Above the Law - Murder Rap

The 100 Best Rap Singles of 1990: Above the Law

Throughout the 90s, Above the Law would score bigger and better music. But they never matched the impact of their first two hits.

Above the Law
“Murder Rap” (Ruthless Records)
Billboard chart position: Hot Rap Singles (#1)

Above the Law
“Untouchable”/”What Cha Can Prove (Mega Mix)” (Ruthless Records)
Billboard chart position: Hot Rap Singles (#1)

Throughout the 90s, Above the Law would score bigger hits (“Black Superman”) and chart bigger albums (1993’s Black Mafia Life), but they never matched the impact of their 1990 debut, Livin’ Like Hustlers. Much of that had little to do with quality. Ruthless and major-label distributor Epic Records groomed them as successors to N.W.A., resulting in a promotional budget (and two number-one Billboard rap hits) they’d never quite enjoy again. To the public, they seemed like thuggish enforcers, thanks to widely reported scrapes with ex-labelmate Ice Cube’s Lench Mob at sundry industry functions. In retrospect, that reputation overshadowed their genuine musical talent, and group leader Cold 187um’s legacy as a key figure in the development of G-funk.

“Murder Rap” is a maelstrom of rippling bass that barely coalesces into a rhythm, scratched cuts and a whirring siren reminiscent of the Bomb Squad. Despite the title, Cold 187um’s rhymes are strictly MC cipher boasts, and he’s “taking out posses, causing bodily harm.” The late KMG only adds a few spoken words; but he takes a more prominent role on “Untouchable,” kicking parts of the second and third verses as well as the chorus. “Untouchable, it’s not what you know it’s what you can prove,” he says. The track is built over a sample of Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Light My Fire,” just like De La Soul’s “A Roller Skating Jam Called ‘Saturdays’” would be in 1991. Future efforts would find Above the Law charting a wholly unique path, whether a national audience followed or not.

Read more: The 100 Best Rap Singles of 1990


MIKE, Burning Desire

Brooklyn rapper Michael “MIKE” Bonema is a prolific performer — this is his second 2023 project following Faith Is a Rock, a collaboration with Wiki and The Alchemist highlighted by the standout single “Mayors a Cop.” His tics have grown familiar, from his muddy, baritone flow and viscous diction to self-produced lo-fi loops, making it difficult to differentiate between his sundry projects. Burning Desire has a handful of WTF moments that abruptly shift the usual gears, particularly “African Sex Freak Fantasy,” a number produced by North Carolina musician Gawd that’s larded with distorted bass. Mostly, though, MIKE sticks to a well-established formula. Some of his beats are quite nice and buttery, like when he slows-and-chops Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” on “Real Love,” and ends “They Don’t Stop in the Rain” with the Notorious B.I.G.’s chorus on “Crush on You.” His raps have a punched-in quality, a volley of bars that usually last around a minute or so, followed by a refrain to tie them together. (He compares his style to “a Sistine” on “Sixteens.”) The technique, so common among rappers in the 2020s, yields some standout lines, like when he raps, “I couldn’t cope with my feelings like Romeo” on “Snake Charm,” which is produced by Laron. Near the final third of Burning Desire, MIKE invites Lila Ramani of Brooklyn band Crumb to sing solo on “Should Be!” The haunting number feels like a palate cleanser and leads to one of the album’s strongest cuts, “What You Say You Are.” As MIKE raps, “I’m Michael Myers with the dreads,” he invokes the best aspects of his persona: A hungry striver full of Brooklyn swagger, trembling from the city’s elements and overeager to share his troubles. Not coincidentally, “What You Say You Are” lasts over three minutes and feels like a hearty dish instead of the minute-long nibbles that define so much of Burning Desire. The guests include Earl Sweatshirt and Larry June — both of whom deliver solid cameos — as well as British musicians Klein, Venna, and Mark William Lewis; experimental vocalist Liv.e, rappers Niontay and El Cousteau, and others. The evocative album art was illustrated by Ghanaian movie-poster veteran D.A. Jasper. MIKE released Burning Desire on his 10k label. * (Recommended)

Shabazz Palaces, Robed in Rareness

“All I want to do is see the girls get a chance/All I want to do is see the bros getting bands,” chants Ishmael Butler on the chorus for “Binoculars.” To that end, the Seattle rapper and bandleader stocks the 24-minute Robed in Rareness with younger prospects of varying experience, from relative unknowns like Royce the Choice and O FINESS to his son and melodic rap veteran Lil Tracy. None of them add much. Instead, the project’s success hinges on Butler’s bejeweled production, which weds electronic funk with spooky, spacey tones. Only “Gel Bait,” which sports an appearance from Geechi Suede of Camp Lo, brings much needed vocal aggression as the two complain about sundry opps and haters. This is Butler’s second major project this year, following an enigmatic outing as Lavarr the Starr on Illusions Ago. That excursion turned Butler into a singer, a shift he has toyed with since Shabazz Palaces’ excellent 2017 single “Shine a Light.” By contrast, Robed in Rareness feels a bit slighter although it closes nicely with “Hustle Crossers.” “Take me away from here,” he pleads in a melodic voice. “I’m lost in a dream.” Rapper/singer Porter Ray appears on “P Kicking G.” Robed in Rareness was released on Sub Pop Records.