10 best hip hop albums of the 1990s
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10 best hip hop albums of the 1990s

Picking out the most outstanding records of any decade is a job destined to find you some enemies. Chances are, unless the ten years in question can be found in the dark ages, there will be hundreds more albums that could, theoretically, find a home in your mawkish top ten list. However, we’re pretty confident that this selection of albums will leave little up for debate.

Below, we’ve picked out the greatest albums of the 1990s. It is a solid reminder of a decade that arguably established hip hop in the mainstream and provided a foundational stone for rappers, producers, and artists. It was, there can be no doubt, the most critical decade in hip hop history.

Creating such a succinct list of albums that define a decade is a difficult thing to do. naturally, there are countless albums that have been left off our list. So, in a holistic doff of the cap to the vibrancy of the musical output, here’s a ream of albums that just feel short of the mark.

There is also no room on the list for Tupac Shakur’s catalogue of albums or anything from Puffy Daddy, Big Pun and a whole plethora of prominent hip hop pioneers. It may annoy some fans, but it is also guaranteed that the LPs we did pick are bonafide classics.

Below, find our ten favourite hip hop albums of the 1990s.

10 best hip hop albums of the 1990s:

The Chronic – Dr Dre (1992)

The West Coast rapper began his career as a member of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru in 1985, but it wasn’t until he founded N.W.A. that he would eventually find fame. The group were pioneers and totally unique to the contemporaries that had achieved high levels of mainstream success before them. They painted a picture of what life was like in Compton on the streets, and, following the group’s split in 1991, Dre would be credited as a pioneer once again. He popularised the famous West Coast sound that would go on to dominate the rest of the decade.

Dre released his debut solo studio album, The Chronic, in 1992, through Death Row Records, and the record immediately saw him break out as a star in his own right. Following the triumphant debut, Dre landed a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance for his single, ‘Let Me Ride’. However, if there was one song to demonstrate everything you needed to know about the rap scene at the turn of the 1990s, then just point them to ‘Nuthin But A “G” Thang’ with Snoop Dogg, which featured on Dre’s first solo LP.

Doggystyle – Snoop Dogg (1993)

Snoop Dogg is an originator of the G-Funk sound that dominated airwaves throughout the 1990s and beyond, and his place in the development of hip-hop can’t be underplayed. Snoop Dogg is about the only man able to make a jingle for fast food delivery service JustEat a bonafide anthem that plays up to his character’s playful side and still maintains his credibility.

Aside from all the cartoonish elements to his image, Snoop is one of the most influential figures in hip hop history. Much of that influence can be traced back to the rapper’s impressive debut alongside Dr Dre Doggystyle. There are no prizes for guessing that the record is also the best-selling album in his discography, topping 11 million albums sold worldwide, with nearly 7 million in the U.S. alone.

Arguably one of the greatest albums of the 1990s, Doggystyle helped to define the gangster rap culture and put Snoop Dogg out as an archetypal anti-hero. Smooth and chokingly vibrant, it was from the very beginning that Snoop became a legend.

The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (1991)

1991 was a melting pot of music. Artists across the globe were taking the freedom of the 1960s and filtering it through a modern lens. Over in New York, A Tribe Called Quest also released their second album, The Low End Theory. A departure from the band’s debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, it is widely lauded as a milestone in alternative hip-hop. Minimalist to the core, it utilised bass, drum breaks and jazz samples in a way that was so revolutionary.

Modern rap, particularly the jazz-inflected type that is huge at the minute, via the likes of Little Simz, To Pimp a Butterfly-era Kendrick, and even latter stage Tyler, the Creator, owes a lot to The Low End Theory. It’s a record that sees Q-Tip et al deliver a record for the ages. One that despite being put down over the years is always picked back up.

The Slim Shady LP – Eminem (1999)

The second studio album from the new king of shock rap, Eminem delivered a record that few can contend with. Built out of his instant connection with Dr Dre as his producer, and buoyed by his iconic single ‘My Name Is’, this is the album that gave Eminem the world at his feet. On reflection, it is easy to pick holes in the style and perhaps finger it as a little corny. However, it’s hard to comprehend just how seismic the record was when it landed to herald a new century.

A merging of horrorcore, G-funk and other west coast styles, the Detroit-born rapper shot to stardom with this burning collection of tracks. As well as ‘My Name Is’ the album also introduced Eminem’s powerful and warped humour as one of his most potent weapons. Love him or loathe him, it’s hard to deny Eminem’s talent.

Illmatic – Nas (1994)

“When this album dropped I had to be nine, so I give myself a pass for missing out on this at first,” acclaimed artist J. Cole said of the landmark record, Illmatic from New York native, Nas. “It wasn’t until my cousin forced me to listen to ‘I Gave You Power’ off of It Was Written that I realised Nas was one of the greatest, and I had some homework to do! Illmatic is one of those albums that demonstrates the highest level of lyricism possible.” The album is rightly considered a pivotal moment in hip hop and lyricism at large.

Nas displays not only the keen penmanship that would define his own illustrious career but set the benchmark for how hip-hop should evolve. While certain factions concentrated on being a gangster on the streets, Nas was proving he was the king of hip hop.

Illmatic is the definition of excellence and its powerful precision resonates even more clearly among the Soundcloud mumble rap of the moment. There are levels to this game and Nas is one of the final bosses.

Ready to Die – The Notorious B.I.G. (1994)

Christopher Wallace – AKA The Notorious BIG – is widely regarded as the greatest rapper who has ever lived. An expert at determining flow and delivering killer punchlines, BIG always operated on an upper echelon that few could match. His debut album Ready to Die was a proclamation of the future.

Wallace had spent much of his life “waking up every morning, hustling, cutting school, looking out for my moms, the police, stickup kids; just risking my life every day on the street selling drugs,” something he confirmed to Rolling Stone. Throughout the record, he showcases that life and provides every proof of why it will soon be a matter of history to him as hip hop legend status awaited him. His classic vocals are accurately mixed with dry humour, searing wit and the kind of flow that makes rivers blush.

Reasonable Doubt – Jay-Z (1996)

The old adage is that when an artist releases a debut album it should be considered their life’s work. Everything prior to that first record that the artists experienced is encapsulated in its black plastic grooves. For Jay-Z, it’s one of the most visceral, slick and effortless pieces of art one could hope to stumble upon.

Flourished with Jay’s undoubted charisma, he exudes a sense of calm and collected menace that other rappers have never matched. He also did all of this while providing some of the most searing rhymes ever seen, effortlessly merging syllables, curating vivid imagery and, all in all, delivering one hell of an album. Jay was just getting started but he already had a vision of his future as a hip hop hero.

All Eyez On Me – Tupac Shakur

Rightly seen as his magnum opus, All Eyez On Me is quite possibly the greatest hip-hop album of all time, bar none. The number of records sold probably attest to that on its own but the fact that the LP is nearly flawless, tells you all you need to know about Pac.

Pac was at the peak of his fame when it was released and the record sold over 10 million units in the US alone. That was largely supported by a variety of songs that all hit like a sledgehammer. As well as ‘California Love’ and ‘Only God Can Judge Me’ there were songs like ‘Heartz of Men’ and ‘Ambitions Az A Ridah’—all of which showed of Pac’s still-growing talent.

Though many have pointed to All Eyez On Me being a little too long (at 27 songs, they may have a point) the fact remains that this is Pac’s definitive album. It is the record that in 100 years people will study and pay attention to. If they were to do that, they would find Tupac as the uncompromising, talented, compassionate and creative poet he truly was.

Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan (1993)

It’s nearly impossible to single out a breakout star on Wu-Tang Clan’s seminal debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Whether it was the gonzo in-your-face expressionism of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the wickedly clever turns of phrase from GZA, or the bombastic and gut-busting verses from Raekwon, all of the members got their chances to shine on 36 Chambers.

But one member returned, time and again, to subtly dominate the album. That would be Method Man, the gruff voice MC who could be Wu-Tang’s hook singer, clown prince, or gritty realist whenever the time called for it. While other members had their specialities, Method Man appeared to excel at everything: violent street poetry, over-the-top comedic means of torture, nostalgic flashbacks, and heartfelt odes were all within his arsenal. The album not only showcased Meth as one of the fiercest MCs around, but also that Wu-Tang would become a cultural influence that few could have predicted.

2001 – Dr Dre (1999)

Despite the title, Dre’s iconic record, 2001 was actually released in 1999 and set the course of hip hop for the new millennium. 2001 is and should be still regarded as one of the greatest albums in hip hop history.

Snoop Dogg, now a mammoth star in his own right, returns to help out his old friend and features on four of the tracks. Snoop appears on two of the best songs on the album in ‘Still Dre’ and ‘The Next Episode’, so his impact is far from diminished. However, the critical introduction of a new white rapper named Eminem sealed the deal and brought hip hop into the mainstream once more.

Eminem had released his own record The Slim Shady LP with a ton of help from Dre and was ready to deliver his iconic hook and searing verse on ‘Forgot About Dre’ to capitalise further on this burgeoning fruitful relationship. In fact, Dre used many of the stars he’d help to coronate over the year. As well as Snoop and Em, rappers Nate Dogg and Xzibit also found spots on the album, proving that Dre was quite possibly hip hop’s ultimate kingmaker.

It all comes together to be considered one of the true greats of the genre. Though in 1999, not many people would have argued that 2001 could ever trump The Chronic with time, it has become clear that it should rightly be regarded as the greatest album Dr Dre has ever made.