20 – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Rocafella, 2010 ) Kanye West
Kanye Kardashian makes more headlines these days for his antics than his music. It’s a shame, because he’s one of the most talented Producers and MC’s in the game. Fantasy is Kanye’s White Album, where he experiments with sonic sounds to varying degrees of success. Every song feels different, yet they blend well. As with every Kanye album, the production is where everything shines, with “All of the Lights” and “Power” being among his catchiest jams to date.
19 – Everready (The Religion) (Strange Music, 2006) Tech N9ne
18 – E. 1999 Eternal (Ruthless, 1995) Bone Thugz-n-Harmony
17 – Unplugged (Rocafella, 2001) Jay-Z ft The Roots
Jay-Z is arguably the greatest MC of all time. The Roots are arguably the best live band around. The two of them getting together to play a live acoustic set is an orgasm for the ears. Hov runs us through a selection of greatest hits (at the time) to create one of the most memorable sets ever recorded at MTV Unplugged. From the opening Izzo to the closing Jigga, this album shows why both Jay-Z and The Roots are legends.
16 – As Cruel as School Children (Fueled by Ramen, 2006) Gym Class Heroes
Travie McCoy is one of the most underrated lyricists in the game. He’s not your average MC. Mixing upbeat music with fast paced rhythms, GCH turns in one of the most enjoyable hip-hop dance albums ever recorded. It’s impossible not to smile while listening to party anthem, “Clothes Off!” or the swag of “Viva La White Girl.” The bonus disk features remixes of album tracks showcasing rap royalty Ghostface Killah and Lil Wayne, among others. If you want to get a party started, add this gem to your playlist.
15 – The Chronic (Death Row, 1992) Dr. Dre
14 – Tha Carter III (Cash Money, 2007) Lil Wayne
Lil Wayne’s sixth album silences all the haters, cementing his place as Cash Money’s Most Valuable Playa. The first single “Lollipop” took rap in a new direction. Weezy gets gangsta in street banger, “A Milli,” playfully romantic in “Mrs. Officer,” and conscious in “Tie My Hands” while Robin Thick croons a somber dedication to New Orleans. The most poignant moment in Carter III, however, comes during the closing track, “Dontgetit,” where he takes off the glasses, drops his stage persona, and gets real about racial issues afflicting America. Whether you love him or hate him, Lil Wayne is an icon.
13 – The Marshall Mathers LP (Shady/Aftermath, 2000) Eminem
When Eminem first exploded onto the scene with The Slim Shady LP, there was no denying the guy had skills, but it wasn’t until his follow-up The Marshall Mathers LP that we knew Shady is here to stay. “The Real Slim Shady” is one of the catchiest songs in hip-hop history, the piano beat in “The Way I Am” is beautiful, and the Dido-infused “Stan” is an insightful peak behind the curtain at the trials and tribulations of one of the most polarizing stars in music. From front to back, this album still stands as Eminem’s best album, although he’s still cranking out hits and doesn’t look to be jumping out the game any time soon.
12 – 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989) De La Soul
Back in the late 80’s when hip-hop was still finding it’s way, De La Soul tour onto the scene, opting to avoid the street vibe still common in the mainstream rap with the most inventive and playful debut album ever released. A 24-track concept album (rare for a major label debut in any genre) that tore down every boundary that existed at the time, 3 Feet is littered with hip-hop classics such as “Me, Myself, & I” and “D.A.I.S.Y Age.” De La Sol opened the doors for rappers to be something other than street gangsters.
11 – Doggystyle (Death Row, 1993) Snoop Dogg
10 – Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (LaFace, 2003) OutKast
9 – When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (Rhymesayers, 2008) Atmosphere
If you’ve never heard of Atmosphere, you need to fix this immediately. Slug created his own lane in hip-hop with emo-rap. The tracklist of Lemons is enough to make it a stand out classic but the cherry on this sundae is the Slug and Ant-penned children’s book that accompanies the album. The album’s instrumentals move from classic hip-hop inspired (“Waitress”) to rock (“You”), jazz (“Puppets”) and acoustic guitar (“Guarantees”). Slug’s delivery is top notch from start to finish, showcasing why he’s one of the world’s greatest MC’s.
8 – Illmatic (Columbia, 1994) Nas
Hip-hop is filled with MC’s, but Nas is one of the game’s most real lyricists. Illmatic introduced him to the world, earning him The Source’s first 5 mic rating for a debut, and remaining his best album to date. The sole guest appearance is from AZ, who makes a worthy contribution. The rest of the album is hip-hop the way it’s meant to be: raw, gritty, hard hitting musical backdrops (provided mostly by DJ Premier) with Nas’ now signature multi-syllable flow eating into the beat like a fat kid at the bakery on allowance day.
7 – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse, 1998) Lauryn Hill
After the Fugees debut dropped, everyone wanted to know what’s next from the trio. Miseducation, Lauryn Hill’s solo debut, easily topped the group’s solo efforts. Flowing across genres from neo soul to reggae to R&B, Hill showed us there’s no limits in hip-hop (…except No Limit). She opens up about her impending motherhood (“To Zion”), heartbreak (“Ex-Factor”), and The Fugees (“Forgive Them Father”). Miseducation also introduces us to a teenage John Legend on “Everything is Everything.” I’m far from Hill’s target demographic, but The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is easily one of hip-hop’s most inspiring albums.
6 – American Gangster (Rocafella, 2007) Jay-Z
I must admit, when Jay-Z debuted, I didn’t think much of the Brooklyn native. He grew on me over time, but I lost him again after his post-Black Album “retirement.” American Gangster, Hov’s 2nd post-retirement album, hits all the right notes. Produced mostly by iconic bad boy Diddy, the album features contributions from The Neptunes, soon-to-be-bride Beyonce, Lil Wayne, Nas (burying their beef), and Bilal, whose blues-inspired “Fallin” is one of the album’s highlights. This is Jay-Z at the top of his game, consistently dropping that ignorant shit we like.
5 – Ready to Die (Bad Boy, 1994) Notorious B.I.G.
“Things Done Changed” since we lost Biggie. There isn’t a bad track to be found on this debut album from one of hip-hop’s most prolific MCs. I can only imagine he named it Ready to Die because he knew he created one of the best hip-hop albums ever made. Nearly 20 years later, Die still holds up, defining the East coast sound for an entire generation. “Big Poppa” told his street tales over Puffy’s sampled beats, letting the world know that NYC will forever remain the center of rap music.
4 – Hell’s Winter (Def Jux, 2005) Cage
Easily the most slept on classic album on this list, Hell’s Winter, Cage’s debut album for Definitive Jux, is the most introspective album in hip-hop history. Cage explores his dad’s heroin use on “Too Heavy for Cherubs” while introducing us to his relationship fears on “Subtle Art of the Break Up Son” over RJD2 and El-P beats. Cage can write hooks just as catchy as anything Eminem ever came up with (see “Stripes,” “Perfect World,” and “Shoot Frank”), although admittedly darker. Brace yourselves…Hell’s Winter is coming, and it takes no prisoners.
3 – All Eyez on Me (Death Row, 1996) 2Pac
This double album (a hip-hop first) was the last one released prior to 2Pac’s untimely death. Listening to it again for this list makes me smile. Nate Dogg crooning about seeing the same ho’s everywhere in “All About U,” guest verses from Redman, Dr Dre (on the barbeque-worthy “California Love”), Snoop, Kurupt, Richie Rich, E-40 – Eyez is the best album from the iconic rapper. When 2Pac died, we didn’t just lose one of the best MCs in the game, we lost a poet, an activist, and a visionary. All Eyez on Me is a reminder that while Pac was a thug, he believed in working toward the greater good of society. If you want to emulate him, and all you’re doing is trying to become a rapper, you need to sit down and listen to his albums again…because you’re clearly missing the point.
let every rapper rock it / let tha hoes that I usta know / from way before /
kiss me from my head to my toe.”
2 – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud, 1993) Wu-Tang Clan
1 – Paid in Full (4th & Broadway,
1987) Eric B & Rakim
It’s hard to imagine anymore, but there once was a time before cell phones, internet, and complicated internal rhyme patterns. In the beginning days of rap, MCs followed a very basic AA-BB rhyme pattern. Rakim changed all that. Like Filippo Brunelleschi before him, Rakim opened the flood gates by discovering a new perspective. Even when compared to today’s modern rappers, this album is impressive. Throughout Paid in Full, Eric B sets up soulful tunes that Rakim skillfully hops around. If you listen close enough, you can almost hear young Marshall Mathers & Sean Carter salivating…
hand / So I dig into my pocket, all my money is spent / So I dig deeper but
still comin’ up with lint”