62. Warren G – Regulate (1994)
“If I had wings, I could fly!” cries Warren G, staring down death. The title track to G’s debut album, the song seems angelic, and not just because the beat sounds like something you might hear on your way up to the Pearly Gates. It’s so … heavenly. Warren G seems almost Labrador-like in his friendliness and naiveté as he hops out of his car and says “wassup” to a bunch of complete strangers gambling in an alley. Of course, they try and rob him, but on cue, Nate Dogg—that divine voice of rap—shows up and mows down the crooks, crooning his head off the whole time. Within seconds they’ve got a truckload of girls and they’re partying at the Eastside Motel—which doesn’t actually exist, but you get the idea that it’s someplace nice.
The girls show up suddenly, perhaps to distract us from the fact that the song’s really about how much Warren G and Nate Dogg love each other. Throughout the song they talk about themselves in tandem like they’re Team Rocket about to blast off. Nate Dogg even admits he’d rather hang out with Warren than have sex—though that’s probably because getting laid is hardly an issue for the singer (“Nate got the freaks and that’s a known fact,” sighs Warren). By the end they’re enthusiastically explaining how to make G-funk, like they’re hosting a cooking show. You imagine them smiling, exclaiming “the rhythm is the bass and the bass is the treble!”
If this isn’t the definitive G-funk song, it might be the genre’s crown jewel. This is one of the prettiest rap songs ever made, its louche lounge piano suggesting the smoggy expanses in which the song is set. Even Michael McDonald, the source of the sample, loved the song, perhaps because it lacks much of the gratuitous, borderline-horrorcore sex and violence of Dre productions. The girls seem nice. And the only people who get hurt here are the bad guys—and you, if you fuck with Warren and Nate. They’ll regulate. Together. – Daniel Bromfield
61: Fiona Apple — Criminal (1996)
Before Tidal was something Kanye and Jay fought over, it was the title of Fiona Apple’s debut, which turned 20 last year. Produced by Andrew Slater and featuring a generous helping of Jon Brion (who would go on to produce her follow-up and compose scores for filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson) , the album propelled her to fame on the strength of such singles as “Sleep to Dream,” “Shadowboxer,” and our 61st greatest song of the decade.
With a big, Bonham-meets-Dre beat courtesy of Matt Chamberlain and ominous piano chords raining down like fist-sized drops of black ink, the song demands attention from its opening line: I’ve been a bad, bad girl. (The song’s controversial music video played on this, giving her the reputation as the bad girl of the Lillith Fair crowd.) Her husky delivery leads us to think this is simply an empowering song of women misbehaving. But it turns the screws on the shameful tendency to blame a victim put on trial in the court of public opinion: “What I need is a good defense/ ‘Cause I’m feelin’ like a criminal.” Apple voices the burden placed on victims of wrongdoing forced to somehow cleanse themselves. With “All I ever knew of love,” she refers to chronic mistreatment and the frightening thought that “that’s just the way things are.”
Or maybe not. Apple has explained that the song is about “feeling bad for getting something so easily by using your sexuality,” which flips the script once more. The song’s power in part comes from the ambiguity of a seemingly straightforward narrative. The singer-songwriter has simply gotten better over the years, and Tidal remains a remarkable debut, with this track standing out as one of the most enduring examples of her sophisticated, smart and challenging music. – Dylan Montanari