“I’m too wild, trying to take it on back to ‘9–6/Illadelph Halflife, All Eyez have been nixed/Beats, Rhymes and Life and Stakes Is High shit/It Was Written in the scriptures, A-T-Liens exist/By Ironman and Dr. Octagonecologist.”
— Asher Roth, “Muddy Swim Trunks”
If there were a tournament to crown the greatest year in hip-hop history, 1996 would be a lock to make the Final Four.
It was at, or very near, the peak of hip-hop’s second golden age and boasted a dazzling mixture of established artists, emergent stars taking the next step, and supremely talented newcomers asserting their place in the culture. It was also a massively important year, though often for the wrong reasons.
Just as I did last year, I decided to count down the top 20 hip-hop albums from 20 years ago.
To extend the NCAA Tournament analogy further, there were some strong bubble albums that didn’t make the cut, including Endtroducing…, Wrath of the Math, Kollage, The Coming, At the Speed of Life, Ill Na Na, The Final Tic, Legal Drug Money, and Da Storm.
20. Lil’ Kim— “Hard Core”
It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of Hard Core. Along with Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim forever changed the role of the female MC, flipping the gender norms of hip-hop and taking control of her sexuality. Executive Produced (and more) by The Notorious B.I.G., Hard Core is the album that fits perfectly between Ready to Die and Life After Death, full of witty rhymes about sex, guns, and cars over silky, sample-heavy backdrops.
19. M.O.P. — “Firing Squad”
It’s difficult to remain rugged and raw over more sculpted beats, but M.O.P. managed to keep its grittiness even after stepping up the production by linking up with the likes of DJ Premier, Jaz-O, and others. The result is a hardcore NYC rap fan’s wet dream as Billy Danze and Lil’ Fame bring their high-octane energy over pounding drums with funky basslines. Preemo supplies the beats for half of the album and most of these are the standout cuts, like “Stick to Ya Gunz,” “Downtown Swinga ’96,” and the title track.
18. Mad Skillz — “From Where???”
Before he was the most famous ghostwriter with the million dollar backpack and the annual rap ups, the emcee then-known as Mad Skillz was an Unsigned Hype alum that could write both a battle rap and a fully formed song. The Virginia native has both substance and style in abundance and his rhymes on From Where??? are a combination of insightful observations and clever punchlines on a variety of subjects from a variety of angles as he skates all over production provided by a diverse collection of beatsmiths including J. Dilla, Beatnuts, Buckwild, Large Professor, DJ Clark Kent, and Shawn J. Period.
17. Ras Kass — “Soul on Ice”
It was clear from the beginning that Ras Kass was lethal with the pen. Proclaimed the west coast’s answer to Nas, he spurned most of the topics usually covered by those that come from his locale, choosing instead to deliver an album drenched in layered lyrics that addressed racism, religion, the music industry, and myriad other issues. On “Reelishymn,” he summed up the past twenty years of rap complaints and arguments in less than two bars: “Make a radio hit, heads criticize it/Underground classic, nobody buys it/So rap is fucked.” Lyrically, the album met, and even exceeded, expectations and if the beats had been just a bit stronger, Soul on Ice could have been viewed as Cali’s Illmatic.
16. Westside Connection — “Bow Down”
In 1996, Ice Cube, having already proven his box office worth with Boyz N the Hood, Friday, and other films, was transitioning from the politically-charged emcee of his early career to the oversized Don Mega supergangsta persona that he would later inhabit. But he still had one foot in each world when he teamed up with fellow west coast veteran WC as well as his own protégé Mack 10 to form Westside Connection. On their debut, the Gangsta, the Killa, and the Dope Dealer melodically sneered and boasted all over hard, thumping beats, alternating between defending their sound — and their coast — while also antagonizing all challengers. One of the final salvos in the East vs. West war, Bow Down came out just over a month after the murder of Tupac Shakur, so it was released in a different climate than the one in which it was recorded, but as far as L.A. gangsta rap goes, few albums do it better.
15. A Tribe Called Quest — “Beats, Rhymes and Life”
Following up two — arguably three — classics is a herculean task under any circumstances, but doing so in the midst of internal discord, life changes, and additional creatives in the studio is nearly impossible. Thus, the inclusion of Consequence on the mic and J. Dilla behind the boards, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s conversion to Islam, and the late great Phife Dawg’s move to Atlanta all combined to make Beats, Rhymes and Life Tribe’s first real stumble. Still, a subpar Tribe album is better than most and there are certainly some high points, but everything swirling around the group resulted in their signature sound of playfulness mixed with consciousness being replaced by a dark and serious tone that weighed down the entire project.
14. Heltah Skeltah — “Nocturnal”
No discussion of gritty New York City hip-hop of the mid-’90s is complete without mentioning Boot Camp Clik. Arguably the most talented faction of the supergroup was Heltah Skeltah, a duo consisting of spitters Ruck and Rock (a/k/a Sean Price) that hailed from Brownsville, Brooklyn. Over prototypical beats provided by Da Beatminerz, E-Swift, and a few others, the two MC’s crafted intricate street rhymes that are a perfect mixture of hard and introspective. Whether the duo go at it on their own like on “Operation Lock Down” or they bring along their crew, like on the certified classic featuring O.G.C. [as The Fab Five], “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka,” Heltah Skeltah never comes soft.
13. Dr. Octagon [Kool Keith] — “Dr. Octagonecologyst”
Kool Keith is unlike any other rapper and Dr. Octagonecologyst is unlike any other hip-hop album ever. For his long-awaited solo project, the Ultramagnetic MCs founder decided to inhabit the character Dr. Octagon, a homicidal gynecologist that travels through time and molests his patients. In the wrong hands, this could be a disaster, but Keith is clever enough and the music, delivered by Dan the Automator with assistance from KutMasta Kurt, DJ Qbert, and Keith himself, is great enough to prevent this. It’s a hip-hop album, but it’s also incorporates psychedelic, electronica, and trip hop with themes that range from horror to science fiction to misogynistic fantasy. In short, it cannot be categorized. It blazed the trail for the late ’90s underground renaissance and was years ahead of what anyone else was doing at the time.
12. Redman — “Muddy Waters”
Muddy Waters is Redman at his absolute best — skillful but not too technical, clever but not too outlandish, fun but not too silly. He and executive producer Erick Sermon crafted hardcore beats infused with a funky vibe, over which he combined the verbal dexterity of Whut? Thee Album with the dark ambience of Dare Iz a Darkside. With a range of tracks from the free-flowing “Pick It Up” to the laid back “Whateva Man” to the atmospheric duet with Method Man, “Do What You Feel,” this is the ultimate Redman project.
11. Fugees — “The Score”
After their debut album, Blunted on Reality, flopped, the Fugees were on the verge of disbanding. Instead, they retreated to the studio and, eschewing the rapid-fire flows over boom bap beats of their first project, chose to craft a more soulful, more intelligent, more nuanced record that received both critical and commercial acclaim. The Score put each member’s talents on full display, from Wyclef’s music that combined sampling and live instrumentation to Lauryn Hill’s exquisite singing voice offset with a flow that competed with the best of them to Pras’s rhymes. With its cover versions of “Killing Me Softly” and “No Woman, No Cry” alongside “Ready or Not” and “How Many Mics,” it was an album that simultaneously looked back and forward at the same time. The album dominated much of 1996 and if parts of it sound dated that’s only because it became the blueprint for alternative hip-hop for the next several years.
10. De La Soul — “Stakes Is High”
It was not a coincidence that De La Soul titled its fourth album Stakes Is High. The name certainly applies to the status of the group, as it was their first without longtime producer Prince Paul and many wondered if their sound would suffer, but it was also their statement on the state of hip-hop at large and its effects on the lives and neighborhoods of the people (hence the reason that the album cover is a photo of a group of children). Common pops up on the super smooth “The Bizness” and Mos Def’s first appearance on a major release comes on “Big Brother Beat,” both of whom fit seamlessly in with the De La sound, and the album remains on message, beginning with the first song, “Supa Emcees,” including the interludes and clips, all the way to the title track, on which Posdnuos, Dove, and Maseo announce that they are sick of where the music and culture was heading. The stakes were high, but De La Soul rose to the challenge. No Prince Paul? No problem.
9. Makaveli [2Pac] — “The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory”
1996 will always be known as the Year of 2Pac. In that time, he released three albums worth of music, unleashed a song that sparked a war, and was gunned down on the Las Vegas strip. Nine months after the release of his magnum opus, All Eyez on Me, and eight weeks after his murder came the album we all refer to as Makaveli. Originally intended to be more of an underground project for the streets, it shows the different sides to ‘Pac as it vacillates between declaring war on the entire industry and penning some of the most penetrating social commentary of his later career. The anger of “Bomb First (My Second Reply)” and “Toss It Up” are balanced by the poignancy of “Blasphemy” and “White Man’z World” while “Me and My Girlfriend” flips the gun-as-woman metaphor and “Against All Odds” remains one of the most underrated diss tracks in history. 2Pac’s death brought an eeriness to this dark, brooding work and made it more epic and memorable than it otherwise would have been.
8. Ghostface Killah — “Ironman”
When the Wu-Tang Clan burst onto the scene in 1993, several members became instant stars, most notably Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, while one individual kept his face hidden, his story more mysterious than the others. In 1995, Ghostface took off the mask and helped to make the Purple Tape a classic and, a year later, returned with his own debut, which remains one of the best albums in the Clan’s catalog. The last Wu solo album RZA produced in its entirety, the beats are soulful and intimate, providing the perfect setting for Ghost’s emotional and honest rhymes that paint an intimate portrait of the most enigmatic Clansman.
7. Mobb Deep — “Hell on Earth”
Only a year after their instant classic, The Infamous, Mobb Deep returned with an album that was somehow both more mature and more violent. A more cinematic album than its predecessor, Hell on Earth found Mobb Deep doing what they do best, only better. Havoc crafted a haunting sound, laying pianos and strings over deep, pounding beats while Prodigy remained one of the best rappers alive with his vivid rhymes — his verse on “Nighttime Vultures” alone deserves to be studied. While they didn’t name names, they were also one of the very few to strike back at 2Pac on the scathing “Drop a Gem on ‘Em.” The Infamous gets most of the attention, but Hell on Earth is not far behind.
6. The Roots — “Illadelph Halflife”
The third time was the charm for The Roots. After polishing their sound and approach over two albums and countless live shows, the band’s third album, Illadelph Halflife, came at the perfect time. Their live instrumentation was a refreshing change from the sample-heavy backdrops that were ubiquitous in hip-hop and Black Thought was the antithesis to the larger than life personas that dominated the genre, a subject that is explored on “Clones,” “What They Do,” and other tracks. But the album is much more than raps about rap. In both music and words, it was clear that The Roots had been beyond their block. The lyrics had a sense of worldliness and spoke on issues bigger than those of their own city or even their own country and the sounds were amalgamations of numerous styles and vibes, both byproducts of the band’s virtually nonstop touring around the globe. After coming home, Questlove, Thought, and the rest took hip-hop to a place it had never before been.
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5. UGK — “Ridin’ Dirty”
UGK is one of the most important and influential hip-hop acts to come from the south and Ridin’ Dirty is their greatest achievement. This is the album on which they both took the leap — Bun B finally realized his full potential as an MC, clearly evidenced by his flawless verse on “Murder,” while Pimp C’s production was superb, remaining sparse yet also fully textured. In fact, that is the entire vibe of the album: it’s the perfect mixture of yin and yang. It’s both street and sweet. Smooth yet edgy. Aggressive while at the same time emotional, with catchy hooks laid on top of hard beats. UGK was influenced by N.W.A, Run-DMC, and the Geto Boys, so Bun and Pimp took the DNA of those groups and merged it with their own style to create something entirely new. Fittingly, they then became the influence for an entire generation of artists. The sound of so many southern albums of the past two decades can be traced back to Ridin’ Dirty.
4. Nas — “It Was Written”
It Was Written was a turning point. It took Nas from the streets to the charts. Two decades later, Illmatic is hailed as a masterpiece, the apex of the genre, subject of retrospectives and documentaries, but that wasn’t always the case. In some ways, it was actually seen as a bit of failure. After Illmatic failed to move major units and was overlooked in favor of Ready to Die and other more mainstream albums, Nas switched gears. While he originally planned to do an album entirely produced by Marley Marl (what would that have sounded like?), he ultimately linked up with Steve Stoute and Trackmasters and began crafting his street tales over more polished production that resonated beyond the five boroughs. The finished product was a hugely successful LP that debuted atop the Billboard 200, has now sold more than four million copies, and introduced the former Nasty Nas to a nation of pop fans with the crossover hits “If I Ruled the World [Imagine That]” and “Street Dreams.” At the same time, it began to alienate his more hardcore devotees that loved the grittiness of his debut. But time as been kind to Nas’s sophomore effort and, with hindsight, the greatness of tracks like “The Message,” “Take It in Blood,” “I Gave You Power,” and the introduction of The Firm on “Affirmative Action” cannot be denied. It may not be Illmatic, but It Was Written has aged gracefully.
3. 2Pac — “All Eyez on Me”
Fresh out of jail and California dreaming. After getting bailed out by Suge Knight and signing to the infamous Death Row Records, 2Pac went immediately to the studio and emerged with a monumental album on which he was, in his own words, “celebrating being alive.” An ambitious, sprawling affair, the first double disc in hip-hop history (touted on the cover as a “2 Compact Disc Pac”), All Eyez on Me is an epic. No longer concerned with speaking truth to power like on 2Pacalypse Now or obsessed with his own mortality as on Me Against the World, ‘Pac walked out of prison and immediately embraced the gangsta life to the fullest extent, and this album is a reflection of that, from the massive singles to the high-profile collaborations to the raw lyrics and emotional intensity on every track. There are several songs that should’ve been left off the final cut and certainly too many guests, particularly on the second disc, but the impact and power of this album was undeniable. That’s why it’s one of the best-selling hip-hop albums in history. 2Pac threw down the gauntlet and made everyone take notice.
2. Outkast — “ATLiens”
Outkast introduced themselves on Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, but it wasn’t until their second go-round that Big Boi and André 3000 let the world see who they really are. ATLiens is a perfect title because it encapsulates themselves and their music — a couple of outsiders that have come from out of the cosmos to Atlanta to relay optimism in the face of despair. They supplied densely packed rhymes within complex flows that contained wise but still lighthearted lyrics over Organized Noize’s lush atmospheric beats. The combination is deadly as Outkast unleashes lyrics that make you think over futuristic space backdrops that make you nod. Whether on the opening “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac),” the laid-back “Elevators (Me & You),” the fast-paced title track, or the mellowed-out introspective “13th Floor/Growing Old,” there is no filler and no soft spots. They slow it down and speed it up, but what they won’t do — can’t do — is slack off. The end result is damn near perfection.
1. Jay-Z — “Reasonable Doubt”
It is difficult to remember today, when everything Jay-Z does is an event, one that is presented with corporate sponsors and business partnerships, but there was a time when he couldn’t even get a record deal. Undeterred, he and two partners formed their own label, Roc-A-Fella Records, and released his debut album themselves. Presented as an autobiography of a thoughtful veteran of the street recounting his triumphs while still battling his demons, Reasonable Doubt is an album that has gotten better with age. Upon first listen it may appear to be just another set of songs callously glamorizing the criminal lifestyle, but it is much more complex than that, presented through incredible wordplay, coded language, and fresh concepts, but with an undercurrent of weariness that is present throughout. Jay is dripping with arrogance, always calm and cool, effortlessly telling his story. Though while he is boasting of his riches and is aspirational for much more, he recognizes that it is also an unfulfilled existence that leaves one full of guilt and laments. In short, he condemns the life he lives at the same time he is glorifying it — the triumphant “Feelin’ It” offset by the melancholy “Regrets.” While this may seem hypocritical, it’s actually incredibly honest, particularly if you believe that he had no other choice. While unarguably street, it was more polished, more elegant than Illmatic or Ready to Die or Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… It was much more Godfather than Scarface, in spite of the album’s opening. It is an epic journey through the underworld. As Jay himself said, “Come experience life as we know it; as some of you should know it.”