So I’ll be honest right from the start, this list was brought to me as a challenge, and a challenge it was. There are very few subcultures in music quite as intense and significant as hip hop. The genre’s success is the most important chapter in the history of popular music since the introduction of rock and roll; music has been changed forever. It went from completely underground to an overshadowing and dominating style in an astonishingly short period of time, and it’s rise to importance can be traced through several significant landmarks (artists, songs, or full albums.) If you look at the state of pop music today, hip hop is embedded in almost everything you’ll hear. Full fledged rock artists incorporate the genre, dance and hip hop are practically one in the same anymore, and even country has dabbled a bit (it has yet to work.) Like anything in music that becomes super-mainstream, hip hop has become bastardized, watered down, and contrived, but it has also grown into an artistic platform unlike anything else. Realistically, some of the most compelling, talented, and legendary figures in music over the last 30 years made hip hop.
However, this all makes picking the 20 Greatest Hip Hop Albums of All Time that much more difficult. Going back and weeding through countless records is a daunting task. Hip hop is easy to identify, but determining which moments were the “greatest” is not, simply because of the history the genre has had. Would an album that helped push hip hop into the mainstream be “greater” than one that is musically stronger but less important? I think when it all comes down to it, the only way to properly identify the “C.R.E.A.M.” of the crop is to honestly just go with the obvious. When I took a step back and thought, “ok, so when you think of ‘hip hop,’ who comes to mind?” the list practically wrote itself. Putting them into an order was completely reliant on just how much that record meant to one simple thing: history. In some aspects, you can’t approach hip hop like it’s rock and roll, but in many others, it’s the exact same thing. I’m not worried about wresting with the cliché or the nit-picky… let’s just be real and honest about it. Maybe hip hop enthusiasts will be able to compile something far more legit, but from a broad, objective perspective on music as a whole, these have to be the 20 Greatest Hip Hop Albums of All Time.
20. The Fugees The Score
The Fugees’ may have been a short-lived hip hop trio, but their output is not only highly influential, but highly praised. Their second and final LP, The Score still sounds impeccable to this day. Outside of the album’s megahit single, “Killing Me Softly,” a Roberta Flack cover, the album presents a varied and alternative spin to hip hop. Their sample repertoire alone is amazing, but the songs they crafted are just too good to ignore.
19. Snoop Doggy Dogg Doggystyle
Before the man evolved into Snoop Lion (from Snoop Dogg,) he was known as Snoop Doggy Dogg. Co-created with longtime collaborator/producer Dr. Dre, his Doggystyle LP has gone on to become a classic. At the time, I’m not sure if it’s funky, laidback groove was ever going to be fully appreciated, but who can deny tracks like “Gin and Juice” and “What’s My Name?” The album is really damn good.
18. Ice Cube Death Certificate
Former N.W.A. member Ice Cube’s Death Certificate LP probably feels more significant today than when it was released in 1991. The level of controversy that was born out of his audacious and scathing lyrics probably felt warranted at the time, but this record helped open a floodgate of earnest and honest hip hop. It may have made the public feel uncomfortable, but it didn’t make the content any less true.
17. LL Cool J Radio
A part of me really feels like everyone’s debut album can’t be their best or most significant, but when it comes down to it, LL Cool J’s Radio actually is in the context of hip hop as a whole. Yes yes, Mama Said Knock You Out is a classic, but this one really helped drive hip hop to the mainstream alongside Licensed To Ill and Raising Hell. Rick Rubin’s production is honestly impeccable, and this record is truly definitive of hip hop’s early reign.
16. Kanye West The College Dropout
There was never any hesitation about having a College Dropout on the list, for me. I think that some will argue that Late Registration is a better album, but I tend to disagree. If anything, I’d argue My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would beat it out, but I’m not sure it’s stepped into its full significance yet. Kanye’s debut is really his biggest contribution to date. The songs are amazing, the production is impeccable, and the legacy is undeniable.
15. Wu-Tang Clan Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Sorry, ODB, Wu-Tang isn’t really for the children. However, they are an important asset to the history of hip hop. Their debut LP, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is really just effin’ awesome. Songs like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Method Man” are hip hop classics, but the album as a whole is extremely influential. Wu-Tang is really a legendary assembly of artists who know how to walk the tightrope between brutally honest and laugh out loud funny.
14. Eminem The Marshall Mathers LP
I think that The Slim Shady LP is probably a better album on the whole, but The Marshall Mathers LP edges it out simply based on its refinement and success. I was really torn between the two records, but my gut kept leading me back to this one. Eminem upped the ante with ballsiness and controversy, but it seems purposeful this time around; there’s a finesse to this record. Plus, “Stan” is an asset most albums can only dream of.
13. Outkast Stankonia
Outkast’s first three albums are all important landmarks in hip hop. Their now-iconic southern-infused brand has made them legends, and I don’t want to discard their early work, but I have to go with Stankonia. For me, this is the culmination of everything they’ve been building towards. Tracks like “B.O.B.,” “So Fresh, So Clean,” and “Ms. Jackson” are game-changers, and the confidence this record portrays is second-to-none.
12. Lauryn Hill The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill’s lone solo record just so happens to be one of the greatest albums of all time, hip hop aside. What makes it so legendary in the context of the genre, through, is how dynamic and fearless it is. Yes, this is a hip hop record through to the core, but it’s so much more than that. It’s soulful, it’s folksy, and it’s just all around genius. Lauryn really exemplified that hip hop could be so much more than what we all thought it was.
11. N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton
N.W.A. feels like a supergroup in hindsight, but in reality, they were the launching pad for artists like Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Their Straight Outta Compton album is a prime example of how much momentum hip hop was gaining in the late-80s. With legendary hits like title track an “Fuck Da Police,” this is the record that really properly gave birth to gangsta rap. It acted as the catalyst to hip hop’s reign in the 90s and beyond.
10. Jay-Z The Black Album
Ok, so here we have some controversy. I’m sure hip hop enthusiasts will always prefer Jay-Z’s debut, Reasonable Doubt, but I’m going with The Black Album. For me, this was a no-brainer simply for where it pushed hip hop and the legacy of hits it spawned. This record is Jay-Z as his most confident, his most inspired, and his most relevant. There’s no way to discard the impact of tracks like “99 Problems” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”
09. A Tribe Called Quest The Low End Theory
In today’s world, the fusion of jazz and hip hop is a magical pairing, but A Tribe Called Quest were pioneers in making it that way. Their The Low End Theory LP brought a level of musicianship to hip hop that hadn’t been heard before. While the raps and lyrics are brilliant, it’s really the backing tracks, lush with bass and smooth percussion that makes this album so damn good. As time goes on, it becomes more and more important.
08. 2Pac All Eyez On Me
I’m not sure there are many artists in the history of music as revered by his peers as 2Pac is. His role in the rise and success of West Coast hip hop is crucial, and despite his career being cut short by his untimely death, he’s unanimously considered a legend. Maybe it’s a cliché choice, but you’ve gotta give it up for All Eyez On Me. This album is the most important addition to his legacy, and stands out as a landmark for hip hop as a whole.
07. Beastie Boys Licensed To Ill
When it comes to debut albums, Licensed To Ill will make the top-5 or 10 of any list you’ll ever see. It was a huge seller, a praised record, and is held in an esteem that it undeniably deserves. The Beastie Boys were not just hip hop’s original party animals, but one of the first groups to really innovate and think outside of the box. This album is audible proof of music, and especially hip hop changing for ever. Nothing’s been the same since.
06. Dr. Dre The Chronic
Dr. Dre is one of hip hop’s most important figures, and that’s not up for debate. Aside of his tenure with N.W.A., countless guest spots, and his production genius that he’s graced so many other artists with, he hasn’t had exactly released much solo material. Nonetheless, his solo debut, The Chronic is an iconic masterpiece for the ages. “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” alone is enough to make the album important, but the whole record is amazing.
05. Eric B. & Rakim Paid In Full
I think by today’s standards, Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid In Full is par for the course, but only because of the benchmark it set. At the time, this caliber of lyricism was practically unheard of. When you consider how it really bridged the time between the golden age and gansta rap, it’s really astonishing. Influence alone is enough to set it top-5, but the content is actually incredible. It’s impossible to deny Pain In Full‘s importance.
04. Nas Illmatic
Across the board, Illmatic is lauded and cited as one hip hop’s crowning achievements. The poetic elegance that Nas exemplifies here is second-to-none, and when you add in the intricately woven samples, ingenious production, and perfect sequencing, you can’t help but be blown away. He leaves out any excess, simply presenting 10 perfect tracks, and the end result is an iconic piece of musical history.
03. Run-D.M.C. Raising Hell
If there was one act that we can all agree turned hip hop into the genre it is today, it’d be Run-D.M.C. They were the first to fuze hip hop and rock, which landed them landmark mainstream success, and Raising Hell was their magnum opus. Outside of their iconic cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” the album features hip hop classics like “It’s Tricky,” “My Adidas,” and “Peter Piper.” The genre was turned on its head and was able to become what it is today.
02. The Notorious B.I.G. Ready To Die
The Notorious B.I.G. was a game changer for hip hop whose career was tragically cut short. The prophetically titled Ready To Die is not only a legendary debut album, but a legendary album, period. Put it in the context of hip hop, and it’s really hard to even properly describe its importance. With soulfully tinged classics like “Big Poppa” and, of course, “Juicy,” the album is even more iconic and significant today than it was in 1994. No one has come close to touching it since.
01. Public Enemy It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
There was no doubt in my mind that It Takes A Nation… was not only going to be the Public Enemy selection on the list (even though Fear Of A Black Planet is legendary,) but it was going land top-2. I think when it really comes down to it, there just isn’t another hip hop album that is as influential, regarded, and perfectly done. It’s not only a journey, it’s a statement, and its impact on music as a whole is undeniable. Chuck D exemplifies his lyrical depth and genius through every twist and turn, while hypeman Flavor Flav’s charismatic nuances bring an element of fun to the otherwise serious and empowering tracks. Add into the mix seminal classics like “Bring The Noise” and “Don’t Believe The Hype,” and you’ve got yourself the greatest hip hop album ever.