Last week, a friend of mine needed a favor.
He asked for a crash course in hip-hop, a few essential albums that would be accessible for new listeners, yet still captured the spirit of the movement. Y’all know I was up for the challenge, and I invited a few other friends along too.
I’ve invited four of my most trusted hip-hop heads, online music reviewers and musicians to join me in sharing two albums that they considered essential listening for a new hip-hop fan.
Now before you stans start whining about the lack of Tyga or Big Sean, first turn off the computer and finish your summer school homework, then realize that this isn’t a list of the Top 10 albums in rap history. These are 1o albums that showcase the creativity, diversity and history that define the genre we love. Of course, there are many more that could be added, but these are our standouts.
Whether you’re a noob or a longtime fan, all these albums deserve a listen.
2 Mello, Hip-Hop Musician, Remixer and Composer
A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Marauders: I heard Tribe’s The Low End Theory first, but Midnight Marauders was where I found the sound I would come to love the most. The jazzy, deep boom-bap with perfectly selected samples was very much ahead of its time and had me studying its loops immediately. A somewhat eerie but enticing robotic female voice interrupted between tracks to offer strange advice and random thoughts. Not only was the production amazing, but Q-Tip and Phife Dawg mastered the art of beautiful simplicity, juggling charming battle rhymes and mind-opening lines on the same track. Midnight Marauders is one of the best East Coast golden age records, anchored by a tight duo who had, at this point in their career, mastered the mic-pass.
Madvillain (MF DOOM and Madlib), Madvillainy: Madvillainy was for many people the gateway into “art rap” — a realm of hip-hop completely separate from any other style that took elements from all of them, and added references to excite my inner English major. Madvillainy’s greatest strength is that it knew how to be accessible in a sea of almost purposefully inaccessible offerings. Every Madlib-crafted beat is an odd, hypnotic and often very catchy joy with rare quirky samples, and every DOOM rhyme is more entertaining than the last as the MC switches from silly to profound to filthy in one verse. “Accordian” is one of the very best opening tracks to any hip-hop album, right up there with Illmatic’s “New York State Of Mind” or GZA’s “Liquid Swords.”
Tara Scudder, R&B and Hip-Hop Critic
J Dilla, Donuts: A top hip-hop albums list isn’t complete without Donuts, an instrumental album by the masterful J. Dilla. Proof of why the producer has inspired legions of artists reveals itself within this deeply impassioned, comprehensive album ripe with hip-hop, R&B funk and classic soul samples. From the choppy, upbeat “Workinonit” to the weeping tracks “Hi” and “Bye,” the album bleeds with inherent sentiment. It’s apparent that he knew this album would be his last official release before his demise, as he left it us with a gift of a fully developed, comprehensive experience which embodies the essence and soul of hip-hop.
Mos Def, Black on Both Sides: Mos Def’s knack for emphatically delivering conscious lyrics over a sonically unique spread of beats rates him among hip-hop’s top emcees. The content of the tracks on Black on Both Sides run a gamut of topics, all tinged with authenticity and perseverance. “Brooklyn” – arguably the borough’s unofficial theme song – encapsulates the energy and spirit of the city in the multi-dimensional suite. From “Ms. Fat Booty” which declares his gift for story-telling to the socially-conscious “New World Water,” this insightful collection of work is a must in any hip-hop collection.
Fred Freeze, BadMagics.com
De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising and Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back: Both of these albums pushed the hip-hop genre to new heights through incredible genre-bending production and unique lyrical displays. De La Soul introduced the suburban black identity (showing hip-hop can be artsy and yet not pretentious) and the sound bed provided by Prince Paul was nothing short of amazing. PE is the archetype group formula and nation is their magnum opus, They gave us socially challenging narratives with the incredible sampling of Hank Shock Lee. They literally created the conscious lane and became the Rolling Stones of hip-hop, still touring today. PS: Both groups drop new albums this year.
Luke James (#NotTheSinger), YouTube Hip-Hop Album Reviewer
Jay-Z, The Blueprint: Critically acclaimed and considered by many to be Jay Z’s best, not only was Jay on top of his game with his bars and delivery here, The Blueprint also marks the rise of super-producers Kanye West & Just Blaze. And who can forget Eminem snapping on “Renegade?” This one brought soulful, sample-based production to the forefront during an era of synth and bling. (watch Luke’s review here)
Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP: Look, many people consider me to be an Eminem hater because I think he’s been extremely hit and miss for about 10 years now, but as far as raw lyricism goes this album is an all-time great. The violent and crazy imagery was extremely controversial, but Eminem had everyone rewinding and asking, “did he really just say that?” Not only that, but the beats on this album – most of which were handled by Dr. Dre and the Bass Brothers – are some of the best that Em has ever been blessed with. (watch Luke’s review here)
Edward T. Bowser, SoulInStereo.com Kingpin
Kanye West, The College Dropout: Say what you will about Kanye West in 2015, and lord knows I have, but none of his antics in front of the camera can take away what we gave hip-hop in 2004 — one of the greatest albums in hip-hop history. Kanye’s heralded “soul beats” married the classic emotions of Motown-era production with the brash attitude of 21st century hip hop. And sure, Kanye certainly couldn’t call himself a master lyricist at the time, but he easily overcame that deficit by loading every bar with heart and emotion. Politics, social justice, religion, relationships, family — Kanye covered every base, laying the foundation for a modern-day classic.
Nas, Illmatic: There are lots of albums that are synonymous with rap. You’ve seen many of them listed above. But perhaps no album has inspired a generation like Nas’ Illmatic. In just 10 tracks, Nas, paints the most accurate portrait of inner-city black life ever pressed on wax. Nearly every song here has been sampled by other producers; nearly every line has been repeated by other artists. Even the album cover has been imitated countless times! Most importantly, Nas’ poetic delivery was the real game changer, solidifying a rap style that’s still used to this day. Not only is the the most influential album in rap history, in my opinion, it’s easily the best.
What albums do you consider essential for new fans? Let us know in the comments.