Hip-hop started out in the parks of New York City as dance music for outdoor parties, and no matter how lyrical, spiritual, political, or philosophical the music has gotten in the three-and-a-half decades since the birth of the culture, as an artist, you're still only as good as your ability to move the crowd. Hip-hop most resembles its party rocking roots in the summertime, when people seem to gravitate toward the most adroit good-timey songs and artists adjust their release schedules to accommodate.
Every summer's got that one song you hear tumbling out of car stereos and pumping through neighbors' walls between June and September. Summer anthems are as crucial to hip-hop as kicks and snares, so we've put together a list of every song of the summer since 1979. Some of these were close calls, so we've granted honorable mention status to runner ups.
2013 is still too early to call, what with Kanye planning to bomb the summer with Yeezus and Drake quietly dropping odds and ends in advance of Nothing Was the Same, so the list cuts off at 2012. Did we miss anything? Who's taking the honor for summer 2013? Let us know in the comments.
1979: Chic "Good Times"
Producer: Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers
In August of 1979, the disco/funk band Chic racked up their second No. 1 single with "Good Times," a single from their album Risque. Built around an irresistible groove laid down by drummer Tony Thompson, bassist Bernard Edwards, and guitairst Nile Rodgers, the song became one of the most popular breaks for MCs to rap over.
The most famous of course, was The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," which was recorded in August of that year and went on to become the first rap song to hit the pop charts. But there were many others, from "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash" to Will Smith's "It's All Good" and even "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen. But those are just the records. If you went to a park jam anywhere during the summer of 1979, you were sure to hear somebody freestyling over this break-hence the "Good Times" break takes the title for that year's Rap Song of the Summer. —Rob Kenner
1980: Kurtis Blow "The Breaks"
Producer: J.B. Moore, Robert Ford Jr.
Album: Kurtis Blow
Blessed with a booming, elastic, singsong voice, Kurtis Blow was the first MC to sign with a major label in 1979. The following year he dropped his self-titled debut album on Mercury Recprds, and his single "The Breaks" became the first gold single in rap history.
Blending sureshot park jam routines ("Throw your hands up in the sky/And wave em round from side to side/And if you deserve a break tonight/Somebody say alright!") with witty couplets about cheating girlfriends and the IRS, Blow's song rocked all summer long as he performed it everywhere from Soul Train to Paris, France. —Rob Kenner
1981: Blondie "Rapture"
Producer: Mike Chapman
Blondie was a downtown New York band with punk roots and new wave tendencies, and their four No. 1 singles were as sonically diverse as NYC itself. "Heart of Glass" was a sexy disco floor-filler. "Call Me" was a Europop masterpiece conceived by German producer Giorgio Moroder. The other two were "Tide Is High," a cover of the Paragons reggae classic, and "Rapture," a hybrid of disco, new wave and hip-hop.
There were loads of female rappers before Deborah Harry rocked the mic-word to Sherri Sher and the Mercedes Ladies-but Blondie's ground-breaking foray into hip-hop became the first chart-topping single to feature rapping. The video (featuring cameos by Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quinones, and Jean-Michel Basquiat) was the first rap clip aired on MTV. The song hit the top of the U.S. pop charts in March 1981 and kept the radio waves hot all summer long. —Rob Kenner
1982: Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five "The Message"
Producer: Ed Fletcher, Clifton "Jiggs" Chase, Sylvia Robinson
Album: The Message
Label: Sugar Hill
Released on July 1, 1982, just three days before the U.S.A. celebrated its independence, "The Message" stood as an indictment of the American Dream deferred. When Melle Mel rhymed "It's like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under," his words resonated with a generation of urban youth who had never heard the reality of their lives on wax before. And judging by the song's chart success-it reached No. 62 on the pop charts-inner city kids were not the only ones listening.
Lines like "Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge" have a way of grabbing folks' attention. Although "The Message" was not the first rap record to speak to the realities of life in the 'hood, Melle Mel's vivid lyrics, married with the best beat in hip-hop history made it clear that rappers could do a lot more than rock the party. After "The Message," a whole new world of possibilities opened up, paving the way for a whole range of lyrical prophets, from Public Enemy to N.W.A. Safe to say 1982 was a long hot summer. —Rob Kenner
1983: Run-DMC "It's Like That"
Producer: Jam Master Jay, Russell Simmons, Larry Smith
It may not be the light-hearted party jam that most of us associate with summer songs, but Run-DMC's "It's Like That" was a reflection of its times. Released three years into the Reagan era, the record made it clear that Reaganomics were not about making life in urban America any easier, and the name of the game was survival.
Picking up where "The Message" left off, "It's Like That" spoke to the real-life struggles of real people living in urban America. But where Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's song was a tragedy, "It's Like That" was defiant and resilient. War, crime, poverty, prejudice, ignorance, the bum (who once was your man) eating out of a garbage can? Run's response was as cold and hard as the streets of Hollis, Queens: "Don't ask me because I don't know why." And what about a solution? "Money is the key to end all your woes your ups your downs your highs and your lows/Won't you tell me last time love bought your clothes?"
These words defined rap's new world order, a cold hard cash philosophy that would prevail through Puffy's "All About The Benjamins" moment and remains unabated in this era of Young Money Cash Money Business. But Run-DMC also tempered this approach with advice to get educated, motivated, and avoid prejudice and bias. —Rob Kenner
1984: Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five "Beat Street"
Producer: Melle Mel, Sylvia Robinson
Album: Beat Street Soundtrack
Grandmaster Flash's tenure with the Furious Five yielded classics, but it was ultimately short-lived: Flash and Melle Mel split the group down the middle over money issues just about a year after "The Message" was released, and Melle Mel soldiered on with his faction under the name Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five.
By then Hollywood was in the throes of a brief but intense fascination with early hip-hop culture ticked off by the 1983 classics Wild Style and Style Wars. 1984's Beat Street took Style Wars' graffiti artist fixation to the big screen with a bombastic tale of love and hip-hop in New York's inner city. Beat Street tapped Melle Mel's Furious Five for its soundtrack and got "Beat Street Breakdown", a righteous filibuster that stripped the funk-and-truth formula of "The Message" of the comforting familiarity of the verse-chorus-verse structure.
"Beat Street Breakdown" is a savage bit of political outrage and a dazzling lyrical performance that surely paved the way for the exploits of the poets, philosophers, and technicians of the late '80s and beyond. —Rob Kenner
Honorable Mentions: Cameo "Talkin' Out The Side Of Your Neck," World Famous Supreme Team "Hey DJ," Newcleus "Jam On It"
1985: The Force MD's "Itchin' For A Scratch"
1986: Run-D.M.C. & Aerosmith "Walk This Way"
Producer: Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons
Album: Raising Hell
Everything you need to know about 1986's "Walk This Way'' can be found in the music video. Run-D.M.C. lounges around inside a dilapidated room looking the very picture of hip-hop style and attitude while Aerosmith bangs out gritty blues next door like they'd been through the mill and somehow lived to tell. They have a soundclash, the wall comes down, and they figure out that they actually sound pretty good playing together.
"Walk This Way" showed the rock kids and the rap kids that they weren't all that different, that the music they loved trafficked in the same system-bucking rugged individualism and bottomless cool, and that the two genres could actually coexist within the confines of a single song.
Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith (along with the rock-baiting ex-hardcore punks in the Beastie Boys, it must be noted) broke down barriers, and it wasn't long before rock groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More started experimenting with rap, and rap guys like Ice-T crossed over into punk and metal. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Run-D.M.C. "My Adidas," Doug E. Fresh "All The Way To Heaven," LL Cool J "Rock The Bells"
1987: Boogie Down Productions "The Bridge Is Over"
Producer: DJ Scott Larock & KRS-One
Album: Criminal Minded
Years before Canibus sparred with LL Cool J, Jay-Z with Nas, and 50 Cent with damn near half the industry, there was KRS One and Boogie Down Productions' legendary war of words with MC Shan and the Juice Crew.
This classic hip-hop feud began in 1985 when Shan released a song called "The Bridge," which KRS took to be an insinuation that hip-hop started in Queensbridge. BDP struck back in with the 1986 classic "South Bronx," a history lesson for Shan on the birth of rap.
Shan licked shots on "Kill That Noise" off his debut album Down By Law, and BDP shut shit down with "The Bridge Is Over," a methodical, patois-inflected takedown of Shan and Marley Marl's Juice Crew.
Aside from being one of the best verbal beatdowns in rap history, "The Bridge Is Over" sports a glut of quotables that MCs constantly come back to and a beat whose ominous piano line, itself an interpolation of a classic Super Cat song, has been sampled by countless producers over the years. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: LL Cool J "I Need Love," Eric B. & Rakim "I Know You Got Soul," Public Enemy "Bring the Noise"
1988: Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock "It Takes Two"
Producer: Teddy Riley
Album: It Takes Two
Even as Teddy Riley changed the R&B landscape through his work as a member of Guy and his production and songwriting work for Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson, Keith Sweat, etc., he was blessing hip-hop artists with beats. He produced Kool Moe Dee's classic LL Cool J diss "How Ya Like Me Now," and he did the beat for Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock's legendary debut single "It Takes Two" in 1988.
"It Takes Two" exemplifies the low stakes, fun-loving party rap that serious hip-hop heads always forget to cite when they're lionizing the Big Daddy Kanes and Rakims of the Golden Era. Riley's meat-and-potatoes Lyn Collins sample flip and Rob Base's cool, collected flow stole the summer out from under a glut of more technically gifted rappers with more involved work, proving that all you had to do is rock the crowd to get by in this business.
The legacy of "It Takes Two" stretches beyond the summer of 1988, though: the song has been sampled by everyone from Snoop Dogg to Gang Starr to Chris Brown over the years. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Big Daddy Kane "Aint No Half Steppin," Doug E. Fresh "Keep Rising To The Top," Biz Markie "Vapors," Eric B. & Rakim "Mic Fiend"
1989: Public Enemy "Fight The Power"
Producer: The Bomb Squad (Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee)
Album: Do The Right Thing Soundtrack
Label: Def Jam, Columbia
Between the Central Park jogger case, where five innocent black teenagers were railroaded for the rape of a white woman, and the murder of black teenager Yusef Hawkins by an angry mob of white teenagers on the streets of Brooklyn, the summer of 1989 was one of racial unrest for New York City (and for Public Enemy, who ended up in hot water after anti-Semitic comments from Professor Griff stirred up a media shit storm).
June saw the release of Spike Lee's breakout film Do the Right Thing, which is very much a document of a city ill at ease with itself. Spike tapped Public Enemy for a theme song during production, and they gave him "Fight the Power", a black nationalist clarion call set to the Bomb Squad's swinging, sample heavy cut-and-paste funk.
Spike used the song to score a pivotal scene in the movie where long-simmering racial strife and an unbearable heatwave finally explode into an all-out race war. The film was a box office smash, and the song became an anthem for the disenfranchised and a push back against the institutionalized inequity that keeps them down. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: EPMD "So Wat Cha Saying," Big Daddy Kane "Smooth Operator," N.W.A. "Express Yourself," 2 Live Crew "Me So Horny"
1990: Public Enemy "Brothers Gonna Work It Out"
Producer: The Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, Carl Ryder, Eric (Vietnam) Sadler & Keith Shocklee
Album: Fear Of A Black Planet
Label: Def Jam, Columbia
After the successes of 1988's landmark It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and their opening slot on Run-D.M.C.'s Tougher Than Leather tour and a hiatus that nearly killed the group, Public Enemy set out to bludgeon the public with a new work that was somehow even more uncompromising than Nation of Millions.
The result of their efforts was 1990's densely layered and meticulously orchestrated Fear of a Black Planet. After a brief instrumental intro, Fear of a Black Planet launches into its mission statement with "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," a tense Bomb Squad production that finds Chuck D calling for unity for a country still dealing with fallout from the crack epidemic and a long history of racial strife. Chuck lays out a recovery plan and envisions a future where we've got it all figured out.
"Brothers Gonna Work It Out" was released as a single a few weeks after Fear of a Black Planet's spring 1990 debut, and while it was neither the first nor the last record of its kind, it doused the summer of 1990 in a much needed sense of unity and Afrocentric pride before the well dried up on politically conscious, commercially viable rap, and hooligans and dealers took over with their tales of the street. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: A Tribe Called Quest "Bonita Applebum", LL Cool J "The Boomin System," N.W.A. "100 Miles and Runnin"
1991: Naughty By Nature "O.P.P."
Producer: Naughty By Nature
Album: Naughty By Nature
Label: Tommy Boy
Before "U.O.E.N.O," there was "O.P.P.," the lead single with the mysteriously abbreviated title off Naughty by Nature's 1991 self-titled album. After a spotty debut album under the name The New Style, the group rebranded as Naughty by Nature under the umbrella of Queen Latifah and DJ Mark the 45 King's New Jersey based Flavor Unit collective.
They scored a chart-topping crossover success out the gate with "O.P.P." which laid a clutch Jackson 5 sample over a classic drum break for a tale of scheming on other men's girlfriends (inspired by a girl who cheated on Treach in high school).
"O.P.P." immediately took over the summer, blowing up first off a music video that was damn near ubiquitous on Ralph McDaniels' Video Music Box and then storming the Billboard charts, etching "You down with O.P.P.?" onto the collective consciousness of the rap-listening public and dragging Naughty by Nature to platinum status without sacrificing an ounce of the group's street appeal. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince "Summertime," Cypress Hill "How I Could Just Kill A Man," Geto Boys "Mind Playing Tricks on Me"
1992: House of Pain "Jump Around"
Producer: DJ Muggs
Album: House of Pain
"Jump Around" came to life when Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs crafted a driving beat that sampled the shrill saxophone squeal from soul singer Junior Walker's 1967 "Shotgun" retread "Shoot Your Shot."
Muggs shopped the beat around to everyone from his Cypress Hill compatriot B-Real to Ice Cube, but when none of them expressed interest, he handed it over to the Soul Assassins crew upstarts in House of Pain, self-styled Irish American hooligans trying to reclaim street cred for white rappers after Vanilla Ice's career implosion poisoned the well.
House of Pain's Everlast stepped right in to deliver three verses about kicking ass and rocking crowds. "Jump Around" was a major hit all over the world throughout the summer of 1992 and a mainstay on the movie soundtrack circuit for years to come but the group floundered in its attempts to recapture its success.
Two albums later, the House of Pain disbanded, with Everlast striking chart gold fusing hip hop with the blues on "What It's Like," DJ Lethal skating off to form Limp Bizkit, and Danny Boy resurfacing later as part of La Coka Nostra. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Pete Rock & CL Smooth "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," Kris Kross "Jump," Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg "Deep Cover"
1993: Wu-Tang Clan "Method Man"
Producer: The RZA
Album: Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers
Label: Loud, RCA
Twenty odd years into their career Wu-Tang Clan mostly known as a team effort, but it's easy to forget that it was one member's breakout solo turn that put the group on the map on a national level. When the Clan released "Protect Ya Neck" independently as their lead single in 1992, it made noise within the hip-hop community among fans impressed by the gritty production of the RZA and razor sharp lyrics from each of the then eight-member crew.
"Protect Ya Neck" turned heads on the underground circuit, but it didn't really register on beyond that circle until Loud Records took notice of the single's five-figure sales and funded a rerelease of the single during the summer of 1993, this time backed with "Method Man" on the B-side.
Ultimately, it was the fun-loving Method Man solo cut with its affable personality, singsong flow, and endless stream of off-the-cuff referential humor that rocketed onto the Billboard charts and drummed up interest in the group's decidedly bleak debut Enter the 36 Chambers, which was released that same fall to universal acclaim. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: 2Pac f/ Shock-G & Money-B "I Get Around," Onyx "SLam," Dr. Dre f/ Snoop Dogg "Dre Day"
1994: Notorious B.I.G. "Juicy"
Producer: Poke of Trackmasters & Sean "Puffy" Combs
Album: Ready To Die
Label: Bad Boy, Arista
When Diddy met the Notorious BIG he claims that all of the colorfully expressive songwriting we know him for was in place but that at the time Biggie was applying it to a series of unreasonably long songs.
It's hard to imagine BIG meandering on the mic; by the time his debut single "Juicy" arrived in the summer of 1994, he sounded like a master at work. "Juicy" is the arch debut single: a rags-to-riches life story filling the listener in on how it is that the artist got from slinging 'caine on the streets of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to radio airplay.
It didn't hurt that "Juicy's" production, provided by Poke of the Trackmasters, sampled the buoyant funk and rubbery bass of the 1984 Mtume hit of the same name or that Diddy's other new signees in Total showed out on the hook (or that the flip side of the single contained the equally flawless "Unbelievable"). If you were old enough to talk the summer that "Juicy" hit, chances are you know every word. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Craig Mack f/ The Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Rampage the Last Boy Scout & Busta Rhymes "Flava In Ya Ear", Nate Dogg & Warren G "Regulate," OutKast "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik"
1995: Notorious B.I.G. f/ Faith Evans & Mary J. Blige "One More Chance (Remix)"
Producer: Sean "Puffy" Combs, Rashad Smith & Trackmasters
Label: Bad Boy
Biggie's domination of the rap game started with "Juicy" in 1994 and continued through appearances on records from Bad Boy labelmates Total and Craig Mack as well as two more wildly successful singles from Ready to Die: winter 1995's ultra-smooth, Isley Brothers sampling "Big Poppa" and summer 1995's "One More Chance/Stay With Me (Remix)."
The latter took a grimy and nonchalantly sex-obsessed Ready to Die deep cut and shellacked some of the misogyny off, further sweetening things with a brand new beat flipping Debarge's "Stay With Me" and vocals from Biggie's wife Faith Evans as well as Mary J. Blige.
The song's perfect synthesis of unrelenting player politics and unabashed pop sheen cast a large shadow, and artists all over the spectrum mined the song's "Don't leave your girl 'round me, true player for real" ethos for inspiration. See: Usher's "U Don't Have to Call." —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: The Luniz "I Got 5 On It," Bone Thugs-n-Harmony "1st of Tha Month," Method Man "All I Need"
1996: Nas f/ Lauryn Hill "If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)"
Producer: Trackmasters, Rashad Smith
Album: It Was Written
Nas walked into 1996 looking for a hit. His debut album Illmatic was an undisputed hip-hop classic, but widespread prerelease bootlegging sapped it of its commercial viability. Nas responded by tapping the ascendant pop rap hitmakers the Trackmasters to produce the majority of the follow-up It Was Written.
He scored his first international Top 10 smash with It Was Written's lead single "If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)," an update on the Kurtis Blow song "If I Ruled The World" that paired the twinkling synths and sleek funk of Whodini's 1984 hit "Friends" with silky smooth vocals from Lauryn Hill of the Fugees.
The song quickly took over the streets and validated It Was Written's high risk commercial rap gambit with its effortless synthesis of Nas' commercial and philosophical sides. By summer's end Nas' record sales finally caught up with his critical acclaim, and It Was Written went platinum twice over, cementing Nasir Jones as a new hip-hop superpower. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Junior M.A.F.I.A "Get Money," 2pac f/ The Outlawz "Hit' Em Up," Outkast "Elevators (Me & You),"
1997: Puff Daddy f/ The Notorious B.I.G., The LOX & Lil' Kim "It's All About The Benjamins"
Producer: Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie
Album: No Way Out
Label: Bad Boy
The passing of the Notorious BIG, along with g-funk's stranglehold on the rap charts, seemed to spell trouble for New York, but as always, Diddy had the answer. His 1997 solo debut No Way Out (in tandem with his sidekick Mase's Harlem World) took his last few years of experiments in pop rap to the extreme, infusing them with lyrics gleefully celebrating abundant wealth and performing all of it in a succession of ridiculous suits that were as shiny as the records were poppy.
"It's All About the Benjamins" is the one that dominated the summer that year. Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie's production centered around an insistent chiming one-note melody with clattering percussion advancing underneath and provided the perfect platform for ace shit talk from Diddy, the LOX, Biggie, and Lil' Kim, whose verse here is one of the most memorable of her career.
"It's All About the Benjamins" put New York back on top and rang in an era of squeaky clean sample-based pop rap that, when all is said and done, helped inch hip-hop toward the forefront of popular music. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: The Notorious B.I.G. "Mo Money, Mo Problems," Busta Rhymes "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See," The Notorious B.I.G. "Hyponotize"
1998: Lauryn Hill "Doo Wop (That Thing)"
Producer: Lauryn Hill
Album: The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill
Label: Ruffhouse, Columbia
When the Fugees' went on semi-indefinite hiatus following the unexpected success of 1996's The Score, the first wave of Fugee solo albums, Lauryn Hill's stellar The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Wyclef's The Carnival, proved that the group's members could find success with or without each other's help.
Lauryn launched Miseducation with the breezy summer gem "Doo Wop (That Thing)," a lyrical filibuster on men and women who chase sex to ruin set over lush and soulful live instrumentation. The song rocketed straight to No. 1 thanks to Lauryn's spitfire lyrical prowess and velveteen singing voice as well as a ubiquitous music video that juxtaposed a '60s dance party with one from the '90s.
"Doo Wop (That Thing)" and Miseducation netted Lauryn a diamond-selling album, five Grammys, and international stardom, and they did so on a platform of female self-sufficiency and self-love. Lauryn Hill's massive solo success tore a hole in the notion that women in rap needed to sell sex to get ahead. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Noreaga "SuperThug (What What)," Jermaine Dupri f/ Jay-Z "Money Ain't A Thang," DMX "Ruff Ryders' Anthem"
1999: Juvenile f/ Mannie Fresh & Lil' Wayne "Back That Azz Up"
Producer: Mannie Fresh
Album: 400 Degreez
Label: Cash Money, Universal
The advance of Southern rap from beguiled regional delicacy to the industry-leading force it is today was a slow build, but when it broke out, there was no turning back.
It was on and popping when local New Orleans powerhouses No Limit and Cash Money emerged nationally off the strength of albums by Master P and especially Juvenile, whose 400 Degreez album went quadruple-platinum in the year following its 1998 release.
400 Degreez spawned the summer anthem "Back That Azz Up," a single that, along with B.G.'s "Bling Bling" forced Southern rap into a lot of places it'd never been before. "Back That Azz Up" is a sex crazed, Mannie Fresh produced bounce anthem that plays like a more ornate take on bounce music's foundational Triggerman beat.
The song's short, melodic coda introduced Lil' Wayne to audiences who hadn't been paying attention to the early history of Cash Money Records, and YMCMB's singing rapper Drake turned it inside out on 2011's "Practice," a song about wifing up the same ladies Juve was coldly scheming on years earlier. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: BG f/ Hot Boys & Big Tymers "Bling Bling," Nas f/ Puff Daddy "Hate Me Now," Jay-Z & Ruff Ryders "Jigga My Nigga"
2000: Jay-Z f/ UGK "Big Pimpin'"
Album: Vol.3: Life and Times of S. Carter
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
Southern rap's march to prominence continued in 2000 with records like Mystikal's Let's Get Ready, Outkast's Stankonia and the left-field success of Three 6 Mafia's UGK-assisted lean anthem "Sippin' on Some Syrup."
UGK had even more success when Jay came calling for a guest verse on "Big Pimpin'," the Timbaland produced gem off his fourth album Vol. 3: The Life & Times of S. Carter. UGK showed out, kinda maybe one-upping Jay for sneering misogyny and technical prowess and anchoring Timbaland's flirtation with Eastern music in a little down home charm.
"Big Pimpin'" worked magic for everyone: it cemented Jay's grip on the throne, Timbaland's status as one of the hottest producers of the era, UGK's reputation as underappreciated Southern rap titans. Plus, it netted the lot of 'em two Grammy nominations for their troubles. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Nelly "Country Grammer," Mystikal f/ Pharrell "Shake Ya Ass," Dr. Dre f/ Snoop Dogg & Nate Dogg "The Next Episode"
2001: Ludacris f/ Pharrell Williams "Southern Hospitality"
Producer: The Neptunes
Album: Back for the First Time
Label: Disturbing tha Peace, Def Jam
Ludacris was an Atlanta rap radio personality until Timbaland grabbed him for a feature on "Phat Rabbit" off his 1998 debut solo album Tim's Bio: Life in da Bassment. After "Phat Rabbit" Luda continued the rap grind, scoring a fluke hit single ("What's Your Fantasy?") and releasing an independent debut album (1999's Incognegro) that eventually caught the attention of Def Jam, who swapped in a few new songs and reissued it as Back for the First Time a year later.
One of the new songs was "Southern Hospitality," a brutal and structurally peculiar punchline rap clinic served over guttural production from Virginia duo the Neptunes, who'd recently taken over the rap game thanks to hits with Jay-Z, Noreaga, and Mystikal. "Southern Hospitality" was released as a single at the tail end of 2000 and inched its way into the top 40 the following spring.
By summer it was inescapable. "Southern Hospitality"'s catchphrase about "throwing 'bows" ended up permanently lodged in the vernacular of the hip-hop community, and Ludacris enjoyed acclaim as a newly dominant force in Southern rap. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Jay-Z "Izzo (H.O.V.A)," Fabolous f/ Nate Dogg "Can't Deny It," Erick Sermon "Music"
2002: Nelly "Hot In Herre"
Producer: The Neptunes
While Bone Thugs put on for the Midwest in the '90s, it was the Texas-born, St. Louis-raised Nelly's Country Grammar that ultimately did for Midwest rap what Cash Money and No Limit did for the South: the ten-times platinum album was a success so big it dragged the whole city in the national spotlight.
Nelly's 2002 follow-up Nellyville was a monster too, much of it thanks to the pre-album single "Hot in Herre," which is the archetypal mid-2000s party anthem. "Hot in Herre" was released in April, but by the time sweating-in-the-club season started, it was a certifiable party rap classic. Between Nelly's melodic club scene posturing, which tipped its hat to gogo pioneer Chuck Brown's "Bustin' Loose," and the sleek synthetic funk production from the Neptunes, "Hot in Herre" was practically engineered for summer ubiquity.
It delivered in spades, landing Nelly at or near the tops of single charts all over the world and assisting Nellyville in logging sales exceeding the six million mark. Nelly's success opened the door for St. Louis natives like Chingy, J-Kwon, Jibbs, and Nelly's own St. Lunatics crew to storm the charts in the years to come. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Fat Joe f/ Ashanti "What's Luv?," Cam'Ron f/ Juelz Santana "Oh Boy," Busta Rhymes f/ P. Diddy & Pharrell "Pass The Courvoiser Part II"
2003: 50 Cent "In Da Club"
Producer: Dr. Dre, Mike Elizondo
Album: Get Rich or Die Tryin'
Label: Shady, Aftermath, Interscope
50 Cent's highly regarded major label debut Get Rich or Die Tryin' is often cited as a watershed moment for mid-2000s New York rap, but that doesn't take into account the multi-regional pantheon of stars that brought it into existence. 50 was signed by Detroit native Eminem (who appears on the album twice), produced by Cali rap legend Dr. Dre, and flanked by Nashville rapper Young Buck.
GRODT's mutli-regional attack is best showcased on "In Da Club," the single that smacked it out the park. "In Da Club" is anchored by a Dre beat steeped in the good doctor's orchestral funk stylings, but 50's sneering arrogance and sedate, melodic delivery was undeniably New York. The mix was volatile, and the experiment was a success.
"In Da Club" was a smash locally and internationally, dominating radio from winter to summer in every country that hip-hop played to, and the success of it and GRODT rang in a third wave of pop radio success for Dre and his Aftermath empire. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Lil' Jon & The Eastside Boyz f/ Ying Yang Twins "Get Low," Chingy "Right Thurr," Bone Crusher f/ Killer Mike & T.I. "Never Scared," (and every 50 Cent song)
2004: Terror Squad "Lean Back"
Producer: Scott Storch
Album: True Story
Fat Joe was widely regarded as a capable sidekick early on, kicking around in the Digging in the Crates crew in the early '90s before playing the wide receiver to Big Punisher's quarterback as Pun meteoric ascent to the charts took off with 1998's Capital Punishment.
Then Pun passed unexpectedly of a heart attack, and Joe stepped into the spotlight, logging a series of varyingly successful albums and solo singles and amassing the Terror Squad crew of Bronx rappers and singers around himself.
Terror Squad's finest hour was "Lean Back" off 2004's True Story, whose savage beat from one-time Timbaland protege Scott Storch coupled with adept lyrical turns from Fat Joe and a scene-stealing Remy Ma resulted in the group's only number one hit.
The song tucked summers in nationally, and the titular dance was unavoidable. You could tell how huge the song's appeal was when the remix came out sporting extra verses from Eminem, Mase and Lil Jon, which is as diverse and unusual a group of collaborators as you were likely to hear before social media made similar weirdo dream team match-ups into weekly occurrences. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Outkast f/ Sleepy Brown "The Way You Move," J-Kwon "Tipsy," Juvenile f/ Soulja Slim "Slow Motion"
2005: The Game f/ 50 Cent "Hate It or Love It"
Producer: Cool & Dre, Dr. Dre
Album: The Documentary
Label: Aftermath, G-Unit, Interscope
Game's partnership with G-Unit seemed to dissolve about as quickly as it came together, but his 2005 debut album The Documentary made the most of his Shady/Aftermath/G-Unit connections with ace production and choice cameos from Dre and 50's whole team. One of The Documentary's best tracks was the Cool & Dre produced third single "Hate It or Love It" featured Game and 50 trading rags-to-riches verses over soulful boom bap. Game had already been unceremoniously ousted from G-Unit live on the radio by the time the song was through storming subwoofers from coast to coast, and it was awkward listening to him and 50 pal around on record when they were trading epic diss tracks on mixtapes at the same time, but the single helped power The Documentary past double platinum sales, and more importantly, it established Game as a star in a West Coast rap scene that had lacked a figurehead since the release of Dre's 2001 album six years prior. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Young Jeezy f/ Akon "Soul Survivor," Kanye West f/ Jamie Foxx "Gold Digger," Three Six Mafia f/ Young Buck, 8Ball & MJG "Stay Fly"
2006: Chamillionaire f/ Krayzie Bone "Ridin'"
Album: The Sound of Revenge
Label: Chamillitary, Universal
Houston rap had hits longer than Scarface rocked fedoras (longer than Willie D rocked overalls with no shirt), but it seemed like the whole country caught wind of the city's scene in one fell swoop with the release of one crucial record. Mike Jones' "Still Tippin'" and Paul Wall's "Sittin' Sidewayz" made rumblings in 2005, but Chamillionaire had the biggest smash of the lot in 2006 when he teamed up with Krazie Bone and production duo Play-n-Skillz for the multi-platinum "Ridin'." "Ridin'" is responsible not only for a good grip of the renewed and expanded interest in Texas rap that created the climate for UGK to finally score a number one album, but it also spoke out against racial profiling in a manner serious enough to register with the hood but silly enough to have spawned the "They see me rollin', they hatin'" meme in internet nerd circles. Just a few short years later the influence of Texas rap has bled into places we never thought we'd hear it, and while Cham can't take credit for the work of guys like Big Moe and DJ Screw, he does get some for training the nation's attention on one of its most singular pockets of hip-hop culture. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: T.I. "What You Know, Yung Joc "It's Goin' Down," Dem Franchize Boyz f/ Peanut & Charlay "Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It"
2007: Kanye West "Stronger"
Producer: Kanye West, Mike Dean
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
The one thing Kanye West does most reliably is make sure he doesn't try the same thing twice, so in working on his third album Graduation he began looking clear outside hip-hop for musical inspiration. That musical wanderlust led to an album whose songs pulled samples from sources as diverse as 70s jazz rock perfectionists Steely Dan and German progressive rock experimentalists Can. Kanye and Rap-A-Lot Records mainstay Mike Dean eventually got the idea to flip a vocal sample from Daft Punk's 2001 trippy house freakout "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," turning it into summer 2007's "Stronger," which skipped between house's trademark four-on-the-floor beats and something more syncopated toward hip-hop. Along with records like Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack," "Stronger" seems foundational in hip-hop and R&B's recent move toward electronic dance music values. It gave the electro kids a hip-hop song they could fuck with, and it singlehandedly turned hip-hop heads on to Daft Punk. Nowadays both communities have co-mingled to the point where we all spazzed out in unison this year over Daft Punk's Pharrell-assisted "Get Lucky." —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: 50 Cent "I Get Money," Soulja Boy Tell 'Em "Crank Dat," MIMS "This Is Why I'm Hot"
2008: Lil' Wayne "A Milli"
Album: Tha Carter III
Label: Young Money, Cash Money
Lil' Wayne waited damn near ten years before making the power play that vaulted him to hip-hop's A-list. He did time on Birdman's Cash Money roster, slowly honing his craft and picking up tricks from his more experienced peers, and then in 2006 he hurtled into a series of mixtapes and freestyles that ended with fans buying into his claim that he was the best rapper alive. Then came the singles: the Auto-Tuned goblin pop of "Lollipop" and the breakneck lyrical abandon of "A Milli." "Lollipop" sold more records and performed better at radio, but "A Milli," the single that launched a million freestyles, felt like a bigger crater on the rap game. "A Milli" was Wayne at the peak of his powers both internalizing what he learned from Cash Money's ragtag band of spitters and transmogrifying all of it into something freer and weirder. By the time Tha Carter III dropped, the game was his. By the time the first week ended, he'd sold a million copies. By the time the year ended, Young Money/Cash Money was poised for an industrywide takeover. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Lil' Wayne f/ Static Major "Lollipop," Young Jeezy f/ Kanye West "Put On," Webbie, Lil Phat, & Lil Boosie "Independent"
2009: Drake "Best I Ever Had"
Producer: Boi-1da & Kia Shine
Album: So Far Gone EP
Label: Young Money, Cash Money
To those in the know, Drake's rise from underground recognition to mainstream appeal was a four year trip, but to everyone else, he was the guy from Degrassi one minute and the guy from the TV, radio, etc. the next. This near overnight role reversal is totally thanks to 2009's "Best I Ever Had," a mixtape track so hot the label tripped over itself to repackage the original productions from his mixtape So Far Gone into a sellable mini-EP that went gold despite all the songs being available for free online months earlier. "Best I Ever Had" synthesized those rapper-slash-singer vibes he learned hanging around Little Brother's Phonte into slick loverboy radio pop so unabashedly for the ladies that it placed him in the lineage of dudes like Father MC and Heavy D. With control of rap increasingly falling to drug dealer types like Rick Ross, Young Jeezy and the like, Drake quickly cleaned up on the sensitivity circuit. Like Kanye's 808s and Heartbreak before them, "Best I Ever Had" and So Far Gone enabled hip-hop artists to get knotty and personal on their records in a way that hadn't been considered cool in the years prior. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Jay-Z f/ Rihanna & Kanye West "Run This Town" Gucci Mane f/ Plies "Wasted," Young Money "Every Girl"
2010: Rick Ross f/ Styles P "B.M.F. (Blowin' Money Fast)"
Producer: Lex Luger
Album: Teflon Don
Label: MMG, Slip-n-Slide, Def Jam
In 2009, Waka Flocka Flame and producer Lex Luger perfected an ominous, gothic brand of trap music over a series of mixtapes that culminated in the landmark Flockaveli, which, for a time, sorta remade the rap game in its own image. Rick Ross was an early adopter of the Luger wave too. He'd tried to get the beat that turned into Flocka's "Hard in the Paint" but came away instead with the plodding, industrial instrumentals for "MC Hammer" and "B.M.F. (Blowin' Money Fast)." Ross was in a peculiar spot at the time, having just been aired out as a former corrections officer by arch nemesis 50 Cent, but rather than change approaches or admit defeat, he leaned even further into his cartoonish kingpin persona and forged ahead with a character so winkingly unbelievable that it didn't matter if he meant any of what he said or not. Released as a single in the summer of 2010, "B.M.F." was so blunt and uncompromising that you didn't get time to think about the fact that it featured a rapping ex-CO named after Freeway Ricky Ross saying he was Big Meech AND Larry Hoover too. It sucked the air out of the room. "B.M.F." paved the way for a stream of hits that would drive Ross and his team into the power circle of a rap game that had left him for dead mere months earlier. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Waka Flocka Flame "Hard In Da Paint," Kanye West "Power," Drake "Over"
2011: DJ Khaled f/ Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne "I'm On One"
Producer: T-Minus, Nikhil S., 40
Album: We The Best Forever
Label: We The Best, Cash Money, Terror Squad, Universal Motown
DJ Khaled records are like Avengers comics — crowded, over-the-top character pile-ons that live or die on how well each line-up works together. He got one of his best when he united Drake, Lil' Wayne and Rick Ross for the lead single from 2011's We the Best Forever album. "I'm on One" paired Drake's go-to producer 40's trademark pillowy low end with squelching keys from T-Minus. Drake snakes between rapping and singing on his verse, dispensing hard-won wisdom ("All that hype don't feel the same next year, boy") while Ross details the perks of extreme wealth ("Ever made love to the woman of your dreams / in a room full of money out in London while she screams?") and Wayne tips his hat to Treal Lee and Prince Rick's "Throwed Off" ("I walk around the club... fuck everybody!"). "I'm on One" was a perfectly breezy summer smash, but what's most perplexing about it is why Drake, who was amassing tracks for his sophomore album Take Care at the time, would let a single that big skate out on a Khaled compilation like that. Take Care did well without it, but "I'm On One" actually charted better than anything that made it onto the album.
Honorable Mentions: The Throne "Otis," Meek Mill f/ Rick Ross "I'ma Boss," Future "Tony Montana"
2012: G.O.O.D Music f/ 2 Chainz "Mercy"
Producer: Lifted, Mike Dean, Mike WiLL Made It, Kanye West, Hudson Mohawke
Album: Cruel Summer
Label: G.O.O.D. Music, Def Jam
Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music imprint's debut label compilation Cruel Summer hilariously arrived in the exact last week of the summer, spawning a wealth of terrible jokes on the album's title ("Cruel Summer? More like Cruel Autumn!") The G.O.O.D. Music team did, however, live up to the promise to take over the summer with the pre-album single "Mercy," which paired a legendary toast from dancehall star Super Beagle with brooding trap production.
Kanye's A-team (Pusha, Big Sean & 2 Chainz) tag teamed the track with gruff bars and potty humor, and when the man himself steps up to the mic, the song undergoes a spooky electro breakdown (pinched off of the Scarface movie soundtrack) while Kanye describes a girl having an MDMA-induced meltdown at a party ("Now the whole party is melting like Dali").
"Mercy" lodged itself firmly in the higher rungs of the Billboard singles chart and could be heard pumping out of car stereos around the country from June to September and beyond. It was one of few successes of pure rap on the charts in 2012. —Craig Jenkins
Honorable Mentions: Meek Mill f/ Big Sean "Burn," Juicy J f/ Lil' Wayne & 2 Chainz "Bandz A Make Her Dance," French Montana f/ Rick Ross, Lil Wayne & Drake "Pop That"