an interview with Rap Rankings
Moulz & Mel are on a mission to rank every hip-hop album...
Rap Rankings is a podcast with a lofty aim: to listen to, discuss, rate, and rank every album in hip-hop history. Normally such an ambitious goal would strike me as nuts, but in the hands of Moulz and Mel (aka Ly Moula and Melvin Burch) it seems positively realistic, because these guys are not your average podcasters.
Single episodes of Rap Rankings often stretch past the five-hour mark and into six, seven or eight hours; when I spoke to Moulz and Mel for this newsletter, they’d just published a two-part review and ranking of Eminem’s Encore that added up to fourteen hours and 37 minutes.
Episodes are full of contextual info, shorter reviews-in-reviews and sometimes even entire movie reviews (“Moulz & Mel At The Movies”); listeners can expect no-holds-barred discussion of statistical faves (Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt) and statistical lemons (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s The Heist), all accentuated by theme songs, a slate of emphatic sound effects, a healthy smattering of podcast universe in-jokes, and most importantly, Moulz and Mel’s comedic rapport, which is of course the gas that powers the whole vehicle.
In short it is some of the most unique podcasting I have ever heard, and so when I see “podcasting is dying” articles from the New York Times or whatever, all I can think is, these people haven’t listened to Rap Rankings yet and they really, really need to.
So I was super excited to get to talk to Moulz and Mel about how their creative partnership started, how their own music careers influenced their podcast style, which caffeinated beverage gets them through these mega recording sessions, and what being a wrestling fan has to do with it all. Read on and if you care about hip hop even a little bit, run don’t walk to the Rap Rankings podcast.
MO: I would love to start with the origins of Rap Rankings and then get more into the nitty gritty of what you’ve been working on, what you’re excited about, etc.
Moulz: It's kind of funny. We met in a fan community for the rapper Charles Hamilton.
Mel: You can call it a cult! Keep it 100. It's obviously not an actual cult, but in hindsight it felt like one. We were superfans of this guy, and Moulz here reached out to me because we're both musicians — we both rap, both make beats — and I guess Charles had visited your house and made some beats on your laptop. He knew I rapped and I guess I was one of his preferred rappers in the fan community.
Moulz: What it was, was that you sounded most like Charles.
Mel: So Moulz reached out like, Hey, I got some Charles beats, you want to rap on em? And I'm like, Oh boy, would I! I believe we made that song in 2011, and then we were going to do some other stuff, like this collaborative project between Moulz and I called Losers in Paris that never got off the ground. But we stayed in contact as friends and fans. Then it was 2015, and I had this musical project I was doing under the name pizza boy.
It was probably the most successful era of my career as a musician, but Moulz, being a good guy, he told me, “I don't want to seem like I'm talking to you more because of this.”
Moulz: I didn't want to send you beats, because I thought it would be opportunistic, basically, to take that moment from you and say, Oh, let me see what I can get out of it, you know?
Mel: Right. And I wasn't thinking that at all! The start of how we're here today is — I believe it was either the end of 2015 or the start of 2016. I called Moulz and was like, Hey, I'm feeling kind of aimless in my career. I'm not quite burnt out, but I need to liven something up here before I lose that spark. And what initially started as him executive producing a project for me ended up becoming what it is today, which is just like this creative partnership.
And the show Rap Rankings itself was born of the tiniest seed of us being crazy people who rated albums religiously.
Moulz: Musically, we were having a hard time with the amount of effort that it took to put out a project. Sometimes it took like a year to a year and a half to get an album done, and you put it out amongst a flurry of many other things, and it gets lost in the shuffle.
Mel: In 2019, it became clear: we were making the best music of our careers, but it was clearly not going anywhere. I always envisioned that if it wasn't working for me after a certain point, I didn't want to continue down that path.
Moulz: We figured, we're spending hours on the phone just breaking down individual albums — this could be something where we don't have to leave music entirely if we can find another angle.
Mel: And we made the decision that we would never want to be active critics as we're still being artists. We didn’t want to do that.
Moulz: - But we’d still take with us those many, many years making music, a decade plus of expertise that we picked up along the way.
Mel: So yeah, we finished up that final album and we put it out, no fanfare. It was the least attention we ever put into a rollout.
Moulz: In the middle of April, just like a month after all the Covid shit started.
Mel: It was like an election year. It was just like…Oh…here's the album. Like, I think I did one post and never spoke of it again. Then we pivoted to the show, and that's what we've been doing since 2019. All of our experiences as artists get incorporated. I always say, I'm not a critic, I'm an analyst. I know the stereotype of the artist-to-critic pipeline. It's like, Oh, you failed as an artist and now you're judging other artists, right? No, we just like talking about music!
Moulz: And there’s a degree of entertainment that goes into it too. We’re not journalists, we're not pretending to be journalists. We do a lot of research. But at the end of the day, I do see us as almost part critic and part entertainer. Because we have a show that is very long, and I don't think that you can cram information into people's heads for seven, eight, nine, ten-plus hours without adding in something else.
MO: And that’s what I like about your podcast — again, not to hate on the idea of “critics” but if you’re a career critic, I feel like there's this attitude that you then need to have where you need to be right, and fit everything into the context of the current moment, and all of that. And not that you guys are wrong but I enjoy that the podcast seems to go beyond bolstering your own ego as critics.
Mel: I'm glad that comes across, because we talk all the time in private — we feel like the actual ranking of the albums is the least important part of the show. It's about how things develop over the course of the conversation. The board doesn't matter, it’s more about the journey of it all.
Moulz: It’s fun to argue. And that’s why the board is there, for the listeners to look at and argue with us about. We're not trying to say we're the final word on anything, and when we analyze the records, we're going at it from a place of enjoyment.
MO: So do people come and argue with you, and how do you deal with that?
Mel: We welcome it whenever it happens. That means people are invested. People call our hotline, people leave comments, they come on as guests. The first time that we had a guest that actively like pushed back - wasn't it Al Shipley? Al came on season one and we did a UGK album, and Moulz and Al, they both liked a song and I didn't, and Al was just flat out like, “You're insane. This is a horrible opinion.” And inside I'm like, YES, I’m glad that you feel comfortable enough to openly think that I'm nuts for this opinion.
Moulz: We take a lot of pride in not ever really ducking the smoke. If the audience has corrections, we'll always issue corrections on the show. If they have issues with our ratings or statements that were made in the review, we always make a point to address that on the show. There’s a lot of interactivity between us and the audience that goes on. We go into the booth to do a show, we come out, they have a bunch of opinions about it, and they feel emboldened to call up and let their opinions be known.
We take a lot of pride in not holding our particular opinions above anyone else's, including our listeners.
Mel: We really don't think we're important. [laughs] One of the goals was to never make the audience feel how sometimes we felt as artists. We would encounter these too-cool-for-school journalists and critics, and they might tweet something that would spark a conversation, and we’d reply, and they’d ignore us. Like, I guess we're not a part of the cool club!
We never want to seem like only established people can be on the show. If you care about hip hop, we want you on. You can be a regular person — we're regular people.
Moulz: I think journalists who are in the field and covering hip hop do add valuable perspective, but I also want, like, my neighbor to come on the show. That’s why we have the hotline. People will call in and sometimes they'll talk about stuff that's completely off the beaten path. The hotline ends up more Taxicab Confessions more than hip hop podcasting.
Mel: Our most frequent guest — he’s basically part of the show — we get this saga of his life through the hotline. Like, we hear about his colonoscopy appointments. It’s great.
What this has morphed into has been exactly what we envisioned, which is this longform podcast, almost comically long, but not overly studious. It's just talking about rap, which we would do anyway for obscene hours without getting paid or without anyone ever hearing it.
Moulz: Over the last two and a half to three years that we've been doing it regularly, we've noticed a lot more engagement and growth over time. We’re now just starting season 12 of the show, and I think we've created a greater legacy in the last three years than we had done in our entire music careers in quadruple that amount of time. And this is you talking to us at what I would say is still somewhat early in the show's lifecycle, when you consider how much we have planned and scheduled.
Mel: Isn't it into 2029 or something?
MO [deeply shook]: WHAT??
Mel: We're on friggin’ Marvel Cinematic Universe time, the way we’ve got this planned out. Albums, themed seasons, all of it.
Moulz: Everything that's happening right now was roughly thought out a few years ago.
MO: That's incredible. I had no idea. When we were talking about the episode that you wanted me to go on, I was like, Oh, that's great that you're planning into the summer, I’m so impressed. 2029!
Mel: It's a credit to Moulz. He's kind of the schedule guy. It does change, it’s a living breathing thing. We’ve learned this from being wrestling fans. Sometimes the audience will suddenly take to a certain wrestler, but plans are so cemented that they can't pivot to, “Hey, we like this guy now.” So we always wanted to have that flexibility.
When people call in and are like, hey, when are you going to do this artist? The running joke is like, Oh yeah, we're doing them in season 27, in three years. But occasionally we'll push it up and do them the next episode.
MO: Even that I feel encourages the personal relationship with the show — I can understand why influencing the schedule would make people really happy. Okay, so I wanted to talk about the show length. The way I found your podcast to begin with was because I follow Charles Holmes on Twitter, and he tweeted his guest appearance on the Drake Take Care episode. I clicked into it and was like, Oh my God, it's 6 hours long. [Ed. note - it’s actually 8 hours long]. And I was like, obviously I need to hear what a 6-hour long podcast episode about a single Drake album would be like. Was the first episode always that scale?
Moulz: We modeled the length of the show after a show called The Lapsed Fan wrestling podcast. Their show is even longer than ours, if you can believe it. It's about old pro wrestling — they’ll go back and watch old broadcasts and do a 15, 16 hour podcast on an old Wrestlemania. The fact that they're so successful doing what they're doing told me that we could do what we do about rap, in our own lane.
I remember the first weekly episode we put out was Graduation by Kanye West, and that was like five and a half hours. And people freaked out. Five and a half hours? You guys need to figure out how to get your show down to like three hours at most. And we said no — either look at the timestamps and go straight to the review itself if you don't want to hear all our banter beforehand. Or just listen to it in parts! No one's forcing you to sit down and listen to the whole show.
Now as you're speaking to us, we just dropped the season 12 premiere on Eminem’s Encore, and it's 14 hours long. It's our longest episode yet. We've added new segments into the show. We do mini-reviews before the review proper now.
Mel: [laughing] Now our mini-reviews are getting long. We had envisioned maybe 15, 30 minutes for those. And we'll end up doing it for an hour and 15 minutes. Like, oh my God, why?
Moulz: I'll always credit The Lapsed Fan for being that test case that we were able to look at and see that there’s a market for this. We're going to turn over every stone on these albums and try to be the last word on them.
Mel: Not the last word in the sense of of authority, but last word of like, these guys exhausted -
Moulz: - All conversation related to this album.
Mel: Yeah. That Take Care episode is not even in our top ten longest episodes now. In terms of the production of the show, we’ve learned how to pace ourselves. When we first started, we would sit down and do the entire thing, sitting here for six, seven, eight hours. Now we’re able to segment it. Even still, there are times where like — I think when we did Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly, we started at like 9 p.m. my time and finished at four in the morning, with the sun starting to creep up.
I don't know about Moulz, but occasionally I'll get that sensation where I start feeling like I'm outside of time and space. I don't know how I ended up talking about Kendrick Lamar for seven hours at one time.
Moulz: We’ve had health issues. Neck issues. Not to get too explicit, but, like, butt issues.
MO: I would imagine it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Mel: The running bit on the show is that I have to be insanely caffeinated to get through this. I figured out how to sort of pace it — like, if I drink this Panera, probably-should-be-banned radioactive drink…
MO: You drink the Panera thing that has like six doses of caffeine in it?? I just saw the TikTok of the girl who found out how much caffeine those things have.
Mel: That's how we found out about it. And I was like, okay, maybe I don't need that much caffeine. But the friggin eye in the sky was listening to my phone call and they sent me an ad on Instagram: Join the Panera Sip Club, free trial first month! So I did. And I started mainlining these things, in front of the mic like Hulkamania, shaking, like, “Reviews, let's go!!” So I'm turning into Cornholio and finally I just crashed. Moulz said it affected my immune system.
Moulz: He had staved off Covid this whole time until…
Mel: …last week. Three years, and then too many mango yuzu citrus drinks. Moulz got neck issues, then I got neck issues…we’re sickos. I sort of feel a sense of honor, though. I have battle scars.
MO: Blood, sweat and tears is happening. I wanted to ask, is there an artist that you two categorically disagree on?
Moulz: Mel likes the rapper Father...
Mel: Father. Father's great.
Moulz: I'm not a big Father fan.
Mel: It's funny you ask that though. I I feel like our tastes are pretty similar, but -
Moulz: - Raekwon! I really like Raekwon. Mel is mixed on him, I would say.
Mel: Which is, I guess, hip hop blasphemy. I finally heard Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, like, you gotta love it if you're a hip hop fan and I'm in there like…it's aight. I get grief for that.
Moulz: We have albums where our ratings have been drastically different.
Mel: Yeah, that's usually more frequent. Like Jay-Z 4:44. I like nine out of ten songs. Moulz only likes one. He thinks it sucks and I'm just like, Oh, it's old man Hov. He's matured, like, “I’m showing growth, I can be a great rapper and still be old.” But Moulz is not here for that at all.
MO: Is 4:44 when he starts complaining that he should have bought real estate in Dumbo?
Mel: That's the one. Moulz grew up in an era where Jay was still wearing the durags and the jerseys.
Moulz: And then he got older and kind of got lame to me.
Mel: He got us sent to a Macklemore-themed jail last season that we're still recovering from. Jay-Z is a menace on our program, but he's also number one on the board, with statistically our favorite rap album of all time. Sometimes you give me grief about artists, like Childish Gambino. I’m over here like, he’s so great, so multi-talented.
Moulz: Because The Internet, I think Atlanta is great…once we get into the more recent stuff, it's too much of a ‘70s funk pastiche that is just not my kind of sound. So yeah, we bust each other's balls.
Mel: And nothing is ever fake or sensationalized. It’s always a real argument or real debate. To bring it back to the beginning — we never let these albums get between us, and we’ll get into it on the show when the mic’s on. But ultimately at the end of the day, it’s like that Larry David meme. It's like, F you and I'll see you tomorrow, right?
Moulz: We just did this Eminem review. Mel likes “Mockingbird” and “Like Toy Soldiers.” For “Like Toy Soldiers” specifically, we had a really good debate about what that record represents.
Mel: I enjoyed getting into it with you about the merits of Eminem calling for a [Ja Rule and 50 Cent beef] ceasefire. I'm Pacifist Mel. Eminem doesn't want to fight anymore. No more beefs, no more bad talking. And Moulz is like, No, I'm a G-Unit soldier. We need to continue this, Ja Rule needs to go down.
Moulz: Eminem’s talking about how he doesn't want to see any casualties. He doesn't want to have it lead to caskets. And I'm just thinking, we haven't even seen one casket yet!
MO: [laughing hysterically]
Mel: No one died during this beef. Moulz is like, maybe someone needs to die, and I'm like, what are you talking about? So yeah, it’s fun.
MO: What album are you about to talk about on your recording?
Moulz: So this is the Biggest Disappointments season. Every episode we're doing in season 12 is about an album that on release was either considered a critical or commercial failure, or let down the fan base after a string of high quality releases. So we started off with Encore, we're ending with Tha Carter IV, and tonight we'll be doing New Danger by Mos Def.
MO: Great concept. Flop eras.
Mel: Basically, yeah!