The greatest year in Hip Hop ever? It’s certainly up there with the best of them – with the start of the NYC Renaissance (after a few years of Dr. Dre initiated West Coast dominance) and the official rise to prominence of Southern Hip Hop. With classic album- and single-releases all across the board, 1994 will forever be celebrated as one of Hip Hop’s most important years. For this list, we have selected 40 of the best 1994 Hip Hop albums, plus honorable mentions. Agree? Disagree? Discus!
1. Nas - Illmatic
One of the very best Hip Hop albums in history, period. A young and hungry, insanely talented emcee comes together with some of the finest producers in the game, who all bring their best work. No skits, no fillers – just nine 5-star tracks that combine into a seminal work that will forever be revered as one of the most important releases in Hip Hop. Illmatic is a monumental masterpiece.
Top tracks: NY State Of Mind | Life’s A Bitch | The World Is Yours | It Ain’t Hard To Tell
2. Notorious B.I.G. - Ready To Die
Another landmark album and an all-time classic. The Notorious B.I.G. made a big splash on the scene with his classic debut single Party & Bullshit. Expectations were high for his full-length debut album and boy did he deliver with Ready To Die. One of the most naturally gifted emcees and storytellers in the Hip Hop game ever, everything came together for Biggie on this album. Excellent production throughout with Biggie’s brash and simultaneously vulnerable lyrics to top off the banging instrumentals.
Top tracks: Juicy | Gimme The Loot | Things Done Changed | Warning
3. Pete Rock & CL Smooth - The Main Ingredient
Lacking a monster hit-single like T.R.O.Y. from their classic full-length debut album Mecca And The Soul Brother, The Main Ingredient is often overlooked when it comes to considering Hip Hop’s best albums. That is wrong because this one is just as flawless as its predecessor. True enough: CL Smooth isn’t the greatest emcee or lyricist ever, but these albums are all about Pete Rock’s production, which is as good as ever on this top-notch feel-good album.
Top tracks: The Main Ingredient | I Get Physical | Carmel City | All The Places
4. OutKast - Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
After quality releases from groups like Geto Boys, UGK, Eightball & MJG, and others in years previous, OutKast‘s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was THE album that put Southern Hip Hop on the map as a major part of Hip Hop, which after this album could no longer be divided simply in East- and West Coast. Not immediately recognized as such upon its release, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik gained more and more recognition over the years and is now universally recognized as a staple of (Southern) Hip Hop.
5. O.C. - Word... Life
O.C.‘s Word… Life is very similar to Nas’ Illmatic in many ways (excellent beats, clever lyricism, overall cohesiveness), but incorrectly much less revered. Maybe due to bad promotion by O.C.’s Wild Pitch label, maybe because the competition in 1994 was so awesome – whatever the reason: Word… Life flew so far under the radar it’s ridiculous. This easily is one of the best Hip Hop albums of 1994. Don’t sleep on Word… Life.
Top tracks: Time’s Up | Word… Life | Born 2 Live | Constables
6. Jeru The Damaja - The Sun Rises In The East
In a year when Premier dropped another excellent Gang Starr album, he reserved his very best beats for Brooklyn emcee Jeru The Damaja. Jeru’s intellectual street flows combined with Premier’s best instrumentals result in a tight 10- song album with no filler tracks.
Top tracks: Come Clean | D Original | Ain’t The Devil Happy | My Mind Spray
7. Common - Resurrection
Clever and conscious wordplay over excellent production – on his second album Common matured into what he would eventually become: one of Hip Hop’s most revered emcees and personalities. In one of Hip Hop’s biggest years, this album measures up to any of the other releases with ease.
Top tracks: I Used To Love H.E.R. | Sum Sh** I Wrote | Resurrection | Book of Life
8. Gang Starr - Hard To Earn
Markedly darker, both sonically and lyrically, than their previous albums, Hard To Earn is yet another 5-star album from Gang Starr. Guru and DJ Premier are both in top form, as usual, cementing their status as one the most consistent acts in Hip Hop.
Top tracks: Mass Appeal | Code Of The Streets | DWYCK | Brainstorm
9. Scarface - The Diary
Raw and haunting, the cinematic The Diary arguably is Scarface‘s magnum opus and certainly our personal favorite from his overall outstanding discography. The Diary – his third solo album – is short and tight (10 full songs) with only one guest (Ice Cube), which makes it all the stronger. “I Seen A Man Die”, “Hand Of The Dead Body”, “The White Sheet”, “No Tears”, “Goin’ Down”, “Mind Playin’ Tricks ’94” – all classic Scarface cuts, there is no filler material on this album.
Top tracks: I Seen A Man Die | Hand Of The Dead Body | Mind Playin’ Tricks ’94 | No Tears
10. Organized Konfusion - Stress: The Extinction Agenda
Organized Konfusion was responsible for three excellent albums in the 90s, and this is one is the best of the three. Prince Po and Pharoahe Monch show some unparalleled lyricism on this dark, dense, complicated, and intellectual album. A Golden Age underground classic.
Top tracks: Stray Bullet | Thirteen | Bring it On | Stress
11. Gravediggaz - 6 Feet Deep
Gravediggaz was a supergroup consisting of Prince Paul (The Undertaker), Frukwan (The Gatekeeper), Poetic (The Grym Reaper), and RZA (The RZArector). Two superproducers working together, that has to result in something special, right? This pioneering album is perhaps the best and best-known album of the ‘horrorcore’ sub-genre. Taken as the fantasy it is, it is a fun album with a wonderfully dark sense of humor. Excellent production and top-notch emceeing – this is a classic, strangely enough with underground as well as mainstream appeal.
Top tracks: 1-800 Suicide | Diary Of A Madman | Nowhere To Run, Nowhere To Hide | Defective Trip (Trippin’)
12. Dred Scott - Breakin' Combs
Wrong time, wrong coast? If this outstanding album had dropped in NYC a few years earlier, it probably would have been bigger back then and universally recognized as a classic right now. As it is, Breakin’ Combs is a sorely slept-on and unjustly forgotten album. Entirely self-produced, Dred Scott delivers smooth, jazzy beats reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest. Nothing wrong with his lyrics and emcee skills either. Why this album is so underappreciated is a mystery, but it deserves its props – that’s the reason for the high position on this list for one of Hip Hop’s best years.
Top tracks: Back In The Day | Check The Vibe | Funky Rhythms | Duck Ya Head
13. Digable Planets – Blowout Comb
Digable Planets’ second album in two years and unfortunately their last. Musically reminiscent of The Roots, this smart and seductive album is one of 1994 most creative and interesting releases. A timeless album, that sounds as fresh today as it did in 1994.
Top tracks: 9th Wonder (Blackitolism) | Four Corners | Jettin’ | Dial 7
14. UGK - Super Tight
UGK‘s second record flew a little bit under the radar upon its release, in a big year for Southern Hip Hop with classic releases from OutKast and Scarface. While UGK’s first album was well-received, this short and tight album was even more acclaimed, even if it never achieved really big sales. The lyrics are nothing special – mostly the typical pimp and gangsta cliches – but it is the late Pimp C’s funky and bass-heavy production that makes this album shine. No doubt about it: Super Tight is an important Southern Hip Hop album and a solid stepping stone to UGK’s real break-out album: 1996’s classic Ridin’ Dirty.
Top tracks: The Return | Front, Back, & Side To Side | Pocket Full Of Stones 2 | Three Sixteens
15. The Beatnuts - Street Level
An underappreciated NYC classic. This is one of those albums that have stood the test of time. The production is excellent throughout, and the braggadocious and humorous rhymes are catchy and creative. This album is consistent from beginning to end, with no filler tracks. The Beatnuts always made quality Hip Hop, and this one is among their best work. A must-have for fans of the early 90s East Coast sound.
Top tracks: Props Over Here | Psycho Dwarf | Superbad | Are You Ready
16. Method Man – Tical
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 great album, only slightly less classic than Wu-Tang solo albums like Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… that would follow in 1995.
Top tracks: Bring The Pain | Release Yo’Delf | All I Need | PLO Style
17. The Coup - Genocide & Juice
The Coup has released a string of excellent albums with socially conscious and clever rhymes, and this sophomore effort arguably is their best. Funky, fresh production, intelligent rhymes by Boots, E-Roc & DJ Pam the Funkstress: another slept-on The Coup masterpiece.
Top tracks: Fat Cats, Bigga Fish | Taking These | The Name Game | Pimps
18. Warren G. - Regulate...G Funk Era
One of the best G-funk albums ever. This album captures 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 perfectly. Short and sweet at a little under 40 minutes, Regulate…G Funk Era is a definite West Coast classic.
Top tracks: Regulate | This DJ | In So Many Ways | Running With No Breaks
19. Redman - Dare Iz A Darkside
Arguably less accessible than Redman‘s debut Whut!? Thee Album or Dare Iz A Darkside‘s follow-up Muddy Waters, this album is Redman at his darkest. Highly atmospheric, this is one of Erick Sermon’s production masterpieces, 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.
Fun fact: the album cover is a homage to the cover of Funkadelic’s 1971 album Maggot Brain.
Top tracks: Bobyahed2dis | Green Island | Sooperman Luva (Part II) | Cosmic Slop
20. Beastie Boys - Ill Communication
Like its predecessor Check Your Head, Ill Communication is not strictly a Hip Hop album, but a mash-up of styles with liberal doses of punk-rock thrown in the mix. Never afraid to experiment and do exactly what they wanted, Beastie Boys stayed true to their punk-rock roots on this album. Ill Communication will not be for everybody, but it’s a classic in its own right, with massive appeal to other, non-Hip Hop audiences.
Top tracks: Sabotage | Sure Shot | Get It Together | B-Boys Makin’ With The Freak Freak
21. KMD - Black B*stards
Originally slated for a 1994 release, Black B*stards was shelved until 2001 because of controversy surrounding the intended provocative album cover and because of the tragic accident that killed Subroc, Zev Love X’s (MF DOOM) brother. This sophomore album showed a much more mature KMD, production- and contentwise. A real shame it was shelved for six years, we can only wonder now what its impact would have been, had it actually been released in 1994. As it is – this album is a lost classic and a must-have if only for MF DOOM fans.
Top tracks: Sounded Like A Roc | Smokin That Sh** | Black B*stards | F*** With Ya Head
22. Thug Life - Vol. 1
Although Thug Life – Vol. 1 is a group album – Thug Life consisting of 2Pac, Big Syke, Macadoshis, Mopreme, and The Rated R – essentially it is a 2Pac album, as Pac is the eye-catcher of the group and by far it’s most prominent and dominant force. A strong album, which could have been even stronger if it had been just 2Pac.
Top tracks: How Long Will They Mourn Me | Pour Out A Little Liquor| Str8 Ballin | Cradle To The Grave
23. Boogie Monsters - Riders of the Storm: The Underwater Album
Not nearly as successful as it should have been, this dope album is yet another example of an album that slipped through the cracks and got overlooked in a period when so many excellent Hip Hop albums were released. Coming out of left-field, Boogiemonsters quickly got dubbed Christian rappers and went largely ignored. Too bad, because this creative, dynamic yet laidback album definitely deserves more recognition than it got.
Top tracks: Altered States of Consciousness | Recognized Thresholds Of Negative Stress | Bronx Bombas | Juggaknots
24. Public Enemy - Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age
At times even more dense production-wise than their previous albums, and maybe a bit too long for its own good – this album was less accessible than previous P.E. albums and sadly marked the decline of Public Enemy’s popularity and importance. It is another excellent Public Enemy album, however. Chuck D’s intelligent lyrics are on point as usual and he pulls no punches here. Underrated and underappreciated.
Top tracks: Give It Up | Bedlam 13:13 | So Whatcha Gone Do Now? | What Side you On?
25. Coolio - It Takes A Thief
Coolio. What a strange career this man had. He had one of the biggest singles in Hip Hop EVER with 1995’s “Gangsta Paradise” – a song that both made him and broke him in a way. Before his mainstream fame because of the “Gangsta Paradise” single, Coolio was an important member of WC’s MAAD Circle. With It Takes A Thief, he dropped a dope solo debut album after his MAAD circle period.
Maybe because Coolio made some strange career decisions (appearing in several terrible reality TV shows) and because he dropped some subpar albums later in his career, this album is often dismissed or forgotten. It shouldn’t be. This is a fun and lighthearted album, with a funky West Coast sound complemented by Coolio’s skilled and often humorous lyricism.
Top tracks: Fantastic Voyage | N Da Closet | County Line | It Takes A Thief
26. Artifacts - Between A Rock And A Hard Place
The debut album of this New Jersey duo gained some fame mainly because of the classic graffiti anthem Wrong Sides Of Da Tracks song. It has more to offer than just that track, though. Excellent beats, clever rhymes delivered with skill – this is top quality early-90s East Coast Hip Hop.
Top tracks: Wrong Sides Of Da Tracks | C’Mon Wit Da Git Down | Whayback | What Goes On?
27. Keith Murray - The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World
Keith Murray made a big splash on the scene with his debut single The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World, which is the biggest attraction of this album. The beats on this album are mostly provided by EPMD’s Erick Sermon, so it’s evident that the raw, bass-heavy, funk-laced instrumentals are top-notch. Keith Murray definitely is a way above average emcee, who has a very distinct lyrical style that suits the beats nicely.
Top tracks: The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World | Sychosymatic | Danger Zone | How’s That
28. Down South - Lost In Brooklyn
Another forgotten album, one that is perfectly enjoyable nonetheless. The funky instrumentals are typical mid-90s NYC, and Down South sound a bit like a tuned down Onyx – which just might make this an album that is suited for those who do not dig the over-the-top screaming style of Onyx, but who love their beats. The beats were crafted by underrated producer Shawn J (who also produced for Mad Skillz, Black Star, Artifacts, and Da Bush Babees), along with The Beatnuts and Stretch Armstrong.
Top tracks: Tractors, Rakes & Hoes | Lost In Brooklyn | Sittin Here| The Carbonated One
29. Kokane - Funk Upon A Rhyme
Like his equally solid debut Who Am I, Kokane’s second album was slept on. Now out of production, Funk Upon A Rhyme is a forgotten G-funk/West Coast gem. Produced entirely by Above The Law’s Cold 187um the album sonically sounds even more experimental than Above The Law’s own 1994 release – but mostly it works, also because of the weirdness Kokane adds with his lyrical style.
Top tracks: From The Funk To The Back | Slow Burnin’ 22.5 Degrees Fahrenheit | Aftermath | All Bark No Bite
30. Above The Law - Uncle Sam's Curse
Above The Law‘s classic debut Livin’ Like Hustlers will forever be their magnum opus. But this third effort is yet another excellent Above The Law album and definitely a level above most of the other gangsta rap being released at the time. The lyrics are not just the generic gangsta stories, but also sometimes politically fueled and socially conscious. Additionally, Cold 187um’s production is always top level. A true West Coast G-funk innovator, he was never scared to experiment on the boards. Deep bass, whiny synthesizer sounds, smooth and funky – this is G-funk at its best.
Top tracks: Black Superman | Concrete Jungle | Kalifornia | Gangsta Madness
31. Fugees - Blunted On Reality
Nothing like their second album – the mega classic The Score (1996) – the raw and rough-around-the-edges Blunted On Reality is an album that has always polarized opinions. It is definitely worth having though, if only for the superior emcee skills on display of a young Lauryn Hill.
Top tracks: Vocab | Nappy Heads | Some Seek Stardom | Boof Baf
32. M.O.P. - To The Death
Although labeled hardcore / underground Hip Hop, M.O.P. always had some commercial appeal as well. Similar in rap style to Onyx but arguably more skilled, and most often with better beats, M.O.P. always brought that pure, intense rawness. This is an excellent debut album that flew a little bit under the radar at the time but which has definitely stood the test of time.
Top tracks: How About Some Hardcore | Rugged Neva Smoove | To The Death | Guns N Roses
33. Big Mike - Somethin' Serious
Big Mike has always been one of the solid members of the Rap-A-Lot family. As part of the Convicts and in his role as a stand-in for Willie D on Geto Boys’ Till Death Do Us Part, he showed the world that he was more than a competent emcee.
Something Serious is a strong solo album. It has that typical smooth and funky Southern sound (with the likes of N.O. Joe, Pimp C, and others on the production). While it may have no real stand-out tracks, it doesn’t have any filler tracks either. The album is extremely consistent, focused, and cohesive and yet another quality early/mid-90s Rap-A-Lot release.
Top tracks: World Of Mind | Something Serious | Playa Playa | Daddy’s Gone
34. Slick Rick - Behind Bars
Not as good as The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick? No, not by a long shot (of course…). But still. Behind Bars is not a bad album at all, even though it was deemed as such at the time of its release. With smooth instrumentals and lyrics, this album is perfectly enjoyable. Slick Rick was in a bad phase of his life when this album was recorded (during a work-release furlough that was part of his jail sentence), but even if Slick Rick is not always in top form here, he still rhymes circles around most other rappers. Don’t sleep on this album.
Top tracks: Behind Bars | All Alone (No One To Be With) | Sittin’ In My Car | A Love That’s True (Part One)
35. Black Sheep - Non-Fiction
Not as accessible or fun as their classic debut A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing, Non-Fiction was pretty much ignored when it was released. That was wrong, though. Compared to their classic debut, Non-Fiction definitely sounds darker and more ‘serious’, but even though it’s different it still is a fine album. Smooth and jazzy production by Mr. Lawnge and Dres comes correct on the mic as always. A few interesting guest spots as well (check out Sweet Tee on Who’s Next).
Non-Fiction may lack the spark and commercial appeal of its predecessor and it may contain a few misses, but overall it is more than a solid effort that deserves more recognition than it received.
Top tracks: Who’s Next | Autobiographical | Do Your Thing | B.B.S.
36. Da Brat - Funkdafied
This funky album is historic if only because it was the first album by a female emcee to sell over a million units. At 9 tracks (and not all of them bangers) Funkdafied is a little too short and inconsistent to be considered a classic, but it is a dope release nonetheless.
Top tracks: Funkafied | Fire It Up | Fa All Ya’ll | Give It 2 You
37. Eightball & MJG - On The Outside Looking In
Eightball & MJG were nothing if not consistent in their output. This album may not be the Southern classic their debut album was and not as strong as the next one would be, it is a solid entry in their body of work nonetheless. It does what you’d expect: pimp- and gangsta stories over fat and syrupy Memphis beats. The difference between Eightball & MJG and most of the countless other acts that came/come out with the played-out gangsta fantasies is that Eightball & MJG make it sound GOOD.
Top tracks: Playerz Nite Out | Crumbs 2 Brixx | No Sell Out | So What U Sayin
38. Casual - Fear Itself
The third album is a Hieroglyphics trilogy, the first two being Del’s No Need For Alarm and Souls Of Mischief’s 93 Til Infinity, both released the year previously. Casual doesn’t have the unique personality of Del and because this is a solo joint Fear Itself misses the energy and synergy of SOM’s 93 Til Infinity – so it is understandable why this is the least popular album of the three. But is a perfectly enjoyable album nevertheless. The Hiero-production is on point as always and Casual is a dope emcee (and renowned battle rapper), with a good voice and clever punchlines.
Top tracks: That’s How It Is | Me-O-Mi-O | Get Off It | I Didn’t Mean To
39. Esham - Closed Casket
Esham is a Detroit underground legend who has dropped a lot of albums since he was just a kid. His trademark has always been totally over the top psychopathic lyrics, some that make the Geto Boys look like boy scouts. This is his fourth album and arguably his best. Sonically it’s great and Esham is a skilled emcee, who’s flow and delivery are tight. Unapologetically sordid, Esham’s at times depraved subject matter obviously isn’t for everyone, but if you take it the way you would take in a horror movie (it’s just fantasy folks), listening to this album can be an enjoyable ride nevertheless.
Top tracks: Make Me Wanna Holla | Mental Stress | My Homie Got Shot | Brainwashed
40. Odd Squad - Fadanuf Fa Erybody
A forgotten record from the Rap-A-Lot catalog, Devin The Dude’s Odd Squad dropped a fun album with Fadanuf Fa Erybody. Instead of rapping about guns and violence, their subject matter is weed and sex. It’s done with humor though, which makes the goofy rhymes more fun to listen to than you would expect. Production by N.O. Joe (and others ) is tight and the album flows really well. A must-have for Devin The Dude fans at least.
Top tracks: Da Squad | Here To Say A Little Something | Jazz Rendition | Came Na Gedown
- The Legion – Theme + Echo = Krill
- Big Daddy Kane – Daddy’s Home
- Brand Nubian – Everything Is Everything
- Bumpy Knuckles – Crazy As A Foxxx
- Scientifik – Criminal
- Ed O.G & Da Bulldogs – Roxbury 02119
- Lords Of The Underground – Keepers Of The Funk
- Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock – Break Of Dawn
- Schoolly D – Welcome To America
- Kool Moe Dee – Interlude
- Fu-Schnickens – Nervous Break Down
- Craig Mack – Project: Funk Da World
- Arrested Development – Zingalamaduni
- Paris – Guerrilla Funk
- MC Eiht – We Come Strapped
- Kurious – A Constipated Monkey
- Twista – Resurrection
- UMC’s – Unleashed
- Da Youngsta’s – No Mercy
- Shyheim – Shyheim A/K/A The Rugged Child
- Nefertiti – Living In Fear Of Extinction
- Top Quality – Magnum Opus
- Da Bush Babees – Ambushed
- Ill Al Skratch – Creep Wit’ Me
- Flatlinerz – U.S.A.
- Yaggfu Front – Action Packed Adventure
- Mad Flava – From Tha Ground Unda
- Extra Prolific – Like It Should Be
- Spice 1 – AmeriKKKa’s Nightmare
- Saafir – Boxcar Sessions
- House of Pain – Same as It Ever Was
- Above The Rim – Soundtrack
- Murder Was The Case – Soundtrack
- RBL Posse – Ruthless By Law
- Master P – The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me
- South Central Cartel – N Gatz We Truss
- Willie D – Play Witcha Mama
- Rappin’ 4-tay – Don’t Fight the Feelin’
- Chunk – Break Em Off A Chunk
- Seagram – Reality Check
- Lil 1/2 Dead – The Dead Has Arisen
- Ant Banks – The Big Badass
- Al Kapone – Sinista Funk
- E.S.G. – Ocean Of Funk
- Ghetto Mafia – Draw The Line
- Tim Smooth – Straight Up Drivin ‘Em
- Triple Six Mafia – Smoked Out, Loced Out
- Little Bruce – XXXtra Manish
- Big Mello – Wegonefunkwichamind
- Point Blank – Mad At The World
- Volume 10 – Hip-Hopera
- Hard 2 Obtain – Ism & Blues
- K-Dee – Ass, Gas Or Cash (No One Rides for Free)
- N2Deep – 24-7-365
- Maestro Fresh Wes – Naaah, Dis Kid Can’t Be From Canada?!!
- DJ Q-Bert – Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik
- DJ Krush – Krush