Top 5: The five best hip hop albums of the 1990s
(Credit: Mikamote)


Top 5: The five best hip hop albums of the 1990s

Picking out the five greatest 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, that there will be hundreds more albums that could, theoretically, find a home in your mawkish top five list. However, we’re pretty confident that this selection of albums will leave little up for debate.

Below, we’ve picked out the five greatest albums of the 1990s and it is a solid reminder of a decade that arguably established hip hop in the mainstream and provides a foundational stone for rappers, producers and artists to this day.

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. Of course, Dr Dre’s debut solo album The Chronic could have been a part of this list, as could have Snoop Dogg’s debut record.

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 a guarantee that the LPs we did pick are bonafide classics.

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

Five best albums of the 1990s:

The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest

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.

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.

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.