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Fast talking at the end of the world: 15 thoughts on hip-hop's 1998 middle age

Just last week, one of the topics on EW Radio was the number of genre-defining hip-hop albums hitting their twentieth anniversaries this year.

Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, and Salt-N-Pepa’s Very Necessary all just wrapped their second decade. Those all represent different corners of the rap universe, and they all point to a crucial moment when hip-hop became such an overwhelming presence that mainstream culture had no choice but to move in its direction, rather than the other way around. The success of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, which dropped in late ’92, started the trend, and it reached its apotheosis with the one-two punch of Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 debut Ready to Die and Tupac’s 1995 crossover smash Me Against the World.

Plenty of rap records had found their way to the upper echelon of the charts, though they were primarily pandering or novelty tracks (in ’92, both Kriss Kross’ “Jump” and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” became Hot 100 chart toppers). The albums from ’93 were purer hip-hop, and they were crafted by fantastically charismatic characters who were singular in their delivery and presentation. The success of Doggystyle was particularly jaw-dropping—listening to that album 20 years on, it still packs an incredible impact both as a unique piece of pop music and as a remarkably dirty statement of purpose.

Those albums are unimpeachable classics, and by design there’s not a whole lot more to add to that conversation. So let’s fast-forward five years to the albums from late ’98 that are now turning 15 years old. They represent a strange middle age for hip-hop, as its dominance on the pop chart began to be taken for granted and just about everybody began to lose their way.

There are plenty of notable big-ticket rap records from 1998’s fourth quarter, and none of them are classics. It could even be argued that not a single one of them is any good. But they do represent a culture in transition, and it’s a fascinating look at where hip-hop was and how it managed to get to the place it is now. So on the 15th anniversary of Busta Rhymes’ E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front, Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgment Day, Mystikal’s Ghetto Fabulous, Ice Cube’s War & Peace Volume 1: The War Disc, RZA’s Bobby Digital In Stereo, DMX’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, Juvenile’s 400 Degreez, and Redman’s Doc’s Da Name 2000, here are 15 thoughts on the 15th anniversary of a weird time for hip-hop.

1. Everybody totally thought Y2K was going to be a real thing
For anybody too young or too unborn to remember Y2K, it seems utterly ridiculous. READ FULL STORY

Britney Spears gets an unlikely compliment from Method Man on 'The TRL Decade': Watch the EXCLUSIVE clip here!

Between its launch in 1998 and its finale in 2008, MTV’s Total Request Live acted as the center of the television universe for pop music, movie stars, and whatever else fell into teen culture during the turn of the century. Airing every day after school live from MTV’s studio overlooking Times Square, TRL was an institution that not only counted down the most popular music videos of the day but also acted as a clearinghouse for what was cool in an age before social networking.

That note gets hit on a lot in the new documentary The TRL Decade, an hour-long special that premieres this Sunday, January 29 at 9:30 PM on VH1 as part of their RockDocs series. The film traces the origins of the show, which was constructed from the DNA of two other MTV shows (Total Request and MTV Live), and follows it through its huge peak during the pop music boom period that saw acts like the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera rule the radio.

It also highlights a number of huge moments in the show’s history, from wild star visits from Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise to serious business like the Columbine shooting and September 11th. As the show points out, TRL was the place where young people came to see what other teens were talking about, and in the days before Facebook, it was a gateway to both arguments and cultural consensus.

But of course, it was also a place where stars would collide in unpredictable ways. In the exclusive clip below, rapper Method Man tells the tale of the time he and Redman showed up on an episode of TRL that was being guest-hosted by Britney Spears and Sabrina the Teenage Witch star Melissa Joan Hart. According to Meth, they had quite an unusual exchange when they went to pose for a picture. Get the reveal below.

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Usher tops the albums chart; Erykah Badu makes the top five

usher-erykah-baduThe newest Billboard 200 albums chart holds good news and less-good news for Usher. Good: His Raymond v. Raymond is the No. 1 album in the country! This is his third chart-topper in a row. Go ahead and break out the champagne, Mr. Raymond. Less good: Raymond v. Raymond got there by selling 329,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That’s a solid opening number, so I wouldn’t call this bad news. But it’s a step down from the 443,000 his last one, Here I Stand, bowed with in 2008, much less the 1.1 million copies his album before that one managed in the ancient year of 2004. Part of that is obviously due to the changing retail market for album-length music. It also suggests, however, that the dip in sales from Confessions to Here I Stand wasn’t a fluke. Usher now seems to be a totally respectable 300,000 to 400,000 range artist, just not the unstoppable megastar he was in ’04.

Usher knocks his protégé Justin Bieber down to No. 2, with another 291,000 copies sold of his My World 2.0 in week two. That’s actually 8,000 more than Bieber’s album sold in its first week. Credit where credit is due: My World 2.0 still has yet to become a runaway smash, but his ability to dodge second-week deflation is impressive. (According to Billboard, this “marks the first time a No. 1-debuting album — issued on a traditional Tuesday release schedule — has posted an increase in its second week since 2002.”) If Bieber can keep this up in the weeks to come, he’ll have something more valuable than a huge debut — a steady long-term seller.

Erykah Badu can now put an exact number on how many album sales a naked video (and a $500 fine) will buy: 110,000, which is how many copies her New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh sold in its first week on shelves, winning her the No. 4 spot. That’s a minor comedown from the 124,000 that New Amerykah Part One sold in 2008, so it’s unclear whether Badu’s “Window Seat” video helped boost her sales at all. All controversy and legal drama aside, however, Return of the Ankh is an excellent album, so Badu deserves every one of the sales she got.

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Eminem trounces the competition in a crowded week, scoring the year's biggest chart debut

Eminem_lThe real Slim Shady just stood up in a major way, debuting at the top of the latest Billboard 200 albums chart with 608,000 copies sold of his Relapse, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That’s this year’s biggest opening number by a healthy margin, leaving U2’s 484,000 bow in March far behind. Let this serve as a reality check for anyone who’s been questioning Eminem’s continued relevance in 2009: The man remains a massive force at the nation’s cash registers.

If anything, it appears the five-year wait between studio albums while Em sorted out his personal life might have actually been a good thing for Relapse‘s sales. Best Buy manager Jonathan Hart tells the Music Mix that the delay has helped bring "a lot of customers" into the Manhattan store where he works. "People weren’t sure if this guy was ever going to be back," Hart tells the Music Mix. "It’s generated hype because of that." Fuse TV vice president David Weier echoes this thought: "I often criticize the record business for rushing records out too soon. You’ve got to let people miss you. That’s exactly what he did this time: He stepped out of the light, away from the media, away from the attention, [and] let people wonder."

Then again, does Marshall Mathers even give a proverbial bleep how many CDs he sells at this point in his career? "I know for a fact that he’s not doing it for the money," Eminem’s touring DJ, the Alchemist, recently told me. "The guy’s made a lot in his life." That he has — and I’m sure the highers-up at Interscope are nonetheless very pleased that he’s just made a bunch more. Read on after the jump for sales results on the rest of this week’s bumper crop of new releases.

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Method Man and Redman talk reunion album, movie plans, and more on the set of their 'Miss International' video

Redmanmethodmanvideo_l“Rick James is coming,” a crew member at a midtown Manhattan studio announces into his walkie-talkie. No, this isn’t a seance. Method Man and Redman have come here to shoot the video for their new single “Miss International,” and one scene involves Redman dressing up like the late funk legend. Sure enough, Red walks on set a few moments later wearing black leather pants and jacket, round shades, and James’ signature beaded braids, grinning and muttering the word “b—-” to himself a la Dave Chappelle. It’s just one of the outre costumes he and Method Man are donning today while they lip-sync to “Miss International,” a smoothed-out ode to sophisticated females that will appear on May 19’s Blackout 2, the duo’s long-promised follow-up to 1999’s Blackout!

Upstairs in his prep room a few minutes later, Method Man (pictured, left) is in a slightly less jovial mood at first. “My videos usually suck,” he says. “Redman’s videos are usually good, because he takes time. Me? I show up. I don’t be with all that costume s—, unless we’re doing a comedy.” Method Man sighs. “I’m jaded. Video shoots don’t excite me. I get excited in the studio when I hear a new track, or when I’m about to do a show. Everything else is just so plastic.” Luckily, he got to log plenty of studio time with Redman for Blackout 2. “It’s like we’re connected at the hip,” he says. “When we work, there’s never any pressure, never any on-the-clock s—. It’s always fun.”

Method Man is a pop-culture fiend, and before long he’s warmed up into a nearly hour-long monologue about his current movie, TV, and music picks. (Click through to the jump for a few select quips.) Sadly, he pauses along the way to deflate longstanding rumors of a sequel to his and Redman’s 2001 stoner movie, How High: “We want to, but the guy that wrote it, Dustin Lee Abraham, is busy doing all kinds of other stuff. You can only wait for so long to do a sequel to a movie before it loses its steam. Maybe we’ll do another movie, but it won’t be called How High, for sure.”

Redman, meanwhile, visibly flinches when he’s reminded later in the afternoon that a full decade has passed since Blackout! “I don’t even like hearing that, man,” he says, now back in his regular threads. “That s— flew by me.” In the meantime, he’s been busy working on his solo career. He hopes to put out a new album of his own, tentatively titled Reggie Noble ’09 and a Half, this September. So what brought him back into the studio with Method Man at last? “S—, we needed some money!” Redman jokes. “It’s our fault for not being out for so long, just laziness. But f— that. I’m not letting it turn off again.”

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