Published Wed, July 6, 2022 at 12:00 PM EDT
It's common for so many classic rap albums to begin with a skit. You can't imagine READY TO DIE without hearing the dramatic birth of baby Chris Wallace as Curtis Mayfield coos in the background; the first voice you hear on COLLEGE DROPOUT is comedian Deray Davis' hilarious Bernie Mac impression, urging Kanye West to do "something for the kids to sing." So when a rap album wastes no time getting to the point and kicks off with a bonafide classic, it's worth noting.
Did the CD era kill the traditional role of the opening track? Not really. But it became harder and harder to find rap and R&B albums that didn't begin things with some kind of skit or interlude before jumping right into the first bonafide track. In the days when vinyl was king, most albums didn't have the extra space to include little indulgences like intros. Classic vinyl-era albums like Thriller and Purple Rain drop you right into things, with an opening salvo that immediately sets the tone and sets a standard.
Eric B. & Rakim's classic Paid In Full dropped in July of 1987, in what was to be the last days of vinyl's reign. CDs were now on the horizon, and within a year, album's would balloon from 9 tracks to 14-16, and after De La Soul dropped 3 Feet High & Rising in 1989, skits and interludes would become a part of seemingly every classic rap album that came after.
But Paid In Full wastes no time getting down to business, opening with a first shot that sets a standard for what a great opening track should be and what a great opening track can do. "I Ain't No Joke" isn't Rakim's first pronouncement ("Eric B. Is President/My Melody" announced Eric B. & Rakim in late 1986); but from that distinct kick-and-snare opening and those unmistakable horns (courtesy of "Pass The Peas" by The J.B.s), this is the song that makes it clear what this duo is all about, and what the listener is about to get from Paid In Full. Ra's rhymes are ice-cold, as the classic funk of James Brown's backing band is transformed into something more street and harder than steel.
It establishes Rakim's flow and the subject that the album spends most of its time focused; how dope The R is on the microphone. Eric B.'s scratches carry things, and the song kicks off Paid In Full expertly. This is what an opening track is supposed to be.
But is "...Joke" the greatest opening track EVER?
In the annals of popular music, there are so many albums that kick things off with a killer. Nirvana's Nevermind grabs your attention from jump with the perennial "Smells Like Teen Spirit," instantly opening with what remains the album's most famous tune. What's Going On begins with its title track; a somber elegy that serves as a thematic and musical throughline for the entire project. "Gimme Shelter" foreshadows the sinister energy that propels Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones; Aretha's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You immediately hits you with the ubiquitous "Respect"; The Clash's London Calling opens with it's raucous title track, a perfect launch for one of the best albums in punk or rock history.
But in Hip-Hop, there is the question of what constitutes an opening track? Intros are so prevalent, but there's still something to be said for albums that didn't take that approach, even in the CD era.
On 2Pac's blockbuster 1996 double album All Eyez On Me, he has way more room, format-wise, to operate than Eric B. & Rakim had in 1987. Paid In Full isn't even an hour long, and that's even with remixes and extended bonus tracks. All Eyez On Me stretches past two hours; and Pac conceivably could have used an intro on the album; it was, after all, standard by this point. But he foregoes what was already becoming a bit of a rap album cliche and starts things with one of his most sinister classics.
The malevolent brilliance of "Ambitionz As A Ridah" is, at the very least, in the conversation when it comes to the greatest opening tracks of all time.
When one considers "...Ridah" and its place in 2Pac's career and history, it sounds like the mercurial rap legend offering a definitive middle finger to his enemies upon his 1995 release from prison and subsequent signing to the infamous Death Row Records. Coming on the heels of his previous album, the pensive and introspective Me Against The World, it was somewhat surprising to see him fully embrace the black hat here. But it's nonetheless riveting, and Daz's piano-driven track is one of his best.
A Tribe Called Quest's essential sophomore album, The Low End Theory, is another CD-era classic that foregoes an intro and just drops the listener in with an impeccable opening track. "Excursions" only features frontman Q-Tip, and the song is semi-autobiographical, as it references his relationship with music and conversations with his father. Its musically low without being thematically dark, and its cerebral jazziness is the perfect hors d'oeuvre for what ...Theory is about to throw at you. It's foundation is Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Q-Tip's flip of "A Chant For Bu" is an easy indicator of what set the man soon-to-be-known as Kamal Fareed apart from so many of his contemporaries. Impeccable taste and immaculate execution.
On Licensed To Ill, Beastie Boys open things up with those distinct drums from Led Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks," as "Rhymin' & Stealin'" establishes the early persona of the three-man crew. Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA leap into things in wildly irreverent fashion; presenting themselves as marauders pillaging from village to village. Their schtick may have gotten old fast (especially for the group themselves), but it was their calling card in the wake of ...Ill's success.
Like Licensed To Ill, Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell was also produced by Rick Rubin and also dropped in 1986. ...Hell would be a monster seller for the Kings from Queens, with MTV staples like "It's Tricky" and "Walk This Way" with Aerosmith. The album opener may not have been boosted by a popular music video, but "Peter Piper" is one of the most enduring and beloved songs in Run-D.M.C.'s catalog; propelled by Rubin's stellar sample of "Take Me To Mardi Gras."
Now, Peter Piper picked peppers. But Run rocked rhymes..."
The song's history is famously sticky; LL COOL J originally planned for the sample to be used on his 1985 smash "Rock The Bells," but Run had plucked it and convinced Rubin to flip it into Run-D.M.C.'s breakbeat classic, which wasn't released until a year later. It forced LL and Rubin to take a different approach for "...Bells" that led to the remarkable record it became. "I think the best records are the ones that don't fit," Rubin said of "Rock The Bells." "If it fits, then you probably won't remember it. The real revolutionary records are the ones when you first hear it you don't know what to make of it."
"Peter Piper" is Run-D.M.C.'s most famous ode to legendary DJ Jam-Master Jay; as Run and Dee compare their beloved turntablist to famous characters from nursery rhymes. The conceit never gets corny, as the emcees bounce rhymes off of each other and Jay's cuts are the perfect complementary shine on the bell-driven hook.
Both Straight Outta Compton from N.W.A. and Boogie Down Productions' By All Means Necessary arrived in the heady year of 1988, and both projects open with firebombs. The title track from N.W.A.'s gangsta opus is the group's theme song; an ever-enduring sonic grenade from Dr. Dre, with a lyrical assault from Ice Cube that made him a legend at barely 20 years old. B.D.P. was regrouping after the tragic murder of Scott La Rock, and "My Philosophy" served as the coming-out party for KRS-One's "Teacha" persona, as the Bronx emcee refocused his message to center on anti-violence and social awareness. "My Philosophy" sums up KRS is succinctly as "Straight Outta Compton" does N.W.A., and both serve as the thesis for the album's they appear on. Quintessential opening tracks.
Hip-Hop's greatest opening track is debatable, but the greatness of "I Ain't No Joke" shouldn't be.
"...Joke" would be something of a theme song for early Rakim (you could argue that "Microphone Fiend" would supplant in within a year and a half), and it remains a testament to his towering power as an emcee. "I'm not a rapper," Rakim told SPIN shortly after the song dropped in 1987. "I'm a lyricist. Rappin' is somethin' you do when you just coolin' out, poppin' shit, youknowwhatimsayin'? 'I take this more serious than just a poem.' Tryin' to make this art. Instead of people comin' up to me and sayin' 'Oh, you're a rapper?' I'd rather them come up to me and say 'Oh, you're an artist?' My music isn't Hip-Hop. I call it knowledge: a lesson with music."
The song endures as a classic of Hip-Hop, a benchmark for Eric B. & Rakim, and an all-around anthem. Its opening lines are as iconic as any ever uttered (which is saying something considering how ubiquitous so many of Rakim's opening bars have become) and the song has been covered (see Algebra Blessett's underrated soul reimagining from 2011) and it formed the core of Eurodance outfit M/A/R/R/S/ huge international hit "Pump Up The Volume." The song's influence stretches from Eurodance hits to friggin' Christian Slater movies.
It's not the first great opening track in rap's history ("I Can't Live With My Radio" makes a strong case for the first truly great opening track on a truly classic rap album), but it just might be the greatest true opening track because it sets things off so masterful for an album that's considered by so many to be the greatest of all time. That album is the debut for a duo that's about to go on a legendary run of albums; and Rakim makes it clear who he is from the outset. So when you consider historical significance, timelessness, influence and just flat-out fucking dopeness; "I Ain't No Joke" is hard to top.
Pump up the volume, indeed.