The 100 Best Rap Albums of All Time

Artists range from Run the Jewels to Nas and his classic"Illmatic"

Hip-hop has produced plenty of great music over its 40-plus-year history. Few albums are worthy of the title "greatest," while others are good enough to make the list. These albums were picked on the basis of creativity, originality, replay value, and overall cultural impact.

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Run the Jewels: 'Run the Jewels'

Run the Jewels
Courtesy Fools Gold

Killer Mike is really good at rapping. El-P is really good at rapping and excellent at making beats. Put these two together and nobody could screw it up.

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The Freestyle Fellowship: 'To Whom It May Concern'

Freestyle Fellowship
Courtesy Sun Music

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

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Too Short: 'Born to Mack'

Born to Mack
Courtesy Jive Records

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

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MF Doom: 'Operation Doomsday'

MF Doom - Operation Doomsday
Courtesy Metal Face Records

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

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Pharoahe Monch: 'Internal Affairs'

Pharoahe Monch - Internal Affairs
Courtesy Priority Records

"Internal Affairs" was Pharoahe Monch'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 equipment such as SP-12s and AKAI 2000s .

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Jeru the Damaja: 'The Sun Rises in the East'

Courtesy Payday Records

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

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Kendrick Lamar: 'Good Kid, m.A.A.d City'

Kendrick Lamar Good Kid Maad City
Courtesy Top Dawg Entertainment

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 way rap can be remarkable. It's a portrait of the jungle through the eyes of the prey. Despite a Grammy snub, it was well received by fans, critics, and peers.

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Juvenile: '400 Degreez'

Juvenile - 400 Degreez
Courtesy Cash Money Records

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

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The Roots: 'Things Fall Apart'

The Roots - Things Fall Apart
Courtesy MCA

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

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Del: 'I Wish My Brother George Was Here'

Del - I Wish My Brother George Was Here
Courtesy Elektra Records

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.

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Xzibit: '40 Dayz & 40 Nightz'

40 dayz and 40 nightz xzibit
Courtesy RCA Records

 Xzibit molds his voice into a gruff instrument, overpowering the beats when necessary. It's a brilliant gambit when it works.

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Reflection Eternal: 'Train of Thought'

Reflection Eternal - Train of Thought
Courtesy Rawkus

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

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Slum Village: 'Fantastic Volume II'

Slum Village - Fantastic vol..2
Courtesy GoodVibe

Two of the three masterminds behind "Fantastic Volume II" 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 such as Little Brother and Tanya Morgan.

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Black Moon: 'Enta Da Stage'

Black Moon - Enta Da Stage
Courtesy Wreck Records

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

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Wyclef Jean: 'The Carnival'

Wyclef Jean -The Carnival
Courtesy Sony

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.

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Scarface: 'The Fix'

Scarface - The Fix
Courtesy Def Jam

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

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The Roots: 'Illadelph Halflife'

The Roots - Illadelph Halflife
Courtesy Geffen

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

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Busta Rhymes: 'When Disaster Strikes'

Busta Rhymes - When Disaster Strikes
Courtesy Elektra Records

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

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MC Lyte: 'Lyte As a Rock'

MC Lyte Lyte as a Rock
Courtesy Atlantic

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

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Eminem: 'The Marshall Mathers LP'

Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP
Courtesy Aftermath

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

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2Pac: 'All Eyez on Me'

2Pac - All Eyez On Me
Courtesy Death Row Records

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 side were 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."

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Diamond and the Psychotic Neurotics: 'Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop'

Stunts, Blunts, & Hip-Hop
Courtesy Mercury Records

"Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop" announced Diamond D 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. The album 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 years later is like finding unicorn blood.

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Kanye West: 'The College Dropout'

Kanye West "College Dropout"
Courtesy Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam

Kanye's first album, "The 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.

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DMX: 'It's Dark and Hell Is Hot'

DMX It's Dark and Hell Is Hot
Courtesy Def Jam

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 such as Mase and Diddy ruled radio with a pop-friendly sound, X took 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.

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Eminem: 'The Slim Shady LP'

eminem the slim shady lp
Courtesy Aftermath

A 24-year-old bleached-blond rapper from Detroit wasn't anyone's 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 5 million copies and solidified Em as a new force in rap.

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Jungle Brothers: 'Straight Out the Jungle'

Jungle Brothers - Straight Out of the Jungle
Courtesy Warlock Records

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

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Gang Starr: 'Step in the Arena'

GangStarr - Step in the Arena
Courtesy Chrysalis Records

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.

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Pharcyde: 'Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde'

Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde
Courtesy Delicious Vinyl Records

While De La Soul was brewing Daisy Age rap on the East Coast, Pharcyde was diligently paying attention out West. "Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde" has many fun, irreverent moments ("Oh S**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.

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Kendrick Lamar: 'To Pimp a Butterfly'

Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly
Courtesy Aftermath

"To Pimp a Butterfly" is a concept album with a convoluted arc that Kendrick follows with rare discipline. It retains vestiges of  "Good Kid, m.A.A.d City" themes, with Lucy (Lucifer) supplanting Sherane. It deserves a seat alongside timeless works such as "Fear of a Black Planet" and "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted."

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Mobb Deep: 'The Infamous'

Mobb Deep The Infamous
Courtesy Sony

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.

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Biz Markie: 'Goin' Off'

Biz Markie - Goin' Off
Courtesy Cold Chillin' Records

The Human Beatbox 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.

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Kanye West: 'Late Registration'

Kanye West - Late Registration
Courtesy Roc-A-Fella

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

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Geto Boys: 'We Can't Be Stopped'

Geto Boys - We Can't Be Stopped
Courtesy Rap-A-Lot Records

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

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Queen Latifah: 'All Hail the Queen'

Queen Latifah - All Hail the Queen
Courtesy Tommy Boy Records

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

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DJ Shadow: 'Endtroducing'

DJ Shadow - Endtroducing
Courtesy Island

"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.

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AZ: 'Doe or Die'

AZ - Doe or Die
Courtesy Capitol

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

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Boogie Down Productions: 'By All Means Necessary'

Boogie Down Productions - By All Means Necessary
Courtesy Jive

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 have approved.

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UGK: 'Ridin' Dirty'

UGK - Ridin' Dirty
Courtesy Sony

"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 flamboyant philosopher. Everyone should buy two copies.

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GZA/Genius: 'Liquid Swords'

GZA/Genius - Liquid Swords
Courtesy Geffen

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

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Mos Def: 'Black on Both Sides'

Mos Def - Black on Both Sides
Courtesy Rawkus

Mos Def's solo debut, "Black on Both Sides," scores major points in key categories: aesthetics, substance, and 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.

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Nas: 'Stillmatic'

Nas - Stillmatic
Courtesy Sony

Nas could 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."

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Nas: 'It Was Written'

Nas - It Was Written
Courtesy Columbia

"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.

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OutKast: 'Stankonia'

Outkast Stankonia
Courtesy LaFace

Creative ebullience abounds, but 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 its 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-face album that retained some of the early zaniness.

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OutKast: 'Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik'

Courtesy LaFace

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 and one part poetic sorcery, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is 100 percent dope.

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Jay-Z: 'The Blueprint'

Jay Z - The Blueprint
Courtesy Roc-A-Fella

It's 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. It's one of the best hip-hop albums of the 2000s.

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Kool G Rap & DJ Polo: 'Road to the Riches'

Kool G Rap & DJ Polo
Courtesy Warner Bros. Records

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.

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Madvillain - Madvillainy
Courtesy Stones Throw Records

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

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Dr. Dre: '2001'

Dr. Dre - 2001
Courtesy Aftermath

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

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The Coup: 'Genocide & Juice'

The Coup - Genocide & Juice
Courtesy Wild Pitch Records

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

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Big Punisher: 'Capital Punishment'

Big Punisher - Capital Punishment
Courtesy Columbia

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

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Black Star: 'Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star'

Black Star
Courtesy Rawkus

 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.

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OutKast: 'ATLiens'

Outkast ATLiens
Courtesy LaFace

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

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The Roots: 'Do You Want More?!!!??!'

The Roots - Do You Want More?!!!??!
Courtesy Geffen

 In 1995, The Roots released a groundbreaking album that offered a peek into the experimental approach to music they would later hang their hats on. It's 100% sample-free—no additives.

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Organized Konfusion: 'Stress: The Extinction Agenda'

Organized Konfusion - Stress: The Extinction Agenda
Courtesy Elektra

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

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LL Cool J: 'Radio'

LL Cool J - Radio
Courtesy Def Jam

LL Cool J released a ton of clunkers in the latter part of his career, but "Radio" stands testament to his days as a great emcee: tough, def, and jingling, baby.

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Brand Nubian: 'One for All'

Brand Nubian - One For All
Courtesy Elektra

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

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Lauryn Hill: 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill'

Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Courtesy Sony

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").

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EPMD: 'Unfinished Business'

EPMD - Unfinished Business
Courtesy Priority Records

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

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Ice-T: 'Power'

Ice T - Power
Courtesy Warner Bros

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. 

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The Notorious B.I.G.: 'Life After Death'

The Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death
Courtesy Bad Boy Records

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.

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Gang Starr: 'Hard to Earn'

GangStarr - Hard to Earn
Courtesy Chrysalis Records

"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.

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A Tribe Called Quest: 'People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm'

A Tribe Called Quest - People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
Courtesy Sony

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

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Pete Rock & CL Smooth: 'Mecca and the Soul Brother'

Mecca and the Soul Brother
Courtesy Elektra

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.

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Dead Prez: 'Let's Get Free'

Dead Prez - Let's Get Free
Courtesy Columbia

The most revolutionary hip-hop group since Public Enemy, Dead Prez helped revive the consciousness movement with this powerful debut LP. 

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Public Enemy: 'Fear of a Black Planet'

Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet
Courtesy Def Jam

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

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Ghostface Killah: 'Ironman'

Ghostface Killah - Ironman
Courtesy Sony

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

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Ice Cube: 'AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted'

Ice Cube - AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted
Courtesy Priority Records

After a messy breakup with NWA, Ice Cube filled his debut album with dark stories of manic frustration. 

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Redman: 'Whut? Thee Album'

Redman - Whut? Thee Album
Courtesy Def Jam

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

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Beastie Boys: 'Paul's Boutique'

Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique
Courtesy Capitol

As critics were 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. 

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LL Cool J: 'Mama Said Knock You Out'

LL Cool J Mama Said Knock You Out
Courtesy Def Jam

 Striking a balance between pleasant and pugnacious, "Mama Said Knock You Out" marked Uncle L's growth as a rapper. The hard-edged songs 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.

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Makaveli: 'The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory'

Makaveli - The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory
Courtesy Death Row Records

Some say "Makaveli" is 2Pac's best album. It's certainly his hardest and most surreal. Released less than eight 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." 

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Scarface: 'The Diary'

Scarface - The Diary
Courtesy Rap-A-Lot Records

The 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.

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Big Daddy Kane: 'Long Live the Kane'

Long Live the Kane
Courtesy Cold Chillin' Records

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 worth noting. Like Tony the Tiger, he's GRRRRREAAAT.

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A Tribe Called Quest: 'Midnight Marauders'

Midnight Marauders
Courtesy Jive

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

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Ultramagnetic MC's: 'Critical Beatdown'

Ultramagnetic MCs - Critical Beatdown
Courtesy Next Plateau

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

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Run-DMC: 'Raising Hell'

Run-D.M.C. - Raising Hell
Courtesy Profile Records

"Raising Hell" was the most uncompromising Run DMC album, and also the most accessible. It 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.

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D.O.C." 'No One Can Do It Better'

D.O.C. - No One Can Do It Better
Courtesy Ruthless Records

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 and featured some of Dr. Dre's finest production.

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EPMD: 'Strictly Business'

EPMD Strictly Business
Courtesy Priority Records

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

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Afrika Bambaataa: 'Looking for the Perfect Beat'

Afrika Bambaataa - Looking for the Perfect Beat
Courtesy Tommy Boy Records

Afrika Bambaataa was a trailblazer, an innovator of the 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.

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Main Source: 'Breaking Atoms'

Main Source - Breaking Atoms
Courtesy Wild Pitch Records

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

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Common: 'Resurrection'

Common - Resurrection
Courtesy Relativity Records

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

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Cypress Hill: 'Cypress Hill'

Cypress Hill - Cypress Hill
Courtesy Columbia

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 its self-titled debut album. Highlights include "How I Could Just Kill a Man" and "The Phunkcy Feel One."

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Snoop Doggy Dogg: 'Doggystyle'

Snoop Doggy Dogg - Doggystyle
Courtesy Death Row Records

"Doggystyle" kicked the door wide for many West Coast emcees. Dr. Dre's finesse aside, Snoop's piquant delivery and melodic flow were equally crucial to the success of "Doggystyle."

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Fugees: 'The Score'

Fugees The Score
Courtesy Columbia

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

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Beastie Boys: 'Licensed to Ill'

Beastie Boys - Licensed to Ill
Courtesy Def Jam

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 would be nothing without the Beasties destroying every track with their unbridled passion.

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Boogie Down Productions: 'Criminal Minded'

Boogie Down Productions - Criminal Minded
Courtesy B-Boy Records

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.

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OutKast: 'Aquemini'

Courtesy LaFace

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

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Ice Cube: 'Death Certificate'

Ice Cube - Death Certificate
Courtesy Priority Records

Cube's debut, "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted," was outstanding, but his follow-up was even better and 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.

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Jay-Z: 'Reasonable Doubt'

Jay Z, Reasonable Doubt
Courtesy Roc-A-Fella

Before "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 was an album that served both as an honest narrative of the ills of street life and an unrepentant defense of it.

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2Pac: 'Me Against the World'

2 Pac Me Against the World
Courtesy Interscope

"Me Against the World" is 2Pac at his best. No thug core 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.

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A Tribe Called Quest: 'The Low End Theory'

The Low End Theory
Courtesy Jive

"The Low End Theory" is Tribe at its 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. 

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N.W.A.: 'Straight Outta Compton'

Straight Outta Compton
Courtesy Priority Records

Eazy, Dre, Cube, and the rest of '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. It's a true West Coast masterpiece.

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Dr. Dre: 'The Chronic'

Dr Dre The Chronic
Courtesy Death Row Records

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

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Wu-Tang Clan: 'Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)'

Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Courtesy Loud Records

"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**k' Wit."

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Raekwon: 'Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...'

Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...
Courtesy Loud Records

"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. It's a crime-rap manifesto that shaped the course of mafioso rap throughout the '90s.

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Eric B. & Rakim: 'Paid in Full'

Eric B & Rakim Paid in Full
Courtesy Island

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.

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Public Enemy: 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Courtesy Def Jam

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.

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The Notorious B.I.G.: 'Ready to Die'

Courtesy Big Beat Records

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

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Nas: 'Illmatic'

Nas - Illmatic
Courtesy Columbia

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 such as DJ Premier and Pete Rock supplied the perfect score. "Illmatic" is the greatest hip-hop album of all time.