4 Essential Hip-Hop Albums of the 90’s


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With the release of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a new standard has been set for the rest of the genre. No longer is rap limited by their production or subject matter, a beautiful revelation for the old-school hip-hop fans who are tired of the commercialized, club/gangster songs of the early 00’s. Finally, a new emcee has emerged, one who is willing to take big risks for the sake of music while also having the talent and work ethic to be able to pull it off. In celebration of an album which, along with good kid, m.A.A.d city will be considered a landmark classic in the genre, here are four essential hip-hop albums of the 90s Golden Era.

Note: These five albums are essentials and not necessarily the only good rap records of the decade. This list is simply meant to compile the best, most influential albums of the various styles of hip-hop during the time.

Wu-Tang Clan Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Produced by RZA, Enter the Wu-Tang is the stellar debut record of arguably the most important and influential group in hip-hop. Conceptually based on the martial arts films of the 70s, these songs are hardcore and confrontational, unapologetic of their tone or attitude. “Protect Ya Neck,” “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” and especially “C.R.E.A.M.”, the most important track on the album in terms of influence and popularity are all sinisterly wonderful, each with their own twistedly brilliant spirit. “Protect Ya Neck” and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” are both posse-cuts, showcasing the incredible lyrical ability of Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah just to name a few. Their verses would put them on the map, leading them to successful solo careers when they weren’t working on another legendary project together. “C.R.E.A.M.” is a tour de force, a triumph that stands on its own. An introspective story told by Method Man, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and Buddha Monk that discusses the tragedy of the ghetto street life, it speaks not just of lyrical ability but content as well, proving Wu-Tang Clan to be a group well beyond their years in terms of social commentators. This song would be sampled by artists decades after its creation, with its message and purpose still living on long after the single was released; if you like hip-hop but have not heard Wu-Tang, “C.R.E.A.M.” should be the first song that hits your ears. However, do not just listen to these songs because, like all other classics, this album has few, if any, faults. “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit,” “Method Man,” and “Can It All Be So Simple?” are all stellar songs as well, and represent what makes this group so respected today. From the dark, heavy beats to the intense lyrical ability and virtuosity showcased by all members of the group, this album is crucial because it put New York on the map, establishing the great lyricism the city is known for as well as influencing some of the most important NY hip-hop artists of the last two decades, including legends like Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, Mobb Deep, and Nas. If that doesn’t make it essential, I don’t know what else does.

Dr. Dre The Chronic

Dr. Dre does not need an introduction; he is easily one of the best producers hip-hop has ever had, and is a brilliant businessman to boot. However, before he was swimming in cash from his Dre Beats, he was a member of N.W.A., another one of the most important hip-hop groups of all time. With Straight Outta Compton in 1988, their debut album produced mostly by Dr. Dre, they would be considered the first gangster rap artists in the genre, paving the way for the likes of Tupac, 50 Cent, and Mobb Deep. After their break-up, they each began work on their own solo projects, and Dr. Dre decided to make one the best West-Coast albums of all time with The Chronic. Sonically, this is album set the sound for West Coast records, with the catchy G-Funk samples that would ring across various other artist’ albums like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle and Tupac Shakur’s All Eyez on Me. With smooth, creamy funk guitar riffs sampled from George Clinton, Parliament, and James Brown, these songs have sweet vibes and illustrious production. Important songs on this album include “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang,” and mark the debut appearance of Snoop Dogg, the perpetually high and talented emcee we know today. Lyrically, Dr. Dre is not spectacular, but can certainly hold his own against his own fabulous production work, a feat not many would be able to claim. However, as mentioned before, what makes this album essential is not necessarily its lyricism but its influence on West Coast sound. Just like Enter the Wu-Tang, The Chronic laid the foundation for an entire coast for the last two decades. Even today its influence can be felt. Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s albums cry out, singing their praise for the Dr. Dre debut that added the funk in rap and gave true meaning to the saying “The West Coast is the best coast.”

Outkast ATLiens

In a decade that feuded over whether the West or East Coast had better rap music, Southern hip-hop was considered unimportant. Some figures, like Russell Simmons, did not even believe it to be hip-hop, but some bad, cheap interpretation of it. With this in mind, it makes one wonder just how the South ended up creating the fantastic hip-hop duo that millions love today. Andre 3000 and Big Boi, two rappers and producers from Atlanta, created Outkast, a group whose name depicts just how insecure they must have been trying to come up and enter the national hip-hop scene at the time. Their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, with its lead single “Player’s Ball,” made a big splash in the rap community, spending plenty of time on the Billboard charts and garnering generally positive reviews from most critics. After this album, the duo, with a bit of extra money, confidence, and time, meticulously crafted their second record ATLiens, arguably their best record and the best southern hip-hop album of all time. Flashy and innovative, it contains some well-known songs of the group, including “Elevators (Me & You)” as well as the title track. However, what made this album so spectacular was that it put southern hip-hop on the same level as the East and West Coasts, garnering accolades from across the country. Production wise, the album is light years ahead of its time, with futuristic computer sounds hidden within heavy bass and drum kick beats meant to portray aliens and life off the Earth. As a group that knows what it feels like to be on the outside, this is a brilliant concept for their album, and makes it stand above all their other amazing work on albums like Aquemini and Stankonia. What’s most important about this record, however, is lyrical flow. Andre and Big Boi essentially established the southern rap style, with long, run-on flows that pause in between sentences and continue endlessly. These are emcees who know how to rap, and aren’t afraid to use unorthodox flows and different rhyme schemes than other artists of their time. From the concept to the lyrics to the production, this work is pure artistic genius, forming the sound of the south for years to come while also managing to sound vintage old-school and brand new almost two decades later, an accomplishment many other artists never achieve in their careers.

Nas Illmatic

In all honesty, this is easily the best hip-hop album of all time. It is raw perfection, and the only thing more surprising about how great this album is the fact that Nas, one of the best rappers to hold a mic, was only twenty years old when he made it. Within this 40 minute album contains only ten songs, and they are all equally legendary. DJ Premier came through with smooth, focused and rhythmic beats that complement Nas’ rapping perfectly. Each song is unique, yet equally part of the larger masterpiece that is Illmatic. “N.Y. State of Mind” is the dark and grimy representation of ghetto urban life in the city, while “The World Is Yours” features a beautiful, short piano sample and iconic DJ scratches on the turntables. On the other hand, “Life’s a Bitch” is bitter commentary on the state of the world and our purpose in it, while “Represent” calls out as an anthem to end the street violence and struggle that New Yorkers face day in and day out. The beauty of this record is that it takes all the basic elements of hip-hop, perfects them, and then showcases their brilliance for all to see. And lyrically, this is Nas at his prime, depicting the streets of Queens with complete honesty and serious reflection. He takes you on a whirlwind with each song, from hanging out in a local park with some friends to watching gang violence in the city. Add to that the incredible, Rakim-inspired multi-syllabic rhyme scheme and crazy flows that Nas gives his audience and you have the best work in rap thus far in history. This album is essential simply because it defined the best characteristics of rap perfectly, with storytelling, inspiring messages, and raw emotion. Nas’ debut album can’t and shouldn’t be held back by the genre; it is a record that stands on par with the likes of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and The Beatles’ Abbey Road. It is the Bible of the genre, and if you love the lyricism as much as I do, give this album a listen. It will change you.


These are by no means the only great hip-hop albums of the 90s. Other great and highly influential albums include, but are not limited to:

Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Mos Def: Black on Both Sides

Black Star: Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star

Snoop Dogg: Doggystyle                                  

Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt

Nas: It Was Written

The Notorious B.I.G.: Ready to Die, Life After Death

Tupac Shakur: All Eyez on Me, Me Against the World

A Tribe Called Quest: Midnight Marauders, The Low End Theory

Cypress Hill: Black Sunday

Mobb Deep: The Infamous

Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Outkast: Aquemini

Eminem: The Slim Shady LP

The Beastie Boys: Check Your Head,

Ice Cube: Death Certificate

GZA: Liquid Swords

Raekwon: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…

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