The best-selling album of 2004 was Eminem’s Encore. Best-selling doesn’t mean best though – there were dozens of albums better than Encore in 2004, which was a pretty good year for Hip Hop overall.
For this list, we have selected 18 albums that were underappreciated at the time of their release, either when it comes to critical acclaim or to commercial success – or both.
NOT included in this list is the best album of 2004: Madvillainy by MF DOOM & Madlib as Madvillain, because that album has received so much praise and acclaim that we can not possibly call it underappreciated, even if its sales figures do not reflect its brilliance.
Scroll all the way down for our Top 40 Hip Hop Albums Of 2004 list to see a complete ranking for this year, with Madvillainy topping that list.
But we’ll get into 2004’s most underappreciated releases first, listed in no particular order here – check them out and let us know if you discovered albums here you missed out on up til now. Also hit up the comments if there are any albums we overlooked. Let’s go!
Masta Ace - A Long Hot Summer
Following the monumental Disposable Arts, A Long Hot Summer is another concept album by Masta Ace, and just as brilliant as its predecessor. A Long Hot Summer serves as sort of a prequel to Disposable Arts. The story follows Ace, an underground rapper through his “Long Hot Summer” in Brooklyn, accompanied by buddy Fats Belvedere. Ace ventures through the Brooklyn streets and goes out on tour with Fats as his unofficial manager.
With guest appearances by Jean Grae, The Beatnuts, Big Noyd, Edo G., Punch & Words, Apocalypse, Leschea and Rahzel, A Long Hot Summer confidently manages to navigate its riveting storyline, resulting in another masterpiece for the unsung Masta Ace. Universally praised, but underappreciated anyhow on account of poor sales figures. Make no mistake though, this is one of the year’s best albums.
Micranots - The Emperor & The Assassin
Micranots’ – consisting of I Self Devine and DJ Kool Akiem – third album and their first one released through the outstanding Rhymesayers Entertainment label. After signing with Rhymesayers, the duo relocated from Atlanta to Minneapolis. They formed the Micranots back in 1991, so by the time 2003 came along these two were confident veterans. They would be break up soon after the release of The Emperor & The Assassin, so this release remains their best (even if their first two efforts were more than fine too).
What does this album have to offer? Pure and uncut Hip Hop, plain and simple. Dope beats, and excellent lyrics from I Self Devine that are way above average. I Self Devine is an emcee’s emcee – one who has the vocabulary to express himself with intelligence and clarity, as well as the flow and delivery to give power to his words. Passionate and intelligent –The Emperor & The Assassin is a dope album.
Edo. G feat. Pete Rock - My Own Worst Enemy
This Edo G album bangs from start to finish. The Boston Hip Hop legend has always been a top emcee, and recruiting Pete Rock (and Diamond D) for production duties proved to be a masterstroke. My Own Worst Enemy shows what happens when masters of the game come together all bringing their A-game. Albums like this one are the surest examples that nothing has ever been wrong with Hip Hop, real Hip Hop was never gone.
Insight - The Blast Radius
Boston’s multi-talent Insight drops one of 2004’s finest albums with The Blast Radius. Impressive beats and rhymes result in a through and through consistent album filled with dope cuts. “Evolve” and “Time Frame” are highlights, but there are more stand-outs, like “Ready & Able”, “Hazardous Material”, “Lots Of Facts About Control”, “Bother Me”, and “Seventeen MC’s” – there are no skippable tracks, really. Check this album out if you never did before:
Eyedea & Abilities - E&A
Another Rhymesayers Entertainment gem. E&A is the second studio album by Eyedea & 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 are a great MC/DJ tandem and E&A is one of our favorite albums of 2004.
Oh No - The Disrupt
Talent runs in the family, as producer/emcee Oh No proves with his debut album The Disrupt. Madlib’s brother shows the same eclectic-ness and willingness to experiment as his older brother, arguably producing a bit more accessible sounds than Madlib is wont to do. In the year when Madlib dropped what may be his magnum opus – Madvillainy with MF DOOM – Oh No comes out with a more than fine album of his own, with a varied selection of great songs.
The tracks featuring fellow Stones Throw artists Wildchild and Medaphoar – “Stomp That V. 2”, “WTF”, “The Ride” – are among the best ones on offer, but there is much more to enjoy – the opening track “Right Now’ with its dope rhymes and cuts deserves a special mention.
Oh No proves he’s able to change styles and subject matter to keep things interesting, also showing that he is a better rapper than his older brother. There are a couple of tracks where Madlib offers his assistance on the production but it this is definitely the album with which Oh No established himself as his own man, the album on which he would build a distinguished career, well out of the shade of his legendary brother.
MF DOOM - Mm... Food
MF DOOM has dropped a bunch of left-field classics and dope concept albums in his career. While albums like Operation Doomsday and Madvillainy are true Hip Hop classics, most of DOOM’s other work is usually considerably less celebrated. Mm… Food is one of those albums. Kind of a concept album, as every track is compiled primarily of food-related subject matter. The food-related content works better than you might expect, particularly when DOOM uses it as a means to cleverly diss other emcees.
“Beef Rap”, “Hoe Cakes”, “Rapp Snitch Knishes”, are some of the real DOOM bangers on this one. Creative and experimental production as always (mostly done by MF DOOM himself) and of course DOOM’s conversational and complex flow and abstract lyrical imagery, make for a dope album, admittedly for people with an acquired taste.
Haiku D'Etat - Coup De Theatre
Coup de Theatre is the second studio album Haiku D’Etat – a trio featuring West Coast underground legends Aceyalone and Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship and Abstract Rude of Abstract Tribe Unique. All three members are heavily affiliated with Project Blowed, Aceyalone and Abstract Rude being co-founders. The name “Haiku D’Etat” is a portmanteau of haiku and coup d’état, meaning something akin to a musical revolution or a “poetic takeover” as one of their songs puts it.
Haiku D’Etat released their first album Haiku D’Etat in 1999, an excellent album that went criminally unnoticed. Coup de Theatre is even better – more focused and more cohesive – and just as slept on. If you’re looking for jazzy, soulful Hip Hop with lyrics from top-tier emcees – look no further, Haiku D’Etat is for you.
Braille - Shades Of Grey
Oregon’s Braille is a talented individual, who dropped an unnoticed gem with Shades Of Grey, his second album. With production by the likes of 9th Wonder, Ohmega Watts, DJ Rob Swift, Kno, Illmind and others this album offers a lot of different tastes but still manages to sound like a cohesive whole. The album has a great throwback feel about it, with dope sampling and turntable work complementing most beats. Too many people slept on Shades Of Grey, if you did too now’s the time to check it out:
Typical Cats - Civil Service
Typical cats – emcees Qwel, Qwazaar, Denizen Kane and DJ/producers Natural and Kid Knish – are one of the big acts on indie Chicago label Galapagos4. They debuted in 2001 with an excellent self-titled debut album, in 2004 they returned with an equally strong sophomore effort: Civil Service.
The 3 emcees all have an own, distinct style and DJ Natural’s well-crafted, groovy beats mixed with live instruments serve as the perfect backdrop for their innovative lyrics. Highlights include “Style Wars Theory”, “Can’t Save”, “Easy Cause It Is” and “The Trouble”, but the album is a smooth and fresh listen from start to finish. Civil Service is a great album and a nice counterweight to the non-creative, soulless music that dominated the mainstream in 2004.
Time Machine - Slow Your Roll
Smooth boom-bap by a group consisting of DJ Mekalek and emcees Jaysonic and Comel. Hailing from Rhode Island, NY but making music after relocating to Los Angeles, Time Machine sonically offers us best of both coasts with Slow Your Roll. DJ Mekalek’s production will meet approval from the biggest boom-bap fans, and he managed to infuse a smooth summer West Coast vibe into his beats at the same time. The emcees are competent enough, but it is the soundscapes that make Slow Your Roll the treasure that it is. 18 tracks and no need to skip any – that means this an excellent album.
Those who like groups like The Pharcyde and Ugly Duckling will love Slow Your Roll. As guest Special K (yes Special K from the Awesome 2) says in “Spelling Bee”, Time Machine has that sound which takes the listener back to the early nineties, back to when Hip Hop was PURE and FUN.
Blue Scholars - Blue Scholars
Blue Scholars is the self-titled debut release by Blue Scholars (Geologic aka Prometheus Brown and DJ Sabzi), a Seattle-based duo. The album was originally only available in the Seattle area in 2004 before being given a national release in 2005. Funky, smooth, melodic – DJ Sabzi production serves as the perfect backdrop for Geologic tight rhymes.
This album holds as perfect a blend of rhymes and beats as you’re going to find, with not a weak track on it (just one unfortunate skit). Blue Scholars is one of those albums that is aging really well and has great reply value – an album to be treasured.
Foreign Exchange - Connected
This really is a unique album. Foreign Exchange is a collaboration between Dutch producer Nicolay and Little Brother’s Phonte – who met on the online forums of Okayplayer. The two never physically met until after the album was done. Nicolay created the beats in Europe, Phonte rapped over them in the USA. The result is an incredibly organic sounding blend of Hip Hop, R&B, soul, jazz, and other styles – a smooth genre-bending musical experience and a worthy addition to anybody’s music collection.
Shock G - Fear Of A Mixed Planet
Fear Of A Mixed Planet (a reference to Shock G’s own mixed racial background) is an understated masterpiece – the album title being an obvious play on Public Enemy’s classic third album Fear Of A Black Planet. Fear Of A Mixed Planet went largely unnoticed in 2004 and that’s a shame. Maybe it was released ten years too late?
Whatever the reason for its obscurity – Fear Of A Mixed Planet really is a brilliant album. Digital Underground’s genius frontman Shock G takes the listener on a journey through his mind – the result is an album with dope beats and simultaneously thoughtful and witty lyrics.
Ill Bill - What's Wrong With Bill?
What’s Wrong With Bill? is another strong release coming out of the Non Phixion camp. With production duties handled by his brother Necro, Ill Bill graphically combines themes of sex, violence, drugs, gory imagery, and social/political themes – maybe a bit too much outside the norm for the average fan and casual Hip Hop listener. Nonetheless, What’s Wrong With Bill? is creative, unique, honest and intelligent – overall an exceptional album from an equally exceptional label.
Leak Bros. - Waterworld
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 mention “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 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.
R.A. The Rugged Man - Die, Rugged Man, Die
The term ‘underrated emcee’ is used far too often and applied all the time to rappers who are in fact widely celebrated. An emcee who is truly deserving of the label ‘underrated’ is the unique R.A. The Rugged Man.
R.A. The Rugged Man’s third album, but first commercial release, Die Rugged Man Die was recorded between 1999 and 2004 and finally released in 2004 on the Nature Sounds label – over ten years after his first steps on the Hip Hop scene. In the early nineties, a young R.A. caught the eye of Russell Simons before getting signed by Jive Records. A debut on Jive never happened, allegedly not in the last place due to R.A.’s own uncompromising and at times antagonistic behavior.
Whatever did or did not happen for him because of his own attitude and antics, there’s no denying the man’s exceptional lyrical talent. On this debut, the quotable-filled single “Lessons”, the trip through Hip Hop memory lane “On The Block” and cuts like “Chains”, “Dumb” and the great “A Star Is Born” are all testaments of the fact R.A. will always unapologetically say exactly what he wants, and screw what anybody thinks about it.
I ain’t down to sign autographs and shake ya hands
I don’t want trendy ass followers for fans
I don’t wanna sell records, I don’t wanna be big
I don’t want MTV running up in my crib
I don’t wanna be liked in the music biz
I don’t want fans that don’t know who G Rap is
The fact he can back up his attitude with lyrical skills few others possess makes Die, Rugged Man, Die an album to be celebrated and remembered.
Murs & 9th Wonder - Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition
In his two decades in the Hip Hop game, Murs has released a whole bunch of excellent albums – solo as well as collaborative efforts. This may very well be 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 honesty and real emotion. The collaboration with 9th Wonder works perfectly – the soundscapes 9th Wonder provides all serve to enhance the strength of Murs’ intelligent 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.
Bonus Mention: k-os - Joyful Rebellion
This is an odd duck. A blending of styles including reggae, rock, soul, electro and even flamenco, Joyful Rebellion nevertheless is Hip Hop in its core. All the different musical ingredients Joyful Rebellion contains, result into an album that brought a much-welcomed breath of fresh air to the Hip Hop scene in 2004 (much like Mos Def’s much maligned but actually very good sophomore album The New Danger). Just because an album does not fit one particular mold, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Not to everybody’s taste, sure.
Joyful Rebellion has a lot to offer, especially if you’re able to go into to it with an open mind. as is the case with The New Danger you will probably not like every song on this album. It is just as probable though that you will LOVE some others – like ‘B-Boy Stance”: a raw Hip Hop track and our favorite from this album. There’s a lot more to enjoy here though – Joyful Rebellion is Hip Hop redefined and deserves to be applauded for its creativity and audacity.
Top 40 Hip Hop Albums 2004
- Madvillain – Madvillainy
- Masta Ace – A Long Hot Summer
- De La Soul – The Grind Date
- Kanye West – The College Dropout
- Eyedea & Abilities – E&A
- Edo. G feat. Pete Rock – My Own Worst Enemy
- Haiku D’Etat – Coup De Theatre
- Murs & 9th Wonder – Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition
- Foreign Exchange – Connected
- Time Machine – Slow Your Roll
- Shock G – Fear Of A Mixed Planet
- Masta Killa – No Said Date
- MF DOOM – Mm.. Food
- R.A. the Rugged Man – Die, Rugged Man, Die
- Braille – Shades Of Grey
- Blue Scholars – Blue Scholars
- Insight – The Blast Radius
- Typical Cats – Civil Service
- Ghostface Killah – The Pretty Tony Album
- Talib Kweli – The Beautiful Struggle
- Brother Ali – Champion EP
- Oh No – The Disrupt
- Royce Da 5’9″ – Death Is Certain
- Nas – Street’s Disciple
- The U.N. – UN Or U Out
- Illogic – Celestial Clockwork
- Ill Bill – What’s Wrong With Bill?
- The Roots – The Tipping Point
- Leak Bros. – Waterworld
- Beastie Boys – To The 5 Boroughs
- Micranots – The Emperor & The Assassin
- Non Phixion – The Green CD
- P.O.S – Ipecac Neat
- Jean Grae – This Week
- Slum Village – Detroit Deli (A Taste of Detroit)
- Jedi Mind Tricks – Legacy of Blood
- Declaime – Conversations With Dudley
- Porn Theatre Ushers – Taxachusetts
- 7L & Esoteric – DC2: Bars of Death
- Dilated Peoples – Neighborhood Watch