Following the success of Drake’s new release, we listen to hip-hop’s other double albums and ask: is it a hit or a miss?
It takes two: hip-hop double albums hits and misses
With Drake’s latest album, Scorpion, breaking all sorts of international chart records, not to mention amassing more than a billion digital streams last week, it is easy to forget that the Canadian rapper’s latest release was in fact designed as a double album. This Friday will see the physical release of Scorpion, which will have its 25 songs split into two CDs, allowing fans to hear the collection as intended. While this album has surpassed commercial expectations, the lukewarm critical reception received was also not unexpected.
The double album has a chequered history when it comes to hip-hop, with a few landmark releases peppered among a plethora of overblown titles – which Scorpion arguably suffers from. Despite the risks, the format retains an aspirational quality among the hip-hop fraternity. It’s the artistic equivalent of scaling a mountain, with commercial and critical acclaim equalling the summit. Here are ten noteworthy attempts spanning much of hip-hop’s history.
‘He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper’ by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince (1988)
The duo’s second album is acknowledged as the genre’s first double album, due to its sides A-D format in its original vinyl release. He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper remains the group’s most successful album, with the single Parents Just Don’t Understand winning the inaugural Grammy Award for best rap performance. Jeff’s production is also sublime as he samples a variety of artists ranging from soul stars James Brown and George Benson to more obscure artists such as the 1970s short-lived funk group The Incredible Bongo Band.
‘All Eyez on Me’ by Tupac Shakur (1996)
To seasoned hip-hop heads at the time, Shakur’s All Eyez On Me fulfilled the promise made over his preceding three albums, but to the vast majority of the public, it was an introduction to one of pop culture’s most iconic figures. Fresh from bail from an assault charge, he recorded all 27 songs in a two-month spell. The album features several hip-hop chart- topping club stompers, including California Love and How Do You Want It as well as the philosophical I Ain’t Mad at Cha and Life Goes On. The fact that Shakur was murdered in an unsolved drive-by shooting six months after the album’s release allowed the record to reach an almost mythical state of veneration by the hip-hop community.
‘Life After Death’ by The Notorious B I G (1997)
Whether it is a response to his nemesis Tupac Shakur’s All Eyez On Me, we will never know, as The Notorious B.I.G. was also gunned down in an unsolved case 16 days prior to the album’s release. Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding its roll out, Life After Death remains a seminal release and the benchmark for gangsta- rap. While the 25 songs are often tough gritty tales, they are more enlightening than puerile, with Biggy’s magnetic and husky flow allowing the project to never feel cumbersome.
‘Wu-Tang Forever’ by Wu-Tang Clan (1997)
The mammoth rap ensemble always played to their own rules. After their similarly landmark 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) proved successful, the nine-man crew went solo to produce a string of successful albums. When they reunited for Wu-Tang Forever, their mic skills were sharp and head honcho RZA showcased a more cinematic and denser style of production that allowed the release to be one of the best hip-hop albums of all time.
‘The Art of War’ by Bone Thugs -N-Harmony (1997)
The group were in a foul mood when entering the studio for their third album. Stung by industry criticism surrounding their authenticity and the death of their mentor Eazy-E, the five-piece dished out 28 tracks where they mostly dismissed their haters and celebrated their bond. However, despite its number of radio-friendly pieces, such as the single Look Into My Eyes and If I Could Teach the World, the double album contains way too much flab to make it sound cohesive. Despite that, The Art of War sold bucket loads and has been named by present hip-hop star Wiz Khalifa as an inspiration.
‘Skull and Bones’ by Cypress Hill (2000)
Only the hardcore fans will admit that this was indeed a double album, while the rest will prefer to remember it as one good album and simply forget the second ever existed. Instead of merging their rap and rock sensibilities, Cypress Hill decided to present them in separate parts with “Skull” designated for hip-hop and “Bones” for rock. The end result is a schizophrenic piece of work with the hip-hop tracks on point, while the rock offerings are limp and uninspired.
‘The Blueprint2: The Gift & The Curse’ by Jay-Z (2002)
A case of too much confidence. Empowered by the success of his career-defining 2001 album The Blueprint, Jay-Z followed it up with a sequel barely a year after. However, instead of emulating the menacingly taut nature of its predecessor, he went in the opposite direction and released a lavish double album. With the record split between the poppy side of “The Gift” (featuring his then-girlfriend and now wife Beyoncé) and the brooding street tales of “The Curse”, Jay-Z does occasionally manage to showcase his more reflective side, but that doesn’t stop the project from sounding overwrought. The American rapper acknowledged this himself by releasing Blueprint 2.1 five months later, with a lean 12 tracks and five “bonus” songs.
‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ by Outkast (2003)
Before Drake’s Scorpion, another release that had as much attention was the fifth album by Southern hip-hop pioneers Outkast. The duo certainly had the pressure of expectation as it was the follow-up to their widely acclaimed 2000 album Stankonia. Instead of merging their various styles together, Andre 3000 and Big Boi decided to record an album each and present it as one. Speakerboxx found Big Boi building on his strengths of tough and penetrating rhymes backed by bass-heavy beats while Andre 3000 kept it weird and funky on his more experimental The Love Below. Paired together, the release shows two MCs at the peak of their powers and the album went on to sell more than ten million copies.
‘Sweat/Suit’ by Nelly (2004)
After the massive success of his second album Nellyville, the St Louis rapper followed up with the bold double album Sweat and Suit. Released on the same day and sold separately, Sweat was dedicated to the clubs, while the more polished Suit was on the softer RnB side. While both records had their share of highlights, particularly the surprising Tim McGraw collaboration Over and Over, the project was more a triumph of marketing with Suit debuting at number one and Sweat in second place. Nelly would eventually compile both records together into one album Sweatsuit in 2005.
‘Summertime ‘06’ by Vince Staples (2015)
This will surely go down as one of hip-hop’s best-ever debut albums. California rapper Vince Staples was only 22 when he released this double album, which despite its sprawling 20 tracks, remains laser sharp and focused. A lot of it is down to the production work by the veteran producer No I D who kept the beats stark and noir-ish. Staples uses his nimble flow to rip on everything from misguided politicians to fashion labels disrespecting their audiences.