Counting down the best albums in hip hop.  For my favorite ’80s albums, go here.

All of the seeds for the future of rap were sown in the ’80s: Rock hybrids, conscious rap, native tongue and other dialects, hippie love hop, party anthems, radio-friendly singles and radio-unfriendly cuts for the heads…But in the ’90s, hip hop moved from being a new, unpredictable, street-level art to a commercial monster.  Many people, myself included, believe the ’90s to be to rap what the 1980s were to Marvel: A high water mark commercially, and a time when content got slicker and more accessible–in the best way possible.  The main difference: Marvel went bankrupt a year later.  Rap, after going mainstream in the ’90s, would reinvent itself in the ’00s.

Here’s my favorite hip hop albums of the years 1990-1999.

If you haven’t heard these albums, go get ’em.

  1. and
  2. (tie): Dr Dre – The Chronic (1992) and Nas – Illmatic (1994).  Between Chronic and Illmatic, it’s a toss up.  Nas’ album is definitely better lyrically and the sound defined ’90s East Coast.  Nas was one of the first to rhyme about life in the projects as a kid–not as something political, just telling slice-of-life stories.  Similarly, The Chronic defined ’90s West Coast–and, frankly, continues to be the foundation for L.A. gangsta rap.  In terms of influence and revitalizing the genre, The Chronic has the edge.  For overall quality, #1 goes to Nas.
  3. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready To Die (1994).  Close on Nas’ heels for the most essential New York rap album of the ’90s.
  4. 2Pac – All Eyez On Me (1996).  Tupac’s magnum opus, and one of the few rap double-albums that is all meat and no filler.  Really, I can count them on two fingers.  The other one is Life After Death.
  5. Jay Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996).  An undisputed masterpiece.  There can be no doubt.
  6. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991).  Taking Native Tongue beyond something cool and accessible, TcQ’s second album proved that alt-rap was capable of limitless expansion.
  7. Public Enemy-Fear of a Black Planet (1990).  One of the most important rap groups, and albums, of all time.
  8. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993).  Strong Island’s second-greatest rap export.
  9. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998).  Easily one of the best albums of the ’90s and, sadly, the only example of Hill’s capacity as a solo artist.
  10. Ice Cube – Death Certificate (1991).  More mature than his work with NWA, it’s here that Cube reconciled his sympathy for the gangstas he glorified with NWA, the empowerment philosophies he was exposed to during his brief time in New York recording Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, and his own success as both an “important” actor and rapper.
  11. A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders (1993)
  12. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)
  13. Public Enemy – Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black (1991).  By this time, Terminator X’s skills are being surpassed by producers with better access to equipment and sampling as an art is dying because of changes to copyright caselaw.  Yet Public Enemy stayed strong for one more classic album.  Subsequent releases would be good, but never as good as this.
  14. Snoop Doggy Dogg – Doggy Style (1993)
  15. The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death (1997)
  16. Pete Rock and CL Smooth-Mecca and the Soul Brother (1992)
  17. Gang Starr – Step In The Arena (1991)
  18. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)
  19. GZA – Liquid Swords (1995).  Yeah, there’s too many skits (and that’s what completely turned me off to Wu Tang Forever), but there’s also sheer brilliance here.
  20. Black Moon – Enta Da Stage (1993).  Boot Camp Klick is hip hop’s greatest underground collective.
  21. De La Soul – De La Soul Is Dead (1991)
  22. Ice T – Original Gangster (1991).  Paired with his appearance as a cop in New Jack City, this is where Ice-T moved to the mainstream, away from his roots as notorious “6 in the Morning” rapper that, quite possibly, was responsible for the explosion of gangsta rap, and become a brilliantly cartoonish representative of all sides of the cops and robbers game.
  23. The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)
  24. Missy Elliott – Supa Dupa Fly (1997).  This whole album is like a sexy, smoky haze.  There had been nothing like it before, and Missy never tried to do the same thing twice, so there was never another like it after, either.
  25. The Beastie Boys-Check Your Head (1992)
  26. Eminem-The Eminem Show (2002).  This is the one where Marshall decided to embrace his own impressive commercial capabilities and just go nuts with his best produced, most hook-filled album.
  27. The Fugees – The Score (1996)
  28. Ice Cube-AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990).  The West Coast rappers “East Coast” album, with production by Hank “Public Enemy” Shocklee.
  29. Scarface – The Diary (1994).  Scarface is on a lot of people’s top ten lists. He was on mine until Kendrick recently knocked him off.  I know the “real” heads will say his other albums are better, but this one is my personal favorite.
  30. MF DOOM – Operation Doomsday (1999)
  31. 50 Cent-Power of the Dollar (1999). The one with “How to Rob.” It’s also got a bunch of other great cuts.  But “Rob” is the one that is most remembered.
  32. Cypress Hill – Cypress Hill (1991)
  33. LL Cool J-Mama Said Knock You Out (1990)
  34. Mos Def-Black on Both Sides (1999)
  35. DMX – It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot (1998)
  36. Makaveli – The Don Killuminati The Seven Day Theory (1996).  I don’t understand why this album doesn’t get more love.  It’s ‘Pac’s most vicious record.
  37. The Coup – Steal This Album (1998)
  38. 2Pac-Me Against the World (1995)
  39. BDP-Edutainment (1990).  Underrated and excellent, this album may not have been as influential as KRS’ other albums, but for me it holds up better over time.  And it had his biggest hit, Material Love.
  40. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return To The 36 Chambers (1995)
  41. Geto Boys – We Can`t Be Stopped (1991)
  42. Camp Lo – Uptown Saturday Night (1997)
  43. Main Source-Breaking Atoms (1991)
  44. Compton’s Most Wanted – Music To Driveby (1992).  Often criticized as NWA lite, CMW are grittier and more authentic.
  45. Smif N Wessun – Dah Shinin (1995)
  46. Ras Kass – Soul on Ice (1996)
  47. Eminem – The Slim Shady LP (1999). I know most people would rate this higher, but the extreme hate and violence is a little exhausting.  It’s still a great record, it’s just not in my top 5 for this artist.
  48. Jay Z- Vol 2… Hard Knock Life (1998)
  49. Company Flow – Funcrusher Plus (1997)
  50. Del Tha Funky Homosapien – I Wish My Brother George Was Here (1991)
  51. Black Sheep – A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing (1991).  One of the special things about this one: The “bits” between songs are actually good, funny, and add to the experience of the album.  Most of the time, that kind of stuff is filler or, at best, a listen-once-then-delete event.  It’s driven by two monster hits, but the other songs are also really good.
  52. Showbiz and A.G.-Runaway Slave (1992)
  53. De La Soul-Stakes is High (1996)
  54. The Roots-Illadelph Halflife (1996)
  55. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II… (1992)
  56. Big Pun – Capital Punishment (1998)
  57. OutKast – Aquemini (1998).  Just before and after the turn of the Century, Outkast were one of the most important voices in hip hop.  It seems their star faded pretty quick after the unprecedented success of “Hey Ya,” and their albums now have to compete with so many other strong southern voices that, frankly, might not ever have made it had Outkast not come first.
  58. UGK-Riding Dirty (1996)
  59. Boo Yaa Tribe-New Funky Nation (1990).  A personal favorite rap/rock album left off too many hip hop heads’ lists.  And yeah, it’s pretty high on my list ’cause I love it.  It might be the only Samoan rap album worth hearing.
  60. A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm (1990)
  61. Tha Dogg Pound-Dogg Food (1995).  Yeah, lots of filler.  But between Snoop going to war with literally all of New York City in the video and the West Coast rappers attacking the king of NY with Big Pimpin’ 2, this is an undisputed classic of gangsta rap.
  62. Paris – The Devil Made Me Do It (1990).  Viewed as anti-white, Paris’ skills are undeniable, even if the content makes you uncomfortable.
  63. O.C.–Word…Life
  64. The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy – Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury (1992).  This industrial rap album led by Michael Franti has a cover of a Dead Kennedy’s song that’s actually better than the original.
  65. Pharoahe Monch – Internal Affairs (1999)
  66. Beastie Boys – Ill Communication (1994)
  67. The Coup-Kill My Landlord (1993)
  68. Aceyalone-All Balls Don’t Bounce (1995)
  69. Souls of Mischief-93 ’til Infinity (1993)
  70. Gang Starr-Moment of Truth (1998)
  71. Digable Planets-Blowout Comb (1994)
  72. De La Soul-Buhloone Mindstate (1993)
  73. Mobb Deep-The Infamous (1995).  How can this rank so low!?!  Shook Ones may be the best hardcore rap song of all time, but the album?  Not as good.
  74. Arrested Development – 3 Years. 5 Months And 2 Days In The Life Of… (1992)
  75. Dr. Dre-2001 (1999)
  76. Dr Octagon – Dr Octagonecologyst (1996).  Unlike most hip hop heads, I am not a big fan of Kool Keith.  But I will say that his work here is damn awesome.
  77. Jeru the Damaja-The Sun Rises in the East (1994)
  78. E-40-In A Major Way (1995)
  79. 3d Bass-Direlicts of Dialect (1991).  Not as good as their first album but come on, you have to like a record where almost half the songs dis Vanilla Ice.
  80. Digital Underground – Sex Packets (1990).  The band that launched the career of Tupac.
  81. KRS One-The Return of the Boom Bap (1993)
  82. DJ Quik-Quik is the Name (1992)
  83. Lootpack-Soundpieces: The Antidote (1999).  Stones Throw is an important voice in independent rap, and this album, featuring Madlib’s extraordinary beats, helped put them on the map.
  84. Naughty By Nature – Naughty By Nature (1991)
  85. OutKast – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994)
  86. Jurassic 5-Jurassic 5 (1997).  Chali 2Na’s unique voice is the main reason to listen to J5, but the whole 6some makes major contributions and, frankly, Chali never really works as well on his own.  One of the finest independent rap albums of the ’90s.
  87. Nas-It Was Written (1996)
  88. Ice Cube-The Predator (1992).  This is the one Cube made for the money.  Huge hits.  Huge sound.
  89. Busta Rhymes-Extinction Level Event (1998).  Busta is the first famous rapid-fire rapper, with bar after bar that batters the listener into submission.  He’s a party rapper, and this is a party album.  Nonstop fun and adrenaline.
  90. Eric B & Rakim – Don’t Sweat The Technique (1992)
  91. Jay Z – In My Lifetime Vol. 1 (1997)
  92. Pete Rock and CL Smooth-The Main Ingredient (1994)
  93. Haji P and DJ MF Shalem-Neighborhood Kid (2010).  Never heard of it?  Go find it.  Great stuff.
  94. Aceyalone-A Book of Human Language (1998)
  95. Heiroglyphics-3d Eye Vision (1998)
  96. Brand Nubian-All For One (1990)
  97. CPO-To Hell and Back (1990).  The lead track, featuring NWA’s MC Ren, is excellent, but so are many of the other cuts on this record.   A solid off-shoot of the West Coast’s first supergroup.
  98. Eric B. & Rakim – Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em (1990)
  99. Above the Law-Livin’ Like Hustlers (1990)
  100. Kid Frost-Hispanic Causing Panic (1990)

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