The Top 100 Hip-Hop Albums of the ’90s: 1990-1994

Wu-Tang Clan

1992

Kool G Rap and DJ Polo - Live and Let Die10. Kool G Rap and DJ PoloLive and Let Die
(Cold Chillin’)

As gangsta rap album covers go, there aren’t many that depict as much menace as that of Live and Let Die: Two masked men feed red meat to a pair of dogs, right in front of two white men dangling from nooses. Yeah, there’s a lot of anger on Live and Let Die, but it’s mostly blended with a now-quaint shoot-em-up escapism narrative that’s not quite as chilling as it might have been 21 years ago. Not that it matters — the beats are a particularly warm, albeit heavy vintage, and the verses still emphasize the kind of hard, fearless and unforgiving perspective that made gangsta rap so compelling in the first place. It’s not without its humorous moments; “Operation CB” is a public service announcement about cockblocking. But look straight to “#1 With a Bullet” — which beat Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” to sampling the Chi-Lites’ “Are You My Woman?” by 11 years — to hear why this is one of the most solid sets of hardcore boom-bap of the ’90s. – Jeff Terich

Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy - Hipocrisy is the Greatest Luxury9. Disposable Heroes of HiphoprisyHypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury
(4th + B’way)

Into rap’s third decade of relevance, rock music was making more inroads into the genre (and vice versa) while sampling and scratching was slowly being recognized as primitive electronic dance music. Rap artists rarely attempted hybrids of all three genres, though Public Enemy’s “Sophisticated Bitch” and “She Watch Channel Zero” had come damn close. Rock efforts to the same end would eventually devolve into the Linkin Parks and Limp Bizkits of the world. Social statements and musical aggression in electronica usually directed you to industrial music, but while acts like Consolidated could rap through the static they rarely registered a blip on any critics’ radar. Enter DHH, a trio featuring former Beatnigs members Michael Franti on the mic and Rono Tse as DJ/producer alongside guitarist Charlie Hunter. With studio assistance from members of Consolidated and Meat Beat Manifesto, Tse crafted a sonically dense palette full of metallic scrapes and angry synthesized funk. And in true music-as-protest fashion, from title on down this first real industrial rap album ticks every possible commie pinko leftist checkbox. In addition to covers of Beatnigs’ own “Television, the Drug of the Nation” and The Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles,” Franti’s new rhymes addressed everything from the first Gulf War (“The Winter of the Long Hot Summer”) and racial politics (“Famous and Dandy”) down to homophobia (“Language of Violence”). He may continue this world party of his in Spearhead, but Franti’s voice was never heard louder or more pointed than on Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury. – Adam Blyweiss

Arrested Development - 3 Years8. Arrested Development3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In the Life Of…
(Chrysalis)

Arrested Development weren’t so much a crew as they were a collective: eight permanent members ranging from lead rapper Speech to elderly silent advisor (and fellow university student) Baba Oje, guests like vocalist Dionne Farris, and studio players. The Atlanta act hit the charts at a time when the Dirty South wasn’t yet so dirty, and in stark contrast to the gangsta rap beginning to eat up column inches and dominate airwaves. Truth be told, it’s Speech and his friends who were hip-hop’s first true hippie rappers, not De La Soul or PM Dawn. They would never reach these heights again, but 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of… is the one-hit wonder it is because it uniquely blends good-time ensemble soul-rap (“Mama’s Always on Stage,” “Fishin’ for Religion”), brooding Afrocentrism and social justice (monster hits “Tennessee” and “Mr. Wendal”), and echoes of familiarity (“People Everyday” cribbing from Sly and the Family Stone, for example). From that perspective, and if you look at the calendar, they might even have pre-Roots’ed The Roots. – Adam Blyweiss

Ice Cube - The Predator7. Ice CubeThe Predator
(Priority)

Ice Cube’s third album in three years was released just months after the L.A. riots. As Cube came roaring back with his trademark aggressive delivery, the content of the album fed off of a time period when racial tensions reached its tipping point nationwide. “We Had to Tear This Motha Fucka Up” is an emotional artifact of a violent rant responding to the Rodney King trial’s verdict. “Who Got The Camera” is another thematically similar track, concerning police brutality and racism. And in “Wicked” he predicts, “April 29 was power to the people, and we might just see a sequel.” Yet with resonating hits like “It Was a Good Day” and “Check Yo Self,” The Predator also earned its cred as one of the top mainstream hip-hop albums of the ‘90s, and his most commercially successful effort overall. – Dan Pritchett

Diamond D - Stunts, Blunts and Hip-Hop6. Diamond DStunts, Blunts and Hip Hop
(Mercury)

Thumb through the credits of some of your favorite hip-hop records — The Fugees’ The Score, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, et al. — and you’ll find Diamond D’s name. But whether or not it registered at the time, it lends credence to “Best Kept Secret,” the opening track from his classic Stunts, Blunts and Hip-Hop, in which D presents himself as an underdog to be reckoned with. A founding member of the Digging in the Crates Crew, Diamond D is a one-man hip-hop dynamo, delivering an hour of dynamite raps and chill, yet banging production mostly by his own damn self. (Though the guest rappers and producers — who include Q-Tip, Large Professor and Jazzy Jay — certainly deserve their own props.) What separates Stunts from a good many East Coast LPs at the time, however, is how seamlessly it flows, even if it tends toward the longer side and not without its share of filler. The fact is it just sounds so good, reflecting the feel-good, realer-than-“real” vibe of D’s own vision. In his world, a socially conscious tune like “Sally Got a One Track Mind” and a three-minute boast like “Step to Me” can exist side by side without interruption. Stunts, Blunts and Hip-Hop is the complete package. – Jeff Terich

Beastie Boys - Check Your Head5. Beastie BoysCheck Your Head
(Grand Royal-Capitol)

What few Beastie Boys fans may have realized was that the trio were punk rockers on their earliest EPs and singles. Relocating from their New York home to a custom-built studio in California at the dawn of the new decade, they made a decision to go all in on what they used to play: Ad-Rock on guitar, Mike D on drums, and MCA on bass. Alongside their now-commonplace skillful sampling from sources including Bob Dylan, the film Wild Style, wine selection courses, and an assload of Jimi Hendrix, Check Your Head was littered with intimate funk arrangements (“Live at P.J.’s”), jazz stylings (“Namasté”), fuzzy punk (“Gratitude”), and handcrafted breakbeats (“Groove Holmes”). While the album was light on hit singles (“Pass the Mic” and “So What’cha Want”), the trio’s vocal interplay and encyclopedic pop culture references continued to shine elsewhere (“Stand Together,” “Finger Lickin’ Good”). They had already dropped rap down to the level of lowbrow humor on Licensed to Ill and raised it up to high art on Paul’s Boutique. Check Your Head found the Beasties with a foot in each of two musical worlds, this tentative merger of hip-hop and live rock instrumentation marking their entreé into the world of so-called “alternative” music. – Adam Blyweiss

Pete Rock and CL Smooth - Mecca and the Soul Brother4. Pete Rock and C.L. SmoothMecca and the Soul Brother
(Elektra)

Obviously, it’s impossible to write about Mecca and the Soul Brother without mentioning “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” which, in the opinion of this writer, is in the running for the title of “greatest hip-hop song of all time.” Beyond “T.R.O.Y.”, however, MATSB boasts standout track after standout track. And the production…well, what song have you ever heard of that samples Big Daddy Kane, the Talking Heads and Little Richard? This bold and impressive production is perhaps MATSB’s greatest contribution to rap, and it’s definitely a great one. Unfortunately, commercial success eluded Pete Rock and C.L. in 1992, but it’s clear in retrospect that they were definitely one of rap’s top groups in the early ’90s. – Connor Brown

Gang Starr - Daily Operation3. Gang StarrDaily Operation
(Chrysalis)

In ’91 Gang Starr were on the attack, coming up the stairs, flexing, raiding the spot. For Daily Operation, DJ Premier and Guru are no longer the challengers, they’ve flipped the script and can easily defend home base: “If rap was my house you’d be asleep in the yard / as I recline I find more chores to give ya / like mopping the floors or maybe fetching my slippers.” DJ Premier spends most of the 18 tracks polishing off jazzy samples over now-textbook examples of boom bap, but on few instances such as “Soliloquy of Chaos” and “Flip the Script,” he tries out some more nuanced techniques: looping odd arrangements and chopping up samples — a technique he would mine on Gang Starr’s upcoming Hard To Earn as well as Jeru The Damaja’s debut, The Sun Rises In The East. Daily Operation is a well-deserved rest in the shade for Gang Starr; enough safety to “lounge and cool out” but not so far from the heat that they lose perspective on the rap game they clawed through to get there. – Donny Giovannini

Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride II2. The PharcydeBizarre Ride II The Pharcyde
(Delicious Vinyl)

Released just weeks earlier than Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, The Pharcyde’s debut presented a dramatically different take on west coast hip-hop than their gangsta counterparts. Treading a thin-line between conscious rap and outright pranksterism, Slimkid3, Fat Lip, Imani and Bootie Brown rarely deliver anything less than the most fun hip-hop ever to come out of the Golden State. With their pass-the-mic tag team style and heaps of party-starting jazz and funk production from J-Swift, The Pharcyde evaded both sensational violence or condescending moralism, instead delivering something that could resonate with just about anyone, particularly the knockout single “Passin’ Me By,” which is a Greatest-of-All-Time contender if there ever was one. Self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating, goofy but offering honest perspective, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde is basically as real as it gets. – Jeff Terich

Dr Dre - The Chronic1. Dr. DreThe Chronic
(Death Row-Interscope)

To this point in the 1990s, Ice Cube might have had the most consistent track record of any NWA alumnus. After leaving NWA in 1989, Cube released a solo album each of the first three years of the new decade—each have shown up in our top 10 for that year. Dr. Dre became NWA’s de facto leader, but also left after protracted financial disputes with Ruthless Records came to a head in 1991. He and bodyguard Suge Knight established Death Row Records to launch Dre’s solo career, and The Chronic arrived just before Christmas 1992. It was less of a launch and more of a nuclear bomb; Ice Cube and other artists were forwarding the cause of West Coast gangsta rap, a cause NWA had once embraced en masse, but Dre changed the landscape permanently. Instead of just building atmosphere and rhythm from the swaying, heavily-sampled Parliament-Funkadelic catalog, “gangsta funk” in general and Dr. Dre in particular used long looped passages as track foundations. If he didn’t create G-funk, then he surely brought it to the fore. The Chronic found NWA’s angry political undercurrents, developed through gang wars and the drug trade, switched out with settings of both leisure (“Nuthin’ but a G Thang,” “Bitches Ain’t Shit”) and violence (“Fuck wit Dre Day,” “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”) fueled by getting high on one’s own supply. As poisoned as Dr. Dre’s NWA family tree was, his solo bow was also notable and notorious for letting it continue to branch out through the careers of at least three of its young guest performers: Nate Dogg, Warren G, and especially the artist formerly known as Snoop Doggy Dogg. It suggested Compton was the nexus of rap’s largest and most successful posse of the day, even as a certain clan from Strong Island started making a compelling case for that title the next year. – Adam Blyweiss

Next: 1993

 

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