Words: Jay Wasserman

As the leaves slowly lose their vibrant fall colors and darkness comes an hour earlier, we are reminded that winter has arrived.  Aside from Christmas music, nothing warms the soul quite like some great winter raps.  We here at IF have compiled a mini-list of some top-notch albums that are sure to help you get through the season.

GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)

It’s only right that I start with the album that inspired this article.  GZA’s Liquid Swords showcased the MC’s storytelling ability amid a backdrop of off-key piano samples and dialogue swiped from old karate flicks. As one of the least colorful members of the Wu-Tang Clan, GZA’s true genius shines not in his bravado or style but in his lyricism. With songs like  “Investigative Reports” and “Living in the World Today,” GZA’s skills are able to breathe on this solo LP.    RZA, producer of the entire album, orchestrates a sound as of yet unheard by any ear, especially on the classic cut “4th Chamber.” Unless, of course, you were browsing the rap section three months prior and happened to pick up our next LP…

Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)

This album has two major things going for it.  The first is that it’s a very solid album with great guest verses.  The second is the song “Shook Ones Pt II.”  Mobb Deep (comprised of rapper Prodigy and rapper/producer Havoc) released The Infamous in 1995, right in the middle of the golden age of NYC rap.  The album did not disappoint.  Rolling Stone might have described it best, calling it a “darkly nihilistic masterpiece.”  Havoc’s production is often compared to RZA’s on both Liquid Swords and Enter the 36 Chambers.  The album’s sinister feel comes to a head on the penultimate “Shook Ones Pt II.”  The song is widely regarded as a 90’s classic.  Nowhere else on this list do the lyrics and production of z song come together so perfectly. 

Cam’ron – Come Home with Me (2002)

I’m not the biggest Cam’ron fan, but this ’02 release is undeniably good.  Although the album isn’t nearly as grimy as Liquid Swords or The Infamous, it is distinctly cold.  It’s a “your mom throwing your crack stash away and you hitting her” type of cold.  It’s the type of cold where Beanie Sigel tells the world that they couldn’t understand how he “could just kill a man for killa cam” and Memphis Bleek brags about “blowing smoke in ya bitch’s face.”  Tracks like “Leave me Alone” and “Losing Weight” have moody piano loops and synths that keep you on edge while “The Roc” and “Welcome to New York City” sound like anthems for Harlem in the throes of December.  Blame veteran producer Just Blaze if this album has you selling drugs under a lamppost on a snowy night.

Black Star – Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (1998)

Easily the warmest winter album on the list, the Brooklyn duo’s only collaborative album (so far) embodied the Rawkus Records era’s blend of like-minded emcees and underrated producers like Hi-Tek and 88-Keys.  “Thieves in the Night” is a song best enjoyed in front of a fireplace (mantle mandatory) and a nice glass of scotch.  If that’s not your scene, “Respiration’s” soundscape of urbanity plays like a bitter windy January night.  Midwest veteran Common provides a guest verse covering subjects like gentrification and misguided youth.  Don’t miss this near-perfect album.     

Bronze Nazareth – The Great Migration (2006)

Bronze Nazarath has one thing going against him on this album: nobody knows who he is.  Still, this production driven album delivers bass and stunning souls samples reminiscent of Kanye West and the Wu-Tang Clan.  Though admittedly the least impressive album on this list, it’s still deserving of a few plays.  Don’t expect complex or conscious lyrics like that of the previous album; just lay back and let the brass rattle your bones.  This album is essentially urban Brahms.  Who can be mad at that?

Nas – Illmatic (1994)

Honestly, what else can be said about this album?  It almost makes me sick to have to write about it.  However, from the classic piano loop we all recognize, to AZ’s unforgettable guest verse, to the Heath Brothers vibraphone sample on “One Love,” Illmatic might just be the coldest album on the list.  Hell, “Halftime” sounds like a Christmas song with all those bells.  Love it, hate it, or hate that so many people love it, Illmatic is an undeniable classic.  So whether you’re walking the blocks of NYC or cruising the streets of wherever you call home, blast “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” like the defiant winter anthem that it is.    

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