The Top 50 Summer Releases Of All Time
When you think of the lazy days of summer, your mind often drifts to those iconic songs that define your summer experience. What often gets forgotten are the albums that these songs come from. Therefore, we at XXL have compiled a list of the greatest albums with summer release dates in hip-hop history. If they were released between the equinoxes, June 21 to September 21, and they mattered to hip-hop, they are on this list. Since its impossible to digest an album without a little historical context, no album from this summer is on the list. Pour a glass of lemonade and sit back on the porch and read our "The Top 50 Summer Releases Of All Time."—Written By B.J. Steiner (@DocZeus)
50. Luniz, Operation Stackola
Released On: July 4, 1995 (Noo Trybe/Virgin/EMI)
Perhaps more than any other region in hip-hop, the music of the Bay feels the most like a warm summer day. Operation Stackola, the debut album from Oakland’s Luniz, was a platinum-selling smash loaded with good-time summer vibes. Noted for it’s breezy mellow funk and smooth playalistic rhymes, the duo of Yukmouth and Krumskull, take the listener on a tour of their hometown’s terrain filled with “Playa Haters,” “Broke Hos” and “Pimps, Playas & Hustlas.” Powered by the instantly iconic weed smoker’s anthem, “I Got 5 On It,” (a top ten hit), Operation Stackola is the platonic ideal of summery Bay Area perfection.
49. Gravediggaz, 6 Feet Deep
Released On: August 9, 1994 (Gee Street/Island/PolyGram Records)
During the summer to flee the often-oppressive heat, Americans flock to the cool recesses of air-conditioned movie theaters. In the summer of 1994, hip-hop supergroup, Gravediggaz, provided the soundtrack to a gruesome hip-hop horror film with the release of their debut LP, 6 Feet Deep.
One of rap’s first supergroup’s consisting of Wu-Tang’s The RZA, Stetasonic’s Prince Paul and Frukwan and the late Too Poetic, 6 Feet Deep is largely credited with inventing “horrorcore,” a sub-genre of rap obsessed with blood, guts and body parts that is heavy on shock value and murderous satire.
48. Pete Rock & CL Smooth, All Souled Out
Released On: June 25, 1991 (Elektra)
Clocking in at a breezy 29 minutes and 3 seconds, All Souled Out, the debut EP from venerable hip-hop duo Pete Rock & CL Smooth, demonstrated a perfect alchemy for hip-hop success. CL’s smooth street conscious rhymes rocked Pete’s jazzy layered beats to perfection, going together like ice cream and a 90° degree day. Spawning the modest hit, “The Creator,” All Souled Out set the stage for the duo’s classic debut LP, Mecca & The Soul Brother, a year later.
47. Scarface, The World Is Yours
Released On: August 17, 1993 (Rap-A-Lot Records)
Filled with murderous intent in rhymes and in content, Mr. Scarface’s record, The World Is Yours, is as strong a sophomore release as they come. Scarface brings his penchant for gritty street narratives on tracks like “The Wall,” “Dyin’ With Your Boots” and the Top-Ten hit, “Let Me Roll.” Produced primarily by N.O. Joe, The World Is Yours remains a gangster classic.
46. Boogie Down Productions, Edutainment
Released On: July 17, 1990
On Edutainment, KRS-One coined the titular phrase that would become one of his chief philosophies of his career. “Edutainment,” a synthesis of KRS’s dual desire to entertain and educate forms the primary thesis of this album’s theme. Songs like “Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love), “Beef” and “100 Guns” accomplish both tasks equally making Edutainment one of the most essential albums of KRS-One’s catalogue.
45. Salt-n-Pepa, A Salt With A Deadly Pepa
Released On: August 2, 1988
While “Push It” established the iconic female rap trio, Salt-n-Pepa, as pioneering superstars, their sophomore LP, A Salt With A Deadly Pepa, established them as artists as accomplished as any of their male counterparts. A Salt With Deadly Pepa is a funky, highly danceable album filled with tight rhymes, grooving beats and Spinderella’s razor sharp cuts. The record spawned hit singles like “Shake Your Thing (It’s Your Thing)” and “Twist And Shout” propelling the album to land at gold in the summer of ’88.
44. Twista, Adrenaline Rush
Released On: June 24, 1997 (Creator’s Way/Big Beat/Atlantic Records)
Seven years before he slow jammed with Kanye West, Twista was setting land speed records for fast rapping while selling enough records on the independent grind to go gold. Twista’s seminal Adrenaline Rush is a Midwestern classic of tornado-like rapping and G-Funk-inspired production. The titular lead single is a clinic of Twista’s signature Midwestern-style “Chopper” rap that powered the album to sell 500,000 records with minimal national radio play or critical attention. A cult classic.
43. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter
Released On: June 29, 2004 (Cash Money/Universal)
Before Tha Carter, Dwayne Carter Jr. was best known as the pint-sized, teenaged gremlin overshadowed by his more dynamic Cash Money label mates during the label’s late-90s golden era. 2004’s Tha Carter started the seismic shift in public opinion and is considered the genesis of Lil Wayne’s mid-00s transformation from Hot Boys also-ran to the “Best Rapper Alive.” On the album, Wayne displays a remarkable lyrical and creative maturity delivered over one of Mannie Fresh’s finest collection of beats. Lead single, “Go DJ” is a heater that is still one of the favorites of Weezy’s ever-growing discography.
42. Wyclef Jean, The Carnival Featuring The Refugee Allstars
Released On: June 24, 1997 (Sony Music/Columbia Records)
After the record smashing success of The Score, Wyclef Jean was looking to establish an identity beyond The Fugees. He accomplished that with the release of his solo debut, The Carnival, in the summer of 1997. The album features an eclectic diaspora of global influences including hip-hop, reggae, folk, disco, soul and traditional Haitian music that make The Carnival, one of the most musically diverse releases of all-time. Singles include Lauryn Hill-assisted “Guantanamera,” “Gone Til November,” and “To All The Girls.”
41. Puff Daddy & The Family, No Way Out
Released On: July 1, 1997 (Bad Boy)
Nobody knew just how prescient Suge Knight during his infamous Source Awards speech when he alluded to Sean Combs’ superstar aspirations. Diddy’s debut, No Way Out, was a chart-destroying mass success that transformed Combs from Diddy-bopping executive producer in videos to cultural-lightning-rod-cum-rap-megastar in one fell swoop. Pushed back to a summer release date in the wake of Biggie’s death, No Way Out is loaded with classic singles like “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” “I’ll Be Missing You,” It’s All About The Benjamins,” “Been Around The World” and “Victory.” It also helped set the stage for Bad Boy Record’s second wave of hip hop superstars introducing the world to Yonker’s The LOX and a flashy, shiny-suited pastor by the name of Ma$e.
40. Nelly, Country Grammar
Released On: June 27, 2000 (Universal)
With a strategically placed Band-Aid and a couple of nursery rhymes, Cornell Haynes, Jr., transformed himself from aspiring, professional baseball player to multiplatinum selling rapper in the time it takes Ozzie Smith to turn a double play. Country Grammar, the St. Louis native’s blockbuster debut, spawned a litany of popular singles, including “Ride Wit Me,” “E.I.” and the instant smash title track. The album would go on to becoming the seventh highest selling hip-hop LP of all-time, selling close to 8.5 million records and launching Nelly into the upper echelon of 2000s hip-hop superstars.
39. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot, Supa Dupa Fly
Released On: July 15, 1997 (Elektra)
With an eye to the future, forward-sounding hip-hop has always been the calling card for Missy Elliot. On Supa Dupa Fly, Missy Elliot’s bugged-out debut, Missy and her partner-in-crime, Timbaland, sound as if they traveled from the Year 2186 after spending a year-abroad on a Neptunian moon. Lead single, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” is trippy-as-hell and the fisheye lens and trashbag chic of the single’s iconic video is as memorable as anything hip-hop has ever produced. Supa Dupa Fly launched Missy’s successful career and transformed Timbaland into the auteur producer-du-jour of the next decade in hip-hop.
38. LL Cool J, Bigger & Deffer
Released On: June 2, 1987 (Def Jam/Columbia/CBS Records)
After his debut album, Radio, became one of the first cohesive and commercially successful rap albums in hip-hop history, the expectations for LL Cool J’s follow-up were extremely high. In the summer of 1987, LL released Bigger & Deffer and he fulfilled the promise. Bigger & Deffer remains LL’s most successful album to-date selling over three million copies and becoming one of rap’s cultural touchstones after it’s million-selling single, “I Need Love,” basically invented rap’s most polarizing tradition, the hip-hop love song. A formula that generates commercial success and eye-rolling groans in equal measure ever since.
37. Main Source, Breaking Atoms
Released On: July 23, 1991 (Wild Pitch/EMI)
Breaking Atoms, the debut LP from seminal East Coast rap group, Main Source, remains one of the last important LP from hip-hop’s Golden Age. Noted for it’s layered, jazzy production and smart, relatable rhymes, Breaking Atoms is a sonically rich experience that launched the career of Large Professor, the group’s primary beatmaker, as one the greatest producers of the 1990s. The album’s most famous moment might be, however, the debut of a teenaged Nas whose verse on “Live at the BBQ” has only grown in legend over the years.
36. Master P, Ghetto D
Released On: September 7, 1997 (No Limit/Priority)
In the summer of 1997, Master P and the rest of the No Limit Soldiers ruled the Billboard charts with pens, pixels and golden tanks. Ghetto D, Master P’s magnum opus spawned memorable singles like “I Miss My Homies, “Bourbons & Lacs” and “Make ‘Em Ughhh!” Ghetto D remains his biggest-selling album of his career and transformed No Limit Records into a dominant commercial force of the late 90s helping to launch the career of Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder and Mystikal.
35. De La Soul, Buhloone Mindstate
Released On: September 21, 1993 (Tommy Boy/Warner Bros.)
Released on the last day of Summer in 1993, Buhloone Mindstate, the third LP from De La Soul, marks yet another artistic departure from the norm for the venerated, (don’t call them) hip-hop hippies. On Buhloone Mindstate, De La’s dreamy jazzed out production and whimsical rhymes are in full-focus. Michael Jackson-sampling “Breakadawn” feels like a kid’s daydream on the last day before classes begin while the pounding “Ego Trippin’ (Part 2)” is a scathing parody of the era’s gangsta rap cliché. Praised as one of the ten best rap albums of all-time by comedian Chris Rock, Buhloone Mindstate is another unqualified classic in De La’s canon.
34. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Wanted: Dead Or Alive
Released On: August 13, 1990 (Cold Chillin’/Warner Bros.)
Few records tackle life in the streets and the unescapable allure of criminal enterprise better than Kool G Rap did on his ruthless Wanted: Dead Or Alive. A seminal influence on rappers like Nas and The Notorious B.I.G., Wanted: Dead Or Alive, Kool G Rap and DJ Polo’s sophomore album, tells tales of crime, poverty, racism and sex with a lyrical finesse unsurpassed by few of G Rap’s contemporaries. Spawning singles like the cold-blooded “Streets Of New York,” socially conscious “Erase Racism” and raunchy “Talk Like Sex,” Wanted: Dead Or Alive captures the feeling of being trapped New York project building in a hot day in August.
33. Big L, The Big Picture
Released On: August 1, 2000 (Rawkus)
In the wake of his tragic, unsolved murder, The Big Picture, Big L’s second and final album was released posthumously in August 2000. Cruelly hinting at L’s unlimited promise as an artist had he not been gunned down, The Big Picture highlights Big L’s lethal combination of witty punchlines and gritty street narratives. Modern classic, “Ebonics (Criminal Slang),” continues to serve as a textbook on New York slanguistics while songs like “Holdin It Down” and “Flamboyant” showcase an untapped commercial potential had we lived in a better world.
32. EPMD, Business Never Personal
Released On: July 28, 1992 (Def Jam/Columbia)
One of hip-hop’s most delightful ironies remains the fact that the most successful commercial single of EPMD’s storied career is a song attacking wack rappers for selling their souls for crossover success. That’s exactly happened when EPMD released “Crossover” off Business Never Personal. The album, their second release on Def Jam, remains the most commercially successful career. Songs like “Crossover”, “Who Killed Jane?” and Hit Squad party starting posse cut, “Headbanger,” featuring a debuting Redman, proves the album just as a success critically, too.
31. Big Mike, Somethin’ Serious
Released On: June 25, 1994 (Rap-A-Lot/Priority/EMI)
While largely forgotten in mainstream circles, in the canon of Houstonian rap classics, Big Mike’s Somethin’ Serious is essential listening material. A cult classic (and writer personal favorite) of epic proportion, Somethin’ Serious features the type of tough street narratives and swampy, swinging production that fans have come to expect from Rap-A-Lot Records. Loaded with titanic Texan anthems like Pimp C-assisted “Havin’ Thangs” and the swaggering “On Da Real,” Big Mike delivers an unforgettable performance that remains too overlooked to mainstream audiences.
30. Eric B. & Rakim, Follow The Leader
Released On: July 25, 1988
One of the earliest examples of an “event album,” Follow The Leader, the anticipated follow-up to Eric B. & Rakim’s breakthrough classic, Paid In Full, enraptured rap fans in the summer of 1988 impatient to hear the duo’s new LP. On the album, the listener finds the duo moving away from the perfected minimalism of their debut towards a grimmer more complex sound. Rakim’s unparalleled lyricism is on full display and on songs like “Lyrics Of Fury”, “Microphone Fiend” and the title track remain some of his finest performances of his career. A must-have for any serious rap fan wanting to know both the ledge and their history.
29. A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhyme & Life
Released On: July 30, 1996 (Jive/BMG)
It’s kind of hard to believe that at, one point, Tribe fans hated this album and blamed the great J Dilla for ruining the good vibes and positivism of their first three albums. Time has been far kinder Beats, Rhyme & Life and fans now acknowledge how masterful the album is. Released in July 1996, the album marks a departure from the joyful positivism of their earlier albums towards an album darker in tone and subject. Beats, Rhyme & Life marks the debut of the legendary production team, the Ummah (Q-Top, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and the previously mentioned Jay Dee) who would go on to produce the bulk of Tribe’s next album and Q-Tip’s first solo album as well as production for artists like Michael Jackson, Busta Rhymes and Jamiroquai.
28. Black Star, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Released On: August 18, 1998 (Rawkus/Priority/EMI/MCA/Universal)
Black Star, the full-length collaborative album, from the duo of the same name consisting of Mos Def and Talib Kweli remains one of the finest examples of 90s independent hip hop and one of the seminal examples of so-called “backpack rap.” Trading on Talib’s and Mighty Mos’ trademark lyricism, pro-black politics and anti-commercial righteous fury, Black Star is an emblematic of true school rap idealism and uncorrupted talent.
27. UGK, Super Tight
Released On: August 30, 1994 (Jive)
Super Tight feels like a hot Texas day in the middle of August. UGK’s second album serves as one of the most important albums in the Underground Kingz’ discography. On the LP, Bun B steps up his lyricism tremendously while Pimp C’s swaggering production and general misanthropic swagger blisters like the midday sun in a heat wave. Tracks like “Front, Back & Side To Side”, “I Left It Wet For You” and “Feds In Town” have become Southern rap classics fondly remembered by fans and frequently name checked by the duo’s artistic kin.
26. Naughty By Nature, Naughty By Nature
Released On: September 3, 1991 (Tommy Boy)
No group mastered the artist of “the anthem” quite like Naughty By Nature. Coming straight out of East Orange, New Jersey, Vinnie, Treach and company mastered the art of crafting confectionary, crossover radio hits on their self-titled sophomore effort, Naughty By Nature. Classic jams like “O.P.P.,” “Uptown Anthem” and “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right” featured a formula for success that made Naughty by Nature one of the era’s most popular and enduring groups. The main ingredient to their success is that the group made hits that were tough enough to command respect from hardcore fans while remaining fun and sing-songy enough for pop fans. The group’s secret weapon was lead rapper Treach whose intricate, finely tuned lyricism makes him one of the most underrated rappers in the history of rap.
25. Cypress Hill, Black Sunday
Released On: July 20, 1993 (Ruffhouse/Columbia)
The key to the success of Los Angeles hardcore rap group, Cypress Hill, was their wide-ranging crossover appeal to a large group of demographics. Appealing to stoners, rock fans, rap-loving sorority girls and pure hip hop heads, Cypress Hill have a little bit of everything for everybody. Their second album, Black Sunday, is the group’s magnum opus. The album’s driven by DJ Muggs spooky, blunted production and B-Real’s exaggeratedly nasal vocal delivery. Big hits like “Hits From The Bong,” “I Ain’t Like Going That” and the mega-smash “Insane In The Brain.” sent the album to triple platinum including an impressive 261,000 copies in its first week. Enough to give the group the highest amount of Soundscan scales in history for the rap at the time during the summer of 1993.
24. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Homebase
Released On: July 23, 1991 (Jive/RCA)
If there is a one single song in the history of rap music more associated with warm weather, cookouts and pretty ladies, it’s undoubtedly “Summertime”, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s smooth, Kool & The Gang-sampling groove off 1993’s Homebase. Played incessantly on the radio on every June 21st as if it were Christmas music, “Summertime” marks the unofficial start of the summer season for hip-hop fans. Homebase has other virtues including a maturation in subject matter and feel for the group. Smith deepens his voice and tackles more adult oriented subject matter than on the duo’s early material. A key signifier of his evolvement from the Fresh Prince to perpetual world saving, alien defeating movie star, Will Smith.
23. Nas, Life Is Good
Released On: July 13, 2012 (Def Jam)
After a twenty-year career, the only thing that Nas has left to prove is that he can make it another twenty years. On Life Is Good, Nas makes a strong case that he will find a way to still be doing this in his sixties. His most mature album of his career, Life Is Good works as a bookend to the young project dweller described in his classic debut, Illmatic. Nas discusses divorce (“Bye Baby”), fatherhood (“Daughters”) and the eternal allure of the street game, (“A Queens Story”). A minor comeback of sorts, Life Is Good proves that Old Man Nas is as relevant as ever.
22. 8Ball & MJG, Comin’ Out Hard
Released On: August 1, 1993 (Suave House)
Comin’ Out Hard, the debut from seminal Memphis rap group, 8Ball & MJG, established the duo as canonistic group in the emerging Southern rap scene. the album released in August of 1993 sold like hot cakes across the South despite nonexistent national attention and instituted the group as cult favorites in hip-hop. Fans gravitated to the group’s hard-hitting rhymes and trunk-rattling bass with songs like “9 Little Millimeta Boys,” “Mr. Big,” and “Armed Robbery” that have become part of the Southern gangster rap institution.
21. Young Jeezy, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101
Released On: July 26, 2005 (CTE/Island Def Jam)
You gotta believe! Young Jeezy’s ascendance from dope boy to rap star began in the summer of 2005 with the release of his platinum-selling smash, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. Summer school for aspiring hustlers everywhere, Jeezy plays the role of a Hood Tony Robbins teaching financial empowerment through every mean’s necessary economics. Songs like “Standing Ovation”, “Soul Survivor” and “And Then What” remain hood classics while Jeezy continues to be one of rap’s eminent stars.
20. Clipse, Lord Willin’
Released On: August 20, 2002 (Star Trak/Arista)
Debuting in the summer of 2003, Clipse’s classic, Lord Willin’, is a cynical, drug dealer classic that remains one of the seminal albums of the 2000s coke rap canon. Coming from Virginia by way out of outer space, Lord Willin’ is powered by the Brothers Thornton criminal tales of a Tony Montana lifestyle and the dangers and regrets that life will bring. The Neptunes’ spacey, futuristic beats give the album a decidedly cold and ruthless feel that highlights the duo’s cynical detached worldview that values pragmatic capitalism above all else.
19. LL Cool J, Mama Said Knock You Out
Released On: August 27, 1990 (Def Jam/Columbia/CBS)
It wasn’t exactly a comeback but Mama Said Knock You Out set the tone for LL Cool J’s commercial domination for the rest of the decade. Arguably the fiercest rhymes of his career, Mama Said Knock You Out helped to recapture the hardcore, minimalist aesthetic of his first two albums by employing Juice Crew producer, Marley Marl and keeping the cheesed out lover man shtick to a minimum. Classic cuts like “Jingling Baby (Remixed But Still Jingling),” “Around The Way Girl” and the title track are still dance floor favorites. The album went on to sell two million copies and re-establish LL as a commercial force while revitalizing his career.
18. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, E. 1999 Eternal
Released On: July 25, 1995 (Ruthless/Relativity)
After the success of their breakthrough single, “Thuggish Ruggish Bone,” over the previous summer, Cleveland’s own Bone Thugs-N-Harmony looked to capitalize on their newfound success did exactly with the success of their multiplatinum debut LP, E. 1999 Eternal. Earning praise for their melodic, sing-songy rapping style and G-Funk-esque production provided by DJ U-Neek, E. 1999 Eternal spawned massive chart-topping singles like “1st Of Tha Month,” and “Tha Crossroads” that drove the album to a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album in 1996 that they eventually would lose to Naughty By Nature’s Poverty Paradise. Almost two decades after its release, E. 1999 Eternal remains a Midwest classic and a favorite of 90s rap fans.
17. Scarface, The Fix
Released On: August 6, 2002 (Def Jam South/Island Def Jam/Universal)
After a decade in the rap game, Brad Jordan – a.k.a. Scarface – was looking for a change in his career in Summer 2002. After spending the majority of his career on independent labels like Rap-A-Lot and Priority, Scarface was named President of Def Jam South, the newest boutique of the legendary label, and dropped The Fix, a career magnum opus. The Fix is a ruthless record categorized by vicious rhymes and production by an all-star lineup of producers that include Mike Dean, The Neptunes and a young Kanye West. Standout tracks like “Guess Who’s Back?” featuring Jay Z and Beanie Sigel, “My Block” and “In Cold Blood” make the album essential listening for hip-hop fans.
16. Kanye West, Graduation
Released On: September 11, 2007 (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
September 11th, 2007 will be remembered as the day that Kanye West ascended to hip-hop’s throne. On that day, Kanye West challenged King 50 Cent to war of commercial supremacy and defeated the Queens rapper’s Curtis in total sales with over 957,000 copies sold of his third LP, Graduation. The album marks a tonal shift for Kanye switching from the soul-sample heavy production of his earlier works to a synthesizer heavy sound built for stadiums. Graduation was a massive album that spawned hit singles like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Stronger,” “Good Life,” and “Flashing Lights” turning Kanye into rap’s premier auteur.
15. Redman, Whut? Thee Album
Released On: September 22, 1992 (Def Jam)
The Great Reggie Noble’s 1992 debut, Whut? The Album, remains one of the most celebrated albums in hip-hop history. Noted for it’s charismatic lyricism, wild sense of humor and super funky production provided by EPMD’s Erick Sermon, Redman’s debut is a landmark album in hip-hop. Red carved out a unique, every man persona on songs like “Time 4 Sum Akshion,” “Blow Your Mind,” “Tonight’s Da Nite” and “How To Roll A Blunt” that remains a signature of his music almost two decades later.
14. T.I., Trap Muzik
Released On: August 19, 2003 (Grand Hustle/Atlantic)
After the poor sales of his debut album, I’m Serious, it was do or die for T.I.’s music career. Either his next album become a success or he would return to traps of Atlanta’s Bankhead neighborhood. Enter Trap Muzik, T.I.’s classic sophomore album and the LP that launched the once and future King of the South to the national stratosphere. Powered by Tip’s street savvy lyricism and gritty, drawling flow, Trap Muzik was a slow-burning commercial success that ultimately landed T.I. his first of many platinum plaques in career. Singles like the triumphant “Rubber Band Man” and the southern friend stomper, “24’s” breathed life into Tip’s career and sold him as a burgeoning star in the national consciousness.
13. Big Daddy Kane, Long Live The Kane
Released On: June 21, 1988 (Cold Chillin’/Warner Bros)
Before there was Jay Z and Biggie Smalls, Big Daddy Kane was the original, silky-smooth Brooklyn-born rhyming player. Long Live The Kane, BDK’s undeniably classic debut, is a golden era clinic of complex elaborate lyricism and buttery, silken flows. On songs like the furious “Set It Off”, “Raw” and “Ain’t No Half Steppin,” Kane delivers a performance easily memorable for the sheer number of classic quotables the album provides. Kane set the gold standard for rap’s elite while appealing to women by becoming one of hip-hop’s first true sex symbols.
12. De La Soul, Stakes Is High
Released On: June 18, 1996 (Tommy Boy/Warner Bros.)
In the summer of 1996, De La Soul sensed a cultural shift in the tone of rap music from the positive, party-loving culture of their youth to a perceived vacuum of toxic gun talk, negativity and commercial aspirations. Stakes Is High is the group’s album length rage against the industry machine filled with fake Italian gangsters and commercial wannabes. Even two decades later, Dave’s verse on the iconic, Dilla-produced title track remains as prescient as ever.
11. Geto Boys, We Can’t Be Stopped
Released On: July 1, 1991 (Rap-A-Lot)
From the gruesome cover photo to the disturbing level of violence found in the group’s often shocking lyrics, We Can’t Be Stopped, the Geto Boy’s fourth and most successful project, remains the standard for which all gangsta rap is measured. On the spectacular and harrowing “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” Willie D, Scarface and Bushwick Bill narrate the paranoid journeys of the group’s inner mind with a devilish wit that makes the song an early horrorcore classic. On other points, the album ventures in a decidedly political bent whether protesting the Grammy snubs on “Trophy” or criticizing the first Gulf War with enough vinegary venom left over to scald the second one a decade later.
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.
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.