The Ten Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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.