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The 25 Most Controversial Rap Albums of All Time

They shocked parents, scandalized politicians, and had radio programmers running for the hills

Most controversial rap albums of all time

It may be a reckless exercise to try and list 25 rap albums memorable for the controversy they induced. Since the mid-Eighties, after the genre slowly evolved from a mostly 12-inch medium to one where full-lengths regularly appeared on the market, these recordings have not only incited sometimes-heated discussion among listeners but also overzealous legal and political fallout.

Readers of this piece may be right to wonder about the absence of Too $hort’s Born to Mack, which led authorities to arrest store owners who tried to sell it; or Paris’ 1992 album Sleeping with the Enemy, which featured provocations against the White House that prompted his label to drop him. Others may think of albums that law enforcement have used to press criminal charges, like C-Bo’s 1998 album Til My Casket Drops. (For more on that topic, read Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis’ Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America.) Throw in the titles where rappers censored their own lyrics, like YG’s My Krazy Life (“Meet the Flockers”). And what about “jailhouse” raps surreptitiously made behind bars, a tradition that includes incarcerated-but-not-silenced acts like C-Murder and his Penitentiary Chances with Boosie Badazz?

While short of exhaustive, this list of the 25 Most Controversial Rap Albums serves as a starting point, and a way to discuss aspects of a culture under constant pressure, whether artistically, legally, or politically. As an artform birthed by a Black and Brown underclass and embraced by a global audience, rap music expresses desires that challenge societal taboos about what can be said in public. Sometimes, it simply pushes against our norms about race, sex, and gender. Other times, it upsets us with brutally honest opinions about the world around us. If this list seems lacking for its omissions, then hopefully its inclusions inspire you to explore further.


Tyler, the Creator, ‘Goblin’

Los Angeles rapper/producer Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin arrived on a groundswell of international hype that heralded his nascent crew, Odd Future, as the ne plus ultra of youthful, internet-mediated outrage. He rapped about assaulting women and – years before he presented himself as sexually fluid – frequently toyed with the word f*gg*t. He structured the album as a therapy session, as if he was battling inner demons. Music critics debated Tyler’s intentions for months and months, much as they had done a decade before with Eminem. Tyler eventually outgrew the enfant terrible label he proudly adopted on Goblin by adopting a less nihilistic worldview, experimenting with pop and alt-soul melodies, and winning unqualified praise for subsequent albums like Flower Boy and Igor.


Ice Cube, ‘Death Certificate’

Ice Cube’s Death Certificate is cleaved into two parts. The “Death Side” is fueled by his punchy satire, although some routines like the pedotastic “Givin’ Up the Nappy Dugout,” which finds him describing a teenage girl who gobbles “nuts like a squirrel,” have dated worse than others. The “Birth Side” caused greater offense with “Black Korea,” where the South Central rapper threatened to burn down Asian shops. He eventually apologized for that one and met with local Asian activists to make public amends. He pointedly didn’t apologize for “No Vaseline,” where he castigated his former N.W.A crew and called their manager Jerry Heller “a white Jew” and a “goddamn cracker.” As protests mounted around Death Certificate, the late Billboard editor Timothy White wrote an inflammatory editorial suggesting that “retailers” shouldn’t carry the album. Cube’s uncompromising vision of racial strife, police violence, and inner-city deprivation was seemingly validated in April 1992, when much of Los Angeles went up in flames over the Rodney King verdict.


Chief Keef, ‘Finally Rich’

Even before its release at the end of 2012, Chief Keef’s Finally Rich seemed destined to become a cultural dividing line. As a teenage prodigy who had been arrested several times, he personified Chicago drill, a genre unfairly maligned for its proximity to violence in the city’s South Side community. His breakout singles, “I Don’t Like,” found him chanting the chorus repeatedly, to the annoyance of older haters; they cheered when Finally Rich didn’t live up to sales expectations despite deafening hype and cameos by the likes of 50 Cent and Jeezy. Meanwhile, Keef’s acolytes thrilled at how he subtly rapped off-rhythm on tracks like “Love Sosa,” and utilized a plummy voice that uncovered unusual pockets of melody. Over a decade later, it’s clear the latter group won the argument. Keef has grown from outlaw status to an elder statesman, one of the major voices of his generation, with countless younger artists citing him as an influence.


Lauryn Hill, ‘MTV Unplugged’

Anticipation was high when Lauryn Hill performed on MTV Unplugged. The Newark artist hadn’t released a full-length since 1998’s lionized The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and the fall-out from that multiplatinum watermark – a lawsuit from former Miseducation collaborators, her prolonged absence from music, gossip about her marriage to Rohan Marley – led fans to wonder what to expect. What they saw on MTV and later heard on MTV Unplugged 2.0 proved unsettling as Hill strummed on her acoustic guitar and meandered through seemingly unfinished songs. Opinion remains sharply divided on whether the performance was a bravely honest folk-soul deconstruction of her star persona – Kanye West sampled “Mystery of Iniquity” on an early version of his 2004 hit “All Falls Down” – or an uncomfortable depiction of Hill’s fragile mental state. The fact that MTV Unplugged 2.0 remains the last full-length of her career only makes the debate more fraught.


Dr. Dre, ‘The Chronic’

When it comes to controversial rap albums, perhaps The Chronic is best received as a stand-in for the Death Row era (1992-1997). To be clear, Dr. Dre’s post-N.W.A masterwork generated plenty of sparks on its own, whether it was the marijuana leaf deployed in its artwork – which, despite the efforts of Cypress Hill, was still a mainstream taboo at the time – or his unforgivable taunts against media personality Dee Barnes and giving women “the smackdown.” Then there were the ripple effects of successfully merging hardcore gangsta raps with a slick, Black pop sensibility informed by P-funk. Tracks like “Dre Day,” which took aim at former N.W.A partner Eazy-E as well as Luke Campbell, led to real-life violent confrontations that spilled into industry gatherings and live performances. The album’s breakout star, Snoop Dogg, seemed like an unrepentant gangbanger, a reputation enhanced by his August 1993 arrest for first-degree murder. Today, “Uncle Snoop” is beloved as a family friendly goofball, a sign of how time has softened some of The Chronic’s hard edges.


Eminem, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’

Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP announced the deepening of a character who, only a year earlier, emerged as a jokey, foulmouthed punchline artist, the author of amusing numbers like “My Name Is” and “Guilty Conscience.” If the implications of murdering his romantic partner via “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” had been overlooked, MMLP’s gay-bashing lyrics, fantasies of murdering “Kim,” and general misanthropy were impossible to ignore. Feminist and LBTQ+ groups protested his music, but he defended himself by claiming his words were products of a fictional persona. For knowledgeable rap heads, Eminem’s lyrical attack felt like a hangover from the hardcore 90s, when acts were far more likely to signal their deranged imagination with tall tales of rape and murder, instead of the jiggy and blingy post-millennial industry that Em quickly conquered, thanks in part to his superior talent and association with mentor Dr. Dre.


Geto Boys, ‘Grip It! On That Other Level/The Geto Boys’

Houston entrepreneur and Rap-A-Lot Records owner James Prince gathered the four men who originally comprised The Ghetto Boys in 1986. When their self-titled debut flopped, two of the members left, making way for local rappers Scarface and Willie D alongside DJ Ready Red and Bushwick Bill, the latter who shifted from backup dancer to rapper. The newly christened Geto Boys released Grip It! On That Other Level to underground acclaim and earned them a shout-out from Public Enemy on Fear of a Black Planet. It wasn’t until Rick Rubin picked up the album for his Def American Recordings imprint and reissued it as The Geto Boys that the mainstream media noticed the album’s raw, angrily political tone and proto-horrorcore sensibility. Violent satires like “Assassins,” where the group imagine themselves raping and murdering women; and “Mind of a Lunatic” drew widespread condemnation. Def American’s distributor, Geffen Records, refused to manufacture it. The following year, Geto Boys released “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” which illustrated the pathology behind their earlier work and certified the group as a pioneer of Southern rap.


XXXtentacion, ’17’

For those not attuned to the intricacies of the overpopulated internet rap world, the first glimpse of XXXTENTACION arrived via a mug shot he deployed for the artwork on his 2015 breakout, “Look at Me!” However, a widely publicized 2016 arrest for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend casted a permanent shadow over his short-lived career and turned him into an avatar of social-media warfare. As idolatrously toxic fans doxxed his accuser, critics rejected him as an unrepentant abuser who didn’t deserve popular attention or success. That divide has left his proper debut, 17, in something of a gray zone. The 21-minute project finds XXXTENTACION harmonizing about lifelong depression and obsession in uncomfortably intimate terms. Its melodies may sound amateurish at points, but their unprocessed directness can also feel compelling, and challenge notions of who deserves redemption, and on what terms. Less than a year after 17’s release, XXXTENTACTION was shockingly murdered during a robbery attempt, leaving the debate around him frustratingly unresolved.


Body Count, ‘Body Count’

Ice-T was no stranger to censorship when he assembled a group of Crenshaw homies to play a few metal-rap songs during his sets on the inaugural Lollapalooza tour. His 1987 debut, Rhyme Pays, is the first major rap album to receive the parental advisory sticker. In 1989, he responded to tensions over his self-described “reality rap” with The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech…Just Watch What You Say! But the blowback over “Cop Killer,” one of the songs Body Count introduced on the 1991 tour, became a defining moment in music history. Police unions protested its outrageously satirical message aimed at crooked cops and Ice’s tongue-in-cheek chorus, “Tonight we’re gonna get even.” U.S. Vice-President Dan Quayle said, “They are making money off a record that is suggesting it’s O.K. to kill cops, and that is wrong.” Admirably, Time Warner continued to defend the L.A. rapper, even as shareholders such as conservative actor Charlton Heston ratcheted up the pressure, before Ice-T himself asked the company to remove “Cop Killer” from the album. The following year, he left Warner Bros. over concerns around his next solo album Home Invasion.


Lil Kim, ‘Hard Core’

Is Lil Kim the epitome of the unbridled Black female id, a thug missus as lyrically raw as her male counterparts? Or is she the personification of a Black man’s fantasy, constructed by her (allegedly abusive) Svengali mentor the Notorious B.I.G.? That dichotomy gives Hard Core its unique power as the album that reset expectations for women performers in the genre, for better or worse. Feminists argued for years over the meaning of Lil Kim’s upfront sexuality, including a notorious 2000 cover story in Essence magazine titled “The Big Problem with Lil Kim,” while she became a pop culture icon through her bravura performances and unforgettable photo shoots. Today, a consensus has formed that Kim deserves props as a pioneer who exudes pleasure on her own terms, not necessarily for a man’s approval. She molded a generation of artists in the process, from Nicki Minaj to Ice Spice. Unfortunately, they face the same societal pressures and misogynist judgement that Kim once did.


2 Live Crew, ‘As Nasty as They Wanna Be’

From the moment 2 Live Crew released their 1986 debut, 2 Live Is Who We Are, the Miami unit became an object of smutty fascination among young teens nationwide as well as a target for authorities concerned about their effect on impressionable children. The ying-tang dynamic between kids chanting “Hey, we want some pussy!” in schoolyards and aggressive district attorneys targeting record store owners for selling 2 Live Crew’s tapes reached a fever pitch with As Nasty as They Wanna Be. In 1990, a Florida judge ruled that the album was legally obscene, and the group was arrested at a show on obscenity charges. (They were later acquitted.) Meanwhile, a parody of Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” from the “edited” version of the album, As Clean as They Wanna Be, elicited a lawsuit. The Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music Inc. case made its way to the Supreme Court where, in 1994, the justices ruled unanimously that 2 Live Crew’s parody qualified as fair use. (The two sides later settled out of court.) These legal battles briefly turned 2 Live Crew into free-speech heroes, and Bruce Springsteen gave Campbell the rights to cover his “Born in the U.S.A.” into 1990’s Banned in the U.S.A.


N.W.A, ‘Straight Outta Compton’

It’s not only the FBI’s infamous letter, sent in response to N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” and warning that “we in the law enforcement community take exception” to the song, that makes Straight Outta Compton a defining hip-hop protest of societal conditions in Los Angeles and the way Black bodies are policed. It’s also how the group endured radio boycotts and, while on tour, harassment from law enforcement. All the while, fans and critics wrestled with music that profanely celebrated gang life at a time when Crips and Bloods sects were an all-too-real crisis in Black and Brown communities. They overlooked how Compton’s mixed together cautionary tales – Ice Cube punctuates “Gangsta Gangsta” by admitting he’s “dressed in county blues” – with funky lyrical hip-hop akin to Marley Marl’s Juice Crew. Straight Outta Compton may now be considered one of the most important albums in American history. Yet the belief that N.W.A opened a Pandora’s Box of street verisimilitude lingers, whether it’s true or not. N.W.A weren’t the first foul-mouthed hard rocks, but they may have been the best.