It is once again award season. The People’s Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the Grammys, and the Academy Awards all take place over the first two months of the year, so who deserves recognition for their work is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Despite hip-hop’s complicated history with the Grammys, it is the still the highest honor in music and every fan that was shouting that Grammys don’t matter the past few years quickly turned around and touted the fact that Kendrick Lamar’s instant classic, To Pimp a Butterfly, garnered eleven nominations, including Album of the Year.
While the top prize at the Academy Awards is Best Picture, awarded to the best film of the year, there is no such award at the Grammys, and for good reason. Because countless artists talk about making “cinematic” music, but few actually accomplish it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in hip-hop.
Throughout the long, rich history of rap, there have not been too many concept albums and the vast majority of those are, quite frankly, not very good. Even those that are good – Jay-Z’s American Gangster, Ghostface Killah’s 36 Seasons – or even great – Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… – more closely resemble outlines than actual concept albums. They’re sketches rather than full paintings.
But there is one hip-hop album that truly deserved to win Best Picture, Prince Paul’s 1999 aural masterpiece, A Prince Among Thieves.
The story of Tariq, an aspiring hip-hop artist that has managed to land a meeting with Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA, but first needs to scrape together enough money to finish recording a demo. To do so, he quits his minimum wage job and asks his friend True to help get into the drug game to make some quick cash.
What follows is a brilliant work of fiction that takes place in a deranged underworld inhabited by every sort of character one can imagine. From Everlast as a crooked cop to Chris Rock as a crackhead to Kool Keith as an unhinged weapons dealer to Sadat X, Xzibit, and Kid Creole as a trio of inmates, every guest of the robust supporting cast plays their part to perfection.
Unlike most rap albums, especially at the time, the skits here aren’t pointless filler. Instead, they do a marvelous job of advancing the story with short bursts of dialogue, almost like an old serialized radio show, before the next song begins. Legendary music Robert Christgau wrote, “Deploying hip hop stereotypes of mythic proportions in a coherent fable, it isn’t just one of the few hip hop albums ever to make you look forward to the next skit – it’s the closest thing to a true rock opera you’ve ever heard.”
While selecting colorful hip-hop legends to inhabit the larger-than-life supporting characters was brilliant, Paul’s shrewdest move was choosing relative unknowns for the two main roles. He needed professional MC’s, artists that could handle the story deftly and infuse the songs with the proper emotion and tone without it affecting their flows, but their voices and delivery couldn’t be too recognizable lest it takes the listener out of the story. So Tariq was played by Breeze Brewin of the Juggaknots and True went to Sha, one of the members of Horror City, both of whom rapped their asses off on the project. Plus, since many in the mainstream had never heard either, it added a nice level of authenticity to the record, making it that much easier for the listener to get lost in the story.
Considering that most major hip-hop producers have a distinct sound – you can almost always recognize a beat by Timbaland or DJ Premier – it’s amazing that one producer was able to deploy so many styles and include so many rappers on one album and make it all sound not just coherent, but fit it all seamlessly into one complete story. As Steve Huey of AllMusic put it, “Prince Paul sounds like he can do anything, and do it well. A Prince Among Thieves touches on every sound he’s ever tried on record, and it’s conceptually airtight; in both senses, it’s his magnum opus, and the crown jewel of a brilliant career.”
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. Visit his website or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.