1995 was a pivotal year in hip-hop. The music and culture was around the age of twenty and — like everyone that age — was still figuring out what it was and what it wanted to be. This was before egos, money, and violence began truly taking over and there were established stars and promising upstarts all over the map. Plus, it was the year of one of the most infamous awards shows in history, The 1995 Source Awards, which had it’s own far reaching effect on the game.
That is now twenty years in the past and once again hip-hop has gone through a multitude of changes in those two decades. So it is with a mixture of hindsight and nostalgia that I decided to countdown the top 20 albums of 1995.
20. The Pharcyde — “Labcabincalifornia”
No J-Swift? No problem. Cali’s version of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, The Pharcyde was lauded for its debut album, particularly J-Swift’s beats. For the group’s second effort, a little known producer named Jay Dee (a/k/a Dilla) handled a bulk of the production, creating a marked departure from deep jazz sounds to the soul samples that would eventually make him a legend. Though it’s not as revered as Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, Labcabincalifornia is actually a deeper album than its predecessor, as the members used the change in backdrops to address issues beyond simply having a good time. Still, there’s an element of lightheartedness and “Drop” and “Runnin’” both sound just as great today as back in ’95.
19. Group Home — “Livin’ Proof”
Most albums are remembered years after their release because they were superb (or at least strong) in multiple areas. Sometimes, however, greatness in one aspect can carry the rest of a project, which is exactly the case with Group Home’s debut. On Livin’ Proof, DJ Premier submits some of the finest work of his career, crafting a perfect mid-90s NYC backdrop for Melachi and Lil’ Dap. While I don’t think Group Home’s vocal performances were as bad as many would have you believe, it’s true that they couldn’t rise to the level of the beats. In fairness, very few could have.
18. LL Cool J — “Mr. Smith”
1995 was LL’s tenth year in the game and he marked the occasion with his sixth solo album, one that toed the line between hardcore hip-hop and pop rap ballads. The album went double platinum, spawning three top ten singles — “Hey Lover” (featuring Boyz II Men), “Doin’ It” and “Loungin’” — as well as an all-time top ten posse cut — the remix to “I Shot Ya.” Yet the remaining songs were a bit lackluster and featured an LL that seemed more schizophrenic than balanced.
17. Onyx — “All We Got Iz Us”
No sophomore slump here. Bacdafucup introduced Onyx to the world, going platinum in the process, but for all of its strengths, there is a bit of lightheartedness to it and the lyrics are basic at times. Both of those were rectified on their second album, All We Got Iz Us, which featured a much darker tone that largely focused on death, with much more introspective lyrics and themes over beats that banged.
16. The Roots — “Do You Want More?!!!??!”
“You are all about to witness some organic hip-hop jazz.” So begins The Roots’ second album, a refreshing alternative to both the gritty boom bap of New York and the slick G-Funk coming out of Los Angeles. It was also different from other jazz-influenced acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, thanks to The Roots’ use of live instrumentation, rather than sampling and looping. In later years, as the members matured, the subject matter would become more conscious and the music a bit more deliberate, but here the energy is turned all the way up. Black Thought and Malik B were trading verses with gusto while the rest of the band (including a young keyboardist named Scott Storch) provided a lush backdrop that could not be replicated on a drum machine.
15. The Alkaholiks — “Coast II Coast”
If a formula isn’t broke, why fix it? Much like their breakout debut, 21 & Over, The Alkaholiks’ second time at the bar is a showcase for the the group’s unique brand of music — fun party records filled with deft lyrical skill. The featured guests, particularly Diamond D, Xzibit, and Q-Tip, help to keep Tash, J-Ro and E-Swift sounding fresh on an album on which both the beats and the styles were completely unique, particularly for a group from L.A. during the height of Death Row’s reign.
14. Showbiz & A.G. — “Goodfellas”
There are producer-rapper duos that have magical chemistry, like Snoop and Dre, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth and Guru and Premier. Show and A.G. may not be quite at that level, but they’re not too far away, either. While it didn’t outdo their classic full-length debut, Runaway Slave, Goodfellas is a wonderful entry in hardcore east coast hip-hop that helped shape the D.I.T.C. sound.
13. Ol’ Dirty Bastard — “Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version”
I love Wu-Tang, but ODB’s debut was the weakest of the original round of Wu solo albums and it has not aged particularly well. A slapped-together project that took forever to complete, it includes songs from before the group’s debut, tracks that sound incomplete and a few verses that are even repeated. Although Dirty sounds disinterested at best in certain spots, the album has its highlights, such as “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Raw Hide.” The strength is RZA’s production, which, unlike the other two Wu records released that year — Liquid Swords and Cuban Linx…, hearkens back to the beats on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
12. KRS-One — “KRS-One”
This eponymous album was originally intended to be titled Hip-Hop vs. Rap, illustrating what the Blastmaster’s mind state was at the time. The album features two classic KRS/Preemo joints — “Rappers R. N. Dainja” and “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” — and showcases the classic KRS-One elements of battle rhymes sprinkled with knowledge and consciousness. Yet it is the inclusion of young and hungry guests, including Fat Joe, Das EFX, and Busta Rhymes, that keep Kris inspired and on point, resulting in the last really good, borderline great, KRS album. In 2010, Kris and Preem announced that they were working on a sequel, Return of the Boom Bip, but nothing ever materialized.
11. E-40 — “In a Major Way”
E-40 is one of the most unique hip-hop artists in history. From his delivery to his unorthodox flow to his vocabulary, he is unlike anyone that came before him. He is also the perfect blend of a west coast artist — part serious and hardcore, part lighthearted and fun. Rapping over production that was comprised of classic California bounce beats, his major label debut has all the elements needed for a great record. The guests all bring heat too — the 2Pac, Spice 1, and Mac Mall featured “Dusted ‘N’ Disgusted” is a certified classic.
10. Big L — “Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous”
The only album that Big L saw through to completion, Lifestylez is the work of a supremely talented artist that was still improving. While it was released on Columbia, it has the feel and sound of an underground record. Three of his Diggin’ in the Crates brethren — Buckwild, Lord Finesse, and Showbiz — produce all but one track, crafting a consistent D.IT.C. sound, over which L shows his lyrical prowess and verbal dexterity, out-rhyming everyone on the project, including Killa Cam(’Ron) and a young Jay Z.
9. Smif-n-Wessun — “Dah Shinin’”
Boot Camp Clik were the perfect embodiment of 90s underground hip-hop — raw, rugged rhymes over dark, atmospheric beats. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But those two elements blended perfectly when Tek and Steele eagerly devoured every instrumental handed to them by Da Beatminerz for their debut, Dah Shinin’. “Wrekonize,” “Sound Bwoy Bueill,” “Bucktown,” and the posse cut “Cession at da Doghillee” remain street anthems to this day.
8. Tha Dogg Pound — “Dogg Food”
Acting as the bridge between Snoop and ‘Pac, Daz and Kurupt kept the Death Row hit streak alive with a double platinum effort that is not all-time classic, but still sits comfortably alongside the label’s other releases. Daz handles the bulk of the production (which Dr. Dre mixed) and while it is a step down from the beats on The Chronic and Doggystyle, it is still polished G-Funk with thumping beats, and by far the best work of his career. Kurupt is ferocious on every track, using his metaphors and wordplay to challenge everyone. Between the boycotts that led to Warner Bros. selling Interscope to the group’s video set trailer getting shot up (as they filmed themselves as Godzilla-like creatures kicking over buildings), the album was a pivotal point in the escalating coastal war. Remember, “It’s like New York’s been soft ever since Snoop came through and crushed the buildings.”
7. AZ — “Doe or Die”
Following his introduction to the rap world as the only featured artist on Illmatic, AZ unveiled his own debut a year later and it marked one of the most underrated emcees in history, releasing one of the more slept-on debut albums in 1995. A companion to Nas’s classic debut, Doe or Die is a little less gritty and more aspirational, featuring AZ’s silky smooth flow and clever rhymes, though some of the beats falter towards the backend of the album. Still, from the rapid fire of “Uncut Raw” to the relaxed “Sugar Hill,” it’s clear why AZ was hailed as the next great one two decades ago.
6. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony — “E. 1999 Eternal”
Bone Thug’s second full-length LP (don’t forget Faces of Death) was the highest-selling hip-hop album of the year with over five million copies sold. A perfect blend of two distinct sounds — Bone’s unique Cleveland rhymes and flows mixed with the sound of L.A. courtesy of DJ U-Neek’s beats and Eazy-E’s direction. The album should be even higher on this list, but Bone Thugs’ most popular and most impactful song, “Tha Crossroads,” is not included, but rather was released as a separate remix. Still, the LP is the group at its apex.
5. 2Pac — “Me Against the World”
The first album to ever top the Billboard chart while the artist was incarcerated, Me Against the World was the result of an artist at a turning point. He was already moving away from the politically charged material of his first two albums, but he had not yet adopted the larger than life gangsta persona after being bailed out by Suge Knight and signed to Death Row. The result is ‘Pac at his most vulnerable and least contradictory. “Dear Mama” and “So Many Tears” are personal and introspective, “Temptations” and “Can U Get Away” focus on love as an escape, while “If I Die 2Nite” and “Death Around the Corner” find him obsessing about his mortality. It doesn’t have the hits of All Eyez on Me or the ferocity of Makaveli, but it is his most honest LP.
4. Goodie Mob — “Soul Food”
The first classic to come out of Atlanta, Soul Food was a revelation, introducing the idea of the “Dirty South” while also bringing a consciousness that was able to remain rooted without coming off as preachy. The production is nearly flawless, as Organized Noize managed to improve upon their sound from Outkast’s debut to create a collection that blends together wonderfully. Their sound combines beautifully with the diversity in the voices heard on the record, particularly Cee-Lo’s standout turn and the appearance of other members of the Dungeon Family. The result is not only a classic, but also a foretelling of what was to come.
3. GZA — “Liquid Swords”
The most lyrical Wu-Tang solo album, it takes multiple listens to unpack GZA’s rhymes. RZA’s production is razor sharp, creating a musical atmosphere that is cold and dark (RZA once said he thought of it as an album for the winter), over which GZA’s calm delivery has even more of an impact. The album is rife with what the Wu was enamored, such as chess imagery, kung fu allusions, and life on the streets. There isn’t a wasted word even as every member makes an appearance. From “4th Chamber” to “Shadowboxin’” to the title track, the album sounds as fresh (and frigid) as ever.
2. Mobb Deep — “The Infamous”
The Infamous is an audio journal of life in Queensbridge penned by two twenty year-olds that have seen and experienced life far beyond their years. The next step in the gritty New York resurgence that began on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and continued with Illmatic, Havoc’s haunting beats are sparse but neck-snapping, while Prodigy’s vivid rhymes are laced with a mixture of menace, paranoia, regret and resignation, not to mention the introduction of “the dun language.” Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Nas, Q-Tip, and Big Noyd all drop in, but Hav and P created a classic largely on their own.
1. Raekwon [featuring Ghostface Killah] — “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…”
The Purple Tape. A loose-knit concept album about two small time hoods that are out to make one last big score before leaving the streets. Interwoven with scenes from John Woo’s The Killer to further illustrate the idea, Cuban Linx… remains the dominant hip-hop release from 1995. Raekwon and Ghostface unload a barrage of cinematic rhymes over RZA’s soundscapes which shift effortlessly from despair to nostalgia to raw anger. It features one of the best Wu group efforts in history on “Wu-Gambinos”; a jaw-dropping verse from the first non-member to appear on a Clan album with Nas on “Verbal Intercourse”; an all-time great Ghost performance on “Criminology”; not to mention “Ice Cream,” “Guillotine (Swordz),” “Heaven & Hell,” “Glaciers of Ice,” and the rest. One of the most influential hip-hop albums in history, from the adoption of mafia aliases, to the introduction of unique slang, to the name dropping of Cristal and Clarks, it had an impact on an entire generation of emcees, including Nas, Jay-Z, and The Notorious B.I.G. The influence can still be felt twenty years later.
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Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.