Ask fifty people (which I did, at least) and you’ll probably get fifty different answers (which I did, at least). Working out the best 20 is not really easier; in fact it may be even harder.
Any list like this quickly runs into the usual problems, not least of which is defining what “best” actually means. Most commercially successful? Most influential? Most critically revered? You have to settle on something and in the end a mix of influential, groundbreaking and timeless seemed right – with a bias towards innovative and game-changing rather than albums that sold the most units, if only to avoid MC Hammer making the list.
So although Eminem, Kanye and Jay Z are here, it’s because those albums represent new twists, phases or sounds in the genre – or because they were just hands-down amazing – rather than any multi-platinum status. Note too that these ‘mainstream’ artists sit along a string of albums that were never commercially successful, but whose influence far surpassed their mainstream acceptance.
Another criteria was to try represent the evolution of the genre from inception (or thereabouts, since it was singles-based for many years) up to the present day. It would have been relatively easy to choose 15 amazing albums made between 1989 and 1994 (the Golden Era). But stretching the list across the longer history of rap seemed more of a challenge as well as more interesting (I’ve arranged the records in chronological order to underline this ‘evolutionary’ aspect).
Since these kinds of lists, despite even the most objective intentions, are always hopelessly subjective, I accept full responsibility for the contents. Feel free to beef with me in the comments, where I’ll defend my choices to the death, or at least ’til you come up with an album I completely forgot about. Before you do start shouting though, check the “Bonus Beats” list at the end, which contains 10 more essential listens: there’s a good chance your favorite might be there.
Afrika Bambaataa – Planet Rock: The Album – 1986
For the title track alone –- the genius and far-reaching blend of Kraftwerk and Ennio Morricone that single-handedly helped kick-start not only hip hop but also techno and electro –- this album deserves to be included. More a collection of singles than an album, it was released a few years after Planet Rock, the single, giving the world the chance to fully absorb its influence.
The all-star cast of producers and engineers (including Arthur Baker and Adrian Sherwood) and Bam’s interesting choice of collaborators (Soulsonic Force, Melle Mel, DC’s Trouble Funk) makes for an impressively broad range of sounds, moving from funk and soul influenced tunes to the still-searing proto-electro of “Looking for the Perfect Beat”.
Eric B & Rakim – Paid In Full – 1987
“Eric B. Is President”, “I Ain’t No Joke”, “I Know You Got Soul”, “Move the Crowd,” “Paid in Full”: there are so many sick tracks on this record, it’s difficult to know where to start.
Individual highlights aside, the album gains inclusion for ushering in the Golden Era of hip hop thanks to Eric B.’s heavy funk & soul sampling and live turntable mixing and Rakim’s mould-smashing rhyming style – a steady monotone, yet rhythmically left field and one of the first to adopt the internalizing technique. A true rap blueprint.
Ultramagnetic MCs – Critical Beatdown – 1988
Another crew who were getting busy with the SP-12 sampler around the same time were the Ultramagnetic MCs, who turned out a much more upbeat and choppy album featuring a dizzying string of funky grooves (courtesy of producer Ced Gee) and hyper, off-the-wall rhymes via Kool Keith (who would go on to carve a singular solo career).
A commercial flop, Critical Beatdown nonetheless went on to become a highly influential underground classic, later sampled by everyone from Nas to the Prodigy.
Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – 1988
If there’s a main contender for the best hip hop album ever made, it’s probably this. From the opening missive “Countdown To Armageddon”, this album is one most deserving of the widely-used ‘hip hop bomb’ epithet.
Allegedly setting out to create a hip hop version of Marvin Gaye’s soulful but troubled What’s Going On?, producer Hank Schocklee (Bomb Squad) slapped the world in the face with a furious riot of sirens, basslines and irresistible breaks that was — and remains — nothing less than a detonation on wax.
The intricate sampling techniques were way ahead of the time –- almost in the realm of avant-garde collage -– and Chuck D and Flava Flav, while not the most versatile MCs on the planet, underlined hip hop’s ability to act as “CNN for Black People.”
N.W.A. – Straight Out Of Compton – 1988
If PE birthed ‘militant rap’, it was the West Coast that kick-started Gangsta Rap. N.W.A. (DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E) were even more uncompromising in their depicting of LA’s gats, hoes and drug-dealing underworld, “the strength of street knowledge,” as Cube memorably puts it on the album.
Violence, misogyny, profanity and funk reign here in equal measure, from the opening title track to “Fuck tha Police” (which managed to provoke a concerned response from the FBI and US Secret Service), and Cube’s wry tirade against materialistic women, “I Ain’t the One”, to the eternally funky “Express Yourself”.
De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising – 1989
3 Feet High And Rising was one of the few hip hop albums of this nascent era that was a commercial as well critical success. Kick-starting what would become known as the Daisy Age of rap (marked by a broader palette of samples that drew on jazz and non-black artists like Hall & Oates and Steely Dan, less profanity and violence, more social awareness and positivity), the album sounded like nothing else recorded in hip hop ’til then.
Singles like “Me Myself and I”, “The Magic Number”, “Buddy”, and “Eye Know” still effortlessly turn out dance floors twenty years later.
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory – 1991
What De La started back in ’89, ATCQ (Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip, and Phife Dawg) refined in 1991. The Low End Theory stripped the daisy age sound down to a more skeletal jazz vs. hip hop ethic (see the track “Jazz” for a sublime marriage of the two). Cuts like “Buggin’ Out”, “Butter”, “Rap Promoter”, “Rhymes and Stuff”, and the hyper classic “Scenario” continued the Daisy Age/Native Tongues concerns of black empowerment through positivity, and personal and community growth through self-respect.
Dr. Dre – The Chronic – 1992
Dr. Dre’s homage to potent weed (as well as booze, drugs, hoes and all the other trappings of gangsta life out in L.A) not only resuscitated a flagging West Coast scene, it also introduced the music world to a whole new sound: G-funk.
Rap had been sampling funk, disco and soul for over a decade, but Dre’s slick and sensual fusion of ’70s chocolate funk and ’80s synths (“Let Me Ride” and “Nuthin But a G Thang”) proved massively contagious and captured a particular time and place (as did the more paranoid and violent tracks on the record). The Chronic also features memorable performances from a then unknown Snoop Doggy Dogg as well as Kurupt and Lady of Rage.
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – 1993
A year later the East Coast re-claimed the hip hop crown thanks to a seemingly invincible nine-strong crew of New York MCs calling themselves the Wu Tang Clan.
Propelled by a menacing, melancholic lo-fi production (courtesy of de facto band ‘leader’ RZA) that matched martial-arts film clips to sped-up soul samples, as well as aptly in-your-face performances from members like Ol Dirty Bastard, Gza, Method Man and Raekwon, 36 Chambers is the kind of rare, raw debut that captures a moment or time. Impossible to improve on.
Nas – Illmatic – 1994
New York had barely heard of the 20-year-old Nas when he delivered one of hip hop’s crowning achievements in 1994.
True, he’d put in an unforgettably brilliant performance on Main Source’s classic Breaking Atoms album ( on “Live At The Barbecue”), but no one expected him to pull together a cinematic string of beats from heavyweights like Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S., and DJ Premier and then deliver some of the best New York mean-street rhymes in history.
From “New York State Of Mind” to “Half Time”, “The World Is Yours” to “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” Illmatic is pure gold on every level.
Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die – 1994
Biggie Smalls was only 22 when he recorded this incredible debut album. Released by Sean “Puffy” Combs, the record features the inevitable street tales of violence, women and drugs, but re-told and re-energized via Biggie’s instantly recognizable flow and compelling story-telling skills.
It’s a real all-rounder, veering from the schizoid “Gimme the Loot” and funky “The What” to the smooth R&B-sampling hits “Big Poppa” and “Juicy”. Right up to his untimely death, B.I.G. kept one ear bent to the streets and the other firmly on the charts.
Jay Z – Reasonable Doubt – 1996
Jay Z’s opening gambit was another of hip hop’s debuts that shook the world up, not by delivering a new sound exactly, but by blending familiar elements in a way that sounded fresh, slick and somehow way bigger than the sum of its parts.
With beats by producers like Premier, Ski, Knobody and Clark Kent, and guests like Mary J. Blige, Foxy Brown, and Notorious B.I.G., Shawn Carter’s meticulous balance of mafioso tales, richly palatable flow, and ear for catchy hooks (see “Dead Presidents II”, “Can’t Knock The Hustle”, and “Ain’t No Nigga”) helped lend credence to the marriage of rap and contemporary R&B, and introduced the world to a major new talent.
Mos Def – Black On Both Sides – 1999
Another Brooklyn MC, Mos Def made giant waves in the hip hop underground with this dazzlingly confident and original debut. Poetic, philosophical, and dope as hell, it was a perfect millennium record in that it seemed to sum up the story of hip hop so far and simultaneously signal a positive future.
An ambitious 17 tracks long –- and not a lame skit in sight -– the record is epic in scope and contains a stack of classics in different styles, including “Umi Says”, “Climb”, “Ms. Fat Booty”, and “Mathematics”, as well as “Rock N Roll”, which shows his broader musical perspective by name-checking Coltrane, Presley, Hendrix and John Lee Hooker.
Quasimodo – The Unseen – 2000
Back in 2000, West-Coast producer Madlib was largely unknown. The Unseen (recorded under his Quasimodo alias) is one of the best introductions to his by-now-familiar stoner, skit-filled, fragmented production style.
For his Quasimodo ‘character’, Madlib recorded his voice at about an octave higher than usual, giving it a weirdly helium-induced or childlike feel, thoroughly at odds with the tales of murder, drug dealing and sex therein. Yet somehow it not only worked, it became one of the milestones of underground hip hop and helped launch the career of one of the most ubiquitous talents in undie hip hop today.
Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein – 2001
The first album to be released on the highly influential Def Jux label, this towering, haunting album combines El-P’s eerie lo-fi production with the dark, apocalyptic rhymes of Vast Aire and Shamar, who depict New York as sick, impoverished and cold (“New York is evil at its core”).
Tracks like “The F-Word”, the buzzing “Atom” and “A B-Boys Alpha” make for dense and addictive headphone music. Not for the lighthearted but definitely one of the indie/backpacker rap classics.
Outkast – Speakerboxxx / The Love Below – 2003
Just as the mainstream was growing boring again in terms of musical innovation, along come hip hop maverick duo Outkast, blowing everyone away with a double album that showcased how they roll when they work separately.
Andre’s The Love Below is more concerned with musical invention and Prince-esque funk, while Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is more gangsta and stately. But both discs ultimately confound the clichés, overlapping more than you might expect. With tunes like “Hey Ya!” and “The Way Ya Move”, this inspired collection set a new benchmark for hip hop and for pop music overall.
Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP – 2005
The Slim Shady LP may have introduced Eminem to the world, but this is the one that showed it what he was really capable of.
What’s really interesting is that it’s one of hip hop’s major sellers despite being full of violence, streams of abusive language, and vivid descriptions of homicide and sex. Then again it’s razor-sharp, cartoonishly funny (banal skits aside) and genuinely thrilling: all things hip hop hadn’t been for some time.
Dr. Dre’s production is sublime too, from the staccato/space construct behind “Kill You” to the Dido-sampling Stan (produced by the 45 King) and the spring-loaded comic classic “The Real Slim Shady”. Say what you will about Em, on this record he re-invents the art of the dark confessional, and by genuinely not giving a fuck what people think, he managed to create the fastest-selling rap album in history.
J Dilla – Donuts – 2006
Another dominating figure throughout the 2000s was Detroit’s J Dilla (aka Jay Dee), albeit largely in the background as a producer for acts like ATCQ, Slum Village (which he helped found), Common, Talib Kweli, and others.
Through this work he became known for his jaw-dropping, fathoms-deep bass and swirling, cosmic sound. Of his three solo albums, his diversity was probably best expressed on this album, made all the more poignant by the fact he was terminally ill during its recording and died three days after it was released at the age of 32.
Q Tip – The Renaissance – 2009
Hip hop seemed to run out of big ideas in the ’00s, so it was something of a refreshing surprise when Q Tip pulled off the unbelievable task of making not only his best solo record, but one that continues the fantastic work of ATCQ, bringing hip hop full circle to a place of soul and positivity.
There’s nothing massively groundbreaking on here, but from “Manwomanboogie” to the uplifting “Gettin’ Up”, it’s consistent quality, and by the end really does feel something like a hip hop renaissance.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – 2010
The man with one of the biggest egos in a genre dominated by swagger and braggadocio has finally delivered something beyond great with his fifth album. Picking up from his excellent early albums The College Dropout and Late Registration, this epic statement beautifully blends an old school ethos with mainstream gloss.
Kneejerk hyperbole aside, it’s not a perfect album, but it does rank above his early work due to its broader, more ambitious palette, decadent array of guests (Jay-Z, RZA, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross and Bon Iver), plus interesting spoken word and music samples (including Aphex Twin).
Bonus Beats (10 More You Should Hear/Own)
BDP – Criminal Minded (1987)
Beastie Boys – Check Your Head (1992)
The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)
Gang Starr – Hard To Earn (1994)
Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)
Fugees – The Score (1996)
The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)
Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III (2008)
Mos Def – The Ecstatic (2009)
If you’d rather broaden your horizons starting with your internet connection, maybe 50 Music Sites That Matter is a better place to start. But if hip hop is your thing, you might want to read about the hippe-hoppe of Brazil.
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Paul Sullivan is a freelance writer, author, editor and photographer covering music, travel and culture. His writing and photography work has been published in The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel, National Geographic UK, Matador Network, Wax Poetics, XLR8R and more, and he has scribed/snapped several guidebooks for Time Out, HG2, Rough Guide, Cool Camping and others. He currently lives in Berlin, where he runs the sustainable travel portal Slow Travel Berlin. Check out his photography website, follow him on Twitter or join hisFacebook photography page.