100 Best Hip-Hop Albums

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.

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Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Freestyle Fellowship - To Whom It May Concern

Freestyle Fellowship

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

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Too Short - Born To Mack

Born to Mack

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

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MF Doom - Operation Doomsday

MF Doom - Operation Doomsday

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

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Pharoahe Monch - Internal Affairs

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Jeru the Damaja - The Sun Rises in the East


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. Buy from Amazon »

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Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city

© Top Dawg/Aftermath

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Juvenile - 400 Degreez

(Photo © Jemal Countess/Getty)

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

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The Roots - Things Fall Apart

The Roots - Things Fall Apart © MCA.

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

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Del - I Wish My Brother George Was Here

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Xzibit - 40 Dayz & 40 Nightz

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

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Reflection Eternal - Train of Thought

Reflection Eternal
Reflection Eternal.

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

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Slum Village - Fantastic vol..2

Slum Village - Fantastic Vol II © MCA.

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Black Moon - Enta Da Stage

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

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Wyclef Jean -The Carnival

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Scarface - The Fix

Scarface - The Fix. © Def Jam

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. Buy from Amazon »

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The Roots - Illadelph Halflife

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Busta Rhymes - When Disaster Strikes

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." Buy from Amazon »

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MC Lyte - Lyte as a Rock

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." Buy from Amazon »

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Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP

The Marshall Mathers LP

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. Buy from Amazon »

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2Pac - All Eyez On Me

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." Buy from Amazon »

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Diamond & Psychotic Neurotics - Stunts, Blunts, & Hip-Hop

Diamond D

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Kanye West -  College Dropout

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. Buy from Amazon »

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DMX - It's Dark & Hell is Hot

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Eminem - The Slim Shady LP

Eminem - The Slim Shady LP
Eminem - The Slim Shady LP. © Aftermath/Interscope

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Jungle Brothers - Straight Out of the Jungle

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. Buy from Amazon »

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GangStarr - Step in the Arena

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde

The Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde.

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly


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. Buy from Amazon »

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Mobb Deep - Infamous

Mobb Deep - The Infamous
Mobb Deep - The Infamous. © Loud/RCA

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Biz Markie - Goin' Off

Biz Markie
Getty Images

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Kanye West - Late Registration

Late Registration
Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Geto Boys - We Can't Be Stopped

Geto Boys - We Can't Be Stopped
Geto Boys - We Can't Be Stopped. © 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 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Queen Latifah - All Hail the Queen

Al Pereira / Getty

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.  Buy from Amazon »

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DJ Shadow - Endtroducing


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. Buy from Amazon »

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AZ - Doe or Die

AZ - Feel My Pain
AZ - Feel My Pain. © Quiet Money

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Boogie Down Productions - By All Means Necessary

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. Buy from Amazon »

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UGK - Ridin' Dirty

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. Buy from Amazon »

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GZA/Genius - Liquid Swords

GZA - Liquid Swords
GZA - Liquid Swords. © Geffen Records

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.  Buy from Amazon »

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Mos Def - Black on Both Sides


 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Nas - Stillmatic

 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 Buy from Amazon »

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Nas - It Was Written

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. Buy from Amazon »

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OutKast - Stankonia

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." Buy from Amazon »

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De La Soul Is Dead

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.

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OutKast - Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik


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. Buy from Amazon »

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Jay Z - The Blueprint

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Kool G Rap & DJ Polo - Road to Riches

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Madvillain - Madvillainy

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

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Dr. Dre - 2001

(Photo by Elsa/Getty)

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

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The Coup - Genocide & Juice

The Coup.

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

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Big Punisher - Capital Punishment

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

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Black Star - Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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OutKast - ATLiens

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

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

The Roots

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Organized Konfusion - Stress: The Extinction Agenda

 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." Buy from Amazon »

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LL Cool J - Radio


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. Buy from Amazon »

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Brand Nubian - One For All

Brand Nubian. © Babygrande

 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." Buy from Amazon »

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Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill - Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill - Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. © Columbia

 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"). Buy from Amazon »

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EPMD - Unfinished Business

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Ice T - Power

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.  Buy from Amazon »

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The Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death

Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death
Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death. © 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. Buy from Amazon »

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GangStarr - Hard to Earn

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. Buy from Amazon »

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

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

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Pete Rock & CL Smooth - Mecca and the Soul Brother

Pete Rock & CL Smooth

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Dead Prez - Let's Get Free

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

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Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet

Public Enemy - Fear of A Black Planet
Public Enemy - Fear of A Black Planet. © Def Jam

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

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Ghostface Killah - Ironman

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

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Ice Cube - AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted

Ice Cube - AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted
Ice Cube - AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. © Priority Records

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.  Buy from Amazon »

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Redman - Whut? Thee Album

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique

Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique
Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique. © Capitol

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.  Buy from Amazon »

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LL Cool J - Mama Said Knock You Out

LL Cool JMama Said Knock You OUt

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Makaveli - The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory

 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."  Buy from Amazon »

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Scarface - The Diary

Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Big Daddy Kane - Long Live the Kane

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders

A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders
A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders. © Jive

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

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Ultramagnetic MCs - Critical Beatdown

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Run-D.M.C. - Raising Hell

Run DMC. © Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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D.O.C. - No One Can Do It Better

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. Buy from Amazon »

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EPMD - Strictly Business

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Afrika Bambaataa - Looking for the Perfect Beat

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. Buy from Amazon »

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Main Source - Breaking Atoms

Main Source - Breaking Atoms
Main Source - Breaking Atoms. © Wild Pitch/EMI

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Common - Resurrection


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. Buy from Amazon »

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Cypress Hill - Cypress Hill

 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." Buy from Amazon »

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Snoop Doggy Dogg - Doggystyle

Snoop Dogg - Doggystyle

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Fugees - The Score

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Beastie Boys - Licensed to Ill

Beastie Boys
Beastie Boys. © Capitol

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Boogie Down Productions - Criminal Minded

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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OutKast - Aquemini


 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Ice Cube - Death Certificate

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Jay Z - Reasonable Doubt

Jay Z, Reasonable Doubt
Reasonable Doubt (1996). Roc-a-fella

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. Buy from Amazon »

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2Pac - Me Against the World

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory

 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.  Buy from Amazon »

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N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Dr. Dre - The Chronic

Dr. Dre - The Chronic
Dr. Dre - The Chronic. © Death Row

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. Buy from Amazon »

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

 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." Buy from Amazon »

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Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...

Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. © 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. A crime-rap manifesto that would shape the course of mafioso rap throughout the 90s. Buy from Amazon »

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Eric B. & Rakim - Paid in Full

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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

 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. Buy from Amazon »

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The Notorious B.I.G. - Ready To Die


 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. Buy from Amazon »

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Nas - Illmatic

Nas - Illmatic
Nas - Illmatic. © 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 like DJ Premier and Pete Rock supplied the perfect score. Illmatic is the greatest hip-hop album of all time. Buy from Amazon »