Back with another salute to Hip Hop labels that made great and at times historic imprints upon Hip Hop and music at large. Next up is arguably the most successful commercial Hip Hop label of the nineties and early millennium.
Headed by Jay-Z, Biggs, and Dame Dash, Roc-A-Fella Records didn’t just hit, they soared with multi-platinum releases and the emergence of stars like Kanye West, Cam’ron, Beanie Sigel, Freeway, and Memphis Bleek among others. It was the label to belong to and eventually over forty artists were signed to Roc-A-Fella Records, although besides the names mentioned most of the roster didn’t put out anything. In any event, the ROC was a game changer, and here are the top fifteen releases spawned by the dynamite label.
15. Diplomats - Diplomatic Immunity
When Cam’ron signed on to Roc-A-Fella, he brought his squad of Jim Jones, Freeky Zeeky, and a young prospect named Juelz Sanatana with him – and they dropped a burner with their debut Diplomatic Immunity.
This double album was FILLED with scorchers, although many would complain the overabundance of Just Blaze’s and The Heatmakerz use of “chipmunk soul” wore thin after a while. This may not have been the most lyrically refreshing album ever heard, but it didn’t need to be. Diplomatic Immunity was almost a start to finish block locker that officially made stars out of the crew, not just Killa Cam.
Diplomatic Immunity, that spawned hits like “I’m Ready”, “Dipset Anthem”, and “We Really Mean It”, resulted in a gold plaque, and rightfully so.
14. State Property - Chain Gun Vol. 2
Freeway‘s team State Property returned from their gold-selling debut with an even more formidable album, Chain Gang Vol. 2. It doubled as a soundtrack to the State Property 2 movie. While the movie wasn’t as acclaimed as the album, the album itself was nothing short of fire.
The team of Freeway, Beans, Young Gunz, Oschino, Peedi Crakk, and Omillio Sparks brought their great arsenal with them on cuts like “Just Another Nigga”, “Still In Effect”, and “BB Gun”. Every bit as gutter as their first go around, the Chain Gang was a hit.
13. Cam'ron - Come Home With Me
After two gold stints with Untertainment for his albums Confessions Of Fire and S.D.E., Harlemite Cam’ron signed on with the ROC and delivered his ROC debut, Come Home With Me – and it became the best thing at the time that could’ve happened to him.
Refocused and rededicated, the album served as a proper debut, especially with the huge hit of “Oh Boy” and the equally crazy follow up “Hey Ma”. The result was his highest selling album to date and his first and only platinum plaque. With searing production from Just Blaze, Kanye, and Ty Fiffe, this was a big time burner for Cameron Giles.
12. Beanie Sigel - The Solution
After taking a hiatus from the game just after releasing The B-Coming, Beanie Sigel returned with a very decent album, The Solution. While not quite the classic The Truth was or even as good as its follow-up The Reason, this was still very much the brutal honesty and grittiness of Beans that we came to expect. Cuts like “Gutted”, “The Day”, and the reflective “Dear Self” showed his hunger was back and the ability to rip a mic apart was back with a vengeance as well.
11. Freeway - Philadelphia Freeway
Talk about a nuts debut. Philly rhyme animal Freeway burst on the scene as part of State Property and heads were eagerly awaiting his debut, Philadelphia Freeway. The wait was more than worth it.
His dynamite single with Jay and Beans “What We Do”, and other cuts like the vicious “Line Em Up”, the extra dope “Alright”, and the blazing “Free” were just a handful of standouts on what was nearly a flawless debut. With Just Blaze doing the majority of the production, you expected nothing but bangers here, and that’s exactly what we got, plus it was enough for him to earn a gold plaque.
10. Kanye West - Graduation
Many have argued that Kanye‘s college-themed trio albums were among the best trilogies ever recorded in Hip Hop, and this was the finale of it all.
Following up the unbelievable success of his multiple award-winning Late Registration, he combined many of the elements that made Registration and The College Dropout such classics and made another monumental album.
With no shortage of hits and plenty of incredible tracks, this album further cemented Kanye’s iconic career. Cuts like “Champion” and “Big Brother” showed more of an electro-fused, futuristic sound while still using soul and lush arrangements at times, making Graduation a fantastic piece of work.
9. Jay-Z - The Black Album
When Jay-Z contemplated retirement, he wanted The Black Album to be his last. Allegedly jacking the idea from Biggie, Jay needed his own swan song to get out the game, and this ended up serving as one of his finest moments.
While smashes like “Change Clothes” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” were dominating the radio, other cuts like “Lucifer”, “Threat”, and “December 4th” were scorchers that put this album among the best of his entire discography. A different producer per cut, this served as an Illmatic-esque formula for shortness in length with different sounds and styles per cut – and it really, really worked.
8. Kanye West - Late Registration
Coming off the universal acclaim of his generational classic The College Dropout, Kanye West dropped his amazing sophomore album, Late Registration.
His production this time around was less about phenomenal soul sampling and more about live instrumentation and lush arrangements, thus creating somewhat of an overall orchestral experience. The spectacle that was his first single “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” to the highly sampled “Touch The Sky” and the boom-bap feel that was “Golddigger” led to even more awards and acclaim for West.
It was clear, with three million units sold, Kanye was a bonafide worldwide star and his appeal was only growing.
7. Jay-Z - Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life
In ’98, the quest to see who was going to rule NYC Hip Hop was in full effect, as it was clearly between Jay and Nas at this point (DMX was sneaking his name into that convo as well).
Attempting to correct the deliberate pop-appeal and commercial mistakes In My Lifetime Vol. 1 did, Jay-Z went back to the hood and crafted an album worthy of super-stardom with his huge smash album, Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life. With “Hard Knock Life” becoming an instant classic, and cuts like “Nigga What, Nigga Who”, “Money, Cash, Hos”, and “Can I Get A…” blistering every type of media possible, this propelled him into selling upwards of nearly six million units, officially making him the biggest name in the game.
6. Beanie Sigel - The Reason
After delivering one of the most impactful debuts in years at that time with The Truth, Beanie Sigel released The Reason, a rather potent and excellent piece of work in itself.
Bringing many of the same elements that made The Truth so gripping and compelling, The Reason further showed how vivid and lyrically gifted in storytelling Beans was. Among the highlights are the simply magical collab with southern legend Scarface, “Mom Praying” and the brutal sequel to the cinematic “What Cha Life Like” from his debut. The Reason fully established Beans as one of the realest emcees the business had to offer.
5. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
So much has been said about how powerful of an album this is from Mr. West. His last universally praised album, the brilliance of this record puts it among the greatest ever made in Hip Hop.
After going through the devastating loss of his mother and acting out with erratic behavior, he retreated away from everyone and everything to get his mind focused back to his craft. Guests aplenty to help achieve where he was going with this album, and the arrangements on this album were nothing less than stellar. Battling fame with humanity, MBDTF became Kanye’s most recent touch of consistent brilliance, and in the process helped him sell over five million units and win awards. Another day in the office for Mr. West-Kardashian.
4. Jay-Z - The Blueprint
Obviously wanting a point to prove with being the best there was at what he did, this album was nothing short of a stellar work by Mr. Carter. Every single cut on the album was a hit and signature Jay. There was no filler or slippery moment on this entire album. Regardless of whether you thought “The Takeover” lost to Nas’ “Ether” during this time, no one can dare say the track wasn’t the perfect lead-off song to proclaiming his dominance in Hip Hop. The rest of the album followed suit.
3. Beanie Sigel - The Truth
One of the most compelling and raw debuts ever to grace our ears came in Beans‘ debut album, The Truth. This was uncompromising, in-your-face, and as gritty of an overall debut as we had ever heard, especially during the end of the nineties and the beginning of the new millennium.
The meticulous title track created neck cramps, and other cuts like the incredible “Mac Man” and “Stop, Chill” took us on brutal rides through the mind of Sigel. However, it was the stunning, cold-as-ice “WhatCha Life Like” that became his signature track, describing the chilling nature of life behind bars in a manner never before heard in such a gripping narrative. This was, and is, one of the game’s most exceptional projects.
2. Kanye West - The College Dropout
The turn of Roc-A-Fella came in the form of a young producer/emcee out the Chi known as Kanye West.
Primarily boxed in as one of the two residential in-house beatmakers (along with Just Blaze), people were somewhat snoozing on his mic game, but once we took heed of his haunting autobiography of his near fatal car accident “Through the Wire”, we knew we shouldn’t keep snoozing on this cat. Little did we know, he had a landmark album brewing with his debut, The College Dropout. Heavily relying on soul samples, Kanye brought soul into his production but themes such as religion, spirituality, education, and poverty made this an album for the every man. For the backpackers and the radio aficionados alike, Kanye delivered an album that became a breath of fresh air during the years of 2000 and 2001.
A masterwork in every sense, The College Dropout remains the heartbeat of Kanye exemplary catalog.
1. Jay-Z - Reasonable Doubt
The calling card of Roc-A-Fella. The album that introduced us all to the world of the ROC. Reasonable Doubt is still considered one of the most exciting and celebrated debuts in Hip Hop history.
Jay-Z‘s stellar debut is still among the most influential NYC albums ever and was arguably at the top of the best albums list of ’96. Released during the height of the mafioso era of Hip Hop, Reasonable Doubt became one of the genre’s most beloved and acclaimed moments and remains Jay’s most acclaimed album within his discography.
Highlights: every track. Reasonable Doubt will always be a fixture in the history of Hip Hop.
- Jay-Z – American Gangster
- Jay-Z – Vol. 3: Life & Times Of S. Carter
- Memphis Bleek – The Understanding
- Memphis Bleek – M.A.D.E.
- Freeway – Free At Last
- State Property – State Property
- Young Gunz – Tough Luv
- DJ Clue – The Professional Vol. 1
- Various Artists – Streets Is Watching OST
- Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
No one can ever deny that the ROC was one of Hip Hop’s most important stables in the game. Shelling out over thirty million units sold combined, Jay, Dame, and Biggs created an empire that grew to be a worldwide phenomenon. For them or against them – the ROC remained strong for over a decade and will be remembered as one of the biggest forces in the game ever.