Here’s Part 2 of DZI’s list of the best hip hop albums of the 1990’s. Our top ten releases from the “Golden Era” were selected based on lasting popularity, replay value, cultural impact, and artistic vision. These 10 projects forever changed the direction of hip hop and cemented their creators as legends of the game. Find out which albums made the cut, then go back and check out Part 1 (20-11) to see which albums just missed the top tier. And of course, feel free to share your voice on the best hip hop of the 90’s in the comment section below (no e-mail required).

10. Makaveli (2Pac)

The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory [1996]

A lot of rap fans may consider All Eyez on Me as 2Pac’s best project, but his final album recorded before his death has become a staple of hip hop study. Have you ever heard your favorite rapper spit “this is realest shit I ever wrote” or “all I need in this life of sin”? Well, these often recycled classic lines where lifted from the posthumous LP that was Pac’s declaration of war against his enemies. On The 7 Day Theory, the Death Row Records emcee was angry, paranoid, prescient, and completely captivating.

Key Tracks: Hail Mary, Me and My Girlfriend, Against All Odds

9. Raekwon

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… [1995]

Killa Bees supporters still debate whether Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… or Gza’s Liquid Swords is the best Wu-Tang solo album, but it’s clear The Chef’s debut is The Clan’s most influential. Raekwon, along with his guest star Ghostface Killah, created what can best be described as audio cinema by cleverly reimagining a classic mob movie in the form of a 18 track LP. In the process, OB4CL popularized the “mafioso rap” trend heard in later Biggie, Jay-Z, Mobb Deep, and Nas projects.

Key Tracks: Criminology, Verbal Intercourse, Heaven & Hell

8. Jay-Z

Reasonable Doubt [1996]

“I gave you prophecy on my first joint, and y’all lamed out”, complained Jay-Z on Vol. 2’s “Hard Knock Life” two years later. Jiggaman was right. Back in 1996 only a few serious underground heads caught the brilliance of his self-financed debut, but Reasonable Doubt has managed to stand the test of time and is now viewed by hip hop historians as the first revelation of HOV’s eventual dominance over the genre.

Key Tracks: Can’t Knock The Hustle, Brooklyn’s Finest, D’evils

7. Ice Cube

Death Certificate [1991]

Before O’Shea Jackson took on Hollywood with the Friday and Barbershop franchises he was “gansta rap’s” greatest lyricist. After calling out “AmeriKKKa’s” racist tendencies on his debut, Cube’s second LP was even more controversial. Death Certificate drew inspiration from the film Boyz n the Hood and The Nation of Islam which explains its struggle vs progress theme. Besides addressing racial profiling and gang violence, Cube also used DC  to destroy his former group N.W.A. with the classic diss track “No Vaseline”.

Key Tracks: The Wrong Nigga To Fuck Wit, Steady Mobbin, No Vaseline

6. The Notorious B.I.G.

Ready To Die [1994]

Like the title of its 2nd track, when Ready to Die dropped it was obvious “things done changed”. Biggie’s debut album was the catalyst to his rise to the throne as the King of New York. While several of his East Coast contemporaries also released hip hop masterpieces around the same time, none had the two punch combination of Ready To Die. BIG was able to kill the streets and the charts. As a result, Bad Boy Records’ flagship star became the voice of East Coast rap for mainstream America.

Key Tracks: Warning, Juicy, Big Poppa

5. Wu-Tang Clan

Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) [1993]

Wu-Tang Clan’s entrance on the scene was revolutionary. Nine eccentric emcees’ welding of hardcore hip hop, 5% theology, and kung fu references created a new sound that triggered the 1990’s East Coast Renaissance. Their debut album, 36 Chambers, was a prolific manifesto on the dark, raw aesthetic that soon take over New York rap music, but its influence spread beyond the 5 boroughs. RZA’s technique of using sped up soul samples was later adopted by other hip hop producers like Kanye West and 9th Wonder.

Key Tracks: Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ ta Fuck Wit, C.R.E.A.M., Method Man

4. Lauryn Hill

The Miseducation of Lauyrn Hill [1998]

Every since Lauryn’s rendition of “Killing Me Softly” became a mega-hit in 1996, the music world anxiously awaited on a solo album from the Fugees member. The only question was would it be an R&B album or a rap album? Ms. Hill decided to bless the world with both simultaneously, but still kept it 100% hip hop. The multi-genre fusion was a major success. The Miseducation is the highest selling album by a female rapper of all time and the first hip hop album to ever win the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Key Tracks: Lost Ones, Ex-Factor, Doo Wop (That Thing)

3. OutKast

Aquemini [1998]

Aftering being booed by a NYC crowd at the infamous 1995 Source Awards, OutKast’s Andre 3000 declared, “the south got something to say.” At the time the nation was consumed by the East Coast/West Coast battle for control of hip hop, and southern rappers were marginalized as bit players in rap’s storyline. But with the release of Aquemini, the A-town group proved to the world that the Third Coast was just as musical, lyrical, and innovative as their California and New York peers.

Key Tracks: Rosa Parks, Aquemini, SpottieOttieDopaliscious

2. Dr. Dre

The Chronic [1992]

Much in the same way Aquemini proclaimed that the south was a force to be reckoned with in hip hop, The Chronic was a sonic breakthrough for West Coast rap. Dr. Dre’s first solo album ushered in the G-funk sound and proved that “gangsta rap” could be commercially viable. Death Row Record’s debut LP eventually sold over 4 million units, and it helped establish the label as the premier rap imprint of the early 1990’s. The Chronic also introduced a Long Beach emcee named Snoop Doggy Dogg that has gone on to reach legendary status.

Key Tracks: Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Evertbody’s Celebratin’), Let Me Ride, Nuthin’ But A G Thang

1. Nas

Illmatic [1994]

Kool Moe Dee’s absolute destruction of Busy Bee during their famous rap battle at Harlem Word in 1981 was the first evolution of the rap lyricist. Then in 1987, Five-Percent Nation member Rakim, along with DJ Eric B., released Paid In Full, and the rap lyricist evolved to it’s second stage. Seven years later, a 21-year-old emcee from the Queensbridge projects dropped his debut album and the evolution of lyricism reached it’s pinnacle.

Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones’s Illmatic was a groundbreaking portrait of the life of a young, black poet growing up in poverty on the streets of New York City. The beauty of Nas’s representation of that world is that he presents an honest portrayal of the difficulties of an inner city upbringing, while also acknowledging the glorious moments of life in the hood as well. That candid, vivid imagery of 1990’s New York City was instrumental in the revival of the East Coast rap scene after years of the hip hop Mecca being overshadowed by the West Coast’s dominant reign.

Illmatic is not only an undeniable musical masterpiece, it’s also the most important hip hop album released in the decade. It championed complex lyricism, helped revive a dying city, birthed one of the greatest emcees of all time, challenged its creator’s competitors, and inspired two generations of rap hopefuls. It’s hard to see how the Golden Era of Hip Hop could have even existed without Illmatic.

Key Tracks: N.Y. State of Mind, Halftime, It Ain’t It Hard To Tell

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Best Hip Hip Albums of the 90’s Part 1

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