5. N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton
Released On: August 8, 1988 (Ruthless/Priority/EMI)
Few records do something different. Even fewer records invent something new. And then there are the select few records that actually changed the world. In the summer of 1988, a gang of street kids from inner-city Los Angeles stormed the national consciousness, smacked it in its goddamn face and launched Straight Outta Compton, the musical car bomb that brought us “gangsta rap.” Schooly D might have invented the genre with “P.S.K.” and Ice-T might have been the first West Coast rapper to do it but N.W.A was the one who brought gangsta rap to the masses. Ren, Cube, Eazy, Yella and Dre stormed the fences of gated communities, scared mainstream sensibilities and on the way sold a gang of records, selling over three million records all with scant to nonexistent radio play and promotion. It’s the rare album that actually shifted American culture as a whole and became the standard for which all gangstas are judged.
4. Eric B. & Rakim, Paid In Full
Released On: July 7, 1987 (4th & B’way/Island)
Biologists speak of evolutionary leaps in the fossil record in which life makes rapid changes on the perpetual motion machine of life. In the case of rap lyricism, the great evolutionary leap had a name and it was William Griffin, Jr., the man better known to the world as Rakim. Eric B. & Rakim’s classic debut, Paid In Full, marked a seismic shift in the way that MCs made their craft. Rakim’s complex internal rhyme structure, velvet-smooth delivery and rhythmic intricacies invented the framework of an artistic language that is still being used by MCs to this day. Meanwhile, Paid In Full had other virtues, too. Songs like “Eric B Is President,” “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Ain’t No Joke” remain some of the genre’s stone cold classics in it’s own right. Consistently considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time, Paid In Full is a Golden Era classic that rewards listeners to this day in which repeated listening.
3. Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique
Released On: July 25, 1989 (Capitol)
They could have faded into obscurity. After the novelty of a couple of Jewish frat boys rapping over Run-D.M.C. beats had faded, the Beastie Boys could have easily become the middling punk band they always were destined to be. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the VH1 “Where Are They Now?” special. MCA, Mike D and Ad-Rock made one of the greatest hip-hop records of all-time. Paul’s Boutique might be hip-hop’s first pure experimental rap album, ever. Employing the Dust Brothers’ innovative and extensive use of multilayered sampling, Paul’s Boutique feels like a trip to the thrift shop for music lovers. Curtis Mayfield bleeds into John Williams. The Beatles do coke with Isaac Hayes. Mountain plays bongos with Pink Floyd. Meanwhile, the Beasties’ perfect a brand of rhyming heavily influenced by pop culture, ’70s television and junk food to create one of the most perfect pieces of pop art ever created.
2. OutKast, ATLiens
Released On: August 27, 1996 (LaFace)
ATLiens feels like reawakening. A spiritual journey through Jamaica opened up the eyes of the young duo to the possibilities beyond their southernplayalistic lifestyle and soon OutKast was reborn as a couple of space-age alien warrior monks attuned to life beyond the trap. In some ways, ATLiens is the true debut for Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Their expansion beyond the hedonistic southern players of their debut album into true hip-hop auteurs began with this record as they looked to spacier, more spiritual outlook than their debut. Equally influenced by science fiction, gospel records and comic books, ATliens remains OutKast’s truest artistic achievement synthesizing a more experimental style that is still more purely hip-hop than any record they have done since. Songs like the title track, “Elevators (Me & You),” and “Two Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac)” reveal a maturer sound that feels like traveling light-speed velocity while retaining a firm ground on the pulse of Atlanta. ATLiens remains Big Boi and Andre’s first towering artistic achievement. It wouldn’t be there last.
1. Jay Z, The Blueprint
Released On: September 11, 2001 (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
September 11th, 2001 will forever be known in history for an event that’s magnitude reverberates with a tragic import far more than a release of a mere album. However, life has the way of throwing the smallest of silver linings to remind us that things are probably going to be okay. If it is remotely possible for music to fill that void, then surely The Blueprint would qualify. Arguably, the shining moment of Jay Z’s storied career, The Blueprint is the perfect summer record. Filled with warm chipmunk soul and tales of triumph, Jay Z’s coronation as the undisputed King of Hip-Hop can be found on this album. Loaded with classic after classic with songs like “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love),” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Song Cry” and “Hola Hovito,” The Blueprint remains Jigga’s finest moment of his career.