Throwback Thursday: These 6 Debuts Changed Music Forever

Twenty years ago Biggie, Outkast, Nas, the Fugees, Brandy and Aaliyah led a revival of hip-hop and R&B.


Clockwise from top left: Illmatic, Nas; Ready to Die, The Notorious B.I.G.; Age Ain't Nothing but a Number, Aaliyah; Brandy, Brandy; Southernplayalisticaillacmuzik, OutKast; Blunted on Reality, the Fugees

Columbia Records; Bad Boy Records; Jive/Blackground Records; Atlantic Records; LaFace Records; Ruffhouse Records

If the years that shook the musical landscape were measured on a magnitude scale, 1994 would rate an earth-shattering 10. Twenty years ago, six artists from the world of hip-hop and R&B dropped debut albums that not only signaled each artist’s arrival but also changed music altogether.

1. Ready to Die, the Notorious B.I.G.


Ready to Die; The Notorious B.I.G.

Bad Boy Records

Released at a time when West Coast rap was dominating the airwaves, Biggie’s Ready to Die immediately shifted the focus back East, where hip-hop was born. Hits such as “Juicy,” “Big Poppa” and “One More Chance” became urban anthems for fans on both coasts. As Biggie’s only studio album released while he was alive, Ready to Die reached legendary status and is often listed as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.

2. Illmatic, Nas


Illmatic; Nas in 2002

Columbia Records; Scott Gries/Getty Images

The Source magazine, once hip-hop’s bible, awarded Illmatic “five mics”—instant classic—a rarity for a debut album. Nas’ lyricism—a callback to the days of rap pioneers Big Daddy Kane and Rakim—inspired a generation of rappers to step up their word game. Even though the album had modest success when it was first released, it’s now hailed as a hip-hop masterpiece.


Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik; Big Boi (left) and Andre 3000 in 2002

LaFace Records; Doug Kanter/AFP/Getty Images

Before this album, Southern rap was that country cousin everybody made fun of for its backwoods ways and obsession with jiggly asses and big thighs. Atlanta’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi helped Southern rap elbow its way to the grown folks’ table, forcing East and West Coast hip-hop heads to give the genre its due. By the end of the decade, we’d all be grooving to whatever was coming out of the “Dirty South.”

4. Blunted on Reality, the Fugees


Blunted on Reality; Pras Michel, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean of the Fugees, in 2005

Ruffhouse Records; Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

While not as celebrated as the group’s second (and last) album The Score, Blunted served as perfect intro to the N.J. trio—Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill and Pras—who tossed elements of Caribbean music— dancehall, creole, reggae—as well as soul, folk and country into the hip-hop mix. Jean and Hill would go on to successful solo careers; the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, with its combination of old-school soul, R&B and hip-hop, would be a critical touchstone in the neo-soul moment.