The 100 Best Opening Lines in Rap History, Part 2: 50 - 1

The opening shots, salvos, tip-offs, and starter pistols of rap lyrics that made their way into legend.

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Complex Original

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First impressions, they say, are everything. In the blink of an eye, the human brain fires off a series of signals after receiving information that—time and time again—studies have shown are harder to change the more time passes after it. 

To that end, a first line in rap might just be the first line. But it's always so much more. Not just the beginning of a song, but for the ones that really count, the beginning of a legacy: For a song, for an artist, for an entire body of work or era of a genre. And you only have, really, only one line to get that first impression right. For the artists who did that, their first moments on a track were really more than just first impressions, but the beginning and end of a micro-legacy that usually results in more than just the start of a song, but the start of a much larger place in history, too. 

These are The 100 Best Opening Lines in Rap History: 50 - 1

Written by Kathy Iandoli, David Drake, and Foster Kamer. 

[PREVIOUSLY: The 100 Best Opening Lines in Rap History: 100 - 51]


50. "Bass! How low can you go?!/Death Row, what a brother know." - Chuck D

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Song: "Bring The Noise" (1987)
Album: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Public Enemy pushed up against the literal limits and extremes of that nexus where politics and music edge up against each other, something with a much, much sharper edge on it in 1987. Hip-hop was a genre that united clubs and orators, and the opening lines of "Bring the Noise" meshed the two seamlessly, attempting to revolutionize the world in all possible senses, both in the aesthetic extremes (deep bass hits) and real-world change (the number of black men on death row) at the same time.

49. "So, I typed a text to a girl I used to see/Saying that I chose this cutie pie with whom I wanna be." - Andre 3000

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48. "Have you ever met a girl that you tried to date?/But a year to make love she wanted you to wait?" - Biz Markie

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Song: "Just a Friend" (1989)
Album: The Biz Never Sleeps

Not just despite, but because of some of the most strangely-phrased lyrics in all of rap, Biz's lines stand apart. On "Just a Friend" it was that stilted way the words just rolled out—like someone tapping on those piano keys that make up the beat—which made these opening bars all the more memorable, especially in the way that we now know: They could have come from no one else, and the way they're delivered (with the world's biggest smirk) still haven't manifested in rap in quite the same way since.

47. "It's funny how money change a situation/Miscommunications lead to complications." - Lauryn Hill

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Song: "Lost Ones" (1998)
Album: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

The opening lines to "Lost Ones" are so much more than a passing reference to Lauryn Hill's falling out with Wyclef Jean: They're damning and understanding, angry and morose, layred with the kind of subtext only two people who have been through a shitstorm together can pick up on the first time around. There's a reason Lauryn Hill won so much acclaim for this album, and it's not because we got dirt on the end of the Fugees: We got an insight into the end of our own relationships, right from the beginning, and the education of Ms. Hill's listeners started immediately.

46. "Muthafuckas say that I'm foolish, I only talk about jewels/Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?" - Jay-Z

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Song: "Renegade" (2001)
Album: The Blueprint

Jay-Z's music was always about more than the obvious aspects of being a hustler on the come-up: It's about a mentality, a lifestyle, a worldview. And on The Blueprint, the rapper responded to—or demolished—the critics who were always after him for this and more with two quick lines calling them out for not doing their jobs. Now it's hard to find a person alive—no less a rap critic—who doesn't recognize there was a lot more going on to Jay than met the first-listen ear.

45. "I fucked my money up, now I can't re-up." - Waka Flocka Flame

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Song: "O Let's Do It" (2009)
Album: Flockaveli

Forget complexity, or intricacy, or perfectly assembled verbiage. Some of rap's most memorable moments are just cadence, nothing more. For the stop-start production of Waka's "O Let's Do It," his opening lines hit on an unforgettable pattern, with a simple message—some shit went down with his cash, and he can't buy more to sell more—and the rest (read: a rapper known for a distinct cadence before anything else) was history.

44. "I came to bring the pain, hardcore from the brain/Let's go inside my astral plane." - Method Man

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Song: "Bring Da Pain" (1994)
Album: Tical

Unlike the intro to Enter the Wu-Tang's "Method Man," Meth's plan to cause pain this time isn't all that specific. Instead, it's just an overarching statement of purpose and a metaphysical threat. What makes it work as an opening line, though, is its musicality: the pattern of rhymes hitting with bull's-eye-precision, before he invites the cautious listener inside his own state of mind.

43. "Yo I'm still not a player, but you still a hater." - Big Pun

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Song: "Still Not a Player" (1998)
Album: Capital Punishment

Pun's mantra: "I'm not a player, I just crush a lot." In turn, when revisiting this theme of his, he opened with a line that was as catchy as it was smooth: Haters hate his sex life not because they think he's a player, but because they want in on what he's got.

42. "One thing 'bout music, when it hit you feel no pain/White folks say it controls your brain, I know better than that." - M1

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Song: "Hip-Hop" (2000)
Album: Let's Get Free

In the opening lines of their most famous track, dead prez flipped Bob Marley's "Trenchtown Rock" to counter racist accusations of hip-hop's danger, and firm up its therapeutic purpose (while also delivering a scathing indictment of White America's views of the genre at-large).

41. "Live from Bedford Stuyvesant, the livest one." - The Notorious B.I.G.

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Song: "Unbelievable" (1994)
Album: Ready to Die

Biggie's openings so often had a stark feeling to them; the pattern of assonance—-the repeating of vowel sounds—in the "Unbelievable" opening? A perfect example, in which Biggie managed to fluently weave the full Dutch name for his Brooklyn neighborhood into an announcement of his own presence on the airwaves, giving Do-or-Die a new one to live by.

40. "Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice/I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots." - 2Pac

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Song: "Keep Ya Head Up" (1993)
Album: Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.

Adapting an old adage, and flipping in on its head? Not something enough rappers are capable of, let alone inverting years of white supremacy with a bold statement that called upon history at the same time. And for Tupac it wasn't just enough to do that—to take an explicitly racial confrontation and turn it into the compelling start of one of his most poetic ruminations—but he needed to do it effortlessly, too.

39. "Rappers I monkey flip'em with the funky rhythm I be kicking." - Nas

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Song: "N.Y. State Of Mind" (1994)
Album: Illmatic

The meaning of this opening—that Nas is changing the rap game, business as usual—is less important than the sound of it: a rat-a-tat-tat percussive pattern of consonents trailed by vowels, all delivered with Nas's laid-back tone, splashing over the tapped piano keys of the beat. The best ones make it sound so easy, when we know better: It's anything but.

38. "When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell/Cause I'm a piece of shit, it ain't hard to fucking tell." - The Notorious B.I.G.

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Song: "Suicidal Thoughts" (1994)
Album: Ready to Die

Of course "Suicidal Thoughts" is about suicidal guilt. You can get that from the title. But the realization that's key here—the one that pulls you into the dark, seemingly endless vortex at the center of this song from its first moments—is the one that takes place when all the rationalizations for suicide are stripped away, and naked self-hatred ("I'm a piece of shit") takes hold. It's as bleak as rap music gets, and also, as perfect as that bleakness gets, too.

37. "Things just ain't the same for gangsters/Times is changing, young niggas is aging." - Dr. Dre

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Song: "The Watcher" (1999)
Album: 2001

How does one of the originators of the original gangster rap group enter his third decade in the rap game after a not-insignificant absence? Ask Dre, who took to his mid-life crisis with grace, coming across as a veteran adjusting to the rapidly changing tides of both his life and rap, with a weirdly abstract existential anxiety slowly forming some kind of acceptance. If you're gonna age—and if you're going to be one of the first great rappers to attempt career success at a late age, and find it—you should probably do it with some level of self-awareness. Dre did it from the start, and separated himself from every other rapper that's going to get old and try rapping in the process.

36. "Hi, kids. Do you like violence?" - Eminem

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Song: "My Name Is" (1999)
Album: The Slim Shady LP

In 1999, Eminiem had a lot to lose, and not just for himself. Before Dr. Dre released 2001, he put his reputation on the line for Eminem, a white rapper, at a time when white rappers were still a post-Vanilla Ice punch line (or making adult-contemporary music, like Everclear). For Dre, for rappers who were black, for rappers who weren't black, for the entire genre of rap, there was a lot on the line, let alone for Eminem. Which is why the first words on his first single needed to hit hard, and they did. 

Eminem didn't just mock parents worried about the effects of rap by confronting the issue head-on, he sucker-punched them with it. He appealed directly to the audience America was scared of his music getting into the hands of: American Schoolchildren (though really, "kids" was anyone who was listening). And when it was all said and done—and by all, we mean, just that first line—Em had already brilliantly pre-empted criticism by declaring the concerns of scared parents and moral leaders his exact purpose in life. There couldn't have been a more perfect way he could've foreshadowed the totality of his work and the impact of it to come.

In other words: The opening line of "My Name Is" wasn't the first line Em ever rapped, but it might as well have been.

35. "P.S.K., we're makin that green/People always say, 'What the hell does that mean?'" - Schoolly D

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Song: "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" (1985)
Album: Schoolly D

Since its earliest stages, gangster rap's been a lot of coded language, a way of communicating to a certain audience while bringing another into it. Schooly D had a mastery of this. For example, "P.S.K." stood for Park Side Killers. Just listening, though, you wouldn't know it, because in Schoolly D's playful delivery as he spoke on a street gang's financial status, there was a sheen of humor. The squares will never get it.

34. "So I ball so hard motherfuckers wanna fine me/But first niggas gotta find me." - Jay-Z

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Song: "Niggas In Paris" (2011)
Album: Watch The Throne

The master of the double entendre, Jigga just couldn't resist making a line that used balling/balling, which is really a triple-entendre, if you want to go there. The fine he's referring to is when had to pony up $50,000 for visiting the Kentucky Wildcats locker room which—as a part-owner of an NBA team, the Brooklyn Nets—he's barred from doing. But for Jay, it's all gravy. Not only can he easily afford the fine, but he's probably chilling somewhere in the South of France (he doesn't have five passports for nothing), so good luck reaching him. And not for nothing, NBA Commish David Stern, but Jay-Z would go on to perform these opening lines many, many times after he recorded them, which is to say nothing of how many times he's performed them during the same concert.

33. Visualizing the realism of life and actuality/Fuck who's the baddest a person's status depends on salary." - AZ

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Song: "Life's A Bitch" (1994)
Album: Illmatic

The word pairs of the first and second parts of AZ's entrance into "Life's a Bitch" (visualizing, realism / baddest, status) make it memorable purely in sound; it also makes the density of the words more forgiveable. In essence, AZ argues for a realistic view of the world that too many people he knows (and that you know) lack: one that recognizes being the baddest is a juvenile outlook when there's money to be made.

32. "Now in my younger days I used to sport a shaaaaaag." - Bootie Brown

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Song: "Passin Me By" (1993)
Album: Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde

For the Pharcyde, words were malleable. They seesawed in an addictive and musical sing-song cadence, a call-and-response within single bars. And on "Passin Me By," there's a lot that's memorable. The creeping, record-popping jazz beat. The thumping bass melody. But on the most recognizable Pharcyde song—and one of the most recognizable lines on this list—it wasn't so much about the fact Pharcyde's Imani used to sport a shag, which is cool, but not that cool. It was how he sported it, or rather, how he said he sported it: His childlike cadence and dragging of the a in shaaaaaag makes this line more than just great, but fun, too; if you know the line, it's the rap opener you can't help but rap (or sing) along to.

31. "First thing's first, I Poppa, freaks all the honeys." - The Notorious B.I.G.

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Song: "One More Chance (Remix)" (1995)

Album: Ready to Die

Biggie's lines about relations with the opposite sex weren't just pieces of his accumulated wisdom, or experience, but playerisms, everpresent in his rhymes. And on this track—the remix to the original, the one with the Hype Williams clip starring everyone and mother from rap circa '95—Big's entrance is a statement about priority, and anyone who says they expected the second part of the line the first time they heard it is lying. "I Poppa, freaks all the honeys" is not what any human being expects after hearing the words "First thing's first," but there it was: Big Poppa, making it clear that no matter his size, he'll still take your girl, and if that's not the most important piece of business at hand, we just don't know what is.

30. "Who the fuck is this? Paging me at 5:46 in the mornin'/Crack a dawning, now I'm yawning." - The Notorious B.I.G.

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Song: "Warning" (1994)
Album: Ready to Die

For B.I.G., storytelling tracks were all about the details. Ice-T might have been awoken around 6 in the morning by the cops, but Biggie doesn't just remember exactly what time the pager was flashing, and how his body reacted to the early morning wake-up call, but it was earlier than 6, too.

29. "LL Cool J is hard as HELL/Battle anybody I don't care who you TELL." - LL Cool J

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Song: "Rock The Bells" (1986)
Album: Radio

The third single from LL Cool J's debut, Radio, firmed up a reputation for a hard-hitting sound. In his first line on "Rock the Bells," his words seem intended to make the bells shake on their own. Really, though: The way LL's words come from nowhere, with no beat under them, and punch through the speakers—one jab after the other, with an electric guitar riff on the pronounced words—it's a crime for anyone not to write them out in caps (see above), as they were intended to be written, no doubt,  words that likely still damage a sound system or two a few times a year to this day.

28. "Once upon a time not long ago, when people wore pajamas and lived life slow." - Slick Rick

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Song: "Children's Story" (1988)
Album: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Slick Rick, the godfather of story raps, had a reputation for the form with good reason; on "Children's Story," he seems to even joke about it, opening with an ironic callback to more innocent times, before weighing in with a street life morality tale, and firing off one of his most memorable tracks.

27. "Raw I'ma give it to ya, with no trivia/Raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia." - U-God

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Song: "Da Mystery Of Chessboxin" (1993)
Album: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

It's not the most clever line (see: the re-use of the word "raw"). In fact, it's actually kind of clumsy. But in that clumsiness is a rugged directness, and there's the point: U-God's not interested in the trivia, he just wants you to feel the uninhibited gravel in his vocals, paving (or rather, stripping the pavement from) the way into one of the most crucial, early, and hard-hitting Wu-Tang tracks.

26. "I ain't a killer, but don't push me/Revenge is like the sweetest joy next to getting pussy." - 2Pac

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Song: "Hail Mary" (1996)
Album: The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory

In the opening of "Hail Mary," Tupac body-checked right through the tense thread between reality and performance, in pretty explicit terms: a defensive parry that felt like a threat. It encapsulated his mindstate at the time, the encroaching paranoia, the sense of lashing out at those who had wronged him with incomparable anger, and through gritted teeth, the dark-thrill of revenge. With only one really explicit word in the line, 'Pac gave us one of the most hyper-sexual, hyper-violent lines in rap history, let alone openers.

25. "It's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you/Without a strong rhyme to step to." - Rakim

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Song: "I Know You Got Soul" (1987)
Album: Paid In Full

Rakim must have owned the fastest watch in the world when he wrote this one, as it really hadn't been all that long since he had dropped a "strong rhyme to step to." The line lives on in infamy, as a brilliant introduction, and as a snap on everyone else. It became one of hip-hop's most-quoted lines (so much so that for many listeners, they first heard it from someone else) because it's ultimately so useful; can you think of a more elegant way to announce your return than a heartfelt apology that's also a slap in the face to everyone else? Neither could anybody else.

24. "With so much drama in the L-B-C/It's kinda hard being Snoop D-O-double-G." - Snoop Dogg

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Song: "Gin & Juice" (1993)
Album: Doggystyle

It's little secret that Snoop was a fan of Slick Rick; not only did his delivery borrow Rick's unflappably chill charm, but he had a brilliant mastery of understatements. Perfect example: The stresses in Snoop's life at this time were really real—Long Beach was a hotbed of violent gang fighting, and the rapper would soon be indicted on murder charges. But to Snoop—at the end of a long day, which we're to take from the cup being poured into at the track's opening—it's just "drama," and for him, it's just drama that makes it "kinda hard" to not just live, but for Snoop to be Snoop. And for Snoop, rap was a show of shoulder-shrugging self-control in situations that any one of us would buckle under.

23. "I met this girl when I was 10 years old/And what I love most, she had so much soul." - Common

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Song: "I Used to Love H.E.R." (1994)
Album: Resurrection

We don't find out until the very end of the song that Com is personifying hip-hop. But at the very beginning, he started his story of a love affair at childhood, and spoke to the intensity of the love, lending it a nostalgic edge with a tinge of tragic foreshadowing. The line was pretty literal, too: Common was born in '72 and in '82 rap classics like "The Message" dropped.

22. "Street's disciple, my raps are trifle/I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle." - Nas

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Song: "Live From The BBQ" (1991)
Album: Breaking Atoms

Nas burst on the scene on this Main Source posse cut and blew everyone away. In two words he broke down his whole style: Street's disciple. Nas wasn't just a street cat like so many hood rappers to come before him, oh no. He was a student of the streets, one here to carry on tradition and drop street knowledge. And to prove that he didn't just drop knowledge, he loaded a metaphor into the clip, and his brain fired thoughts like slugs, straight into rap history.

21. "Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube." - Ice Cube

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Song: "Straight Outta Compton" (1988)
Album: Straight Outta Compton

In two bars, Ice Cube gave you the setting and the character, and conveyed it with the visceral directness that would become a mark of gangster rap from that point on. Since this time, every gangster rap record is a variation on these two immortal themes: a violent setting and an unreliable, even psychotic, narrator.

20. "Allow me to reintroduce myself/My name is Hov, (Oh) H-to-the-O-V." - Jay-Z

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Song: "Public Service Announcement" (2005)
Album: The Black Album

The radio fuzz fades out and the piano plunks along as Jay-Z warns you that you're about to be subject to some sort of helpful announcement, brought to you via the charitable spirit of Just Blaze and the good folks at Roc-A-Fella records, as the faux-aged speech drops in. "Fellow Americans..." And then all the sounds stop for a brief moment, as Jay-Z—on his eighth album, the one that was supposed to be his last—reintroduces himself, and begins to sum up his entire rap career in a song that clocks in under three minutes, starting out with the most basic thing you should know, just as that blaring Just Blaze beat triumphantly blasts into the track: His name, and how you should spell it.

19. "Now, what ya wanna do? Wanna be ballers? Shotcallers? Brawlers?" - Puff Daddy

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Song: "It's All About the Benjamins" (1997)
Album: No Way Out

To kick off "All About the Benjamins," Sean Combs scoffs at your laughable ambitions, before using rhetorical questions to sound off the three rap game persona pigeonholes he both falls into and rises above, as if to tell everyone else that they can only choose one, but Puff? Puff can be all three, and also, so much more. To this day, we guarantee it, nobody's been able to give him a good answer.

18. "There's a war going on outside no man is safe from." - Prodigy

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Song: "Survival of the Fittest" (1995)
Album: The Infamous

A painting is worth a thousand words; sometimes a few words can imply many more, too. Prodigy's opening bars on "Survival of the Fittest" convey the high-wire balancing act that is life in America's most dangerous neighborhoods with a single phrase. There's a war, and no man is safe. It speaks to a siege mentality, the tension of living without security.

17. "I used to be scared of the dick/Now I throw lips to the shit." - Lil Kim

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Song: "Big Momma Thang" (1996)
Album: Hard Core

As a part of Junior M.A.F.I.A., Lil Kim was quite subdued with a side of risqué. As a solo artist on her album opener, however, she let the world know in the first few bars that she is not intimidated by men, and furthermore, she can bring them to their knees, pun fully intended.

16. "I said a hip hop/Hippie to the hippie/The hip, hip a hop, and you don't stop." - Wonder Mike

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15. "I got so much trouble on my mind/Refuse to lose." - Chuck D

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Song: "Welcome to the Terrordome" (1990)
Album: Fear of a Black Planet

A reference to a soul song (Sir Joe Quarterman's "(I've Got) So Much Trouble on My Mind") was a double-entendre for the pressure Chuck D was feeling at the time; the song has often been interpreted as a response to the critics of his association with Professor Griff, who'd come under fire the year before for making numerous anti-Semitic remarks. Chuck followed this line with a three-word refutation of those who would like to see him fall, an assertion of his indefatigable will.

14. "La di da di, we like to party." - Slick Rick

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13. "One, two, three and to the four/Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door." - Snoop Dogg

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Song: "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang" (1993)
Album: The Chronic

Since its release, Snoop revealed that the line wasn't originally delivered the way it's heard, but Dr. Dre had to coach him into it (We suppose that makes up for the fact Snoop has the sole writing credit for the song). But that piece of trivia doesn't take away from the fact that Snoop was such a hypnotic rapper in '93 that hearing him count time was mesmerizing, and continues to be, to this day.

12. "I bomb atomically, Socrates, philosophies, and hypotheses." - Inspectah Deck

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Song: "Triumph" (1997)
Album: Wu Tang Forever

In some sense, the opening bars of "Triumph" seem completely ridiculous: After Dirty's ranting—including two new memorable substitutions for "boys and girls"—in comes Deck with an avalanche of syllables, an overload, a victory of technical wizardry over meaning, and yet, the meaning's still there for you if you wanted it (though you had to go a line further to find it, assuming you were familiar with Socrates).

But more to the point, if you ever wanted to be a rapper, you knew these words by heart, the ultimate fetishizing of lyrical density and intensity. Whether or not you knew why the song was called "Triumph" before you heard it—or if any rap song you'd heard ever merited that title before then—it's not hard to have a good idea by the time Deck delivers these seven words.

11. "I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles." - Scarface

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Song: "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" (1991)
Album: We Can't Be Stopped

The opening imagery of staring at candles is as oddly stark as it is weirdly compelling and transporting. It's also one that 'Face didn't even bother to rhyme with, restarting his verse once he realized the mic was recording, and creating one of the greatest ad-libbed and memorable moments of his career in the process.

10. "I wanna rock right now/I'm Rob Base and I came to get down." - Rob Base

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Song: "It Takes Two" (1988)
Album: It Takes Two

With a few simple declarative statements of purpose, Rob Base kicked off the anthem of the summer of '88. This is what I want to do; this is who I am. The opening of "It Takes Two" cuts sharply and immediately to the marrow of what rap is all about.

9. "Don't call it a come back/I've been here for years." - LL Cool J

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Song: "Mama Said Knock You Out" (1991)
Album: Walking with a Panther

LL Cool J knew he needed to prove he could keep up with a rapidly-changing hip-hop landscape. He also realized that so much of success is dependent on the perceptions of your audience. He had to pre-empt the suggestion that he'd ever had a moment of weakness; why would he need a comeback if he'd been dominant the entire time? Thus, the opening line to "Mama," one that's become ingrained not just in the verbiage of hip-hop, but of popular culture, too, displays the kind of touch for putting a bug in the ear of every human with a decent grasp of the English that LL made a name for being great at.

8. "Thinkin' of a master plan, 'cause ain't nothin' but sweat inside my hand." - Rakim

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Song: "Paid in Full" (1987)
Album: Paid in Full

The title cut of what's generally considered one of the most crucial rap records of all time starts with this line, an impossibly high bar for the rest of rap to follow, as there's not a single better summation of hip-hop's poverty-derived hustle than Rakim's opening bars on "Paid in Full." When you have nothing, it can take a genius to talk his way out of the situation, and Rakim was inarguably that.

7. "Back in the days when I was a teenager/Before I had a status and before I had a pager." - Q-Tip

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Song: "Excursions" (1991)
Album: The Low End Theory

Over the thumping notes of an upright bass being plucked away at, Q-Tip's voice runs up on you, kicking off the opening bars of "Excursions" and setting up a father-son convo about the cycles of history by bringing us back before the fame, the status, and show business, in order to better explain hip-hop's appeal, and to stake hip-hop's claim to a legitimate musical heritage—while also, by the way, separating status from having a pager, as people were confused about the two at the time—all before the beat drops.

6. "His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy/There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti." - Eminem

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Song: "Lose Yourself" (2002)
Album: 8 Mile

You don't have to be a rapper heading to a Grindtime battle to understand the level of stage fright Eminem is describing in "Lose Yourself" (though it certainly helps). We've all had that point in our lives—be it a big exam, a presentation, or a fight—and Em's line speaks to the volatile human condition of rabid vulnerability, the moment where you're as unpredictable as the elements you're surrounded by. WIth one line, Em doesn't just put you in the scene, he puts you in shoes that every battle rapper ever has been in.

5. "6 in the morning police at my door/Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor." - Ice-T

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Song: "6 in the Mornin'" (1985)
Album: Dog 'N the Wax (Ya Don't Quit-Part II)

Ice-T didn't fully reconcile with the cops until he became one on Law & Order: SVU. At this point in his career, the rapper was still six years away from "Cop Killer," and more concerned with the getaway. Spit a capella before the beat dropped, the opening bars of "6 in the Mornin'" stood out for their simple, memorable rhythm, and for the small details of sight and sound as he makes his escape.

4. "First off, fuck your bitch and the clique you claim/West side when we ride, come equipped with game." - 2Pac

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Song: "Hit 'Em Up" (1996)
Album: All Eyez On Me

On this diss track, the Biggie/Pac beef reached Defcon 5. After dropping the bomb that he'd slept with B.I.G.'s girl in an opening rant, Pac wasted no time, cutting directly to the point with blunt force. He made it clear he wasn't just dissing Biggie, but the everyone around him and down for him, too.

3. "Fuck the police, coming straight from the underground." - Ice Cube

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Song: "Fuck The Police" (1988)
Album: Straight Outta Compton

Three words:




And that was it. A moment in American culture had been started, like a flame that trails a spill of gasoline all the way to the pump. That was all it really took for Cube to get his point across. But wait, there's more: Not just "Fuck the police," but fuck them from the underground. The slums. From the places where they oppress people, and treat them like shit. Fuck them, from the underground of culture, of rap, and fuck the police because you can't help but listen as it's said, words that have been spoken privately so often, but recorded? And made into a hit? Not until that moment.

And with three words, N.W.A. changed everything in a way so many of the recorded words in hip-hop that would come before them and after them never did or ever will. You know that old adage, If you've got nothing nice to say, don't say it? If there's any truly concrete evidence to the contrary, it's this moment in rap.

2. "Broken glass, everywhere/People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care." - Melle Mel

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Song: "The Message" (1982)
Album: The Message

Hip-hop may have started as party music, but Melle Mel and the Furious Five proved it could be much more when they chose to use it as a vessel to describe inner-city living on "The Message." The opening line is so crucial because it sets up the scene so perfectly—it's not just that there's broken glass, there's broken glass everywhere. The line is a reminder of a grittier New York, before the days of Giuliani and Bloomberg. It was a collective "aha" moment for millions of listeners who heard Melle's rhymes and realized, "Hey, he's describing a hood that's no different than mine!"

1. "It was all a dream/I used to read Word Up! magazine." - The Notorious B.I.G.

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Song: "Juicy" (1994)
Album: Ready to Die

It goes beyond the cliche of "a defining moment" in hip-hop. The Notorious B.I.G.'s first solo single from his debut album is the fault line for the life-span calendar of rap, in the same way human years get a "B.C." and an "A.D" there's simply "Before Biggie" and "After Biggie," in a way no other artist would come to define the trajectory of the genre or influence others. There was everything before this song, and then, everything after it. And you knew it from the first-line: It was all a dream! Like so many to come before him and so many who would come after him (and wouldn't succeed)—or like anyone with any far off ambition that seems downright naive, until they make it—Big was just another kid from the streets who dreamed of becoming a famous rapper. Who could've imagined he would come to define what it meant and still means to be a famous rapper, an essential DNA strand in any truly meaningful rap star's career? 

Not him, the guy who used to read Word Up!, a magazine that was less a hip-hop magazine than it was a black pop culture mag. Rap magazines didn't exist in a meaningful way yet when he was reading magazines; they were manifested by rappers like Big coming into their own. Big's opening lines on "Juicy" work so, so well not just because they're memorable, or catchy, or come delivered so smoothly, from such a gruff narrator, but because they put his listeners in his shoes, fantasizing about a better life, and explained how hip-hop let him talk that fantasy into existence, the same reason so many people love rap themselves. And sure, he might've exaggerated to some degree—his mother's house at 226 St. James was hardly a one-room shack—but it was effective. Biggie understood the escapist thrill that daydreams of success brought him from the day-to-day stresses of living poor. The opening lines of "Juicy" weren't the first to do it, but they wed hip-hop success and the escapist fantasies of the impoverished like few memorable rap lines have since. In just one line, Big declared his love for hip-hop, and acted on it a way that meant something real. 

With the bitter exception of his death, hip-hop, for its part, has reciprocated that love ever since.

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