Hip-hop is a genre based around storytelling skills. Some people can't form a coherent story and it sometimes still works for them, but the absolute best are the ones who can keep you hanging off their heavy wordplay and take you through the twists and turns of a good story. Ghostface Killah and MF DOOM are absolute masters of this.
Strangely enough, this rarely works when a rapper tries to sustain it through an entire album. Concept albums are typically considered the realm of pretentious progressive rockers, but a few rappers have tried, and mostly failed, to break into that type of album-length story.
5. T.I., TI vs. T.I.P.
The concept here was that T.I., the rich, successful rapper, was battling internally with his street-minded alter ego, T.I.P. Sound familiar? Well, it's the internal conflict of just about every rapper ever. The failure of this concept is that there's no depth to the conflict. T.I.'s definitely legit; you can check his rap sheet. But he doesn't really seem confused about what he is or where he's at in his career.
Everything on this album is calculated for a purpose and he knows it, so it centers around an artificial concept. And it plays out in a ridiculous way, with T.I. arguing with himself in two different voices. It not only sounds silly on the record, but it distracts from the flow of the album. For every good song, you have to deal with an interruption where T.I. and T.I.P. argue with each other.
4. Kanye West, The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation & My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye has been trying to pursue some vague concept/theme in his lyrics since he began his rap career, and it has never panned out. The albums themselves are all fantastic and I consider Kanye one of the most gifted artists in music today. But the concepts? Well, let's say that Kanye has rarely thought through exactly how the stories are going to actually play out.
He frequently abandons the plot for song after song, only to randomly start pushing the college theme again in one. And could anybody make sense of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy even with the film? 'Cause I couldn't, aside from the idea of a failed relationship.
3. 50 Cent, Before I Self Destruct
Rappers are known for making threats, even often ridiculous ones. But no claim in 2009 was more ridiculous than 50 Cent telling everyone he was about to "self destruct." He named this album and wrote its lyrics on the subject because, ostensibly, "it could potentially happen."
Somebody forgot to tell Fiddy he's not really that hard. In fact, he's so rich and disconnected from having to be hard now, his "self destruction" would more likely be a breakdown in a McDonald's because they got his order wrong and a YouTube cell-phone video of him screaming at the poor teenager who gave him pickles when he specifically said no pickles.
Oh, and another thing: Before I Self Destruct was definitely not "hands down...the best record of that time period."
2. Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of Day
Lots of artists write introspective lyrics, including rappers. Even the worst rappers sometimes express some really heartfelt sentiments that will grab you. But Kid Cudi apparently couldn't do that without some bizarre, grandiose concept.
So what we get is half introspection and half Cudi explaining disparate things to us about how we're in his dreams and walking through his mind to see all of these things going on because he's always having nightmares ever since this or that happened to him. Got it?
Honestly, the concept isn't that bad, despite sounding like Cudi came up with it while very, very high, but the execution is absolutely abysmal.
1. Eminem, Relapse
When Eminem finally made his long-awaited comeback after the long road of recovery from drug addiction, he promptly wrote an album-length fictional relapse to drugs and violence. That's okay, because, really, what else is Eminem going to write about? The records where he doesn't write about those things (Encore, Recovery) might be even worse.
Nevertheless, one very much gets the impression on Relapse that Eminem doesn't really remember what he's writing about anyway. Instead of deriving from true experiences, he starts freestyle fantasizing about ridiculously exaggerated things, spitting with absolutely no fangs and, strangely enough, deciding that he was Jamaican in the process.