Freddie Gibbs and Madlib's Piñata
set the hip-hop world aflame last week when it dropped March 18, with fans falling over themselves to praise Madlib's tough beats with Gangsta Gibbs' even tougher street tales. But the real strength of the album comes in its cohesion and its attention to detail, a byproduct of the two creating the entire thing while in the studio together with each being able to focus totally on their own craft: Madlib behind the boards, Gibbs in front of the mic. It's a formula that was important in the early days of hip-hop, but has largely fallen by the wayside in recent years as more and more artists email beats back and forth and cobble together albums with the most high-profile names they can collect.
In light of that, XXL
wanted to pull together a list of some of the greatest one-producer albums in hip-hop history, dating back to LL Cool J's classic debut, Radio
, laced entirely by the enigmatic Rick Rubin in 1985. But we had to include some qualifiers and criteria in order to narrow a few of these down: you won't find Eric B. and Rakim's Paid In Full
or Pete Rock and CL Smooth's Mecca And The Soul Brother
; those projects are credited to both performers, in terms of production, while each Gang Starr album similarly codifies production credits to both DJ Premier and Guru. Nor will you find Mobb Deep's Hell On Earth
, nor either of The Clipse's first two albums; each of those albums are credited to a production duo—Havoc and Prodigy for the former, The Neptunes for the latter—and therefore don't make the list. And the final criteria was put in place for The RZA—we've limited each producer to one album on the list, so Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
misses out in favor of Enter The Wu-Tang
. The sacrifices we have to make.
So without further ado, we've pulled together a list of 20 of the greatest one-producer albums in hip-hop history, using Piñata
as a jumping point. Here's hoping that long-rumored DJ Premier/Nas album finally comes to fruition, so it can take its rightful place among this crowd. Let the beat build. —Dan Rys (@danrys)
Lead Artist: LL Cool J
Producer: Rick Rubin
Label: Def Jam/Columbia
Release Date: November 18, 1985
Why It Was Dope: It stands as one of the most important albums in early Def Jam history and helped define Rubin as one of the most iconic producers to ever do it. LL used the success of this album to break down significant barriers for hip-hop, and Rubin used the platform to help turn Def Jam into the powerhouse it currently exists as. Iconic, to say the least.
long live the kane
Long Live The Kane
Lead Artist: Big Daddy Kane
Producer: Marley Marl
Label: Cold Chillin/Warner Bros.
Release Date: June 21, 1988
Why It Was Dope: Kane's debut full-length was helmed entirely by the Juice Crew's resident beatmaker Marley Marl, one of the most influential of all time. Tracks like "Ain't No Half-Steppin'" are among the most important hip-hop records ever made, with Long Live The Kane standing as an early classic of the genre.
dr dre the chronic
Lead Artist: Dr. Dre
Producer: Dr. Dre
Label: Death Row/Interscope
Release Date: December 15, 1992
Why It Was Dope: The album that launched G-Funk and is one of the most undisputed classics of hip-hop history. Dre would go on to build a production empire that included his work on Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle—which he also produced in its entirety—as well as albums by Tupac, Eminem and 50 Cent, among countless others. "Nuthin' But A G Thang" will stand the test of time as one of the best hip-hop songs ever created, all from the mind of Dr. Dre.
enter the wu-tang
Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers
Lead Artist: Wu-Tang Clan
Release Date: November 9, 1993
Why It Was Dope: What else can you say about this album that hasn't already been said? RZA crafted a soundscape that launched a thousand imitators, and all nine members of the Clan chipped in to do their part. An all-time classic, and the bedrock upon which every subsequent Wu-Tang solo project was built. Cuban Linx and Tical are also entirely produced by RZA, but neither would have existed without the introduction of the Clan.
jeru damaja wrath of the math
Wrath Of The Math
Lead Artist: Jeru The Damaja
Producer: DJ Premier
Label: PolyGram Records
Release Date: October 15, 1996
Why It Was Dope: Jeru's sophomore album was also the first album Premier had produced front to back, credit-wise—and before people start yelling "Gang Starr!," each of those albums were co-produced by Primo and Guru together—and the followup to his massive debut, The Sun Rises In The East from 1994. This album is some of the finest work Preem has ever contributed to the genre, hands down... though that's a healthy argument to have.
Supa Dupa Fly
Lead Artist: Missy Elliott
Release Date: July 15, 1997
Why It Was Dope: Timbaland and Missy used this as a launching pad toward redefining the hip-hop soundscape for the next five years with tracks like "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" and "Sock It 2 Me." Their subsequent work with Aaliyah would also go down in music history, as did Missy's followups Da Real World and Miss E... So Addictive, and by then the imitators had come out in full force.
The Art Of War
Lead Artist: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
Release Date: July 29, 1997
Why It Was Dope: A double album helmed by just one producer is almost unheard-of—in fact, it's hard to find another like it—but that's exactly what DJ U-Neek pulled off with Bone Thugs' quadruple-platinum Art Of War. With 28 tracks in total, the project is an impressive feat, but his work with Bone Thugs didn't stop there; he's been their go-to producer for the majority of the Cleveland group's career, earning a Grammy for "Crossroads" along the way.
juvenile 400 degreez
Lead Artist: Juvenile
Producer: Mannie Fresh
Label: Cash Money
Release Date: November 3, 1998
Why It Was Dope: How do you pick just one album from Mannie Fresh's breathtaking catalog? Cash Money's former in-house producer has his fingerprints all over a series of fantastic albums that helped define New Orleans hip-hop in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but this one—with respect to B.G. and the rest of the Hot Boys—can be credibly be held up as the most iconic of that era.
slum village fantastic 2
Fantastic Vol. 2
Lead Artist: Slum Village
Producer: Jay Dee (J Dilla)
Release Date: June 13, 2000
Why It Was Dope: With co-production on just two tracks—and those by Pete Rock and D'Angelo—Dilla's production at the time was changing the face of hip-hop and receiving universal praise. The last Dilla album before he left the group (outside of Best Kept Secret, released as J-88), and the last time he would officially produce an entire album with other artists before embarking on his solo career.
Lead Artist: Little Brother
Producer: 9th Wonder
Label: ABB Records
Release Date: February 25, 2003
Why It Was Dope: An underground classic, The Listening landed Phonte, Rapper Big Pooh and 9th Wonder on the map, before 9th would gain wider fame by producing "The Threat" for Jay Z's Black Album.
speakerboxxx the love below
The Love Below
Lead Artist: OutKast
Producer: Andre 3000
Release Date: September 23, 2003
Why It Was Dope: One half of the highest-selling album of all time—the other half, Speakerboxxx, was helmed by Big Boi and a string of other producers—this album stands as the last great OutKast album before their stumble into hiatus. Three Stacks had produced before, but never as much as he did on The Love Below, which has his stamp on it in tracks like "She Lives In My Lap" and "Hey Ya!" The accolades and the Grammys speak for themselves.
The College Dropout
Lead Artist: Kanye West
Producer: Kanye West
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Release Date: February 10, 2004
Why It Was Dope: Just over a decade ago, Kanye announced himself as a brilliant artist in his own right with the near-flawless College Dropout, which marked the culmination of his extensive production work for the Roc-A-Fella family. From here, Kanye blasted off, redefining the barriers of hip-hop with 808s and Heartbreak and, eventually, Yeezus, but it all started right here. One of the best producers of our time.
prodigy return of the mack
Return Of The Mac
Lead Artist: Prodigy
Release Date: March 27, 2007
Why It Was Dope: Alchemist had been riding with Mobb Deep for a decade or more by the time this album came to fruition, but fans were glad it finally did. This acted as a return to form of sorts for Prodigy, and was the first of a series of mixtapes, albums and EPs that Alc has helmed himself. Their 2013 followup, Albert Einstein, was one of the better albums of a stacked 2013.
Lead Artist: T-Pain
Label: Nappy Boy/Jive
Release Date: June 5, 2007
Why It Was Dope: Pain had already established himself as a pop force with "I'm N Luv (Wit A Stripper)" in 2005, but this one took him above and beyond, with songs like "Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin')" and "Bartender" pushing him into the stratosphere at the time. His auto-tuned singing style had by that point embedded itself deeply into the pop music toolbox, as well.
Below The Heavens
Lead Artist: Blu
Label: Sound In Color
Release Date: July 17, 2007
Why It Was Dope: The quintessential rainy day hip-hop album, Below The Heavens combined Exile's moody, low-key beats with Blu's serious introspection to create a project that is seamless and flows effortlessly. Their followup, Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, is just as impressive, but this one gets the nod for being the one that set the tone.
Revolutions Per Minute
Lead Artist: Reflection Eternal
Label: Blacksmith/Rawkus/Warner Bros
Release Date: May 18, 2010
Why It Was Dope: Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek were already a force to be reckoned with when they got together—their work together with Mos Def on the Black Star album alone would have put them there—but Reflection Eternal's second album built positively and constructively on their first, a decade earlier. The two make backpack rap that stands well above the rest of the competition.
The Dreamer / The Believer
Lead Artist: Common
Producer: No I.D.
Label: Warner Bros.
Release Date: December 20, 2011
Why It Was Dope: No I.D. and Common are longtime collaborators—this is the first album of Com's that No I.D. produced in its entirety, though I.D. had previously worked on all but two tracks of Resurrection in 1994—and was one of the best hip-hop albums of a strong 2011, blending Com's high-level lyricism outstanding production. They'll be continuing their partnership on Com's upcoming Nobody Smiling album, due this year.
Lead Artist: Killer Mike
Label: Williams Street Records
Release Date: May 15, 2012
Why It Was Dope: The project that launched one of the most potent rapper-producer combos in the game right now, El-P and Killer Mike (better known these days as Run The Jewels), this album was Killer Mike's best work to date and became the project that finally saw him step out of the long shadow cast by his early association with OutKast.
Mourning In America And Dreaming In ColorLead Artist: Brother Ali
Producer: Jake One
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Why It Was Dope: Though Ali had been on the scene for a decade by then, this was an album that made many across the country stand up and take notice of the Midwestern rapper's skills. But it was also one of Seattle-based beatmaker Jake One's finest moments, harnessing Ali's formidable lyricism with his production. Ali usually goes the one-producer route—he himself has produced some of his music, while Atmosphere's Ant is another frequent collaborator—but this is one of his finest works.
Lead Artist: Freddie Gibbs
Label: Madlib Invazion
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Why It Was Dope: After steadily leaking tracks for more than two years and putting out three EPs, we finally got a full project from Gangsta Gibbs and the ever-reclusive Madlib. With beats that make walking the streets of the city into a full-on adventure and lyrics that make you want to punch someone in the head just for looking twice at you, the album is a colossal testament to what happens when two people who don't seem like they would fit together make some actual magic. Madlib lays the foundation, and Gibbs brings the heat, eviscerating any who stand in his way—including former label boss and mentor Jeezy—and living up to the standard set by one of hip-hop's all-time greats behind the boards. Well worth the listen.