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.
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
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.
3. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, OutKast
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
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.
5. Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, Aaliyah
Working with mentor and producer R. Kelly, the then-15-year-old’s sultry vocals worked perfectly with Kelly’s new jack swing. Aaliyah's style, which she described as “street but sweet,” can be heard in several R&B descendants from Destiny’s Child to Ciara to Rihanna. Her untimely death in a plane crash in 2001 at age 22 cut short what was a promising career. One unfortunate legacy of the album is that this may have been the first hint that Kelly had an issue with young girls.
6. Brandy, Brandy
If Mary J. Blige is the queen of hip-hop soul, then Brandy was surely its princess. Like Aaliyah, Brandy was 15 years old when she released her debut, which mixed elements of hip-hop and soul but with more of a softer pop feel. Brandy was also a pioneer in crossing over successfully into TV and movies—she was TV’s Moesha for six seasons. Over the course of her singing career, she earned the nickname the “Vocal Bible.” Many R&B singers, including Rihanna and Destiny’s Child member Kelly Rowland, have cited Brandy as an influence. Even neo-soul high priestess Erykah Badu tweeted that Brandy’s album was an influence when she wrote her 1997 debut album, Baduizm.
Genetta M. Adams is a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.