The greatest thing about a ten greatest hip hop albums of all-time list is that it is both subjective, based on personal tastes, but it is also a learning experience every time you read one. You might discover artists and albums that you were never aware of because they were before your time.
You might also find a piece of information or insight that makes you want to listen to those albums all over again. You also may simply disagree and want to create your own top 10 list, which is fantastic, because you should.
Now get your favorite comfort beverage, key up some mood music, preferably one of these albums, and find out why these are ten hip hop albums that any collection would benefit from having.
The College Dropout by Kanye West (2004)
Kanye West became famous first as a go-to producer for Jay-Z, and his stable of rappers signed to Roc-A-Fella Records in the early 2000s. But, with the release of Kanye’s first album, where he is the central rapper, The College Dropout showed the world that you could put an intellectual rapper like Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) on the same song as a more street-orientated rapper like Freeway and it will all make sense… no divisions needed. Back in 2004, these two rappers represented two totally different audiences, but Kanye combined those two fan bases seamlessly.
Kanye West also made one of the greatest dedications to Jesus Christ that hip hop had ever seen with “Jesus Walks.” With its larger than life beat and passion oozing out of Kanye’s every word, this song came from a man that wanted more expansive subjects for the genre. Kanye popularised the vulnerability in rap that Drake and J. Cole have since mastered and expanded upon.
Key Tracks: “Jesus Walks” and “All Falls Down”
Black On Both Sides by Mos Def (1999)
After making his presence felt on songs with De La Soul and as Black Star, his duo with Talib Kweli, the world was ready for the mighty Mos Def, and he over-delivered with pure charisma, natural charm, hilarious wit, biting social commentary, visual storytelling, and even some fun flirtation.
Mos Def made his first solo album a definitive, complete album. Who was singing and not rapping on a rap album for an entire tune, except for Lauren Hill, and doing it really well to the point that it seemed normal in 1999? Who says rappers don’t talk about anything but sex, drugs, and guns? Just listen to “New World Water” where he raps about the water crisis over a decade before this was a popular topic of mainstream discussion.
The production is bouncy and solid, with thumping percussion, and a standout tag-team song featuring Busta Rhymes is really exciting even 21 years later. Black on Both Sides is just as socially relevant and entertaining today as it was then.
Key Tracks: “Ms. Fat Booty” and “Mathematics.”
Like Water for Chocolate by Common (2000)
With production from both the impeccable producer J Dilla and Questlove from The Roots, Common had the sonic ammo he needed to make his most soulfully soothing album yet.
But just because he has some smooth guest appearances from D’Angelo, Cee-Lo Green, Bilal, Jill Scott, Mos Def, and Slum Village doesn’t mean that Common isn’t coming with those unforgettable lyrics. DJ Premier’s raw-meets-passionate soundscape for “The 6th Sense” sounds like the protest music that Common predicted would come in handy in 2020, but 20 years in advance.
Key Tracks: “The 6th Sense” and “The Light.”
To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar (2015)
First and foremost, it can’t be said enough that Kendrick Lamar is the first rapper to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for his album DAMN. But there is just something truly special about To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar’s third studio album, that puts it slightly above it as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time.
Maybe it is the mind-bending title. Maybe it is the way that it makes chaos sound so beautiful. Kendrick definitely earns his accolades on this one, showing the speed of his rapping is unmatched, showing his clarity and rhythm are air-tight, showing you an album that feels like it is only supposed to be heard all at once to experience it, not split up into individual cuts.
On King Kunta, you hear the rage inherited from slavery, with the song itself named after the character from the movie Roots. Plus, look at the producers that worked on this masterpiece: Pharrell Williams, Flying Lotus, Boi-1da, Thundercat, Taz Arnold, Terrance Martin, Knxwledge…it is like a hip hop orchestra.
Key Tracks: “Alright” and “The Blacker the Berry.”
3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul (1989)
Back in 1989, rappers were still stereotyped by gold chains and 24-hour intimidating faces. In comes De La Soul like a psychedelic flashback from the 1960s’ hippy age with a modern sense of humor, a love of fun, unity, peace, jigsaw puzzle rhymes that reward those that rewind often, and feel-good beats that make the most socially awkward feet suddenly have built-in rhythm.
This was the early days of the Native Tongue movement of diverse, alternative hip hop artists like Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep, and Monie Love, that carried themselves with Afrocentric flare and broke the mold on what hip hop could sound like, look like, and feel like.
With production from Prince Paul, 3 Feet High and Rising sounds like it was recorded in a weed cloud filled with positive subject matter, quirky rock samples, and those hilarious game show interludes that made it popular to have short breaks between songs that tell a story.
Key Tracks: “Say No Go” and “Buddy.”
Madvillain by Madvillainy: MF Doom + Madlib (2004)
Sometimes what a hip hop album really needs is a serious sense of humor that feels like an audio version of The Dave Chappelle Show. Life is hard enough in real life. We need a break from the madness. This album is pure crazy beats and wizard-level cerebral rhymes.
You may already have heard Madlib’s music on the critically-acclaimed album he did with Freddy Gibbs called “Bandana.” This album came out at a time when mainstream hip hop was crying for help from the formulaic begging for sex and gun busting scenarios. If you feel exhausted when you wake up, crank up Madvillainy, and you won’t need the snooze button on your alarm clock anymore.
Key track: “Accordion” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
Things Fall Apart by The Roots (1999)
The Roots had many great albums before this one. But this stellar collection of hip hop called Things Fall Apart is definitely one thing that didn’t fall about. With Black Thought giving you the mind medicine with the rhyme, with those knocking beats from live instruments, Mos Def, Common, Erykah Badu, and Eve showing up to bless the mic, The Roots created a classic that will last forever.
Key track: “You Got Me” and “Dynamite.”
The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest (1991)
A Tribe Called Quest fused together with the worlds of authentic hip hop and arousing jazz with bass player Ron Carter crushing it, to create a sound that is timeless, hypnotic, and has enough bass to blow speakers right out of your entertainment room.
With Q-Tip and Phife Dawg sharing the mic duties more than they had on the debut album and Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad doing their sample experiments in the studio, this is that summer album that you could play in the fall when you go back to school, or while shoveling snow during winter vacation, and not be mad about your life at all.
This album discussed everything from the social ills of date rape, cultural pride, and even had one of the biggest guest appearances to rock a hip hop group song in Busta Rhymes bombastic raps on “Scenario.”
Key Tracks: “Excursions” and “Scenario.”
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy (1988)
As Public Enemy’s leader rapper Chuck D has repeatedly said, rap is the ‘black CNN,’ and Public Enemy’s second album was their declaration of independence from racism, media exaggerations, police brutality, and hatred. This was music that pushed forward the humanity of African Americans and pushed against ignorance and evil. The rebel boom of Chuck D’s voice is brilliantly balanced with the jovial energy of Flavor Flav. Plus, those beats on this album had so many layers of sound that you would need a shovel to dig through every bit of audio expression that you were being slapped awake in the face with.
Key Tracks: “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
Illmatic by Nas (1994)
When Nas released his very first album in 1994 called Illmatic, most rappers had one producer crafting one cohesive sound for them for the most part, such as Pete Rock and CL Smooth and DJ Premier with Gang Star. But for this culture-changer, both Pete Rock and DJ Premier produced unforgettable beats with this young lion of poetry, along with Q-Tip, Large Professor, and LES.
This album made such an impact that the one guest rapper AZdelivered his first commercially sold verse on this album and got a record deal off of it. This is nine songs and nine haunted stories of survival.
Now that you know what the ten greatest, classic hip hop albums are, play them for the first time, play them for the 1000th time, just don’t play them for the last time.
Key Tracks: “N.Y. State of Mind” and “The World is Yours”