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20 Of The Best One-Rapper Albums In Hip-Hop History

  • one-rapper-albums
    You guys loved our One-Producer Albums feature so much, that we decided to flip things on their heads and dive into some of the best albums of all time that only feature one rapper. Turns out, this one was a lot trickier; not only do most rappers feature at least one rapper as a guest—Biggie's Ready To Die only incorporated Method Man for "The What," while Nas' Illmatic grabbed AZ to help out on "Life's A Bitch"—but the remaining well skewed so deeply toward the earliest hip-hop albums that we had to modify our criteria to include albums that had some guests, as long as they weren't rapping alongside the primary artist.

    What we found was, typically, skewed toward the early side of hip-hop—the Bridge Wars projects, early installments from Rakim and Scarface—but there has been a bit of a resurgence in the past few years of rappers aiming to tackle entire projects completely on their own, with Skyzoo, Brother Ali and Childish Gambino all jumping on board. We've also carried over one other piece of the criteria from our One-Producer Albums list—only one album per rapper could make the list.

    So, without further ado, XXL presents 20 of the greatest albums of all time that feature one—and only one—rapper throughout the entire project. Let the words begin to fly. Dan Rys and Layne Weiss
  • rakim-paid-in-full

    Paid In Full

    Artist: Eric B. and Rakim
    Producers: Eric B. and Rakim
    Label: 4th and B'Way, Island
    Release Date: July 7, 1987
    Why It Was Dope: It is one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time. With songs like "Eric B. Is President" and "My Melody," Rakim's rapping set a higher standard of lyrcisim for rappers, while Eric B's unique approach to production helped forever change the rap game. The album has sold over a million copies since its 1987 release, and went platinum in 1995. Paid In Full is truly unforgettable album, which will forever gain respect, and inspire rappers past, present and future.

  • mc shan down by law

    Down By Law

    Artist: MC Shan
    Producers: Marley Marl, MC Shan
    Label: Cold Chillin'/Warner Bros.
    Release Date: August 8, 1987, with a CD release that didn't come until 1995
    Why It Was Dope: The album encapsulated the Bridge Wars and ignited the feud between Shan and Marley Marl's Juice Crew and Boogie Down Productions, led by KRS-One with the track "The Bridge." "Kill That Noise" would directly attack Boogie Down as well, and hip-hop's first major beef was fully in effect. Shan was in the middle dropping lyrical fire on each track.

  • ice-t_rhyme-pays

    Rhyme Pays

    Artist: Ice-T
    Producer: Afrika Islam
    Label: Sire/Warner Bros.
    Release Date: November 4, 1987
    Why It Was Dope: With tracks like "6 N The Mornin," Ice's debut is considered to have helped define the gangsta rap era, paving the way for guys like Eazy E and Ice Cube, who would go on to change hip-hop history as N.W.A. It was also the first album to be sold with a Parental Advisory warning label. Ice-T's delivery and storytelling are sometimes overshadowed by his explicit lyrics and raw subject matter, though it's easy to forget that when looking at his current public persona. Rhyme Pays is more than 25 years old, and today the younger generations know Ice-T as a television cop on Law And Order. But we'll always have Rhyme Pays.

  • ll cool j bigger and deffer

    Bigger And Deffer

    Artist: LL Cool J
    Producers: DJ Pooh, LA Posse
    Label: Def Jam, Columbia, CBS
    Release Date: June 2, 1987
    Why It Was Dope: Bigger And Deffer was LL Cool J's second album and his most commercially successful one. It featured "I'm Bad," one of the best rap songs ever released, but it also took a major risk with the song "I Need Love." The album was released during a time when gangsta rap was gaining prominence, so LL's decision to put the track on the album was daring, but he made it work, since the rest of the album had all the rebellion and machismo you would expect. It also had just a touch of soul with "The Do Wop."

  • boogie_down_malcolm_cover__88135_zoom

    By All Means Necessary

    Artist: Boogie Down Productions
    Producers: KRS-One, Boogie Down Productions
    Label: Jive/RCA
    Release Date: May 31, 1988
    Why It Was Dope: An album that could have been included on our list of One-Producer Albums as well, KRS was at his socially-lyrical best, taking a sterner and more wide-ranging angle after the murder of Scott La Rock the year before. That album cover became iconic as well, as KRS lifted the famous Malcolm X photo that would later get Nicki Minaj in trouble when she used it for the single artwork for "Lookin' Ass Niggas." Tracks like "My Philosophy," "Stop The Violence" and "Nervous" outlined KRS' new outlook.

  • Slick-Rick-The-Great-Adventures-Of-Slick-Rick-Art

    The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick

    Artist: Slick Rick
    Producers: Jam Master Jay, Slick Rick, The Bomb Squad
    Label: Def Jam/Columbia/CBS
    Release Date: November 1, 1988
    Why It Was Dope: Through The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick, Rick established himself as one of the greatest storytellers of the genre. Critics of the era said that hip-hop was boring and uninspired, but the Ruler combined his British accent—unique to the art form at the time—with total lyrical creativity. He managed to rhyme phrases and words that people wouldn't have thought to put together at the time. "Once upon a time not long ago, when people wore pajamas and lived life slow," he rapped on "Children's Story." That song has been sampled by rappers such as Jay Z, KRS-One, Missy Elliott, Mos Def and many more. The classic, game changing album also included hits such as "Teenage Love" and "The Ruler's Back."

  • mc lyte lyte as a rock

    Lyte As A Rock

    Artist: MC Lyte
    Producers: Audio Two, Alliance, King of Chill, Prince Paul
    Label: First Priority Music/Atlantic
    Release Date: September 17, 1988
    Why It Was Dope: When MC Lyte came on the scene, rap was a male-dominated game, but with her debut album, Lyte As A Rock, she helped break down barriers. She was confident, strong, and helped prove that the woman could hang with the men. The album definitely doesn't shy away from Lyte's feminity; rather, she owns it, helping open doors for female rappers such as Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott along the way.

  • Gang Starr - Step In The Arena

    Step In The Arena

    Artist: Gang Starr
    Producers: DJ Premier, Guru
    Label: Chrysalis/EMI
    Release Date: January 15, 1991
    Why It Was Dope: The duo was different and charismatic. Guru's rhymes were boastful without being misogynistic or profane like some of the other rap songs of the era, and somehow, through his production, Preem found a balance between humor and wisdom. Step In The Arena was Gang Starr's second studio album, and not only did it help put them on the map, but it also helped further DJ Premier's production skills, which paved the way for guys like J Dilla and the Neptunes, among others.

  • Words_From_The_Genius_gza

    Words From The Genius

    Artist: GZA
    Producers: Easy Mo Bee, Patrick Harvey, Jesse West
    Label: Cold Chllin/Reprise/Warner Bros.
    Release Date: February 19, 1991
    Why It Was Dope: GZA's first foray into the hip-hop world, months before the notion of the Wu-Tang Clan came into the picture. Words From The Genius set the stage for Wu-Tang's debut album Enter The Wu-Tang two years later, but it also proved that GZA was truly gifted from his voice to his delivery and even his understanding of flow. The genius lived up to his moniker.

  • mr scarface is back

    Mr. Scarface Is Back

    Artist: Scarface
    Producers: Crazy C, Scarface
    Label: Rap-A-Lot
    Release Date: October 3, 1991
    Why It Was Dope: With singles like "A Minute To Pray And A Second To Die" and "Mr. Scarface," the Geto Boy stepped out on his own with a strong debut that needed no help from anyone else. He even got behind the boards with Crazy C for each track, making his first solo effort totally in his own image and setting a blueprint that would result in classics like The Diary and Last Of A Dying Breed over the next decade.

  • del tha funkee

    I Wish My Brother George Was Here

    Artist: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien
    Producers: Ice Cube, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Boogiemen
    Label: Elektra
    Release Date: October 22, 1991
    Why It Was Dope: With his humorous lyrics and funky beats, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien was one of the most influential figures in alternative underground hip-hop history. I Wish My Brother George Was Here was released when Del was only 19, and helped further his influence, as well as helping to further introduce hip-hop audiences to the majesty of George Clinton (not that they would have forgotten it).

  • lucy ford

    Lucy Ford

    Artist: Atmosphere
    Producers: Ant, El-P, Moodswing9
    Label: Rhymesayers
    Release Date: February 1, 2001
    Why It Was Dope: Three EPs repackaged into one album that stands alone as Atmosphere's best work, and when Slug goes in there just isn't anyone who can tell the stories of kicking dirt through Minneapolis' seedy back streets better. There's a lot of torturous love-gone-bad, some aspirations that lead to a void of emptiness, and extended metaphors about the hardships of just trying to get by. Atmosphere's opus, in some eyes.

  • common electric circus

    Electric Circus

    Artist: Common
    Producers: Questlove, J Dilla, James Poyser, Pino Palladino, Karriem Riggins, The Neptunes, Jeff Lee Johnson
    Label: MCA
    Release Date: December 10, 2002
    Why It Was Dope: Com's 5th solo effort came at the height of the Soulquarians era, with Mos Def, Questlove, Common, Erykah Badu, J Dilla and D'Angelo representing the movement's core. Sure enough, all but Mos and D show up to take part in this one, with a whole host of singers in tow, from Bilal to Jill Scott to Mary J. Blige to Prince. He's got Pharrell going full-on rootsy soul, the dude from P.O.D. contributing a hook, and an album-closing epic with the likes of Cee-Lo, Badu, Scott and Blige all on one track.

  • black-album

    The Black Album

    Artist: Jay Z
    Producers: Just Blaze, Kanye West, 9th Wonder, The Neptunes, Timbaland, Rick Rubin, Eminem, The Buchanans, DJ Quik, Luis Resto, Aqua, Joseph Weinberger
    Label: Roc-A-Fella
    Release Date: November 14, 2003
    Why It Was Dope: Released in 2003, this was promoted as Jay Z's final album before his retirement (he would make a comeback in 2006 with Kingdom Come), so he wanted to go out big. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard, and produced the hits "Change Clothes," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," and "99 Problems." Whether or not Hov truly planned on walking away from the game forever, he pulled out all the stops and made an album that certainly made it seem like he was.

  • brother-ali-the-undisputed-truth

    The Undisputed Truth

    Artist: Brother Ali
    Producers: Ant
    Label: Rhymesayers/Warner
    Release Date: April 10, 2007
    Why It Was Dope: Long thriving in the wilderness of the underground, Brother Ali is nonetheless one of the most lyrical and respected rappers in that circle, and he proved he needed little help with this album, solely produced by Ant from Atmosphere. The Midwestern oddball has always had a track record of doing things his way, and this project was no different, emerging as his best work until 2012's Mourning In America And Dreaming In Color.

  • plies def of real

    Definition Of Real

    Artist: Plies
    Producers: Drumma Boy, Nightrydas, BC, Midnight Black, DVS, Bryan Tyson, J. R. Rotem, DJ Frank E, Pentagon Productions, DJ Nasty and LVM
    Label: Big Gates/Slip-N-Slide/Atlantic
    Release Date: June 10, 2008
    Why It Was Dope: This baby was full of high-profile guests—Trey Songz, Ne-Yo, The-Dream, Keyshia Cole, Jamie Foxx—but they were all from the R&B field, leaving Plies to do the heavy lifting, rapping-wise. Released the same day as Weezy's epic Tha Carter III, it would wind up getting lost in the shuffle of a strong hip-hop year, but was still a triumphant followup to the Florida rapper's debut.

  • q-tip-the-renaissance-album-cover

    The Renaissance

    Artist: Q-Tip
    Producers: Q-Tip, J. Dilla, Mark Ronson
    Label: Universal Motown
    Release Date: November 4, 2008
    Why It Was Dope: It's an album of groovy, jazzy hip-hop and each track melds into the next absolutely beautifully. Listening to The Renaissance not only makes fans happy, but the Abstract sounds like he's truly enjoying himself on every song. He has great chemistry with guests like Norah Jones, D'Angelo and Raphael Saadiq, as well.

  • skyzoo-the-salvation

    The Salvation

    Artist: Skyzoo
    Producers: 9th Wonder, Just Blaze, Nottz, Cyrus The Great, Best Kept Secret, Black Milk, Illmind, Eric G, Needlz
    Label: Jamla/Duck Down
    Release Date: September 29, 2009
    Why It Was Dope: Zoo's debut saw him dip into 9th Wonder's gifted stable of producers—as well as some of the most soulful beatmakers in the business—to craft a thoughtful project that dove deep into the Brooklyn rhymer's background. Only singer Carlitta Durand was brought on to help tell the story, leaving Skyzoo to spit his truth alone throughout the album's 16 tracks.

  • camp childish gambino


    Artist: Childish Gambino
    Producers: Childish Gambino and Ludwig Göransson
    Label: Glassnote
    Release Date: November 15, 2011
    Why It Was Dope: Gambino was very visibly in the public eye at this point, having already won an Emmy Award for his work on 30 Rock. So Camp was already set up to be his major step into the mainstream as a rapper, even though he'd made strides independently before this point. As a singular statement, Camp stands out for being a legitimate album that could stand on its own, regardless of the rapper's celebrity. That is probably why he kept everything in-house, not having a single guest contribute to the project's final iteration. Impressive.

  • Satellite_Flight-_The_Journey_to_Mother_Moon_album_cover

    Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon

    Artist: Kid Cudi
    Producers: Kid Cudi, WZRD
    Label: Republic/Wicked Awesome
    Release Date: February 25, 2014
    Why It Was Dope: It's not exactly hip-hop, but it's not exactly anything else, either. Cudi has become the master of blending people's expectations and churning out products that are distinctly him, however you choose to classify that. With the surprise release dropping in February, Cudi confused and excited fans once again, bringing only the soulful OG Raphael Saadiq along for the ride. If you like Cudi, this is another classic from the Kid.

Previously: 20 Of The Best One-Producer Albums In Hip-Hop History

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