Like a lot of kids growing up in the 80's & 90's, hip-hop music was around pretty much from the time we learned how to work a radio, and the genre was in its adolescence at the same time we were. Hip-hop was at a stage where it was evolving past being more than a couple of guys rapping over a synthesized drum beat. It was the beginning of a time when the musicianship behind the lyrics was evolving, and so was the instrumentation. Not only was there sampling, but layering of different sounds, speeding up the rhythm, experimenting with different rhyme schemes, and more live instrumentation. Hip-hop had not quite evolved past two turntables and a microphone, but it was evolving.
Adding to my appreciation was the fact that I grew up around it. There was no doubt that I lived in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati, but I went to urban schools. Once I was past third grade, I was in a school that was a microcosm of the city. I was in school from with kids from all over, and I was exposed to all kinds of different music for the first time. My parents had mostly listened to country music and oldies, and now kids at school were listening to metal, pop music, and everything else. Plus, hip-hop.
When I was a kid, I had a little clock radio in my room, and I used to tune it to WBLZ, which was an FM station that played "urban music", which is radiospeak for Black music that hasn't crossed over to pop music. This is where I heard stuff like LL Cool J, Oran "Juice" Jones, Ray Parker Jr, New Edition, Dana Dane, Force MDs, Kool Moe Dee, and everything else. It was my favorite. When I was still relatively young WBLZ folded up shop, and the new "urban" station in town was WIZF. Plus, I was starting to watch Fab Five Freddy, Ed Lover, and Doctor Dre on Yo! MTV Raps, or the Mayor Chris Thomas on Rap City after school. I had also discovered the thrill of digging thru crates, as I started stopping by Everybody's Records since it was right across from the store where I bought my comic books.
All in all, I ended up having a pretty diverse taste in music, and and even deeper love for different types of hip-hop. Between different compilation tapes that I made, as well as different cassettes & records that I bought, I had the biggest collection of hip-hop music of anyone I knew that wasn't a professional deejay. I even made a few extra bucks at school by making comps, mixes, and bootlegs of stuff, and selling it to other kids for $5 a pop.
So, I really love and know a lot about hip-hop. My taste is probably a lot different than most folks, but I think that I have a pretty good grasp on what is good, and what is not.
To me, what makes an album good is that the entire thing is enjoyable to listen to - and not just having a big hit song. Some of the albums I will talk about here might not have gone platinum or had #1 hits on the Billboard charts, but maybe there were 4-5 songs that were headphone jams, or that everyone was bumping in the car. Keep in mind that I grew up before iPods and the discman, when your walkman played tapes, so you either wanted a mix-tape full of hit songs, or albums that you could listen to all the way thru.
So, here is my list of the top ten albums in hip-hop. This is my personal list, your mileage may vary. I am generally taking into consideration when hip-hop was at its peak - from 1986ish to 1998ish.
Honorable Mentions:For me, the following albums did not make the list, but I felt that they were worthy of writing about a bit, because some folks will probably think I am insane for not including them.
Boogie Down Productions - Criminal Minded
This is an album that was considered ahead of its time when it was released in full in 1987, but now sounds dated. At a time when hip-hop was evolving from the original school style of acts like Kurtis Blow or the Sugar Hill Gang, this album leans towards the older style. It is similar to Public Enemy's Yo Bum Rush The Show in that regard. This album simply did not stand the test of time, despite it being innovative. I imagine when this came out in 1986 it was received so well because it was an innovative mix of reggae sounds and contemporary rock music into hip-hop. The music really was innovative for the time, but since that time, others have taken that concept and done it better. In addition, KRS One's lyrics just do not sound right they way they are performed on the album. The lyrics are great writing, but it seemed like KRS hadn't found his voice or style yet and the flow and performance isn't what I was used to hearing from KRS (since I actually heard later BDP stuff before I got my hands on this album); Personally, I prefer the way KRS performs the lyrics on Live Hardcore Worldwide.
Snoop Dogg - Doggystyle
This album is fantastic, and full of great songs. However, it is pretty much just a continuation of The Chronic, Dr. Dre's masterpiece. Honestly, this album may be more well-rounded than The Chronic, but it wasn't as innovative. This was Snoop's debut album, but at this point he was already a household name because of his work on The Chronic, and this album was simply a fastball down the middle that Snoop hit out of the park. It is a fantastic piece of work, and Snoop has never done anything else this great since - but it didn't have the reaction and resonance that The Chronic had.
Big Punisher - Capital Punishment
This was a hard one for me to eliminate from the top ten. This is definitely an "East Coast" album and sound, and picked up somewhat where BDP's Criminal Minded left off, as Big Pun was able to update the traditional East Coast sound (which Jay Z and Nas would also do at around this same time), but not be a carbon copy of Biggie. Listening to this album, which is so well-rounded and thematic, you can see where if he had lived, Pun might have been able to throw his name in the ring as "Greatest Rapper Alive", but he was never able to reach his full potential. Plus, because he died innocently from health issues, he is not a symbol of violent hip-hop culture like Tupac or Biggie.
Capital Punishment is a masterpiece, and "Still Not a Player" is a tune that still gets played on the radio to this day. It is a timeless jam that sounds as great today as it did when it was released in 1998. Overall, Capital Punishment most closely resembles Biggie's Ready to Die, as Pun and Biggie were both able to morph their style to fit the producer they were working with - and both albums feature a wide variety of producers behind the board. In a lot of ways, this allowed both men to shine, as there wasn't a conflict in sound. For example, Marley Marl was associated with so many acts that he produced - Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markee, LL Cool J - many of them ended up having a similar sound that was more Marl's than theirs. Pun & Biggie both benefited from having a wide variety of producers, so the constant was their voice, and not the style of production. I feel what hurts Capital Punishment is that Ready To Die came first, and thus this album is not as innovative. Yes, my biggest criticism of Capital Punishment is that it is too similar to Ready to Die.
The DOC - No One Can Do It Better
I like this album, it is still great to listen to, but I cannot put it in my top ten because it isn't as good as some other stuff that I like better. Here is the cold hard truth about why: There are better Dr. Dre Albums. It is a shame that the DOC got in the car accident that destroyed his vocal cords. This album will go down as his vocal masterpiece, but in reality it is a giant "What If?", because we never got to hear DOC once Dr. Dre fleshed out what G Funk would be. I have always thought that the DOC was the first of three different individuals that were able to collaborate perfectly with Dr. Dre. This album is the root of the "G Funk" sound that would define Dr. Dre and the West Coast rappers that would follow The Chronic. Dre seemed to get the sound he was looking for down for the next NWA album, Efil4Zaggin. By then however, DOC's voice would be destroyed. Hell, the DOC's voice was gone when the music videos were made for this album.
What kept this album out of my top ten, but what also had me consider it strongly, was that the sound was ahead of the 1989 style, but is not as timeless as what Dre did later. This album is a contrast in styles, as the DOC is a West Coast rapper, but is pretty much doing an East Coast style. That is somewhat ironic, considering that the DOC helped establish the West Coast "Gangsta" style. Songs like Mindblowin', and It's Funky Enough show the style that Dre would actually move away from with the G Funk style, while the The Formula is a clear preview of what a song like Dre Day or Nothing But A G Thing would evolve from. The Grand Finale does not fit with the rest of the album. but it was the swan song for the fully staffed NWA. I would imagen more people have downloaded that track as a "lost" or unreleased NWA song, without knowing it is actually from this incredible album.
NWA - Straight Outta Compton
I really wanted to include this album, because it was an important album that I listened to endlessly, but I cannot. While every song on this album is pretty good, and I can recite most of them word for word, almost all of them are different, and there just isn't a flow to the album. At this point in the life of NWA, I think Yella had more influence on production than you would see later, and the forgotten Arabian Prince had his hands involved with this album too.
Straight Outta Compton and Eazy E's EZ Duz It are very similar, with the difference being that Eazy's album actually has a more well rounded sound; Complete effort was made to make an album that would sound like an Eazy E album. This album does not have a "sound" of its own, and is mostly a collection of songs by the individual members. Express Yourself is a Dre song, Dopeman, Gangsta Gangsta, and I Aint The 1 are Ice Cube songs. 8 Ball is an Eazy E song. Aside from Straight Outta Compton and Fuck Tha Police, the album is mostly a collection of songs from the individual members. That inconsistency in sound made me leave it off my top ten. I would never argue that this is not one of the top ten albums when it comes to cultural influence, but it doesn't crack my top ten personal best.
My next post will be Number Ten in My Personal Top Ten Hip Hop Albums.