If you think "Racing in the Streets" is bleak, don't look for uplift here. "The Hitter" is right out of John Steinbeck: It follows the rise of a fictional Depression-era fighter and then his crushing downward spiral. In his prime the character beats Jack Thompson, the real-life welterweight champ in the early 1930s. But in the end, after he's wasted his money and been forced to take a dive, he's reduced to pleading with his mother to unlock her door and give him a place to rest awhile. And then he's on the move again:
Tonight in the shipyard, a man draws a circle in the dirt
I move to the center and I take off my shirt
I study him for the cuts, the scars, the pain man nor time can erase
I move hard to the left and I strike to the face.
23 QUEEN'S GAMBIT
GZA and DJ Muggs, 2005
GZA, a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan and widely considered one of rap's top wordsmiths, outdoes himself here, working the name of almost every NFL team—the Falcons missed the cut—into this ballad of sexual bravado. (Note: The explicit content is not for the easily offended.) Admittedly, some of the NFL name dropping is tortured ("She told me to call her if I came to town/I started Texan her soon as my plane had touched down"), but GZA gets credit for the effort, and the lines that work are pay dirt.
24 LAUGHING RIVER
Robert Earl Keen and Greg Brown, 2009