Aux Cord Chronicles XX: The sounds of 1998
OutKast, DMX, Janet Jackson, Lauryn Hill, Master P and ‘Vol. 2’ from Jay-Z made this one major year in music
The music industry was on fire in 1998. Especially black music. Jay-Z wasn’t yet the undisputed king of the hill — though he was making a strong case. Janet Jackson’s loneliness was felt by millions. OutKast got sued by a civil rights demigod while dropping an undeniable masterpiece. New Orleans, with solja rags tied around a well-oiled tank, was putting an entire country on to its bayou sounds. And Trina dropped a verse so raunchy even Ron Jeremy would blush. For the epic 20th installment of our Aux Cord Chronicles series, we travel back to ’98 and revisit some of the year’s biggest and greatest songs.
DMX feat. Faith Evans — “How’s It Goin’ Down”
The phrase “tour de force” is thrown around a lot, but every now and then it fits. Make no mistake, in 1998, Earl Simmons, known to the world as DMX, was hip-hop’s runaway MVP. (Which is why you’ll see him a few times on this list.) Dark Man X dropped two No. 1 albums in 1998 with It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. More than 20 years later, “How’s It Goin’ Down” still ranks as one of the coldest, smoothest and greatest singles in rap history.
Tamia — “So Into You”
Without question, the Childish Gambino cover of this record is [flame emoji]. But there’s a reason he covered the song in the first place. The original by Tamia — who apparently makes some first-class French toast — is just that flawless.
N.O.R.E. — “Superthug”
There’s a generation of rap fans who don’t realize that before N.O.R.E. immersed himself in his Drink Champs podcast, the Queens, New York, heavyweight was a massively entertaining master of ceremonies (MC). It’s because of this song (and Mase’s “Lookin’ At Me”) that a production duo from Virginia called The Neptunes would quickly become one of the most in-demand producers of the last 30 years.
Mase feat. Total — “What You Want”
The former Children of the Corn member went from underground MC to one of America’s most popular rappers in the late ’90s. Released as a single shortly after New Year’s in 1998, “What You Want” was the second single from 1997’s Harlem World. The Hitmen-produced cut, his second consecutive Top 10 record, is also a nostalgic case study in just how big Mason Betha was in a post-Biggie Smalls New York.
Jay-Z feat. Amil & Ja Rule — “Can I Get A …”
Jay-Z’s 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt is a hip-hop masterpiece, and 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 is somehow still criminally underrated. By the time 1998’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life was released, Jay-Z’s superstar turn was officially underway. Slightly more energetic than “Hard Knock Life,” another single from the album, “Can I Get A…” introduced many to Amil, then a member of the group Major Coins, and Ja Rule, who would become a superstar in his own right the following year with the release of his debut album, Venni Vetti Vecci. Vol. 2 would become Jay-Z’s most commercially successful album, selling more than 5 million copies, and his first to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. He ain’t been rhyming like Common since.
XScape — “My Little Secret”
Xscape’s album Traces of My Lipstick generated two top-10 Billboard smashes: “The Arms of the One Who Loves You” and the addictively toxic “My Little Secret.” Let’s be honest here — you sing the hook with all the might in your heart. I do, too. That just means we’re all works in progress. The song still slaps. Neither time nor morals can change that.
Mya feat. Sisqo — “It’s All About Me”
In 1998, Spin’s Charles Aaron described Mya’s debut, top-10 Billboard hit as “a G-rated version of Lil’ Kim’s p—y-power politics.” Honestly, that wasn’t a bad synopsis.
OutKast — “Rosa Parks”
The civil rights trailblazer, or rather her representatives, were none too pleased with her name being used on the lead single from OutKast’s landmark album Aquemini. Celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran was even hired to handle the appeal after the trial judge ruled against her. But there’s no denying Big Boi and Andre 3000 created a cultural touchstone that was charmingly futuristic while simultaneously serving as a makeshift history lesson.
Next — “Too Close”
Never, ever forget that this song was about, well, erections. And it’s also the only song on the list to be a classic social media parody, too.
Silkk The Shocker feat. Mystikal — “It Ain’t My Fault”
A mainstay of HBCU (historically black college and university) marching bands in the ’90s, this was yet another example of the stranglehold No Limit Records had on the culture. And, in the vein of the label’s catalog of classic singles such as “How Ya Do That,” “Down For My N—-z,” “Hoody Hooo” and “Mr. Ice Cream Man,” the infectious grittiness of New Orleans hip-hop continued to evolve far beyond the regional staple it had been for so long.
Aaliyah — “Are You That Somebody”
Whenever Aaliyah’s career is discussed, this single is soon part of the conversation. The Dr. Dolittle soundtrack dropped June 16, 1998, two days after the Chicago Bulls’ sixth championship. On a compilation album with dope songs such as Ginuwine’s “Same Ol’ G,” this Aaliyah and Timbaland collaboration was the standout, earning a 1999 Grammy nomination for best female R&B vocal performance.
Brandy & Monica — “The Boy Is Mine”
Watch the video. You won’t find many more 1998-esque moments on this list than Brandy turning on the TV to watch The Jerry Springer Show. Believe it or not, the salacious talk show, along with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s 1982 collaboration “The Girl Is Mine,” were the inspirations for this 1998 megahit. Though the triangle in the song itself was fictional, the ups and downs between the two singers over the years were not. The on-again, off-again tension seemed to stem more from competitiveness than anything else, and both Monica and Brandy agreed that with age came wisdom. One fact that can’t be argued is that “The Boy Is Mine” gave Brandy and Monica their first (and only) Grammy Awards.
Usher — “Nice & Slow”
If you had told the middle school me that there would be a more romantic song than this one, I wouldn’t have believed it. “Nice & Slow” became U-S-H-E-R R-A-Y-M-O-N-D’s first No. 1 song and solidified him as far more than a teen star — a generational talent who was nowhere near the peak of his career.
K.P. & Envyi — “Swing My Way”
Otherwise known as the sample behind Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange” and J. Cole’s “Déjà vu.” This is another one of those songs you always remember knowing, but couldn’t remember when it came out.
Juvenile — “Ha”
Juvenile’s 400 Degreez is one of the greatest albums rap has ever birthed. Straight like that. Most people’s first memory of the 1998 LP is, and understandably so, the heavenly gospel of twerking, aka “Back That Azz Up.” But it wasn’t released as a single until 1999. Cash Money Records had been around for a few years, largely as a Big Easy staple. “Ha” was Juvenile’s first single to receive nationwide acclaim, placing Cash Money’s bounce in living rooms and cars far beyond both Bourbon Street and the Magnolia Projects. Case in point: Jay-Z requesting to be on the remix.
Puff Daddy feat. The Notorious B.I.G. & Busta Rhymes — “Victory”
Puff Daddy’s grandiose No Way Out spawned a plethora of hit singles, including “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” The Notorious B.I.G. tribute “I’ll Be Missing You,” “It’s All About The Benjamins” and The Last Dance-featured “Been Around The World.” But it’s “Victory” that ranks as the most special and, yet, unfulfilled. The song sounds massive, as was the video and its $2.7 million budget. Everything Puff Daddy did then was big (no pun intended). But here’s the truly sobering fact about the record: The Notorious B.I.G. reportedly recorded his verses, some of the sharpest of his career, on March 8, 1997. It was proof that the 24-year-old Christopher Wallace was improving as an artist. One day later, though, he would be murdered in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, just six months after Tupac Shakur died in the same fashion.
Redman — “I’ll Bee Dat”
I’m a stickler about the importance of concise albums. Redman’s Doc’s Da Name 2000, clocking in at a hefty 24 songs, is a rare exception. The album’s lead single was a radio-friendly number that managed not to sacrifice Redman’s sometimes comical, but always potent rhyme scheme. I remember “I’ll Bee Dat” as my first introduction to Redman, so the song holds emotional real estate. As for the video, I apologize for laughing at what has to be the 1 millionth time over the young lady running into the taxi. Respect Redman for who he is. One of the more underappreciated rappers of all time, and the MTV Cribs greatest of all time.
Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz — “Déjà vu (Uptown Baby)”
Before Peter Gunz became a Love & Hip Hop: New York star, and before his fatherhood stats became a thing, Gunz and Lord Tariq delivered an inescapable hit in 1998 while giving the always prideful New York City another anthem for the “city that never sleeps.”
The LOX feat. Lil’ Kim & DMX — “Money, Power, Respect”
The Lox’s biggest single is an interpretation of German sociologist Max Weber’s View of Stratification based on one’s class, status and power. If you think about it, money, power and respect tell the story of the 1990s Bulls, too. (Side note: This Lil’ Kim hook is still hard as nails 22 years later.)
Janet Jackson — “I Get Lonely”
I could make an argument for Jackson’s The Velvet Rope being the best in her catalog. The 1997 album was a devoutly personal LP, both in terms of sound and process. “I say [it took me] 31 years [to make this album]. You see, on this record I decided to ask myself questions I hadn’t even asked before. Like everyone else in the world, I’ve gone through periods of great sadness,” she said. “I never looked deeply at the pain from my past, never tried to understand that pain and work it through. It was a journey I had avoided. But one I now had to face.” The Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced “I Get Lonely” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, and stands to this day as a truly phenomenal single from a truly legendary artist.
Big Pun feat. Joe — “Still Not A Player”
Let’s say songs are football teams. If verses and hooks are the offense and defense, then bridges are the special teams. One of the most famous and recited bridges in rap comes from the biggest single of Big Pun’s career from his seminal album, Capital Punishment.
Destiny’s Child — “No, No, No (Part 2)”
Though “No, No, No (Part 2)” was released near the end of 1997, Beyoncé, Kelly, LeToya and LaTavia, along with Wyclef Jean (who was one of the biggest names in music at the time), provided the up-tempo, club-friendly version of the syrupy and sensual original. With the gift of time and hindsight, the trajectory of Destiny’s Child remains a fascinating tale of exclusion, success and the evolution of one of the greatest living entertainers.
Master P — “Make ’Em Say Uhh!”
In the projects, n—a, anything goes. … Being a No Limit Soldier, especially in the late ’90s, was a badge of honor. Master P was a ghetto superstar in every sense of the word, having filmed his own movies, owned his own record label and sports agency, immersed himself in real estate, hooped in the NBA (and, according to Master P, beat Michael Jordan once) and played an integral role in bringing the South’s dominance in hip-hop to a national level. With “Make ’Em Say Uhh!” P and the No Limit crew blessed us with an all-time great posse cut.
Dru Hill — “These Are The Times”
When he wasn’t featuring on an R&B songstress’ record, Sisqo was making sure his bread was buttered on the homefront, too. The second single from the Baltimore collective’s double-platinum sophomore album Enter The Dru was one of its finest. What a ’90s trajectory Lark Voorhies lived, too. She went from having Screech chase after her in Saved By The Bell to convincing Carlton Banks they had a kid together in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to having Good Sisqo and Evil Sisqo chasing her in this video.
DMX — “Slippin’ ”
Let me go ahead and say this, with absolutely no hyperbole: DMX’s autobiographical ode is about as authentic a song as you’ll ever hear. So much so that in 2018, attorney Murray Richman played the song in court at DMX’s sentencing for tax evasion. “Slippin’ ” was never DMX’s biggest single, but it was his most important. Ever wondered why DMX rapped with such aggression and anger at his peak, and why his life went so far off the rails in subsequent years? DMX gave us all the reasons that the instability in his life was anything but unfamiliar.
Trick Daddy feat. Trina — “Nann”
With all due respect to Trick Daddy’s catalog, and it is great, this needs to be said: When we talk about the greatest guest verses in rap history, make sure to give Trina her flowers. Also, looking at the video, I’m reminded just how much race car jackets were a definitive fashion statement then.
Lauryn Hill feat. D’Angelo — “Nothing Even Matters”
This wasn’t the biggest single from Lauren Hill’s generation-defining debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Nor was it intended it to be. What it is, however, is a subtly sexual, overtly romantic ditty that shows a deep level of adoration, respect and appreciation between a man and woman. In particular a black woman and black man. “Originally,” D’Angelo told Rolling Stone, “we were going to swap tunes for each other’s projects because I was working on Voodoo at the same time.” Unfortunately, the world never got a follow-up to this 1998 classic. On second thought, with these two famous recluses, maybe it’s better that way. Topping “Nothing Even Matters” would’ve been nearly impossible.
Jermaine Dupri feat. Jay-Z — “Money Ain’t A Thang”
Y’all s— ain’t for real till y’all ship a mil’/ And you hit a R&B chick and she fit the bill/ Said she loved my necklace, started relaxing/ Now that’s what the f— I call a chain reaction, Jay-Z rapped on the mammoth single from Jermaine Dupri’s Life In 1472 album. How the song came to be is a fascinating tale in its own right. “I was going to the airport to pick [Jay-Z] up, and on my way … I was listening to Reasonable Doubt. On a song he says, ‘Deep in the South kicking up top game’ … As soon as I heard that I was like, ‘We’re using that,’ ” Dupri said. “So he got off the plane, he got in the car. And when I got to the studio at my house, I had the beat up already. I played the beat and the song just came out.”
Tyrese — “Sweet Lady”
Sure, he may not have known the grammatical difference between “tile” and “towel.” Nevertheless, in 1998, Tyrese delivered a bona fide smash with “Sweet Lady.” Mark this down, too, as a legendary karaoke song, especially after one or four libations.
Deborah Cox — “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here”
There’s nothing, and I mean nothing, quite like a great R&B heartbreak record. According to Songfacts, “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here” cemented itself as the longest-running No. 1 in the Billboard R&B charts during the rock era, until Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” tied it in 2005 and Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You” broke it the following year.
DMX — “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem”
This is an anthem in every sense of the word. And one DMX initially didn’t want to record, according to the song’s producer Swizz Beatz. “He was like, ‘I don’t want those white boy beats. I’m not rhyming over that s—!’ ” Swizz told Vibe in 2000. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, because it’s hard to imagine 1998 without this.