You hear it a lot nowadays: Hip hop just isn’t the same. Whether they’re complaining about Future’s Auto-Tune, Drake’s lack of street cred or Kanye West’s craziness, there’s a certain contingent of rap fans who will always long for the golden age of the 1990s.
And how could they not. It was the time of Biggie and 2pac, angry Ice Cube, Lauryn Hill and the Fugees, Rawkus Records, the jazz-rap explosion and the emergence of the dirty south. The 1990s are special both in terms of quality and fruitfulness. It’s the greatest creative period in hip-hop history.
Looking back on the 100 greatest rap albums from that decade, you find yourself moving from the dawn of gangsta and mafioso rap to alternative hip hop and the platinum-selling shiny-suit era.
There was something for everyone. And most lists of the greatest rappers of all time are populated from emcees from the 1990s.
Accessing the best projects is no easy task. There are debates within debates like “Midnight Marauders” or”The Low End Theory?” “Ready to Die” or “Life After Death?” “ATLiens” and “Aquemini.”
Every hip-hop head will have a different opinion. So, consider this just an elaborate conversation starter.
100. Mase – “Harlem World” (1997)
Everything about the shiny suit era is in this one, for better and for worse. For some, that makes Mase’s debut kind of corny. But the pop-sensiblity of Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy imprint was perfect for Mase’s laid back style, producing hit after hit from a monster albums in “Harlem World.”
99. X Clan – “To East, Blackwards” (1990)
X Clan took everything to the extreme, whether it was the group’s funk samples or its Afrocentric lyrics. But its ability to combine the two into a classic debut album would prove a vital influence on socially conscience rap music throughout the 1990s.
98. Hot Boys – “Guerrilla Warfare” (1999)
“Cash Money Records taking over for the ’99 & the 2000…” Juvenile spit that line in 1998 and it certainly proved prophetic. Following the success of his “400 Degreez,” Cash Money dropped four big albums in 1999. The centerpiece was The Hot Boys’ sophomore album, which introduced the mainstream to the label’s other three young stars in B.G., young Turk and Lil Wayne, to go along with Juvenile. A very youthful Lil Wayne shows signs of promise. But it’s Mannie Fresh’s production that remains the backbone. Cash Money and the Hot Boys were truly on fire.
97. Busta Rhymes – “E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front” (1998)
Busta Rhymes often makes the list of the greatest rappers never to release a classic album, with his first two — “The Coming” and “When Disaster Strikes” — cited as near-misses. But the closest Busta actually came to a truly great album was 1998′s “Extinction Level Event” where he finally finds a full project of inventive soundscapes to match his uncanny flow. Singles like “Gimme Some More” and “What’s It Gonna Be?!” are standouts amongst the more hard-hitting songs that will make your head bounce.
96. Three 6 Mafia – “Mystic Stylez” (1995)
In the mid-1990s, this style of syrupy, crunk-ish, horrorcore rap emerged as something of an alternative to East and West Coast gangsta rap. Much of the credit went to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Twista. But Three 6 Mafia wasn’t to be ignored thanks to its astonishing “Mystic Stylez” debut. The group even took aim at Bone Thugs for allegedly jacking its style on the funk-driven “Live by Yo Rep.”
95. Method Man – “Tical” (1994)
Looking at the history of Wu-Tang solo albums, Method Man’s “Tical” often gets lost in the shuffle, which is interesting considering he was clearly the group’s biggest star at the onset. Some of that is owed to the greatness of the other members’ debuts, which “Tical” doesn’t quite reach. But Meth’s album has swagger for days and some true classics. And not just the singles. Take another listen to “Meth Vs. Chef” and witness Method Man hold his own with Raekwon.
94. Onyx – “All We Got Iz Us” (1995)
Onyx’s second album was a nightmare for multiple reasons. Coming off a highly successful debut, the group’s label had to be baffled with such a dark and menacing follow-up. The music itself is also enough to keep you up at night. The members of Onyx were lyrically uncompromising in their brutality, which put some critics on the defense back in 1995. However, a look back finds a document of hardcore rap whose sinister levels are hard to come by these days.
93. Puff Daddy & the Family – “No Way Out” (1997)
Puff Daddy wasn’t a rapper, but rather a hitmaker. And, in that role, no one was bigger in 1997, the year Bad Boy conquered the world despite losing its biggest star in Biggie Smalls. Puffy’s debut album is a de facto Bad Boy compilation album. In retrospect, a few of the songs on “No Way Out” certainly feel cringeworthy and dated (“Senorita”). But the highs are tremendous with no less than five of the biggest hip hop singles of the late 1990s on one album.
92. Gang Starr – “Hard to Earn” (1994)
Gang Starr’s run in the 1990s damn near perfect. To call “Hard to Earn” a weak spot is misleading. It may not reach the heights of DJ Premier and Guru’s other masterpieces, but it’s certainly enticing. In fact, you don’t have to go far to find people who disagree and rank “Hard to Earn” as the group’s peak moment. To some extent, Guru feels a bit tired (It’s not his greatest lyrical showcase). But Premier is in the zone, delivering songs like “Tonz ‘O’ Gunz,” “DWYCK” and, of course, “Mass Apeal,” which would set up his enticing side projects.
91. Xzibit – “40 Dayz & 40 Nightz” (1998)
Listening back to Xzibit’s sophomore album, you think you were listening to a rapper who was on the verge of putting together a career for the ages. And this is before X ever linked up with the likes of Dr. Dre. That didn’t quite turn out to be the case. But X to the Z’s command on the mic was a force of nature. The single “What U See Is What U Get” got a lot of airplay. But as a whole, “40 Dayz & 40 Nightz” is a thrilling display of West coast hip hop.
90. Wu-Tang Clan – “Wu-Tang Forever” (1997)
There are Wu-Tang Clan fans who swear by “Wu-Tang Forever” as a towering classic. Listening to the first half of the double album certainly suggest that. But the second half of “Wu-Tang Forever” is a mixed bag. The crew of rappers, now each solo stars in their own right, don’t come together in quite same way they did on their iconic debut, which leads to some filler. Still, Wu-Tang filler in 1997 was still better than 90 percent of what else was out there.
89. Jay-Z – “In My Lifetime, Vol. 1” (1997)
Twenty years ago, Jay-Z’s sophomore album was labeled a disappointment, despite the fact it pushed him into the mainstream. Trying to blend into the shiny-suit era didn’t always work for Jay. But time has been kinder to “In My Lifetime, Vol. 1,” which now stands (rather easily) as his second best 1990s album. The few so-so attempts at pop glory are outweighed by lyrical stunners, including “A Million And One Question,” “Where I’m From” and “Streets Is Watching,” that fit well amongst Jay-Z’s long list of classics.
88. Salt-N-Pepa – “Very Necessary” (1993)
Making the transition to pop rap proved difficult for many acts. But not Salt-N-Pepa made it seem rather easy on their fourth album. Often overlooked (save for its big singles “Shoop” and “Whatta Man”), “Very Necessary” is a master class in an old-school hip hop act maintaining its relevance in a new decade with excellent production and catchy hooks.
87. Wyclef Jean – “The Carnival” (1997)
For a minute there, it seemed like Wyclef would be the solo genius to come out of the Fugees. Lauryn Hill would take that title in 1998. But Wyclef dropped his excellent solo album first. “The Carnival” is an eclectic showcase of hip hop that, from a mainstream perspective, was different from anything else in rap. The skits slow things down a bit. But when the music kicks in, Wyclef proved himself one of the best producers/rappers of the late 1990s and even scored multiple guest appearances from Hill before their feud took hold.
86. AZ – “Doe or Die” (1995)
“Doe or Die” doesn’t showcase the legendary production work that Nas’ “Illmatic” did. But a year after delivering his iconic verse on “Life’s a Bitch,” AZ gave the world his own solid debut. He fulfills the lyrical promise shown on Nas’ album with street-savvy Mafioso raps that went mostly overlooked at the time. “Sugar Hill” was the only single. Yet, you’ll find “Doe or Die” as a regular on lists of the most underrated rap albums of the decade.
85. Lil Kim – “Hard Core” (1996)
Sonically, Lil Kim wasn’t breaking any ground in 1996, following the blueprint Biggie put forth and featuring the same production design Bad Boy was using to rule the charts. Yet, Kim’s debut album “Hard Core” holds its own with the biggest rap releases of the year, while proving even more influential. “Hard Core” produced an endless list of copycats who could never fully live up to the original.
84. Big L – “Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous” (1995)
Despite production from Lord Finesse and Buckwild, Big L’s debut album (the only one he released during his lifetime) feels a bit overrated from a beats standpoint. Yet, lyrically, it’s as good as it gets. Big L was every bit the wordsmith a Biggie or Big Pun was. And you have to remember, on “Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous,” he was just getting started. Imagining what could have been is enough to drive you insane.
83. Camp Lo – “Uptown Saturday Night” (1997)
By 1997, jazz-rap had been done to death on very high levels. So, to have a standout in the genre, you really needed to come correct. Camp Lo’s “Uptown Saturday Night” does just that, blending multiple genres of music with a street-savvy lyrical style that has made it feel rather timeless.
82. Beastie Boys – “Hello Nasty” (1998)
Because they were white boys who veered into the realms of rap-rock and alternative music, the Beastie Boys’ 1990s discography can often be overlooked in hip hop circles. But few artists were more inventive for such a long period of time. “Hello Nasty” is loaded, maybe a bit overloaded at 22 tracks. But the Beasties got super inventive from a sonic standpoint, carving out their own niche in alternative-rap that added to an already amazing legacy.
81. Capone-N-Noreaga – “The War Report” (1997)
Capone-N-Noreaga’s debut album was a hard-hitting, underground statement that makes the fact it became a commercial success rather astonishing. Much of that is owed to production that matches the duo’s hardcore style perfectly. But the real standout is Noreaga, who had to do much of the heavy lifting on the album with Capone incarcerated. “The War Report” would set up a nice solo run for N.O.R.E. in the decade that followed.
80. Mobb Deep – “Hell on Earth” (1996)
The critical acclaim and brilliance of “The Infamous” put Mobb Deep on the map. But “Hell on Earth” is actually the more accurate representation of what the duo was about in terms of its bleak nature. The album’s dark nature never lets up. But that doesn’t mean the music isn’t repeat-worthy. Havoc and Prodigy’s music was a vivid portrait of dark times that brings guests like Nas, Raekwon, Method Man and Big Noyd along for the haunting ride.
79. Scarface – “Mr. Scarface Is Back” (1991)
Scarface the rapper certainly chose the appropriate name. The film centered on Tony Montana would prove a huge influence on rap culture. As would the rapper’s work. “There’s a lot of wannabe Scarfaces/I’ve heard the name in 99 different places,” Face spits on the opening track from “Mr. Scarface Is Back.” He was certainly correct. Listen to the early from artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Juvenile and others and you’ll hear Face Mob’s influence all over it.
78. Nas – “It Was Written” (1996)
“It Was Written” remains the most polarizing album in Nas’ catalog. There are albums fans love and/or hate more. But none will spark a more heated debate. When “It Was Written” is at its best (“The Message,” “Affirmative Action,” “If I Ruled The World”), the songs are every bit as great as those on predecessor “Illmatic.” But those are too few and far between, even if Nas’ is still on top of his game lyrically. In order to merge Mafioso rap with pop-sensibility, Nas went to the Trackmasters’ well too often. Even the Dr. Dre produced “Nas Is Coming” is a let down. But Nas’ rhymes are more than enough to make up for it. Better than you remember? Yes. But still not quite a classic.
77. Public Enemy – “Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back” (1991)
Coming off of “It Takes a Nation of Millions” and “Fear of a Black Planet,” Public Enemy had nothing to prove. And yet, the songs on “Apocalypse 91…” still have a massive impact. Chuck D remains fired up, most notably on the iconic “Bring The Noise.” The only thing lacking is the layered production the previous albums showcased, much of which was due to the original material being stolen.
76. Dr. Dre – “2001” (1999)
“2001” was one of the most anticipated rap albums of all time, coming seven years after “The Chronic.” Production wise, this is no rehash. The beats have touches of G-Funk, but thump even harder. “2001” is impeccably produced and can sonically go toe-to-toe with its predecessor. The only shortcomings lie in some of the rap performances. Appearances by Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Xzibit and Korupt are as great as you might expect. But Hittman standing in as Dre’s protege this time around, is a definite downgrade from Snoop on “The Chronic.”
75. Redman – “Muddy Waters” (1996)
After battling demons on the somewhat under-appreciated “Dare Iz a Darkside,” Redman got playful again on the stellar “Muddy Waters.” And he was all the better for it lyrically. For those who consider it Redman’s best album, their argument lies in the production, where Redman and Erick Sermon lace the “Muddy Waters’ with beats that, arguably, match his brilliant lyricism better than any Redman album.
74. Prince Paul – “A Prince Among Thieves” (1999)
Just about everything Prince Paul did was pretty groundbreaking. But nothing more so than “A Prince Among Thieves,” the closest thing the rap world may get to a near-flawless rap opera. The story is complex, intentionally so. But repeat listens prove rewarding.
73. Beastie Boys – “Ill Communication” (1994)
Following what many people felt was another classic in “Check Your Head,” the Beastie Boys turned to an even more diverse palate, meshing elements of jazz, funk, rap and alternative rock. The success of “Sabotage” stands out as a potential turning point for the group towards rock music. However, there is plenty of great material here that can hold its own with the Beasties’ classic rap music.
72. Ghostface Killah – “Ironman” (1996)
For Ghostface’s debut album, RZA took a different approach, giving the production more of a blaxploitation vibe, rather than going to Kung-fu flicks. Ghost capitalizes with a vulgar array of street-savvy tunes. Not everything reaches legendary status. But the classics (“Winter Warz,” “Daytona 500,” “All That I Got Is You”) are undeniable.
71. Jeru the Damaja – “The Sun Rises in the East” (1994)
Afer a scene-stealing verson Gang Starr’s “I’m the Man,” Jeru the Damaja became DJ Premier’s pet project, which led to a classic debut. “The Sun Rises in the East” is a hypnotic masterwork from a rising star that would cement itself as an essential part of the rise of East coast rap in the early 1990s.
70. De La Soul – “Stakes Is High” (1996)
On “Stakes Is High,” De La Soul was taking on watered down commercial hip hop and gangsta rap. For mainstream fans, it felt like a bitter rant. But De La Soul was carrying the torch for a creative format and doing it, for the first time, without Prince Paul behind the boards.
69. The Roots – “Illadelph Halflife” (1996)
The Roots’ early albums are raw and lyrically potent. No wonder fans love them. Some even consider “Illadelph Halflife” the group’s peak. Questlove’s production work would get better (or, at least, more elaborate) in the years that followed. But “Illadelph Halflife” is forceful album with Black Thought’s lyrics as the centerpiece. For anyone who still thinks The Roots couldn’t deliver raw rap that would blow your hair back, here’s exhibit A.
68. Blackalicious – “Nia” (1999)
Blackalicious had a lot of material stored up for its debut, as evident by the 70-minute “Nia.” Too many songs? Perhaps. But it’s hard to complain when the Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel are redefining the the art form of underground rap. Not only is the musicality top notch, but the duo unleashes a barrage of tongue-twisting lyrics on every track.
67. Digable Planets – “Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)” (1993)
There’s a chance all you know of Digable Planets’ first album is the hit single “Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like That).” If so, you’re missing out on a fantastic album, one more committed to the jazz side of jazz-rap than any other album of the 1990s. A clear homage to old-school music, “Reachin’” is a sophisticated artistic statement with amazing grooves.
66. Eminem – “The Slim Shady LP” (1999)
Even for as popular as “My Name Is” was, it was still hard for some rap purists to know what to make of Eminem. That hit record would make Eminem a mainstream star. But it was the rest of “The Slim Shady LP” that showed he was a lyrical tour de force. “The Slim Shady LP’s” production, mostly helmed by the Bass Brothers, feels a bit basic in retrospect. Yet, it does give Eminem free range to deliver his infectious brand of nasally lyricism. The shock value made headlines. But the artistry was apparent. A star was born.
65. Black Sheep – “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” (1991)
Overshadowed by other members of the Native Tongues crew, Black Sheep did score one of the biggest hits the contingent had with “The Choice Is Yours.” The song has a gimmicky element to it, taking away from the fact that Black Sheep’s debut, “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing,” is a masterclass in playful hip hop that would make Dres. and Mista Lawnge stars if only for a brief time.
64. Dr. Octagon – “Dr. Octagonecologyst” (1996)
When you look at all the alternative/underground hip hop the Pitchfork generation embraces, you can thank “Dr. Octagonecologyst” for much of it. Before breakthrough albums from the Rawkus Records artists others, Dr. Octagon captivated audience that hadn’t been fed music on this high of a level since the early 1990s. Kool Keith has done other favorable work, but this is his definitive statement as a solo artist.
63. N.W.A. – “Efil4zaggin” (1991)
N.W.A. had some big shoes to fill with Ice Cube leaving the group. But MC Ren was no slouch and the group still had Dr. Dre and DJ Yella. “Efil4zaggin” is aided by the penmanship of The D.O.C. But what stands out most is N.W.A.’s willingness to somehow get more vulgar and sensational. “Efil4zaggin” is even harder than “Straight Outta Compton,” at times to a fault. But it certainly contains just as much attitude.
62. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – “The Main Ingredient” (1994)
“Mecca and the Soul Brother” is Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s iconic album. But, believe it or not, the follow-up may be even more influential. “The Main Ingredient” wasn’t the epic spiritual journey its predecessor was. Still, its refined and soulful sound would have a tremendous impact on future underground rap titans, most notably J Dilla.
61. MF Doom – “Operation Doomsday” (1999)
The debut album from MF Doom could have easily been dismissed as a WTF moment in hip hop. For some, it was. But “Operation Doomsday” was a release that would prove iconic. Doom brought with him a humorous and off-kilter lyrical style that would captivate indie music audiences that otherwise wouldn’t have much to do with rap music.
60. Common – “Resurrection” (1994)
Common, aka Common Sense, fulfilled his potential as an artist on “Resurrection.” The rough edges of his debut were smoothed out, paving the way for a socially conscious rap effort that was lyrically profound. Other rappers could rap like Common, but few were as good. Cementing his status as one of rap’s greats of the time was the second track “I Used to Love H.E.R.” A true rap classic.
59. DMX – “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot” (1998)
Like Nirvana’s “Nevermind” brushed away the hair metal era of rock music, DMX’s debut did the same for the shiny suit era. It wasn’t necessarily intentional, as X would appear on plenty of Bad Boy tracks. But after “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot,” fans refused to embrace pop rap in the same way. Songs like “Get at Me Dog” and “Ruff Ryders Anthem” had invaded the suburbs, while DMX’s “Damien” vibes would prove just as alluring as they were terrifying. Personal, powerful and extremely dark, “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot” is a unique kind of emo-horrorcore masterpiece.
58. Organized Konfusion – “Organized Konfusion” (1991)
Organized Konfusion was one of the first acts to emerge in the post-Rakim era that turned lyricism into an even. more complex art form. The group’s debut album covers a wide-range of subjects. But it always functions as a lyrical powerhouse. For many, it marks the peak of underground hip hop for all of the 1990s. It’s hard to argue.
57. Company Flow – “Funcrusher Plus” (1997)
Thanks to the heavy influence of group member El-P, Company Flow’s underground classic “Funcrusher Plus” had a post-apocalyptic feel that indie fans could fully embrace. For old-school hip hop fans, “Funcrusher Plus” is no easy listen. El-P certainly injects complex sounds that would expand the genres of underground rap and alternative hip hop moving forward. But it remains a very high level and rewarding listen.
56. Gravediggaz – “6 Feet Deep” (1994)
There’s a moment on “6 Feet Deep” where RZA teases a Wu-Tang sound only to laugh it off as a tease to the listener. By 1994, the Wu-Tang Clan was iconic. But RZA used some of his free time to put together Gravediggaz, a supergroup featuring himself, Prince Paul, Frukwan and Poetic. And, thus, the blueprint horrorcore rap was born. How RZA managed to create something, arguably, even more bleaker than Wu-Tang is astonishing. But we’re thankful he did.
55. Big Pun – “Capital Punishment” (1998)
Bar for bar, Big Pun was as good as anyone, something clear from the first track on his debut. Songs like “Beware,” “The Dream Shatterer,” “Tres Leches” and the appropriately titled “Super Lyrical” are stunning lyrical showcases. Overall, “Capital Punishment” is a deceptively well-rounded album built in the mold of Biggie. It combines Pun’s rap talent with his big-man charm that produced hit singles. Never mind the fact he holds his own (and out raps) everyone from Prodigy and Inspektah Deck to Black Thought and BFF Fat Joe.
54. Geto Boys – “We Can’t Be Stopped” (1991)
Where most hardcore hip hop and horrocore rap seemed to try very hard to get its point across, things came come naturally to Geto Boys. That ability peaks on “We Can’t Be Stopped,” one of southern rap’s most iconic album best known for its legendary track “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” But the entire album is impactful odyssey of nightmares and creepy street tales that serve as a prelude to Scarface’s amazing solo career.
53. UGK – “Ridin’ Dirty” (1996)
One of the most influential southern rap albums of all time. Before Chamillionaire was rapping about “Ridin Dirty,” Bun B and Pimp C were living it on an entire album. Pimp C was such a genius, essentially the southern version of Dr. Dre, creating laid back, funk-sampled beats that would give UGK its syrupy smooth sound, which would be mimicked endlessly in the years that followed.
52. Ice-T – “O.G. Original Gangster” (1991)
What made Ice-T’s music so striking was the fact that he came across more authentic than any other gangsta rap act. Brilliantly using his criminal experiences (as real as it gets) to shape his punishing tunes with blunt messages that are as hard hitting today as they were back in 1991. Listening to “O.G. Original Gangster,” it’s hard to believe this guy went on to become a TV cop.
51. Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo – “Wanted: Dead or Alive” (1990)
Kool G Rap is one of the most influential emcees of all time. And, in many ways, that starts with “Wanted: Dead or Alive” with DJ Polo. You know the album is a classic right from the opener “Streets of New York.” Using crime movies as his inspiration, Kool G Rap would give us an early taste at the Mafioso rap that would consume the ears of Jay-Z, Biggie, Raekwon and so many others.
50. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – “E. 1999 Eternal” (1995)
Other acts want to contend that Bone Thugs-N-Harmony copied their style of Midwest horrorcore rap. That’s highly debatable. But there’s certainly no debating that Bone did it bigger than anyone. The group’s secret weapon was its harmonies, something that hadn’t really been seen in hardcore rap circles, at least not on that level. On “E. 1999 Eternal,” Bone’s fast-paced rhymes are engaging enough. But it’s the group’s collective ability to deliver melodic hooks on songs like “Tha Crossroads” that would make Bone Thugs one of the 1990s most successful and important hip-hop acts.
49. Juvenile – “400 Degreez” (1998)
Cash Money Records emerged in 1997, but spent a year in the shadow of fellow New Orleans record label No Limit. That changed with “400 Degreez.” Juvenile’s third album brought the label’s production, led by Mannie Fresh, to new heights. And Juvenile had the perfect style to take it to the masses, first with the incredibly cinematic “Ha” and then with “Back That Thang Up,” featuring a star-making turn from a young Lil Wayne. This is one of the best-produced Southern rap albums of all time whose sonic mastery remains next level.
48. Gang Starr – “Daily Operation” (1992)
“Step In the Arena” perfected Gang Starr’s template and proved the duo of Guru and DJ Premier was a force. For it’s follow-up, Gang Starr took a more laid back, but equally effective approach. “Daily Operation” doesn’t strive to prove anything, because it doesn’t have to. Guru is, arguably, at his peak as an emcee and DJ Premier puts together a collection of diverse tracks that demand you hit repeat once the album is done.
47. Organized Konfusion – “Stress: The Extinction Agenda” (1994)
Organized Konfusion’s definitive album doesn’t have the fun-loving, DIY sentiment of its predecessor. Seeking outside production help, “Stress: The Extinction Agenda” is far more complex and challenging. But it also may be the most lyrical rap album of all time. It’s a true game-changer that would elevate the art form once again, paving the way for the likes of Eminem and Royce da 5′9, while making a star out of Pharoahe Monch.
46. Souls of Mischief – “93 ‘Til Infinity” (1993)
Even in the crowded space of 1990s alternative hip hop, Souls of Mischief’s style was unique. A internal rhyme scheme with bass-heavy beats, jazz samples and, still, a vibe that was decidedly West Coast. “93 ‘Til Infinity” is a musical treature trove of great songs. What’s most impressive is that this was done way back in 1993.
45. Outkast – “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” (1994)
It’s not taking anything away from southern rap pioneers to say that Outkast’s debut album put the south on the map. It wasn’t just the Source Awards win and acceptance speech. “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” was as accessible as Atlanta rap had been up until that point, paving the way for your favorite rappers of the 2000s, from Ludacris to T.I. to Jeezy. Outkast would make better albums (a few, actually). But, perhaps, none were more important.
44. Black Moon – “Enta da Stage” (1993)
Not super lyrical but grimy as hell, Black Moon’s “Enta da Stage” deserves all the praise it gets from 90s rap enthusiasts, even if mainstream audiences haven’t heard of it. Black Moon was second to none, save for Mobb Deep, in crafting vivid stories of urban decay. But the sound on “Enta da Stage” is also quite sophisticated, using low-key jazz samples to give the haunting songs their hypnotic feel.
43. Digable Planets – “Blowout Comb” (1994)
Digable Planets was never able to duplicate the success of its debut album and, more specifically, the hit single “Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like That).” Thus, the group became a one-hit-wonder. And yet, its sophomore album “Blowout Comb” is not only better than its predecessor, but stands as one of the defining statements in all of jazz rap. Not concerned with mainstream appeal, “Blowout Combs” brings forth a Afrocentric vibe with more militant content. And the beats are much more raw, making the music all the more impactful.
42. Eric B. & Rakim – “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em” (1990)
“Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em” will probably always exist in the shadow of Eric B. & Rakim’s first two albums. However, the legendary duo’s third effort is easily the most forward thinking. Done without scratching and old-school hip hop drums, “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em” takes on a dark aesthetic, unleashing Rakim’s most raw and menacing rhymes. At that time, there was still some question who the greatest rapper of all time was – Rakim or Big Daddy Kane? There was no debate after “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em.”
41. Goodie Mob – “Soul Food” (1995)
What you know about the Dirty South? Following Outkast’s groundbreaking debut, fellow Dungeon Family members Goodie Mob would arrive on the southern rap scene with something grimier. “Soul Food” helped push southern hip hop even further into the mainstream and made it okay for future acts to approach the genre in a harsher way.
40. Redman – “Whut? Thee Album” (1992)
Redman was so far ahead of his time as a lyricist, no collection of beats were going to match his level of skill back in 1992. So, yes, “Whut? Thee Album” sounds a bit dated. But, it still knocks. And, in terms of a lyrical showcase, few rappers have ever achieved anything better. Before Eminem, there was Reggie Noble, a fun-loving emcee with lyrics for days who could drop your jaw anytime he wanted.
39. De La Soul – “Buhloone Mindstate” (1993)
By the time “Buhloone Mindstate” was released, De La Soul had given up caring what mainstream audiences thought. Some mistook that as the group intentionally releasing challenging albums that were lower in quality than its landmark debut. But De La Soul was simply ahead of its time, no more so than on “Buhloone Mindstate,” arguably, the group’s most ambitious and creative album. It’s almost dreamlike in how beautiful it is.
38. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – “Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version” (1995)
Joke or genius? If you can’t appreciate ODB as the latter, then I can’t mess with you. Yes, his style was uncanny and comical. But the brilliance of “Return to the 36 Chambers” lies in its innovation. ODB was a one of a kind artist who, armed with RZA’s production work, created a one of a kind album that’s highly intriguing and mind-boggling. It’s as if the Wu-Tang opened up another chamber for you to explore. Just be careful what you step in.
37. LL Cool J – “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990)
LL Cool J’s sophomore album “Bigger and Deffer” didn’t fully live up to its title. It’s follow up, “Walking with a Panther” also didn’t live up to LL’s iconic debut. So, heading into the 1990s, rap’s first great solo star had a lot to prove. And that he did. It wasn’t just the title track from “Mama Said Knock You Out” that revitalized LL’s career and shook hip hop. The entire album is a showcase in microphone command and ill one-liners. LL still had epic swagger in him and used it to decimate anyone who dared to challenge him.
36. Beastie Boys – “Check Your Head” (1992)
The Beastie Boys had no interest in rehashing the more rap-heavy, sample-driven style of “Paul’s Boutique.” “Check Your Head” is much more primal and rooted in alternative music. The Beastie Boys could certainly still rhyme (See: “Pass the Mic” and “So What’cha Want”). But the music on “Check Your Head” is wide ranging, weaving in and out of various styles. It’s a genre-bending collection that hits all the right notes.
35. Mos Def – “Black on Both Sides” (1999)
Mos Def was an old-school rapper trapped in a new world. On “Black on Both Sides,” he takes Afrocentric subject matter to more complex territory, armed with a masterful ability to put words together. He was Rakim and Big Daddy Kane reincarnated only with an even bigger vocabulary. And with an array of talented producers at his disposal, Mos delivers the goods on his first solo effort, raising the bar for rap heading into the 21st century.
34. Gang Starr – “Step in the Arena” (1991)
Gang Starr’s debut album “No More Mr. Nice Guy” wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t until “Step in the Arena” that the group hit its stride. No weak tracks. No dull moments. Guru had evolved into a lyrical mastermind, while DJ Premier’s production became far more expansive. Even in 1991, this was advanced stuff, merging elements of hard hitting East Coast rap with jazz and funk. Every song leaves its own individual mark, kick starting one of the greatest runs in hip hop history.
33. Brand Nubian – “One for All” (1990)
On its debut album, Brand Nubian wasn’t trying to master one style. It was attempting to perfect them all and succeeding. Political rap? check. Jazz rap? check. Funky soul samples? check. Alternative hip-hop? check. There’s something for everyone not obsessed with gangsta rap. Idealogical? Sure. But still lots of fun? You bet.
32. Black Star – “Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star” (1998)
Of all the albums from the late 1990s Rawkus Records era, Black Star’s iconic debut album is the one that sums things up best. It marked a throwback to days when hip hop was a lyrical, creative force, not obsessed with pop ambitions. It helps when you have two of the best lyricists in the game trading amazing rhymes, which Mos Def and Talib Kweli do over the course of 13 tracks. A tight, cohesive album that’s as lyrical as things get. You couldn’t ask for more.
31. Cypress Hill – “Cypress Hill” (1991)
Call it weed rap if you want. But Cypress Hill’s debut album was nothing short of lethal. Driven by innovative production from DJ Muggs and the nasally raps of B Real, Cypress Hill brought a different vibe to West Coast rap. It was a laid back, Latin vibe that was still hardcore in its message. “Cypress Hill” proved you didn’t have to shout over breakbeats to be menacing, and everyone — in both rap and rock circles — wanted to emulate that.
30. Missy Elliott – Supa Dupa Fly (1997)
You could argue all day about which Missy Elliott album is the best (They all have their great moments). But none changed the direction of hip hop more than her debut “Supa Dupa Fly.” Missy was a female rapper who wasn’t putting sex first. She could weave in and out of rhyme styles as unpredictably as anyone since Busta Rhymes (who is featured heavily on the album). “Supa Dupa Fly” also gave us a full album’s worth of Timbaland, a super producer who would go on to shape the sounds of hip hop over the next decade and a half.
29. Main Source – “Breaking Atoms” (1991)
Main Source’s groundbreaking debut album is mainly known for two things — the production work of Large Professor and the star-making guest verse from a young Nas on “Live at the Barbeque.” But the album’s ultimate legacy lies in how it changed the use of samples. Months before A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory,” the guys in Main Source were mastering the art of manipulating soul samples and incorporating jazz undertones. “Breaking Atoms” stands as, perhaps, the greatest underground rap album of the 1990s and easily the most influential.
28. Scarface – “The Diary” (1994)
It’s very easy to hear the influence Scarface and the music he created on “The Diary” in some of the biggest rap albums of the 1990s, from Biggie’s “Life After Death” to 2Pac’s “All Eyez on Me.” Scarface took Kool G Rap’s brand of Mafiaso rap and made it something more compelling, psychological and ominous. That level of honesty in the face of darkness was unheard of and created a new breed rapper and a new level of hip-hop that defied regional boundaries.
27. The Roots – “Things Fall Apart” (1999)
Having worked on landmark albums for artists like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Common, The Roots Questlove thought he had made it, only to learn that his own group wasn’t getting the respect it deserved and, perhaps rightfully so. Prior to “Things Fall Apart,” The Roots had released solid albums. But they weren’t all that nuanced. So, Questlove set out to become an excellent producer, rather than just a band leader. The result is The Roots taking things to the next level. “Things Fall Apart” is a bleak record that sonically covers a lot of territory. It’s the sound of The Roots fulfilling all promise and becoming one of the best acts in hip hop.
26. Outkast – “ATLiens” (1996)
There are people who swear by Outkast’s “ATLiens” as the group’s greatest achievement and it’s easy to see why. It’s a spaced out odyssey and easily the band’s most cohesive album. Big Boi and Andre 3000 were setting the standard for southern rap as an art form. It’s follow-up “Aquemini” would push things further sonically. But “ATLiens” accomplishes a level of chill that’s about as cool as rap gets with two emcees coming into their own.
25. 2Pac – “All Eyez on Me” (1996)
What a visceral album. “All Eyez on Me” is the opposite of its classic predecessor “Me Against the World.” This time around, Pac was armed with back up. It wasn’t him against the world, but Pac and the biggest record label in hip hop ready to take on all comers. The fact that “All Eyez on Me” is a double album isn’t necessarily a reflection of some larger vision. It’s more due to the fact that 2Pac was so prolific in the studio. And what’s most shocking is that almost every track here hits the mark. 2Pac was on fire during the recording process, seeking vengeance, acclaim and world domination. He accomplished it all before his tragic death later that year.
24. A Tribe Called Quest – “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” (1990)
The Roots, Outkast, Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def. Talib Kweli, Fugees and Kanye West. The list goes on and on of artists who were driven to take up hip-hop or develop their sound after hearing A Tribe Called Quest’s first album. The group’s follow-ups – “The Low End Theory” and “Midnight Marauders” – would build on the template of alternative hip-hop and jazz rap, ultimately surpassing “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.” But make no mistake – Tribe has three classic albums, starting with their first, which still features multiple benchmarks of the genre.
23. Ice Cube – “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” (1990)
Regardless of the reasons, leaving a group as big as N.W.A. was going to be viewed as career suicide by many. But it was clear when Ice Cube dropped “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” that he was the core of N.W.A.’s music. Sure, Dr. Dre and DJ Yella had the beats. But Ice Cube’s first solo album does away with any pop-friendly vibes, in favor of the in-your-face lyrical tirades that remain the standout from “Straight Outta Compton.” “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” didn’t conquer the charts like its follow-up “Death Certificate” would. But the former fell smack dab in the middle of Ice Cube’s peak period, one of the best runs for any emcee in history.
22. The Pharcyde – “Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde” (1992)
When you think of West Coast hip-hop from the early 1990s, you think N.W.A., Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. You don’t think The Pharcyde. But you should. De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest had established alternative hip-hop as an art form. But The Pharcyde brought it to the West Coast with as creative a rap album as you could imagine at that time, from the groove of “Passin’ Me By” to the playful defiance of “Oh Sh*t” to all those skits that are required to fully experience the vision of one of rap’s most eccentric groups.
21. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – “Mecca and the Soul Brother” (1992)
Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s debut EP “All Souled Out” was excellent. But it was only six tracks, including a remix. Thus, the 80-minute full-length “Mecca and the Soul Brother” came as a surprise when it arrived in 1994. And what a surprise it was. Pete Rock’s production is top notch, weaving together a cohesive album connected by stunning interludes. C.L. Smooth remains true to his name, delivering a lyrical showcase based on true stories that make the duo’s subject matter all the more impactful. “Mecca and the Soul Brother” isn’t religious album, but it’s one hell of a spiritual experience.
20. Gang Starr – “Moment of Truth” (1998)
As the saying used to go, you ask four Gang Starr fans what the duo’s bets albums is, you’ll might get four different answers. That’s because four of Gang Starr’s first five albums are classics (and are all featured on this list). But as time as gone on, “Moment of Truth” has risen above the pack. Upon its release, the album felt like a retread of what DJ Premier and Guru had already done. But that was a case of taking things for granted. “Moment of Truth” is a sprawling magnum opus featuring Premier’s best production work and Guru’s most moving lyrics. The title track features Guru’s best verse, while the monstrous “The Militia” serves as the confrontational midpoint. Every guest brought his A-game. Hip-hop rarely sounds like this anymore and when it does, it often pales in comparison.
19. Fugees – “The Score” (1996)
By the time 1996 rolled around, the East Coast-West Coast rap feud was in full effect. Thus, most mainstream rap albums either sounded like Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” or The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” in one way or another. Then came the Fugees. After showing promise on 1994’s uneven “Blunted on Reality,” the group found its groove on the fantastic “The Score,” an album classified as alternative hip hop mostly because it was just different from the volatile gangsta rap of the times. Lauryn Hill could rap and sing with the best of ‘em, while Wyclef and Pras were masters in the studio. Add the amazing cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” which became a massive hit, and it wouldn’t be long before many acts would start to sound like the Fugees.
18. De La Soul – “De La Soul Is Dead” (1991)
“De La Soul” is the hip-hop equivalent of “In Utero,” an album aimed at tearing down the mainstream public’s perception of an act coming off a hugely successful album. Only, De La Soul was so ahead of its time, the band’s second album arrived before Nirvana were even MTV icons. “De La Soul Is Dead” is a loose concept album about a band tearing down its fame. At the time of its release, the album was poorly received as a difficult listen with complex themes that veered so far away from “3 Feet High and Rising’s” upbeat vibes, De La Soul was almost unrecognizable. Nearly 30 years later, “De La Soul Is Dead” is considered a pioneering achievement from a group that wanted to do things its own way, because it knew better.
17. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Life After Death” (1997)
“Ready to Die” times two. Only, Biggie never got to see it. “Life After Death” was a massive album, one of the best-selling hip hop albums of all time that arrived shortly after The Notorious B.I.G.’s death. Still, he left us with a colossal achievement, a lyrical force that found Puff Daddy and The Hitmen production team at their peak. It was Biggie conquering gangsta rap, mafioso rap and pop music over the course of two disks, while lyrically slaying everything in his path.
16. Ice Cube – “Death Certificate” (1991)
Ice Cube’s solo debut “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” was angry and frightening. But it didn’t earn him the superstardom some expected coming out of N.W.A. But it’s follow up, “Death Certificate” took care of that. Poised to become not just the best rapper alive, but the biggest as well, Cube transformed into an atomic bomb of an artist on his sophomore effort. The rage and its unapologetic delivery isn’t for the weak of heart. Cube knew that to get his point across, shock value had to be part of the game. But he never sacrifices artistic integrity, even when he’s laying waste to his former N.W.A. group mates on “No Vaseline.”
15. A Tribe Called Quest – “The Low End Theory” (1991)
With its debut album, A Tribe Called Quest expand the realm of hip-hop to what would be known as conscience or backpack rap. Its follow-up “The Low End Theory” pushed things even further, redefining the art of instrumentation and sampling (with jazz influence) thanks to its bass-heavy sound. The other thing that was noticeably different on Tribe’s second go-round was the lyrical presence of Phife Dawg, who took a back seat on the debut. Q-Tip always had lyrics for days. But when “Buggin’Out” hits on “The Low End Theory,” you know Phife has arrived, making for one of the great lyrical duos in rap history.
14. 2Pac – “Me Against the World” (1995)
“All Eyez On Me” was 2Pac’s biggest album, while “The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory,” which came out after his death, was Pac’s most mythical. But “Me Against the World” is Tupac’s definitive statement, the album that best sums up his legacy. 2Pac would go on the attack with “All Eyez On Me.” Some of that anger was bubbling on “Me Against the World.” But Pac’s vulnerability as a man who feels like everyone is out to get him takes center stage. Pac had yet to link up with Death Row and Dre. So, the production on “Me Against the World” wasn’t as good as its follow up. But, in retrospect, the old-school style provided by Tony Pizarro, Easy Mo Bee and others makes its impact by clearing the way for Pac’s poignant words. 2Pac was never more moving than on “Me Against the World.”
13. GZA – “Liquid Swords” (1995)
There were flashier members of the Wu-Tang. Ones with wilder personalities and loftier ambitions. But when it came to the aesthetic of the Wu, the one that separated them from every other rap group of that time, it was all about GZA. The man known as the Genius was the group’s most technical, lyrical force. And on “Liquid Swords,” he removes all doubt by expanding on the core vibes of “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” with a bleak album about human decay that features some of the greatest prose in rap history.
12. Mobb Deep – “The Infamous” (1995)
When people speak of hardcore rap, this is where they should go first. Mobb Deep’s vision was dark. So dark that the group’s masterpiece of an album, “The Infamous,” refuses to bend to any mainstream standards. Havoc’s barebones production work (similar to that of RZA) created the perfect back drop for his and Prodigy’s menacing rhymes. The young members of Mobb Deep were painting a picture of dark times on the streets of New York that would resonate. The album remains one of hardcore hip hop’s true landmark works.
11. Public Enemy – “Fear of a Black Planet” (1990)
Not quite as accessible as “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” but equally as powerful. Sonically, “Fear of a Black Planet” is far more elaborate, piecing together a diverse array of rhythms, samples and sound bites for a potent mix that’s endlessly engrossing. And the high points on “Fear of a Black Planet” are arguably even better than those of its predecessor, especially when you consider the album features “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “911 Is a Joke” and the ultimate rap album closer “Fight the Power.”
10. Lauryn Hill – “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (1998)
Before Drake ever started singing and rapping, Lauryn Hill was doing both at an even higher level. First with the Fugees. Then on her masterful solo album that conquered the Grammys. Maybe “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” isn’t a pure rap album. But it does open with the scathing “Lost Ones.” Removed from the group-setting, Hill was able to deliver her own vision and one of the most personal hip hop albums of all time. It’s just a shame she hasn’t made another one.
9. Jay-Z – “Reasonable Doubt” (1996)
Odds are if you lived outside of New York City in 1996, you didn’t catch on to Jay-Z right away. That wouldn’t happen until two years later. But over time, there’s little argument – “Reasonable Doubt” is a stone cold classic and the peak of Jay-Z’s lyrical powers. Consider an argument could be made that Jay’s four or five greatest verses of all time come from this album, and most of them aren’t even on singles. Jay-Z wasn’t the first rapper to tackle Mafioso rap. But he may have been the most gifted to do so up until that point. “Reasonable Doubt” reflects that and Jay-Z knows it, which is why he’s always been so protective of his stunning debut.
8. Snoop Doggy Dogg – “Doggstyle” (1993)
The argument that “Doggystyle” is essentially a carbon copy of “The Chronic” is understandable. But so is the idea that “Doggystyle” may even be better. Consider Dre’s G-Funk production was, once again, in full swing. Only, this time, the lead artist was the best rapper alive at the time with the smoothest flow at the time. What’s not debatable is that “Doggstyle” was even more suitable for the mainstream with Snoop perfectly positioned to conquer the world on a collection of tracks rap and the rest of the world couldn’t get enough of.
7. Raekwon – “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” (1995)
Kool G. Rap may have introduced the world to Mafioso rap, but Raekwon made it larger than life with “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” It’s almost misleading to call this a solo album. Heck, it even says “featuring” Ghostface Killah on the cover. But nearly all of the Wu-Tang Clan’s top wordsmiths come out to play on Raekwon’s cinematic-sounding masterpiece that pushed the Clan’s brand of gritty street rap into Scarface-like, legendary territory.
6. Outkast – “Aquemini” (1998)
When Andre 3000 told the audience at the 1995 Source Awards that “the South got something to say,” he was right. But what people may have underestimated was just how much Outkast, who would go on to become the greatest Southern rap group of all time, had to say time and time again. You can argue all day about which of the duo’s first three albums is the best. But there’s no denying that “Aquemini” is a monster of Outkast’s catalog, an album packed with daring sonic landscapes, along with precise and impactful lyricism from Andre and Big Boi. “Aquemini” was a true game-changer for the genre and Outkast. It’s the group’s masterpiece.
5. A Tribe Called Quest – “Midnight Marauders” (1993)
“Midnight Marauders” or “The Low End Theory?” It’s a question that certainly doesn’t have a wrong answer. Both are classics. For those in favor of Midnight Marauders,” the album offers up the total package of A Tribe Called quest, meshing elements of the group’s brilliant first two albums. On top of that, “Midnight Marauders” comes with a narrator who directs the listener from stage to stage throughout. It’s one truly cohesive effort with several of the best tracks (“Award Tour,” “Sucka N****,” “Electric Relaxation,” “Oh My god”) of Tribe’s entire career. “The Low End Theory” may be Tribe’s most influential album. But “Midnight Marauders” is the group’s best.
4. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Ready to Die” (1994)
The Notorious B.I.G. wanted his debut to be a hardcore rap album, one that would probably scare the crap out of mainstream audiences. The first few tracks on “Ready to Die” — hard-hitting assaults like “Gimme the Loot” and “Machine Gun Funk” — certainly fit in that mold. What winds up balancing “Ready to Die” out, and ultimately making it a huge success, is the presence of Sean “Puffy” Combs, who had a vision for something broader. Enter songs like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa” into the mix with the likes of “The Warning” and “The What.” Biggie’s album changed hip-hop. You couldn’t just come out with something hard hitting and lyrically inventive. It had to have mainstream appeal to. The formula for greatness had been created.
3. Dr. Dre – “The Chronic” (1992)
Dr. Dre had already changed rap music as the chief producer with N.W.A. But “The Chronic” was his true magnum opus. Not only would Dre’s debut album introduce his G-Funk sound the mainstream and make Death Row’s stable of artists household names, especially a young Snoop Doggy Dogg. But “The Chronic” would also prove influential in its sampling, style and overall level of production. It was leaps and bounds above anything else in rap or any other genre of the time for that matter.
2. Wu-Tang Clan – “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” (1993)
Before “Ready to Die,” “Illmatic” or “Reasonable Doubt” there was “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” the album that altered the landscape of New York hip hop. It was a collection of the best emcees rapping over sparse, yet gritty beats with an aesthetic unlike anything the world had scene. The arrival of the “36 Chambers” was one of the most jaw-dropping moments in rap history. Yes it was different, but it was on a lyrical level that had never been achieved with a level of mainstream success that, in retrospect, seems unfathomable. But that was the genius of the Wu-Tang Clan, a group that could incorporate kung fu movies samples, lyric tongue-twisters, anthems suburban kids got behind and a wild personality like ODB all on one masterful album.
1. Nas – “Illmatic” (1994)
“Illmatic” wouldn’t exist today. We live an era where artists load up on tracks to boost their streaming numbers. Something like “Illmatic,” with its 10 tracks (nine of which are actual songs), would be an EP at best. But that is what’s so great about Nas’ landmark debut. All killer, no filler. The only complaint is that it’s too short. But you never truly get that feeling listening to it. Nas was blessed with the best beats from some of the best producers in the business. Yet, he was so lyrically in the pocket that the production never outshines his rhyme skills, which were clearly top notch. Consider “N.Y. State of Mind,” which may be DJ Premier’s greatest beat. But it also features, arguably, the greatest verse in hip-hop history. “Illmatic” is the blueprint for a perfect album, even if younger rappers are too ignorant or arrogant to follow it.