Top Ten: Favorite Songs
People have proven, through a vast variety of mediums and forums throughout time, to have a
fascination with stratification, classification, and ranking. It would seem that we, at some point, had a
collective realization that all things are simply not created equal. Hierarchal structure governs every
involuntary aspect of our lives, but our infatuation with it bleeds over into our free will as well. Mere
minutes of Google searches could conclude the assertion that a ‘Top 10’ list exists for almost every
conceivable topic, nearly all created voluntarily. We just can’t get enough of it.
In Hip-Hop specifically, ratings have become an imbedded and important part of the culture,
especially in the digital age. Everyone has a Top Five Dead-or-Alive list. Most fans, like myself, have a
sovereign reverence for our favorites that isn’t necessarily reflected in our day to day playlists. We
spend more time in the present than in the past of Hip-Hop, much in the same way that we spend more
time watching current NBA coverage than we do Hardwood Classics, even if we liked the game more
back then* (*insert new school hate statement here). The past is never forgotten, always respected,
solemnly safeguarded in our cherished memories, and revisited nostalgically and appropriately. Our
favorite foods remain as such because they are delicacies enjoyed for special occurrences. There’s little
need to remind ourselves of our favorites constantly. Timelessness is exactly that. They aren’t going
With this type of focus in mind, I’ve organized a list of my personal favorite songs of all time.
For me, anything determined by love is less of a conscious and deliberate choice, and more of a by-
product of factors I really have no control over. Falling in love with these songs wasn’t optional for me.
I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t persuasively deny these songs to save my life, nor could I overstate their
personal value. When life’s tremors are at their most tectonic, these ten songs bring me back to stable,
solid ground. It’s a simple and beautiful thing, and I know damn well, if you’re being honest with
yourself, that you can relate.
Intentionally subjective and personal, this list won’t align with yours. A few ground rules need
to be laid out prior to assessment. The very nature of what I’ve created inevitably promotes hostility
and rejection (see any YouTube video’s comments for how well we handle differing viewpoints). In an
effort to keep everyone’s collective modesty (i.e., keep your damn pants on), I encourage all to keep the
following in mind while reading:
-This list is completely subjective. There are certainly objective influences, but this is purely a
product of opinion. Nobody is going to agree with this list totally, other than myself, and
that’s perfectly fine.
-‘Favorite’ and ‘Greatest’ are NOT synonymous here. An attempt to create a list of the
greatest songs (still subjective, but efforts would have been made to drastically reduce it)
would look different. A simple example should clarify: Manu Ginoboli is one of my all-time
favorite players, ahead of many legendary figures. I like Manu more than Kobe; I would never
argue his greatness over the Black Mamba. Understand? Okay, cool.
-Some songs that I love were, unfortunately, martyred by the consistent greatness of their
artist. Some emcees supplied dope is such high quantity that praising a specific batch proved
to be too intoxicating an endeavor to complete. Discographies from artists such as Redman,
Kanye, The Roots, and Tupac fell into this category. Their work would be more accurately
honored in a list that emphasized collective contribution.
-Only Hip-Hop was considered.
-To re-iterate: You will not agree.
With all qualifiers addressed…please enjoy.
Album: Infinite, 1996
Probably my biggest struggle on this list, it really, truly pains me to be the fifteen trillionth person to sing
Em’s praises when I so badly wanted to put a Big L song in this spot. ‘Infinite’ (in this instance, the song,
but applicable to the entire album as well) was the opposite of studio quality, lacked originality (crazy
that an Eminem project was ever considered pedestrian, right?!), had an undeniable “demo” vibe to it,
and was a total flop at the time. I realize that this hardly sounds like a flattering introduction to a list
that is supposed to spotlight my favorite songs, but I swear it’s deliberate and intentional. With
everything going against ‘Infinite’, why do I love it so much?
Actually, a better question is “how great must this song really be to overcome that much bullshit
working against it”? ‘Infinite’ is the ultimate example of someone making something out nothing. An
undeniably talented and clearly dangerous emcee (even as far back as ’96), Eminem delivered lyrical
symmetry in this track that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard matched at this high of a level. What’s unique
about this song is that although it came long before the world collectively dropped its jaw hearing ‘Slim
Shady’ for the first time, most people encountered ‘Infinite’ long after Eminem developed a chainsaw
rape fetish, or whatever the fuck he was about in the late 90’s. Oddly enough, an older song became a
refreshing change of pace from newer music. ‘Infinite’ gave fans clear, gimmick-free exposure to his
potential. I encourage anyone who has never heard it to give it an honest listen. Your favorite rapper
couldn’t spit a doper verse.
Song: Shook Ones, Pt II
Artist: Mobb Deep
Album: The Infamous, 1995
In all honesty, at least 90% of the reason that this song is in my top ten is because of the beat. No
disrespect at all to Mobb Deep, who provided excellent and immortalized content, but it is clearly the
instrumental that separates and elevates this track over perhaps every other song in Hip-Hop’s timeline.
Mobb Deep could have ruined it all by producing lack-luster lyricism. I mean, shit, they even could have
assumed a Trent Dilfer like ‘game manager’ roll with it. Luckily for all of us, they decided to match fire
with more fire to create an audibly aesthetic, impossible-to-hate masterpiece. The gold standard for
freestyle beats deserves respect in its own, original right. If someone told me that this wasn’t in their
top ten favorites list, I’d immediately assume their troll ass was lying for the sake of being edgy and
difficult, and politely (yet firmly) ask them to leave.
Song: Dead Presidents II
Album: Reasonable Doubt, 1996
‘Reasonable Doubt’ might be the most criminally under-appreciated album of all time. My (apparently)
unpopular opinion is that the project exists as the Kobe Bryant to Illmatic’s Michael Jordan: the only
formidable comparison whose main “flaw” was that it didn’t come first. Bar for bar, ‘Dead Presidents II’
can hang with any rhyme ever written. Yes, the hook was an Illmatic homage/sample, and yes, Jay-Z’s
rookie run, much like Kobe’s, came at a time where 90’s All-Stars were simply too dominant for anyone
to truly give a young Hova his just dues, but none of that by default knocks Jay’s hustle, especially on
Still, the potential was obvious, limitless, and ultimately realized. ‘Dead Presidents II’ served as a worthy
foundation to build what has arguably been the most successful, consistent career in Hip-Hop history, so
I’ll rest easy knowing that although ‘Dead Presidents II’ and ‘Reasonable Doubt’ as a whole may be
undervalued, Jay-Z the icon certainly isn’t.
Song: Rosa Parks
Album: Aquemini, 1998
In 1999, Civils Rights activist Rosa Parks decided that OutKast’s use of her name in their 1998 hit ‘Rosa
Parks’ was unacceptable, and filed suit against the legendary duo. She argued that the song
misrepresented her likeness, and, in her defense, it really did. The title was a metaphorical message to
the industry to know their place and get their asses out of the way to make room for OutKast. The
message was re-iterated in a catchy (albeit insensitive) command for everyone to “move to the back of
the bus”. Six years down the road, an undisclosed settlement was reached, and Rosa Parks died just a
few months later. You can’t make this shit up. Goddamn.
Luckily for fans, the iconic status of the song was never really compromised in the controversy, and the
harmonic (literally…there’s a fucking harmonica solo) classic is a staple in any OutKast, southern, or,
really, just plain good playlist around. In an industry driven to deliver something never before seen or
heard, nobody has ever even been invited on the same bus OutKast rode in on, let alone granted a back
seat reservation. ‘Rosa Parks’ is faaaar from the only uniquely brilliant contribution the duo has made to
the culture, and arguing objectively over which OutKast song deserves to be considered the best is a
hopeless endeavor. Hush that fuss.
Artist: Black Star
Album: Black Star, 1998
Mos Def and Talib Kweli collaborated to form ‘Black Star’, and in 1998 released a self-titled album. As
expected, the underground/lyrical elitist scene was enamored by the poetic brilliance and modest
production of the classic record, and it is still as heavily revered today as it was at its inception. Among
the many memorable and impressive tracks, ‘Respiration’ (featuring Common) is a clear and obvious
standout effort. Artistically and poetically, ‘Respiration’ may be in a class of its own, even when
compared across four decades of Hip-Hop history. It almost feels like calling ‘Respiration’ rap somehow
cheapens its beauty. Every identifiable aspect of the track compliments every other aspect, cumulating
in an almost divine, yet paradoxically humanized, depiction of New York City. As far as home town
anthems go, ‘Respiration’ is untouchable. Free from any sort of gimmick, ‘Respiration’ represents the
absolute peak of perfectly balanced substance and subtle (yet powerful) consciousness in Hip-Hop. This
one is as close to flawless as it gets.
Song: Exhibit C
Artist: Jay Electronica
Album: N/A; December 2009 Single
Exhibit C is a convulsive display of a lyrical epileptic episode mitigated only by the serene production,
provided by Just Blaze, that accompanied it. Jay Electronica is Hip-Hop’s equivalent to Yellow Stone
National park: a super volcano 40,000 years overdue for an eruption that would decimate the entire
nation if it ever did what it’s supposed to fucking do. Exhibit C is a crowning achievement in an
otherwise almost inexplicably quiet career that has been widely recognized as a “once in a decade”
quality record. As inspirational as it is mind bending, Jay Elec now faces the unfortunate possibility that
he might have flown too close to the sun too soon. Eclipsing Exhibit C truly doesn’t seem possible. In
short, I think the song is just as good as everyone else seems to. Eight years have passed since its
release, and nothing since has really even came close.
Artist: The Notorious B.I.G.
Album: Ready to Die, 1994
From the jump, Biggie Smalls solidified himself as Hip-Hop’s all-time story telling G.O.A.T., and that
unrivaled talent was on full display in the fourth track of his debut ‘Ready to Die’ album. ‘Warning’ tells
the tale of Biggie uncovering a robbery plot against him (spoiler: it doesn’t end well for the
conspirators). If you’ve somehow never heard it in its entirety, you’ve undoubtedly heard almost even
piece of it recycled by other artists. Likely the most swagger-jacked song of all time, lines like “Who the
fuck is this…?”, “Touch my cheddar/feel my Beretta”, and “It’s the ones that smoked blunts witcha, see
your picture/now they wanna grab the guns and come and getcha” have been replicated almost to the
point of homage overload. Biggie might legitimately have a case for personal appropriation against the
entire body of Hip-Hop, and dude only released two albums. However, no artist dead or alive could ever
reproduce Big’s unique style and delivery, showcased on ‘Warning’ better than almost any other track
he’s ever made, completely.
Song: N.Y. State of Mind
Album: Illmatic, 1994
Perhaps no stronger example of unanimous admiration exists in Hip-Hop than Illmatic. Nas has stated
that his intent for the project was to complete a perfect album, and despite setting a goal that is, by
definition, impossible, he came incredibly close to doing just that. A list emphasizing greatness (rather
than personal appeal) would likely include three or four Illmatic tracks-which was only a nine track
album to begin with- if not more. Illmatic quickly assumed its rightful role as Hip-Hop’s eternal
measuring stick for all others to be compared to. Every song was epic, but some somehow still shined
distinctly amongst an entire constellation of luminosity, and none burned brighter than ‘N.Y. State of
Produced by the legendary DJ Premier, ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ is Illmatic’s second track, and the listener’s
first exposure to the breathtaking lyricism that saturated the entire project. The content in the verses
synchronized seamlessly with Premier’s menacing production, and the track stood out as one of the
darker songs on an album that was largely upbeat, at least instrumentally. Famously spit in one take,
Nas’ opening “I dunno how to start this shit…” statement was actually a reflection of the fact that he
wrote it the same day he recorded it. With such schematic complexity in the song, that fact alone is
unbelievable. To this day, ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ is my go-to assignment for anyone who inquires about
the greatness that Hip-Hop is capable of.
Song: Runnin’ (Dyin’ to Live)
Artist(s): Tupac; The Notorious B.I.G.
Album: Tupac-Resurrection Soundtrack, 2003
Please again refer to the ground rules.
I knew I had to come correct for this one. Not only is this the only song that I have on my list with Pac,
it’s a posthumously sampled soundtrack project with popularity that pales in comparison to scores of
Tupac (and B.I.G.) hits. Furthermore…number 2?!
It’s arguably my favorite song of all time.
Released as the major single for the absolutely incredible ‘Tupac: Resurrection’ documentary, ‘Runnin’
(Dyin’ to Live)’ was actually recorded in 1994 as a coordinated collaboration between the two late Kings
of Hip-Hop. An absolutely chilling production is only amplified by actual interviews, police dispatch
recordings, and a beautifully haunting chorus. Given the connection that its release had to the
documentary, this song was perhaps the most emotional experience that Hip-Hop had ever exposed me
to. Both artists delivered some of the most powerful verses of their careers in an intense masterpiece of
sonic chaos reminiscent of, well, a sudden and shocking murder. No song has ever hit me with an equal
or greater impact than this one. Miss me with your objection; I won’t back down on this one.
Song: It Ain’t Hard to Tell
Album: Illmatic, 1994
My personal G.O.A.T. is without a doubt ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’, Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ masterpiece. The
production, courtesy of Large Professor, which notably featured a sample from Michael Jackson’s 1983
‘Human Nature’, was absolutely perfect. The track itself has been sampled, in some fashion, at least 40
times. The song has even been featured as a subject of study at Harvard University, arguably the most
pristine and distinguished institute in the nation.
The lyricism is as incomparable as the production. Nas was out here giving mics “men-estral cycles”
(AKA, making microphones bleed). As great as ‘Illmatic’ was in its entirety, no track gave listeners a
more intimate exposure to Queensbridge than ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’. Poetic Arrogance has never been
delivered more artistically, or over such catchy instrumentation. The song is just…perfect.
I’m beginning to doubt my ability to articulate why I love ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’ so much. As eluded to
earlier, love isn’t always a rational, conscious choice. It’s a feeling. I feel at peace knowing that Harvard
is interested enough in the same song that I love to literally fucking study it. Likewise, I have confidence
in all of my choices, because they’re mine alone. My obligation to justify them is ultimately limited to
standards that I choose to self-impose, and yours are as well. Greatness is always subjective. The best
we can hope for is that we display our subjectivity in a way that others respect enough to expose
themselves to and consider, and if not, don’t pay the hate any mind. I guarantee you none of the artists
on my list ever did.