Tales of Hip-Hop and A Love Letter to Shawn

I was born into hip-hop.

In the impossibly hot summer of 1980, there I was, entering the world as a new era in music was creeping into its rightful place as a global juggernaut, though no one saw it that way then. And as it gained more and more views, and spins, and finally videos, my parents were right in the thick of it, 21 and 23 years old, parents of me and my older sister, rapping along to the best party music they’d ever heard and commiserating with these teenagers and young adults about what it meant to grow up as they had, doing what they did. 

All my peers have an older cousin, or sister that played them their first record with a DJ scratching and an MC hyping up his dexterity and rhythmic finger skill. Not me. It was my mom and dad. My dad was the first person to play me Shalamar, and the first person to play me Rakim. I knew who the Treacherous Three were because my mother’s love for Kool Moe Dee knew no bounds. I was born into hip-hop.

And having received a gift as amazing as that, I somehow knew I’d better hold on to it. So I did. I held on so tight that it was a part of me, ingrained in everything I did. My sister and I listened to hip-hop while we did everything, while we did anything. And we were always searching for something new to love–just the way our parents had taught us to. And so in 1995, with my Favorite Rappers list steadily growing, when I kind of had a crush on Tupac, cleaned my room to Tribe and De La, blasted The Roots with all the Philly pride I could muster, and thought Wu-Tang was the best thing since sliced bread, my sister brought me this tape of a guy named Jay-Z. Now, she’d gotten it from her boyfriend at the time, a low level dope boy who did nothing but blast music from his hoopty and move from corner to corner to avoid the police. But that’s neither here nor there. He was our hookup for music we didn’t hear on the radio or see on Yo MTV Raps. So we put the tape in… and my life changed.

Now I don’t say that lightly. I mean, I was living in a rap landscape that had Biggie prominently leading the Best Rapper category for a lot of people. I was obsessed with Rakim and Kool G Rap. We still played our Illmatic CD everyday and had heated debates about whether Snoop would beat the murder case that they gave him. Shit, there was a lot of music in my head. But something about Hov made me want to hear more of him. So, of course the first question I ask is “where’s his CD? Can we get it?” My sister’s answer, “he doesn’t have one yet. But we’ll get it when he does.” 

Fast forward to 1996. Reasonable Doubt came out just in time for my sister’s birthday, but she didn’t get it as she promised; her initial infatuation had cooled and her love and loyalty for Biggie had firmly reasserted itself. So I had to wait for my own birthday. And I did. And I spun Reasonable Doubt as soon as I could make it home from the store with it. And my record scratch/ light bulb/ a-ha/ moment blossomed into love. Hov was everything I already loved in a different way. He gave me Rakim, and KGR, and Kane vibes– but he was firmly himself. I mean, this man had wordplay for days, he could rhyme fast or slow, he was in perfect control of his pacing–and he told stories. Reasonable Doubt was a masterpiece. You could tell how honest it was. How determined it was. How sure it was. Hov knew he had a place–and you could hear it.

So, a stan was born. “Can’t Knock the Hustle” spun an insane number of times–because by then my mother was more receptive to rap if you threw in some R&B she could bop to–“Feelin It” was my favorite and I rapped Foxy’s verse on “Ain’t No Nigga” like I was standing in front of Hov myself. I couldn’t wait to see what Shawn Corey was going to do next. Volume One dropped and I begged my mom to get it for me. I jumped up and down for joy seeing that “Friend or Foe” had a sequel and I grinned at hearing Lenny S on the intro like he was an old friend. Hov was back, and my life was complete. Volume One had a couple of songs that made me scrunch my head in confusion, but I was already well aware of how album sales worked: you needed a catchy tune that the radio could play. So I let it slide. And it still hit me in the same place; the same honesty, determination, the same grit. Volume Two was propelled by an Annie sample and a movie soundtrack record and Hov was the big time. By then I was in college and the debates about his prowess as an MC flew across the spades table as we played game after game. This Hov was flashier to me, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. His content didn’t exactly change, but the way he presented it did–if that makes sense. And you couldn’t bring up his name without people mentioning Biggie, which also annoyed me to no end. I felt close to Hov. I felt like I knew him, like his music let me in. Biggie, as good and as raw as he was, never made me feel like that.

By the time Volume 3 and The Dynasty rolled into my life, Hov gave me another reason to love him: Beanie Sigel, who lived around the corner from where I grew up, and who I’d spent many a night hearing freestyles from in the schoolyard up the street, joined The Roc. And my heart melted. My ears tingled. Beans the Bully was a great compliment to Hov’s smoother, calmer style, and I wanted to hear everything I could. We got to the Blueprint, and I was firm in my love. 9/11 happened and the whole world changed, but Shawn Corey stayed the same. He was hitting every milestone and peak and I hadn’t seen anything quite like it. He was going to the mountaintop, and to my delight, with the addition of State Property, he was taking Philly with him. By then I didn’t love anyone in hip-hop, I didn’t love anyone in music, the way I loved Shawn Corey Carter. He reminded me of my dad in a lot of ways: reformed dope boy who just wants to make good and live good. I know that’s not a unique story in hip-hop, but the way Hov told it was, and that’s what connected with me. His cadence, his rhythm, his storytelling ability. He was confident in his ability to outshine anyone around him, to stand taller, to rap better. Shawn Corey knew what he could do, and he knew he could do better than anyone else. That was what I loved.

I stood firm by his side during the beef with Nas (even though I’d always loved Nas), and argued with my every breath that “Takeover” was better than “Ether” (it was).  The Blueprint 2 was supposed to be Hov’s Magnum Opus and I was worried from the first. That many tracks? But I couldn’t doubt my favorite artist so I got ready. And… it should have been one album. There were so many flashes of Hov being outstanding, but too many instances of sounding him nonchalant and unexcited. Nonetheless, my love was strong. And I forgave him. Because his brilliance was still there. His wordplay, his stories, his cadence, his confidence. Plus, he dropped the final bomb on the Nas beef on that album. We’re all still wondering if it’s Oochie Wally Wally or One Mic. 

Then, the world stops. Shawn Corey says he’s not going to rap anymore, and his next album will be his last.  And even though I’d known hip-hop before him, it didn’t feel like it, and I wondered what we would do, what I would do, without someone there who I thought was actively raising the bar. Now I don’t want you to think Hov was my only love. My love for the genre as a whole was all-encompassing and there were plenty of artists I spun besides him. But he was my North Star. He was who I focused myself with. Who brought me back to center. So I wondered where hip-hop would go without him, where my musical attraction would go next, and if there’d ever be anyone I loved as much as him (up until this point, the only one even coming close was Rakim). But Shawn seemed serious, and so I sucked it up and prepared to say goodbye. And The Black Album delivered. Every producer brought something unique. There were so many quotable bars, so much of Hov revealed. It was honest. It was determined. It was sure. Hov had a place–it was on top. And he knew it.

Hov’s “retirement” wasn’t easy for me by any means, but when he said he was coming back, I was nervous. Everything he’d done had been overwhelmingly good, and I was worried about his rush to come back, his need to be heard. And I was right to be. Kingdom Come wasn’t what anyone wanted or expected from my rap hero, and I found myself floundering, making excuses for Shawn, and trying to see the good. Years later, Kingdom Come doesn’t play nearly as terribly as it does upon first listen, and there are some things I LOVE about it, but as a comeback album, it was bad. Underwhelming, and unexciting, for the most part. And it probably has him and Bey’s worst collab. But, we move on. I tried to forgive Shawn, and eventually I did, but as much as I’d missed him while he was gone, I was still stung he’d come back like that. But just as easily, he found a way to make my heart sing again. And it was called American Gangster. This was Shawn Corey. A grown Shawn Corey. A versatile Shawn Corey. A linguistically savvy, arrogant as hell Shawn Corey who managed to step into himself and Frank Lucas simultaneously (Surviving droughts? I wish you well?) American Gangster was a masterpiece. And I was ready to follow wherever Hov led.  The Blueprint 3 wasn’t a masterpiece, but I enjoyed it, and I don’t give it the grief that most people do. But Hov was up and down at this point. Floundering a bit. I wasn’t used to it. 

Next thing I know, I’m watching the throne. And Kanye’s influence is heavy. Hov played the background and I guess I understood, but I hoped he’d never do it again. It just wasn’t… him. Not that the album didn’t have it’s moments. But I get it. Shawn was becoming a family man. And rap could wait. The fans could wait. And wait I did. When I heard about Magna Carta, Holy Grail I felt that familiar tingle, that nervous excitement. But would I get Kingdom Come Hov or American Gangster Hov? The answer was somewhere in the middle. MCHG plays much better now when you know what to avoid, but there are splashes of the reflective, open, honest Hov that I know and love. We’re all still waiting with bated breath to see if a full version of “Beach Is Better” appears and “Nickels and Dimes,” is a top ten Hov track and I don’t care what anyone says. I’m back in full swing though, and my love is still strong. It’s still you, Shawn Corey. It’s always been you.

4:44 was a tour de force for me, an exceptional album that was overshadowed by what Shawn and his wife revealed about their marriage, and life together. People really did my love a major disservice and made the entire narrative about infidelity when we got the most eloquent, expressive Hov we’d seen in years. The fucking disrespect. But not to worry. I heard it. I reveled in it. I play “Marcy Me” once a day STILL. I appreciated it. Shawn was so open on this album that people forgot how open he’d been on other ones. To them, his reveal was a level never before seen. But not to me. Because I remember “D’Evils,” “You Must Love Me,” “This Can’t Be Life,” “Soon You’ll Understand,” “Song Cry,” “Allure,” “Nickels and Dimes,” and all the rest. Shawn had been peeling back layers for YEARS–and he deserves credit for that. I am more than happy to give him that credit.

When all is said and done, that day in 1995 when my sister’s boyfriend walked into our house with that tape, changed my life. It changed my perspective. It changed my music. And I’m forever changed. Happily. I was born into hip-hop. It’s probably my greatest love. And Shawn Corey makes it better, brighter, sharper. So I’m still in love. I’m still in awe. Hov has a place–and it’s in my heart.

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