The Ten Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time

I keep seeing this clip of Ice-T saying "we don't make albums anymore," as he describes the nostalgic pastime of putting on a vinyl record, where the album is a journey with chapters like a novel. 

You read the liner notes and listen to the same side on repeat. Nowadays, it's just a stream of songs, compressed into bits, scattering from the cloud. The irony of Ice-T, who went from recording 'Cop Killa' to being a cast member of a 'Law & Order' spinoff, bemoaning hip-hop's decline is likely not lost on anyone. But this isn't a problem unique to the hip-hop, which turned 50 last year. 

In the early 1970s, hip-hop music started in the park jams, with songs to move the crowd. And it took about a decade before the genre matured, to where rappers began to release LPs and then there was a window of time, from the middle of the '80s to sometime in the new millennium, where dozens of fully realized albums with high concepts and elevated production entered into the genre's canon. As with jazz and rock-n-roll, there were plenty of hit singles and bootlegs along the way. As well as the original playlists - mixtapes - that often rival some of the best albums. 

But in the end, it's about the albums, those heavyweight records that jockeyed for the most mics in The Source Magazine. When I began putting together a list of the ten greatest hip-hop albums of all time, there were a few variables to consider: legacy, innovation and influence. Finally, is there an evergreen quality to the music, are the tunes timeless? All lists are subjective, but I tried to be as objective as possible, to not favor some of my personal favorites over the unimpeachable canon. So as best as I could construct it, here are what I consider to be the ten greatest hip-hop albums of all time.


Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)

For those that sleep on Detroit, there's always a rude awakening. Eminem disrupted the bling bling era with unhinged battle raps, pushing the envelope with his tongue twisting rhyme patterns. After a classic debut with 'The Slim Shady LP' and scene stealing appearances on Dr. Dre's '2001', Eminem returned in May 2000 with his magnum opus. Foremost, Eminem is a comedian, and this elevated him from backpack rap hero to superstar and it's his diminishing sense of humor that has contributed to his current decline. But on the 'MMLP', Eminem was sick, twisted and funny, using his own inner demons to shine the mirror back at us. The album's production, handled by Dr. Dre, Mel Man, Eminem and early collaborators The Funk Brothers, remains a potent blend of the commercial and gothic, a dichotomy most evident in the singles 'The Real Slim Shady' and 'Stan'. At the height of Eminem's popularity, there was a huge censorship campaign with clueless pearl clutching from polite society who couldn't take a joke, and never understood the criticisms Mathers was hurling at so-called Middle American values. Nearly a quarter century later, the 'MMLP', despite the occasional outdated punchline, is even more captivating today.

A Tribe Called Quest - People's Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm (1990)
It's hard to pick one Tribe album, but 'People's Instinctive Travels..' encapsulates the group at their most pure, joyous form. Before the jazzy experimentation of 'The Low End Theory' or the eclectic boom-bap of 'Midnight Marauders', ATCQ released one of the best debuts in hip-hop history, emerging as the most promising group out of the Native Tongues collective. While better rhymes can be found on those aforementioned later Tribe classics, the songwriting and production on 'People's Instinctive Travels...' is a fully realized package, often highly cinematic and endlessly influential (see those killer ending snares on 'Footprints'). The sequential placing of the classic hits 'Bonita Applebum' and 'Can I Kick It?' reinforce the album's contemporary, widespread appeal. Yet the deeper cuts like 'Youthful Expression' and 'Go Ahead In the Rain' cement Q-Tip's undeniable spot as one of the '90s best composers. 'People's Instinctive Travels' is the crown jewel of the Afrocentric, bohemian movement in hip-hop, with an enduring positive vibe that glows from speakers. 

Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Some things are undeniable. When Kanye West dropped 'MBDTF' around the Thanksgiving holiday of 2010, he arrived like an uninvited dinner guest, standing at the door with a cold dish of revenge. Despite his past transgressions, we couldn't resist digging in. 'MBDTF' realized what West had been building towards with his previous four albums, blending all his best and worst impulses into a startling artistic statement so compelling that it was universally declared a masterpiece. Kanye conjured some of the best guest spots ever out of Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Raekwon, and his collaboration with Pusha T, 'Runaway' is a dazzling symphony with multiple movements. While 'Power' became the de-facto movie trailer song of its era, it's Kayne at his most autobiographical, fully embracing and self-aware of his massive ego. All that power did corrupt him, but not before he conquered.

Outkast - Aquemini (1998)

The sheer volume of great hip-hop albums released in 1998 is astounding to consider. From Gang Starr's classic 'Moment of Truth' to Jay-Z's 'Vol 2' and the debuts of DMX, Juvenile, Black Star and Big Pun. There was also the recent deaths of 2Pac and Biggie Smalls hovering in the background, the music from their last albums still in heavy rotation. This era of uncertainty and promise lasted until 9/11 and the epic feud between Nas and Jay-Z. In the middle of this vacuum, Outkast released the best album of that period with 'Aquemini', which was distinctly out of step with the moment. The live instrumentation and mixture of funk, gospel, electronic and golden age hip-hop along with a fixation on technology, science fiction, spirituality and astrology perfectly distills the Y2K era through Outkast's Dirty South perspective. The album's most pop moment, the catchy single 'Rosa Parks', would ironically lead to a lawsuit with the famed civil rights activist taking offense to the song's lyrics. But it wasn't any perceived political subtext that makes 'Aquemini' special, but rather the human drama found in 'Da Art of Storytellin' (Part I, II)' and 'West Savannah' as Andre 3000 and Big Boi paint vivid pictures of life in Georgia. Unmatched in its brilliance is 'SpottieOttieDopaliscious' an epic reggae jam with soaring horns and spoken word. But for all the experimentation, some of the album's brightest moments are the pure hip-hop songs where Big Boi and Andre 3000 are spitting fire. With 'Aquemini', Outkast proved they could do it all and created one of the most original records in any genre. 

Eric B. & Rakim - Paid in Full (1987)
"I ain't no joke, I used to let the mic smoke/now I slam it when I'm done and make sure it's broke." With that first line from 'I Ain't No Joke,' the opening song on Eric B & Rakim's debut album, lyricism was never the same. 'Paid in Full' is packed with quotables and couplets that have been sampled as hooks or borrowed in other rapper's bars. Rakim was the greatest emcee to ever command the microphone, birthing the modern day flows and metaphorical acrobatics that became the blueprints for every great rapper to follow, many of these inventions happening in real-time on the awe-inspiring lyrical marathon that is 'My Melody'. But it wasn't just about dense vocabulary exercises, as Eric B's married Rakim's razor technique with crowd pleasing beats on 'I Know You Got Soul' and 'Eric B Is President,' harnessing a minimalist rhythm that keeps the production sounding fresh today. The extended, seven 'minutes of madness' remix of the title track is one of the dopest beats of all time and an essential entry into America's songbook. When it comes to the cornerstone producer-rapper duo, no album is more influential and everlasting than 'Paid in Full'.

The Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death (1997)

'Life After Death' is rap's 'Terminator 2: Judgement Day', the blockbuster sequel that delivers on the promise of Biggie Small's watershed debut, 'Ready to Die'. Lyrically, Biggie is funnier, sharper and more experimental with his bars on 'Life After Death'. He outshines Bone Thugs at their own game on 'Notorious Thugs,' runs laps around Jay-Z on 'I Love The Dough' and predates trap rap with a wicked nursery rhyme flow on 'Ten Crack Commandments'. But Life After Death's best moments are when Biggie achieves pop perfection on 'Hypnotize' and 'Mo' Money, Mo' Problems' - two mega hits still guaranteed to light parties on fire. 'Life After Death' was so good, so massively appealing that many album cuts garnered major airplay (even the poorly aged R. Kelly duet '#!*@ You Tonight'). That Biggie was killed in March '97 shortly before his masterpiece was released made the songs even more powerful, the spirit of his immense talent haunting the speakers to this day.

Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

There might be 'better' Wu-Tang albums than '36 Chambers'. Truthfully, I prefer 'Cuban Linx' and 'Supreme Clientele', and on some days, even 'Wu-Tang Forever' to the Wu's seismic debut from 1993. But '36 Chambers' is undeniable. Glance at that track list and try to imagine any needle drop not igniting a crowd, eliciting a fond memory or a causing someone to channel their inner ODB. '36 Chambers' remains as raw as its heyday, each cut a roundhouse kick to the gut as Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, U-God and company rotate rampaging the beat. RZA's brilliant lo-fi production, sprinkled with Kung-Fu flick samples and melodic soul, was later expanded to a more ambitious, polished sound on later Wu records. But '36 Chambers', along with the first batch of solo albums, is RZA at his most inspired, where songs sound like lost treasures discovered in dark basements. With 36 Chambers' indie single, the blistering posse cut 'Protect Ya Neck', Wu-Tang ambushed the game with a rhapsodic force, sparking a East Coast renaissance not to be fucked with.

Nas - Illmatic (1994)

Expectations are a bitch. When Nas debuted with a spellbinding guest spot on Main Source's 'Live at the Barbeque', he was touted as the second coming of Rakim, leading to one of the most anticipated debuts in hip-hop history, 'Illmatic'. Armed with a dream team of producers (Pete Rock, Large Professor, Q-Tip, DJ Premier) and only one guest spot (the terrific verse by newcomer AZ on 'Life's a Bitch'), Nas delivered on the hype, crafting the greatest solo album of all time. Clocking in under 40 minutes, 'Illmatic' is supremely efficient, from the riveting opener 'N.Y. State of Mind' to the last cut, the album's most commercial moment in the 'Human Nature' sampling 'It Ain't Hard To Tell'. Throughout, Nas wields the mic like a wizard, his heavenly flows robust with head-spinning metaphors and cinematic storytelling. 'Illmatic' was a throwback when it was released, a return to the foundational elements of hip-hop, but Nas' innovative lyricism and mystical songwriting gave it a golden vintage, as if it was barreled aged 10 years. With three decades of musical output since his '94 debut, Nas has lived up to the potential that was evident from the beginning, with a staggering longevity comparable to LeBron James' continuous dominance.


Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)

The first time I listened to 'It Takes a Nation', I approached in awe like it was the Mona Lisa. As I loaded it into my Discman, fully aware of its reputation as the greatest hip-hop album of all time, I was in full musical appreciation mode, ready for a lesson. This remains my experience with Public Enemy's mammoth masterpiece, an album that continues to astonish me with Chuck D's iconic lyrics and The Bomb Squad's odyssey of avant-garde production. Bringing political issues to the forefront, 'It Takes a Nation', seeded the concept of hip-hop as the 'CNN of the ghetto', highlighting social injustices and racism with revolutionary commentary that Chuck D throws "down your throat like Barkley." Everything is boosted by Flava Flav: the secret sauce, the straw-that-stirs the-drink, the unparalleled hype-man. Public Enemy were a movement and 'It Takes a Nation' was the biggest middle finger ever waved at the establishment.
Dr. Dre - The Chronic (1992)

'The Chronic' is the 'Citizen Kane' of hip-hop, with Dr. Dre the Orson Welles figure whose radical artistry forever changed the musical landscape, from how records were made, songs produced and business handled. Aligning with the infamous Suge Knight to launch Death Row Records, 'The Chronic' was the beginning of a dynasty that, within 5 years, went from dominant to dormant. But in 1992, with Dr. Dre unleashing the lethal lyricists of the Death Row inmates and a fresh-faced wunderkind named Snoop Doggy Dogg, the city of Compton reigned supreme. On 'The Chronic', Dr. Dre's production was more polished and playful than the rugged beats he produced for N.W.A and Ruthless Records, with the elegant funk suite "Let Me Ride" becoming a timeless summer soundtrack and the iconic smash 'Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang' one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time. But dig deeper into 'The Chronic' and it's a goldmine for record nerds. From sampling Led Zeppelin to James Brown, Dre incorporates multiple pieces of music on songs to arrange new soundscapes - pay attention the next time you listen to 'A Ni**a Witta Gun' and spot Dre's savvy usage of the drums from Whodini's 'Friends'. Arriving in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and L.A. Riots, 'The Chronic' is an unapologetic, politically incorrect celebration of gangsta rap, conjuring a Grand Theft Auto zeal for the fast life beneath the palm trees. Yet within the confines of 'Lil' Ghetto Boy' and 'Bitches Ain't Shit', 'The Chronic' contemplates and celebrates the restless energy of youthful invincibility and that complex humanity is relatable on a global scale. How music connects people and can be a natural high is a concept Dr. Dre perfected and on 'The Chronic', he took us above the clouds.


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