7 Best Rap Albums of All Time
Rap changed the world.
The revolutionary genre got its start in the late 70s, when The Sugarhill Gang released the now-iconic “Rapper’s Delight.” Since then, the art form has evolved considerably, becoming one of the centerpieces of popular music and the soundtrack to cultural revolution. Like rock before it, early rap gave a voice to the restlessness and tension of its time.
Rap Through the Decades
Initially, rap was born when the MCs at parties in the 70s began rhythmically talking over beats. The technique for creating the early backing beats for rap involved the use of sampling – pulling isolated sounds from songs and playing them in a loop. Early hip-hop’s beats were as innovative and game-changing as the flow and lyricism of the rappers themselves.
Rap was controversial from the beginning, with rappers pushing the envelope by offering biting social commentary, especially on life for black Americans. Black artists in America have always faced many cultural and societal obstacles, but the dawn of hip-hop was another victory for black art. Like jazz and blues before it, rap showed America the beauty of black culture and served as a reminder that black art was here to stay.
In the 80s and 90s, what is now known as old-school hip-hop began to take the world by storm with its unique production elements that were nothing like anything heard prior. The overall feel of early hip-hop was buoyant, belligerent and raucous. It had the same spirit as rock but turned the tables in popular music on what was a white-dominated market at the time.
By the time the millennium turned, rap was cemented in popular music. Subgenres began to form, and the production elements of rap became mainstays in other genres. Producers began spearheading the pioneering of new sounds in the pop world, many of which were directly inspired by rap and hip-hop.
As time has passed, many of the albums from the early decades of rap and hip-hop have remained the standout efforts in the genre. This list counts down our picks for the seven best rap albums of all time. These picks span the decades of rap’s existence and were chosen for their influence on the genre and their lasting cultural impact.
7. Outkast: Stankonia (2000)
A classic from the turn of the millennium, Stankonia is the key album from Atlanta rap group Outkast’s impressive discography. The golden boys of Southern hip-hop, Outkast went triple platinum with their fourth album. With numerous hit singles and a distinct sound, Stankonia cemented itself in rap history immediately after its release.
6. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
“I done been through a whole lot, trial, tribulation but I know God – the devil wanna put me in a bowtie, pray that the holy water don’t go dry.”
A wordsmith who set the ground alight in the early 2010s and shows no signs of stopping, Kendrick Lamar put out his best work to date with 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Recruiting a full-fledged live band instead of using the traditional combination of samples and loops, Kendrick’s magnum opus highlights the beauty and struggle of the black American life. Drawing sonic inspiration from jazz, another black-founded genre, the album has a frenetic, challenging and utterly fresh sound.
On a few of the album’s defining tracks, Kendrick speaks of the battle between self-love and self-loathing with eloquence and vulnerability. Displaying a level of rawness and relatability that few rappers venture into, Kendrick’s lyrics are sure to resonate with anyone from any background. Like any great poetry, universal truth is hidden under the beautifully crafted lines.
5. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
“Reality is catching up with me, taking my inner child, I’m fighting for custody.”
A volatile and controversial creative genius, Kanye has left a legacy as one of rap’s great provocateurs. In 2010, he gathered a team of producers and artists to construct one of the biggest and most innovative rap albums of all time, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
With incredible features from Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z, John Legend, Pusha T, and even Bon Iver, the album’s thirteen tracks are undoubtedly some of Kanye’s best to date. The work of some of the game’s best producers makes every song stand out.
Power, one of the most memorable tracks from an altogether unforgettable record, offers a look into the troubled psyche of the real Kanye. The song gives the listener a sense of the inner battle between Kanye’s two sides: self-absorbed creative genius and idealist burdened by the curse of fame.
4. Wu-Tang Clan: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
“Cash rules everything around me.”
The legendary rap group featuring RZA and Ghostface Killah pushed East coast hip-hop forward with their lauded 1993 release. The forerunners for a style later emulated by rap heroes like Nas, the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan set the standard for what East coast rap could sound like.
One of the defining aspects of this album that makes it great is the production. Wu-Tang Clan member RZA was largely responsible for the unique sound of the record, lending not only bars but beats to the album. The nine-member hip-hop group had to record together in a tight space because of the limited budget of the production, but RZA made the most of it. Getting extremely creative and innovative with the resources available, RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan spit fire over a combination of distinctive samples from soul music and martial arts movies.
This album’s influence can be seen in the rap of the decades that followed. Enter The Wu-Tang put a heavy emphasis on unique and hard-hitting samples, raising the bar for what a beat could be. In addition, with Wu-Tang Clan being a nine-member group, an album as well-executed as this featuring all of them is an incredibly impressive feat.
3. Nas: Illmatic (1994)
“I’m taking rappers to a new plateau, through rap slow. My rhymin' is a vitamin held without a capsule."
Like the Wu-Tang Clan before him, Nas carried the fire of East coast hip-hop with a one-of-a-kind intensity and rawness. Spending over 20 consecutive weeks on the charts and earning a coveted spot in the hearts of fans and critics everywhere, Nas’s Illmatic was the rapper’s debut album – he released it at just 20 years old.
Never afraid to push the limit with his lyrics, Nas brought a refreshing level of challenge to his music. Illmatic touches on themes of gang violence, drug use, and the struggles of inner-city life. These realities are confronted by the young rapper with his signature poise and eloquence. This fiery debut started Nas’s career off with a bang.
2. Dr. Dre: The Chronic (1992)
A pioneer of the West coast hip-hop sound, former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre delivers with his 1992 classic album The Chronic. With his first solo effort, Dre introduced the world to a revolutionary new style of hip-hop – G-Funk. Driven by synthesizers, heavy bass and funk-inspired samples, Dre’s beats set the standard for what West coast hip-hop would be for years to come.
Dre was a rap pioneer from the beginning, and he went on to mentor and shape the careers of several notable figures in the game. His protégé include Eminem and Snoop Dogg, two of rap’s most instantly recognizable names. Dr. Dre was an influential figure in rap from the start, a creative genius who pushed the envelope sonically and conceptually.
1. The Notorious B.I.G.: Ready to Die (1994)
An instantly recognizable name in pop culture, The Notorious B.I.G., the rapper whose real name was Christopher Wallace, was a legend. Before his untimely death, Biggie released only one album, Ready to Die, and it’s a true masterpiece of the genre. The album eventually went quadruple platinum.
With notably simple but hard-hitting lyrics, Biggie cemented himself in rap history by being completely and unabashedly himself. His one completed album paints a picture of his life, not shying away from harsh and brutal realism. The album earns its place at the top of this list due to its widespread critical acclaim, cultural and historical impact, and the truly irreplaceable persona of The Notorious B.I.G. himself. The album’s title ended up frighteningly foreshadowing the rapper’s eventual fate – Biggie was tragically murdered only three years after Ready to Die was released.
Ultimately, rap as a genre has and always will challenge listeners with its dense production, complex and poetic lyricism, and trademark intensity. The artists whose work found spots on this list represent only small fractions of the plethora of sounds and styles that fall under the umbrella of the genre. There is a staggering abundance of excellent rap and hip-hop from the last few decades, with many rappers taking the genre in innovative and experimental directions. The few artists ranked above are only a handful of rap’s greats, but their impact on the genre is still felt long after their albums dropped. Sometimes, it’s about the legacy you leave just as much as the quality of your work.