I’m an 80s baby who moved from Maryland to California when I was seven-years-old and never turned back. For west-coasters my age, hip hop didn’t really get started until it controversially crashed the late 80s with NWA, Too $hort, and 2 Live Crew (an adopted cultural crossover from the southeast). Heading into the 90s, Cali kids listened to Public Enemy, KRS One, Rakim, Run DMC, EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and LL Cool J, but not as attentively as New Yorkers did. There was something about NY beats and rhymes that didn’t totally catch the west. Momma got some jabs in, but she didn’t knock us out. Maybe we couldn’t identify with the cold weather tone of the NY bars and snares. Maybe hip hop production had room to evolve, and the California hip hop precogs were chillin in the tub waiting for Dr. Dre to change everything with The Chronic and Doggystyle. In the late eighties, the Life Is…Too Short, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, and Niggaz4Life cassettes prepared California for the looming global takeover. They also gave us an excuse to show off our yellow waterproof Walkmans. It was an exciting time.
The Chronic finally came in December of 1992. Doggystyle followed in November ’93. Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was released the same month, and for the first time it felt like New York and California transcended their sonic differences to become equally impactful. Maybe is was RZA’s keys. Maybe Wu-Tang’s yin to Snoop’s yang turned the genre into a new and higher quality of music. Maybe it was just Method Man on You’re All I Need. Whatever it was, with Wu-Tang came a windfall: Nas, Biggie, Mos Def, Mobb Deep, DMX, Redman, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z. 36 Chambers ushered New York hip hop into California and across the world.
In the south, The Ghetto Boyz were right there with NWA in the late 80s. In the mid-90s, solo Scarface reached new heights with The Untouchable. The Texas native was an adopted Cali fixture. Ludacris was the turn-of-the-millennium southern artist who transcended western boarders, particularly on Word Of Mouf; but starting six months after Doggystyle and 36, the undisputed southern kings, Outkast, began to shake the earth and churn out star stuff after star stuff.
Detroit’s Eminem/Slim Shady/Marshal Mathers boisterously ushered in the aughts from the north with a couple LPs you may have heard of, and Chicago’s Kanye West/Yeezy/Mr. Kardashian has been Jon Snow-ing from the north ever since he dropped out of college in 2004.
From the west’s perspective — something we saw in theaters the summer of 2015 — the best hip hop has always stood on the shoulders of Dr. Dre. He carried the first half of the 90s with Snoop and 2Pac, then marched into the millennium with Eminem and 50 Cent.
Jay-Z stood as the respectable title contender throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, and he snatched the executive producer belt in the mid-late 2000s when his #1 producer/rapper Kanye emerged with female pop stars Rihanna and Beyoncé. Jay may have out-executived Dre in the 2000s (remember, Chronic 2001 and The Slim Shady LP came out in ’99), but in this decade the crown returned to Compton solely on the shoulders of the good kid, Kendrick Lamar.
It’s been 28 years since NWA’s Straight Outta Compton was released and hip hop really began in California. In honor of it, let’s hash out the top-28 hip hop albums of all-time.
SOC isn’t on this list. In fact, nothing pre-Chronic is. Hip hop began in New York with lyrics and flow, and it exploded across the country to a point where the social influence of the artists arguably became more of a story than the music itself. These 28 albums are the best because of their lyrics and flow — and influence — but more than any reason because of their sound. As obvious as that may seem, it needs to be said. Great sound is what makes a great album.
Here are the 28 greatest hip hop albums ever to grace the earth:
28. Tha Carter III (2008) — Lil’ Wayne
This album was supposed to be the beginning of Wayne moving into top-5 MC conversations. It came out the same year Tiger Woods won the US Open with a broken leg, which is a fitting parallel: there was no ceiling for either, they both crashed and burned, and both are still lingering while everyone holds out hope that their eras aren’t over. For Wayne, 3 Peat, Mr. Carter, and A Milli started off an album that started a years-long radio reign. Wayne followed with two of the most marketable stars the genre has ever seen in Drake and Nicki Minaj. Tha Carter III put him on the top of the world, which is what allowed him to fall so far into the dirt(y). We’ll see if he resurrects. He is 33…
27. Late Registration (2005) — Kanye West
Heard ’Em Say, Touch The Sky, Addiction: every song on this album is beautiful. It’s one of the great sophomore albums. Roses and Hey Momma are sweet and rough and real enough to be loved. Was this the end of the short-lived Old Kanye, or was that Graduation? The Cruel Summer/Yeezus/Life of Pablo-Kanye is definitely the New Kanye with new branches of fans. We’ll go with Graduation as the end of the Old Kanye. Dark Twisted Fantasy is obviously purgatory.
26. It Was Written (1996) — Nas
This was the most inviting sound to a Cali ear to come from New York yet. The beats, flows, and lyrics were epic. Dr. Dre worked with Nas soon after, but Written is when Nas was at the peak of his cultural imprint. A slightly underrated album that deserves to be on this list. The beat drops on The Message and Affirmative Action are two of the best the genre has ever had.
25. The Slim Shady LP (1999) — Eminem
Eminem shocked the world with Slim Shady. Nothing had been done like it before. It was part X-rated Weird Al, part emo reject white rapper, part greatest rapper ever (BTW, the world was blooming with reject white rappers at the time, all yet to be represented. I’m convinced this is why Dre was so enthusiastic about Em’s potential). Eminem told the eeriest murder drama to ever hit wax on Bonnie and Clyde (essentially a prequel to Stan), and Role Model was the beginning of his strangle-you-to-death-then-choke-you-again flow, where everyone was a sitting duck locked on his sights (not just rappers). Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like him? No. I’m terrified of this brilliant psychopath.
24. The Black Album (2003) — Jay-Z
This is Jay-Z’s last great album (an honorable mention to Watch The Throne). It has powerhouse hits: 99 Problems, Dirt Off Your Shoulders, Encore, and the best of them all is an Interlude. It looks like Jay knew this was his last great album, because he retired right after its release. In case you missed it, he’s come out of retirement since. One of course must justify ones thug.
23. Ready to Die (1994) — The Notorious B.I.G.
You’ll find Ready in the top-ten of most hip hop list rather than the second-tier greatness of 23rd. Don’t get me wrong, I love this album. As a high school freshman I listened to it all the time, but like most classic NY hip hop albums, its production prevents it from hitting that top-tier. The flow is there. My favorites are the smooth insights into Biggie’s love life on One More Chance and Me And My Bitch. Suicidal Thoughts is an underrated gem, where he swears to God that death is calling him but we wouldn’t understand.
22. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994) — Outkast
This is the birth of Southern hip hop. Ain’t No Thang, the title track, Player’s Ball, Git Up, Git Out: Andre and Big Boi brought so much for a debut. A lot of it had to do with the production of Organized Noise, who are the subject of a recent documentary that gives great insight into the makings of this album and group. Andre 3000 took over production from here, beyond these dirt walls.
21. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) — Wu Tang Clan
This is also likely too low on the list for most, but I don’t love the instrumentals. I still think it’s a brilliant production concept from front to back. Shame On A Nigga is an all-time hip hop hook. C.R.E.A.M. is a timeless anthem. This may be the most iconic hip hop album, but in all its gutter glory, I think #21 is the right spot for it. To be fair, the most lasting memory from Chambers is about a butt sewn shut.
20. Illmatic (1994) — Nas
This competes with 36 Chambers for most iconic. It just feels like the core of this whole thing — the piano on N.Y. State of Mind, the flow on The World Is Yours. Every bar on Illmatic is ridiculous. Like Ready To Die and 36, it’s lower on the list than most hip hop PhDs would place it for the same reason. It is canonical New York-style.
19. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003) — Outkast
The second of two hip hop albums to ever win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. It’s a majestic universe of an album, mostly because of Andre 3000’s 21 Love Below songs — from the lounge jazz of Love Hater to the hip hop storytelling mastery on A Day In The Life of Benjamin Andre (Incomplete). The first nine songs of The Love Below are ecstasy. Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx stereotypically takes second fiddle, but it’s a necessary part of the whole. Unhappy, War, Knowing, obviously The Way You Move — all incredible. It’s not a contest between the two. They’re one in the same.
18. The Blueprint (2001) — Jay-Z
You know the global power that America was post-WWII? That’s the hip hop power Jay had post-Blueprint (released 9/11/01). It’s a flawless body of work, and the fact that Eminem is the most memorable moment from it somehow makes it only more genius and pristine. The Blueprint is Kanye’s best beats mixed with Jay’s best verses. Heart of the City, Never Change, Song Cry — these songs will never let you down.
17. Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996) — 2Pac
The Don Killuminati is the most ethereal and mysterious album of the lot. You can’t overstate it’s power. It’s the resurrection of a modern deity. Biggie’s Life and Death is the only other album that can touch the intangible, rare place that The 7 Day goes. This album became instant lore and legend, and there may never be anything like it again. From Bomb First and Hail Mary to Against All Odds and Hold Your Head, this was the realest shit Pac ever wrote. It’s the closest thing hip hop has to a New Testament. If I had to chose one desert island album, this would be it.
16. Stankonia (2000) — Outkast
I always think this is too high on the list. Then I go back and listen to it. It’s a magnum opus. B.O.B., Ms. Jackson, and So Fresh, So Clean might be on a top-12 all-time song list. Many may glance over the second half of this album — none of which ever touched radio airwaves — but it’s a surprising stroke of genius, and a proper prelude to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
15. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003) — 50 Cent
Perhaps the most powerful, virile, and captivating album ever. This was the Dr. Dre/Eminem-produced NY gangster odyssey of a guy who just got shot nine times and survived. It was a real gangster movie mixed with a real super hero movie from the hood brought to life in sound. Of course, it doesn’t have the lyrical chops that others lower on this list do, but with Get Rich there are bigger forces at play.
14. The College Dropout (2004) — Kanye West
The world inhaled a collective breath of artistic oxygen when Kanye lit it up with this debut. We couldn’t stop inhaling. We haven’t stopped inhaling. It’s a beautiful feeling. This album evolved from the vapors of his Blueprint production. Producing a classic album with one of rap’s GOATs gave Kanye the confidence to do what he did here vocally, and he’s pushed it harder and harder every time out since. He’s the only rap artist who’s been a star in two different generations. It’s been a hell of a 12 year run.
13. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998) — Lauryn Hill
The first hip hop album to win Grammy album of the year, and the only woman on this list. She’ll always be in the top-tier. Miseducation is a timeless album that we’re lucky to have. I get sad when I think about Lauryn’s potential catalog and influence. Sadly, the same can be said for a few of the greats.
12. ATLiens (1998) — Outkast
No rap album had ever sounded like this. It aims for and takes you into the cosmos. You May Die (Intro), Two Dope Boyz, ATLiens, Wheelz of Steel, Jazzy Belle, and Elevators may be the best six songs to open an album. It starts off with a prayer in a hodgepodge of Latin languages but transitions to English. You may die…keep on trying…to the Summer in the city…to the Summer in the city…
11. The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) — Eminem
One of the albums of the millennium. He somehow out-Richter-ed the collective shock that his debut made. It lost the Grammy Album of the Year to Two Against Nature by Steely Dan, an album no one has ever heard of. Come on, Grammys. Kid A was clearly MMLP’s only competition in 2000.
10. To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) — Kendrick Lamar
This album is an anomaly. It might be the first neojazz hip hop album, but I don’t think any other neojazz hip hop albums will be made again, so is that even relevant? Regardless, this album is in the top-10 because of how relevant it is. That, and it’s chock-full of unmatched skill. Kendrick The Black Man is speaking to America in a way that no one else has or is, over a type of music that’s never really been made. Butterfly is still in its cocoon.
9. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) — Kanye West
A collection that leaves you slow clapping with your mouth agape. You can’t not fiend for every morsel. It’s also the only album that has a Kubrickian video…for the whole thing.
8. Reasonable Doubt (1996) — Jay-Z
JAŸ-Z: RD20 is an excellent short documentary that came out this year: the 20th anniversary of the avant garde album. Yes, it’s on Tidal, but I would sign up just to watch it. Regarding Reasonable Doubt, it’s best to hear straight from the horse’s mouth. The intelligence of this album is what carries it, and without knowing it inside and out, it’s impossible to understand who Jay-Z has become.
[Part 2 of The Great 28 coming soon]