An introduction to a list like this can’t hope to do any justice to the passion that went into its creation. When we decided to break down the greatest hip-hop albums of each year for the past 25 years, it took less than a day for all hell to break loose. Camps were bitterly divided along lines of Biggie versus Nas, Pharcyde versus Dr. Dre, Spank Rock versus Clipse. When the dust had settled and the champions arose, it was clear that even then things weren’t over. What would readers think of a list with no De La Soul? What about two Tribe albums and only one apiece from Public Enemy and Eric B and Rakim? But what was even clearer was that we all loved this music so much we’d fight tooth and nail for our specific heroes and we think inevitably our readers will too.
Hip-hop has gone from being a novelty to a begrudgingly accepted mainstream genre to “the black CNN” to middle-class white America’s greatest fear for their children to a commercial juggernaut and it’s still growing. We all have different thoughts about what it is, what it symbolizes, what it means, but it can no longer be argued that it isn’t a vital, necessary part of our culture with just as much to offer as post-modern fiction or abstract art or any other once maligned entity. Hip-hop is at its a core an art form built around communication and sheer love of language, whether it be communicating skills, style, or substance; politics, money, or sex; reputation, identity, or respect. And if nothing else, we hope this list will encourage you to speak out on your own and carry that tradition forward, even if it’s because you just don’t get how we could possibly leave Eminem off a list like this. – Morgan Davis
1984: Kurtis Blow – Ego Trip (Mercury)
Hip-hop didn’t begin in 1984, obviously. It’s debatable when it even began, or with whom, or why, but that’s not really important here. 1984 was the year when hip-hop gained a sort of acceptance, a nod from the mainstream that let it be known that the forces that be now considered the genre to be something other than a one hit wonder or a novelty. This is because 1984 was the year that hip-hop really began to utilize the album format, with the self-titled debut of Run-DMC and rise of Def Jam.
Five years prior Kurtis Blow had become the first commercially accepted hip-hop artist, his essential single “The Breaks” even topping the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll after he had previously been seen as some one-off goof due to “Christmas Rappin’.” But until Ego Trip, Kurtis Blow’s albums had largely been hodge podge gatherings of singles, with tracks duplicated throughout albeit in remix or instrumental form. With Ego Trip, Blow was obviously aware that he was being usurped by the young upstarts he had influenced or, in the case of Run-DMC, even worked with. Blow needed a definitive statement, something that would sell and also broadcast a message the same way Grandmaster Flash and his Furious Five had done (never mind the fact that he had beaten them to the punch on his debut).
Ego Trip has its flaws, sure; it’s dated, and it has its moments of filler and Blow never followed up on it in any real way. But when it works, it really works. “8 Million Stories” is a poignant look at New York City featuring Run-DMC, “Basketball” is still a fun classic and “I Can’t Take It No More” is a fitting partner to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” With Ego Trip, Blow seemed to be offering up a work that was less an individual piece and more a salute from a pioneer to the trailblazers carrying on his cause. – Morgan Davis
1985: LL Cool J – Radio (Def Jam)
LL Cool J’s Radio would have been a landmark no matter what its quality due to its status as the first album to be released by Def Jam; but in every possible way it is an epic achievement. Produced by a young Rick Rubin and featuring the remix skills of DJ Jazzy Jay, Radio is quite possibly the album that convinced America that hip-hop was an unstoppable force, establishing a love affair that has now gone on for nearly three decades.
Where previous hip-hop releases had essentially coasted on an infinitely looping breakbeat from a prominent R&B or Disco track, Radio was one of the first works to have its own singular style revolving around Rubin’s heavy metal tendencies and his prominent use of thick, minimalist drum machine beats. Rubin used samples as flavor rather than letting them dominate a track: riffs dropped in and out of the songs, punctuating the flow of the emcee on display. You could still dance to the tracks, of course, but more importantly they felt heavy, new, startling.
LL Cool J wasn’t just a tool for the production skills of Rubin and the business sense of Russell Simmons, though, he was himself a force to be reckoned with, as much an integral ingredient for Def Jam’s success as anyone else. LL Cool J is partially responsible for the evolution of the emcee from a sing-songy, novel speaker of playground rhymes to an artist, a confident, assured chronicler of a people. Although his rhymes may now seem obvious, at the time they were revolutionary, and LL Cool J’s influence is apparent in everyone from contemporaries Rakim and Chuck D to descendants the Cool Kids and Jay-Z. Radio is quite rightly regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, and it’s plain to see why LL Cool J maintained success far longer than anyone from hip-hop’s first generation. – Morgan Davis
1986: Run-DMC – Raising Hell (Profile)
By the time Raising Hell was released in 1986, Run-DMC already had two monumental albums but it would it take the involvement of one Rick Rubin, producer, to help meld the disparate elements of rap and rock into one pastiche of perfection. Talk about the fucking chocolate in the proverbial peanut butter. See, today we take the fusion of these worlds for granted, yet the sound that erupted But if it was as simple as combined elements of hip-hop with rock ‘n’ roll, Raising Hell would not be such a bonafide masterpiece. See, Rubin is only half the story. Run DMC producer Russell Simmons helped flavor the stock as well.
Raising Hell stands above its contemporaries for the inventiveness that runs through the album like a golden vein. It’s not only about the beat, the rhymes and the rhythm. A wry streak of humor fills the album, as evidenced by “You Be Illin’,” a song that challenges you to keep a straight face. Raising Hell pushed the boundaries of hip-hop until it burst at the seams. Just listen to the guitar riff on “Raising Hell.” Is it rap? Is it rock? What the fuck is it?
The crowning moment is the cover of “Walk This Way.” Though it may sound passé to some now, “Walk This Way” not only cross-bred rock royalty (Aerosmith) with Run-DMC, it also opened the door for legions of white fans. Let’s call it the sugar in the medicine, but without “Walk This Way” would it have been as easy for white boys to swallow the impending style of gangsta rock?
Though Run-DMC would never duplicate the success of Raising Hell, no rap group rocked as hard and no rock band rapped as furious in 1986 as Run-DMC. – David Harris
1987: Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full (4th & Broadway)
Easily the best rap album of 1987, Paid in Full changed the history of rap in several ways. Most notable, and most noted, is the revolution in rapping Rakim led. Mid-’80s rapping was dominated by Run DMC’s rigid rhythms and heavy end-rhymes:
Sucker MC’s should call me sire
To burn my kingdom, you must use fire
I won’t stop rockin’ till I retire
Though groups like BDP loosened the rhythm somewhat, this is what rap sounded like before Paid in Full. Everything since owes a debt to this:
Feelin out of place cos, man, do I miss
A pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape of
Me and Eric B., and a nice big plate of
Fish, which is my favorite dish
But without no money it’s still a wish
The meaning is freed from the line structure, rhymes shift to different parts of the line to change the rhythm, and the delivery is smooth. Rakim flows through the track instead of slamming it down. Despite KRS One’s claims, this is the first time rapping was true poetry.
It’s easy to forget the rest, because the flow is so brilliant, but this is a great and influential album in other ways. For one, it’s strange that an album with three instrumentals out of 10 tracks is remembered only for its rapping. The production is simple but great, though it was overshadowed by another revolution the next year. Paid in Full was also a pioneer in the open embrace of commerce that is so central to hip-hop culture. This is the only album I know that includes shoutouts to the group’s agency, agent and management company in addition to the record label. Commerce has often been considered the enemy of art; Eric B. and Rakim showed that great art could be motivated by the desire to be paid in full.
They who think wrong are they who can’t do that
Style that I’m doing, they might ruin
Patterns of paragraphs based on you and
Your offbeat DJ, if anything he play
Sound familiar, I’ll wait ’til E say
Play ’em, so I’m a have to dis and broke
You could get a smack for this, I ain’t no joke
– Bob McCarthy
1988: Public Enemy- It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam)
This is perhaps the most important year in the history of hip-hop. The runner-up album, Straight Outta Compton, would easily rank as the greatest album of any other year. However, there’s no question that It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the album of 1988. In fact, a strong case can be made that 1988 is the first year in which the best album of the year is a rap album (though there is some strong competition). Straight Outta Compton broke west coast rap and began the dominance of gangsta, but Nation of Millions opened up the sonic possibilities and made it, for the first time, an independent art form.
Though Run DMC first said a DJ could be a band, it was Public Enemy who truly freed hip hop from its roots in disco and its dependence on rock ‘n’ roll. Much of hip hop was and still is concerned with dancing above all. Rap grew out of dance parties, DJs rapping over the records they spun, so it was dominated by singles with simple regular beats. As it moved away from disco, it took its bearings from the already existing rock record industry, producing albums dominated by a few good songs padded out with a lot of filler and rock song structures. Even PE’s first album owes a heavy debt to rock: “You’re Gonna Get Yours” is essentially a rock song. Nation of Millions, however, is a coherent album, not a collection of songs, and it’s essentially a rap album.
The first thing that hits you is the noise. From “Bring the Noise,” which sounds like an entire city block worth of car alarms going off simultaneously, to the overblown Slayer riff on “She Watch Channel Zero,” to the creepy piano of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” this album sounds like nothing anyone had ever heard before. The samples are layered with an unmatched density, and where some albums of the period used samples in a “name that tune” way, the Bomb Squad used them to build original music. The rapping is incredible, too; Chuck D had internalized everything Rakim did the year before and gone beyond. The overall effect is to move rap beyond the tyranny of rhythm. Though people still talk about beats as though they’re some sort of mineral, Nation of Millionsshowed that this music could do much more.
This is Rap’s greatest album because it’s a single work of art. Sadly, the simple fact that it’s not full of filler makes it stand out. It’s not a concept album, but the lyrics share a set of themes about media’s contributions to racism. For all the “Black CNN” talk, the album is far more like semiotic analysis than a picture of life on the streets. Musically it ranges from metal to funk to rock to noise without sacrificing stylistic coherence. Both the Beatles and the Clash attempted a similar diversity with less success. The thematic and stylistic coherence is strong enough to withstand “Cold Lampin’ with Flava,” no small accomplishment. Nation of Millions is rap’s maturity. – Bob McCarthy
1989: Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (Capitol)
Paul’s Boutique was too cerebral, too inventive, too intelligent for those expecting the Beastie Boys to put out a sophomoric follow-up to License to Ill, so naturally it flopped. Not only the greatest album of 1989, but perhaps one of the greatest albums ever, Paul’s Boutique simply vaporized anyone who thought the band would dissipate into the dustbin as those white dudes who did “No Sleep to Brooklyn.” Not only, but they left Def Jam for Capitol. What the hell?
Considering the Beasties’ lifelong loyalty to New York, it’s hard to believe this record was made in Los Angeles. But yes, Ad-Rock, MCA, Mike D, along with the Dust Brothers, cut this ode to life in the Big Apple far away from the hot dog vendors and cabbies. For an album dripping with east coast smarm, it took a move out west to work the magic.
No piece about Paul’s Boutique is complete without referencing the vast amount of sampling at work here. Nothing of this scale had ever been attempted, and after the litigious and pissed off got involved, hardly anyone would dare. Like an audible melting pot, the Dust Brothers and the Beasties pour Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Deep Purple and scores of others into their crucible to create an ingenious pastiche of sound that is still as original as it first was 20 years ago.
For those expecting instant gratification, Paul’s Boutique does offer cuts such as “Hey Ladies,” but the true fun of the album is how it slowly unravels in your brain, allowing for a fresh perspective upon each revisit. Technical bullshit aside, Ad-Rock, MCA, Mike D spit and strut in ways that are genuinely funny. Characters such as Johnny Ryall and the Egg Man are flesh and blood creations that have transcended their brief vignettes to be become legendary in the history of rap music. The Beastie Boys would go on to create more masterpiece albums and become one of the most successful acts in music, but never again would the all the elements gel in funky fresh perfection like on Paul’s Boutique. – David Harris
1990: Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (Priority)
Ice Cube is no stranger to controversy. Since his days with N.W.A, he was known as the de-facto leader of that group, and was constantly criticized for his violent and misogynistic lyrics. Few thought Cube could top himself…and then he released AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. It seemed like Cube was getting too huge to just be contained in California, so he hooked up with The Bomb Squad, the production team behind Public Enemy. Supported by Hank Shocklee’s funky and cacophonous production, Ice Cube has created a raw, gritty and atmospheric chronicle of the life of a young black man in 1990. Songs like “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” are incendiary indictments of police and political double standards, while “Once Upon a Time in the Projects” details the difficulty of getting along in government housing. Cube also proves his versatility on classic track “A Gangsta’s Fairytale,” where he takes a page from Slick Rick and uses Mother Goose characters as analogues to indict society, youth, and the media. If any track really sums up the stewing hatred, vitriol, and exasperation of an artist as furious as Cube, it is closer “The Bomb,” where is powerful cadence makes the track lurch forward like a countdown timer, and as he violently spits about what he won’t put up with anymore, you can hear the seconds tick and then he explodes. He’s done it on every other track, and “The Bomb” is the one that shatters the foundation of the conventional rap project. Cube came with a message, as did the Bomb Squad, and he was branded a target: he’s more than happy to assume the role. – Rafael Gaitan
1991: A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (Jive)
There is a point near the end of “Scenario,” the final song on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 masterpiece The Low End Theory where Busta Rhymes destroys with an otherworldly guest spot. Spewing nonsense about “chocolate chickens” and “dungeon dragons” this could quite be the craziest, most inventive minute in all of hip hop history. On any other album, Busta’s rhyme would be the centerpiece, the highlight people talk about for years to come. Fortunately for us, it is just one moment of brilliance on an album filled with some of the most exciting moments ever recorded.
While contemporaries reached into the rock dust bin or menacing gangsta riffs for samples, Tribe fused jazz with intelligent hip hop sensibilities. MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are a couple of hustlers, whispery smooth characters more likely to populate a speakeasy than the front seat of a lowrider. There are heady ideas at work here and Q-Tip is happy to let us know this is more than your average rap album by constantly reminding us of his nickname: the Abstract.
Tip and Phife are more curious examining the machinery of the rap game than the game itself. Just look at songs like “Rap Promotor” and “Excursions.” Meanwhile, women are not mere objects and the sensitivity to the opposite sex displayed on “Butter” is quite unusual in a world filled with bragdaccio and misogyny. Best of all, Tribe doesn’t hit us over the head with the ornate production that had just come into vogue in the early ’90s. There’s Phife, there’s Tip, there’s some bass and there’s some drums. And let’s not forget Busta who implores us after rippin up the sound just like a radio to “observe the rhyme and check out the scenario.” Amen, Busta. – David Harris
1992: Dr. Dre – The Chronic (Death Row)
1992 was a bad year to be white. Following the aftermath of the Rodney King verdicts, Los Angeles was literally aflame as race relations reached an all-time low and young black men and women took to the streets. If there was a soundtrack to the disintegration of the peace, it was The Chronic. Dr. Dre’s first solo effort was strikingly different from his N.W.A. days, and featured a more synth oriented and funk dabbled production that managed to capture the energy and the grime of the era. While Dre is not the most potent lyricist, he did find himself another protégé in Snoop Doggy Dogg. While Ice Cube was more of an in-your-face aggressive rapper, the laid-back yet equally caustic flow of Snoop was a fantastic counter-point to Dre’s menacing and dark production.
We were torn in this year between this album and Bizarre Ryde to tha Pharcyde, which has its own merits and is equally fantastic, but we opted for The Chronic because not only did it make the career of Snoop Dogg, it provided the prototype for the sound of the West Coast for the majority of the latter 1990s. Songs like “The Day The N***az Took Over” pulse and boil over, taking to the extreme the position of young black teens who had just about enough with the way they were treated by the rest of society, and even features news reports from the actual events that the song paraphrases. The slower-tempo funk samples act as a threatening and euphonic metronome to the undercurrent of contempt that bubbles beneath the surface, such as on “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and the acerbic “Dre Day,” which scorches the career of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright at the same time it smolders with pent-up rage towards anyone who would dare interfere with Dre finding his footing, both musically and as a black male.
The Chronic ends up being a cross of old-school funk samples and a breed of vitriol that had virtually been untapped in modern popular music (at the time) to create a potent strain of consciousness and consequence that entertains on a surface level but uses its machinations as a severe warning of where music and unrest can collide. – Rafael Gaitan
1993: Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud)
It takes nothing away from Enter the Wu-Tang to say that its status as one of rap’s greatest albums is owed significantly to a novel business plan. Wu-Tang clan replaced the traditional group/solo artist distinction with a group of solo artists. The commercial benefits of this shift are obvious; combine Wu-Tang’s sales with all the side projects and add in the side benefits of the Killa Bees, Wu-Wear, Wu-Tang Financial, etc., and you have the dominant force in hip hop over the last 20 years. The artistic benefits were substantial too, though.
Even before any of the solo projects, Enter the Wu-Tang shows the benefits of the new model. Though it’s held together by the brilliant production, the rapping has no single style. Ghostface’s hardcore gangsta raps play off Meth’s smooth flow and ODB’s warped humor. Rap has always thrived on competition and confrontation, and the individuals-greater-than-the-group structure makes every track a rap battle. Each rapper wants to show that he’s the greatest, so each verse shows each at his best. Wu-Tang Clan incorporates the culture of guest appearances that dominates current hip hop right from the beginning.
This diversity of styles could easily have been a disaster if RZA’s genius lay only in corporate structure. It’s the production that made Wu-Tang a group, and RZA was wise to insist on producing the first round of solo albums in addition to 36 Chambers. The Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang mythology creates an alternate reality in which rapping is a martial art, and the martial arts movie samples make the whole album seem like a soundtrack. This visual aspect of Wu-Tang’s music is an essential part of the experience: songs break into kung fu, gang fights, torture. This alternate reality makes each rapper a martial artist, each representing a different aspect of the Wu-Tang style, competing to be the best while also facing off every challenger to the Wu-Tang’s dominance. – Bob McCarthy
1994: The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (Bad Boy)
This was the year that perhaps produced the most heated debates. People remember Biggie and Pac, but the battle between hometown heroes is one that is just as passionate. Both Nas and Biggie are considered to be two of the best MCs in rap, and each released a seminal debut album in East Coast hip-hop. However, Nas’s lyricism tends to be more akin to a painter, with descriptive language and Illmatic creates more of a vision, while Biggie and his thunderous voice create an atmospheric and palpable feeling of dread. With low-key production that supports the sonorous vocals, Ready to Die pioneered the East Coast sound and the lyrical force of Biggie. If Illmatic was a portrait of N.Y.C., Ready to Die was the shady guy outside the art gallery, who keeps staring at your car as you leave.
Ready to Die just feels more energetic and terrifying, and engages the senses a bit more than the masterstrokes of Nas’s lyrical paintbrush. While “N.Y.C. State of Mind” flirts with storytelling in the beginning and moves to abstract description, the gritty and understated “Gimme the Loot” on B.I.G.’s album puts you in the position of Biggie’s partner, down to inserting the sound effects of gunshots, boots running and squad cars, providing a more cinematic and intense listening experience. Songs like “Big Poppa” also were significant in braggadocio rap because Biggie embraced his size and image and turned it into sex and swagger, which made him as irresistible to women as he was on the microphone, and the breezy synthesizer line captures the feel on entering a club after a hard day hustling on the street. What makes Ready to Die stick out over Illmatic is just how many scenarios Biggie can put you in, while Nas can readily describe the same scenes, but lacks the vocal punch to bring you in. It’s like Nas wants you to come along for the crime, while Biggie verbally sticks the gun in your hand and the mask on your head. – Rafael Gaitan
1995: GZA – Liquid Swords (Geffen)
It was inevitable that the best hip-hop album of 1995 would be a Wu-Tang Clan record. It was just a question of which one it would be: Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon/Ghostface Killah’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, or GZA’s Liquid Swords. Of the Clan’s nine members, GZA has always been the low key one compared to, say, Ghostface’s stream-of-consciousness caterwauls, RZA’s lyrics about the human reproductive system or Method Man’s manic energy, but GZA’s laid back, understated style is the driving force behind Liquid Swords, one of the Clan’s true classics.
It has all the trappings of a Wu posse record: the soundbites from Asian cinema (this time it’s samurai flicks), RZA’s dark, minimalist production style that makes even synthesizers tense, and violent kung fu lyrics contributed by every member of the group. GZA’s subdued flow plays like a master swordsman who fights with one arm behind his back, only striking when he knows he can hit. While “Duel of the Iron Mic” is the album’s standout, with thoughtful lyrics like, “The liquid soluble that made up the chemistry/ A gaseous element, that burned down your ministry,” Liquid Swords also boasts violent bangers like “4th Chamber” and “Killa Hills 10304,” with a synth-based beat that wouldn’t have been out of place in a John Woo flick. Liquid Swords was just GZA’s second album but revealed the Genius as a master of his craft. – Danny Djeljosevic
1996: Dr. Octagon – Dr. Octagonecologyst (DreamWorks)
An argument could be made that almost all rap is stream-of-consciousness, but when you get down to it, no one quite fits the William S. Burroughs, absolute mindfuck model of lyricism the way Kool Keith does. Like an even more sci-fi obsessed George Clinton, Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon persona is as into the year 3000 as he is scatological humor (including but not limited to poo poo space phasers, rectal reconstruction, and 1-800-pp5-1doodoo) and seemingly random one-liners, such as the infamous “Oh shit! There’s a horse in the hospital!” But if that was all there was to Dr. Octagon, he’d be a one-note novelty; luckily, the lyrics are just as likely to reference moose bumps as they are to veer into eerie, dark subjects, a trait that led to rumors (often spread by Kool Keith himself) that Keith was a schizophrenic outpatient.
Nonetheless, where would Dr. Octagon be without the phenomenal production of Dan the Automator? The thing about most everything on this list we’ve put together, a trait that is probably becoming apparent, is that these works nearly all radically altered the face of hip-hop and in regards to Dr. Octagonecologyst that is especially true. Kool Keith’s immersion into his crazed, “extra-terrestrial time traveling gynecologist and surgeon” (as Wikipedia puts it) works not just because of the off-kilter, sinister delivery Keith provides but because of Dan’s frenzied production. The tracks on the album are uniformly groundbreaking, an amalgamation of the lo-fi low end of the RZA and the pioneering spacey electro of P-Funk and Afrika Bambaataa. These are beats that hiss and sizzle like rabid electronics straight out of Blade Runner, synths gurgling, bass lines growling more than anything else and it’s nearly all sample-free.
The album was by no means a commercial success upon release, but it went on to be arguably one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all-time. Kool Keith is still doing his thing, crazy as ever, and Dan the Automator went on to do Deltron 3030, Handsome Boy Modeling School and Gorillaz amongst other things. But Dr. Octagonecologyst still stands as the most inventive, fierce album of their careers. – Morgan Davis
1997: Company Flow – Funcrusher Plus (Rawkus)
Company Flow, for all practical purposes, will always be remembered as an emcee’s group. This isn’t a slight against their excellent production, which could sound like Wu on steroids or a psychotic Tribe depending, but instead a reflection of just how unnervingly talented Bigg Jus and El-P are as emcees. The group produced their own tracks which enabled them to craft beats that were form-fitted for their flows, the words prominently at the forefront, their boasts a hilarious, intellectual kind of swagger that pulled no punches but felt more crafty than mean.
And even though their music has been called challenging or intimidating, Company Flow always maintained a style that, to these ears at least, was still strangely embracing. “8 Steps to Perfection” is still rightly considered an underground anthem, “Blind” somehow managed to make it onto the dance charts and “Bad Touch Example” is what one of Prince Paul’s many diversions would sound like if he’d followed through on them.
Given the self-production and the ties to Rawkus, Company Flow was, in some sense, a truly D.I.Y. ensemble, punk in their attitude and execution; after all, the group had formed specifically because of El-P’s disappointment with his time in the world of mainstream, major label hip-hop. By joining forces and committing themselves to isolation, Company Flow managed to do something refreshing and proved to others that they could do the same. – Morgan Davis
1998: A Tribe Called Quest – The Love Movement (Jive)
It may have been brushed off when it was released, but A Tribe Called Quest’s The Love Movement has shown itself it to be one of hip-hop’s most prophetic milestones. And perhaps it’s because the album was so starkly minimalist, so urbane and chic, so damn different that it’s become more important and vital with every passing year. Within its tracks one can find nearly every subsequent major development of the genre; “Find a Way” invents chipmunk soul half a decade before Kanye West was on anyone’s radar, “Like It Like That” has the same digital brittleness Lil’ Wayne has ridden to success but slowed down to a Philly soul tempo, and “Jazz (We’ve Got)” is on some weird trip I don’t think anyone has even figured out a label for let alone a way to exploit yet.
To be sure, The Love Movement isn’t your normal dying gasp from a well-established, critically beloved, commercially successful group of geniuses. It isn’t some final cash-in, or some tired bone thrown to fans or a fulfillment of a record label contract. It’s a definitive statement, a bold message that relevance isn’t based around following trends or doing what a focus group claims is hot but instead about pushing envelopes and blowing minds until it’s over.
Of course, so much of The Love Movement’s impact is due to the brilliance of the late J Dilla, who was a recent recruit to the Ummah production collective at the time of the album’s release but was nonetheless well into his destruction of the classically understood rules of what constituted hip-hop. Dilla’s beats pop and snap like any good rhythm should, sure, but they do so with a clarity and edge that continues to be totally unique. It’s no wonder, then, that J Dilla’s production skills have helped to make The Love Movement not just a classic, but also a bible of sorts for any aspiring young upstart. – Morgan Davis
1999: The Roots – Things Fall Apart (MCA)
The Roots are a transition group. To most people, hip-hop and rap is just a bunch of misogynistic songs about getting money, sleeping with women and doing drugs. However, when you find out that there’s an honest to God band in hip-hop, it just might make you perk up and take notice. The Roots are a band that have been mostly embraced by white kids and fiercely anti-rap hip-hop fans, but with their major label debut, Things Fall Apart, they manage to engage and rebuff those same fans. As guest lyricist Common puts it, “it’s only just coffee-shop chicks/ and white dudes.” Even the opening skit, taken from Mo’ Better Blues, is a searing indictment of the perception the Roots have of why they don’t have any fans. However, with the funky, brutally clairvoyant and enveloping Things Fall Apart, they craft a sonic landscape of warmth and desire. The album pretty much ranges an emotional gamut, with songs that delve into depression and poverty and songs about the joy and celebration of life. By closer “The Return to Innocent Lost,” this meditative masterpiece has explored the idea that although things seem bleak, hope is not lost if one can have something to hold onto, tangible or not. The circle can be held. – Rafael Gaitan
2000- OutKast- Stankonia (La Face)
“First they was pimps, man, then they was some aliens, or some genies or some shit. Then they be talking ’bout they’re black righteous spacemen. Whatever, man. Fuck them, I ain’t fuckin’ with them no more,” laments a disgruntled rap fan in a skit at the end of “Return of the ‘G'” on 1998’s Aquemini. One wonders how he’d feel listening to Stankonia as the rock ‘n’ roll freakout “Gasoline Dreams” kicks off the album with wailing guitars and a shouted, “Don’t everybody like the smell of gasoline/ Well, burn motherfucker, burn American dreams.” You can practically see the disc flying across the room.
Pick Stankonia out of the trash and witness the evolution of Outkast before they divided into two separate beings with Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Stankonia shows the delicate balance between Big Boi’s mainstream hip-hop tendencies and Andre 3000’s proclivity for the funky, eclectic, and quite frankly, weird. On “So Fresh, So Clean,” Big Boi boasts that he’s “cooler than Freddy Jackson sipping a milkshake in a snowstorm” while Andre 3000 attempts to seduce with “I love who you are/ I love who you ain’t/ You’re so Anne Frank/ Let’s hit the attic to hide out for about two weeks.” Such is the player/weirdo dichotomy of Outkast, which makes Stankonia a brilliant album. Break! – Danny Djeljosevic
2001: Aesop Rock – Labor Days (Definitive Jux)
Before I’m browbeaten for not choosing The Blueprint as the best album of 2001, let me direct you to Aesop Rock’s modest masterpiece Labor Days. While Jay-Z did make an amazing record with big dollar production and maybe a little too much misogyny for its own good, Aesop Rock, on his Def Jux debut, created a cerebral work that has precious little to do with hos and guns. Instead, he creates indelible character narratives filled with intelligent insights that take a penetrating look at themes that can appeal to listeners much more easily than explosions and dealing.
Just look at “No Regrets,” a tale of an artist who gives up sentient pleasures for her artwork. Set to the haunting fiddle part of the Last of the Mohicans score, Aesop creates a story of sacrifice where the solitude and seclusion is palpable. These are not songs for hustlers; they are for the schlub who feels beaten down by a dead end job, a loveless marriage and the general pressures of life.
Labor Days features no bombastic samples or off the hook beats. This is rap music, pure and simple, with the veneer stripped away. It is a refreshing return to the story-songs of the early ’80s that had been swallowed up by larger than life personalities named Tupac, Biggie and Dre. So yes, Labor Days trumps The Blueprint in my book. Rather than escape into a dream of having girls around the world, Aesop Rock skewers the real life with this revelatory and essential album. – David Harris
2002: Blackalicious – Blazing Arrow (Quannum)
You know how sometimes you listen to an album and it just sucks you into its world? Like you’re in some fantasy realm where works of art really do come to life and you’re at the whim of something that you don’t quite understand? It’s hard to imagine a hip-hop album that encapsulates this better than Blackalicious’s masterpiece Blazing Arrow, a work whose disparate elements are so perfectly unified you can’t help but become submerged in them.
All it takes is a look at the cover art to understand what you’re in for. That mixed media depiction of “primitives” outfitted with hi-tech gear, staring up at a sky threatening to rain down technicolor flames on the world below, makes it clear that the work within will be one where the old world and the new collide to potentially catastrophic results. Sonically this couldn’t be clearer than on “Sky is Falling,” which trades the D.A.I.S.Y. Age whimsy of the opening track that gives the album its name for something suitably menacing, a choir of naysayers cutting off Gift of Gab while the assembly line beat does the tango with that insistent, plucky keyboard and shit goddamn isn’t it just gorgeous?!
And seamlessly it moves into “First in Flight,” more Blade Runner than Scarface, revealing a sound Bobby Digital only hinted at and thrusting the album into a terrain equal parts soulful and paranoid. Blazing Arrow is heady, to be sure, but it’s fun too, as much a work of the hips as it is one of the brain because after all, “Who said underground/ Is just one mode?” – Morgan Davis
2003: Dizzee Rascal – Boy in Da Corner (XL/Matador)
Why is it so difficult for my friends and family to understand the genius of Boy in Da Corner? Could it be Dizzee Rascal is just too confrontational or are the beats too hard? True, the East Londoner’s accent is thicker than a shepherd’s pie, he careens from one hysterical emotion to another over the album’s run time and the record’s in-your-face nature is like taking part in a staring concert you can never win. But therein also lays the beauty of Dizzee Rascal. While most American rap had turned into parody of its gritty beginnings, Rascal actually brings the ruckus and means it.
The most immediate thing about Boy in Da Corner is that nothing else sounded like it in 2003. Think about it. Combine the splattered beats, flattened bass and Rascal’s innovative delivery style and you get a record’s worth of songs that strain to jump up and kick you in the ass. Whether it’s the boy-meets-girl slag of “I Luv U” or the speed-spit theme song of “Jus’ A Rascal,” these songs bristle with an intelligent energy that practically begs for a second listen.
But for many, Boy in Da Corner may be out of comfort zones, its tongue-thick slang alien to American ears. For those who unwisely eschew the Gervais “Office” for the American version, perhaps you shouldn’t listen to Dizzee Rascal. It just might be too dangerous for you. – David Harris
2004: Madvillain – Madvillainy (Stones Throw)
Hip hop culture has always been underground in a sense. Racism has been a barrier to mainstream acceptance, as has the violence of gangsta rap and the profligate use of profanity even in “positive” rap. However, just about all rap has aimed at the mainstream: rap is dominated by a verse-chorus-verse structure, catchy samples and familiar imagery. Even the profanity that has kept many tracks off mainstream radio and forced the blanking out of about half the lyrics on MTV is part of a marketing strategy – who buys rap albums without Parental Advisory logos?
Madvillainy is different. It opens with an essay, not a song, followed by a song called, and featuring, “Accordion.” It samples Frank Zappa, Sun Ra and Steve Reich, and it has few choruses. Songs begin and end unpredictably, sometimes only seconds apart. Madvillainy is obscure by design, not because of commercial or cultural conspiracy. The lyrics are dense and strange, delivered in DOOM’s convoluted mumble.
That’ll be the hour they knock the slick blaster
Dick Dastardly and Mutley with sick laughter
A gun fight an’ they come to cut the mix-master
Nice to be old
Y2G stee twice to tree fold
He sold scrolls lo and behold
Know who’s the illest ever like the greatest story told
These are the opening rhymes of the album, after the essay on the madvillain. There’s no playing to the audience here, only the artists’ defiant pursuit of their vision.
This is new to hip hop and significantly (though with some significant exceptions, like the aforementioned Sun Ra) new to black popular culture. Most rap has explicitly and unashamedly focused on making money, and all of it has been created within an entertainment tradition, rather than an artistic one. DOOM and Madlib break with this tradition, and create a great work of art in the process. Ironically, though not surprisingly, they have also created a fairly successful commercial product. It deserves to be even more successful, because for all its “artistic” aspects, this is a great album. Madvillainy constantly surprises you, but its greatest surprise may be how listenable it is. – Bob McCarthy
2005: Kanye West – Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella)
This was the moment when Kanye West became a superstar. His debut, 2004’s College Dropout, was an achievement on several fronts: it reminded us that hip-hop didn’t have to have affected gangsta trappings, it showed us that a producer could create a good — no, great album, that Chicago produces talented rappers other than Common and it established Kanye West as a personality in the hip-hop game and not just a name behind a style. Late Registration has Kanye dropping his trademark “Chipmunk Soul” style in favor of experimentation of lush, cinematic beats.
It begins humbly, with your average hip-hop skit: a hater talking smack about our hero the rapper. Suddenly, the beat comes in and — what’s that? Tinkling pianos? A hook sung by the guy from Maroon 5? What’s going on here? Why are the other instruments taking precedent over the beat? Then we look at the liner notes and find out the truth: this is a hip-hop album co-produced by Jon Fucking Brion, who brings his supreme skills as a multi-instrumentalist and composer for films to help deliver the most accessible, singular hip-hop album of 2005.
But Late Registration goes beyond hip-hop. The Curtis Mayfield sample in “Touch the Sky” is no mere misappropriated loop as Kanye makes it his own — a bright, sunny brass ditty that reaches heights suggested by the title. Conversely, “Crack Music” is dark and politically angry — a true achievement for a song with a “la-la-la” chorus. “Addiction” is personal tragedy expressed as an acoustic beat colliding with an Etta James sample. The album never ceases to be catchy, to the point where the loving tribute “Hey Mama” or the socially conscious “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” wouldn’t be inappropriate if blasted through your car on a sunny afternoon. – Danny Djeljosevic
2006: Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury (Re-Up Gang/Zomba)
Perhaps the reason Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury is so vital is that it sounds like a world coming to an end. It took Clipse four years to get this sophomore album onto shelves but when it landed, its impact sent out tremors for miles. Rarely has rap been this dirty, this apocalyptic, this dangerous.
There is something reptilian about Hell Hath No Fury, a narrowed eyed world where compassion has been killed off and love has died. You cannot write this album off as just another Neptunes production. This is not typical Neptunes; its sounds are as restrained as they are arid. However, the real stars here are the rapper brothers Pusha-T and Malice. Though drug dealing dominates almost every track, each song is a mini-masterpiece of style, production and even gallows humor.
While the minimalist “Mr. Me Too” is Hell Hath No Fury’s calling card, look beyond that hit and you will see the infectious swarm of “Trill,” the ominous boom of “Ride Around Shining,” the cinematic of “Wamp Wamp (What It Do).” “I’m at your door, your eyes are like why are you here/ Judging by my steel I got something to do here/ Give up the money or the angel cries two tears/Front of your crib sounding like Chinese New Year,” they rhyme over the menacing beats of “Chinese New Year.” Rarely has rap music been this dark, this unrelentingly dour or this intriguing. – David Harris
2007: Lupe Fiasco – The Cool (Atlantic)
With 2006’s Food and Liquor, Lupe Fiasco took both underground hip-hop and the mainstream by storm. Who was this baby-faced youngster who was rapping about Voltron and Lupin the 3rd, while still painting vivid pictures of a street life and a broken childhood? Lupe was hailed as the savior of rap, although some wrote him off as a one-hit wonder. Not content to just save it, Lupe Fiasco decided to revitalize it.
With 2007’s The Cool, Lupe did what few other rappers dared- he told a story that wasn’t about thug life. Well, not in the traditional sense. The Cool tells the story of the eponymous character from the first album, who makes a deal with ethereal beings to become famous and pays the ultimate Faustian price. With this album, Lupe proved that not only was he lyrically on point, but he had a vision for what other kind of stories hip-hop could help narrate. Songs like “Hip-Hop Just Saved My Life” flip the rags to riches story, instead choosing to tell a story of a hustler who realizes the futility of his drug addled path and makes a life for himself through positive perseverance. Also songs like “The Die” are straightforward gansgta rap, with Lupe as The Cool and protege Gemini as an assassin stalking him, and the verses detail the same events from both sides, including when The Cool raps about what weapons he’s holding, and the assassin lists them down as well. He uses the characters of The Streets, The Game and The Cool as analogues for the life of a hustler, but on an almost prog-rock like level of elevation, down to songs with lines of dialogue for the characters, such as on”The Coolest,” where Lupe assumes protagonist Michael Young History as he gets confronted and laments “Streets got my heart/ Game got my soul” over a piano-based melody that is underlaid with haunting vocals to paint an image of a nightmarish deal forged in the depths of Hell. The Cool is a benchmark hip-hop album because it is not only a hip-hop album; it is the visions of a young man afraid to fall for the perils of the Streets, or the ease and temptation of The Game.-Rafael Gaitan
2008: Cadence Weapon – Afterparty Babies (Anti)
Yes, 2008 was the year of Lil’ Wayne. Yes, it was the year Kanye went electro. And yes, it was the year Q-Tip finally followed up on his solo debut. But the best hip-hop release of the year went largely unheard. It wasn’t by a known artist. It didn’t even come from a place known for hip-hop. It was released by an intelligent, divisive, focused Canadian named Rollie Pemberton a.k.a Cadence Weapon.
Cadence Weapon’s sophomore release Afterparty Babies not only fulfilled the promise made by his debut Breaking Kayfabe, it also broke down boundaries between dance and hip-hop in a more effective manner than Kanye’s heart-on-a-sleeve musings, more intellectually than Spank Rock could ever hope to. By reveling in the past of not just hip-hop but pop culture at large, Cadence Weapon managed to create a truly post-modern work, aware of its origins but equally aware of the need to break past them.
Crafting his own IDM-indebted, glitched out beats to match his similarly warped flow, Cadence Weapon carved out a style on Afterparty that sounds just as new now: minimalist 8-bit percussion, vocal samples from countries most haven’t heard of let alone visited, synths that stick around for longer than just a bridge or two. The lyrics are equally refreshing, as likely to quote Nabokov as they are to take a stance against scenes where “it’s okay to have gold in your mouth.” But Cadence Weapon isn’t an emcee content to just point out flaws and drag down the competition, instead he’s an artist aware of his own flaws and those of the scene that has adopted him, in pursuit of a truth that’ll open doors for everyone. And that’s more important than being a motherfucking cash money millionaire any day. – Morgan Davis