Black Music Month: My Favorite Hip-Hop Albums of All-Time

I undertook the impossible task of trying to compile my favorite Hip-Hop albums of all-time; over and over again I changed the order, changed what albums were included, debated if this album was better than that one and grit my teeth when I had to cut certain albums from my top-5. So, there’s no Illmatic, Ready to Die or Life After Death. Paid in Full and The Chronic didn’t make the list either. College Dropout, Late Registration or Graduation made it, even against my best internal agrument.  Neither did It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, The Score or Death Certificate. Criminal Minded, nope. Mama Said Knock You Out, nope.
With that said, here goes nothing…

OutKast – Aquemini
Even the sun goes down, heroes eventually die/Horoscopes often lie/And sometimes “Y”/Nothing is for sure and nothing is for certain/Nothing is forever, but until they close the curtain/It’s him & I/Aquemini
I don’t care how many copies Speakerboxxx/The Love Below sold, it still pales in comparison to the 1998 classic Aquemini. In fact, it is the worst of their five albums (I don’t count Idlewild), and not too many albums by anyone are actually better. The synergy between Andre 3000 and Big Boi has never been better than on the album that celebrated the fusion of their differences and embraced their standing on the fringes of Hip-Hop’s elite.
However, once released, there was no denying that OutKast had more than a regional sound and were more than a niche group, they were Hip-Hop royalty. But they were far from your safe artists, they took chances, listen to the harmonica on “Rosa Parks”, the spoken word style used on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”and how they kept it gangsta on “Return of the G”.
They made an album for everybody and nobody at the same time; it was fluid, ability to morph to the listener’s tastes. Aquemini seemed like a departure from its preceeding albums Southernplayalisticadillacmuzikand ATLiens, but it was really the joining of those two and the predecessor to the adventurous Stankonia and the catalyst for the record-breakingSpeakerboxxx/The Love Below.
Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
The Purple Tape! ‘Nuff said!
Who expected Raekwon da Chef with Ghostface Killah riding shotgun to put out the best solo album from the Wu. Up until the summer of ’95, they were overshadowed by Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, even the Gza’s Liquid Swords album was highly anticipated. But once Raekwon got the ball, he knew exactly what to do with it. Rae, Ghost, and the Rza along with their Wu-Gambinos crafted a masterpiece!
The first single was “Glaciers of Ice” and I was like ehh…but the video segued into “Criminology” and I was sold, so I was right there at The Wiz on August 1st to grab a copy and I haven’t stopped listening to it since. Cuban Linx set the template for much of the Mafia infused, cocaine rap that followed, but none of it was able to surpass the predecessor. Rae and Ghost cemented their standing amongst their brethren by blended drug tales, witty rhymes and an unforgettable slang over some of the Rza’s best tracks.
No one had ever heard such colorful language and imagery depicting street life, as Shallah Raekwon unleashed an era of aliases for his Wu-Tang members outside of their kung-fu inspired monikers. Songs like “Incarcerated Scarfaces” and “Can It Be All So Simple (remix)” put you on the Staten Island streets, while the lyrical jousts of “Verbal Intercourse” and “Guillotine” are legendary and their ode to the many flavors of women on “Ice Cream” is classic. The impact of the purple tape can still be felt in various corners of Hip-Hop, as the lavishness celebrated on the album became a postmark afterwards, as well as the use of alter-egos and set the stage for Ghostface’s solo career.
Jay-Z – The Blueprint
I easily could’ve populated this list with Jay-Z albums, because choosing one was just that hard. Reasonable Doubt has been a classic to me since I walked into Sound Express on June 25, 1996; the same goes Vol.2…The Hard Knock Life, The Black Album and American Gangster, but when I had to choose a favorite, it is The Blueprint.
Kanye West and Just Blaze produced half of the tracks on the album to usher in a new sound for Jay-Z and ultimately refresh Hip-Hop with some Soul. Jay attacked each tracked with sophisitication, nuance, aggressiveness, introspection and plain ol’ braggadocio in an attempt to declare his superiority over Hip-Hop and did not disappoint.
Save for the lead track “Izzo”, I can lose myself in this album, especially in “Heart of the City” and “Never Change”. Plus, every R&B thug has sung along to “Song Cry” and I know you’ve lost your mind to “U Don’t Know”…Say what you want about Jay-Z, but when it all comes down to beats and rhymes, you’re not going to be able to name many that’s done it better or find many albums better than The Blueprint.
Common – Be
I’ve been a Common fan since before he dropped the “Sense” from his name and I’ve always admired how he grew from album to album, even Electric Circus. By the time he hooked up with Kanye West, folks had written him off, he was coming off of the breakup with Erykah Badu, his previous album was panned and he seemed to be going nowhere fast. Then he dropped “The Corner” and people started paying attention.
Common’s rhymes, Kanye’s beats, formed a synthesis that took it back to the days when an artist worked with one producer and a created a distinct sound for an album, this album happened to be the defining moment of Lonnie Lynn’s career. Be gets the edge over Like Water for Chocolate and One Day It’ll All Make Sense because of the album’s symmetry from beginning to end, though those albums equally reach a part of me where Be dwells.
Any given day I can pop a copy in and listen to songs like “Real People” or “The Food”, or when I’m having a challenged moment, I listen to “It’s Your World” and the music touches me like I was listening to Curtis Mayfield or Stevie Wonder. The album is that soulful and classic to me.
A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was A Tribe Called Quest’s introduction to the world and The Low End Theory was their definitive state, but they reached their zenith with Midnight Marauders. There was nowhere to go but down after an album as sonically pleasing as Marauders; Q-Tip and Phife complemented one another perfectly over the beats that Tip and Ali-Shaheed Muhammad crafted. The cover art is classic! Think about it, even the Midnight Marauder Tour Guide was on point throughout the entire album.
It’s hard to choose a favorite song on the album, but most people point to “Electric Relaxation” amongst their Tribe favorites, but take a listen to “Lyrics to Go”, “Award Tour”, “Midnight”, “Clap Your Hands”, “Oh My God” or…I can go on and on and I haven’t even touched “Sucka Niggas” yet. The album stands out even more because it was sandwiched between two other all-time great Hip-Hop albums: The Chronic and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and not only held its on, but doesn’t sound dated nearly 18 years later.
Q-Tip was at the top of his game prodiction-wise on this album; I could listen to the instrumental version of it just as easily as an acapella version, because the lyrics were in sync and the rhymes were on time. Behind-the-scenes turmoil and illness robbed us of Tribe at their apex, as Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement were less inspired efforts and ultimately the end of their run.
I can’t even find the words to fully describe this album the way I want to, the only thing left for me to say is, it’s the greatest Hip-Hop album of all-time!

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