December 2, 2004

The 25 All-Time Greatest Hip-Hop Albums

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In honor of hip-hop’s 25th birthday, and in response to Entertainment Weekly’s abominable assessment of rap’s greatest albums, daze has compiled its own list. Based upon the votes of daze staff and Cornell’s own True 2 Life Entertainment, this was supposed to be incontestably authoritative. As should be apparent from the top five, we failed miserably.

1. Enter the Wu-Tang (1993)

Wu-Tang Clan

by Ross McGowan

In 1993, when all of the hip-hop media’s attention was focused solely on the city of Los Angeles, Enter the Wu-Tang improbably made Staten Island the genre’s equivalent of Liverpool, England. Like all other immortal music, Enter the Wu-Tang came at a perfect coincidence of time and place. Commercially, hip-hop was already firmly established within mainstream music, but it was just young enough artistically that acts of revolution were still possible. Here, nine starkly different personas and styles were somehow channeled into one entirely coherent, flawless masterpiece. Enter the Wu-Tang isn’t merely the sound of desperation, fury and passion — it is these emotions. Nowhere else are they so blatant, so unfiltered, so “raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia.” The Clan’s great experiment worked all too well; Enter the Wu-Tang jumpstarted nine careers that have never quite lived up to the group’s debut. But neither has anything else.

2. Straight Outta Compton (1989)


by Will Lanier

What else can be said about this album that you don’t already know? Yeah, yeah. They had the balls to tell the police to fuck off. So what. Public Enemy told Elvis to fuck off. Big deal, you say. Actually, this album is a pretty big fucking deal, and here’s why. Every commercial hip-hop album in the last 16 years since Compton’s release date, from 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ to Cypress Hill’s self-titled debut, has been a watered-down remix of this OG classic. Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, and MC Ren made rapping about killing people cool. And they did it without record-company publicity or hit singles. They were so gangsta that MTV refused to show their video because of its violent and misogynistic content. On top of that, they got letters from the FBI accusing them of supporting “violence against and disrespect for the law-enforcement officer.” White kids in the suburbs ate it up. Fast-forward 15 years, and now every reference to glocks, bitches and 40s owes a debt to N.W.A.

3. Illmatic (1994)


by Zach Jones

Forget Nas’s string of lame albums, his catfight with Jay-Z and his messianic moniker of “God’s Son.” Remember 1994, when Nas was just a fresh-faced prodigy from Queensbridge who let loose 40 minutes of perfection on his landmark debut, Illmatic. Employing a dream team of jazz producers with Q-Tip, DJ Premier, Pete Rock and the Large Professor, Illmatic weds true urban sophistication with gritty, reflective and introspective street poetry. Nas’s flow remains as smooth as silk dipped in melted butter, delivering wildly literate narratives of street violence (“N.Y. State of Mind”), the shifting of allegiances (“One Love”), the hilarious travails of young life (“Life’s a Bitch”) and the remains of days past (“Memory Lane”). Although brief, Illmatic is the most compulsively listenable hip-hop album, wasting not one second of tape. Illmatic has certainly been an albatross for Nas, but we can’t fault him. No one has flown so high since.

4. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back (1988)

Public Enemy

by Ross McGowan

Public Enemy still stands as the most convincing argument for deregulation of deadly assault rifles. Of course, as a Caucasian, I might be one of the first people they’d hunt down, but that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of playing devil’s advocate. Chuck D is routinely likened to Bob Dylan because of his ability to seamlessly integrate political and social issues into his lyrics. This is a bold yet credible claim that constantly threatens to overshadow the rest of PE’s achievements, and It Takes a Nation may be their greatest; it’s probably the most critically acclaimed rap album of all time. The lyrics are scathing and the production is harrowing. The word “atmospheric” isn’t normally applied to music fueled solely by rage, but no other album I can think of creates its own world so convincingly and successfully.

5. Endtroducing … (1996)

DJ Shadow

by Ross McGowan

True or false: Josh Davis wrestled the “DJ” moniker away from the ravers and properly restored it to its hip-hop roots; Endtroducing . . . was so influential that it now stands as the centerpiece of an entire subgenre of hip-hop; and this list was made almost entirely by white kids. Of course, all three statements are true. If you’re a white suburbanite who gives his songs titles such as “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in 1996,” you’d better make damn sure that your own album is a bona-fide masterpiece, or else you can kiss your cred goodbye. Somehow, Endtroducing . . . ended up being more influential than even Davis himself could have ever hoped. To this day, almost every instrumental hip-hop album that’s released is immediately measured up against it. Such comparisons are unfair, but tackling a genre head-on isn’t nearly as easy as Endtroducing . . . made it seem.

6. Critical Beatdown (1988)

Ultramagnetic MC’s

by Ross McGowan

Even though almost all rap flew under the radar in 1988, Critical Beatdown is one of hip-hop’s early underground classics. It was released around the same time as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Straight Outta Compton and Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, three highly influential albums which kicked off hip-hop’s most political phase. But Critical Beatdown captured the genre’s true essence better than any of its peers: The subject matter seldom strayed away from boasts of insanity and awesomeness, and a close examination of modern hip-hop reveals that such braggadocio remains the predominant theme for contemporary artists. As Kool Keith explained, “My rhyme shines, and yours is dull like dirt. It hurt to be wacker but instead I’ll grab a big stack of wack MCs, lay ’em down like tile.” And that’s only the first verse of the album.

7. Ready to Die (1994)

The Notorious B.I.G.

by Will Lanier

Constructing a classic album in the evolution of hip-hop, Biggie changed the image of East Coast rap from Wu-Tang’s grimy street scenes to sipping on Mo