Author and artist Shea Serrano has spent a lot of time with a pen and a pad, just thinking about rap. His book, The Rap Yearbook: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed, comes out today and its tight subhed explains its premise really well. Serrano—and some heavy hitter friends—have spent loads of time creating a comprehensive hip-hop anthology by figuring out what the genre's best song is for every year of its existence, starting in 1979.
The FADER was given the chance to premiere a chapter from the book and what follows is the complete "1990" chapter about A Tribe Called Quest's "Bonita Applebum." Pick up the book here.
“Bonita Applebum” is the best rap love song that’s ever been. It’s also the first one that stepped away from the loverman style, and it did it without trying, and that’s the only way that this sort of monumental change happens. Here are a dozen other rap love songs that are very good but not the best:
• “I Need Love,” LL Cool J (1987): This wasn’t the first rap love song, but it was the first one where the protagonist was actively trying to be cool, which felt cosmic at the time.
• “Passin’ Me By,” The Pharcyde (1993): This is a straight-line descendant of “Bonita Applebum,” though it replaces Q-Tip’s charismatic begging with self-deprecating measures (“Damn, I wish I wasn’t such a wimp”). Each time one of the guys is rapping in the video he’s shown hanging upside down, and that’s (probably) supposed to be the literal version of the phrase “head over heels in love,” because rappers from the late ’80s and early ’90s really loved hats and they also really loved being literal.
• “Me & My Bitch,” The Notorious B.I.G.(1994): In the second line of the song Biggie says, “You look so good, huh, I’ll suck on your daddy’s dick,” and when I heard it the first time I remember rewinding it to see if I’d heard it correctly, playing it again, confirming what I’d heard, then thinking, Wow, that must really be an attractive woman.
• “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” Method Man, featuring MaryJ. Blige2 (1995): This is the second-best rap love song. Method Man is rugged but secretly smooth, and Mary J. Blige is smooth but secretly rugged, so they play against each other with zero of the stitches showing. It ends with the line “We above all that romance crap, just show your love,” and that’s the most sophisticated, simple understanding of love that I think I’ve ever heard.
• “Renee, ”LostBoyz” (1996): Here’s a line: “She told me what she was in school for / She wants to be a lawyer / In other words, shorty studies law.” I suppose rappers in the mid-’90s liked to be literal, too.
• “Brown Skin Lady,” Mos Def and Talib Kweli (1998): I need for Macklemore and Mac Miller to record a cover of this called “White Skin Lady,” if they’re really real.
• “How’s It Goin’ Down,” DMX, featuring Faith Evans (1998): This is for sure the only love song to start with a phone conversation where a man aggressively accuses his girlfriend of performing oral sex on another man. Here’s a thing I can tell you: DMX is terrifying. Were I ever to find myself in the position of suspecting my wife of having fellated him, then that’s just some shit that happened, is all that is.
• “What You Want,” Mase, featuring Total (1998): Mase was perfect.
• “You Got Me,” The Roots, featuring Erykah Badu and Eve (1999): True question: Has any artist ever been as offensively underappreciated as Erykah Badu?
• “The Light,” Common (2000): I met Common while I was covering a concert in 2008. I was supposed to talk to him about the show and the album he had coming out. But I’d watched Wanted, like, probably two weeks before that night. So instead I asked him what it was like to get shot in the head by James McAvoy, because that’s what happens to him in the movie. He looked at me, paused for a moment, then said, “It was fine. The bullets weren’t real.” He’s very charming in real life.
• “21 Questions,” 50 Cent, featuring Nate Dogg (2003): This is a song where 50 Cent asks his girlfriend a string of questions in an attempt to decipher whether she really loves him or only loves him because he is famous and rich. One of the first questions he asks is if she’d do a drive-by with him. It sounds ridiculous, but I don’t know that I can immediately think of three things a woman could do to prove that she loves me more than actively participating in a drive-by with me.
Let me tell you quickly about the beginning of Native Tongues, because that’s important, but let me be as cursory as possible without being detrimental: Native Tongues was a loose co-op of rap groups who shared ideas and opinions and, eventually, sounds and philosophies. It began with a New York trio called the Jungle Brothers, then from there it absorbed De La Soul, and then from there A Tribe Called Quest, and then Native Tongues was finally formed. This was in the late ’80s to early ’90s—Jungle Brothers released their first album in 1988, De La released their first in 1989, and ATCQ released their first in 1990. ATCQ became the biggest and the most influential of the three, though it’s difficult to say they’d have even been anything were it not for the first two.
Native Tongues eventually reached nearly twenty members, though at no time was it more exciting or inventive than in those first three years, when Jungle, De La, and Tribe combined to counterbalance the seismic anger of N.W.A and the political charge of Public Enemy, by putting something out there for consumption that was on the opposite end of the emotion/ideology scale.
“Bonita Applebum” was the second single from ATCQ’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and that was the first album to heavily incorporate jazz samples, which accidentally significantly altered rap’s arc. Their commercial ascension wasn’t immediate (People’s didn’t go gold until six years later, a result of retroactive buys that followed the success of their other albums), but their creative ascension was. ATCQ became pioneering rap stars who did not present themselves as rap stars, and so that’s how “Bonita Applebum” became transcendent: because it felt 100 percent natural and agendaless, like the whole rest of that album.
The first rap love song was the Sugarhill Gang’s “The Lover in You,” and that was barely even a rap song. Mostly, it was an R&B and funk disco amalgamation. It’s very strange to listen to now, and I imagine the only reason it wasn’t all the way strange when they released it in 1982 was because everything was kind of strange in 1982. Still, “The Lover in You” was noticeably different than the Sugarhill Gang’s other songs—sweeter, more lush, somehow softer—and that’s the sort of pattern loverman rap followed; rappers or rap groups had their songs and then they had the songs they made for girls. Whodini’s “One Love” was like that. Slick Rick’s “Teenage Love” was, too.
LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” appeared to attempt to sidestep the blatancy of the formula. It was sleek and (tried to be) perceptive, and also kinetic and impassioned, and that was close enough to the rest of his music that it didn’t glow neon pink like the rap love songs that had come before it. But it was still him rapping for girls and not for just all humans, and you could tell because its seams still showed. He said things like “I hear my conscience call / Telling me I need a girl who’s as sweet as a dove / For the first time in my life, I see I need love,” and the only time a guy calls a dove “a dove” is when he’s talking at a girl, not to her, or I guess also if he’s John Woo, because John Woo fucking loves doves.
“Bonita Applebum” was not built like that, or at least not built with that purpose. It wasn’t an addition to the group’s persona, it was an extension of it.
In 2011, there was a documentary about ATCQ called Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. 3 I mention it because there are two things that Jarobi White, one of the group’s original members, said that fit here.
1. While talking about the origination of the group, White said, “We were just trying to be fly. And make music. And be musicians. Be like Stevie and Marvin and Prince. Thelonious Monk and Mingus and Charlie Parker. We were trying to be those people.” Two things: First, rap had already been popular for a decade, but he didn’t mention any rappers. Even if it was a conscious decision, it’s still telling. And second, the first three names, those are all guys who had essentially mastered singing to women without placating them or appearing condescending to anyone older than fourteen years old, which is exactly one of the things “Bonita Applebum” was able to do.
2. While talking about the dissolution of the group, which was primarily what the documentary was about, White attributed a portion of it to their general music-making process becoming outmoded. He said, “The largest difference between the hip-hop game now and back then is that people make songs. They don’t do projects anymore. We did projects. Notice I didn’t even say album, we did projects.”
“Bonita Applebum” is a beautiful song. The way it saunters around in a circle, bordered in by that sitar’s “bohm-bohmbodhm-bodhm.” The way Q-Tip talk-raps across the face of it at just the right speed, pursuing Bonita in a completely likable way, the way a guy who is very handsome and very good at making bedroom eyes does.4 The way the beat falls out of the bottom of the song every so often, like when he says, “I like to tell ya things some brothers don’t” after he prefaces it with “I like to kiss ya where some brothers won’t.”5 The way the whole thing is built out like a scene from a movie. It’s beautiful. All of it. It stands tall all by itself. But it also serves a bigger purpose than itself: It fits within the construct of the album seamlessly, blended in between a track called “Public Enemy” and “Can I Kick It?” and is usually close to over before you even realize it’s playing, just like A Tribe Called Quest.