Published July 4, 2022
Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 2
No. 40 – Liquid Swords – GZA
We will never see a group like Wu-Tang Clan again. These guys were on a mission from the second 36 Chambers hit the streets, and Liquid Swords is one of the many products of that run.
GZA can already be argued as the Clan’s best pure lyricist, but he’s undeniably their sharpest. His way of rhyming, casually throwing in double entendres, and yet somehow expressing a deep and meaningful topic is hardly rivaled among the entirety of hip-hop, let alone his group.
Liquid Swords is the greatest demonstration of that gift, theming itself around martial arts cinema (as usual with the Wu) through twelve exceptional tracks. GZA taps into experimental storytelling (“Gold”), and warnings about the industry (“Labels”), all the while delivering a classic hit in “Shadowboxin'”. It’s a level of versatility you could argue only he was striving for among his group at the time.
That’s not to go without praising the legendary RZA’s production throughout either. It steered away from the muddy basis of Tical and the lifelike nature of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, instead embracing a lighter, cleaner sound that included polished samples and synth work. This led to it sounding the most fresh of its kind, which may further explain its acclaim.
I wouldn’t say it’s the most accessible body of work around, but it’s indisputably an essential for old-school hip-hop. It may be the best lyrical display of that era, and with that density comes a lot of gems to unpack.
No. 39 – Extended Play – Statik Selektah
It’s easy to become immersed in the brilliance of these beats, but they’re a perfect backdrop for the exciting roster as well. The lead single “Bird’s Eye View” features Wu-Tang’s Raekwon, Black Thought of The Roots lineage, and then-upcoming phenomenon Joey Bada$$ – who has no trouble keeping up with two established legends to round everything out.
Other eye-catching standouts include “21 & Over“, featuring the late greats Mac Miller and Sean Price; “Pinky Ring“, a rare solo cut of the legendary Prodigy over a jazzier ambience; and “Bring Em Up Dead“, a Joell Ortiz track that happens to be my personal favorite.
The diversity is ultimately Extended Play‘s greatest asset – guaranteed there’s at least one track made for your rotation.
No. 38 – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… – Raekwon
Straight up, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is the best solo Wu-Tang album. It’s close, of course – it’s neck-and-neck with Swords, and only marginally better than Clientele – but what RZA, Raekwon, and Ghostface accomplished together was irreplaceable.
A pool of influence, Cuban Linx marked the revival of the mafioso rap wave. Kool G Rap had been the true pioneer of the style years prior, but this sparked a resurgence. The lyrics were more glamorous and detailed than anything on 36, and this inspired others to be upfront when talking about the hustler lifestyle.
Raekwon is in the star role, exerting a delivery so confident that it’s hard to lose interest. It’s important to not forget Ghostface in this equation, too – he finds himself on nearly every song, often bouncing off Rae’s verses with a high-energy, eccentric approach of his own.
When you consider the quality level of the music, combined with its infectious impact on the game (JAY-Z can thank Raekwon for some of the appeal Reasonable Doubt had), it’s hard to deny Cuban Linx‘s greatness. It truly proved the Clan could reach critical success outside of a group setting, only amplifying their popularity for years to come.
No. 37 – 3 ‘n the MOrnin’, Pt. 2 – Dj Screw
Here’s a fun fact about DJ Screw; his mixtapes – known as “screw tapes”, compilations featuring locals – became so popular and legendary in the area that he had lines of customers outside the house he sold them at. 3 ‘n the Mornin’ isn’t a work along the lines of those, but instead a commercial release that played a part in Screw becoming a widespread name.
The music itself is one-of-a-kind. Not only does it flow seamlessly, but the “screwed” sound creates an eerie murkiness alongside the pitched vocals. The samples, similarly to many of the southern scene around this time, are of a liminal and nostalgic tone that make the listening experience something special.
The assumption is that a compilation wouldn’t be on a list like this, but Screw accomplished the unimaginable. His work helped Screwed Up Click grow as a group, therefore influencing generations of southern rappers.
No. 36 – De La Soul Is Dead – De La Soul
Following the commercial success of 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul were exhausted. They were sick of being branded by the industry as “hip-hop’s hippies” – they promoted afro-centrism and positivity, but were not aiming to be shelled in creatively.
As a result, sophomore effort De La Soul Is Dead was a shift to maturity and darker territory. It subtly criticized the industry for the entire duration; the skits feature schoolyard bullies listening to a De La Soul mixtape they found in the trash, and all they respond to it with is close-minded criticism.
That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with not liking something – if those characters thought the joint was trash, it’s trash. But what De La Soul were alluding to were pretentious critics; those that nitpick to find what they don’t like in a record, so they can slander it to oblivion for whatever reason.
The irony of it all is that this is the exact kind of album that would get this reception – De La completely swerved away from the “peace and love” vibes of their debut, and set the tone for the fearless mentality they’d tackle the rest of their careers with. That only makes the charming storytelling, goofy production, and strange structure of Dead more remarkable.
No. 35 – The Preface – eLZhi
This is surely in the running for the most creatively designed album out there. Nearly every track dedicates itself to some sort of mini-concept and follows through because of eLZhi’s elite pen game. The rhyming and detail are his two biggest strengths, and happen to perfectly boost the overall morale.
For example, take track three, “Guessing Game” – here, eLZhi creatively stops his lines mid-flow to continue them on the next, often throwing in a twist that alters the direction of the story he’s telling. The ability to maintain this consistency throughout multiple verses, all the while saying things that make sense is not commonplace.
That’s only the start of it, too; besides the occasional bar-for-bar song (“Motown 25“, “Fire (Remix)“), you won’t find a single cut that trails away from some central idea or story. Much credit to Black Milk for the instrumentals, too; they travel between a fine line of chaos and soulfulness, but the result is always complementary to eLZhi. It’s an overlooked aspect of chemistry that helps make The Preface even greater, but that isn’t any surprise – this record is already underrated in general.
That’s something that has to change.
No. 34 – Dah Shinin’ – Smif-N-Wessun
Tek and Steele are some of the 90’s most unique emcees, combining unorthodox flows with graphic lyricism and a dab of authentic Patois. The two don’t require differentiation, instead working in tandem to represent a duo with nearly unmatched chemistry.
If there’s one way to describe the sound, it’s “muddy”. The beats use some beautiful and dynamic samples, but are largely grounded by dusty drums, a dark undertone, and at times a minimal approach, which was a rarity at the time.
Dah Shinin’ isn’t quite as influential as some of the records surrounding it on this list, but I value it far too much track-for-track to not have it here.
No. 33 – Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor – Lupe Fiasco
During this era of hip-hop, being uncool wasn’t…cool. Conscious rap had become a secondary art, only truly hyped if delivered by household names like Common or Kanye West.
Even then, nobody wanted to get on that train again. Pop and rap were never closer, trap music was on the rise, and the underground kept to themselves. That left the scene with some outliers, including Chicago’s Lupe Fiasco…who answered it all with Food & Liquor.
This album had that mainstream appeal because it catered to the generation of 90’s kids avoiding trends. They wanted to be nerds, and Lupe reminded them that it was fine to be – on the surface, at least. Deep down, he was focused on darker topics.
The entire concept of Food & Liquor is that there needs to be an understood balance between good and evil, righteousness and sin, confidence and pride. Lupe himself had made it clear that choosing between the two was a central focus of his life, and urged others to make the right decisions in doing so themselves.
It was a method that was a bit unfamiliar to hip-hop at the time. Older conscious records were a bit warmer and fun, but this sparked a revolution of more intense content. The success of artists like Kendrick Lamar was preceded by Lupe, and the modern Chicago scene (i.e., Saba, Chance the Rapper) have clearly drawn some inspiration from him.
The music itself is also far more accessible than how it is described here, too. “Kick, Push” is something any hip-hop fan would recognize; it’s a special kind of skill to balance commercial and critical appeal that way, but that’s Lupe’s genius in play.
No. 32 – donuts – J Dilla
Ten spots ago, the instrumental pioneer Endtroducing….. was covered. This time, we have what I consider the best of that sub-genre – J Dilla’s Donuts.
If any album is bittersweet, this one is. It’s such a beautiful body of work, but was created with the knowledge that Dilla would soon pass away – something that is reflected in the record, and can be a bit sobering amongst the funkiness.
I consider that to be what makes it special, though. The spirits of the fallen live on, and Jay Dee’s did through music, especially Donuts. Throughout the album are low-key – but recognizable – motifs of life and growth expressed musically. It manages to make beats more than just a backdrop, something that nearly every producer since has admired.
The construction of these instrumentals is the most impressive factor. Dilla’s lack of quantization – which is designed to force precision – makes his music feel imperfect, yet human. The unorthodox nature of Donuts is what makes it exciting, because something new is found at every corner.
I wouldn’t consider it the most accessible beat tape, but it is absolutely the greatest in my eyes. It quietly marked the end of the Soulquarians era in hip-hop, but paved the way for an entire new scene. That’s an influence that lives on forever, much like Dilla does.
No. 31 – Miles – Blu & Exile
For the record, this very narrowly missed the top thirty – it may have been the toughest placement by far. But regardless of that, Miles is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve heard.
After eight years of releasing no fresh material, west coast underground greats Blu & Exile banded together for another go. The result was their most packed and advanced effort to date, at a whopping twenty tracks.
Below the Heavens was optimistic and traditional, while Give Me My Flowers was more relaxed. Miles, on the other hand, is determined – from a technical standpoint, this is both artists’ best. Blu’s verses sound crisp and mature, which is a feat considering they’ve always been in the upper echelon of lyricism. Similarly, Exile’s production is the most lively and layered it has ever sounded.
The two aren’t strangers to the realm of concept records, so Miles was executed effectively. Fixated on the history of African-American art, Blu finds himself often connecting his personal experiences to that of historic black figures. The first and second halves are dedicated to those two things respectively.
It becomes increasingly compact as time goes on, as the second half is filled to the brim with ambition. “Roots of Blue“, for example, is a staggering nine minutes yet one of the most brilliantly written tracks in hip-hop. It recaps the true history of African-Americans and their origin, and that is a bold idea that Blu refused to stray away from.
Those sorts of things are what makes Miles so inventive. It doesn’t care to be approachable – it exists for those that aim to appreciate black art by knowing its past. Without that open-minded mentality, you won’t be able to fully love this record.