The rap song Juicy reminisces about how things used to not be that good but now they are very good. It was the perfect version of a rap song that was a pop song without giving up any of its character or insight.
Here are nineteen of the twenty best rap albums that came out in 1994, which is, in no uncertain terms, one of the three best years in this history of hip-hop. They are ranked because only a human with a spine made of fiberglass would ever put together a list and use a variation of the phrase “in no particular order”:
#20. Method Man, Tical
#19. Various Artists, Murder Was the Case: The Soundtrack 18. O.C., Word . . . Life
#17. Pete Rock & C. L. Smooth, The Main Ingredient
#16. Eightball & MJG, On the Outside Looking In
#15. Warren G, Regulate . . . G Funk Era
#14. Organized Konfusion, Stress: The Extinction Agenda 13. The Roots, Do You Want More?!!!??!
#12. Digable Planets, Blowout Comb
#11. Jeru the Damaja, The Sun Rises in the East
#10. Various Artists, Above the Rim soundtrack
#9. Gang Starr, Hard to Earn
#8. Da Brat, Funkdafied
#7. UGK, Super Tight
#6. Common, Resurrection
#5. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Creepin’ on ah Come up
#4. Outkast, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
#3. Scarface, The Diary
#2. Nas, Illmatic
One of two things just happened right now.
You (a) appreciate Nas and respect Nas and understand that Nas’s place in rap history is near the top but have never truly found his hyperaware ability to unpack a particular setting or situation especially compelling and so you read that Illmatic was the second-best album of 1994.
Or, you (b) are a very big Nas fan and so when you read that Illmatic was the second-best album of 1994, your eyeballs exploded in your skull, in which case I am sorry about your eyeballs, and also, wow, congratulations on being able to read without eyeballs.
If you are in the first group, I am going to move on, because re-explaining something to you that you already understand is dumb. If you are in the second group, I am also going to move on because trying to convince a Nas fan that Illmatic is anything short of God’s will is no different than trying to explain to a fish how to climb a tree, in that both would be neat to see but neither are very likely to happen. And so:
Here is the best album of 1994:
#1. The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die
Ready to Die was the Notorious B.I.G.’s proper debut, and the only album he put out while he was still alive. It was a master class in paranoia, depression, death contemplation, the unfamiliarity of legitimate success, and the intersection of all four of these things. It is regarded by some as a completely perfect recording. “Juicy” was the album’s first single and its most important moment.
“Juicy” did four things well:
“Juicy” was gorgeously produced, albeit (probably) unoriginally. The build and the tinks and the weightlessness and every little detail. All golden. And also swiped. Poke and Puff Daddy are credited with having produced “Juicy,” sampling a track called “Juicy Fruit” by the funk/soul band Mtume. But producer Pete Rock has long asserted that he came up with the original version and that it was lifted from him. Still, even if that’s not true, even if Rock is lying (which seems unlikely), San Francisco’s Dre Dog released a song in 1993 called “The Ave.” that also sliced out a sliver of “Juicy Fruit” and turned it into its foundation. The origination is murky but the point is not: The most famous version of the beat featured in “Juicy” was not the first iteration of it.
“Juicy” was eager. It was, in effect, the song that gave the Puff Daddy Rap Vehicle perpetual motion, the one that first fueled his Diddy Bop across history. Its success helped legitimize Bad Boy Records, and it helped rocket Puff toward moguldom, and that was definitely not an accident.
“Juicy” was impeccably timed. Its most important immediate effect was that it counterbalanced Snoop’s Doggystyle, which had arrived from California just ten months prior and obliterated everything. “Juicy” helped pin rap down again in New York for a little bit longer as the West Coast continued yanking it back across the country.
“Juicy” was nuanced/insightful/incisive/culturally perceptive in a manner that allowed it more wiggle room than fundamentally equally menacing tapes. It was an examination of the existence of the disenfranchised black man in America disguised as a pop-rap track for anybody with ears. You could argue that its top was the moment when hip-hop sprinted out from the shadows of popular American culture, from its dirtiest and most threatening corners, and began absorbing all of its energies and dollars, shaping the schema into the earliest version of what we know it to be today.
But here’s what “Juicy” did that no other song like it had ever managed to do, and really what B.I.G. eventually proved he was going to do well on basically every song he ever recorded ever in his whole life ever: It took all of these very specific feelings and observations and thoughts he had and turned them into ideas that were very familiar and common.
He pushed sentences out through that humidor he had for a voice box, floating those humid clouds of words that had just the right blend of plump confidence and plumper insecurity out into the atmosphere, and it emboldened you. You always knew exactly what Biggie was talking about, even if sometimes you didn’t know exactly what he was talking about.
When he talked about listening to Rap Attack, a radio program on New York’s WBLS 107.5, on Saturdays; when he talked about having to eat sardines for dinner; when he expressed feelings of disbelief and self-doubt (“I never thought it could happen, this rapping stuff”); when he talked about the pivot his love life made after his name began to ring out (“Girls used to diss me / Now they write letters ’cuz they miss me”) and the pivot his financial life made, too (“Birthdays was the worst days / Now we sip champagne when we thirsty”), you knew.
I understand what you’re saying, Biggie. I feel it, too, Biggie. I am also nervous and happy and scared and excited and confounded by the complexities of life, Biggie. We are unified, Biggie. Everything is one, Biggie. Thank you, Biggie.
The only other song from 1994 that could’ve possibly stolen this spot on the list from “Juicy” was Nas’s “N.Y. State of Mind,” Illmatic’s fire-and-brimstone street sermon. And it is a technically amazing song. It’s a sword slice right down the middle of your fucking chest.
But Nas has mostly always been a selfish genius. He didn’t share it with you on “N.Y. State of Mind,” he just showed it to you. He brought you inside of his head to show you that he was a superhero.
Biggie veered in the opposite direction. He opened your skull up and showed you that you weren’t a superhero, but that he wasn’t either, and that maybe nobody was, really. Nas was popular. Biggie was a populist. He brought you to him, and then he took you both into the cosmos.
That’s the very best, most influential thing a rapper (or human) can do.
The shakings from “Juicy” will echo forever in the canon. It dwarfs everything else.