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What’s the best hip hop album in the world?

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.

Public Enemy

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”.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.”

Listen here.

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”.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here
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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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.

Listen here.

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).

Listen here.

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)

Community Connection

Did you know you can take hip hop dance classes in Santiago, Chile? Well, you can. But that might not be as surprising as taking similar dance classes in South Korea.

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.



About The Author

Paul Sullivan

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.

  • txomin

    No 2Pac? I’m not happy :-(

    • dopaminecastle

      cosign! The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory! c’mon!

  • Adam Roy

    Nice picks, but you forgot J5 and Grandmaster Flash!

    • Matt

      No offense, but J5 is garbage and wouldn’t be on the top 500 hip-hop list. The Pharcyde and Heiro blow J5 out of the water.

  • Rob

    Solid list, would have to put Illmatic as my number one of all time. Nas was only 20 with one of the greatest flows of all time and one of the best producers behind the album. Great transition of the albums from where hiphop started to where we are today.

  • Paul Sullivan

    Didn’t forget ‘em homeslice – GF never made an album you could truly call “great” and J5 never did anything really original.

  • The Beanstalk

    To hell with the Kanye Haters, you might not like (what the media portrays as) his personality (there’s a little *sshole in all of us) but at least he’s doing something original with hip hop again musically. Featuring Gil Scott Heron and not a single gun reference too. Fair play for including it sir!

  • Tim Patterson

    I am staying late at work, rocking out to these albums, enjoying myself immensely. Great write-up, very well thought out, and so far I am absolutely loving the music. THANK YOU.

  • Paul Sullivan

    txomin – I felt West Coast albums like NWA/Dre were really more definitive than anything 2Pac did – plus in my mind 2Pac’s best work is spread across his albums rather than being contained on one ‘classic’.

    Rob – hear you on the Nas, although he didn’t produce anything on the record. He drafted in Primo, Large Prof etc. to take care of the music.

    The Beanstalk (nice handle) – agreed. He’s provided ’nuff fresh air in a scene that’s regularly fallen stagnant over the last decade.

    Tim – thanks!

  • Malvin

    so u wonna say there is nothing from 2pac. Has he been forgotten already. He’s my all time favorite.

  • Reuben Jacobs

    Hi Paul,
    I think there really has to be room form EPMD ‘Strictly business’, Jungle Brothers ‘Straight out the Jungle’, Eric B & Rakim ‘Follow the Leader’, BDP ‘My Philosophy’ and Diamond D ‘Stunts, Blunts & HipHop’ and possibly the Roots ‘Game Theory’ and ‘Things fall apart’

  • Reuben Jacobs

    Not sure if my post has got through so I am posting again that surely there must be room for
    EPMD ‘strictly business’
    Eric B & Rakim ‘Follow the Leader’
    BDP ‘My Philosophy’
    Jungle Brothers ‘Straight out the Jungle’
    Diamond D ‘Stunts. Blunts & Hiphop’
    De La Soul ‘Stakes is High’

    and possibly the Roots ‘Illadeloh Halflife’ and ‘Game theory’ or even De La Soul ‘The Grind Date’! CLASSICs

  • Tem

    Name a 2-Disc Cd better than “All Eyez on Me”. Every rapper today is trying to get to the level that 2pac was at when he passed, street rep, music and acting.

  • Dirk

    All Eyes on Me by Pac is one of the best albums of all time. Aquemini is OutKast’s best record. The Love below/SpeakerBoxx was mostly commercial. Not gonna even mention that garbage of unknowns but Ultra Magnetic MC’s isn’t that great a choice either. Have to put LL on the list too for Radio!

  • d

    The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy – Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury

    Most under-rated album ever.

  • Doug

    “Check Your Head” was good, but the Beasties Boy “Paul’s Boutique” was their definitive album that really showed what sampling could do, and brought hip-hop out of the 80′s and into the golden age of the early 90′s. A true game-changer.

  • Ross

    Love the list. My only complaint is that Midnight Marauders would have been on my top FIVE and it didn’t even make the overflow list…

  • Matt

    Pretty good list. However, I don’t think Outkast – Speakerboxxx / The Love Below is even one of their top 5 albums. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is by far the best Outkast album. I would aslo add Gang Starr (Hard to Earn or Moment of Truth) to this list along with Bizzare Ride II by The Pharcyde.

  • Paul Sullivan

    Great comments & recommendations peeps – keep ‘em coming.

    To address most of the posts above: being limited to 20 records obviously meant I couldn’t fit every goddam hip hop classic into this one list. Which in turn meant cruel sacrifices had to be made.

    It physically hurt to choose, say, Low End Theory over Midnight Marauders, or 3 Feet High & Rising over Straight Out The Jungle. I’m not gonna say I was in floods of tears but there was mental anguish, hair-pulling, inexplicable guilt. Probably a smothered sob, though I’d never admit that in public.

    Decisions had to be made and I made ‘em.

    3 Feet High & Rising, despite the main singles being played to death, is far superior in concept and execution than SOTJ, thanks principally to the genius that is Prince Paul. *genuflects*

    BDP “My Philosophy” was a single not an album.

    Eric B & Rakim “Follow The Leader” – personally I’d say it’s on a par with “Paid In Full” for sure. But there was only room for one and the debut was ultimately more groundbreaking in terms of technique.

    We could argue about “Paul’s Boutique” vs. “Check Your Head” all day long. You’re right in that the former is the “established” classic. And there’s no denying it’s a classic either. But for me the third record was where they really started to show their creativity and cross boundaries, playing their own instruments instead of sampling, dropping deadly instrumentals, creating something much more fresh and vibrant. Plus, y’know, Money Mark was on it :) The Dust Brothers sure did layer up those samples in an astute and memorable way, but they were continuing a process laid down by earlier bands (see Public Enemy / Eric B & Rakim entries).

    Outkast – again, only one album allowed. My personal fave is ATliens. Everyone has their own, right? But Love Below/Speakerboxxx really shook things up in a way previous album’s didn’t and for that it gets included here.

    LL Cool J’s Radio was on the list but got voted out in the final rounds. Maybe because his name stood for “Ladies Love Cool James”. Maybe because it just hasn’t aged as well as the rest.

    Gang Starr / Pharcyde / Diamond D / 2 Pac – I own, still regularly play and love all these records. But they were released during years when so much other dope music was also being put out; some of that other music was more influential or innovative in the long run.

    • teck

      Thank God am not the only one who thinks ATLiens is way better than Aquemini!!!
      I was expecting Madvilliany to be on the list though..that’s one album that still blows me out the water another millenium peeps be blowing dust off the jewels Doom was kicking.
      …Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday night…anyone??

  • Paul Sullivan

    By the way, Tribe fans, did y’all see this?

  • Dan

    Started off good.. turned into a total joke. ATLiens, Aquemini, and Southernplayalistic could’ve all been candidates, but Speakerboxxx/Love Below, the album most hip hop heads consider to be the falling off of Outkast, makes the list. Quasimodo, Q-tip, Cannibal Ox?– Random psuedo-underground rappers that never made any real impact in hip-hop. The new Kanye album hasn’t stood the test of time yet and surely will get old after a few listens like all his others.. the production is great but his lyrics and flow can basically ruin some of the songs. At least Hard to Earn, The Score, and Carter III made the honorable mentions but those should have been absolutely been included before those that were. How about Big Pun? Busta Rhymes ? Common? 2Pac? There are so many artist that were way more relevant in hip hop that made a much bigger impact and should’ve been included way before the artists that are here.

  • Paul Sullivan

    @ Dan — “Speakerboxxx/Love Below…the falling off of Outkast” — if you mean underground’s loss being the mainstream’s gain, then maybe that could be called “falling off” – but I personally don’t agree (obviously). Those albums are stuffed full of ideas and styles that are still reverberating around the globe’s studios today – which is more than you can say for some of their earlier work.

    Big Boi’s recent album also showed him/them to be more than relevant in and to 2010, which is more than you could say for, say, Busta Rhymes, who hasn’t done anything truly interesting for at least three albums (and who, despite his admittedly incredible prowess and slew of amazing singles back in the day) never produced an album that was massively influential in that sense.

    But for someone who seems to love Outkast’s more “underground” output you don’t seem to know much about the underground at all, given your comments about Quasimodo and Cannibal Ox.

    Maybe you missed out on those scenes, but many others didn’t. If you took some time to do a little digging around – and to listen to those albums – you’d understand their relevance and influence. The underground was much stronger than the mainstream in terms of ideas and creativity at those times, and these two artists both pioneered their own cults that still persist today (see Stones Throw, Madlib, Def Jux etc.).

    And how can you call Q Tip a “pseudo-underground rapper” after he’s fronted one of the best known hip hop bands of all time? Dan, come on! Plus The Renaissance was WAY more consistent than Lil Wayne’s The Carter III, which had some excellent moments but some real dire ones too. The fact it was on so many Best Albums Of The Year just showed how desperate hip hop was and still is for major albums.

    Hence my choice of Kanye, who I know has flaws as an MC (I agree he kills some tracks on MBDTF) but who is also way more consistent than Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Eminem and other current candidates.

    2Pac I’ve responded to before, Common I love to death but ATCQ were way more influential than him on that jazzy hip hop tip.

    Maybe you need to maybe re-read my intro and remember I only had 20 albums and that I was looking at the genre from an evolutionary point of view, attempting to pick out the records that were most influential at a given time and in a certain milieu. I know there were more records that were “dope” and that aren’t in the list (you didn’t mention Pharcyde, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Snoop Doggy Dogg, The Coup and a million more), but that’s not what the list was about.

    That said, what I’d be willing to do is create another list of dope records that didn’t make the list – as curated by you guys here in the comments. How about you all give me three of your faves that are not on the list and I’ll knock something up…?

  • HartBeat Productions

    There are several great albums on this list, but I disagree that a list of the best ever has to include albums from throughout hip hop’s history. The fact is that some eras were simply better, and others simply don’t deserve mention. The early nineties deserve way more representation, the 2000′s way less. I was glad to see 36 chambers there, but what about the rest of Wu Tang’s first wave of releases? Liquid Swords, Cuban Linx, Dirty Versions? These were just as important, if not more so, than 36 chambers. And Black on Both Sides was good, but compared to the Black Star album it was completely forgettable. Ultimately, though, I think any list that doesn’t even mention Slick Rick, the greatest story-teller of all time, is ultimately laughable.

  • Courtney

    I agree no 2pac is a serious serious oversight, take another listen at me against the world, all eyez on me, makiavelli 7 day theory, or even the outlawz compilation. you will change your mind and if you don’t hip hop head you are not.

  • Tim

    You’re 5 years off on the Marshall Mathers LP

  • Paul Sullivan


    “I disagree that a list of the best ever has to include albums from throughout hip hop’s history.” — Of course it doesn’t. I just wanted it to, and I think it’s healthier for it to avoid temporal / old skool bias. That said, how are you going to write a best ever list without looking at the whole era objectively, hm?

    How can the second wave of Wu releases be more important than the album that put them on the map and made those second wave albums possible?

    Tell you what’s more laughable than missing out Slick Rick – or calling him “the greatest story teller of all time” (a cliche that has stuck over time and patently not true) – is calling Black on Both Sides “forgettable”. I weighed it up against Black Star and, sorry to say, it’s both a superior album AND more influential. LOLZ.

  • Paul Sullivan

    @Courtney, I have listened to those albums again and again over the years. I also have listened to all the others on this list and hundreds more besides. Which makes me a “true hip hop head” whether you agree with my list or not. What are your credentials apart from having a 2pac obsession?

  • Paul Sullivan

    @Tim Thanks for the heads up, my bad.

  • Cameron

    The fact that 2pac and Too Short’s cd are on this list invalidates it.
    Also Outkast first two CD Southenplayalistic and ATLiens were their best.

  • Max – The IT Pro

    Don’t forget the contributions of Curtis Blow (especially The Breaks track), The SOS Band (especially that track Just Be Good To Me – ), Run DMC et al.

    Africa Bambaata and Soul Sonic Force truly pioneered some wicked sounds. They deserve mad props. I’ll say this again & again…the 1980s produced some of the BEST Funky/Soul/Rap/Hip Hoppy beats EVER!! We’ll never find that creativity again.

    Everything today (well, most of it!) from these bad-boy-wannabee Hip Hopsters are just watered-down “me too” crapola that’s negative on the black consciousness. Nothing uplifting at all…just baby-momma bitches, gang-banging, and being “stoopid.” Sorry, but its the truth…and I’m black.

    I haven’t even mentioned Zapp, The Evasions, Videeo (Thang; Closet Freak tracks), Skyy (Moving Violation, Verycheri (for their innovative 69 Cancer Sign track),

    You see, in the early 80s when I was a kid, I used to go to Boston (Cambridge/Medford) in the summers to visit family and play lotsa street basketball. I’d see the brothas walking on the streets with their huge boom boxes playin some of the BADEST beats of the time. I always came back to Ottawa with the freshest beats among my friends. :-)

    Today, I’ve moved on — to the Electronic Dance Music scene — where I find the same kind of 80s pioneering creativity in sub/genres like Funky House, Dark Tribal, Progressive, Dark Prog, Tech Trance & some other delicious UNDERGROUND combinations.I’ve heard some House beats with Hip Hop undertones and vocals…wicked shit. No doubt the EDM scene is growing strong in all corners of the world. Case in point: The Winter Music Conference in Miami:

  • Paul Sullivan

    @ Cameron

    “The fact that 2pac and Too Short’s cd are on this list invalidates it” > they’re not on the list. Does that therefore validate it?

    “Also Outkast first two CD Southenplayalistic and ATLiens were their best.” > OK, thanks for setting us straight. Sorry to deviate from your tastes, I promise it won’t happen again ;)

  • KanyeTwitty

    Don’t forget Snow, Vanilla Ice, Fred Durst, Marky Mark and of course, The Average Homeboy.

  • Loc

    I was sent this list by a friend to check out, and I have to say, up until around 2000 I don’t have any real problems with the list.

    In what world of HIP-HOP is Quasimodo considered a classic? I dislike the Cold Vein but that fulfills the obvious “early 2000s backpacker slot” having two for such a minor age of hip-hop is silly.

    Also, Donuts and the Renaissance? Are either of the albums considered classic by anyone? Both great quality work, but neither is genre defining, Donuts was a collection of samples best described as “music to clean your apartment to” and The Renaissance is a solid release but I don’t think many people would ever consider it in their top 20, let alone top 50.

    The Kanye is too new (but I’m sure this article was written since it had just come out, so I get it for promo and whatnot)

    I’d switch Reasonable Doubt for Black Album/Blueprint (more impact)
    Take out Quasimodo for All Eyez on Me (Although Me against the world is my fav)

    The Renaissance gets taken out for Gangstarr – Moment of Truth

    Donuts can be replaced with Scarface – The Fix, because damnit, you need some kind of Southern love other than Outkast.

    All in all, good read, I liked most of it, and every single one of these lists is gonna be picked apart.

  • Paul Sullivan

    @ Loc, thanks for your well reasoned comments.

    “In what world of HIP-HOP is Quasimodo considered a classic?” – well, in my world, obviously ;) But that album caught a specific mood of underground, understated hip hop and is loved by many hip hop heads across the globe, plus it represents the beginning of a remarkable career for Madlib, one of the few individuals who has breathed some creativity into the genre over the last decade.

    “Also, Donuts and the Renaissance? Are either of the albums considered classic by anyone?” – The former, for certain. Far from being music to clean up to, it was – again – the defining work of a producer responsible for defining an entire sound within hip hop through the 2000s, from his work from Slum Village and ATCQ to his remixes and solo work. If someone doesn’t know anything about J Dilla, this is what you send them to get a sense of the breadth and scope of his work. And he practically made it on his deathbed. I kind of agree with you on The Renaissance (solid rather than classic), but I was looking for albums that defined a certain time or mood, and in the absence of anything majorly creative, I chose this. I felt it said something about the lack of creativity around at the end of the 00s that a “solid” and “classic” sounding album should be one of the best. It was a close call between that and Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, but I didn’t feel that topped his work with Black Star or BOBS, whereas the Tip release is actually his best solo work – quite something for someone that’s been in the game so long and produced so much dope shit when you think about it. Moment Of Truth was released a decade to early to fill this late 90s slot (maybe you missed the timeline aspect of the piece?).

    I don’t feel the backpacker or indie slot was such a minor age. If anything that world took over from mainstream rap for the best part of a decade, and is still producing some of the most interesting stuff. Two albums that represent the shift from major to indie, mainstream to cult is not too many.

    Fair comments on the Kanye and the 2Pac…you obv. know your shit. Respect and thanks again for your comments.

  • jiff japp

    No D.J. Shadow…Entroducing , a mid-nineties classic ?
    Why, ooooohhhhh,why not ?
    Anyone who can sample Bjork and turn it into SPACEFUNK needs some LOVE .

  • Jon Jamaal

    Decent list. Not an easy task. Mostly agree with Hartbeat. Forget 2Pac hagiography, his flow so annoying and the rape proclivity a glaring mitigating factor. What about Freestyle Fellowship? Can you find the level of difficulty in this? From 1:07 Myka-9′s verse gets retarded.

  • Evan Campbell

    Love the addition of Madvillain to the list. DOOM is one of the freshest voices in hip-hop.

    Would love to have seen some Pharoahe Monch on here. Internal Affairs at least deserved a place on the overflow.

    Well written piece, in any case. Most of your justification is spot on.

  • frenchie

    great list, obviously impossible to meet everyone’s criteria…

    that being said, there is no way Black On Both Sides is “both a superior album AND more influential” than Black Star. We could go on and on about this one, but here’s my point: I think you put Black on Both Sides because of Mos Def ‘s showcase of his wide range (his singing, bass and drums playing), with a lot of non Hip Hop material, making it a very diversified album. It definitely is an amazing record, but I think the main ingredients are still Mos Def ‘s flow and lyrics, which is why I would put Black Star on the main list. Like you said, “(…) only room for one and the debut was ultimately more groundbreaking in terms of technique.” Yeah, I know you’re talking about Eric B & Rakim, but it works with Mos as well. And Talib Kweli ‘s a pretty good MC, too. Also, in terms of rappers singing and playing instruments, Lauryn Hill and the Roots succeeded long before Mos Def.

    Other disagreement: Quasimoto ‘s The Unseen over Madvillainy. You have got to be kidding. Once again, I’ m just voicing my opinion, and it’s all thanks to your work on this page. That’s what’s so fun about it, and the fact that you have very good Hip Hop knowledge adds to the challenge.
    I don’t have much to say to defend my point, except that Madvillainy is simply a superior album. You have to give some importance to the rapping, and DOOM kicks Madlib’s ass in that category. Also, although I appreciate Quasimoto ‘s manipulated voice, it gets on the nerves of a lot of people, and it is just a gimmick.

  • Zack

    how is gang starr not in the top 15?
    har to earn or moment of truth would be good number 1-10′s

  • colin

    Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s Mecca and the Sould Brother, and how come Run DMC’s Raising Hell isn’t on this list? I think thats the biggest snub of them all, Stankonia should have been Outkast’s album representation and i also think T.I.’s Trap Muzik deserves some consideration as well

  • hhmdb

    I’m sure most people would say Dr. Dre – 2001 deserves to be in the top 20. Did you forget it or do you not think it is worthy?

  • Stu

    It’s a well considered and solid list. Props.

    I’d also add a vote for MF Doom though I’d go with ‘Mouse and the Mask’. Also I’d go El-p – ‘Fantastic Damage’ over Cannibal Ox.


  • NeilG

    My only complaint about the list is that the Kanye Album which I havent even so much as bothered to listen to is on there. So now I am gonna go out when I leave work now and buy it. And if it is anywhere near as poor as Graduate and Heartbreaks I will NEVER come to this site again – which is no great loss to you since its my 1st visit lol…

    Solid list – wouldnt have Em on but dont grudge u that, and have never heard Critical Beatdown which I must do now.

    I would have had Little Brother’s “The Listening” on here tho – which is understandably not on, but I do 100% believe to be as good as anything I have heard in my life – no exaggeration.

  • Plunko

    Wow, ambitious list topic. Nicely done.

    Very pleased to see Can Ox on there. Would have loved to see Blackalicious’ Blazing Arrow too.

  • Skkl

    His name is Quasimoto, not Quasimodo. You should know such things when making a list like this. Quasimodo is a completely different charachter. 

  • Shona

    No Bone Thugs?

  • Danedd

    Your list is missing Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys.

  • Bing

    a top 20 list without dre’s 2001…is a top 2-20 list

  • David Furneaux

    Marshall mathers LP came out in 2000, not 2005, apart from that it’s a fairly good list

  • Grain Wetski

    I’m spending a lazy Sunday morning taking music from the internet in a totally legal and morally upstanding way, and found this list on a google search — I am not only totally psyched for the initial set of recommendations, but am also happy to see that my suspicion that lots more would be found in the comments is completely confirmed. Thanks to all!

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