There’s no feeling in the world like having the hairs on your arms rise the moment play is pressed. It’s an immediate jolt, like lightning surging through headphones. We can say the same for the feeling that’s produced in an electrifying finale, especially when the last explosion carries the vibrancy of fireworks underneath a pale moonlight. Not to disregard the potential excellence of everything in-between, but there’s a special brand of magic to be found where the music starts and right before it stops.
Consideration for structure and sequencing is a requirement when sewing the seams of an album’s tracklist. There’s a rhythm to the arrangement, no different than how movie directors organize scenes to create a seamless narrative. Special attention must be paid to the beginning and end, the first and final impressions an album will leave listeners with. To create a lasting imprint on the listener, an artist must deliver a grand opening and a grand closing.
For no reason other than "Why not?" the DJBooth team compiled a list of 10 popular hip-hop artists, tracing through each of their catalogs for those special moments. There weren't many rules put in place, but of note, the intros and outros selected had to be the first or last track of a project, and they weren’t required to be attached to the same body of work.
For your convenience, we've put together a Spotify playlist of the below selections. Sadly, only 12 of the 20 tracks are currently available on the streaming service.
Intro: “Long Live A$AP” (LONG.LIVE.A$AP, 2013)
Outro: “Purity” (TESTING, 2018)
The magnetism of A$AP Rocky is at its strongest when his natural Harlem charisma finds a Juliet for its Romeo with stellar instrumentation. Strong raps begin LONG.LIVE.A$AP, but what makes the self-titled single such an effective opener is how intricate the production is. There are layers to explore; sounds and flows to latch upon. No other A$AP intro nails this necessary juxtaposition as well.
The same feat is accomplished with “Purity,” the closing record of his latest album, TESTING. Frank Ocean’s guest verse has the lyrical athleticism of a gold medalist, the song’s vocals are sung with the ghostly purity of a lost soul searching for nirvana, and the production is as white and untainted as an unworn wedding dress. If only the rest of the album made you feel how the last song does...
Intro: “Tuscan Leather” (Nothing Was the Same, 2013)
Outro: "Do Not Disturb" (More Life, 2017)
Three. That’s how many times Noah "40" Shebib flipped Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” for Drake’s “Tuscan Leather.” The beat morphs for each verse and is as captivating as the polished ramblings that make up the entire six minutes one of Drake’s most riveting performances. When he’s able to tap into a stream of introspection, the Toronto superstar soars higher than a Kryptonian.
As for Drake's best outro, look no further than “Do Not Disturb,” the grand finale that brings More Life to an eloquent close. It’s the essential Drake journal entry, full of thoughtful musing and the proficient lyricism of a championed wordsmith. Soulful loops and soul-searching Aubrey remains undefeated.
Intro: "Lose Yourself” (8 Mile: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture, 2002)
Outro: “Still Don’t Give a Fuck” (The Slim Shady LP, 1999)
“Lose Yourself” is the quintessential Eminem song. It’s also a massive grade above any of the short, silly skits that plague the start of most of Em’s albums. The adrenaline-pumping hook paired with three flawlessly executed verses is the work of a master craftsman.
He maintains the same level of technical sharpness to complete The Slim Shady LP, but mom’s spaghetti is replaced by an unapologetic middle finger. Everything about Em’s graphic, callous, and remorseless lyricism from the first half of his career can be found in the crevices of “Still Don’t Give a Fuck.”
These are songs that you look back on and remember exactly how they made you feel the first time you heard them.
Intro: “Thought It Was a Drought” (DS2, 2015)
Outro: “Codeine Crazy” (Monster, 2014)
Codeine is the muse that Future summons when delivering lines with enchanting pain and potency that’s habit-inducing. If he didn’t contain the melodic charm of Denzel Washington then his most visceral confessions of self-medicating traumas would be more cringe-worthy than captivating. It's not a coincidence that his best intro (“Thought It Was a Drought”) and his best outro (“Codeine Crazy”) are a strange mixture of hearing the Greek God Dionysus revel in the pursuit of worldly pleasures and the closest addict Milly rocking with purple-stained tears rolling from his dilated eyes.
Born from the pain and pleasure are two of Future's most timeless records.
Intro: “Can’t Knock the Hustle” (Reasonable Doubt, 1996)
Outro: “Where Have You Been” (The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, 2000)
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JAY-Z has an astounding track record of album intros. From "A Million and One Questions" to Dynasty's "Intro," building a case for Jay as the best album opener on this list would be effortless. Perfect is the only description worthy of “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” It’s a defining record, the kind of song that lives in the veins of an artist’s career. Jay’s penmanship is sharper than the steel of Excalibur, and Mary J. Blige is an R&B angel; the combination over Knobody’s velvet-smooth production is pristine street poetry.
On the other end of the tracklist is “Where Have You Been,” from 2000s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. The record has none of the gloss or cool that Jay is known for; it’s a song about the pain of sons abandoned by their fathers. Featured guest Beanie Sigel has a gift for transparent, soul-wrenching honesty, but for Jay, such a candid verse was as rare as seeing an album receive a perfect Pitchfork score. Their letters to their fathers made for an album closer that will forever stand out in Jay's extensive catalog.
Intro: “Too Deep For The Intro” (Friday Night Lights, 2010)
Outro: “4 Your Eyez Only” (4 Your Eyez Only, 2016)
Throughout his catalog, J. Cole has only come out of the gates swinging on a handful of records. There’s “Villuminati” from Born Sinner, and the excellent “Cole Summer” found on the Truly Yours 2 EP, but the introduction that represents the best start to a Cole project is actually the second song on Friday Night Lights, “Too Deep For the Intro.” I know, technically, this breaks our rule, but it would be tragic to overlook a song that embodies the standards of how to begin a body of work. (Plus, this is my list, so I can break any rule I want.) The Badu loop, three blemish-free verses, and how well it sets the tone for arguably the best project of Cole's career makes “Too Deep For The Intro” a shining example of excellence from Jermaine.
In contrast, the self-titled closer that completes 4 Your Eyez Only is a bar-setting rap performance showcasing the immaculate storyteller Cole transforms into at least once every album.
Intro: “The Heart, Pt. 2” (Overly Dedicated, 2010)
Outro: “DUCKWORTH.” (DAMN., 2017)
At various times throughout his career, Kendrick Lamar has entered the recording booth and detonated into a glorious ball of fire. For many, the first time that reaction was experienced is “The Heart, Pt. 2,” from his breakthrough mixtape Overly Dedicated. It's an intensely passionate introduction where soul-stabbing lyricism meets controlled combustion.
Seven years later, Lamar delivered “DUCKWORTH.”—technically, an album opener and closer—a song that begins with the same calmness and progresses with similar flair, but the story is being told with the precision of a playwright.
The duality of Kendrick Lamar can be seen in these two songs—the rapper who wants to be acknowledged for his greatness and the storyteller who is able to weave tales of his past into audio cinema.
Intro: "Tha Mobb" (Tha Carter II, 2005)
Outro: "Georgia... Bush/Weezy's Ambitionz" (Dedication 2, 2005)
Lil Wayne’s "Best Rapper Alive" era will go down in history as the most exciting arc of his career. During this period, between the years of late 2004 and throughout 2009, the mortal had transformed into a martian, and every beat he devoured was further proof of his growing prowess as a bona fide rap titan. There’s a certain exhilaration that “Tha Mobb” evokes; the very first song of Tha Carter II is like watching Vince Carter dunking highlights.
The closer of Dedication 2—a mixtape also released in 2005—is equally as stunning. Wayne slams the Bush administration for the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and pays homage to Pac by decimating one of his most esteemed classics. At his peak, Wayne was a reel of high-flying amazement and these two records exemplify the ambitious pursuit of being deemed the greatest.
Intro: “Days Before Rodeo: The Prayer” (Days Before Rodeo, 2014)
Outro: “Apple Pie” (Rodeo, 2015)
In the wild, wild world of Travis Scott, album sequencing is about reaching a climax, not the rising or falling action. The closest Scott has been to an opening track with an erupting spirit is “The Prayer,” which can be found on his acclaimed mixtape, Days Before Radio. WondaGurl's production is gorgeously ghastly, the kind of harrowing haunted house that’s perfect for Travis to use as an exciting mood-setter.
It’s the complete opposite on “Apple Pie,” the jubilant closer that concludes Scott’s debut album, Rodeo. “Apple Pie” is one of the most underrated songs in his catalog, a song that nails the radio trifecta—infectious, clever, and catchy. Sadly, “Apple Pie” didn’t blow up. The big hit that wasn’t.
Intro: “With Them” (Slime Season 3, 2016)
Outro: “Raw (Might Just)” (Slime Season 2, 2015)
Young Thug is a transformative entity. He sheds styles how snakes shed their skin. The beauty of his eccentricity is how it creates these wondrous yet unorthodox rhymes and patterns. A good intro is attention-holding, like a great sentence to begin a long novel, and the lyrics that comprise “With Them” are whimsical, clever, and wholly unpredictable. First premiered at Kanye's Life of Pablo listening session at Madison Square Garden and backed by an electrified Mike WiLL Made-It beat, it’s a whirling tornado of words. You never know what will be said next.
“Raw (Might Just),” on the other hand, is the version of Thug that disregards conventionalism, mixing his fascinating imagery (“I just spent a Bentley on my kidneys”) with spontaneous crooning. It’s strange, Gonzo, but as we learned at the end of Inception, a bizarre conclusion is one you can’t help but rewind.
By Yoh, aka, Yoh-Fil-A aka @Yoh31