In light of my recent “Top 5” lists, I tried to come up with a list of what I thought could be the 5 greatest hip hop albums. Then I expanded it to 10. Then it jumped to 20. And then I realized that there’s no earthly way to create a definitive Best 20 hip Hop Albums list. Can’t be done. So I just flipped the script a little and decided to list my 20 favorite hip hop albums in hopes that others would share theirs as well.
I even decided to create a podcast with my favorite songs from each of these albums. Get it while you can, because if the bandwidth gets out of hand i’m shutting it down. Let us know what you think.
(Playlist after the jump)
Remember-these are my favorites. I’m not saying that they’re necessarily the best. That’s my cop out if you get bent out of shape. The full breakdown follows the playlist.
- Eric B & Rakim – “I Ain’t No Joke”
- Beastie Boys – “Brass Monkey”
- A Tribe Called Quest – “Jazz (We’ve Got)”
- A Tribe Called Quest – “Lyrics To Go”
- De la Soul – “I Am I Be”
- Pete Rock – “For Pete’s Sake”
- Slum Village – “Untitled”
- Slum Village – “Players”
- Mobb Deep – “Temperature’s Rising”
- Raekwon – “Incarcerated Scarfaces”
- Masta Ace – “Saturday Night Live”
- Camp Lo – “Krystal Karrington”
- Gang Starr – “B.Y.S.”
- Common – “Hungry”
- The Roots – “Push Up Ya Lighter”
- Busta Rhymes – “Rhymes Galore”
- N.W.A. – “Alwayz Into Somethin”
- Ice Cube – “A Bird In The Hand”
- Dr. Dre – “Stranded On Death Row”
- Goodie MoB – “Black Ice”
- Outkast – “Return of the G”
And now for a breakdown of my 20 favorite hip hop albums (if you have lots of free time):
In no particular order.
- Eric B & Rakim – Paid In Full: Back in middle school, I knew a guy named Mark Nash who would always talk about this guy who was the greatest rapper that he had ever heard. I was really into Run DMC at the time, so I was hesitant to accept anything as readily as I did the Kings Of Rock. After weeks of trying to convert me, he handed me a dubbed copy of Paid In Full. That changed everything. That weekend I convinced my mother to buy the tape for me. I wore the letters off the tape within the first week. I sneaked my Walkman into school and listened to the album on repeat for months.
- Beastie Boys – Licensed To Ill: Don’t hate. This is a classic album. To this day, when I play the album I listen to it straight through. No skips. Don’t hate. Sure, they were nearly a caricature of Run DMC, but Rick Rubin’s creative genius crafted one of the most listenable albums ever. Even though I was a much bigger Run DMC fan at the time, and felt that Raising Hell was technically a better album, something has always drawn me to the recklessly fun nature of Licensed To Ill.
- A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory: This is my favorite hip hop album of all time. Back in high school, my friends and I would run to the record store after school to pick up the new releases, then talk about them the next day. Well, I had some hookups at the local shop and got my copy of Low End Theory a day early. We were sitting at the lunch table talking about how we were going to pick up Low End after school… and that’s when I pulled my copy out. Had ’em sick! To me, it marked the greatest improvement from a debut album to a sophomore album, much like De la did with their first two LPs. I went to sleep at around 4am the first night that I had it because I had it playing on repeat all night. I had the entire album memorized by the time I got to school the next day. “Jazz” was the first song that ever brought tears to my eyes. I’m secure in my manhood, so i can admit that. ATCQ was among the first to arrange their albums so that the songs came in right after each other. Made me not want to skip any. I’m actually listening to the album as I type this list.
- A Tribe Called Quest –Midnight Marauders: As contradictory as it sounds, i’ve always felt that Midnight Marauders was technically a better album than Low End Theory, even though the latter remains my favorite. This contradiction will present itself again when I discuss Outkast later. I was one of the folks who was walking around with a static filled studio demo tape of Midnight months before it came out. Still have it. When I got the retail version, I still played it as if i’d never heard it before. That’s how good it was.
- De La Soul – Buhloone MindState: To say that I was a HUGE fan of De La Soul Is Dead would be an understatement. I didn’t know what to make of Buhloone when it first dropped. It was half the length of the previous album. Gone were the clever skits and banter. This one was darker and more introspective. Where was the fun?The sarcastic wit? Why didi they sound so grown? Then it hit me – this is where they were in life. You know what? This is where I am too. De La has that knack of thinking what i’m thinking at the same time.
- Pete Rock – Mecca and the Soul Brother: I had to listen to this and The Main Ingredient to make the call. It’s damn close. Main Ingredient may have been one of the most well-produced hip hop albums ever, but this one still gives me goosebumps. But even as I type this i’m having second thoughts. I’m gonna go listen to them again. Hopefully I won’t have to revise my list. Damn…. be right back.
- Slum Village – Fantastic Vol. 2: Decided to leave the Pete Rock list alone. Fantastic really surprised me because although i’d heard the demos of Vol 1, I was never impressed with SV on a lyrical level. It’s truly a testament to Jay Dee’s magic touch that this album became one of my favorites because I place lyricism pretty high on the priority list.
- Mobb Deep – The Infamous: Hard. This album went HARD. Banging from the first song to the last (with a couple of skippys). I used to listen to this album every time I played basketball. “Shook Ones” might be the hardest beat of all time. Because I was a huge fan of Q-Tip’s production, “Temperature’s Rising” was my favorite track. This album made me not want to shave or bathe. I just wanted to be gutter all the time. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that they were only like 5’3″.
- Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Links: Hardest Wu-related album ever. Yes, harder than 36 Chambers. Yes, harder than Liquid Swords. I’m sure that some of you would like to debate this. This is “push-up” music. Funny part is, I didn’t even really care for Rae before this album came out. He was just another dude in the Wu to me. When I heard that Cuban Links was dropping, I was like “meh”. Then one of my friends at the record store implored me to buy it. I had to write an imaginary letter to Rae apologizing for doubting him. That’s what I get for pre-judging.
- Masta Ace – Slaughtahouse: This album should be required listening for the uninitiated. This was Ace’s commentary on the state of the rap game, with a number of artists embracing the perpetrated gangsta lifestyle. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies. Ten years later, artists were just latching onto what he was talking about a decade before. Another well-arranged, well-produced album. This is the period of hip hop that remains closest to my heart.
- Camp Lo – Uptown Saturday Night: Whenever I get around to making a list of most overlooked albums ever, this one is at the top of the list. The only thing that hurt Camp Lo was the fact that nobody knew what the hell they were talking about. Production -wise, the album rivals ATCQ and others of the time. Ski was producing his ass off. As my partner in crime Big Mon said, this CD stayed in the ride longer than any other.
- Gang Starr – Daily Operation: It was either this or Step In The Arena. Probably sat on this decision longer than any other. I almost feel guilty for feeling like I have to pick one over the other, but I have to keep this list at a reasonable length. I thought that DJ Premier was the perfect producer after hearing this album. (I still think he’s pretty close to it.) I wrote dozens of songs to the “BYS” instrumental.
- Common – One Day It’ll All Make Sense: A moment of silence for the fallen…okay. I originally had Resurrection in this spot, but I had to admit to myself that this album went harder. It best represented Common’s growth from the squeaky-voiced Can I Borrow A Dollar? rapper to what I believed his calling was – a truly conscious, introspective lyricist. Then came Electric Circus and subsequent albums. I’m hating. I listened to “Hungry” and got mad again. I’m gonna change the subject now.
- The Roots – Illadelph Halflife: Another perfect album to me. Great production; good features; excellent vision, especially when it came to visual presentation. “What They Do” is still one of my favorite songs / videos ever. I remember getting excited from the sampler that they released prior to the album dropping. Along with Witchdoctor’s first album, probably the greatest album sampler ever.
- Busta Rhymes – When Disaster Strikes: I listen to this album every time I perform; Busta Rhymes is my favorite hip hop live performer. The sequencing of the first 3 songs on this album (excluding the intro) is one of the greatest starts of an album that I can remember. That’s what sold me. This album cemented my belief that DJ scratch is an incredible producer. Well, this one and The Coming.
- N.W.A. – EFIL4ZAGGIN: I always type the name like that. Along with Public Enemy’s Nation of Millions and Fear Of A Black Planet, this is one of the most defiant hip hop albums ever, and probably in my personal top 5. Think about it: the name of the group was Niggaz with Attitude. Everybody knew this. Parents and critics were pulling their hair out. People were protesting them because they were seen as misogynistic, morally devoid, and just straight up offensive. And they ate it up. So much that they named an album “Niggaz For Life” and threw the N-Word back in the face of the world. They made their point. They pushed the boundary of political correctness. Actually – they recklessly violated the boundary. If the same album came out today, it wouldn’t really ruffle any feathers. This one made our skin a little thicker.
- Ice Cube – Death Certificate: Random fact – I always have this playing in the iPod when i’m doing yardwork. Go figure. This album was one of the great “concept” albums in hip hop. It was the perfect illustration of innercity urban life from the perspective of a South Central native. Unlike others who simply glorified hood life, Cube also described one’s search for redemption and the acceptance of mortality. Big difference between the “gangsta” rap of then and now. Cube’s underlying themes still spoke of some social responsibility, unlike that of, say…. a Curtis Jackson. But I might be biased.
- Dr. Dre – The Chronic: It was difficult for me to not also include Chronic 2001 in my top 20, but it’s probably number 21 or 22. In my opinion, this album influenced hip hop more than any other over the last decade and a half. I still say that Dre is the Quincy Jones of rap. And if so, this is Thriller. Think about most of the popular hip hop music of today. I’m willing to bet that one way or another, its influence can be traced back to this album. I’m not going to spend too much time discussing it, because I just assume that anyone who likes rap music has heard it. If you haven’t, or if you don’t like this album, then you and I are probably not friends anyway.
- Goodie MoB – Still Standing: I’m one of the few people out there that places this one slightly above Soul Food. The first album was a classic, but this one REALLY blew me away. Sadly, it was also their last good album. I expected great things after this album. Then Cee-Lo left. Then World Party came out. Then my life spiraled into a great depression. Then I got over it.
- Outkast – Aquemini: Remember what I said at the top – these are favorites, not necessarily the best. In my opinion ATLiens was a better album, but I enjoyed this one more. Don’t try to understand my logic. It was also one of the most diverse albums ever created. We always have debates down here about which Outkast album is the best, and it seems like everybody has a different answer. That’s a good thing.
There are still hundreds of notable albums that I love that weren’t mentioned on this list, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Chances are, you’ll come up with a list of albums that I “overlooked”, but what fun would it be if I caught them all? Please discuss…
Editor’s Note: (Am I even an editor?) I previewed my list with a friend yesterday, and he mentioned Pharcyde’s “Bizarre Ride”. I’m usually not one to succumb to “what about”, but I made an exception for this one. I’m invoking executive privilege and replacing “Licensed To Ill” with this one. It’s my list. I can do that. Can’t believe that I overlooked it to begin with.