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list Mar 22 2022 Written by

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

[Underground Hip Hop is an umbrella term for Hip Hop music outside the general commercial canon. It is typically associated with independent artists, signed to independent labels, or no label at all. Underground Hip Hop is often characterized by socially conscious, positive, or anti-commercial lyrics.]

In this piece, you will find 100 underground Hip Hop albums – no compilations, no mixtapes, no instrumental albums, no EPs – we consider to be essential, not ranked but presented in release year order. No major label albums on this list, strictly indie or no label projects – which btw does not mean there are no classics on this list: some of the albums on this list were great commercial successes and/or are staples of the genre now. It can be argued that independent and underground aren’t necessarily synonymous any longer these days (is a Rhymesaysers or Mello Music Group release really still underground?), but all of the albums on this list were at least considered underground to a lesser or greater extent at the time when they were released, because of the labels they were released on. Most of the albums on this list are from the 2000s, as the aughts were the decade in which the gap between underground Hip Hop and mainstream rap was at its widest.

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Let’s get into it, and don’t forget to check the honorable mentions section at the end – it was hard to limit this list to ‘just’ 100 albums. What do YOU think? Are your favorite underground Hip Hop albums here? Do you think any essential records are missing? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Ultramagnetic MCs - Critical Beatdown (Next Plateau Records, 1988)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Ultramagnetic MCs’ debut album Critical Beatdown is often seen as one of the earliest examples of underground Hip Hop, as it was released on the at that time independent record label Next Plateau Records. Critical Beatdown turned out to be a hugely influential album – production team The Bomb Squad has cited the album as a major influence on their production for Public Enemy’s iconic 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, for instance. Critical Beatdown has stood the test of time – Kool Keith‘s unique style and off-the-wall lyrics along with Ced Gee’s revolutionary production make this record one for the ages. Highly original and innovative, and very consistent too – there are no weak tracks on this album. Critically acclaimed, but at the same time slept on and somehow underappreciated – it is not nearly mentioned enough when classic Hip Hop albums are discussed. Critical Beatdown is one of HHGA’s all-time favorite albums.

Dr. Octagon - Dr. Octagonocologyst (Mo' Wax, 1996)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Dr. Octagonocologyst is Kool Keith‘s best album. In a catalog as deep and diverse as Kool Keith’s is, it may be hard to choose – but Dr. Octagonecologyst has to be considered his magnum opus. Dr. Octagonecologyst introduces the character of Dr. Octagon, a homicidal, hypersexual, extraterrestrial, time-traveling gynecologist and surgeon. Dr. Octagon’s history is detailed throughout the album’s songs, skits, and samples. The concept works, the album flows perfectly and the production by Dan The Automater is absolutely phenomenal – innovative, eery, spaced-out: the instrumentals provide the perfect backdrop for Kool Keith’s trademark bizarre lyrics. Dr. Octagonecologyst provided a new benchmark in pushing the limits of Hip Hop and has rarely been surpassed since its release in 1996. A masterwork, that sounds as fresh today as it did on the day it was released.

Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus (Rawkus, 1997)

100 Essential Experimental Hip Hop Albums

Funcrusher Plus was one of the first albums released on Rawkus Records, back when Rawkus was still independent (in 1999 the label entered into a distribution deal with Priority Records). This album was a hate-or-love-it kind of affair for many due to its innovative and experimental nature, but doubtless a classic now. 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. 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. Funcrusher Plus is our favorite Hip Hop album of 1997.

Black Star - Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (Rawkus, 1998)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

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.

Jurassic 5 – Jurassic 5 (Pan, 1998)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Jurassic 5 is the debut album by Jurassic 5, the well-respected Los Angeles underground crew. The material from the 1997 Jurassic 5 EP plus a few additional tracks was repackaged as an album and released as Jurassic 5 in 1998. Tight tag-team rhymes incorporated by dope beats, with an air of positivity and fun. “Concrete Schoolyard“,  “Jayou”, “Action Satisfaction” – a couple of classic J5 songs on this one.

Hieroglyphics - 3rd Eye Vision ( Hieroglyphics Imperium Recordings, 1998)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

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, from one of the best collectives in the game.

Kool G Rap - Roots Of Evil (Illstreet, 1998)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Kool G Rap album always is a special event, if only because of the man’s superior mic skills and unparalleled storytelling abilities. Roots Of Evil is an underrated album, released on Kool G Rap’s own Illstreet label, making it his first independently released album. Sure, by 1998 the whole gangsta thing had become a played-out subject matter, but few ever did it as well as G Rap was able to. This album (just like Live And Let Die) should be experienced like watching a straight hardcore gangsta movie – G Rap’s storytelling prowess make it a cinematic experience – as evidenced by stand-out tracks like “A Thug’s Love Story (Chapter I, II, III)”, “Hitman’s Diary”,  “Cannon Fire”, and “Let The Games Begin”.

People Under the Stairs - The Next Step (Om Records, 1998)

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The Next Step is the independently released full-length debut by Los Angeles duo People Under the Stairs, the first in a string of excellent albums. PUTS always comes with that authentic, real boom-bap Hip Hop and this first effort is a slept-on gem, with classic tracks such as “San Francisco Knights”, “Los Angeles Daze”, “Time To Rock Our Sh”, and “The Next Step II”.

MF DOOM - Operation: Doomsday (Fondle 'Em, 1999)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

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.

Rubberoom - Architechnology (Indus Recordings, 1999)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

With their full-length debut Architechnology, this crew known as Rubberoom emerged from the depths of the Chicago Hip Hop underground. Progressive production unit The Opus (Isle Of weight, Fanum, and DJ Stizo, plus over a dozen of the Windy City’s most talented turntablists) crafted well over an hour of ominous soundscapes for emcee Lumba and Meta-Mo to spit their abrasive bars over – the intensity of the lyrics and music combined is insane.

“Smoke”, “Lockjaw”, “The Shining”, “Bleach”, “Acid”, “Sector Rush (Re-Built)”, “Architechnology Nine”, “Trail Of The Vampire”, “Style Wars”  – nothing but gothic bangers on Architechnology. This is one of the most slept on albums of the 1990s, even in the underground.

Blackalicious - Nia (Mo' Wax/Quannum Projects, 1999)

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The Sacramento-based duo of producer/DJ Chief Xcel and late emcee The Gift of Gab dropped an excellent (full-length) debut album with Nia. Progressive, soulful, stylistic, and inventive production and exceptional lyricism by Gift Of Gab, one of the most underrated and poetic lyricists in the Hip Hop game.

Peanut Butter Wolf - My Vinyl Weighs A Ton (Stones Throw Records, 1999)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Stones Throw Records founder Peanut Butter Wolf dropped a wonderful album with My Vinyl Weighs A Ton. Great turntablism and great lyricism from a bunch of Stones Throw talent (Rasco, Planet Asia, The Lootpack, and others) over vibrant soundscapes cooked up by Peanut Butter Wolf himself – this is a great album.

Dr Dooom - First Come, First Served (Funky Ass Records, 1999)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

If you only have three Kool Keith albums in your collection, First Come First Served (released on his own Funky Ass Records label) has to be one of them – this is without a doubt one of Kool Keith’s best albums. The album begins with Kool Keith’s new alter-ego Dr. Dooom killing the Dr. Octagon persona. Dr. Dooom can be seen as representing the Dr. Octagon horror elements while Black Elvis (also released in 1999) was handling sci-fi duties. With the always-excellent Kutmasta Kurt on the boards, Kool Keith is in top form here: flow and delivery are on point and the lyrics are wonderfully and characteristically bizarre. Gotta love that No Limit parody cover too.

Lootpack – Soundpieces: Da Antidote (Stones Throw Records, 1999)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Lootpack is a trio consisting of Madlib, Wildchild, and DJ Romes, signed to Stones Throw Records at that time. Soundpieces: Da Antidote is their debut, and it is now recognized as an underground classic. The album especially shines because of the wonderfully inventive and creative board work by Madlib, and also because of the point Lootpack tries to make – to be the real Hip Hop alternative to the materialism and violence in the dumbed-down mainstream rap.

Jedi Mind Tricks - Violent By Design (Superegular Records, 2000)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Originally released in 2000 on Superregular Records, but reissued in 2004 on BabygrandViolent By Design is Jedi Mind Tricks’ sophomore outing and another great album from the underrated Philly crew. Vinnie Paz & co. rip the tracks on this album with sick flows and clever punchlines (even if the subject matter may be hard to stomach for some) – cuts like “Retaliation”, “Heavenly Divine”, “Gengis Khan”, and especially “Sacrifice” and “The Deer Hunter” are all classic JMT joints. The beats provided by Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind and Mr. Len are as good as you could wish for, which makes the total package an excellent album from one of the greatest and most underrated crews in the game.

Reflection Eternal - Train Of Thought (Rawkus, 2000)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Sometimes seen as part three in an unofficial trilogy, with parts 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.

Antipop Consortium - Tragic Epilogue (75 Ark, 2000)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Tragic Epilogue is one of those albums that went sadly unnoticed, in an era where materialism and jigginess were the norms. Addressing exactly these kind of mainstream Hip Hop cliches, this album offers quality and originality – intelligent lyrics over innovative, boundary-pushing instrumentals. Maybe not for everybody due to the experimental nature of the musical backdrops and the off-kilter rhyme styles of the three emcees but this is an excellent album nonetheless – with plenty of highlights such as “Lift”, “Your World Is Flat”, “Heat Rays”, “What Am I?”, “Nude Paper”, “Laundry”, and “9.99”.

Binary Star - Masters Of The Universe (Subterraneous Records, 2000)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

One of the most slept-on albums of the year 2000 (or that whole decade even) is Binary Star’s Masters Of The Universe. Where dumbed down factory rap was selling millions of copies, this gem of an album sold less than 50.000 units, which is crazy when you think about it. Binary Star’s One Be Lo and Senim Silla, along with producer Decompoze, give us intelligent lyrics, great flows, and dope beats – what more do you want?

Masters Of Illusion - Masters Of Illusion (Threshold Records, 2000)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Kutmasta Kurt arguably is the only beatmaker that has ever fully understood Kool Keith’s style and who was able to provide him with the most suitable framework for his lyrical expressions on multiple projects. Besides Sex Style and First Come First Served, Masters Of Illusion is their best collaboration.

On this album, Kool Keith is paired up with Bay Area rapper Motion Man. Both emcees spit great rhymes over Kutmasta Kurt’s stellar old-school-style production. As always Kurt provides banging boom-bap beats complemented with some real turntable work. Plenty of excellent cuts on this one, but you have to check out “The Bay-Bronx Bridge” – a perfect throwback old-school flavored Ultramagnetic track.

Deltron 3030 - Deltron 3030 (75 Ark, 2000)

100 Essential Experimental Hip Hop Albums

Deltron 3030 is one of the best concept albums ever created, this collaboration between producer Dan the Automator (as The Cantankerous Captain Aptos), rapper Del the Funky Homosapien (as Deltron Zero/Deltron Osiris), and DJ Kid Koala (as Skiznod the Boy Wonder) is as timeless a piece of music as it gets. A challenging listen maybe, but ultimately extremely rewarding – a milestone not just for Hip Hop, but for music in general.

Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein (Definitive Jux, 2001)

100 Essential Experimental Hip Hop Albums

The Cold Vein was the first full-length (non-compilation) album to be released on El-P’s iconic independent Definitive Jux record label. Cannibal Ox really delivered something special with The Cold Vein – 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 – for us, one of the absolute best albums on this list.

Ugly Duckling - Journey To Anywhere (1500 Records, 2001)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Journey to Anywhere is the first full-length studio album by Long Beach, California trio Ugly Duckling, bringing a sound that was very atypical for West Coast Hip Hop at that time, or in fact ever. The group’s style is primarily a throwback to Golden Age Hip Hop, using a lot of drum breaks, loops, scratches, and sampling. Like fellow Californians Jurassic 5, Ugly Duckling is all about Hip Hop tradition and this excellent debut album is fresh, entertaining, and fun – a tribute to Hip Hop and its origins.

Masta Ace - Disposable Arts (JCOR Entertainment, 2001)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Masta Ace is one of those few artists who are able to keep reinventing themselves while turning out consistent quality. This album is no exception. Ever since his 1990 debut album Take A Look Around, Masta Ace has been one of Hip Hop’s greatest talents, who was always able to capture the true essence of Hip Hop in all his work. Coming six years after Sittin’ On ChromeDisposable Arts is often seen as Masta Ace’s comeback album – and what an album it is.

Disposable Arts is a clever concept album that follows a young Brooklyn man’s release from prison, his return home, and his life at “The Institute of Disposable Arts”, a school in which Ace enrolls after realizing how bad the situation in Brooklyn is. The album offers excellent production and dope wordplay throughout; from Masta Ace himself and guests like Rah Digga, Jean Grae, Greg Nice, Punchline, Wordsworth, and more. Disposable Arts is universally acclaimed by Hip Hop connoisseurs, but the album sold poorly and is definitely underappreciated in that regard. This is Masta Ace’s magnum opus.

Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 1 (Viper Records, 2001)

100 Essential Political & Conscious Hip Hop Albums

The first installment of the two-part Revolutionary series bangs out with harder subjects and anger that’s even more pronounced than on the more celebrated second volume that would be released in 2003. 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 2000s – with lots of classic Immortal Technique cuts on it, like “Creation & Destruction”, “Dominant Species”, “Positive Balance”, “No Mercy”, and of course “Dance With The Devil“.

Aesop Rock – Labor Days (Definitive Jux, 2001)

Ranking Aesop Rock's Albums

Labor Days is Aesop Rock’s third studio album and one of his absolute best. As always with Aesop Rock, the instrumentals are innovative and exciting, and you need to really listen closely to his next-level wordplay to get his meanings – this is music for thinking people. “Daylight,” with its epic bass-line and clever lyrics is a stand-out, as is “Save Yourself,” which addresses Hip Hop traditionalists who do nothing but talk about their skills and diss bubblegum rappers rather than say anything meaningful. But there’s much more to enjoy on Labor Days, one of Def Jux’s flagship albums, a project that was instrumental in moving forward the alternative Hip Hop scene around the turn of the millennium. Labor Days is an underground classic.

J-Live - The Best Part (Triple Threat Productions, 2001)

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This is one of the most slept-on Hip Hop albums ever, and it is one of the best of the 2000s. The Best Part was recorded between 1996 to 1999, featuring production by Prince Paul, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock. Due to label problems, it was not before 2001 when the album was finally released. There’s no doubt it was worth the wait, though. J-Live is an incredible emcee, with a great flow and delivery and lyrics worth listening to. “Yes,” “Don’t Play”, “True School Anthem”, “Got What It Takes”, and the classic cuts “Braggin Writes” and “Can I Get It” are just six of the awesome songs you have to check out on this album. Critically acclaimed by those in the know, but sadly ignored by the larger audiences, The Best Part simply is a must-have for any self-respecting Hip Hop head.

Sage Francis – Personal Journals (Anticon, 2002)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Rhode Island emcee Sage Francis’ best album? Strong beats and strong lyrics – this personal and engaging album is a low-key underground classic.

El-P – Fantastic Damage (Definitive Jux, 2002)

50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear

The first solo album by Definitive Jux head-honcho El-P builds on the lyrically and sonically dense sound he pioneered with Company Flow, on Fun Crusher Plus. On Fantastic Damage, he produces avant-garde digital beats and drops ill lyrics designed to make you listen carefully and to make you think. With his drive to experiment and innovate, El-P’s (and Def Jux’s) influence on keeping Hip Hop fresh and exciting cannot be overstated.

Atmosphere – God Loves Ugly (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2002)

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On God Loves Ugly Atmosphere’s Slug and Ant wanted to show how far away they stood from conventional, traditional Hip Hop imagery and themes. Absorbing their need to be different, they came up with some of the most conceptually intriguing Hip Hop of the early millennium. On God Loves Ugly, Slug and Ant managed to weave tales of sorrow, frustration, and forgiveness together seamlessly over beds of melancholic melodies that swell with tension and angst over bone-cracking snares and taut bass lines. With some of the most beloved classics in Atmosphere’s catalog, including “F*@k You Lucy”, “Godlovesugly”, “Lovelife”, “Modern Man’s Hustle” and “Shrapnel”, God Loves Ugly was effectively a lesson on processing pain without becoming a victim to it. Considered one of the first ’emo-rap’ (an over-used label these days) albums, Atmosphere brings passion with an intricate poetic nature that makes God Loves Ugly of their best albums.

Dälek – From Filthy Tongue Of Gods And Griots (Ipecac Recordings, 2002)

100 Essential Experimental Hip Hop Albums

Dälek is an experimental Hip Hop crew from Newark, New Jersey – comprised of MC Dälek, Oktopus, and DJ Still ( who passed away in 2018). From Filthy Tongue Of Gods And Griots is their second album and their best alongside the masterful Absence (2005). Dälek’s music is never easy or straightforward and no doubt this album is an acquired taste, with its boom bap-driven beats backed up by noisy and industrial soundscapes and unorthodox instrumentation. This album was way ahead of its time, and an indisputable classic in the industrial Hip Hop subgenre.

People Under The Stairs – O.S.T. (Om Records, 2002)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Los Angeles duo People Under The Stairs never missed. O.S.T. is the third album and one of their best, with some of their most famous songs – “Acid Raindrops” and “The L.A. Song” – as its centerpieces.

Busdriver - Temporary Forever (Temporary Whatever, 2002)

100 Essential Experimental Hip Hop Albums

Weird, but wonderful. Los Angeles’ Busdriver has never made a straightforward or accessible album. Busdriver’s unorthodox and wild flows and his general abstract and experimental style will leave many heads spinning, but those who allow themselves to be swept away by Busdriver’s eccentricity and by the beats that perfectly gel with his lyrical antics will soon count this underground classic as one of their favorite albums. Temporary Forever is Busdriver’s second album, and although he would go on to release a couple more great projects (especially Fear of a Black Tangent (2005) and Perfect Hair (2014) are must-haves too), this one stands as his absolute masterpiece.

Mr. Lif – I Phantom (Definitive Jux, 2002)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

The cover of the album reflects 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.

Non Phixion – The Future Is Now (Landspeed Records, 2002)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

3rd Bass’ MC Serch has been responsible for a few feats not everybody may know about. As executive producer, he played an important role in the realization of Nas’ Illmatic, one of the acclaimed albums in Hip Hop history. Another act Serch was responsible for bringing into existence is Non-Phixion. He put together his protege Sabac Red, with DJ Eclipse and Ill Bill, who were later joined by Goretex to form Non-Phixion.

Non-Phixion’s debut album The Future Is Now is loosely based around one concept:  almost every song paints a picture of a violent, disturbed, and apocalyptic future, where anarchy reigns and technology has all but taken over. This is an effective and powerful album, one of the first of many dope albums to emerge from the Non-Phixion camp.

J-Live – All Of The Above (Coup D'etat, 2002)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

A year after his official debut, the brilliant The Best Part, slept on emcee J-Live drops another near-perfect gem with All Of The AboveAll Of The Above is the best Hip Hop album released in 2002, much-lauded by critics, but under-appreciated by wider Hip Hop audiences. J-Live is way above most of his peers, one of those emcees who truly deserves the overused label ‘underrated’. The whole album shines, there’s no need to skip any tracks and it has endless replay value – the mark of a true classic. “Satisfied?”, “MCee”, “Traveling Music”, “A Charmed Life”, “One For The Griot”, “The Lyricist” – just a few of the highlights on this long but completely brilliant album.

Little Brother – The Listening (ABB Records, 2003)

50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear

One of the most celebrated indie Hip Hop releases of the early 2000s, The Listening by North Carolina crew Little Brother is an album that needs to be in your record collection. The Listening is near-flawless, perfectly encapturing the spirit and vibes of classic early & mid 90’s Hip Hop, similar to the soulful sounds of De La Soul, ATCQ, The Fugees, and The Roots, but unique enough to stand on its own. “For You”, “Whatever You Say”, “The Way You Do It”, “Away From Me”, “The Listening” – all tracks featuring clever rhymes by Phonte and Big Pooh and exceptional production by 9th Wonder. Even though The Listening was much-lauded it went relatively unnoticed. If YOU missed out it on for some reason, it’s never too late to pick it up.

Viktor Vaughn - Vaudeville Villain (Sound-Ink Records, 2003)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

MF DOOM was a genius. 2003 saw two releases from the man, under two new aliases. Where the King Geedorah album had its focus on DOOM’s beats – which at times overpowered the lyrics by mostly guest emcees – Vaudeville Villain focuses more on DOOM’s lyrics. For production duties, DOOM enlisted Sound-Ink record label members Heat Sensor, King Honey, and Max Bill, with the exception of “Saliva”, which was produced by RJD2.

Nothing wrong with the musical backdrops on Vaudeville Villain by the way – a lot of dirty, dusty drums and snares, just as can be expected on an MF DOOM record – but it’s DOOM’s lyrics that steal the show here. The album is filled with crazy creative imagery, humor, and dope punchlines, DOOM once again proves lyrically he is in a lane of his own. The opening track “Vaudeville Villain” starts off the album brilliantly, and the quality doesn’t let up all the way through. More accessible than King Geedorah’s Take Me To Your LeaderVaudeville Villain is one of 2003’s best albums and the most underappreciated album in MF DOOM’s catalog.

Brother Ali – Shadows On The Sun (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2003)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

While all of Brother Ali’s albums are great, Shadows Of The Sun is his absolute best. Over some of the most engaging beats Ant ever crafted, Ali paints honest, poignant, and compelling pictures all over the album. While every track is exceptional in its own right, perhaps it’s the painfully open “Forest Whitiker” – where Ali bravely points out all his physical imperfections while embracing them at the same time – showing the importance of self-love in one of the most empowering cuts ever. Other stand-outs include “Room With A View”, “Shadows On The Sun”, “Blah Blah Blah”, “Champion”, “When the Beat Comes In”, “Win Some Lose Some”, and the heartbreaking “Picket Fence”. With Shadows Of The Sun Brother Ali delivered a landmark album – the best Hip Hop album released in 2003, and one of the best Hip Hop albums of the 2000s.

Canibus – Rip The Jacker (Babygrande Records, 2003)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Nobody ever disputed Canibus’ superior lyrical skills. The fact he made a bunch of not-so-good albums had more to do with subpar production than his work on the mic. On Rip The Jacker, his fifth studio album, everything finally comes together for Canibus – resulting in what undoubtedly is his best album.

Production is done completely by Jedi Mind Tricks’ production genius Stoupe The Enemy Of Mankind, ensuring a totally cohesive sound throughout the whole album. The intricate soundscapes laid down by Stoupe mesh well with Canibus’ complex and sharp rhymes. “Indibisible”, “Showtime At The Gallow”, “Genabis”, “Levitibus”, “No Return” and the 8-minute epic “Poet Laurette II” (in which Canibus spits 200 bars over 3 different beats) are standouts, but all eleven tracks on this album are fire.

Jaylib – Champion Sound (Stones Throw Records, 2003)

100 Essential Experimental Hip Hop Albums

Champion Sound can be seen as sort of a prelude to 2004’s Madvillainy – one of the most-lauded underground Hip Hop albums of all time. Both are products of two brilliant producers joining forces, in the case of Madvillainy a collaboration between MF DOOM and Madlib, for Champion Sound Madlib teamed up with the late great J Dilla.

On Champion Sound, the two each produced half of the tracks and they rapped over the beats the other one provided, with tracks sequenced alternatingly. Guests like Percee P and Guilty Simpson add some extra flavor, but Madlib and Dilla hold their own on the mic – even if it’s clear enough they are both producers first and rappers second. You don’t listen to Champion Sound for the rhyming anyway, it’s all about the beats – and the beats are mostly great, just as can be expected from two of the most creative producers in the game ever.

Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 2 (Viper Records, 2003)

100 Essential Political & Conscious Hip Hop Albums

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.

Leak Bros. – Waterworld (Eastern Conference Records, 2004)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Waterworld is the first and only studio album by Leak Bros, which consisted of Cage and Tame One, released on the Eastern Conference label.

Waterworld is a concept album – every song on the album is about the drug PCP. Street names for PCP like “water,” “wet,” “leak,” “fry”, “sherm,” “dip,” “death,” “angel dust,” “dust,” “purple rain,” “embalming fluid,” and “formaldehyde” are all constantly referenced throughout the album. Cage and Tame One frequently mentions “dipping” cigarettes, blunts, and other smoking material in PCP. A dark subject matter, that may not sound appealing to most listeners – but somehow Cage and Tame One make it work. They also play well of each other – Tame One is more of a traditional kind of emcee with a strong voice (as he showed earlier as part of Artifacts), Cage has always been as more of a ‘shock-core’ rapper, relying on shocking and crazy imagery.

Waterworld consists of dark beats with thumping baselines and eerie samples by producers like Camu Tao, DJ Mighty Mi, El-P, J-Zone, RJD2 (among others), and completely off the wall lyrics that make for an interesting albeit uncomfortable, dark listening experience. Much like the previous entry on this list, Waterworld will not be for everybody, but it is a definitive must-listen for fans of other records released on labels like Eastern Conference and Definitive Jux.

Cryptic One - The Anti-Mobius Strip Theory (Day By Day Entertainment, 2004)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Cryptic One is a slept-on artist. If you’re familiar with and appreciative of music from other Atom’s Family members (associated with the Cold Vein project from Cannibal Ox), you will love The Anti-Mobius Strip Theory. The dark and experimental production – mostly done by Cryptic One himself with some assistance from Jestoneart, Blockhead, and Blueprint – is dope as f, and Cryptic One’s abstract lyrics are clever and thought-provoking – unpacking them gives this album endless replay value. No weak tracks on this (70 minutes) long album, but the atmospheric “Apocolypse Zone” with Aesop Rock is a particular stand-out, as are songs like ”Unicycle (Water Cycle)”, “Tempt Fate”, “Intricate Schemes”, “Uncomfortable Silence”, and “Willow”. The Anti-Mobius Strip Theory, released on MF Grimm’s Day By Day Entertainment label, is a forgotten masterpiece – one of the most consistent 70-minute records you’ll ever hear.

Eyedea & Abilities – E&A (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2004)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Just one of the many gems released on Rhymesayers Entertainment. E&A is the second studio album by the late Eyedea & DJ Abilities. In their own words:

‘We makin’ music, just tryin’ to put the fun back in
Turntablism, lyricism, ain’t no gun packin”

This quote from “Kept” sums up the album – Eyedea & Abilities was a great MC/DJ tandem and E&A is one the most under-appreciated and one of our favorite albums of 2004.

Madvillain - Madvillainy (Stones Throw Records, 2004)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

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. 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 best album of the aughts and a top 10 Hip Hop album of all time.

Madvillainy was released on Stones Throw Records, the independent record label based in Los Angeles, California, founded by Peanut Butter Wolf. While Madvillainy achieved only moderate commercial success, it became one of the best-selling Stones Throw albums.

Illogic – Celestial Clockwork (Weightless Recordings, 2004)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Celestial Clockwork is Ohio-based emcee Illogic’s third solo studio album, production is entirely handled by regular collaborator Blueprint, and it features vocal contributions from Aesop Rock, Vast Aire, Slug, and Blueprint. Lyrically complex, poetic, and intelligent: Celestial Clockwork is Illogic’s most personal and best album, offering one hour of top-tier left-field Hip Hop with stand-out cuts like “Time Capsule” (with Aesop Rock and Vast Aire), “1000 Whispers”, “Celestial Clockwork”, “First Trimester”, and “Stand” (with Atmosphere‘s Slug).

Murs & 9th Wonder – Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition (Definitive Jux, 2004)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

In his three decades in the Hip Hop game, Murs has released a whole bunch of excellent albums – solo as well as collaborative efforts. This is one of his best, the first collaboration album he did with producer extraordinaire 9th Wonder. Murs is another one of those rare personalities in Hip Hop who is always completely real. No fronting, no posing – just humor, honesty, and real emotion. The collaboration with 9th Wonder works perfectly – the instrumentals 9th Wonder provides all serve to enhance the strength of Murs’ delivery and his lyrics.

Standouts include the Phonte-featuring “The Animal”, “Bad Man”, “And This Is For…”, “The Pain”, and especially the genius “Walk Like A Man”, which has three different beats to match the mood of the deep and insightful story told. But it is all good – at 10 tracks the album is short (but sweet) and there are no weak spots.

The U.N. – UN Or U Out (Fourfivesix Entertainment, 2004)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

The U.N. was an underground Hip Hop crew from New York City, consisting of Laku, Dino Brave, Mike Raw, and Roc Marciano. The U.N. was Roc Marciano’s post-Flipmode Squad vehicle that would put him on the path of becoming the reinventor of mafioso rap in the 2010s, and one of the most influential artists in that particular subgenre.

UN Or U Out is more straightforward underground Hip Hop – an album that would have been considered a classic had it been released a decade earlier. Roc Marciano’s skills as a producer are on full display here (with a couple of tracks produced by Pete Rock and Large Professor), it’s the beats that elevate this project to a higher level. UN Or U Out is an album to remember.

MF DOOM – Mm.. Food (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2004)

Ranking MF DOOM's Albums

Mm… Food is the only MF DOOM album released on the independent Rhymesayers label. Mm… Food is kind of a concept album, as every track is compiled primarily of food-related subject matter. The food-related concept works better than you might expect, particularly when DOOM uses it as a means to cleverly diss other emcees. This album holds some of DOOM’s best beats and bars, as a listening experience Mm.. Food can be a challenge though – mostly because of the overabundance of skits (most notably in the middle of the tracklist) that are meant to thematically tie together the actual songs on the album, but that actually break its flow (especially because they are sometimes stuck to the songs, so not-skippable). Sure, the skits on any MF DOOM album are an essential part of the listening experience, but on this one, it’s a bit over the top.

Despite the skits, this is one of MF DOOM’s best albums. “Beef Rap”, “Hoe Cakes”, “Rapp Snitch Knishes”,  “Poo-Putt Platter”, and “Vomitspit” are some of the classic MF DOOM cuts on this Mm.. Food. Production (mostly done by DOOM himself) is awesome, and DOOM’s complex flows and abstract lyrical imagery, make for a dope album that is aging really well.

P.O.S - Ipecac Neat (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2004/2005)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Ipecac Neat is P.O.S’ first studio album, released in 2004 on Doomtree Records, then re-released the next year on Rhymesayers Entertainment. Energetic and angry-sounding lyrically as well as musically, Ipecac Neat offers an intense listening experience that is aging quite well. A bit closer to ‘regular’ Hip Hop than some of his later albums, Ipecac Neat already showcases P.O.S’ original style and flow. A hidden gem and an essential piece of the Doomtree legacy.

Sage Francis – A Healthy Distrust (Epitaph Records, 2005)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

A Healthy Distrust is the second album from Providence, Rhode Island’s indie rapper Sage Francis. After his critically acclaimed first solo album Personal Journals (2002), with A Healthy Distrust, he proved that the level of quality he set with his debut wasn’t a one-off. Quality production, wordplay, and lyrical content combine into a not-run-of-the-mill album that deserves an attentive listen.

Zion I – True & Livin’ (Live Up Records, 2005)

50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear

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.

Little Brother – The Minstrel Show (ABB Records, 2005)

100 Essential Political & Conscious Hip Hop Albums

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.

One Be Lo – S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. (2005)

One Be Lo is best known for being half of Binary Star, under which name he and his Binary Star partner Senim Silla dropped the underground gem Masters Of The Universe in 2000. He has released a bunch of excellent solo albums as well, and this one is the best of them all. S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. stands for Sounds Of Nashid Originate Good Rhymes And Music, a title true to the content of the album: more than twenty tracks and pretty much all worthwhile, with One Be Lo cleverly and skillfully exploring a wide variety of topics over consistently superior musical backdrops – pure and uncut Hip Hop by a true emcee.

Cage – Hell’s Winter (Definitive Jux, 2005)

50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear

Not an easy or comfortable listen, as per usual with Cage – the Orange County rapper who never shied away from talking about his troubled past and his personal demons. Compared to other Cage releases, Hell’s Winter is less demented but even more personal – even if some of the stories Cage relates are hard to stomach, especially with the knowledge that at least some of these stories he tells are based on real events and personal experiences.

With his move to Definitive Jux, superior production values under the supervision of DefJux head-honcho El-P are guaranteed. El-P, Blockhead, Camu Tao, DJ Shadow, and RJD2 each bless Cage with musical backdrops, for him to bare his mind and soul. Sonically superior and lyrically intense – Hell’s Winter is Cage’s magnum opus and one of the many jewels in the DefJux crown.

Dälek – Absence (Ipecac Recordings, 2005)

100 Essential Experimental Hip Hop Albums

Frontrunners in industrial Hip Hop, Dälek debuted in 1998 with the captivating Negro Necro Nekros and developed their sound with their first proper full-length From Filthy Tongues of Gods and Griots (2002). Dälek’s music is always dark, noisy, and atmospheric – but no album in their catalog is darker than Absence. Producer Oktopus is one of the most interesting avant-garde producers of all time,  and his instrumentals on this album are unique and progressive. Emcee Dälek comes with his characteristic apocalyptic bars, but it’s Oktopus whose talents truly shine on Absence – his nightmarish industrial soundscapes provide a thick atmosphere full of menace and terror.

“A Beast Caged”,  “Culture for Dollars”, “Distorted Prose”, “Asylum (Permanent Underclass)”, “Ever Somber”, “Opiate The Masses”, “Eyes to Form Shadows” nothing but highlights on what is one of the most underrated Hip Hop albums released in 2005.

Atmosphere – You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2005)

best hip hop 2000s

Rhymesayers co-founders Sean Daley (Slug) and Anthony Davis (Ant) are one of the label’s flagship acts, releasing music as Atmosphere since 1999. You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, is their fifth album, a release as beautifully crafted and put together as any other album in that entire decade – Ant has rarely been better behind the boards, and Slug is just fantastic on the mic. You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having has dope beats and intelligent rhymes all the way through, stand-out tracks like “Say Hey There”, the fascinating “Pour Me Another” and the touching standout “Little Man” help to make this album Atmosphere’s absolute magnum opus and one of 2005’s best releases.

Danger Doom - The Mouse And The Mask (Epitaph Records, 2005)

best hip hop 2000s

A year after Mm.. Food and Madvillainy MF DOOM dropped another gem in the form of The Mouse And The Mask, this time together with left-field producer Danger Mouse (best known for mashing The Beatles’ The White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album into The Grey Album). DOOM is lyrically as strong as ever, mixing up his trademark abstract imagery with his usual intricate self-aggrandizing, this time all the way through sprinkled with cartoon references – all of it strengthened by Danger Mouse’s instrumentals which definitely add to the thematic feel of the album. Ghostface Killah, Cee-Lo Green, and Talib Kweli drop by for guest verses, with especially Ghostface stealing the show on “The Mask”. Other highlights are “Sofa King”, “Old School” (with Talib Kweli), and the stab at former friend MF Grimm, “El Chupa Nibre”.

Apathy – Eastern Philosophy (Babygrande Records, 2006)

best hip hop 2000s

Known for being part of Hip Hop collectives Demigodz, Get Busy Committee, and Army Of The Pharaohs, and of his association with acts like Jedi Mind Tricks and others from the unsung Babygrande Records label, Connecticut emcee Apathy dropped this solo debut in 2006. While Apathy’s later solo albums like Honkey KongWanna Snuggle, and Connecticut Casual were all dope and held their own, Eastern Philosophy still stands as his best work as a solo artist. Eastern Philosophy is an album filled with vicious, in-your-face lyrics and the beats to match the ferocity of the bars Apathy spits.

Jedi Mind Tricks - Servants In Heaven, Kings In Hell (Babygrande Records, 2006)

50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear

Servants in HeavenKings in Hell is the fifth studio album by legendary Philly crew Jedi Mind Tricks and their best, in a series of mostly excellent albums. It is also their best-performing album commercially but still went criminally unnoticed (especially when compared to 2006‘s highest selling and wack pop-rap albums from the likes of Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and others like them).

Servants In Heaven, Kings In Hell is worth the price of admission alone for the masterpiece that is “Uncommon Valor”, with an epic verse by guest emcee R.A. The Rugged Man. But the rest of the album bangs too. Stoupe’s unique and cinematic soundscapes and Vinnie Paz’s vicious lyrics get equal shine, every track works. With some dope additional rhyming from guests like regular JMT collaborator Chief Kamachi, Sean Price and especially the aforementioned R.A. The Rugged Man, this album truly is a worthy addition to anyone’s music collection.

CunninLynguists – A Piece Of Strange (QN5 Music, 2006)

50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear

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 Celland Nothing To Give especially shineDon’t sleep folks, this truly is a landmark album.

Army Of The Pharaohs – The Torture Papers (Babygrande Records, 2006)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

The Torture Papers is the debut album by underground Hip Hop collective Army of the Pharaohs, released in 2006 after years of anticipation. The crew was established in 1998 by Jedi Mind Tricks frontman Vinnie Paz, and originally featured Jedi Mind Tricks, Chief Kamachi, 7L & Esoteric, Virtuoso, and Bahamadia. Virtuoso and Bahamadia later split from the group. When The Torture Papers was recorded, AOTP consisted of Paz, Kamachi, 7L & Esoteric, Apathy, OuterSpace, King Syze, Reef the Lost Cauze, Des Devious, Celph Titled, and Faez One.

The single “Battle Cry” is a standout track on The Torture Papers –  an all-out insane rap-fest with nine emcees spitting bars over a great beat with violins and bass. Other highlights include cuts like the title track, “Feast of the Wolves”,  “King Among Kings”, “Gorillas”, “Henry the 8th”, “Pull The Pins Out”, “Tear It Down”, “Into The Arms Of Angels” and “All Shall Perish”.  The Torture Papers is a very strong, well-rounded, and complete album and a must-have for all those into hard, underground battle-rap kind of Hip Hop.

Brother Ali – The Undisputed Truth (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2007)

best hip hop 2000s

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 an underground classic.

Percee P – Perseverance (Stones Throw Records, 2007)

best hip hop 2000s

Percee P is a criminally underrated emcee. One of the best lyricists in the game, ever. Active in the Hip Hop game since the 1980s – and always stealing the show as a guest emcee on other people’s albums – Perseverance, his official solo debut album came out as late as 2007. If he could have gotten himself released in the early 90s, no doubt he would be widely recognized now as one of the all-time greats. As it is, this album may have come too late – in a time when Hip Hop was being watered down and dumbed down for near on a decade already and quality Hip Hop like this was not promoted anymore by the big money people.

Perseverance is a presentation of superior lyrical skill, astute lyrics, AND it’s produced by one of the best producers in the game: Madlib. It has Madlib’s signature sound; a bit modern & experimental at times, but still with enough of an ‘old-school’ feel to them to match Percee P’s lyrics. The album has a couple of guest spots – Guilty Simpson, Vinnie Paz, Diamond D, Prince Po, Aesop Rock – all quality emcees, but Percee P outshines them all effortlessly. The aptly titled Perseverance is a testament to Percee P’s career and you need to go check out this album.

Super Chron Flight Brothers - Emergency Powers: The World Tour (Backwoodz Studioz, 2007)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Emergency Powers: The World Tour is billy woods and Priviledge’s first and best album. Emergency Powers is packed with intricate and intelligent rhymes about societal issues, nicely balanced with lots of weed raps and some straight-up braggadocio – this is a clever and witty piece of work that stays entertaining for its full 71-minute duration. The MF DOOM-Esque musical backdrops (DOOM actually produced one song) are dope as f too, rhymes and beats go together beautifully here. Emergency Powers is a striking debut, and one of the most slept-on albums of 2007.

Blu & Exile – Below The Heavens (Sound In Color, 2007)

50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear

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 – Exile’s soulful production is perfectly complemented by Blu’s introspective and intelligent lyrics. The album was well-received by real Hip Hop heads and critically acclaimed, but it never got the sales or mainstream attention it deserved.

Aesop Rock – None Shall Pass (Definitive Jux, 2007)

best hip hop 2000s

Why Aesop Rock is never mentioned in GOAT emcees discussions is a mystery. He truly is one of the best ever – his pen game is unparalleled and his flow is insane. Each track on None Shall Pass is a carefully created gem of lyrical genius. The beats are top-tier too, on this album Aesop Rock shared production duties with Blockhead, with some additional input from Rob Sonic & EL-P. “Guns For The Whole Family” (with El-P) is as good as anything Aesop Rock has ever done, while cuts like “No City”, “Catacomb Kids”, “The Harbour Is Yours”, “Citronella”, and “Five Fingers”, are real standouts as well. None Shall Pass is the epitome of Aesop Rock’s creativity and progressiveness – this is one of his best albums.

Y Society – Travel At Your Own Pace (Tres Records, 2007)

best hip hop 2000s

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 a sadly slept-on album.

Ill Bill – The Hour Of Reprisal (Uncle Howie Records, 2008)

best hip hop 2000s

Ill Bill’s second and most personal album, The Hour Of Reprisal is a deep and powerful release – a stand-out in his solo discography and even counting his work as part of Non-Phixion, Circle of Tyrants and La Coka Nostra. Ill Bill handles most of the production duties on this album himself, with some tracks being produced by the likes of Ill Bill’s brother Necro, DJ Muggs, DJ Premier and DJ Lethal. Featured guests on the album include Vinnie Paz, Immortal Technique, Everlast, B-Real, Raekwon, Tech N9ne, and Necro. This combined power results in a well put together album, that is sorely underrated by the larger Hip Hop audiences.

Guilty Simpson - Ode To The Ghetto (Stones Throw Records, 2008)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson’s debut album Ode To The Ghetto is an excellent album – with dope bars and great beats. Production of the album was handled by elite producers, including Madlib, Oh No, J Dilla, Black Milk, DJ Babu, and Peanut Butter Wolf, who served as executive producer. It also features guest appearances from Black Milk, Sean Price, MED, Kon Artis, and Simpson’s A.D. groupmates Konnie Ross, Kriz Steel, Supa Emcee. Ode To The Ghetto is like an exposé on life in the ghettos in Detroit: kind of weird, but catchy and captivating too. Don’t sleep on the underappreciated Guilty Simpson.

Elzhi – The Preface (Fat Beats Records, 2008)

50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear

Elzhi is one of the most underrated emcees in the game. The Detroit lyrical giant dropped an instant classic with The Preface. Bangin beats – mostly provided by equally underrated Detroit producer Black Milk – and excellent wordplay by Elzhi himself and guests like Guilty Simpson, Royce da 5’9″ and Black Milk, make this one of 2008’s best albums. “Guessing Game”, “Motown 25”, “Colors”, “Transitional Joint”, “What I Write”, “Talking In My Sleep” – just a few standout tracks on an album with not a bad song on it. “Show these motherf***ers what a classic is…” In the intro of the album Elzhi sets himself up for a tall order, but boy does he deliver.

Prolyphic & Reanimator – The Ugly Truth (Strange Famous Records, 2008)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Prolyphic & Reanimator’s The Ugly Truth is an excellent and sadly slept-on gem. The album was released on Sage Francis’s Strange Famous Records,  and features guest appearances from Sage Francis himself, along with regular collaborators Macromantics, B. Dolan, and Alias. Reanimator’s inventive instrumentals are a delight from start to finish – the dark and dirty boom-bap beats infused with live instrumentation serve as a perfect backdrop for Prolyphic’s clever bars.

Grip Grand – Brokelore (Look Records, 2008)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Six years after a distinctly mediocre debut, Bay Area producer/emcee Grip Grand returns with this truly excellent sophomore album. Brokelore is the most surprising album of the year. Excellent rhyming – lyrics and flow – and smooth, infectious beats from beginning to end. The album has a couple of great, well-placed guest appearances too, especially NYC legends Percee P and A.G. steal the show with their features. This is a near-perfect album, expertly blending traditional West Coast and East Coast Hip Hop sounds and adding a unique contemporary vibe. The mark of a classic? Endless replay value and no skips – Brokelore is such an album.

Diamond District – In The Ruff (Mello Music Group, 2009)

best hip hop 2000s

Diamond District is the truth. This is real, raw & pure Hip Hop done right. In The Ruff is that perfect example of an album with a Golden Age sound but with one leg firmly in the present as well. Oddisee is a talented producer and emcee, and together with emcees X.O. and yU, he delivered an excellent record, filled with hard AND smooth boom-bap beats and dope flows. A breath of fresh air in 2009; and an album that should have a place in any Hip Hop fan’s collection – easily one of the best Hip Hop albums released that year.

Antipop Consortium – Fluorescent Black (Big Dada, 2009)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Antipop Consortium is a group that has been at the forefront of experimental Hip Hop since the late 1990s, and the innovative Fluorescent Black is one of their strongest projects. Stream-of-consciousness lyrics and an effective blend of electronic and industrial beats make for an experimental but accessible enough album that deserves more recognition than it received upon its release.

Finale – A Pipe Dream And A Promise (Interdependent Media, 2009)

hiphop 2009

In Detroit’s post-Dilla world, Finale deserves a mention alongside the likes of Apollo Brown, Black Milk, Elzhi, Royce Da 5’9″, Guilty Simpson, Esham, and of course Eminem as a top representative of D-town’s Hip Hop scene. Finale’s wordplay on his independently released debut album A Pipe Dream And A Promise is simply CRAZY. Finale shows off complex internal rhyme schemes and multi-syllabic rhyming combined with a distinctive flow and razor-sharp delivery – this guy is a true lyricist and a verbal acrobat. With beats provided by J-Dilla, Black Milk, and Nottz (among others), the production is top-notch too – this album really is a must-have for any self-respecting Hip Hop fan.

Felt – Felt 3: A Tribute To Rosie Perez (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2009)

best hip hop 2000s

Opinions seem to be divided on this one. Some critics consider this to be the worst of the three Felt albums, Felt 3: A Tribute To Rosie Perez is our absolute favorite of the series, however. Some nay-sayers have criticized Aesop Rock’s production on this one, but we feel the beats he provided here serve super-combo Slug and Murs’ lyrics perfectly. Everything fits on this album, the beats do work and the synergy between Slug and Murs is awesome. For us, Felt 3: A Tribute To Rosie Perez is a top 5 album of 2009.

Celph Titled & Buckwild – Nineteen Ninety-Now (No Sleep Recordings, 2010)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Legendary D.I.T.C. crate digger Buckwild came through with a sh*tload of vintage 90s beats for New York’s Celph Titled’s official solo-debut full-length (coming after the 2006 compilation The Gatalog: A Collection of Chaos). This album is simply excellent – it offers a dose of Hip Hop in its purest form: 16 tracks with nothing but dope beats, scratches, and rhymes. Well-placed guest spots from fellow Demi Godz and Army Of The Pharaohs members Vinnie Paz, Esoteric, and Apathy, as well as features from seasoned emcees as R.A. The Rugged Man, Sadat X, Grand Puba, A.G. Diamond D, O.C., Chino XL, and Treach, combined with Buckwild’s stellar production, make this album one of the best Hip Hop albums released in 2010.

Kno - Death Is Silent ( QN5 Music, 2010)

50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear

On the four CunninLynguists albums preceding this project, Kno already amply proved that he can put a big stamp on an album in terms of production. In 2010 the CunninLynguists producer released Death Is Silent: a solo album on which he also accounts for a large part of the lyrics.

The production on this album is nothing short of spectacular, and the beats and the stories blend together like gears on a machine. “Loneliness”, “Rhythm Of The Rain”, “Spread Your Wings”, “Graveyard”, “I Wish I Was Dead”, “They Told Me” and “The New Day” are all highlights, but this album’s strength is its consistency. The whole album has the same feel, without ever sounding monotonous. This is an album to zone out on, to press play and let it run from start to finish – no need to skip anything, there are no fillers tracks and no stupid skits. Of course CunninLynguists colleagues Natti and Deacon The Villain make appearances, as do regular collaborators like Tonedeff and Substantial. But even if Kno will always be a producer before he is an emcee, he can carry an album on the microphone as well. He calls himself the Emo Premo on one of the tracks, providing lyrics that should shame most full-time rappers.

Death Is Silent is one of our favorite albums released in 2010, a true musical gem in a world full of fake thugging, bling-bling, dumb-ass b.s. From start to finish, this is a masterpiece of music (not just Hip Hop). Anyone with an interest in quality music with substance will love this melancholic masterpiece.

Rasheed Chappell – Future Before Nostalgia (Kay-Dee Records, 2011)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Remember the days when Hip Hop artists actually had something to say, and when they were in the game not just for the sake of record sales or to promote some gangsta-wannabe image? Well, authentic Hip Hop artists have always been around – they just lost the spotlight, unfortunately. New York emcee Rasheed Chappell is one of those authentic Hip Hop artists – his long-awaited debut album, with beats crafted by veteran producer Kenny Dope, offers Hip Hop in its purest form. With the added touches of DJ Scratch and DJ Mell Starr,  Rasheed Chappell and Kenny Dope kept it real to the true essence of Hip Hop. Superb production and top-tier wordplay – in a year where Lil Wayne’s Carter IV and Drake’s Take Care were the biggest sellers, people slept on Rasheed Chappell & Kenny Dope’s way superior Future Before Nostalgia – and that’s a damn shame.

Apollo Brown & O.C. - Trophies (Mello Music Group, 2012)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Apollo Brown is one of the best producers in the game today. The number of top-quality projects he has put his stamp on in this decade is amazing.  The best Apollo Brown project of the 2010s is Trophies, his 2012 collaboration with D.I.T.C. legend O.C. O.C. is one of the most slept-on emcees in Hip Hop ever: he had two near-perfect albums in the 1990s with Word… Life (1994) and Jewelz (1997) and he is still going strong as his latest projects Same Moon Same Sun (2017) and A New Dawn (2018) prove. Like on those two massively slept-on albums, on Trophies shows he is an emcee that can easily hold down an album by himself – he doesn’t need guests to add flavor or variety. Trophies offers 16 tracks of straight-to-the-point Hip Hop; no frills, no gimmicks. There are no guest emcee appearances, no hook singers, no skits, no wasted moments – and despite the album being about one hour long, it never gets boring.

Roc Marciano - Reloaded (Decon, 2012)

2012 best hip hop

Reloaded is the second studio album from former U.N. and Flipmode Squad member Roc Marciano. Marciano produced most of the album himself and was assisted on a couple of tracks by The Alchemist, Ray West, Q-Tip, and The Arch Druids. The album features guest contributions by rappers Ka and Knowledge Pirate. In addition to Reloaded, Roc Marciano has released an impressively consistent set of albums this decade – Marcberg (2010),  Marci Beaucou (2013), Rosebudd’s Revenge (2017), RR2: The Bitter Dose (2018), Behold A Dark Horse (2018), Kaos (with DJ Muggs, 2018), and Marcielago (2019) – all great, but Reloaded is the best of them all.

Reloaded is this decades’ epitome of the mafioso sub-genre pioneered in the mid-90s by legends such as Kool G Rap, Raekwon, Mobb Deep, AZ, and Nas. Ever since the advent of gangsta rap, there have been tons of Hip Hop albums filled with crime talk, but Roc Marciano rises far above all the genericness. Immersive, cinematic storytelling, complemented by atmospheric boom-bap instrumentals – Reloaded is a staple of the subgenre.

billy woods - History Will Absolve Me (Backwoodz Studioz, 2012)

Backwoodz Studioz Best Hip Hop Albums

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.

Qwel & Maker - Beautiful Raw (Galapagos 4, 2013)

100 Essential Midwest Hip Hop Albums

You may know Chicago emcee Qwel as part of the Typical Cats crew, who had three pretty good albums with Typical Cats (2001), Civil Service (2004), and 3 (2012). In addition to his work as a solo artist, Qwel has been releasing projects ever since 2004 with producer Maker. Beautiful Raw is their fourth collaborative album and their best. Maker’s instrumentals serve as the perfect backdrop for Qwel’s rhymes – which were some of the best recorded in 2013. Qwel is an excellent rapper, one of the best most of you probably have never listened to. For those who are up to speed with Qwel’s work will know it to be true, for those who have slept on Qwel up to now are in for a treat – before you go check out his back-catalog, begin with this album, enjoy Maker’s beats and really listen to Qwel’s lyrics to appreciate his skill and intricate wordplay.

Oddisee - Tangible Dream (Mello Music Group, 2013)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Oddisee really is something else. He is an incredible producer AND a great lyricist. He is responsible for two near-flawless albums as one-third of the Diamond District trio, and he has released a string of great solo projects. Tangible Dream is his best solo effort of the 2010s. This album is full of great songs. “Tomorrow Today”, “Back Of My Mind”, “Killin’ Time”, “Be There”, “Tangible Dream” – just a few of the stand-out tracks on this awesome project. Tangible Dream offers smooth and intelligent Hip Hop of the highest quality – this album should be a part of any serious Hip Hop collection.

R.A. The Rugged Man – Legends Never Die (Nature Sounds, 2013)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

R.A. The Rugged Man is an exceptional emcee – better than your favorite rapper. Few, if any emcees can go bar-for-bar with R.A. The Rugged Man. His technical skill, his incredible flow, his breath control, and his bar-building skills are second to none. Due to all kinds of label woes and a strong-minded personality with an unwillingness to compromise, he only released two albums in the more than two decades he’s been active in the game – but on those two albums, and on numerous guest appearances on other people’s songs (where he usually bodies everybody else involved), R.A. has consistently shown an unbeatable lyrical ability.

Legends Never Die is R.A.’s second album, displaying his superior flow and wordplay, with lyrics that are clever, humorous, braggadocious, self-depreciative, personal, and provocative – this guy really is something else. The beats on this album are dope too, Legends Never Die is one of the most entertaining albums of 2013.

Awon & Phoniks - Return To The Golden Era (Don't Sleep Records, 2013)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

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, jazzy, and mature Hip Hop music. No skippable tracks on here, 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.

Killah Priest – The Psychic World Of Walter Reed (Proverbs Records, 2013)

50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear

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.

Open Mike Eagle - Dark Comedy (Mello Music Group, 2014)

100 Essential Midwest Hip Hop Albums

Open Mike Eagle is a Chicago-born, Los Angeles-based artist who dropped some of the most interesting albums in abstract underground Hip Hop in the 2010s – with his soft spoken-word style, poetic lyrics, and experimental production. Dark Comedy is Open Mike Eagle’s fourth solo album and arguably his best album to date. Belying the at times breezy production, Open Mike Eagle’s subject matter never is lightweight. He approaches a variety of serious topics with dark and deliciously sarcastic humor – hence the title of the album. Open Mike Eagle’s lyrical performance on Dark Comedy is as good as we’ve heard from him, and the ambient production is fantastic throughout. The lyrical and instrumental intricacies give Dark Comedy more layers than anything else out this year, as always with an Open Mike Eagle release there’s a lot to unpack – Dark Comedy is an album with endless replay value.

Dilated Peoples - Directors Of Photography (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2014)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Directors of Photography is the fifth studio album by Los Angeles trio Dilated Peoples, and their best. Evidence, Rakaa Iriscience, and DJ Babu all brought their A-game, as did the production team consisting of 9th Wonder, The Alchemist, Bravo, Diamond D, DJ Premier, Jake One, Oh No, and Twiz The Beat Pro along with DJ Babu and Evidence themselves. The album runs for 55 minutes, which is long enough to keep the guest rappers – Vince Staples, Aloe Blacc, Catero, Gangrene, Sick Jacken, Krondon, Fashawn, Rapsody, Domo Genesis, Vinnie Paz, and Action Bronson – from overcrowding proceedings. Directors of Photography is executed flawlessly – this is matured underground boom-bap at its finest.

Pharoahe Monch – PTSD (W.A.R. Media, 2014)

Ranking Pharoahe Monch’s Albums

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is Pharoahe Monch’s fourth studio album, released under his independent label, W.A.R. Media. The album features guest appearances from Black Thought (his feature on the “Rapid Eye Movement” is ridiculous), Talib Kweli, Denaun, The Stepkids, and Vernon Reid, and has production from Lee Stone, Marco Polo, Jesse West, and Quelle Chris amongst others. PTSD is an impressive and timely concept piece – dealing with topics such as stress, depression, mental health issues, and the American illusion. As usual, Pharoahe Monch’s lyrics are razor-sharp, intricate, complex, and his flow is superior. PTSD has true substance, unlike most of the projects put out by lesser emcees in this era. The beats could have been better here and there, but as always a Pharoahe Monch album is all about the lyrical content. Few lyricists out there better than the unsung Pharoahe Monch.

Hail Mary Mallon - Bestiary (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2014)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

Bestiary is the second studio album Hail Mary Mallon, a duo consisting of s Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic. These two knew each other from the days they were label mates on El-P’s legendary DefJux label and this album sounds like it comes right out of the DefJux kitchen – even if it was released on Rhymesayers Entertainment, like DefJux one of those labels instrumental in keeping real Hip Hop alive.

Aesop Rock is on top of his production game, Bestiary has deep knocking beats layered with Aesop’s quirky sound effects throughout and it has DJ Big Wiz adding extra flavor with dope scratches on most tracks. As can be expected from Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic, the lyrics on Bestiary are clever and witty, and off-kilter enough to give it that Aesop Rock/Rob Sonic signature. Great album.

CZARFACE - Every Hero Needs A Villain (Brick Records, 2015)

best hiphop albums of 2015

Every Hero Needs a Villain is a more than worthy predecessor to Czarface’s first album, their self-titled debut was great and this one is even better. 7L’s production is not pushing any boundaries but it doesn’t have to: the beats are tight as hell and the chemistry between Esoteric and Inspectah Deck is as strong as ever, with witty lyricism and dope punchlines. Czarface is one of the most consistent acts of the 2010s, and they are unperturbed in dropping vintage-sounding East Coast Hip Hop. Every project they did is strong, Every Hero Needs a Villain is the best of them all.

Oddisee - The Good Fight (Mello Music Group, 2015)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

The Good Fight is Oddisee’s tenth studio album (also counting the two excellent albums he did as Diamond District with yU and Uptown XO), and it showcases his continuing growth as a producer and as an emcee. Soulful and eclectic, this album almost transcends genre boundaries in its musicality. Lyrics-wise The Good Fight is more than a worthwhile listen as well – with Oddisee telling us about his experiences as an artist in the music business and life in general. The Good Fight is put together meticulously from start to finish resulting in a remarkable blend of lyrical depth, complexity, beauty, and soul. “Counter-Clockwise”, “First Choice”, “Contradiction’s Maze”, “Want Something Done” and “Book Covers” are a few of the stand-out tracks, but this album has no filler tracks at all. The Good Fight is one of those albums that gets better with each spin.

Asphate - Closed Doors To An Open Mind (Galapagos 4, 2015)

100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums

This is as underground as it gets, Closed Doors To An Open Mind is an album even the most serious heads slept on. Released on the unsung Galapagos4 label – home to dope acts like Qwel & Maker, Batsauce, Denizen Kane, Qwazaar (and others) – this Asphate album is 2015’s best-kept secret. Des Moines’ Asphate is a real emcee, who earned his chops coming up in 90s freestyle battle circuits. On Closed Doors To An Open Mind, he shows off his dope flow and delivery, his great wordplay ability, and that he has something to say. Closed Doors To An Open Mind features Qwel & Qwazaar of Typical Cats, Hellsent of Outerlimitz as well as DJ TouchNice of Maxilla Blue on several tracks, all tracks were produced by Maker. Smooth and hard-hitting at the same time – Closed Doors To An Open Mind is a well-rounded project that deserves more attention than it got.

Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition (Fool's Gold/Warp, 2016)

100 Essential Midwest Hip Hop Albums

Danny Brown hit a home run with Atrocity Exhibition. This album feels like a feverish nightmare that gives us a glimpse of the insanity, depression, and hedonism of the Danny Brown psyche. This album is deep and dark and at times over the top, both sonically and lyrically. Production is superb though, and even those who gravitate towards more traditional styles will find a lot to like here. Danny Brown’s crazy flows range in style from hype and energetic to somber and reflective – but the content always is thought-provoking. You can call it experimental, or crazy, or weird – but be sure to call it a classic too: Atrocity Exhibition is Danny Brown’s best album.

X X X (2011) and Old (2o13) – like Atrocity Exhibition also released on the independent Brooklyn-based Fool’s Gold label – deserve a mention here too.

Aesop Rock - The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2016)

best hip hop of 2016

The Impossible Kid is Aesop Rock’s seventh studio album. Aesop Rock is a master of intelligent, poetic lyricism and on The Impossible Kid, his personal and relatable lyrics perfectly go with the flawless beats he crafted himself. The Impossible Kid is lyrically profound and musically empowering, a project with endless replay value – and one of Aesop Rock’s most accessible too. 15 tracks, no skips needed – the mark of an excellent album.

billy woods - Known Unknowns (Backwoodz Studioz, 2017)

top 40 hip hop albums of 2017

Known Unknowns is one of our favorite albums of 2017 and one of the best Hip Hop albums of the 2010s, but it was totally overlooked by most Hip Hop fans and noticed only by those heads who dig deep or those who have always been following billy woods. Substance over fluff, creativity over genericness, intelligence over materialism – that’s what characterizes billy woods, and knowing that dumb sh** dominates the mainstream it means little chance on mainstream exposure for woods’ music. Known Unknowns is one of billy woods’ most easy-to-get-into albums, mainly because of Blockhead’s dope and reasonably accessible production (with also a couple of beats crafted by Aesop Rock).

Quelle Chris - Being You Is Great… I Wish I Could Be You More Often (Mello Music Group, 2017)

100 Essential Midwest Hip Hop Albums

Being You Is Great! I Wish I Could Be You More Often is another excellent album by prolific Detroit artist Quelle Chris, with guest input by regular collaborators like Jean Grae (Quelle Chris’ wife), Homeboy Sandman, Denmark Vessey, Chris Keys, and others like Elzhi and Roc Marciano, among others.

Like all of Quelle Chris’ work Being You Is Great! I Wish I Could Be You More Often is neither an easy or straightforward listen. Sure, musically it’s more accessible than some of his other works (but still plenty left-field), but lyrically it’s typical Quelle Chris: challenging, often dense, but always compelling. Quelle Chris’ introspective musings on existentialism are both poignant and hilarious, and an hour of Being You Is Great! I Wish I Could Be You More Often reveals much of who Quelle Chris is as a human being.

As for the near-flawless production, most of the beats were done by Quelle Chris himself, with some assistance from The Alchemist, MNDSGN, and Iman Omari. All in all, Being You Is Great! I Wish I Could Be You More Often is an awesome project.

Open Mike Eagle - Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Mello Music Group, 2017)

100 Essential Midwest Hip Hop Albums

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 almost rivals Dark Comedy (2014) for the title of Open Mike Eagle’s best album to date.

Honorable Mentions

  • Juggaknots- Clear Blue Skies (1996)
  • Kool Keith – Sex Style (1997)
  • Latyrx – The Album (1997)
  • Mood – Doom (1997)
  • The Cenobites – The Cenobites LP (1997)
  • Jedi Mind Tricks – The Psycho-Social, Chemical, Biological & Electro-Magnetic Manipulation Of Human Consciousness (1997)
  • Dose One – Hemispheres (1998)
  • The Dynospectrum – The Dynospectrum (1998)
  • Third Sight – the Golden Shower Hour (1998)
  • Dälek – Negro Necro Nekros (1998)
  • The Coup – Steal This Album (1998)
  • Rasco – Time Waits For No Man (1998)
  • Styles of Beyond – 2000 Fold (1998)
  • All Natural – No Additives, No Preservatives (1998)
  • Aceyalone – A Book Of Human Language (1998)
  • Pharoahe Monch – Internal Affairs (1999)
  • Jeru The Damaja – Heroz4Hire (1999)
  • The High & Mighty – Home Field Advantage (1999)
  • Scaramanga – Seven Eyes, Seven Horns (1999)
  • Deep Puddle Dynamics – The Taste of Rain…Why Kneel (1999)


  • Aesop Rock – Float (2000)
  • Quasimoto – The Unseen (2000)
  • Lone Catalysts – Hip Hop (2000)
  • Zion I – Mind Over Matter (2000)
  • Analog Brothers – Pimp To Eat (2000)
  • Murs – Murs Rules The World (2000)
  • Bumpy Knuckles (Freddie Foxxx) – Industry Shakedown (2000)
  • Del The Funky Homosapien – Both Sides Of The Brain (2000)
  • People Under the Stairs – Question In The Form Of An Answer (2000)
  • Foreign Legion – Kidnapper Van: Beats To Rock While Bike-Stealin’ (2000)
  • The Lost Children Of Babylon – Where Light Was Created: The Equidivium (2001)
  • Techno Animal – The Brotherhood Of The Bomb (2001)
  • Mr. Len – Pity The Fool (2001)
  • Typical Cats – Typical Cats (2001)
  • Eyedea & Abilities – First Born (2001)
  • J. Rawls – The Essence Of J. Rawls (2001)
  • 7L & Esoteric – The Soul Purpose (2001)
  • Substantial – To This Union A Sun Was Born (2001)
  • CunninLynguists – Will Rap For Food (2001)
  • 7L & Esoteric – Dangerous Connection (2002)
  • Cage – Movies For The Blind (2002)
  • Kool G Rap – The Giancana Story (2002)
  • Jean Grae – Attack Of The Attacking Things… (2002)
  • Musab – Respect The Life (2002)
  • MF Grimm – The Downfall Of Ibliys: A Ghetto Opera (2002)
  • Alias – The Other Side Of The Looking Glass (2002)
  • Large Professor – 1st Class (2002)
  • Deepspace5 – The Night We Called It A Day (2002)
  • Lightheaded – Pure Thoughts (2003)
  • The Last Emperor – Music, Magic, Myth (2003)
  • Murs – The End Of The Beginning (2003)
  • KRS One – Kristyles (2003)
  • King Geedorah – Take Me To Your Leader (2003)
  • Aesop Rock – Bazooka Tooth (2003)
  • Soul Position – 8 Million Stories (2003)
  • Jedi Mind Tricks – Visions of Gandhi (2003)
  • CunninLynguists – Southernunderground (2003)
  • Non Prophets – Hope (2003)
  • Louis Logic – Sin-A-Matic (2003)
  • Semi.Official – The Anti-Album (2003)
  • Danger Mouse & Jemini – Ghetto Pop Life (2003)
  • Monsta Island Czars – Escape from Monsta Island! (2003)
  • The Lost Children Of Babylon – Words From The Duat: The Book of Anubis (2003)
  • R.A. The Rugged Man – Die, Rugged Man, Die (2004)
  • Jedi Mind Tricks – Legacy Of Blood (2004)
  • Living Legends – Creative Differences (2004)
  • Typical Cats – Civil Service (2004)
  • Ill Bill – What’s Wrong With Bill? (2004)
  • 7L & Esoteric – DC2: Bars of Death (2004)
  • Haiku D’Etat – Coup De Theatre (2004)
  • Non Phixion – The Green CD (2004)
  • Rob Sonic – Telicatessen (2004)
  • Braille – Shades Of Grey (2004)
  • Jean Grae – This Week (2004)
  • The Circle Of Tyrants – The Circle Of Tyrants (2005)
  • Ohmega Watts – The Find (2005)
  • Cool Calm Pete – Lost (2005)
  • Tonedeff – Archetype (2005)
  • Edan – Beauty & The Beat (2005)
  • Blueprint – 1988 (2005)
  • The Crest – Skeptik (2005)
  • Jazz Addixx – Oxygen (2005)
  • J-Live – The Hear After (2005)
  • Busdriver – Fear Of A Black Tangent (2005)
  • Felt – Felt 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet (2005)
  • J-Zone & Celph Titled Are The Boss Hog Barbarians ‎- Every Hog Has Its Day (2006)
  • Project Polaroid – Project Polaroid (2006)
  • Ugly Duckling – Bang For The Buck (2006)
  • Mr. Lif – Mo’ Mega (2006)
  • P.O.S – Audition (2006)
  • Mekalek – Live & Learn (2006)
  • 7L & Esoteric – A New Dope (2006)
  • Murs & 9th Wonder – Murray’s Revenge (2006)
  • MF Grimm – American Hunger (2006)
  • People Under The Stairs – Stepfather (2006)
  • Psalm One – The Death Of Frequent Flyer (2006)
  • Blue Sky Black Death – Blue Sky Black Death Presents The Holocaust (2006)
  • El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007)
  • Pharoahe Monch – Desire (2007)
  • Blue Scholars – Bayani (2007)
  • Evidence – The Weatherman LP (2007)
  • Blue Sky Black Death & Hell Razah – Razah’s Ladder (2007)
  • Polyrhythm Addicts – Break Glass (2007)
  • Senim Silla – The Name, The Motto, The Outcome (2007)
  • Sage Francis – Human The Death Dance (2007)
  • Sonic Sum – Films (2008)
  • Vordul Mega – Megagraphitti (2008)
  • NYOIL – Hood Treason (2008)
  • eMC – The Show (2008)
  • Jean Grae – Jeanius (2008)
  • Johnson & Jonson – Johnson & Jonson (2008)
  • Immortal Technique – 3rd World (2008)
  • Invincible – Shapeshifters (2008)
  • Jake One – White Van Music (2008)
  • J Live – Then What Happened? (2008)
  • Doomtree – Doomtree (2008)
  • Atmosphere – When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Sh** Gold (2008)
  • Brother Ali – Us (2009)
  • Ugly Duckling – Audacity (2009)
  • Qwel & Maker – So Be It (2009)
  • P.O.S – Never Better (2009)
  • Tanya Morgan – Brooklynati (2009)
  • Skyzoo – The Salvation (2009)
  • Oddisee – Mental Liberation (2009)
  • People Under The Stairs – Carried Away (2009)
  • Killah Priest – Elizabeth (Introduction To The Psychic) (2009)
  • Marco Polo & Torae – Double Barrel (2009)


  • Roc Marciano – Marcberg (2010)
  • Freeway & Jake One – The Stimulus Package (2010)
  • The Left – Gas Mask (2010)
  • Blacastan – Blac Sabbath (2010)
  • Super Chron Flight Brothers – Cape Verde (2010)
  • Apollo Brown & Boog Brown – Brown Study (2010)
  • Skyzoo & !llmind – Live From The Tape Deck (2010)
  • Super Chron Flight Brothers – Cape Verde (2010)
  • Qwel & Maker – Owl (2010)
  • Rakaa – Crown Of Thorns (2010)
  • B. Dolan – Fallen House, Sunken City (2010)
  • Canibus – Melatonin Magik (2010)
  • Rashad & Confidence – The Element Of Surprise (2011)
  • Akua Naru – The Journey Aflame (2011)
  • Has-Lo – In Case I Don’t Make It (2011)
  • Ugly Duckling – Moving At Breakneck Speed (2011)
  • People Under The Stairs – Highlighter (2011)
  • Evidence – Cats & Dogs (2011)
  • Doomtree – No Kings (2011)
  • Danny Brown – X X X (2011)
  • Has-Lo – In Case I Don’t Make It (2011)
  • J-Live – S.P.T.A. (Said Person Of That Ability) (2011)
  • CunninLynguists – Oneirology (2011)
  • Pharoahe Monch – W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) (2011)
  • Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Gonna Eat That? (2011)
  • Aesop Rock – Skelethon (2012)
  • El-P – Cancer 4 Cure (2012)
  • Purpose & Confidence – Purpose Of Confidence (2012)
  • Brother Ali – Mourning In America And Dreaming In Color (2012)
  • Homeboy Sandman – First Of A Living Breed (2012)
  • Dark Time Sunshine – ANX (2012)
  • Ugly Heroes – Ugly Heroes (2013)
  • Ka – The Night’s Gambit (2013)
  • Armand Hammer – Race Music (2013)
  • Danny Brown – Old (2013)
  • Demigodz – KILLmatic (2013)
  • Yugen Blakrok – Return Of The Astro​-​Goth (2013)
  • Army Of The Pharaohs – In Death Reborn (2014)
  • Busdriver – Perfect Hair (2014)
  • Step Brothers – Lord Steppington (2014)
  • Sa-Roc – Nebuchadnezzar (2014)
  • Sage Francis – Copper Gone (2014)
  • Diabolic – Fighting Words (2014)
  • Skyzoo & Torae – Barrel Brothers (2014)
  • Anti-Lilly & Phoniks – Stories From The Brass Section (2014)
  • People Under The Stairs – 12 Step Program (2014)
  • Diamond District – March On Washington (2014)
  • Apollo Brown – Grandeur (2015)
  • Gangrene – You Disgust Me (2015)
  • Killah Priest – Planet Of The Gods (2015)
  • Add-2 – Prey For The Poor (2015)
  • Awon & Phoniks – Knowledge Of Self (2015)
  • Skyzoo – Music For My Friends (2015)
  • Dr. Yen Lo – Days With Dr. Yen Lo (2015)
  • billy woods – Today, I Wrote Nothing (2015)
  • L’Orange & Jeremiah Jae – The Night Took Us In Like Family (2015)
  • Kool Keith – Feature Magnetic (2016)
  • Elzhi – Lead Poison (2016)
  • UG – Portals (2016)
  • Ryu – Tanks For The Memories (2016)
  • ELUCID – Save Yourself (2016)
  • Wise Intelligent – Stevie Bonneville Wallace (2016)
  • Apathy – Handshakes With Snakes (2016)
  • Ka – Honor Killed The Samurai (2016)
  • Westside Gunn – FLYGOD (2016)
  • Apollo Brown & Skyzoo – The Easy Truth (2016)
  • Oddisee – The Iceberg (2017)
  • lojii & Swarvy – DUE RENT (2017)
  • Jonwayne – Rap Album Two (2017)
  • Armand Hammer – Rome (2017)
  • Dope KNife – NineteenEightyFour (2017)
  • P.O.S – Chill, Dummy (2017)
  • Hex One – Words Worth A Thousand Pictures (2017)
  • Brother Ali – All The Beauty In This Whole Life (2017)
  • CunninLynguists – Rose Azura Njano (2017)
  • MInk (Musab & Ink Well) – Intellectual Property (2017)
  • Evidence – Weather Or Not (2018)
  • Hermit And The Recluse – Orpheus vs. The Sirens (2018)
  • Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine (2018)
  • Marlowe – Marlowe (2018)
  • Lee Reed – Before & Aftermath (2018)
  • Awon & Phoniks – The Actual Proof (2018)
  • Armand Hammer – Paraffin (2018)
  • ANKHLEJOHN & Big Ghost Ltd – Van Ghost (2018)
  • Noname – Room 25 (2018)
  • billy woods & Kenny Segal – Hiding Places (2019)
  • Quelle Chris – Guns (2019)
  • Apollo Brown – Sincerely, Detroit (2019)
  • Skyzoo & Pete Rock – Retropolitan (2019)
  • Epic Beard Men – This Was Supposed To Be Fun (2019)
  • Apollo Brown & Che’ Noir – As God Intended (2020)
  • Marlowe – Marlowe 2 (2020)
  • Ka – Descendants Of Cain (2020)
  • Sa-Roc – The Sharecropper’s Daughter (2020)
  • Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide (2020)
  • R.A. The Rugged Man – All My Heroes Are Dead (2020)

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9 responses to “100 Essential Underground Hip Hop Albums”

  1. Raggedy says:

    Third Sight – the Golden Shower Hour

  2. Xplo1t says:

    Ugly Heroes – Everything In Between (2016)

  3. Ziga vrhovnik says:

    Will you do also best of mainstream big label releases?

  4. J. Thompson says:

    Organized Konfusion???

  5. Calvin Clark says:

    no Donuts?
    no No Need for Alarm?

  6. Cyril says:

    Good list and read. One sad reoccurring thing is in the U.S.but also in the rest of the world: these lists always exclude other countries and their Good Quality Professional Serious Lyrical Technical etc.Hip Hop.This list should have been called Top 100 —-U.S.— Underground Hip Hop List.

  7. DJ Mello Ell says:

    Great list. Brings back memories. Does The Minstrel Show count, though? It was released on Atlantic (even though it flopped).

  8. J.E.S says:

    for the most part the list is very good. I personally would have had some that you listed as honorable mentioned in my top 100 though. Here are also some I think you forgot:

    Sonic Sum – Sanity Annex (possibly the most slept on underground hip-hop record of all time). This easily makes my top 5.
    Siah and Yeshua Dapoed – Visualz
    The Arsonists – As The World Burns
    Cage x Camu Tao – Nighthawks
    Ugly Duckling – Fresh Mode EP
    Bigg Jus – Black Mamba Serums
    Scienz of Life – Coming Forth By Day
    Micranots – Obelisk Movements
    Sir Menalik – The Einstein Rosen Bridge
    K-The-I??? – Broken Love Letter
    Atmosphere – Overcast
    Roosevelt Franklin (Kimani Rogers x Mr. Len) – Something’s Got to Give
    I.N.I – Center Of Attention
    E.C. – Illa lP
    Elzhi – Ellmatic
    Visionaries – Galleries
    Nephlim Modulation Systems (Bigg Jus x Orko Eloheim) – Woe to Thee O Land When Thy King Is a Child
    Necro – I Need Drugs
    Vast Aire – Look Mom…No Hands

  9. Lamarr’ says:

    I don’t know the process in how these were chosen, but a list with NO Bigg Jus, NMS, Orko, and Shabazz Palaces is a fraudulent list. Edan’s album is well beyond honorable mention as well. On top of that NO Griselda???

    This list sucks tremendously!!! 💯

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