Narrowing down the Best Hip-Hop Albums of All Time to ten is a challenge. If you search the internet and ask all your friends, you will likely get a lot of similar lists (but there will always be differences and debates). In fact, there could probably be a great top 10 list of incredible rap albums that were left off the list below (hence the 15 honorable mentions). Choosing only ten was difficult enough, so these are not ranked and appear chronologically.
Public Enemy – It Take a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
Please disregard any list of the best hip-hop albums of all time if this isn’t on it. Nothing ever sounded like this before, and only a few imitators and some other Public Enemy albums sounded like it after. “Bring the Noise” wasn’t just a song title, it was a mission statement. The music, the lyrics, the message, Chuck D’s clear delivery: this was an album that simply couldn’t be ignored.
De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
While Buhloone Mindstate or Stakes Is High might be their “better” album, there’s a reason “3 Feet High and Rising was and still is hailed as a classic. They made it cool to be peaceful and artsy. For better or worse, they practically invented the hip-hop skit and certainly broke ground by sampling off the beaten path stuff like Steely Dan and French language instructional tapes.
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
Straight-up beats, rhymes, and life propel this jazzy masterpiece into almost everyone’s Top 10. Often imitated but never matched, this is the kind of album that even impresses people who think they don’t like rap.
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
Perhaps the undisputed classic rap masterpiece. Expert beats and production from DJ Premier perfectly showcase the lyrical fury and on-point delivery of a young Nas on his incredible debut.
Gang Starr – Hard to Earn (1994)
A bit of a hidden gem here, though most hip-hop fans are down with Gang Starr (Guru and DJ Premier). They had several good albums, but this one is a real standout.
KRS-One – KRS-One (1995)
KRS-One probably deserves his own list collecting his Boogie Down Productions albums with his best solo stuff. Most lists usually have BDP’s By Any Means Necessary, and rightfully so. But this one is the true banger.
GZA/Genius – Liquid Swords (1995)
One of the first and best solo albums from the extended Wu-Tang Clan family. While it’s certainly hailed as a classic in the hip-hop community, this is the needle in the haystack that the masses have never heard of.
OutKast – Aquemini (1998)
The pre-cursor to their future classics like Stankonia and Speakerbox/Love Below, this one has all the elements and was so original and so perfectly executed by Andre 3000 and Big Boi. It not only put the South on the hip-hop map, it pushed the envelope of what rap music could be.
The Roots – things fall apart (1999)
It’s so hard to pick just one album from the Roots, and since their live show is so legendary, they aren’t usually found on lists of the best rap albums of all time, but they should be. “Illadelph Halflife,” “Game Theory,” the eclectic “Phrenology,” or raw “Do You Want More” could easily make this list. But “things fall apart” was hip-hop artistry from a band just hitting their stride.
Mos Def – Black on Both Sides (1999)
Mos Def’s collaboration with Talib Kweli (Black Star) could be in this spot, but Black on Both Sides gets the nod. It’s sprawling yet consistent, lyrically driven but very musical and textured. This is another great album that may have slipped through the cracks of the collective (un)consciousness.
N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die
Dr. Dre – The Chonic and Chronic 2001
Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
Wu-Tang Clan – 36 Chambers
Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique
Black Star – Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Boogie Down Productions – Edutainment and By Any Means Necessary
Raekwon – Only Built for Cuban Linx (and pt 2)
Jay Z – The Blueprint
Run DMC – Raising Hell
EPMD – Strictly Business
Redman – Doc’s Da Name