100 Essential Political & Conscious Hip Hop Albums: [Political Hip Hop is a style of Hip Hop music that developed in the 1980s: Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five released the first well-known political rap single in 1982 called “The Message“, which encouraged numerous Hip Hop artists to address social/political subjects. The musical style refers to artists, who have overt political affiliations and agendas. It can also be used to include political artists of all ideological stripes: black nationalist (Public Enemy together with affiliates such as Ice Cube and Paris), Marxist (The Coup), or socialist (Dead Prez, Immortal Technique).
Conscious Hip Hop is a term applied to artists whose lyrics deal with social issues. It has parallels with Political Hip Hop, although its focus is extended to topics such as religion, African American culture, everyday life, and the state of Hip Hop itself. The term, while widely used by both fans and writers, is often the subject of controversy; artists such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli have rebelled against being labeled as strictly “conscious” rappers. Musically, conscious Hip Hop is a very broad sub-genre, embracing the whole spectrum of Hip Hop. However, a more chilled-out Jazz Rap-influenced style of production is perhaps the most commonly used.]
In this piece, you will find 100 Hip Hop albums – no mixtapes, no EPs – we consider to be essential political/conscious works, not ranked but presented in release year order. What do YOU think? Are your favorite political/conscious Hip Hop albums here? Do you think any essential records are missing? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)
Public Enemy‘s sophomore album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is one of the best albums ever made, in any genre. The best and one of the most important Hip Hop albums ever. The blueprint for political and conscious rap music.
Boogie Down Productions - By All Means Necessary (1988)
Not even one year after Boogie Down Productions‘ classic debut album Criminal Minded, and shortly after the murder of Scott La Rock, KRS One dropped another classic with By All Means Necessary. KRS One quickly established himself as the conscious voice of Hip Hop, together with Public Enemy – a role both acts would continue to fill in the decades to follow.
Lakim Shabazz - Pure Righteousness (1988)
Lakim Shabazz’s Pure Righteousness is a dope album that kind of got lost in the shuffle of what is one of the greatest years in Hip Hop history. Lakim Shabazz’s baritone is powerful and his thoughtful bars on this album perfectly reflect the zeitgeist. With the always competent hands from the 45 King on the boards, this album is a slept-on gem – with classic cuts like “Pure Righteousness”, “All True And Living”, “Black Is Black”, and “First In Existence” on it.
Jungle Brothers - Done by the Forces Of Nature (1989)
Jungle Brothers never received the same recognition their fellow core Native Tongues members De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest did, nor they did achieve the same commercial success – but their first two albums are surefire classics. Their 1988 debut Straight Out Of The Jungle is a diamond in the rough, this one is more than a worthy follow-up.
Standouts include the laidback “Sunshine”, the classic Native Tongue posse cut “Doin’ Our Own Dang” the club tracks “What U Waitin’ 4” and “U Make Me Sweat,” the empowering “Acknowledge Your Own History” “the beautiful dedication “Black Woman”, and tracks like “Feelin’ Alright”, “Done By The Forces of Nature” and “Beeds On A String”.
Conscious, positive, and funky – Done By the Forces Of Nature deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as De La’s 3 feet High And Rising and Tribe’s People’s Instinctive Travels […].
Boogie Down Productions - Ghetto Music: The Blueprint Of Hip Hop (1989)
By 1989, Boogie Down Productions had already two very different, but equally classic albums out. This third effort only cemented BDP’s and KRS One‘s prominence in Hip Hop, thanks to classic BDP tracks such as “Why Is That?”, “You Must Learn”, “Jack Of Spades”, and “Bo! Bo! Bo!”.
Paris The Devil Made Me Do It (1990)
Why this album is hardly ever mentioned when discussing best ever Hip Hop albums is a mystery. Everything about this album is DOPE. Production is great, Paris is a fine emcee with a dark, menacing tone of voice and the subject matter is thought-provoking. Powerful and intelligent, controversial and political – Paris’ debut is a straight-up Hip Hop classic.
Poor Righteous Teachers - Holy Intellect (1990)
Poor Righteous Teachers is one of the most underrated groups in Hip Hop. They dropped a number of dope albums in the 90s; Holy Intellect was their debut. Best known for the classic track “Rock Dis Funky Joint”, but Holy Intellect has a lot more to offer. Intelligent lyrics over dope beats – you should check out Holy Intellect if you slept on it for some reason – and the albums that followed it – Pure Poverty (1991), Black Business (1993), and The New World Order (1996) – too for that matter.
X Clan - To The East, Blackwards (1990)
X Clan was always more about the message than about the music. The beats are soulful and funky enough, but this album is all about the lyrics. Afrocentric, conscious, positive – X Clan was even more expressive in their Afrocentric messaging than contemporaries like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were. To The East, Blackwards is a prime example of conscious Hip Hop – an important album in Hip Hop history.
Intelligent Hoodlum - Intelligent Hoodlum (1990)
Intelligent Hoodlum a.k.a. Tragedy Khadafi started out as the youngest member of Marley Marl’s Juice Crew. Marley Marl produced this dope debut album (with two tracks done by Large Professor). A very solid album from start to finish – dope beats, conscious lyrics, great emceeing. This album has always been somewhat overlooked, but it shouldn’t be forgotten.
Ice Cube - AmeriKKKas Most Wanted (1990)
Young, hungry, and angry. Ice Cube hit his peak after leaving N.W.A with this album. Creatively it is truly outstanding. Recruiting the Bomb Squad for an East Coast sound on the production resulted in a sonically epic album. Lyrically Cube murders every track on the album. Raw, hard, and unapologetic, Ice Cube dropped a bomb on the (Hip Hop) nation when it was released. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted is a unique blend of political, socially conscious, and gangsta rap, Ice Cube at his best, and a true Hip Hop classic.
Public Enemy - Fear of A Black Planet (1990)
How do you follow up on the best Hip Hop album ever made? The answer is: with Fear Of A Black Planet. Building on the perfection of It Takes A Nation…, Fear Of A Black Planet consolidated Public Enemy‘s status as the most important Hip Hop group of the time. Fear Of A Black Planet is fiercely political, intelligent, unrelenting, uncompromising, profound, powerful, intense, boundary-pushing – a landmark album in (Hip Hop) music history. Perhaps a little less accessible than It Takes A Nation… but equally important.
Boogie Down Productions - Edutainment (1990)
Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everybody. Sometimes unjustly criticized as being overly ‘preachy’, Edutainment stands for just what KRS One is. Eloquent, intelligent, conscious – this is classic KRS and classic Hip Hop. “Ya Know The Rules”, “Blackman In Effect”, “Original Lyrics”, “Beef”, “The Racist” and especially the monumental “Love’s Gonna Getcha” are all classic cuts, songs that make this album a must-have. And with his fourth album in four years, KRS-One was leaving no room for doubt as to who was Hip Hop’s intellectual and spiritual leader at that time. Edutainment is classic BDP and an unmissable part of KRS-One’s catalog.
Brand Nubian - One For All (1990)
Sadat X, Lord Jamar, and Grand Puba’s Afro-centric lyrics are alternately thought-provoking and playful; and sonically the album is dope as well with strong jazz vibes throughout. Brand Nubian‘s One for All is a must-have.
De La Soul - De La Soul Is Dead (1991)
De La Soul Is Dead is a long album, but packed with brilliance, musically and lyrically. “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’”, “Bitties In The BK Lounge”, “Afro Connections At A Hi 5”, “Keepin’ The Faith”, “My Brother’s A Basehead”, “Ring Ring Ring” and the monumental “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa”, the album is literally packed with awesome songs.
A marked change in style and feel to their equally brilliant debut 3 Feet High & Rising, De La Soul Is Dead showed a darker and more contemplative side of De La Soul. Gone is the happy-go-lucky positivity of their debut, instead we get De La’s disillusioned vision on the state of Hip Hop, which would turn out to be highly prophetic. This album was so ahead of its time, Hip Hop still hasn’t caught up yet.
Ice Cube - Death Certificate (1991)
Still angry, still hungry. Ice Cube picks up where he left things with his classic debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and even takes things a bit further. Raw and uncompromising, Death Certificate was highly controversial in its subject matter. Ice Cube pulls no punches and spares no one in his examinations of early 90s American society, which can make it an ‘uncomfortable’ listen at times.
Sonically, there is nothing wrong with Ice Cube’s and Sir Jinx’s production – although the funk induced beats on Death Certificate may be a little less appealing than the Bomb Squad’s stand-out work on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted – but this album is all about the lyrical content. Widely considered Ice Cube’s best work (together with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted), Death Certificate is an important album in Hip Hop history.
Public Enemy - Apocalypse - 91... The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
Public Enemy‘s fourth effort continues the trend set by their previous outings: excellent, hard-hitting beats that perfectly complement Chuck D’s powerful voice and intelligent, thought-provoking messages. After the utter brilliance of It Takes A Nation… and Fear Of A Black Planet it was always going to be hard to come with a follow-up. Overall Apocalypse 91… may lack the special spark of its two predecessors, but there are enough strokes of brilliance here as well.
The Goats - Tricks Of The Shade (1992)
A very original concept album, ahead of its time. Not easy to get into though, mainly because they overdid it a little bit with all the skits. If you can get past the skits, you’re in for a highly original and intelligent, political album. “Typical American” is a classic song.
Boogie Down Productions - Sex & Violence (1992)
After Edutainment, KRS unloaded some members of his BDP Posse and came back with this album that is an underrated one in his catalog – the last one as Boogie Down Productions. KRS takes aim at the state of Hip Hop (as always), politics, religion, sexual morality, violence, drug dealers, hypocrisy, and more – and manages to sound less preachy than he did on Edutainment. In fact, in rawness and ‘street feel, this album comes closest to the spirit of Criminal Minded of all the BDP albums.
“Duck Down”, “Ruff Ruff”, “Drug Dealer”, “We In There”, “Who Are The Pimps”, “Build & Destroy”, “13 & Good” and “Sex & Violence” are all standouts, but the whole album is dope – it feels tight and cohesive (with production from Prince Paul and KRS’ brother Kenny Parker among others) and has no skippable tracks or useless interludes and skits. Classic KRS-One.
Arrested Development 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of... (1992)
Arrested Development is rather a unique act, with its blend of spirituality, political content, black awareness, intelligence, respect, and positivity. 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of… is great and highly original album with a few classic tracks (“People Everyday”, “Tennessee” and “Mr. Wendal”) on it.
Paris - Sleeping With The Enemy (1992)
Another excellent album, after Paris’ equally impressive debut The Devil Made Me Do It. It’s a mystery why Paris never blew up like Ice Cube and Public Enemy did – he does the same and he does it just as well. Intelligent, militant, powerful – Paris dropped some classic material here, with songs like “The Days Of Old”, “Make Way For A Panther”, “Assata’s Song”, and “Sleeping With The Enemy”.
X-Clan - Xodus (1992)
X-Clan: you either love them or hate them. They have such a unique sound, especially because of Professor X’s contributions, it really is not for everybody. Anyway: the production on this album is tight, and Brother J is a dope emcee. With the rise of gangsta rap and the g-funk sound in the early 90s, X-Clan’s pro-black, spiritual subject matter was on its way out – this album deserves not to be slept on, though. An excellent follow-up to their classic debut To The East, Blackwards.
The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy - Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury (1992)
Political, conscious, smart (perhaps somewhat preachy) lyrics over experimental, innovative, and genre-crossing production – Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury is a wholly enjoyable AND important early 90s album by Rono Tse and Michael Franti (who also gained great recognition as part of the Beatnigs before and Spearhead after being part of The Disposable Heroes).
“Television: The Drug Of A Nation”, “Satanic Reverses”, “Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury”, “California Uber Alles” and especially the poignant “Language Of Violence” remain relevant classics to this day.
Intelligent Hoodlum - Tragedy: Saga Of A Hoodlum (1993)
Like his debut album, this album is shamefully slept on. Compared to his eponymous debut, Tragedy’s second album shows a more mature emcee with a little grittier tone of voice. Production on Tragedy: Saga Of A Hoodlum is typical early 90s NYC boom-bap and Tragedy’s lyrics are intelligent, thought-provoking, and socially conscious. “Grand Groove”, “The Posse”, “Street Life”, and “Mad Brothas Know His Name” are the highlights, but the whole album is great.
Masta Ace Inc. - Slaughtahouse (1993)
On this album, Masta Ace and crew criticize the attitude of gangsta rap and the glamorization of violence in Hip Hop successfully ridiculing gangsta poseurs – a refreshing point of view in a post-Chronic Hip Hop world. Slaughtahouse is an important document that was way ahead of its time, with dope beats and intelligent lyrics from start to finish, and with classic cuts on it such as “Slaughtahouse”, “Boom Bashin”, “The Mad Wunz”, “Jeep Ass Niguh”, and “Saturday Nite Live”.
KRS One - Return Of The Boom Bap (1993)
After 5 albums as (part of) Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One decided to start releasing albums under his own name. In his 30-year career, KRS dropped many classic albums – this is one of his best. Lyrics, flow, delivery, message, beats, diversity – this album has everything. “Sound Of Police”, “Outta Here”, “Mad Crew”, “Return Of The Boom Bap”, “Uh Oh”, “I Can’t Wake Up” – you know you can’t go wrong with KRS-One. On later albums KRS’ lyricism would occasionally be let down by weaker beats, but not here. With the likes of DJ Premier, Showbiz, Kid Capri and KRS himself behind the boards the result had to be a 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.
The Coup – Genocide & Juice (1994)
The Coup has released a string of excellent albums with socially conscious and clever rhymes, and this sophomore effort arguably is their best with dope cuts such as “Fat Cats”, Bigga Fish”, “Taking These”, and “The Name Game, and “Pimps”. Funky, fresh production, intelligent rhymes by Boots, E-Roc & DJ Pam the Funkstress: another slept-on The Coup masterpiece.
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.
KRS One - KRS One (1995)
KRS One (originally titled Hip-Hop Vs. Rap) is a great album, and very underappreciated. It may lack the spark and fun factor of its predecessor Return Of The Boom Bap, but it holds at least as many awesome tracks. The banging album opener “Rappaz R N Dainja”, the other DJ Premier-produced classic “MCs Act Like They Don’t Know”, the clever “Hold”, the controversial “The Truth” and tracks like “Represent The Real Hip Hop” and “Ah Yeah” – this album has plenty of treasures. In a year when mafioso rap was on the rise and the south was taking over, KRS-One was overlooked a bit – even if it was one of KRS One’s better-selling albums. KRS-One is one of the best albums in KRS One’s catalog – and that is saying a lot.
Goodie Mob - Soul Food (1995)
This is Southern Hip Hop at its finest. Real and raw, Soul Food has that genre-bending musicality reminiscent of OutKast with real lyrical depth. It is one of those albums that age like fine wine and only get better as time goes by. Cee-Lo, T-Mo, Big Gipp, and Khujo dropped a real gem with this album.
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. Illadelph Halflife is a presentation of jazzy Hip Hop at its finest, with masterful live instrumentation and meaningful lyrical content.
Jeru The Damaja - Wrath Of The Math (1996)
In an era when consciousness in Hip Hop was on its way out in favor of tales of violence and materialism, Jeru kept doing his thing. Wrath Of The Math may not be quite the classic Jeru’s debut The Sun Rises In The East was, but it is an excellent album in its own right. Insightful and profound, Jeru is relentless in his condemnation of gangsta posturing and the pimping out of Hip Hop by the big money suits, a condemnation which turned out to be highly prophetic.
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”.
Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus (1997)
Underground Hip Hop at its finest. A hate-or-love-it kind of album for many due to its innovative and experimental nature, but doubtless a classic. Company Flow, consisting of El-P (beats & rhymes), Big Juss (rhymes) & DJ Mr. Len (beats & scratches), dropped this gem to bless Hip Hop in a time period where shiny suit rappers and gangsta posers were starting to get most of the spotlight. Praised for its avant-garde instrumentation, it is often forgotten the dense lyrical content on Funcrusher Plus is DEEP as well – the album is filled with personal commentaries and biting observations on politics and (Hip Hop) culture. Ahead of its time and very influential, Funcrusher Plus paved the way for countless left-field Hip Hop acts, who were and are instrumental in keeping the genre fresh.
Killah Priest - Heavy Mental (1998)
Killah Priest’s debut album is intellectual and entertaining, with deep and thought-provoking lyrics and banging beats by Wu-family producers 4th Disciple and True Master. Killah Priest’s content and delivery are dope too, so there’s a lot to enjoy here. Deep, complex, and unusual – the start of a long run of mostly excellent albums by one of the most intriguing artists in the game.
The Coup – Steal This Album (1998)
As conscious and clever as Public Enemy, The Coup never really got the wider recognition they deserved. Steal This album is The Coup’s third consecutive near-flawless effort, filled with intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics and funky-ass beats – best evidenced by stand-out joints such as “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A ’79 Granada Last Night”, “Repo Man Sings for You”, “Underdogs”, “Fixation”. Don’t sleep on The Coup.
Goodie Mob – Still Standing (1998)
Always a little bit in the shadow of their fellow Atlantians OutKast, Goodie Mob released one of 1995’s best albums with their debut Soul Food, and this sophomore effort is almost as strong. Very much comparable to 1998’s top album Aquemini, Still Standing shines with intelligence, originality, creativity, and musicality.
OutKast - Aquemini (1998)
Always creative and innovative, it’s hard to agree on which album is OutKast’s best. They are all classics in their own right, with this one arguably being their magnum opus, where everything that makes OutKast part of Hip Hop’s elite comes together. The eclectic instrumentation and the thoughtful lyrics – both aspects of the album are truly excellent, but it is the overall vibe of the album that makes Aquemini so special. A stylistic and musical experience that transcends Hip Hop – Aquemini is a creative masterpiece that belongs in every music lover’s collection.
Black Star - Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)
Both Mos Def and Talib Kweli planned to release their solo albums around the same time, but they postponed their individual projects and decided instead to collaborate on a full-length LP – and what a collaboration it is. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star is a timeless piece of music that gets better with every passing year.
Mos Def - Black On Both Sides (1999)
Mos Def is one of the most underappreciated emcees ever. He has a unique voice and his flow is tight, plus he’s intelligent, humorous, passionate, creative, and socially conscious. The eclectic Black On Both Sides is a monument for Hip Hop, for music in general even – the best album released in 1999. “Mathematics”, “Ms. Fat Booty”, “Brooklyn”, “Hip Hop”, “Rock N Roll”, “UMI Says” – no shortage of classic joints on this masterpiece.
Blackalicious - Nia (1999)
The Sacramento-based duo of producer/DJ Chief Xcel and lyricist The Gift of Gab drop an excellent full-length debut album with Nia. Progressive, soulful, stylistic, and inventive production complemented by thoughtful lyricism by the late Gift Of Gab, truly one of the most underrated and poetic emcees in the Hip Hop game. Nia is a gem.
The Roots - Things Fall Apart (1999)
With Questlove laying down the perfect instrumentals and Black Thought’s thoughtful, socially-conscious rhymes (not to mentions his exceptional emcee skills), Things Fall Apart is yet another excellent The Roots album, their fourth. With additional rhyming from Malik B, Dice Raw and guests like Common and Mos Def, you know you can’t go wrong with this Roots crew album.
Jeru The Damaja - Heroz4Hire (1999)
Heroz4Hire is the third album by Brooklyn-based emcee Jeru the Damaja. It was entirely produced by Jeru the Damaja himself, unlike his first two albums which were produced by DJ Premier. Lacking Premier’s magic touch may have hurt the album publicity-wise, but Jeru did an admirable job on the production side. Jeru’s production is innovative and raw and his lyrics are clever and thought-provoking as always. Jeru represents true Hip Hop at its rawest and this album is more than a worthy part of his catalog. Even though Heroz4Hire almost never gets mentioned anymore, and not nearly as much as Jeru’s first two, it’s just about as good – with key tracks including “Bitchez Wit Dikz”, “Verbal Battle”, “Presha”, and “99,9%”.
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.
dead prez - Lets Get Free (2000)
In an era where conscious Hip Hop had long lost the spotlight to dumb materialism and violence, dead prez was one of the crews who kept the tradition started by Public Enemy and KRS-One alive: bringing socially and politically charged messages over some kick-ass beats. Whether you agree with all of dead prez’s points of view or not, you can’t deny the power of their messages. Amidst all the bling-bling, materialistic, candy-coated ‘wanna be a gangsta’ pop-rap especially pumped out by No Limit and Cash Money Records at that time, this Hip Hop album for the thinking man was an undeniable breath of fresh air.
Reflection Eternal - Train Of Thought (2000)
Sometimes seen as part three in an unofficial trilogy, with part 1 and 2 being Black Star’s Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star and Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, Talib Kweli’s and Hi-Tek’s Train Of Thought album is every bit as brilliant as the other two. Hi-Tek comes with excellent production throughout and Talib Kweli once again proves he is a gifted emcee who can write meaningful lyrics and has the emcee skills to deliver them. No skippable tracks on this album – quality all the way. Intelligent, conscious, positive – Train Of Thought is an all-time Hip Hop classic.
Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein (2001)
Cannibal Ox really delivered something special with The Cold Vein. With invaluable work on the boards of El-P during the heyday of the unsung DefJux label, this album is nothing less than a masterpiece. The lyrical prowess displayed by Cannibal Ox’s two emcees Vast Aire and Vordul Mega is outstanding, they succeed in painting a grim picture of modern NYC life with imagery that’s highly creative. El-P’s innovative and layered production is what sets the atmosphere for the album though – this one of those albums where the beats perfectly complement the lyrics and vice versa, creating a musical tableau that is atmospheric and hypnotic at the same time – complex but ultimately eminently rewarding. The Cold Vein was years ahead of its time and is only getting better as time goes by.
Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 1 (2001)
The first installment of the series bangs out with harder subjects, and angst that’s even more pronounced than on his second volume. Compared to Public Enemy classics like Fear Of A Black Planet and It Takes A Nation Of Millions…, on this incredible debut Immortal Technique spares no expense sounding off on anybody and anything deserving of his wrath. This is an album that is among the most important of the aughts.
Mr. Lif – I Phantom (2002)
The cover of the album adequately sums up the lyrical content – I Phantom deals with media, government, food, religion, law, sex, violence, drugs, and money – and how these things control and run people’s lives and how they are used to wipe out a person’s individuality. I Phantom is filled with excellent tracks – if you somehow missed out on this album and you want to have a taste of the album, check out the 8-minute epic “Return Of The B-Boy” (in which Mr. Lif is resurrected as a Hip Hop messiah), and you’ll know what you’re in for.
The thematic and narrative scope of I Phantom is incredible, and even it is heavy stuff at times, this is a brilliant album. Lyrically astute and the production to back up the poignancy of the narrative – this is an important album and one that has to be remembered. In a year where an album like Nellyville sold over 6 million units, this Mr. Lif masterpiece went largely unnoticed. Fluf over substance – that’s the world we live in and that’s one of the points this album so cleverly makes.
Talib Kweli – Quality (2002)
Together with Eardrum (2007), Quality is Talib Kweli’s best solo album, filled with intelligent, battle-hungry rhymes with the occasional socio-consciousness mixed in. With standouts like “Joy”, “Talk To You”, the Pharoahe Monch and Black Thought-assisted “Guerilla Monsoon Rap” the Kanye West-crafted “Good To You” and of course the classic single “Get By” there are just way too many highlighted moments to put a stamp on one particular one. Quality: the album title speaks for itself.
Paris – Sonic Jihad (2003)
His classic 1990 debut The Devil Made Me Do It will forever be his magnum opus, but Paris comes hard as ever on Sonic Jihad. Conscious, militant Hip Hop never died, and it never will as long as artists like Paris are around.
Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 2 (2003)
Revolutionary Vol. 2 is a follow-up to Immortal Technique’s debut album, Revolutionary Vol. 1, which is just as excellent and important. Revolutionary Vol. 2 attacks the United States government, especially the Bush Administration. Issues repeatedly discussed on the album include poverty, drug trade, slave labor, censorship, corporate control over the media (including Hip Hop), 9/11, racism, the prison industrial complex, and class struggle. This is Hip Hop for thinking people – you don’t even have to agree with everything Immortal Technique says, but you should LISTEN to him, so you can think for yourself and make up your own mind.
Saul Williams - Saul Williams (2004)
Saul Willliams’ eponymous second full-length album is one of the most potent blends of Hip Hop, rock, and spoken word poetry ever. This is Williams’ most accessible and best record, with twisted guitar riffs and heavy bass thumps providing a noisy backdrop for his socially conscious and auto-biographical laments – Saul Williams has something to say, as always. “List Of Demands (Reparations)”, and “Black Stacey” are among the stand-outs, but there are plenty of powerful tracks on Saul Williams.
Little Brother – The Minstrel Show (2005)
After their incredible debut The Listening, 9th Wonder, Phonte, and Big Pooh dropped another gem on us with The Minstrel Show. Another one of those albums that received widespread critical acclaim, but no radio play – as it was not about guns, money, and bitches but rather about intelligence and upliftment. Clever rhymes, dope beats, and HEART, this is Hip Hop as it is supposed to be.
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.
CunninLynguists – A Piece Of Strange (2006)
This third CunninLynguists album is a masterpiece from start to finish. Much darker and denser than their more light-hearted and fun first two albums, A Piece Of Strange takes us on a journey following the story of a man and those closest to him in their struggles with right and wrong, love and hate, while at the same time exploring the religion and racism that were (and are) so prevalent in the south. The 16 songs contain loose connections with certain defined Biblical numerics and their interpretations. In Kno’s own words:
“This album is not meant to be overtly Christian in theme or presentation, but more so delivering an amoral slant to a storyline communicated through Hip Hop. Deacon’s life growing up as the son of a preacher definitely led us to some of the insights and story molding that went on when we were making and recording the album, but as most moderate Christians will tell you…you have to relate the material as generally as possible without preaching and talking down to people. APOS wasn’t meant to teach faith-infused lessons necessarily, but simply to deliver a story.”
A Piece Of Strange offers excellent production and clever lyrics – the whole album is as good as it gets. Standouts tracks aplenty, but cuts like Brain Cell and Nothing To Give especially shine. Don’t sleep folks, this truly is a landmark album.
The Lost Children Of Babylon - The 911 Report: The Ultimate Conspiracy (2006)
Where the two first albums from The Lost Children Of Babylon were focused on spirituality and philosophy, The 911 Report: The Ultimate Conspiracy is more politically charged, expressing strong opinions on 9/11 and what supposedly really went down. Whether you agree with the views articulated on this album or not, there’s no denying this is an intelligent album composed of thought-provoking lyrics and dope beats – blending the sound of Jedi Mind Tricks with the content of Immortal Technique. Echoes of Paris and Public Enemy too – this is political rap at its finest.
Lupe Fiasco - Food & Liquor (2006)
Lupe Fiasco’s debut is one of the best of the 2000s. In an age of simplistic rhymes and lack of meaningful concepts, Lupe Fiasco brought intelligence and consciousness back to mainstream Hip Hop. As this list reflects, he would drop more excellent projects later on (and some misses as well), but Food & Liquor remains his best album.
Mr Lif – Mo Mega (2006)
Boston, Massachusetts rapper Mr. Lif’s second full-length album is another layered, politically charged album. In the album’s liner notes, Mr. Lif wrote:
Mo’ represents the dialect of the Black slave in America. Mega represents the hyper-modernized world we live in. As the cost of living increases at an exponential rate, more of us are finding it difficult to keep pace. I feel that the term Mo’ extends beyond race to describe the masses whom have not achieved elite levels of wealth. Mo’ Mega is the juxtaposition of the slave and the elite with no common ground between the two.
Mo’ Mega is a credit to Def Jux top-dog El-P’s skill and growth as a producer, and it is a testament to Mr. Lif’s superior mic skills.
The Roots – Game Theory (2006)
The Roots is one of the most consistent acts in the game. Practically their whole catalog is excellent – but for us, Game Theory is one of their stand-out albums – right up there with the very best Roots albums Illadelph Halflife (1996) and Things Fall Apart (1999). Cuts like “False Media”, “Clock With No Hands” and the elegant Dilla tribute “Can’t Stop This” help make this album a definite Roots classic, but there are no skippable tracks on Game Theory.
Brother Ali – The Undisputed Truth (2007)
The Undisputed Truth is the best Hip Hop album released in 2007. Powerful, political, and personal: activist Brother Ali shows himself in a song like “Truth Is”, the biting political commentator in the classic “Uncle Sam Goddamn” and “Letter From The Government”, and the vulnerable family man comes out in the bitter letter to his ex-wife “Walking Away” and one to his son “Faheem”. Great messaging, intricate lyricism, beautiful guitar-driven bluesy rhythms crafted by Ant – and not one miss in the tracklist: The Undisputed Truth is a classic.
Talib Kweli – Eardrum (2007)
Talib Kweli’s best albums are two collaboration efforts: Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998) with Mos Def as Black Star and Train Of Thought (2000) with Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal. None of his solo albums ever reached the same level of classic-ness as those two absolute Hip Hop monuments, but Eardrum comes close enough. Arguably Talib Kweli’s best album, Eardrum could have been even better if it had been a bit tighter – at 20 tracks and 80 minutes the album is a bit too long for its own good – but that said, it’s hard to say which tracks should have been left off. The album feels consistent throughout, filled with Talib’s thought-provoking lyrics and with catchy hooks and dope beats to accompany them.
Senim Silla – The Name, The Motto, The Outcome (2007)
Senim Silla is 1/2 of Binary Star, the duo he formed with the equally unsung One Be Lo. The Name, The Motto, The Outcome is his first (and only) solo album and another hidden 2007 treasure. The Name, The Motto, The Outcome is deep, layered, and complex – both lyrically and musically – and not an easy album to get into maybe, but one that amply rewards those who are willing and able to invest the time and attention this gem deserves.
Y Society – Travel At Your Own Pace (2007)
Damu the Fudgmunk teamed up with rapper Insight as Y Society for 2007’s Travel At Your Own Pace. The beats on this album are simply fantastic. Smooth, crisp, sample-driven, and jazzy – they offer an intense feeling of nostalgia. Insight’s rhymes are intelligent and insightful, pairing perfectly with Damu The Fudgemunk’s distinguished sounding beats. Travel At Your Own Pace is excellent, but sadly slept-on.
Blue Sky Black Death & Hell Razah - Razah's Ladder (2007)
Wu-Tang affiliate Hell Razah has put together an extensive and pretty strong catalog over the years, this collaborative album with production duo Bue Sky Black Death is one of his best, if not his absolute best. The stellar production serves as the perfect backdrop for Hell Razah’s conscious lyrical imagery – Blue Sky Black Death and Hell Razah have great synergy. The Killah Priest-esque Razah’s Ladder is one of the finest underground Hip Hop albums released in 2007.
The Roots – Rising Down (2008)
Much like its predecessor Game Theory, Rising Down gives us a slightly darker sound than we were used to on earlier Roots albums. Stripped down sonically, with thoughtful socio-conscious lyrics throughout – Rising Down is a great album and among the most under-appreciated within The Roots’ discography.
Invincible – Shapeshifters (2008)
Shapeshifters by Detroit artist Invincible is the most underrated and slept-on album released in 2008. Invincible is a superb emcee, her flow and her technical abilities are top-notch: her wordplay is packed with internal rhyme schemes and with meaning too – she proves she has an astute sociopolitical mind and something to say. Maybe the beats could have been better here and there – but Shapeshifters is all about Invincible’s rhymes. Don’t sleep on Invincible and Shapeshifters.
NYOIL - Hood Treason (Deluxe Edition) (2008)
Staten Island, NY, native NYOIL came up in the late 1980s under the name Kool Kim, as one half of the UMC’s with Haas G. Together they were responsible for the low-key classic Fruits Of Nature (1991), which contained the hit singles “Blue Cheese” and “One to Grow On”. After a disappointing second album, the duo split up, and Kool Kim reemerged as NYOIL.
As NYOIL he is best known for his raucous single and accompanying video for “Y’all Should Get Lynched“, which featured photos of “bullsh*t emcees and fake-*ss gangstas” Three 6 Mafia, Jim Jones, The Game, and 50 Cent juxtaposed with stark images of slavery and lynchings. The video was banned from YouTube within its first 48 hours of upload and generated an immediate firestorm of controversy. Both a divisive and unifying figure, NYOIL speaks unabashedly about the deplorable state of commercial Hip Hop music and culture on this debut album.
NYOIL has publicly stated that Babygrande stole his music and that he didn’t make any money off this album, indicative of the questionable way a lot of artists were treated whilst signed to Babygrande. Controversy notwithstanding, Hood Treason is an excellent project, and NYOIL deserves his props for it.
Nas – Untitled (2008)
The original name for this album, N****r, was obviously so controversial, nobody would sell it in stores unless the title was changed. Regardless of what the title was, this album explored the plight and at the same time celebrated the empowerment of African Americans, even with using the most venomous word in the English language. Untitled is an ambitious, politically-themed project, with phenomenal cuts like “Y’all My N****s”, “America” and “Testify”, “Sly Fox”, “Project Roach”, “N.I.*.*.E.R. (The Slave & The Master)”. The beats could have been better here and there (as is the case on most of Nas’ albums), but overall this is another outstanding Nas release.
Immortal Technique – 3rd World (2008)
Immortal Technique’s third album continues in the vein of its two predecessors – 3rd World is another intense and intelligent album, filled with nuggets of knowledge and unfiltered opinions on the state of the world we live in. Reminiscent of the ferocity and insightfulness we know from early Public Enemy and Ice Cube, Immortal Technique once again pulls no punches – he is without a doubt one of the best, if not THE best political rapper in the game.
Killah Priest - Elizabeth (Introduction To The Psychic) (2009)
Elizabeth (Introduction To The Psychic) is Killah Priest’s 8th solo album and the most generally underrated album in his vast discography – for us, Elizabeth is Killah Priest’s very best album. Killah Priest’s metaphysical deep and thought-provoking lyrics are not for everybody, but those who are in tune with Killah Priest’s particular style will LOVE this album. With 23 songs on Elizabeth and at over 77 minutes of playing time, this is another LONG Killah Priest album but it holds no filler material. There are no features and all production is handled by DJ Woool, which makes for a super consistent presentation that is able to keep attention despite its length – the production really stands out. Priest’s pen game is as good as it ever was too – “Drama”, “Sword Clan”, “The 7 Crowns Of God”, “Rise”, “Diagnose”, “Murdah Murdah At Dawn”, and especially “Jacob Never Died” and “Street Matrix” are some of the best tracks he has ever crafted. Elizabeth is a top-quality listen – an experience with a lot of replay value that will have you coming back to it again and again.
Nas & Damien Marley – Distant Relatives (2010)
Distant Relatives is a collaborative studio album by Nas and Jamaican Reggae vocalist Damian Marley, the legendary Bob Marley’s youngest son. Distant Relatives is a seamless fusion of Hip Hop, Reggae, Dancehall, and African musical elements, with uplifting afro-centric vocals about freedom, family, spirituality, and ancestry.
At 65 minutes, Distant Relatives offers both quantity and quality – all killer, no filler. Distant Relatives is aging really well and sounds as timely and timeless today as it did the day it was released. Maybe because this is a collaboration or because it’s a fusion of musical styles and not 100% Hip Hop, this genre-blending gem is often forgotten when Nas’ work is discussed. Unfortunate, because Distant Relatives is much too good to be ignored. The chemistry between Nas and Damian Marley is palpable, and they complement each other perfectly. Lots of stand-outs on Distant Relatives, but cuts like “Patience”, “Tribes At War”, and “Africa Must Wake Up” – the last two featuring the always great Somalian Canadian K’Naan – are prime examples of the overall quality of the project.
The Roots - How I Got Over (2010)
The legendary Roots crew can boast one of the most consistent and most impressive catalogs in Hip Hop. Their only disappointing effort is their eleventh album And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (2014), their previous ten albums are all simply excellent. At least five of their albums are near-flawless – Illadelph Halflife (1996), Things Fall Apart (1999), Game Theory (2006), Rising Down (2008) and Undun (2011) – and How I Got Over definitely belongs up there with the Roots’ best as well. Black Thought is good as ever, bringing out his deepest thoughts and observations. The featured artists deliver to – it’s especially nice to hear the likes of Blu and Phonte on a Roots album, also good to see an appearance by Dice Raw. Standout tracks include “Now or Never” (featuring Phonte and Dice Raw), “Dear God 2.0” (featuring Monsters of Folk), the title track “How I Got Over” (featuring Dice Raw).
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.
Thurz - L.A. Riot (2011)
Thurz’s L.A. Riot was massively slept on when it was released in 2011. L.A. Riot‘s central theme is the Los Angeles riots in 1992, sparked by general discontent and the dissatisfactory outcome of the trial of the four police officers responsible for the Rodney King beating (on March 3, 1991).
The album starts out strong with “Molotov Cocktail”, but it’s the second track that is the absolute highlight of the album: “Rodney King” is a 5-minute tour-de-force, re-enacting the assault from the point of view of Rodney King. The musical backdrop is incredibly impressive and the lyrics hit hard. One of the best Hip Hop songs of the 2010s, if not of the best Hip Hop songs ever. Yes, it’s that good. The next two tracks – “F*** The Police” and “Colors” are evident nods to the West Coast Hip Hop classics by N.W.A. and Ice-T, and Thurz doesn’t let up after that. A special mention goes out to another stand-out track, “Riot”, which has Black Thought as guest emcee. L.A. Riot is one of the best albums of 2011 and one that deserves far more shine than it got.
Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012)
Arguably the highest-profile release of 2012, Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album – and major-label debut – deserves to be heralded as a modern classic. Billed as a “short film by Kendrick Lamar” on the album cover, GKMC is a concept album that follows the story of Lamar’s teenage experiences in the gang- and drug-infested streets of his native Compton.
GKMC is a total experience and not just a collection of songs. A perfect example of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s not to say the individual songs on the album are lacking in anything – in fact, there are plenty of classic cuts on this one. The singles “Backseat Freestyle” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)” are easy favorites of course, but tracks like “Money Trees”, “m.a.a.d. City” (with MC Eith), “Compton” (with Dr. Dre), and the 12-minute epic “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” are awesome too – as is the production of the album from start to finish.
The album cover and the inside sleeve work in harmony with the narrative of the album, which is a great touch. GKMC is a balanced and cohesive piece of work, that needs multiple listens to fully appreciate its intricacies and Kendrick’s talent and skill.
Brother Ali – Mourning In America And Dreaming In Color (2012)
Brother Ali is one of the stalwarts of the lost art of conscious Hip Hop. He has never released a sub-par album, his discography is one of the strongest and most consistent in Hip Hop, and Mourning In America And Dreaming In Color is another jewel in his crown. Although Ali did most of his very best work with Atmosphere’s Ant on the boards, Jake One is a more than competent producer as well, providing subdued soundscapes here for Ali’s lyrics to shine. Ali comes with the same politically and spiritually conscious fire that he’s known for. Lots of standouts, cuts like the heartfelt ” All You Need” and especially “My Beloved” are classic Brother Ali, as are songs like “Letter To My Countrymen”, “Mourning In America” and “Only Life I Know”.
billy woods - History Will Absolve Me (2012)
History Will Absolve Me is billy woods’ 3rd full-length solo album, and his best. The cover of this album has a close-up picture of controversial former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe paired with one of Cuba’s Fidel Castro’s most infamous quotes – an album cover that clearly indicates this is not a bubblegum rap album. Musically this album could have been part of the Def Jux realm with its dusty and experimental-sounding musical backdrops. The beats set the perfect stage for woods’ staccato flow and thought-provoking lyrics; with his views on subjects as politics, race, sex, and class. History Will Absolve Me is a challenging and intense listening experience, but ultimately an extremely rewarding one. History Will Absolve Me is one of the best albums in 2012, sadly ignored upon its release. It is standing the test of time though, so it is never too late to check it out if you slept on it up to now.
Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music (2012)
We love it when everything we value in Hip Hop comes together in one project. Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music (Rebellious African People Music) is such a project, one that fires on all cylinders. Hard-hitting, kick-ass beats for Killer Mike to spit his uncompromising and thought-provoking lyrics over, this is what Hip Hop is all about. R.A.P. Music was an instant classic, reminiscent of the fire and fury early Ice Cube and Public Enemy albums brought – this album has that same sense of intensity and urgency.
Killer Mike was already able to boast a strong discography before the release of R.A.P. Music, but this album is on another level. His synergy with DefJux head-honcho El-P is awesome – something they would continue to prove with the three excellent Run The Jewels albums that would follow this collaboration. Killer Mike’s lyrics are raw and unapologetic yet intelligent and socially conscious at the same time – and the ingenious soundscapes provided by El-P only serve to strengthen Killer Mike’s diverse lyrical content.
R.A.P. Music was too real to attract big-time mainstream media attention, but it is an important album and a modern classic.
Killah Priest - The Psychic World Of Walter Reed (2013)
41 tracks, 2 hours & 17 minutes of music – The Psychic World Of Walter Reed is a monster of an album. Despite its length, Killah Priest’s tenth album is one of his best. In typical Killah Priest fashion, The Psychic World Of Walter Reed is laced with cryptic observations, cosmic imagery, and religious references, all of it mixed up with street wisdom – his content can be heavy-going at times, making his music something for a niche audience. But there’s plenty to enjoy even if you are not inclined to dissect all of Killah Priest’s relentlessly dense lyrical content – his resonating baritone is a joy to listen to, and the beats on this album are dope. It says a lot that the instrumentals crafted by elite beat crafters like RZA, 4th Disciple, and Ayatollah don’t even stand out – the beats from producers like Jordan River Banks, Ciph Barker, and Kalisto are just as good: for a 41-track album, The Psychic World Of Walter Reed is incredibly cohesive and consistent.
With The Psychic World Of Walter Reed, Killah Priest solidified his status as one of the most consistent artists out of the extended Wu-Tang family, second only maybe to Ghostface Killah (who not coincidentally had the best feature on this album). The Psychic World of Walter Reed may not be an easy or straightforward listen, but it’s an intriguing one – one that deserves attention. Killah Priest is to be applauded for his vision and artistic audacity, few (if any) artists are able to do behemoth projects like this one and coming out on top, Killah Priest succeeded admirably.
Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 2 (2014)
Wow – who would have thought El-P and Killer Mike could outdo their collaborative debut Run The Jewels (2013)? That record was epic and unstoppable enough, but this one tops it – RTJ2 is more layered and even darker than its predecessor. The out-of-the-box combination of El-P and Killer Mike has proven to be unbeatable – this album’s content is intelligent and hard-hitting and El-P’s production is simply brilliant. RTJ2 easily is one of the best and most important Hip Hop albums of the 2010s.
Add-2 - Prey For The Poor (2015)
Prey For The Poor is Chicago emcee Add-2’s debut solo LP, released on 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 smooth 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.
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
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, straight-forward 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.
Wise Intelligent - Stevie Bonneville Wallace (2016)
Stevie Bonneville Wallace by the Poor Righteous Teacher frontman Wise Intelligent is an important album, one that is sadly slept-on. Wise Intelligent’s deep rhymes and messages are uncompromising and unapologetic, and his delivery is as sharp as ever. Addressing topics like institutional racism, the state of Hip Hop, the state of society, the corporately directed dispersal of ignorant unintelligent content to the masses, and the brainwashing of the public through full media control – this is an album with substance (and not just because it runs for more than an hour). This is grown-man rap for intelligent people who know how to recognize real jewels.
Common - Black America Again (2016)
Common has dropped quite a few excellent albums in his long career, and this one is up there with the best of them. Meaningful, profound, captivating, intelligent, soulful, and lyrical – Black America Again has everything a Hip Hop album needs to have. Truly great from start to finish, there are no skippable tracks. Production is excellent throughout and Common’s flow and lyrics are as good as they ever were.
Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 3 (2016)
The best record of 2016, Run The Jewels’ third album is another hard-hitting winner – it’s crazy to think how consistent their projects have been. El-P and Killer Mike’s chemistry remains as great as it has always been, on this album they once again do pretty much everything right. El-P’s production is amazing (of course), the lyrics are deep and thought-provoking, the flows are as good as ever, and the features all work. Even if RTJ2 is the best Run The Jewels album, RTJ3 is not far behind.
Jay-Z - 4:44 (2017)
4:44 was a pleasant surprise. By 2017 Jay-Z the Hip Hop artist had long since taken a backseat to Jay-Z the billionaire businessman celebrity. In Jay-Z’s catalog, 4:44 easily is one of the best albums – coming in only after the classics The Blueprint (2001) and Reasonable Doubt (1996), and pretty much on par with The Black Album (2003) and American Gangster (2007). After the duds Kingdome Come (2006), The Blueprint 3 (2009), and Magna Carta…Holy Grail (2013), it was good to see Jay-Z still had it in him to drop an album worthy of his name.
4:44 possibly is Jay-Z’s most introspective, vulnerable, and honest project to date – something like a combination of apology and a love letter, clearly meant to serve as the flip side to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. This is grown folk Hip Hop done well.
Open Mike Eagle - Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (2017)
On the heels of 2016’s strong collaboration album with Paul White Hella Personal Film Festival, Open Mike Eagle continues his streak of consistency with Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. The ambient and psychedelic production on Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is more subdued than on past OME efforts, which complements his low-key delivery. The smooth instrumentals and Open Mike Eagle’s vocals sound deceptively loose and laid-back, but the lyrical content is clever, thoughtful, relevant, and emotionally potent. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream rivals Dark Comedy (2014) for the title of Open Mike Eagle’s best album to date.
Rapsody - Laila's Wisdom (2017)
On Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody tackles a wide array of topics personal to her, over lush jazzy soundscapes mostly produced by Jamla-chief 9th wonder. Rapsody is a tier-A emcee with diverse delivery skills and she’s lyrically potent enough to carry an hour-long album with ease, even if there are some great guest appearances by heavyweights such as Black Thought, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, and Busta Rhymes to spice things up some. The album does lose some steam toward the end of the playlist, but no matter: Laila’s Wisdom is an essential modern Hip Hop album that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Kendrick Lamar’s good Kid M.A.A.D. City and To Pimp A Butterfly.
CunninLynguists - Rose Azura Njano (2017)
Maybe not as ambitious and memorable as their earlier conceptual efforts A Piece of Strange (2006) and Oneirology (2011), Rose Azura Njano is an excellent album in its right – Hip Hop for grown folk. The album tells the story of a character named Rose, who is afflicted by chromesthesia and personifies “Black music in America and its history in pain, loss, hardships, and socio-political movements.” Kno is in a league of his own as far as production goes, and the lyrics from Deacon The Villian and Natti are on point as usual. CunninLynguists have one of the strongest bodies of work in Hip Hop, present and past, and Rose Azura Njano is an important piece of their discography.
Joey Bada$$ - All AmeriKKKan Bada$$ (2017)
Joey Bada$$’s second studio album All AmeriKKKan Bada$$ is a stylistic departure from the more authentic Hip Hop sounds from his debut album B4.Da.$$ (2015) and especially from his classic mixtapes 1999 (2012), and Summer Knights (2013). On All AmeriKKKan Bada$$ the Pro Era frontman opts for a more soulful approach, with less traditional boom-bap vibes and more modern-day rap aesthetics evident – he even sings on some of the tracks here. Somehow, it works though – there’s enough boom-bap left in the beats, and his evolving vocal styles suit the intent of the album.
All AmeriKKKan Bada$$ is Joey Bada$$ most socially aware and most conscious album to date, addressing ongoing contemporary societal issues like politics, institutional racism, and injustice head-on. The social and political themes are refreshing among today’s mumble and auto-tune rap, All AmeriKKKan Bada$$ is an important and necessary album by one of this generation’s most interesting artists.
Armand Hammer - Paraffin (2018)
Paraffin is sonically and lyrically as dense as you can expect from ELUCID and billy woods. The way especially billy woods paints lyrical pictures is neither straightforward nor easy to decipher. But it doesn’t have to be easy – this is Hip Hop for thinking people. Both rapper’s cerebral lyrics are dark and heavy, but humorous here and there at the same time. Production on Paraffin is amazing and lyrically it is incredibly layered – Armand Hammer has something substantial to say for those motivated and intellectually equipped to really listen. Not for everybody, but for those with an appreciation for abstract, experimental Hip Hop Paraffin is a must-have.
Lee Reed - Before & Aftermath (2018)
Lee Reed is a respected veteran of the Canadian indie music scene. For over 20 years and 8 albums, he’s been stomping stages and studios, spewing his incendiary brand of fiery, anti-capitalist rant-hop. From his beginnings as the mouthpiece for legendary punk-hop band Warsawpack, through a solo career that continues to steamroll along today, Reed has remained committed to revolutionary struggle, crafting a musical legacy that voices anti-oppressive politics through Hip Hop, soundtracking, and supporting the efforts of communities and organizers fighting on the frontline for social and environmental justice.
Before & Aftermath is Reed’s first album on Sage Francis’ Strange Famous label. “This guy means what he says and there’s no wavering when it comes to his mission statement of smashing the state and crashing the bank,” says Francis. “It’s mean. In the best way that ‘mean’ can be. Functionally mean. Political Hip Hop can often come across as a put-on, or as if the emcee is pandering to certain niche groups, but Lee Reed is the genuine article.”
Jean Grae & Quelle Chris - Everything’s Fine (2018)
Husband-and-wife team Quelle Chris & Jean Grae make up an enigmatic and lovable duo, Everything’s Fine is the first whole album that they have worked on together. The album is firmly left-field in sound and theme – Everything’s Fine is a satire, addressing complacency and examining what it really means to be ‘fine’ in this day and age. Hilarious and sobering at the same time, Quelle Chris and Jean Grae succeed in what they presumably set out to do – with dry humor and witty observations they make you THINK. The chilled-out, left-field instrumentals serve to lend potency to the lyrics that are abstract and subtle here, and straight on the nose there. Not for everybody, but if you’re willing to invest time and attention in Everything’s Fine you will probably find it to be an album that will grow on you.
Rapsody - Eve (2019)
The word (instant) classic gets thrown around much too much, and it remains to be seen how an album that seems to be something special upon its release holds up as the years pass – but it looks unlikely Eve is misjudged when the instant classic label is put on it – everything about Rapsody’s masterful ode to black women screams MASTERPIECE.
Class, confidence, style, intelligence, attitude, skill, power – Rapsody has it all and on Eve it all comes together to result in an album that easily ranks among the decade’s best. On Eve Rapsody continues her exploration of black empowerment and female strength, cleverly conceptualized by naming all 16 tracks after strong and inspiring black women. Rapsody’s lyrics are compelling throughout the whole album and the smooth and classy soundscapes (with some excellent sampling) are on point too. Holding momentum throughout a 16-track album is not a given, but Eve is sequenced perfectly – not a second is wasted and there is no filler. Outstanding and resonant – Eve is one of 2019’s best albums.
Add-2 - Jim Crow The Musical (2019)
Chicago emcee Add-2 is back with the release of his latest album, Jim Crow: The Musical. This is his first full-length project since 2015’s Prey For The Poor – one of HHGA’s favorite albums of 2015, second only after TPAB. Jim Crow: The Musical is 19 tracks (14 songs, 5 skits) deep and comes equipped with contributions from Phonte, Brittney Carter, Oliv Blu, Neak, and others. Featuring narration by Kadeem Hardison (from A Different World fame), Jim Crow: The Musical is a poignant and powerful project about living life as a black man in America. This is an important album – like Prey For The Poor Hip Hop for thinking people.
Quelle Chris - Guns (2019)
Quelle Chris’ latest full-length solo release is not for everyone, which is par for the course with his music. On Guns Quelle Chris comes with his usual off-kilter drum patterns and heady wordplay, this time with a unifying theme: the impact of gun violence on American society and the uncertainties of living in modern America in general. Neither an easy nor an accessible listen, a few years down the road this album may turn out to be a modern classic anyway.
Run The Jewels - RTJ4 (2020)
In 2012 El-P produced Killer Mike’s album, R.A.P. Music – one of our favorite albums of 2012 – which was soon followed by Killer Mike’s appearance on the track “Tougher Colder Killer” from El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure. When R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure were released within weeks of each other, the two decided to tour together. The success of the tour eventually led to the decision to form Run The Jewels.
Run The Jewels (2013), Run The Jewels 2 (2014), and Run The Jewels 3 (2016) all are among the best Hip Hop albums of the 2010s, three important albums for Hip Hop as a genre. Because of the strength of its predecessors, Run The Jewels 4 was one of the most-anticipated albums of the year – and it delivered on all fronts.
As El-P promised: RTJ4 is a punch in the face – and in a good way. This is an album the world needs right now. RTJ4 is a near-perfect presentation of fresh, exciting, banging beats and politically potent lyrics. Given their track record with the first three RTJ albums it was hard to imagine Killer Mike and El-P disappointing – but even equalling the level of quality of especially RTJ2 and RTJ3 was ever going to be a tall order. RTJ4 is on par with its predecessors though.
Killer Mike and El-P sound as powerful and as hungry as ever before, and with this album, they prove that Hip Hop can still be entertaining as well as meaningful. There can be no higher praise than comparing an album to Public Enemy’s monumental 1988 classic It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, but in this case, the comparison is totally justified. El-P’s top-notch production is like a perfect evolution of the famed Bomb Squad sound and the politically charged lyrical content is intelligent, hard-hitting and thought-provoking in the best Public Enemy tradition.
RTJ4 is a confirmation – at this point, we can start calling Run The Jewels one of the best duos in Hip Hop history. Four phenomenal albums in a row, it’s undeniable. Throw in Killer Mike and El-P’s respective solo work and they’re all-timers.
Timely and timeless – RTJ4 goes HARD.
Sa-Roc - The Sharecropper's Daughter (2020)
The Sharecropper’s Daughter is Sa-Roc’s long-awaited debut album for Rhymesayers since signing with the label in 2015. Washington DC-born and Atlanta-based Sa-Roc has been of the most interesting artists out in the past decade, with a bunch of great but underappreciated projects on her name before signing with Rhymesayers (especially Nebuchadnezzar (2014) is an awesome album). The Sharecropper’s Daughter was led by the singles “Deliverance”, the self-love anthem “Forever”, and “Goddess Gang” – enough to raise anticipation levels to the max. Does the album live up to expectations? The answer is an unreserved yes. No doubt this is Sa-Roc’s highest-profile project yet and the album that should be her real breakthrough to wider audiences.
From Sa-Roc’s Bandcamp page: “Speaking on the meaning of the album’s title and inspiration, Sa-Roc shares, “The Sharecropper’s Daughter speaks to my father’s actual beginnings on a Virginia tobacco farm where his family sharecropped. The title is meant to signify that both my father’s and my upbringing, though so different, are linked by a shared history that informs the way I move through the world. Although his formative years were spent in the Jim Crow era of the south, where he suffered through poverty and racial oppression, and mine were shaped in the heart of DC, amidst the war on drugs and the effects of its fallout, the album finds points of connection in two very different yet tragically familiar stories of Blackness in America. It’s a sonic reflection of the things we inherit. About the emotional weight that we unknowingly bestow upon the next generation; the genetic transfer of both trauma and triumph that we, both donors and beneficiaries, are tasked with reshaping into a future of our own.”
The Sharecropper’s Daughter album is entirely produced by a veteran renaissance man from the Atlanta Hip Hop scene, Sol Messiah, with the exception of “Deliverance” produced by Evidence and co-produced by Al B Smoov. And, while Sa-Roc’s crafty wordplay, razor-sharp delivery, and exceptional writing are the prominent highlight, this undeniable quality is only further enhanced by stellar guest performances from a small, but formidable, all-star cast of guests, including Saul Williams, Styles P, Ledisi, Chronixx, and Black Thought.”
The Sharecropper’s Daughter is an excellent album, one of the best of the year. Refined production, with soulful and musical boom-bap beats, serves as the perfect backdrop for Sa-Roc’s powerful vocals – she once again proves she’s an elite emcee and a great singer as well. Her lyrics are intelligent and thought-provoking – The Sharecropper’s Daughter is just one of the 2020 albums that mark the return of consciousness to the forefront of Hip Hop – fitting right in with the latest projects from Arrested Development, Public Enemy, Paris, Run The Jewels, and others.
15 tracks and 50 minutes of music on The Sharecropper’s Daughter and not a moment is wasted. No weak tracks on this album, but a special mention goes out to the timely “The Black Renaissance” which is a SOTY contender – Sa-Roc and Black Thought both kill it, and their back and forth on the last verse is great. The Sharecropper’s Daughter is grown-people Hip Hop of the highest order – it doesn’t get much better than this.