests are, who you be with / Things to make you smile, what numbers to dial.” Perhaps most hilariously, Biggie outlines his ideal post-club meal, a daring combination of “T-bone steak, cheese eggs and Welch's grape.”

This isn’t a song about a relationship, or a tragic love story. It portrays a lifestyle, Biggie’s approach to the complex interactions he has with women, and how he carries himself in those situations. It’s also about living freely and lavishly, and how those qualities intertwine with the pursuit of a romantic companion. But despite the breakneck lifestyle illustrated in “Big Poppa,” we catch a few glimpses of a more mature Biggie: “Cause I see some ladies tonight that should be having my baby, baby, (uh).”

"Bonita Applebum" by A Tribe Called Quest, 1990

All of A Tribe Called Quest has songwriting credits on “Bonita Applebum,” but it’s really Q-Tip’s masterpiece. He’s the only one that raps and his playful, laid-back lyrics flow over a jazzy bell melody and a sped-up drum break. The song follows Q-Tip as he flirts with Bonita, and the assorted chatter in the background makes the listener feel as if they’re standing right next to Q-Tip while he’s introducing himself.

Q-Tip’s lines still rhyme and adhere to the tempo of the song, but the way he raps is so mellow it’s almost conversational. There’s space in between each line, as if to give Bonita time to respond. The way that the ambient background voices react to certain lines is hilarious and adds to the texture of the track.  Q-Tip feels the need to set himself apart: “I like to kiss you where some brothers won’t / I like to tell you things some brothers don’t.”  He also showers Bonita in strange-yet-poetic compliments, comparing her to a hip-hop song and mentioning her “elaborate eyes.”  

“Bonita Applebum” doesn’t tell a story in the traditional sense. Rather, the song captures a moment, Q-Tip’s emotions towards Bonita. Its gentle, laid back feel makes the song catchy while not being too dire.  

"Ms. Jackson" by Outkast, 2000

Even without knowing that “Ms. Jackson” is about Andre 3000’s late 90s relationship with Erykah Badu, which resulted in a child and a number one hit in the United States, you can feel the emotion behind this track. Even Big Boi’s verses, which come from an outsider’s perspective, sound raw and impassioned. Both rappers deliver impressive, heartfelt lines over a scratchy drum loop, some synth chords and lots of reversed sounds. Just noticeable enough to tease the listener’s ear, the well-known melody to “Here Comes the Bride” also works its way into the beat.

“Ms. Jackson'' serves as an apology, at least from Andre 3000. Big Boi raps about a similar, likely more fictional, situation. That doesn’t stop him from rapping with the same passion, albeit more defensively: “I love your mom and everything, but see I ain’t the only one who laid down / She wanna rib you up to start a custody war, my lawyers stay down.” Andre 3000 acknowledges the disconnect between Badu’s mother and himself, and tries to explain his side of the story. Because he’s rapping about a real relationship, his sincere verse allows us to look into his psyche. He notes that several simple but critical truths, such as “Forever never seems that long until you’re grown” and “You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.”

With “Ms. Jackson,” Outkast shows us that even the messiest of relationships and romantic scenarios can and need to be addressed. Andre 3000, specifically, turns what’s surely a sore subject into a meaningful work of art. 

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