Pay-per-views, Reddit rabbit holes — and a semi-ridiculous new TBS show: battle rap is back — if it ever left The gloves-off battles are sweaty, verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces

On Dec. 9, dozens of rap fans crowded into a tiny, undisclosed location to watch a night full of rap battles — including a battle between Rum Nitty and Iron Solomon, who stole the show in what may go down as the most exciting battle of the year — as MCs traded mostly pre-written bars, insulting each other for three timed rounds. The event, called Smack Vol. 1, was held by the top battle rap league in the country, URL — for Ultimate Rap League. The fact that there were only dozens of fans in attendance is a misleading representation of battle rap’s popularity.

The small venue for Vol. 1 was by design — an attempt by URL to take the event to its roots of intimate crowds. But in actuality, battle rap events draw hundreds of fans, while thousands stream them live on pay-per-view before watching the battles on YouTube by the millions. Battle rap is a simmering subculture. It dominates Reddit threads, message boards and YouTube — and it’s going mainstream.

Iron Solomon vs. Rum Nitty

For instance, Drop The Mic. The Tuesday night TBS show is a spinoff of the rap battle segments from James Corden’s Late Late Show in which he battled celebrities like Kevin Hart and Anne Hathaway. Celebrities like the stars of Big Bang Theory lob rhymed insults at each other. The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett recently battled Vanessa Hudgens — to the tune of almost 1.4 million views. Hosted by Hailey Baldwin and Wu Tang rap legend Method Man, the show employs artists from the battle scene to help contenders craft lyrics and presentation. Drop The Mic is a gentrified but entertaining look at a battle scene that has been bubbling under the surface of mainstream American pop culture for decades.


The godfather of the modern-day battle rap scene is Troy “Smack” Mitchell. He’s an enterprising Queens, New York, native who set out to document New York rap culture in the early 2000s by recording guerrilla-style interviews of rappers. “I had access to a lot of MCs … because I was in the streets and knew a lot of people,” says Mitchell. “I really grinded … waited for artists outside of clubs. It just blew up from there.” He released the interviews and exclusive freestyles on his Smack DVD series, which features early looks at rappers like Kanye West, Cam’ron and Beanie Sigel. The series was hugely popular in the pre-internet era. And at the end of each DVD was a rap battle.

Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers.

“We came up doing the battles as kids,” says Smack. The rap battles on the Smack DVDs took place on street corners, barbershops and clothing stores. MCs surrounded by dozens of spectators. The rappers had prepared “rounds” of timed raps directed at their opponents. No beats played, and if there was a stumble, slip-up or stutter, the rapper’s round was over.

Shells and Jae Millz

Mychal Watts/WireImage for KSA Publicity

The competitions were intense and legendary, and they helped rappers like Murda Mook and Jae Millz get signed to Ruff Ryders and Young Money. Smack brought battles to living rooms, even though the competitions have been part of hip-hop lore since the genre’s inception.

Here’s your history lesson: Rappers have always tested their mettle against one another. Big Daddy Kane used to roam the Big Apple streets challenging the best rappers. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously rapped against each other in high school. And a young rapper named Biggie Smalls made his name taking on all comers in freestyle competitions.

Eminem in 8 Mile which was one of the first time mainstream America got a glimpse into battle raps.

Universal Pictures

But it was Eminem’s 2002 8 Mile, in which he battled to famous rap beats like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” that introduced battle rap to the mainstream. The battles in 8 Mile were fictionalized takes on the real-life Scribble Jam battles that Eminem participated in during the late ’90s — and which got him noticed by Dr. Dre in the first place. By 2003, rappers E. Ness and Jae Millz were battling on MTV’s Making The Band. MTV also had a show called “Fight Klub,” and BET’s 106 & Park had a popular Freestyle Friday segment from 2001 to 2013.

Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness.

Battle rap found a new level of popularity via YouTube, and it shed light on leagues that had formed around the world. The two front-runners were Grind Time — the popular, now-defunct league that started in Florida and expanded to Los Angeles — and Smack’s own Ultimate Rap League that sprouted from his DVD series. Today, Smack battles sell out venues like New York’s Irving Plaza and the Highline Ballroom, and fans pay upward of $100 to attend.

The leagues book the battles. The rappers spend weeks preparing rhymes catered specifically to their opponents. The rappers take the stage, flanked by entourages, and perform alternating timed rounds anywhere from two to five minutes. The battles are verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces.

While most of the rounds are pre-written, some rappers open their rounds with freestyled rebuttals to what their opponent just rapped, flipping insults in their own favor. Battlers never know what’s coming, or how personal an insult can get. When it’s a rapper’s turn to listen to his or her opponent, “defense” is employed, which is essentially how someone reacts to the person rapping — standing stone-faced, shaking a head to show disapproval or mumbling sarcastic reactions. It’s a human chess match — mentally taxing. Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“You know who your opponent is ahead of time so you can do research,” Smack said. “Did they get played? Did they get beat up? You can expose them.” Battles have gotten personal and tense, but it’s accepted, especially since the rappers are celebrities within the culture. They are revered within the battle scene but largely lead regular lives. While the most famous battlers like Loaded Lux and Murda Mook can live off of battles, making music and bookings, most battlers have day jobs. And, yes, the day jobs are function as ammo for insults. Nothing is off-limits.

Really. Dumbfoundead and Conceited once spent their whole battle exchanging short jokes and racist Asian stereotypes. Rone went viral for a whole round about Big T’s obesity. Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness. Despite that, you could count on one hand how many battles have turned physical.

Courtesy of Underground Rap League

“It’s very much like a boxing match,” says Kyle “Avocado” Gray, who has filmed and directed battles for Grind Time and URL, adding a cinematic touch to battles broadcast live on pay-per-view. “These two people get into a ring. They have to have a thick skin. They have to be ready for people to say anything, and not be fazed by it. It almost brings them closer in the end, for having been through that battle together.”

Because fans are so invested in the battles — they reach such a fever pitch — battle rap culture has become a community of message board commenters and YouTubers. Battles often refer to earlier battles and online happenings online that may sound like a totally foreign language to the novice. However, catching the references is part of what makes fans feel rewarded for their dedication.

Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“The culture is super incestual,” Gray remarked. “The art in general isn’t that welcoming to an untrained ear.” But that’s what YouTube rabbit holes are for. And celebrities are happy to join in on the fun, even if that means getting called out midround. James Harden has attended — and Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers. Drake and Diddy have co-hosted, with Diddy famously putting up $10,000 of his own money midbattle to see who would win between T-Rex and Aye Verb.

There are now leagues in every corner of the globe. In addition to URL, there’s King Of The Dot (KOTD) out of Canada, England’s Don’t Flop, Atlanta’s Bullpen Battle League and all-woman Queen Of The Ring in New York. Battle rap is as popular as ever, with landmark moments happening at a breakneck pace. This year alone saw KOTD bring in Russian battle rapper Oxxxymiron, whose massive following garners tens of millions of YouTube views per battle, to Los Angeles for the most viewed battle in North American history — and counting.

And Drop The Mic does utilize writing talent of competitors from the scene like Rone and Hollow Da Don. And the satire Bodied, about battle rap, is making a splash in independent movie festivals and should see wide release in 2018. There’s also the permanent roles of rappers like Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla on Nick Cannon’s improv show Wild N’ Out.

The rapid expansion of battle rap culture is what made Smack want to take things back to the basics with Dec. 9th’s Vol. 1 event. “I didn’t want the battle culture to lose its identity,” he says. “We wanted to take it back to the essence.”

Daily Dose: 11/27/2017 Prince Harry and Meghan Markle get engaged

Look, Monday is a tough day in my world. It’s the 10th anniversary of Sean Taylor’s death. He was my favorite football player of all time, and his death was a shock to so many people. It still hurts. I’ll have more on this later.

The royal family just got a lot blacker in England. Prince Harry has officially gotten engaged to Meghan Markle, whose identity has been the subject of much scrutiny over the years. Whatever. It doesn’t really matter, but the way that people talk about colorism these days makes this a matter of concern for some people, which is unfortunate. You’ll probably hear about how Buckingham Palace is about to look a whole lot more like the rest of the country, which is pretty trite. We’re happy for them.

President Donald Trump must think we’re stupid. For whatever reason, his latest bit is that the Access Hollywood audio with Billy Bush that we all heard, saw, digested and processed was somehow fake because his face wasn’t actually on camera when the most offensive of his words (if you even want to dignify that notion) were spoken. This is clearly a massive insult to our collective intelligence, but Trump has been trafficking in conspiracy theories for years, most notably the birther one about his predecessor in the White House.

Online dating is not something I’ve ever done. I’m just one of those people who was never really about that action, but it’s certainly a great way to meet people and a popular method. I’ve heard so many horror stories over the years that I can’t even imagine having to do it personally, but then again, those tales aren’t any worse than people who meet folks any other way. That said, Tinder did sort of disrupt the market in terms of immediacy, but not everyone uses it like that. One woman asked her old dates why they didn’t work out.

LeBron James is hilarious. The Akron, Ohio-born megastar is outwardly a Dallas Cowboys fan, something that over the years has offended many. I mean, who can blame him? If you were a guy his age, why on earth would you have ever rooted for the Cleveland Browns? They’ve been god-awful his whole life. That said, someone asked him Sunday about the NFL, and he said that his favorite player is Carson Wentz. That’s Wentz, of the Philadelphia Eagles, who are certainly not the Cowboys and most definitely not the Browns. Do you, Bron.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Now that Mase is back to beefin’ with Cam’ron, we’ve all gotten to revisit exactly how much we liked the former when he was really at his peak. Putting Biggie aside, Mase was basically the perfect Bad Boy Records artist in terms of his whole appeal. Check out this list of the best Bad Boy songs of all time.

Snack Time: Speaking of LeBron, he’s going to be in a new kids movie this summer. The premise of it is hilarious: There’s one Yeti in the whole world who’s actually seen a human being.

Dessert: How anyone thought they would get away with this is beyond me.

Damian Lillard’s second album ‘CONFIRMED’ makes its debut Trail Blazers guard says Dame D.O.L.L.A. has grown as an artist

There is a crown sitting on Damian Lillard’s head as he prays. The Portland Trail Blazers guard is shirtless and wearing a gold rope chain. He has a Rolex on his arm.

This scene on the cover of his album, CONFIRMED, under Lillard’s rapper name Dame D.O.L.L.A., is an ode to three of the greatest rappers of all time: the late Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., and the living legend Nas.

“The crown is a shoutout to Biggie as one of my inspirations in music,” the two-time All-Star said. “The prayers hands is a nod to ‘Pac, my favorite rapper of all time. And the gold rope and Rolex is a nod to Nas, another all-time great who I’m a big fan of and have great respect for.”

Dame D.O.L.L.A’s sophomore album dropped Friday on his independent label, Front Page Music. Scott Storch, Verse Simmons and Huss, among others, are the producers. Lillard’s new single, “Run It Up,” also featured rapper Lil Wayne and debuted last month.

“Working with Lil Wayne is always great. Anything he’s a part of in music will automatically be elevated, so I appreciate his involvement,” Lillard said.

CONFIRMED follows the Oakland, California, native’s successful debut album, The Letter O. Lillard said he has grown as an artist since his first album finished its opening week seventh on the Hip-Hop & R&B charts. Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith offered respect to Lillard, saying he “never thought I would see someone as equally talented [in] hoop and rap.”

“I’ve grown as an artist just by having a better understanding of the sound I’m looking for, more general topics and not so much my personal story, tempo is increased, different flows and just a more comfortable position putting this project together. The process wasn’t new to me,” Lillard said.

All eyes on the Dallas Cowboys After a weekend of NFL protests in response to President Trump’s explosive comments, America’s Team is now center stage

Not even Hollywood could script this.

On Friday night, the president of the United States takes on the National Football League. He calls players who exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully protest “son of a b—-.” The next day, the president doubles down on Twitter, demanding those same players stand for the national anthem or face harsh discipline. A far cry from what he tweeted two days after his inauguration:

Then, on Sunday, more than 130 players from various teams kneeled, sat or locked arms during the national anthem. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks remained in the locker room altogether. While all this is taking place, President Donald Trump’s administration goes on the offensive, suggesting the NFL should implement a rule with regard to anthem protests. Trump’s assertion Monday morning that kneeling for the anthem had “nothing to do with race” further sullies a yearlong campaign of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s original point: It was never about the flag. It was never about disrespecting the troops — the men and women of the military protected his right to kneel. And it was never about the anthem itself. Lost in an endless cycle of debates and purposeful misdirections is that Kaepernick wanted to bring light to police brutality and economic disparities and injustices in lower-income communities.

Which brings us to Monday night’s iteration of Monday Night Football, quite possibly the most American weekly sports tradition of all. And on this Monday, as fate has so lavishly prepared, the schedule features the NFL’s most lucrative, popular, hated and polarizing franchise: the Dallas Cowboys (visiting the Arizona Cardinals). What example, if any, does America’s Team set after a weekend of protests that had been brewing for over a year since Kaepernick decided to take a knee and then-candidate Trump suggested the quarterback “find another country” to call home?


Born in North Carolina and raised in Virginia, I should have been a Washington fan, but family ties won out — in favor of Dallas. The Cowboys, since the mid-’90s, constitute my life’s most emotionally taxing relationship: perpetual heartbreak after perpetual heartbreak after perpetual heartbreak. My deepest connection to the Cowboys is through my mother. Her favorite player was Jethro Pugh, a ferocious yet warm defensive lineman who played college ball at North Carolina’s historically black Elizabeth City State University under my grandfather, coach John Marshall, in the early ’60s.

Everything is magnified when there’s a star on the helmet.

Pugh, who died in 2015, became one of the greatest players in Dallas history and a key cog in the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense” that helped deliver the franchise its first two Super Bowls. A pass rushing savant, Pugh also led the team in sacks for five straight seasons, 1968-72. My mother remained a Dallas fan over the years and grew to love former coach Tom Landry (and his fedora).

In the 1990s, when football became a major facet of my life, the Cowboys were lit. They won nearly as much as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, capturing three Super Bowls in four years. In truth, at least five Bowls were in order, had it not been for two fumbles: the first was Deion Sanders’ missed pass interference call on Michael Irvin in the 1994 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, and the second was owner Jerry Jones’ ego-driven decision to fire Jimmy Johnson after back-to-back Super Bowl victories.

Nevertheless, the Starter Jackets were fresh and, as trivial as it sounds now, the Dallas Cowboys — featuring names such as Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Charles Haley and more — were bad boys and rock stars in the age of Tupac, Biggie, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Nirvana. Their success on the field made them seem larger than life, and this outsize brand persona was made evident by Jeff Pearlman’s fascinating exploration of the teams’ 1990s run: Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty.

America loves its reality television, and in football there is none greater than the Cowboys, a team often too comfortable operating under a veil of chaos. What spinach was to Popeye, headlines and controversy are to Dallas — despite the fact that there have been only two playoff victories since the organization’s last Super Bowl in 1996. As a fan, it’s fun to wallow in that attention. The Terrell Owens years are a prime example. The Tony Romo era is another. But at times, Jones’ willingness to embrace controversy is anything but enjoyable — most notably Greg Hardy’s signing after a graphically publicized domestic violence case. Or the frustration that came with the immensely talented but troubled linebacker Rolando McClain.

What will the Cowboys do Monday night? Not surprisingly, Jones recently said on Dallas’ 105.3 The Fan that he felt strongly about recognizing the flag and the people who sacrificed for the liberties we enjoy: “I feel very strongly that everyone should save that moment for the recognition of the flag in a positive way, so I like the way the Cowboys do it.” Glenstone Limited Partnership helped fund a $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee earlier this year. Glenstone Limited Partnership is a segment of Glenstone Corp., which is led by Jones.

Despite mysterious posts on social media and conflicting statements from “inside” sources, nothing suggests the Cowboys will do anything of note. Dallas has yet to have a player engage in protest, last season or this season. The Cowboys would not be the only team to keep it business as usual.

But everything is magnified when there’s a star on the helmet. Jones has lived off that bravado since he purchased the team in 1989. The players and fan base followed suit. It’s part of the territory that comes with being a team whose stadium could pass for the eighth wonder of the world. The franchise is valued at nearly $5 billion and comes with A-list fans such as LeBron James, Jay-Z, Denzel Washington, Russell Westbrook, Jamie Foxx and Allen Iverson.

Still, the team appears unified in neutrality. Second-year quarterback Dak Prescott didn’t plan on participating in protests, saying last month, “It’s just important for me to go out there, hand over my heart, represent our country and just be thankful, and not take anything I’ve been given and my freedom for granted.” This was before ungrateful-as-the-new-uppity became a narrative. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is a Crock-Pot of moving parts, rumors and controversies. Pro-Bowl linebackers Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith provided virtually the same answer: Both disagree with Trump’s statements but refused to expand any further. And star wideout Dez Bryant seems content with his stance. “I’m not criticizing nobody,” Bryant said recently of the swelling number of players in the league joining the protest. “They’re free to do whatever they want. Hell, no, I’m not doing none of that. Their beliefs are their beliefs, and I’m not saying they’re wrong because they’re feeling a certain way. They’re supposed to.”

But this particular juncture feels different because it is different. New York Giants defensive end Damon Harrison said of the moment the president placed the entire league in his crosshairs that it was “bigger than money, bigger than the game,” and that if he didn’t voice his frustrations he “wouldn’t be able to sleep or walk with my head held high as a man or father.” And Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas was moved to tears by the magnitude of Trump’s comments, and our racial climate overall. The Cowboys have their on-field issues. They haven’t looked particularly dominant, even in their lone victory over an Odell Beckham-less Giants. And a week later, Dallas had its muffin cap peeled back by the Denver Broncos.

Kneeling at NFL games during the national anthem in protest of systemic inequalities went from being “Kaepernick’s fight” or “Michael Bennett’s problem” to a movement the leader of the free world not only monitors but also attempts to eradicate (while at the same time, Puerto Rico pleads for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that’s left most of the U.S. territory immobile and without electricity).

In an ideal world, the league’s most powerful owner and biggest cash cow of a team would make some sort of bold statement — more than locking arms or placing hands on shoulders. The president’s anger toward players who are not content with cashing checks and staying mum only scratches the surface of a far more cancerous issue: that players, who in the NFL are 70 percent black and are on the field destroying their bodies, are often seen as undeserving of earnings apparently awarded by owners to players who should be grateful for the money. White owners, on the other hand, are viewed as fully deserving of their billions.

The Cowboys may be fine with playing the role of an ostrich with its head buried in the turf. It’s the Cowboys I’ve come to expect. It still doesn’t make it any less weird that a franchise priding itself on being “America’s Team” remains self-muzzled during a time when America needs to be anything but, both in speech and in action. In a better world, and in a move that would shake both the league and the Oval Office to its core, the Cowboys would’ve long since signed Kaepernick — he’s of course far more polished than the team’s current backups, Kellen Moore and Cooper Rush. But this isn’t a better world. At least not yet.

Kennedy Center is bringing hip-hop center stage and Simone Eccleston is making it happen A full season at the nation’s premier performing arts venue signals the art form is adulting

Four decades after its birth in the Bronx, New York, hip-hop has moved into the era of adulting. Among the many markers of maturity, one of the most significant happens today when the nation’s premier home for the performing arts announces its first full season of hip-hop programming.

The performance season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., was curated by A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-Tip along with the center’s first director of hip-hop programming, Simone Eccleston.

And while this moment says something important about the evolution of a still-young art form, it also marks a necessary evolution in the tradition-bound world of high art. After years of lower-profile partnerships with hip-hop festivals and free performances in its lobby, the Kennedy Center is moving hip-hop out of the programming D-League to join theater, opera, jazz, dance and classical music as featured art forms.

The season will open Oct. 6 with a performance featuring Q-Tip and Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, and closes in spring 2018 with a multimedia performance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book-length letter to his son, Between the World and Me.

Besides the big-name acts to open and close the season, the schedule is light on live performances, relying heavily on curated dance parties. The center is also re-upping its longstanding partnerships with hip-hop advocacy organizations Hi-ARTS and the D.C.-based Words Beats & Life. The programming, which isn’t limited to music, includes a staging of Chinaka Hodge’s Chasing Mehserle, a performance piece about Oakland, California, and gentrification.

The Kennedy Center will host a 35th anniversary screening of Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, a documentary about the early days of hip-hop, followed by a panel discussion including Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Caz and Busy Bee.

The commitment of full-time staff and space to hip-hop sets the Kennedy Center apart from other marquee arts institutions such as Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center while expanding the definition of American culture. Like jazz and the blues — and even the iPod one might play them on — hip-hop is a uniquely American invention, a beacon of coolness that shines brightly around the globe.

“As the nation’s cultural center, that’s a heavy-duty title that we hold,” said Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. “It’s important that we have all of the nation represented here. And candidly, we still have a long ways to go. … Hip-hop is a 40-plus-year-old art form. It ain’t going away. It isn’t a fad. This is an art form that continues to develop and grow and have impact, and it is broadly seen throughout several generations as the voice of their generation, and how could we not have it fully here at the center? The sophistication of the work that’s being done has to be brought here.”

The hiring of Eccleston, 37, and the announcement of the new season are only the latest in a series of events that suggest hip-hop is thriving even as it starts to get gray around the temples. That maturation isn’t just an accounting of raw years of existence, but also the emotional growth in the genre’s most high-profile acts. Certainly, earlier hip-hop featured adult, introspective voices such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Little Brother, Consequence and Talib Kweli. But witness the confessional nature of Jay-Z’s 4:44 or Dr. Dre confronting his past sins as a woman beater in the HBO documentary The Defiant Ones.

Simone Eccelston

André Chung for The Undefeated

Hip-hop is now old enough to inspire nostalgia and reflection. In the past few years, there have been the retrospective gazes of The Get Down and The Breaks, and Jigga’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — heralded by consummate Jay-Z fan President Barack Obama. And don’t forget about Snoop Dogg pooh-poohing misogyny, releasing an album one critic called “the audio version of linen pants and fish fries,” and co-hosting an Emmy-nominated reality show with an ex-con 30 years his senior, Martha Stewart. Even Atlanta trap god Gucci Mane seems like a new man after exiting federal prison last year. Rather than touting his time as a signifier of masculinity, Gucci was candid about just how unpleasant the experience was.

It was only roughly 20 years ago that Eccleston was hopping on the D train from the Kingsbridge stop of her childhood home in the Bronx to go to her first rap concert at Madison Square Garden. Now, her task of making hip-hop a fixture at the Kennedy Center seems obvious, if not overdue.

Wait. Wasn’t this already a thing?

When the Kennedy Center announced in 2016 that it had netted Q-Tip as its artistic director of hip-hop culture, the move was part of a trajectory that had been in the works for years. Moran had been lobbying Rutter for more hip-hop programming. So had former White House social secretary Deesha Dyer, who had covered the scene in Philadelphia as a freelance journalist.

“[Dyer] and Jason really pushed me over the edge to say, ‘OK, we should do this more than just one-offs and really make it something,’ ” said Rutter, whose background is in classical music. “We have programs for young artists rising, and then we were doing these big names … but how do we really have that bigger impact? We were going to need somebody to curate it all. And that’s where having an artist and then an administrator [came in], because you can’t really have an artist who’s not supported by an administrator.”

Q-Tip offers name recognition and communicates something about the center’s intentions tastewise. Eccleston, on the other hand, is an experienced arts administrator well versed in the nitty-gritty duties needed to realize an artist’s vision. Before traveling south to Washington, she spent more than 11 years at Harlem Stage, finishing as its program director.

Previously known as Aaron Davis Hall, Harlem Stage is known for promoting artists of color. Eccleston was a natural fit for its hip-hop ambitions: a product of the borough whose Latino and black musical influences melded to birth the genre in the first place, she completed graduate studies in arts administration at Drexel University and studied curatorial practice in performance at Wesleyan University. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Eccleston’s first job was at Artistas y Músicos Latino Americanos, a nonprofit in North Philadelphia.

Rutter and Harlem Stage executive director Patricia Cruz say Eccleston possesses a valuable skill set: She’s got a good ear for finding new talent, she’s passionate about nurturing relationships with artists, and she’s got a knack for developing community outreach and education programs.

While at Harlem Stage, Eccleston took responsibility for an initiative to connect New York City students with playwrights, choreographers, musicians and dancers from around the world. Also, Cruz said, “She developed programs that were scholarly, that really communicated to an audience what this artist’s intent was, what their philosophical approach to what they were doing was, so that audiences could understand this was not just performative.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

“We’re not just putting people on the stage and saying, ‘Here. Enjoy them.’ It’s not entertainment, in that regard. It’s about the ideas the artist is representing. … For us, if art is to have a meaning for people in their lives, I think it is critical to have a context and talk about the history.”

Q-Tip may be the initial draw, but if you want to see your favorite act on stage at the Kennedy Center (cough OutKast cough), Eccleston’s the person you want to lobby.

Let’s talk about sex music!

Perhaps surprisingly given her age, Eccleston is not an evangelist for ’90s hip-hop. Sure, she grew up loving De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Kwamé, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill. She watched WNYC-TV’s Video Music Box and remembers dancing in the street when someone would start playing their radio in Kingsbridge.

But she’s not stuck in the decade.

“We’re always like, ‘It’s the golden age, it’s the golden age,’ ” Eccleston said. “I think that that doesn’t allow for the music and the artists to evolve. I think it’s about creating space for the next generation of artists. Who knew Kendrick [Lamar] was coming? When you think about the fact that [’90s artists] created space for alternate views of black masculinity, just the joy in music, just the intellect. It’s like being brilliant and comfortable with that. Not having to necessarily play to specific ideals of what masculinity looked like, what it meant to be black at a specific point in time.

“I think that they created space for us to be complex, diverse and really tell our stories. They were able to create these pathways within that generation of artists. I think that it’s interesting to see people that kind of take on the mantle and continue to move it forward.”

When it comes to revealing her musical tastes, Eccleston is a skilled politician. Asked to choose between Biggie or Tupac, the native New Yorker initially named Biggie. But there was an addendum: “You know what? Tupac was also very brilliant,” she said. “Just from an activist standpoint, in terms of being a woke MC.”

Eccleston has the potential to be an inspired choice as an administrator for a genre that has a complicated relationship with black women. While she straddled the East Coast/West Coast divide, for instance, she was fully comfortable sharing her thoughts about Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical endorsement of stretch marks on “Humble.”

“I was like, ‘Go ahead, Kendrick!’ ” Eccleston said, grinning.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

“I think that there are certain images, certain artists, that are celebrated who may have had some augmentation. That is seen as beauty, or as beautiful. Then young women that may look up to the artist, or the ideals that are being portrayed in music videos, they then think that they have to alter who they are in order to be considered beautiful or attractive. We need to interrogate that, which is why it was great that Kendrick celebrated stretch marks.”

While hip-hop isn’t the only genre that features misogynistic themes and lyrics, it is the one that often gets publicly dinged for it. Eccleston, like many of her feminist friends who are also hip-hop fans, has experienced times where she felt that a particular artist or song just wasn’t for her.

“I think it’s important for us to maintain healthy critique,” Eccleston said. “I think that it’s also important for us, as we’re looking at the songs that we may want to challenge, or the artists that we may want to encourage to dig a little deeper, to look at all of the other work that’s being done that either celebrates us or provides a multidimensional portrayal of who we are.

“It’s delicate because you have to provide space for an artist to be an artist, you can’t censor them. … It’s just real complex because we all have our hopes for something that we’ve seen ourselves reflected in, something that provides us with a sense of space. I think we’ve all got to continue to complicate it and disrupt it.”

Eccleston now has the power to further that disruption. With the Kennedy Center’s resources, she can expose audiences to lesser-known female emcees such as Brooklyn, New York, rapper Jean Grae and Snow Hill, North Carolina, artist Rapsody. She wants to bring more female graffiti artists and beat girls into the fold.

“There’s a whole generation of hip-hop … culture producers that are impacting literature and theater and scholarship, and it’s getting pressed into that. I think that one of our roles as an institution is to create space for the celebration of all of those things so people understand the depth, the breadth, the complexity of the culture,” Eccleston said. “I think it’s important for people to know hip-hop culture isn’t just one thing.”

What now?

One of the most significant challenges Eccleston faces will be making the Kennedy Center feel accessible to everyone.

While it’s a national institution, it’s situated in a city that for decades was majority black and is still majority minority. Eccleston is adamant about wanting the community to feel a sense of ownership and investment in the center, rather than seeing it as a stodgy, predominantly white institution finally granting validation to a still relatively young art form.

While existing partnerships, such as those with Hi-ARTS and Words Beats & Life, the D.C. nonprofit dedicated to advancing hip-hop culture, provide a foundation, the Kennedy Center faces hurdles that predate Eccleston in attracting eventgoers who are economically as well as racially diverse. The most obvious hurdle may be geography. The Kennedy Center is situated in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom/West End, a neighborhood that’s home to George Washington University, where tuition and fees run nearly $70,000 per year. Its immediate neighbor is the Watergate complex.

Of course, black people frequent the Kennedy Center. They show up for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s yearly appearance. They line up to see Brandy play Roxie Hart in Chicago, to hear George Benson, to witness the brilliant athleticism of Misty Copeland. And it has no problem selling out concerts like the ones Nas and Lamar did with the National Symphony Orchestra.

But the center is still figuring out how to extend the same sort of welcome to audiences with fewer resources, and that’s where the inclusion of free dance parties, open to the public, appear to come into play.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

These concerns aren’t exclusive to the Kennedy Center. They bubble up every time hip-hop veers into spaces such as Broadway that are traditionally coded as white. Class and accessibility were a big part of conversations surrounding Hamilton, so much so that its practice of making tickets available to those who couldn’t necessarily afford its astronomical market rate prices has become central to the show as it’s expanded into multiple cities. That includes the upcoming production of Hamilton coming to the Kennedy Center. (Hamilton, while heavily influenced by hip-hop, is still under the Kennedy Center’s theater programming slate.)

“Part of the goal in terms of instituting hip-hop as an integral part of our institution’s work is about creating space for the community to engage in the work that we’re doing,” Eccleston said. “To see themselves and their culture reflected. Right? That’s how I got into the arts, understanding the significance of it. As many opportunities as we can create for people to know that this space is theirs and open to them. A place that they can call home. I think that that is important.”

While there’s a moral argument for expanding hip-hop into a dedicated programming season at the Kennedy Center, there’s a financial one as well, especially when you consider the graying fan base for opera and classical music. The Kennedy Center relies on funding from corporate sponsors, philanthropists and paid memberships that unlock access to ticket presales and opportunities to hobnob with talent. If additional hip-hop programming results in more memberships from rap fans with money to drop, that’s all the better for hip-hop and the Kennedy Center. So far, it appears Q-Tip and Eccleston will have to figure out how to find a balance between buzz and revenue. While names such as Fab 5 Freddy and Kurtis Blow may draw older, more financially established attendees, a healthy dose of current voices is necessary too. Yes, hip-hop is famous for its backward-facing references and samples, but it’s always charging forward to new musical territory, thriving on the spirit of reinvention.

Still, if this experiment goes well, who knows? We might one day see the same programming in the ritzy fine arts institutions of New York — you know, the birthplace of hip-hop.

‘Insecure’ recap: Issa gets her groove back, Molly’s dating life is back and Lawrence loses track We all knew once Lawrence left that cookout he was never returning

Season 2, Episode 3 | Episode: “Hella Open” | Aug. 6

When a basketball player is going through a slump, to regain confidence, he or she needs to see the ball go through the hoop — a jumper, dunk, 3-pointer, layup or free throw. Doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a bucket. That’s how I feel about Issa’s sex life.

Rekindling the romance with Lawrence is a pipe dream (for now), so Issa needed to go full Stella and get her groove back. Even if it was in typical Issa fashion — awkward. It nearly went down with Luke James, but that went to hell with a gasoline thong on. But sexing the neighbor was to be expected. Close living vicinity. Happenstance meeting. Creep pool glimpse from the kitchen window. But even I have to applaud Issa’s savage game — using the “did you forget your charger?” move. The only question now is how does Issa keep the momentum going moving forward since she’s so interested riding the wave of this “hoe phase.”

Last week we pondered Molly’s personal life — and here we are. All credit to Issa as ultimate wingwoman in the club scene setting the pick-and-roll long enough for Molly to meet her new love interest (played by Emmy Award winner Sterling K. Brown of The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and This Is Us). Things are moving along swimmingly until he mentions settling down to marriage on the first brunch date.

To be fair, Molly finding a way to not be interested in buddy might be classic overthinking Molly. But, playing devil’s advocate here, we all remember how hesitant she’s been to meet a new dude, considering how the situation with Jared went last season. And who brings up starting a family on the first brunch? Our guy Sterling K. went from blowing it with Marcia Clark in The People to doing so with Molly in back-to-back years. That’s an accomplishment in its own regard.

But as the great black philosopher Marshawn Terrell Lynch said in 2015, “You know why I’m here.” This episode was all about the bounce-back that divided social media to its core and inspired me to order a Lawrence Best Buy shirt: Tasha and Lawrence. The duo was on thin ice after Lawrence’s admission that he slept with Issa. They made up at the end of episode two. But things get tricky when Tasha invites Lawrence to a family cookout, which Lawrence accepts. Wrong move.

Lawrence obviously didn’t listen to Biggie Smalls when told us 20 years ago on “Sky’s The Limit” to Only make moves when your heart’s in it. Lawrence is not invested in Tasha. Anyone with a half a brain could see Lawrence wasn’t staying at that cookout. His mind was already distracted by his co-workers hyping up the company kickback. And to be honest, Lawrence looked more out of place at Tasha’s family cookout than Carlton Banks at a black college homecoming. There wasn’t a soul who was convinced he’d make it back to the cookout when he told Tasha he had to run – to handle some tasks at work.

Just like there wasn’t a soul who was surprised when Tasha called him a “f— n—–.” The writing was on the wall. That’s the thing with not being in a relationship, but in a gray area where you’re “talking” to someone, and it’s not official. Lawrence was trying to be the good guy and live a single life. Trying to straddle that fence is like the Sex Panther cologne in 2004’s Anchorman — 60 percent of the time it works every time.

Tasha is done with the games. And Lawrence, he’s got a new place, so the blow-up mattress life he was living in Chad’s house earlier this season appears to be in the rearview. So R.I.P. Lawrence-Tasha, the 3.25 episode fling we hardly knew. For now, at least.

In ‘The Defiant Ones,’ the HBO doc on Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, finds journalist Dee Barnes’ voice Director Allen Hughes kept the revealing interview under wraps for years

Allen Hughes is, perhaps, one of Hollywood’s best secret-keepers.

For years, he’s been quietly working on a documentary about the creative partnership of legendary music producer and label executive Jimmy Iovine and music producer and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Dr. Dre. At its best, the doc illustrates how two kids — one white Italian kid from Brooklyn, New York, one black kid from Compton, California — rose, joined forces and ultimately inked a multibilliondollar deal with Apple. The work to get there was tremendous. But it’s the little intricacies that sell it.

Hughes — who co-directed with his twin brother, Albert, classics such as Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and The Book of Eli — kept it unusually quiet, away from in-the-know Hollywood trade publications and even from the very people he targeted for revealing sit-down interviews.

Keeping a lid on the production was especially challenging in 2015, when Straight Outta Compton, a hugely successful and well-reviewed feature about the origin story of N.W.A., came under fire because of the film’s omission of Denise “Dee” Barnes. Barnes, a hip-hop journalist, was physically assaulted by Dr. Dre in 1991. At the time of the assault, she was the host of Fox’s popular hip-hop show Pump It Up! The heinous and infamous incident was all over the much-watched MTV News and was in the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Dre eventually pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation; Barnes settled out of court with him for an undisclosed amount. Dr. Dre issued a statement at the height of the film’s success.

“Dre, Jimmy and I are going into this,” Hughes said via phone from Los Angeles, “we all had to agree what we were going to touch on. And Dre was, that was the first thing he brought up. And this is before Straight Outta Compton got greenlit.”

In Hughes’ documentary, Dee Barnes is a voice of authority and puts the rise of N.W.A. and the departure of Ice Cube into proper context.

The thing is, Dr. Dre had revisited the incident in great detail with Barnes for the four-part documentary, scheduled to debut Sunday. With Allen Hughes leading the discussion, Barnes (who is working on a memoir) and Dr. Dre talked about the moments that led up to the assault, the incident and its aftermath. The statement that Dr. Dre released — “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives …” — is a moment in the documentary.

Allen Hughes and Dr. Dre.

G L Askew II/courtesy of HBO

“I’m not just going to call it an apology,” said Hughes. “I think it’s more of an atonement than an apology. And then cut to a year later, we were editing the film, we have it, and then this thing breaks out … the Straight Outta Compton controversy.” That section in The Defiant Ones, which premieres its first of four parts at 9 p.m. EST Sunday on HBO, is an important one. Very unlike the Straight Outta Compton feature film, this documentary is a 360-degree look at specifically Dr. Dre and Iovine’s twin rise and features organic-feeling sit-downs with the likes of Bono, Gwen Stefani, Sean (Diddy) Combs, Eminem, Will.i.am, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, MC Ren and more.

Hughes said he filmed Dre and Barnes talking about the physical assault well in advance of the blowback from the feature film. But for many reasons, he kept his work under wraps. He wanted to protect the integrity of his documentary. He also knew that if folks were aware he was working on a documentary about two of the most influential men in popular culture, the price of all of the rich archival music and film footage would go way up. And, more importantly, Hughes didn’t want his interview subjects to get contaminated by gossip about what someone else might be saying. The Dee Barnes situation kept him up at night.

“That caused a depression,” he said. “These are real people. These are human beings. I was raised by a feminist, activist woman. I was more into, as a child, women’s issues than black issues. So this hit home for me.”

“I’m not just going to call it an apology. I think it’s more of an atonement.” — Allen Hughes

Barnes’ voice is an important one to hear in the documentary — more so, even, than the apology Dr. Dre offers her. In Hughes’ documentary, Barnes is a voice of authority and puts the rise of N.W.A. and the departure of Ice Cube into proper context. She also talks about what happened after she filed a civil suit against Dr. Dre for assaulting her: She all but lost her career.

Her story felt oddly familiar to Hughes’ own story. He was assaulted by Tupac Shakur’s crew while filming his classic 1993 debut, Menace II Society.

“I had an intense, great relationship with Tupac,” said Hughes, “and then there was this moment of violence that happened that was really bad. Him against me at one point, with a bunch of people. … It lasted about five minutes. Everyone knows our relationship based off of that one moment.” He said he relates to Barnes because she is not a victim. “She’s an activist. Quite the activist,” he said. “I didn’t know whether she would agree to the interview or not. She goes back to the World Class Wreckin’ Cru days. She was like their little sister.” Hers was a story that people needed to hear.

Dr. Dre

G L Askew II/courtesy of HBO

“She [was] her own artist. A voice in the culture. She was there, and it was great. It was fun, it was glorious, until that moment. And, you know, everyone’s got to do what they’ve got to do to move past that moment or whatever, but … she really inspired me. She taught me. She had moved so far past that s—, and she wasn’t in that place anymore. She just hadn’t been heard.”


There are so many nuggets in this documentary, such as the Iovine-hosted weekly football games. Former Death Row executive Suge Knight and former first son John F. Kennedy Jr. play with and against one another. “Every single thing [I’ve] ever made,” said Hughes, “the protagonist either died or went to jail at the end of the movie. This is the first one where it’s a happy ending.”

Hughes wants people to be inspired. “These are human beings,” he said. “They f—ed up, they f— up just like all of us. They go through the same s— we all go through, and they’re … opening up and revealing how they did it. They said, ‘Here’s how we did it. Here’s what happened.’ You don’t have to be a hyperintellectual or sophisticated to understand it. Here’s how I got past that tragedy. All of it. I think people [will] walk away and go, ‘OK. I’m going to go get my hustle on.’ And have some fun.”

‘4:44’ is a Shawn Carter album. JAY-Z is dead Love, betrayal, shame, survival: JAY-Z hits the ball out of the park with intensely personal new album

These moments don’t happen. Hip-hop is a young man’s game. But for one night, the music universe revolved around JAY-Z, the sport’s finest elder statesman, with the release of his 13th studio album, 4:44.

The 10-track 4:44 is the most emotionally taxing project of JAY’s (he’s back to all caps) career. Ernest “No I.D.” Wilson, who produced JAY’s 2009 “Run This Town” and “Death of Autotune,” as well as 2007’s “Success,” among others, is the album’s lone producer, and he is irreplaceable. No I.D.’s music is more than just “beats,” or instrumentals. Without No I.D.’s soulful backdrops (inspired by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, Kool & The Gang and more), 4:44 might lack the emotional connection it not only thrives on but quite literally survives on. But in the end it is JAY’s inward glimpse of himself — the man he was, the man he’s become, the man he grew to partially hate — that separates this album from his previous bodies of work.

Yet, where 4:44 will land in the rankings of JAY-Z’s catalog is a question better left for time. Off the rip, though, this is the greatest rapper of all time stripping himself down to essentials. It’s the project fans and critics have clamored for, for years: the authentic Jay Z. The desire has been for him to curb the flaunting of luxuries and come with the real on what it’s like to be one of the most successful people in the world — and also one of its most haunted.

But the writing had been on the wall. With his wife, Beyoncé, and his sister-in-law, Solange, using their last albums for their most personal work, it’s no surprise 4:44 unmasks itself as JAY at his emotional and creative zenith.


Fourteen months ago, and 10 days before the release of Beyoncé’s Grammy-nominated opus Lemonade, JAY-Z had a decision to make. On April 13, 2016, the final night of the NBA’s regular season, history was going to happen one way or the other. Would he fly to Oakland, California, for the Golden State Warriors’ record-setting 73rd win? Or sit courtside for Kobe Bryant’s final game with the Los Angeles Lakers? It was, to quote Marlo Stanfield, one of them good problems.

JAY chose to watch Bryant punctuate his first-ballot Hall of Fame career in the most Kobe Bryant way possible: 60 points on 50 shots in a five-point victory over the Utah Jazz, scoring or assisting on the final 19 points. The onslaught was the swan song of one of the culture’s most divisive, polarizing and accomplished spirits — a moment only dreams could create and talent, ambition and maniacal competitiveness could materialize. Neither could have envisioned that night 20 years earlier.

Rap was never given the chance to heal from those wounds — Biggie, Tupac — it helped create. But it spared JAY-Z.

Bryant and JAY, despite nine years separating them, came into the public’s eye together. Reasonable Doubt, the corner-boy manifesto and classic hip-hop debut, arrived on June 25, 1996. A day later, the Charlotte Hornets drafted a 17-year-old Bryant, only to send him to Los Angeles in return for Vlade Divac. Both JAY and Bryant escaped the shadows of their larger-than-life predecessors, The Notorious B.I.G. and Michael Jordan, to carve their own places in history. But on that spring 2016 night in downtown Los Angeles, JAY witnessed a peer, one of the few in America who understands what it’s like to be that famous for that long, walk away from the game he changed in that manner. JAY certainly didn’t need a great album to call it a career on — in the same way Bryant didn’t need a historic game to cement his stature among basketball’s all-time greats. But still, the game had to be inspirational.

“Wow,” was the only word a stunned JAY-Z could mutter as he watched Bryant further ascend toward immortality. Little was he aware the same would happen to him a year later.


Before the release of 4:44, a legit critique of JAY himself was, What could he possibly have to talk about that would be beneficial to rap in 2017? He’s one of the wealthiest men on the planet, with a portfolio that shows no signs of slowing. His business ventures have helped redefine the image of what long-term success looks like in America’s most influential and most critiqued music culture. The album itself bookends a monumental June 2017 for Shawn Carter: Kevin Durant, a flagship client of his Roc Nation Sports agency, captured his first NBA championship, and JAY himself was inducted, with a speech from President Barack Obama, into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — the first rapper to be so honored. He also (with respect to the Obamas), makes up half of one of the most high-profile relationships in America, and he’s one of the few people in the world with direct lines to Jordan, Obama and LeBron James. And now he’s the father of three. And since he started from the bottom, so to speak, another valid concern is: Does JAY-Z even still have it anymore?

Sponsored listening parties for the album littered cities around the country. The one I attended, in Silver Spring, Maryland, was shut down by police for capacity reasons before the first song could be played. Speakers were moved outside the Sprint store where the session was to be held, ostensibly so the people stretching to the next block near a Whole Foods grocery store could hear the album. I went home.

It was for the best, too. As Jay’s confessions run deep, the album is perhaps best experienced solo. For years, I wondered how the trauma of shooting his brother, as he detailed on 1997’s “You Must Love Me,” followed him into rare heights of superstardom. I wondered how selling dope to people he loved may have left him with an inescapable sense of trauma. I wondered how often he reflected on having stabbed Lance “Un” Rivera, and how the incident nearly derailed his career. It’s all on 4:44. On the first track, at that. And more.

There’s an extended rebuttal (wildly and fairly speculated) to Kanye West on “Kill Jay-Z.”

You walkin’ round like you invincible / You dropped outta school, you lost your principles / I know people backstab you, I feel bad too / But this ‘f— everybody’ attitude ain’t natural / But you ain’t the same, this ain’t kumbaYe / But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye / You gave him 20 million without blinking / He gave you 20 minutes on stage, f— was he thinking? ‘F— wrong with everybody?’ is what you saying/ But if everybody’s crazy, you’re the one that’s insane.

On the same song, in the second person, come some truths about what spawned the infamous elevator footage featuring him, his wife and his sister-in-law:

You egged Solange on / Knowing all along, all you had to say was you was wrong / You almost went Eric Benet / Let the baddest girl in the world get away / I don’t even know what else to say / N—-, never go Eric Benet/ I don’t even know what you woulda done/ In the Future, other n—- playin’ football with your son.

And on “Smile” comes the touching reveal of his mother Gloria Carter’s sexuality:

Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian / Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate / Society shame and the pain was too much to take/ Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her.

Leaving little room for debate, the crux of the album is his marriage, and the image he sets in place for his three children. JAY’s demons are 4:44’s most enriching and difficult gifts. The emotional weight of his 2017 confessions rest on the timeline of his own words. JAY sat down with MTV for an interview in 1998 — in which, at 29, he discussed his views on love. “I loved the women I was with,” JAY said, “I loved things about them, but I’ve never been in love. They say love is forever. I never felt that forever type of thing. … I’ve never been away from anyone and … I can’t wait to get back to them. I guard myself. I won’t allow myself. But I know that. I’m on my way to recovery.”

Similar sentiments showed up two years later on Dynasty’s “Soon You’ll Understand”: It ain’t like I ain’t tell you from day one I ain’t s— / When it comes to relationships, I don’t have the patience / Now it’s too late, we got a little life together / And in my mind, I really want you to be my wife forever / But in the physical it’s like I’ma be trife forever.

The most important song on the album, by far, is the title track, “4:44.”

When Beyoncé dropped Lemonade last year, it was seen as the most empowering moment of her career. Comfortable in her own skin, she was openly uncomfortable in her own marriage. The Carters, who thrive in a carefully constructed privacy, were now a public case study — cracks in the armor were exposed. Conversely, Lemonade placed JAY in a position he’s rarely been in: not in control. The entire world knew of his apparent infidelity and how much of a toll it took on his marriage. He couldn’t jump in front of the narrative because he was the narrative. Big homie better grow up, Beyoncé warned on “Sorry.” He only want me when I’m not there.

Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’: Comfortable in her own skin, she was openly uncomfortable in her own marriage.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade admissions are agony expressed through art. But it’s likely their private conversations stuck with JAY more. Anyone familiar with infidelity can replay the range of emotions and questions. Why would you do this? Do you love him/her? Was it something I did? You promised me trust and then you broke it. You promised me forever, but even forever has a time stamp. How do you explain this to our kids? These are the consequences of selfish decisions. And it’s these consequences that left JAY up at 4:44 a.m., drowning in guilt, writing a record he calls one of the best he’s ever written.

“4:44” is “Song Cry” with the threat of divorce court. Even worse, an illustration of the cycle of flawed fatherhood Jay swore to eradicate in himself. The song is the most personal glimpse into the Carters’ relationship — one he pursued, but admittedly wasn’t ready for — and how his transgressions nearly separated them.

Is JAY-Z’s karma to blame for Beyoncé’s 2013 miscarriage? Probably not, but hearing JAY blame himself for his lack of presence is haunting. It’s JAY fully peeling back layers of vulnerability through tears. And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about / Your eyes leave the soul that your body once housed, he raps. And you stare blankly into space / Thinking of all time you wasted in on all this basic s—. It’s on this song where the truest extent of what JAY has put Beyoncé through boils to the surface.

And of his kids looking at him differently once they inevitably uncover his truth, he raps I’d probably die with all the shame. Courtside seats, chats with Obama and nine-figure business deals mean nothing in the grand scheme to JAY. You did what with who? What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soul mate? What follows next is the question that packs such a punch it nearly stops the album in its tracks: You risked that for Blue?

A marriage is many things. Things happen that leave scars for a lifetime. No matter his bank account or influence, he is the reason that many parts of his life will never be the same. It’s a weight he’s been living with his entire life, since he sold his first brick of dope. Only this time, instead of drugs, it’s broken promises. Even JAY-Z can be his own worst enemy.

This is Shawn Corey Carter’s new life story told through rap.


Both the production and lyrics of 4:44 have a natural partner in his 2001 masterpiece The Blueprint. Only now, he’s accomplished everything he said he would. It sounds foolish to even suggest that JAY-Z, three decades after the release of his first album, could find himself in the running for Album of the Year in 2017, especially when so many, perhaps with merit, questioned if he even still cared about rapping anymore.

But his constancy remains unrivaled. He outlasted DMX and Mase. Looked Eminem in the eye. Thrived during the prolific runs of 50 Cent and Nelly. Raced Diddy to a billion. Came of age with Outkast. Helped introduce Kanye to the world. Broke bread with T.I., Rick Ross and Jeezy. Sized up, but ultimately respected, Lil Wayne. And dubbed Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Drake as leaders of new school — although the war of subliminals with the latter rages on to the present day. And he’s done it all with a responsibility no other artist in rap has had to carry.

My boy died, and all I did was inherit his stress, Jay rapped on 1998’s “It’s Alright,” referring to the late Notorious B.I.G. Hip-hop was never given the chance to see Biggie at 30. Or Tupac Shakur with children. JAY-Z achieved both. Rap has not been given the chance to heal from those wounds it helped create.

But it spared JAY-Z. He grew older while they stay forever young. These are the ghosts with whom Jay-Z has boxed for 20 years. He is the survivor of the cautionary tale.

The only thing left to say is what Jay said while watching Kobe drop 60. Wow.

The murder of Tupac Shakur is a tragedy — but the why is not a complete mystery Conspiracy theories give fans comfort but, in truth, the brilliant artist was ‘a sacrificial lamb in thug clothing’

It’s time to stop wondering who killed Tupac Shakur.

America has spent the past two decades fishing at red herrings and inventing theories about how our brilliant brother could be gunned down on the Las Vegas Strip at age 25. The real answer is obvious, yet too many of us who love the culture avoid the facts: Tupac sealed his fate with one punch to a Crip’s face.

Heartbreak can teach powerful lessons. But instead of admitting that Tupac’s genius was extinguished because he chose to play gangster, we continue to rationalize and glamorize his Thug Life, aided and abetted by a corrupt justice system that denies us much-needed closure. To prevent more Tupac tragedies, we need to understand what happened, and why:

On Sept. 7, 1996, Tupac, Death Row Records kingpin Marion “Suge” Knight and Suge’s gang of Bloods beat up a Southside Crip named Orlando “Baby Lane” Anderson in a Las Vegas casino lobby. Anderson and three other Crips went looking for payback. A few hours later, cruising the Vegas Strip in Anderson’s rented white Cadillac, they saw Suge driving a BMW with Tupac in the front passenger seat. Anderson shot Tupac from the back seat of the Caddy.

Ain’t no skullduggery to it. Just the basic street arithmetic that continues to send thousands of black males to their graves.

Anderson’s beatdown was captured on security video. Suge’s gangsters quickly spread the word that the killer was Anderson, according to what informants told police in the chaotic days after the shooting. Those anonymous sources were confirmed more than a decade later by the eyewitness account of Anderson’s uncle, Southside Crip boss Duane “Keffe D” Davis, who says he was in the car and handed Anderson the murder weapon. Keffe D’s statements are detailed in the 2011 book Murder Rap, by retired Los Angeles Police Department Detective Greg Kading.

But thanks to Internet-borne conspiracies and institutional injustice toward black life, the question of who murked Pac has never been murkier. The new Tupac biopic, All Eyez On Me, offers little clarity. Legend has enveloped Tupac’s death like barnacles on a sunken ship. But if you scrape all that away …


The machinery of Pac’s demise was set in motion in July 1996, when a crew of Crips snatched a Death Row pendant from a Blood named Trevon “Tray” Lane at Lakewood Mall near Compton, California, according to a Compton police affidavit. Two months later, Tray Lane was with Tupac and Suge at a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas. After the heavyweight champ knocked out Bruce Seldon in the first round, the Death Row clique left the MGM Grand arena and spotted Anderson in the lobby. Tray identified Anderson as one of the Crips who snatched his chain.

The intersection of Harmon Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard is pictured on Sept. 8, 1996, the day after rap superstar Tupac Shakur and Death Row Records chairman Marion “Suge” Knight were both shot. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Tupac rolled up on Anderson, rhetorically demanded, “You from the South?” and punched him in the face. Tupac, Suge and their gang proceeded to stomp Anderson out, right there in the MGM lobby.

“In the vacuum created by lack of closure, everything, no matter how far-fetched, seems somehow possible.”

These are indisputable facts, backed by witness testimony, police reports and videotape. I first saw them gathered in one place in the May 1997 issue of Vibe magazine, in a story by Rob Marriott. The report detailed how after Tupac’s slaying, Bloods launched a full-out war on Compton Crips. Suge’s henchmen told other Bloods that Tupac’s killer was Keffe D’s nephew, according to the Compton police affidavit. When the bullets stopped flying, 13 gangsters had been shot, three fatally.

“There are no easy answers to the myriad questions surrounding Tupac’s death,” Marriott wrote after his harrowing experience reporting from the streets of gangland Compton. “But it has become clear that the rap star’s death — and the three homicides that followed — are only the most visible tragedies in a web of intrigue that extends deep into the L.A. underworld.”

That web was real. At the center was the tarantula Suge Knight, who, according to evidence detailed in Murder Rap and the book LAbyrinth by Randall Sullivan, ran Death Row like a Mafia boss. Suge’s violence is well-documented. He fueled a bicoastal beef with Sean “Puffy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records and its superstar rapper Biggie Smalls, who was killed six months after Tupac. Suge had LAPD cops on his payroll, according to LAbyrinth. On top of all that, shortly before his death Tupac argued with Suge over unpaid royalties, fired Death Row lawyer David Kenner and planned to leave the label.

Police, meanwhile, added to the confusion. Las Vegas cops told LAPD detective Russell Poole, according to LAbyrinth, that “the main reason they would never solve this case is that the politicians didn’t want them to. They said the powers that be had let them know the city didn’t need an O.J.-style circus.” Poole was investigating the Biggie killing. He said that LAPD brass, bracing for a lawsuit from Biggie’s family, blocked him from following numerous leads that might have connected black LAPD cops to Death Row. Poole was ultimately removed from the case and resigned from the LAPD in 1999.

Marion “Suge” Knight and Tupac Shakur during the 10th annual Soul Train Music Awards at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1996.

Jim Smeal/WireImage

Anderson denied killing Tupac and was never charged. In 1998, Anderson was shot dead outside a Compton car wash over what police there said was a drug debt. Anderson’s killer is serving three life terms.

In 2006, Kading, the LAPD detective, was assigned to reopen the Biggie Smalls homicide case. In Murder Rap, Kading says he and his team kept hearing about Keffe D, Anderson’s uncle, who saw Smalls at the Soul Train Music Awards after-party hosted by Vibe magazine shortly before the Brooklyn rapper was killed. Kading set up a drug deal sting to coerce Keffe D into talking about Biggie’s murder. The trap worked. Kading writes that in December 2008, facing decades in prison, Keffe D sat down to work out a deal — but denied any knowledge of Smalls’ killers.

Instead, Keffe D told them about Pac’s death. Kading was in the room questioning Keffe D. The interview was recorded. The gangster’s story went like this:


In 1991, when Keffe D’s Crip gang was selling dope nationwide, he was introduced to a Harlem drug dealer named Eric “Zip” Martin. They started doing business. Two years later, Zip, who was involved in the music business, brought Keffe D to a BET party at the Paradise Club in Los Angeles. At that party, Keffe said, Zip introduced him to Combs.

Keffe D said he maintained a relationship with Puffy, and he lent him the 1964 Chevy featured in Usher’s “Can U Get Wit It” video. When the East-West beef jumped off, Keffe D said, his Crips provided security for Bad Boy on the West Coast. At one point, Keffe D alleged, Combs said he would pay a million dollars for Pac and Suge to be killed. Kading quoted Keffe D in Murder Rap as saying: “(Puffy) was like, ‘I want to get rid of them dudes.’ … I was like, ‘Man, we’ll wipe their ass out, quick … it’s nothing. Consider that done.’ ”

Combs has adamantly denied soliciting any murder.

Keffe D told Kading that he went to Vegas simply to enjoy the Tyson fight and met up there with Zip, his nephew “Baby Lane” Anderson and other Crips. After the lobby rumble, when Keffe Dheard his nephew Anderson got stomped by Death Row, they immediately planned to retaliate. Zip gave Keffe D a .40-caliber Glock. Kading wrote:

“ ‘(Zip) said it’s perfect timing,’ Keffe D recounted, leaving the exact meaning of the words up to us. Was Zip talking about killing two birds with one stone, taking out Suge and Tupac as payback for the Baby Lane beating and in the process collecting Puffy’s million-dollar bounty? It was impossible to know for sure.”

Trying to disprove these explanations is like arguing with someone who believes Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

Keffe D said that Zip departed after giving them the gun. Anderson, Keffe D and two other Crips cruised the Strip in Anderson’s rented Cadillac and spotted Tupac’s caravan. They pulled alongside the BMW driven by Suge Knight. Keffe D was in the Cadillac’s front passenger seat with the Glock, prepared to shoot, but Tupac and the BMW were on the opposite side of the Caddy. “Lane was like, ‘Give it here,’ ” Keffe D said, “and popped the dude.”

Keffe D told Kading he never got a dime of Combs’ promised payoff, although he thought Zip might have collected and not shared the loot. “If (Puffy) would have just given us half the money, I would have stayed strong,” Keffe said, explaining why he was telling on Combs.

Combs has called all of this “pure fiction” — and has said he never even used Crips as security.

Kading knew he couldn’t make a good legal case on the word of a criminal like Keffe D. He tried to coerce Zip to corroborate the story and tell on Combs by setting up a sting with Keffe D. But before the trap could be sprung, Kading’s superiors removed him from the case in 2009.

“It was almost as if, in some surreal way, Poole was right all along,” Kading wrote. “The LAPD was trying to cover up the Biggie Smalls murder, not by protecting corrupt cops but by undercutting the ability of its own investigators to make the case.”


Neither Keffe D, Zip nor anyone else has ever been charged with killing Tupac or Biggie. Zip died in 2012. Keffe D is locked up on a marijuana distribution conviction. The Las Vegas police investigation into Tupac’s murder technically remains open. “In the vacuum created by lack of closure, everything, no matter how far-fetched, seems somehow possible,” Kading wrote. “When the truth is missing in action, anything can take its place.”

Like the theory that Suge conspired with Anderson to kill Tupac because the rapper was owed millions and about to leave Death Row, which former LAPD detective Poole believed. Or that Snoop Dogg’s cousin Lil’ Half Dead, mad at ’Pac because he allegedly stole the hit song “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” helped Suge’s wife and Death Row’s head of security try to kill Suge and take over the company — but they missed Suge and hit ’Pac instead. Or that the FBI didn’t want ’Pac starting a black revolution. Or that he’s in the witness protection program. Or alive and well in Cuba.

Trying to disprove these explanations is like arguing with someone who believes Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Not since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy have conspiracy theories run so amok. But the simplest explanation is usually the right one. Of course a Crip came gunning for a crew of Bloods who dealt him a humiliating butt-whipping. Tupac beat up a killer, who then killed him. All over a piece of jewelry.

Tupac chose to live, and die, by the rules of Thug Life. Our inability to face that fact is a symptom of our inability to help our most troubled young black men.

A black BMW, riddled with bullet holes, sits in the police impound lot on Sept. 8, 1996, in Las Vegas. Rapper Tupac Shakur was shot and critically wounded while riding in the car driven by Death Row Records chairman Marion “Suge” Knight the previous night after attending the heavyweight fight between Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon.

AP Photo/Lennox McLendon

“It’s become obvious to anyone paying attention that the gangsta image — for all its force and bluster — is nothing if not tragic, a myth of empowerment with the capacity to rob our generation of its potential greatness,” Marriott wrote in the 1997 Vibe story that connected the dots of the tragedy. “If we as a Hip Hop Nation can ever move beyond the directionless violence and self-destruction gangsta sometimes glorifies, then maybe we’ll have ’Pac to thank for it. Perhaps, in the end, he was simply a sacrificial lamb in thug’s clothing.”

Hip-hop music still thrives on violence and self-destruction, despite the rise of many incredible positive emcees. Recognizing the facts of Tupac’s death could offer some measure of redemption. There will be no help from law enforcement, no deserved clarity and closure through the process of arrest, trial and punishment. If those of us who love the culture don’t want Tupac to have died in vain, we need to come to grips with reality on our own.

Aux Cord Chronicles XI: Rooftop vibes From 2 Chainz to Beenie Man and Mya to Drake — 51 songs to jump-start your summer

This 11th edition of Aux Cord Chronicles is predicated on something we all love: the benefits of warm weather. And what’s the point of having longer days and warmer nights without the appropriate soundtrack to go with it? While the title says “rooftop,” #ACC11 is transferable to lazy days on the beach, boat parties (if you’re ballin’ like that) and any other situation where you and your people can, as someone once put it, “look forward to the memories of right now.” With songs from Xscape, Timbaland and Magoo, Beenie Man and Mya, Usher, Miguel, Drake, UGK and OutKast, Beyoncé, Rihanna, SZA, Travis Scott and a ton more, there should be something here for just about everyone. You know the rules by now. Hit us up on social media and let us know your entries. Let’s get it. After all, I’m not going to say our Aux Cord Chronicles is the best thing to happen to music since Don Cornelius created Soul Train. But I’m not going to stop you from saying it, if the spirit moves you.

Will Smith & DJ Jazzy Jeff — ‘Summertime’ (1991)

Just like it’s not the holidays until Donny Hathaway tells us so, it’s sure not summer until The Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff give us the go-ahead with this Grammy winner. Here it is/ The groove slightly transformed/ Just a bit of a break from the norm: Seriously, play “Summertime” around just about any age group and you’re guaranteed to get a reaction. Based on a sample from Kool & the Gang’s eternal B-side, “Summer Madness,” this is truly one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

Mary J. Blige — ‘You Remind Me (1992)

While the remix is great in its own right, my heart and unyielding love will always remain with the OG New Jack Swing-era version. Certain songs have an uncanny ability to make me wish I was in college when the song was new, and popular. The way you walk/ And the way you talk/ And the way you move and … oh to be at a historically black college when Blige’s first Top 40 hit was played at every house party.

2Pac — ‘I Get Around (1993)

Compared to his bigger, more controversial releases — 1995’s Me Against The World, 1996’s All Eyez On Me and The 7 Day Theory — Tupac Shakur’s sophomore album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., doesn’t receive the credit it deserves. But it should. The 1993 album was a focused project showcasing a 22-year-old Shakur tackling issues of police brutality, women’s rights, inner-city blues and, yes, his penchant for “getting around.” I love the way she licks her lips/ See me jocking / Put a little twist in her hips/ ’Cause I’m watching: With verses from Digital Underground’s Money B and Shock G (who produced), not even New York radio personality Funk Flex can deny the staying power of Strictly’s second single.

Xscape — ‘Just Kickin’ It (Remix) (1993)

There’s an entire generation who knows of Kandi Burruss and Tameka “Tiny” Harris from their reality shows. But real ones know they represented 50 percent of ’90s quartet Xscape — along with LaTocha Scott and Tamika Scott. As a foursome, these ladies produced a trilogy of platinum albums that included six Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 songs, including this one. But we’re focusing on the remix. It’s almost as if you can see you and your friends, drinks in hand, with the city’s skyline behind you as you sway to the Staples Singers’ sampled beat, singing the hook. It’s one of the best hooks from the ’90s. Period.

Da Brat — ‘Funkdafied’ (1994)

Want to feel old? Da Brat’s classic — her Jermaine Dupri-produced introduction to the world, her first single from the album of the same name — is actually older than most of the seniors who graduated from college this year.

Junior Mafia feat. The Notorious B.I.G. — ‘Player’s Anthem (Remix)’ (1995)

Could’ve gone with 1994’s “Big Poppa.” Could’ve gone with “One More Chance,” from the same year. But I went with “Player’s Anthem (Remix)” for two reasons. One, Kim’s verse — Big Momma shoots the game/ To all you Willies and criminals — is still flames. And, two, the hook is just as cold today as it was 22 years ago when Biggie stood as The King of New York.

Timbaland & Magoo feat. Missy Elliott & Aaliyah — ‘Up Jumps Da’ Boogie’ (1997)

We praise the Bad Boys. The Death Rows. The Rocafellas. The No Limits. The Cash Moneys. For bona fide reasons, too. But if I’ve said this a million times, that means I have at least another 2 million to go. The Timbo-Missy-Aaliyah-Ginuwine-Static Major quintet and the sounds they produced in the late ’90s and early 2000s were paramount for my growth as a music fan. It’s tough to call “Up Jumps” a purely Virginia classic, especially when the record hit No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 — the pop singles chart. And the record wasn’t full-fledged hip-hop or R&B but a weird, happy mix of both that came to define their sound. It’s utterly ridiculous how much great music they released in that span.

DMX — ‘How’s It Going Down’ (1998)

Yes, I’m aware X’s first album classic, It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, has been in an Aux Cord Chronicle before. It’s not my fault that it fits various moods. And, OK, sure, the song is about infidelity and a potential drug run. Coming through, like I do, you know, getting my bark on/ Knew she was a thug ’cause when I met her she had a scarf on. But you can’t tell me this doesn’t feel like warm summer nights with cold drinks and chill vibes.

Beenie Man feat. Mya — ‘Girls Dem Sugar’ (2000)

It’s Beenie’s song, no doubt about that: Excuse me baby/ But I really just have to tell you this / It’s been a while/ I’m admiring yuh tenderness. Yet and still, let the record forever show Mya as the real MVP here: You can take the stars like the sky for you /There’s nothing in this world that I couldn’t do for you. A must-have for any kickback. And if there’s a rooftop and view of a city’s skyline, or sunset at the beach, even better.

Fabolous feat. Jagged Edge & Diddy — ‘Trade It All Pt. 2’ (2002)

Enough to make you wanna grab your throwback jersey or jersey dress and remember when life was so much easier 15 summers ago. Salute to ESPN’s Jalen Rose in the video, too.

Usher — ‘Bad Girl’ (2004)

A classic from Confessions, the best R&B album of the 2000s. I meant what I said the other week, too. Usher was truly the most unstoppable force in R&B for a good minute.

Sleepy Brown feat. Big Boi & Pharrell — ‘Margarita’ (2006)

Because it’s 5 o’clock somewhere. And because it’s a vastly underrated Pharrell hook — Go with me for a ride / Aren’t you feeling nice? — that deserves more appreciation.

UGK feat. OutKast — ‘International Players Anthem’ (2007)

Or, as it’s known in my life — the perfect rap song. I challenge you to come up with five more legendary opening lines than So, I typed a text to a girl I used to see / Saying that I chose this cutie pie with whom I wanna be/ And I apologize if this message gets you down / Then I CC’d every girl that I’d see-see ’round town. In the decade since its release, I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t love this iconic collaboration. Yes, iconic. The real fun is in debating who had the best verse. There’s no wrong answer, but if you’re asking me today, I’m going with Pimp C. Chad’s sermon opening as soon as the beat drops (a decision he was originally against) sounds like the gates of rap heaven opening up. Bless everything about this record.

Lloyd feat. Lil Wayne — ‘Girls Around The World’ (2008)

We all remember how influential the words “featuring Lil Wayne” were in the mid- to late 2000s. At the peak of his powers, The Best Rapper Alive connected with Lloyd, who had his own impressive run during the same time, as the two waxed poetic on their favorite topic: women.

F.L.Y. — ‘Swag Surfin’’ (2009)

Also known as the updated “Electric Slide.” I couldn’t name another song by Georgia’s own Fast Life Yungstaz if my life depended on it. But that’s OK because this really is one of the all-time great party gospels. And, apparently, graduation songs. While we’re here, one of the great regrets in my life is never getting to Swag Surf with the Obamas at the White House. I’d never try it at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. now, though. They might think I’m having a medical emergency and then deny me health insurance because they’ll see Swag Surfing as a pre-existing condition. Disclaimer: Just so we’re clear, though, it’s Lil Wayne’s version over everything. So why not go with it here? Well, simple. Wayne’s freestyle doesn’t have the Man, I got that swaggggggg/ My hat matchin’ that baaaagggg … part. Which, of course, is the calling card of the whole vibe.

Rihanna feat. Drake — ‘What’s My Name’ (2011)

It’s crazy to believe six years have already passed since this song was one of the biggest records on the planet — Rihanna’s eighth U.S. No. 1 and Drake’s first. It ensured that Rihanna topped the U.K. singles charts for the fifth consecutive year, putting her in the company of Elvis Presley. But when Rihanna and Drake finally do what they’re supposed to do — drop their joint album, AubRih — this will be known as the collaboration that started it all.

Beyoncé — ‘Love On Top’ (2011)

I still haven’t forgiven Beyoncé for overshadowing my most recent birthday with her pregnancy announcement. But I have to remember she did the same thing to someone else on Aug. 28 when, at the 2011 MTV VMAs, she said, “Tonight I want you to stand up on your feet, I want you to feel the love that’s growing inside of me” — then proceeded to perform “Love On Top” without missing a beat. She revealed to the world that Blue Ivy Carter was on her way, much to the delight of Jay Z and Kanye West, seen here in much simpler times. It’s a great and soulful and upbeat song — one that’s going to be around for a long, long, long time. You’re the one that gives your all / You’re the one I can always call / When I need to make everything stop / Finally you put my love on top. It’s a wedding reception classic.

Drake feat. Majid Jordan — ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’ (2013)

Almost like you should be on a boat, in a white linen outfit, with a Cuban cigar off the coast of Santorini, right? In a career with countless smash records, the second single from Aubrey’s third studio album Nothing Was The Same is Drake at his most infectious. He’ll be performing this at his Las Vegas residency in 20 years. Also, the video is a classic Drake juxtaposition: with guns, murder and the betrayal of false friends and Drake saving the damsel in distress. But doing so over a smooth, R&B-laced record.

YG feat. TeeFli — ‘Do It To Ya’ (2014)

God bless Tha Dogg Pound homage. YG’s laid-back summer ode — from the modern-day classic My Krazy Life — deserves all the love it receives three years after its release. Pool party, day party and rooftop-tested. Pool party, day party and rooftop-approved.

Jamie xx feat. Young Thug & Popcaan — ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’(2015)

This song should’ve been so much bigger than what it was. Side note: It is featured on NBA Live 16 and NBA 2K17.

The Internet — ‘Get Away’ (2015)

When we’re recapping the best albums of the 2010s come December 2019, The Internet’s Ego Death will deserve serious consideration. “Get Away,” the LP’s opening track, sets the mood perfectly. This group has mastered the art of mood music.

Future — ‘March Madness(2015)

What’s wild is that after 200,000 listens from me alone, it still tugs at the heartstrings just as much as it did when I heard basketball great LeBron James’ favorite song in Los Angeles for the first time. I really hope I can weave Dress it up/ And make it real for me into my wedding vows.

Miguel — ‘Waves’ (2015)

It’s been almost two summers since Miguel dropped Wildheart. There’s no way I can hear “Waves” and not instantly reminisce on summer nights in Los Angeles, house parties in Hollywood and the Fourth of July at Manhattan Beach with the homies. If I could ride that wave right now … That year on the West Coast was a dope period in my life, and one I’ll carry with me forever. And since we’re on the topic, some new music from the “late bloomer” wouldn’t be a bad look at all this summer.

NxWorries — ‘Scared Money’ (2016)

We talked a lot about artists like Rihanna, Chance the Rapper and Travis Scott in 2016. For good reasons, too. All of their albums knocked. But one of the coldest and most underrated was Yes Lawd! from the duo of Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge. Truth be told, any cut from their winsome collab project applies here. But whenever anyone does a Paid In Full homage, they had me at Hello.

Gucci Mane feat. Drake — ‘Both’ (2016)

We may never see their mythical collab album, The 6ers, and that’s fine. It’s probably best not to ruin a good thing because this The Return of East Atlanta Santa standout, produced by Metro Boomin and Southside, is hitting its stride just as the weather takes a turn for the warmer. Perfect.

PARTYNEXTDOOR — ‘Not Nice’ (2016)

This song just reminded me to book my vacation. We’ll leave it at that.

Chance the Rapper feat. Knox Fortune — ‘All Night’ (2016)

Confession: While Coloring Book instantly became a personal favorite last year, “All Night” was the one record I always skipped. Then, I started hearing it when I was out, to the point where I came to understand the song’s intention — stop treating me different and just party. Sure, I could’ve easily chosen “No Problem” and been just fine. But there’s something about warm weather, good vibes and hearing Is you is or is you ain’t got gas money/ No IOUs or debit cards, I need cash money at just the right time.

Bruno Mars — ‘That’s What I Like’ (2016)

Cool jewel be shining so bright / Strawberry champagne on ice: It’s of the truly awesome feel-good songs of recent memory and shows no signs of slowing down as you prepare to make summer memories with your Day 1s.

Kap G — ‘Girlfriend’ (2016)

Credit Issa Rae’s Insecure in particular, episode 6, Shady As F— for putting me on to this song.

The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk — ‘I Feel It Coming’ (2016)

It’s that song you hear at post-work happy hours as the day drifts from evening to night. You’ve heard the song a thousand times already. Just as long as you’re cool with hearing it another 10,000 times by the end of the summer. It’s The Weeknd and Daft Punk. You can’t expect anything less.

Travis Scott feat. Young Thug & Quavo — ‘Pick Up The Phone’ (2016)

Honestly, just let the entire Birds In The Trap Sing Brian McKnight ride. No, for real, press play on the first song and step away from your phone. Thank me later. This cut in particular is the seamless and perfect collaboration featuring three of the game’s most sought-after and enigmatic forces. Tell me you wouldn’t listen to an EP from all three. I dare you.

D.R.A.M. — ‘Cute(2016)

Girl, we need to go out on a date/ We can really do a little something/ If it’s cool, I’ll pick you up at 8/ We can really do a little something/ We can really do a little something, baby/ Looking at this pretty face, it drives me crazy. Don’t forget that the Hampton, Virginia, native dropped a stellar album last year. On it was this lighthearted number about breaking the ice with that someone who caught your eye at the day party.

Calvin Harris feat. Frank Ocean & Migos — ‘Slide’ (2017)

Nearly went with Frank’s “Biking” featuring Jay Z and Tyler, The Creator. But I decided it was in my best interests to ride with this. Minus a brief bit of controversy, ’17 has been Migos’ most successful year, one in which they became a bona fide crossover rap supergroup. Yet, while it could mean nothing, what’s good with Takeoff not being on two of Migos’ biggest hits this year — the unstoppable “Bad and Boujee” and this one?

DJ Khaled feat. Beyoncé and Jay Z — Shining(2017)

Nearly went with Khaled and Drake’s “For Free” here, but it’s best to give some up-and-coming, lesser known artists a shake — you know, like the Carters. No, seriously, I’m not sure I need a full-length project from Blue and the twins’ parental units, but it’s no denying Mr. & Mrs. Carter held it down for all the married couples wanting to prove you can mix business and pleasure.

Migos — ‘T-Shirt’ (2017)

I know that “Bad and Boujee” was the most popular song in the universe at one point this year. But you’re going to hear that song any and everywhere this summer. That’s not to say you won’t hear “T-Shirt” just as many times, but it’s the slightly better song. My only regret about this record is that The Three Wise Migos should have taken their own advice before taking the Saturday Night Live stage with Katy Perry last weekend. Do it for the culture/ They gon’ bite like vultures. Truer words have not been spoken in 2017.

Drake — ‘Passionfruit’ (2017)

The dude who just took home a record 13 Billboard Music Awards makes this type of vibe easier than anyone doing it right now (and over the past decade). I’m of the belief that the “Madiba Riddim” + “Blem” combo is more lethal — and that “Blem” is low-key the best song on More Life, but all that said, it’s “Passionfruit” that could well become Drizzy’s 2017 “One Dance” or “Controlla.”

Wale feat. G-Eazy — ‘Fashion Week’ (2017)

Folarin’s SHINE crept in under the radar, but he does have a nice little summer ditty with this. An easy and fun listen, and, if you live in the DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia), you can expect to hear this at any and every function between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Ed Sheeran — ‘Shape Of You’ (2017)

I mean, look. This song’s undeniable, fam.

Goldlink feat. Brent Faiyaz & Shy Glizzy — ‘Crew’ (2017)

Simply put, the best single of 2017. From my personal favorite project of 2017.

Rick Ross feat. Ty Dolla $ign — ‘I Think She Like Me’ (2017)

It was dope to see Rick Ross come back in full force this year with the great project Rather You Than Me. Who else could flip a chorus into 40 million / Out in Cannes with Leonardo DiCaprio / While out on bond / Pray I go to trial rapido. No one does luxury rap quite like Rozay.

French Montana feat. Swae Lee — ‘Unforgettable’ (2017)

If, somehow, you still doubted Swae Lee’s star power, let this be what finally converts you. “Unforgettable” sounds like a record you’d hear shopping at an H&M in Dubai. It’s got that far of a reach.

Future — ‘Mask Off’ (2017)

As if there was any doubt that Future’s first career Top 10 Hot Billboard 100 hit would make the list. And if you’re gonna run this — because you’re definitely running this, since it’s the law of the land — run “Draco” right after this. Thank me later.

Jeremih feat. Chris Brown & Big Sean — ‘I Think Of You’ (2017)

Alongside two talented artists with several songs worthy of inclusion on this list, it’s Chris Brown who absolutely owns this record. He does it running away, too. Therein lies the crux about Brown. Even in 2017, he remains one of the most naturally virtuoso entities in the game (his new single “Privacy” rings off, too). He’s so gifted that it’s frustrating.

SZA feat. Travis Scott — ‘Love Galore’ (2017)

Gimme a paper towel / Gimme another Valium / Gimme another hour or two / Hour with you. Out of nowhere, SZA and Scott gave us the summer anthem we never knew we needed.

Kendrick Lamar feat. Zacari — ‘LOVE.’ (2017)

Kung Fu Kenny’s critically adored DAMN. has its fair share of slappers. “DNA” and “Humble” are already mainstays. And I’m guessing sooner than later, his Rihanna collaboration “LOYALTY.” will dominate summer airwaves because RiRi is allergic to not making a hit. But, man, this one? Keep it a hundred / I’d rather you trust me than (to love me) / Keep it a whole one hund’, don’t got you I got nothing. Somebody’s legit going to fall in love to it this summer.

2 Chainz feat. Gucci Mane, Quavo & The Trap Choir — “Good Drank 2.0’ (2017)

Like a certain Canadian mentioned earlier, The Honorable Dos Necklaces could have his own individual playlist, too. “It’s A Vibe” with Ty Dolla $ign, Trey Songz and Jhene Aiko is beyond worthy of inclusion here. But trust me on this. You have not lived until you’ve heard a gospel choir sing Put that thing up in her ribcage. You’ll wonder how you ever lived before. Pretty Girls Love Trap Music needs to hurry up and get here. Like yesterday.

Wizkid feat. Drake — ‘Come Closer’ (2017)

My colleague Bre, The Undefeated’s resident Drake aficionado, says this is her favorite Drake verse right now. Too mix up in drama to go outside / Too mix up in drama to free my mind / Jealous people around me / I need to change my life. Honestly, it’s hard to knock it. The song as a whole is hella chill and tailor-made for long summer nights, cookouts and/or plush excursions. Just another summer mainstay from The Canadian You Love To Hate.

Lil Uzi Vert — ‘XO TOUR Lif3’ (2017)

The most perplexing song on the list. On the surface, it’s a fun record. Then you actually listen to the lyrics. Push me to the edge. The hook, at least.

Calvin Harris feat. Future & Khalid — ‘Rollin’ (2017)

I’ve been rollin’ on the freeway/ I’ve been riding 85/ I’ve been thinking way too much/ And I’m way too gone to drive/ I’ve got anger in my chest/ I’ve got millions on my mind/ And you didn’t fit the picture/ So I guess you weren’t the vibe. Get you some this summer.

Playboi Carti — ‘Magnolia’ (2017)

Another song you won’t be able to escape this summer unless you stay in the house and avoid all social interactions where music is played and drinks are served. And for what it’s worth, it’s already received LeBron James’, Kyrie Irving’s and Iman Shumpert’s seal of approval.

DJ Khaled feat. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper & Lil Wayne — ‘I’m The One’ (2017)

Given the cast of characters, Khaled’s newest creation had no choice but to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. No rap record has done that since Eminem’s “Not Afraid” seven years ago. But if we’re really being truthful with ourselves, all credit goes to Asahd. Khaled’s been batting 1.000 since little man graced the world with his presence.