The debut album is perhaps the purest form of music we can hold dear. So often that first record lands as musical vomit, a churned mix of every idea, tune or melody the artist or band have ever consumed, left splattering across the floor with its release. More often than not, it is the crystalline moment we are introduced to our favourite hip hop artists.
While some artists only grow from this point, others can still look back at that mercurial chunder as their crowning achievement — the moment they made their mark on music. Below, we’re celebrating those moments and sharing with you the five greatest debut albums in hip hop history.
Rapper Little Simz pretty much summed up the need for albums in a culture that champions cut and paste playlist so highly, when she said: “The whole point of an album is to understand the artist and enjoy the music – it’s supposed to make you want to go to a concert to see them in the flesh and get the album on vinyl and be a part of everything.” That last comment is something that stuck with us.
The role of the album has changed but the role of the debut album remains relatively the same. Now, albums are more closely akin to mixtapes, a combination of songs that the artist has made over a set amount of time and put into one release, all with the knowledge that it will never likely be consumed from start to finish with any regularity. However, debut albums are still regarded as the first introduction not just to the band’s music but to everything they stand for.
It’s an introduction to their artistic style, to their visual nous, their conceptual acumen and the myriad of influences that led them to this point. A debut album is still just as vital as it once was.
5 best debut albums in hip hop:
College Dropout – Kanye West (2004)
Kanye West is now a name so fervently attached to the idea of celebrity that we tend to forget that he is an acclaimed producer first and foremost. The musician and rapper may have been quietly working away before the release of College Dropout, but he was quickly thrust into the spotlight when it landed.
Tunes like ‘Through The Wire’, which explored Kanye’s traumatic car accident which saw him have to wire his mouth shut, with no indicator that he could ever rap again. It was an emotional moment that signified a change in rap music. It wasn’t all about bravado but about expression.
When you add to that Ye’s unstoppable ear for a tune and his selective soul samples, you have a genre-defying classic.
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.
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.
Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A. (1988)
In 1988, eleven years on from the incendiary explosion of punk rock, N.W.A, a group of rappers and producers led by Easy-E and including Dr Dre, Ice Cube and MC Ren, produced the most vitriolic response to an album in living memory. With Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. not only put gangsta rap on the map, but they created a record that would transcend genre and define an entire generation of kids.
“Do I look like a motherf**king role model?” asks Easy-E on ‘Gangsta Gangsta’, clearly amused by the duality of not only being bonafide, gun-toting gangbanger but now, it would seem, a pop star. Throughout the record, these assertions are meditated on and returned with full force and straightforward “f*ck you!” while others, including the themes of race, police brutality and making it in a system designed to keep you down, are given their first mainstream airing.
It’s easy to get caught up in the language, the attitude and the persistent antagonism of N.W.A. and, after all, that’s a pretty large chunk of why they grabbed so much acclaim. But to ignore their socio-political message and their slick schemes and expert production would be to do the group a sincere disservice. Instead, this album should be listened to with care, concentration and as loud as it can go.
Illmatic – Nas (1994)
The perfect rap album? You’d be hard-pressed to find a record, rap or otherwise, more purposeful, potent and poignant than this epic.
”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. “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.”
Coming from Cole, that’s some praise. It’s founded in truth too. 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.