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The 200 Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time

These are the albums that have defined hip-hop history — from Run-DMC to Playboi Carti, from G-funk to drill, from the Bronx to Houston, and beyond

Hip-hop albums list

Photo illustration by Sarah Rogers for Rolling Stone. Images in illustration by Michael Stewart/WireImage; Paras Griffin/Getty Images; Rich Fury/Getty Images; Rick Kern/Getty Images; Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; John Shearer/Getty Images; Paras Griffin/WireImage

Two hundred seems like an almost luxuriantly expansive number when you’re making an albums list, and in any other genre, maybe it would be. But the history of rap LPs is so rich and varied, we were forced to make some painful choices — there are so many iconic artists with deep catalogs, so many constantly evolving sounds and regional scenes. That’s one reason we limited our scope to English language hip-hop. Relatedly, a list of hip-hop-adjacent albums from the worlds of dancehall or reggaeton or grime would be fun and fascinating, and something for us to revisit down the road.

When confronted with a choice between the third (or fourth or fifth) record by a classic artist (Outkast, for instance, or A Tribe Called Quest) and an album from an artist who would make the list more interesting (The Jacka or Saba or Camp Lo), we tended to go with the latter option. The result was a list that touches on every important moment in the genre’s evolution — from compilations that honor the music’s paleo old-school days, to its artistic flourishing in the late Eighties and early Nineties with Public Enemy, De La Soul, Eric B. and Rakim and others, through the gangsta era, the rise of the South, the ascendance of larger-than-life aughts superstars like Jay-Z and Kanye West and Nicki Minaj, and on and on into more recent moments like blog-rap, emo-rap, and drill, from New York to L.A. to Houston to Chicago, and beyond.

As we dug and listened, we found ourselves a little less swayed by “golden age” mystique than we might’ve been had we done this list 10 or 15 years ago. One of the incredible things about hip-hop is that it evolves and expands faster than any other genre in music history. To a fan coming up in the era of Cardi or Tyler or Polo G or Playboi Carti, the golden age is now.

From Rolling Stone US


Black Star, ‘Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star’ (1998)

Black Star were students of rap that treated hip-hop as art to be studied, practiced, and performed with gratitude for the past and grace for the present. Together, Mos Def and Talib Kweli spotlight hip-hop’s joyful bright sides, proving themselves as poets pushing to manifest a new renaissance for East Coast traditionalism. It’s the rich Black history beneath their cunning flows and romantic rhymes entwined with Hi-Tek’s breakneck beats that had Black Star lauded for being a refreshing rebirth of a new old-school. —Y.P.


MF Doom, ‘Operation: Doomsday’ (1999)

The 1999 release of Operation: Doomsday marked the second coming of Zev Love X., formerly of early-Nineties conscious rap crew KMD, and it reintroduced a mysterious figure who’d become one of underground rap’s greatest voices. On Operation: Doomsday, he’s a ruminating wizard over Quiet Storm-tinged tracks like the Sade-sampling ‘Doomsday.” His dexterous rhymes and salient schemes made other MCs look like talent show amateurs, and every sound he touches — from the Scooby-Doo theme song to Kool G Rap’s “Truly Yours” — gets mutated into something surreally brand new. This album the sound of an emcee who had come to destroy with honor. —Y.P.


Scarface, ‘The Diary’ (1994)

Scarface’s rhymes on The Diary are so engrossing you feel like you’re immersed in a miss-it-if-you-blink murder mystery. Mortality and the unknown animate this album, whose bleak single “I Never Seen a Man Cry” is probably the darkest song to ever occupy space on the charts. “Jesse James” is as stylized as it is violent — a sonic Sergio Leone flick. And “Mind Playin’ Tricks 94” is a cliffhanger redux that feels like a return visit from the uncanny. The level of tortured craftsmanship and unflinching honesty displayed here proves why Scarface is one of the greatest of all time. —W.D.


Kendrick Lamar, ‘Damn.’ (2017)

On the palpably ambitious Damn., Compton, California’s Kendrick Lamar Duckworth flaunts his usual Olympian level of vocal craft and cunning. But unlike the aching sprawl of 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the rapper’s third album clarified his array of narrative and syntactical attacks, reverses, inversions, pretexts, and flourishes into the most visceral, immediate music of his career. With a familiar galaxy of Los Angeles collaborators (and secret weapon Mike Will Made It), Lamar embeds melodic fragments or infectious refrains into his soul-scorching soliloquies. To wit, the Pulitzer Prize judges became total stans. —C.A.


The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Life After Death’ (1997)

Posthumously released, The Notorious B.I.G.’s final studio album was an overwhelming spectacle — its narrative sweep, Gladiator-level conflict, and hate-me-now pop ambition. Beset by jealous friends and foes, backed by foreboding yet lustrous samples, Biggie exploded, in visually explicit detail, how Black folks suffer, party, or perish in America’s white supremacist shakedown. He’s celebratory (“Hypnotize”), paranoid (“Mo Money Mo Problems”), and cautionary like a shark (“Ten Crack Commandments”). When he moaned the final chorus with veritable gospel dread — “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” — we gasped in awful assent. —C.A.


Ice Cube, ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’ (1990)

Chuck D’s vision of hip-hop as Black people’s CNN was all but fulfilled on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, which announced Ice Cube as our down-by-law spokesman. Naturally, Chuck (who’d lent Cube the Bomb Squad) gave fuel to the politically charged fire on “Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside),” which placed the standard Black super-predator bit (you saw constantly on the news) within the proper enraged context. Meanwhile, “What They Hittin Foe?” invokes the benign bedlam of some late-night back-alley game of dominoes. Funny, furious, and unquestionably authentic, Cube had everyone’s ear and, on his debut, told it like it is. —W.D.


Beastie Boys, ‘Licensed to Ill’ (1986)

For younger listeners who believe that Paul’s Boutique and Ill Communication represent the Beasties’ best work, it may be hard to imagine the singular impact of Licensed to Ill. The trio and producer/co-conspirator Rick Rubin inspired a genuine Moral Majority panic with their frat-boy brew of Schoolly-D-inspired thuggishness, Run-DMC-styled superhero chants, and Original Concept-level jeep beats. The outrageous, Western-set story rap “Paul Revere” can still set off a party, and even Ice Cube admits to mimicking Mike D, King Ad Rock, and MCA’s nasally flows and punchy jokes. The fact that the three rappers are punk aesthetes who can’t seem to tell whether they’re in on the joke or being themselves is part of the fun. —M.R.


Noname, ‘Room 25’ (2018)

The Chicago poet-activist Fatimah Warner got intimate in Room 25, a deeply personal coming-of-age story with her unique jazzy flow. It’s a song cycle about finding her voice, with lines like, “My pussy teachin’ ninth-grade English/My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.” Noname first got attention with her cameo on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, but she went her own way for her 2016 debut, Telefone. On Room 25, she brings in longtime Chicago friends like Saba and Smino — but there’s no mistaking it for anybody’s voice but her own. —R.S.


A Tribe Called Quest, ‘Midnight Marauders’ (1993)

The third album from A Tribe Called Quest was not as whimsically experimental as 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels… or as bohemian jazz-cool as 1991’s The Low End Theory, but it’s still a timeless fan favorite because the quartet was equally gifted when it came to meat-and-potatoes hip-hop. The samples were still brilliantly curated from the dustiest corners of jazz and soul, but the drums could knock the block off a fan of Black Moon and Gang Starr. MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were as incisive and funny as ever, whether big-upping revolutionaries (“Steve Biko”), breaking down a controversial word (“Sucka N***a”), or just dropping that infamous line about Seaman’s Furniture (“Electric Relaxation”). —C.W.


Migos, ‘Culture’ (2017)

Atlanta trio Migos had already cycled through a handful of peaks and valleys before making their biggest album — blowing up with zany mixtapes like Y.R.N. (Young Rich Niggas), being written off with their disappointing Young Rich Nation, regaining popularity with the “Look at My Dab” dance fad. Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff’s style eventually slowed from thumping “Hannah! Montana!” chants to the rope-a-dope mic trading of “Bad and Boujee,” where Offset, Quavo, and guest Lil Uzi Vert drop punchlines that land like feathers. “T-Shirt” is driven by Quavo’s haunting, deliberately hesitant chorus: “Mama told me/Not to sell work/Seventeen-five, same color T-shirt.” But it’s the way that the trio punctuate Culture verses with ad-libs, giving their songs a rhythmic, vocal jazz cadence, that makes their performance so memorable. —M.R.


Salt-N-Pepa, ‘Hot, Cool and Vicious’ (1986)

Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandra “Pepa” Denton initially emerged as Super Nature with “The Showstopper,” where they playfully mocked Doug E. Fresh’s hit single “The Show.” Subsequently renaming themselves Salt-N-Pepa, the New York duo’s debut album is just as delightfully funky. With go-go-inspired New Jack production from mentor Hurby “Luvbug” Azor, they approximate Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’ “Tramp” as well as the Pointer Sisters’ “Betcha Got a Chick on the Side,” all with a clear sense of fun. “This is the moment that men fear/Female MCs are moving up here,” the two chant on the party-rocking cut “My Mic Sounds Nice.” Then there’s “Push It,” a classic electro-bass moment where the ladies shake their asses on the dance floor, no explanation required. —M.R.


Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’ (2004)

The College Dropout is Kanye West at his most endearing. His humor is bright and weightless, even if you, as a woman or a diploma-owner, find yourself at the butt of the joke. His religious convictions are so palpable they elicit empathy, even if you’re a staunch nonbeliever. His reflections on working retail, dysfunctional families, unabashed consumerism, personal aptitude, and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming are as bewitching as raps can be. And to think, West also dreamt up nearly every timeless beat on which he bared it all as a spanking new artist is almost too much. This album is both incredibly human and impossibly extraordinary. —M.C.


The Roots, ‘Things Fall Apart’ (1999)

For rap fans in the late Nineties looking for an alternative to what they saw as the genre’s commercial excesses, Things Fall Apart was the holy grail: a socially observant, profoundly musical thesis statement from the Philadelphia band that dared to play their own instruments. The songs are full of virtuosic verses from Black Thought and Malik B, along with fellow travelers like Mos Def and Common, and varied grooves from drummer Questlove, bassist Leonard Hubbard, keyboardist Kamal Gray, as well as collaborators like Dilla and Scott Storch — grounded as much in the renewing warmth of neo-soul as in the head-nodding energy of the cipher. It may or may not have been any realer than what was on the charts that year, but in its commitment to hip-hop’s human elements, Things Fall Apart is timeless. —S.V.L.