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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


LL Cool J, ‘Radio’ (1985)

James Todd Smith was just another clever, cocksure, and altogether hard-as-hell 17-year-old who was still living with his grandparents when he rechristened himself LL Cool J and released his debut album, Radio. His youthful spitfire still leaps from the concrete-vibrating speakers nearly 40 years later on “Rock the Bells,” “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” and his five-minute pickup line “I Can Give You More.” Then-NYU student Rick Rubin’s sparse, hard-hitting production (his credit was “Reduced by Rick Rubin”) played up Cool J’s lyrical dexterity on brags like “All you gonna-bes, wannabes, when will you learn/Wanna be like Cool J, you gotta wait your turn” on “Bells,” inspiring a new generation. —K.G.


Black Sheep, ‘A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’ (1991)

On their irreverent debut, Drés and Mista Lawnge repped the potty-mouth faction of the Native Tongues — just there for the LOLs and easy digits from the honey dips. Drés floats over Lawnge’s buzzy horn flourishes on “Have U.N.E. Pull,” with a suave barrage of braggadocio, culminating with the evergreen question, “Can you understand that you should be yourself?” Originality is at the forefront of “Similak Child,” whose barking dog effects seem simpatico with their leg-humping proclivities. And “Strobelite Honey” gives us a one-of-one, pre-catfishing take on IRL misrepresentation. Black Sheep made being “anti” synonymous with being unique. —W.D.


Common, ‘Be’ (2005)

Common’s sixth album marked a successful comeback after the failure of 2002’s underrated funk-rock experiment Electric Circus. That’s partly due to Kanye West, who released his own Late Registration the same year. Both albums represent an apotheosis in West’s soulful, gospel-inflected sound. J Dilla also produced two key tracks, including the wonderfully romantic “Love Is…” Then there’s Common, who rhymes in a relaxed, deftly lyrical voice and offers nuggets of wisdom, whether it’s observing the desperation of young Black hustlers in Chicago on “The Corner” or happily unfurling a mic-trading routine alongside West in “The Food.” As an old jazz head might say, Common is fully “in the pocket” here. —M.R.


Roc Marciano, ‘Reloaded’ (2012)

Reloaded is legit boom-bap that’s also totally amenable to the wine-and-cheese art crowd. You can tell that Roc Marci was in that bag on “Peru,” whose outro lifts a snatch of dialogue from Martin Scorsese’s art-world drama, Life Lessons, when he spits baroque bars (”My lawyer pop the crocodile suitcase/You can’t dispute taste”) whose vivid visuals feel like something right out of an old issue of the gallery-centric rag October. “20 Guns” has a shaky-camera, overcast Euro vibe to it (think a Pimpstead, Long Island, twist on the score to Roman Polanski’s 1988 thriller, Frantic) that solidifies Reloaded as a multilingual masterpiece. —W.D.


Lil Uzi Vert, ‘Eternal Atake’ (2020)

After Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2, the anticipation for Eternal Atake had the internet boiling, and Uzi did not disappoint. Over 18 tracks (not including the deluxe edition), Uzi stepped into an intergalactic space delivering flat-out bars over uptempo 808’s infused beats. Standout tracks like “Baby Pluto,” the Chief Keef-produced “Chrome Heart Tags,” and “P2,” a remix/continuation of Uzi’s megahit “XO Tour LIif3,” all showed him at his best, perfecting a new incendiary cadence, with witty lyrics that recalled peak Lil Wayne but with the pocket and beat control of Future — yet still in a deep space all his own. —D.G. 


Little Brother, ‘The Listening’ (2003)

Little Brother provided something like the antidote to all that felt suffocating about the mainstream’s fixation on 50 Cent’s bad-guy persona. Their 2003 debut is full of humble humor, deft rhymes, and succulent beats that hit your palate like a cooked-to-perfection full-course meal. Phonte splits the difference between exquisite singing and dope rapping on “The Way You Do It,” influencing everyone from Drake to Kanye West. “The Yo-Yo” satirizes coffee-shop poets, and “So Fabulous” crams in myriad classic rap references, while keeping it as fresh as a new throwback jersey. The Listening made “left-of-center” seem like the pinnacle. —W.D.


Black Moon, ‘Enta da Stage’ (1993)

Enta da Stage signaled a new era of tough talk over grimy beats as the new normal for NYC rap. Far from some tie-dye-sporting “positive” type, Buckshot was about hanging on the boulevard and scheming. His roughneck charm was evident on “Buck Em Down” where, over the corroded bass line, he spits, “On the corner out shootin’ the dice/Layin’ up, gettin nice, talkin’ bout a heist.” The horns on “Niguz Talk Shit” sound like a jazzed-up air-raid siren, and Buckshot’s comparison of a rival to a “one dollar hero” means this was when Brooklyn had more burglaries than it had bike lanes .—W.D.


Nas, ‘It Was Written’ (1996)

There was nowhere to go but down for Nas after Illmatic raised the bar as high as Queens’s iconic Unisphere statue. But astoundingly, Nas managed on his sophomore LP to step up his pen game, pushing those words — way past the margins in his ravaged composition books — into unlikely patterns on “Watch Dem Niggas” and the hyper-lyrical “The Message.” On the former, Nas makes a complex couplet about riding dirty (“Living reckless, die for my necklace/Crime infected, driving a Lexus with a death wish”) sound impossibly clean. If, for all the naysayers, it was up, then on his second album, it stuck. —W.D.


The Streets, ‘Original Pirate Material’ (2002)

Mike Skinner barreled out of London in the early 2000s with a brand of hip-hop as British as the Queen, offering thickly detailed stories and insights from deep inside the everybloke lifestyle. Over piquant beats created on an IBM Thinkpad and heavily influenced by U.K. garage, Skinner sketched a milieu of birds, geezers, chip shops, clubs, and pubs, with heavy doses of booze and cheap drugs. “Weak Become Heroes” is the high point, with Skinner waxing poetic about transcendent times at raves in the mid-Nineties, but the whole album is bursting with real-life texture and funny as hell — and still sounds fresh two decades on. —C.H.


City Girls, ‘Period’ (2018)

City Girls’ debut mixtape is the missing link between Salt-N-Pepa — at one point, the Miami duo revives their “I’ll Take Your Man” — and the rapid-fire attack of Trina. It’s been described as “scammer rap,” a reflection of a pop culture zeitgeist celebrating women who commit fraud and larceny for fun and profit. Yung Miami and JT talk shit for the hell of it, whether they’re demanding men ante up on “Where the Bag At” or boosting from department stores on “Period (We Live).” The duo’s aggressively materialistic worldview inspired an avalanche of think pieces about Period’s deeper implications, but rap fans simply recognized City Girls as talented Gen Z women determined to get it how they live, by any means necessary. —M.R.


Slum Village, ‘Fantastic Vol. 2’ (2000)

On Slum Village’s second album, J Dilla introduced rhythmic innovations that have had a profound impact on countless artists, from contemporaries such as Common, The Roots, and Erykah Badu to latter-day performers such as Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and Robert Glasper. Rapping alongside Detroit friends Baatin and T3, the group utilized a percussive approach in their vocal performances that enhanced the hypnotic quality of Dilla’s buttery and crisply melodic beats. Industry red tape and widespread bootlegging muted Fantastic Vol. 2’s commercial prospects, but the album’s influence persists to this day. —M.R.


Doja Cat, ‘Planet Her’ (2021)

Doja Cat was an artist on the rise before the summer of 2021. Then came Planet Her, and a giant leap all the way to the very top. You’ve sung along to all the singles, professed your need to fuck all night, and cooed you’ve got nothing to lose, oh, oh. But it’s the album tracks like “Love to Dream” — if you can call a song this big, this slinky, and this dreamy a deep cut — that place Planet Her in the hip-hop firmament. As a rapper/singer/shitposter, Doja Cat has been intriguing from the start. Now? Iconic. —N.S.    


Rick Ross, ‘Teflon Don’ (2010)

Rick Ross’ Teflon Don was instrumental in carving out his specific lane of “luxury rap.” “Young and radical, methods are mathematical/Let my convertible marinate on the avenue,” he rapped on the Kanye-produced track “Live Fast, Die Young,” showing hunger while highlighting how he’s translated success into a higher-than-high end lifestyle. With help from frequent producers trio J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Ross’ fourth studio album cemented his position in rap with features from Jay-Z to Gucci Mane. Teflon Don flew so that rappers like Freddie Gibbs and Benny the Butcher could walk. —D.G.


2Pac, ‘Me Against the World’ (1995)

Me Against the World marks a brief, shining moment in 2Pac’s short and eventful life when he brought his contradictions in harmonious balance. He gathers the joyful reminisces of “Old School,” the self-explanatory “Outlaw,” the manic depression of “Lord Knows,” and the paranoid anxiety of “If I Die 2Nite.” Made under the threat of a looming prison stint for a sexual abuse conviction, the album finds him in an introspective state, and reflecting on his increasingly untethered life with a charismatic passion that even his detractors couldn’t deny. Its emotional peak, “Dear Mama,” has become a hip-hop anthem for Black mothers everywhere. —M.R.


Killer Mike, ‘R.A.P. Music’ (2012)

Not since the glory days of Public Enemy and N.W.A had radical politics and radical noise come together with such visceral thunder as on the sixth record from bazooka-voiced Atlanta rapper Killer Mike. He takes on police racism in “Don’t Die,” honors the strong women around him on “Untitled,” and delivers a searing, nuanced history lesson on “Reagan,” over New York producer El-P’s grinding, explosive beats. When Mike raps, “We’re money-hungry wolves and we down to eat the rich,” he’s like an ATL hustler and an Occupy Wall Street anarchist in one contradictory-balancing package. Killer Mike and El-P’s first collab went so well they kept it going by forming the fantastic Run the Jewels. —J.D.


J. Cole, ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ (2014)

After two well-received studio albums that failed to catapult J. Cole into the top echelon of rap stars, the North Carolina artist finally honed a unique voice where he constantly questions himself and the world around him. Yes, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, a title dedicated to his childhood home, is the one that gave rise to the meme “J. Cole went platinum with no features.” It’s just him alone roasting the opposite sex on the proudly obnoxious hit “No Role Modelz,” tenderly describing how he lost his virginity on “Wet Dreamz,” and learning to embrace himself despite his self-loathing on “Love Yours.” The mood is introspective, with melancholy string arrangements underscoring his emotional state. “Apparently … you believe in me,” he sings to his fans. “And I thank you for it.” —M.R.


Ghostface Killah, ‘Fishscale’ (2006)

Nobody has had a run like Ghostface. In an industry where a career is over in two singles and a wack album, Ghost made banger after banger, never afraid to innovate but never losing sight of the sound and vibe that made him great. Released nearly 13 years after the Wu’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Ghost’s fifth solo album was the sound of a rap god who could’ve had a second career surrealist noir novelist. On Fishscale, his talent for detail is at a peak: “Throwin’ ketchup on my fries, hitting baseball spliffs/Back seat with my leg all stiff/Push the fuckin’ seat up, tartar sauce on my S Dot kicks.” And singles like the Pete Rock-produced “Be Easy” and the soul-inflected jam “Back Like That” (featuring Ne-Yo) reminded everyone that there is only one Ghostface Killah. —J.G. 


Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, ‘Mecca and the Soul Brother’ (1992)

For several months after the release of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother, it seemed as if all East Coast hip-hop copied their sound: jazzy, swinging horns, supple yet booming bass made for the jeeps, and Rock’s ad-libs (“Whoo!” “Uh-huh!”) peppered amidst Smooth’s smooth, metaphysical rhymes. The album is highlighted by one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time in “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” where C.L. pays homage to his stepfather before ending with a tribute to Heavy D & the Boyz’s Troy “Trouble T-Roy” Dixon, who died in 1990. Elsewhere, “Anger in the Nation” breaks down the country’s sociopolitical troubles. Decades later, Mecca and the Soul Brother stands as a watermark of the boom-bap era. —M.R.


Playboi Carti, ‘Whole Lotta Red’ (2020)

When, in 50 years, we’re discussing the ways in which rock music and rap have intertwined, Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red is sure to reveal itself to be the shift’s seminal text. Carti achieves the rare artist reset with resounding success, trading the chirpy warbles he helped make ubiquitous in hip-hop and finding new textures to explore. “Control,” “Punk Monk,” and “Beno!” find space between punk rock, electronic, and hip-hop. Carti himself told Rolling Stone that “this sound is something that’s going to be regular and relevant in the future.” He’s not wrong. —J.I.


Big Pun, ‘Capital Punishment’ (1998)

South Bronx native Christopher Rios was a troubled, destructive mortal during his short life, but as Big Pun on his platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated debut, he was a superhelix of rhymes inside rhymes inside rhymes, meticulously shaped into devastating tracks. There was the anthem of multiple Nuyorican-and-beyond summers (“Still Not a Player”), the triumphant fanfare (“You Came Up”), the pitiless, Mafioso novelette (“Twinz [Deep Cover ’98]”), and the picaresque battle-rap rub outs (“The Dream Shatterer,” “Tres Leches”). Still, he knew: “You ain’t promised mañana in the Rotten Manzana.” —C.A.


Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, ‘E. 1999 Eternal’ (1995)

Cleveland group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony had rap’s geographic affinities to contend with when they released their seminal record E. 1999 Eternal. The irony, of course, is that Bone Thugs’ concerns were straight from the heartland. There are few regions as economically ravaged as the Cleveland area, and on songs like “Mo’ Murda” and “Mr. Bill Collector,” economic and social anxieties arrive with a melodic yet sorrowful sort of groove. Producer DJ U-Neek’s soulful keyboard shines on breakout single “Crossroads,” proof that it pays to look beyond the coasts. —J.I.


21 Savage and Metro Boomin, ‘Savage Mode’ (2016)

21 Savage’s success today has a lot to do with his 2016 collaboration with super producer Metro Boomin on Savage Mode. 21 flourished on eerie, hard-hitting instrumentals handcrafted by Metro just for him. “Young Savage, why you trapping so hard,” he rapped on the opening line of the second track, “No Heart,” adding, “I grew up in the streets without no heart/I’m praying to my glock and my carbon.” Every track on Savage Mode sounds like the soundtrack to a horror film, adding an element of suspense building before the beat drops, while still leaving space for 21 Savage’s slow yet crafty flow to bring you into the harsh realities of his world on the east side of Atlanta. —D.G.


Drake, ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’ (2015)

Called a mixtape due to its abrupt release and unfiltered, no-fucks stance, If You’re Reading This… was Drake’s edict to the rap body politic, advising one and all to get off his, in order, 1) dick, 2) money, 3) music, 4) social-media timeline. 40 and Boi-1da’s production framed that aggression with a haunted, twilit murk of ghostly voices, spare rhythms, grainy silences, a drop of water, a barking dog. As Drake bitterly fired lick shots and proclaimed himself a “muthafuckin’ legend,” his producers focused on the solitary emotional depths underneath. —C.A.


Outkast, ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ (2003)

Big Boi and André 3000 went super-maximalist on this two-CD opus, divided into full albums by each artist. At a whopping two hours and 15 minutes, it’s an epic tour of their ever-spiraling creative ambitions. Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is the most immersed in funk and hip-hop, from the hyper-speed synth-rush of “GhettoMusick” to “Flip Flop Rock,” on which Jay-Z swings by to sing the hook. André 3000’s The Love Below is a post-rap splurge with a Prince-ly sense of anything goes, from the Nat King Cole jazz-club crooning “Love Hater” to a drum ‘n’ bass cover of ”My Favorite Things.” And yet, for all its departures, it’s André’s disc that delivered “Hey Ya!,” the most beloved party-rap hit of the century. —J.D.


Souls of Mischief, ’93 ’til Infinity’ (1993)

The Bay Area hip-hop crew Hieroglyphics — Del the Funky Homosapien, Casual, Pep Love, DJs Toure and Jay-Biz, producer Domino, duo Extra Prolific, and breezy quartet Souls of Mischief — repainted West Coast hip-hop as a mix of the heady and the true-school. Though their records came out on labels like Jive and Elektra, their dogged individuality, savvy branding, and emphasis on technical ability made them underground rap heroes. The crew’s crowning achievement, Souls of Mischief’s 93 ’til Infinity, has delirious bars (“Now playful pulpit pussies poppin’ junk with the pistol/Sweated because I’m dreaded, let’s get ready to pull a fistful,” raps Opio on “Live and Let Live”) and a tricky Rashomon-style narrative (“Anything Can Happen”), but the title track was bonafide pop hit. —C.W.


N.E.R.D., ‘In Search Of…’ (2002)

Pharrell might very well have instigated a “vibe shift” with N.E.R.D.’s 2002 debut In Search Of…, an album that would play a major role in the life of a young Tyler, the Creator. Its breakout single, “Rockstar,” makes use of quintessentially “rock” guitar riffs in a move that would presage the direction of rap as a genre. There’s an undeniable cool coursing through the album; if rap was concerned with showiness, going into the 2000s, N.E.R.D. were laying the groundwork for the music to become something more self-aware and subtle. —J.I.


A Tribe Called Quest, ‘People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’ (1990)

Despite its exhaustive title (which feels lengthier than a whole 7 train commute), People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm might be the first mellow album in hip-hop. Tribe’s inaugural joint slowed the BPMs down and introduced listeners to the lush Rhodes of Roy Ayers and the yawning bass of Lou Reed. Even their fellow Native Tongues couldn’t lay in the pocket smoother than Tip does on the immortal “Bonita Applebum.” And Phife makes an unforgettable entrance on “Can I Kick It?,” where he extols the aromatic qualities of his crew’s vibes and sounds. There’s still no one fresher. —W.D.


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.