Since its inception in the 70s – and some have argued the genre goes back even further than that – hip-hop has seized the public cultural consciousness. Huge, influential artists like Grandmaster Flash, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Eminem have skyrocketed the genre from pirate radio stations and street-corner battles to mainstream radio significance and huge sales. There’s no denying that hip-hop is a monster of a genre that’s here to stay, but there are some works within the genre that stand as monuments to the creative and commercial high points of their creators. Here are the 10 most important hip-hop albums ever, in no particular order!
Eric B & Rakim – Paid In Full (1987, 4th & B’way)
Prior to the release of Paid In Full, hip-hop was all about the ABAB rhyme scheme and ending each line with a word that rhymed. MC Rakim changed the game completely with his approach to writing, bringing a multi-syllabic density to the craft that would influence artists from Eminem to Naughty By Nature. Rakim introduced internal rhyme to hip-hop; now, words within lines could rhyme too, adding a complexity and a depth to the lyricism of hip-hop that persists to this day.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010, Roc-A-Fella)
If Rakim introduced greater lyrical complexity to the game, Kanye West forced other producers to try harder. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye West’s magnum opus, a huge, sprawling piece of work that fundamentally altered the hip-hop landscape and gave voices to now-ubiquitous artists like Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, and even Bon Iver. It’s also an incredible commercial success. If you want to see the real scope of this album’s numbers, check out the fascinating infographic below from Betway.
Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP (2000, Aftermath)
Holding up a cracked mirror to America in the early 2000s, Eminem mercilessly mocked the social mores of the country’s middle-class while deftly weaving tales of his larger-than-life persona Slim Shady. He got in trouble with the moral guardians, of course, but don’t let that detract from what The Marshall Mathers LP is: a sterling example of deft lyrical hip-hop from one of the genre’s undisputed masters. Eminem’s fall from grace was stark, but this is still a testament to greatness.
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993, Loud Records)
The debut Wu-Tang Clan album introduced the concept of hardcore hip-hop to the masses. Prior to this album’s release, hip-hop was usually either politically conscious or simple free association, but the Wu-Tang Clan showed everyone what life was really like on the hardcore New York streets. Of course, the album also came with plenty of humour and interplay between the group members, so even though the details could be unflinching, it was still an addictive listen (and still is to this day!).
Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992, Death Row)
The West Coast’s answer to New York’s unflinching look at life on the streets was N.W.A and Dr. Dre. While Straight Outta Compton is a massively influential record in and of itself, The Chronic set the blueprint for many years of G-funk and gangsta rap to come. Dre’s bars themselves aren’t particularly noteworthy – he would suspiciously improve in time for his 2001 followup – but The Chronic is a masterclass in how to create a sun-drenched San Francisco atmosphere with music.
Kano – Home Sweet Home (2005, 679 Recordings)
Ask any British grime rapper what their first grime album was and they’ll probably tell you it was either Kano’s Home Sweet Home or Dizzee Rascal’s equally brilliant Boy In Da Corner. Home Sweet Home kickstarted a homegrown movement, but it also contained plenty of Kane Robinson (alias Kano)’s dizzying flow and aggressive London-centric lyricism. Kano’s smarter, wittier, and funnier than many of his detractors ever gave him credit for, and he’s now a certified grime legend.
Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988, Def Jam)
Chuck D is here, and he’s angry. That’s the thesis of It Takes A Nation, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. DJ Terminator X created incredible inner-city beats that channeled the cacophonous noise of sirens and alarms acting as Public Enemy’s everyday backdrop. Against these beats, Chuck D railed against police brutality, racism, and the nullifying effect of mass media. Even class clown Flava Flav adds some much-needed…well…flavour to the record. Unmissable.
The Fugees – The Score (1996, Columbia)
While The Fugees are often remembered for being the springboard for all-time talent Lauryn Hill, that’s perhaps a little unfair to their legacy. Wyclef Jean and Pras are more than able to match Ms. Hill’s impassioned deliveries, and on songs like “Fu-Gee-La” and “Ready or Not”, you can hear how important they are to one another as a trio. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” is often cited as a solo classic, too, so if you prefer Ms. Hill to the balance of her and her bandmates, check that one out.
Outkast – Stankonia (2000, LaFace)
If you’ve never heard Stankonia, drop whatever it is you’re doing and go and listen to it right now. We’ll wait. Isn’t it incredible? André 3000 and Big Boi brought Southern rap to the masses, but they did it in a playful, psychedelic, and masterful way. “Ms. Jackson” and “B.O.B.” have been much discussed, but it’s deep cuts like “Toilet Tisha” and “Snappin’ & Trappin’” that give Stankonia its unique Hendrix-inflected hip-hop soul. For bonus points, also check out Aquemini, which is almost as brilliant.