Some of the best songs don’t waste any time. They start off by verbally grabbing you by the collar, pulling you in real close, and letting you know that it’s not a game. These tracks quickly set the tone, and in the process of doing so, provide memorable bars. Here are ten of my favorite opening verses of all time.
N.W.A — “Straight Outta Compton”
If you were sleeping on N.W.A, the opening phrase, “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge” was there to wake you up. And if that didn’t work, Ice Cube’s first verse was sure to do the trick:
Straight outta Compton, a crazy m********r named Ice Cube
From the gang called N**** With Attitudes
When I’m called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off
Who wasn’t afraid of N.W.A after that?!
Talib Kweli — “Get By”
In this Talib Kweli classic, the struggle is real. And it’s summarized with such amazing efficiency:
We sell crack to our own out the back of our homes
We smell the musk at the dusk in the crack of the dawn
We go through episodes too, like “Attack of the Clones”
Work ’til we break our back and you hear the crack of the bone
Jay-Z — “Streets is Watching”
Speaking of efficiency, the first two lines alone on this track capture how Jay was grappling with celebrity while staying true to his roots. It’s an early example of him having more going on in his head than your average ex dealer turned MC.
Look, if I shoot you, I’m brainless
But if you shoot me, then you’re famous — what’s a n**** to do?
When the, streets is watching, blocks keep clocking
Waiting for you to break, make your first mistake
Kendrick Lamar — “King Kunta”
K-Dot’s West Coast standard begins with straight, undeniable rawness, and it continues to be relentless for the rest of the ride.
I got a bone to pick!
I don’t want you monkey mouth m*********rs sittin’ in my throne again!
I’m mad (he mad), but I ain’t stressin’
True friends, one question…
The Notorious B.I.G. — “Warning”
Never has there been a more vivid description of a rapper waking up. And ever since 1994, whenever I see 5:46 on a clock, I hear Biggie’s voice…
Who the f*** is this? Paging me at 5:46
In the morning, crack of dawn and
Now I’m yawning, wipe the cold out my eye
See who’s this paging me and why.
Public Enemy — “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”
It’s no secret that Chuck D dropped some of the most defiant verses in hip-hop. Case in point:
I got a letter from the government the other day
I opened and read it, it said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
Picture me giving a damn — I said never
Wu-Tang Clan — “Triumph”
In this highly-anticipated first single from the Wu’s second album, Ol’ Dirty started it off assuring us that he was a part of the project. That was great news, and what followed was a blazing verse by Inspectah Deck that reminded us of the lyrical darts employed by the Shaolin’s finest.
I bomb atomically, Socrates’ philosophies
And hypotheses can’t define how I be droppin’ these
Mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery
Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me
Battle-scarred shogun, explosion when my pen hits
Tremendous, ultra-violet shine blind forensics
Ms. Lauryn Hill — “Lost Ones”
Shots were fired very early on “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” and in a matter of seconds, Ms. Hill made it clear that the Fugees weren’t going to be reuniting for a long time…
It’s funny how money change a situation
Miscommunication leads to complication
My emancipation don’t fit your equation
I was on the humble, you — on every station
The Pharcyde — “Passing Me By”
Every hip-hop head has found herself or himself in a club screaming Bootie Brown’s opening lyrics at the top of their lungs. The whole song is full of classic lines, but that first verse gets the crowd moving every time.
Now in my younger days I used to sport a shaaaaaag
When I went to school I carried lunch in a bag
With an apple for my teacher cause I knew I’d get a kiss
Always got mad when the class was dismissed
Slick Rick — “Children’s Story”
Also in the vein of “throw this on at any party and watch.” When Rick the Ruler sat down to begin this bedtime story, we listened. This is another one that old-school fans quote from beginning to the tragic end.
All tucked in? (Yeah)
Heeeere we go
Once upon a time not long ago
When people wore pajamas and lived life slow
When laws were stern and justice stood
And people were behavin’ like they ought ta good
That’s it! Did I miss your favorite? Let me know in the comments below! For more hip-hop, check out my other posts, including this one: