Before Naughty By Nature, hip hop was a pretty different place, and its artists a little more one-note. Your beats were menacing or they were lighthearted; your subject matter political or party-oriented. Then three boys from East Orange, New Jersey came around combining elements of the disparate prevalent styles, without sounding like they were trying to be all things to all people.
It's clear from the very start of the album -- opening track "Yoke The Joker" had the dark flow of a Rakim cut, with Treach's writing at its most menacing. Immediately following this is the breezy "Wickedest Man Alive." It's catchy and upbeat, to be sure, but far from saccharine. Plus, it has the distinction of being the track where NBN mentor Queen Latifah first tries her hand at her patented Ja-fake-an accent, sounding like Miss Cleo's acting coach. Similarly, "Let The Ho's Go," with its sampling of Prince's "Housequake" and the infamous percussion section from Bob James' "Take Me to The Mardi Gras," was destined to be a monster party track. Yet, Treach (who does all the heavy lifting on this album,) is as laser focused with his stuttering, percussive flow as on any battle record.
But we're ignoring the album's 500-pound gorilla here. Is any discussion of '90's hip hop complete without a mention of "O.P.P."? Sure, today it's second only to Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" on the list of pre-hip-pop hip-hop songs most fully assimilated into the mainstream, but at the time it was deliciously subversive. With its infectious Jackson 5 sample and Treach's rapid-fire verses that dared you to rap along, syllable for staccato syllable, it was the track you rapped (or maybe even dared to play) aloud with your parents within earshot because you knew its brilliantly self-censoring lyrics would go right over their heads. This undeniable youth-appeal propelled the song to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- a major feat for a rap track in that era, appearing on many best-of lists at the end of the decade (and eventually, the century).
Then there was the poignant "Ghetto Bastards/Everything's Gonna Be Alright." It probed serious social issues (before they became dead horses cynically pummeled by aging comedians and history-making politicians looking to distance themselves from those types) with heavy doses of gravitas, but with the decency to remain immensely danceable.
This album set the tone for the rest of Naughty's discography -- teetering on the edge of pop stardom without ever having to justify their hip-hop credentials. Also, as their debut it led to a lot of other milestones from the Jersey boys -- many bad (financial disputes, a failed celebrity marriage, dalliances in porn), but also a whole lotta good ("Hip Hop Hooray," Next's "Too Close," the discovery of Zhané).
In the end, while acts like Kid 'n Play and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince will forever be recognized for pioneering pop-rap, Naughty By Nature should always be credited with starting the movement that made rap pop.
And I mean that in a good way.