Musicians are obsessed with making concept albums. It’s the ultimate mark of creativity, a test of vision, and cohesion. Yet, the challenge for a visual story told with music is simple; it’s an aural experience. You don’t have the privilege of conveying a narrative with a large number of words.
In our modern streaming soundscape, out of necessity, songs are increasingly existing outside the context of their larger whole. The challenge for contemporary music makers is crafting concept albums where the working concept enables the songs to survive outside of their rigid confines. Part of the difficulty in defining a concept album is that there’s no official diagnosis for what qualifies as one. As a lifelong listener, I would like to propose an official formula.
The narrative approach—where the album tells a story—is one of two types of concept albums, and often, it is the most obvious. For example, MF Grimm’s 2007 urban twist on a classic fairytale, The Hunt for the Gingerbread Man, or the simple yarn of a doomed relationship and the loss of a small fortune in 2004’s A Grand Don’t Come for Free by UK hip-hop act The Streets.
The narrative approach, or the rap opera, is the most common technique rappers employ when crafting a concept album. Its influences stem from rock opera classics like The Who’s Tommy, which was the direct inspiration for The Fat Boys’ 1989 album On and On—one of the first “hip-hoperas.” The popularity of narrative content in hip-hop is no surprise, given our obsession with verbal storytelling.
The most memorable installments, like Deltron 3030’s 2000 eponymous debut, often tell an extensive story set in a dystopian wasteland, which helps to elevate the context and purpose of each song. Forgettable examples, like 50 Cent’s 2009 album Before I Self Destruct—otherwise known as, “Sh*t, that’s a concept album?”—suffer because the unifying idea isn’t a clear one.
Where the narrative content model focuses on spinning yarn, content type number two, thematic, is a more flexible and subtle approach. Rather than telling a clean story, albums employing thematic content revolve around exploring one or a series of connected themes and ideas. One problem: thematic content is easy to distrust, especially if the linked thoughts across the songs are intentional or coincidental. A broad notion binds most albums, but to be considered a concept album, the artist must have a deliberate plan.
JAY-Z is a master of the thematic content approach. There’s his retirement speech, 2003’s The Black Album; a love letter to Frank Lucas in American Gangster; and 2017’s 4:44, a response to Beyoncé’s 2016 album Lemonade. The late Mac Miller meditating on love and desire in The Divine Feminine, released in 2016, and then again on mental health on his final album, 2018’s Swimming, is another example. Modern hip-hop albums often revolve around thematic execution.
High vs. Low-Form
Whether narrative or thematic, the content form a body of work takes on will reveal the art. In high-form, the album deals with the concept. In low-form, the concept informs but doesn’t dominate every second of the record. The Roots’ tenth studio album, Undun, released in 2010, is an extremely complicated high-form narrative—every song tells the same story in reverse. On the flip side, The Notorious B.I.G.’s classic debut, Ready to Die, released in 1994, is a subtle low-form narrative. The album tells Biggie’s life story from birth to imagined suicide. Similarly, Nas’ 1994 major-label debut, the low-form thematic content album Illmatic, uses the location of Queensbridge projects to frame its author’s observations on life in the hood.
Classification as high or low-form boils down to how serious the artist is to sticking to their larger idea. The idea doesn’t have to be incredibly complicated, either. But it must answer the question, “How organized is the record?”
Hip-hop is the perfect genre to execute a concept album because its word-heavy nature provides practitioners with rich narrative potential. Its popularity, however, can be directly accredited to Prince Paul, whose discography is almost exclusively concept albums. Beginning with 1991’s De La Soul is Dead, the legendary DJ-rapper-producer has manufactured multiple concept albums with numerous groups, from his horrorcore foray with Gravediggaz to his team-up with Dan the Automator as hip-hop duo Handsome Boy Modeling School.
Paul’s crown jewel is 1999’s A Prince Among Thieves, which boasts a star-studded ensemble cast, 16 songs, and 19 skits. It is one of the richest and densest high-form narratives in all of hip-hop. Sticky Fingaz’s 2001 solo debut, Black Trash: The Autobiography of Kirk Jones, is its only rival—which couldn’t have happened without A Prince Among Thieves.
While we often link the hip-hop concept album to the work of Prince Paul, the Amityville, New York native has several contemporaries. The catalog of Brooklyn veteran Masta Ace boasts six concept albums, including Masta Ace Incorporated’s 1993 release SlaughtaHouse. Both 2004’s A Long Hot Summer and Disposable Arts, released the following year, are examples of high-form.
The yin to Ace’s yang is Kool Keith, easily the most prolific concept album artist in hip-hop history. Keith’s massive 17 album discography boasts almost exclusively concept records. From low-brow “porno rap” (Sex Style) to time-traveling horrorcore trippiness (Dr. Octagonecologyst), Keith is nearly exclusively a high-form practitioner.
Over a career that has spanned 35 years and counting, Keith has adopted a total of 58 personas. His entire cast is more than overwhelming, but most notably, there’s Dr. Octagon, horrorcore alien gynecologist; Dr. Dooom, Octagon’s arch-nemesis; and Black Elvis, Dr. Dooom’s twin. Prince Paul might be the pioneer, and Masta Ace the innovator, but Keith’s impact on the concept album reaches further into the identity of the artist.
As for the deployment of the alter-ego, a common gimmick in hip-hop, the list is quite long: Eminem’s Slim Shady, Ghostface Killah’s Tony Starks, Nicki Minaj’s Roman, etc.. These characters elevate beyond concept records to fourth-wall-breaking absurdity. The most infamous living concept, blurring the lines of fiction and reality, is MF DOOM. No stranger to multiple alter-egos (Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah are but two examples), DOOM’s entire existence and purpose are that of a supervillain. Not only does he hide behind his mask for thematic concept albums like 2004 release MM.. Food and DANGERDOOM (his work with producer DangerMouse), but DOOM’s character antics bleed out of the record into real life.
Prince Paul, Masta Ace, Kool Keith, and MF DOOM all have impacted the construction of the modern-day hip-hop concept album—just ask Kendrick Lamar. Not including his 2016 EP untitled unmastered., the industry goliath has been making concept albums since his 2011 debut Section.80, a low-form, thematic affair. Kendrick has mastered the art of high-form narrative (2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city) and high-form thematic (2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly and 2017’s DAMN.).
Kendrick is a lazy example, though. The concept album’s stranglehold on hip-hop is tightening from the most unlikely sources. Earlier this year, in one week, Tyler, The Creator and The Lonely Island—yes, The Lonely Island—released outstanding hip-hop concept albums. What do a deeply personal genre mash of hip-hop, funk, and R&B and a comedy spoof have in common? Both serve as picture-perfect examples of the diversity and popularity of the concept album in hip-hop. The subtlety and ambiguity of IGOR and the ludicrous yet genius simplicity of The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience are exemplars of where many artists have succeeded—and where many others have failed.
For decades, Average Joe emcees and genius oddballs have embraced the ambitious vessel of the concept album. In 2019, while the album undergoes a prolonged death, two improbable saviors have stepped in: A heart-breaking Jekyll and Hyde love triangle and a visual poem about Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Their message is simple: Hip-hop and the concept album may be the shining beacon of hope that will continue to save “the album” as we know it.