For decades, the voicemail has been one of the unsung heroes in the art of the classic rap album. They’re rarely necessary and often warrant more skips than applause, but when properly executed, the perfect voicemail can help complete a song’s narrative arc and link together the entire album. Keeping it real is perhaps the most important quality in hip-hop, and there’s nothing more organic than ripping low-quality cell phone audio and throwing it on your album—content so real, you can’t even be bothered to re-record it into a proper mic.
On top of its authenticity, it’s is one of the most versatile tools in the game; it can be used to comedic effect, to share words of wisdom from an OG, or give an old flame a little airtime. Sometimes, it truly is the only way to get a song out to the public—just ask Gucci Mane, Mac Dre, and the countless other rappers who have recorded their verse over the phone while sitting behind bars.
Not every effort can be the best, however, so we decided to count down the top 10 album voicemails and phone messages to separate the weak from the strong. If you have a problem with anything about the list, you’re more than welcome to call my line and leave it after the beep, but be warned: if I like it, it’s probably ending up on my debut mixtape.
10. Isaiah Rashad – “Dressed Like Rappers”
More power to the man who hears the president of his own label call him and his dating habits “creepy” over the phone, and feels compelled to turn it into an outro. Voicemails from TDE president Dave Free are littered throughout Isaiah Rashad’s album The Sun’s Tirade, attempting to spur the rapper back into action as he struggled with addiction issues. “Dressed Like Rappers” is one of the funnier messages, finding the president appalled after rediscovering Isaiah’s age and comparing it to the women he’s involved with.
9. The Internet – “Palace / Curse”
This one gets heartfelt, as now-former band member of The Internet Jameel Bruner pays tribute to the rest of the group for everything they’ve done for him. There’s a shout out to Syd for teaching him how to “handle a drunk person appropriately,” Pat the bassist for taking him to prom, and the giddiest squeal on the world wide web as he reminisces about playing the bongos with Matt Martians in Europe. If you don’t get that excited about calling up your friends to thank them for being in your life, you might need some new friends.
8. N.W.A. – “Message To B.A. – Interlude”
Had history played out a little differently, “Message To B.A. – Interlude” probably would have landed much higher. In the midst of their high profile feud with Ice Cube after he split from the group, the remaining members of N.W.A. deemed it wise to stitch together voicemails from various fans insulting the former member’s street cred as well as his entire persona. Not only did N.W.A. lose the beef, however, but Ice Cube even sampled “Message To B.A. – Interlude” on his lethal diss track “No Vaseline” that still sits among the most vicious rap records in history. It’s bad enough to suffer defeat to someone you used to call your brother, but at least have the decency to keep your fans from taking the loss as well.
7. OutKast – “Nathaniel”
This 70 second song is nothing but the voicemail, as OutKast leaves room on their album for Supa Nate to rap an acapella verse from jail. Nate describes the harsh realities of life behind bars with a detached resentment, lashing out at the guards for their inhumane treatment and longing for the day he has his freedom back. When listening to Aquemini in order, it’s the perfect segway into “Liberation,” the nine-minute saga that further delves into the pitfalls and obstacles of growing up in their hometown of Atlanta.
6. Saba – “California”
Lupe Fiasco also leaves a voicemail on “California,” but that’s not the reason it qualified for a spot. Roast master Donterio Hundon ends the song by tearing Saba a new one, leaving no stone unturned as he rips him for everything from his hairstyle to his bank account. The bar “Yo ass look like the unpaid Future with no future” probably would have been enough for the song to make it on the list, and the fact that it’s not even the best line in the monologue makes it that much better.
5. The Notorious B.I.G. – “One More Chance”
This likely would have been number one if the category was answering machine messages rather than voicemails; an infant child telling the various women in Biggie’s life to “get off his dick” is not easily beaten. Unfortunately for Christopher Wallace and his wife, however, the plot didn’t work. Despite the warning, scorned women flock to Biggie’s inbox with a vengeance, only for him to double down on his ways for the rest of the song.
4. Kendrick Lamar – “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter”
Now we’re getting into iconic territory. Kendrick’s parents hog up his voicemail inbox throughout good kid, m.A.A.d city, but it’s their first appearance at the end of the intro that’s the most noteworthy. Kendrick’s exasperated mother sets the tone for the rest of the album’s narrative, while his father’s incessant desire for pizza brings well-timed comic relief to the song. Can’t a man just get some damn Dominos?
3. Frank Ocean – “Be Yourself”
Sluggish, lazy, stupid, and unconcerned. Mothers around the world would echo the anti-drug PSA that comes on “Be Yourself,” as the parent of one of Frank’s childhood friends implores him to stay sober and be comfortable in his own identity. Over the atmospheric, wandering instrumental, it’s a heavy-handed wake up call that just might get you to put down the blunt and pick up other methods of stress relief. Or ignore her words and light one up anyway, cause, you know, rebellion.
2. Drake – “Marvin’s Room”
The premiere song about calling up your ex while under the influence wouldn’t be complete without her tinny voice asking “are you drunk right now?” through the speaker. The song begins with her words fading in and out of focus over sloshing synths, before Aubrey Graham enters the soundscape begging her to return to him. Before long it’s pretty apparent that his pleas aren’t going to work, but it’s still a valiant effort from Drizzy that’s undoubtedly inspired countless late night drunk dials in the process. But of course misery loves company, so it’s still a success in it’s own twisted way.
1. Kanye West – Blame Game
This one’s got everything: starpower courtesy of Chris Rock, hilarious quotables that have lived on in the years since, and the most foolproof ingredient to inspiring classic art—heartbreak. The all-star comedian rants for almost three minutes over how much his girl has improved between the sheets, while she’s sure to credit Kanye at every turn. Yeezy might not have wound up with the girl, but at least he secured an album purchase from the guy who took her, thanks to his brilliant teachings. And in the end, isn’t that all an artist can ask for?
For the late nights: Joseph Carter – “One Night”
Quick shout out to Paupa for lacing up half of LA with some of the best beats in the city. On the first song of Joseph Carter’s MANNISH EP, Carter glides over the fresh production with a melodic hook that’s smooth as butter, while rapping his verses to add interesting dynamics to the song. The “Bad Boy of R&B” and Paupa are a formidable combination throughout the EP, linking up on eight of the 10 tracks.
For the sugar babies: Vinny West – “Sugar Daddy”
Off his recent Draft Day mixtape, Vinny West flows in a monotone voice that’s a perfect match for the menacing instrumental underneath him. The blistering hi-hats give the track a bouncing energy, while Vinny finds the perfect pocket to take the song to the next level.
For the psychedelics: $K – “Mu$e”
Colors swirl and reality flutters when the 808’s drop for the first time on “Mu$e,” the latest song from $K that gives you the feeling of staring into a kaleidoscope. The music video is no less disorienting, complete with a turbulent sky and watery filters that warp the song into an alternate dimension.