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list Oct 29 2020 Written by

Def Jam Recordings Best Hip Hop Albums

Def Jam Recordings Best Hip Hop Albums

Def Jam Recordings Best Hip Hop Albums: Def Jam Recordings is one of the most iconic record labels, ever. Def Jam was responsible for breaking Hip Hop to audiences worldwide, and some of the best and most important Hip Hop albums in history were released through Def Jam, including the album HHGA considers to be the best Hip Hop album of all-time.

[Def Jam Recordings is an American record label focused predominantly on Hip Hop, pop, and urban music, owned by Universal Music Group.]

Founding and CBS Records Group era (1983–1994)

Def Jam was co-founded by Rick Rubin in his dormitory in Weinstein Hall at New York University and its first release was a single by his punk-rock group Hose. Russell Simmons joined Rubin shortly after they were introduced to each other. Rubin has said he met Simmons on the TV show Graffiti Rock and recognized him then as “the face of Hip Hop”: “He was five years older than me, and he was already established in the music business. And I had no experience whatsoever.” The first single released with the Def Jam Recordings logo was T La Rock & Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours.” The first releases with Def Jam Recordings catalog numbers were LL Cool J‘s “I Need a Beat” and the Beastie Boys‘ “Rock Hard“, both in 1984. The singles sold well, eventually leading to a distribution deal with CBS Records through Columbia Records the following year.

Def Jam Recordings Best Hip Hop Albums

PolyGram era (1994–1998)

By 1992, despite recent multi-platinum selling releases from Public Enemy, and EPMD, Def Jam ran into severe financial troubles and was faced with folding. However, in 1994, PolyGram purchased Sony’s 50% stake in Def Jam Recordings—subsequently bringing the label into its fold. Following PolyGram’s purchase, Def Jam distributed the Violator Records-signed artist Warren G’s Regulate… G Funk Era album, which went triple platinum and brought much-needed revenue to Def Jam through its distribution deal with Violator.

PolyGram acquired an additional 10% in Def Jam Recordings in 1996, further strengthening its ownership of Def Jam. Shortly thereafter, Rush Associated Labels was renamed Def Jam Music Group. The label remained profitable as its veteran star LL Cool J released his successful album Mr. Smith in 1995. The label later signed Foxy Brown, whose debut album Ill Na Na became a platinum seller in 1997.

The Island Def Jam Music Group founding (1998–2000)

In 1998, PolyGram was purchased by Seagram and merged with the MCA family of labels, which became Universal Music Group. It then purchased the remaining interest of Def Jam Recordings from Russell Simmons for a reported $100 million. UMG merged 14+ record labels including Def Jam, Island Records, and Mercury Records to form The Island Def Jam Music Group. Despite the formation of IDJMG, the Def Jam, Mercury, and Island labels continued to operate as separate imprints underneath the bigger umbrella.

Lyor Cohen was appointed co-president of IDJMG, and Kevin Liles succeeded him as president of Def Jam. In 1999, the label began to distribute releases by Murder Inc. Records, run by former Def Jam executive Irv Gotti. The following year, it launched another subsidiary, Def Jam South. Russell Simmons tapped Texas-born and raised rap legend Scarface as the original head of Def Jam South. After about a 4-year run at Def Jam South, Scarface negotiated a release from the company in 2003.

The Island Def Jam Music Group

The 2000s

In 2000, The Island Def Jam Music Group announced the formation of Def Jam Germany, the first international Def Jam company. This increased the label’s presence around the world. The final shares of Roc-A-Fella Records were sold to The Island Def Jam Music Group in 2004, by which time it had launched the career of producer-turned-rapper Kanye West. In 2004, Cohen left IDJMG for Warner Music Group, and was replaced by former Arista and later Epic executive L.A. Reid. An unhappy Liles eventually decided to follow Cohen to Warner. A bidding war for Jay-Z’s contract began, and Reid appointed Jay-Z president of Def Jam.

Under Jay-Z’s leadership, Def Jam launched the successful careers of contemporary R&B singers Rihanna and Ne-Yo. At the end of 2007, Jay-Z decided not to renew his contract as the President and CEO of Def Jam in order to start his new venture, Roc Nation. Following Jay-Z’s departure, L.A. Reid took over leadership of the label, as opposed to hiring a replacement. In June 2008, Shakir Stewart was appointed as Executive Vice President of Def Jam, a position that was previously left vacant since December 2007.

The 2010s

In March 2011, it was announced that former Warner Bros. Records executive Joie Manda would become the first president of Def Jam since Jay-Z. Until March 2013 when he exited his post at Def Jam and it was announced he’d be heading up the urban division of Interscope Records by his former boss, Barry Weiss. The-Dream served as Def Jam’s executive vice president of A&R at Def Jam between 2012 and 2014. No I.D. held the position of executive vice president after helping to establish GOOD Music with Kanye West. No I.D. is now the executive vice president of Capitol Music Group.

On April 1, 2014, it was announced that Island Def Jam would no longer be active following the resignation of CEO Barry Weiss. A press release serviced by Universal Music Group stated that IDJMG, and all of its assets would be reorganized into Def Jam Recordings, Island Records, and Motown Records, all as separate entities.

Def Jam Recordings operates as a stand-alone label within Universal Music Group. Steve Bartels served a time as President/CEO of Def Jam Recording until it was announced on August 3, 2017 that as of January 2018, Eminem’s longtime manager and co-founder of Shady Records, Paul Rosenberg has been appointed Chairman/CEO of Def Jam Recordings. On February 21, 2020, Paul Rosenberg stepped down from his position as CEO of Def Jam.

Presented here are HHGA’s 40 favorite projects released under the wide Def Jam umbrella. So go check out Def Jam Recordings Best Hip Hop Albums, and also take a look at the honorable mentions, lots of dope albums there that were hard to leave off this list – the high-lighted ones just barely missed the first 40. 

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

40. Onyx – Bacdafucup (Def Jam) (1993)

Onyx: a hate ’em or love ’em kind of group. If you’re not into the ‘grimy’/screaming style of rapping you will not like this album. If you do, this album is pure gold. Excellent production by Jam Master Jay (among others) – with the typical sound out of NYC that year, but done better than most. Onyx oozes pure energy, menace, and hardcore attitude. A totally entertaining and very consistent album, with a couple of classic tracks on it.

39. Big K.R.I.T. – Live from the Underground (Cinematic Music Group/Def Jam) (2012)

Big K.R.I.T.’s official debut album Live From The Underground was highly anticipated release after his mixtapes had created a big buzz surrounding his name. It can be argued that some of his mixtapes were better than this album, and K.R.I.T.’s next two albums would improve on Live From The Underground (let’s forget about 2019’s disappointing K.R.I.T. Iz Here) – but Live… is a more than a solid album. K.R.I.T. stayed true to the sound of his mixtape days and didn’t overly pander to the mainstream. Big K.R.I.T. is one of the 2010’s heavy hitters, and this album marked the start of an epic three-album run for Big K.R.I.T. and Southern Hip Hop.

38. Jay-Z – American Gangster (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/IDJMG) (2007)

best hip hop 2000s

American Gangster signified a definitive return to form for Jay-Z after the disappointing 2006 album Kingdom Come. According to Jay-Z himself, almost every song on American Gangster is based on a specific scene from the Ridley Scott film about the life of former drug kingpin Frank Lucas (played by a formidable-as-always Denzel Washington). American Gangster feels like a more mature version of Jay-Z’s classic debut Reasonable Doubt and is one of Jay-Z’s better albums without a doubt.

37. Method Man & Redman - Blackout! (Def Jam) (1999)

Blackout! is the first collaborative album by Method Man and Redman, capitalizing on the great synergy the proved to have during earlier collaborations. Nothing surprising or substantial here: just great fun, wit, and wordplay by two great stoner emcees who complement each other styles perfectly.

36. Kanye West – Graduation (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/IDJMG) (2007)

best hip hop 2000s

Completing the trilogy subjecting around a school theme, Kanye dropped another dope album with Graduation. Combining the best of The College Dropout and Late RegistrationGraduation saw him reaching back into his backpack and bringing good old soulful Hip Hop. With excellent cuts such as “Stronger”, “Champion”, and “Everything I Am”, Kanye knocked it out the park once again, making his classic record streak three-for-three.

35. Redman - Dare Iz A Darkside (Def Jam) (1994)

This is an album Redman himself never listens too, and from which he never performs songs at his shows – as he has stated on numerous occasions. Less accessible than Redman‘s debut Whut!? Thee Album or Dare Iz A Darkside‘s follow-up Muddy Waters, this album shows us Redman at his darkest.

Dare Iz A Darkside is one of Erick Sermon’s production masterpieces – highly atmospheric, with bass-soaked beats that perfectly complement Redman’s frantic and innovative rhymes. Redman has always been one of the most interesting and naturally skilled rappers in the game and this album is one of his best – even if he doesn’t much like it himself.

34. Beanie Sigel – The B. Coming (Criminal Background/Dame Dash Music Group/Def Jam/IDJMG) (2005)

best hip hop 2000s

An album that tends to be overlooked for all the wrong reasons, The B. Coming is the best Beanie Sigel album. While his previous albums had everything you wanted out of the Broad Street Bully, the music here and the focus he brought with it is amazing. Facing a prison bid at the time, Beanie would drop classics like “Have Mercy”, “Feel It In The Air”, “I Can’t Go On This Way”, and a number of other tracks that set the tone for this slept-on gem.

33. Warren G – Regulate...G Funk Era (Violator/Def Jam) (1994)

best hip hop albums 1994

One of the best G-funk albums ever. This album manages to capture the sunny summertime vibe of Los Angeles like few others ever have. Warren G never was the best rapper out there, but he has a nice and mellow flow (reminiscent of Snoop Dogg’s) that suits his own excellent G-funk beats nicely. Short and sweet at a little under 40 minutes, Regulate…G Funk Era is a definite West Coast classic.

32. Kanye West –The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/IDJMG) (2004)

The College Dropout

Whatever you think about later-Kanye, his seminal debut album is a true classic. Having already earned stripes producing for others (most notably on Jay-Z’s magnum opus The Blueprint), he exploded on the scene in 2004 with his first album.

The College Dropout is unique and musically diverse, and very listenable – even if Kanye isn’t the best emcee ever and even if the album has too many skits and a few filler songs: always a risk on a 75-minute album. Songs like “Spaceship”, “All Falls Down”, “Jesus Walks”, “Two Words”, “Last Call”, and “Never Let Me Down” all are classics though, and there are plenty more to enjoy besides.

31. Big K.R.I.T. – Cadillactica (Cinematic Music Group/Def Jam/IDJMG) (2014)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Cadillactica is the second studio album by Big K.R.I.T. By 2014, Big K.R.I.T. had already firmly established his name with his series of mostly excellent mixtapes and a solid official debut album with Live From The Underground (2012).

With Cadillactica he arrived in Hip Hop’s Major League for real. Big K.R.I.T. has always been on point with his beats and on this album, he even steps up his production game, with help on the boards from the likes of Raphael Saadiq, DJ Dahi, Jim Johnson, Rico Love, DJ Toomp, Terrace Martin, and others. The album features guest appearances from Raphael Saadiq, E-40, Wiz Khalifa, Kenneth Whalum III, Mara Hruby, Rico Love, Bun B, Devin the Dude, Big Sant, Jamie N Commons, Lupe Fiasco and ASAP Ferg.

Cadillactica is an excellent album, one of the best to come out of the South in the first half of the decade. It was a step ahead from Live From The Underground, and would prove to be the perfect stepping stone to KRIT’s magnum opus 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time (2017).

30. Pusha T – King Push- Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam) (2015)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

A step up from the merely OK My Name Is My Name (2013). This short and tight 10-track album fires on all cylinders. Pusha T is a great rapper, but it’s the beats that steal the show on this album. King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude manages to sound entirely cohesive, even if there was a busload of different producers involved, some big names too: Puff Daddy, Steven Victor, Baauer, Deafh Beats, Boi-1da, Donald Davidson, Frank Dukes, G Koop, Honorable C.N.O.T.E., Hudson Mohawke, J. Cole, Kanye West, Mario Winans, Metro Boomin, Milli Beatz, Nashiem Myrick, Q-Tip, Sean C & LV, The-Dream, Timbaland, Yung Dev, and Pusha T himself.

This album served as kind of a prelude for Pusha’s third solo album, Daytona (originally titled King Push), which was released in 2018, but it is much more than just a ‘prelude’. The production is stellar, and lyrically Pusha T is on point. The only disappointment would be the fact that it is too short at 33 minutes (Daytona was even shorter – barely 20 minutes: that’s not an album but an EP, and not included on this list for that reason). But short as King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude may be: all 10 tracks hit – this is one of the best Hip Hop releases of 2015.

29. Method Man – Tical (Def Jam) (1994)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Tical was the first solo release of a Wu-Tang Clan member after the monumental group album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and was an immediate commercial success. Raw, gritty and atmospheric, RZA’s basement-sounding production suits Method Man’s hoarse voice excellently.

Method Man has always been one of Wu-Tang Clan’s most charismatic and high-profile members. He also has one of the most recognizable voices of the Clan- and that is part of his ‘problem’: it tends to work better in tracks with other emcees than in solo tracks. All in all, Tical is a fine album, only slightly less classic than Wu-Tang solo albums like Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… that would follow in 1995.

28. Redman – Whut? Thee Album (RAL/Def Jam/Columbia) (1992)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Redman is one of the most underappreciated emcees ever. Rarely mentioned in ‘best ever’ lists, but one the best to ever do it nonetheless, especially live. With this debut album, he immediately sets a high standard for himself. No weak tracks and filled with bangers, Redman never takes himself too seriously and drops a fun party album with tight production all around.

27. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam/IDJMG) (2010)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty is the debut solo album by OutKast’ Big Boi (if you don’t count his half of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003) as a solo album). Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty was much-delayed due to label-woes, and finally saw its release in 2010. Rooted in Southern Hip Hop, the album contains a bass-heavy sound with dense TR 808-driven basslines, live instrumentation, incorporating genres such as funk, soul, rock, dubstep, and electro music. and employing vocalists backing Big Boi’s playful and clever wordplay. Nothing new or revolutionary about the album’s lyrical content, but it doesn’t need to be. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty is a musical extravaganza, and at just over an hour not a minute too long thanks to the pure energy and swag that the album carries.

The opening song “Daddy Fat Sax” is one of the album’s finest tracks, but the rest of the album is great too. Even if there are some moments where the album’s pop-sensibilities seem blatantly intended for mainstream appeal, it doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the album. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty is Big Boi’s best solo work to date, and one of 2010’s best albums.

26. 3rd Bass – The Cactus Album (Def Jam/Columbia) (1989)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

A long, but excellent album. It could have done without the skits, but it is pretty much dope from start to finish. MC Serch & Pete Nice are competent emcees and the production & beats are excellent. Essential Golden Age material. Also notable for the first appearance of MF DOOM (as KMD’s Zev Love X)

25. Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (Starks Enterprises/Def Jam/IDJMG) (2006)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Ghostface Killah is the most prolific and consistent artist out of the Wu-Tang camp. Starting with his dope solo-debut Ironman in 1996, over the decades he has put together an amazingly high-quality catalog, stocked with gems and containing very few duds (in contrast to most of his Wu-Tang colleagues). Fishscale is one of Ghostface’s best four albums, competing with Ironman and Twelve Reasons To Die (2013) for the second-place spot, after his magnum opus Supreme Clientele (2000).

24. Scarface – The Fix (Def Jam South/IDJMG) (2002)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

For many, this is Scarface’s best album and it’s easy to see why. Production is excellent – with some of the soundscapes provided by a young Kanye West in top form – and lyrically Scarface is at his best, deftly balancing his trademark street tales with conscious commentaries. “Guess Who’s Back” ft Jay-Z & Beanie Sigel, “In Between Us” ft Nas, “In Cold Blood”. “Safe”, “Keep Me Down” and of course the monumental “On My Block” are all unforgettable Scarface tracks.

23. EPMD – Business as Usual (Def Jam/RAL/Columbia) (1990)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

EPMD‘s third album Business As Usual is exactly what the title says: business as usual. And in the case of EPMD that is a very good thing.  Quality Hip Hop, hardcore and funky at the same time – trademark EPMD. This is also the album that introduced Redman to the world – a landmark event in itself.

22. DMX – It's Dark and Hell Is Hot (Ruff Ryders/RAL/Def Jam) (1998)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is DMX‘s debut studio album and an immediate mega-success – going quadruple platinum eventually. With DMX’s grimy rap style and the album’s gritty production, the massive mainstream success it garnered wasn’t a given – DMX’s charisma and star power surely had a lot to with that, as well as excellent marketing by the Ruff Ryders label.

This is DMX at the top of his game: introspective, hardcore, and emotional at the same time. He would never top or even equal this album, even though the follow-up Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood, which came out later in this same year, was a pretty good album as well.

21. The Roots – How I Got Over (Def Jam/IDJMG) (2010)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

The legendary Roots crew can boast one of the most consistent and most impressive catalogs in Hip Hop, ever. Their only disappointing effort is their eleventh album And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (2014), their previous ten albums are all simply excellent. At least five of their albums are near-flawless – Illadelph Halflife (1996), Things Fall Apart (1999), Game Theory (2006), Rising Down (2008) and Undun (2011) – and How I Got Over definitely belongs up there with the Roots’ best as well. Black Thought is good as ever, bringing out his deepest thoughts and observations.  The featured artists deliver to – it’s especially nice to hear the likes of Blu and Phonte on a Roots album, also good to see an appearance by Dice Raw. Standout tracks include “Now or Never” (featuring Phonte and Dice Raw), “Dear God 2.0” (featuring Monsters of Folk), the title track “How I Got Over” (featuring Dice Raw). Eclectically musical as always,  How I Got Over is another Roots winner.

20. Vince Staples – Summertime '06 (Artium/Def Jam) (2015)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

After winning acclaim with a series of mixtapes and his Hell Can Wait EP (2014), and gaining some notoriety by being dismissive about 90s Hip Hop in a high profile interview, Compton rapper Vince Staples made a big splash with Summertime 06, his official full-length debut. Summertime 06 is one of the most impressive debuts of the 2010s, the kind of album that needs a few playthroughs to fully appreciate. The production (mostly by Chicago’s No ID) is brilliant, and every track is original – a great feat on an hour-long, 20-track album. Summertime 06 was a big step ahead for Vince Staples since his mixtape days, and it remains his best project to date.

19. Redman – Muddy Waters (RAL/Def Jam) (1996)

muddy waters album cover

The third album in an incredible three-album run. After the classics Whut Thee Album and Dare Iz A Darkside, Redman dropped Muddy Waters, his absolute best album. Red’s lyrical ability is second to none. Bizarre and humorous lyrics delivered in that typical crazy Redman flow – Muddy Waters is an album that is not to be missed.

18. Common – Black America Again (ARTium/Def Jam) (2016)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Common has dropped quite a few excellent albums in his long career, and this one is up there with the best of them. Meaningful, profound, captivating, intelligent, soulful, and lyrical – Black America Again has everything a Hip Hop album needs to have. Truly great from start to finish, there are no skippable tracks. Production is excellent throughout and Common’s flow and lyrics are as good as they ever were.

17. Kanye West – Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/IDJMG) (2005)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Kanye West’s second album, and one of his best – even with The College Drop Out (2004) and MBDTF (2010) in that discussion. One of the biggest albums of the 2000s.

16. Jay-Z – The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/IDJMG) (2003)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Jay-Z’s third best album, after The Blueprint (2000) and Reasonable Doubt (1996). The Black Album was supposed to be Jay-Z’s last album, but we all know how that turned out. It would be his last truly great album though – even if some of the albums that would follow this one are really good, The Black Album is Jay-Z’s last true classic.

15. Nas & Damian Marley – Distant Relatives (Universal Republic/IDJMG) (2010)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Distant Relatives is a collaborative studio album by Nas and Jamaican Reggae vocalist Damian Marley, the legendary Bob Marley’s youngest son. Distant Relatives is a seamless fusion of Hip Hop, Reggae, Dancehall, and African musical elements, with uplifting afro-centric vocals about freedom, family, spirituality, and ancestry.

At 65 minutes, Distant Relatives offers both quantity and quality – all killer, no filler. Distant Relatives is aging really well and sounds as timely and timeless today as it did the day it was released. Maybe because this is a collaboration or because it’s a fusion of musical styles and not 100% Hip Hop, this genre-blending gem is often forgotten when Nas’ work is discussed. Unfortunate, because Distant Relatives is much too good to be ignored. The chemistry between Nas and Damian Marley is palpable, and they complement each other perfectly. Lots of stand-outs on Distant Relatives, but cuts like “Patience”, “Tribes At War”, and “Africa Must Wake Up” – the last two featuring the always great Somalian Canadian K’Naan – are prime examples of the overall quality of the project.

More than a Hip Hop album – all fans of music in general need to have this one in their collections.

“Distant Relatives / We’re all distant relatives / No matter where you from, where you live / How near or far / Africa, China, Japan, Afghanistan, Israel / We’re all fam, we’re all distant relatives / So that’s why we came together / One of the reasons why myself and Damian came together / ‘Cause we all come from one place, and that’s Africa / That’s right, you too / And you / The whole world! / We’re all family, we’re just spread out all over the place / So to all my distant relatives, let’s take it back home!’

14. The Roots – Undun (Def Jam/IDJMG) (2011)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Undun is a dark and poetic masterpiece, different but intriguing. Short but (bitter)sweet, it chronicles the life and death of Redford Stephens, a fictional character who makes some bad choices in his life and ends up paying the ultimate price for it, and it tells this story in reverse – it begins with his death and works it’s way back to the beginning of the story, which is the end of the album.

Few acts in Hip Hop can boast the same longevity and number of superior albums as The Roots can, and Undun certainly is up there with their best efforts – and that’s saying something.

13. Nas – Life Is Good (The Jones Experience/Def Jam) (2012)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Few discographies in Hip Hop are as polarizing as Nas’ is. No one will dispute the fact he has one of the biggest classics in the game ever on his name – Illmatic (1994) – and a couple more that come close to classic status, like It Was Written (1996) and Stillmatic (2001). All of his other albums have been talked down on to some extent. But looking at his catalog there have been only one or two real duds: Nastradamus (1999) and Nasir (2018). Albums like I Am (1999), Street’s Disciple (2004), Hip Hop Is Dead (2006), and even Untitled (2008) are much better than a lot of detractors would have you believe. The remaining two of his albums may not be considered classics, but usually receive universal acclaim: God’s Son (2002) and Life Is Good (2012).

Life Is Good is Nas’ eleventh studio album, and it’s a winner – we rank it fifth in Nas’ body of work. This a gem of an album, especially for those of us who grew up with Nas and now share his grown-up perspective of the world and life’s experiences. Life Is Good is a top-quality album by one of Hip Hop’s elite players.

12. LL Cool J – Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam/Columbia) (1990)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

LL Cool J came back HARD with Mama Said Knock You Out. Produced entirely by Marley Marl and LL himself, it has a consistent feel to it and is a tighter effort than LL’s much-maligned third album Walking With A Panther (although there was plenty to enjoy there as well). Having a ‘come-back’ record – his fourth album already – as early in the Hip Hop game as 1990, shows LL is a bonafide Hip Hop pioneer and truly one of the GOATS.

11. Public Enemy – Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black (Def Jam/Columbia) (1991)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Public Enemy‘s fourth effort continues the trend set by their previous outings: excellent, hard-hitting beats that perfectly complement Chuck D’s powerful voice and intelligent, thought-provoking messages. After the utter brilliance of It Takes A Nation… and Fear Of A Black Planet it was always going to be hard to come with a follow-up. Overall Apocalypse 91… may lack the special spark of its two predecessors, but there are enough strokes of brilliance here as well. Public Enemy will forever be one of Hip Hop’s most important and celebrated groups and Chuck D on of Hip Hop’s most respected and eminent figures. Apocalypse 91… is a strong part of P.E.’s excellent discography and should be in any Hip Hop fan’s collection.

10. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/IDJMG) (2010)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Because he is such an idiot excentric it’s not difficult to dislike Kanye West, but whether you like him or not it’s impossible to deny the excellence of this album. We have never been big fans of Kanye West, but we’re not haters either. We think his first three albums are all pretty great (even if they all have flaws), but we don’t care at all about his work after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (although The Life Of Pablo is growing on us). My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sits in the middle of Kanye West’s career as an artist, and it is his absolute best work if you ask us – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is bombastic, overblown, ridiculous, AND brilliant – just like Kanye himself.

9. The Roots – Game Theory (Def Jam) (2006)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

The Roots is one of the most consistent acts in the game. Practically their whole catalog is excellent – but for us, Game Theory is one of their stand-out albums – right up there with the very best Roots albums Illadelph Halflife (1996) and Things Fall Apart (1999). Cuts like “False Media”, “Clock With No Hands” and the elegant Dilla tribute “Can’t Stop This” help make this album a definite Roots classic, but there are no skippable tracks on Game Theory.

8. Jay-Z – The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/IDJMG) (2001)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

In his long career, Hip Hop’s ultimate businessman Jay-Z dropped a bunch of fantastic albums (along with a couple of duds as well), but he released the album of his career in 2001 with The Blueprint. Jay-Z’s most complete album since his debut Reasonable Doubt and one he would not be able to top with later releases. The Blueprint should be rightfully regarded as one of Hip Hop’s greatest albums and it certainly is one of the best of the 2000s.

7. LL Cool J – Bigger and Deffer (Def Jam/Columbia/CBS) (1987)

Public Enemy 1987 Live @ Def Jam Tour London

Still early days in Hip Hop, but in 1987 LL Cool J already drops his sophomore album. One of the first mega-sellers in Hip Hop (together with 1986 albums Raising Hell from Run DMC & Licensed To Ill from the Beastie Boys). LL Cool J at the top of his game.

6. Public Enemy – Yo! Bum Rush the Show (Def Jam/Columbia) (1987)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

The classic debut of one of Hip Hop’s greatest and most important groups of all time. This album truly was a game-changer, production- and content-wise. Rough, hard-hitting beats and turntablism, complemented by Chuck D’s booming voice and Flavor Flav’s antics – Yo! Bum Rush The Show was revolutionary in many ways. Hugely influential and the stepping stone to Public Enemy‘s follow up and Hip Hop’s ultimate classic album: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.

Sidetrack: check Public Enemy 1987 Live @ Def Jam Tour London

5. Slick Rick – The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (Def Jam/Columbia) (1988)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

It doesn’t get much better than this. A flawless album from start to finish, filled with dope tracks. Slick Rick‘s superior storytelling abilities, combined with his humor and typical rap style, make this album an unforgettable classic.

4. Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (Def Jam/Columbia) (1986)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

A timeless classic. Licensed To Ill offers pure energy and great fun. The Beastie Boys were the first white act in Hip Hop to make it big, and maintain credibility and respect in the Hip Hop world throughout their career. This album is another one of the big, early successes of Def Jam – the dominating and most innovative record label at the time, extremely important for the exposure of Hip Hop to larger audiences worldwide.

3. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam/Columbia) (1990)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

How do you follow up on the best Hip Hop album ever made? The answer is: with Fear Of A Black Planet. Building on the perfection of It Takes A Nation, Fear Of A Black Planet consolidated Public Enemy‘s status as the most important Hip Hop group of the time. Fear Of A Black Planet is fiercely political, intelligent, unrelenting, uncompromising, profound, powerful, intense, boundary-pushing – a landmark album in (Hip Hop) music history. Perhaps a little less accessible than It Takes A Nation… but equally important.

2. LL Cool J – Radio (Def Jam/Columbia) (1985)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

LL Cool J‘s debut album is one of the most influential Hip Hop albums of all time. Together with Run DMC’s self-titled debut album from the year before, Radio was the second album that would set the tone for how Hip Hop was going to sound. Rick Rubin’s stripped-down, minimalistic production complements LL Cool J B-Boy’s attitude and revolutionary lyricism perfectly. This is one of the greatest and most important debuts in the history of Hip Hop and LL Cool J is one of the all-time greats.

1. Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam/Columbia/CBS) (1988)

Best Def Jam Hip Hop Albums

Public Enemy‘s second album was released on June 28, 1988, by Def Jam Recordings. With the album, Public Enemy set out to make the Hip Hop equivalent to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, an album noted for its strong social commentary. Recording sessions took place during 1987 at Chung King Studios, Greene St. Recording, and Sabella Studios in New York City. Noting the enthusiastic response toward their live shows, Public Enemy intended with Nation of Millions to make the music of a faster tempo than the previous album for performance purposes.

The album charted for 49 weeks on the US Billboard 200, peaking at number 42. By August 1989, it was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), for shipments of one million copies in the United States. The album was very well received by music critics, who hailed it for its production techniques and the socially and politically charged lyricism of lead MC Chuck D. It also appeared on many publications’ year-end top album lists for 1988 and was the runaway choice as the best album of 1988 in The Village Voices Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, a poll of the leading music critics in the US.

Since its initial reception, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back has been regarded by music writers and publications as one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time. In 2003, the album was ranked number 48 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, the highest-ranking of all the Hip Hop albums on the list, and the only one acknowledged in the top hundred. (Wikipedia)

For HHGA, Public Enemy‘s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is one of the best albums ever made, in any genre. The best and one of the most important Hip Hop albums ever. Enough said.

Honorable Mentions

  • LL Cool J – Walking with a Panther (1989)
  • 3rd Bass – Derelicts of Dialect (1990)
  • Downtown Science – Downtown Science (1990)
  • Nice & Smooth – Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed (1990)
  • Slick Rick – The Ruler’s Back (1990)
  • EPMD – Business Never Personal (1992)
  • MC Serch – Return of the Product (1992)
  • Erick Sermon – No Pressure (1993)
  • LL Cool J – 14 Shots to the Dome (1993)
  • Flatlinerz – U.S.A. (1994)
  • Public Enemy – Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994)
  • Slick Rick – Behind Bars (1994)
  • Erick Sermon – Double or Nothing (1995)
  • LL Cool J – Mr. Smith (1995)
  • Onyx – All We Got Iz Us (1995)
  • Foxy Brown – Ill Na Na (1996)
  • EPMD – Back in Business (1997)
  • Jay-Z – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)
  • CRU – Da Dirty 30 (1997)
  • LL Cool J – Phenomenon (1997)
  • Warren G – Take a Look Over Your Shoulder (1997)
  • Def Squad – El Niño (1998)
  • DMX – Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood(1998)
  • Jay-Z – Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998)
  • Onyx – Shut ‘Em Down (1998)
  • Public Enemy – He Got Game (1998)
  • Redman – Doc’s da Name 2000 (1998)
  • Method Man – Tical 2000: Judgement Day (1998)
  • DMX – …And Then There Was X (1999)
  • EPMD – Out Of Business (1999)
  • Jay-Z – Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)
  • Slick Rick – The Art of Storytelling (1999)
  • Beanie Sigel – The Truth (2000)
  • Jay-Z – The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)
  • LL Cool J – G.O.A.T. (2000)
  • Ludacris – Back for the First Time (2000)
  • Beanie Sigel – The Reason (2001)
  • Ludacris – Word of Mouf (2001)
  • Redman – Malpractice (2001)
  • Cam’ron – Come Home With Me (2002)
  • Jay-Z – The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse (2002)
  • Freeway – Philadelphia Freeway (2003)
  • Joe Budden – Joe Budden (2003)
  • Keith Murray – He’s Keith Murray (2003)
  • Ludacris – Chicken-N-Beer (2003)
  • The Diplomats – Diplomatic Immunity (2003)
  • Cam’ron – Purple Haze (2004)
  • Ghostface – The Pretty Toney Album (2004)
  • Ludacris – The Red Light District (2004)
  • Method Man – Tical 0: The Prequel (2004)
  • Ludacris – Release Therapy (2004)
  • Method Man – 4:21… The Day After (2006)
  • Rick Ross – Port of Miami (2006)
  • Ghostface Killah – More Fish (2006)
  • Nas – Hip Hop Is Dead (2006)
  • Beanie Sigel – The Solution (2007)
  • Fabolous – From Nothin’ to Somethin’ (2007)
  • Freeway – Free at Last (2007)
  • Ghostface Killah – The Big Doe Rehab (2007)
  • Redman – Red Gone Wild (2007)
  • Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
  • Ludacris – Theater of the Mind (2008)
  • Nas – Untitled (2008)
  • The Roots – Rising Down (2008)
  • Jadakiss – The Last Kiss (2009)
  • Method Man & Redman – Blackout! 2 (2009)
  • Meth, Ghost & Rae – Wu-Massacre (2010)
  • Curren$y – Pilot Talk (2010)
  • Curren$y – Pilot Talk II  (2010)
  • Sheek Louch – Donnie G: Don Gorilla (2010)
  • Ghostface Killah – Apollo Kids (2010)
  • Rick Ross – Teflon Don (2010)
  • Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne (2011)
  • Kanye West – Yeezus (2013)
  • YG – My Krazy Life (2014)
  • Common – Nobody’s Smiling (2014)
  • Logic – Under Pressure (2014)
  • Logic – The Incredible True Story (2015)
  • Jadakiss – Top 5 Dead or Alive (2015)
  • Kanye West – The Life of Pablo (2016)
  • Logic – Young Sinatra IV (2018)
  • Dave East & Styles P – Beloved (2018)
  • Public Enemy – What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? (2020)

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One response to “Def Jam Recordings Best Hip Hop Albums”

  1. Alonzo+Darrow says:

    Onyx All we got is us should’ve definitely been on this list. Big Krit and Vince Staples are way too high. Where’s No Face, The Afro’s , BWP, Original Concept, Nikki D, Bo$$.. Downtown Science is better than a lot of the albums that made the list. Not one Ludacris album made it????? That’s ludicrous.

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