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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


Young Thug, ‘Barter 6’ (2015)

Young Thug raps from another planet on Barter 6, an album named either in honor or in spite of his onetime idol Lil Wayne. On the album, Thug’s delivery is at its most virtuosic. Breakout single “Check” takes his rhythmic, textured cadences to new realms. “Numbers,” a sleeper on the album, is Thug at his most melodic, and menacing. “Run up, I swear to God, I want tears from your mother,” he halfway sings. The beauty of Thug’s music is how well he can articulate the spectrum of Atlanta’s streets with the emotion of a blues singer. Not unlike the rapper whose album title Barter 6 is borrowed from. —J.I.


The Coup, ‘Party Music’ (2001)

Boots Riley knows how to write a great slogan: “Every death is an abrupt one/Every cop is a corrupt one,” he spits on “Everythang,” the opening salvo from the Coup’s fourth album. On Party Music, Boots and producer DJ Pam the Funkstress deliver a righteous, revolutionary statement of Bay Area beats, rhymes, and life. They offer “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.” (“you can do it funk/or you can do it disco”), get into the complexities of parenting on “Wear Clean Draws” and “Nowalaters,” and contemplate the police in “Pork and Beef.” In a weird accident of history, the album had to be pulled and its art reworked as it was due for release in September 2001 and featured a sleeve depicting the destruction of the World Trade Center. As with far too few political pop albums, it hasn’t aged a day. —J.G.


Tyler, the Creator, ‘Bastard’ (2009)

The slow-rolling piano melody on “Bastard,” the eponymous single from Tyler, the Creator’s 2009 debut mixtape, remains one of rap’s most haunting moments. Tyler’s strain of rap, alongside his cabal of mischievous L.A. youth, places the emotional turmoil of Black adolescence front and center. Tyler’s raps aren’t fueled by ground-level street poetics but rather explorations of interpersonal trauma. With a brave sense of honesty, Tyler lays the foundation for his career with one of the most compelling, adventurous, and raw contributions to rap’s canon. —J.I.


Missy Elliott, ‘Under Construction’ (2002)

“Ever since Aaliyah passed, I view life in a more valuable way,” Missy Elliott says on the intro to Under Construction. Every Missy album has a conceptual element, and this is her version of going back to the old school, creating a sense of place for an artist who often left fans confused with her futurist ideas. She shifts between B-boy homage like “Bring the Pain,” “Work It,” and “Back in the Day” while brushing off haters on “Gossip Folks” and seamlessly moving between R&B vocals and funky, fresh raps. More subtly, it’s a chance to pause and reflect on her groundbreaking career, and what she’s learned and lost. It ends with a track alongside TLC for “Can You Hear Me” a tribute to Aaliyah, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and all the fallen artists of modern Black music. —M.R.


Jungle Brothers, ‘Straight Out the Jungle’ (1988)

The inaugural volley from the Native Tongues collective, the debut from the Jungle Brothers was a playful, loose, try-anything album that machete’d its own path. Under the tutelage of powerhouse NYC radio DJ Red Alert, the trio’s music had the friendly feel of switching radio dials, leaping from uplifting pro-Black explorations (“Black Is Black”) to locker-room goofs (“Jimbrowski”) to old-school park routines recorded live on two turntables (“Braggin and Boastin’”). Beyond holding the first guest appearance from a young Q-Tip, the album is also of historical significance for the early hip-house track “I’ll House You,” a taste of the rap-pop-club Venn diagram of the next few years. —C.W.


Afrika Bambaataa, ‘Looking for the Perfect Beat 1980-1985’ (2001)

Perfect Beat assembles almost all of hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa’s impossibly innovative tracks in one place. Starting with Seventies funk (“Zulu Nation Throwdown”), bending Kraftwerk to his will (Arthur Baker’s seismic “Planet Rock” and “Looking for the Perfect Beat”), and roping in James Brown (“Unity Part 1”), the set is a road map for everything from electro to New Order to, oh yeah, almost all of hip-hop. In a horrific development, in 2016, Bambaataa was accused of a pattern of child abuse stretching back decades and was also sued in civil court for sex trafficking in 2021. —J.G.


Digital Underground, ‘Sex Packets’ (1990)

“I wanted to bridge the gap between Prince and hip-hop,” Digital Underground’s Shock G said. He got there. DU were a free-sprit Bay Area collective, in the P-Funk/Paisley Park mode, an orgy where every freak was welcome. (Tupac got his start as a member.) Shock G led the way, especially when he put on the rubber nose and glasses of his alter ego Humpty Hump. Sex Packets has classic party grooves like “Doowutchyalike” and “The Humpty Dance,” where he yells, “I like the girls with the boom/I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom!” —R.S.


Jay-Z, ‘The Black Album’ (2003)

Jay-Z stayed “retired” for about five minutes, but had The Black Album been his final bow, dude’s legend might actually be bigger than it is now. After the instant classic The Blueprint and the exhausting misfire The Blueprint 2, Shawn Carter assembled a murderer’s row of producers and cranked out another hall-of-famer. Based around an autobio theme and moving seamlessly from Rick Rubin’s earth-shaking “99 Problems” to Kanye’s “Lucifer” to Timbaland’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” Jay reasserted his rap-game dominance overnight. Verse that surprised nobody: “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars.” —J.G.


Rapsody, ‘Laila’s Wisdom’ (2017)

Laila’s Wisdom marks a commercial breakthrough for a rapper who nurtured her indie career for nearly a decade. North Carolina’s Rapsody emphasizes B-girl panache and lyrical themes like self-doubt, striving to be more spiritual, and yearning to connect with others. But she takes pains to avoid pretension. “Don’t like all underground, I don’t hate on music that isn’t/I was just making it clap to Waka Flocka last Christmas,” she raps on “Nobody.” Plenty of guests gather to help, including Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes, Black Thought, and Anderson .Paak. The music is soulful and reflective, the sound of a woman seizing her moment while wondering what it all means. —M.R.


Boogie Down Productions, ‘By All Means Necessary’ (1988)

After BDP’s DJ Scott La Rock was killed in a 1987 shooting, KRS-One regrouped and refocused, writing and producing his next move under the Boogie Down Productions banner. Mutating a phrase from Black Marxist intellectual Frantz Fanon for the title of his second album (and updating a photo of Malcolm X for 1980s armaments for the sleeve), KRS laid out his worldview on the opening “My Philosophy,” embracing vegetarianism and declaring himself a teacher. “Ya Slippin’” interpolates “Smoke on the Water,” “Stop the Violence” demands an end to hip-hop drama, and “Illegal Business” works in Jefferson Starship. By All Means Necessary is a great example of hip-hop persevering under the worst possible circumstances. —J.G.


Biz Markie, ‘Goin’ Off’ (1988)

It was impossible to dislike Biz Markie; how can anyone dislike a man who opens his debut with fat scratches and Graham Central Station’s indestructible “The Jam” break beat, then immediately starts rapping about “Pickin’ Boogers”? On Goin’ Off, he proves himself a wicked beat boxer (“Make the Music With Your Mouth Biz”) and a genuinely funny rapper (“Nobody Beats the Biz,” “Vapors”). It’s a classic of the Cold Chillin’ label house style: Big Daddy Kane wrote much of it, Marley Marl produced all of it, but it’s Biz whose goofball style makes it a feel-good classic. —J.G.


Main Source, ‘Breaking Atoms’ (1991)

Breaking Atoms was the astonishing, comprehensive vision of Queens studio rat Large Professor (assisted by DJs K-Cut and Sir Scratch). With an almost stentorian voice, Large Pro doled out socially conscious fables in the guise of workaday observations. But the album’s reputation came from its almost scientifically designed songs — countless sample snips of soul, jazz, funk, and psych-rock, animated by one crackling drum loop after another. Of historical significance, it marked the debut of Large Pro’s confidant, a teen MC named Nasir. —C.A.


Pusha T, ‘Daytona’ (2018)

Clocking in at an impossibly tight 21 minutes over seven songs, Daytona is easily the best Pusha T solo record, nearly the equal of anything he did with his old crew the Clipse. Rapping over wall-to-wall top-shelf Kanye beats, songs like “If You Know You Know,” “Hard Piano,” and the spooky “Infrared” prove Pusha is the Hemingway, Shakespeare, and Pynchon of drug rap — within this one topic, he creates worlds. Points deducted for a tasteless (and wholly unnecessary) cover graphic, apparently Whitney Houston’s filthy bathroom. —J.G.


Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ (1990)

Kool G Rap and DJ Polo came out of Queens as part of the legendary Juice Crew, kicking hard-boiled rhymes about the realities of life in NYC that proved a massive influence on everyone from Biggie to Nas. On the still-amazing “Streets of New York,” they remind listeners they aren’t like other NYC rappers — the guitar lick is pure menace; the piano is somehow even scarier. “Talk Like Sex” goes at its subject extremely head on, and “Erase Racism” enlists Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie to take on the most hideous of social ills. The closer “Rikers Island” reminds listeners that they do not want to go there. —J.G.


Ol’ Dirty Bastard, ‘Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version’ (1995)

Chaos, thy name is Ol Dirty Bastard. Following-up Method Man’s solo debut, Tical, with 36 Chambers as the second Wu-Tang solo album was inspired — where Meth comes off as the Wu’s movie star, ODB is the weird character actor whom the rest of the cast worships. On Return, the late ODB established himself as the Wu’s careening id, with a like-it-raw vibe that disguised lyrical chops, a jazzy flow, and hip-hop’s greatest can’t-sing voice since Biz Markie. “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Brooklyn Zoo” were great singles, but check out “Baby C’mon” and the bonkers “Goin’ Down” for the full story. —J.G.


Chance the Rapper, ‘Coloring Book’ (2016)

Steady in faith and focus, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book discovered a course to spiritual emancipation by blurring the genre lines that divide angelic gospel, idyllic rap, and effervescent R&B. Held together by a heartfelt tenderness through a flurry of fluorescent notes, ambient chords, triumphant trumpets, and contagious rhythms, Chance’s third release is a nourishing rap record that met the expectations set by breakthrough Acid Rap. With choirs, Kanye, Future, Kirk Franklin, Young Thug, and countless other collaborators, Chance created a middle passage for rap voices, pop idols, and seasoned songstresses to coalesce beneath beautiful, balmy production in a fashion that glorified growth and God. —Y.P.


Eve, ‘Scorpion’ (2001)

On Eve’s 1999 debut, she proved her bark was just as powerfully cutting as her hyper-masculine Ruff Ryders brethren (DMX, The LOX). And on this follow-up, she gave dimension to the furious whirlwind via more sophisticated production — Dr. Dre’s taut, clipped funk stroll for “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” her Grammy-winning, Hot 100 chart-peaking No. 2 hit with Gwen Stefani; and on “Who’s That Girl?”, Teflon’s irresistible chop of the horn blast and shuffle from Demphra’s reggaeton hit “Ya No Soy Tu Mujer.” Even at 16 tracks, Scorpion sizzled. —C.A. 


Mos Def, ‘Black on Both Sides’ (1999)

Everyone who heard Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star in 1998 suspected that the first guy mentioned in the title had a classic solo album in him. The artist not yet known as Yasiin Bey followed through in ’99 with Black on Both Sides, a heady yet humble showcase for underground hip-hop’s most charming revolutionary — a deep, radical thinker who could still hang on the stoop. “Speed Law” and the DJ Premier-produced “Mathematics” showed his reverence for classical rap poetics; “Umi Says” furnished gorgeous vibes for incense-filled dorm rooms; “Ms. Fat Booty” recalled a fling with the kind of heartbreaker who makes you think you’re feeling “flu-like symptoms when shorty not around.” Listening in retrospect, you can hear the frustration with a racist entertainment industry that may have contributed to Bey’s sporadic releases in subsequent years. First, he gave the world something to remember him by. —S.V.L.


Young Thug, Birdman, Rich Homie Quan, ‘Birdman Presents Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1’ (2014)

As the latest breakouts from Atlanta’s hothouse rap scene, Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan were already on a sharp ascent when they joined forces for this classic collaboration. Hosted by Birdman — who was about to undergo a very public split with former protégé Lil Wayne — Tha Tour Part 1 was a standout showcase for Thugger, who layers his tracks with yelps and scattershot flows, finding odd pockets of rhythm over beats by London on da Track, Goose, and others. Quan complements him well with an appealing melodic flow, serving as a straight man for Thugger’s idiosyncrasies. —M.R.


Young Jeezy, ‘Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101’ (2005)

“Now I’m ya favorite rapper’s favorite rapper/Now I’m ya favorite trapper’s favorite trapper,” Jeezy spits on “Standing Ovation” — and when you’re right, you’re right. The Atlanta talent’s debut established him as one of the premier artists of hip-hop’s in the mid-2000s. Over cheap-sounding keyboards, drum machine claps, and incessant digital hi-hats, Jeezy opined mostly about selling drugs and the money made therein (“stack it all up like Lego money/ Played with them blocks call it Tetris/ Real talk a hundred carats in my necklace”), creating one of the trap-era’s defining albums. —J.G.