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The Evolution of the Rap Ballad

By Jay Quan

Ballad – any light, simple song, especially one of romantic character.

The rap ballad has existed since the earliest days of recorded rap, but has always fit best and achieved more success on full-length albums. All Platinum/Sugar Hill Records vocalist Craig Derry speaks with wisdom and confidence when he speaks of rap’s first full length outing: the self-titled Sugar Hill Gang album released in February of 1980.

“Sylvia (Robinson) knew what she was doing," Derry says. "She knew that the kids were buying rap records, but she wanted to go after the adults as well, so she put “Here I Am” – a song that I sang lead on, on the album and the B-side of the “Rappers Delight” 45. She told radio DJ’s and program directors that it was (Sugar Hill Gang rapper) Big Bank Hank singing lead,”

Sugar Hill Records founder Sylvia Robinson was likely correct in her theory because the album peaked at #37 on the Billboard R&B chart (there was no Hip-Hop chart at the time). Even though there was no rapping on “Here I Am,” the fact that it was promoted as a ballad sung by rappers was one of the earliest notions that rappers could at least have the perception of communicating romantically.

In 1980, former Treacherous 3 member Spoonie Gee released a song called “Love Rap” on the Enjoy! Record label. More flirtatious than romantic, “Love Rap” found Spoonie where we found him many times in his adventure-filled rhymes – driving down the street pursuing a fine young lady.

Although it wasn’t as romantic as rap would soon get, “Love Rap” marked one of the first times that an actual MC stepped in that direction. In that same year Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde also released a song called “Love Rap” under the name Harlem World Crew. The Harlem World Crew’s “Love Rap” was basically Jeckyll & Hyde going back and forth trading flirtatious rhymes with an unnamed female MC who plays the part of their classmate.

“She kissed me slow, but you know how far a kiss can go f*** around and miss the show
so I told her to hold that thought real tight
we can finish where we left off later on tonight” Rakim - "Mahogany" 1990

In 1982, The Sugar Hill Gang delivered the closest thing to a romantic rap song that existed until that point. Over a Pete Wingfield-produced track they serenaded their female fanbase with “The Lover In You.” Master Gee assumes a serious tone when he speaks about the production genius of the late Sylvia Robinson: “Sylvia worked with me to get just the right vocal tone for that song. I was young, in good physical shape and seen as the sex symbol in the group. If you notice, I have a seductive tone on that song and it was due to Sylvia coaching me one on one through several takes to get that tone. She was a genius in the studio and she had the gift to see what would be successful."

Kurtis Blow was the first solo rap artist signed to a major label (Mercury/Polygram) and is widely revered as the prototype for the rap superstar.

In 1982, Blow released “Daydreamin'” on his third studio album simply titled Tough. “Daydreamin' was not a rap song at all, but a smoothed-out R&B tune that is considered a classic almost four decades after its release. He sings lead vocals, and he does so quite well.

Rap music was still a singles driven genre, and at this point, it was becoming increasingly clear that the album format was the best place for rap artists to expand beyond the typical braggadocio that was dominant in the music.

Two years later, a young new energetic artist on a new ground breaking label, Def Jam, injected a much needed new energy into the genre. LL COOl J released two songs that made the potential for a commercially successful rap ballad a more possible reality.

He followed up his first single “I Need A Beat” with a single containing two songs: “Dangerous” and “I Want You.” “I Want You” was a B Boys love letter to his high school crush.

Where The Sugar Hill Gang’s love songs were sung, or had singing as the hook, LL COOL J boldly declared in the intro of “I Want You” – “look girl I'm not gonna sing because I just don’t do that."

While the songs that preceded “I Want You” were all full musical pieces performed by musicians (with the exception of Spoonie Gee’s drum heavy “Love Rap”), “I Want You” was simply LL COOL J and a drum machine. The only thing separating “I Want You” from the other drum machine rap records of the mid '80s was the subject matter. The realization of commercially successful and romantic Hip-hop song was around the corner.

“I see you in between class but my mind does a task, one glimpse of your eyes and my heart beats fast a mysterious fantasy, lovely young queen you pose so subtle just like a magazine - come and visit my sister sittin’ in the livin' room eatin’ doughnuts and milk listening to a pop tune, used to be my baby-sitter, I want you for my woman without you girl, my life is bitter like a lemon” I Want You – LL COOL J 1985

The world knew the name LL COOL J after his performance of his breakthrough single “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” in the seminal Hip-Hop film Krush Groove. The B side of “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” was LL COOL J's second ballad titled, “I Can Give You More.”

Musically, “I Can Give You More” was still drum machine heavy, but a simple piano line accompanied the beat, making it a little more radio friendly and accessible than “I Want You.”The footprint of “I Cant Live Without My Radio” was huge and it overshadowed “I Can Give You More,”taking LL COOL J to American Bandstand, Soul Train, and around the globe. “I Want You” and “I Can Give You More” went mostly uncelebrated on LL COOL J's debut album Radio, but the rap ballad would soon take him to even higher heights than his first album.

The 4 man group known as U.T.F.O. released their self-titled full length album in 1985 on the heels of the hugely successful and much responded to “Roxanne, Roxanne” single. The last song on side one was “Fairy Tale Lover” – written and sung by The Kangol Kid. “Fairy Tale Lover” marked perhaps the first time that a ballad with singing by the actual MC's received airplay on the quiet storm radio format and was performed on television’s Soul Train. In the same year Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde released “A Rappers Love Song” from their Champagne of Rap album.

Ecstasy, Jalil & Grandmaster Dee were sonically and visually the most sophisticated trio in rap music and as Whodini they handled themes that were far beyond their contemporaries as far as maturity. They solidified their greatness in 1986 when they dropped their third lp “Back In Black” containing the Larry Smith produced anthem “One Love”. With a music video that was as equally polished as the song, Whodini not only talked about love – they broke down what love was and was not based on real experiences – both successes and mistakes. The words “One Love” are a salutation in Hip Hop more than three decades later – a testament to the power of the song.

In 1987, Juice Crew mainstay and former LL COOL H rival M.C Shan flipped the love ballad on its head, pioneering the rap break up song. Previously, the MC was trying to flirt with or gain the attentions of the young lady, but Shan showed a vulnerability that few if any rap artists had shown up until that point. “Left Me Lonely” was a true story.

"My girl left me and everything in the song is true except the part about me putting a gun to my head,” Shan says. “She left me, but I flipped it on her and made a song out of the situation and got paid. It wasn’t long after she left that I blew up.”

Where the Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow songs were full R&B productions played by musicians, and LL COOL J'S ballads were drum machine based, "Left Me Lonely" was a hybrid of the musician (keyboardist Andre Booth’s melodic keyboard lines) and the sampling/drum programming of Shan’s D.J. and producer, Marley Marl.

King Sun and D Moet dropped “Hey Love” in the same year on Zakia Records. Over a keyboard line lifted from “Moments In Love” by Art of Noise and played by their labelmate Cut Master D.C. King Sun wasted no time shooting his shot at his love interest.

By the time that LL COOL J'S second album Bigger And Deffer was released in the same year, the rap album format was more solid than ever before. Along with the boastful rhymes of how fast their DJ's were, or how many ladies they had, rappers had started to incorporate social commentary, humor, other musical styles like reggae and other elements into their full length releases.

It was almost part of an unspoken rule that rap artists include one of those elements within their release. “I Need Love” was the realization that rap could compete on commercial daytime radio with other genres of music, and of equal importance – the rap artist was versatile in subject matter. Sonically “I Need Love” was less drum heavy than LL COOL J'S previous ballads, relying heavily on melody. The infectious keyboard melody combined with HIS vulnerable lyrics such as, “we’ll get cozy and cuddle, I’ll lay down my jacket so you can walk over a puddle” helped to propel Bigger And Deffer to multi-platinum status and the #1 position on the R&B/Hip Hop charts & #3 on the Billboard 200. “I Need Love” inspired many artists to include at least one ballad on their full length releases.

A year before NWA planted the seeds that would change the genre forever, The World Class Wreckin’ Cru including Dr. Dre, Yella and Michele’ released “Turn Off The Lights” a ballad that introduced Michele’ to the world and marked the last release from the group. “Turn Off The Lights” also garnered more nationwide radio airplay that any previous song released by the World Class Wreckin’ Crew.

Rap has always been a male dominated genre, but by the mid-1980s more female MC'S were visible. Queens legend Toi “Sweet Tee” Jackson released her full-length debut album titled “Its Tee Time” in 1988. In a role reversal of sorts she raps about a break up, but from a woman’s point of view on “Why Did It Have To Be Me.” In the same year Kid n Play released the duet/ballad “Undercover” featuring their labelmate The Real Roxanne.

M.C. Shan returned to the heartbreak theme with “She’s Gone” in ’88 as well. Shan says “She’s Gone” is based on a true story too.

"Women were always leaving me because I was a player,” he says. "

This Andre Booth collaboration was more polished than” Left Me Lonely” but didn’t receive the same accolades and went largely uncelebrated on Shan’s Born To Be Wild release which many in his core audience call his best album.

“I stare at the walls; pop five Tylenols unplug the telephone to avoid phone calls as a sit and crave for the love she gave but when I wake up I’m the same love slave” - She Loves Me - Kool G. Rap 1988

As rap music embraced a harder sound and image, the 1990’s saw the rap ballad change with a less romantic tone and subject matter but with more danceable, sophisticated backing tracks which equaled more crossover success. There are quite a few songs that kept the spirit of the rap ballad alive, with some even advancing it. “Can You Get Away” from 2Pac’s 1995 release Me Against The World found Pac serenading a young lady who was already in a relationship. The song revealed a vulnerable side of the multifaceted rapper as he asks her in the intro “let me take you to lunch, I’ll have you back before he gets home.” In the same year, the Wu Tang Clan’s Method Man and Mary J Blige resurrected the spirit of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1968 hit “You’re All I Need To Get By.”.The remake of the same name stayed on the Billboard charts for 28 weeks and reached #1. Rounding out the '90’s, Mase released “What You Want” featuring Total and DMX hit big with “How’s It Goin’ Down” as did The Roots and Erykah Badu with “You Got Me”.

In the early 2000’s Ja Rule carried the torch for the rap ballad and achieved commercial success and notoriety. “Put It On Me,” “Between Me & You,” “What’s Love,” and “Always On Time” topped the charts, filled dance floors and solidified Rule as the face of the modern day rap ballad for that time. Nelly and Kelly Rowland enjoyed considerable success with their duet “Dilemma” and Common’s “The Light” earned great critical and commercial success.

As the lines of R&B and rap continued to blur stylistically a decade into the millennium and new sub genres of rap music continue to be created artists like Drake, Travis Scott and Future continue to redefine and push the limits of romance in rap.