1. Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus
Underground Hip Hop at its finest. A hate-or-love-it kind of album for many due to its innovative and experimental nature, but doubtless a classic. Company Flow, consisting of El-P (beats & rhymes), Big Juss (rhymes) & DJ Mr. Len (beats & scratches), dropped this gem to bless Hip Hop in a time period where shiny suit rappers and gangsta posers were starting to get most of the spotlight. Ahead of its time and very influential, Funcrusher Plus paved the way for countless left-field Hip Hop acts, who were and are instrumental in keeping the genre fresh.
Top tracks: Vital Nerve | Population Control | 8 Steps to Perfection | Bad Touch Example
2. Camp Lo - Uptown Saturday Night
Camp Lo‘s Sonny Cheba and Geechi Suede come off as a sort of hybrid of OutKast, The Pharcyde, and De La Soul. Their insanely smooth flows and outstanding creativity and originality make for an atypical late nineties NYC Hip Hop album. Even though it contained the smash hit “Luchini (This Is It)”, Uptown Saturday Night never really got the recognition it deserved, certainly not at the time of its release. It has aged really well though and is deservedly widely recognized as the masterpiece it is.
Top tracks: Luchini (This Is It) | Black Connection | Coolie High | Black Nostaljack aka Come On
3. Wu Tang Clan - Wu Tang Forever
Wu-Tang Clan‘s second album had A LOT to live up to. In addition to their monumental debut, the classic Enter The Wu-Tang, there were 5 outstanding solo projects by Wu-Tang Clan members released prior to this sophomore effort. Wu-Tang Forever is a double album, which is always tricky. The risk is that the album loses focus and cohesiveness, that there are some tracks that will be seen as filler material, and that the album simply is too long(winded) and self-indulgent.
Not the case here. Sure, it could have done with fewer tracks (and certainly with fewer skits), but overall this is an excellent album and great addition to the Wu-Tang catalog – still their best-selling album going quadruple platinum. Sadly, Ol’ Dirty Bastards’ input is very limited, but all the others are at the peaks of their lyrical skills, with RZA producing some of the most captivating soundscapes ever.
Top tracks: Triumph | Reunited | It’s Yourz | Impossible
4. The Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death
The Notorious B.I.G.’s sophomore album Life After Death is plagued by some of the same faults as the ones that marred 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me. Life After The Death is overlong at 1 hour & 47 minutes, and there’s too much filler material: there are too many Puff Daddy pop songs (and a couple of annoying skits). Biggie’s lyrical skill and story-telling abilities are second to none, but the quality of the songs on this LP is hit-and-miss.
Of the 24 tracks, at least 5 should have been left off the album to be able to consider Life After Death on par with Biggie’s monumental debut Ready To Die. Songs like “Somebody’s Gotta Die”, “Hypnotize”, “Kick In The Door”, “What’s Beef?”, “N*****s Bleed”, “I Got A Story To Tell”, “Ten Crack Commandments”, “Long Kiss Goodnight” and “You’re Nobody (Till Somebody Kills You) are all excellent, but “F**k You Tonight”, “I Love The Dough”, “Another”, “Playa Hater”, “Nasty Boy” are weak songs that bring the album down. Another problem is the skits that are used to set the tone for tracks, the skits on LAD are all quite long and stuck to the beginning of most songs, severely reducing the replay-ability of those tracks. “Kick In The Door” is a great track, but practically a must-skip because of the useless one-minute skit preceding it.
As it is, Life After Death still is an awesome album packed with classic tracks – but because of the inclusion of that handful of throwaway tracks, it’s just isn’t the masterpiece it could and should have been.
Top tracks: Kick In The Door | Somebody’s Gotta Die | 10 Crack Commandments | Long Kiss Goodnight
5. Mood - Doom
This crew from Cincinnati, Ohio dropped an underground sleeper classic with Doom. Atmospheric and melodic production complemented with clever lyrics – this is real Hip Hop at its finest. The album features production by Hi-Tek and guest appearances by Talib Kweli and Wu-Tang-affiliated group Sunz of Man, and this album can be seen as a springboard for all their careers. Mood emcees Main Flow and Donte do an excellent job over Hi-Tek’s beats, the result is a slept-on masterpiece. It’s hard to single out standout tracks from this album because its strength is its consistency: one hour of excellence.
Top tracks: Millennium | Karma | Illuminated Sunlight | Esoteric Manuscripts
6. O.C. - Jewelz
It can be argued that the labels ‘slept on’ and ‘underrated’ are overused and applied to far too many emcees – who are either not very good or not slept on at all. O.C. is an underrated emcee who well deserves the label. After his perfect (and yes – slept on) debut Word… Life in 1994, he returns with another outstanding (and slightly more accessible) album. Production is tight and comes from renowned producers like DJ Premier, Lord Finesse, Showbiz, Buckwild, Da Beatminerz. Guest appearances from Big L, Organized Konfusion, and Freddie Foxxx are the icing on the cake.
Top tracks: My World | War Games | Stronjay | The Chosen One
7. Common - One Day It’ll All Make Sense
Another brilliant Common album, the one that made the Chicago emcee a Hip Hop A-lister. Consistent high level of quality throughout, creative and thoughtful lyrics combined with excellent, soulful production: One Day It’ll All Make Sense is a Hip Hop classic that has aged like fine wine, and it’s not even Common’s best album. Common is extraordinary.
Top tracks: Gettin’ Down At The Amphitheater | Making A Name For Ourselves | Retrospect For Life | Hungry
8. Cru - Da Dirty 30
Like Mood’s album, this is an underground gem, sadly slept on. Production is handled by Yogi and is excellent throughout. Yogi and Chaddeo share the mic on mostly all of the tracks, with a few guest appearances by the likes of Ras Kass, Black Rob, and the legendary Slick Rick to add extra spice. This is pure mid-90s hardcore NYC boom-bap Hip Hop – no frills, no gimmicks. If they would just have left out the unnecessary and annoying skits, Cru would have had a true classic on their hands with Da Dirty 30.
Top tracks: Armageddon | Loungin’ Wit My Cru | Just Another Case | The Ebonic Plague
9. Capone-N-Noreaga - The War Report
Capone-N-Noreaga’s debut album is an NYC noir classic, very similar to Mobb Deep’s monumental albums The Infamous and Hell On Earth. Excellent production from some of the finest producers in the game (like Buckwild, Lord Finesse, Clark Kent, Havoc from Mobb Deep, and Marley Marl) and typical East Coast gangsta rap lyrics – more tough-guy tales from Queensbridge’s rough streets.
Capone is only on half of the songs because he got locked up while recording the album. Tragedy Khadafi takes his place on some songs, which actually does the album well. The War Report is a solid album, a must-have for fans of NYC street rap like that of Nas, Mobb Deep, and Kool G Rap.
Top tracks: Bloody Money | Stick You | Illegal Life | Driver Seat
10. Jedi Mind Tricks - The Psycho-Social, Chemical, Biological, And Electro-Magnetic Manipulation Of Human Consciousness
On their debut album, this underground crew from Philadelphia do not reach their full potential yet, but this still is a dope album anyway. Stoupe Enemy of Mankind is an excellent producer, providing bone-chilling and atmospheric soundscapes for Vinnie Paz to unleash his lyrical wizardry on. Innovative and intelligent, and the beginning of an impressive career filled with A+ quality albums. Jedi Mind Tricks is one of the best and most consistent Hip Hop crews in the game.
Top tracks: The Winds Of War | Chinese Water Torture | The Three Immortals | I Who Have Nothing
11. Scarface - The Untouchable
Scarface‘s 1994 classic The Diary would always be a tough album to follow up on. With The Untouchable, his fourth solo album, Face does an admirable job and mostly succeeds. Arguably the beats are a bit weaker on this one, but lyrically Scarface is as strong as ever. Few rappers in the game are able to convey emotion as strongly and convincingly as Scarface is able to do. The Untouchable is one of Scarface’s best albums (together with his debut, The Diary, and The Fix) and another instant Brother Mob classic.
Top tracks: Smile | Faith | Mary Jane | Untouchable
12. Kool Keith - Sex Style
After the brilliant Dr Octagonecologyst from the year previous, Kool Keith returns with Sex Style, presenting some awesomely ridiculous “pornocore”. Any other rapper (with the possible exception of MF DOOM) would sound really really ridiculous – it’s only Kool Keith who can get away with doing an album like this and come out on top. Kool Keith is a bizarre genius and truly one of a kind. After Dr Octagonecologyst, Sex Style is one of the best albums in Kool Keith’s vast catalog.
Top tracks: Keep it Real… Represent | Sex Style | Still The Best | Don’t Crush It
13. Jay Z - In My Lifetime Vol 1
Although not quite up to par with Jay-Z’s monumental debut Reasonable Doubt, In My Lifetime Vol 1 is a fine album in its own right. Some may say that Jigga turned pop with this album, and there’s some truth in that statement. This album is definitely more radio-friendly, a clear attempt by Jay-Z to appeal to wider audiences. But the ‘street’ is still there too, just because there are a few (actually pretty good…) ‘poppy’ songs on it, it’s no reason to dismiss the whole album.
Not his best work (that would be Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, and The Black Album), but not his worst either. Solid Jay-Z.
Top tracks: Where I’m From | Imaginary Player | Streets Is Watching | This City Is Mine
14. Frankie Cutlass - Politics & Bullsh*t
Frankie Cutlass gathered an A-star line-up for this boom-bap treasure. With guest spots from Craig G., Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap, M.O.P., Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, Keith Murray, Redman, Sean Price, and others, you know this has to be a quality album.
Top tracks: The Cypher Part 3 | Know Da Game | Games | Puerto Rico (Black People)
15. Slum Village - Fan-Tas-Tic Vol 1
Slum Village’s ‘unofficial’ debut album, recorded in 1996 and 1997, but not officially released until 8 years later. It was leaked in 1997 however, quickly becoming an underground classic. Completely produced by the late great J Dilla, this experimental album is a must-have for fans of his sound.
Top tracks: The Look Of Love | Keep It On | Players | Things U Do
16. Busta Rhymes - When Disaster Strikes
After The Coming, his excellent solo debut released the year previous, Busta Rhymes returns with an equally potent album, When Disaster Strikes. Busta Rhymes made his name as the most appealing member of the high-energy crew The Leaders Of The New School, and especially with his career-defining guest-spot on ATCQ’s posse cut “Scenario“. On When Disaster Strikes he continues in that vein and that of The Coming: delivering an album full of club bangers with his typical manic rhymes and energy. This is the album that catapulted Bus-a-bus to the top of the hill.
Top tracks: Rhymes Galore | Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See | Dangerous | One
17. Organized Konfusion - The Equinox
Organized Konfusion’s third and last album, after which Prince Po and Pharoahe Monch would go their separate ways. Just like its predecessors, The Equinox is an intriguing listen. Not very accessible, mainly because of the ‘concept’ nature of the album and the (too many) skits – but judging the album purely by its songs, it’s another Organized Konfusion winner.
Prince Po and especially Pharoahe Monch are excellent emcees who throughout the whole album deliver lyrically tight and dense verses that will leave your ears burning. This album would have been virtually flawless if they would have released it as a 12 or 14 song record, without all the skits to distract us.
Top tracks: Hate | Somehow, Someway | Numbers | Questions
18. Missy Elliott - Supa Dupa Fly
Very much a crossover album with a lot of pop/R&B/mainstream appeal, Supa Dupa Fly deserves its high position on this list nonetheless. The revolutionary and eminently recognizable production by Timbaland combined with Missy‘s extravagant talent make for a dope album – admittedly with some filler tracks, but with some unforgettable classics on it too.
Top tracks: Sock It 2 Me | The Rain | Friendly Skies | Best Friends
19. Rakim - The 18th Letter
After label- and legal troubles kept him from releasing music for years, his solo debut in 1997 was highly anticipated by all those who consider Rakim one of the best, if not THE best emcee of all time. Unfortunately, The 18th Letter did not quite meet expectations. After four back-to-back genre-defining classics with former partner Eric B, it would always be next to impossible to continue that same level of quality. The problem with The 18th Letter is its inconsistency.
DJ Premier gives Rakim some of his best beats and Rakim kills it on those tracks. There are a few R&B-ish tracks however that do not work at all and there are unnecessary skits that break the flow of the album. Outside a few exceptional tracks where everything fits, the production was on the soft side and some of the beats just don’t match Rakim’s intensity. All in all, not a bad album at all – but seeing it is a Rakim album it could (and should) have been so much better…
Top tracks: It’s Been A Long Time | Guess Who’s Back | When I’m Flowin’ | The 18th Letter
20. KRS-One - I Got Next
KRS One‘s best-selling album, but not his best album. It’s true that probably all his albums preceding this one (including all BDP albums) are better than this one, but even so – this album is not as bad as some KRS haters would make you believe. I Got Next even contains some of the Blastmasters’ best tracks (“Step Into A World”, “A Friend”). Problem is that overall it is a bit too inconsistent (most notably because of a failed experiment with a metal crossover track and especially because of an ill-conceived track with Puff Daddy) and feels too disjointed to be rated higher.
Top tracks: Step Into A World | A Friend | Heartbeat | Can’t Stop Won’t Stop
21. Suga Free - Street Gospel
A forgotten but dope album, that deserves to be mentioned when West Coast gems are talked about. This is a super-smooth album with that signature DJ Quik sound (DJ Quik produced the whole album). Suga Free is a great emcee whose humorous hood tales perfectly complement Quik’s funked-out beats. Critically acclaimed, but sadly overlooked.
Top tracks: Tip Toe | Doe Doe And A Skunk | Why U Bullshittin? | Don’t No Suckas Live Here
22. Psycho Realm - The Psycho Realm (1997)
The Psycho Realm is the first album by Los Angeles crew Psycho Realm. At this time the group consisted of brothers Sick Jacken and Big Duke, along with Cypress Hill’s B-Real – who is the star of the show. Surprising lyrical depth here and there, plus excellent (mostly self-produced) instrumentals – this is one the most underappreciated Hip Hop albums of the late 1990s.
23. The Beatnuts - Stone Crazy
This is another quality Beatnuts album. These guys – much like their West Coast counterparts Tha Alkaholiks – know how to keep Hip Hop FUN. Never taking themselves too seriously, they kick crazy and humorous lyrics over some bumping beats for the listener’s pleasure. The Beatnuts are one of the most underrated crews around.
Top tracks: Off The Books | Find That | Uncivilized | Do You Believe
24. Atmosphere - Overcast!
Reportedly not loved by Atmosphere‘s Slug himself, this album is dope as hell anyway. On their debut Atmosphere still was a trio, consisting of Slug and Ant, and an emcee named Spawn. More raw, dark, and grimy than their later albums and not much of the ’emo-rap’ they became famous for later. Just a straight-up underground Hip Hop album that Slug can be proud of (even if he isn’t). Atmosphere is one of underground Hip Hop’s top acts and their legacy starts here.
Top tracks: Scapegoat | Multiples | 1597 | Complications
25. Del The Funkee Homosapien - Future Development
Del’s third studio album was his first released under the Hieroglyphics Imperium Recordings label (because Del was dropped off Elektra before this album got released). Its 1997 release was only on the Hieroglyphics website and as a cassette in Japan. It was re-released in America as a CD in 2002. It was still able to achieve decent success, selling over 400,000 copies worldwide. Not Del’s most essential work – but still an album more than worth having in your collection. A must-have for Hieroglyphics completists at least.
Top tracks: Del’s Nightmare | Corner Story | Don’t Forget The Bass | Checkin’ Out The Rivalry
26. Boogie Monsters - God Sound
Boogie Monsters dropped an impressive debut album in 1994 with Riders of the Storm: The Underwater Album. The group got the label ‘Christian rappers’, and the album went largely unnoticed – which was a shame because it was really excellent.
In 1997 the group came back with God Sound, not quite as strong as its predecessor but still more than a worthwhile listen. Strictly East Coast, full of wisdom, social commentary, and spiritual nourishment. Musically sparse but very tasteful. Clean and mostly positive – it’s a shame this kind of Hip Hop loses out to the violence-glorifying kind, but there you go. A solid effort.
Top tracks: The Beginning Of The End | Photographic Memory | Mark Of The Beast | God Sound
27. Jungle Brothers - Raw Deluxe
After their first two critically acclaimed albums – Straight Out The Jungle (1988) and Done By The Forces Of Nature (1989) – the JB’s ran into label troubles due to disappointing album sales. They came back with the experimental J. Beez Wit The Remedy in 1993 which was not quite up to par with their earlier efforts.
Raw Deluxe is somewhat of a return to form, although still no way near the superb level of their first two classics. This album is more toned down and misses a bit of the spark they used to have, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable Hip Hop album anyway.
Top tracks: Jungle Brother | How Ya Want It We Got It | Brain | Political
28. EPMD - Back In Business
After a 5-year hiatus, due to beef between Erick and Parish and their working on solo projects, EPMD returned with their fifth album as a duo: the aptly titled Back In Business. Solid as always, with a few standout tracks, it’s just missing the little extra spark that their first four albums had to have to rank it higher on this list. Regardless, you can’t go wrong with any album from one of Hip Hop’s most consistent duos.
Top tracks: Richter Scale | Da Joint | Never Seen Before | You Gots To Chill 97
29. Tha Alkaholiks - Likwidation
“If it ain’t broke, then don’t try to fix it”. Tha Alkaholiks’ third album does exactly what the previous two did: giving us uncomplicated, unpretentious, good old fun Hip Hop. No gimmicks, no fabricated attitude, just party rap for everybody’s enjoyment. Dope beats, fun rhymes, guests like Xzibit and Ol’ Dirty Bastard – what’s not to like?
Top tracks: Off The wall | Awww Sh** | Hip Hop Drunkies | Killin’ It
30. Diamond - Hatred, Passions and Infidelity
Not on par with his classic 1992 debut Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop, but not bad either. In a year dominated with Puffy bling, it was refreshing to still be able to hear that gold old D.I.T.C boom-bap.
Top tracks: The One | Gather Round | 5 Fingas Of Death | MC Iz My Ambition
31. Latyrx - The Album
Cali MCs Lateef the Truthspeaker and Lyrics Born deliver an album that may be a little bit too experimental, obscure, and abstract for most but deserves more attention nonetheless. Lyrics Born produced most of the album, with some cuts done by the supreme DJ Shadow. The off-the-wall production, combined with outstanding lyricism makes for an album that deserves a place in any (alternative) Hip Hop fan’s collection.
Top tracks: Balcony Beach | The Quickening (The Wreckoning, Part II) | Bad News | Burnt Pride
32. Artifacts - That's Them
Perhaps not as good as their 1994 debut Between a Rock and a Hard Place, but a strong album nonetheless. Tight production from Shawn J and Lord Finesse and dope lyrics from Artifact’s El Da Sensei and Tame One. These guys refreshingly stay away from gangsta cliches and represent real Hip Hop culture.
Top tracks: Art Of Facts | Collaboration Of Mics | 31 Bumrush | The Ultimate
33. Aesop Rock - Music For Earthworms
Aesop Rock’s obscure debut album is a self-released, self-published, experimental oddity – but an interesting project anyway and more than worth checking out. Also noteworthy because of two guest appearances by Percee P – one of the greatest emcees ever, who sadly never made it big.
Top tracks: Wake Up Call | The Substance | Coward Of The Year | Plastic Soldiers
34. MJG - No More Glory
One-half of the legendary Memphis duo Eightball & MJG drops a dope solo joint with No More Glory. Typical lush and funky Southern instrumentals and some entertaining lyrics make for an album that shouldn’t be slept on.
Top tracks: That Girl | Shine And Recline | In The Middle Of The Night | Hip Hop Voodoo
35. No I.D. - Accept Your Own & Be Yourself (The Black Album)
Renowned for his production work for Common and others, No I.D. released this solo album, unfortunately to no great success. It is a solid enough album though, especially shining on the production side of things. No I.D. is much better as a producer than as an emcee, and this album would have been much better if he had enlisted some better emcees to rhyme over his beats. Common makes one appearance – which results in the best track of the album: “State To State”.
Top tracks: State To State | The Real Weight | Pray For The Sinners | Fate Or Destiny
36. Royal Flush - Ghetto Millionaire
Underrated and slept-on. Queens rapper Royal Flush’s debut is a typical example of late 90s NYC Hip Hop, with great beats and rhymes. Flush is an emcee with style and charm, and he has a nice flow and delivery. His subject matter is nothing special – mostly the Queens street lifestyle – but he does it well. A long but consistent album.
Top tracks: Dead Letter | International Currency | Family Problems | Regulate
37. Rampage - Scout's Honor...By Way of Blood
Rampage is a raw and powerful emcee from Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode family, who sadly flew somewhat below the radar at the time. Too bad, because this album has some pretty good NYC head-nodding Hip Hop.
Top tracks: Wild For Da Night | Flipmode Enemy #1 | Hall Of Fame | Talk Of The Town
38. Killarmy - Silent Weapons For Quiet Wars
A Wu-Tang spin-off that may be lacking the special spark that made the early Wu-Tang family material so classic, but which is solid in its own right. Wu-Tang producers 4th Disciple (RZA’s half-brother) and Tru Master produced the bulk of this album, so you know the beats are tight – but the 6 emcees are of mixed quality, with especially Killa Sin being a positive exception. An album any and all Wu-Tang fans have to own, though.
Top tracks: Camouflage Ninjas | Wu Renegades | Clash Of The Titans | Full Moon
39. The Firm - The Album
What? Does the Firm only make #39? Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown, and Nature, with production by Dr. Dre and Trackmasters – The Firm has to be at least top 10, right? Well, it should have been. It turned out to be merely OK, no more, no less. The album has some good moments, but overall falls flat – it’s a bit inconsistent and the whole mafioso thing feels too gimmicky. Good enough to (barely) make this list, but not nearly delivering on its promise.
Top tracks: Phone Tap | Firm Fiasco | Desperados | Five Minutes To Flush
40. LL Cool J - Phenomenon
Not his best album by a long shot, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. Highlights are the classic posse cut “4,3,2,1” (which sparked the beef with Canibus), the emotionally charged “Father” and the Busta Rhymes collabo “Starsky & Hutch”. There are a few less inspired tracks too though, and some trademark ‘poppy’ LL songs that are not to everybody’s liking – but however you look at it, there’s no denying LL Cool J is one of Hip Hop’s GOATs and deserving of everybody’s respect.
Top tracks: 4,3,2,1 | Father | Starsky & Hutch | Wanna Get Paid
- Various Artists – Soundbombing
- Various Artists – Soul In The Hole
- 2Pac – R U Still Down? (Remember Me)
- Murs – F’Real
- X-ecutioners – X-Pressions
- Boot Camp Clik – For The People
- Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – The Art Of War
- Lady of Rage – Necessary Roughness
- Muggs – Muggs Presents the Soul Assassins, Chapter 1
- Chubb Rock – The Mind
- Gravediggaz – The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel
- Twista – Adrenaline Rush
- Hot Boys – Get It How U Live!!
- Mystikal – Unpredictable
- MC Breed – Flatline
- Three 6 Mafia – Chpt. 2: World Domination
- Brotha Lynch Hung – Loaded
- Mia X – Unlady Like
- Spice 1 – The Black Bossalini
- Mack 10 – Based On A True Story
- Puff Daddy – No Way Out
- Mase – Harlem World
- Wyclef Jean – The Carnival