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

Wu-Tang Clan

Organized Konfusion - Stress10. Organized KonfusionStress: The Extinction Agenda
(Hollywood Basic)

Prince Po and Pharaohe Monch proved their lyrical chops on their 1991 self-titled debut. Not only did the duo pull out some genre-progressing wordplay, they also brought two refreshingly different styles to the table: Prince Po served up quick-hitting internal rhyming patterns while Pharoahe Monch wasn’t afraid to let his foot off the gas pedal on occasion, rap-singing choice words and respecting a dramatic pause between lines. The two partners in crime produced the entirety of their first LP, but Stress: The Extinction Agenda is noteworthy in part as the debut of the legendary beat maker, Buckwild. Buckwild had a breakout year in 1994, producing more than half of O.C.’s Word…Life, three tracks on Artifact’s Between A Rock A Hard Place and one song on Brand Nubian’s Everything Is Everything (three albums that justifiably could have made this list). Buckwild’s three contributions to Stress are all extremely strong, but “Why” is the best representation of the filtered sample style that he would continue to cultivate throughout the 90s. Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po use the track to rap about potentially unfaithful girlfriends, but the rhymes could easily apply to the underground hip hop scene they were alertly navigating: “I’m just another brother trying to get around the fakes / And keep my mental state, no matter what it takes.” – Donny Giovannini

Common - Resurrection9. CommonRessurection

While C. Delores Tucker was waging all-out war in Washington against the misogyny and violence portrayed by gangsta rap, Chicago rapper Common (who went by Common Sense at the time) quietly addressed the issue from his standpoint. On “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” Common personified hip-hop as a woman being used up and abused by too many other MC’s, ultimately leading to the cheapening of both the craft and the woman. That’s some pretty heady shit compared to some other MCs of the era, but for Common, it was business as usual. Resurrection saw the South Side native touch on a variety of subjects, but with a dedicated focus on the intricacies of lyricism, Common’s sophisticated wordplay helped usher in a new generation of thoughtful and conscious rappers. Combined with the laid-back, jazzy production courtesy of (the now massive) No I.D., Resurrection was proof that hip-hop could come hard without sacrificing artful sophistication. – Ryan Brun

Gang Starr - Hard to Earn8. Gang StarrHard to Earn

There aren’t many DJs in hip-hop whose snares snapped and scratches cut as deep as DJ Premier’s. And there are few emcees who, likewise, evoked such laid-back, unfazed confidence as Guru. A quick listen to the opening lines of the album — “Yo, all you kids want to get on and shit/Just remember this/This shit ain’t easy/If you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it, motherfucker” — show Gang Starr mean business, and Hard To Earn is one of their most rock-solid moments as a rap duo. Not above calling out wack emcees, Guru takes aim in “Suckas Need Bodyguards” and the incredible single “Mass Appeal,” which is as effortless a takedown as hip-hop has ever heard. But for a lyricist who so frequently smacks the competition without breaking a sweat, Guru keeps a clear-eyed perspective, offering more sobering social commentary in “Tonz o’ Gunz” and “Code of the Streets.” Whether clowning the competition or delivering a PSA, each track flows with the fluid funk production of Premier, a sample-and-scratch-wizard lifetime hall of famer. – Jeff Terich

Outkast - Southernplay7. OutkastSouthernplayalisticadillacmusik

While the East Coast (Nas, Biggie) and the West Coast (Dre, Snoop, the Pharcyde) were experiencing artistic revitalizations and monopolizing the country’s attention, a young, fledgling rap group from Atlanta made their first offering to the rap world, and its first word was their manifesto: “Southern.” Because of the climate of the time, Outkast’s debut was heinously underappreciated, and I believe it’s still waiting for its proper reappraisal (which I, sadly, will not be able to give it here). That said, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik stands today, with or without due props, as one of the best releases in a very crowded 1994. With a uniquely Southern sound — a synthesis of the live instrumentation of the West coast, the formalism of the East coast, and ’70s funk — Outkast announced themselves with aplomb here, even if they weren’t anywhere near their artistic peak yet. – Connor Brown

Jeru the Damaja - Sun Rises in the East6. Jeru the DamajaThe Sun Rises in the East

The danger of giving young emcees a guest verse on your album is that they just might steal the spotlight — precisely what Jeru The Damaja did when he appeared on Gang Starr’s 1992 track, “I’m The Man.” The following year Jeru released “Come Clean,” the first single from his upcoming album, which, given the clout he had earned from the Gang Starr guest spot, along with an eerie, Chinese water torture beat from DJ Premier, became an instant underground classic. DJ Premier produces all of The Sun Rises In the East and starts the album out with “D. Original” which features one of hip hop’s all-time deliciously dirty piano loops, inspired by Wu-Tang’s “Clan In The Front” and later topped by GZA’s “Duel of The Iron Mic.” While Primo shines throughout The Sun Rises In East, Jeru The Damaja is unquestionably the star, mixing his bravado with words of wisdom and observations of social ills, particularly on “Ain’t The Devil Happy” and “You Can’t Stop The Prophet.” The latter finds him in first-person story-telling mode battling the personifications of all that’s wrong with society; a gang led by Ignorance and his wife Deceit. The conscious rhymes are a nice change of pace, but Jeru is at his best when he’s most boastful — with a seemingly endless cartridge of witty one-liners (“rhymes I run right through them like a big box of Trojan large“), lithe lyrical dexterity, and a deep voice that could be pegged as the midpoint between KRS-One and Nas, Jeru the Damaja is an emcee’s emcee and one of the pillars of hip hop’s greatest era and city. – Donny Giovannini

Gravediggaz - 6 Feet Deep5. Gravediggaz6 Feet Deep
(Gee Street)

There are plenty of too-old-school and generally wack terms that will get you laughed out of any rap forum. Two you’ll probably find near the top of the list are “horrorcore rap,” a microscopic subgenre dabbling in the supernatural and ultraviolent, and “rap side project,” which is about as close to a unicorn as the genre gets. It might take herculean effort to give just one of those any legitimacy; by extension, it takes two to make it outtasight. Those two were producer/rappers RZA and Prince Paul, who joined up with Frukwan of Stetsasonic and the late Too Poetic to form this hip-hop supergroup.

All four artists, Paul in particular, were in the middle of unsuccessful attempts to get music released. Teaming up under pseudonyms on a new label (Gee Street), they extended the bloodsport of Wu-Tang Clan and The Geto Boys into the realm of the unreal and undead. In the process they found a metaphor for listeners to, shall we say, emancipate themselves from mental slavery, and they managed to tell their tales with a wink and a smile—6 Feet Deep was so horrorcore that it managed to parody horrorcore. – Adam Blyweiss

Beastie Boys - Ill Communication4. Beastie BoysIll Communication
(Grand Royal-Capitol)

There are 20 songs on Ill Communication. Two of them are throwaway punk songs. About a quarter of them are Meters-style funk instrumentals. And two of them feature the sound of Tibetan monks chanting. By any other measure, this album would be a complete mess, yet under the direction of the Beastie Boys, it’s an eclectic hip-hop mixtape that celebrates its influences, both musical and spiritual. There are moments of deep funk, crackly jazz rap, snippets of comedy, guest raps from Biz Markie and Q-Tip, and — as anyone who was around in the summer of 1994 can attest — “Sabotage,” a track that can still get eyes to light up, heads to nod, and arms to go up in the air. “Sure Shot,” too — hell, get a drink in me and I’ll rap the whole thing for you. Maybe Ill Communication not the most focused B-Boys record, and maybe it’s not the most visionary, but it’s earned its stripes. It’s a Beastie Boys album — and then some. – Jeff Terich

Biggie - Ready to Die3. Notorious B.I.G.Ready to Die
(Bad Boy)

The little dribs and drabs of Christopher Wallace’s flow prior to his Bad Boy Records debut—a Craig Mack remix here, a few Mary J. Blige bars there—did little to prepare his peers or the public for what was to come. A small army of producers including label head Puff Daddy and Easy Mo Bee provided Biggie with a smooth canvas on which to work. The resulting pictures he painted with his words on his debut were both awesome (the oversized sex rap “Big Poppa”) and gruesome (“Gimme the Loot”), full of bold and colorful statements (“Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot,” from “Things Done Changed”) and crisp details (every autobiographical second of “Juicy“). His thunderous voice carried the weight of experience, but when he got angry or recounted a particularly violent tale it would rise to a wheedling tenor to strike a fearful nerve in listeners. You wanted to believe him just by hearing him; knowing that he wasn’t making shit up or just watching his world, that he really did lead a life where he fucked other people’s girls and sold drugs specifically to feed his daughter, was a shattering bonus. And this is a guy who half-assed the demo tape that first got him noticed! This album shows up at #3 for the year because of Treble calculus but let’s be clear: Ready to Die became a stone classic in the rap genre, and The Notorious B.I.G. is rightly regarded as one of its most raw talents, gone too soon and left mostly untapped. – Adam Blyweiss

Digable Planets - Blowout Comb2. Digable PlanetsBlowout Comb

To understand how Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler went from the cool-jazz rap vibes of Digable Planets’ breakthrough debut Reachin’ to the cosmic abstraction of Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up, look no further than Blowout Comb — the In a Silent Way or Filles de Kilimanjaro to SP’s On the Corner and Get Up With It. An album’s length of social commentary, Afrocentric positivism, tributes to musical heroes and their adopted home of Fort Greene, Brooklyn (they were all transplants — Butterfly from Seattle, Doodlebug from Philly, and Ladybug Mecca from Maryland), Blowout Comb is one of the warmest and all-around most sublime sounding hip-hop records of the decade. Either because of this or in spite of it, Blowout Comb didn’t land with the same kind of open reception as its predecessor, Reachin’, most likely because it didn’t bear that one breakout single like “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”, which enjoyed a brief period of ubiquity, and deservedly so. Still, it’s hard to overlook standout after standout on the album, from the smoky trip-hop of “Borough Check,” the exotic chill-out rap of “The Art of Easing,” or the hook-laden funk of “9th Wonder (Blackitolism)”. For all the images of Black Panther fists and political activist slogans printed on the insert, however, it’s an album that comes across more as a celebration than a protest. Every groove is rich and sumptuous, and every rhyme dropped by Butterfly, Doodlebug and Ladybug Mecca flows effortlessly. That it’s such an inviting listen the first time around is noteworthy, because there are layers to Blowout Comb worth repeated dives and lyric readings. It sounds like 1974 or 2014, but maybe we’re just now catching up because at the time, it sure didn’t sound like 1994. – Jeff Terich

Nas - Illmatic1. NasIllmatic

Robert Christgau calls it “spartan.” At 10 tracks, I can see why. But I call it “poetry,” and ten tracks of it is more than enough for Nas to construct an evocative, poignant, and profound panorama of his life and home. Of course, the word “poet” is so carelessly tossed about in popular music that it might as well mean nothing, but Nas truly was the destined, if there ever was, scion/prodigy/genius in hip-hop. With an emotional maturity and technical nuance never exactly matched since (even by himself), Nas begins his magnum opus by expressing a brief moment of uncertainty — “I don’t know how to start this” — and then launching into a verse that would change rap forever. Throughout the rest of the album that follows, Nas takes autobiography and feeds it, essentially, through a prism, telling a loose, impressionistic, yet complex narrative of his life that simultaneously evokes the emotions and profundities of impoverished existence in the projects. If someone came to me tomorrow and demanded that I give them a single album to prove that hip-hop was Art, I’d give them Illmatic. After all, if this doesn’t represent the core of what rap music is about, does anything? – Connor Brown

Next: 1995-1999

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