Top 20 Rap Albums of All Time: A Closer Look

Jan 15, 2004 (Updated Dec 13, 2013)

The Bottom Line Straight up, after all the hours I spend searching the truth for all you hip hop fans, you better take a serious look at this!

Now, first of all, most reader’s first reaction to any top list of all time is that of suspicion. In this specific case, one may first be looking to find if his or her favourite album is included and, if not, may be willing to humour the list but with a grain of salt. Soon questions arise like who the hell is this guy anyways and why does he think he can tell me what true rap gems cumulate to a coherent unbiased top 20 hip hop albums list?

The answer is quite simple. I am no one in particular. A mere listener among millions who just happens to have the right combination of love for music, love for writing and time on my hand to funnel through my collection of almost seven hundred Hip Hop CDs, pick a few solid contenders for the list and give them another fresh listen or two… or three or four… The task was not an easy one.

Before we get cracking, let me assure you (although, I know you’ll only be truly reassured when and if you see your perfect album on the list) that I am your typical cynical Hip Hop Head who listens to everything from commercial to underground, from the 80s to the 00s (hmm, it feels funny to be in a decade of nothingness), and who even mixed and freestyled for a few years. No one really needs to know that my flow wasn’t that tight and that my well-crafted lyrics never found an adequate voice and tight producer to propel me to the top of this here list, but we’ll keep this a secret.

Now, for the most part it is painfully obvious to a hip hop aficionado what a very good album is and what a new designated frisbee resembles. However, when it comes to distinguishing the best from the best, everything becomes debatable. This is why I attempted to tackle this task clear-headedly and went to the lab with working hypotheses to be either proven or disproved.

A) The album must be coherent as a whole
B) The lyrics are key, but the beats and production are non-negligible elements
C) Albums with dubious tracks get serious points off
D) Cleverness, creativity, innovation and distinction
E) The subject matter and how it is dealt with (i.e. classic Art Appreciation)
F) Replay value

Although it is clearly impossible to be truly and completely objective I have tried to step back and analyze all the nominees on these merits. So, after all this elaborate intro, let’s get down to the music.

And the winners are…

20. Killah Priest – Heavy Mental (1998)

After appearing on GZA’s classic Liquid Swords, relatively unknown Wu-affiliate spun this dark, yet positive offering of self-discovery and cautionary look at the world today, its history, religion, politics and science. One or two sleeper tracks near the end, combined with overall average delivery and production, clearly limited this from going any further. However, the consistent lyrical skills and insight exhibited allowed it to sneak in at number twenty.

Standout Tracks:
One Step
Fake MC’s
Cross My Heart

19. Method Man & Redman – Blackout! (1999)

Originally titled “America’s Most Blunted”, this long-awaited album has little to do with every rapper’s favourite drug. That these two rhyming rebels put the weed down long enough to make this classic collabo album is uncertain, but the end result is a pristine rhyme-studded album. If you ever wondered if “Pinnochio has wooden balls?” or can appreciate a devilish dynamic duo that are equally charismatic and have a rare knack to construct strong rhymes with metaphors that melt in your ear, this album will be in re-replay in your car and home stereo. Bottom line, their flow and lyrics compliment each other like women.

Standout Tracks:
Da Rockwilder
Tear It Off
The ?
Fire in the Hole
Well All Rite Cha

18. Gang Starr – Moment of Truth (1998)

DJ Premier is one of the great producers out there. My personal belief is that he secretly saves his best tracks for his guess producing (maybe because he is getting paid per track), and contents himself with giving good, yet rarely incredible, beats for his own group, Gang Starr. That said, the production of the album is fine and shines occasionally, but what stands out here is Guru’s lyrics. Dropped with his usual monotone delivery, the eloquence, realness, panache and power of the prolific poet’s lyrics speak unearthed truth and find almost the precise balance between content and form. The guest appearances change up the flow a little bit to give the listener a break from Guru’s metronome precision. The underground hadn’t sounded so tight since Common’s Resurrection in 1994.

Standout Tracks:
You Know My Steez
Above the Cloud
Moment of Truth
What I’m Here 4
Make Em’ Pay

17. Nas – Stillmatic (2001)

“Hey yo, the brother’s Stillmatic/ I crawled up out of that grave, whipping that dirt, cleaning my shirt; they thought I’d make another Illmatic/ but it’s always forward I’m moving, never backward stupid, here’s another classic.”

Standout Tracks:
One Mic

16. Big Pun – Capital Punishment (1998)

The Latin rapper ambassador put his best foot forward with his carefully planned release on the rap scene. With an incredible and unique flow, tight rhymes and charisma on the mic, Fat Joe’s protegee came out strong. The album itself is nothing but rock-solid. It shows versatility by ranging from grimy hardcore tracks to R&B-influenced tracks and the requisite club bangers. Guest appearances also shine, but rarely outclass the mic mastery of the great late departed. The production value is great. Musical interludes and skits are also appropriate and funny. Christopher Rios may not be a player, but he definitely has become a Big player in the rap game (Pun intended).

Standout Tracks:
Super Lyrical
Still Not a Player
I’m Not a Player
Twinz (Deep Cover 98)
Tres Leches (Triboro Trilogy)
You Ain’t a Killer

15. Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein (2001)

This underground gem is unconventional and uncompromising. With an alienating instrumental landscape and lyrics that are complex… only to express simple truths. You cannot but be amazed each time you are able to decipher another subtlety in the subtext of the warped collection of words, thoughts and beats.

Standout Tracks:
Real Earth

14. Dr. Dre – Chronic 2001 (1999)

This album is Dre basically saying, I’m still here, still on top, recognize what I brought to hip hop and look what I can still bring to this rap thing. This one is filled with well-crafted instrumentals, numerous and constantly good guest appearances, funny interludes, an uninterrupted, timeless feel and inexhaustible replay value.

Standout Tracks:
The Watcher
What’s The Difference
Forgot About Dre

13. Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 2 (2003)

Against All Odds, the Phil Collins of Rap makes his second, slightly more commercial release, even better than the first fiery affair. The production is a bit more even, but behold foremost the thought-raising, anti-blind veneration and praising, lyrical attempts to remove the wool over your eyes and expose the blatant lies. Beyond making you think, Technique is also able to make you laugh and cry. Past the anti-establishment and awareness of self, this album resiliently flourishes in the middle of a Harlem street from all the cracks and crevices.

For the full review, please see : Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 2

Standout Tracks:
The Point of No Return
Harlem Streets
Industrial Revolution
The 4th Branch
Leaving the Past
You Never Know

12. Eminem – The Eminem Show (2002)

“I joke when I say I’m the best/ in the both, but a lot of truth/ is said in jest.”
Eminem graduated to a full-fledged producer and still kicked some of the best rhymes imaginable to a twisted mind or a mind of any kind. Socially relevant, powerful and real. The Great White American Hope delivers with less rage and more range.

Standout Tracks:
Cleaning Out My Closet
Square Dance
Sing for the Moment
Daddy’s Gone Crazy

11. Big Daddy Kane - Long Live the Kane (1988)

Marley Marl produced the perfect backdrop to Kane's revolutionary braggadocios battle rhymes. His memorable metaphors and meticulous microphone dominance destroyed all rappers' hope to retaliate and it took the industry years to start to catch up to the excellent display showcased here. Mixed with the rawness is some playfulness on the microphone, concept songs and a ballad that manages to stay strong lyrically. The use of the same verse twice on the same album may be a big no-no, but there is not much other real criticism we can throw at this one. The verse is actually very good and works well in both instances.

Standout Tracks:
Long Live the Kane
Raw (Remix)
Set it Off
Ain't No Half-Steppin'

10. The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)

From the intro to the hidden track, this album is hip hop at its best. Markedly superior production and good, flowing lyrics. Using live instruments, the human beatbox’s undisputed champ, Rahzel, and even guess scratches by veteran DJ Jazzy Jeff on The Next Movement, the consistent musical vision is apparent and gives this album the sonic depth of an instrumental jazz album with a definite hip hop edge. Musically on a class by themselves, the Roots can also hold their own lyric-wise. The parting words, Ursula Rucker’s poem The Return To Innocence Lost, and the accompanied instrumental are frighteningly potent and are but the cherry on top of a savoury accomplishment.

Standout Tracks:
The Next Movement
Step Into The Realm
Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New
100% Dundee
You Got Me
Don’t See Us

9. Outkast – Atliens (1996)

Outkast are one of very few rap artists who completely re-invent themselves on each album. Dirty South Big Boi and Dre crafted their best one back in 1996 when they put Atlanta on the map and proved that there was still place for originality in rap. Instrumentals that make you feel out of this world, laced with poetic and precise lyrics.

Standout Tracks:
Elevators (Me & You)

8. N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988)

This infamous album is probably the most influential rap album of all time. This is gangsta rap. This is good rap. This is exquisite production by Dr. Dre and Yella, rugged, conscious, and insightful lyrics by Ice Cube, sprinkled with Easy-E’s humour and held together with MC Ren’s raw delivery. This is the pavement of a new musical avenue.

Standout Tracks:
Straight Outta Compton
Gangsta Gangsta
F--k The Police
Parental Discretion Iz Advised
Express Yourself
I Ain’t Tha 1

7. Common – Resurrection (1994)

Common drops some sense on this one after being forced to drop Sense off his name do to copyright issues. No I.D. provides a jazzy, nicely layered production, while Common delivers witty metaphors and simile with his jovial mic persona. Genre classic that arguably spun the consciousness we see in underground hip hop today. From the moment you put it in, this album feels good like a good piece of… apple pie.

Standout Tracks:
i used to love h.e.r.

6. Nas – The Lost Tapes (2002)

This release of Nassir Jones’ underground material comes across as subdued. It is both simple and sublime. Nothing extravagant, just a collection of thoughts on life. Almost meditative at time, this recording is like a musical and lyrical comforter. You put it on to remind yourself that life is tough, but that we’re gonna be alright.

Standout Tracks:
Doo Rags
My Way
Nothing Lasts Forever
No Idea’s Original
Drunk by Myself

5. Canibus – Rip the Jacker (2003)

This album post-produced from some deliberate acappella renderings of the gifted rapper is a testament to growth and perseverance. Although at times more complex than Mic Club (see below), the production is adequate but sometimes uneven, and even Canibus goes on to say “lyrically I’m the illest, but my beats’ okay” in the track Levitibus. However he almost justifies this by saying “the best beats in the world couldn’t rival my skills” in his earlier track Behind Enemy Rhymes. Regardless of untapped potential, if you want dope lyrics, look no further. The multi-beat seven minute long Poet Laureate II will have you entranced and the thought out lyrics on the album will remind you of what the P stand for in RAP.

Standout Tracks:
Poet Laureate II

4. Eminem – The Marshall Matters LP (2001)

“It would be better if you gave me nothing at all. This album is less than nothing.” This is Slim Shady’s boss who trashes the record, right before Eminem unleashes the best song of the album. This is how good this album is, everything fits like a glove, even the interludes (no comment on Ken Kanif). Dr. Dre and Eminem collaborate in the lab to make a mixture of catchy and darker beats to match Marshall’s witty lyrics and vocal abilities. The result is the simultaneously most daring, funny, innovative, imaginative, controversial (N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew close behind) and, yes, commercial hip hop album ever released. This kid reached a chord, albeit incendiary. Eminem extends his “I just don’t give a f--k” theme even further and goes as far as to blatantly calls his listeners “retards” on two occasions on the album. This is the real thing. Ultimately, the album boasts infectious lyrics, compelling storytelling, out-of-the-box thinking, emotional deliveries, diversity and manages to stay true to its vision.

Standout Tracks:
The Way I Am
The Real Slim Shady
I’m Back

3. Fugees – The Score (1996)

This multi-talented group exploded on the world with this tour de force. Rapping, singing, playing instruments and producing, the three refugees broke off the pack of recycled hip hop to create their own unique style. Wyclef and Lauryn went on to have prolific solo careers where they deepened and expanded their creative juices, but, understandably, they never reached the intensity of this phenomenal album. Revolutionary rhymes, mesmerizing production. The only downfall to the album is that the intro and interludes are weak, although the outro is fine. There is no track on the album that is less than excellent and most are outstanding. Even the bonus remixes do nothing but add to this undisputed masterpiece.

Standout Tracks:
How Many Mics
Ready or Not
Family Business

2. Canibus – Mic Club (2002)

No chorus, no commercial. This album has the distinction of having both the most lyrics per second (tireless Bis raps even in the intro and outro) and, most importantly, the most potent lyrics in a single album. Canibus’ mastery of language and his uncanny ability to seemingly effortlessly rap forever are showcased in this lyrical lesson by the skilled and knowledgeable teacher. Instead of battling every rapper out there, the riper Canibus decides to have a battle rap with himself in “Bis vs. Rip”, while he uses the rest of the album to broaden his lyrical scope. Substance over fanfare. Artistically aware. Intellectual poetry at its apex.

Standout Tracks:
Poet Laureate
Master Thesis
Behind Enemy Rhymes
Senior Studies 02
Bis vs. Rip

1. Nas – Ilmatic (1994)

Street poetry at its finesse. The passionate, poetic portrait of life in the ghetto. Raw, real. Never before, never since has anyone touched this. Tight production from DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock and Q-Tip. A little too much shout-outs at times, but the brother sure knows how to write a rhyme. Never falls short, never falters.

Standout Tracks:
New York State of Mind
Life’s a B--ch
The World is Yours
Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)
One Love
One Time 4 Your Mind
It Ain’t Hard to Tell

(Damn son, that’s the whole album!)

Special Mentions

Best Canadian Hip Hop Album
Rascalz – Cash Crop (1997)

Best Female Hip Hop Album
Rah Digga – Dirty Harriet (2000)

Best Instrumental Hip Hop Album
Quasimoto – The Unseen: Instrumentals (2000)


Related Reviews

For more Hip Hop and R&B by the same author:
Top 20 Underground Hip Hop Albums: In Case You Didn’t Know
Top 10 Rappers of All-Time: A Case Study (Part 1: 10-6)
Top 10 Rappers of All-Time: A Case Study (Part 2: 5-1)

Top 20 R&B Albums of All Time: Case Closed
Top 20 Contemporary R&B Artists Thus Far: In Closing (part 1: 20-11)
Top 20 Contemporary R&B Artists Thus Far: In Closing (part 2: 10-1)


Yearly Worthy Rap Albums since this review was initially written Jan 15, 2004 :
Kanye West - The College Dropout (2004)
Kanye West - Late Registration (2005)
Nas - Hip Hop is Dead (2006)
Common - Finding Forever (2007)
EMC - The Show (2008)
KRS-ONE & Buckshot - Survival Skills (2009) / Cormega
- Born and Raised (2009)*
Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Canibus - Lyrical Law (2011) / J. Cole - Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011)*

Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
Eminem - The Marshall Matters LP 2 (2013) / J. Cole - Born Sinner (2013)*

*Ex aequo

2008 Bonus : Rap Rebirth

I put the paddles on her heart and yell "clear!"
Wet on my cheek, is it sweat or a tear?
Before the (heart) beat starts, I flirt with fear
I was on vacation, but I packed my travel gear
Not quite, I'm overseas Hip Hop Honeymoon like newly-wed
You ain’t an ill MC; if so, you’re the reason Hip Hop is Dead
You stand out in a rap police lineup like a cold sore or cold nipple
You ain’t big pimpin’, you’re a big pimple
While I spit potent poetry and ain’t even at my pinnacle
Open the gate: two thousand eight
It’s the rebirth, the green Earth
Let’s rebuild on this pile of dirt
Construction, but let’s read first
It’s all in the instructions
And I’m not talking about the word of God
Those are mere obstructions
Derelicts of times past like the Mir station
The message is Peace at least
While religion says one thing and does the other
Read between the lines my brother
Not my brethren
Don’t hold your breath too long, don’t wait for me in Heaven
Paradise on Earth?
You heard me right
Even at eighteen I was writing novels with insight
No time far false modesty
The state of the world is that of urgency
Covert governmental agencies
We’re facing a fancier intellectual plague than illiteracy
It’s mass misinformation
Black and white, us and them doctrines like God and Satan
Even after sixty years, we have an ineffective United Nations
I’m not here solely to criticize, but surely you can realize
That we can do much better
We need united people and not just self-serving groups
We need Real education, more teachers, less troops
Less preachers, more truth
Less emphasis on money, more on our youth
Now think about that next time you enter the booth with your fake smile and gold tooth

2011 Bonus: Rap Update, While Rappers and Others are Still Fake

2011 my friends
They say next year, the World comes to an end
Yet we survived the Y2K
Rappers nowadays are fake like toupee
The E.N.D.
Saw him in Salvador da Bahia with David Guetta
The Carnival like Wyclef, but we need a new saviour, not Obama
Someone who talks about meta-physics more than material riches
Cross-over is not cross-dressing, but we need a new message
Mere mortals call for witches to be hunted
Most are too blunted; Money and cu*ts counted
But what counts the most? Baseball buffoons, ball is just bunted
Baboons while we need Babe Ruth to blow it out the park
Read Buffon, Darwin and Gould
Instead of thinking God created two lights and called one dark

Goblins, Tooth Fairy, Noah’s Ark
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye tops the charts with humour and heart
Other so-called artists tarnish what we cherish
Players of the day perish
Braggers embellish like your local parish

… and Erick making dollars: EPMD
It’s a Cash Rules Everything Around Me epidemy

Triggers, nig**rs, censorship, hot dogs and relish: American epitome
Cut the sh*t like colectomy
Awareness of our collective economy; abomination
A bomb in this nation
Conspiracy, heresy; explosive conversation
Conservatives run the playground like thugs run the streets and alleys
Sold-out Democrats rally
DJs hype the sold-out party
Listen to Barney and then pass the bar? Hardly
Come up with better bars than soap in prison
Our mind is mesmerized, distracted and imprisoned
Go ahead, try listening to silence

Copyright: Christian Dominique, 2004, 2008 & 2011

Thank you to the tens of thousands of readers in the past eight years and thank you to the NEW readers. Hope you enjoyed the review and the music. - Crazy-C

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