“It didn’t work, this first sentence to Jazz, because it made what could follow mechanical and predictable: the inevitability of “Then she…” seemed inappropriate for this project.” —Toni Morrison, Foreword of Jazz
Toni Morrison begins her sixth published novel Jazz with a restart, letting the reader know that her initial opening did not do her work justice. It’s a difficult business, killing your darlings and being forthright about it, but Morrison’s honesty underscores the importance of the first glance.
Culturally, professional, romantically, we put a lot of stock into first impressions, as we should. The first time can quickly become the last time if we fail to leave a lasting mark; too much stands to be lost to the fire of an early letdown. Jazz is a pivotal work of fiction, one that would be shameful to miss, but though the novel is a classic, the burden of proof is still on that first sentence. Morrison knew this during her writing and retooled.
This burden of proof exists equally in music. If the opening of an album does not grab a listener, especially in the streaming age where we are not starved for options or accessibility, there is a scarily high chance an otherwise strong album will go unheard. A bad introductory track plays like an indignant cough or throat clearing, it shrouds the album in a killer aimless air and puts off the listener. The first song is the necessary “Why?” of the album, as in “Why did you make this? Why should I listen? Why should anyone else listen?” and the moment those questions go unanswered, an album is dead in the water.
Of course, there is more than one way to open an album, but there is undoubtedly an art to the business of hooking the listener and developing your record. Be it by way of a skit, a clear thesis, a mood setter, or a banger, mastering the art of the album opener is essential to crafting an enduring and potentially classic body of work.
Option 1: Skit
Opening with a skit is essential to the world-building of an album, especially if we are delving into the realm of a concept record. A good opening skit cannot be corny, though; it has to be sincere and cannot overstay its welcome. The skit must feel essential to the album experience, not singularly novel. If the first track of an album is a skit providing a one-time-only experience, if it has no withstanding replay value, the album itself falls apart as a complete body of work.
Luckily, a sharp and cerebral artist knows that employing an opening skit gives their concept album the chance to be more accessible. Such is the case with Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., an album that literally cuts both ways. Taking the album right side up, opening with “BLOOD.” leads us down the alley of the DAMN. universe. We are met with the central question of the album: “Is it wickedness? / Is it weakness?”
There’s a noir-lite feel to the track and Kendrick's warbling narration, projecting the despondency of the album cover. His storytelling is ominous and essential, breathtaking even though we know the gunshot is coming. The gunshot itself works to jolt us to attention, to up the ante of DAMN. from the first blow.
We are left pondering the meaning of the woman and Kendrick Lamar’s death, already hooked on the record by way of fiending to break it down. The final pivot to a FOX News sample discussing Lamar is smart, too, because it establishes a wall between the reality of the listener and the reality of the album, making DAMN. something of split-stream, near-fantasy experience. We go from one world to the next, as we burrow through the album and attempt to find Kendrick Lamar’s heart.
Of course, there is also the trick of DAMN. existing in reverse. In that sense, the album opens with “DUCKWORTH.” Now, traditionally speaking, “DUCKWORTH” is not a skit; it is a tell-all rap song in the vein of J. Cole’s “4 Your Eyez Only.” However, the endless stream of bars and upfront storytelling gives it the same essential components as “BLOOD.” Both tracks are direct and establish the universe of the album, whether or not you throw it in reverse.
Yet, when it comes to building a universe, we can look no further than Kanye West’s The College Dropout opener “Intro.” The gruff voice of DeRay Davis not only sets the scene for Ye’s first classic but also crafts the world and essential ideology for a trilogy of records. Of course, it’s also a feat for comedy from 2004 to live on for 14 years and not lose its luster. That alone is proof of how crucial “Intro” remains to the Kanye West discography.
“Intro” warms us to the plot of College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation. It is a 20-second character development exercise that will go down in hip-hop history. Every rap fan knows Davis’ voice from a mile away, and the question of “Kanye, can I talk to you for a minute?” will go down as the leading question for the following four years of West’s career.
Option 2: Thesis Track
A thesis opener is most common, as it’s the artist’s way of introducing themselves and their subject matter to you. This is the “Hi, my name is Rapper, and it’s very nice to meet you” of album intros. These songs are declarative, but they do not spoil the record. A strong thesis track opener acts as a mission statement—one that fans are eager to rally behind—that helps guide the record along, while also leaving room for pivots to give the record body and momentum.
Good thesis tracks can make or break a debut album, which is a formal introduction in itself. In the case of DMV native Rico Nasty, though she has had a grip of music and buzz prior to her recent Atlantic debut, Nasty, her opening track was her moment to decorate a nametag and pin it to herself. And boy, did she decorate. “Bitch I’m Nasty” is exactly what Rico Nasty says it is: a raucous announcement of self. She is Rico Nasty, she is nasty, her music is blaring, ear-grabbing and unabashed, and if that candor turns you off, Nasty may not be the album for you. She doesn’t care.
The record has a plain-stated confidence. “Bitch I'm nasty, and I don't give a fuck like, what is classy? / Smokin' on cat pee and my voice is raspy / I know these hoes can't stand me / I'm a black queen in a black coupe … Gang! I don't really care what you bitches do!” Rico prattles off to open her debut. She presents as inspired and unbothered, and that security is exciting. “Bitch I’m Nasty” suggests that Rico knows who she is, and as an album, Nasty will be just as forthright and consistent.
For all of “Bitch I’m Nasty”’s energy, too, the opener leaves room for growth and expansion. New fans unfamiliar with Rico’s more sugary cuts will be taken by surprise when they arrive at “Won’t Change,” “Why Oh Why,” and the droning “Lala.” This, of course, is excellent. This proves that Rico Nasty knows herself and knows where she can push her sound and content. A strong thesis track is just as much about building outward as it is about laying the groundwork for an album.
Then there is the business of opening yourself up when you know the fans have been waiting. In the case of Chicago’s Noname, she was not a hip-hop newcomer in need of introduction, but an aching artist who lost her path on the way to her debut several times over for three years. Since her fabled appearance on Chance The Rapper’s “Lost” in 2013, rap fans have been clamoring for Noname’s solo debut tape, which she announced before going into hiding. Of course, with the release of Telefone in 2016, we now know that she did not stand up all of hip-hop, but battled depression and alcoholism, and lived through the emotional strife of an abortion.
To open Telefone properly, Noname had to explain all of these things in fewer words, without a drip of sentiment, all while preserving the emotional conviction that amassed her cult following. This is how we arrive at “Yesterday,” a stunning thesis in that it captures Noname’s fight to make Telefone and alludes to her tragically losing herself in the process.
“Yesterday” begins with certainty: Noname has found herself and her inner peace. In the same breath, the opener looks back at her past uncertainty: “Who am I? Gypsy rap, Gypsy need her dollar back / And all of that, my devil is only closer when I call him back / Liquor in a limelight, look her in the limelight.” These teetering timelines and perspectives set us up to appreciate the duality and battle that takes place across all of Telefone.
Enrapt in pastel textures of the record, Noname is speaking to us from the apex and the landing pad of her struggles. “Yesterday” not only tells us what Telefone will be about, but it also documents everywhere Noname has been, and everywhere she hopes to take us. Her travels, on “Yesterday” and the whole of the album, do not feel tired and singular. Noname concludes “Yesterday” feeling complete, promising that Telefone will be a gratifying and realized body of work. Hint: it is.
Option 3: Mood Setter
For certain albums and certain artists, setting the mood can make or break a record. An album that employs new sonic tricks or presents a musical pivot from an artist’s previous work has to have a strong and assertive mood-setting opener. These are the tracks that encompass the sonic vision and overarching tone of the album. These songs say, “Look how I’ve changed, don’t you love it?” without leaving room for doubt. People are naturally resistant to change, which is why the mood-setting opener has to be all-in on the new sound and showcase the full gamut of its strengths.
Meaning, the effectiveness of the mood-setting opener is wholly dependent upon the album’s leading motifs properly coloring and guiding the song. In the case of Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book, “All We Got” is a fantastic mood-setter in that it introduces us to his newest technique: turning vocals into chords to be stacked into their own octaves. Perhaps a bit robotic and jarring at first pass, the vocals on “All We Got” have aged to be a modern take on the grandiosity and leveling quality of gospel singing.
The sound of Kanye West’s singing filtered through a timewarp inadvertently prepares us for the rest of the album, where a track like “Summer Friends” uses this vocal effect as a key element for the structure and emotional resonance of the song. “All We Got” thusly presents Coloring Book as gospel, innovative, and twisting. While fans were hoping for, if not begging for, a pure sequel to Chance’s definitive Acid Rap, the introduction to his new sound with “All We Got” proved effective if only for the simple truth that it was as breezy and freewheeling as his days of gorging on Flaming Hot Cheetos.
In a similar fashion, though music fans were not asking of anything specific from Vince Staples, as if they even could, the Long Beach rapper veered into unexpected territory on his 2017 album Big Fish Theory. Submerging himself in electronic music and seagulls, Vince Staples used Big Fish Theory to prove he could not be boxed in and belonged in the MoMA since jump. But again, people do not take too kindly to change and the whole of Big Fish Theory had to be introduced with a bit of measure.
Thankfully, “Crabs In a Bucket” does an excellent job of slowly lowering us into these previously uncharted waters. The first few bars of the record have a sinking and sea-worn air to them, as if we are unearthing a creative tomb. Atmospheric and nebulous, “Crabs In a Bucket” does not coddle, and when Vince Staples comes in with his breathless raps, we have no choice but to acclimate. This opener strikes the perfect balance between care and assertion. The tone has been set, but Staples cannot wait around forever; he has some music to deliver.
As with the rest of the album, his verse is there and gone before we have a chance to get comfortable, and the production on “Crabs In a Bucket” communicates for Staples more than half the time. We breach a wall of sound before Vince Staples’ essential collaborator Kilo Kish appears to usher us into the remainder of the record, while every pivot taken on Big Fish Theory is captured on “Crabs In a Bucket,” leaving us amped and ready.
Option 4: Banger
Music delivered deliberately, with the intention of tripling our heart rate, will remain some of the most fun rap fans can have while entirely sober. Leading off your album with a banger is the equivalent of shouting “I’m here!” when you pull up on your friend and your phone’s dead. They hear you through their windows, and they smile, and everyone is braced for a good time. The function of an opening banger is obvious: it gets us hyped for what’s to come.
The summoning of adrenaline is the triumph of Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” intro. The track is ceremonious, overcoming, and inspires a visceral reaction from listeners. Even the Philadelphia Eagles recently stormed the field during the Super Bowl with this thunderous song as their soundtrack. In 2012, “Dreams and Nightmares” made you believe in Meek Mill, made you proud to root for and shout alongside him. In 2018, the very same track has yet to lose its edge. For any rapper looking to project their underdog story, leading with a banger is one of the best ways to put your whole heart to wax.
In the mold of “Dreams and Nightmares,” then, Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy opener “Get Up 10” plays just as undefeated. Opening with a banger requires a lot of gumption, as you’re taking a victory lap before the album has run its course, but the payoff is huge. For one, you ensure the listener is immediately on your team and the task shifts from getting their attention to keeping their loyalty. This is a make-or-break moment that hinges on the quality of the album, sure, but also on the opening quality of storytelling.
With “Get Up 10,” Cardi B presents herself as the scrappy underdog-turned-pitbull without summoning a lick of pity. The banger album opener should be a transfer of energy, Cardi B has bossed up and by virtue, the listener should feel invincible. Between Meek and Cardi, the listener does feel unstoppable. Leading with a banger is a high-risk-high-reward play, but in the end, music that makes us feel powerful will always endure.
Of course, there is no single right way to begin your record and hook your audience, but the common thread through all of these methods is sincerity, be it in your writing, your sonics, your energy, or all three. People listen to music to escape, sure, but beneath that escapism is the unending desire to connect with something real. As long as your album begins on a sincere note, the listeners will come. As long as your music remains sincere, the fans will stay and the fanbase will grow. Be sincere, be intentional, and if opening your album with a skit, don’t let it go past the two-minute mark.