Since I had to conceal the “Parental Advisory” sticker to convince my mama to purchase my very first compact disc – Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s E. 1999 Eternal – from Blockbuster Music back in 1995, I’ve accumulated somewhere just south of 1,000 retail CDs.
After 21 years of collecting so much music, I’ve forgotten about certain albums that were significant to me in a space and time, especially when most other people don’t bring them up. The best part of this, of course, is digging through the crates from time to time and pulling out a disc I haven’t bumped since I was trying to kill my Jergens habit and actually lose my virginity.
As much as I love nerding out on hip-hop, it’s pretty boring at this point to discuss the musical and cultural impact of Illmatic. I no longer gain anything from the Reasonable Doubt versus The Blueprint debate. I don’t even care much about the best-solo-Wu-Tang-album discussion anymore. (The answer is Liquid Swords)
But I get truly excited when I’m building with my man Ed – one of maybe three people I know with a mutual deep knowledge of hip-hop – and he brings up an obscure, truly dope album like The Essence of J. Rawls or some other shit that no one with a “2” in front of their age would know or care about. Those rare discussions about underrated, under-discussed, underappreciated albums motivated this list.
These are hip-hop albums that you forgot, or never knew, are really fucking good. Not all are perfect, but each brought something to the fabric of the genre and are often forgotten even by my fellow nerds. Camouflage pants, backpacks and unkempt afros are essential apparel for reading this list.
1. Onyx – All We Got Iz Us (1995)
Onyx will always be best known for their 1993 Timb-stomping anthem “Slam” from Bacdafucup. But their ink-black sophomore album is vintage, mid-90s, shank-a-nigga New York hip-hop. The whole album is fire, but the classic “Last Dayz” – used to great effect in 8 Mile – alone merits it a spot on this list.
2. The Great White Hype Soundtrack (1996)
Just because I’ll stop and watch this movie whenever it comes on TBS doesn’t make it a good movie. The soundtrack, however, is a hip-hop centerpiece, thanks largely to two elements that mattered in the mid-90s: Wu-Tang and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. “Shoot ‘Em Up”? Classic. “Bring the Pain”? Classic. Even Camp Lo and Insane Clown Posse each have one of the best songs each group ever made on here. Shout out to the “Ghostface Killer” joint as well.
3. The Roots – Organix (1993)
The Roots is one of the best bands of all time in any genre, and 1999’s Things Fall Apart is one of the best albums of all time in any genre. But Organix deserves attention as the smoky-coffee-house debut of the Square Roots, a young, scatting Philly band that included a pre-hedonistic Scott Storch. It’s also proof that Black Thought has been elite for decades.
4. The Foreign Exchange – Connected (2004)
I include this because I’ve been arguing for yearsthat Connected is better than Little Brother’s debut, The Listening. Bonds have been tested, mamas have been talked about and niggas have almost been slapped stupid over this debate. I maintain my position: Nicolay is one of the (if not the) baddest white boys to ever bless the boards, and Connected is his magnum opus.
5. Bumpy Knuckles – Industry Shakedown (2000)
I’ve always appreciated Freddie Foxx because he’s the best emcee on every Gangstarr track he ever blessed and because I’m pretty sure he could genuinely fuck someone up with his two paws. His second album has damn near the same producer line-up I would’ve wanted if I cut a major-label rap album at the turn of the century (Primo, Pete Rock, Alchemist, Diamond D). A breath of fresh air during the commercial ascendancy of Cash Money Records.
6. Pete Rock – Soul Survivor (1998)
Pete Rock is a top-fiveG.O.A.T.producer, and his jazz-driven aesthetic was at its peak for this “solo” album – basically a compilation since Pete knows he can’t carry an album rapping on his own. Fortunately, he had the majority of Wu-Tang Clan on here, along with Black Thought, MC Eiht, Big Pun and other heavy hitters who bodied his production. Unlike several albums on this list, Soul Survivor has aged remarkably.
7. Shaquille O’Neal – You Can’t Stop the Reign (1996)
Most Millennials were fortunate to miss the trend of athletes shitting on wax and calling it rap. But while no one would put Shaq in their top anything, dude had a few 90s bangers thanks to a great rap network. (RZA must’ve gotten paid.) His third album is full of better hip-hop than most albums that have dropped in the last decade and a half; it made this list for four reasons: “Still Can’t Stop the Reign”, with its dope Loose Ends sample and Biggie verse; “No Love Lost” with its still-hungry Jay-Z verse; “Legal Money” with Mobb Deep; and Rakim bodying “Game of Death.”
8. Xzibit – At the Speed of Life (1996)
Most people know Xzibit as the dude who hosted that show that ”put together” shitbox cars. But X has always been an above-average emcee, and his debut album is a west coast masterpiece. “Paparazzi” and “The Foundation” are classics in their own right, but this is one of few no-skip albums in my expansive collection. It also gets a shout-out for being one of the first Enhanced CDs. You aren’t an 80s baby if you didn’t struggle to get an Enhanced CD working on a machine running Windows 3.1.
9. Prince Paul – A Prince Among Thieves (1999)
Tommy Boy Entertainment
If not hip-hop’s first concept album, certainly the only one in the genre that really matters outside of Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool. Well-respected at the time it dropped, people don’t talk about this seminal hip-hop opera anymore.
10. Busta Rhymes – The Coming (1996)
Busta Rhymes is arguably the most underrated rapper of all time, and his debut album remains his Reasonable Doubt. Sure “Woo Hah!! Got You all in Check” had mainstream success, but the entire album featured some of Easy Moe Bee and The Ummah’s best production. It also has “Flipmode Squad Meets Def Squad”, one of my favorite posse cuts ever.
11. The Game – Jesus Piece (2012)
Hear me out. Game will never be mistaken for atop-tier emcee, but the reason he’s still putting out relevant albums on a regular basis after 11 years is because he has a nonpareil industry Rolodex and a ridiculous ear for beats. Jesus Piece is one of the best-produced rap albums of this decade. Cool & Dre, Boi 1-da and Black Metaphor created a sublime soundscape for a hilariously blasphemous album. They had me when they flipped Florence + The Machine’s “Seven Devils” for “Ali Bomaye.”
12. Big Punisher – Capital Punishment (1998)
Pun’s only full-length contribution to hip-hop while still living is one of the last great albums of the genre’s Renaissance era. However, it’s shamefully almost never included in conversations about classics. The modern Puerto Rican anthem “Still Not a Player” is actually one of the worst tracks on an album that showcased Pun’s crazy wordplay over fire production from the Beatnuts, Rockwilder, RZA and others. Jay-Z was in his prime when Capital Punishment dropped, but this album got more burn from me than any of his at the time.
13. Bahamadia – Kollage (1996)
The best hip-hop album from a female rapper of all time. Period. It’s not even close. I’ve never heard a woman’s flow sound anything like Bahamadia’s, and DJ Premier and Da Beatminerz laced the fuck out of the whole damn record. If The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had been a full rap album, that might have been the only real competition Kollage ever had.
14. Slum Village – Slum Village (2005)
Everyone rightfully loves Fantastic, Vol. 1 and 2. The fifth SV album, however, served as the perfect vehicle for the era of Elzhi, the lyrically strongest member the group ever had. Similar to what Kanye West and Just Blaze did with Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, this album was made great by B.R. Gunna, the now-defunct production duo of Black Milk and Young R.J. Whatever the hell Slum Village is now, I’m pretty certain that this will be the last great album to come from the group.
15. Keith Murray – Enigma (1996)
One of the albums that made me really fall in love with hip-hop. As is the case with Redman’s earlier works, your opinion on how this album aged will depend largely on how tightly you hang on to mid-90s rap and Erick Sermon’s somewhat dated production. I think very few people under the age of 30 would appreciate Enigma now, but it still bangs in the whip and Murray will remain one of those historically unsung emcees, despite what happened here.