My Top 10 Hip Hop Albums
Hip hop isn’t the first genre I fell in love with, but it’s the genre I love most. From the wordplay-laden poetry of its lyrics to the genius sample-work of its production, hip hop captures a sense of creativity, authenticity, and community seldom rivalled by any other genre. Recycling forgotten songs into brand new beats and freestyling full-formed verses without a moment’s preparation, rap music is as complex and incredible as any of the artform’s most revered genres. The slander towards hip hop is an ugly remnant of twentieth-century narrow-mindedness which has unfortunately permeated through modern society, but with this list, I hope to shed light on some of the genre’s greatest achievements. But before diving into my favourites, here are a handful of honourable mentions;
· Eric B. & Rakim – Paid In Full: potentially the most important hip hop album of all time, Rakim perfected the art of rapping with a range of intricate rhyme schemes over some of the sharpest production of the ‘80s.
· 2Pac – All Eyez On Me: West Coast hip hop perfected, this is Tupac’s magnum opus, balancing Californian glamour with West Coast ferocity to forge an otherworldly consistent double album.
· Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition: a disturbing journey into the drug-addled mind of Danny Brown, this album is a dark, corrupted, sinister encapsulation of the misery drug addiction causes.
· billy woods – Aethiopes: one of the best produced albums in the genre, Preservation creates such a vast, detailed atmosphere through his abstract production, working as a vivid backdrop to some of billy’s greatest verses ever.
· Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt: Hov has had his fair share of incredible albums, but none match the luxurious atmosphere and lyrical precision of his debut, offering dozens of contenders for the best verse of his career.
10. Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury (2006)
Plenty of rap albums embody an eclectic soundscape, but few have been able to pull it off as seamlessly as Clipse did with Hell Hath No Fury. From minimalist exercises in abstract hip hop like “Mr. Me Too” to soulful cuts such as “Nightmares”, the duo hop across a variety of styles and conquer every one with their rugged rhymes about hustling in the streets. Pusha T and No Malice have phenomenal chemistry, with the more in-your-face delivery from Push offering a nice contrast against Malice’s icy reservedness. While the MCs deliver some of the decade’s greatest verses, the album wouldn’t be half as good if not for the dynamic production from The Neptunes. Whether it be the foreboding piano loops on “Ride Around Shining”, the squeaking choir of synths on “Chinese New Year” or the mesmerising accordion sample on “Momma I’m So Sorry”, each beat creates its own world of bizarre samples, coming together to form an eccentric, vibrant collection of beats for the duo to spit their cold-hearted bars. Diversity always comes with the risk of inconsistency, but for Clipse, every track on Hell Hath No Fury is masterful.
9. J Dilla – Donuts (2006)
No producer before or after J Dilla has come close to matching the sample-chopping mastery of Donuts. During the hardest time of his life, fighting against a rare blood disease, he crafted a true masterpiece stretching the art of sampling to its limits. A song like “Don’t Cry” is a great example of Dilla’s genius production: using “I Can’t Stand To See You Cry” by The Escorts as the foundation, he cuts up unrelated parts of the vocals, mixes the order, surgically sews the reordered segments together, and with the help of a simple drum pattern, the samples come together into a cohesive beat. Take any of the thirty-one tracks on Donuts and a similar level of genius is on display. More than technically impressive, every beat sounds phenomenal, with smooth transitions between the fast-paced songs and a loop from the last song back into the first, so I always feel obligated to play it again the moment it finishes.
8. Gang Starr – Moment of Truth (1998)
As a huge fan of the East Coast, Moment of Truth instantly became a favourite of mine, perfecting the hard-hitting, hypnotic sound of New York boom bap. DJ Premier’s production is some of the finest of any rap album, creating these satisfying loops of tightly-packed samples given rhythm thanks to his expert choice in drum patterns. Writing his signature on every track with some slick record scratching, Moment of Truth is the culmination of Preemo’s sound after a decade of honing his style. Aside from its production, the album is equally incredible from a lyrical perspective. Guru may not have the same animated presence as his peers, but he compensates for his understated delivery with a poetic sense of writing. He explores his inner struggles on the melancholic title track and spreads his words of wisdom on cuts like “Robbin Hood Theory” and “JFK 2 LAX”, packing each verse with thoughtful messaging while maintaining the effortless rhyming talent that put him on the map. Encapsulating everything wonderful about New York hip hop, Moment of Truth justifies every minute of its length.
7. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
One of the first hip hop classics I discovered, Enter the Wu-Tang remains among the best albums I’ve ever heard. Most rap groups suffer from having a weak link, but Wu-Tang Clan are a rare exception, which is even more impressive considering the size of their roster. From U-God’s deep-voiced chants to Method Man’s silky smooth flow to the animalistic chaos of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, each member of the Wu brings his own distinct strengths, with no two MCs clashing in style. Although Liquid Swords has the more refined production and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx feels more thematically cohesive, the chemistry between Wu-Tang’s warriors is what makes the group so special, and no album captures that bond better than 36 Chambers. Passing the mic from RZA to Raekwon to Meth to GZA, the group act as a single unit, hyping one another up, swapping rhymes, and chanting hooks in unison like a hip hop hivemind. The production from RZA is timeless, with the iconic piano samples of “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Method Man” so simple yet so addictive. “Protect Ya Neck” is the obvious standout where the whole Clan unites as a ferocious force, thriving over a mix of meandering synths and ominous piano. To debut with an album as confident, consistent, and iconic as 36 Chambers is an achievement matched only by Nas.
6. A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders (1993)
As I explored hip hop, A Tribe Called Quest quickly emerged as my favourite group in the genre. The chemistry between MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg is carefree and energetic, adding an element of vibrance and light-hearted wit that was being drained from rap as the ‘90s progressed. Midnight Marauders is one of their greatest works and encapsulates everything brilliant about Tribe. The production is jazz rap at its finest, packed with groovy basslines, finely-chopped horn sections and seamless transitions, simultaneously capturing the lively intricacy of jazz and the instantly-gratifying punch of boom bap. The robotic tour guide leading the listener through the album is such a simple yet charming concept, giving the whole project the excitement of a holiday as they are guided through the summery soundscape. To point out specific standouts would be a vain effort because every song is a highlight. Offering their most upbeat production and some of their most iconic verses, few albums reach the light-hearted heights of Midnight Marauders.
5. Nas – Illmatic (1994)
Knowing the reputation Illmatic had, I went in with huge expectations, but it wasn’t until a year later that I fully understood the genius of Nas. Now my second favourite rapper behind MF DOOM, Nas is an all-round master MC whose abilities are unleashed to the fullest on Illmatic. As a storyteller, his vivid tales of crime are remarkably detailed, especially on “N.Y. State of Mind” with the tense gangster lifestyle he narrates. Layering his verses with complex networks of multisyllabic rhyme schemes, Nas spits numerous rhymes while maintaining a keen thematic focus and rapping with some of the most confident flows of his career. Executive produced by Q-Tip, every beat is perfect, from the dreamy soul chops of “Memory Lane” to the uplifting piano loops on “The World Is Yours”. Nas masters every instrumental with the rhymes, flow, delivery, and overall presence of an undeniable legend. A concise package of East Coast magic, Illmatic is a perfect album in every regard.
4. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Even though I don’t revisit it often, whenever I decide to give To Pimp a Butterfly a spin, it’s like hearing it for the first time again. The album presents an overwhelming level of detail from the first minute to the last, with an unparalleled level of density to each instrumental and complexity to every verse. The jazz instrumentation is gorgeous, full of rippling basslines, meandering horns, stuttering pianos and angelic choir vocals that culminate into a lush atmosphere unlike any other album in the genre. Whether it be hits like “King Kunta” or theatrical deep cuts like “u” or “How Much a Dollar Cost”, the production shifts to match the tone of Kendrick’s writing, slowly descending as the album progresses from triumphant to despairing. Despite the sheer amount of detail in the instrumentals, K-Dot is never drowned out, matching the vibrant soundscape with an equally colourful delivery. Switching up the tone of his voice with the range of an actor; offering scores of varied flows; paying acute attention to his cadence and breath control; in every respect, Kendrick perfects the art of rapping on To Pimp a Butterfly.
3. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service (2016)
It wasn’t long ago that I considered We got it from Here not only the best hip hop album, but my favourite album in general. While I’ve grown to favour a couple of records over it, the final album from A Tribe Called Quest remains a modern masterpiece. The purpose of the project was threefold: to mark the group’s comeback after almost twenty years; to pass the torch to the new generation of MCs; and to pay tribute to Phife Dawg, one quarter of Tribe who tragically passed away in the middle of the album’s creation. Juggling so many different ideas, it seemed inevitable that We got it from Here would be a mess, but the result is one of the finest rap albums this century. Phife Dawg’s verses, albeit infrequent, capture that same charm and energy that made Tribe special, taking a more political approach to his lyrics to set his performance apart from the previous records. Q-Tip is even greater, whose tributes to Don Juice are as emotional as they are technically mesmerising, offering some of the quickest flows and densely-rhymed verses of his career. Bringing on old friends like Busta Rhymes and Consequence, while also leaving room for modern MCs like Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak to shine, We got it from Here is a triumphant celebration of hip hop, ending Tribe’s legacy in the greatest way possible.
2. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
Of all the hundreds of classic rap albums to come out of the ‘90s, The Low End Theory confidently ranks as my favourite. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg pass rhymes back and forth with the tightknit chemistry of musical brothers, thriving over the vivid jazz production crafted by Tip and polished by Ali Shaheed Muhammed. Taking the rippling bassline of one song and pairing it with the horns of another, The Low End Theory is a musical mosaic of jazz samples pieced together into a vibrant work of art. The deep bass on highlights like “Excursions”, “Buggin’ Out” and “Rap Promoter” are some of the finest in rap history, instantly hooking me into the songs as layers of chattering drums and sinister saxophone swirl around the hypnotic melody. Posse cuts like “Scenario” and “Show Business” could both be argued to be the best of all time, where the Tribe recruit a legion of hyperactive MCs to trade bars as energetic and colourful as the detailed production they rap over. Tackling all sorts of issues from corrupt label execs to shady dates to their love for rap music, Tip and Phife master every topic with the carefree energy and seamless chemistry to turn every track into a lyrical delight. Even when Phife Dawg is spitting nonsensical rhymes like on the intro to “Buggin’ Out”, his high energy and ever-changing flows make it an instant standout. Tribe aren’t always conscious, and they may not always take themselves seriously, but they make hip hop more fun and memorable than most MCs could ever hope to. The Low End Theory is their magnum opus and a true contender for the best hip hop album ever made.
1. Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
Madvillainy embodies everything I adore about hip hop. MF DOOM is an otherworldly lyricist whose rhyming ability is unparalleled. Rather than coming off as nonsensically verbose, DOOM ties every rhyme back into his comedic villainous persona, weaving clever wordplay, double entendre, alliteration, assonance, and every lyrical technique imaginable into his verses. His husky delivery gives his presence a dark edge, feeding into the themes of villainy at the core of the album. Madlib’s distorted production is in full form on Madvillainy, finely dicing obscure samples from all over the world and combining them into the bizarre, abstract amalgamations that are his beats. Everything sounds so compressed, rustic, and flawed, but deliberately so, using sounds of crackling and stuttering samples to cloak the overwhelming complexity of each instrumental. Taking the most lyrically complex MC of his era and pairing him with the most instrumentally intricate producer, Madvillainy is the perfect collaboration in which both artists encourage one another to be as unorthodox, cryptic, and unapologetic in their art as possible. Every verse from the supervillain is a contender for the best of the decade, from the explosion of rhymes on “Rhinestone Cowboy” to the politically-charged stanzas of “Strange Ways”. Despite being my favourite hip hop album ever, I don’t think I will ever be able to fully appreciate Madvillainy – there is simply too much nuance to every aspect of its content for the human ear to pick up on. The pinnacle of the abstract scene and the apex of both their careers, Madvillainy is the greatest hip hop album I have ever heard