Top 100 Hip-Hop Albums of the ’90s: 1995-1999

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This week, we continue our list of our Top 100 Hip-Hop Albums of the 1990s, with the second half of the decade. And it’s arguably just as strong in its second half as it was in its first five years, though the most productive creative period probably lies somewhere in the middle, around 92-96. What we do see in the second half of the 1990s, however, is a lot more experimentation and playful stylistic touches. There’s surrealism, apocalyptic darkness, gritty realism and a whole lotta soul.

Just like last week, we’re taking this year by year, starting with 1995 and adding a new year each day. Turn it up.

Photo by Mike Barry, Creative Commons [CC BY 2.0]



Smif-n-Wessun - Dah Shinin'10. Smif-n-WessunDah Shinin’
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Dah Shinin’ is the second most notable release from the Boot Camp Clik, behind only Black Moon’s 1993 classic, Enta Da Stage, an album that married jazzy samples and deep basslines with violence-laden racketeering. Smif-n-Wessun clearly understood the recipe and decided to increase each aspect’s portions during their first studio sessions — the end result is an odd, but enticing union that only works when the lyrics are taken as gangster imputations and street protocol rather than battle cries. After all, it’s tough to imagine anyone actually acting out the lyrics — robbing, slanging meth, killing people — to the instrumental jazz-lounge backdrop. The aural contrast means that Smif-N-Wessun aren’t so much promoting violence as they are painting a bleak picture of their reality: “From dusk to dawn I get it on with the world / I face drama that trace from me back to my momma.” Thankfully I, and most listeners, can’t relate to the street horrors that populate Dah Shinin’, but the album’s ethos of camaraderie, courage, and selflessness, especially on standouts such as “Bucktown,” “Stand Strong” and “P.N.C.” still hold weight today, no matter the listener’s context. – Donny Giovannini

Goodie Mob - Soul Food9. Goodie MobSoul Food
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A year after Outkast put Georgia hip-hop on the map with Southernplayalisticcadillacmusic, fellow Atlanta crew Goodie Mob strengthened its case with another excellent debut, Soul Food. Though both albums were produced by the fledgling team Organized Noize (and, consequently, are often compared), Soul Food really represents a much different artistic agenda than Southernplayalisticadillacmusic: an emphasis on sociopolitical concerns and spiritual evocation. With some assistance from Outkast themselves, Goodie Mob changes focus from the defiant attitude of Atlanta hustlers to soulful expression, exemplified by Cee-Lo’s prophesying in “Cell Therapy,” “Time is getting shorter if we don’t get prepared/People it’s gonna be a slaughter.” With the vision of the Fugees a year before The Score and the powerful inspiration of their citymates, Outkast, Goodie Mob’s debut stands today as one of the most excellent works in an excellent year. – Connor Brown

Big L - Lifestylez8. Big LLifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous
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It’s more than a little troubling to hear Big L state, “You can’t kill me/ I was born dead,” on Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous opener “Put It On,” knowing that L was killed in a drive-by shooting in Harlem less than four years after the album’s release. Yet, tragic coincidence aside, the one and only album Big L released during his lifetime is as expertly crafted as hip-hop debuts come. Like Nas one year before him, L released Lifestylez when he was only 19 years old, but for all his youthful exuberance, he displays the sophistication and lyrical dexterity of a seasoned hip-hop vet. Over chopped-up soul samples and hard-knocking beats from Showbiz, Lord Finesse and Buckwild, Big L delivers gritty examinations of crime, violence and survival with an imaginative knack for wit and wordplay. Incidentally, the album is also an early showcase for guest rappers Jay-Z and Cam’ron, two greats whose body of work Big L might have equaled or surpassed had he not been dealt such a cruel, brutal hand. – Jeff Terich

The Roots - Do You Want More??7. The RootsDo You Want More?!!!??!
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It goes one question mark, three exclamation marks, two question marks, and another exclamation mark for good measure. What seems like redundant use of punctuation is actually quite fitting for The Roots crew in ’95 — a group that layered on the excitement with live instrumentation and threw multiple curveballs from emcees Malik B and Black Thought: “I’m complex, confusin’, lyrically amusin’ / I drink brews then when I’m groovin’ I’m no longer human.” Rahzel also manages to transcend his human self while groovin’: on “The Lesson Pt. 1” he earns his title as The Human Beatbox laying down some mouth-made boom bap for Black Thought and frequent Roots guest star, Dice Raw. Elsewhere on DYWM?!!!??!, ?uestlove, the resident cool cat with the most famous afro in hip hop, forms the percussive backbone for the jazz sound that the group would perfect throughout the ’90s and beyond. While overall not as socially “conscious” an LP as ’99’s Things Fall Apart, “What Goes On Pt. 7″‘s link to examples of mindfulness and grandeur predict the group’s many triumphs to come. – Donny Giovannini

2Pac - Me Against the World6. 2PacMe Against the World
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Before the release of Me Against the World, Tupac Shakur was still recovering from a near-fatal shooting and was recently found guilty of sexual abuse. Upon its release, he became the first person to have an album debut at number one while serving time in prison. Despite all indicators of his thriving “Thug Life” persona due in part to the hype building over the dispute between the West and East Coast, Tupac shows a new side of himself with his third and best album. The cultural phenomenon exposes the roots of who he is with songs like “So Many Tears” and “Dear Mama.” The former showing a vulnerable side while unfortunately predicting the path he chose leads to an early death, and the latter being a salute to the woman who helped him defeat the odds while defeating them herself. Then “Temptations” paints a picture of how he battles and perhaps even resents his own fame and the women who compound the problems that come with it. From keeping it real on “It Ain’t Easy” and raping about being callous to life in the hood, to the fearless thug on “If I Die Tonight,” Tupac grabbed the attention of music fans around the world by being more of a poet this time around than a menace. – Dan Pritchett

Tricky - Maxinquaye5. TrickyMaxinquaye
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Of all the albums in this feature, this might be the least “rap” or “hip-hop” of them all. What it shows, however, is the progression of the form not just geographically but stylistically. The rap scene had heard scant few British imports to this point—Monie Love helped out Native Tongues, while Us3’s “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” was a crossover anomaly—so listeners were blindsided by the sounds on this solo debut from Tricky. He focused on the languid, hazy beats and delivery that he had helped build into the foundation of the trip-hop genre as a member of Massive Attack. A lot of that group’s work had more obvious R&B and soul, so Maxinquaye was somehow even darker and more abstract. He directed his non-rap producers on what to sample and manipulate (including left-of-center college rock like Smashing Pumpkins and Shakespear’s Sister), and handed guest vocalist Martina Topley-Bird the reins on many tracks (Tricky himself doesn’t really handle a lead vocal until song four, “Hell is Round the Corner“). He was also adept at recontextualizing existing lyrics — Maxinquaye contains big chunks of two Massive Attack songs and The Young Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure,” plus a cover of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” by Public Enemy. Other rappers may talk about being “ghost,” sneaky and effective like a ninja, but Tricky embodies the concept here. – Adam Blyweiss

ODB - Return to 36 Chambers4. Ol’ Dirty BastardReturn to the 36 Chambers
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The third solo effort to branch from the Wu Tang Clan’s collaborative debut spawns from an explosive combination of ODB’s exclamation-addled flow and RZA’s production. The self-proclaimed “greatest performer ever since… uh… What’s the guy’s name?… uh…James Brown” has got the energy that demands attention and an unforgiving style that counters what others might constitute as rap music. His sole existence might have been to turn conventional hip-hop on its head. Method Man’s claim that there is no father to ODB’s style is backed up by every song on this album evident in the first moments of the “Intro”; there’s nothing quite like it. Method Man, Raekwon, and ODB keep feeding us and feeding us with some epic tradeoffs in “Raw Hide.” ODB’s unique lyrical delivery is just as unpredictable as he was in real life. He is far from the greatest MC (see “Don’t U Know”) or an amazing lyricist (see “Drunk Game”), but what he accomplishes is pioneering an entirely new style. By 1995 one thing rap music didn’t really need was a reinvention. Yet what made ’90s rap so compelling was there were no shortage of game changers, and the Wu Tang Clan, or ODB more specifically, shook things up with their own approach. Return of the 36 Chambers is kind of like a surrealist kung-fu movie watched under the influence.  Every song produced by RZA somehow backs up ODB with beats that make his goofy, funny, and quirky style work that much better. – Dan Pritchett

Raekwon - Cuban Linx3. RaekwonOnly Built 4 Cuban Linx
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It’s pretty common in hip-hop right now to hear rappers spittin’ about organized crime, drug trafficking and rising up from the streets to become a “boss” (I’m looking at you Rick Ross.) But before a multitude of imposters took up the Mafioso act for their records, Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon turned it into an art. With his solo debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Raekwon detailed the life of a hustler, all the way from pushing nicks and dimes on the corner to rising to the top of the trade. The album operates as both a cinematic full-length, with the narrative weaving in and out of the tracks being tied together with skits and interludes, and as a solid set of songs that can be consumed individually without losing any potency. That being said, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is a supremely dense record which slowly reveals itself to the listener over time, but thanks to the impeccable storytelling technique and contributions from fellow Wu-Tang vets Ghostface Killah and RZA, Raekwon’s initial offering goes down as one of the greatest of the year, if not all-time. – Ryan Brun

Mobb Deep - Infamous2. Mobb DeepThe Infamous
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The streets that Havoc and Prodigy stalk on Mobb Deep’s The Infamous could make your blood run cold. Their depiction of Queensbridge is a warzone, a chilling and horrific landscape in which anything and everything is necessary for survival, and you never — ever — walk anywhere alone. Save for a handful of production credits from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip (which is surprising enough given his reputation for positivity), Mobb Deep self-produced most of the tracks on The Infamous and supply them with the requisite amount of skeletal arrangements and outright terrifying atmosphere. The crackly, haunted loops on “Survival of the Fittest” and “Eye For a Eye,” and there’s not a rap single released in the ‘90s that carries as much terror as “Shook Ones Pt. II,” in which Prodigy threatens to “Stab you in your brain with your nose bone.” It’s ruthless and horrific because, in this world, there’s no other choice — ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks. – Jeff Terich

GZA - Liquid Swords1. GZA/GeniusLiquid Swords
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On his second album, Liquid Swords, Wu-Tang intellectual GZA (along with his cohort RZA) created one of the most striking and inimitable atmospheres in the history of hip-hop. Instead of exaggerating his personality (Ol’ Dirty Bastard) or incorporating Mafioso themes (Raekwon), GZA focuses in further on the cinematic elements of 36 Chambers and concomitantly, emphasizes the fascination with Kung Fu that ran throughout the Wu Tang’s debut in ’93. By way of opening, Liquid Swords starts with an extended sample from Shogun Assassin, which establishes Kung Fu as a metaphor for the struggles and complexities of street power. With this opening move, GZA announces his artistic intent and proceeds to deliver one of the best lyrical performances in his entire catalog. On highlights such as “Duel of the Iron Mic” and “Cold World,” the Genius even shows off his ability to carry a song with his hypnotic-flow rapping. As an equal mix of mastery and innovation, Liquid Swords therefore claims the #1 spot in ’95. – Connor Brown

Next: 1996

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