– By: Jasmine Grant
It’s been 20 years (February 13, 1996) since the release of The Fugees seminal debut album The Score. It was not only an undisputed masterpiece, but a body of work that catapulted three underground emcees from New Jersey into a commercial success. Like many classic albums, every track was exceptional with the potential to be a single – and that was especially rare for a group as socially conscious as The Fugees. Though the group disbanded to pursue solo projects shortly after, something about the trio’s artistic chemistry makes this body of work unforgettable.
Whether coincidental or intentional, The Fugees released this project during Black History month. The subjects they explored in this album spanned across race, economic struggle, politics and anti-consumerism. The Fugees weren’t the only act to make such a statement. Here’s a look at some other iconic, distinctly “woke” hip-hop albums released in February.
Yo! Bum Rush The Show – Public Enemy (2/10/87)
Hip hop began to find its political voice in the mid-80’s, and no album better exemplifies that than Public Enemy’s debut album Yo! Bum Rush The Show in February 1987. With raw lyrics and bass heavy, non-melodic production, much of the album’s content reflected on police brutality and struggles of the black underclass. The New York Times reviewed the group’s message on this album as “a distillation of black anger and resistance.” The album came at an interesting time, as there were many racial issues stewing in their native New York City – namely vigilante shooter Bernhard Goetz on trial for shooting four young Black men in the subway, and the racially motivated killing of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, Queens.
Lets Get Free – Dead Prez (2/8/00)
Hip hop duo Dead Prez released their debut album in the early 2000, and none had a more direct political message since Public Enemy in 1987. Chairman Omali Yeshitela is the voice on the opening track and likens the crack epidemic in urban communities to the huting strategy of luring of wolves to suicide. The topics of systemic oppression and politics are a defining theme of the album, interwoven messages of self love, spirituality and romance with tracks like “Mind Sex.” It doesn’t get get any more woke than that.
Things Fall Apart – The Roots (2/23/99)
The Philly-based hip hop band The Roots released their fourth studio album, Things Fall Apart, in February 1999. Perhaps the most provocative aspect of this album is the cover art. The stark black and white image was originally captured by a photojournalist in the midst of a Civil Rights riot in Brooklyn, where two Black teenage girls are being chased by white police officers. Unsurprisingly, the group addresses sociopolitical and racial issues in this album. though they take a much more melodic, jazz-influenced approach than some of their conscious rap cohorts.
The End of the Beginning – MURS (2/25/03)
An emcee devoted to the underground, MURS has kept politics and social issues at the forefront of his music. The End of the Beginning is considered one of his best works; the first of his releases under Def Jux Records in February of 2003. MURS walks us through cautionary tales of the hood with songs like “God’s Work,” but the album is mostly lauded for its relatability factor, discussing topics that range from unwanted house guests to the struggle to save money.
Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz – Nappy Roots (2/26/02)
The title of the Nappy Roots platinum album couldn’t have been a prouder ode to the staples of Black southern roots that are sometimes viewed as a shameful stereotype. The Kentucky natives became the best selling rap group of 2002, with standout hits like “Awnaw” and “Po’ Folks” (a reflection of growing up in poverty in the deep South). Though two of the members since left to pursue solo careers, the imprint Nappy Roots left on Southern rap culture is still unmatched.
The College Dropout – Kanye West (2/10/04)
If College Dropout isn’t among your favorite rap albums of all time, you might want to do some reconsidering. Kanye West gained some considerable buzz prior to this smash debut as a “backpack” rapper, and having garnered support and new-found resources as a Roc-A-fella signee (especially the formation of his mentorship under Jay-Z) he didn’t disappoint in bringing his incredible production talents to the mainstream audience. Kanye delivered a digestible amount of materialism and flossing, but with songs like “Jesus Walks,” “Spaceship” and “We Don’t Care,” he also shined a light on institutional racism and classicism with refreshing dose of honesty. And it was only the beginning…
Sex and Violence – Boogie Down Production (2/25/92)
Sex and Violence was the final album release by the hip hop group Boogie Down Productions before lead rapper KRS-One ventured into his solo career. Dropped in February 1992, the liner notes of the album explain that the title “Represents radio and television, in that order. I [KRS-One] call the album Sex & Violence because that is what entertainment has become in ’92 thus creating a more sexist and violent youth in America via the world!” The tone of this album makes it clear that BDP was frustrated with the climate change of hip-hop at the time, which was progressively becoming more flashy, lustful and commercial.