I’m pretty sure that my heart beats in boom bap – that is to say, I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t listen to hip hop music. Today, I’d like to take a few minutes out of the Monday-est Tuesday ever to discuss my 26 years on Earth as a hip hop junkie; that is to say, without further ado, here are my picks for the most influential and worthwhile hip hop albums from 1990 through this year – at least, as far as in the scope of my existence in the hiphoposphere. Please be forewarned that this list is by no means complete (that would be a task nigh impossible), and is subject to change on a whim at any time.
Mama Said Knock You Out (LL Cool J)
Produced by the legendary Marley Marl, LL’s 4th studio album became an instant classic. The lyrics are mean, the beats are unmistakable, and to this day, the titular track is my go-to “bad day” soundtrack. LL Cool J is one of the kings of our culture, and as far as I’m concerned, this album from beginning to end is the very definition of why.
Runner Up: One For All (Brand Nubian)
Cypress Hill (Cypress Hill)
With over 2 million copies sold, Cypress Hill’s self title debut is certified double platinum by the RIAA and is critically acclaimed as being one of the most important hip hop albums of all time. They defined a sound unlike any other, and utilized samples that are at once immediately recognizable and completely unique. I count this amongst my most listened to albums of all time, and will forever hold Cypress Hill dear to my heart.
Runner Up: De La Soul Is Dead (De La Soul)
Daily Operation (Gang Starr)
Despite only being awarded 3.5 mics in The Source, Daily Operation is; to me, the very definition of what made Gang Starr one of (if not the very) best duos in hip hop history. Guru was taken from us far too young, but is responsible for my adoration of impeccably crafted lyrics and intellectual emceeing. DJ Premier on the cuts has a sound that is classic and cutting edge at the same time, and together, they made music that literally changed the world as I once knew it to be.
Runner Up: Check Your Head (Beastie Boys)
Souls of Mischief is a subgroup from the California based collective, Hieroglyphics, consisting of members A-Plus, Opio, Phesto and Tajai. They utilize a distinct and challenging internal rhyme scheme, and beats centered around obscure jazz and funk samples. The title track is a largely underappreciated mainstay in hip hop, and the stunning nature of the album is (I believe) thanks to consistency throughout, not individual highlights. Souls of Mischief continue to be incredibly influential to me as a critic, emcee and fan within the culture, and serves to me a perpetual reminder of the importance of committing to excellence when creating art.
Runner Up: Midnight Marauders (A Tribe Called Quest)
Andre 3000 and Big Boi are without a doubt two of the most beloved and influential cats in hip hop, and their debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik may not be their most well-known and loved; however, to me it is the most important. It’s a truly Southern album, which incorporates analog elements, soulful beats, and a coming of age theme that resonates as strongly with me as someone now closer to 30 as it did when I was still a preteen. It was also a relatively controversially received album – at the 1995 Source Awards, they were booed when they went onstage to accept their “Best Newcomer” award; however, their legacy was only beginning its stronghold, and was beautifully foreshadowed by Andre 3000’s assertion that “the South has something to say”.
Runner Up: The Sun Rises in the East (Jeru The Damaja)
Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (Old Dirty Bastard)
Wutang Clan is for the children, and while ODB isn’t singularly responsible for my adoration of the Clan, he’s certainly the most influential member in regard to this gal’s paradigm. Misunderstood and largely underrated, addiction and mental illness plagued my favourite clan member and certainly come through sonically in the hallmarks of the album; that is to say, the spooky production, bizarre lyricism, and completely off the wall plot combine for a one in a million album that is equal parts hilarious and deeply concerning. On the surface, this one gets glossed over too frequently. I maintain that it is an absolute necessity in the treasure troves of any true hip hop head.
The Score (The Fugees)
Certified an incredible 6 times platinum by the RIAA, The Fugees’ final studio album is an absolute masterwork in the realm of alternative hip hop. To me, it’s a symphony – one cannot truly appreciate each individual track without hearing the album from beginning to end. Lauryn Hill is one of my all time heroes, and the Fugees are one of my top 3 favourite bands of all time. This is a pivotal album for me as a head, as it marks my foray into more adult hip hop, and forever sounds like the comforting sonic blanket that got me through the roughest spots in my life.
Runner Up: It Was Written (Nas)
Released posthumously, Life After Death features collaborations with hip hop heavyhitters including (but definitely not limited to) 112, Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim, the Lox, and R. Kelly. A landmark in hip hop, it is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time. To me, what stands out is bifold. Primarily, the collaborations are on point; and secondarily, the fact that Biggie passed so shortly prior to the album’s release gives even more poignancy and profound beauty to the collaborations, as they remain in the realm of the living hip hop heads as eulogistic goodbyes from hip hop greats to a now-deceased hip hop King. I am forever a Biggie fan over a Tupac fan, and I couldn’t even begin to estimate how many times I’ve played this one through beginning to end.
Runner Up:The Psycho-Social, Chemical, Biological & Electro-Magnetic Manipulation of Human Consciousness (Jedi Mind Tricks)
Capital Punishment (Big Punisher)
The only album released by Pun prior to his tragically early passing, Capital Punishment is the first Latin hip hop record to go certified platinum. Pun was a lyrical mastermind, with incredible flow and intricate structure that to this day serve as the benchmark in my mind for excellence. He was nominated for Best Hip Hop Album at the 1999 Grammy Awards, but lost to Jay-Z’s “Vol 2…Hard Knock Life”. The sampling choices on the album are also all over the map, from the Mancini Orchestra to Mobb Deep. A Latina growing up in North America myself, the struggles that Pun expounds upon are presented in a way that makes more sense to me still somehow than pretty much any other rap album, ever. Big Pun is one of my top three artists of all time, and I’ve bought Capital Punishment on cassette tape, CD, and digitally more times than I can count because I literally cannot go without the ability to have it in rotation at any given time.
Runner Up: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Lauryn Hill)
Black on Both Sides (Mos Def)
Mos Def (AKA Yasiin Bey) is pretty much my lyrical hero. His debut album came a year following his duo effort with Talib Kweli, Black Star, which set an incredibly high precedent and standard for his solo foray. The album is stunning for a host of reasons: the lyrical content and alchemy, the fact that there are barely any collaborations on the album – and that the ones that are there are exceptional (see Busta Rhymes on Do It Now, Talib Kweli on Know That, Q Tip on Mr. Nigga, and DJ Premier on Mathematics), the impeccable production, and the fact that almost 10 years later, the album is virtually unchallenged in its worth and value as a standalone masterwork. Forever the bar I strive to one day even glance.
Runners Up: Things Fall Apart (The Roots), The Chronic 2001 (Dr. Dre)
The Marshall Mathers LP (Eminem)
Runner Up: Masters of the Universe (Binary Star)
The Realness (Cormega)
Cormega is hugely underappreciated. The Realness is one of my all time favourite albums, and is one of the most poignant glimpses into the life of a societal misfit that’s ever been conceptualized in the game. Cormega is a serious heavy hitter – an original member of The Firm (alongside Nas, AZ, and Foxy Brown), his debut album remains in heavy rotation on my iPod and definitely shaped me as an emcee – and as a person.
Runners Up: Devil’s Night (D12), Will Rap For Food (Cunninglynguists)
God Loves Ugly (Atmosphere)
Atmosphere consists of DJ Ant and Emcee Slug. Hailing from Minneapolis, they’re cornerstones of Rhymesayers Entertainment, and defined a sound that’s moving, honest, and harkens back to the roots of what backpack rap is meant to be. God Loves Ugly changed my life, and I know that sounds hyperbolic, but it’s the truth. Slug has a beautiful cadence to his words, a thoughtfulness, a meditative honesty that speaks to my soul. Ant has a dreamy, gritty quality as a turntablist that elevates Slug’s rhymes to an ethereal, dreamy place. Everything Atmosphere’s ever put out has made a serious impact on me, and if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of being exposed to their art, I highly recommend that you take a listen.
Runner Up: Under Construction (Missy Elliott)
Chicken & Beer (Ludacris)
Ludacris’ 4th studio album utilizes his signature rapid fire flow, a political overtone, and (excessive) doses of adult humour to weave together an album that to this day gets me amped about the fact that it’s playing. Two of four singles off the album, “Stand Up” and “Splash Waterfalls” became Luda’s first to peak on the top 10 on the US Billboard 200. Debaucherous and raunchy, but in equal measure well crafted and thoughtful, critical reception was varied. I maintain; however, that Ludacris is one of the most fluid, malleable emcees on the scene, and that he retains relevancy to this day through active maintenance of his worth as a fixture in the scene. This was the soundtrack of my first summer as a teenager, a half a lifetime ago, and thirteen years later, I still enjoy bumpin’ to it just as much.
Runner Up: Balance (Akrobatik)
The College Dropout (Kanye West)
Say what you want about Kanye, he’s been putting in work for a hot minute on the scene. Recorded over 4 years, The College Dropout was his foray from production to being accepted as a rapper in his own right. He handled the production himself and developed his signature “chipmunk soul” flavour, which has lingered (albeit highly evolved) as the years have rolled on. It was a massive commercial success that was bolstered by universal critical acclaim, and it served as a mainstay on my highschool iPod playlists. “Jesus Walks” is still a banger, and I still f*ck with Kanye. Yes, he’s gotten increasingly bizarre as the years have clambered along; however, we’re all still talking about him, and he’s still churning out art that’s worthy of discussion and recognition.
Runner Up: Demon Days (Gorillaz)
Food & Liquor (Lupe Fiasco)
Lupe’s debut disk is still in heavy rotation in my life. It’s one of the few that I have a truly difficult time finding fault with. The production team includes practically all of the heavy hitters of the time, from the Neptunes to Mike Shinoda. Lyrically, Fiasco’s flow is like none other, and contains topics from Islam, terrorism, racism, poverty, and individuality. The album was nominated for four Grammy Awards, with the song “Daydreamin'” winning Best Urban/Alternative song. The most resounding critique of the album was the lack of creative hooks and overabundance of witty, sociopolitical critiques by means of intricate lyricism – which, to me, is a laughable and striking reflection of what’s been going steadily more wrong with hip hop recently. I am a huge Fiasco fan, and have been listening to this disc again in heavy rotation after hearing that The Cool II is finished, but not to be released, as he has (supposedly) retired from the rap game once again.
Runner Up: Mo’Mega (Mr. Lif)
In his 2nd solo studio album, the ex-Fugee, Wyclef Jean, delivers a feast of global rhythms from bhangra to samba and punctuates them with lyrics and vocals that are thought-provoking and deeply moving. Jean has been quoted as saying that “music is the language of all the world’s people,” which is absolutely the truth, and a very important one for this first-generation Canadian child of immigrant parents. Music gives us a place to fit in with each other as human beings, and removes the divisors that make the Earth a cruel place to be, sometimes. Carnival Volume II is rife with perennial favourites and beautiful collaborations, most notably Paul Simon on Fast Car and Akon and Lil’ Wayne on Sweetest Girl. It’s a symphonic masterwork, and I always enjoy the album from beginning to end.
Runner Up: None Shall Pass (Aesop Rock)
Paper Trail (T.I.)
Runner Up: 11th Hour (Del the Funky Homosapien)
A conceptual debut album narrated by Common, Man on the Moon followed Cudi’s debut mixtape. Production took three years, and spawned multiple hit singles. The album was eventually certified gold, and is critically acclaimed for its out of the box approach to hip hop, and for being something entirely unique. Though criticized for its heavy drug-influence, Cudi stated in a BlackBook interview in 2009 that, “each song is a message. All the hooks are stadium-worthy, crowd sing-along, powerful joints that I can’t wait for people to hear in stadium magnitude. My album definitely needs to be heard loudly, but it’s also a great album if you’re smoking and you need to go to sleep. So far I have the lineup of how I want the first seven tracks on my album and if I play the first seven from the beginning to the end, I’m zoned out and it’s the best trip ever. You need to be high to appreciate the instrumentation and how everything is put together on the album—but you don’t have to be high just to enjoy it in general.” It’s important to me for the same reason that Paper Trail is. It represents a microcosm of my existence and the soundtrack of the time period; however, I hold it slightly more dear to my heart for being lyrically and sonically capable of expressing things that I previously couldn’t.
Runner Up: By The Throat (Eyedea & Abilities)
Runner Up: Album of the Year (Black Milk)
Banned From America (Madchild)
Okay, so I have to start out by explaining how near and dear to my heart Swollen Members is. The very first track I memorized (and subsequently spit at a dinner party when my parents put me on the spot) was “Deep End,” off of Bad Dreams. They aren’t the sole reason why I love hip hop, but they are incredibly influential in the paradigm of Mel & Music, and over the years, life’s been a funny one – they’re now some of my good friends and mentors. I digress; however, and return our attention to Banned From America, which came out following Madchild’s failure to acquire entry into the United States, and the beginning of his legal struggles following both addiction to opiates and a tangle with the Hells Angels. The disc didn’t actually perform very well – it didn’t tank, but it didn’t gain huge international acclaim, which is a fact that lies in tandem with his public persona taking a hit after separating from Swollen Members and becoming a self-professed “mindless, junkie loser”. I’ve always loved Mad’s wordplay and lyrical structure, which utilizes onomatopoeia, comic book characters, and sci-fi references heavily. Banned From America adds a reflective, introspective and painfully honest self-deprecatory flair that speaks to me on a deep level. Forever one of my favourite artists, this is by far my pick for Madchild’s most successful and important solo work.
The Theremin EP (Edward Scissortongue)
I was introduced to High Focus Records early in 2011, and ever since, I’ve been on a pretty steady diet of UK hip hop. Edward Scissortongue is a highly acclaimed wordsmith who weaves intricate plotlines into conceptual lyrics, and who is definitely unafraid to colour outside the lines and play with structure, time signature, and convention to create beautiful music that sounds completely unlike anything else. The Theremin EP is a beautiful disc, with Lamplighter’s production value to add to the sullen, melancholic feel. His music is rich, expansive, and influenced equally by Hayden as it is Tupac. He’s truly a pivotal player in hip hop’s renaissance, and serves to me as my ultimate inspiration. While I await his 2016 album, Tell Them It’s Winter, with baited breath, The Theremin EP remains in constant play on my headphones, and remains one of the single most moving works of art I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
Runner Up: Natural Order (the Four Owls)