It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
Upon the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, a rumor circulated that Jay-Z had decided to drop the word "bitch" from his future rhymes. That turned out to be false, but the weird victory of Jay's b-word change of heart and the (non-)controversy that followed illustrated a basic and obvious truth about hip-hop: It has always had a difficult time with women. There have been plenty of great female rappers, but it is a history that has unfolded as one of false starts and unfair scrutiny, crippling beefs and feeble label politics. That MC Lyte's outstanding debut album, Lyte as a Rock, stands out in the hyper-competitive class of 1989 testifies to her striking precocity: This is 40 minutes of effortless rhyming, teenage self-assurance and plump, sampled beats. She had support from her family (her two brothers, Milk Dee and Gizmo of Audio Two), but Lyte's attitude was unique bold and clever but not smart-alecky, more nasty than sassy. Where many of Lyte's female predecessors and contemporaries seemed gimmicky seldom of their own choosing Lyte arrived "from the planet of Brooklyn," fully formed and polished. "Guys watch/ Even some of the girls clock," she boasted on "Lyte as a Rock," while on the teasing "Paper Thin" and the chunky "MC Lyte Likes Swingin'" she sounded like she'd been around for years. Perhaps this is why the pro forma mission statements ("I am Woman" and "Don't Cry Big Girls") lack the punch she displays elsewhere: her skill set needed no qualification, and she knew it. Instead, Lyte was at her best on decidedly "unladylike" cuts like "I Cram to Understand U" and "10% Dis," moments when she crushed a crackhead boyfriend and fellow rapper Antoinette, respectively.
The Older Brothers
Made up of MC Lyte's two older brothers, the inimitably nasally Milk Dee and DJ Gizmo, Audio Two are known primarily for one song: 1987's "Top Billin'," still a masterpiece of minimalist chest-thumping. What More Can I Say? has the feeling of something cobbled-together to surround that one transcendent hit. The other tracks are stripped-down but rarely as powerful as "Top Billin'," though the sitcom-status story rap "Hickeys Around My Neck" has its charm. Audio Two never really got past that one hit, sampling Milk's lines for their 1988 album title (What More Can I Say?) and the song "I Don't Care." "Top Billin'" is so good, though, that it nearly works; at the very least, that oft-sampled classic, as well as Milk's cult-appeal nasality, equal parts sneering and exasperated, have insured Audio Two a place in late-1980s rap lore.
Where Lyte came across like a cocky teen that had honed her skills on the corner, Queen Latifah carried an air of mature grace. Maybe it was just the name and her vast networks (Flavor Unit, Native Tongues). All Hail is a well-rounded classic, from the whimsical "Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children" (featuring De La Soul) to the guttural funk of "Latifah's Law." There's a foray into hip-house ("Come into My House") and an entry in the late-1980s sub-genre of token ragga deep-album cuts ("The Pros"). As the name suggests, Latifah was all about empowerment: "Evil That Men Do" was a snapping, Gil Scott-Heron-inspired wake-up call featuring KRS-One while "Ladies First," a verse-for-verse dash alongside Monie Love, remains a rousing manifesto: "I'ma mess around and flip the scene into reverse/(With what?) With a little touch of 'Ladies first.'"
The Lil Sister
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lil Kim had grown up listening to MC Lyte she paid tribute to Lyte on her guest verse for Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm" remix: "Hot damn hoe here we go again/ Lyte as a rock, bitch/ Hard as a cock, bitch." To say that Kim was a different kind of female rapper than Lyte would be an understatement. Released just a few years after Lyte's heyday, Kim's 1995 debut, Hard Core, was about a different kind of gender equality. On thuggy classics "Big Momma Thing" and "Queen Bitch," she staked a claim to be as rough and nasty as her male colleagues, if not more. "Clean bitch/ Disease-free bitch," she boasted on the latter cut, while on the gorgeous, hypnotic "Drugs" she backed up her claim to being the "ultimate high," a dazed Biggie rhyming the hook. The less said about the intro, during which a young fan pleasures himself to the fantasy of Kim, the better.
New York's Jean Grae is one of the most direct heirs to Lyte's no-frills, street-savvy style. Emerging in the mid '90s under the name What? What?, she stole the show on a pair of Natural Resource singles before embarking on a solo career as Jean Grae. Her albums course with frustration and pride, outsized confidence and late-night doubts, the result of a decade in which every break seemed to go the wrong way. She's a deft rapper tough, funny and, like Lyte, confident that she deserves her place at the table. Jeanius was ready in 2004 but, mysteriously, didn't get a proper release until 2008. Hip-hop has seen few songs as wrenching as "My Story," Grae's recollection of getting an abortion as a teenager. "Age is a motherfucker," she snarls coolly on "Don't Rush Me." "Find myself staring at the little kids thinking I could beat 'em like a stepmother."
At the other end of the spectrum is Oakland's Kreayshawn a strikingly different picture of the self-made success, and not merely because she's white. Rather, Kreayshawn arrives at a time when the lineage that began with Sha Rock or Lyte is no longer so determinative the past, all of it, becomes a motley, thrift-store free-association. Which isn't to say "Gucci Gucci" isn't a well constructed song it certainly boasts a monstrous beat or that Kreayshawn isn't vaguely serious about her craft, credentials (see: her recent face-off with Azealia Banks) and punch-lines (the one about her swag-filled ovaries). One of the striking aspects of Lyte's career has been its longevity: She's parlayed her success as a rapper into other opportunities on television and in movies. But for Kreayshawn, as with many of today's up-and-comers, hip-hop seems but one of many passions, a springboard of sorts to work in fashion, film and Internet celebrity.