This list involves some of the best albums from major artists on major labels or major distribution. These particular albums, albeit incredible releases, failed to meet commercial and financial success, whether it was from lack of marketing or the like.
We all know that some of our greatest albums never saw gold and platinum plaques, and this is the entire point of this list. Keep in mind, most of the artists on this list are the previously mentioned gold and platinum achievers, but there usually is that one highly acclaimed album that they never got the commercial accolades that they should’ve garnered in terms of sales and appraisal.
This was NOT an easy list to compile, as there are far many than these twenty-five, and even the honorable mentions that appear after the main list. If your favorite album isn’t on here, or on the honorable mentions, don’t cry about it, it’s just a subjective list. We have a lot of people that tend to be in their feelings concerning certain lists and what should or shouldn’t have made these lists. It’s not that serious people, get over yourselves. With that, let’s get started.
25. Devin - The Dude
Your favorite high homeboy, and mine, Devin The Dude dropped his debut in ’98 on the Rap-A-Lot banner, and served as his flagship release.
Mixing comedic rhymes with funky, bluesy production came together excellently on this debut, thus starting a critically acclaimed, yet commercially underwhelming career. On top of that, how can you deny the doubling over humor of one of his signature cuts, “Boo Boo’n”?
24. Boogie Down Productions - Sex & Violence
The final BDP album, before KRS officially became a solo artist after the death of partner Scott La Rock, was as much of a beast as prior releases by By All Means Necessary, Ghetto Music, and Edutainment (we all know Criminal Minded was on another planet).
After notable beefs with X-Clan, Das EFX, and the rushing of P.M. Dawn on stage, this put KRS in a negative light, thus affecting sales of this otherwise very dope project.
23. UGK - Super Tight
This album from Port Arthur, TX’s finest was the follow-up to their dope debut, Too Hard To Swallow.
What made this album different from the debut was more use of bluesy samples, whereas their debut was almost hot-buttered funk and soul. The album spawned two breakout singles: “Front, Back, Side To Side”, and the southern anthem “Pocket Full Of Stones”.
While their next album marked their official breakout album and is still considered a bonafide classic in Ridin’ Dirty, this was a banger that put UGK one step closer to the national recognition they eventually gained, and rightfully so. Long live the Pimp!
22. Group Home - Livin' Proof
Two NYC troublesome cats named Lil’ Dap and Malachi The Nutcracker teamed with the almighty Premo to make a damn formidable album.
While not the most lyrical album ever heard, especially on the part a lot of times from Malachi, this was a sonic tour de force from Premo, as this is considered one of his best-produced albums that’s not Gang Starr.
Their singles “Livin’ Proof”, “Up Against The Wall”, and “Suspended In Time” were menacing tracks that showed potential in the duo, but more so the incredible production prowess of Christopher Martin.
21. Dilated Peoples - Expansion Team
The Cali trio of Evidence, Rakaa Iriscience, and DJ Babu were highly regarded underground faves, however they finally snagged a major label deal with Capitol Records in 2000 and dropped their not bad major label debut, The Platform.
It was their next effort, however, that made people open their eyes to how dope they were. A more mean-mugged De La Soul of sorts, the Peoples brought forth an album that they haven’t been able to top critically. This was top to bottom a sincere banger, damn near flawless. With beatsmiths like Premo, Da Beatminerz, Quest-Love, and longtime associate The Alchemist, these guys ripped it, and it was among the best sounding albums of 2001, if not the best period that year.
20. Black Moon - War Zone
We were waiting for six years for a new Black Moon album, but with issues from their earlier label, Nervous Records, we had no idea when the next BM album would drop.
When they dropped their sophomore album, YO!!!! While it’s missing the earlier Timberland boot- mashing sound from ’93 with their debut, Enta Da Stage (see later), this still was a damn formidable follow-up with powerhouse tracks provided by residential in-house sonic gods Da Beatminerz.
Tracks like the Busta Rhymes-assisted “Onslaught”, “Throw Ya Hands”, and the SICK title track, we also saw a more grown-up, focused Buckshot, but as lyrical as ever. This packed a punch!
19. Logic - Under Pressure
The DMV’s residential mic hitman, Logic, garnered buzz with his Young Sinatra mixtape series and was finally signed to Def Jam in 2013. A lot was put on him to deliver a solid project, and man did he. Seen as one of the most impressive debuts in recent Def Jam memory, this Maryland dweller went introspective from the word ‘go’.
While some put their noses up at him for mimicking Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City concept, he still delivered a very solid project with very engaging production from S-1, Jake One, and his own crew. Topics ranged from his struggles to make it in Hip Hop to hood life to his addiction to cigarettes in what is the album’s undisputed highlight.
Overall, this was as impressive of a debut as we’ve seen in a while from a Def Jam artist. BTW, don’t you dare sleep on his latest album, The Incredible True Story.
18. Big K.R.I.T. - Live From The Underground
Mississippi’s own Big K.R.I.T. was seen as the return of the “soulful south” by way of his highly acclaimed mixtapes such as K.R.I.T. Was Here and King Remembered In Time.
He signed with Def Jam in 2012 and the anticipation was pretty elevated. This was a goldmine of a debut, although sales didn’t reflect it. Seen as a full-length version of his mixtapes, this album stands among the best debuts to emerge from the South in years and was filled with soul and blues, especially with appearances from Anthony Hamilton, Bun B, and even the late great blues icon B.B. King.
This is the perfect album for those who miss that old UGK/Goodie Mob/Eightball & MJG sound, and had this been released in the mid to late nineties, he would’ve already been a household name. As for his follow-up album Cadillactica, stay tuned.
17. Eightball & MJG - In Our Lifetime Vol. 1
Those Memphis legends came in ’99 with what many say was unquestionably one of their best albums. After the regionally regarded success of their prior albums On The Outside Looking In, Comin’ Up Hard, and especially On Top Of The World, this would put them on a national level, and this began that journey to mainstream notoriety.
Their collab with Outkast “Throw Your Hands Up” and the moody “Daylight” served as great tracks for an overall excellent, yet sorely slept-on, album. Not to mention it was their last album under the famed Suave House umbrella.
16. Inspectah Deck - Uncontrolled Susbstance
While most from the almighty Wu enjoyed lots of success such as Meth, Rae, Ghost, and the late Ol’ Dirty, Deck was among the most slept and least appreciated, in spite of being arguably the most lyrical.
Originally supposed to be released before Ghost’s debut, Deck volunteered to play the back for a bit. Unfortunately, most of his material mysteriously succumbed to a flood. Having to redo virtually his whole album, Deck came out with a very impressive debut.
Deck’s swords were as sharp as ever over sincere production from RZA, True Master, Large Pro, and more to capture a classic Deck/Wu sound and the results were fantastic.
Don’t believe me? Peep tracks like “Word On The Street”, “Loving U”, and “Show & Prove”.
15. Cool Breeze - East Point's Greatest Hit
Straight from the revered Dungeon Family came the cat that shined on Goodie Mob’s “Dirty South” from their exceptional Soul Food album.
Heads were ready for an album from Cool Breeze, and when he dropped one of Hip Hop’s craziest posse records “Watch For The Hook” featuring Outkast, Witchdoctor, and Goodie Mob, the streets were all the way ready.
When he finally dropped his debut, East Point’s Greatest Hit, the reviews are overall very good, in fact dope. His follow-up single “Cre-A-Tine (I Got People)” brought the gutta back to Freddie Calhoun’s sound. We all know the Dungeon Family was one of the illest collectives ever assembled, and this cat proved to be one of their anchors.
14. Gang Starr - Hard To Earn
Man! How many of y’all miss “one of the best yet” in Gang Starr? I know I do, and this album truly solidified their contendership for best duo in Hip Hop.
Gone from this effort was their melodic approach in favor of harder, gutter sounds. We all know the monster that “Mass Appeal” was, and the sheer boom-bap of the epic Nice & Smooth collab “DWYCK”, but trust and believe it only got better from there. Other menacing tracks like “Tons O’ Gunz” and “Speak Ya Clout” exemplified the fire that Gangstarr brought forth in this epic release.
The most consistent duo to emerge during this time period, Gang Starr’s legacy will always be among the best ever. Word to Guru!
13. Xzibit - 40 Dayz & 40 Nightz
One of the most talented, and passionate, emcees to emerge from the West is Xzibit, and this showed with his promising debut, At The Speed Of Life.
However, it was his sophomore album, 40 Dayz & 40 Nightz, that he realized the mistakes of his debut, and capitalized on them to craft a stellar sophomore effort. Aside from taking part in one of Hip Hop’s most brilliant videos for “What U See Is What U Get”, tracks like “Focus”, “Handle Your Business” and “Nobody Sound Like Me” were sure shot bangers that were in constant repeat in people’s decks.
This album was head and shoulders hotter than his debut, and even when he got up with Dr. Dre for his next two albums, this album still holds up compared to anything he had done. Sorely slept and underappreciated, X to the Z has a top to bottom wildcard for best album in his discography for with this one.
12. Big K.R.I.T. - Cadillactica
Earlier, we featured K.R.I.T. for having a very standout debut full-length album with Live From The Underground.
Two years later, he delivered his sophomore album, Cadillactica, and as if it was possible to outdo its predecessor, he did it. More musical this time around, thanks to more varied production by Jim Jonsin, Terrace Martin, and DJ Dahi, K.R.I.T. continued his knack for relatability mixed with accessibility.
Plus lyrically, he stepped up his confidence substantially and proved any doubters he may have had totally wrong. It’s not often you see a sophomore album be better than the debut, but this is unquestionably one of those times.
11. Jeru The Damaja - The Sun Rises In The East
In ’93, a rasta mon from Brooklyn knocked us on our ass with his debut, The Sun Rises In The East.
Jeru was a part of the Gang Starr Foundation (Freddie Foxxx, NYGz, Group Home, Big Shug) and from the first time we heard him on Gangstarr’s “I’m The Man” from their dope Daily Operation album. We then heard him on “Speak Ya Clout” from the aforementioned Hard To Earn album.
When he finally did drop his debut, heads were ready, but we were far from ready for the soon-to-be-classic cut “Come Clean”. The fact that Premo made a beat out of Chinese Water Torture was beyond comprehension. He then followed that with the rugged “D. Original”, and we knew this was gonna be one to remember.
Seen as a pivotal album in the NY resurgence that had been taken away by Deathrow and Dr. Dre, this is still considered among the best debuts in within the past couple decades.
10. Black Moon - Enta Da Stage
Three hoody-wearing, Timberland-draped cats from Brooklyn presented the game with a staggering amount of venom and street rage that ended up becoming part of the defining sound of NYC.
Black Moon‘s intense debut, Enta Da Stage, introduced us to the emcee known at the time as Buckshot Shorty, as well as his cohort 5 FT and DJ Evil Dee from the awesome production team Da Beatminerz, and showed us who the original wylin out kids were during these times. On top of presenting us with fellow BCC members Smif-N-Wessun as well as a young Havoc of Mobb Deep. Dark and aggressive, this marked a new era in NYC Hip Hop.
9. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Leftfoot: The Son Of Chico Dusty
When Outkast was together, Antwan Patton was seen as the funkier half of the duo. This was more than evident on their history-making Speakerboxx/The Love Below album with his Grammy-nominated single “The Way You Move”. The time had come for Big Boi to finally present us with a debut solo album and DAMN were the results pleasurable.
Simply put, this was how Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik would’ve sounded in 2010. This had tons of funk, soul, and stuff to make you…shake it like a Polaroid picture if you will! He proved his lyrical game was still among the best around as well, but this was truly a complete album for the former Outkast emcee. While his later works haven’t measured up, this still stands as a triumph for not just Big Boi as a solo artist, but for the soulful South as well.
8. Capone-N-Noreaga - The War Report
Where were you the first time you heard Mobb Deep’s timeless sophomore album, The Infamous? Chances are you had that same feeling when you heard CNN’s unbelievable debut album, The War Report.
Dark, brooding, murky, and apocalyptic, this was a debut that introduced the world to war zones known as Queensbridge and Lefrak City. Vivid imagery from a young Noreaga (now N.O.R.E.) and their one time mentor Tragedy Khadafi set the tone for one of the most treasured Hip Hop albums that never got the commercial acclaim it deserved.
Rivaling such gritty bloodbaths like Hell On Earth, the aforementioned Infamous, and Enta Da Stage, this was insanity mixed with viciousness and survival. While these two did an admiral job with their follow-up album The Reunion, this one was just a knock-out, and seen as one of the hardest NYC albums of the entire decade.
7. Camp Lo - Uptown Saturday Night
Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suade were two young jacks out of the BX, and they had an original style about them that seemed very nostalgic and became one of Hip Hop’s most talked about rookies.
Their debut, Uptown Saturday Night, felt like you were in an episode of Good Times or in a Blaxploitation flick. This was a fun album and one that was original in style. Extremely underrated, the cats got up with Ski Beatz to construct a much-needed breath of fresh air in the mean mugging, hard-nosed mantra of NY Hip Hop at this time.
Compared to an up north Outkast, it’s a shame they didn’t quite measure up to those standards, but nevertheless this debut should be a hell of a lot more talked about than they are, and definitely so should this album.
6. Prince Paul - A Prince Among Thieves
When it comes to Prince Paul, only one word comes to mind: extraordinaire. The mastermind behind De La Soul‘s early material as well as 3rd Bass‘ influential Cactus Album presented Hip Hop’s first audio “opera” with this very clever release.
A conceptual album to the fullest, this album followed the story of Tariq who wanted to earn money to make a demo but turns to a life of crime and corruption in order to do so. Original and creative, Prince Paul took Hip Hop to a level it had never been for its time. With solid production throughout, this one was something that should’ve been a complete game changer for Hip Hop as a whole.
5. M.O.P. - Warriorz
What can I say? This was supposed to be the album that officially put the Mashed Out Posse in a bigger worldwide circle. The album spawned one of the most riotous stick up anthems of all-time in “Ante Up”, and delivered monsters like “Cold As Ice”, “Home Sweet Home”, and the title track.
Danz and Fame have never had a problem establishing cult followings with prior albums such as Firing Squad and First Family 4 Life, but with the overwhelming success of “Ante Up”, one would’ve thought gold and platinum was surely knocking on their door.
In any case, this was a milestone album in their careers. Although they’ve dropped other dope albums since, none has matched the intensity and possible crossover appeal like this did, much less without trading in their signature sound or softening any blows for the radio. Here’s to the Firing Squad for that uncompromising Hip Hop for over two decades. Salute!
4. De La Soul - Buhloone Mindstate
One of the greatest groups in all of Hip Hop had an epic album that barely went into peoples walkmen and discmen during this time. Seen as the last album Prince Paul produced with them, De La Soul presented an album that blended the unapologetic Hip Hop of their light-years-ahead-of-their-time masterpiece De La Soul Is Dead and the humor and charm of their highly influential benchmark debut, 3 Feet High & Rising.
This should very easily be considered among the upper class of their discography with cuts like “Ego Trippin Pt. 2“, “Breakadawn”, and “Patti Dooke”. While that’s no diss to other albums of theirs like The Grind Date, AOI: Bionix, and especially Stakes Is High, this one was just masterful and deserves more respect than it receives. Peace to baby girl Shorty No Mas!
3. dead prez - let's get free
Unbelievable is the first word that comes to my mind when describing this masterwork by m-1 and stic.man.
From the first time we heard them on the amazing Soul In The Hole soundtrack with “Score”, to their next wonderful cut on the Slam soundtrack, “Sellin’ D.O.P.E.”, we were heavily awaiting the debut, then “Hip-Hop” dropped. BRUH!!!!! The SICK bass line, mixed with their revolution-inspired lyrics, made this an instant smash.
Finally, their debut dropped and what a debut it was. One of the most insane debuts of any era, dead prez stuck to a theme that conjured up Public Enemy, X-Clan, and N.W.A. within the first few tracks. Highly melodic, and at times Goth-like, production and pro-Black imagery was stuck like glue all over this album.
Sadly, this album’s numbers didn’t reflect the greatly influential music this album spawned. Many view this as a modern day classic that is needed in today’s times as well. This album gave them a massive cult following, we just wish the rest of the world caught up.
2. Brand Nubian - One For All
The quintessential pro-Black, five percenter soundtrack is filled with afro-centric views, mixed with occasional sexual accomplishments and witty humor to propel BN into official Hip Hop stardom. Released during a time when acts like Ice-T and N.W.A. were tearing up charts with their brands of violence and misogyny, DJ Alamo, Sadat X, Lord Jamar, and Grand Puba made tracks you could learn from, as well as groove to substantially. It doesn’t get more fresh than “Slow Down”.
This was, and is, an album for the ages and deserves its rightful place in Hip Hop history.
1. The Roots - Illadelph Halflife
It had to belong to the legendary Roots crew. The greatest Hip Hop band ever heard, Black Thought, Quest-Love and the gang were already making noise in the underground with their debut, Organix. We then were hit with their ever impressive sophomore effort, Do You Want More, which spawned their vintage cuts “Proceed” and “Distortion To Static”.
However, we went to another musical platform on this third release, that doesn’t get as highly talked about as other efforts like Things Fall Apart, The Tipping Point, and Phrenology. This was, by far, their most musically and spiritually elevated album during this time, and elevated Black Thought into one of the most prolific emcees in the entire game.
Jazzy, yet occasionally dark, this album was a maturation, both musically and lyrically, from the prior two albums and dared to look at gangsta releases like Hell On Earth, The Firm, and Dogg Food in the face to tell them, “We can do just as good as y’all can and make people think and feel like responsible human beings that love Hip Hop”. This, for many years, was their magnum opus and is still highly garnered as one of their best if not their best ever.
You can hear some of the influence in some of today’s material like Kendrick’s mind-blowing epic, To Pimp A Butterfly. Shouts to The Roots for putting out some of the most daring and mature albums ever put on wax, and this one in particular was a gold mine.
AZ – Aziatic Not since Doe Or Die had AZ sounded this hungry over beats this sublime.
Organized Konfusion – Stress: The Extinction Agenda Bold, original, and damn sure lyrical, these two Queens residents brought freshness to the game and created a track called “Stray Bullet” that remains one of the most innovative ever.
M.O.P.- First Family 4 Life This had smash written all over it, and if the searing production wasn’t enough, the guest list of Jay-Z, Treach, Heather B, and Gangstarr should’ve let people know that this was an album that wasn’t gonna be messed with.
Ras Kass – Soul On Ice Lyrical masterpiece. Enough said.
Gravediggaz – The Pick, The Sickle, and The Shovel How do you follow up a cult classic like 6 Feet Deep? Putting out an album almost every bit as exceptional as their debut, and it got accomplished.
Onyx – All We Got Iz Us Another album that was better than the debut. Tackling suicide and drug addiction, this was far more brutal and darker, but it’s highly argued that this is their grand level of albums.
O.C. – Jewelz Already garnering heavy buzz off his incredible debut, Word…Life, he went a step further with his follow-up, and while it’s obvious he wanted more of a mainstream sound, it still had a sincerity with it that makes it just as dope as his debut.
MC Ren – The Villain In Black Handled by Above The Law’s Cold 187um, this album from Ren was a definite sleeper and had some of damn good hits. Although not as socially conscious as Shock Of The Hour, this was still something to peep.
The Pharcyde – Labcabincalifornia Their debut, Bizarre Ryde II The Pharcyde, is considered an eccentric landmark, but their sophomore effort was in all cases better. Not only did we hear several cuts from the late icon himself J Dilla, but lyrically everyone stepped it up all across the board. More personal this time around, this album showed maturity and we’re glad for it.
Heltah Skeltah – Nocturnal This debut from Rock and the late Sean Price (then known as Ruck) was one of the mid-nineties most banged out releases and is still considered one of Duck Down’s hardest albums
P.A. – Straight No Chase This relatively unknown act out the Dungeon Family collective had a severely slept-on album that fit right into the era of Outkast and Goodie Mob. Really. Seriously. They were dope!
Big L – Lifestylez Uv Tha Poor & Dangerous In the immortal words of Premo, “Big L, rest in peace!” This debut from the late, great Lamont Coleman showed the potential of one of the wittiest, lyrical wordsmiths out during that time. The word is he was supposed to be signed to the Roc shortly before his shooting. Damn, what could have been!
Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury Darker and more bleak than their near platinum debut, Lord Willin’, the Thorton brothers delivered, what most have called, the most coke-laced album heard during that time.
Q-Tip – The Renaissance In all actuality, this should’ve been in the top ten. This is as close to a whole Tribe album as you could get musically. With Grammy wins and rave reviews across the board, this album from Kamaal was nothing less than exquisite.
OGC – Da Storm Following in the steps of their older brothers Heltah Skeltah, Top Dog, Starang, and Louieville Sluggah delivered an album that was vintage Boot Camp, with even better production than onNocturnal.
Tha Alkaholiks – Likwidation How I miss those cats! There was never an album they didn’t have fun with, and this was arguably their best effort, although none of their stuff made it to even gold status.
CRU – Da Dirty 30 Greatly overlooked trio that delivered an album thirty tracks deep with entertaining and intriguing cuts over sustainable production. Sadly, they didn’t make it past the first album.
Blackalicious – Blazing Arrow Artistic and for the mature-minded was this duo from Cali. Their major label debut was much of what we expected from them, and it still can contend with some of the best of the early millennium from the west.
Jurassic 5 – Quality Control Rhythmic and funky, J5 were a group that had the B-boy aura deep in their veins, and could musically hang with damn near anyone in their circle. Just plain raw talent, and excellent production from Cut Chemist.
Nature – For All Seasons QB alum, Nature, had to co-sign of Nas early on to deliver this painfully slept-on banger. With work from Trackmasters, L.E.S., and Kurt Gowdy, this was a player from beginning to end. How do you front on “The Ultimate High”?
Cam’ron – S.D.E. Arguably the best album from his entire discography, Cameron Giles delivered a slightly darker and more personal album than his gold-selling debut Confessions Of Fire.
Little Brother – The Minstrel Show Phonte, 9th, and Pooh dropped an amazing album with their major label debut. One of the single best albums dropped in ’05, this trio should’ve been the next best thing to Tribe had they not broken up. This album especially was the album that could’ve taken them there.
Bun B – Trill O.G. The final installment in the Trill series ended with his best work post-UGK and the passing of partner in crime Pimp C. We were even blessed with a Premo beat, and he RIPPED it!
Styles P – Time Is Money While not as acclaimed as his fantastic debut, A Gangster & A Gentleman, Pinero delivered a very decent follow-up and one that should stop being ignored and overlooked.
KRS-One – Return Of The Boom Bap In a word: MASTERWORK!
KRS-One – KRS-One While not quite at the same level as his classic prior album was, this follow-up to it was still an ass-kicker and had many officially praising Kris Parker as the embodiment of that era’s state of Hip Hop
Showbiz & A.G. – Runaway Slave This was, and still is, a Hip Hop treasure. We saw the lyrical stature that A.G. could bring and showed how superb Show’s beat work could be. Can I get a soul clap?!
Rakim – The Master We were doing back flips when he finally got a Rakim solo album with The 18th Letter. While not the game-changer we thought it would be, it still was an impressive album that got tons of love. His follow-up, some say, was even better. I can’t completely argue with that one.
Folks, as you can see there are lots of overlooked and underappreciated gems from major artists we know and love. These albums were to show that although they didn’t achieve major label gold or platinum success, these were still works of art and deserve to be mentioned as one of their best, if not their very best.
The debates, discussions, and occasional arguments continue. I’m out for this week. One love!