Discussing ‘best ever’ Hip Hop albums is fun, but at the same time often a futile exercise. It’s fun because it forces you to think and sometimes to re-evaluate, and it’s fun because talks with others can make you discover some great albums you otherwise might have slept on. But at times it’s futile too because inevitably not everyone has the same amount of knowledge. Nobody has listened to EVERY Hip Hop album ever released, but someone who’s exposure is limited to a couple of dozen of popular albums, and who is inclined to dismiss anything unfamiliar out of hand (lots of people are like that), obviously is not really qualified to talk Hip Hop with any sort of authority.
Trying to pitch more obscure Hip Hop titles to people who have only listened to 2Pac and Biggie or to Kanye and Kendrick – and who don’t want look any further – can get kind of tiring. Some people seem to think these four, along with names like Jay-Z, Eminem, Dr. Dre, and OutKast are all Hip Hop ever had to offer. That’s too bad because there’s SO MUCH other great Hip Hop out there. Casual Hip Hop listeners who ARE open and willing to discover some non-mainstream Hip Hop music they have never listened to before may find this list to be of value.
For this piece, I have selected – in no particular order – 50 of my favorite Hip Hop albums released after the turn of the millennium that I consider to be underappreciated. Some albums listed here are better known than others, but even heads who are used to digging deep may discover an album or two they have missed out on for some reason.
Open Mike Eagle - Dark Comedy (2014)
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.
Felt – Felt 3: A Tribute To Rosie Perez (2009)
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 my absolute favorite of the series, however. Some nay-sayers have criticized Aesop Rock’s production on this one, but we feel the soundscapes 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 – they bounce bars of each other like Run and DMC did in their best days.
Semi Hendrix - Breakfast At Banksy’s (2015)
Semi Hendrix is a collaboration between Grammy-winning producer Jack Splash and legendary lyricist Ras Kass – they joined forces to make Breakfast at Banksy’s. This album is excellent, totally overlooked by almost everybody, unfortunately. Jack Splash manages to come up with different sounds for every track, maintaining a high energy level from start to finish. The beats are exactly what Ras Kass needs to match his intensity. Ras Kass, as always, comes with clever, humorous, and hard-hitting lyrics, while Jack Splash manages to hold his own on the mic as well. This is one of 2015’s hidden treasures.
Blueprint - 1988 (2005)
Not counting his work as part of Soul Position this may be Columbus Ohio emcee/producer Blueprint’s best-known album. Not as widely known as it should be, but most real heads will own or will at least know 1988. The short intro sets the tone for the album nicely: a mash-up of Stetsasonic’s “Stet Troop ’88” and KRS-One’s “Fresh For 88” statement. This intro is followed by a short track incorporating a classic Run-DMC beat, before the third track titled “1988” kicks in with some old-fashioned scratching and a great old-school battle rap attitude to it. After that, there are a whole lot more stand-out tracks, like “Tramp”, “Trouble On My Mind”, “Fresh” and “Liberated” – but the whole album is great, it’s the overall cohesiveness of this project that makes it the essential release that it is.
To simply call this album a throwback would be wrong, it’s more layered than that. Some tracks may have that retro feel, and even if Blueprint manages to invoke a great golden age atmosphere, he simultaneously brings more modern vibes to the table. 1988 is one of the crown jewels in Blueprint’s discography, one of the better Hip Hop albums released in 2005, and a definite must-have for any self-respecting Hip Hop fan.
Add-2 - Prey For The Poor (2015)
Prey For The Poor is Chicago emcee Add-2’s debut solo LP since signing to 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records. It’s his official debut album after a string of excellent mixtapes – an album that went sadly unnoticed upon its release in 2015. Make no mistake though – this is one of the best Hip Hop releases of 2015. Add-2 is a spectacular lyricist, who combines supreme technical skill as an emcee with the ability to write intelligent, socially conscious lyrics. The smooth jazzy beats are produced by the likes of Nottz, AMP, 9th Wonder, and mainly Khrysis, and the album’s guest features include A-listers like Rapsody, Jamila Woods, Sam Trump, and Raheem DeVaughn. Add-2 touches on a myriad of important societal issues in a thought-provoking manner, this is an important album more people should have picked up on. Don’t sleep on Add-2.
Project Polaroid – Project Polaroid (2006)
Project Polaroid is a collaboration composed of crazy genius Kool Keith and Bay Area producer TomC3. Project Polaroid dropped in 2006 and not a lot of people took notice. That’s a shame because this album is fantastic – easily part of the better half of Kool Keith’s prodigious output. TomC3’s soundscapes are dope as hell and lyrically Kool Keith is in great form, with lyrics that are reminiscent of his absolute masterpiece Dr. Octagonecologyst. Project Polaroid is a project everybody slept on, but it is never too late to get up to speed.
UG - Portals (2016)
Bandcamp blurb: “I like to tap into people’s imaginations. When I spit, I try to make movies with my words…” Armed with his unique delivery, gruff voice, and sharp wit, U.G. is well-equipped to do just as he wishes when he hits the booth. Whether on his own or earning critical acclaim as one-half of the Cella Dwellas, the Brooklyn rapper has been a giant amongst the NYC rap underground since ’94. And on Portals, his long-anticipated solo debut, he proves exactly why so many look his way for music that’s incredibly fresh, and completely his own.
Portals is a 14-track journey into just what U.G. set out to accomplish—a movie-like atmosphere anchored by well-complemented production (entirely from IDE) and extraordinary rapping. That much was evident on lead single, “The Mystic,” which is equally eccentric in its wordplay and technical displays as U.G. flows over the creeping instrumental. Elsewhere, the BK spitter taps into his cinematic vision with joints like the harrowing “Might & Magic,” and the super-grimy, “Ready for War.”
Interestingly enough, U.G. credits his movie-like approach with what makes his music so appealing to his fans. “That inner-kid comes out of them when they hear that stuff,” he says. “We (U.G. and IDE) are both visual artists as far as our approach to sound is concerned.”
Beyond the concept, the rapper and producer just love Hip Hop culture and wanted to represent it right. They may be taking a boom-bap excursion into another dimension—and likely one in a distant galaxy—on Portals, but this is pure, raw, unadulterated Hip Hop to the bone gristle.
Non Prophets - Hope (2003)
Sandwiched between two excellent solo-albums – Personal Journals (2002) and Healthy Distrust (2005) – Providence, Rhode Island emcee Sage Francis dropped Hope, under the name Non-Prophets, a collaboration between himself and producer Joe Beats. Joe Beats handles all production duties on Hope, which adds to the strength of the album – ensuring a musically cohesive and consistently dope sound throughout. Sage Francis’ lyrics are somewhat lighter on Hope than on most of his solo-albums, less deep and less personal, but still as intelligent and thought-provoking as always.
Oddisee - The Iceberg (2017)
Washington DC-based producer/emcee Oddisee had two possible future classics this decade with Tangible Dream (2013) and The Good Fight (2015). The Iceberg is even more eclectic in its musicality than the two albums mentioned – with live-band instrumentals and non-Hip Hop influences, which makes this album more of an acquired taste than previous Oddisee efforts are. Thought-provoking lyrics about contemporary socio-political issues, and well-rounded musical backdrops – The Iceberg offers 45 minutes of grown man Hip Hop of the best kind, that sadly went well over the heads of most of 2017’s rap music consumers.
J-Live - The Best Part (2001)
This is one of the most slept on Hip Hop albums ever, and it easily is one of the best of the 2000’s decade. 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”, “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.
ANKHLEJOHN & Big Ghost Ltd - Van Ghost (2018)
Following the neo-boom-bap/noir-rap aesthetic established by niche-leaders Roc Marciano and Griselda, with Van Ghost prolific emcee ANKHLEJOHN and producer Big Ghost have created an album that’s better than anything that ever came out of the Roc Marci and Griselda camps.
Van Ghost is a true work of art. Every track on Van Ghost is named after a Van Gogh painting, ANKLEJOHN’s lyrics touch upon some aspect of each particular painting, and the cover art created by Big Ghost is done in the artistic style of the famous Dutch painter. Similar to looking at a fine painting, there’s a lot of to unpack listening to Van Ghost, and every single listener may take away something different from the experience. ‘Atmospheric’ and ‘haunting’ are overused adjectives in describing albums like this one, but in the case of Van Ghost, they are as apt as can be. Big Ghost’ cinematic instrumentals and ANKLEJOHN’s grimy lyrics gell into a truly intense listening experience.
Van Ghost is tight and focused: 12 tracks, no useless interludes or other fillers, and guest artists on just 2 of the 12 tracks – Hus Kingpin makes an appearance on “Almond Blossoms”, Fly Anakin, Eto, and Crimeapple on “At Eternity’s Gate”. All in all, Van Ghost is a unique and intriguing piece of work, the benchmark against which all other albums in this rap-noir niche should be measured.
Ohmega Watts – The Find (2005)
In a year where wack albums like 50 Cent’s The Massacre sold millions of copies, this gem of a record went largely unnoticed. Perfectly encapturing the 90’s boom-bap vibe, sonically paying homage to sounds of the likes of Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Diamond D, Q-Tip, Large Pro and other NYC mid-nineties production giants – but also capturing the vibe of west coast groups like The Pharcyde and Souls Of Mischief – Ohmega Watts simultaneously succeeds to give his beats and rhymes his own authentic and contemporary feel.
The self-explanatory “Where It All Started”, the old-fashioned-feeling “Full Swing” and cuts like “Saturday Night Live”, “Treatment”, and “Mind Power” are just some of the highlights, but the whole album slams. Filled with jazzy and soulful beats, great sampling, and lyrics worth listening to, The Find simply is an amazing debut and an all-around brilliant album – one for the true Hip Hop connoisseur. Cop.
CunninLynguists - Rose Azura Njano (2017)
Rose Azura Njano is not even CunninLynguists’ best album – that would be the more celebrated A Piece Of Strange (2006) – but it is an excellent project in its own right, Hip Hop for grown folk of the best kind. The conceptual album tells the story of a character named Rose, who is afflicted by chromesthesia and personifies “Black music in America and its history in pain, loss, hardships, and socio-political movements.” Kno is in a league of his own as far as production goes, and the lyrics from Deacon The Villian and Natti are on point as usual. CunninLynguists have one of the strongest bodies of work in Hip Hop, present and past, and Rose Azura Njano is an important piece of their discography.
Jazz Addixx – Oxygen (2005)
Jazz Addixxx’s Oxygen is a top 10 album of 2005. Rhymes, beats, scratches – everything is on point. The Jazz Addixx duo gives us a perfect blend of Jazz and Hip Hop with this smooth album. Oxygen feels like a trip back to Hip Hop’s Golden Age that will keep your head nodding with nostalgia. Smooth and thought-provoking lyrics by Jazz Addixx’s emcee M.U.D.D, stylish cuts by DJ Ragz and dope jazzy musical backdrops – this album is pure gold. If you have never dug this deep and never peeped this album you are in for a treat – add this one to your library and it will become a favorite quickly.
billy woods - History Will Absolve Me (2012)
What do you know about billy woods? billy woods was born in Washington, D.C., to a Jamaican mother and a father from Zimbabwe. In 1981, the family moved to Africa, to return to the States after the death of woods’ father in 1995. woods’ African perspective is evident in his music – giving his music a special edge, sonically and content-wise. 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.
History Will Absolve Me is billy woods’ 3rd full-length solo album, and one of his best. 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 extremely rewarding. One of the best albums in 2012, which was sadly ignored upon its release. It is standing the test of time though, so it is never too late to check it out.
Soul Position – 8 Million Stories (2003)
Soul Position is the unsung Blueprint’s collaboration with fellow Columbus, Ohio DJ/producer RJD2. It was their first full album together (after an EP in 2002), released on Rhymesayers Entertainment. 8 Million Stories probably is the best-known and best-received Soul Position release, with dope RJD2 soundscapes and varied and clever rhymes by Blueprint. Still, it never received the wider acclaim it deserved. Never too late to check it out though!
Dope KNife - NineteenEightyFour (2017)
NineteenEightyFour is Savannah, Georgia emcee Dope KNife’s 4th full-length release, and his Strange Famous/
Foreign Legion - Kidnapper Van: Beats To Rock While Bike-Stealin' (2000)
Foreign Legion was founded in the late ’80s in San Jose, CA, by Prozack Turner and DJ Design. Years later, after meeting and collaborating with Marc Stretch, the duo became a trio, and Foreign Legion’s cynical, lyrical take on underground Hip Hop was born. “Full-Time B-Boy”, the group’s debut 12″ single, was released in 1999 and is one of the centerpieces of Foreign Legion’s shamefully slept-on debut album, Kidnapper Van: Beats to Rock While Bike-Stealin’. Dope beats and entertaining lyrics throughout – this is an hour of 100% pure uncut Hip Hop.
Awon & Phoniks - The Actual Proof (2018)
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 have brought the world a bunch of great Hip Hop – The Actual Proof is their third album together, following Return To The Golden Age (2013) and Knowledge Of Self (2015), and their third excellent presentation of organic, jazzy boom-bap. Awon’s wife Tiff The Gift makes a couple of strong appearances, as does Don’t Sleep Records label mate Anti-Lilly, along with the likes of Skyzoo, Ill Conscious, Hex One, and DJ Felbaum. The Actual Proof is another prime example of the best kind of contemporary Hip Hop for adults – it doesn’t get much better than this.
Asheru & Blue Black – Soon Come (2001)
This is one of those albums you can start and just let run, without having to skip any tracks. Jazz-centric feel-good Hip Hop, with dope rhymes, dope scratching, and dope beats from front to back. Solid emceeing and quality instrumentals in the vein of acts like ATCQ, DeLa, Mos Def, The Roots, and Slum Village – Soon Come is a great throwback-vibing album, an album that was ignored by too many.
Qwel & Maker - Beautiful Raw (2013)
Maybe 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.
Grip Grand – Brokelore (2008)
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.
Quelle Chris - Being You Is Great… I Wish I Could Be You More Often (2017)
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.
MF Grimm – American Hunger (2006)
60 tracks? Really? This triple album, with 20 tracks and around 70 minutes playing time for each of the three albums, by all rights should have been a bloated failure. Even most double albums have their share of fillers – something that even plagued some of the most popular / best-known albums in Hip Hop like 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me and Biggie’s Life After Death. But somehow, MF Grimm makes it work on American Hunger.
MF Grimm has stated once that the album is not intended to be listened to in one sitting, rather it is intended to be taken in over the course of three separate listening sessions, reflecting the names of each disc: “Breakfast,” “Lunch” and “Dinner.” However you consume this insanely ambitious project, it will be hard to point out weak spots or skippable material. American Hunger is amazingly consistent and coherent. This project is phenomenally crafted, and it stays interesting and entertaining for the whole ride through. This is one of the most underappreciated projects of the 2000s.
Marlowe - Marlowe (2018)
Seattle-based producer L’Orange teamed up with North Carolina rapper Solemn Brigham under the name Marlowe to create the self-titled Marlowe. L’Orange is a master of obscure sampling and of creating his own brand of psychedelic, dusty, lo-fi, boom-bap – and his synergy with Solemn Brigham is evident. Solemn Brigham has an effortless but impeccable flow that gels perfectly with L’Orange’s extraordinary instrumentals, and he comes with tight bars and complex rhyme schemes to complement his flow and delivery.
Marlowe: 38 minutes, 17 tracks, zero filler – this is one of the most underappreciated albums of 2018.
Brother Ali – Shadows On The Sun (2003)
Brother Ali is one of the heavy-hitters of the fantastic Rhymesayers label. All of his albums are great, but Shadows Of The Sun arguably is his very best. Over some of the most engaging Ant production ever heard, 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. With Shadows Of The Sun, Brother Ali delivered a landmark album, critically acclaimed by those in the know, but sadly ignored and underappreciated by the wider audiences.
J-Zone - Peter Pan Syndrome (2013)
Peter Pan Syndrome, J-Zone’s sixth solo album and first in nine years. In his 9-year hiatus, J-Zone did a bunch of other stuff – writing a book and learning who to drum the two of the most relevant for this musical comeback. Peter Pan Syndrome is clever, funny, and insightful with J-Zone’s jaded view on life and the expectations coming with growing up / growing into middle age and what it means for his position in society and in the rap industry.
Oh sh**! Real life snuck up on me
I’m a new eye-glass prescription from being 40
Spent my twenties rocking shows Melbourne to Copenhagen
While my peers stood single file for assimilation
And it all just stopped…
Now here I am 36 still living like I’m 22 and loving it
The real world is knocking at the door
In my thirties treat it like a Jehovah Witness and don’t answer
(Man f**k that sh**)
Rap career dead, can’t hide, time to get a job
No experience at all in a 9-to-5, employers talking ‘bout
What I been up to since I was 22?
Making rap records, n****s, trying to stay alive!
Now an artist pushing 40, living check to check
But each year my peers relate to me less and less
And then the world keeps spinning, ain’t nobody trying to wait for me
Hold up a call from an employment agency…
J-Zone comes with a collection of unique instrumentals (with lots of live drumming and quirky beats, loops, and breaks) to support his humorous and thought-provoking rhymes – this is grown man rap at its finest, and while not intended as a tie-in, a perfect companion to piece to his must-read Root For The Villain: Rap, Bull$hit, and a Celebration of Failure (2011) book.
Pumpkinhead – Orange Moon Over Brooklyn (2005)
Orange Moon Over Brooklyn is the second studio album from the late Brooklyn emcee Pumpkinhead (1975 – 2015). Before the release of Orange Moon Over Brooklyn, he was featured as a guest on albums from underground greats like Immortal Technique and Jean Grae – not bad associations when it comes to gaining Hip Hop credibility. While his 2001 debut The Old Testament was OK, it was this sophomore album that really showed his skills as a talented lyricist with a distinctive and dope flow. Orange Moon Over Brooklyn features guest appearances from Jean Grae, D.V. Alias Kryst, Supastition, Wordsworth, and it’s is entirely produced by Marco Polo and features cuts by turntablist DP One.
Lyrics worth listening to over excellent musical backdrops – Pumpkinhead’s Orange Moon Over Brooklyn is an underrated album that you have to check out if you haven’t done so before.
KA - Honor Killed The Samurai (2016)
A chilling barrage of aesthetic metaphors, brooding imagery, and incredible rhyme schemes from KA – Hip Hop’s Shakespeare from Brownsville, NYC. Like its equally excellent predecessor The Nights Gambit (2013), the conceptual Honor Killed The Samurai is another beautiful project consisting of minimalistic, understated instrumentals that serve to give room to KA’s narrative and subtle wordplay.
Mr. Lif – I Phantom (2002)
The cover of the album sums up the lyrical content – I Phantom deals with media, government, food, religion, law, sex, violence, drugs, and money – and how these things control and run people’s lives and how they are used to wipe out a person’s individuality. I Phantom is filled with excellent tracks – if you somehow missed out on this album and you want to have a taste of it, 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 awesome, 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.
Asphate - Closed Doors To An Open Mind (2015)
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.
Eyedea & Abilities – E&A (2004)
Just one of the many Rhymesayers Entertainment gems. 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 (R.I.P.) & Abilities were a great MC/DJ tandem and E&A is their best and one the most under-appreciated albums of 2004.
Demigodz - KILLmatic (2013)
KILLmatic is a 2013 album from supergroup Demigodz. Demigodz is a Hip Hop collective whose line-up has changed several times over the years – as of 2012, the group consists of Apathy, Celph Titled, Ryu, Esoteric, Motive, & Blacastan. With production from Apathy (who also serves as executive producer for the album), DJ Premier, Teddy Roxpin, Chumzilla, Snowgoons, Skammadix, Will C, and Marco Polo, and guest appearances from renowned rhyme spitters as R.A. The Rugged Man, Planetary, and Termanology KILLmatic is an hour of HEAT. 100% pure uncut Hip Hop: hard rhymes, booming beats, dope scratches, and nostalgia-inducing samples – just listen to “Dead In The Middle“, which uses the epic Big Pun verse ‘dead in the middle of Little Italy little did we know that we riddled some middlemen who didn’t do diddly’ as the hook. KILLmatic: non-stop blood pumping beats and lyrics from beginning to end.
Zion I – True & Livin’ (2005)
True & Livin is the third album from Oakland’s duo Zion I, the first album on their own label LiveUp Records. Zion and Amp Live expand their creative and experimental sounds on the album, featuring a wide range of musical styles, laced with intelligent, socially conscious lyrics. Amp Live’s head-nodding beats are laced with jazzy and elegant musical backdrops, and Zion’s thoughtful and expressive lyrics complement the soundscapes beautifully. Guests like Talib Kweli, Aesop Rock, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and Gift of Gab only add to the quality of the album.
The singles “Soo Tall”, the Talib Kweli featuring “Temperature” and especially the excellent “Bird’s Eye View” are immediate standouts, and cuts like the abstract “Poems 4 Post Modern Decay” (with Aesop Rock), “The Bay”, “Stranger In My Home” (with Gift Of Gab) and the jazzy “Doin’ My Thang” also bang – but there are no weak tracks on this album. True & Livin’ flew way under the radar in 2005 – if you missed it somehow it definitely deserves your attention.
Sa-Roc - Nebuchadnezzar (2014)
Sa-Roc has carved out her own lane through a combination of airtight wordplay and intelligent concepts. Nebuchadnezzar is her best album to date; an hour of great beats and lyrics.
P.O.S – Never Better (2009)
Doomtree’s P.O.S’s best album? It may be hard to pick one from his catalog and label it ‘best’, but Never Better certainly is my P.O.S favorite. Every single track on this album is great. Like most other Doomtree projects Never Better may require multiple listens to fully appreciate its brilliance – this is not easily digestible and forgettable bubblegum pop-rap after all. What Never Better is, is a creative blend of Hip Hop and other musical styles like punk-rock – with P.O.S dropping his challenging semi-abstract, metaphor-heavy but at the same time relatable and accessible lyrics over unique instrumentals.
Take an hour, sit yourself down, play the album from the start to finish, and read along to let the lyrics sink in. Or just listen to the emotional “Been Afraid”, or other stand-out cuts like “Goodbye”, “Optimist”, “Purexed” and “Low Light Low Life” (with Dessa and Sims) to get a taste and you will go in for more P.O.S without a doubt.
Kool Keith - Feature Magnetic (2016)
Quality control has never been a priority for Kool Keith. He has released something like 60 projects since his debut with Ultramagnetic MCs in 1988, and not all of these releases are must-haves, exactly. Because of the large number of Kool Keith releases over the years, people tend to dismiss all of them as trash. That’s not correct, though – there’s plenty of gems in his catalog. Dr. Octagon (1996), Sex Style (1997) and First Come, First Served (1999) are his obvious classics, but titles like Big Time (1996), Masters Of Illusion (2000), Diesel Truckers (2004), Project Polaroid (2006), Sex Style: The Unreleased Archives (2007) and Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation (2018) all are excellent albums.
Feature Magnetic is another one of those projects that is much better than most people seem to think. Like most Kool Keith releases, this one was dismissed out of hand upon its release, just because it was yet another Kool Keith release. But the reality is that Feature Magnetic is really really good. Raw beats (mostly produced by Kool Keith himself) and fun rhymes all the way through. Kool Keith is in top form with his typical cadences and bizarre stream-of-consciousness lyrical imagery. Another strength of this album is the features: there is a guest rapper on almost every track and all of them gel really well with Kool Keith. You can’t go wrong with names like MF DOOM, Godfather Don, Craig G, Bumpy Knuckles, Slug, Edo G, Sadat X, and Ras Kass, of course. Feature Magnetic is Kool Keith at his finest, and his best release of this decade.
Diamond District – In The Ruff (2009)
Diamond District is the truth. 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 delivers 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 in that year. Don’t sleep and go get Diamond District’s In The Ruff if you didn’t before.
billy woods & Kenny Segal - Hiding Places (2019)
Always consistent in creating his own brand of Hip Hop, billy woods once again does not disappoint with Hiding Places. Pretty much everything he has dropped this decade has been stellar, be it solo or as part of Armand Hammer. Hiding Places has him collaborating with producer L.A.-based producer Kenny Segal – a partnership that results in another typical billy woods release. Deep, dark and weighty lyrics, sometimes bordering on surrealism but always intelligent and with substance.
Percee P – Perseverance (2007)
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.
Thurz - L.A. Riot (2011)
Thurz’s L.A. Riot was massively slept on when it was released in 2011. L.A. Riot‘s central theme is the Los Angeles riots in 1992, sparked by general discontent and the dissatisfactory outcome of the trial of the four police officers responsible for the Rodney King beating (on March 3, 1991).
The album starts out strong with “Molotov Cocktail”, but it’s the second track that is the absolute highlight of the album: “Rodney King” is a 5-minute tour-de-force, re-enacting the assault from the point of view of Rodney King. The musical backdrop is incredibly impressive and the lyrics hit hard. One of the best Hip Hop songs of the 2010s, if not of the best Hip Hop songs ever. Yes, it’s that good. The next two tracks – “F*** The Police” and “Colors” are evident nods to the West Coast Hip Hop classics by N.W.A. and Ice-T, and Thurz doesn’t let up after that. A special mention goes out to another stand-out track, “Riot”, which has Black Thought as guest emcee. L.A. Riot is one of the best albums of 2011 and one that deserves far more shine than it got.
Ugly Duckling - Journey To Anywhere (2001)
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.
Epic Beard Men - This Was Supposed to Be Fun (2019)
This Was Supposed To Be Fun, the debut LP from Epic Beard Men, is an indie-rap tour de force by two of the underground’s ﬁnest; Sage Francis and B. Dolan. Fun and clever lyrics and sonically knocking all the way through, This Was Supposed To Be Fun is a must-listen – one of the most entertaining Hip Hop albums released in 2019.
Y Society – Travel At Your Own Pace (2007)
Damu the Fudgmunk teamed up with rapper Insight as Y Society for 2007’s Travel At Your Own Pace. The beats on this album are simply fantastic. Smooth, crisp, sample-driven, and jazzy – they offer an intense feeling of nostalgia. Insight’s rhymes are intelligent and insightful pairing perfectly with Damu The Fudgemunk’s distinguished sounding beats. Travel At Your Own Pace is excellent, but a sadly slept-on album.
Damani Nkosi - Thoughtful King (2014)
Damani Nkosi has worked with well-known artists including Dr. Dre, Swizz Beatz, Snoop Dogg, Pusha T and Malice of Clipse. Nkosi was born in Inglewood, California. His father chose an African name for him. “Damani” means “Thoughtful” and “Nkosi” means “chief, ruler or king”. He became part of Los Angeles’ Hip Hop underground, recording his first track in 1999.
Thoughtful King is an aptly chosen title for this album – not only because it is a literal translation of his name, but also because of the deep lyrics Damani spits. Production is flawless, Hip Hop to its core but with (neo)soul sensibilities as well and giving off vibes of a classic jazz album at the same time – even the album cover is reminiscent of a vintage jazz vinyl. Guests such as Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Badd Lucc, BJ The Chicago Kid, Thurz, Ill Camille, Rick Rude, and PJ Morton help make Thoughtful King a well-rounded musical gem – thematically and sonically as consistent as you could wish for.
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.
Kno - Death Is Silent (2010)
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 like, if not love this melancholic masterpiece.
Edan – Beauty & The Beat (2005)
Beauty and the Beat is the second studio album by Maryland emcee Edan. The album features guest appearances from Insight, Percee P, Mr. Lif, and Dagha – so you know superior lyrical content is pretty much a guarantee. Dope tracks aplenty: “Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme” is a great sounding history lesson and one of the standouts, as is “Torture Chamber” which features the unbeatable Percee P. Each song transitions seamlessly to the next which makes this as consistent a listen as one could wish for.
The only complaint may be that the album is too short at just 34 minutes – but with 13 tracks it feels like a full album nevertheless. Edan evidently doesn’t need much time to get his point across, so why take more? Beauty & The Beat is a critically acclaimed, but sadly forgotten album – easily one of the best of 2005 though. Lyrically inventive and musically creative and diverse – this is one to keep on rotation.
The Hue - Aurora (2016)
The Hue collective is a collaboration of critically acclaimed groups H.I.S.D. (Hueston Independent Spit District) and Radio Galaxy. Conceived in 2013, this futurist Hip Hop/neo-soul hybrid consists of songstress/femcee Spacebunny Jefferson, emcees Scottie Spitten, Equality, and Savvi, along with producers King Midas and DJ Cozmos. Coming off of stellar projects, H.I.S.D.’s The Weakend (2010) and Radio Galaxy’s We Come In Peace (2011), the aptly titled collaborative sequel Aurora is one of those rare timeless, era-defying, genre-bending albums.
Aurora offers up well over an hour of intelligent and creative Hip Hop of the finest sort. Lots of people slept on Aurora, sadly. Those who love acts like Digable Planets, Lauryn Hill, The Roots, Slum Village, or even Shabazz Palaces better go check this one out, it’s never too late to get up to speed.
Lee Reed - Before & Aftermath (2018)
Lee Reed is a respected veteran of the Canadian indie music scene. For over 20 years and 8 albums, he’s been stomping stages and studios, spewing his incendiary brand of fiery, anti-capitalist rant-hop. From his beginnings as the mouthpiece for legendary punk-hop band Warsawpack, through a solo career that continues to steamroll along today, Reed has remained committed to revolutionary struggle, crafting a musical legacy that voices anti-oppressive politics through Hip Hop, soundtracking and supporting the efforts of communities and organizers fighting on the frontline for social and environmental justice.
Before & Aftermath is Reed’s first album on Sage Francis’ Strange Famous label. “This guy means what he says and there’s no wavering when it comes to his mission statement of smashing the state and crashing the bank,” says Francis. “It’s mean. In the best way that ‘mean’ can be. Functionally mean. Political Hip Hop can often come across as a put-on, or as if the emcee is pandering to certain niche groups, but Lee Reed is the genuine article.”