Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 1

Published June 22, 2022

Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 1

Disclaimer: This is a ranking of my top fifty favorite hip-hop albums. This isn’t aiming to assess greatness, popularity, or impact; it’s about my enjoyment and connection to these records. A lot of classics will make it, and many I still adore will be left out.

But with that considered…

No. 50 – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West

2010Pop Rap1 hour, 9 min.

Following the emotional baggage Kanye West had dealt with throughout the last couple years of the 2000’s, he went into an artistic state of mind that resembled nothing he had done prior. He became hyper-focused on music, forced himself and any collaborators to isolate in Hawaii, and spent immense amounts of money to create a maximal, larger-than-life work.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the result. This can generally be seen as the turning point for West’s career; 808s & Heartbreak was already a drastic change in style, but was only the beginning of his expansion as an artist. Following Twisted Fantasy, he grew increasingly experimental as he embellished himself in fame further, much to varied reception year-after-year.

The genius of this in particular, however, is its ability to truly come off as widely appealing. West aimed to create something that would improve his public image, and therefore combined many former styles of his career into one – chipmunk samples infested “Devil in a New Dress“, hardcore posse cuts characterized “Monster“, and “All of the Lights” was an instant radio hit.

Due to these factors, the consensus opinion implies that this is West’s best. While I don’t agree, I see the basis for it. It’s packed with variety, unique (for his standard at the time), and lyrically engaging. It’s something I’ve always been a fan of and took a long time to evaluate in the context of his career, but it’s undeniably one of the modern era’s essentials.

No. 49 – TIME – Your Old Droog

2021Boom Bap45 min.

Your Old Droog currently stands as one of the underground hip-hop’s community recent favorites. A quick-firing, hard-working emcee, Droog has released an average of three albums per year since 2019. TIME was the third of four projects revealed to the world last year, and is by far the best of the bunch.

A concept of sorts, TIME opens up with a story about a magic watch that transports the holder to a defining moment in their life. The twists in the track’s story are dark and somber, but that’s the lasting atmosphere – reflective yet desolate, reaching levels of honesty that Droog has never roamed close to prior.

Every track finds itself weaving through different stages of the rapper’s life, from a disturbed childhood (“A Hip Hop Lullaby“) to nostalgic adolescent stories (“So High“). He remains consistent in delivering trademark punchlines and intricate rhymes, but the storytelling is phenomenal for his standard.

If there’s one thing TIME perfected, it’s catering to a traditional hip-hop fan. The production is immersive, lyrics are one-of-a-kind, and the feature list is absolutely stacked with legends. It’s a young record, but likely to go down as a standout in an amazing underground run.

No. 48 – Supreme Clientele – Ghostface Killah

2000Hardcore Hip-Hop1 hour, 4 min.

While serving months in the pen and subsequently taking a trip to Africa for enlightenment, Wu-Tang’s own Ghostface was still writing lyrics to ready up his sophomore effort. Now seeking a new direction, Supreme Clientele was a sharp change from the fan-favorite debut Ironman; it was more creative, less violent, and according to Ghostface himself, a better representation of who he was as a rapper.

It all sounds glorious. It’s laced with theatrical samples (“Apollo Kids“, “We Made It“), soul-infused production (“One“, “Wu Banga 101“), and classic grimy cuts (“Saturday Nite“, “Malcolm“). RZA’s heavy involvement played a large part in its inspired sound; following a basement flood that wiped out an abundance of beats, his style felt revitalized. This worked well in tandem with the third-party beatmakers behind the boards throughout, who helped make Clientele cohesive, but not repetitive.

What may be the most impressive factor is that this stands as Ghostface’s most acclaimed record, yet came during the “second generation” of Wu albums. All his contemporaries had dropped classics off-the-bat – as did Ghost – but he never hit the brakes. The momentum continued well into the 21st century too, given the classic Fishscale came along years later.

Clientele is an easy example of why Ghostface is not only the greatest Wu-Tang member to me, but one of the greatest to ever touch a mic in general. Not many others can open a classic over a beat as off-kilter as “Nutmeg“.

No. 47 – The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem

2000Hardcore Hip-Hop1 hour, 12 min.

Eminem is the definition of controversy in hip-hop. Aside from the graphic, violent content, you had a white man establishing himself as a commercial face in the game; that alone made the culture feel all kinds of ways, and The Marshall Mathers LP is his response to it.

Is it an apologetic one? Absolutely not, it’s Eminem. What it is, however, is a crude – but clever – way of providing social commentary that can only be truly appreciated if you can tolerate it. It’s aged poorly and would probably get him cancelled today, but this was the year 2000 – the world was different.

I think the shock value is, if anything, the charm of Mathers LP. Violence in hip-hop isn’t remotely rare, but when it’s delivered in a way meant to cause offense it definitely manages to strike nerves. It’s why a lot of people – me included – aren’t fans of Eminem as a whole. But this is a part of his career that I’m very fond of.

The lyricism is unsurprisingly amazing, especially as far as rhyming goes. The subject matter is a lot more inventive than it seems at surface value; “Kill You” feels edgy for the sake of it, but properly sets up the first half of the LP that aims to address his critics. Meanwhile, songs like “The Way I Am” and “Drug Ballad” are just straight-up brilliantly written and a good example of why Eminem catches praise for his early writing. That doesn’t go without mentioning the great beats throughout, either; Dr. Dre can largely be thanked for that.

Mathers LP was definitely an acquired taste, but is also the centerpiece of a great three-album run. That’s absolutely something to appreciate.

No. 46 – The Reset – Apollo Brown

2010Boom Bap50 min.

If you didn’t know – Apollo Brown is my favorite producer.

Naturally, his debut is going to sneak its way onto the list. It’s more than deserved, though – The Reset is a great representation of what was going on with underground hip-hop heading into the new decade. It especially focused on giving several mid-western rappers exposure, including Detroit locals and those in surrounding states.

Every rapper delivers hungry verses laced with bars and punchlines, which are the perfect complement to Apollo’s unapologetically old-school beats. It’s a modern take on boom bap that perhaps caters to old-heads but can satisfy any listener looking for good content; every track is a banger in its own right.

Even though Apollo’s technique only continued to improve after this, it has the sentimental feeling that naturally comes with a studio debut. He was as inspired as every guest emcee here, and it shows. It’s almost as if fifteen picture-perfect instrumentals were carefully selected to make what would become a Detroit hip-hop classic.

No. 45 – Well Done – Action Bronson & Statik Selektah

2011Boom Bap48 min.

Gang Starr. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. All the names of legends that happened to collaborate and define the golden era.

I present to you: that same level of chemistry, only decades later.

Released in what can effectively be considered Action Bronson’s debut year, Well Done is a rapper-producer project made in heaven. As part of the early-2010’s internet wave that pushed the underground to greater heights, this remains an underrated gem to this day.

Why so? I’m not sure. Well Done has everything a hip-hop fan could ask for; phenomenal samples infused in every beat, hilarious punchlines from the emcee, and a consistent, short tracklist. It should be subject to the same high praise other N.Y. projects around this time received, such as 1999 or LIVE.LOVE.A$AP.

Regardless of popularity or appraisal, this is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the past decade, and an absolute essential when talking modern hip-hop. Both Bronson and Statik are notoriously consistent for the amount of work they’ve put out, but Well Done is a ridiculously good outlier in both catalogues – and in the former’s case, his overall best.

Bronson’s delivery and lyrics never get old, which is something that has won long-term fans over. Statik’s production is also arguably at its best here – or at the very least, its most flavorful. The variety in sound is a blueprint for success.

Well Done is a perfect example of my love for underground hip-hop, through and through.

No. 44 – The Chronic – Dr. Dre

1992G-Funk1 hour, 3 min.

Off pure influence, The Chronic reigns supreme on an all-time list. It’s hard to name ten – maybe even five – records in hip-hop that are as iconic as this.

If anyone asks for a west coast recommendation, you have to send this their way. Nothing else represents Cali hip-hop this well; not only was it the peak of its popularity, but it’s still impacting hip-hop to this day.

Dr. Dre is a pure genius for every idea executed here. He knew how to bring the right energy to every track, but the priority was always bringing Death Row together. This is where Snoop Dogg comes in, serving as the second part of a rapping one-two-punch that aimed for a Low End Theory-level chemistry.

The G-Funk sound hits home for me because of the P-Funk influence. Parliament-Funkadelic is one of my favorite all-time collectives, and The Chronic straight twisted those musical acid trips into laidback hip-hop about weed; the perfect formula for a classic at the time, and the fact it was so innovative made it even better.

From start to finish it remains strong, opening with classic cuts (“Let Me Ride“, “Nuthin’ But A G Thang“) and pushing some hardcore, overlooked tracks (“Stranded on Death Row” is one of the album’s best) towards the end. It’s a melting pot of synthetic, funky songs with hilarious skits in between, and there’s no better way to depict 90’s hip-hop.

No. 43 – Be – Common

2005Conscious Hip-Hop43 min.

Coming off his strangest – and up to that point, most divisive – effort in Electric Circus, Common felt a need to reconnect with his core fanbase through a return to form. Be was his attempt at a critical comeback.

It takes the Illmatic route, leaving little to no room for error through a short tracklist and consistency. In comparison, though, Be made an effort to keep the production team close-knit; only Kanye West and J Dilla find themselves contributing on the boards, but every instrumental is phenomenal.

Common is lyrically potent as always, clearly favoring an optimistic style of rap that remains conscious, yet less grim than some of his former works. It contrasts heavily to his 2000 album Like Water For Chocolate, which was overall a lot more down-to-earth and moody.

It’s undoubtedly a “feel good” record, concentrated on growth and learning from mistakes as its central themes. This is immediately noticeable through the titular track (“the present is a gift, and I just wanna be”). It twists through tunnels of vivid stories and soulful vibes before ending in a grand, optimistic manner – over one of the best beats Jay Dee has ever created, at that.

It was one of the earlier hip-hop albums I learned to appreciate, and it remains essential to my love with the culture.

No. 42 – Endtroducing….. – DJ Shadow

1996Instrumental1 hour, 3 min.

When you have an old-school sampler, what other equipment do you really need?

DJ Shadow proved the answer is “none”. In fact, Endtroducing….. is a work of art that prides itself on how vintage it truly is. The sampling is distinctive and ambient, and it’s no surprise that this served as an early pioneer in the “beat tape” world. It aimed for a rare goal in 90’s hip-hop – it wanted to create an atmosphere and character with its sound, completely disregarding lyrics.

My favorite thing about the album is how easy it is to become enamored with. It’ll fall out of rotation for long stretches of time, and a sporadic revisit will bring back every feeling and memory associated with it; that’s the appeal of instrumentals.

Midnight in a Perfect World” is a very specific standout; even though the album is seamless and prefers not to have a song-by-song identity, that song is special. It’s a strong contender for the greatest hip-hop beat of all-time, perfectly treading the thin line between the fundamentals and the mysterious qualities of psychedelic music.

That’s only a stepping stone to discovering the beauty behind Endtroducing….., however; it’s a must-hear by all means, inspiring the music world to take risks with their artistry.

No. 41 – Stress: The Extinction Agenda – Organized Konfusion

1994Jazz Rap46 min.

If I had to choose one unsung duo of the golden age, Organized Konfusion is immediately getting mentioned. It’s borderline offensive that their three records aren’t given nearly as much common praise, but Stress: The Extinction Agenda particularly sits up there with the titans of the 90’s.

It can be seen as a subtle concept album of sorts, bringing attention to the frustration and anxiety experienced by black people in the inner-city. This is immediately clear from the album cover; designed by local Queens artist Matt Reid (R.I.P.), the colorful caricature depicted an apocalyptic world in which Organized were the only beings left.

The album starts off on dark, wicked territory with the turbulent intro track and subsequently hardcore single “Stress”. This pattern is followed well into its halfway mark, resembling the dungeon-like sound the underground preferred from the mid-to-late-90’s.

Starting with my personal favorite track “Why”, the soundscape decompresses into a beautiful take on jazz rap that felt more advanced than almost anything up to that point in the game. With the exception of the lyrical juggernaut “Stray Bullet”, this energy is conserved until the conclusive outro, which leaves behind a taste of hope for any aspiring musicians and fans.

The production, largely handled by the duo themselves and D.I.T.C. legend Buckwild, is some of the best of its era. The lyrics are even more ridiculously top-tier, with Prince Po and especially Pharoahe Monch showing remarkable growth from their debut.

Just an all-around brilliant musical exercise.

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