Public Enemy - Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
“I got a letter from the government the other day / I opened and read it / It said they were suckers.” Chuck D’s iconic opening lines provide the introduction to a visceral revenge story of a young black male incarcerated for refusing to join the military. Escaping prison and executing a couple of correction officers in the process, Chuck’s protagonist follows the Nat Turner model of revenge narratives – all the while suggesting that slavery and the Reagan administration were really two peas in a pod.
Nas - Last Words
Nas’ 1999 album Nastradamus is usually cast straight to the bottom spot in any discussion on the Queens rapper’s discography. Which is unfair, really. Tracks like “Project Windows,” “Come Get Me” and “Last Words” are arguably better than anything he did after he started drinking milkshakes full-time. The latter tune even features a verse that actually rivals Nas’ legendary Illmatic prison song “One Love” from a poetic perspective. Nas takes the position of the prison cell itself in this narrative – an intriguing twist he pulls off with some spine-tingling imagery. “All the pictures you put up is stuck to my skin / I hear your prayers, even when you're whispering.” Try not letting the cold creep in after that one.
Nate Dogg - One More Day
On his very first solo single, the late great Nate Dogg delivers a touching cautionary tale, which already has all the ingredients in place that would make him one of hip hop's most beloved storytellers. Can’t really fit anymore street cred into a smooth croon like that.
Beanie Sigel - What Ya Life Like
“What you know about them four letters?” Beanie Sigel is in the position to ask. The one-time Roc-A-Fella associate has been in and out of legal troubles for as long as anyone can remember. As the lead-up to his anticipated 2000 debut LP The Truth, “What Ya Life Like” set the tone for Sigel’s perception on the hip hop circuit. In combination with the dramatic Christopher Young sample and the cavernous drum work, his signature muffled growl conjures up a bleak broadcast from the state pen, his natural gift for hyperrealist imagery front and center.
Brand Nubian – Claimin’ I’m a Criminal
Errmm... Can we call it “good cop, bad cop?” Lord Jamar starts this one off with aggressive Five-Percenter rhetoric, before Sadat X invokes the listener’s empathy with a heart-wrenching first-person narrative of loneliness, pain and frustration. The duo also supplies the infinitely listenable and highly effective backdrop for this ’94 classic, which surely represents one of the most thoughtful and intelligible approaches to prison rap.
Snoop Dogg - Murder Was the Case
With Snoop at the height of his storytelling abilities and Dre’s production at its most haunting, the congenial duo impressively translates the “Death Row” idea into musical form. Prayers, choirs, panned synths and striking bell towers underpin the Doggfather’s controversially almost-biographical tale of incarceration, which fictitiously mirrored his actual murder trial in 1993.
Dead Prez - Police State
“Police State” is bigger than prison rap. Revolutionary wordsmiths M-1 and stic.man deconstruct the prison industrial complex and the racist tendencies of the judicial system with scathing vengeance. A powerful tune from start to finish.
MF Grimm - Voices
The tormented lyrical themes of DOOM-associate MF Grimm are amplified by a biographical context that is about as grim as it gets. Barely surviving a murder attempt in 1994, the attack left Grimm permanently paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. His bleak guest appearance on his masked partner’s debut LP effectively stings with its references to depression and homicidal thoughts – further amplified in hindsight, as Grimm was temporarily sentenced to life imprisonment three years later.
Project Pat - I Ain’t Goin’ Back to Jail
After a three-year stint in a Texas prison, Memphis underground czar Project Pat made an emphatic return on the de-facto opening track of his comeback LP Crook by da Book: The Fed Story. “I Ain’t Goin’ Back to Jail” is filled to the brim with built-up aggression, setting the tone for what was arguably the last truly great Memphis rap album.
Ludacris feat. Beanie Sigel, Pimp C & C-Murder - Do Your Time
Right around the time when a significant number of high schoolers were raising teacher’s eyebrows with “Stop Snitchin’” attire, Ludacris dropped this track on his Release Therapy album to fit the zeitgeist. In recruiting three of the most credible prison voices, namely Pimp C, Beanie Sigel and C-Murder, Luda aligned himself wisely. Extra treat: the personal shout-outs from each contributor, ranging from Larry Hoover to large numbers of cousins.