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

Jay-Z best hip-hop albums of the '90s


Wu-Tang Forever10. Wu-Tang ClanWu-Tang Forever
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After establishing themselves as collective threat with their debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), numerous Wu-Tang members went their separate ways to pursue solo projects. After finding success on their own, the individual members of Wu-Tang again assembled as a unit to unleash the sprawling double album Forever. Perhaps as a response to the ever increasing commercialization of hip-hop, Forever went straight for the throat and was a relentless, 27-track journey through the streets of Staten Island. The album’s lead single “Triumph” served to further separate Wu-Tang from their contemporaries, featuring nine different verses with no hook or chorus in sight. The track became an instant classic and a quintessential example of the art of emceeing. While Forever impressed with its uncompromising approach, it was the ability of great storytelling — encompassed by all the members — that really set it apart. Tales of inner-city street life, hustling and violence were relayed by (often) multiple rappers in a single song, though never losing cohesion. Set against the stark and haunting sounds provided (mostly) by RZA and Forever became a legendary album in its own right. – Ryan Brun

Atmosphere - Overcast9. AtmosphereOvercast!
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Minnesota doesn’t necessarily evoke the image of a hip-hop hotbed. While it can claim Prince, Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, Minnesota’s had few rap exports to speak of, that is until Atmosphere burst onto the scene with their debut album Overcast! in 1997. Comprising of MCs Slug and Spawn (who left the group after the album’s release), Atmosphere took an everyman approach to their subject matter, trading verses touching on topics ranging from isolation, social inadequacy, depression and women. Musically, Overcast! was one of the more unusual sounding hip-hop albums to come out that year. Produced by Ant, Overcast! is a largely somber affair that combined the stark minimalism of a RZA track with a grey haze that sounds as cold as Minnesota feels deep in the winter. While Overcast! may not be as bombastic as other hip-hop albums released in 1997, the delicate musicality and vulnerable lyrical content combined to make an album that those left behind could relate to. – Ryan Brun

Common - One Day It'll All Make Sense8. CommonOne Day It’ll All Make Sense
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Common’s sophomore album continues the path beaten by his debut, Resurrection, with more jazzy hip-hop beats from producer NO I.D. that introduced him to the conscious rap scene. A star studded LP that delivers a huge dose of witty wordplay in its 17 tracks, One Day It’ll All Make Sense served as an alternative to the continuing widespread of the gangsta rap of its time. Lauryn Hill accompanies Common on one of the several standout tracks in “Retrospect for Life” where he tackles the thought of abortion, “From now on I’m gonna use self-control instead of birth control, ‘cause 315 dollars ain’t worth your soul.” De La Soul raps alongside Common on the following track, “Gettin’ Down At the Amphitheatre,” but the Cee Lo shines brighter on “G.O.D.”, which propels a “knowledge is power” message with a myriad of spiritual references. There’s spoken-word poetry by Malik Yusef on “My City.” Erykah Badu turns “All Night Long” into a sexy ballad with a Soulquarian vibe, produced by The Roots. And just like Resurrection, this album concludes in style with some wise words by his father in “Pop’s Rap Part 2.” – Dan Pritchett

Latyrx - The Album7. LatyrxThe Album
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Latyrx begin The Album by going against what seemed to be one of hip-hop’s golden axioms: at any time, only one emcee can ride the beat. Breaking that rule with two rappers rhyming over each other sounds a bit gimmicky, but long-time collaborators Lyrics Born and Lateef The Truthspeaker manage to pull it off with teamwork, reflexively varying their flows to satisfying — but still dizzying — ends. After a minute and a half of the verbal push and pull, both voices succumb to the steady-hand turntablism of DJ Shadow, fresh off his soon-to-be-classic 1996 release, Endtroducing…. Shadow contributes three soaking wet beats to The Album, and Blackalicious rocker Chief Xcel adds in some electric riffs and ’70s funk on the closer, “Burning Hot In Cali On A Saturday Night.” Lyrics Born outlines the rest of the production himself, mostly sticking with the core bass and drum elements to showcase the vocals. Conceived in Davis, just outside of Sacramento, Latyrx were far from the hip hop canons of New York and L.A. but their sound shares a distinct link to the Queens duo, Organized Konfusion. Both groups continuously experimented with twisting wordplay, rhyme patterns, and melodic incantations, but without the stresses of urban life Latyrx float off into some weird places and somehow manage to return with a hip hop classic and true gem of the ’90s. – Donny Giovannini

Mood - Doom6. MoodDoom
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It took a while for the Midwest to gain ground in the hip-hop game, Chicago and Detroit first establishing their presence before Minneapolis fired their own shots just a few short years later. Cincinnati still isn’t a hip-hop Mecca, but it’s produced a handful of heavyweights, most notably the long-running but less than prolific Mood, a spacy, abstract Ohio group backed by DJ Hi-Tek. Their first effort, the crackly, trippy Doom, is as spacy as the nebula on its front cover, emcees Main Flow and Donte dropping fierce flows over atmospheric production from Jahson. The real treat of the record is in its sonic treatments, the likes of which come much closer to the sample symphonies of DJ Shadow than the hardcore bumps of Primo or Pete Rock. Also appearing on the record is a young emcee by the name of Talib Kweli, who a year later would release his own first essential offering. – Jeff Terich

Camp Lo - Uptown Saturday Night5. Camp LoUptown Saturday Night
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By this point, we’re beyond novel creativity. During The Golden Era — whenever your mind sets that, but basically anytime before 1995 I guess — so many albums were fresh, the boundaries were being set, and every extreme was being tested. But now, it’s hard to describe a jazz-soul-funk fusion group from Brooklyn as another breath of fresh air, yet at the same time, trying to bring a sophisticated edge to the form isn’t exactly stale at this point. This album just represents the tail end of a sound, a scene that was most definitively established by Digable Planets. Butterfly even has a guest appearance, and though this album never quite surpasses creativity and coolness of their singular predecessors, it’s a worthy peer and an indicator of the depth that had developed within each scene by this point. – Justin Stephani

Jurassic Five - J5 EP4. Jurassic FiveJ5 EP
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Concrete Schoolyard” is the first of two reasons this EP makes the list. Los Angeles collective Jurassic 5 analyzed their craft and take their style back in time with an old-school approach evident through their easy-to-sing-along lyrics, “Playground tactics, no rabbit-in-the-hat-tricks/ just that classic rap shit from Jurassic.” The beat, a funky bass line, and maybe a little extra (in this case a nice piano riff) are all they disperse musically at once on their debut EP, J5. The second reason is the DJ jam “Lesson 6: The Lecture” by Cut Chemist. For almost six minutes this instrumental consists of several samples of a lecturer, Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge,” and Henry Mancini’s “Police Woman” to name a few joined by plenty of scratching along the way promising to satisfy any appreciator of the craft of the scratch artist/turntablist. “Concrete Schoolyard” had the piano riff, and “Jayou” has an awesome flute sample dominating the beat. It’s a refreshing reincarnation of the early years of hip-hop, with a simplicity that translates perfectly to the dancefloor. – Dan Pritchett

Jay-Z - In My Lifetime Vol. 13. Jay-ZIn My Lifetime Vol. 1
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After setting New York City on fire with his debut album Reasonable Doubt, Jigga spread his sound nationwide with his second offering, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Armed with a new record deal courtesy of Def Jam and some slick production courtesy of Puff Daddy’s musical team, Jay-Z began his ascension to the top of the hip-hop world (where he still resides to this day). Although some fans and critics felt that Hov lost some of the grittiness of his debut, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 paints a captivating lyrical portrait of growing up in the hood, reflecting on the decisions that led to his current surroundings. Never one to rely on storytelling from the third person perspective, Jay’s tales of his personal ascension of both the rap game and social/monetary status is fascinating. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 is the foundation of the blueprints to Jay-Z’s future successes, laid out over 14 tracks of glossy, jiggy hip-hop. – Ryan Brun

Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus2. Company FlowFuncrusher Plus
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Recorded over the course of four years, Funcrusher Plus is both the alpha and the omega of Company Flow’s career, their sole full-length effort despite influencing a whole generation of artists. Dark, atmospheric, bearing not a lick of the crackly soul sound that informed so much of east coast hip-hop in the ‘90s, Company Flow took an entirely different path, embracing dystopian themes that maintained constant, even when Bigg Jus and El-P’s rhymes were so head-spinningly indecipherable that heads would need an encyclopedia, a dictionary and a thesaurus to map out just exactly what the hell is happening at any given moment. It’s highbrow, certainly, but it’s also pretty grimy and dirty, minimal production work providing a chilling backdrop for the emcees’ politically charged screeds against corporations and authority. Whereas The Coup soundtracked a Communist party, Company Flow played house band for society’s collapse. – Jeff Terich

Missy Elliott - Supa Dupa Fly1. Missy ElliottSupa Dupa Fly
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Some musicians have career arcs inextricably tied to a professional colleague that ends up defining their best and most important work, if not all of it in sum. Elton John had his songwriting foil Bernie Taupin; Depeche Mode of the last three decades wouldn’t feel like Depeche Mode without tying their music to the visuals of Anton Corbijn. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott and producer Timbaland go pretty much hand-in-hand — she employed his beats at the outset of her career, he lifted her up on a lyrical pedestal. Both were alumni of the Swing Mob, an honest-to-goodness New York house straight out of The Real World (or Making the Band) where everyone was a decent urban songwriter, performer, or producer. When it folded, parent company Elektra gave hard-working Missy her own new imprint, The Goldmind, from which Supa Dupa Fly came in July of 1997. People forget particular strengths about this album: First, Elliott could seamlessly transition from competent New Jill Swing (“The Rain“) to inventive rapper, full of boasts and noisy gibberish (“Izzy Izzy Ahh”) like a female Busta Rhymes, one of her early champions who shows up to drop a few bars throughout the LP. Second, that music featured levels of inclusive feminism not heard since at least the days of Salt ‘n’ Pepa, often making aggressive attempts to reclaim the pejorative “bitches” to represent not just her associates (among them album guests Aaliyah, Lil’ Kim and Da Brat) but womanhood in general. And third, Timbaland’s rhythms likely helped complete a paradigm shift in hip-hop production, building a successful release with rap beats made mostly by hand instead of by sampling. Between Timba’s pseudo-minimalism and Missy’s laid-back attitude — her raps on tracks like “Beep Me 911” and “Pass da Blunt” feeling comfortably distant, almost subliminal, as if she were standing 10 feet from the mic — Supa Dupa Fly is the stealthy start of a beautiful professional friendship. – Adam Blyweiss

Next: 1998

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