5 Mic Formula (Written Summer 2009)
Although I have never made a rap album myself (a fact I am NOT proud of), I estimate I have listened to over a thousand and read reviews of countless others (I can substantiate this by my massive cassette/CD collection that is becoming more obsolete as I write this and the section of my parent’s attic filled with issues of The Source and XXL). I am reasonably sure that after two decades as an avid listener there is a formula that absolutely must be followed in order to gain widespread acclaim and the “Bling Bling” associated with being in the rap game. Deviation from this formula has only two possible results: you will be universally loved, selling millions of records and winning armloads of Grammy Awards (Outkast, Kanye West, Lauren Hill) or you will not be accepted by the mainstream, be completely ignored by the hip-hop community, and never get to appear on 106 & Park, in short you will be Joe Budden. What follows is the irrefutable formula that must be followed in order to have an album that is accepted in Hip-Hop circles, the names and shout-outs can change, but the formula must remain the same.
While the subject matter of the INTRO can vary a little from artist to artist, one thing is absolutely certain…the beat must sound like Armageddon is imminent. This INTRO will be an adrenaline rush for the listener and get them all jacked up to hear what this rapper has prepared for his album. These songs are usually so intense they can not be more than 2 min. long and the subject matter is as follows:
Established rapper whose last album was well received: He is always on top and will continue to stay there. He may mention “longevity” and “time in the game” even if this is only his second album and his debut was less than 12 months ago.
Established rapper whose last album was not well received: He is “off that bullshit” and “focused.” This may be confusing for some because “that bullshit” is never clearly defined, but it can be assumed it is the celebrity lifestyle, his old crew or previous record label.
New rapper: The major label debut of this MC signifies the next sea change for humanity. This album is going to alter the course of human history in much the same way as the discovery of the Americas, the lunar landing and the development of the internet. Needless to say, most albums do not meet these expectations.
THE STREET BANGER
This song has a beat that is hard and tailor made to the part of the country the MC represents. If the guy is from New York there is about a 75% chance it will be produced by DJ Premier, if he’s southern there is a similar chance it will be produced by DJ Troomp. There is usually no hook, a chorus replete with profanity and 3 verses proclaiming what a hard-ass the rapper is and how no level of fortune and fame will deter him from being “real heavy in the streets.” These boasts are harder to believe if the artist has been in the game for close to 2 decades (Fat Joe), has been a professional rapper since he was a pre-teen (Lil’ Wayne) or has made a string of family-friendly comedies (Ice Cube). This song will inevitably get leaked to mixtapes and the internet months, and in some extreme cases years, before the album is actually released in stores. Depending on how the album sells this will either be viewed by the artist as “some next level, punk/guerilla marketing shit” or a symbol of that label’s and all of corporate America’s inability to understand and sell street culture.
THE FIRST SINGLE/CLUB RECORD
This song is the first video and the first one to be on MTV, BET, (in some cases VH1) and daytime radio. It almost always employs a chorus sung by soulless contemporary R&B singers that may be either male (T-Pain, Akon, R. Kelly) or female (Mya, Lil’ Mo, Monica ) that function to expand the rapper’s audience beyond the hood. This song is usually produced by a famous producer like Timbaland or The Neptunes and has a beat that is danceable and lyrics about how cool the rapper is and how he conducts his business in either the club or with females. This is the first song from the album hip-hop fans become tired of because they listened to a leaked version on a website in November and now its summer and it’s on every radio station and video outlet. When a song reaches this level of pervasiveness it is formally called “A Problem.”
THE BIG TIME COLLABORATION
Here the rapper collaborates with another established MC in an effort to make fans of the featured MC also buy this record. The reasons this guest is selected can vary from being from the same area (Fat Joe and KRS-ONE), bringing an old school legend together with a new guy that has been referred to as “the next ________” (Nas and Kool G Rap) or just the fact that the featured MC is Lil’ Wayne. In the best case scenario this results in a monster song of epic proportions that will be talked about for years to come (Jay-Z and Biggie on “Brooklyn’s Finest”). At the other end of the spectrum the rapper is exposed for being inferior to the guest and “murdered on his own shit” (damn near any collaboration with Eminem from ’99 to ’02 excluding “Renegade”).
THE DRUG SONG
The rapper will espouse the virtues of substance abuse. The substances in question can be marijuana, alcohol or cough syrup, that’s it, no other drugs can be mentioned regardless how obvious it is that the MC is using much harder substances (DMX or anyone that has ever associated with the Hot Boys). The artist will explain in detail how much he likes the substance, how much he does (usually enough to kill 10 grown men) and how he will not stop abusing it regardless of societal norms or the consequences said abuse will cause him or his family.
THE SEX SONG
Over a porno-inspired beat the rapper explains in detail his sexual exploits with various groupies, hood rats, jump-offs, etc. There is usually a mention of the Energizer Bunny and the size of the young women’s asses that are involved in these intense and barely legal trysts.
FILLER TRACKS & POSSE CUTS
About 5 or 6 songs into the album the rapper usually loses steam and takes up 4 or 5 songs with cheap beats by up-and-coming producers and guest verses by guys he grew up with. Every once in a while there is a gem in here, but for the most part it is fast-forward material and most of the guests are never heard from again. One of the best features of digital music is the ability to never hear one of these half-assed efforts again.
The “Back in the Day” SONG
Here the rapper will utilize an easily recognizable sample that will remind the listener of their own youth while he weaves tales of hanging with his crew, cutting school, selling low-level narcotics and other accounts of criminal mischief. He will also try to convince his listeners that it was somehow better to be broke on the block than living the lavish hip-hop star lifestyle…the less intelligent members of his fan base will actually believe this.
THE LOVE SONG
This will have a soulful beat and may or may not feature an R&B singer that is usually of better quality than the one used on the FIRST SINGLE/CLUB SONG (Mary J. Blige or Jaheim). The theme of this song is that even though this guy got busy with 100’s of women that all had enormous asses he is finally ready to settle down with one special lady. Any “special lady” that believes this is dumb and clearly not marriage material.
THE “WHAT’S GOIN’ ON?”/INTROSPECTIVE SONG
Towards the end of this masterpiece the rapper will most likely take back everything he said for the last 55 min. and end with a song that is either a look into his soul, an affirmation that the youth can do whatever they can dream or a lament about the sorry state of the world. This will usually sample a recognizable R&B song and range from awesome (Jadakiss’s “Why?”) to laughable (CNN’s “Closer’). This will also inevitably include the phrase “only god can judge me” to highlight the MC’s tortured soul and may utilize the voices of young children on the chorus, intro or outro to further tug on the heartstrings.
Rappers use this made-up word to signify a minute or two at the end of the CD where he will remind you how great he is and remind you to keep an eye out for his clothing-line, reality show or next artist coming out on his label.
If the artist is lucky enough to have a song classified as “A Problem” before the album drops the label will throw together this collection of other MC’s on the beat and tack it onto the end of the album. This will contain the original artist, Busta Rhymes and 3 other guys that are hot right now.
Strict adherence to this formula will result in heavy rotation on Hot 97, an appearance on MTV Cribs and at least one date with Kim Kardashian.