Throughout the development of the rap and hip-hop genre we have seen hundreds of truly world class albums from top draw music producers and rappers keen to etch their name in musical folklore. Only a select few of these become recognised as the very best of all time and can be discussed for generations. Nobody truly knows which one is the best of them all, but this is my perspective of it all. These are, in my opinion, the 10 greatest rap albums of all time.
10. Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle:
This is the debut album of loveable Long Beach, California born rapper Snoop Dogg, which was released way back in 1993. It was a real eye opener for fans of the genre as a new hero was about to burst onto the scene with his satirical verses and infectious character. People were aware of Snoop Dogg’s talents when he contributed massively to the work of Dr Dre’s breakout album ‘The Chronic’ (1992) so there was quite a lot of buzz around what Snoop could deliver. The album became recognised as one of the most important and groundbreaking of the 90s as it furthered Snoop’s reputation and brought G-funk into the mainstream audience. It also made the West Coast a dominant force in the early 90s over their Eastern rivals. It debuted straight at the top of the Billboard charts and sold over 800,000 copies in its first week of sales, which was the record until Eminem took it for ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ in 2000. It has been certified as 4x Platinum and has sold 11 million worldwide copies thanks to huge tracks such as ‘Gin & Juice’, ‘Doggy Dogg World’ and ‘Who Am I?’. It became a stalwart for regular people as Snoop himself mentioned that “I can’t rap about something I don’t know” meaning he stuck true to his hometown and his upbringing and ran with it for this album.
9. OutKast – Speakerboxx/The Love Below:
The only album ever released by a hip-hop act to win the ‘Best Album’ award at the Grammy’s. Not just ‘Best Rap Album’, but the best of them all. That is an achievement which literally no other rap act has achieved and that is why this album proudly sits on this list. OutKast released this double album in 2001 which was a real treat to fans considering the 3 year break they took previously to this project. Following up from their previous album ‘Stankonia’ was always going to be difficult as that was a critically acclaimed record and helped the group receive widespread recognition. But they managed it, they raised the bar and never looked back. 40 songs in one album just seems absurd but this whole album is full of underplayed gems and of course, three of the group’s biggest hits in ‘Roses’, ‘The Way You Move’ and their biggest song ‘Hey Ya’. Any album which features those three is going to be a hit because they were the songs which gave OutKast their image and their sound, a soulful but gritty rap style with iconic choruses. It was clear that frontman Dré’s decision to go by the new identity of André 3000 became a wise move as it seemed to revitalise not only him but the band as a whole in this masterful project. The group would only go on to release one more album after this before splitting and going their separate ways, perhaps recognising not only that their time was up, but also that they would never quite replicate the success of this album.
8. Jay Z – The Blueprint:
This was the sixth studio album by legendary rapper and producer Jay-Z and he wasn’t holding anything back on this one. Released in 2001, it is often regarded not only as Jay’s first huge commercial success on an album, but also as one of the most influential rap albums of the decade due to it paving the way for other New York rappers to go after the South Side rose to dominance around that time in hip hop. The album itself featured the lead single ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.)’ which was simply brilliant and was a real commercially staggering release. As well as this the quite brilliant ‘Renegade’ came from this album where Jay-Z does perform incredibly well on a very good song but is also allowing the spotlight onto Eminem who’s fantastic verse takes the plaudits. That takes nothing away from the genius of the song, however which provides a crucial role in this album as a whole. This album became commercially successful through its range of synth-rap bangers and the soulful samples used, such as in ‘Hola Hovito’ or ‘That N***a Jigga’ and this gave Jay that platform to run with and create a truly masterful album. Oh yeah, and it’s home to the greatest rap diss track there has ever been with ‘U Don’t Know’, the song of course which is well known as the song that ended Nas’ career.
7. N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton:
Way back in 1988, a little known group of California born rappers released their breakout debut record, they named it Straight Outta Compton and themselves went by the name of N.W.A. It meshed every single musical code the West Coast stood for, gang rhythm, funk and flow, they had it all. Dr Dre, Eazy E, Ice Cube and co. were a force to be reckoned with in an instant with this absolute classic of an album. The lead single itself was named after the album and became a legendary anthem for the group who later had a film dedicated to their incredible rise to fame from the rough streets of Compton, California. It has been ranked as the fourth best rap album of all time by Rolling Stone and also went platinum not only in America but in the United Kingdom as well, which is some fear for anyone to achieve let alone a bunch of young rappers. It’s a youthful vibe of energy and rebellion as these young men released huge tracks that were not only aggressive but also rule bending. ‘F*** The Police’ became a massive hit and was a clear message to all those listening that N.W.A weren’t the biggest fans of the American police departments. Despite this, they also had immense talent, every last member of the group had rhythm, flow and ability to rhyme proficiently and they bounced off of each other so well it was just perfect. ‘Express Yourself’ was an example of that with its funky mix and high responsibility on maintaining flow but they all do that superbly, creating a brilliant song as a result. The album as a whole is a masterclass and as before mentioned, was so good they named a film after it so it must have caused a stir around the world.
6. Dr. Dre – 2001:
Despite the title, this is in fact the album Dre released in 1999 and was his second studio release. When talking about mainstream gangsta rap, this is where you come. The most iconic and well known album of it’s time, it contains 2-3 of the biggest rap songs ever created along with other magnificent tracks. The standouts of this record are, of course, ‘Still D.R.E.’ the lead single of this album which featured close friend and colleague Snoop Dogg, ‘The Next Episode’ again with Snoop alongside him and ‘Forgot About Dre’ which contains an incredible verse from Eminem as well as lively and top notch bars from Dre himself. These three tracks are at the forefront of this record and make it stand tall as a truly iconic piece, something that will never rust and will be listened to and enjoyed for generations on end. The production value demonstrated here epitomises Dre himself, his hard work but also unbridled talent helped create a masterpiece of sound and artistic design. It’s never going to be soft, easy going listening but will be guaranteed to get any party started, if anything just for the legendary Snoop Dogg line in ‘The Next Episode’ (I’m sure you all know what I, talking about). I’m running out of superlatives for this so I’ll say this, the fact I’ve put this in as Dre’s standout project ahead of The Chronic tells you all you need to know about the genius of this release, it’s sublime.
5. 2Pac – All Eyez On Me:
This is the 4th studio album released by the then alive Tupac Shakur, better known as 2Pac. It was released on February 13th 1996 and became known as the most commercially successful album Pac ever released. It was also the first ever double-full-length hip-hop solo album released for mass consumption after being issued on two discs. It contained the most singles of any 2Pac record, those included the track which the album was named after ‘All Eyez On Me’ and the cult classic ‘California Love’ which has gone on to become one of the truly great songs in the history of hip-hop. The album itself has been charted in the Billboard 200 for a total of 105 weeks since its release and was certified platinum a few years ago, showing the impact it has had with the public even today. It was the phenomenal variation of Pac which made this project so special, the ability he had to be a real gangsta rapper and then transform in a second to a soulful and cultural prophet of his time, showing his true genius and weaving his magic on every song he touched. ‘Ambitionz Az A Ridah’ is an example of that gritty, gangsta style which Pac developed after growing up in the streets of Harlem, whereas ‘Heaven Ain’t Hard 2 Find’, the closer of the album was a much more meaningful piece and showed Pac’s preaching side as he showed throughout his life that he was desperate for humans to be at peace with one another. His legacy, along with this album, will live on forever and with him we remember this fantastic album which has been widely regarded as his greatest work.
4. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP:
This was Eminem’s 3rd studio album and was released on May 23rd 2000 in Los Angeles, California. It’s as hard hitting and heartbreaking as an album could possibly get and shows the vulnerable side of Eminem along with the fame it has brought him. Nobody had witnessed something quite like it when this was brought along as he didn’t use his rap ability to go on and on about chains, fast cars and models. In actual fact, he made a mockery of that and would write songs in homage to that style almost in a satirical way. That is how ‘The Real Slim Shady’ came about, the lead single off this album and a key cog in the Eminem wheel of songs. This high octane, bouncy sound twinned with a higher keyed than usual Eminem rap vocal made for really brilliant listening and became one of the key songs of that year. What staggered people was how he would go from that style to the depressing, soul crushing path he took during ‘Stan’, perhaps his most emotionally fuelled song. Written by Eminem from the perspective of a fan, it shows us the devotion of some fans and how they can dedicate their lives to one man (Slim Shady in this case) and go to extreme measures to be recognised. It was also seen as a bit of a message to his fans that due to his incredibly busy and hectic lifestyle, he can’t spend as much time as he would like to talking with his fans. This album broke all sorts of records as it became the fastest selling studio album by any solo artist in American history, selling a mind blowing 1.76 million copies in its first week alone. It also won Best Rap Album at the 2001 Grammy’s by an absolute landslide and was nominated for Album Of The Year. The album still maintains a huge feeling with fans to this day, as numbers of sales have now tipped over 32 million worldwide, numbers that were previously unheard of in the rap industry. A guru and role model of his generation, this was the finest work of Eminem’s huge discography and also ranks as one of the best ever albums.
3. Nas – Illmatic:
The 1994 debut album by New York rapper Nas is often referred to as one of the true pioneering greats of rap music. MTV rank it 2nd in their list of all time hip-hop albums and hip-hop connection and their readers voted Illmatic 3rd overall. It’s a masterpiece of public message and concern, a plea to focus more on poverty across the streets of America, the struggles of growing up in Queensbridge with all of its gang violence and desolation of urban areas. It’s such a personal piece yet is so relatable for those living in desperate times and gave them a window of opportunity, a belief that they too could release an album of this magnificence. The truth of the matter was that they couldn’t, simply because Nas was a one of a kind rapper, the kind of talent and genius mind you don’t stumble across every day and he devoted all of that into this album. It eventually went Platinum thanks to the incredible work he put into it and as a result became a global superstar. Hit tracks such as ‘Life’s A Bitch’ or the colossal hit ‘N.Y. State Of Mind’ which blew away the minds of millions who listened to it with his revolutionary and never before heard production value. Not only are his verses red-hot throughout this album, he also had the fantastic talent of finding the perfect beat to match his lyrics. Using ‘One Love’ as an example, he provided a slightly softer element than he would for ‘Life’s A Bitch’ or for ‘Represent’ because he was fully aware of the situation he wanted to paint for the listener. Although Nas did go on to achieve great things in his career, he would never be able to replicate this work again, but that’s one hell of an achievement to aim for given the sheer brilliance of this album.
2. The Notorious B.I.G – Life After Death:
This album is a history maker, it was released posthumously 16 days after his death in March 1997 and became an instant classic. With it only being his second studio album and the follow up to the hugely successful ‘Ready To Die’ album there was anticipation in abundance for the release of it and to see how he would have continued to path his legacy. As a rapper, there is no better in my personal opinion. The fact he released one album while alive and had the second in the pipeline following his death yet still became known as the greatest to ever live suggests and confirms his supremacy in the hip hop genre. This project, along with his debut, revolutionised rap as we knew it back then and became part of a lasting story, almost like a sequel to ‘Ready To Die’. It was a huge discovery into the sub-genre known as mafioso rap, which artists such as Jay-Z, Nas and Raekwon had all attempted before with large success. When Biggie released this, however, they were all pushed to one side and made to witness true history in the making. The track list is perfection, it balances pop and gangsta rap to an absolute T and provides a new kind of sound for avid pop or rap listeners as he mixes the two with incredible proficiency. The iconic singles ‘Hypnotize’ and ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ feature on this blockbuster record which sold a staggering 690,000 copies in it’s first week. Even after death, The Notorious B.I.G was living up to his name, becoming a global icon that would be relevant until the end of time. Many have described this album as the gateway for rappers such as Kanye West, J Cole and Drake to add a pop funk style to gangsta rap, something that without Biggie, nobody would have dared to even consider. Jay-Z and Ice Cube are just two of the huge names influenced so greatly by this album that they dedicated bars or beats from the album to use themselves as a tribute to the great man and his magnificent work on this project. All in all, it’s a phenomenon. An album that will stand the test of time and be judged not only as one of the greatest rap albums of all time, but musicians of all genres stand and notice the wonder of Christopher Wallace and his majestic work on ‘Life After Death’.
1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy:
Simply the greatest rap album ever to be crafted. From start to finish it demonstrates a masterful mix of flow, timing, production and most of all, impeccable track listing. It’s perhaps the most underrated element of an album and in this case, the album becomes a motion picture. Starting with ‘Dark Fantasy’ and a harrowing speech from Nicki Minaj who is acting out a role of a princess, this album fades softly and subtly into life with a great intro, only made better by the next songs and their placement. ‘Gorgeous’ which features Kid Cudi, is a funky beat with an electric guitar influence and brilliant rap verses. This moves into quite possibly Kanye’s most influential and inspiring song ever, ‘POWER’. He acknowledges his genius and his talent, growing it all into this public service announcement that he is in fact here to inspire and revolutionise. ‘All Of The Lights’ features just about everyone in music and is a club banger for the ages, a hype track which will live in infamy. It’s a release of passion, aggression and desire as he raps about his girlfriend cheating on him. Following this song is a continued spree of energy with ‘Monster’ which has, for me, the only negative point on the whole album (Jay-Z’s diabolical verse). Despite this it also has the truly magnificent verse from New Yorker Nicki Minaj, who completely slays the competition and announces herself well and truly on the rap scene. ‘Devil In A New Dress’, ‘Runaway’ and ‘Blame Game’ are beautiful and quite remarkable pieces of music which demonstrate the softer and more emotional side of Kanye’s lyrics and songwriting ability, particularly for ‘Runaway’ and ‘Blame Game’ which show an incredibly passionate Kanye rapping and singing over a harmonic and soft piano tune. The speech in ‘Blame Game’ is iconic and brigs back the demons of his past, being cheated on and made to feel irrelevant by a previous partner. It provides a perfect diversity to the previously upbeat songs he had earlier in the album. By ending on the wonderful ‘Lost In The World’ which samples Bon Iver he provides a space age but glorious ending along with the next song which compliments it brilliantly. A technical masterpiece from start to finish and I struggle to believe anything will touch it.