50 Cent “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” (2003)

     A long weekend winds down with a return to the wave of hip-hop and the #1 selling album of 2003, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”, the debut album from 50 Cent.  This album is the next extension of the hip-hop lineage from Dr. Dre, with a significant assist in production and performing from Eminem, who embraced 50 Cent and helped him move this album forward after a controversial shooting.  There are some iconic songs on this record, and in general, I enjoyed it a lot.

     “Patiently Waiting” and “Don’t Push Me” are the two tracks that feature Eminem, and the two of them blend together well.  He is a co-producer on several other tracks, and in general his presence adds to the style of the album.  As an MC, I find 50 Cent to be fairly high on my list.  He’s not quite Snoop or Rakim level, but I find his flow and tone to be pretty solid. 

     The second-most successful single on this album was “21 Questions”, which is a slightly bizarre and unusually placed rap love song.  Supposedly Dre didn’t care for this song either, but it did go to #1 and apparently it did very well, even if neither Dre or I really love it.

     To me, the second-most recognizable song on this album is “P.I.M.P.”.  It has a very infectious steel-drum hook, and as far as brag rap goes, this one is pretty good.  I think I like the backing track and the chorus more than the rest of the song, but overall, it is a favorite.

     The definitive track of this album and 50 Cent’s career is the smash hit “In Da Club”.  Dre and 50 Cent created one of the most recognizable hooks in all of hip-hop, and this song remains a true classic today.  We have all heard this song countless times, but I do have one memory of this song that stands out.  The year was 2017, and I was in Miami for the MLB All-Star Game.  I was at a bar that I believe was called The Batting Cage after the Home Run Derby on Monday night, and the bar was pretty full with baseball fans.  The music playing was a steady stream of hip-hop, and there was one “round-ish” middle-aged white guy sitting in the corner at a table by himself.  John Candy in National Lampoon’s Vacation is a good starting point for who this guy looked like.  He was absolutely euphoric, grinning ear to ear with the selection of music, and was bouncing up and down on his bar stool and rapping perfectly in sync with each song.  At no point did he seem to be having more fun than when 50 Cent came on with “In Da Club”, and he was grooving and rapping “Go shorty, It’s your birthday, we gon’ party like it’s your birthday, we gon’ sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday, and you know we don’t give a fuck it’s not your birthday.”  Music is truly a universal language and common bond, and that night, The Batting Cage was Bouncing Rapping White Dude’s world and we were just living in it.

Coldplay “A Rush of Blood to the Head” (2002)

     We have a pretty significant change of pace today, with a brief departure from the ever-expanding world of hip-hop for an album that is pretty much the direct opposite of hip-hop, “A Rush of Blood to the Head” by Coldplay.  I always assumed that Coldplay was pretty much a shell operation for Chris Martin, and I was pleasantly surprised to see all of the band members listed with credits for songwriting and production.  I remember my boss at the time, Jim, who was a big music fan, giving me a “burned” copy of this CD, among others.  I always enjoyed it, but somehow expected more from their sound, given how much hype they were getting at the time.  I think I still feel the same way, roughly twenty years out.  This very successful record is rated #324 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Even before Jim gave me this CD, my first exposure to Coldplay was when I heard the song “Clocks”, one of the big hits from this record.  As I listened to it on the radio, based on both the vocal performance and the repetitive piano sequence, I was pretty convinced this was a new U2 song.  Even as I learned the real source, I always enjoyed that song a lot.  Today’s listen pointed out several more that I might like even more.  I think my two favorites are probably “In My Place” and “The Scientist”.  I find them to be the most compelling melodies on the record, and it isn’t surprising that these were the first two singles released, even ahead of “Clocks”.  If I had to pick one other favorite, it would be “Green Eyes”, which is a sweet and simple song, backed primarily by acoustic guitar.

     I was driving home late last night, and I was concerned this album might not be the pick-me-up I needed after a long day, but I did enjoy the peace and serenity of this record on a relatively empty highway.  It has never been, and probably will never be, an album I go out of my way to seek out, but I’m glad I came back to it and picked up at least three new and old favorites I will add to my playlist.

Eminem “The Eminem Show” (2002)

     Just yesterday I highlighted the relative rapping skills of Eminem in comparison to Jay-Z, and today we have the next release from Eminem, his fourth album “The Eminem Show”.  Continuing to expand his reach and grasp on his audience, this album was the #1 selling album of 2002.  In general, I remain a fan of Eminem as he again partners with Dr. Dre, although Eminem takes on more of the lead production here, and the overall music quality on this record is pretty impressive once again.  I do have one criticism of Eminem that applies to most of his music, but it really rises to the surface on this album.  Before I get to that, I will accentuate the positives.

     Eminem remains pretty angry at the world, and at various times we hear him lashing out at his parents, his wife/ex-wife, his management, the U.S. government, seemingly most females, and the general public at large.  This fury is well captured on many of these tracks, and it is paired up well with his typically outstanding MC efforts and some really bouncy and catchy tracks.  I saw a clip yesterday from Fifty Cent (stand by for more on him), and he was talking about the fact that even though hip-hop is primarily a black music phenomenon, there are few rappers of any race who can stand toe-to-toe with Eminem, and I think he’s absolutely right.  Go back to the track “Forgot About Dre”, released in 1999, if you need any more evidence to his clear and demonstrated talents.

     Among my favorite tracks on “The Eminem Show” are “White America”, “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”, which is particularly personal and intense, “Square Dance”, “Sing for the Moment”, which is set to the accompanying Aerosmith song “Dream On”, and another great collaboration with Dr. Dre, “Say What You Say”.  I didn’t know this in advance, but once I heard the extended guitar solo on the song built around Aerosmith, it isn’t surprising at all that it is performed by Joe Perry.

     In summary, this is another really good product from Eminem (and Dre), and if you liked his previous records, you probably loved this one as well.  My issue with this record and in some ways, the music world and certainly hip-hop music in particular, is the extreme amount of misogynistic content on this record and beyond.  If your “schtick” is to constantly trash women and call them bitches, whores, and sluts, I suppose that is the prerogative of any artist to produce that content.  Music has always playfully poked at the love-hate relationship between the genders, and the boundary of acceptability and range of tolerance is different for everyone.  Where I take issue here is Eminem’s prominent feature of his young daughter Hailie on this record.  There is one song named for her, she is mentioned in several others, and she even is prominently featured in the song “My Dad’s Gone Crazy”.  If the female gender in total is so incredibly offensive and objectionable, so be it, but to me he should probably realize he’s setting the expectation that it is ok to think and talk like this, and he can’t have it both ways when that cruel women-hating world reflects the same behavior and language back at his own growing daughter.  I’m not a father of women or girls, but I obviously know many who are, and I don’t think I would appreciate such references towards the many women and growing girls I know in my life.  My guess is that the common defense of “it’s a joke, don’t take it seriously” would be applied by Eminem and his most supportive fans, but to me, I think it goes a bit too far and it really isn’t that entertaining at all.  If he wants to pick on the industry or the government or other select and deserving targets, fine by me.  However, if I had my way, I would ask him to leave the 99.99% of the female gender that he targets out of his verbal range-finder.

Jay-Z “The Blueprint” (2001)

     Every now and then, I come across an album here I just can’t get on board with, no matter how many times I try.  Yes, I know Jay-Z is one of the most successful artists in hip-hop history.  I also understand that he is one of the most successful producers and business icons in the music industry.  The guy even landed Beyonce, what more could you want?  And yes, I recognize that “The Blueprint” is the #50 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  Even with all of that… I just don’t like it.

     My primary concerns carry over from his last album to this one, and it all centers around his style as an MC.  I don’t really enjoy the tone of his voice; I’m not sure if it is too high but it just isn’t an easy listen for me.  As many times as he proclaims on “The Blueprint” that he is the king of flow, I find his rapping style to be very halting and stuttered, and as I told my son, it reminds as if he is reading the lyrics for the first time.  And again, as I noted previously, he drives me a bit crazy with his constant grunting and “uh..mmm..uh..mmm” at the beginning and end of every song.  I’m sure he would gladly laugh me off with his billion-dollar portfolio, but his music just isn’t for me.

     I feel like my point is best proven during the song “Renegade”, featuring Eminem.  Once Mr. Mathers takes the microphone, the contrast in rapping “flow” could not be more notable.  This is my favorite song on the record, but that interest is spawned 100% by Eminem delivering us some top-shelf rapping after listening to Jay-Z for most of this album.

     Even Timbaland can’t save this record for me.  His beats were a major factor in the greatness of many records, but the song “Hola Hovito” is just flat-out annoying.  “Girls Girls Girls” and “Song Cry” are two other songs I would quickly point to as exhibits of my frustration.  Jay-Z proclaims that “If I ain’t better than Big, than I’m the closest one…”.  He also spends time taking on Nas among others for supremacy in the New York City rap scene, but in my mind that is a complete mismatch, and not in Jay-Z’s favor.

     I’m a big fan of hip-hop music, but as with every genre of music that exists, there are artists I enjoy more than others.  Clearly Jay-Z isn’t for me, but I’m fine in knowing that I’m clearly in the minority here.  Music appreciation is a subjective art, so I will wrap things up and move on to the next album with an open mind.

The Strokes “Is This It” (2001)

     We have another variation of indie rock today, this time with a much harder edge and more to my liking.  “Is This It” is the debut album from The Strokes, and this was definitely an album that was a quick favorite of mine, even as I had not heard much from this band before.  Any modern rock fan will recognize “Last Nite”, but the best part of this record for me were two songs I haven’t heard before, which is always a nice and unexpected outcome.  “Is This It” is rated #114 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     The creative force and lead vocalist for the band is Julian Casablancas, with two leads on guitar, Nick Valenti and Albert Hammond, Jr.  I’m more familiar with Hammond for a reason I will note later.  What I love about this record is that it has an urgency and up-tempo drive to most of the tracks that is compelling.  Honing their craft in the clubs of New York City, this album represents the primary mix of songs that served as the live set they used to make a name for themselves, and based on this record, it would have been an outstanding show to see.

     The title track is an appealing opener, with the metered and pained vocals straining through what I learned would be a familiar and recurring guitar drone.  I really enjoy the first seven songs on the album the most, but my two favorites are tracks 4 and 5. “Barely Legal” isn’t quite as controversial as the title suggests, but it is a phenomenal up-tempo rocker that is a mandatory add to several of my playlists.  “Someday” is a more melodic twist with the same distorted vocals and driving drum beat.  I can see why this one was released as a single, and I love both the chorus and main verses of this track.

     “Last Nite” is instantly recognizable, and a song I even anticipated and expected as I listened to this record.  The sound is very much in step with the rest of the album, and this tortured love song is definitely a signature rock radio song from this era.

      I come back to Albert Hammond Jr. as he made a guest appearance in 2020 on an album by a band we will discuss down the road that is an all-time favorite for me, The Struts.  The song that Hammond played on, I now realize, is very much in sync with this sound of The Strokes, and I love hearing the connection in musical style almost twenty years apart.  The Strokes were a pleasant revelation for me, and I’m sure some may be surprised I wasn’t more familiar from the beginning.  Their album was actually released on vinyl in America on September 11, 2001, and particularly for a band from New York City, this created challenges in not only their song selection (they removed a track from the CD release titled “New York City Cops”) but their initial path forward in the world we all tried to make sense of at the time.  Between that and my overall place in life, I missed out on a lot of good music for several years, but I’m grateful for a second chance with this band.

The Shins “Oh, Inverted World” (2001)

     I spent a lot of driving time this weekend listening to album #8 on the list from my son, “Oh, Inverted World” by American indie rock band The Shins.  Primarily the creative outlet and product of singer and guitarist James Mercer, I will say this was a return to favor after not loving the last selection I was given by my son.  It isn’t an album that became a must-listen, but I did enjoy it (certainly more than Christie) and I was surprised how many sounds I detected across this record.

     My favorite song is “Weird Divide”, a trippy and cosmic wander that is a very pleasant and soothing melody.  “Know Your Onion”, one of two singles from the album, reminds me of Ray Davies singing “Father Christmas” by the Kinks.  “Girl Inform Me” sounds exactly like it could fit in with the Brian Wilson celebration that was “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys.  “New Slang”, the other single, is simple and fairly plain folk-rock, but it has a very happy tone.

     “Girl on the Wing” reflects a Cars-like keyboard sound, with the necessary guitar contrast.  “Your Algebra” takes me back to “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel, including the harmony vocals.  “Pressed in a Book” has a Sgt. Pepper Beatles-esque feel, and like many of the songs on this record, I sense a surprisingly wide range of styles on this album.

     “The Past and Pending” is a subtle and appropriate closing track, which is mostly just Mercer on vocals and guitars.  It took me a bit to connect fully to this record, but I’m glad I saw it through.  I may not go out of my way to replay this record, but if someone else did, I would be happy to listen in.

Linkin Park “Hybrid Theory” (2000)

     “Hybrid Theory”, the debut album from Linkin Park, is another one of those albums that just completely captivated me upon its release.  I remember that my friend Barrett burned me a copy on a gold CD, and said, somewhat jokingly, “I think you will like this a lot, but whoever wrote these songs has some issues”.  Sadly, we learned eventually that it was no joke, and in 2017 we lost singer and key creative force Chester Bennington to suicide.  I will never forget how impactful this album was for me.   Simplistically, it seemingly blended hard guitar rock with hip-hop, and although they weren’t the first to make that connection, the melodic choruses and chord progressions on this album were remarkably infectious.  Released in late 2000, this was the #1 selling album of 2001, and many of the songs remain radio mainstays to this day.

     The album is front-end loaded with the best songs on this record, and the first eight in a row are all big favorites of mine.  Even though it wasn’t the biggest hit on the record, the lead-off tune “Papercut” will always be my favorite among the favorites.  Starting with its quirky beat and a precarious single riff, buried under the intense chords from Brad Delson on guitar, we are first introduced to the vocal duo of Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington.  Shinoda covers the rapping, along with the keyboards and most of the electronic production, while Bennington is full-on with his rage singing.  This song has such a great build, and the ride to the end on the outro of this song is amazing to me.

     The paranoia continues to build with “One Step Closer”, which is truly Bennington on the edge.  I love not only the guitars, but the booming, box-like drums on “With You”, and the hook on this song is just as present as the other early tunes on this album.  “Points of Authority” is an excellent combination of electric rhythm and crunchy chords, and Bennington shines once again.  In particular, these first four songs are about as strong of an opening to an album as I have heard in a long time.

     The pace slows, then accelerates again as Bennington cries out again on “Crawling”.  I love how this pace repeatedly flips the switch between an almost-terrified and lost ballad and an explosive scream for help.  This alteration of pace continues on “Runaway”, and sometimes I forget about this one in the rush of the first five tracks.  “By Myself” is probably the rawest and most intense song on the album; it certainly is from a vocal perspective.  The hauntingly sad piano opening of “In the End” bleeds into a great vocal give-and-take between Bennington & Shinoda, and this might be the most popular song from this powerful collection of songs.  I don’t always make it to the last four songs, and I don’t find any of them to be quite as memorable.  In kind, none of them are among the singles released from the album, but they play out the theme and sound of the album very consistently.

     In the early 2000s, I didn’t have the time, attention span or bandwidth to stay on board with a new act like Linkin Park, so even though I enjoyed subsequent releases and tracks they produced, I slowly lost some connectivity with their recording and touring.  I would have liked to witness them live at their peak and understand how they successfully incorporated all of the sampling and digital instrumentation into a live show.  This album will always be one of my all-time favorites, and I was and am grateful for another friend who took the time to help me preserve my fragile connection to the world of modern rock music.

The Avalanches “Since I Left You” (2000)

     Today is the 8th installment of my son picking an album to be on the list, and this one will not go down as one of my favorites.  Featuring the debut album, “Since I Left You”, from the Australian electronic group The Avalanches, this is a record I tried to embrace as always, but just never really connected.  It does appear to be fairly well regarded within and beyond the genre, and I read that Questlove considers this to be one of his ten favorite albums of all time, but it just doesn’t have enough songs or musical content that make me want to come back for more.

     If I had to describe this album, it would be somewhere between chaotic and frenetic.  It is a constant menagerie of sounds that come at you from all directions, and I could never just comfortable with the blended result.  Mixing in hundreds, perhaps thousands of samples around some disjointed musical lines just made it difficult for me to get comfortable with the end product.  There is so much repetitive looping and automated sound that it becomes annoying and distracting every time I might come close to latching on to a particular track.

      As with hopefully all genres of music, I’m trying to keep an open mind as I expect there may be more of this along the way.  Electronic dance music (EDM) is a major sensation around the globe.  I have a friend and coworker who DJs in this element as her life’s passion, and each year as I drove past the EDM festival in Orlando after a night of teaching, I was intrigued and fascinated by the tight grip this world has on its audience.  That said, at least with this album, there isn’t enough of something, whether it be alluring hooks, bouncy bass lines, remarkable vocals, or thought-provoking lyrics to personally keep me interested.

      Even as I gave the title track and the other three singles from the album, “Frontier Psychiatrist”, “Radio” and “Electricity” another pass looking for something I could hold on to, it just didn’t stick.  I do love that the name of one of their songs, and also the working title of the album, is “Pablo’s Cruise”.  I can certainly acknowledge that it is a complex and demanding production, but I’m probably going to leave most of this behind me as I move forward here.

U2 “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (2000)

     In the 2000-ish timeframe, I wasn’t terribly connected to the world of music, but this record helped me to reconnect, both with a contemporary release as well as reuniting with an old musical love.  U2 and I were on a bit of a break through the latter half of the 1990s, as they went down the rabbit hole of electronic music and I was equally consumed by fatherhood.  I’m grateful we found our way back to each other for this album, and I fondly recall having it on repeat loop for some time in my car.  I’m not the only one with a complicated relationship with U2; some find the very elements that first drew us to the band, their social consciousness and amplified persona on the big stage, to be sources of irritation or even stronger dislike.  Even my friend Jim recently said, “I’m just now able to start listening to them again.”  Through all of that roller-coaster ride, they came back strong with this mainstream album, reuniting with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to produce a massively successful record, commercially and critically.  Aside from several Grammy awards, it is, in my opinion, that last really great record we have from U2.

     The first four songs were released as singles in the same order that they fall on the album, and while “Beautiful Day” is the most recognizable, I think I like the next three even more.  Before we move, I have to note another circular loop in the lyrics that I have always enjoyed, a technique that is fairly frequent in their songs: “You’ve been all over, And it’s been all over you.  It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.”

     “Stuck In A Moment (You Can’t Get Out Of)” is the sweet and sappy side of U2, looking to lift your spirit like most of this record, but it really is a beautiful song.  “Elevation Day” takes us back to “Achtung, Baby”-era U2, and it has a classic Edge guitar riff that made this song an explosive burst on the live stage.  “Walk On” is a melancholier mood-lifter, but it once again pairs a signature Edge hook with Bono’s uplifting and anthemic vocals.  The guitar solo here is relatively simple and straight forward, but the notes are… just right.

      As we move into the less familiar part of the album, I had forgotten how good many of these songs are.  “Kite” is a soothing blend of guitar, strings and Bono’s urgency; this one is a real hidden gem I’m grateful I rediscovered.  We go back further to the “Rattle and Hum” days for this simple bluesy jam that is “In A Little While”.  No matter where you turn, Bono is there to offer hope and salvation, whether you need and want it or not.  “Wild Honey” is U2 taking their turn on an America/Fogelberg-sounding acoustic tune that oddly works.  We hear Bono’s weary state of always trying to solve the world’s problems on “Peace On Earth”, but for all of its seemingly corny polish, it is a really nicely written song.

     The last three songs are the least memorable, with the album coming in for a very soft landing on the finale, “Grace”.  This will be the last we hear from U2 on this experiment, but I can’t overstate how influential this band has been in my musical identity.  Starting as a clueless 15-year-old who discovered “Two Hearts Beat As One” on the album “War”, their growth paralleled mine, and although I will never be the universal success story they became, for what little I accomplished or overcame during those formative years, a lot of that strength came from the joy I experienced as part of the U2 journey.

It’s a Beautiful Day, Don’t Let It Get Away

OutKast “Stankonia” (2000)

     I’m not sure if there is another artist that has consistently exceeded my expectations as much as OutKast.  Although I certainly enjoyed “Aquemini”, I find their next album “Stankonia” to be on an entirely different level.  I think this has quickly emerged as one of my favorite hip-hop albums, and perhaps overall albums I have ever enjoyed.  It has such a diversity of sound, and this makes more sense to me when I read that while working on this album, they essentially shut themselves off from the world of hip-hop and immersed themselves in Jimi Hendrix, Prince, George Clinton and a variety of different sounds.  What emerged was an album rich in musical complexity while retaining all of the fun and bounce one would hope for on an OutKast record.  “Stankonia” is ranked slightly lower than “Aquemini” on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, but both are classics, and I would reverse that sequence if I was voting.

     The album starts out somewhat uneventfully, but really kicks into motion with the funky kick of “So Fresh, So Clean”.  The more I listen to this song, the more I absolutely love it.  Next comes “Ms. Jackson”, which is probably the only other OutKast song I was familiar with prior to diving into these records.  It reminds of a Prince song, and I like it a lot, even though there are several others on this album I like even more.

     The next song that really hit me like a hammer (literally) was “Spaghetti Junction”.  On the right sound system, the bass thump of this track is truly filthy.  It reminds me of a summer night in a crowded beach town where A1A is packed with cars, and one ride shakes the entire foundation of the city with the wallop of its bassline.

     “Kim & Cookie” is one of the most hilarious interludes I have ever heard, and the “report card” every guy dreads.  I’ll leave it at that, but it certainly serves as an effective prelude to the next song, which is a funka-delic lesson on how to do things right.  Once again… I’ll leave it there.

     “B.O.B. – Bombs Over Baghdad” is an interesting song title for a tune that preceded our disaster in Iraq by several years.  On a much lighter note, the chorus features the Morris Brown College Gospel Choir on backing vocals, and somehow, they manage to sound just like a different set of Georgia natives, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson from the B-52s.  How unreal would it be for any hip-hop act to actually borrow the talents of these two for a song?  Oh well, even if my hopes were dashed, the Morris Brown choir does a fantastic job on this song, and I’d like to think they had an amazing experience working with Andre 3000 and Big Boi on this track.

     “Xplosion”, featuring B-Real, has another crazy bass beat and prominently features at Andre 3000 at his best.  My son is quick to rank Andre in his Top 5 of greatest MCs ever, and it is hard to argue with that after hearing a song like this.

     Erykah Badu, who had a child with Andre, makes an appearance on “Humble Mumble”, and the crushing funk-rap keeps flowing on “Red Velvet”.  One of the most powerfully unique song openings blows up on “Gangsta Sh*t”, which features Slimm Calhoun, C-Bone and T-Mo.  Aside from their own success, OutKast helped to define and raise the profile an entire generation of Atlanta-based hip-hop.

     As Andre 3000 pushed the boundaries of blending singing with rapping, one of the more compelling vocal tracks that also features Cee-Lo is “Slum Beautiful”.  Oddly enough, I don’t love the last track, the title song, but there is so much to truly savor on this amazing record, I can overlook one track amidst a blockbuster blend of my favorite music, to include funk, hip-hop, and psychedelia along with anything else you can mix in the potion.  This album is pure greatness.