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Sunday, May 19, 2024

The art of the hip-hop love song, part II

Hip-hop love songs are severely underrated, and rappers are often not taken as seriously when they write them. But the best hip-hop love songs are masterful — bringing new elements and real emotion to the love song genre while still oozing the luxurious swagger of rap.

Part one of “The art of the hip-hop love song” broke down several seemingly random, totally unrelated hip-hop love songs. Part two will do the exact same thing. Once again, 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 some of the best hip-hop love songs ever written.

“Love Letter” by Action Bronson, 2011

“Love Letter” is a relatively little-known song from the early days of Action Bronson. Most would probably mention “Baby Blue” when asked for a Bronson love song, his major-label smash hit with Chance the Rapper. But before Action was a big name commercially, he was in the lab with producer Statik Selektah in 2011. Part of the superb project Well Done, “Love Letter” is Bronson and Statik at the height of their powers. 

“Love Letter” is born out of an obscure soul song, “Let Me Be Your Man” by Tyrone Ashley. The song is slow and mournful, but Statik speeds it up and adds a funky drum track for Bronson to rhyme over. It’s sampled beautifully, with a chopped-up acapella vocal track almost serving as ad-libs for Action. As for the rap itself, it’s nearly immaculate. Bronson recalls a tragic relationship with lines equally profound (“How does a love so strong just fall to pieces / I believe in science and she believe in Jesus”) and hilarious (“I’ll f*cking kill you, but I love you. I just wanna kiss you one more time”). Action lays his emotions surprisingly bare, and the result is a true Queens love story. 

“Sittin’ In My Car” by Slick Rick, 1994

Another example of a hip-hop love song that tells a story, “Sittin’ In My Car” weaves a surprisingly intricate tale of love and dalliance with a heavy dose of beatboxing. Again, conventional wisdom might’ve picked “Teenage Love” by Slick Rick, a classic song that outlines the perils of teenage romance. But “Sittin’ In My Car” is a more in-depth song, with its narrative structure and allusions to psychological issues. 

Slick Rick’s British voice alone makes him one of the most entertaining figures in rap history, but his storytelling prowess is on display on this track. Throughout the song, he tells a complicated story about cheating on his girlfriend with her best friend, only to question whether any of this is actually happening at all. Within his verses, there’s dialogue between him and his mistress — which I’m pretty sure is just Rick’s voice pitched up — and mental battles about what’s real. The beat consists of a simple but dangerously catchy piano line and lots of beatboxing. In fact, most of the ‘drums’ in the song are just Slick Rick making drum sounds with his mouth. It’s a complex love song over a lighthearted beat, and it’s executed to perfection. 

“Still Not a Player (feat. Joe)” by Big Punisher, 1998

This is a classic song, but it may be forgotten from the hip-hop love song conversation due to its poppy feel and R&B undertones. It shouldn’t. It’s more commercial than basically all of Big Pun’s other material, and it’s heavily influenced by R&B. But this is a hip-hop love song through and through. “Still Not a Player” is more about Big Pun’s romantic lifestyle rather than a specific story, and it features two slick verses with help from Joe on the hook. 

Similar to “Sittin’ In My Car,” the beat is carried by a catchy piano melody. It gives the song that R&B energy, and adds melody that makes the track feel more emotional. Big Pun discusses his love life and insists “I’m not a player, I just crush a lot” on the chorus — Or, “I just f*ck a lot” depending on the version. Same message. He wants you to know that he’s lavish, rapping about Mercades and hot tubs. But at the end of the day, Punisher is a simple man: (“We could park the Jeep, pump Mobb Deep and just spark the leaf”).

“Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You) [feat. Outkast]” by UGK, 2007

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“Int’l Players Anthem” is one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever, love-related or not. Featuring the southern drawl of UGK and Outkast over Willie Hutch’s “I Choose You” and a drum machine, the song is a classic and remains so over a decade after its release. The beat is an all-timer, with the punchy drum machine perfectly accenting the sped-up soul sample. And for a song about choosing the right partner, for marriage or otherwise, the constant repetition of Hutch wailing “I choose you” in the background is perfect. 

André 3000 raps the first verse before the drums come in, and it almost feels like a spoken word poem. Without drums, there isn’t much rhythm to guide the lyrics, so the rhymes flow unpredictably, not always landing on their prescribed downbeat. In his verse, we hear André rationalizing throwing away his single life to commit to one woman, always with a hint of his trademark wit: (“Hate to see y’all frown, but I’d rather see her smiling / Wetness all around me, true, but I’m no island / Peninsula, maybe”). Pimp C, Bun B and Big Boi also deliver great verses, drawing on their experiences to explore the pros and cons of committing your life to one person.

“Limos (feat. Teyana Taylor)” by Vince Staples, 2014

Vince Staples’ first EP, Hell Can Wait, is criminally underrated. One song stands out, however — the bouncy, painful “Limos.” The instrumentals are once again another seemingly simple template, as the melody in “Limos” is four ascending notes on a synth. But it’s the little things in the production of the song that make it a great beat. The fat sub bass adds another layer of melody and texture when it comes in. The way the snare drum sound changes in the second half of the song’s verses, with producers Jordan Lewis and Hagler manipulating the drum sound’s higher frequencies, is a subtle but important element of texture. 

Staples sounds deeply pained in “Limos.” It’s unclear if he’s talking about just one woman, but he is clearly lamenting the manipulative aspect of romance with lines like “Thought we rolled dice, but a seed ain’t what you want / Eighteen years with a check coming every month” and “Use they wombs as ways to move forward, fall with the rules to bask in the glory / Bastard child often lost in the story”. There’s nothing glamorous or pretty here — Staples focuses on the darker, personal gain-oriented side of romance on this track. Emotions always reign supreme, though, and the song ends with Teyana Taylor repeating her hook, imploring “I can love you better.”

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