A Beginner's Guide to Hip Hop
Updated: Sep 12
Hip hop is my favourite genres of music. Rapping is like poetry recited to a beat, with the same complex rhyme schemes, themes, and wordplay interwoven into every verse as would be seen in a poem. Hip hop production is just as impressive, with master producers across the genre taking snippets of older songs and transforming them into completely new sounds. It's a genre full of different sounds and influences, which can be daunting to newcomers because of the sheer number of hip hop albums which hardcore fans deem to be the "classics" or the "essentials". I'm going to try and pinpoint some of the most essential albums in the genre, to guide newcomers into hip hop, and for true fans to tick off every box on the albums they need to hear.
1. Nas - Illmatic
Starting with the most obvious, the debut album from Nas is considered by many to be the greatest hip hop album of all time. This reputation is for good reason, because Illmatic not only contains some of the best songs in hip hop such as 'The World Is Yours' and 'N.Y. State of Mind', but the record is a tight 40 minutes. Nas knows how long to keep a track going, and trimmed all the fat to create one of the most concise and flawless albums in hip hop history.
2. A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory
The Low End Theory is the sophomore album from legendary jazz rap group, A Tribe Called Quest. With Q-Tip and Phife Dawg on the mic, and with Ali Shaheed Muhammed assisting Q-Tip on production, the chemistry between each member is so perfect. Tip and Phife flow effortlessly over the jazzy production drawing samples from all over the genre. It's jazz rap at its finest, with so many iconic tracks like 'Excursions' or the explosive 'Scenario'.
3. N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton
Even those who know nothing about hip hop know Dr Dre and the iconic group he was a part of, N.W.A.. Their debut album is not only a hip hop essential because of its quality songs, but also because of its place in the culture as one of the many 80s hip hop albums which helped bring hip hop further into the limelight. It paved the way for so many aspiring rappers, especially on the west coast. Regardless of its influence, it stands on its own as an amazing album and a highlight of the 80s.
4. The Notorious B.I.G. - Ready to Die
Biggie Smalls is one of the biggest names in hip hop, and considering he only made two albums, it speaks volumes for the quality of his music and the impact he had on the culture. In terms of delivery, Biggie has such a suave and smooth delivery, holding such a nonchalant confidence with every word as he tells vivid stories of crime and his well-being. In terms of lyrics, delivery, and production, this album has everything a quality rap album should.
5. 2Pac - Me Against the World
While I prefer 2Pac's double album which followed this, Me Against the World is still an undeniable hip hop essential. 2Pac in his prime was one of the best rappers alive, with such a raw and passionate delivery to his emotional, personal lyrics. The west coast production is refreshing after hearing the albums mentioned previously, as it sounds so lush and bright compared to the hard-hitting boom bap the east coast was known for. It's the peak of west coast hip hop, and a perfect record.
6. Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Wu-Tang Clan could be argued to be the best group in hip hop because of the sheer talent of each member involved. The RZA production on this album can be so jazzy, then so quick and upbeat, then so dark and moody. Amazing rappers like GZA, Method Man, Inspectah Deck and more all deliver amazing verses, working together as one tight unit to create one of the greatest examples of chemistry in hip hop, and show why that is so important.
7. OutKast - Stankonia
When writing this, I've not covered enough southern hip hop, but a great entry point into the subgenre is OutKast. Andre 3000 and Big Boi are an incredible duo, constantly competing to get the best verse on a song. Stankonia is one of many classics in their catalogue, with such eccentric, colourful production to match their abrasive and animated delivery. It's so forward-thinking for hip hop at that time, and a testament to how creative and entertaining OutKast are.
8. Madvillain - Madvillainy
Madvillainy may be my favourite hip hop album ever made. With MF DOOM on the mic and Madlib handling production, the duo work perfectly together. There is such strange and grimey production where Madlib laces countless samples together, with DOOM matching the tone with his dark and moody delivery. This album influenced so many in the underground scene, making it one of the most important in the genre. DOOM and Madlib were legends already, but this album could be argued to be both of their best.
9. Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP
Eminem could be argued to be the most famous rapper ever, so his inclusion on this list was inevitable. While I'm not a fan of all his music, I can't deny the greatness of The Marshall Mathers LP, where some of Eminem's best storytelling and most personal verses are showcased. Dr Dre helped handle production, with amazing beats across the project to match the dark and violent themes Eminem portrays. It's his best work in my opinion, and an undeniable essential for any hip hop fan.
10. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
Countless music fans who have little knowledge on hip hop have heard To Pimp a Butterfly, which may be partly due to its bold jazz production which contrasts the typical hip hop production heard in the other albums on this list. The concepts of racism and exploitation tied together through an evolving poem throughout the album make it such a cohesive and powerful listen, and Kendrick's quick flows and stellar lyricism make it such a quality record every time, which gets better each listen.
11. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
While this is far from my favourite Kanye West album, it would be remiss of me not to mention his name on this list. After a hiatus to recover from various controversies, Kanye returned with this explosive album, harbouring some of the most powerful and iconic songs in hip hop like 'POWER' and 'Runaway'. It's excellently produced, and filled with features from other hip hop legends which make it so exciting and eclectic.
12. Earl Sweatshirt - Some Rap Songs
When it comes to modern abstract hip hop, Earl Sweatshirt provided one of the most influential albums with Some Rap Songs. The production is filled with looping samples, repetitive to the point of monotony for some. Earl's lyrics about depression and life are delivered with such a lazy, nonchalant delivery, making this a divisive record in which some adore its unique sound, while others cannot stomach its distance from the foundations of hip hop.
13. Blu & Exile - Miles
I believe Miles is the latest rap album which everybody must hear. It's a modern take on jazz rap, with amazing production from Exile borrowing samples from classic jazz. Blu is an amazing lyricist and storyteller, describing his love for music, his roots as a black man, his love for other artists and heartache at his idols passing away. It's a celebration of hip hop and music, with incredible performances all round, and a consistent track-list which never dips in quality.
While this is a solid entry point into hip hop, these thirteen albums are far from all a hip hop fan needs to hear. I haven't even mentioned iconic groups like Gang Starr, The Roots, De La Soul, and Three 6 Mafia. Nor did I mention other legendary rappers like Jay-Z, Del the Funky Homosapien, Lil Wayne, and Pusha T. Hip hop is a vast and incredible genre, and this list is only a fraction of the excellent albums one can discover by digging into the genre.