100 Best Rap Albums of All Time

Hip-hop has produced plenty of great music over its 40-plus history. Some of them are worthy of the title "greatest rap album," some more than others. That's the essence of this list. These albums were picked on the grounds creativity, originality, replay value, and overall cultural impact.

Killer Mike is really good at rapping. El-P is really good at rapping and excellent at making beats. Put these two together and not even Al Gore could screw it up.

Amidst the thugged-out reign of N.W.A. and Cypress Hill, Freestyle Fellowship countered with lyrical virtuosity

Raw, uncut, and x-rated tales of female conquests abound. At a mere 8 tracks, Born to Mack was indeed too short.

DOOM's off-kilter rhymes, scenic skits, and soul-inspired production made Operation Doomsday a unique set worthy of multiple spins.

 Internal Affairs was Pharaoh Monche's Rocky Balboa moment. Most of the album was recorded in a closet without air conditioning, which imbues it with a raw feeling. The gritty production comes from now-vintage SP-12s and AKAI 2000s.

Fame proved elusive for the Brooklyn MC, but Jeru's edutainment and Premier's mind-blowing compositions made his debut one of the quintessential 90s hip-hop albums.

There's a lot to love about Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city. For starters, it's a remarkable rap album in every sense rap can be remarkable in this age. It's a portrait of the jungle through the eyes of a prey. And despite a Grammy snub, it was well received by fans, critics and peers.

A combination of Juvie's melodic flow and Cash Money's high-end production made 400 Degreez a Southern rap favorite in 1998.

This mid-career success for the Roots was a huge step forward from the righteous fury of their first 3 LPs.

While his cousin Ice Cube was busy stirring up the gangsta rap scene, Del was laying the foundation for what would become a healthy alternative-hip-hop landscape.

 Xzibit molds his voice into a gruffy instrument, overpowering the beats when necessary. A brilliant move when it works.

Super lyricist Talib Kweli and super producer Hi-Tek join forces on a masterwork that underlined the Rawkus era in hip-hop.

Two of the three masterminds behind Fantastic Vol...2 are no longer alive, but this album left an indelible mark on hip-hop. SV's experimentation with neo-soul and quirky raps flung the door open for groups like Little Brother and Tanya Morgan.

Unlike most hip-hop albums of its era, Enta Da Stage eschewed confrontational raps and opted for brooding, electrifying brand of hip-hop.

This is where it all began. Wyclef's debut set the bar high for the rest of the Fugees' solo efforts. The Carnival was a masterful piece that combined Clef's smart songwriting with excellent beatsmithing. It was a critical and commercial smash.

The Fix was one of those albums that came out of nowhere and made you forget everything else going on in the southern rap. With robust beats by Mike Dean and a young Kanye West and Scarface in peak-form, The Fix was an instant hit. A southern rap classic.

The year is 1996 and hip-hop heads aren't so sure about live instrumentation. So The Roots flip the script and sample themselves. A brave artistic endeavor.

Busta's second album is arguably his most consistent work to date. It definitely contains his most memorable singles "Dangerous" and "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See."

Hip-hop in 1988 is a misogynistic place. MC Lyte's debut, Lyte as a Rock, helped usher in a wave of skilled and confident rappers who just happen to be women. Standouts include: "Paper Thin" and "I Cram to Understand U."

The Marshall Mathers LP is an undeniable hip-hop masterpiece that reinforced Eminem's status as one of the most exciting artists of the new millennium.

Tupac Shakur was fresh out of jail when he released All Eyez on Me, and you could hear the raw thoughts of a man grappling with his inner conflict. On one hand side was the brazen cuts that showed his tough side; on the other, he was soft as a pillow, immortalizing dead homies on the sentimental "Life Goes On."

Stunts, Blunts, & Hip-Hop announced Diamond D not as one of the best producers on the mic. It also gave us a sneak peek of hip-hop's future -- in sound and rhyme. Stunts, Blunts and Hip Hop featured fierce rhymes and beats by the likes of Big L, Fat Joe, and Q-Tip, among others. Finding early promotional copies of this album today is like find unicorn blood.

Kanye West's first album, College Dropout, was one for the ages. His hunger on this album is unmatched. Warm, sample-heavy production backs up Mr. West's self-conscious lyrics. College Dropout appealed to both mainstream and underground audiences.

 DMX's debut album, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, arrived in May 1998 and established him as the hottest thing in rap. At a time when Bad Boy stars like Mase and Diddy ruled radio with a pop-friendly sound, X went the dark route. He barked (literally) his way to the top of the charts, thanks to key singles "Get at Me Dog" and "Ruff Ryder's Anthem." And "How's It Goin' Down" with Faith Evans showed this dog wasn't all bark all the time.

 A 24-year-old bleach blonde rapper from Detroit? Not your typical image of a hip-hop artist at the turn of the decade. But once Eminem opened his mouth, no one could question his skill. The Slim Shady LP sold over five million copies and solidified Em as a new force in rap.

1980s hip-hop is colored by drum breaks, bad fashion and Afrocentrism. Jungle Brothers provided the Afro comfort music to soundtrack it all. Their debut is one of the most influential of the era.

 Guru used his monotone voice like an instrument to call attention to inner-city strife, while Premier backed him up with some of the grimiest beats hip-hop has ever heard.

 While De La Soul was brewing Daisy Age rap in the east coast, Pharcyde was diligently paying attention out west. Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde has so many fun, irreverent moments and ("Oh Sh*t") and angst ("Officer") and mush ("Passin' Me By"), but not once do the zany fellas on the mic compromise passion for a bitter whine.

To Pimp a Butterfly is a concept album with a convoluted arc that Kendrick follows with rare discipline. It retains vestiges of good kid, mAAd City themes, with Lucy (Lucifer) supplanting Sherane. And because it deserves a seat alongside timeless works like Fear of a Black Planet and Amerikkka's Most Wanted.

 One of rap's greatest duos, Mobb Deep brought QB dun talk to hip-hop audiences in the 90s. East coast hip-hop was a competitive space in the 90s, and Mobb's first album, Juvenile Hell, flew under the radar. In 1995, Havoc and Prodigy made huge creative leaps with The Infamous. With Havoc serving up hardbody beats and Prodigy thrilling listeners with cinematic crime rap, The Infamous became one of the most influential gangsta rap albums.

The Human Beat Box came onto the scene with jokes in his veins and a boogers-out attitude on the mic. With Marley Marl weaving some of the tightest beats of the Golden Era and Biz dropping lung-cracking rhymes, Goin' Off affirmed Biz Markie as a certified master of ceremonies.

When everyone wondered if Kanye could reenact the magic of his stellar debut, his response was a resounding yes. Late Registration not only built on his previous sound palette, it packed even more lyrical punch than his debut. West was rewarded with a Grammy for his effort.

 It's hard for those who weren't there to understand, but the Geto Boys were rap heroes to every little ghetto boy or girl in the Gulf Coast who dared dream of counting bars at a time when east coast and west coast were vying for rap supremacy. Of course, it's a great album full of raw tales every hood can relate to, from Houston to Haiti.

Latifah's debut showcased her Grade A rapping chops, with songs like "Wrath of My Madness" and "Ladies First" announcing the Jersey native as rap's new royalty. 

Endtroducing is one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time. The largely instrumental album sounded like nothing else that was out in 1996. Shadow culled samples from obscure places to create a hazy spell of an album.

After his star turn on Nas' "Life's a B*tch," AZ launched his solo career with the arrival of Doe or Die. Nas returns the favor on "Mo Money, Mo Murder," while songs like "Rather Unique" and "Gimme Yours" hearken to Illmatic's street spirit.

If you're one of those glass half-full people you'll note that the only positive side of Scott La Rock's unfortunate murder was in the direction of By All Means Necessary. KRS-One found himself denouncing black-on-black violence and railing against injustice on the classic BDP album. La Rock would approve.

Ridin' Dirty is UGK's most important album and one of the best rap albums ever recorded. The album gets its unique identity from Bun and Pimp's yin and yang connection. Bun is the surgical emcee, while Pimp is the flBoogie Down Productions - By All Means Necessaryamboyant philosopher. Everyone should buy two copies.

Liquid Swords introduced GZA as the cerebral swordsman. And RZA's serene, atmospheric boardwork helps transform the album from alt-rap bravery to a Wu masterpiece. 

 Mos Def's solo debut, Black on Both Sides, scores major points in key categories: aesthetics, substance, production. It knocks from end to end. Whether kicking rhymes about his personal politics or painting a portrait of a plump backside, Mos does it with vivid skill.

 Nas would spend the rest of his career chasing a shadow named Illmatic. 2001's Stillmatic was the closest he came to capturing the angst and paranoia of his boyhood self. Standouts include: the scathing Jay Z diss "Ether" and the time-bending classic "Rewind."Xzibit - 40 Dayz & 40 Nightz

It Was Written is Nas' attempt to match the grit and glory of Illmatic. Highlights include: "The Message," "I Gave U Power," and "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" with Lauryn Hill.

Creative ebullience abounds, yes. But also three of 2002's best rap songs are all here: "B.O.B.," "So Fresh, So Clean," and the baby mama drama jama "Ms. Jackson."

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De La Soul - De La Soul is Dead

De La Soul Is Dead
Courtesy Tommy Boy Entertainment

De La Soul reinvented their sound on De La Soul Is Dead. After being derided as hippies, they shifted away from the daisy-age image of the first album and returned with a poker-faced album that still retained some of that early zaniness.

OutKast's debut is as much a triumph for Andre 3000 and Big Boi as it is for production outfit Organized Noize. One part southern-fried beatsmithery, one-part poetic sorcery, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is 100% dope.

An album so great not even Osama bin Laden could stop its flight to the top on 9/11/01. Blueprint solidified Jay's place as a GOAT contender. One of the best hip-hop albums of the 2000s.

Marley Marl supplies the cold beats, DJ Polo provides the cuts, and Kool G Rap attacks every track with the nastiest lisp in the five boroughs.

 Prime poets MF Doom and Madlib joined forces to create this enduring masterwork in 2004.

An extension of Dr. Dre's classic debut, 2001 (aka Chronic 2001) is a syncopated day in the life of a G.

 Now a duo, The Coup makes a more focused album full of political rhetoric, vivid storytelling and slick production.

 Pun impressed with his larger-than-life debut, which sports immediate standouts like "Still Not a Player" and "You Ain't a Killer."

 A mic in one hand and a copy of The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey in the other, Mos Def and Talib Kweli excelled with their consciousness revivalism form of hip-hop.

 WIth Organized Noize manning the boards once again, OutKast emerged with a thoroughly enjoyable southern rap album that rival its predecessor for greatness.

 In 1995, The Roots released a groundbreaking album that offered a peek into the experimental approach to music they would later hang their hat on. 100% sample-free. No additives.

 Stress: The Extinction Agenda, Organized Konfusion's second album, is more ambitious and exceptionally well-written. Highlights include the title track and "Let's Organize."

LL Cool J would go on to release a ton of clunkers in the latter part of his career, but Radio stands a testament to his days as a great MC. Tough, def and jingling baby.

 Grand Puba, Sadat X, Lord Jamar, and DJ Alamo brought social commentary and spirituality to the forefront of 90s rap with gems like "Slow Down" and "Wake Up."

 Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill offered the best blend of rap and R&B in hip-hop history. Her stellar songwriting flourished from song to song, whether grappling with spirituality ("Final Hour," "Forgive Them, Father") or stroking sexuality without exploiting it ("Nothing Even Matters").

 At a time when hip-hop was dominated by rage, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith slowed things down with the decidedly smooth Unfinished Business. Fresh and exciting.

The one gangsta rap album to rule them all, Power portrayed inner-city street life in graphic detail while sending an anti-crime message to the hood. 

Biggie must have known this would be his last album, he stuffed it with as many songs as he could muster -- street anthems, radio hits, comedic skits, and a wide cast of co-stars. Life After Death is certified diamond for sales totaling over 10 million units.

Hard to Earn varied from Gang Starr's previous albums: it was harsher and more insular. It also captured Guru and Premier's growing frustration with sucker emcees.

 Authentic, fun and beautifully produced, Tribe's stunning debut appealed to lovers of alternative hip-hop and still inspires today.

 Pete Rock and CL Smooth helped usher in a pivotal point in hip-hop with their mix of smooth, horn-heavy beats and sophisticated rhymes.

The most revolutionary hip-hop group since Public Enemy, dead prez helped revive the conscious movement with this powerful debut LP. 

Dark, raw and provocative, Fear of a Black Planet produced classic cuts like "911 Is a Joke" and "Who Stole the Soul." 

Backed by RZA's slick and somber beats, Ghostface dropped a combustive debut rife with rich stories and wild metaphors.

After a messy breakup with NWA.E=Following a bitter split from N.W.A., Ice Cube filled his debut album with dark stories of,manic frustration. 

Redman's wild sense of humor is the main star of Whut? Thee Album. But the album is also notable for its rousing energy, funky party jams, and ferocious boasts.

As critics were busy writing off Beastie Boys as a one-album wonder, Ad-Rock, Mike, and MCA went back to their L.A. studio and worked feverishly on their follow-up to the monumental Licensed to Ill. The result was Paul's Boutique -- an album that packed a combination of creative depth and layered production. 

 Striking a balance between pleasant and pugnacious, Mama Said Knock You Out marked Uncle L's growth as a rapper. The hard-edged records are here ("Murdergram," "Mama Said Knock You Out"), but they're perfectly complemented by smooth, accessible jams ("Around the Way Girl"). Marley Marl's excellent production helps make Mama a masterpiece.

 Some say Makaveli is 2Pac's best album. It's certainly his hardest and most surreal. Released just 7.5 weeks after Pac's death, the album further eternalized Pac's enigma. The album's best songs include the street anthem "Hail Mary" and the (adoptive) hometown tribute "To Live and Die in LA." 

 Third time was the charm for Brad "Scarface" Jordan. His third solo foray, The Diary, immediately established the Houston rapper as the South's answer to Rakim, thanks to his smart storytelling and inimitable flow.

 Big Daddy Kane wrote the manuscript for braggart rap on Long Live the Kane. Marley Marl's sparse production and Kane's slick wordplay are also worth noting. Like Tony the Tiger, he's GRRRRREAAAT.

 Tribe's third disc is a collection of melodic, Crisco-slick sizzlers. You'll love: "Electric Relaxation," "Award Tour," and "Oh My God."

Critical Beatdown is important for three reasons: 1) It's arguably the best album of 1988; 2) It revolutionized the art of hip-hop sampling, thanks to Ced-Gee's brilliant use of the E-mu SP-1200 sampler; 3) It introduced the world to the exceptionally creative weirdo known as Kool Keith.

 Raising Hell Run DMC was the most uncompromising Run DMC. Raising Hell Run DMC was also the most accessible. The album has this gloriously invigorating feel that resonated with audiences--old and new. Raising Hell is important for its originality as well as its influence. "My Adidas" is still an anthem for hip-hop fashion, while "Walk This Way" helped started a trend of rock-rap fusion.

Before a car crash wrecked D.O.C.'s larynx, he made an undeniable hip-hop classic. No One Can Do It Better sidestepped west coast gun talk in favor of east coast lyricism. It also featured some of Dr. Dre's finest production.

EPMD is the most sampled group in hip-hop for a good reason. Their production is a thing of beauty. Combine that with Erick and P's laid-back rhymes and you get strictly dopeness.

Afrikaa Bambaataa was a trailblazer, an innovator of hip-hop aesthetic. Looking for the Perfect Beat is a good place to start if you're seeking to familiarize yourself with his most significant works, including "Planet Rock" and "Unity Pt. 1," a collaboration James Brown.

 The sample-heavy Breaking Atoms is one of the most influential ever, in that it helped launch the careers of Nas, Akinyele, and others. It also inspired a production technique that's still widely emulated today.

1994 was a flagship year for hip-hop, with Illmatic and Ready to Die arriving the same year. Yet Chicago rapper Common (then known as Common Sense) still managed to stand out with his smart, jazz-tinged sophomore LP, Resurrection.

 Aside from being the first popular Latino rap group, Cypress Hill also did a respectable job of bridging the gap between rock and hip-hop on their self-titled debut album. Highlights include: "How I Could Just Kill a Man" and "The Phunkcy Feel One."

 Doggystyle kicked the door wide for many west coast emcees. Dr. Dre's finesse aside, Snoop's piquant delivery and melodic flw were equally crucial to Doggystyle's success.

 Fugees' second album The Score was so remarkable that most fans forgot about their less memorable debut. Truth be told, The Score was a huge improvement on the lackluster Blunted on Reality.

 There are two stars on Licensed to Ill and both deserve equal credit. Rick Rubin, the true pioneer of rap rock is the one pulling the musical puppet strings on this thing. But the album is nothing without the Beasties destroying every track with their unbridled passion.

 KRS-One was the dreaded poet, Scott La Rock the musical visionary. Together, they cooked up an album that shook up the landscape of hip-hop. Criminal Minded should be studied in college.

 Aquemini is evidence of just how often Boi and Dre loved reinvent their sound. They abandoned everything that worked in the past and went straight for harmonica, acoustic guitar, and even a tinny splice of electro.

 Cube's debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, was outstanding. But his follow-up was even better, even more venomous than the first. The thing is named Death Certificate, after all. The album's 'Death' side presented an image of the present, while the 'Life' side offered a vision of the future.

Pre-Reasonable Doubt, mafioso rap lacked nuance. Jay studied his peers and perfected their template, bringing a vulnerable side that personified the usual street characters. The outcome? An album that served both as an honest narrative of the ills of street life and an unrepentant defense of it.

 Me Against The World is 2Pac at his best. No thugcore tracks, no name-inscribed missiles aimed at east coast rappers. Simply Pac at his most poignant and most defiant. The duality in all its brilliance.

 The Low End Theory is Tribe at their best. Ali Shaheed, Q-Tip, and Phife Dawg became one of the greatest rap groups of all time by trafficking in smart lyrics drizzled over smooth, jazz-rap layers. 

 Eazy, Dre, Cube and 'em had to fight for their right to party. No one--not even the alphabet people--could stop them from publicly, viciously and explicitly indicting the powers that be. A true west coast masterpiece.

1991 produced many great albums: Pete Rock & CL Smooth's Mecca & the Soul Brother, Pharcyde's Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, Diamond D's Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop. But it was Dr. Dre's The Chronic that towered over hip-hop that year and many years to come. Dre's G-funk basslines, bolstered generously by Snoop's slick flow, announced the new name running the game.

 36 Chambers is one of the greatest debuts hip-hop has ever seen. the 12-song spectacle barely gave the nine original swordsmen enough room to stretch out their eccentricities. Highlights include: "C.R.E.A.M.," "Protect Ya Neck," and the pragmatic life hack "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta F' Wit."

 Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... is a journey through the thrills, the violence, and the rote regimen that constitute a New York drug kingpin's life. A crime-rap manifesto that would shape the course of mafioso rap throughout the 90s.

 While his peers bragged about the size of their manhood, Rakim styled on them with peculiar precision. The man loves painting pictures with words and Paid in Full is his ultimate canvas.

 Public Enemy challenged everything that posed an obstacle to the oppressed: racism, injustice, crooked cops, profiling, everything. P.E.'s second album is an undeniable hip-hop classic.

 Biggie's ability to cooly captivate an audience with his storytelling chops, or capture a difficult emotion (i.e. suicidal thoughts), or mine comedy from the most serious of subjects (i.e. robbery) are skills rarely seen in the same package. Biggie Smalls is the illest.

There are great hip-hop albums, and then there's Illmatic. A 19-year-old word wizard, Nas packed potent poetry into 39 minutes, while A-list producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock supplied the perfect score. Illmatic is the greatest hip-hop album of all time.