What’s good cats and dogs?! This is your dude again, thanks for riding with me yet one more time. This is another list of greatness within Hip Hop. Whether you agree or disagree with these lists is irrelevant; what is always welcomed is conversation and even debates (educated that is). The whole point of these lists is just that: healthy conversation. We don’t have enough of it anymore, especially concerning good Hip Hop (notice I said GOOD. I may make a list of wack/disappointing albums in the future).
A guy on Twitter suggested that I make a list of best Midwestern Hip Hop. Without a doubt some stellar, landmark albums have been from the Midwest. Cities like Detroit, Chicago, St. Paul / Minneapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and others from that region are highly represented in this list.
For the record, don’t sleep or overlook my honorable mentions. The point of honorable mentions is to give respect and due props to the albums even though they’re not necessarily on the list. So don’t hate on the honorable mentions list, these are still very good and prized albums. With that said, let’s get to the list saluting the Midwest!
20. Black Milk - If There's A Hell Below (2014)
The D’s appointed successor to the late, great Dilla had put out very good albums such as Tronic, Album Of The Year, and No Poison, No Paradise. Not to mention his damn good collab album with fellow D native Guilty Simpson and the late, great Sean Price as Random Axe.
However, in what has been called his final album (though I highly doubt that), this album is actually a continuation of No Poison, No Paradise, only with even better lyricism and his best production to date. A darker album, this album showcases a more moody conceptual path with him for this album, but if this is in his fact his last solo album, he ended it on a very high note.
19. Atmosphere - You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having (2005)
Minneapolis’ famed duo of producer Ant and emcee Slug, otherwise known as Atmosphere, had been already receiving critical acclaim with previous albums like God Loves Ugly and Seven’s Travels, but it was this album that really established them as perhaps the hottest duo at the time in the entire underground, and besides Brother Ali, the heart and soul of Rhymesayers Entertainment. Considered very large in what’s called the “emo-rap” style, it was this album that every other album has been measured by.
18. J Dilla - Donuts (2005)
Considered one of the most revered Hip Hop producers of any era, the late James “J Dilla” Yancey had a production style that was so influential and so musically organic that he was practically unparalleled. From Pete Rock to Dr. Dre, every widely known and esteemed producer has put Dilla as their favorite producer over the years before and especially after his untimely death from complications of Lupus.
Known for instrumental albums before, this became the blueprint for all future instrumental Hip Hop albums, no matter who you were. Regarded as the greatest Hip Hop instrumental album ever released, it immortalized the legacy of Dilla. Most of the beats on it have been used by the likes of Ghostface, MF DOOM, Termanology, Talib Kweli, and Nas but I believe there are so many more beats waiting for our ears to hear.
The man behind cuts by A Tribe Called Quest, Keith Murray, and even gave Common a Grammy for “The Light” cemented his name in history, and this was the album, albeit instrumental, that did it.
17. Lupe Fiasco - Tetsuo & Youth (2015)
We had been familiar with Mr. Fiasco‘s stellar work on his exceptional debut (see later) and his follow-up The Cool (also see later). As time proceeded, he lost his artistic merit in exchange for more notoriety with his third album, Lasers. His next album was the underwhelming Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album. Many were losing hope in this otherwise highly talented emcee.
In comes Tetsuo & Youth, and boy oh boy what a return to his essence. This was the album he should’ve put out years ago, and it took people thinking he had completely fallen off in order for him to do it. The first track alone is considered his lyrical alpha and omega in itself with “Mural”, but trust me, it only got more consistent from there.
This was educational and informative, yet passionate, and the production was top notch. Simply put, this was one of 2015‘s truly shining moments and is his best in years.
16. Slum Village - Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 (2005)
One of the first acts to really give Detroit its buzz was a trio known as Slum Village. The cats comprised of T3, Dilla (then known as Jay Dee), and Baatin were a group of dudes that, although not especially known for being the greatest wordsmiths in the world, were nonetheless a group of very hungry heads looking to put a statement in the game, and with the very prodigious production of Dilla, this was the start of what would become a tragic, yet determined, legacy of SV.
Most cuts would get reworked for their unbelievable follow-up, but this was also a chance to show off their freestyle abilities, which was admired at that time. One of the most enduring acts to emerge from the D, this was the album that put the spotlight on them.
15. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - Creepin' On Ah Come Up (1994)
From the city of Cleveland came five young cats that introduced a style to us the likes of which we had never seen before. Under the mentorship of Eazy-E, these guys presented a double-triple time rap style mixed with sung vocals and harmony and it worked profoundly.
Their major label debut was an EP filled with dark images, gritty street tales, and hustling, not to mention Eazy was featured on three tracks. Different and original yet highly dope, this was the start of monumental things to come for the residents of St. Clair, Cleveland.
14. Lupe Fiasco - Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor (2006)
After the buzz he created on Kanye’s “Touch The Sky”, this young Chi-town native had an anticipated debut on his hands, and once “Kick, Push” hit, the buzz grew that much more.
Originally leaked on the Internet, the album had to get redone, but to no dismay, the album was still greatly handled and resulted in one the smartest and exemplary debuts heard in the early millennium. Covering racism, terrorism, being an individual, and other social issues, this album was for the purist and the nerd, the intelligent and the conflicted.
It would be years (read Tetsuo & Youth) before he would fully return to this greatness, but this is where it started and still stands as his magnum opus.
13. Kanye West - Late Registration (2005)
The first of Mr. West‘s appearances on this list comes from his 2005 follow-up to his classic debut, The College Dropout (see later). This album was a bit more lush and dramatic in production than his soulfully boom-bap debut, and focused on some live musicianship, with heavy emphasis or strings and clever arrangement.
This album had something for everyone: the elaborate with “Diamonds” to neck-snapping boom-bap with “Golddigger”. There was hit after hit on here, and at this point, with plenty of nominations and awards, it was clear with this album, his star appeal was continuing to soar.
12. Elzhi - The Preface (2008)
One of the most lyrically nuts emcees to emerge from the D is Elzhi. Although he had already been known locally, he became a third member of Slum Village when Dilla broke away from the group. He appeared on Trinity: Past, Present, and Future and was with T3 as a duo when Baatin unfortunately passed for their decent album, Detroit Deli.
Once he himself left, his first album away from SV was a Black Milk-crafted project known as The Preface, and this became an immediate classic. Lyrically, he showed his superb talent but this album was very conceptual as well, with him using areas like dreams, colors, and fill in the blank type themes, this shows his ability to be conceptually flexible over some BM’s most noted production to date.
Incredible to say the least, here’s hoping his forthcoming Lead Poison can even come close to rivaling this album (also don’t sleep on his Illmatic tribute album, Elmatic).
11. Tech N9ne - Something Else (2013)
This Kansas City native has grown to become an indie legend. Selling over two to three million independently over twenty plus years, Tech N9ne is the go-to guy on how to be successful without a major deal. Lyrically, his machine-gun rapid fire, triple-time rhymes are stuff of icons and his ability to keep his already cult status continue to grow is impeccable.
Albums such as AngHellic, Everready (The Religion), Absolut Power, and All 6’s and 7’s gave him more national notoriety, but it was this album that everything fully came together to be his most complete work ever.
Known for shock value and entertainment, as well as deeply personal and introspective, Tech balanced everything he had built while continuing to grow artistically and musically. This became a memorable album more so than any of his other major albums in his discography.
10. Brother Ali - The Undisputed Truth (2007)
All hail the king of Minneapolis. Brother Ali is a talent that’s beyond words. No other underground artist has amassed more of a widely acclaimed catalog of Hip Hop more than this cat.
While not quite the benchmark standard Shadows Of The Sun, this album still stands among the absolute best in the entire roster of albums from Brother Ali. Filled with social commentary, especially the explosive “Uncle Sam Goddamn”, this album is a middle finger to the establishment and there’s no room for soft, emotional, introspective rap.
This is heartfelt frustration and true science from one of the game’s most passionate and intelligent artists, above or below ground.
9. Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
Within this millennium, there hasn’t been a more polarizing emcee in the game than Mr. Mathers. Not so much in terms of his lyrical stature because he’s become known as one of the greatest emcees and lyricists of all-time, but more so because of his shock value.
In 2000, he followed up his seven times platinum Aftermath debut, The Slim Shady LP with an album that’s nothing short of a masterwork. Blending his incredible and prodigious lyricism with macabre, brutal imagery of violence, drug use, sodomy, and maternal hatred, this album, artistically, is among the most passionate and intense albums you’ll ever hear in your Hip Hop life. Gone is the shocking, juvenile humor of The Slim Shady LP, and included are the true feelings of a young man walking the tight rope between brilliance and insanity.
Who can front on the Grammy Award-winning song about a deranged, obsessed fan called “Stan” being one of the most ingenious songs ever put on wax? Not to mention this was the fastest selling album for sixteen years, selling nearly two million units its first week. If you thought he was a one album wonder with his debut, this shattered all those thoughts and threw them in the trash.
8. Common - Like Water For Chocolate (2000)
Mr. Lonnie Rashid Lynn was responsible, along with Twista, for putting the Chi on the map in ’92 with his debut Can I Borrow A Dollar? He then greatly continued his talent on his sophomore album Resurrection (see later). However, in ’99, Common delivered what would be one of his finest prizes ever with Like Water For Chocolate.
While achieving acclaim with production work of close homeboy and production great No I.D., he wanted to expand his sound somewhat with a more live instrumentation, organic feel, thus getting himself up with the likes of Quest-Love, Kareem Riggins, and J Dilla. The result: a career-turner for him. His first gold-selling album, mostly due to the breakout success of “The Light”, this album marked the start of the star power Common would eventually gain on a worldwide level.
7. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
After a self-imposed exile due to the sad and untimely passing of his mother, Dr. Donda West, and his fatigued mind state, Kanye West emerged from his funk with an album many have called his best artistic work to date.
Musically, this was even more lush and dramatic than anything he had done prior, including the aforementioned Late Registration. His subject matter is almost solely based on status and ego, but also tackles the positives and negatives of having them. There were multitudes of guests, whether featured or on background vocals, and had an, at times, over the top feel about it, but is still regarded as a supreme work by him.
This created new areas of music for his album and this almost very eclectic in nature, yet provided phenomenal cuts for him. Although his next project, Yeezus, didn’t come close to this, this album is one of his best treasures.
6. Brother Ali - Shadows On The Sun (2003)
Oh God! To say this changed and redefined the underground is an understatement. One of the most important and exemplary underground albums ever put on wax was from a nearly blind Albino, yet lyrically sick Minneapolis native known as Brother Ali.
As conscious as it is personal and raw, this album set a whole new standard for the underground, never to be touched in quite this level until Madvillainy came along. Produced entirely by Atmosphere’s Ant, this is brilliant, intelligent, and extremely poignant. A star was made official with this album that left many a listener speechless.
5. Slum Village - Fantastic Vol. 2 (2000)
The album that defined SV. While we were enamored with Vol. 1, we knew that with enough cleaning up of the flaws, the sequel would be amazing, and it did not disappoint.
From top to bottom, we were exposed to the burgeoning greatness Dilla would embark upon, and with him and groupmates T3 and Baatin, this album introduced Motown to a whole other sound that was soulful and grooves that were so breezy yet funky at the same time.
With the breakup of A Tribe Called Quest at that time, many were feeling that they were the next in line to take over that title. Although just short of that feat, this album was the highly acclaimed start of a respected tenure. Motown had officially become the home of the Dilla sound.
4. Common - Resurrection (1994)
The sophomore album of Lonnie Lynn was seen as the official maturation of the emcee known as Common. His debut, Can I borrow A Dollar, was more street and even misogynistic at times, so once he abandoned that area for more of intelligence and poignancy, the album was a certified hit.
Although not his best-selling album, this album for many years was seen as his best album and was the album that people started paying some attention to him, most notably due to the classic “I Used To Love H.E.R.“.
This album helped put the Chi on the map and became a great look for him. We knew we had a burgeoning star, but we had no idea how legendary his talent would become. This, however, was a fantastic glimpse into his future.
3. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - E. 1999 Eternal (1995)
Going off the widespread buzz the Bone brothers were receiving from their aforementioned debut, Creepin’ On Ah Come Up, the anticipation was building and building for their sophomore effort, and once we heard the ode to welfare “1st Of The Month”, we knew we were in for something great.
We had no clue just how much this album would propel them into superstardom. Dark, brooding, and menacing, this album picked up where their debut left off. The subjects of death, guns, and drugs are prevalent in this album. Only mixed with their unique talent of harmonizing and making even the worst deaths sound good. Of course, this was the album that also spawned the iconic smash “Tha Crossroads” in dedication to departed family and friends, including their mentor Eazy-E.
This album sold nearly diamond units worldwide and made BTNH household names. While other albums like The Art Of War, Strength & Loyalty, and BNTHResurrection were albums that reaffirmed their excellent abilities to be double-time storytellers with great harmony, this was the album that started them on their way to becoming one of the greatest Hip Hop groups in history.
2. Kanye West - The College Dropout (2004)
If there was a memorable debut for the ages on a mainstream level, this was definitely one of them. In 2004, we were introduced to a producer-turned-rapper that was turning heads with his chilling, yet incredible, “Through The Wire”, in which he describes the terrible car accident that nearly killed him. Already known for working with the likes of Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel, Infamous Syndicate and several others, it was time he showcased his skills an emcee, and he definitely showed that he could hang.
This album could possibly be seen as his most down-to-earth in Kanye West‘s entire catalog, touching on subjects like college Greek life, materialism, school, and even religion with the unbelievable “Jesus Walks”. He’s brash, yet down-home. Comical, yet intelligent. All in all one legendary debut. This was not a tough guy album by any means, and it didn’t need to be. He was himself the entire ride, and at its time, was one of the most refreshing albums to emerge during that time period.
Selling over four million units and earning multiple Grammys, Hip Hop just saw its newest breakout star.
1. Common - BE (2005)
Was that an understatement or what? After the disappointment many felt from his prior album Electric Circus, we needed the unadulterated backpacking b-boy again, and thanks to Mr. West he reemerged, and with force.
This album is among the pure Hip Hop albums ever presented for our listening pleasure. With only eleven tracks, this had no room for filler, and there wasn’t. At all. None. Zero. This was his hungriest record since Resurrection, and the best-produced album of his life.
This album stands with brilliant landmarks in Hip Hop like Illmatic, Ready To Die, The Low End Theory, Aquemini, and To Pimp A Butterfly due to its practically perfect consistency, non-complex themes, and just a soulful yet lyrical approach to good ol’ fashioned Hip Hop.
Although he has dropped great follow-ups such as Finding Forever, The Dreamer, The Believer, and the most recent Nobody’s Smiling, this is an album on which Common reaches heights he may never achieve again, and that’s alright. You can’t repeat perfection, and that’s exactly what this album is.
In a single word…FLAWLESS.
Eminem – The Slim Shady LP The world gets introduced to a RIDICULOUS, yet somewhat deranged, emcee named Marshall Mathers and the world would never be the same.
Da Brat – Funkdafied The first female emcee to ever obtain platinum status dropped this unavoidably dope debut.
Lupe Fiasco – The Cool Very formidable follow-up to his brilliant debut, and equally as cohesive.
Do Or Die – Picture This Often seen as Chi-town’s Bone biters, the debut from this trio didn’t just settle with their huge cut “Po Pimp”, as they presented a violent, yet formidable debut worthy of rotation.
Twista & The Speedknot Mobstas – Mobstability Seen as the father of Chicago Hip Hop, the legendary Twista had decent albums like Adrenaline Rush and Kamakazi, but it was this album with his homies that is still seen as his overall best effort.
MOOD – Doom This group based out of the Natti (Cincinnati for those not in the know) presented a very highly-slept on debut that also gave us Hi-Tek. Seen as a Midwest underground classic, one can only hope we see them get back together again
Danny Brown – XXX Extremely dope effort from one of Detroit’s most unique and complex emcees. His star appeal is continuing to grow to this day as a result of this album
Freddie Gibbs – Cold Day In Hell (mixtape) Gary, Indiana gave us Freddie Gibbs, who has become quite the name primarily in the underground, especially due to his instant classic with Madlib, Pinata. Known for his excellent mixtapes, this particular one is arguably his most cold and gritty one to date.
Royce Da 5’9′ – Death Is Certain Moody, dark, and cold, Royce gave us his angst and personal album to date that many feel is his most defining album as a solo artist.
Atmosphere – When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold Slug and Ant can practically do no wrong whatsoever, and this album became their highest charting effort ever when it debuted at number five on Billboard’s Top 200 without sacrificing an ounce of integrity or artistry.
Jay Dee – Welcome To Detroit Dilla’s first solo effort was an incredible mixture of boom-bap, soul, and world music, as we continued to pay attention to the brilliance that was within the aura of James Yancey.
Black Milk – No Poison, No Paradise This was the precursor to his aforementioned If There’s A Hell Below, and it fully showcased his ability to come up with conceptual albums and keep the highly regarded reputation of the D in tact.
Soul Position – 8 Million Stories These highly regarded underground acts from Ohio of emcee Blueprint and producer RJD2 combined their talents into a very good debut effort that can rival most debuts to come out the Midwest during that time.
Blueprint – 1988 Staying with Blueprint, this album was a bonafide sleeper but established the Columbus native as a sure-fire talent to watch out for.
Hi-Tek – Hi-Teknology 2: The Chip Working with the likes of Nas, Xzibit, Bun B, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, and Common on this sequel to his dope debut made this album even more noteworthy than the debut itself.
Infamous Syndicate – Changin’ The Game Primarily produced by No I.D., and a young up-and-coming producer extraordinaire named Kanye West, Rashida and Shawnna (yes, that Shawnna from DTP) delivered a very good debut that sadly went largely ignored but showed that sistas from the Midwest came to spit too, and spit they did.
Tech N9ne – All 6’s & 7’s Unrelenting and brash, the Midwest indie legend delivered this album with as much potency as one would expect from him ever.
This was yet another fun list that made me go back into my very, very extensive Hip Hop knowledge (all these albums I own BTW), and this will surely cause even more debates and controversies.
Whatever your view on this list, it’s at least worth another conversation. While clearly the D and the Chi contained the most consistent highlights, we also saw the twin cities area, as well as Cleveland and Cincinnati handle business as well. Here’s to more certifiable bangers in the future from the Midwest.
Until next time folks, one love!