Published July 29, 2022
Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 4
No. 20 – Madvillainy – Madvillain
Madvillainy is an all-time adored project amongst the hip-hop community. Appreciation for it – alongside the rest of MF DOOM’s catalogue – amplified after his unfortunate passing, but real heads have been tapped in for a long time.
It’s hard to gauge the impact it had on music, but it’s clearly there – the one-of-a-kind format, which depended on shorter tracks and a distinct lack of hooks, has surely inspired several songs in the modern age. That style could initially come off as off-putting, but is realistically what makes it charming in the first place.
DOOM’s rapping is an evident standout, probably being the best of his career. It’s quirky and abnormal yet potent – it loves its pop culture references (“Meat Grinder“) while welcoming storytelling territory (“Fancy Clown“). Sometimes it’s just ridiculously dense lyrically, as the infamous “Figaro” showcases.
The production is some of Madlib’s stranger work, but naturally hits the mark. It feels jazzy, soulful, and robotic all at once, which is a mix that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Madvillainy isn’t the best first look at his style in my eyes – instead, it’s a great venture point after being accustomed to what he has to offer.
This isn’t quite the most consistently replay-able album for me, but it was something I found early in my music journey and have never gotten sick of. There will be stretches where it never leaves rotation, and rightfully so; the experience breezes right by, and cannot be replaced by anything else.
No. 19 – A Prince Among Thieves – Prince Paul
Prince Paul (of De La Soul fame) collaborates with the largely obscure hip-hop group Horror City on Thieves, as well as rapper Breeze Brewin’ from the Juggaknots.
Breeze plays the role of the “main character” Tariq, an ambitious rapper looking for a way to collect demo tape money. His best friend True, played by Horror City emcee Big Sha, then introduces him to the world of hustling.
Guest appearances from legends like Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul and Biz Markie only makes everything more varied and unforgettable. The amount of work put into everything is nothing short of fantastic.
No. 18 – Piñata – Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Prior to the advent of Piñata, Freddie Gibbs’ music was closer to that of other street rappers of the early-2010’s; trappy, hardcore, and to a degree, aiming for hits. He had always been tapped into all sides of the underground though, evident by his collaboration album with Statik Selektah and instances working with the likes of Curren$y, SpaceGhostPurrp, and more. Being a face of the mixtape era simply grants you access to that company.
For this reason, the Madlib connection wasn’t that surprising. It was for the best as well, as Gibbs’ artistry took a large leap moving forward. Albums like You Only Live 2wice, Fetti, and Bandana outclass any of his pre-2014 projects, as underrated as some of them may be.
The mix of easiness to listen to, the high standard and beautiful production render this as one of the 2010’s most timeless works. It’s something anyone should have heard by now, but if you haven’t…get on that.
No. 17 – The College Dropout – Kanye West
There’s a lot of discourse that goes on regarding Kanye’s catalogue. You’ll find somebody out there that has any of his works as their answer for his masterpiece, but I wouldn’t look any further than The College Dropout.
Dropout is an album that I always had love for, but was admittedly a grower to hit the number one mark. Best believe I haven’t looked back since, though; it’s just all-around his most complete, authentic, and enjoyable.
The chipmunk soul production was a true trendsetter, influencing a barrage of soulful hip-hop albums following it. Kanye was by no means the first person to tackle this style, but he surely perfected and popularized it.
The academic theme set the stage for an eventual trilogy, and it remained faithful to it start to finish. The combination of that with the homely gospel sound ensured it would not be an album to replace down the line. It stood out too much eighteen years ago, and still does now.
Kanye has frequently referred to the 90’s conscious scene as one of his biggest influences, and why is clear. He is headstrong and raw with meaningful songs (“Jesus Walks“), but isn’t afraid to goof around and create a laidback vibe (“Breathe In Breathe Out“). The dedication to consistency and long-lasting enjoyment are two qualities Dropout chases after, and it paid off – it’s still Kanye’s most unanimously loved work to this day.
No. 16 – 3 Feet High and Rising – De La Soul
I can’t say much beyond the fact that it’s just such a fun listen. They were a much needed variation in style during their era, not afraid to get weird, psychedelic and overtly conscious with their content. It’s nearly understandable why they were labelled as “hippies” right off the bat – they played into a sound that nobody else even dared to try at the time.
3 Feet High is comparable to scrolling through TV channels; the main program you’re watching is the game show that pops up every once in a while throughout, and otherwise, you’re browsing through others during its commercials. De La have some new idea or story presented in nearly every track, which builds character.
Prince Paul, only previously known as a member of the influential Stetsasonic, took on a lead production role and made use of the opportunity. He can pretty much singlehandedly be credited with devising skits on 3 Feet High, as well as encouraging more layered and advanced sampling techniques.
It’s one of many classics to derive from the Native Tongues’ earliest days, and is in my eyes the best 80’s hip-hop album. Saying it set a standard is by no means an over-exaggeration.
No. 15 – The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest
The Low End Theory is the kind of album you’ll never find missing from lists like these. It very well may be the most accessible thing in hip-hop; it’s laidback, short, good vibes, and from one of the most well-known groups.
For those that know the context of Tribe’s career, it’s a sharp contrast from People’s Instinctive Travels. They go from funky and warm to cool and unapologetically jazzy, and it sent the golden age into a frenzy of uniqueness. Following Low End, plenty of jazz rap records followed from Mecca and the Soul Brother to Daily Operation.
The group also felt fully realized at this point, with everyone on board. Phife had fully committed to rapping, having his breakthrough; Ali Shaheed felt even more involved on the boards; and the behind-the-scenes contributor Jarobi White had not yet left to pursue a culinary career.
For this reason, the chemistry is at its best here. Every track sounds purposeful yet hungry, and the track concepts were even more creative. “Show Business” and ” Skypager” are two examples of that, tackling the state of the industry and consumerism respectively.
It isn’t hard for me to crown this as the face of the golden age, depending on what time period you want to classify that as. Regardless of all the technicalities, Low End’s impact is clear to this day.
No. 14 – 4eva is a Mighty Long Time – Big K.R.I.T.
I’m not sure if there’s an album I’ve preached about as much as 4eva is a Mighty Long Time. Maybe it’s because it has the quality of something that should be a unanimous all-timer, but still somehow gets underrated.
K.R.I.T. is one of the 2010’s best emcees, with a southern flair and immaculate pen that has flowed through each and every one of his projects. He was originally known for his mixtapes, but 4eva proved he could construct a phenomenal studio album as well.
The intensity of the “two sides” concept is appreciated; Side A (“Big K.R.I.T.“) provides the bangers and more hardcore sounds of the south, whereas Side B (“Justin Scott“) is honest, vulnerable, and emotional. The craziest fact is that if you cut one half off you’re still left with a flawless experience – K.R.I.T. maintaining consistency over twenty-two tracks is simply unbelievable.
The combination of concepts, insightful verses, lovable production and consistent replay value cemented 4eva as a favorite of mine since the day I heard it, and I highly doubt that’ll ever change.
No. 13 – Jesus Price Supastar – Sean Price
I really do wish we got more collaborations between Sean Price and the Soul Council. What they did on Jesus Price Supastar isn’t appreciated nearly enough.
As the middle child of P’s catalogue, it doesn’t surprise me that Supastar is his least discussed. It doesn’t have that nostalgic advantage like Monkey Barz or the modern underground finesse of Mic Tyson. But what it does have is some of – if not his – best bars, and undeniably his best-selected beats.
Two-thirds of the album are produced by some Soul Council member or affiliate, that primarily being 9th Wonder, Khrysis, or 10 for the Triad. This forms a naturally soulful yet hard-hitting sound that P makes the most of, providing vintage rap records that would satisfy any lyricism lover.
The collaborations are also something to indulge in. Heltah Skeltah member and longtime friend Rock drops quality hooks and verses all throughout, and other Boot Camp Cilk affiliates – namely Buckshot and Steele – contribute themselves, still managing to demonstrate true chemistry nearly fifteen years after the collective’s conception.
I wouldn’t mind saying that this is the best starting point for Sean Price’s discography. It has the same warm sound of other late-2000’s underground albums – think The Minstrel Show or Below the Heavens – but P also isn’t afraid to remind you that he’ll use those backdrops for some savage bars. Bump “Violent” for proof of that.
No. 12 – The Cold Vein – Cannibal Ox
I’m glad I finally get to talk about an El-P-related album, because so many of them narrowly missed the list. The Cold Vein – which is led by the underrated Cannibal Ox, first and foremost – is entirely produced by the Brooklyn artist.
Let’s start with the rappers of the hour, though. Duo members Vordul Mega and Vast Aire take control of the mic, creating one of the most unusual yet cool dynamics in hip-hop. Vordul’s style is remorseless and conservative, reminiscent of old school gangsta rappers. He is the more lyrically potent of the two, quietly delivering some of the densest rhyme schemes out there.
On the contrary, counterpart Vast Aire is all about charisma. His unique delivery – largely fueled by his accent – sets him apart from just about any emcee, but especially those of this era and scene. He doesn’t aim to get complex with his verses, but will capture your attention because he isn’t afraid to take charge.
These two spend over an hour maneuvering icy, retro beats provided by El-P of then-Company Flow fame. The entire album is video game-like with its ambience, but the theme of it all is much more real. The Cold Vein is hyper-focused on telling the tales of tough living in the rabid streets of New York, more specifically Harlem.
This is in my eyes what any experimental rapper should aim to deliver – something that’s unconventional, but not over-bearing. This is what allowed it to solidify itself in underground history; it tried something nobody had before while also appealing to the typical fan. It’s a shame Cannibal Ox couldn’t do more over time, because this is a debut album matched by very few.
No. 11 – Transportation – Your Old Droog
A weird phenomenon I experience with music is that anything that sounds incredibly vintage immediately captures my ear. It’s hard for me not to fall in love with it; that’s why I enjoy vaporwave music so much.
Your Old Droog’s Transportation, part three of a legendary 2019 album run, reaches for just about any old-school funk sample it can find. The product is an album that has this intense nostalgic feel to it, which is incredibly rare for somebody of his style.
But aside from the sound, Transportation is a fun and clever concept record. It ties its tracks to forms of transit, using them as metaphors for Droog’s lifestyle and past experiences. “Train Love” tells a story of a girl he saw on the train and wanted to encounter again, while “SS YOD” is all about extravagant, ideal living for the New York rapper.
This also stood as his most personal work for a bit, prior to the release of 2021’s TIME. It doesn’t tie itself to heritage like Dump YOD: Krutoy Edition or Jewelry, but is surely insightful regarding his mental state and aspirations. This is what makes it that unorthodox favorite for me; it’s by no means popular or critically acclaimed, but what is executes is music to my ears (no pun intended).
For proof of how sharp and thoughtful the pen game here truly is, go no further than the intro track “Stillwell Baby“.
“Tried to leave this thing alone like it’s a wrap, B
But there was times writing rhymes was the only thing that made a Droog happy
Master of cutlets, Father YOD, YODFather don
Since we used to get ready for school with Arthur on”
Personal lines, pop culture references, and vivid memories all in one. It’s crazy how much he can pack into sixteen bars, and Transportation is full of those instances.