[Jazz Rap/Jazz Hip Hop: A style of Hip Hop born out of the booming Hardcore Hip Hop scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, jazz-rap has a noticeably different feel, instead usually opting for a laid-back, mellow sound. Containing rhythms very familiar to other forms of Hip Hop, samples, and extra production details are almost exclusively culled from various forms of Jazz, such as Jazz-Funk, Hard Bop, and Soul Jazz, using trumpets, saxophones, looped piano, and double bass, etc. Early jazz-rap groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr initially balanced jazz with traditional Hip Hop evenly, but in just a few years artists such as Digable Planets and Guru (through his Jazzmatazz series) would introduce live jazz instrumentation as a focus. This live ‘feel’ would become an important trait of the music, sometimes showcasing improvised vocals or instrumental solos.
Lyrically, most MCs latched onto the idea of jazz as “cool” (Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) being a prime example) and pushed Hip Hop closer to street poetry, heavily engaging in slang and laid back attitudes that would best express this coolness. These lyrics generally downplay if not completely ignore materialistic themes, opting for Afrocentric and racially positive messages focusing on the past successes and failures of blacks (and to a lesser extent all people) and the ways that communities might succeed going forward.]
Like we did with our 100 Essential Experimental Hip Hop Albums list, we’ve cast a wide net to come to this list with 100 Essential Jazz Rap Albums. Some of the albums listed in this piece merely incorporate some jazz influences in their instrumentation, others are pure jazz Hip Hop hybrids – but all 100 are clearly influenced by Jazz music to some extent.
Let’s get into it – in this piece, you will find 100 jazz-rap albums we consider to be essential works for the subgenre, not ranked but presented in release year order. What do YOU think? Are your favorite jazz-rap albums here? Do you think any essential records are missing? Share your thoughts in the comments!
A Tribe Called Quest - Peoples Instinctive Travels On The Paths Of Rhythm (1990)
The third part of the Native Tongues triple classic album introduction to the world (the first two being the Jungle Brothers‘ Straight Out The Jungle and De La Soul‘s 3 Feet High And Rising) – People’s Instinctive Travels On The Paths Of Rhythm introduced us to A Tribe Called Quest. People’s… is a musical masterpiece. An innovative fusion of hard beats and jazzy samples, combined with fun, clever and positive lyrics – mainly from Q-Tip (Phife was still finding his voice here and his lyrical skills would improve significantly on Tribe’s follow-up The Low End Theory).
Brand Nubian - One For All (1990)
Original, both lyrically and musically. Sadat X, Lord Jamar, and Grand Puba’s lyrics are alternately thought-provoking and fun; and sonically the album is dope as well with strong jazz vibes throughout. Brand Nubian‘s One for All is a must-have.
Organized Konfusion - Organized Konfusion (1991)
With this album, Prince Po and Pharoahe Monch redefined lyricism. This album has it all: consciousness, politically juiced tracks, party anthems, story-telling – there are socio-political songs such as “Prisoners of War”, “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” (with a truly brilliant Pharoahe Monch verse), and “Open Your Eyes”, street commentaries like on “Rough Side of Town” and “Roosevelt Franklin”, some straight fun tracks like “Who Stole My Last Piece of Chicken?”, and displays of pure lyrical dexterity, such as “Walk Into The Sun”, “Organized Konfusion”, and “Audience Pleasers” – Prince Poetry and Pharoahe Monch pull off a perfect display of clever lyricism and dope wordplay while keeping things varied and captivating throughout. Organized Konfusion is a cult classic that is a must-have not just for Pharoahe Monch fans, but for anyone who likes clever, layered Hip Hop.
A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory (1991)
The Low End Theory is the definitive statement about what creativity, innovation, artistry, fun, and raw talent can produce. Building on the quality work of their debut, Tribe perfected the fusion of jazzy influences and bass-heavy Hip Hop beats. The album is so coherent and consistent, it almost feels like one long song – in this case, a good thing. Phife, who only played a small part on the first album, really increased his skills as an emcee and establishes a perfect interplay with the always exceptional Q-Tip. Clever lyrics and smooth and warm music – this album is nothing short of perfect.
Gang Starr - Step In The Arena (1991)
On their second album, Gang Starr found their sound. Guru‘s supremely recognizable monotone voice and DJ Premier‘s signature style of DJing and producing really come together here. This is a long album but there are no filler tracks, you can listen to the whole album without having to skip a song. The start of a near-flawless 4-album-run.
Dream Warriors - And Now The Legacy Begins (1991)
“My Definition Of A Boombastic Jazz Style”, “Wash Your Face In My Sink”, “Do Not Feed The Alligators” – just a few of the classic cuts on And Now The Legacy Begins, Canadian duo Dream Warriors’ debut album. This album was ahead of its time, perhaps one of the reasons it never really received the recognition it deserved. Make no mistake though: this is a GREAT album, one that sounds as fresh today as it did the day it was released.
Main Source - Breaking Atoms (1991)
Large Professor, one of Hip Hop’s most respected producers, exploded on the scene with this classic album – showing his extraordinary talents on the mic and especially on the boards – with lots of jazz samples worked into the instrumentals, just take a close listen to “Looking At The Front Door”, for which Large Professor turned a brief sample of jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” into one of the smoothest bass lines ever. Breaking Atoms is an important and hugely influential album and a testament to the brilliance of Large Pro.
Gang Starr - Daily Operation (1992)
Another Gang Starr album, another classic. Deep lyrics and deep beats – a testament to Guru‘s hypnotizing and intelligent emceeing and DJ Premier‘s superiority on the boards. If Step In The Arena was their breakthrough album, Daily Operation is the one that firmly secured Gang Starr’s place among Hip Hop’s elite.
After discovering their signature sound on Step In The Arena, Premier and Guru perfected it here, dropping another gem that can be played from beginning to end without having to skip any tracks. “Take It Personal”, “Soliloquy Of Chaos” and “Ex Girl To Next Girl” alone are enough to ensure the classic status of this album, but knowing the rest of the tracklist is completely up to par, makes Daily Operation a flawless part of Gang Starr’s impressive catalog – arguably the most ‘jazzy’ Gang Starr album.
Miles Davis - Doo-Bop (1992)
It’s true: this album is not the classic it could and should have been. Unfortunately, Miles Davis passed away before the album was completed, so we can never know what the end result would have been if he’d be around to finish it. Miles wanted to capture the sound of the early 1990s urban streets, but Easy Mo Bee’s beats and rhymes are not great, they turned out to be too bland to do justice to Miles’ exuberant trumpet solos. But even if this album is not as good as it could have been, it IS an essential early jazz-rap project anyway, leaving it off a list like this one would be just wrong.
Pete Rock & CL Smooth - Mecca And The Soul Brother (1992)
A timeless musical masterpiece, tasteful and irresistible. After the excellent All Souled Out EP they dropped the year previous, Pete Rock & CL Smooth followed up with this brilliant album. Pete Rock’s multi-layered, horns-filled, bass-heavy boom-bap production is simply masterful. CL Smooth delivery serves as another instrument to complete the musical feast this album is from start to finish. Incredibly consistent throughout, Mecca And The Soul Brother is one of Hip Hop’s all-time greatest albums.
The Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)
With gangsta rap becoming the dominant thing on the West Coast in the early 90s, these guys were a breath of fresh air. Highly original, humorous, fun, and not afraid to show their vulnerable sides – The Pharcyde was never concerned with gangster posing and tough-guy-posturing but were more like a West Coast version of ATCQ or De La Soul – coming with jazz-flavored positive vibes.
Guru - Jazzmatazz (1993)
Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 is Guru’s debut solo studio album, after three albums with DJ Premier as Gang Starr. Jazzmatazz is one of the first albums to combine a live jazz band with Hip Hop production and emceeing.
According to Guru himself:
“Jazz’s mellow tracks, along with the hard rap beat, go hand-in-glove with my voice.”
Or as he says on the intro of the album:
“Peace yo, and welcome to Jazzmatazz: an experimental fusion of Hip Hop and live jazz. I’m your host the Guru. That stands for gifted, unlimited, rhymes, universal. Now I’ve always thought of doing something like this, but I didn’t want to do it unless it was going to be done right, know what I’m saying? Cause Hip Hop, rap music, is real. It’s musical, cultural expression based on reality. And at the same time, jazz is real and based on reality. So I want to let you know that it was indeed and of course and pleasure to work on such a project with so many amazing people. For instance I got Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith, Branford Marsalis, Ronny Jordan, N’Dea Davenport, Courtney Pine and MC Solaar all in the house. Plus I got Gary Barnacle, Carleen Anderson, D. C. Lee, Simon Law and Zachary Breaux doing much work. So without further delay, I say to you, listen and enjoy.
And an enjoyable listening experience it is. “Loungin”, “No Time to Play”, “Slicker Than Most” and the exceptional “Le Bien, Le Mal” (with Frenchman MC Solaar rapping in his own language) are standouts, but the whole albums flows beautifully – just like Jazzmatazz Vol 2, which would be released in 1995. Great work by one of Hip Hop’s great voices.
De La Soul - Buhloone Mind State (1993)
De La Soul‘s third album, De La Soul’s third classic. Few groups in Hip Hop, if any, can boast both the longevity and consistency De La Soul has shown over the years. Buhloone Mind State is the most generally underappreciated album of De La Soul’s first four. The reason for that probably is that it has less commercial appeal than the others. Artistically it is every bit as strong, though, cohesive and consistent throughout – an artistic peak for both De La Soul and producer Prince Paul. De La Soul’s first four albums are all classics, this one is definitely up there with the best of them – with strong jazz influences felt by contributions from Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Pee Wee Ellis, and by samples from Eddie Harris, Lou Donaldson, Duke Pearson, and Milt Jackson.
Freestyle Fellowship - Innercity Griots (1993)
The follow-up to their dope but somewhat rough around the edges debut To Whom It May Concern. With this sophomore effort, Freestyle Fellowship really deliver the goods. The jazzy production provides the atypical backdrop for a West Coast album but perfectly complements the jazz inflections in the vocals with their unusual time signatures and scat-influences. Consciousness, humor, cleverness, versatility: emcees Mikah 9, P.E.A.C.E., Self Jupiter, and Aceyalone bring it all with their wordplay. This highly original album is a masterpiece.
Digable Planets - Reachin' (1993)
The definition of jazzy Hip Hop. Digable Planets’ debut album deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and The Roots albums of that era. All about positivity and empowerment, Digable Planets sadly flew a bit under the radar in a time when gun-toting gangsta posers started to get more and more of the spotlight. Reachin’ was and is a flawless listen from start to finish though, an album that has definitely stood the test of time and is now rightfully viewed as a Golden Age classic.
Souls Of Mischief - 93 'Til Infinity (1993)
Together with Hieroglyphics‘ 1998 group album 3rd Eye Vision, this album is the crown jewel in Hieroglyphics’ catalog. Souls Of Mischief – part of the Hieroglyphics collective – succeeded in dropping an album that sounds as fresh today as it did when it came out back in 19993. Amazing rapid-fire wordplay by Opio, Phesto, A-Plus, and Tajai, who flow together really well with intelligent, funny, and clever lyrics, and tasteful jazz-flavored beats – 93 ‘Til Infinity is a timeless classic.
Queen Latifah - Black Reign (1993)
Although her debut album may have been more important as a trailblazer for female emcees, this dark and jazzy album is Queen Latifah‘s best record. Latifah’s charismatic and powerful personality really comes through on this album, as well as real and heartfelt emotion in some of the songs (partly due to personal tragedy prior to the recording of Black Reign). Most famous for the Grammy-winning anti-misogynist song U.N.I.T.Y., Black Reign has much more to offer – like “Winki’s Theme”, a song for her late brother with instrumentation from a live jazz quartet.
A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders (1993)
Faced with the impossible task of following up on the flawless masterpiece that is The Low End Theory, Tribe delivered an album composed of rich, organic. jazzy instrumentation and nimble tag-team wordplay that is every bit as awesome as its predecessor. There can be no greater praise. As fresh today as it was on the day it was released: the mark of a true classic.
Us3 - Hand On The Torch (1993)
Hand On The Torch is the debut album by British jazz-rap group Us3. It received much attention because of its mix of jazz and rap, using live jazz musicians. All samples used on the album are from old Blue Note classics: the most famous being Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”, used on the track “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”, which was recorded with two different music videos.
Greg Osby - 3-D Lifestyles (1993)
Greg Osby is a post-bob jazz saxophonist who plays mainly in the free jazz, free funk, and M-Base medium. His Blue Note album 3-D Lifestyles was produced by A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and is one of the most organic jazz-rap hybrids ever released.
Organized Konfusion - Stress: The Extinction Agenda (1994)
Following their eponymous debut LP, Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po had a lot to live up to. They admirably succeeded in creating an album with similarities to the first album, while doing something completely different at the same time. Prince Po and Pharoahe Monch come with unparalleled lyricism on this dark, dense, complicated, and intellectual album. This album was way ahead of its time in vision and execution. Some albums from this era sound dated now but Stress: The Extinction Agenda sounds as fresh today as it did on the day it was released – the mark of a true classic.
In terms of wordplay, flow, delivery, AND content – this is the gold standard. Pharoahe Monch is and has always been the better rapper of the two, but Prince Po is perfectly able to hold his own – which is incredible enough. Both emcees manage to step up their already considerable game from their debut, they come with phenomenal rhymes and complex flows – bar for bar lyrical Hip Hop doesn’t get much better than this. Whether they are storytelling, philosophizing, joking, bragging, being conscious, or simply throwing out battle raps – their lyrical performances are top-tier in every aspect – there is NOTHING cliche or run-of-the-mill about the lyricism on Stress: The Extinction Agenda. Some of the tightest and most inventive rhymes you’ll ever hear are on this album, with the conceptual gem “Stray Bullet” being a particular lyrical highlight.
The mostly self-produced beats on Stress: The Extinction Agenda are dope as f too – dark and menacing, but jazzy at the same time: musically this album comes off as a hybrid of the sounds of A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan – combining the best of both worlds.
Stress: The Extinction Agenda is one of the most underrated albums released in the 1990s – this truly is a one-of-a-kind kind of album. If you’ve ever wondered why many consider Pharoahe Monch a GOAT emcee – study this album and you will know. Stress: The Extinction Agenda is an all-around brilliant album that should not be overlooked.
Justice System - Rooftop Soundcheck (1994)
Justice System was an indie acid-jazz band from New York City, their debut album Rooftop Soundcheck offered a soulful blend of jazz and Hip Hop – with live jazz-flavored instrumentation and solid lyricism.
Common - Ressurection (1994)
Clever and conscious wordplay over excellent jazz-flavored production – on his second album Common matured into what he would eventually become: one of Hip Hop’s most revered emcees and personalities. In one of Hip Hop’s major years, this album measures up to any of the other 1994 releases with ease.
Clever Jeff - Jazz Hop Soul (1994)
Jazz Hop Soul from Oakland artist Clever Jeff is one of the best jazz Hip Hop fusion albums almost nobody ever heard. Hard to find, but worth the effort of the search – this really is a jazz-rap essential.
Pete Rock & CL Smooth - The Main Ingredient (1994)
Lacking a monster hit-single like “T.R.O.Y.” from their classic full-length debut album Mecca And The Soul Brother, The Main Ingredient is often overlooked when it comes to considering Hip Hop’s best albums. That is wrong because this one is just about as flawless as its predecessor is. True enough: CL Smooth isn’t the greatest emcee or lyricist ever, but these albums are all about Pete Rock’s production, which is as good as ever on this top-notch feel-good album.
Dred Scott - Breakin' Combs (1994)
Wrong time, wrong coast? If this outstanding album had dropped in NYC a few years earlier, it probably would have been bigger back then and universally recognized as a classic right now. As it is, Breakin’ Combs is a slept-on and forgotten album. Entirely self-produced, Dred Scott delivers smooth, jazzy beats reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest. Nothing wrong with his lyrics and emcee skills either. Why this album is so underappreciated is a mystery, but it deserves its props.
Digable Planets - Blowout Comb (1994)
Digable Planets’ second album in two years and unfortunately the group’s last. Musically reminiscent of The Roots, this smart and seductive album is one of 1994 most creative and interesting releases. A timeless jazz-flavored album, that sounds as fresh today as it did back in 1994.
Aceyalone - All Balls Don't Bounce (1995)
Aceyalone had already made a name for himself as the lead emcee of the Freestyle Fellowship crew before the release of this solo debut. Even though from Los Angeles, Aceyalone is all about lyricism and not about gangster posturing. Like all of his albums, All Balls Don’t Bounce is supremely underrated, except by the real Hip Hop connoisseur. Aceyalone is a master of different styles, but consistent are his dope flow, intelligent lyrics, and supreme creativity. If you slept on Aceyalone, now’s the time to catch up.
Guru - Jazzmatazz, Vol. 2: The New Reality (1995)
Not as strong as the first Jazzmatazz, but plenty strong anyway and kind of underappreciated.
The Roots - Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995)
The Roots’ second album showed their true promise. Their independently released debut Organix (1993) was enjoyable enough but still a little rough around the edges, Do You Want More?!!!??! turned out to be as smooth and assured as the rest of their catalog would be. Do You Want More?!!!??! signified the start of an incredibly consistent catalog – and of all their albums it’s the one most devoted to jazz, as evidenced by classic cuts like “Mellow My Man”.
Count Bass-D - Pre-Life Crisis (1995)
Count Bass-D is an underrated producer and musician who dropped a great number of worthwhile progressive albums in his long career. His recording debut Pre-Life Crisis is a fun, feel-good album, where Count uses real instruments and holds his own – rapping and singing – on the mic too. Slept on and forgotten, this experimental album definitely is worth checking out.
The Roots - Illadelph Halflife (1996)
The Roots’ best album? It is hard to pick a favorite in a discography of such outstanding overall quality, but on Illadelph Halflife everything works. This is a LONG album, but there are few, if any, wasted moments. This is jazzy Hip Hop at its finest, with live instrumentation and exceptional lyricism – true brilliance from Philly’s legendary Roots crew, with input from jazz musicians such as David Murray, Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Graham Haynes.
Poor Righteous Teachers - The New World Order (1996)
The New World Order is Poor Righteous Teachers’ fourth and last album. As always, PRT comes with provocative and thought-provoking lyrics – touching on sociopolitical subjects, the stupidity of gangsta rap, and much more. Guests like KRS-One and X-Clan’s Brother J and others add extra flavor. Standout tracks include “Conscious Style”, “Word Iz Life”, “Gods, Earths, & 85ers”, “Miss Ghetto”, and “They Turned Gangsta”.
Bahamadia - Kollage (1996)
Philadelphia‘s Bahamadia is one of the most underrated emcees in the Hip Hop game. She has a smooth and hypnotizing style of rapping, and lyrics worth listening to. In an era where Lil Kim-like ‘explicitness’ was the marketable thing, Bahamadia’s intelligent strength and female empowerment just wasn’t as easy to ‘sell’. That’s a shame because the jazzy Kollage is an excellent album.
Camp Lo - Uptown Saturday Night (1997)
Camp Lo‘s Sonny Cheba and Geechi Suede come off as a sort of hybrid of OutKast, The Pharcyde, and De La Soul. Their insanely smooth flows and outstanding creativity and originality make for an atypical late nineties NYC Hip Hop album. Even though it contained the smash hit “Luchini (This Is It)”, Uptown Saturday Night never really got the recognition it deserved, certainly not at the time of its release. It has aged really well though and is deservedly recognized now by many as the masterpiece it is.
Funky DL - Classic Was The Day (1997)
Classic Was Day is the slept-on debut album of British producer/emcee Funky DL. He would go on to drop a long series of jazz-flavored projects following this one, Classic Was The Day signified an excellent start to a distinguished career – this album offers over an hour of top-tier jazzy boom-bap composed of tight beats and loops, creative sampling, and fun wordplay. Classic Was Day is a great album, and if you have slept on it up to now you are in for a nice discovery.
Hieroglyphics - 3rd Eye Vision (1998)
This supergroup – consisting of Del (The Funkee Homosapien), Pep Love, A-Plus, Tajai, Opio & Phesto (from Souls Of Mischief), Casual, Domino, Jay-Biz, Toure & Extra Prolific – brings together so much talent that the product of their cooperation has to be epic, right? Right! This album is pure Hip Hop, boasting jazz samples from George Duke, the Skull Snaps, Herbie Hancock, Johnny Hammond, and others.
MF DOOM - Operation: Doomsday (1999)
After a long hiatus following his brother’s death and the end of KMD, Zev Lov X reinvented himself and came back on the Hip Hop scene as MF DOOM. He would go on to release a myriad of excellent projects – solo and collaborative – but Operation: Doomsday is one of his absolute best projects, with many of the songs incorporating jazz samples of saxophone riffs, flute melodies, and vintage synths on top of DOOM’s dusty break beats.
Polyrhythm Addicts - Rhyme Related (1999)
This is an undervalued project from a forgotten NYC crew, consisting of emcees Shabaam Sahdeeq, Mr. Complex, Apani B. Fly, and producer DJ Spinna, one of the most underrated producers in the game. Dope rhymes and dope beats, with a Tribe Called Quest vibe to the whole sound. Short, but sweet.
The Roots - Things Fall Apart (1999)
Things Fall Apart is one of the Roots’ absolute best albums. Eminently musical and lyrically deep, this classic is only getting better as time goes by. The Roots’ implementations of jazz are different from other jazz-rap pioneers such as A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets because of Questlove’s slick live percussion, but jazz vibes can be felt throughout anyway. Things Fall Apart is a landmark album.
Quasimoto - The Unseen (2000)
Experimental and left-field, this album from Madlib’s alter ego Quasimoto is sure to satisfy the taste buds of those who are into layered, metaphorically, and musically complex compositions. Mindblowingly creative, filled with jazzy loop and breaks, short songs, interludes, and Lord Quas’ off-the-wall high-pitched rhyme style, The Unseen feels more like a musical tapestry than a conventionally structured album. The Unseen probably is a hate-it-or-love-it kind of affair, but there is no denying Madlib’s particular brand of genius.
Common - Like Water For Chocolate (2000)
In an overall excellent discography, Like Water For Chocolate certainly is up there as one of Common’s best, together with Resurrection, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, Black America Again, and the monumental Be – Common’s very best. Like Water For Chocolate is just about as good as Be is though, and it is one of those rare albums that musically transcends the genre of Hip Hop but at the same time is pure Hip Hop to the core. With jazzy and soulful production work from the likes of Questlove, J Dilla, and DJ Premier, and with Common in top form on the mic – this truly is a masterpiece that is aging like a fine wine.
Guru - Jazzmatazz, Vol. 3: Streetsoul (2000)
Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 3: Streetsoul is less jazz-flavored than the first and second Jazzmatazz records, but just as funky and soulful as it is jazzy. Still, the intended jazz ‘spirit’ is all over this album, and Guru is in top form on the mic. Appearances by artists like Angie Stone, Bilal, Craig David, Donell Jones, Erykah Badu, Herbie Hancock, Isaac Hayes, and The Roots provide the icing on the cake.
Typical Cats - Typical Cats (2001)
Jazzy coffeeshop boom-bap by Chicago underground crew Typical Cats. Rough around the edges, but supremely enjoyable nevertheless.
Substantial - To This Union A Sun Was Born (2001)
Substantial dropped one of 2001’s best albums with To This Union A Sun Was Born. Shame that almost no one ever heard it, though. A large part of the reason for that is probably that the album was released exclusively in Japan back then. Almost completely produced by Nujabes before he really started making a name for himself, To This Union A Sun Was Born especially shines because of the instrumentals provided by the late Japanese genius. With the melodic, jazzy compositions he would become famous for, he gave Substantial a bunch of dope beats to work with. Standout track: “Be People”, also because of the dope cuts by DJ Kiyo.
Boho Fau & Elevated Soul – Coffee House Swinger (2001)
Boho Fau & Elevated Soul is a duo from Los Angeles, Coffee House Swinger is their first studio album. The album cover tells you exactly what to expect: smokey, laidback coffeehouse jazz-rap without pretensions.
J. Rawls - The Essence Of J. Rawls (2001)
Lone Catalyst member J. Rawls’ The Essence Of J. Rawls is his first solo album, a fine example of downtempo jazz-rap done right. For The Essence Of J. Rawls, he recruited an impressive roster of emcees to do justice to his beats – J-Live (on the excellent “Great Live Caper”), Apani B. Fly and Mr. Complex on “Far Away” and Grap Luva on “Check The Clock” especially shine. Other standout tracks include “Birds Of A Feather” (with Top Emcees), “Meniscus” (with Doseone & Fat Jon), and “Nommo” (with Asheru).
Nujabes - Metaphorical Music (2003)
The late Nujabes was a producer of Japanese descent, who took his artist name from his real name – Jun Seba – by spelling it backward and conjoining the first and the last name. Nujabes was a pioneer of the lo-fi jazz hop genre, and Metaphorical Music is one of his masterpieces. Nujabes gives off a J Dilla vibe in a way with this album (J Dilla, another brilliant producer who died way too young, and who coincidentally was born on the same day as Nujabes was) – there’s a lot of similarities in the way Dilla and Nujabes chopped their samples and constructed their instrumentals.
Metaphorical Music basically is an instrumental album, but there are a bunch of songs with vocals to provide some variation – this album is put together just right: a masterful fusion of soulful Hip Hop and smooth jazz.
Madlib - Shades Of Blue (2003)
Madlib dropped A LOT of quality instrumental projects. His Mind Fusion and Beat Konducta series are overall excellent, but the true jewel in the crown of his instrumental solo releases has to Shades Of Blue.
Shades of Blue has Madlib remixing music from the archives of Blue Note Records, the famed jazz label. The result is a tasteful masterpiece of an album. Everything works, down to the stunning cover art and jacket, which is brimming with Madlib’s homage to Blue Note and the era. This beautiful reinterpretation of the classic 60’s and 70’s Blue note era leads to a Hip Hop-jazz fusion that deserves a place in any music lover’s collection. Solid gold.
Haiku D'Etat - Coup De Theatre (2004)
Coup de Theatre is the second studio album Haiku D’Etat – a trio featuring West Coast underground icons Aceyalone and Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship and Abstract Rude of Abstract Tribe Unique. All three members are heavily affiliated with Project Blowed, Aceyalone, and Abstract Rude being co-founders. The name “Haiku D’Etat” is a portmanteau of haiku and coup d’état, meaning something akin to a musical revolution or a “poetic takeover” as one of their songs puts it.
Haiku D’Etat released their first album Haiku D’Etat in 1999, an excellent album that went criminally unnoticed. The soulful and jazzy Coup de Theatre is even better – more focused and more cohesive – but just as slept on.
Foreign Exchange – Connected (2004)
This really is a unique album. Foreign Exchange is a collaboration between Dutch producer Nicolay and Little Brother’s Phonte – who met on the online forums of Okayplayer. The two never physically met until after the album was done. Nicolay created the beats in Europe, Phonte rapped over them in the USA. The result is an incredibly organic sounding blend of Hip Hop, R&B, soul, jazz, and other styles – a smooth genre-bending musical experience and a worthy addition to anybody’s music collection.
Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
This album is ART, pure and simple. Madvilliany redefined the underground and is a perfect example of what can happen if two left-field geniuses combine powers. The late MF DOOM and Madlib have both produced many pieces of brilliant music, but this epic album is the crowning achievement of both their careers. The album of the 2000s decade and a top 10 Hip Hop album of all time.
Pete Philly & Perquisite - Mindstate (2005)
Mindstate is the debut album by Dutch duo Pete Philly & Perquisite. Mindstate offers a beautiful blend of live instruments and intricate wordplay, of which Talib Kweli (who is featured on “Hope”) said they were “musically light-years ahead of the game”. Lots of musical influences, jazz is one of them.
Zion I – True & Livin’ (2005)
True & Livin is the third album from Oakland’s duo Zion I, the first album on their own label LiveUp Records. Zion and Amp Live expand their creative and experimental sounds on the album, featuring a wide range of musical styles, laced with intelligent, socially conscious lyrics. Amp Live’s head-nodding beats are laced with jazzy and elegant musical backdrops, and Zion’s thoughtful and expressive lyrics complement the soundscapes beautifully. Guests like Talib Kweli, Aesop Rock, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and Gift of Gab only add to the quality of the album.
The singles “Soo Tall”, the Talib Kweli featuring “Temperature” and especially the excellent “Bird’s Eye View” are immediate standouts, and cuts like the abstract “Poems 4 Post Modern Decay” (with Aesop Rock), “The Bay”, “Stranger In My Home” (with Gift Of Gab) and the jazzy “Doin’ My Thang” also bang – but there are no weak tracks on this album. True & Livin’ flew way under the radar in 2005 – if you missed it somehow it definitely deserves your attention.
Common – Be (2005)
Common’s second, third and fourth album – Ressurection (1994), One Day It’ll All Make Sense (1997) and Like Water For Chocolate (2000) were all classics in their own right, but many thought Common was over and done with after he released the bizarrely experimental Electric Circus in 2002. Disenchantment with Hip Hop at that time lead Common to drop that strange (though not necessarily bad) album, many doubted if Common would ever be able to come back from that. However, what happened was Common got up with Kanye West and J-Dilla to deliver the album of his career.
On Be Common found his fire and his love for the game again. Stellar tracks like “Testify”, “The Food”, “The Corner”, and “Go” are classic Common – in fact, the whole album is tight and consistent as can be. Common would go on to drop a whole bunch of other excellent albums but Be will forever be his magnum opus.
Jazz Addixx – Oxygen (2005)
Jazz Addixxx’s Oxygen is a top 10 album of 2005. Rhymes, beats, scratches – everything is on point. The Jazz Addixx duo gives us a perfect blend of Jazz and Hip Hop with this smooth album. Oxygen feels like a trip back to Hip Hop’s Golden Age that will keep your head nodding with nostalgia. Smooth and thought-provoking lyrics by Jazz Addixx’s emcee M.U.D.D, stylish cuts by DJ Ragz and dope jazzy musical backdrops – this album is pure gold. If you have never dug this deep and never peeped this album you are in for a treat – add this one to your library and it will become a favorite quickly.
Nujabes - Modal Soul (2005)
Nujabes masterpiece? The late Japanese producer surely crafted a pretty unique listen with Modal Soul – something of a fusion of classical music, jazz, and Hip Hop. Entertaining and soothing, Modal Soul offers a good mix of instrumental tracks and songs with vocals from Cise Starr (of CYNE), Akin, Terry Callier, Shing02, Substantial, Pase Rock, Apani B, and Uyama Hiroto. Modal Soul is Nujabes’ second full-length album, and it was the final studio album released during his lifetime; his third album, Spiritual State, was released two years after his death.
Surreal & The Sound Providers – True Indeed (2006)
True Indeed is an excellent presentation of upbeat Hip Hop, by Florida-based rapper Surreal and production duo The Sound Providers (Soulo and J Skills). Jazzy instrumentals, scratched-in hooks, smooth flows, and positive vibes – True Indeed offers 90s-centric boom-bap at its finest, this is just good music all around.
Face Candy - This Is Where We Were (2006)
Face Candy is the brainchild of Eyedea & Abilities frontman, Eyedea. Face Candy is an improvisation-based quartet melding free-jazz and freestyle rap into an unchartered amalgamation of the two, with roots in jazz, rap, comedy, and theater. The lineup includes J.T. bates, Casey O’Brien, Kristoff Krane, and Eyedea. This Is Where We Were is not for everybody – the live improv performances that make up the tracks on this album are inevitably unpolished and not everything tried really works, but overall this is an impressive display of musicality in its purest form, that intrigues and energizes from start to finish.
Guru - Jazzmatazz, Vol. 4: The Hip Hop Jazz Messenger: Back To The Future (2007)
Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 4: The Hip Hop Jazz Messenger: Back to the Future is the sixth solo studio album by Gang Starr’s Guru, the fourth and final installment in his Jazzmatazz series. Production was handled entirely by Solar, who also served as executive producer together with Guru. It features guest appearances from Blackalicious, Bobby Valentino, Bob James, Caron Wheeler, Common, Damian Marley, David Sanborn, Dionne Farris, Kem, Nick “Brownman” Ali, Omar, Raheem DeVaughn, Ronnie Laws, Shelley Harland, Slum Village, and Vivian Green.
Jazzmatazz 4 is one of the most underappreciated albums in Guru’s whole catalog, and one of the most slept-on album releases in 2007, across all genres. The instrumentation is subtle but strong, and Guru is at the top of his lyrical game. Jazzmatazz 4 is just as good – arguably even better – as the iconic first Jazzmatazz is.
Funky DL - The 4th Quarter (2007)
Funky DL’s best album? We think so. The 4th Quarter is his 9th studio album, a variation of four different styles of Hip Hop split into quarters, each containing 3 tracks – with the styles being Soul, New Age, Jazz, and Authentic. While the album is divided into four quarters which all have their signature sound, Funky DL’s love for jazz can be felt on every song on this album.
Kero One - Windmills Of The Soul (2007)
Windmills Of The Soul is the debut album of Korean-American Bay Area-based artist Kero One. Lots of flavorful jazzy cuts on this album, with standouts including “Give Thanks”, “In All The Wrong Places”, “The Cycle Repeats”, “Musical Journey”, “Fly Fly Away”, and “Check The Blueprints” the jazz hop classic that put Kero One on the map.
Blu & Exile – Below The Heavens (2007)
Record sales don’t make an album a classic. A classic album is timeless, one that will still sound good decades from the date of its release. A classic album can be played again and again, without having to skip tracks. Blu & Exile’s Below The Heavens is such an album. Consistent quality throughout – Blu’s relatable and down-to-earth lyrics mix perfectly with Exile’s soulful and jazz sampled production. The album was well-received by real Hip Hop heads and critically acclaimed, but it never got the sales or mainstream attention it deserved. This is one of the best albums released in 2007.
Dela – Changes Of Atmosphere (2008)
French producer Dela recruited a host of dope emcees (J-Live, Elzhi, Talib Kweli, J. Sands, Blu – among others) to create this excellent 90s-centric jazzy Hip Hop album.
Q-Tip – The Renaissance (2008)
There was a lot riding on this album, released 9 years after Q-Tip’s last (solo)album Amplified – which wasn’t all that well-received. While not a bad album at all, Amplified was considered too ‘lightweight’ and insubstantial for someone with Q-Tip’s stature. The Rennaissance obliterated all doubters and Q-Tip critics. The album is consistent as hell, with 13 tracks with no filler material. “Gettin Up”, “We Fight/We Love”, “Official” and “Believe” are highlights, but there really are no weak tracks here. With The Rennaissance, Q-Tip succeeds perfectly in blending the ATCQ jazz vibe we all love with his own distinct style.
Jazz Liberatorz - Clin D'oei (2008)
Jazz Liberatorz is a trio of producers from France, consisting of DJ Damage, Dusty, and Madhi. For Clin D’oei they enlisted the services of vocalists like J-Live, Sadat X, Buckshot, J. Sands, Apani B. Fly, Asheru, and former Pharcyde members Tre Hardson & Fat Lip – among others. Clin D’oei is a tasteful tribute to the golden age of Hip Hop, as well as to post-bop and 70s jazz & soul. If you like your Hip Hop infused with a heavy dose of jazz, then this album needs to be a part of your collection. Clin D’oei = essential jazz-rap.
Superstar Quamallah – Invisible Man (2009)
Brooklyn-born, California-based emcee, DJ, and producer Superstar Quamallah’s Invisible Man is one of the most slept-on albums released in 2009. Superstar Quamallah’s deep and soothing voice complements the summertime vibes projected by the smooth beats and the sharp nostalgia-inducing samples and vocal scratches. “We Got Plots”, “88 Soul” and especially the single “California Dreamin’” are highlights, but the strength of Invisible Man is its consistency – this is 50 minutes of laidback, jazzy boom-bap Hip Hop reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest, and in some parts of Gang Starr even. Invisible Man is a memorable album with nothing but dope beats and dope bars – do yourself a favor and check this album if you’ve slept on it up to now.
Jazz Liberatorz - Fruit Of The Past (2009)
Jazz Liberatorz second full-length studio album Clin D’oei (2008) is an essential jazz-rap album, the French trio’s third album Fruit Of The Past is not quite as good, but it is still plenty good. Downtempo and groovy jazz-hop – Jazz Liberatorz know what they’re doing.
ArtOfficial - Fist Fights And Foot Races (2010)
ArtOfficial is a band from Miami whose music on Fist Fights And Foot Races can best be described as a fusion of Hip Hop, jazz, and funk – with live instrumentation, reminiscent of early The Roots. Fist Fights And Foot Races is an underrated project.
Funky DL - A Classic Example Of A... (2010)
British (but American-accented) producer/emcee Funky DL’s vast catalog is one of mixed quality, this 11th studio album is one of our favorites from him since his 1997 debut Classic Was The Day. A Classic Example Of A... is a solid presentation of skilled rhymes and soulful, jazzy boom-bap instrumentals.
Bop Alloy – Substantial & Marcus D Are Bop Alloy (2010)
This is one of the more underappreciated Hip Hop albums released in 2010. With Substantial & Marcus D Are Bop Alloy Substantial for the first time in ten years equals the level of quality he reached with his debut LP To This Union A Sun Was Born (2001), thanks to the input of Seattle-based producer Marcus D – who manages to recapture the simmering jazz-flavored vibes crafted by the late Japanese producer Nujabes on Substantial’s debut.
Rebels To The Grain – Harvest Season (2011)
Rebels To The Grain is a Los Angeles-based duo consisting of Cheddy & MP, and Harvest Season is their second full-length album. It flew under most people’s radars in 2011, but its jazz-flavored boom-bap beats are enjoyable from start to finish – this album deserves more attention than it got.
Akua Naru - The Journey Aflame (2011)
The Journey Aflame is the title of New Haven, CT native, Akua Naru’s debut album. One can describe the album’s musical spectrum covering a range from soul tradition-conscious rhymes to classic head-nod Hip Hop mixed with elements of Blues, Jazz, and West-African sounds. With a collection of 14 diverse songs and 3 interludes, Naru’s first official release shows her true craft as a lyricist and self-described ‘Poet of Passion’.
Those who slept on this gem should go and check it out now and come back here later to thank us for pointing you in the right direction.
Superstar Quamallah & DeQawn – Talkin’ All That Jazz (2011)
Superstar Quamallah and DeQawn’s Talkin’ All That Jazz is an exquisite presentation of smooth jazzy boom-bap, one of the most slept-on albums released in 2011.
Marcus D - Melancholy Hopeful (2012)
Producer Marcus D takes another page out of the Nujabes playbook and comes with another solid jazz-rap project, in the vein of his 2010 collabo Substantial & Marcus D Are Bop Alloy with Substantial – with instrumentals that are even more laidback and dreamy. Renowned jazz-rap vocalists like Funky DL, Awon, Cise Star, Substantial (among others) provide entertaining rhymes, but Melancholy Hopeful is all about its jazzy instrumentation. The album could have done without one or two of the R&B flavored tracks, but on a 72-minute tracklist a couple of missteps can be forgiven – overall this is totally satisfying listen.
Robert Glasper - Experiment Black Radio (2012)
This is a landmark album. The connection with Hip Hop is thinner than it is with most of the other albums on this list, but it is there – enough to include Experiment Black Radio. Experiment Black Radio got a Grammy-nod as best R&B album, but it is a much Hip Hop or jazz or soul as it is R&B. The album really can’t be pigeonholed, because of its eclectic mix of musical styles it is something like an urban music buffet: with a flourish of Hip Hop, some jazz touches, lots of (neo)soul and R&B grooves, and even bits of Latin, afro-beat, funk, rock, and techno thrown in the mix.
Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) and Lupe Fiasco are the only rap vocalists on Experiment Black Radio, their presence along with the drums on some songs providing enough of a Hip Hop feel to give us an excuse to include this masterful piece of music here.
Boog Brown – The Late Bloom (2013)
Boog Brown is a Detroit native who has made her mark in the Atlanta underground Hip Hop scene. She hasn’t adopted that typical Southern Hip Hop sound though – Boog Brown brings soulful boom-bap fused with jazzy vibes on The Late Bloom. It’s a shame really that so much trashy pop-rap out of Atlanta dominated the mainstream in 2013 while a gem like The Late Bloom hardly got any attention at all. Never too late to get into it though.
Awon & Phoniks - Return To The Golden Era (2013)
Awon & Phoniks’ Return To The Golden Era is pure gold. Dope beats, scratches, lyricism, storytelling – all you could want in a mature Hip Hop album is present here. Portland, Maine producer Phoniks hooking up with Brooklyn-born Virginia-resident Awon has brought the world a bunch of great Hip Hop – their collaborative debut album Return To The Golden Era arguably is the epitome of their chemistry. This album will satisfy the cravings of all those who dig smooth and jazzy boom-bap Hip Hop. No skippable tracks on this album, but a special mention goes out to “Forever Ill”, which features Awon’s wife Tiff The Gift – one of the best and most slept-on female emcees of this decade.
Soweto Kinch - The Legend Of Mike Smith (2013)
The Legend Of Mike Smith is Birmingham, UK-based saxophonist/rapper Soweto Kinch’s masterpiece. During a sprawling two-and-a-half-hour, The Legend Of Mike Smith plays as a jazz-rap opera based on Dante’s inferno and the theology of sin – portraying a day in the life of an upcoming emcee and tells how the record industry is trying to profit from him. Furthermore, the album recounts the narrator’s struggles with various topics such as his dreams of violence and war, society’s love-hate relationship with consumerism, and police harassment and other aspects of everyday life – all of it across the 41 tracks this sweepingly ambitious album contains.
The experimental The Legend Of Mike Smith is complicated and not easily accessible – this album demands serious commitment. If you allow yourself to be immersed in it, the experience will likely be rewarding though.
Epidemic – Somethin’ For Tha Listeners (2013)
Epidemic’s 2013 release Somethin’ For Tha Listeners brings to light yet another dimension of the duo’s creative abilities. With soundscapes profoundly reminiscent of one of the 1990s, the two emcees move away from their traditionally abstract and complex concepts, into more concrete, down-to-earth, and real-world themes. Keeping their trademark multi-syllabic, rapid-fire style of rap, this time around they chose jazz-flavored beats with fairly slower tempos to ensure that their messages were clearly understood.
All tracks on Somethin’ For Tha Listeners were mindfully crafted by a virtually unknown yet highly talented west coast beatsmith who goes by the name of Esco. Bringing to the table an authentic golden era sound, as well as adding a touch of west coast flavor, he provides a perfect musical backdrop for Epidemic to drop some of their slickest, most heartfelt, and witty rhymes to date.
Damani Nkosi - Thoughtful King (2014)
Damani Nkosi has worked with well-known artists including Dr. Dre, Swizz Beatz, Snoop Dogg, Pusha T, and Malice of Clipse. Nkosi was born in Inglewood, California. His father chose an African name for him. “Damani” means “Thoughtful” and “Nkosi” means “chief, ruler, or king”. He became part of Los Angeles’ Hip Hop underground, recording his first track in 1999.
Thoughtful King is an aptly chosen title for this album – not only because it is a literal translation of his name, but also because of the deep lyrics Damani spits. Production is flawless, Hip Hop to its core but with (neo)soul sensibilities as well and giving off vibes of a classic jazz album at the same time – even the album cover is reminiscent of a vintage jazz vinyl. Guests such as Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Badd Lucc, BJ The Chicago Kid, Thurz, Ill Camille, Rick Rude, and PJ Morton help make Thoughtful King a well-rounded musical gem.
Anti-Lilly & Phoniks – Stories From The Brass Section (2014)
Phenomenal production and relatable rhymes – this first Phoniks and Anti-Lilly album was the first in a series of excellent projects. Phoniks has a couple of instrumental albums (Down To Earth (2018 ) and Time Goes By (2020)) that could have been included on this list as well – he is one of our favorite producers of jazzy boom-bap without a doubt.
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
What can be said about this monument of an album that hasn’t been said a million times already? This album is special, in a once-in-a-generation kind of way. To Pimp A Butterfly is like this generation’s version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971), or Public Enemy‘s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988).
With good kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick Lamar (2012) had already released a near-flawless project, but this follow-up turned out to be even bigger and better. To Pimp a Butterfly is a grandiose achievement: both a soul-bearing confessional and a compelling state of the nation address – this album’s cultural significance can not be overstated. There’s nothing easy or straightforward about the instrumentals either: TPAB features a potent blend of live instrumentation, neo-soul, stripped-down jazz fusion, occasional funk, and Hip Hop to give the album a vast historical musical appeal – it’s an amalgamation of 70 years of Black music. Kendrick Lamar’s narrative thread and the vast cast of guests appearing on the album only underline its expansive scope and ambitions.
This is not an easy, straightforward listen, but it is an important one. To Pimp A Butterfly is a timeless genre-blending masterpiece that will forever reside in the highest echelons of the Hip Hop pantheon.
Ghostface Killah & BADBADNOTGOOD – Sour Soul (2015)
Sour Soul is a collaborative album from Toronto jazz-hop band BadBadNotGood and Wu-Tang Clan icon Ghostface Killah. Inspired by 1960s and 70s music – taking inspiration from the recording techniques and production of that era, and eschewing sampling in favor of live instrumentation, BBNG with producer Frank Dukes have created a dramatic, cinematic musical staging for Ghostface’s vivid storytelling. Sour Soul features guest spots from MF DOOM, Elzhi, Danny Brown, and Tree (from Project Mayhem).
At 33 minutes, this project is barely over EP-length and that’s the most important knock against it but as it is, it’s a great project anyway – just another example that out-of-the-box collaborations often result in surprisingly strong projects. Make no mistake, Sour Soul is one of the most underappreciated projects in Ghostface Killah’s celebrated discography.
Carnelian - Kill The Vultures (2015)
Kill The Vultures is a Minneapolis-based duo made up of Crescent Moon and producer Anatomy, known for fusing elements of free jazz abstractions and stark, bleak, and at times blunt imagery. Their music is always edgy and experimental, and Carnelian arguably represents the epitome of their innovativeness, with its ominous use of saxophones, trumpets, flutes, violins, cellos, guitars, double basses, and percussion. This is avant-garde jazz hop at its finest.
Awon & Phoniks - Knowledge Of Self (2015)
Two years after the brilliant Return To The Golden Era (2013), Awon & Phoniks’ return with Knowledge Of Self. Just like its predecessor, this album is a near-flawless presentation of authentic Hip Hop – with close to an hour of dope beats, scratches, lyricism, and storytelling. Knowledge Of Self: soulful and jazzy boom-bap at its finest.
Jazz Spastiks & Rebels To The Grain - Unkut Fresh (2015)
Jazz Spastiks is a crew of producers and DJs from the UK, for Unkut Fresh they teamed up with Los Angeles duo Rebels To The Grain (MP & Cheddy). It’s like Jazz Spastiks took what they learned from icons like Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Showbiz, and Q-Tip, and threw their styles in the Jazz Spastiks cooking pot to come up with the instrumentals for this album. This is very much a producer’s album, but there’s solid enough lyricism from MP and Cheddy to go with the great Jazz Spastiks beats too – Unkut Fresh is a must-have for fans of 90s-centric jazzy boom-bap.
Jeremiah Jae & L'Orange - The Night Took Us in Like Family (2015)
The Night Took Us In Like Family is the first project North Carolinian L’Orange did together with Chicago emcee Jeremiah Jae. Jeremiah Jae admirably succeeds in synergizing with the challenging instrumentals – proving at once theirs is a seamless pairing. L’Orange is one of the most interesting producers active in the Hip Hop game of the 2010s – responsible for a bunch of excellent projects – the cinematic concept album The Night Took Us In Like Family is just one of them.
Add-2 - Prey For The Poor (2015)
Prey For The Poor is Chicago emcee Add-2’s debut solo LP since signing to 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records. It’s his official debut album after a string of excellent mixtapes – an album that went sadly unnoticed upon its release in 2015. Make no mistake though – this is one of the best Hip Hop releases of 2015. Add-2 is a spectacular lyricist, who combines supreme technical skill as an emcee with the ability to write intelligent, socially conscious lyrics. The jazzy beats are produced by the likes of Nottz, AMP, 9th Wonder, and mainly Khrysis, and the album’s guest features include A-listers like Rapsody, Jamila Woods, Sam Trump, and Raheem DeVaughn. Add-2 touches on a myriad of important societal issues in a thought-provoking manner, this is an important album more people should have picked up on. Don’t sleep on Add-2.
A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)
Energized by a one-off performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on November 13, 2015, the ATCQ group members decided to record a new album in secrecy – their first since 1998’s The Love Movement. Despite Phife’s untimely death, the album was completed, with Phife’s recorded bars flawlessly integrated into what turned out to be a near-perfect final album.
The album features all four of the group’s members (Jarobi makes a comeback and even spits some bars) plus a host of guests — André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Elton John, Jack White, Anderson .Paak, Talib Kweli, and Consequence and Busta Rhymes, two longtime Tribe collaborators.
The result is a phenomenal album with that classic Tribe vibe but set firmly in this era at the same time. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service certainly is one of the highlights of 2016 and a more than worthy addition to Tribe’s monumental catalog.
Anti-Lilly & Phoniks - It's Nice Outside (2017)
Polished, jazzy boom-bap Hip Hop of the highest order from Houston emcee Anti-Lilly and Portland, Maine producer Phoniks. A typical top-quality album from the unsung Don’t Sleep Records label.
Mick Jenkins - Pieces Of A Man (2018)
Pieces Of A Man is Chicago emcee Mick Jenkins’ sophomore album, and a step up from his interesting but flawed debut The Healing Component (2016). Pieces Of A Man prominently pays homage to legendary spoken-word performer and jazz-poet Gil Scott-Heron‘s 1971 debut studio album, Pieces Of A Man. The album surprises with its bold jazzy atmosphere, loungy vibes, throwback aesthetics, and strong songwriting. This album – along with the fantastic The Water[s] (2015) mixtape – is Mick Jenkins’ best work to date, holding much promise for more greatness in the future.
Saba - Care For Me (2018)
After having made a big enough impression with two mixtapes and his excellent debut project Bucket List Project in 2016, 23-year-old Chicago rapper Saba dropped a modern classic with his sophomore album Care For Me. In February 2017, Saba’s cousin and fellow Pivot Gang member, Walter E. “John Walt” Long was stabbed to death in Chicago. In an interview, Saba spoke about the mental process and how writing the songs on the album were therapeutic saying:
“Care For Me is the first time I delve into talking about depression and anxiety, and then all of these factors as to why I am the way I am. A lot of it had to do with losing my best friend and older cousin, [John] Walt, which is throughout the album. I think why Care For Me is so important is because it talks about mental health in a lot of ways that are simple but I just haven’t heard it done in Hip Hop music that way.”
Care For Me is a subtle and intimate concept album dedicated to the memory of his cousin. The emotion involved can be felt throughout the 10 tracks on Care For Me, and this is one of those albums where the instrumentals and the lyrics complement each other perfectly, the minimalist but tasteful jazz-flavored soundscapes Saba cooked up himself serving only to enhance the poignant emotions reflected in his lyrics.
Besides his obvious musical talent, Saba’s biggest strength on Care For Me is his ability to vividly tell his stories, all the while being completely open and honest, which really helps to make feel listeners right there with him. In that regard, Care For Me is very comparable to Kendrick Lamar’s monumental good kid, m.A.A.d city – and Care For Me deserves to mentioned in the same breath, it’s that good.
Noname - Room 25 (2018)
Room 25 is the official debut studio album by Chicago poet and rapper Noname, dropping two years after her excellent mixtape Telefone and five years after making a name for herself with a standout feature on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. Room 25 is a self-released project chronicling the two years since the release of Telefone, most notably Noname’s move from Chicago to Los Angeles and an intense, short-lived romantic relationship. The album’s title is in reference to Noname’s lifestyle while in Los Angeles, living out of different hotel rooms, and that she was 25 years old at the time.
Noname expertly mixes jazzy neo-soul vibes with her conversational rap style on Room 25. The result is a mellow-sounding journey – overseen by fellow Chicagoan and multi-instrumentalist producer Phoelix – where Noname guides the listener through her light and dark thoughts, being consistently compelling all the while.
August Greene - August Greene (2018)
Smooth, laid-back, and irresistible – Common and company come with top-tier jazz Hip Hop with this dope as f August Greene project.
Avantdale Bowling Club – Avantdale Bowling Club (2018)
Avantdale Bowling Club is a jazz-rap project headed by Auckland, New Zealand-based artist Tom Scott. This is one of those albums that seems to exist in a bubble, it’s highly acclaimed by people in the know but those people are far too few. Maybe this album was slept on by wider audiences because Avantdale Bowling Club is from New Zealand?
Anyway, Avantdale Bowling Club’s eponymous LP is audacious and boundary-pushing, an album that transcends the genre of Hip Hop – this is not ‘just’ jazz-rap, but more like jazz with rap. Build on live instrumentation from a full-on jazz modal band with saxes, flutes, trumpets, strings, upright bass, and drums, and with Scott’s killer lyrics, Avantdale Bowling Club is one of the most captivating albums released in 2018. The album is perfectly sequenced, opening with the impeccably structured “Years Gone By”, a seven-minute crescendo of jazz instrumentation over which Scott recalls his entire life year by year, to the instrumental closer “Tea Break” – every song is its own story, from a different side of Tom Scott’s life, with subject matter including damaged and lost relationships, mental health issues, substance abuse, poverty, and fatherhood – this album is personal and engrossing from start to finish.
Avantdale Bowling Club is an effortless fusion of neo-jazz and Hip Hop, a must-have for people with an appreciation for music from acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Guru, Freestyle Fellowship/Aceyalone, The Pharcyde, The Roots, and even Kendrick Lamar – there are a lot of TPAB ‘Kendrickisms’ here. Too many people slept on this album – if you are one of them it’s never too late to go check out Avantdale Bowling Club, you can come back here later to thank us for pointing you in the right direction.
Awon - Soulapowa (2019)
Awon’s Soulapowa will not be for everyone, but for those listeners who dig extremely smooth, soulful, and jazzy boom-bap this album is gold. Brooklyn-born Virginia-resident Awon teamed up with long-time collaborator Phoniks to craft this timeless-feeling album. Timeless because Soulapowa would have been right at home in the early 90s alongside A Tribe Called Quest or Digable Planets and timeless because this album will still sound fresh and timely 20 years from now. Soulapowa brings nothing new or revolutionary to the table, but it is a really well-executed album, filled with tasteful instrumentation and thoughtful lyrics. An album to kick back and relax to.
Anti-Lilly & Phoniks - That's The World (2019)
This is probably one of the most undeservedly slept-on Hip Hop projects released in 2019. That’s The World offers a dose of mature jazzy Hip Hop at its finest. Read the blurb from Anti-Lilly & Phoniks’ Bandcamp page to know what to expect:
“That’s The World from Houston emcee Anti-Lilly and Portland, Maine producer Phoniks is the third installment of their Hip Hop trilogy which featured 2014’s “Stories From The Brass Section” and 2017’s “It’s Nice Outside”. After going from exchanging beats over email in 2014 to now touring the world together the chemistry between the two has never been more evident than on their latest release.
Once again Anti-Lilly is laying his therapy sessions on record, speaking on his substance abuse, trust issues, relationships and coping with his parents’ divorce. But despite the negativity he touches on, the young Houston poet embraces the duality of life—taking the good with the bad and trying to find a ray of light in dark times. His outer pressures help craft the jewels he lays over Phoniks jazzy production as he showcases his mature, honest perspective across the albums 12 tracks.”
That’s The World: thoughtful and atmospheric jazz-rap for grown-ups.
R.A.P. Ferreira - Purple Moonlight Pages (2020)
Purple Moonlight Pages is the first album by R.A.P. Ferreira, the new moniker of the artist formerly known as Milo. Little over a year ago Milo officially retired that stage name to continue as R.A.P. Ferreira – which is a play on his real-life name: Rory Allen Phillip Ferreira (and on Rhythm And Poetry Ferreira). The name-change also seems to come with a bit of an artistic change, and whether that change works for you or not is – as always – a matter of taste.
Purple Moonlight Pages offers a slice of delicious poetic jazz-rap, produced and expertly engineered by The Jefferson Park Boys (the production team consisting of beatmaker Kenny Segal, and musicians Mike Parvizi and Aaron Carmack). The album feels more accessible than R.A.P. Ferreira’s work when he was still operating as Milo. Milo’s best work who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, was sonically denser and more abstract – but that’s not to say Purple Moonlight Pages is a straightforward or an easy listen.
Just like R.A.P. Ferreira’s earlier work Purple Moonlight Pages definitely is different than the general rap fare – R.A.P. Ferreira’s slam-poetry/spoken-word type flow and stream-of-consciousness type lyrics demand full attention. Musically Purple Moonlight Pages is a delight – with songs full of live instrumentation, obviously heavily jazz-inspired. Involvement of Kenny Segal is a mark of quality, everything he has touched recently has turned to proverbial gold – most notably (but not limited to) his collaboration with NYC underground giant billy woods on Hiding Places, one of the best albums of 2019.
With the assistance of The Jefferson Park Boys, R.A.P. Ferreira reinvented his sound and turned it into a new type of excellence. Purple Moonlight Pages is a rich and rewarding listening experience, at the least for those willing to invest the time and attention this great album deserves.
Blu & Exile - Miles (2020)
2020 marks eight years since Blu & Exile’s last full-length album Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, and 13 years since their classic collaborative debut Below The Heavens, one of the best albums released in 2007. Now the duo is back with double album Miles: From An Interlude Called Life (Miles for short), Blu & Exile third full-length collaboration. The title references jazz-legend Miles Davis, who gets multiple mentions/shout-outs throughout the album, as do lots of other jazz and other music legends. It’s clear Blu and Exile know and appreciate their musical history – this album is their tribute to that history and its legends, and a study of Blu’s origins, his influences, and his personal life experiences.
When Blu is in top form, there are not a lot of artists out there better than him. Unfortunately, with a series of decent-at-best projects he hasn’t been in top form for large parts of his career. Most of his projects have been underwhelming, excepting of course Below The Heavens, and albums like Johnson&Jonson (2008, with Mainframe as Johnson&Jonson) which was pretty great, as were Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them (2012) and last year‘s Oh No-produced A Long Red Hot Los Angeles Summer Night.
Where Blu has never been able to approach the level of awesomeness he reached with his monumental debut Below the Heavens, BTH arguably is Exile’s best production work too – even if he is responsible for a couple of more (near)classics, Boy Meets World (2009) with Fashawn and the underappreciated E&J (2014) with Johaz as Dag Savage most notable among them.
So, what bout Miles? Miles may not be quite as good as Below The Heavens is, but it’s definitely better than Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them. At 95 minutes the album is very long, but unlike most artists who try their luck on lengthy projects such as this one, Blu & Exile succeed in keeping things mostly fresh from start to finish – there’s little filler (some songs go on for a bit too long, maybe) to be found on Miles, which is kind of unique for a double album. Standout tracks include “When The Gods Meet”, “True & Livin’”, “Miles Davis”. “To The Fall, But Not Forgotten”, “Spread Sunshine”, and “The End”.
Aloe Blacc, Fashawn, Miguel, Dag Savage, Cashus King, Ishe, Jacinto Rhines, Choosey, Jimetta Rose, Aceyalone, Iman Omari, C.S. Armstrong, Gappy Ranks, Jacinto Rhines, The Last Artful, Dodgr, and Adad make appearances to provide some welcome vocal variation – but Blu easily carries this album with his intelligent and conscious lyricism, helped by Exile’s elegant instrumentals.
Despite its length and laidback vibes Miles is a powerful album and another testament to Blu & Exile’s undeniable chemistry.