Recently Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and others made a great show during the Super Bowl halftime show. And it brought back memories of the 1990s. To be fair, many of the best rap albums of all time are from that period.
Hip hop is part of modern music. The genre was at one point denied airtime on mainstream radio stations. But these days? You cannot find an artist in the top 40 whose music hasn’t been influenced by some hip-hop.
There are many subgenres in hip-hop. Today, we will look at the best rap albums from the early styles like Public Enemy to modern innovation from the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Let’s take a look at some of the most influential hip-hop albums.
To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
The third studio album by American rapper Kendrick Lamar is among his best. Released in March 2015, the album was recorded in the United States. Dr. Dre served as executive producer on the album.
This album is a variety of styles from traditional African-American rap music, but also with elements of jazz, funk, soul, and many more. Lyrically, the album focuses on political commentary and personal themes like racial inequality, depression, and institutional discrimination.
Lamar was inspired by his tour of historic sites during his visit to South Africa. For example, there he visited the jail cell of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island.
The album debuted as Number 1 on the US Billboard 200.
Illmatic – NAS
The debut studio album by Nas was released in April 1994. Columbia Records released the debut album. Many consider it one of the best hip-hop albums of all time.
The album features multi-syllabic internal rhymes and inner-city narratives based on his experience growing up as a child in Queens, New York City. It debuted only at Number 12, but it was a time when hip-hop was not as part of mainstream media as today.
While fans didn’t buy it initially, music critics praised lyricism and production. Today, many consider it a landmark album in East Coast hip-hop. The album has influenced so many hip-hop artists that followed. It also helped revive the New York City rap scene.
Ready to Die – Notorious B.I.G
Released in September 1994 by Bad Boy Records and Arista Records, the debut studio album of Biggie was an instant hit.
You can view it as a partly autobiographical album telling Biggie’s story and experience as a young criminal. This was the only studio album released during his lifetime. Sadly, Notorious BIG was killed 16 days before the release of his second album, Life After Death in 1997.
The tracks like Warning and Juicy instantly made it to the chart. Big Poppa was the biggest hit of the album, peaking on multiple charts.
Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers – Wu-Tang Clan
The debut studio album by the American hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan was released in November 1993. Considered the best rap album, it provided a gritty and distinctive sound, which set a blueprint for hard-core hip-hop during the 1990s.
Similar to the Illmatic album by Nas, this one helped revive the East Coast hip-hop scene of New York City. It brought the New York rap scene to national prominence. Ghostface Killah definitely shined on this album.
The album provided raw and underground sound, surprising many with its chart success. Some of the hit songs on the album include Protect Ya Neck, Tearz, Method Man, CREAM, and many more.
The Chronic – Dr. Dre
You cannot have a list of best rap albums of all time without The Chronic. To this day, this greatest rap album remains one of the most influential albums in the West Coast hip-hop scene. It made Dr. Dre the successful artist he is today.
And Dre mentored and guided so many stars afterward. Without The Chronic and its success, we might not get Eminem, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and many more artists.
Dre released The Chronic in December 1992 through his own record label, Death Row Records. It was his first solo album following his departure from N.W.A and its label Ruthless Records. In The Chronic, Dre included many subtle and direct insults at Ruthless and its owner, Eazy-E.
With the album and his production, later on, Dre managed to popularize the G-funk genre within the gangsta rap genre. And in 1993, he won a Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.
The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem
The third studio album by Eminem was released in May 2000. Dre produced the album alongside Eminem and Bass Brothers.
The album was surrounded by significant controversy upon its release. But it also helped propel Eminem to the forefront of American pop culture.
Many criticized his lyrics, saying they are violent, homophobic, misogynistic, and more. In some of his songs, Eminem even makes a reference to the Columbine High School massacre. But Slim Shady had no limits. He released the album despite the controversy surrounding it.
To this day, this fan favorite rap album has sold more than 21 million copies, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time.
All Eyez on Me – 2Pac
Tupac Shakur is one of the most successful rap artists of all time. He has sold millions of records. And he is also one of the most prolific artists. For this album, he entered Death Row Records studio and basically killed it for several days.
There are many guest appearances, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, Redman, Method Man, Nate Dogg, Outlawz, and many more.
Many view this album as 2Pac’s magnum opus. It is quite possibly the greatest hip-hop album of all time. 2Pac was at the peak of his fame when he released this album. Many point to the number of songs, 27 to be exact as a problem. It makes the album too long. But to this day fans do not have a problem with that. They want as much as they can get from Tupac Shakur.
Arguably, it is the greatest rap album of all time.
Me Against the World – 2Pac
This was Tupac’s third studio album. It showed he is far beyond his fellow artists. During a period when hip-hop became violent, Pac was able to remain true to the history and beauty of hip-hop.
The album allowed Tupac to show his sensitive and softer side. He opened himself to the fans, and they embraced him. There is no real weak song on this best rap album.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Lauryn Hill
The debut solo album by American singer and rapper Lauryn Hill was released in August 1998. The neo-soul and R&B album had some reggae elements as well.
The album contains lyrics that touch upon her pregnancy and the turmoil within her former group, The Fugees, with themes of love and God.
To this day, it remains among the most acclaimed albums of the 1990s. Critics praise Hill’s presentation of a woman’s view on life and love.
The Blueprint – Jay Z
The sixth studio album by American rapper Jay Z might be his best one. He released it in September 2001. At the time of the release, he was awaiting two criminal trials. He was one of the most dissed artists at the time. Artists like Nas, Jadakiss, and Prodigy insulted Jay Z.
But the album was a hit. Kanye West got his breakout as a major producer. The album received universal acclaim from rap music critics, praising Jay Z and his lyricism.
Run-DMC – Run D.M.C.
It’s like that, and that is the way it is. Quite frankly one of the most popular rap songs of all time. The first album by the band started a movement called the new school of hip hop.
The new movement made songs that were shorter and had simpler instrumentation. RUN – DMC also portrayed a new image, one that was more of a common everyday street look. They wore jeans and sneakers.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – Public Enemy
We cannot ignore one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time. The second studio album by Public Enemy made an album that was more geared for performance purposes.
They introduced styles like free jazz, heavy funk, and more to hip hop. Their strong social commentary was praised by critics and fans.
The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest
The second studio album by the American hip-hop group was released in September 1991 by Jive Records.
For this album, the group wanted a minimalist sound that combines bass, drum breaks, and jazz samples. In terms of lyrics, the album contains social commentary, wordplay, humor, and the interplay between group members.
The lead single Check the Rhime was an instant success. To this day, the album continues to garner praise, recognition, and acclaim from fans and music critics.
The Slim Shady LP – Eminem
With this album, Eminem adopted the persona of Slim Shady. The album was the first one after Dr. Dre recruited Eminem and features production from Dre, Bass Brothers, and Eminem.
The album leans heavily on West Coast hip-hop and G-funk. The majority of the lyrical content is from the alter ego, Slim Shady.
With this album, Eminem went from an underground rapper to a high-profile celebrity. But he remained controversial because of his lyrical content.
Doggystyle – Snoop Dogg
The debut studio album by Snoop Dogg was released in November 1993 by Death Row Records and Interscope Records.
Dre produced the album following Snoop’s appearance on his album, The Chronic. Initially, the album received mixed criticism. But things changed and now it is considered one of the most important hip-hop albums ever released.
Similar to The Chronic, Doggystyle introduced a new distinctive sound in the subgenre G-Funk.
Aquemini – OutKast
Following the success of their first two albums, OutKast wanted to take things to the next level. They elevated their craft with live instruments and creative flows. OutKast has brought newfound respect for Southern hip-hop.
The album is quite different than most rap albums you will find. OutKast invited an eclectic mix of musicians to help on the album. Andre 3000 and Big Boi definitely have an ear for innovation. And they showed it with this album.
2001 – Dr. Dre
Sometimes called The Chronic, 2001, the second studio album by Dre was released in 1999 by Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope Records.
Nate Dogg, Eminem, Xzibit, Snoop Dogg, and many fellow rappers made a guest appearance. It is an expansion of his G-funk sound and contains gangsta rap themes. For example, topics like violence, crime, promiscuity, sex, drug use, street gangs, and similar dominate the lyrical part of the album.
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ – 50 Cent
The debut studio album by 50 Cent made the artist an instant star. He went from nobody to a big celebrity in a matter of seconds. 50 Cent signed with Eminem but also worked with Dre.
The album debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard 200, selling more than 870,000 copies in the first week of sales. The two main commercial success hits were In Da Club and 21 Questions. But the song P.I.M.P reached Number 1 in several countries.
The Score – Fugees
We talked about Lauryn Hill and her solo album. But The Score, the second and final studio album of alternative hip-hop trio Fugees remains one of the most influential and iconic albums of all time.
It features a wide range of samples and instrumentation, giving the public many aspects of alternative hip-hop.
Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A
Let’s finish off the list of best hip-hop albums of all time with the rap group that made hip-hop mainstream music. N.W.A. remains one of the most influential rap groups and artists to this day.
Led by Eazy-E, the group was formed in early 1987. Other members included Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, DJ Yella, and Arabian Prince.
The album remains the first gangsta rap album with platinum certification. The success of the album launched the careers of Ice Cube and Dre. But it also helped reshape rap, popular music, and popular culture forever.