10 Most Impactful Title Tracks in Hip-Hop History

By | 3 months ago
Records that made their mark on hip-hop, leaving listeners and the artists themselves forever changed.
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Naming a track after your album, or vice versa, is a risky artistic move. It might put undue pressure on a single track or—worse—confuse Googlers. That said, the below tracks prove that a flaming single and killer album can share a title without negative consequences. Spanning decades and ranging from club bangers to critical darlings, these title tracks made their mark on hip-hop, leaving the genre, listeners and the artists themselves forever changed.

Read about our top ten below, presented in chronological order, and listen to a more comprehensive playlist here.

“Straight Outta Compton,” N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton (1988)

Recently re-popularized by the 2015 F. Gary Gray biopic, Straight Outta Compton represents these pioneering, hawkish rappers at their finest. On the title track, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and MC Ren create a vivid portrait of the gangster lifestyle that would come to dominate rap in the subsequent decade. Complex ranked Ice-Cube’s album opening bars as among the best in rap history. “Since this time,” Complex wrote, “every gangster rap record is a variation on these two immortal themes: a violent setting and an unreliable, even psychotic, narrator.” Damn, that shit was dope!

“93 ‘Til Infinity,” Souls of Mischief, 93 ‘til Infinity (1993)

A subgroup of Oakland hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics, Souls of Mischief are perhaps best known for their 1993 title track, “93 ‘Til Infinity.”  As with many 1990s underground rap groups, the quartet utilizes an internal rhyme scheme centered around live bass and obscure jazz samples. The pure bliss of this single propelled the indie outfit to be included on a list with rap legends like Jay Z and Outkast. While less popular than other tracks on this list, 93 ‘Til Infinity received widespread critical acclaim and has had lasting influence—it has been sampled on almost 30 hip-hop records. Eleven years after its release, Susan Vogel wrote that the then teens’ “world of boredom, girls, weed, books, lounging and, of course, violence” was a perfect amalgamation of “Pete Rock's tragedy, De La Soul's hippie aesthetics and Tupac’s marginalizing glamour.”

“Regulate,” Warren G, Regulate…G Funk Era (1994)

Warren G is famous for two things: being Dr. Dre’s stepbrother, and his 1994 hit “Regulate.” Rapping coolly about a carjacking gone wrong over a mellow funk beat, Warren G epitomizes West Coast gangster rap. Recorded in Warren G’s apartment with longtime friend Nate Dogg, the title track peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart and defined a critical moment in hip-hop. As renowned critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Warren G fit right into the strange new stereotype of the cooled-out gatslinger riding phat beats to flavor-of-the-monthdom.” Regulators!

“ATLiens,” OutKast, ATLiens (1996)

Two decades after OutKast dropped their beloved second studio album, hip-hop heads from Atlanta continue to call themselves ATLiens. An explosive celebration of OutKast’s home-city (ATL), the American South (“if you like fish and grits and all that pimp shit”), and their status as outsiders (aliens)—outcasts, if you will—this title track embodies OutKast at their most appealing. Peaking at No. 35 on the Billboard charts, the track paved the way for OutKast to establish Atlanta as a hip-hop mecca, and for the duo to rule the genre for years to come. Now throw your hands in the air, and wave em’ like you just don’t care!

“All Eyez On Me,” 2pac, All Eyez On Me (1996)

The title track on an album widely considered the magnum opus of hip-hop’s Golden Age, “All Eyez On Me” finds 2Pac contemplating his celebrity at a moment when the entire world was watching him. Fresh out of prison on sexual assault charges, and facing daily beef with East Coast rival Biggie Smalls, Pac laments: “The feds is watchin’, niggas plottin’ to get me / will I survive, will I die?” Tragically, his premonition came true just months later. All Eyez On Me received a number of posthumous honors—most notably, 18 years after Tupac’s death, a Diamond certification by the RIAA.

“The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” Missy Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly (1997)

Is there anything more iconic than Missy rapping in an inflated trash-bag before Hype Williams’ fisheye lens? I’m not quick to hype the Mid-Atlantic, where I coincidentally was raised, but Missy and Timbaland are among the region’s few redeeming qualities (see also Pharrell, Clipse, the Smithsonian, crab cakes). While Missy’s lengthy career peaked five years later (“is it worth it? Let me work it”), the Timbaland-produced "Supa Dupa Fly" remains her most seamless album to date. According to Mickey Hess in his book Icons of Hip-Hop, the album lyrically "reveals Elliott's complex, creative, and challenging discussion about womanhood.” I cite Missy as one of few female pop musicians who was never sexualized, and nothing better exemplifies her feminism than the following title track line: “My finger waved be dazed, they fall like Humpty / Chumpy, I break up with him before he dumped me.” Work it, Missy.

“Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” Jay Z, Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life (1998)

Nothing made 12-year-old me happier than this title track, a party rap anthem that sampled my favorite musical. “Hard Knock Life” was also important for Jay Z—it became his most commercially successful single, launching him from a critical darling (Reasonable Doubt) to one of the world’s favored rappers (Jay Z recently attended President Obama’s 55th birthday party). Likening his rags-to-riches story to that of the adorable redheaded orphan in the 1977 musical Annie, “Hard Knock Life” details Jay’s rise to superstardom: “I went from lukewarm to hot / sleeping on futons and cots to King Size.” Forbes estimates the rapper’s current net worth at roughly $570 million – Hard Knock Life be gone.

“Country Grammar,” Nelly, Country Grammar (2000)

I had no fucking idea what he was saying (something about cocoa puffs?), but “Country Grammar” infected my ears from the minute I heard it. With this title track and its corresponding debut album, Nelly made St. Louis hot for the first time since the Gateway Arch was erected and paved the way for a wave of Missouri party-rappers (Chingy, J-Kwon, and Murphy Lee). Billboard ranked Nelly as the third most successful act of the 2000s largely due to the success of Country Grammar. Like “Hard Knock Life,” the title track borrows from an unusual source – a children’s clapping game called “Down Down Baby.” While Nelly’s music career hasn't had the staying power of Jay Z, the sing-rap style he popularized can be heard today in the likes of Fetty Wap, Drake, and Rae Sremmurd.

“Run The Jewels,” Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels (2013)

In 2013, Killer Mike and El-P united to the delight of hip-hop heads yearning for another epic duo. The two artists—Killer Mike, a Dungeon Family Atlanta rapper with a syrupy, baritone drawl, and El-P, a white Brooklyn MC known for his hyper flow and industrial production—aren’t obvious collaborators. On this title track, El-P opens the album by speaking to the peculiarity of their unification: “Oh dear what the fuck have we here?” Like the album, the title track finds the rappers spitting progressive political ideology over a stark beat. Killer Mike closes by preparing listeners for what’s to come on this hard-hitting debut: “In a land full of lambs I am / and I’ll be damned if I don’t show my teeth.”

“m.A.A.d. City,” Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2013)

Despite recounting early memories of witnessing his uncle being shot at a burger stand when Kendrick was only 9 years of age, “m.A.A.d. city” is the closest thing to a club banger on the Compton rapper’s major label debut. Spin compared the title track to “the radio-riot thump of Kanye’s ‘Mercy,” but with “grimy breakbeats.” The album’s sonic and lyrical climax, the title track helped gain Kendrick critical adulation and commercial success—good kid, m.A.A.d. city received four GRAMMY nominations, including Album of the Year, and sold over a million copies in the United States.

Editor's Note: The moment this piece became an idea, I couldn’t allow it to go published without mention of Meek Mill’s "Dreams & Nightmares" intro. Clown Meek all you want, but with his 2012 debut album, he cemented his status as a top-tier talent and perhaps the most hype-inducing artist of his generation. The D&N intro is a large reason why; a powerhouse of kinetic energy with Meek rapping like a man possessed and one of the most sinister beat switch-ups of our time. Despite not having a hook nor being released as a single, the record is certified Gold, and if you don’t want to believe me when I tell you it was an absolute moment in hip-hop, take it from Drake.

***

By Anna Dorn. Follow her on Twitter.

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