Hip-hop stands as one of the few uniquely American cultural developments of the last century, yet the genre remains misunderstood. The artistic subculture first combined spoken poetry with instrumental beats, original compositions and sampled elements from across the spectrum of blues, jazz and rock and roll, building on what came before to create a cultural juggernaut and global phenomenon.
Because the lines between pop and hip-hop have blurred over the last two decades, a majority of casual listeners continue to define the genre based on what they hear on the radio. Many music fans paint the entire hip-hop world with the stereotypical brush rather than take the time to understand it.
Whether you’re a hip-hop fan since birth or just looking for an intro to the genre, these ten classics deliver.
And Parental Advisory Warning: many videos feature lyrics NSFW.
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The Chronic marked the solo debut of Dr. Dre, formerly of N.W.A., who staked his claim as one of hip-hop’s most respected production innovators. Released in 1992 on his own Death Row Records label, the album features guest appearances by Snoop Dogg, who used the album as a launch-pad for his own career. The album peaked inside the top five on Billboard, going triple platinum and widely popularizing the G-Funk sub-genre within gangsta rap. This album remains among the most influential of the nineties, known for its top-notch production values. Dre waited a decade to release a sophomore effort, but as far as singular debuts go, this one’s a can’t miss.
Essential Tracks: “Let Me Ride,” “Nothing But A ‘G’ Thang,”
Wu-Tang Clan released Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993, creating the blueprint against which every ensuing hardcore rap album would follow. The album, and the sly sense of humor and free-associative lyrics, marked the beginning of the East Coast Renaissance. Eventually artists as diverse as Nas, the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z would emerge in their footsteps to dominate the genre in future years. Notably, the band maintained control over its own publishing rights, samples and production, a level of artistic control virtually unheard of at the time. And though few expected the raw underground sound on 36 Chambers to achieve mainstream radio play, the album had surprising chart success, reaching the Billboard Top 10 and eventually going platinum.
Essential Tracks: “Protect Ya Neck,” “Can It Be All So Simple”
2Pac slammed his way into the scene in 1991 with 2Pacalypse Now, which stands out even from his diverse discography despite less polished production compared to his later albums. His most overtly political work, addressing contemporary social issues of the day, the future icon sounds off on police brutality and teen pregnancy. While failing to achieve the sustained commercial success of 2Pac’s later work, 2Pacalypse Now showcases his political convictions and his rarely equaled lyrical dexterity.
Essential Tracks: “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” “If My Homie Calls,” “Trapped”
The Score was the breakthrough second (and final) album for the Fugees, and the album’s wide-ranging use of samples and instrumentation put it at the forefront of the “alternative” hip-hop movement which would eventually dominate the late nineties. A commercial success, the album reached the pinnacle of the Billboard chart, going 6x Platinum in the process. The Score’s eclectic nature arose from the collaborative production process, which showcased the group’s amazing chemistry. Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean would go on to dominate hip-hop via solo careers, but this portrait of the ghetto as a mythical landscape would prove difficult to top.
Essential Tracks: “Ready or Not,” “Fu-Gee-La,” “Killing Me Softly”
Say what you will about Eminem, his Marshall Mathers LP still stands as one of the most cohesive hip-hop efforts of the new millennium. Though his major-label debut dabbled in horror-core and shock rap, forcibly pulling the mainstream to him, Marshall Mathers saw Em focusing more seriously on personal demons. The result is a diverse album. And though it suffers from obvious bloat due to Eminem’s unwillingness to edit, most tracks showcase otherworldly lyrical skills, shocking wit and a willingness to dig into his psyche. You may still hate him, but there’s no denying the skill behind this dizzying effort.
Essential Tracks: “Stan,” “Kill You,” “The Way I Am”
That Jay-Z made The Black Album eight albums into a career steeped in NYC legend is stunning in itself. Even wilder: the album later lost to protégé Kanye West’s The College Dropout for Best Rap Album in 2004. But The Black Album did what seemed impossible, bridging the gap between old-school and modern hip-hop, showcasing Jay Z at the top of his game both from a production and lyrical standpoint.
The album also gave birth to the infamous Grey Album by Danger Mouse, which blended Jay-Z’s lyrics with samples from the Beatles’ White Album. This only further illustrated how deft the rapper’s lyrics were, even when showcased outside their initial context.
Essential Tracks: “99 Problems,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “What More Can I Say”
Illmatic serves as a gift and a curse for Nas. Everything since this spectacular debut has met endless comparison with the original. This is among the most powerful examples of hip-hop as social commentary, and Nas’s lyrics were miles beyond his contemporaries in both their vocabulary and delivery. Illmatic redefined the game, and though it only achieved Gold status from the RIAA, the album has proven to be perhaps the landmark East Coast rap album of the era. These are highly detailed first-person narratives which put listeners squarely in context with the life Nas lived in the projects of Queensbridge, New York. DJ Premier’s minimalist production on the album lets the lyrics speak for themselves. The result is an essential album even beyond the confines of the genre.
Essential Tracks: “N.Y. State of Mind,” “One Love,” “Halftime”
In 1988 N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton redefined the direction of hip-hop, driving the gangsta subculture and — for better or worse — creating the lens middle-Americans use to see hip-hop. Heard without context, the album seems to glamorize gang violence, but what stands out upon repeat listens is how nonchalantly the band’s members lay out the violence for us to dissect. “Fuck Tha Police” can be dismissed as a vile mess glorifying the destruction of law and order if you’re not willing to give the music a deeper examination. From N.W.A.’s perspective, they voiced the widespread resentment towards the LAPD which boiled over in the 1992 L.A. riots. Taken literally the lyrics threaten anarchy, but these aren’t words meant to be taken literally. Straight Outta Compton is a brilliant hybrid of eye-on-the-street social commentary, sly humor and uncensored young rage. Jon Caramanica of Rolling Stone had it right when he described the album’s 2002 reissue as “a bombastic, cacophonous car ride through Los Angeles’ burnt-out and ignored hoods.”
Essential Tracks: “Fuck Tha Police,” “Gangsta, Gangsta,” “Straight Outta Compton”
Released four months prior to Straight Outta Compton, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back seems to be that album’s opposite. In Public Enemy’s sophomore release the band sought to make the hip-hop equivalent to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, an album of strong social commentary which could address the state of the world as they saw it. The album takes on such topics as self-empowerment, white supremacy, and (on “Caught, Can We Get A Witness?”) even the music industry itself for attempting to stifle sampling within the hip-hop culture. The album sold half a million copies in its first month without significant promotional efforts by Columbia Records, eventually peaking at #42 on the Billboard chart. Widely regarded as the group’s strongest work, the album still stands as a complex fusion of music and politics which few have equaled.
Essential Tracks: “Don’t Believe The Hype,” “Louder Than A Bomb,” “Caught, Can We Get A Witness”
Paul’s Boutique was initially considered a commercial failure by Capitol Records, paling in comparison to the popularity of License to Ill. But the group’s magnum opus didn’t fall into obscurity. Recognized as an album vastly ahead of its time, Paul’s Boutique stands tall as the ultimate sampling fan’s album, bringing together elements from 105 songs to form the most sonically diverse album of the hip-hop era. Few expected that level of adventurous exploration from the creators of “Fight For Your Right To Party,” but, with the production skills of the Dust Brothers, Paul’s Boutique established the practice of multi-layered sampling as an art in itself. Thanks to the group’s refusal to succumb to one-hit-wonder status, we have irrefutable proof that, in the long run, creative depth trumps commercial pandering:
Few pop records offer this much to savor, and if Paul’s Boutique only made a modest impact upon its initial release, over time its influence could be heard through pop and rap, yet no matter how its influence was felt, it stands alone as a record of stunning vision, maturity, and accomplishment.
Essential Tracks: “Egg Man,” “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” … but the album’s at its best when you listen to it straight through.