It’s always tragic when an artist we love passes away. The outpouring of love for a deceased artist is always heartwarming and comes from seemingly everywhere. And yet a part of me always wonders: why didn’t these artists get this type of praise when they were still around? Not that posthumous recognition is ingenuine, but why wait to show someone love? Below are three of my favorite hip-hop artists from previous generations who I feel are greatly underappreciated by today’s music fans. These three deserve to smell the roses while they still can.
One of the biggest injustices in hip-hop is that Nas is not widely recognized as one of the greatest rappers of all time—and only just got his first Grammy 17 years into his career. Due to other rappers from the 90s with much more commercial success and a much broader appeal, Nas is often forgotten by today’s generation of mainstream hip-hop fans. He came from an era where you didn’t make music to get famous or go viral; Nas came from the Queensbridge projects in NYC where if you wanted to put food on your table and make a name for yourself, you either sold crack, or you sold records. Nas rapped about what he saw day in and day out in his neighborhood so that maybe, one day, he could get out of it. And you can hear that in his music. Especially in his first two albums, it’s apparent that he made music for the people he grew up with in Queens, and not for a broader audience like some of his peers did (namely The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z). With two superstars coming up next to him in the same city, the market was so saturated that even now there are still casual hip-hop fans who will have Hov and Biggie in their rotation, but not Nas.
Even though you might think this is an L for Nas, I think it’s a bigger loss for hip-hop fans who haven’t taken the time to listen to an artist who’s arguably the best storyteller of all time. If you’ve ever watched videos of old war veterans describe their time in combat, they can still remember every tiny detail of every battle: the sounds, the smell of the air, the color of the dirt—everything is still crystal clear because they were fighting for their life each and every second of it. This is what I hear when I listen to a Nas joint like “Shootouts,” “The Set Up,” I Gave You Power,” or “N.Y. State of Mind.” Along with a consistently flawless rhyme style and charismatic delivery, Nas sets the scene so well you feel like you’re running through the alleyways of Queensbridge right on his heels with bullets whistling over your shoulder. While his subject matter might be too grizzled and based in reality for some hip-hop fans, no one can deny the level of talent he possesses. Nas is the reason I wanted to write any of this in the first place because while people will undoubtedly sing his praises as one of the most influential artists of all time after he passes, someone like him deserves that kind of attention while he’s still living. So if any of this is news to you, do yourself a favor, and listen to It Was Written front to back, no skips, no interruptions. Then tell your friends. The Pharaoh Nas might be the most talented rapper of all time, and the whole world should know about it.
There was a legend going around a little while ago that Kobe Bryant used to listen to The Documentary by The Game front to back before every Lakers game, and The Game even partly attributed Kobe’s historic 81-point performance in 2006 to his album—both of which Kobe confirmed years later via Twitter. Without a doubt one of the best albums of the 2000s with several anthems every rap fan should know word for word, The Documentary established The Game’s identity early in his career and got him to that plateau of talent which he would coast on for years to come. He had the stuff to keep the West Coast sound strong and moving forward, and I believe Compton acts like Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, and the rest of Top Dawg Entertainment wouldn’t be the household name they are today without The Game being the West Coast bridge between the 90s and 2010s. Especially when he was rhyming over Dr. Dre beats, The Game’s lyrical ability and on-track presence rose to new heights that would’ve fit perfectly in the Snoop Dogg/Tupac era of Death Row. The only reason he fell out of the spotlight after his sophomore studio album Doctor’s Advocate in 2006 was because 50 cent kicked him out of the G-Unit collective following a series of disagreements concerning writing credits and competition between the two. This led to The Game leaving Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label and releasing Doctor’s Advocate under Geffen Records, a considerably less-prestigious imprint. This hurt The Game’s career and legacy because he became an outcast in the industry for a few years, focusing on mixtapes for the streets rather than the impactful studio albums that his peers were doing.
Quantity over quality was also a problem for The Game, and after reaching the top of the charts he took his foot off the gas and let his passion for music take the reins, which can be felt in his relatively unknown (and underrated) mid-to-late-2000’s releases. If there’s one knock against The Game that has any merit to it, it's that he needs considerable talent around him to put together a solo album that the culture might call a classic. The R.E.D. Album in 2011, Jesus Piece in 2012, and Born 2 Rap in 2019 stand as some of his best projects to date and were filled to the brim with very talented guest features. That being said, a real hip-hop fan always puts that argument to the side. Dr. Dre didn’t write any of his raps, along with plenty of other fan favorites who either use ghost writers or are famous for capitalizing on incredible production from their own label. The Game was a bonafide stud in his prime who can still put together fantastic albums 15 years after his debut. If you consider yourself a fan of hip-hop, do yourself a favor and educate yourselves on The Game’s vastly underrated discography.
Ms. Lauryn Hill recently became the first female MC ever to reach diamond status with her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, in 1998. Coming out of New Jersey in the early 90s, Lauryn Hill was one of very few female icons in the male-dominated rap scene in the tri-state area at the time, but she seemed to use it as motivation rather than be timid about it. For the pioneer she was, Hill’s voice was so confident and swagged out that her music made you drop whatever you were doing and tap in to both her powerful vocals and her razor-sharp raps. Going back through 1996’s The Score when she was still a member of the Fugees, Hill almost sounds like a female version of The Notorious B.I.G. the way she could flow over those jazzy R&B-type beats that her and Wyclef Jean loved, not to mention her confident, versatile attitude that she just exudes throughout her music. The Fugees, which featured her friends Pras and Wyclef Jean, had Hill as the female lead for a mostly male hip-hop group. I don't think we’ll ever see anything like that again. And after they split up, Lauryn Hill was the only one who really shined as a solo act and was able to match (and surpass) the commercial and cultural success the group previously accomplished.
Ms. Lauryn Hill was one of the most intelligent rappers to come out of the 90s, hands down. A superb role model for women all around the world, she took her first and only solo album to narrate what it was like to be her, in her own skin, living life like any other rapper—with the key difference being her perspective as a woman. That’s what made Hill so refreshing and pioneering, because she was one of the first women to bring such a message to the mainstream and do it so well that she achieved the same commercial success as the biggest names in hip-hop did. With acts like Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige paving the way and support from peers like Missy Elliot and Lil Kim, Lauryn Hill was the ultimate “I told you so” to anybody who ever doubted that a woman could rap. Nowadays it’s commonplace for female MCs like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion to not only thrive but dominate. But if it weren’t for the contributions to hip-hop like Ms. Hill’s masterpiece The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the rap landscape might look vastly different than it does today. And over 20 years later, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is still an incredibly powerful record.