10. Nas, It Was Written
Released On: July 2, 1996 (Columbia)
When you write the Rap Bible for your debut, the expectations for the sequel are bound to be inevitably crushing. Thus, the initial mixed reaction to Nas’ sophomore effort, It Was Written, almost seem to be predetermined by a cruel fate. Time has warmed critics to the album and these days fans have begun to acknowledge It Was Written as a more than worthy follow-up to Illmatic. Influential in its own right, the album ushered in a wave of Mafioso rap, a subgenre of gangster rap obsessed with Italian gangster imagery, into hip-hop’s limelight. The album would become Nas’ most commercially successful selling 2 million records powered by singles like Lauryn Hill-assisted “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)”, “Street Dreams” and “I Gave You Power.”
9. Kanye West, Late Registration
Released On: August 30, 2005 (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
With its complex string arrangements, diverse sampling and long-running track lengths, Late Registration would usher Kanye West into an era of hip-hop maximalism that would define the rest of his career. Late Registration, the second part of Kanye’s heralded “College” trilogy, would take hip-hop into a grandiose but often virtuosic direction highlighting ‘Ye’s talent for crafting cohesive sonic statements. Pushed by hit singles like “Gold Digger,” “Touch The Sky” and “Drive Slow,” Late Registration would sell three million copies proving that Kanye had lasting mainstream appeal, too.
8. UGK, Ridin’ Dirty
Released On: July 29, 1996 (Jive)
There is Southern rap and then, there is Ridin’ Dirty. Few albums feel as intimately connected with the region that births them than UGK’s towering achievement, Ridin’ Dirty. An album that feels like the frogspawn of prison, dope and the triangular sweatbox of Port Arthur, Texas. Featuring a southern fried musicality in the production provided by Pimp C and producer N.O. Joe, the album twangs and swings like a boxframe Cadillac in the turning lane. Meanwhile, Bun B has never been finer as an emcee. Check out his verse on “Murder” which remains a contender for the greatest rap verse ever. The album’s ultimate highlight is the mournful “One Day,” a regretful memory of lost friends.
7. Jay Z, Reasonable Doubt
Released On: June 25. 1996 (Roc-A-Fella/Priority)
Seventeen years before he dropped the dash, he dropped the umlaut. Despite its near mythological stature its attained over the years, Jay Z’s debut record, Reasonable Doubt, was only a modest hit when it was released in June 1996. As the Legend of Jay Z grew over the years, increasingly fans came to know how special Reasonable Doubt truly was. After years of rejection by major labels, Jay Z poured years of frustration into a criminal magnum opus that preordained Jay’s rise to the top of the pop culture mountain. Full of slick wordplay, state-of-the-art production and memorable songs, many consider, including the man himself, Reasonable Doubt to be the finest work he’s done to this day.
6. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill
Released On: August 25, 1998 (Ruff House/Columbia)
In the wake of her pregnancy and the imminent breakup of The Fugees, Lauryn Hill was looking to make an artistic statement of her own after ex-lover Wyclef struck platinum with his debut record, The Carnival. Enter The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a genuine masterpiece of soured love, inner turmoil and the hope for a better tomorrow. Debuting to rave reviews in the August of 1998, Miseducation would launch Lauryn to music superstardom, sweep up at the Grammy’s and become one of hip-hop’s most cherished artifacts. Songs like the blistering Wyclef diss “Lost One”, the mournful “Ex Factor” and the triumphant “Everything Is Everything” showcases Lauryn’s range as she produced, arraigned and wrote the entire album. Few albums are fondly remembered by such a wide range of fans. Come back to us, L-Boogie.