Published March 17, 2022
THE BEST HIP-HOP ALBUMS OF EACH YEAR (1990S)
Including honorable mentions.
1990, people’s instinctive travels and the paths of rhythm
A Tribe Called Quest‘s debut album absolutely lived up to the expectations set by the fellow releases of the Native Tongues, such as De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and Jungle Brothers’ Done by the Forces of Nature.
Blending conscious, afro-centric lyricism with colorful samples was the key to this record being as memorable as it is; the group chemistry wasn’t even fully realized yet, with Q-Tip rapping solo on the majority of the tracks. This changed nothing, though; the quality was apparent, and it serves as the start of a classic three-album run.
Best Track – Footprints
1990’s Honorable Mentions
Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – Wanted: Dead or Alive
Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted
Too $hort – Short Dog’s in the House
1991, THE LOW END THEORY
The first two years of the decade were a rare instance in which an artist had back-to-back top releases of the year. A Tribe Called Quest did it with what seemed like ease, transforming the flavorful palette of Instinctive Travels into a moodier, urban experience on The Low End.
What made this album especially unique was the breakout of Phife Dawg, who went from only a few appearances on their debut record to being involved in nearly every track. This influenced an even greater focus that led to Tribe reaching their potential; this stands as their best record to this day.
Best Track – Jazz (We’ve Got)
1991’s Honorable Mentions
De La Soul – De La Soul is Dead
Main Source – Breaking Atoms
Gang Starr – Step in the Arena
1992, THE Chronic
The Chronic is the essential west coast hip-hop record. Nothing captures everything amazing about California rap the way Dr. Dre‘s debut does; from the laid-back funk samples to Dre and Snoop’s effortless flows, there’s no denying Death Row dropped an instant classic.
The G-Funk era of the 90’s west coast and south gets much less credit than it should nowadays, and that has to change. The Chronic provides the best production and track-list any record from that niche has to offer, and I highly doubt any seasoned hip-hop fan hasn’t heard it; but if you’re the exception, throw it on instantly.
Best Track – Lil’ Ghetto Boy
1992’s Honorable Mentions
Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – Mecca and the Soul Brother
Gang Starr – Daily Operation
UGK – Too Hard to Swallow
1993, Enter the wu-tang (36 chambers)
A group album on this level will never happen again. There are many worthwhile records in the same pocket that have released since, but attempting to surpass the Wu-Tang Clan‘s chemistry and genius on this game-changer is pointless.
Nine rappers found themselves contributing somewhere on 36, yet it never sounded disorganized or conflicted. Each member managed to stand out while remaining competitive, yet never overachieved. Knowing the backstory of the Wu’s formation makes this even more mind-blowing, as the waters weren’t always calm between the group.
It’s a grimy soundscape that clearly shows its age, but that’s the charm. It takes the listener to the dark streets of Staten Island several decades ago, reminding them that there’s real experiences that influence these lyrics.
Best Track – Protect Ya Neck
1993’s Honorable Mentions
A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders
De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate
Guru – Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Illmatic isn’t my favorite record of all-time, but it’s damn near close, and remains the most important album in hip-hop history to this day.
Nas made hip-hop’s blueprint; concise, to-the-point and high-quality with not a single verse wasted. He broke the mold through working with a variety of producers on one project and still delivered something cohesive; the likes of Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock and more all contributed, but it blends into one 90’s-defining experience.
1994 is probably the strongest year for the genre, and this is the peak of not only that, but the entire decade.
Best Track – The World Is Yours
1994’s Honorable Mentions
Organized Konfusion – Stress: The Extinction Agenda
Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – The Main Ingredient
The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die
1995, THE INFAMOUS
The crown of 90’s hip-hop is actually a tough one to give. Illmatic is my go-to choice, but this one is right up there with it. Havoc and Prodigy, Mobb Deep. Another level.
Not a record out there was as gloomy as this, painting a picture of the real – but unfortunate – hardships that come with the struggle. The thoughts of violence, paranoia, and negative instinct crawl all over, and the duo made it known that hip-hop wasn’t just for entertainment.
’95 is a year loaded with classics, but this has to take the number-one honors. No other album this year was on its level; not lyrically, sonically, or overall.
Best Track – Temperature’s Rising
1995’s Honorable Mentions
Kool G Rap – 4, 5, 6
Smif-n-Wessun – Dah Shinin’
Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
1996, 3 ‘n the mornin, pt. 2
This serves as the “unexpected” pick of the bunch. DJ Screw was a genius producer that brought life and influence to southern hip-hop, but is largely underrated outside of a certain demographic. Should that be the case?
Screwed Up Click were the pioneers of many modern trends today in not just hip-hop, but music in general. They influenced trap (and the “reverb” remixes that often come along with it), served as an early precursor to the entire vaporwave genre, and helped put Houston on the map alongside Geto Boys.
This is a mixtape of sorts, but Screw aimed to make it flow like an album. It’s seamless, atmospheric, and still packs some lyrical weight; it’s a southern staple, and grabs my interest the most in one of hip-hop’s best years.
Best Track – Elbows Swangin’
1996’s Honorable Mentions
DJ Shadow – Endtroducing…..
The Roots – Illadelph Halflife
UGK – Ridin’ Dirty
1997, FUNCRUSHER PLUS
’97 was by far the weakest year of these. That does not take away from the significance of Company Flow‘s sole rapping studio album, though.
This can more or less be interpreted as the first true “underground” hip-hop record, kickstarting an era of left-field, under-the-radar boom bap projects. It was not only Rawkus Records’ earliest notable release, but also led to the eventual creation of Definitive Jux, one of the 2000’s most prolific labels.
While it nowadays remains a recognizable album among hip-hop’s biggest underground heads, it brought a level of quality no other ’97 project did. It’s laced with futuristic production, one-of-a-kind bars, and justifies its lengthiness with a balance of lyrical exercises and conscious moments.
Best Track – 8 Steps to Perfection
1997’s Honorable Mentions
Common – One Day It’ll All Make Sense
Capone-N-Noreaga – The War Report
Camp Lo – Uptown Saturday Night
1998, MOMENT OF TRUTH
Guru and Premier were the most consistent artists of the entire 90’s. Three duo records, two Guru solo releases, and multiple records with either entire or partial DJ Premier production preceded this. However, Gang Starr never quite held the crown of the single best album of a year prior to Moment of Truth, which swept in and won the race by far.
These are Premier’s best beats, and Guru’s lyricism continued to become even more crisp and meaningful. It’s a twenty-song juggernaut with a lot to unpack, but there isn’t a filler track in sight, and for that reason it balances content and replay value perfectly. One of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time, and a great way to cap off the duo’s legendary 90’s run.
Best Track – Moment of Truth
1998’s Honorable Mentions
Big Pun – Capital Punishment
Outkast – Aquemini
Black Star – Self-Titled
1999, A Prince among Thieves
Simply put, Prince Paul was on one in ’99. Two of the coolest concept albums ever, and this one is probably the most unique I’ve seen in hip-hop.
It’s a weirdly-constructed record, filled with a plethora of great tracks but also many, many skits. Those are Paul’s thing so that’s no surprise, but it’s best to go into this album knowing its intentions; to be a movie in sound form.
This focus on world-building and sequencing is brilliant from a producer perspective, and is something many younger story-based albums (think good kid, m.A.A.d city) aim to achieve. The way it plays out is mind-blowing as well, and converting such a plot to a compelling track-list is a remarkable feat.
Best Track – MC Hustler
1999’s Honorable Mentions
Mos Def – Black on Both Sides
Handsome Boy Modeling School – So…How’s Your Girl?
The Roots – Things Fall Apart