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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


Slick Rick, ‘The Great Adventures of Slick Rick’ (1988)

Dashing, irreverent, hysterical, wise, and bursting with charm, Slick Rick laced his classic debut with enough magisterial tall tales to keep a Victorian public house in stitches. “Children’s Story” is a parable so eternal annotators should publish its lyrics in red ink. On “Mona Lisa,” Rick spells out his name with a mock-heroic exit-stage-right affectation that’s so bloody cocksure it’s got self-deprecation to spare. (His “K,” as in “Kangol,” rises an octave, as if he’s exasperated at his unabashed navel-gazing.) And “The Moment I Feared” is a tragedy that feels like a farce. There’s not a greater storyteller in rap. —W.D.


Digable Planets, ‘Blowout Comb’ (1994)

Digable Planets’ second album failed to capture a mainstream audience like their 1992 debut, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). The beats resemble mid-Sixties hard bop. Butterfly, Doodlebug, and Ladybug’s lyrics are twisty and packed with cultural references to the likes of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Sekou Odinga. Save for the breezy soul-jazz of “Jettin’,” the music is shorn of easily accessible melodies; more typical is the brittle, distorted bass drums and crashing cymbals of “9th Wonder (Blackitolism),” where Mecca begins, “I’m 63 inches above sea level/93 million miles above these devils.” Ironic, then, that rap fans now consider Blowout Comb the group’s best work, a dense catalog of Nineties Brooklyn bohemia that rewards deep listening. —M.R.


Earl Sweatshirt, ‘Some Rap Songs’ (2018)

Some Rap Songs is a basic title for an album with so many lifetimes behind it. Released after the passing of his father, the poet Keorapetse Kgositsil, Earl Sweatshirt’s third solo outing is meditative, insular, and snarky, with snippet-length tracks that make you feel like you’ve imbibed his entire worldview. “Azucar” is a spectral apologia, with some of the Odd Future prodigy’s most poignant lyrics — addressing his bouts with depression and alcoholism. Meanwhile, “Cold Summers,” with its Byzantine bars, simply slaps. —W.D.


Eric B. & Rakim, ‘Follow the Leader’ (1988)

The second Eric B. & Rakim album built on the sound of their landmark debut, Paid in Full, with even juicier beats and endless bars. Every line Rakim spits on the relentless tile track is an inspiration, impossibly chill and fast at the same time. Elsewhere, “Microphone Fiend” rings sleigh bells and establishes dominance, while “Lyrics of Fury” destroys all pretenders over James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” break. There is only one Rakim; no wonder it inspires MCs to this day. —J.G.


Azealia Banks, ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ (2014)

Azealia Banks’ career is too often framed in terms of the major pop success she didn’t achieve instead of the great music she made. The fact is, few artists of any caliber have made a thrilling, polyglot gem of New York club culture like Broke With Expensive Taste. “Gimme a Chance” shifts from post-disco with blaring horns to a salsa rhythm, and Banks responds in kind by switching her raps from English to Spanish. She covers Ariel Pink’s “Nude Beach a Go-Go,” dips into U.K. garage on “Desperado,” and turns into a house queen for the pulsing beat of “Luxury.” Then there’s the justly celebrated “212,” where she flips queer sex raps over a fidgety track with saucy panache. —M.R.


Jay-Z and Kanye West, ‘Watch the Throne’ (2011)

Quoting Mr. West: “Why do you think the song ‘Niggas in Paris’ was called ‘Niggas in Paris’? Cuz niggas was in Paris!” To wit, this gilded flex on Eurocentric creative elites is fueled by the constant looting of, and barriers to, black excellence. Jay, Ye, and their A-list collaborators subsume all genres: a dubstep sample, a Bon Iver cameo, Nina Simone’s voice deftly Auto-Tuned, Frank Ocean’s croon placed over a riff by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera. It’s a Ye-driven spectacle, but Jay’s lyrics reveal the alienation that’s always lurking. —C.A.


Gang Starr, ‘Hard to Earn’ (1994)

Hard to Earn is an impeccable pledge for realness that epitomizes big hoodie energy. Preemo’s murky production on “Code of the Streets” — his ultraprecise scratches sound like sonar bleeps over a sped-up riff pulled from some golden-age-of-Hollywood score — adds a steely sense of drama to the best breakdown of the day-to-day drug trade since D’Angelo Barksdale’s chess analogy in The Wire. “Mass Appeal” turns a jazzy loop — shorter than the elevator ride its blithe guitar could be the soundtrack for — into a gully anthem tailor-made for the heads. Hard to Earn proved Gang Starr was cut from the cloth. —W.D.


Megan Thee Stallion, ‘Fever’ (2019)

All eyes were on Megan Thee Stallion the spring Fever dropped. Sex romp “Big Ole Freak” from her previous project, Tina Snow, was climbing up the charts, her cunning freestyles were making their rounds, and music publications were steady knocking at her door. With the fiery mixtape of independent-woman anthems and twerk tracks, the Houston Hottie delivered a poppin’ soundtrack for the last normal summer the world saw and an impressive showcase of her empowered rapping and symbiotic collaborations with producers LilJuMadeDaBeat and Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J. —M.C.


Public Enemy, ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ (1990)

Chuck D and Flavor Flav made Afro-pessimism as inescapable as pop music on their impeccable sophomore opus, Fear of a Black Planet. But there was nothing soft or compromising about these 20 songs. The D.A.R.E.-era manifesto “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” comes on like a dissonant dental drill fed through some jury-rigged amp. And “Fight the Power” gave voice to the fury in the Black community — sick and tired after 400-plus years of oppression. Full of righteous rage, timeless anthems, and protest-worthy fervor, Fear of a Black Planet captivated the nation and didn’t hold back. —W.D.


The Pharcyde, ‘Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde’ (1992)

Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde soars with life-affirming music. Mostly produced by L.A. Jay, it bustles with crunchy soul-jazz, Meters-styled funk, and marijuana-infused psychedelia. Romye, Slim Kid Tré, Fat Lip, and Imani sing, fast rap, and flex with youthful verve. The quartet could get imaginatively silly on “Pack the Pipe,” where Fatlip brags about smoking out a three-year-old child; or “On the DL,” where Romye claims that he shot a home invader. Then there’s “Passin’ Me By,” which may be the definitive hip-hop statement on unrequited attraction; and “Otha Fish,” where Tré harmonizes about a romantic breakup. In short, Bizarre Ride is all over the place, but it comes from a real place: the minds of four L.A. B-boys having the time of their lives. —M.R.


Dr. Octagon, ‘Dr. Octagonecologyst’ (1996)

A legendary oddball going back to his days with old-school greats the Ultramagnetic MCs, Kool Keith arrived in the Puffy-defined mid-Nineties like a beacon of absurdist freedom, declaring himself the “paramedic fetus of the east” on the gloriously off-trend Dr. Octagonecologyst. Over Dan “The Automator” Nakamura’s deep-space production, Keith kicked psychedelic scatology, sprawling free-association and head-scratch disses like “Shakespeare’s gone, don’t even think about him,” sucking you in, and pulling you under, into his twisted cosmic netherworld. —J.D.


Queen Latifah, ‘All Hail the Queen’ (1989)

“Some think that we can’t flow/Stereotypes, they got to go,” raps Monie Love in her thrilling guest appearance on the womanist classic “Ladies First.” The hit single is only the most iconic moment of the debut album from the “Princess of the Posse.” A 19-year-old leader of men — she titles her collaboration with De La Soul “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children” — Queen Latifah offers hip-house bangers like “Come Into My House,” harmonizes on “Latifah’s Law,” and drops battle raps over the dancehall-inflected “Wrath of My Madness.” With crisp and funky breakbeat production from the 45 King, All Hail the Queen conveys a sense of endless possibility for this New Jersey artist that she’d fulfill in the years to come. —M.R.


The Fugees, ‘The Score’ (1996)

If “glitch in the matrix” could be summed up by an album cover, it’d depict three MCs, posed Godfather style, against a black backdrop, right above the title, The Score. Nothing about any of this was supposed to work. But when the Fugees’ second album took off, it was clear they did it their way. The title track is produced by Diamond D, for chrissakes. Also: L-Boogie raps circles around everyone. Wyclef’s musical mastery means he can do just about any genre in his sleep. And, hot take: Pras (on “The Mask,” especially) is better than he gets credit for. — W.D.


Ghostface Killah, ‘Ironman’ (1996)

Ghostface Killah often disparages his solo debut in interviews — its making coincided with a time in his life when he struggled to leave his street activities behind, and it’s not as transformative as his 2000 masterpiece, Supreme Clientele. Regardless, Ironman is stuffed with bangers, whether it’s the zippy lead single “Daytona 500,” where he memorably claims, “I slap box with Jesus”; the heartbreaking story of poverty that is “All That I Got Is You”; or incredible deep cuts like “Fish,” “Assassination Day,” and “After the Smoke Is Clear.” (By contrast, one cheeky rap about a prepubescent girl’s blossoming sexuality, “Wildflower,” hasn’t aged well.) The Wu-Tang Clan was on an incredible run during the mid-1990s, and Ironman is no exception. —M.R.


Juvenile, ‘400 Degreez’ (1998)

“I know y’all gonna hear me all over the nation!” shouts Juvenile at the end of “U.P.T.” A veteran of the New Orleans bounce scene, the Third Ward rapper scored numerous regional hits before an evocative video for “Ha,” with its sunbaked concrete exteriors, introduced the Cash Money aesthetic to the rest of the nation. The resulting 400 Degreez serves as a coming-out party for the whole camp: Producer Manny Fresh’s digital flurries pulse throughout, and that’s Lil Wayne closing out the bass anthem “Back That Azz Up” with the famed ad-lib “drop it like it’s hot.” But this is Juvie’s moment, and his peppery delivery makes the whole thing go. —M.R.


Geto Boys, ‘We Can’t Be Stopped’ (1991)

Southern rap titans the Geto Boys put Texas on the hip-hop map by being one of the genre’s most evocative and controversial groups. Their third album plunged emotional depths that hip-hop had not previously dared to tread: “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” is renown as one of the genre’s great windows into paranoia and mental anguish, and songs like “Chuckie” painted the blood-splattered road to horrorcore. They were also deeply political in a way that took no shorts: “Fuck a War” is a blunt protest of the first Gulf War (“I ain’t gettin’ my leg shot off/While Bush’s old ass on TV playin’ golf”). —C.W. 


Three 6 Mafia, ‘Mystic Stylez’ (1995)

Upon its release in 1995, Three 6 Mafia’s debut was largely a regional success. National rap magazines focused on “Live by Yo Rep,” a fiery single that alleges Bone Thugs-n-Harmony stole their “unique quality of rap style.” It took years for the Memphis group’s innovations to filter into the mainstream, from their early use of the word “crunk” and rowdily chanted chorus to DJ Paul and Juicy J’s bleary keyboard approximations of horror movie soundtracks and dusted sampling sensibility. Three 6 Mafia may have plenty of internet mimics now, but there’s still nothing like the Triple Six threatening and taunting their enemies in murderous terms over these bleakly atonal beats. They conjure a menacing intensity that can’t be copied. —M.R.


De La Soul, ‘Buhloone Mindstate’ (1993)

Buhlooone Mindstate comes on a like a giddy blast of right-brained banter — as amorphous and free as the oxygen-filled globe the album’s named for. On their third path-breaking album, Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Maseo made space to just have fun and further stretch the boundaries of hip-hop. “Patti Dooke” is a lighthearted jam session with a hook by Guru and live instrumentation from the JBs’ Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Pee Wee Ellis. Japanese rappers SDP and Takagi Kan galvanize “Long Island Is Wildin’,” and “I Am I Be” is a verbal game of Mad Libs, full of free-associative rhymes we’re still trying to decipher. —W.D.


50 Cent, ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ‘ (2003)

Get Rich isn’t just a smashing debut, it’s a key moment in producer Dr. Dre’s unprecedented three-act career. Executive producing a crew of crack beat-makers, Dre applied his magic to an underknown Queens rapper, matching East Coast lyrical minimalism with West Coast G-funk minimalism. Turned out to be an ideal blockbuster pairing. It doesn’t hurt that “In Da Club,” the album’s perfect first single, will be played on dance floors from now until the end of time. —J.G.


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.