The final year of Hip Hop’s Golden Age? 1996 certainly was a year of endings, with the death of 2Pac, Hip Hop’s biggest icon. Biggie’s death would soon follow – and the void Pac and Big left would give room for Puffy’s shiny suit rap, and the mass-produced generic rap from the No Limit and Cash Money rap factories that would soon start flooding the market for real. But 1996 still was an excellent year for Hip Hop, arguably one of its best years ever. For this list, we have selected what we think are the top 40 Hip Hop albums of 1996, plus honorable mentions. Agree? Disagree? Discus!
1. OutKast - ATLiens
A step up from their already awesome Southerplayalisticadillacmuzik debut album. On ATLiens OutKast shows real growth and newfound maturity, resulting in an album that is simply amazing lyrically as well as musically. No skits, no filler, no bullsh** – just straight up dope Hip Hop with that unique OutKast twist.
Top tracks: Elevators (Me & You) | Two Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac) | Jazzy Belle | ATLiens
2. The Roots - Illadelph Halflife
The Roots’ best album? It’s hard to pick a favorite in a discography of such outstanding overall quality, but on Illadelph Halflife everything works. This is a LONG album, but there are few, if any, wasted moments. This is smooth, jazzy Hip Hop at its finest, with live instrumentation and exceptional lyricism – true brilliance from Philly’s legendary Roots crew.
Top tracks: Clones | What They Do | Concerto Of The Desperado | Section
3. De La Soul - Stakes Is High
Another De La Soul masterpiece. All of their first four albums are classics in their own right, this one may just be the album that is their most mature and confident effort out of the four. Three decades in and still going strong, De La Soul easily is one of the most consistent acts in Hip Hop ever and they are truly Hip Hop’s elite.
Top tracks: Stakes Is High | Big Brother Beat | The Bizness | Supa Emcees
4. Dr Octagon - Dr Octagonecologyst
Is this Kool Keith’s best album (outside Ultramagnetic’s monumental debut Critical Beatdown)? In a catalog as deep and diverse as Kool Keith’s, it may be hard to choose – but Dr. Octagonecologyst definitely is our Kool Keith solo favorite. An all-time underground favorite, Dr. Octagonecologyst simply is a near-perfect album. Production by Dan The Automater is absolutely phenomenal. Innovative, eery, spaced-out: the instrumentals provide the perfect backdrop for Kool Keith’s trademark bizarre lyrics.
Top tracks: Earth People | Blue Flowers | Halfsharkalligatorhalfman | Bear Witness
5. The Fugees - The Score
A great commercial as well as a critical success, The Score was a massive improvement on The Fugees‘ enjoyable but somewhat uneven Blunted On Reality debut album. The Score is a timeless and flawless masterpiece and paved the way for Lauryn Hill‘s monumental solo debut The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill.
Top tracks: How Many Mics | Ready Or Not | Cowboys | Fu-Gee-La
6. Nas - It Was Written
Although Nas‘ debut album Illmatic initially sold underwhelmingly, it was an overwhelming critical success. So, how to top or even equal a classic like Illmatic? An impossible task, even if It Was Written turned out to be another excellent Nas album.
Going for a more commercial-friendly sound here and there, and trying out the mafioso subgenre on some tracks, It Was Written just feels a little less tight and coherent than Illmatic did. Nas’s lyrical brilliance is still on full display, though. With It Was Written Nas cemented his status as one of the most talented, all-around skilled emcees in the game.
Top tracks: The Message | I Gave You Power | Take It In Blood | If I Ruled The World
7. Ghostface Killah - Iron Man
Ghostface Killah‘s solo debut and one of the strongest albums in an all-around strong catalog from Wu-Tang Clan’s most prolific member. Also part of the epic run of classic Wu-Tang solo debuts.
Top tracks: All That I Got Is You | Daytona 500 | Winter Warz | Iron Maiden
8. Jay Z - Reasonable Doubt
Jay Z‘s first and arguably best album (along with 2001’s The Blueprint). Because of a string of mediocre later releases and probably also because of his mega-successful business dealings, Jay Z has become a love-him or hate-him kind of figure. There’s no denying the excellence of this album, though. A young, hungry and ambitious Jay Z paints a compelling picture of his life as a hustler. Masterful production, brilliant lyricism, Reasonable Doubt shows us Jay Z at his peak.
Top tracks: Can’t Knock The Hustle | Dead Presidents II | Brooklyn’s Finest | Coming Of Age
9. 2Pac - All Eyez On Me
2Pac is one of the most iconic artists in the history of Hip Hop. He is one of the highest-selling artists too, with more monumental songs than anyone in the game. The reason 2Pac is widely considered one of the GOATs has everything to do with his personality, his charisma, his star power, his poetic flair, his unique voice, the strength of his singles, and the manner and time of his death; and less with his lyrical skill or the quality of his albums. Of the five albums completed during his life, not one is flawless. Me Against The World (1995) comes closest, but All Eyez On Me – his most successful and most celebrated album – is far from perfect.
Because of its impact and success, AEOM is seen as one of the biggest classics in Hip Hop ever, but at 27 tracks and 2 hours & 12 minutes, the album simply is way too long. Way. Too. Long. Especially the second part of the album just goes on and on with what seems to be the same track over and over again, a ridiculous amount of filler really. 2Pac’s subject matter on this album is limited (too much thuggery, not enough of the soul and intelligence still in evidence on his first three albums), and the endless list of guest vocalists don’t help things either (especially 2Pac’s Outlawz buddies are mediocre rappers at best), it makes the whole album feel more like a compilation album than a 2Pac solo album.
Except for “Whatz Ya Phone #” there are no really terrible songs on All Eyez On Me (although the remix of the classic “California Love” is far inferior to the original), but half of the tracklist is kind of generic and forgettable. That half should have been left on the cutting room floor. AEOM could have been excellent if 2Pac had released the best half as a single album.
Keep “Ambitionz As A Ridah”, “Got My Mind Made Up”, “How Do You Want It”, “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted”, “No More Pain”, “Heartz Of Men”, “Life Goes On”, “Only God Can Judge Me”, “I Ain’t Mad At Cha”, “Can’t C Me”, “Picture Me Rollin’”, “All Eyez On Me”, and maybe one or two more tracks – and that’s a tight album. All Eyez On Me as it is is not.
Lots of people get butthurt when 2Pac isn’t religiously praised, acting as if not blindly celebrating everything he has ever done is disrespectful. That’s bullsh*t, of course. You could turn that around and say it’s disrespectful to the dozens of artists in Hip Hop history to ignore the fact they had better albums than 2Pac had. Make no mistake: we love 2Pac and his music – we just contend that this album, while good, is not as good as is often said.
Top tracks: I Ain’t Mad At Cha | Picture Me Rollin | Only God Can Judge Me | Ambitionz Az A Ridah
10. Redman - Muddy Waters
The third album in an incredible three-album run. Just edging out the classics Whut Thee Album and Dare Iz A Darkside, Muddy Waters is Redman‘s 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 essential album.
Top tracks: Whateva Man | It’s Like That | Soopaman Luva | Rollin
11. UGK - Ridin’ Dirty
After two more than solid albums, UGK drops Ridin’ Dirty – arguably their best album. Flawless production, dope rhymes, and superb flows – Pimp C & Bun B really bring their A-game on this album. UGK will always be one of the greatest acts to come from the South and Ridin’ Dirty is an album that needs to be in any Hip Hop head’s collection.
Top tracks: Diamonds & Wood | One Day | Murder | Touched
12. Jeru The Damaja - Wrath Of The Math
In an era when consciousness in Hip Hop was on its way out in favor of tales of violence and materialism, Jeru kept doing his thing. Wrath Of The Math may not be quite the classic Jeru’s debut The Sun Rises In The East was, but it is an excellent album in its own right.
Insightful and profound, Jeru is relentless in his condemnation of gangsta posturing and the pimping out of Hip Hop by the big money suits, a condemnation which turned out to be highly prophetic. Outstanding lyricism and equally great production by DJ Premier – Wrath Of The Math is an album that is not to be forgotten.
Top tracks: One Day | Tha Bullsh** | Ya Playing Yaself | Whatever
13. DJ Shadow - Endtroducing
Simply the best instrumental Hip Hop album, ever. Timeless.
Top tracks: Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt | Midnight In A Perfect World | Changeling | Mutual Slump
14. Makaveli - The Don Killuminati The Seven Day Theory
Released just a few months after 2Pac’s death (and the last album completed during his lifetime), The Don Killuminati The Seven Day Theory turned out to be extremely prophetic with so many references to (his own) death it’s chilling. The album features some of the best instrumentals Pac ever got to work with and lyrically it’s 2Pac at his most angry and harsh, yet emotional and poetic best. Too many feature appearances from The Outlawz and others on a few filler tracks prevent a higher ranking – but because of 2Pac’s iconic status, this is a classic album nonetheless.
Top tracks: To Live And Die In L.A. | Me And My Girlfriend | Hail Mary | Hold Ya Head
15. Ras Kass - Soul On Ice
One of the most lyrical albums in Hip Hop ever, by one of the most underrated lyricists. A classic if only for the controversial 8-minute tour-de-force “Nature Of The Threat”.
Top tracks: Nature Of The Threat | Anything Goes | Sonset | The Evil That Men Do
16. A Tribe Called Quest - Beats Rhymes & Life
After their classic debut and super classic second and third album, ATCQ returned with Beats, Rhymes & Life. It may feel a little less like a ‘true’ Tribe album, because there are more guest appearances than in the past (the album could have done with less of guest rapper Consequence) and because a part of the production is handled by the legendary J Dilla – who brings his own distinct flavor to the table. With all that being said – Beats, Rhymes & Life still is a dope album and a worthy part of Tribe’s classic body of work.
Top tracks: Phony Rappers | Jam | Get A Hold | Wordplay
17. Mobb Deep - Hell On Earth
Mobb Deep’s third album continues in the vein of their second one, the classic The Infamous. Relentlessly dark and gritty, with especially Prodigy at his lyrical prime, Hell On Earth is another flawlessly produced Mobb Deep hit – although the extreme tough-guy lyrics and dark thematics will not appeal to everyone (even if you are willing to take it all with a grain of salt). It lacks a super classic single, like “Shook Ones” from The Infamous, but Hell On Earth is no doubt one of the two best Mobb Deep albums.
Top tracks: Drop A Gem On ‘Em | Nighttime Vulture | Hell On Earth (Front Lines) | Animal Instinct
18. Heltah Skeltah - Noctural
The late Sean Price‘s (then named Rock) recording debut as half of Heltah Skeltah; Heltah Skeltah, in turn, being part of the legendary Boot Camp Clik collective. Dark and menacing sounds and lyrics – strictly NYC mid-nineties Hip Hop. Maybe not as classic as the earlier albums of fellow BCC members Black Moon and Smif N Wessun, but a masterful debut nonetheless.
Top tracks: Operation Lockdown | Therapy | Da Wiggy | Clans, Posses, Crews & Clicks
19. Busta Rhymes - The Coming
After Busta Rhyme‘s breakout performance on ATCQ’s Scenario, he would soon grow too big to stay a part of Leaders Of The New School. The Coming didn’t fail to meet the high anticipation people had for Busta’s solo debut. Admittedly, you have to be able to appreciate his outrageous style and wild lyrical flow to fully enjoy his music – but most people do, as is evident by his successes and mainstream appeal. Later in his career, the quality of his output would drop off significantly, but The Coming is an excellent Busta Rhymes album and a solid second step to superstar status.
Top tracks: Woo Ha!! Got You All In Check | Flipmode Squad Meets Def Squad | Ill Vibe | Keep It Movin’
20. Keith Murray - Enigma
Keith Murray‘s best album? You know Keith Murray is an exceptional lyricist and with Erick Sermon on the boards, the result is always going to be a banger. They both bring their A-game for Enigma. Coupled with some dope guest spots, Enigma turns out to be a near-flawless album. A bit darker sounding than his debut, Enigma is an awesome sophomore album and definitely an underrated gem.
Top tracks: Yeah | The Rhyme | What A Feelin’ | Call My Name
21. Poor Righteous Teachers - The New World Order
PRT’s fourth and last album. As always, PRT comes with provocative and thought-provoking lyrics – touching on sociopolitical subjects, the stupidity of gangsta rap, and much more. Guests like KRS-One and X-Clan’s Brother J and others bring extra quality and intelligence to the table.
Top tracks: Conscious Style | Word Iz Life | Gods, Earths, & 85ers | Miss Ghetto
22. Real Live - The Turnaround: A Long Awaited Drama
Talk about slept on. New Jersey natives and Hip Hop veterans K-Def and Larry-O come correct with this quintessential East Coast boom-bap album. With guests like Ghostface Killah and Cappadonna (among others), this album offers true Hip Hop at its finest. Don’t sleep!
Top tracks: Real Live Sh** | The Gimmicks | All I Ask of You | Pop The Trunk
23. Chino XL - Here To Save You All
Chino XL – a.k.a. King of Ill Lines & Punchlines – drops a lyrical gem with Here To Save You All. This album would have in the top 10 if the instrumentals were on the same level as the lyrical display is, but unfortunately, the beats fall flat at times. Still, this is an outstanding album by one of the illest lyrical emcees EVER.
Top tracks: Feelin’ Evil Again | Kreep | Riiot! | Many Different Ways
24. Sadat X - Wild Cowboys
Wild Cowboys is the debut solo album from Brand Nubian’s Sadat X, and what a solo debut it is. Sadat X has a very distinct voice and delivery, so the album may not be for everybody. But anyone who is into that jazzy kind of NYC boom-bap, complemented by at times thought-provoking rhymes, could do worse than to check this album out (if you somehow missed out on it). One of the most slept-on albums in 1996.
Top tracks: Escape From New York | The Lump Lump | Stages & Lights | Interview
25. M.O.P. - Firing Squad
A hardcore, tag-team lyrical assault by Lil’Fame & Billy Danze. They aren’t the best emcees ever and a lot of their ‘shouted’ delivery comes out a bit muffled, but their energy and attitude are infectious – and the fact that DJ Premier provided most of the instrumentals guarantees an enjoyable listening experience. Watch out for the Mash Out Posse!
Top tracks: Firing Squad | Stick To Ya Gunz | Anticipation | Nothin 2 Lose
26. Lost Boyz - Legal Drug Money
This four-man crew from Queensbridge (Mr. Cheeks, Freaky Tah (R.I.P.), Spigg Nice & Pretty Lou) drop a near-classic with Legal Drug Money. Great lyrics mainly from Mr. Cheecks, dope East Coast beats, and the album flows just right. The album definitely has more to offer than just the legendary track “Renee” and is a worthy addition to anyone’s Hip Hop collection.
Top tracks: Renee | Music Makes Me High | Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz, & Benz | Legal Drug Money
27. Xzibit - At The Speed Of Life
With At The Speed Of Life West Coast legend Xzibit drops a dope album with a definitive East Coast feel. Dark beats, creative loops, and excellent lyrics and lyricism. The album could have done without the interludes, but overall this is an excellent – and underrated – debut album.
Top tracks: Paparazzi | Just Maintain | Carry The Weight | Plastic Surgery
28. Lord Finesse - The Awakening
Lord Finesse is a master of braggadocious rap and humorous punchlines. The Awaking is his third album and another fine effort. It’s a little too short and has not enough stand-outs to be higher on this list, but Lord Finesse is a true legend and he deserves his props.
Top tracks: True and Livin’ | Brainstorm/P.S.K. | No Gimmicks | Actual Facts
29. Bahamadia - Kollage
Philadelphia‘s Bahamadia is one of the most underrated emcees in the Hip Hop game. She has a smooth and hypnotizing style of rapping, and lyrics worth listening to. In an era where Lil Kim-like ‘explicitness’ was the marketable thing, Bahamadia’s intelligent strength and female empowerment just wasn’t as easy to ‘sell’. That’s a shame because Kollage is an excellent album.
Top tracks: Da Jawn | Spontaneity | Rugged Ruff | 3 Tha Hard Way
30. OGC - Da Storm
A dope album from the least known members of the Boot Camp Clik family. No surprises here, typical New York City mid-nineties noir Hip Hop, but what it does, it does really well. Emcees Top Dog, Louieville Sluggah, and especially Starang Wondah offer tight lyrics throughout, with guest appearances by several BCC crew members to complete the BCC experience.
Top tracks: Gunn Clapp | No Fear | Hurricane Starang | Da Storm
31. E-40 - Tha Hall Of Game
E-40 is one of the most prolific artists in the Hip Hop game. He garnered a strong following and legendary status, especially in his home region: the Bay Area. Tha Hall Of Game is one of his strongest albums, arguably second only to 1995‘s In A Major Way. You can love or hate his typical, unique style and slang – but you can not deny E-40 is a West Coast legend.
Top tracks: Rappers Ball | Record Haters | Million Dollar Spot | The Story
32. Geto Boys - The Resurrection
Another solid Geto Boys album, reunited in their strongest line-up: Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill. Typical Geto Boys fare: hard-edged lyrics sprinkled with social commentaries. The album contains a few forgettable tracks and some unnecessary guest rappers – but overall it is totally enjoyable and a worthy addition to the Geto Boys catalog.
Top tracks: The World Is A Ghetto | Blind Leading The Blind | First Light Of The Day | Point Of No Return
33. Westside Connection - Bow Down
Hard-edged, uncompromising gangsta rap over banging beats, by some of the West Coast greats: WC, Mack 10 & Ice Cube, with especially WC taking center stage. An essential album for those who are into gangsta rap.
Top tracks: Bow Down | The Gangsta, The Killa & The Dope Dealer | King Of The Hill | All The Critics In New York
34. Ultra - Big Time
Big Time is basically a Kool Keith solo album, with some help from rough Ultramagnetic affiliate Tim Dog. Kool Keith’s trademark weirdness is in full effect here, bizarre lyrics galore. The dark and sometimes crazy beats suit the lyrics perfectly. If not for a few filler tracks, this album would even be higher on the list.
Top tracks: The Industry Is Wack | Super Luv | Keep It Real | Fat Lady
35. Delinquent Habits - Delinquent Habits
Tight lyrics, dope turntable work, great production. These Latin rappers from the Cypress Hill ‘family’ dropped a dope debut album with Delinquent Habits. Great Latin and L.A. vibes – this album hits the spot.
Top tracks: Tres Delinquentes | Lower Eastside | I’m Addicted | Good Times
36. Chuck D - Autobiography Of Mistachuc
Chuck D‘s first solo album should have gotten more recognition than it did. Sure, with the absence of Flavor Flav’s antics and Bomb Squad’s typical noise, the Public Enemy magic is missing – but Chuck D’s powerful baritone is in full effect here and the sociopolitical lyrics are as hard-hitting and intelligent as always. Much respect to Chuck D, one of Hip Hop’s elder statesmen.
Top tracks: No | Generation Wrekkked | Horizontal Heroin | Talk Show Created the Fool
37. Eminem - Infinite
Eminem‘s forgotten debut. While in the general public’s eye The Slim Shady LP is usually seen as Em’s debut album, in fact that one was his (multi-platinum) sophomore breakout album. Infinite was his official debut recording, and pretty much completely slept on upon its release.
It is an interesting album, however: fun and enjoyable. Although nowhere near his lyrical peak yet, Eminem’s cleverness and trademark delivery are already on (tentative) display here. The album’s production is hit-and-miss, though, generic boom-bap that never really shines. Still: more than worth checking out and a must listen, at least for Eminem fans.
Top tracks: Infinite | 313 | Maxine | Never 2 Far
38. Mad Skillz - From Where???
Best known for his end of the year Rap Up’s, Mad Skillz dropped a solid album with From Where??? Mad Skillz is a dope lyricist and with production from Buckwild, J Dilla, The Beatnuts, and Large Professor, you know everything’s got to be all right – and it is, even though they don’t all bring their best beats.
Unfortunately, Mad Skillz’s superior skills as a freestyle and punchline rapper do not always transfer well to wax, so the album can be a bit hit-and-miss. Nonetheless, From Where??? is an enjoyable album and worth a mention if only because Mad Skillz doesn’t deserve being slept on.
Top tracks: Doin Time In The Cypha | All In It | Extra Abstract Skillz | Nod Factor
39. Lil Kim - Hardcore
Lil Kim definitely was a talented emcee, whether you like this album or not no doubt is up to personal preferences. Some will say her mic skills deserve lyrics that have more substance than Kim’s sexpot mafia queen type lyrics, others are perfectly happy with the nasty lyrics she drops here.
Like the title says, the album is hardcore – but totally commercial at the same time. Puff Daddy was involved, so you know the controversial nature and the shock value of the lyrics are more than a little bit part of the marketing plan. This album opened the door for a host of Lil Kim clones, most of whom didn’t do Hip Hop any favors. This album was one of the first of its nature however, and a classic in its own right, if only because of its influence and Lil Kim’s mic skills.
Top tracks: Big Momma Thang | No Time | Mafia Land | Crush On You
40. Too $hort - Gettin' It (Album Number Ten)
Another year, another Too Short album. ‘Album Number Ten’, and supposedly his retirement album (although that idea proved to be short-lived). Gettin’ It is another competent Too Short effort, just not as strong as his previous albums. Typical Too Short subject matter: pimp & playa tales, representing Oakland to the fullest, some social commentaries – all over deep, funky basslines. No real stand-out tracks and a bit too many guests – but otherwise just fine.
Top tracks: Gettin’ It | Survivin’ The Game | That’s Why | Nasty Rhymes
- Nine – Cloud 9
- Blahzay Blahzay – Blah, Blah, Blah
- Da Bush Babees – Gravity
- Cella Dwellas – Realms ‘n Reality
- Heather B – Takin Mine
- Foxy Brown – Ill Na Na
- Eazy-E – Str8 Off Tha Streetz Of Muthaphukkin Compton
- MC Eiht – Death Threatz
- Snoop Doggy Dogg – Tha Doggfather
- Ice-T – VI: Return of the Real
- MC Ren – The Villain In Black
- Wise Intelligent – Killin’ U for Fun
- Grav – Down To Earth
- Do Or Die – Picture This
- Young Lay – Black ‘n Dangerous
- Lil 1/2 Dead – Steel on a Mission
- Dubee AKA Sugawolf – Dubee AKA Sugawolf
- Blackjack – Addicted To Drama
- Dru Down – Can You Feel Me
- B-Legit – The Hemp Museum
- Mac Mall – Untouchable
- Richie Rich – Seasoned Veteran
- Richie Rich – Half Thang
- Facemob – The Other Side Of The Law
- Smoothe Da Hustler – Once Upon A Time In America
- Al Tariq – God Connections
- Kwest Tha Madd Lad – This Is My First Album
- Shyheim – The Lost Generation
- Mr. Mike – Wicked Wayz