Published August 5, 2022
Top 50 Favorite Hip-Hop Albums, Pt. 5
No. 10 – A Piece of Strange – CunninLynguists
Sometimes an album reaches for a concept, but doesn’t even need it to be outright enjoyable. A Piece of Strange has remained one of my favorites over a long time for that very reason.
In my eyes, this is the best the south has to offer – everything from the themes to production and creativity is crafted perfectly. The clear influence it takes from the Dungeon Family is more of a gift than problem, as it helped the CunninLynguists tap into a more conscious side of their artistry that their first two efforts seldomly embraced.
Without spoiling too much, A Piece of Strange is about a man from a life of crime that experiences things that both alter and reinforce his view of the south. The cultural stigmas in the region are different from a lot of the country, and that is a prominent highlight of the lyrics.
The means by which the story’s followed are impressive, never deviating from its goals. This makes for something immersive and consistent, which are two of the most important qualities of music.
I know the group has a silly name, but this is more than worth giving a chance. One of the 2000’s underground gems.
No. 9 – Grey Hairs – Reks
With all of that considered, though, this is truly monumental. It’s the best example of hunger you could possibly hear, because the desire to make it in the game is strong.
As a result, the rapping itself is hard-hitting, clear as can be and insightful. It packs everything you could ask for in a pen game, which is one of Reks’ greatest assets. “All In One” is the best example, adopting the inflections of four hip-hop legends to deliver some clever verses.
When the emcee is my father, it’s natural the music has a deep personal connection; that gives it a comfortable place in the upper stages of this list. But it goes far beyond that – Grey Hairs is a landmark in New England rap.
No. 8 – The Main Ingredient – Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth
I think the key to its success is how quickly it finds its pocket. Quality samples, meaningful verses, and lots of content. That encompasses the essence of golden age hip-hop, and this was one of that era’s last products.
This is arguably Pete Rock’s best array of beats, although that is heavily debatable. When I hear cuts like “All the Places“, though, I have a hard time deflecting that belief. “Take You There” is another option that I firmly believe is their best song – and one of the best hip-hop songs of all-time, at that.
If you need to just get lost in something good and genuine for a while, The Main Ingredient is the one. It silently becomes a cornerstone of your rotation beneath your very eyes, making you wish these two stuck together to deliver a few more classics.
No. 7 – All the Brilliant Things – Skyzoo
Wait? A 2021 album…in the top ten?
Absolutely. All the Brilliant Things made a significant impact on me nearly instantly. The moment I saw the cover, I knew Skyzoo fans were in for something special and he all but disappointed.
Brilliant Things is reliable. It focuses on being vintage and aware, like most of Sky’s catalogue. What sets it apart from the rest of the crowd though is how mature it sounds. This isn’t the younger, inspired rapper on The Salvation or the then-newly-appointed veteran on Music for My Friends. This is somebody that has seen it all and looks to offer advice the next generation should cherish.
Brilliant Things isn’t heavily conceptual, but clearly makes efforts to preach the protection and preservation of black culture. This in combination with the authentic jazziness (which has really been his style lately – The Bluest Note and Milestones are two other projects that execute this well) paints Sky in the same light of this genre’s pioneers.
Opinion prompts me to claim this stands as the best listen of the 20’s and one of the most well-crafted and complete in history. It’ll take some time to age properly, but it’s inevitable that it becomes a future underground classic. For now, I’m giving it my flowers ahead of schedule.
No. 6 – Moment of Truth – Gang Starr
The duo set out to hit their apex, with a stronger focuse on fuller songs and polish. 1994’s Hard to Earn was a murkier, hardcore feat that placed Gang Starr in firm underground territory. The shift to airy, modernized beats was the right move because it brought out Premier’s potential. A lot of his greatest beats live here, from the iconic “Above the Clouds” to “Make ‘Em Pay“.
Guru has always been forward-thinking and overtly conscious, which is turned up to the maximum. Just the second track “Robbin Hood Theory” forces the experience into this territory, preparing listeners for true gems that encourage deep thought. “Itz a Set Up” and “My Advice 2 You” operate in a similar fashion.
If cohesion is your thing, Moment of Truth will appeal to you. It takes the benefits of a traditional producer-rapper combo to the highest level, which makes its acclaim not one bit surprising.
No. 5 – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan
If formatting wasn’t a concern, this top five would gets its own special post. I love each and every one of these choices, but there’s a gap that finds itself lodged in between 36 Chambers and the rest below.
Why? Well, the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut simply constructed an atmosphere I have never seen elsewhere. From the muddy mixes to posse cut song design, it’s a blatant lie to say there’s ever been a group album quite like – or of the same standard – as this one.
As soon as “Bring Da Ruckus” kicks in, there’s no turning back. You’re slowly introduced to nine unique voices that went on to resonate in the culture forever. Slowly learning what makes each of these guys stand out from the others is the best part of a 36 first listen, and it keeps getting better with age.
Massive respect to RZA for assembling this roster the way he did as well. He’s like a coach – had to manage personalities and maintain unity, and somehow did so despite some internal conflict (Raekwon and Ghostface wanting to kill each other for ages prior is a good example).
The way Wu portrayed New York differed from their peers, but that characteristic makes it irreplaceable – how can you replicate how dark and dusty 36 sounds? Nothing can recreate that magic.
No. 4 – Illmatic – Nas
Is there much I can add to the conversation about Illmatic? In all honesty, not particularly. But I will say that by importance to hip-hop, it’s the greatest ever. I find it hard to think otherwise.
Nas was not being contested at his peak. In an era full of New York greats – think the Wu, C.L. Smooth, Biggie, Redman, the list goes on – he still stood above the rest. Illmatic is adored for that very reason, feeling like the first instance in which hip-hop was truly becoming unstoppable.
One intro, nine songs, no misses. Not a breath is wasted, because each line intricately aims to hold its own weight while contributing to the greater purpose of the record. The pictures Nas paints of New York are grim but honest, something that inspired later emcees to get graphic. That’s a long-lasting effect of his.
To summarize it all in one track, refer to “The World Is Yours“. That’s a beautiful centerpiece of a song and stands as my favorite track of all-time. It generates this feeling of optimism about where hip-hop was headed, and things did indeed continue to trend upward after Illmatic.
What more could everybody do but up their game after hearing that?
No. 3 – The Infamous – Mobb Deep
This and #2 are practically interchangeable, but either way, we finally find ourselves deep into my Mt. Rushmore of favorites. The Infamous by all accounts deserves a placement there.
Mobb Deep aren’t properly appreciated. Everybody loves “Shook Ones” and “Survival of the Fittest“, but what about the slew of low-key cuts on here? Or the several other great projects they have? That’s a discussion for a different day, but keep those questions fresh in your mind.
What makes this succeed is not only Prodigy and Havoc finally discovering a healthy balance and chemistry, but also Q-Tip taking them under his wing. His contributions to the production and creative direction are part of why it sounds so masterful for only being their second effort.
It’s necessary we credit the guys of the hour, though – Prodigy is an all-time lyrical legend, and it’s on full display. Nearly every verse he drops is enough to leave somebody speechless, but a good example is “Temperature’s Rising“. The perspective he creates with his words is unbelievable.
Havoc also deserves a large chunk of credit. He holds his own on the mic, something I don’t see acknowledged nearly enough (“Trife Life” is proof of that) – and on top of that, consider that he produced nearly the entire thing. The darkness the soundscape creates complements the violent lyrics so well, you’d think you’re in the places they’re describing.
From start to finish, The Infamous just never falls short. All-time great track after all-time great track.
No. 2 – Monkey Barz – Sean Price
When someone asks you what the best rapping performance ever is, what comes to mind?
There are infinite answers to that question, but I’ll stand strong by Monkey Barz. Such a legendary run on the mic shouldn’t go under anybody’s radar. Sean Price has always been unapologetically true to his capabilities as an emcee, with lyrical acrobatics that don’t exist elsewhere.
Similar to Wu-Tang’s solo albums, members of Boot Camp Clik are found throughout dropping guest verses, ad-libs, and whatever else they can. Barz feels like part of a movement for that reason, sparking an era of 90’s veterans adapting to the new flair of the 21st century.
That goes without mentioning how ridiculously high-energy it is, packing banger after banger. Even the more low-key cuts (ex. “Peep My Words“) are arranged in a manner meant to hold your attention, something P successfully does for nearly an hour of runtime with his delivery.
Jesus Price Supastar and Mic Tyson already got their mentions in, but Monkey Barz is my favorite rapper operating in his prime. That sort of status locks it into the very highest spots of the fifty, and I wouldn’t hesitate putting it first on some days – that’s just how much I love it.
No. 1 – Below the Heavens – Blu & Exile
Below the Heavens is more than just a personal grail for me, it’s an underground classic that deserves – and, thankfully – gets respected.
Not enough credit is given to Blu for being a leader of the new school west coast. Some forget he was an XXL Freshman being hit with high expectations commercially, and his choice to stay low-key panned out well in the long run. But without Blu, you don’t get the same build-up for Black Hippy, for example. Kendrick Lamar included.
You could wonder why Blu was hit with such anticipation, but Heavens is the clear cause. Not often do you find a debut album this good that appeals to any type of fan. Its hopeful nature was reminiscent of the golden age, down to the memorable stories and soulful instrumentals.
A lot of albums on this list are high-quality masterpieces, but Heavens fuses that with the ability to be outright relatable. Blu isn’t scared to detail some of his rougher experiences in life to put the listener in his shoes, and that’s the hallmark of a pure lyricist. “In Remembrace” is the best example, narrating a tale about personal growth that has resonated with me to this very day.
Exile hooked things up with the perfect vibe for this era too. In light of releases like The College Dropout, The Minstrel Show, and Be, the conscious scene wanted to embrace soul at every corner. This aimed to be no different, and is arguably the last of these titans before things changed at the end of the decade.
I personally find it unlikely something with impact me the way this did, which I’m content with. Everyone has their album, and Below the Heavens is my choice for number one. It’s simply amazing.