In the immortal words of Shakespeare, "What’s in a name? Would that which we call Illmatic, by any other name, sound as dope?"
That's a direct quote, look it up, and Shakespeare raises an interesting question. Just how much do names matter?
A lot. Names matter a whole damn lot. To keep using Nas as an example, do you think that if he had decided to call his debut album Sremm Life instead of Illmatic we'd be talking about it today? No, you see a title like Illmatic and you think to yourself, goddamn, whoever came up with that title obviously has a way with words, I bet the album is dope. You see a title like Sremm Life and you think, what the fuck's a Sremm?
It's odd then that some rappers, even the best rappers, are so bad at naming their own albums while others seem fully capable of carrying over their emcee skills to their titles. Once the world thought that Kanye was going to stick with WAVES as an album title, I thought it'd be the perfect time to review some of hip-hop's best and worst album titles. The crucial thing to remember here is to separate the music on the album from the title itself. There are classic albums with bad titles, and trash albums with great titles, the two overlap but aren't necessarily one in the same.
And with that in mind, let's review the album title abilities of some of hip-hop's biggest names, because this is really what you should be spending your day thinking about.
Once Kanye announced the official title for his upcoming album (again) to The Life of Pablo I immediately got requests to update this piece, and who am I to deny the will of the people? It's going to take some time to truly come to grips with TLOP, most prominently we don't know how well the title reflects and encapsulates the music, but we can make some immediate snap judgments.
First, this will likely fade with the passage of time, but right now it's impossible to think of TLOP without thinking of all the names that came before it - circumstances matter. Let's say you're named Pablo, and your parents told you that they named you Pablo because it felt strong and as soon as they heard it they knew it was the right name for their son. Now let's say you're named Pablo and your parents told you that actually they had picked out three other names but when you were born they kind of panicked and started doubting their previous choices and went with Pablo because at the time it seemed like the least-worst option. See, same name, totally different feeling.
Second, out of all of Kanye's album titles so far it's the most immediately confusing. Obviously the College trilogy followed an easy to follow storyline, 808s was about heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was exactly that and Yeezus was meant to shock. But The Life of Pablo? What did you say??? Who's Pablo? Pablo Picasso? Pablo Escobar? Famed Argentinian field hockey player Pablo Lombi? It could have actually been a dope idea for Kanye to make an album that followed the life of a fictional character, Pablo as some sort of everyman traveler seeking adventure and enlightenment, but we know that's not the case. The Life of Pablo isn't the title of a concept album, it's a title that suggests concept that got attached to the album after the fact like a whale barnacle.
Again, I reserve the right to update this again if by some miracle I hear the album and that title makes perfect, brilliant sense, but in the spirit of this article, based only on the title as a title in-and-of-itself, it's Kanye's worst album title yet. And yet if there's any good news here it's that it's still better than SWISH or WAVES - can you even in your life imagine if the real, actual, final title of this album was SWISH? The Life of Pablo feels misguided, but SWISH would have been a Chernobyl of an album title. So at least we've got that going for us, which is nice.
And now, back to the original article....
Kanye doesn't need any more accolades, but he's inarguably one of the greatest album titlers of all-time. The College Dropout to Late Registration to Graduation trilogy was perfect, establishing a theme that paralleled his trajectory through music, and even better, he let go of that theme before it started feeling too forced. Another college-themed title past Graduation would have been like those wack couple seasons of Saved By The Bell: The College Years when the show was making too much money to stop, but it didn't make any sense for the characters to still be in school when everyone in the cast looked like they were 25-years-old.
Regardless of what you thought about 808's and Heartbreak as a musical project, he nailed that title too, it described both the sound and concept of the album perfectly. Watch the Throne? What better title could there be for a Jay Z and Kanye collab album? And then Yeezus was at the very least solid. To use a quote from the Watch the Throne days, nobody knows what it meant, but it was provocative. And then...
Oh no. Oh no no no no no. On the plus side WAVES is better than SWISH, but that's like saying that being punched in the stomach is better than being kicked in the balls, and both are far worse than the album's original name, So Help Me God. Only time will tell if WAVES' music matches the name, but it almost doesn't matter since it's a word that's been used so many times by so many other people it's almost cliche now - Free Max B. When you get sucked into a petty fight with Wiz Khalifa over an album title, it's not a great album title. It was a legendary album-title streak for Mr. West, but it's over. Still, on the whole I'm perfectly willing to call Kanye one of the greatest.
Now that I'm looking at Hova's complete discography, for a guy who's the most successful rapper of all-time, his album title skills are highly questionable. He came out of the gate strong with Reasonable Doubt, and then the following trilogy was solid, although he lowkey fucked it up because he couldn't decide on a consistent format. It was In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, followed by Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life and Vol. 3...Life & Times of S. Carter. According to the format he set up with the first album, they all should have been formatted like In My Lifetime, otherwise they're not volumes at all, they're completely separate things. And what's with the ellipses? Now that I really think about it, the copyeditor in me now hates all these album titles with a passion.
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia? Eh, it's fine, a little too "the whole Mafia thing is really popular in hip-hop right now" though. The KRS-One-inspired The Blueprint was fire flames, he was laying down the blueprint for how to find success in modern rap (get it?!?!) and then at least he learned his lesson from the volume album-titling fiasco and formatted The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse correctly. And considering the circumstances of his retirement, The Black Album was his single best album title next to Reasonable Doubt. What a way to go out.
Wait, what's that? He didn't retire and instead dropped Kingdom Come - terrible album with a terrible name, can't be a coincidence - then kind of panicked and reached back to the Blueprint thing even though he'd dropped three albums in between Blueprint 2 and 3, and then dug himself an even deeper hole with Magna Carta Holy Grail. The only way he could tarnish his album-titling legacy worse would be if his next album is title Magna Carta Holy Grail....Vol. 2...The Blueprint 4.
The problem with every conversation we have about Biggie is the small sample size. He only released one album in his lifetime, with the second released shortly after his death - which is exactly why Ready to Die and Life After Death are so incredible as titles. Given the circumstances of his murder, the near prophecy of the titles, I'm actually willing to call these the best album titles in hip-hop history. If he had lived to drop another eight albums there's a solid chance we would have ended up in Jay Z territory with Life After Death Vol. 4...The Life & Times of Christopher Wallace, but that's pure speculation. Credit where credit's due, Biggie was a GOAT-level album titler.
According to Hip-Hop Law 48, subsection B, I'm legally required to write about Tupac immediately after I write about Biggie, and vice-versa, so let's get into it. Looking over Pac's disography - not the posthumous albums of course - what really strikes me is that unlike everyone I've mentioned so far, there's no real theme or style running through his album titles. Each one could easily stand alone.
- 2Pacalypse Now
- Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z...
- Me Against the World
- All Eyez on Me
I feel like 2Pacalypse Now isn't really his best foot forward, it's really just a grab of a movie title, but by the time Me Against the World and All Eyez on Me rolled around he'd clearly hit his stride, especially Me Against the World. That's not just a great album title, it's essentially the motto of his entire life and career. So on the whole, when it came to album titles Pac was better than most, not as good as the best. Just calling 'em like I see 'em.
We're not going to spend much time on Nicki, I just wanted to point out that she (basically) dropped the same album title three times in a row: Pink Friday, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded – The Re-Up. Look out for her next album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded – The Re-Up; Repackaged, Again (Deluxe Version).
Like the man himself, K. Dot's album titles are hard to get a firm grasp on. Section.80 I never quite got. Kendrick once said it meant that the music was meant for kids born in the '80s, and sure, fine, but it just doesn't hit. And then Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is a masterpiece of an album title. It doesn't just encapsulate the album's theme, it doesn't just encapsulate Kendrick's life, it describes life in much of Black America. You can do everything right, be the good kid, and still get killed just for going to see a girl if you live in a mad city.
As for To Pimp a Buttefly, thousands of words have been written about the complexity of its meaning, but how is it purely as an album title? That wasn't a rhetorical question, I'm really not sure. Jury's still out, we'll have to see how that title ages.
According to Hip-Hop Law 51, subsection G, anytime I write about Kendrick I have to immediately follow with something about how simultaneously incredible and under-rated Cole is or I'll face the wrath of the Coleminers, so...The Come Up and The Warm Up were a nice one-two punch, and then he continued the theme with Friday Night Lights, all three very solid titles. He tried to carry over the basketball player theme to his major label debut Cole World: Sideline Story but that title ended up being pretty forgettable. Writing this I'm realizing that anytime you have a colon involved in a title, there's a good chance it won't be that great. The best album titles don't need a second part, they know what they want to say and they just say it, that's why The Warm Up is such a better title than Cole World: Sideline Story.
But Cole has spoken about how he learned from his mistakes on Cole World and the same applies to his titles. Born Sinner is just a great title, and on paper 2014 Forest Hills Drive shouldn't really work, but it somehow really does. I have to deduct a point for Cole naming his live album Forest Hills Drive: Live instead of the obviously better Forest Hills Live (again with the colon's ruining things!). Ultimately though I have to give it up, Cole's a damn good album titler.
If I'm going to break down Kendrick and Cole, I have to mention their peer, Aubrey Graham (aka his generation's biggest superstar). On the whole, Aubrey knows what he's doing. So Far Gone is an impressive title for someone at such an early stage of his career, but Thank Me Later doesn't really work. The meaning's clever, but it just doesn't roll off the tongue, a mistake 2016 Drake would never make. Take Care is almost unbelievably soft but it worked given the album's softness, and Nothing Was the Same was just as bombastic as Thank Me Later but is far better.
When I first saw If You're Reading This It's Too Late my initial reaction was that it was a horrible title, and make no mistake that hasn't changed, it's still a bulky, awkward, mess of a title. What I didn't realize at first though was that Drake had gone next level with his titles - they were designed to inspire memes more than impress, the font was just as important as the words. And then he proved that concept again with What a Time to Be Alive, which Twitter and Instagram instantly quoted and converted into a hashtag. As for the impending Views From the 6...I'm lukewarm. Let's see what develops.
Also (Best): Nas Illmatic, N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton, Ghostface Killah Supreme Clientele, 50 Cent Get Rich or Die Trying, Dr. Dre The Chronic, Ice Cube Death Certificate.
Also (Worst): Nas Nastradamus, Chingy Powerballin, Ludacris Ludaversal, Busta Rhymes E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front, Will Smith Big Willie Style, Jim Jones Hustler’s P.O.M.E. (Product Of My Enviornment).