10 essential Toronto rap albums every fan should know
Compiling a list of essential Toronto rap albums is no easy task, but it helps to have a working criteria. So let's do it like this: if an alien were to touch down at Nathan Phillips Square and demand to understand the Toronto rap sound from its origins through those glorious '90s till now in 10 albums or less, we'd play him/her/it the following 10 records and wish he'd stick around to listen to another 10.
These are my picks for Toronto's most essential rap albums.
Symphony in Effect - Maestro Fresh-Wes
Backed by the classic "Let Your Backbone Slide," this 1989 Scarborough masterpiece essentially slapped Canadian rap on the map and nearly went double platinum. Dexterous, confident rhymes in the vein of Big Daddy Kane met with a sexual wit ("Just Swingin' ") and thumping beats from Peter and Anthony Davis. A whole generation learned the game from Wesley Williams.
Nothing Was the Same - Drake
Drizzy's best album (until, perhaps, Views from the 6) finds the Billboard behemoth perfecting his oscillation from singing to spitting. Sure, "Hold On, We're Going Home" is pure pop fodder, but deep cuts like "The Language" and "All Me" hold up as examples of Drake at his finest.
And Now the Legacy Begins - Dream Warriors
Like up-north, islands-flavoured cousins of the Native Tongues, King Lou and Capital Q were a local force to be reckoned with at the top of the '90s. Their debut spawned four unique hit singles: "Wash Your Face in My Sink," "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style," "Ludi" and "Follow Me Not." Great hooks, greater timing. Unfortunately, their follow-ups never reached such heights.
Ice Cold - Choclair
T'was a big deal in 1999 for an up-and-comer from Scarborough to land features from big-name U.S. emcees Guru, Memphis Bleek and Ol' Dirty Bastard (the unreleased "Suave Dirt Dogs") on his debut. Yet the bouncy, Juno-winning Ice Cold soared on the merits of the hometown squad. Circle fam Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates and Solitar handled most of the beats, including smash hit "Let's Ride."
Passage Through Time - Da Grassroots
The only problem with Passage Through Time is that it's the only full-length in Da Grassroots' catalogue. The low-end-heavy production triumvirate of Mr. Attic, Mr. Murray and Swiff gift a cadre of mostly independent T.O. emcees - Arcee, Mr. Roam, et al - with a series of neck-cracking jewels. What's nastier: The graphic subject manner of "Body Language" or that instrumental?
Quest for Fire: Firestarter, Vol. 1 -- Kardinal Offishall
What sophomore slump? Following up 1997's head-turning Eye & I with a more confident and polished set in 2001, Kardi introduces the world to T-Dot slanguage ("BaKardi Slang"), gets the best kind of bristly on "U R Ghetto 2002," and gets blessed by Mr. Attic with the irresistible "Ol' Time Killin'."
The Long Awaited... - Monolith
More of an EP at six tracks, but screw it. I have to give some love to Monolith here, and this '98 cassette on One Rock Records, which presents underground compadres Grimace Love, Charisma, Dan-e-o, Wio-K, Black Cat, Korry Deez and SpiDahman at their dustiest, mic-passing best. Raw and enthusiastic, just like their live shows.
Troubadour - K'Naan
This album - a big, smart chunk of hopeful pop informed by pain - is destined to be remembered for the ubiquitous "Wavin' Flag," yet it's much more. An insightful and fun crossover smash from one of the city's many immigrant voices.
The Underground Tapes - Saukrates
Arguably the best talent (the MC plays instruments and produces, too) with the sickest voice to come out of Toronto, poor Saukrates' career has been hampered by delayed releases and busted record deals (Def Jam, through Redman). Although his debut would've been better served coming out two years earlier, there's no denying the consistency of this collection.
The LegendsLeague Presents: Naturally Born Strangers - Naturally Born Strangers
Three of the city's most prolific and proficient talents - Adam Bomb, Rich Kidd and Tona -form this smart, aggressive Cerberus of a pop-up group and end up stealing the 2015 Juno with their freebie mixtape. Dark and anti-pretty-much-everything, NBS represents the most cohesive and unchained work from a trio who has put in a ton of work individually.
What did I miss? Add your suggestions for essential Toronto rap albums in comments.
Writing by Luke Fox. Lead image from Nothing Was the Same.
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