Published July 17, 2022
Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 3
No. 30 – Black on Both Sides – Mos Def
Yasiin Bey, the mighty Mos Def. One of the most intelligent pen games for over an hour straight.
That’s why Black on Both Sides is an undeniable classic.
Mos was already blessed with one of the most unique and versatile deliveries hip-hop has ever heard, and the world saw that on the collaborative Black Star. However, jumping into the gates with that, even as one half of a pair, sets ridiculous expectations for what you’re up to do next. And what will a good emcee do? Go above and beyond that standard.
And man, did he.
The coolest aspect of Both Sides is how effortlessly social and political topics are tackled without feeling forced or pretentious. I’ve known it for years, and it took me a long time to realize what a track like “New World Water” was truly about. Even the more straightforward stories and topics – see “Mr. Nigga” – have no intention of being generic. Not only will you get a groovy beat with an infectious Q-Tip hook over it, but you’ll savor the lyrics in between, too.
Mos Def’s desire to break boundaries is also on full display. If you want an extreme example, check “Rock N Roll” – absolutely one of the least accessible cuts, but tackles a necessary concept in an admirable way. The fact that everything about Both Sides is intricate, high-quality and distinctive is what makes it so masterful. I can’t imagine a true hip-hop fan not messing with it.
No. 29 – Aquemini – Outkast
His verses on “Return of the “G”“, “Aquemini“, and “Synthesizer” are all some of the most infectious of all-time, sporting a wicked flow and rhyme schemes not many can match. And that’s all concentrated in the first half – the second has even more elite showings.
That’s not to count out Big Boi either, though. André gets a notable chunk of the credit for the duo’s successes, but it’s a two-way effort. If you think otherwise, refer to “West Savannah” – a solo cut that also happens to be one of the best tracks.
The dense and lengthy build of Aquemini does make it an intimidating listen, but there’s not a moment wasted. From slick southern jams to nine-minute pools of neo-soul, every bit of Kast’s artistry up to this point finds itself materialized.
No. 28 – The Easy Truth – Apollo Brown & Skyzoo
The Easy Truth is that feeling in music form, but flipped and manipulated to create a narrative of motivation. Skyzoo’s ability to weave through hood tales and origin stories is like no other, painting a perfect picture of what it feels like to be on the come up.
Something about his style of lyricism is easy to indulge. It’s conscious, but not like a lot of his peers – the words come out simpler, and perhaps more personal. It’s what makes something like The Easy Truth, which aims to be potent, so much more raw and unique.
Apollo had long sped past the “developmental” phase of his production, now entering an era of polished beats following the ambitious Grandeur. Every instrumental sounds poised and mature, which only encourages cohesion.
2016 was a stacked year for hip-hop, and this is one of its many jewels. If you need a quality underground addition to your plate, The Easy Truth is the one. Forever one of my favorites.
No. 27 – Midnight Marauders – A Tribe Called Quest
If Low End Theory is a dark chilly night, Midnight Marauders is a summer day in Queens, hanging out with friends and finding something to do. Q-Tip completely flipped the script sonically, which kept things fresh while staying faithful to the group’s jazziness. Even where it’s laid-back, it remains warm and funky – for example, the all-time famous “Electric Relaxation” beat.
An underrated dynamic is Phife Dawg’s growth as a rapper. I believe he’s the superior lyricist to Tip – as valuable as the latter’s production is – and this is where the five-foot assassin fully started to reach his potential. “8 Million Stories” is pure proof, serving as a solo track where Phife delivers some surprisingly vivid storytelling.
Midnight Marauders proudly showcases consistency, devoid of a single track that isn’t excellent in some regard. It’s been a favorite of mine for ages, and that’s a testament to its longevity – the style is timeless, and it’s one of the easiest old-school hip-hop recommendations I could give.
No. 26 – Capital Punishment – Big Pun
Big Pun is an easy candidate – and maybe my choice – for the greatest technical lyricist to ever do it. His flow and rhyming are mind-blowing and I struggle to find many that are better in that department, let alone close.
Capital Punishment is over an hour of that in action, and it’s phenomenal. My first time hearing this, I was on a plane and had this saved, ready to listen…and was in awe of what I heard.
Rarely prior had I seen someone so gifted on the mic – I had heard my fair share of the greatest, from Nas to Black Thought to Common. But Pun seemed hungrier, more assertive than all of them – and that’s a high bar. The first verse of “The Dream Shatterer” is a quick sample:
“Ayo, I shatter dreams like Jordan, assault and batter your team
Your squadron’ll be barred from rap
Like Adam and Eve from the garden
I’m carvin’ my initials on your forehead
So every night before bed, you see the BP shine off the boardhead”
I do want to give some credit to the production team too, though; over ten people were behind the boards, yet kept things steadily hard-hitting. So many of the greatest beats I’ve ever heard found a home on Capital Punishment, and somehow end up being the second-fiddle to several of hip-hop’s best rhymes.
Pun unfortunately falls under the category of legends gone too soon – it’s hard to believe that his catalogue would’ve been anything short of stellar with more projects, but this debut proved everything he had to. Twenty-four years and it’s still one of the culture’s most prized.
No. 25 – good kid, m.A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar
I want to preface this with a particular take of mine – when combining quality, influence, and popularity, I think good kid, m.A.A.d city is a solid pick for the greatest hip-hop album of all-time. It has tackled music in a rare form, infatuating critics but managing to stay on top of the world as an iconic body of work. Can you believe it’s stayed on Billboard for five hundred weeks straight?
Outside of the commercial accomplishments, though, the technique here is simply genius. And I do say that wholeheartedly; it’s one thing to be an elite rhymer or punchline rapper, but it’s another thing to have such a crisp pen game that every line you write feels real. Immersive. That’s Kendrick Lamar, and he did this on only his second studio effort.
The concept is well-known and clear; listeners follow Kendrick’s growth from earlier ages to adolescence, all the while taking in the frequent atrocities that plague Compton’s citizens. Those that have lived in poor, tightly-knit communities can immediately identify with this content, and experiencing it from the inside looking out is the key to understanding good kid‘s purpose.
The production, while drawing influence from several places, is unapologetically west coast. It manages to bounce between a Ras Kass-like gloominess (“The Art of Peer Pressure“, “Swimming Pools“) to a grooviness reminiscent of Dr. Dre (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe“, “Poetic Justice“). My favorite beat of them all is the second half of “m.A.A.d city“, which was clearly suited for the legendary MC Eiht’s guest verse.
The sound and writing investing in an end goal is why good kid works so well. Twelve tracks hyper-focused on storytelling don’t tend to resonate as a lyrical masterpiece and radio favorite at once, but Kendrick managed to do it. It’s one of the many things adding to his status as an all-timer.
No. 24 – To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Everyone knows the good kid, m.A.A.d city vs. To Pimp a Butterfly debate. It’s one that I’ve entertained mentally for a long time now – there will be stretches where I think one is decently better than the other, and times where they seem even to me. For now, I’ll stick with the latter narrative.
I’d be lying if I said there was much I could add to the conversation of how great Butterfly is – but to summarize, it’s hands down Kendrick’s most expansive yet concentrated. His dedication to projecting his thoughts as a black man in America – but above all, a human – is admirable, and part of why it instantly secured mass acclaim.
I think Butterfly shines its hardest musically. It feels so ready to try something new, so inspired – the jazz and funk influence work in the best way possible. While hip-hop in the 80’s and 90’s drew inspiration from similar places, the difference in approach is the deal-breaker here. This doesn’t have the vintage nature of prototypical jazz rap, but what it does have is polish and atmosphere.
This is what helps Kendrick capture one’s attention. Bouncing between chaotic and fleeting to soothing, his voice remains a constant the entire way. Even without a grip of the topics he’s talking about, it’s easy to stay engaged – and that’s a gift he mastered on Butterfly and has utilized his whole career.
No. 23 – 4, 5, 6 – Kool G Rap
Kool G Rap is the culture’s most under-appreciated pioneer. His name should be mentioned as highly and frequently as the likes of Rakim, Chuck D, and other legendary 80’s rappers.
My favorite thing to say about 4, 5, 6 is that it’s Kool G’s Illmatic. And that’s not just because Nas makes a guest appearance – it’s the fact that it’s a short and concise record with not a minute wasted, coming at the perfect moment in the emcee’s prime.
Kool G’s lyricism has never faltered, but it’s surely at its peak here. He fires his bars fast, but does so with precision and value, balancing his typical mafioso attitude with graphic stories. I like to point at “For Da Brothaz” as an example, being the first track off here I found myself attached to.
My absolute favorite part of the album is the production. The early-to-mid-90’s had a slew of heavily jazz-influenced joints, from Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb to Guru’s first two Jazzmatazz installments. 4, 5, 6 is never mentioned as part of that conversation – maybe because it didn’t intend to sound that way – but it truly does.
The samples are perfectly old-school and every drum sounds dusty and authentic. It knows how to remain faithfully grimy (“Executioner Style“), but isn’t afraid to get upbeat, too – “Fast Life” is evidence, and a big part of why the album was so popular.
Short albums teeter between being lukewarm and amazing experiences, depending on how much the listener falls in love with the tracklist. In my case, Kool G supplied the game with an all-time masterpiece – nine tracks (and a remix) to never forget.
No. 22 – Mic Tyson – Sean Price
After decades of making music, a lot of artists lose steam. They begin to sound redundant, losing those hungry qualities that brought eyes their way to begin with. Those classics will always remain a part of their catalogue, but the praise will never divert from them.
Sean Price didn’t follow those rules, though. Mic Tyson is how a veteran should sound – experienced yet vicious. Not afraid to remind his peers who he is, even after sixteen years of releases.
Easily P’s grimiest, Mic Tyson nearly sounds like it came straight out of a video game. The beats are like a final boss’ dungeon – rustic and dark. It’s a sharp contrast from the soulful roots of his sophomore album Jesus Price Supastar, but works just as well.
The tracks fire at you at quick speeds, all being relatively short. That’s the appeal – an album that gives you forty minutes of pure bars, whether from P himself or the guests. It never gets stale either, given this is the best punchline rapper ever in charge – I crack up at a different joke every listen.
It was unfortunately his last showing to the world while with us, but that only makes it more impactful. Mic Tyson helped spark a new wave of quality in the underground alongside other timely records like Marcberg, and that influence has never worn off. It’s just about time we credit the godfather of it all.
No. 21 – FLYGOD – Westside Gunn
And coincidentally enough, this next entry is one of those previously mentioned albums that were influenced.
FLYGOD resembles a lot of things – modern hardcore rap ala Marciano and Price, older mafioso records like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, and above all, Westside Gunn’s own innovative style.
I’ve had a lot of people previously tell me they can’t get into his delivery, but that’s the best part of his music. The greatest always sound ready on their debuts, and Gunn is no different. He seems prepared to start a movement from the jump, and in retrospect, he really did.
A lot of the modern era’s underground titans find their way on this ridiculously stacked roster. Besides others in the Griselda family (Benny, Conway, and at the time Mach-Hommy), you have rising fan favorites in Action Bronson and Danny Brown. Also consider guests that were at the time new, but are now realizing their potential – think of Your Old Droog. And it’s only right a veteran drops some jewels of his own, which is what the Skyzoo feature is for.
All of these names work in tandem with Gunn effortlessly, giving each track its own identity. Doing this over the backdrops of production legends in Daringer, The Alchemist, Statik Selektah, Apollo Brown and more makes it even easier to appreciate, because there’s not a single song that falls short.
FLYGOD is the centerpiece of this new wave of hip-hop, and simultaneously the brightest gem in a wildly stacked discography.