Eric Steuer is a writer for WIRED, as well as a member of Meanest Man Contest, Not The 1s, and Franklin, CA. He made a great mix for us — "The Best Way to Tell You Is to Say It in a Rhyme".
Growing up on hip-hop in the late '80s and '90s, I always hated the one Love Rap song that MCs would tack onto their tapes.
At that point in my life, I just wasn't really trying to hear the rappers I idolized talk about huggin' and smoochin' and junk. Love Raps of the era just never sounded good to me. They had a different production style — real poppy — and didn't sound like they were made by the same people who made the rest of the album. They always seemed like cheap attempts at getting on the radio. And radio rap was for suckers.
An early and well known example of Love Rap is LL Cool J's 1987 hit "I Need Love." It's emblematic of what I disliked about rap ballads back in the day. I was a real big fan of LL at this time, and the album that it came from, Bigger and Deffer, is great for the most part, has some real "def jams" on it, if you know what I mean.
But, man, this song — fuck. "I Need Love" sticks out like a soft thumb on the record. That cheesy keyboard melody, the smoothed out hush-rap vocals, the video with LL in the bathtub. All of it seemed so calculated to get the song on MTV and the radio, and I hated it for that. And I hated that its huge success inspired so many other rappers to try their hand at this kind of corniness.
But in retrospect, I see that Love Raps were also a way for young MCs to stretch out a bit and show that they weren't just about being rough 'n' tough, but that they were also emotional creatures with true love feelings.
So, I've come to appreciate old school Love Raps quite a bit because some of them are pretty sweet. And other ones are hilariously weird — I guess because you're hearing teenagers (or close to it) at their most earnest, rapping about something they hardly understand.
"Behind every good man, there's a good lady
I love you even more than a brand new Mercedes ... Benz"
— Black, Rock & Ron, “True Feelings”
"See you was blessed with the gift and yes you give me a lift
I'm talkin' pure matrimony, if you're catchin' my drift"
— Raheem, "You're the Greatest"
Putting together my Hit City Radio Love Raps mix for Valentine's Day, "The Best Way to Tell You is to Say it in a Rhyme", I split it up by sides like the tapes I used to listen to these artists on.
The first half of this li'l Love Raps mix (full track-list here) is made up of tracks from the '80s. It's more on the "oddities" end of the spectrum and contains several lyrics that pop into my head frequently because they're so charmingly awkward. The title of the mix comes from M.C. Shy-D's "I Don’t Want to Treat You Wrong", which is particularly chock-full of memorable lines. For example: "You can drive my cars, share my money / and when you get sick, I will feed you, honey."
The second half is early '90s stuff, and is made up of the occasional Love Rap tracks I actually liked back when they came out. (That HanSoul remix is fire. I've always wanted to know where the main sample in the verses came from.)
It's funny. These days, Love Rap is very popular, with a few rappers making entire careers out of being romantic on the mic. (Drake, I'm looking at you.)
But I'll tell you what, I don't enjoy it any more now than I did back when I was a kid, cringing at the lame sounds of "I Need Love" in my headphones. But maybe I'm not being fair. Maybe I need to give today's hiphop balladeers another listen. That's what I did with the old school MCs on this mix, and it turned me into a fan.
Maybe there's room for some huggin' and smoochin' and junk after all.