The 1970s were the decade in which Hip Hop was ‘born’, witnessed solely by the happy few who were there. The 1980s saw Hip Hop grow from a local phenomenon to a new musical genre and worldwide cultural movement, with Hip Hop albums steadily starting to be released from the mid-eighties on. The 1990s were the first full decade in which Hip Hop albums were being released, with dozens of dope records coming out every single year – a lot of which we now consider classics. For this list, we ranked which are in our opinion are the best 90s Hip Hop albums. Obviously, not everyone (or no one…) will agree 100% with the order on this list – but that’s exactly why these lists exist: to have a healthy discussion about the music we all love. So please do weigh in if you have a different opinion!
1. Nas - Illmatic (1994) 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. 2. A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory (1991) The Low End Theory is the definitive statement about what creativity, innovation, artistry, fun and raw talent can produce. Building on the quality work of their debut, Tribe perfected the fusion of jazzy influences and bass-heavy Hip Hop beats. The album is so coherent and consistent, it almost feels like one long song – in this case, a good thing. Phife, who only played a small part on the first album, really increased his skills as an emcee and establishes a perfect interplay with the always exceptional Q-Tip. Clever lyrics and smooth and warm music – this album is nothing short of perfect. 3. Wu Tang Clan - Enter The Wu Tang (1993) What can be said about this seminal album that hasn’t been said a thousand times over already? One of the most innovative, groundbreaking, influential and important Hip Hop albums EVER. New York’s answer to Dr. Dre’s worldshaking The Chronic of the year previous. RZA’s incredible innovative production resulting in that trademark dirty and gritty Wu-Tang sound, complemented by 9 emcees who all bring their A-game and show crazy versatility and never-seen-before lyrical creativity: unbeatable.
4. A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders (1993) Faced with the impossible task of following up on the flawless masterpiece that is The Low End Theory, Tribe delivered an album that is every bit as awesome as its predecessor. There can be no greater praise. As fresh today as it was on the day it was released: the mark of a true classic 5. Pete Rock & CL Smooth - Mecca And The Soul Brother (1992) A timeless musical masterpiece, tasteful and irresistible. After the excellent All Souled Out EP they dropped the year previous, Pete Rock & CL Smooth followed up with this brilliant album. Pete Rock’s multi-layered, horns-filled, bass-heavy boom-bap production is simply masterful. CL Smooth delivery serves as another instrument to complete the musical feast this album is from start to finish. Incredibly consistent throughout, Mecca And The Soul Brother is one of Hip Hop’s all-time greatest albums. 6. OutKast - ATLiens (1996) 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.
7. Raekwon - Only Built For Cuban Linx... (1995) The best Wu-Tang solo album? We think so. It’s not even a ‘real’ solo album – every Wu-Tang Clan member appears on one or more tracks and production is in the more than capable hands of RZA. That makes this album even more of a group effort than most other Wu-Tang solo releases. After Kool G Rap, Raekwon can be seen as one of the pioneers of the mafioso sub-genre and this album is one of the best, if not the best of its sort. Only Built For Cuban Linx… was loosely composed to play like a film with Raekwon as the “star,” fellow Wu-Tang member Ghostface Killah as the “guest-star,” and producer RZA as the “director.” The cinematic feel of the album, along with the top-notch production and emceeing, make this one an all-time classic. 8. Dr Dre - The Chronic (1992) The Chronic is one of the most influential Hip Hop albums of all-time. A 1990’s masterpiece that is about the production first and the lyrical content second. Dr. Dre‘s production on this album is just INCREDIBLE. Often imitated, never duplicated. It also showed us the full potential of Hip Hop’s next superstar – a young Snoop Dogg. Along with lyrics from a host of other talented rappers and Dr. Dre himself, The Chronic is filled with the ‘standard’ gangsta themes (violence, sex, drugs, parties) – difference from most of the copy cat others is that on this album it sounds GOOD instead of just dumb.
9. Snoop Doggy Dogg - Doggystyle (1993) In the pre-internet and Social Media days, when music promotion was a whole different ballgame, there have been few albums that were as hyped and anticipated as Snoop Doggy Dogg‘s solo debut. Having made an incredible impression with his unique style on Dr. Dre‘s “Deep Cover” single and later as the top emcee on Dre’s monumental The Chronic, Snoop was hailed as Hip Hop’s next superstar. With mentor Dr. Dre on the boards, Doggystyle managed to meet the crazy high expectations. An all-around Hip Hop classic, on the West Coast arguably only surpassed in ‘classic-ness’ by N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and Dre’s The Chronic, Doggystyle is and always will be Snoop Dogg’s magnum opus.
10. The Notorious B.I.G. - Ready To Die (1994) 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 him on this album. Excellent production throughout with Biggie’s simultaneously brash and vulnerable lyrics to top off the banging instrumentals. Few others were ever able to express their thoughts and feelings the way Biggie was.