I’ve always imagined that assembling a crew of rappers would be tough business—multiple egos clashing, while all coming together to sell themselves in one package. Crew albums are usually equipped with a leader to spearhead the movement. 50 cent found commercial success before pulling G-Unit to the limelight, as did Nelly and Ludacris before him, for their own rosters. Jay Z passed off The Dynasty as a solo effort, but it was really himself taking the training wheels off of his crew to properly co-sign their takeover. The goal of these unions was to sell their personalities with the music, prompting the listeners to pick a favorite; one they identified with the most. Although Lloyd Banks was my favorite out of G-Unit, Young Buck’s raw energy was more captivating. Ruff Ryders, outside of DMX, was still laced with a superstar roster that catered to the streets, and Roc-A-Fella was the family I felt a part of. They were the ones that set the tone for what black entrepreneurship was supposed to look like. But the importance of rap compilation albums today is diminishing, and leaves me reminiscent of that time of unity, hustler spirit, and the purity of brotherhood.
“This is much more than rap, we black entrepreneurs; clothing, movie, and film we come to conquer it all.” – Jay Z “4 Da Fam”
Crews are still around, but noticeably less impactful. A$AP Mob’s Cozy Tapes, lead by A$AP Rocky, highlighted their comradery, but did little to exemplify their chemistry on a grand scale. G.O.O.D Music released Cruel Summer in 2013. The album featured Kanye’s all-star crew, which includes Big Sean, Teyana Taylor, Pusha T, and honorary member 2 Chainz, who was on fire that year thanks to his guest features and rebranding. Although the offering birthed the excellent “Mercy” single, most of it failed to connect and establish their takeover. Rick Ross’ MMG has managed to kick out three compilation albums, but the Bawse’s dream team hasn’t been able to cultivate much interest outside of their solo endeavors. Not to mention, Wale and Meek Mill don’t even get along, yet artistically, they share a home. And as broken as that home may be, cliques usually ride for each other no matter what, yet, Meek faced the biggest challenge of his career–without the support from his family.
What we have today has shown more business savvy than natural companionship. I’ve seen a time where Beanie Sigel aggressively went after someone in a club for bumping into Jay Z, and a time where ODB bumrushed the stage at the Grammys to let people know Wu-Tang was for the children. That family aspect is a little hard to fish out now.
The chemistry is also something that can’t be forced for a collective, and has to come natural. The Diplomats wasted no time being the perfect examples of this. They were diplomatic in the sense that no ally was ever left behind. With Cam’ron, Jim Jones, and Freeky Zeeky already having prior history, they were able to put together a Harlem-based clique that would eventually become one of the greatest rap unions of all time. At one point, they helped define New York’s iconic street style. Together they were a packaged deal, and their Diplomatic Immunity album’s success was due in large part to their natural chemistry; everyone wanted to be an honorary Dipset member back then.
TDE may be the closest to providing us with a feeling we haven’t had in a while with rap crews. The clique of wordsmiths, along with singer SZA, seem to have an understanding of their audience’s needs, but how this would transfer to a full crew album remains to be seen. Their biggest flaw, however, is rolling out an album that isn’t Kendrick Lamar’s. Even then, they seem to embrace that and have fun with it. Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Anthony Tiffith often engages with fans through his Twitter account to let them know the latest, and pokes fun at the inconsistencies in their line up. With so many gifted artists to manage, including ScHoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, things don’t always pan out as they should.
Wu-Tang Clan, however, is the crew of all crews. Even the group’s iconic logo has taken on a life of it’s own. From jacket pins and coffee mugs, to T-shirt’s in Forever 21 capitalizing off of their image without knowing the depth of their history (but we’ll save that for another time). Wu-Tang has maintained their longevity in many different ways beyond the music, but most of all, they’ve exemplified how crew albums should be crafted. Their debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) highlighted all 9 crew members, and what they individually brought to the table. With RZA handling production, they each helped propel the album to being one of the most influential rap albums of all time.
The concept of rap compilations is growing more difficult, but I’d like to think Lil’ Wayne tried to make Young Money work. Their 2009 group effort We Are Young Money, lead by the single “Bedrock,” clearly exposed more than a few weak links on their team, but highlighted their superstars. With Drake and Nicki Minaj being at the forefront, the shadows they’d go on to cast were far too colossal for the rest of the crew to follow up. Ironically, this wasn’t a problem for Wayne and Cash Money at the height of their fame in the Hot Boy$ era. Instead of launching solo careers first, The Hot Boy$—B.G, Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and Turk—began laying the groundwork for the label’s lengthy run when they released their group debut Get It How You Live in 1997. The crew from the Nola’s impact was immediately effective, which then prompted them to begin launching the solo careers of their acts. Juvenile released 400 Degreez a year later, and this marked the beginning of Cash Money’s incomparable run. They’d even go on to follow the blueprint Master P and No Limit created before them, by releasing a film (but we must never speak of Baller Blockin’).
The climate has changed, and focus has shifted. The essence of crews building together on a sound to either shift the culture or catapult from the current wave, isn’t executed to it’s fullest potential anymore, thus leaving very little room for crews to surge from compilation albums. But for a crew to succeed, it has to stretch even further than just the music. Ruff Ryders made their names synonymous with dirt bikes and street gear, while Puff Daddy and The Family, shiny suits and all, were the playboys with hood tie-ins. They created movements, and their audiences followed suit. We wanted to be apart of their energy, and help them push their agenda. We dressed like them, and even dined at the places they’d name drop, but we’ve grown up. The generations to follow will find their own way, but I’m doubtful they’ll need a compilation album to guide them rightfully. The impact has dwindled and the era of the internet can be divisive, but I’m definitely still an honorary Roc-A-Fella. My chain was just lost in the mail somewhere.