The Passion of the Weiss and Straight Bangin’ have called for bloggers to compile lists of their 25 favorite hip-hop albums and there’s been a nice response so far. The lists that are submitted will be integrated using a simple weighted scoring system to create a kind of overall internet-consensus master list. It’s a fun project and a nice, challenging exercise… particularly for someone who hasn’t really compiled a list before (like me). I definitely enjoy reading them, but I’ve always felt that lists can be a bit arbitrary (especially those as openly subjective as “25 favorites”). And though exclusions are inevitable, ultimately I think I’ve painted a pretty fair picture of what I would consider my favorite hip-hop albums at this moment in time. But keep that subjectivity in mind and don’t hate me too much for leaving out The Pharcyde, Outkast, De La Soul, The Roots, Eric B. & Rakim, or any of the other classic artists that didn’t make it into my top 25.
11) GZA/Genius – Liquid Swords (1995)
[Listen: 4th Chamber (Feat. Ghostface Killah, RZA & Killah Priest)] [Buy]
10) Sole – Selling Live Water (2003)
Though Bottle of Humans is usually hailed as Sole’s shining contribution to independent hip-hop, I’ve always been partial to Selling Live Water. Here we find Sole at his most passionate, leveling criticisms most notably at his countrymen and political leadership, but also at himself. With an album of contradictions, introspection, frustration, and scathing satire, Sole leaves his mark upon hip-hop powerfully and, in turn, crafts one of my favorite albums of the decade.
9) AZ -Doe or Die (1995)
In his grand comeback of 2001, Nas boasted: “My first album had no famous guest appearances, the outcome: I’m crowned the best lyricist”. And while that’s true, AZ — a virtual unknown, before being granted the only guest appearance on Illmatic — also garnered a significant amount of attention, and in fact launched a bidding war amongst several labels interested in releasing his first solo effort. While there was a lot of pressure to live up to the hype, AZ delivered beautifully. Characterized by his thoughtful, complex rhymes and killer flow, Doe or Die ranks among the greatest mafioso-inspired hip-hop albums.
8) A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
I first heard this album in high school, before I fully understood or appreciated hip-hop as a genre. I found the cassette at a thrift store for about 50 cents and bought it to listen to in my first car. I nearly wore the tape out. Heavily jazz-influenced, intelligent and original, this is arguably the greatest album of the “Golden Age” Era (88-93). The rapport between Phife Dawg and Q-Tip is fantastic; listening to them trade verses feels so natural it’s always been difficult for me to imagine one without the other. Put this record on if you want some hip-hop that’s gonna let you: a) have a good time, b) have your mind blown, c) learn something.
7) Organized Konfusion – The Equinox (1997)
Yes, hip-hop had concept albums before The Love Below. The swan song of one of hip-hop’s finest duos, The Equinox certainly provides a memorable end. In my opinion, Pharoahe Monch and Princo Po, like Phife and Tip, are two MCs that should have never been separated — though with rhymes like “I’m movin’ on all you punk bambino bas’tids / your style’s depleted like muscles without amino acids”, Pharoahe may have stolen some of the spotlight. A combination of strong storytelling, superhuman wordplay, and unique lyrical perspectives, I’ve always thought this album was Organized Konfusion’s masterpiece.
6) Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele (2000)
Ghostface has perhaps had the most consistently successful solo career of any of the Wu-Tang Clan. Supreme Clientele, his sophomore effort, is a truly dense lyrical masterwork — you could spend hours decoding the intricate slang and wordplay, peeling back layers of meaning. Of all the amazing Wu-Tang solo releases, this challenging and rewarding record is at the top of the list for me.
5) Common – Resurrection (1994)
I’m even a little bit surprised myself that this album has found its way this high up on the list, but after a lot of thought (and listening) over the past few days it makes sense. Resurrection was one of those “soundtrack of the summer” albums, hardly ever leaving the CD player in my car for several weeks at a time. Combining good-time party jams, social commentary, continuous wordplay, and a solid flow, Common (then Common Sense) crafted an album that still makes me nod my head as excitedly as the first time I heard it.
4) Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)
One of the darkest, grimiest records ever made, The Infamous is a dismal and harrowing characterization of life in the inner city. More surprising than the bleakness of the album for many was the age of its creators; Havoc and Prodigy were both still teenagers when they wrote the majority of it, but they sounded like two seasoned hustlers. Even though you know that they couldn’t possibly have lived all that they rapped about, the pictures they painted were so cohesive and vivid, you were still probably a little scared. An undeniable classic.
3) Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
A product of two of the most exciting figures in hip-hop today, MF DOOM and Madlib, Madvillainy is a modern masterpiece. Constructed of 22 tracks, many clocking in at 2 minutes or less and lacking a chorus, the album’s disregard for convention is refreshing — especially at a time when independent hip-hop is in a bit of a creative lull. MF DOOM’s entire presence is incredible: his off-kilter flow, his laid back delivery, his wordplay, and his obscure lyrics, which somehow walk a thin line between realness and nerdiness. Not to be outdone, Madlib proves himself to be an unequivocal genius. Madvillainy showcases some of the most brilliant uses of samples in recent memory, perhaps ever.
2) Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
In 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan sent shockwaves throughout the hip-hop world with the immeasurably influential Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). With some of the most complex and layered writing of any rappers ever to touch pen to paper, they changed the face of East Coast hip-hop, and the genre at large, forever. It’s simply amazing that so many (nine of ’em, remember) talented, distinct, and original MCs could find each other in the New York boroughs and channel their energies into the massive collective force that is the Wu-Tang.
1) Nas – Illmatic (1994)
What can I say about Illmatic that hasn’t been said a hundred times before? It’s an undisputed triumph, and has been treated as such since its conception. Enlisting four of the most hailed producers in hip-hop — many of whom strived to create the greatest beats they had ever made — Nas took the genre by storm, somehow blending elements of the seemingly incompatible Golden Age and Gangster Rap movements into one extended moment of genius. Beyond it’s production value, Illmatic was also held to be a reinvention of lyricism in the genre. In fact, Nas was hailed by many as the so-called “second coming of Rakim”. With its engaging narratives, thoughtful introspection, masterful wordplay, and complex rhyme schemes (you down with multisyllabic internal rhymes or what?), Illmatic easily lives up to the hype.
Not only would I say that Illmatic is my favorite hip-hop album of all time, but I’d also argue that it’s the best; an absolute classic that should be considered required listening for any fan of music, especially those with even a passing interest in hip-hop.
Download: Nas – Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)
While you’re at it, check out some of the other lists out there: