As Hip-Hop continues to age and evolve, one thing that remains a staple in the genre is the album intro. There are many factors that determine the effectiveness of an album intro. It doesn’t just set the tone for what the listener is about to experience but it also provides a look into the MC’s mind – what creative space they were in while birthing the album. Hip-Hop has not only continued to embrace the album intro as part of its identity but it has also blurred the lines with this particular art. Artists have started to incorporate the intro as part of the opening song itself, further establishing that the intro is vital to the DNA of the work itself and should be given the same attention as a full-fledged song.
It’s difficult to comb through the entirety of Hip-Hop’s discography to track the first true intro. When DJ’s in the 70’s introduced MC’s to spit party raps to live crowds at block parties, those can, in fact, be marked as the first official intros. But for sake of time, we’ll focus on iconic album intros in Hip-Hop from the 1980s to present.
What’s beautiful about intros in Hip-Hop is they can take on a character to themselves. They can be comedic, satirical, political, poetic, cinematic. The list goes on and on but what’s important is to note their significance tied to the artist, the time, and the elements they utilize. It’s also important to give some lesser known intros a chance to shine too. So a few widely popular intros won’t be on this list.
// Intro, Ice-T Power
One of the original provocateurs of West Coast rap, Ice T had already incorporated an intro on his debut album Rhyme Pays where he narrated a brief origin story of his inception into the game. With Power he made a brief callback to that intro but only this time he established his newfound fame and notoriety.
The intro depicts a conversation between two men who are praising Ice T’s previous album until one of them states, in a meta fashion, he has the new Ice T tape. Ultimately, the initial fun banter between the two takes a darkly comedic turn in the middle of all the excitement.
This brief interaction between the two men, in a rather subversive fashion, provides commentary on the legitimate “power” Ice T’s music possessed – the way the media attacked his music, the explicitness of his image, and the demographic that Ice speaks to. It’s direct, it’s unapologetic, and in true Ice T fashion, a touch of exaggerated comedy.
// Countdown to Armageddon, Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
For Public Enemy, the world doesn’t end in a whimper but with a bang. Their sophomore album wasted no time in grabbing the audience by the throat with “Countdown To Armageddon”. Public Enemy has always been vocal about its views on white culture, particularly white artists hijacking of black art. It would still be another album before they would declare Elvis a racist and tell John Wayne to fuck himself, so it’s only appropriate that this intro serves as the prophetic rioting of the impending end of white artists being universally praised as trailblazers.
What’s most effective of this intro is that its audio was pulled directly from one of their live shows in London, which urther exemplified Hip-Hop’s widespread appeal beyond U.S. borders. Any plans that mainstream America might’ve had to stunt its growth were failing immensely. Armageddon is coming and it’s going to be loud.
// Better Off Dead, Ice Cube Amerikkka’s Most Wanted
Ice Cube had just left the most dangerous group in music, and he left on not-so-good terms (to put it lightly). His controversial departure with N.W.A. would serve as the platform for Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. It was critical for Cube to come out the gate in full-force.
Ice Cube was arguably the best MC without a solo album. He wrote the majority of the raps for N.W.A. and had several hits under his belt with them, so everyone was waiting to see what he’d bring to the table. The intro title “Better Off Dead” may come off as depressing and self-deprecating, but the scene structured in the track depicts another take – defiant.
This intro would also be among the first to utilize cinematic elements to set up the album’s tone and narrative themes. Ice Cube plays a version of himself – without explicitly saying – who is about to be given the death penalty by electric chair. Cube’s unabashed arrogance – his “character” declares how he could “never be like you” to a guard on his way to the electric chair – was a big middle finger to his former group and America’s prejudice against black culture.
// The Genesis, Nas Illmatic
Probably the most iconic intro from the most iconic album in Hip-Hop. Illmatic, universally praised as a masterpiece, wouldn’t be such if it didn’t have an intro that can stand on its own greatness. “The Genesis” opens with the shuttering sounds of a New York subway and as it gradually fades out, two audio clips chime in – a scene from the movie Wild Style and an excerpt from Nas’ verse on “Live at the Barbeque”.
The former speaks about one thing – finding hope in a place of hopelessness. The latter cuts off at the moment Nas’ verse is about to rock a punchline about “snuffin’ Jesus”, as if to tell the audience to forget about everything that came before, because this was a new era.
The theme from Wild Style plays while Nas and other men (AZ and Nas’ brother Jungle) talk over each other, with Nas continuously trying to get his point across through the chaotic dialogue. Eventually, he cuts everything off and demands everyone to listen and declares his “message” as “illmatic”. His voice echoes out as if traveling beyond space and time to populate the universe.
// Intro, The Notorious B.I.G. Ready To Die
Biggie and Diddy took what Cube and Nas did and elevated it to new heights. In almost three-and-a-half minutes, “Intro” displays in graphic auditory detail the birth, trauma, vices, and eventual incarceration of one Christopher Wallace. Every era of Wallace’s life is accented by key music of the times – from Curtis Mayfield to Snoop Dogg, the listener is able to pinpoint the timeline of each pinnacle experience.
What’s most notable about this intro, besides its masterful production value, is the acting by Biggie and company. It’s compelling and in many ways convinces the listener that Wallace is the character and The Notorious B.I.G. is the man. Effectively, the intro validates the album’s title and narrative as our anti-villain unapologetically embraces the nihilistic and unforgiving world he exists within.
// Intro in A-Minor, Lil Kim Hard Core
Lil Kim was doing women empowerment decades before the term became overstated catchphrase in modern culture. That’s not to say the likes of Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, or Monie Love weren’t the foremothers of it, Lil Kim just took it into a whole other level of explicitness.
She reclaimed the word “bitch” as a badge of honor. From the album cover to the content, Kim threw subjects of sex, drugs, and alpha-femininity in the faces of the insecure men in the culture. But the intro is where she celebrates these themes.
A young man’s journey from cab ride to sex theater is both sad and hilarious. Kim doesn’t shy away from the “wet” elements. The entire ordeal culminates with the slippery sounds and moans of male masturbation. Just as male rappers have used women as objects for their amusement, Kim flips the script on the genre and turns it up a notch.
// Intro, Ghostface Killah Supreme Clientele
When it comes to cross-culture styling, the Wu-Tang are the masters of the practice. Following two astronomical Wu albums, the members pursued solo careers. Ghostface had already released Ironman to critical acclaim and solidified his status as a legitimate solo artist. For Supreme Clientele, his sophomore release, he dove headfirst into American pop-culture and his Tony Stark moniker.
An amalgamation of commercial clips promoting the Marvel superhero Iron Man, it was a fun, creative, and fitting to set off what many consider Ghostface’s masterpiece. The nostalgic tone truly captured the imaginative flows and lyrics that Ghostface was known for and would deliver with effortless expertise on Supreme Clientele.
// We Got It For Cheap (Intro), Clipse Hell Hath No Fury
Clipse’s long-awaited follow-up to their stellar debut needed something that would yank listeners into their coke-fueled drama once again. It also needed something that would dissolve anyone second-guessing their talent. After all, some were wondering if the baking soda duo could top Lord Willin‘.
Whether intentional or not, “We Got It For Cheap (Intro)” calls back to Ice-T’s first album where he stitched the intro with the opening song but with more creative flair. The whole thing plays like an opening montage to a Brian de Palma film as it switches between a Spanglish speaking drug pusher and the duo peeling off rhymes with uncanny precision.
The coke raps hit as expected but it’s Malice and Pusha’s introspective lyrics that let us know this is an evolved Clipse. Any concern that the long delay would tarnish the album, “We Got It For Cheap” washed those worries away.
// State of the Nation, Deltron 3030 Deltron 3030
If you played this intro on its own without any context, it would be hard to pinpoint it as an intro to a Hip-Hop album. Despite its short length, it provides so much with so little. From the distinct voice of the narrator and sonic arrangements that were relatively rare in Hip-Hop upon its release. It’s an intro that launches you into another dimension with no hesitation – we’re out here, keep up.
One other achievement of this intro is how vital it is to the album’s narrative as a whole. In essence, “State of the Nation” to Deltron 3030 is what the scrolling text is to the Star Wars franchise. Without it, the album would almost be too far out there. It provides a sense of stability in what would be an unstable world that exists in this story.
As the Shiny Suit Era trickled into the 2000s, Dead Prez released Let’s Get Free. The intro, titled “Wolves” begins with ominous keys playing under the soft howling of wolves. Calm and beautiful energy that will soften the blow before Dead Prez really digs its claws into us.
As the drums kick in, a speech by activist Omali Yeshitela takes center stage. Omali details how hunters in the Arctic trick wolves into killing themselves and juxtaposes this with crack’s impact on black communities. White power, oppression, and African Internationalism are expressed in the latter parts of the speech.
“Wolves” is a howling call for politically charged, conscious rap to reclaim its position in Hip-Hop. Dead Prez, pulled no punches and challenged their listeners with this defiant intro. You could even theorize that this served as inspiration for Kanye West’s closing track “Who Will Survive In America?” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy given the undeniable similarities. This only goes to show, how important and relevant “Wolves” remains to this day.
// F*ck Your Ethnicity, Kendrick Lamar Section.80
A crackling fire. The voice of an elder. A gathering of youth. The summoning of two girls – Keisha and Tammy. Then, the command for everyone to “fuck your ethnicity”. In just over 30-seconds, Kendrick Lamar tells you everything you need to know about Section.80 as the intro sinks seamlessly into the opening song.
Despite our technological advances and the ever-expanding concrete footprint, we will always have a connection to the primal. It’s still the wild out here, and there’s a fire that burns in all of us. The calling of Keisha and Tammy is less prophetic but rather telling of who suffers the most in this world. Young, black women.
There have been male MC’s who have made songs dedicated to the plight of black women. None have chosen to place them front and center of their album’s main narrative. With “F*ck Your Ethnicity”, Kendrick would carve his place in Hip-Hop as someone who is doesn’t just tell stories but chooses to tell the boldest stories.
// Intro, Kanye West The College Dropout
Mr. West is no stranger to great intros, but it should go without saying that the introduction to his debut The College Dropout is arguably his most memorable. This came off the heels of 50 Cent’s trajectory into megastardom. Fifty had essentially created a formula that was being duplicated in mainstream Hip-Hop and there was, as some would say, a lull in creative output from the culture at large.
Despite Kanye being an intricate part of Jay Z’s classic The Blueprint, he was still seen as a producer and more specifically, a producer who was “trying to rap”. It was important that he not only set the stage for the album itself but for his career as a whole. Little did Hip-Hop know it would be bigger than that.
The intro was a dramatic shift from the near caricature gangster persona that was dominant in the early 2000s. The College Dropout intro was comedic and weird. The shaky voice of some unnamed “faculty member” fumbles over words as he requests Kanye to “do sum’in for tha kids”. Today, such an intro may not seem so clever given how many modern artists embrace the weird and unconventional, but back then, it was utterly provocative. It was so Kanye.
// Intro, Lauryn Hill The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
This album was never something Hill had definitively planned. After a series of life events, Hill was motivated to express herself in her classic and masterful solo debut album. The woman had a lot going on and she had a lot to say. She was always respected as a formidable MC. One that many argued was superior to that of her former groupmates Pras and Wyclef. So naturally, Hip-Hop audiences were eager to hear what Ms. Hill would bring to the table.
Despite the turmoil culminating around her at the time, the intro to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was tender and sentimental. It wasn’t an artist telling her story from early childhood but rather, tapping into the childlike sense of innocence. Cue Picasso quote: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child”.
A classroom filled with bustling kids as a teacher calls out names. When he calls for Lauryn Hill, she doesn’t answer and as the intro fades out there’s a sense of calmness to this world. The teacher doesn’t seem worried, as if this is a common occurrence with Ms. Hill. It’s the perfect opening for the neo-soul vibe that oozed through the album and set Ms. Hill apart from other MC’s who were more inclined to Mafioso concepts or hyper-sexual identities.