In the glossary of hip-hop music, you could not put the 1990's as a chapter unto itself. You must dictate chapters to individual years in the decade. This speaks to the depth of quality the genre birthed in the 1990's, in particular, the mid-90's which saw a burgeoning rise in gangsta rap along with melodic hip-hop mixed with R&B vocals. What we're going to do here is talk about 90's rap songs specific to 1994. More specifically, we are going to discuss which rap song from that year was the best: Warren G's "Regulate" or Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy"?
1994, if you recall, was eventful in a variety of ways. You had Nelson Mandela overcoming apartheid and becoming the president of South Africa (a good thing), Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain killing himself (a sad thing), and O.J. Simpson ducked down in the back of a white Ford Bronco as he kinda sorta tried to escape the LAPD (a bizarre thing that shifted a number of things culturally). So 1994 was big, thus the music from the year was big. Rap music was becoming big.
As for me in 1994, I was a scrawny 13-year-old whose exposure to rap was basically whatever videos MTV played after school, which turned out to be not a lot, which makes sense because now they play as many rap videos as C-SPAN.
Before we deep dive into the two songs in question, let's take a brief flyover of the rap songs that were good, but not quite great from 1994:
"Funkdafied"- Da Brat
Da Brat did good things in helping to lay a foundation for female rappers, but as good as she was, she never seemed to be able to reach that pinnacle that those that came right after her did (Lil' Kim, for example). This song wasn't a seismic shift in hip-hop culture and used an adjective that never really took. (You didn't look at the kid in class wearing the new Reebok Kamikazes and say "he's so funkdafied.")
"The World Is Yours" Nas
Nas may be the most underappreciated rapper in history, so I guess me not including this hit song as the absolute best from '94 simply continues the negative narrative. Lyrically, Nas is hard to beat. What loses it for me on this song is the hook that just feels weak, especially compared to the lyrical perfection Nas drops. And I am a massive Jay-Z fan, so Nas naturally takes a backseat in many “best of rap” arguments from me.
"Player's Ball" Outkast
This is a song about partying, which goes perfectly with the title of the song, so Outkast does well there. What Outkast does so well in other songs is tying verses together like glittered polka-dotted shoestrings, making you notice them but also providing functionality. Player's Ball doesn't do that as much as many other songs from Andre and Big Boi, but it is good in its own right.
"Flava in Ya Ear" Craig Mack
Of the 5 senses, your taste is used to determine flavors. If your tongue is located in your ear, then this song makes some intriguing suggestions when Craig says he wants to put new flavor in your ear. As it is, the ear is for hearing, so it cannot determine the most desirable flavor, thus putting new flavor in one's ear feels like a silly thing to do.
"Tootsee Roll" 69 Boyz
Fun fact: the 69 Boyz also had songs from their distinguished library entitled "Ding Dong Man", "Teenie Weenie", and "Puddin Tame". Assuming that all of these songs, including Tootsee Roll, are named after various foods (probably an incorrect assumption, but I digress), perhaps the 69 Boyz should have been the ones dropping flavor in people's ears. Just a thought. 2nd fun fact: this song was the Billboard rap chart topper for the last two weeks of 1994. Can you imagine Christmas time and kids getting CD singles of Tootsee Roll dropped in their stockings to play at family gatherings and grandma blows a hip on the carpet trying to let everyone see her tootsee roll? 1994 was a fun year.
The Best: "Regulate" vs. "Juicy"
Let's get to the main event. In order to determine which of these two monster hits from 1994 is the best, we'll look at five categories, ranking each song in each category on a sliding scale from 1-5, 1 being the "least" and 5 being the "most". The categories are:
Lyrical Content: Which song provides verses that are cohesive and smart?
Coolness Factor: This is based on if a song is cool in the culture at the time. It's important to note the phrase "at the time" because in 1994 people were wearing Reebok Pumps and Starter jackets.
Likability: This is actually different than coolness. This is when you hear a song on the radio for the fifth time in the day, and still turn it up loud.
Can I Sing It: If you like rap music at all, you've probably tried to rap either in the shower or in front of the mirror or while driving in the car alone. Some rap songs are easier and more fun to rap than others.
Influence: Was the song nothing more than a flash in the pan, or did it influence other artists in any way? Does the song still hold up today?
OK, now to the songs. Let's start with Warren G's "Regulate".
In 1994, if you had the radio on and Regulate started playing, your mom might have been excited to hear it. That's because the song samples Michael McDonald's song "I Keep Forgettin" (yes, even adult contemporary singers dropped letters from songs to enhance the coolness factor). When Warren G starts rapping about being on the streets trying to consume, she may leave the room.
Regulate is a song that is essentially about chasing girls and getting distracted while chasing girls and letting the world know they're hearing the beginning of a new era in music (though it wasn't really that). Regulate gained its acclaim because it had a melodic sound. Warren G's average rapping skills were offset well by Nate Dogg's deep, but smooth vocals. This made it fit correctly into the rap category, but also be more consumable for those listening to mostly pop. Regulate crossed over to Top 40 stations, meaning even white kids like myself could easily find it on an FM dial somewhere.
Lyrical Content: Most people who like Regulate fell in love with the opening line which comes from the movie Young Guns ("you can't be any geek off the street...you gotta be handy with the steel if you know what I mean...earn your keep"). Unfortunately, this is as about as punchy as the lyrics get in Regulate. Warren G and Nate Dogg go back and forth, telling a story, but the rhyming content is very generic.
Strongest line: I hooks a left on 2-1 and Lewis/some brothers shootin' dice so I said let's do this
Corniest line: Back up back up 'cause it's on/N-A-T-E and me, the Warren to the G
Score: 2 out of 5
Coolness factor: While now Warren G's rapping feels dated and corny, at the time it was cool because it followed a lot of the rap pioneers from the 80's and early 90's. Nate Dogg rapping about shooting at the dudes that were robbing Warren G is unquestionably cool: "sixteen in the clip and one in the hole/Nate Dogg is about to make some bodies turn cold." So cool, in fact, MTV censored the word "cold" out of fear of promoting gun violence. I guess the "sixteen in the clip" wasn't obvious enough.
Score: 4 out of 5
Likability: As previously stated, because this song reached pop status, it clearly gained marketability beyond what Warren or Nate ever could have imagined. It also became the hit song from the Above the Rim soundtrack, a film that featured two of the best things ever: Basketball and Tupac. This makes Regulate super-likable.
Score: 4.5 out of 5
Can I Sing It: Whistling the melody to the song is simple and announces to anyone around that A) you enjoy good rap music from the 90's, and B) you're not afraid to regulate something. Every prepubescent boy in the 90's dreamed of one day having a voice that could drop as low as Nate Dogg's, and though it never happened, I'm still inclined today to try it from time to time. The one thing Regulate is missing is a consistent chorus. That's basically what the whistling melody is I suppose.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Influence: Warren G and Nate Dogg had semi-successful careers beyond this song, but they weren't huge. The song itself didn't have a tremendous impact on up and coming rappers as a whole, but it certainly influenced listeners. It became the biggest "crossover to pop" rap song in the 90's (I don't have stats on this, but I think it could be second only to “Rapper's Delight" of all time listener conversions). Because of that, its influence cannot be understated.
Score: 5 out of 5
Now, let’s grade “Juicy” from Notorious B.I.G.
Juicy was the debut single from the legendary Biggie Smalls, AKA Notorious B.I.G., off the album "Ready to Die". Its impact at the time was big in the hip-hop community, but has certainly grown to epic proportions since 1994 with Biggie’s death and rap sainthood status.
Juicy is a song that samples Mtume’s song “Juicy Fruit”, which means Juicy automatically gains credit by using a song named after a delicious chewing gum. It’s autobiographical in nature, and as far as gritty rap goes, it’s by far one of the more positive rap songs you’ll ever find. These components make Juicy one of the classics in hip-hop history.
Lyrical Content: Here is a list of things that Biggie references in Juicy that, as a white kid from the south, I had no idea about until later in life:
-Word Up Magazine
Here is a list of things I did have an idea about despite being a white kid from the south:
-Salt N Pepa and Heavy D (they had enough crossover at the time to cause familiarity)
-Funkmaster Flex (I kinda had an idea who he was)
-Robin Leach (Host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous)
-Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis (I knew video game consoles)
-The Source (A respected hip-hop magazine. I would occasionally buy one in college and get odd looks from people. Like a white guy chasing a theology degree can’t buy a Source from time to time. SMH.)
Not only does Biggie kill it in references, but his usage of rhymes and similes. And the meter used in his verses isn’t just the basic ABAB or AABB that so many rappers at the time used. Biggie mixed it up quite a bit. He was an absolute lyrical genius.
Strongest line: Livin' life without fear/Puttin' 5 karats in my baby girl's ear/Lunches, brunches, interviews by the pool/Considered a fool 'cause I dropped out of high school
Unfortunate line: Time to get paid/blow up like the World Trade (Juicy was written not long after the first bombing of the WTC took place in 1994)
Score: 5 out of 5
Coolness factor: Biggie was a large, obese man. That isn’t cool in and of itself, but he may just be the best rapper in history, so that is a cool thing. Juicy has some phenomenal lyrics and is a “came up from the gutter to reign over the world” type of song. The chorus (performed by 90’s R&B group Total) is a bit cheesy and references Good N Plenty which is one of the worst candies of all time.
Score: 4 out of 5
Likability: As great as Juicy is, it feels somewhat predicated on the “gone too soon” status of its author. For example, Kanye West’s first single was “Through The Wire”, a song much like Juicy in its autobiographical context and how life is better now. That song for Yeezy isn’t even considered in his top ten all-time by most rap fans. If Biggie were still alive, where would Juicy register in his library? Legends aside, Juicy stands apart for its positive message and relatability for many black young people in the mid 90’s. Juicy is a fun song, especially when held up to some of Big’s other songs that feel much darker.
Score: 4 out of 5
Can I Sing It: The first time I really sat down and consciously listen to Juicy was in 2002, eight years after it was released. I went back to it when I heard Jay-Z sample it on his Blueprint 2 album. It felt so approachable then, and it does every time I hear it. The words are crisp and easy to understand for the most part, and it’s fun to recite each line because so many famous references to pop culture icons from the time. The chorus is lacking, which keeps it from being a 5 here.
Score: 4 out of 5
Influence: The influence that Biggie’s short rap career has had on the genre is something that cannot be easily explained in a write-up. Big brought lyrical shifts to hip-hop that changed it forever. The change in rap style and wordplay from his predecessors gave rap fans something they really had yet to hear. If there was no Notorious B.I.G., then Jay-Z might not have blown up. Puffy would never have had a career. Since “Juicy” launched Biggie, it gets a perfect score.
Score: 5 out of 5
That gives “Regulate” a score of 19, while “Juicy” gets a 22.
It’s clear Regulate did something to rap across America. It introduced West Coast flavor to a degree, but that had also been done a year earlier by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. It gave pop radio a rap song it could play with minimal edits, opening up an entire demographic that wasn’t really into hip-hop...yet.
But Juicy did more. Though not recognized fully at the time (what legends of anything ever are), Biggie’s first single influenced generations of rappers to step the game up. To not rely on the same old methods of rapping, to be willing to deep dive into personal tragedies and triumphs for inspiration, and that you don’t have to be flashy to make it. Sometimes you can be a size similar to Andre the Giant. As long as you have talent and passion, you can succeed. Juicy did that. It’s the best rap song 1994 gave us,