Are hip-hop sequels a foregone conclusion?
It’s a topic oft debated in cinematic circles. Can the sequel ever surpass the original? General consensus errs toward no, though exceptions do exist. The Godfather II for example. Empire Strikes Back is another fan-favorite. The Dark Knight is all-but revered, where Batman Begins is simply celebrated. Yet it’s largely understood that sequels should be approached with narrowed eyes, with an integral question on the mind: is it fuelled by artistic motivation, or merely a haphazard attempt at capitalizing on a wave?
In hip-hop, sequels aren’t entirely uncommon. In fact, they’ve been padding the canon for decades. Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2. Nas’ Stillmatic. Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP II. Dre’s 2001. Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter franchise. Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II. Kid Cudi’s Man On The Moon 2. Logic’s Bobby Tarantino 2. Migos’ Culture II, with talks of an eventual trilogy. It feels as if there are more rappers with sequels than those without.
With that in mind, let’s consider the motivation behind revisiting an established body of work. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of sequel-spawning projects are considered “classics,” or at the very least, personal highlights in an artist’s career. Looking at the aforementioned examples, a simple genealogical trace reveals excellent albums across the board. Since it seems safe to assume that an artist would not choose to revisit anything they deem lackluster, it’s likely that the decision to craft a sequel stems from a desire for reinvigoration. A shot of adrenaline to a stagnating career, or simply a shoulder-tapping reminder: give me validation. Either way, the various efforts that have emerged throughout the years have me wondering whether a sequel has become somewhat of a foregone conclusion. But to what end?
SEQUEL > OG???
They thought I'd make another Illmatic
But it's always forward I'm movin'
Never backward stupid here's another classic
- Nas, Stillmatic (Intro)
Consider a pair of bitter rivals-turned-homies, Jay-Z and Nas. Both delivered sequels at the turn of the century, with one notable difference between the two. Jay’s Blueprint II: The Gift & The Curse arrived one year after its predecessor, The Blueprint. On the other hand, Nas’ Stillmatic arrived nearly eight years and three studio albums after Illmatic. Right off the bat, a distinction can be made.
Given the relative brevity between chapters, it feels as if Jay simply wasn’t finished, though there admittedly remains a curious absence of thematic or musical connective tissue. While boasting several excellent songs, Blueprint 2’s tonal shift is far removed from the soulful vibe of Blueprint; the budget feels much bigger, borderline unwieldy. Were the Blueprint albums films, it feels like they might belong to different genres altogether. Suffice it to say, Jay was hardly looking to capitalize on a specific era. Rather, it seems as if he were more concerned with “worldbuilding,” widening the scope of his inner circle to include some of the era’s best and brightest producers.
Stillmatic arrived under entirely different circumstances. Though Illmatic, and to a lesser extent It Was Written are held in high regard, the back to back release of I Am… and Nastradamus marked a low point for the Queensbridge lyricist, particularly over the latter project; one might make a comparison to Eminem’s Revival, which found a once mighty lyricist become somewhat of a critical punching bag. It’s no wonder that Nas turned to the past, harkening back to his instant classic debut for inspiration. Unlike the Jigga Man’s sequel, the aptly titled Stillmatic feels like a spiritual successor to its predecessor, both musically and lyrically. An AZ reunion picked up where “Life’s A Bitch” left off, with production from Large Professor and DJ Premier bridging the gap. Though Nas found himself fielding scathing shots from Jay-Z’s “Takeover,” his counter riposte proved equally deadly; to this day, fans still debate whether “Ether” or “Takeover” is the superior diss record. In any case, Stillmatic was met with widespread acclaim, thus re-entering Nas into the pantheon of hip-hop royalty. Is it as good, if not better than Illmatic? Was that ever a possibility? Still, it honored the original’s legacy, playing out like a logical conclusion to the narrative; few one-two punches are as potent.
I MISS THE OLD _____
So, one last time, I'm back
Before it fades into black and it's all over
Behold the final chapter in a saga
Tryin' to recapture that lightning trapped in a bottle
Twice, the magic that started it all
- Eminem, "Bad Guy"
Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt II stands among those rare sequels held in high regard. Like Nas, Rae found himself facing an uphill climb. His debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., stands among the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Yet Rae never truly faced the same hurdles as Nas; though his subsequent drops failed to live up to his admittedly lofty bar, he never found himself catching the wrath of a public-scorned. What then prompted Rae to deliver Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt II in 2009, fourteen years after the original? It should be noted that Rae’s previous solo album, The Lex Diamond story, was released in 2003, marking a six-year gap between projects. It’s entirely possible that Rae was looking to recapture public interest by evoking a bonafide classic. He even made sure to tap his co-star Ghostface Killah for the occasion.
Like Stillmatic, Cuban Linx II did justice to the original’s legacy. Perhaps lacking in part one’s deadly urgency, given Rae’s established position in the game, the legendary rapper managed to revisit thematic threads like one rides a bicycle. This time around, Rae opened the door to a variety of producers, including Dr. Dre, Pete Rock, Dilla, Necro, Alchemist, and Erick Sermon; naturally, RZA opted to play the man behind the curtain, sacrificing hands-on production for a more curatorial role. Nearing release, Rae spoke on RZA’s involvement, stating: “he definitely put his two cent in and made his elements, and that’s what it’s about. But I can’t allow one man to lead my destiny no more.”
Eminem attempted a similar tactic when he announced The Marshall Mathers LP 2 in 2013. Though Slim Shady LP and The Eminem Show are certainly touted highly among fans, the people have crowned Em’s sophomore album The Marshall Mathers LP to be his magnum opus. Arriving at the height of a new era, in which public sensitivity was at a (then) all-time-high, Em’s scathing lyricism and sheer technical prowess captivated the masses. Plus, you had Dr. Dre showcasing unparalleled adaptability, providing Em with a unique batch of Carnival-esque bangers. A truly unique album, and one that has stood the test of time. It’s no wonder that Eminem eventually decided to book a return flight, nearly thirteen years later.
Though Em’s spirit was likely inspired by his former work on MMLP, the connective tissue was inherently different. For one, the production team had changed entirely. Where the original featured work from Dr. Dre, Eminem, Mel Man, and The Bass Brothers, the sequel had enlisted Rick Rubin, Alex Da Kid, DJ Khalil, and more; the only uniting thread being Eminem’s own contributions. Tonally, the albums could not be more different. The original is a bad-trip walk down a nightmarish alleyway. The sequel is a drunken stumble from a dive bar. Gothic piano arrangements and minor-key progressions were replaced by rock samples, guitars, and synthesizers. Not inherently bad, though confusing to those expecting a spiritual successor. Of course, glimmers of lyrical associations are present throughout. “Bad Guy” is a direct sequel to “Stan,” and “Asshole” picks up where the blase cynicism of “Who Knew” left off. Yet like Blueprint II, Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2 feels like it stems from a different series entirely. It seems as if Eminem’s intention was to reinvigorate himself by looking backward, without fully committing to the cause. For that reason, many fans were left feeling as if Em was simply attempting to capitalize on the project’s legacy, whether an accurate assessment or not.
To truly develop a hypothesis, I'd need to spend far longer researching the myriad sequels at my disposal. Perhaps the notion of reaching a concrete conclusion is a fool's errand. It's entirely likely that many different factors can motivate an artist, including several explored above. Reinvigoration, be it creative or commercial, appears to play a large role. Brand recognizability might be another, with franchises like Lil Wayne's Tha Carter series having a proven track record; could that also be why Migos remain adamant on dealing almost exclusively in the sequel business? It's difficult to say. Perhaps one day, when we're waiting for good kid mAAder city, we can revisit.