The 25 Best Rap Albums of the 1990s

best 90s rap albums

Photos by Mika Väisänen

In the 1970’s, the hip hop formula exploded from microphone and turntable setups on New York street corners. What started as a funky experiment became a form of high art in the mid-‘80’s when the Golden Age of Hip Hop sketched a new blueprint for the style.

In the 1990s, rappers and DJs took that blueprint and expanded it into a diverse stylistic universe, from the sci-fi freakouts of Dr. Octagon to the socially conscious rhymes of Black Star. Snoop Dogg took Slick Rick’s narrative flow style to the mainstream, Pac and Biggie ascended to dominance, and hip hop saw the rise of groups like Wu-Tang Clan and Cypress Hill. It was an era in which almost every album seemed to advance the art form, and it sounded like the whole world was listening. Here, we present the 25 best 90s rap albums.

25. Eric B. & Rakim, Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992)

best rappers rakim

Rakim. Photo by Mika Väisänen

This dope duo rose to the top of hip hop’s Golden Age with that era’s best record: 1987‘s Paid in Full. Don’t Sweat the Technique, their last, still bursts with classics. Upright bass walks the title track to greatness and ‘Know the Ledge’, used expertly in the film Juice, is ice cold storytelling.

24. De La Soul, De La Soul Is Dead (1991)

De La Soul and Prince Paul put the past, present, and future together like the funkiest chefs. De La Soul Is Dead is a group executing their own style: the D.A.I.S.Y. Age (“Da Inner Sound, Yall”).

23. The Pharcyde, Labcabincalifornia (1995) 

The Pharcyde positioned themselves as the leaders of the chill sound from – where else – California. The land of cool jazz and honey was home to the group, who had already scored big with the romantic anguish of ‘Passin’ Me By’ on their ’92 debut. Labcabincalifornia, produced by The Pharcyde and J Dilla, is the sound of Pacific hip hop dreaming at the wheel. 

22. Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996) 

Kool Keith’s full-length solo debut combines the sci-fi mystery of Sun Ra with comic book horror stories that stagger to life. Dan the Automator plays it spooky and loose on the keyboards and DJ Qbert of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz scratches through it all. Artist Pushead keeps the graphics grimy with the cover’s depiction of the good doctor. No Dan the Automator record would be complete without a reference to the genius Chris Elliott’s Cabin Boy; here it’s a whole song (‘halfsharkalligatorhalfman’). Read our history of Dr. Octagon’s origins.

21. Mobb Deep, The Infamous (1995)

One year after the release of Nas’ groundbreaking masterpiece Illmatic, the duo of Prodigy and Havoc took their portrayal of Queensbridge street life to its darkest, most haunting extreme.

20. Gang Starr, Hard to Earn (1994)

gang starr

DJ Premier. Photo by Mika Väisänen

Guru and DJ Premier put ‘Mass Appeal’ across the East Coast as one of the coolest singles of a heavy year in hip hop, 1994. Gang Starr has an origin story in Boston but this record is absolutely the sound of ’90’s New York, with bebop and blues piano and verses featuring Jeru the Damaja and Nice & Smooth.

19. The Roots, Things Fall Apart (1999)

The Roots took the 215 area code worldwide with Things Fall Apart, a Philadelphia masterpiece of Black Thought metaphorics and Questlove breakbeats. ‘Dynamite’ Frankensteined a frenzied Bucky Pizzarelli bebop chord progression into nod-your-head funk. Black Thought is a champion all over: “Globe traveling, throwing your verse like a javelin / Things Fall Apart and MC’s unraveling.”

18. Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990)

Public Enemy operated like a mobile country: they had a leader, a spokesman, a cabinet, and an army. Chuck D used his booming voice to deliver revolutionary slogans. Flavor Flav was a natural hype man, and with DJ Terminator X and the S1W security, P.E. were ready to expand their message worldwide.

public enemy

Photo by Mika Väisänen

Fear Of A Black Planet is packed with anthems. ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’ glues two eras: the metal shred of the ‘80s and the piano syncopation that would define ’90’s New York. ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ is hypnotic James Brown bass and drum funk. Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube tip the gasoline and bring their own flames on ‘Burn Hollywood Burn.’ Finally, ‘Fight the Power’ just might be the strongest work that Public Enemy’s career. The line “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” illustrates the album’s incendiary revelation: then and even now, a world that knows better in its heart somehow turns in fear of a black planet.

17. Ice Cube, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990)

Ice Cube begins a run of great ‘90s rap albums with Public Enemy’s beat geniuses The Bomb Squad. N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton was a late ’80’s masterpiece, but its massive success split management from the group’s strongest MC, Ice Cube. He left, and N.W.A. put out 100 Miles and Runnin’, certain it was the sequel to Straight Outta Compton. It sold, but ask anyone: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted is the heir to everything unleashed by N.W.A.

This raucous record goes after everybody. Cube had time to answer the diss tracks on 100 Miles, but it seemed irrelevant. Like the title says, Ice Cube was looking at something bigger. If N.W.A. wanted Compton, Ice Cube would take America. 

16. Black Star, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star (1998)

black star

Photo by Mika Väisänen

The Black Star anthem ‘Definition’ is a song that verbally, thematically, and instrumentally defines hip hop. Hi Tek sets double and quadruple snare drum beats to spare funk chords and Mos Def and Talib Kweli flow like poets. The duo quote historic flows from Boogie Down Productions and take stock of hip hop during the East Coast West Coast feud: “I said one two three / It’s kind of dangerous to be a emcee /They shot Tupac and Biggie / Too much violence in hip-hop, why-o.”

15. Big L, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (1995)

Harlem’s charismatic legend Big L only released one album during his lifetime, but it’s a stone-cold classic. Big L paints street stories on Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, and he ends every couplet with a punch line. The snares crack like knuckles and the beats combine New York trumpets and wood bass with xylophones and jazz sounds like sirens ribboning over the avenue. Big L was murdered on February 15, 1999: a drive-by in Harlem that remains unsolved to this day. 2000’s posthumous The Big Picture is excellent, with iconic singles, but this record hits the hardest. Big L is one of the best MC’s in any age of hip hop.

14. GZA, Liquid Swords (1995)

best 90s rap albums

Photo by Mika Väisänen

Liquid Swords is a perfect Wu Tang album. RZA is at the dials while GZA spills narratives that put you right in the room. All of the Shaolin myths align on creeping piano beats that locate a crime in the verses and bleed antagonists dry in the chorus. This cinematic album is a story from beginning to end with all of the chopped film clips, swordplay, and chess moves arriving at maximum dopeness.

13. Eminem, The Slim Shady LP (1999)

Eminem truly understood how to ‘tell them who you are.’ ‘My Name Is’ catapulted Em (and his alter ego Slim Shady) to superstardom. Like a wrestling heel, stoking the fans, his villains are both despicable and repulsive, but he sold it like you knew him better: he’s crazy, but is he really that crazy? The Slim Shady LP was only Em’s second record, and he’s forever made you wonder.

12. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)

Raekwon’s solo debut is a truly immersive record: Chef brings the listener inside his stories to feel the heat of every action sequence. Each song has visual lyrics like realized cartoons and swelling soundtrack strings orbiting bass and drums. Loose dialogue surrounds each chapter. Raekwon had everything, and he didn’t have to use only the tools that Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) had designed. ‘Wu Gambinos’ and ‘Glaciers of Ice’ aren’t chess, or kung fu, or shadowboxing. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is mafioso hip hop from one its best authors.

11. 2Pac, All Eyez On Me (1996)

Tupac’s prowess as a songwriter had grown so significantly that only a double album provided enough space for his storytelling. The G-funk Death Row Records sound exploded with ‘California Love’ – Pac’s first single as a Death Row artist. All Eyez On Me is considered hip hop’s first double album, making it a historic entry on our list of the best 90s rap albums.

10. Outkast, Aquemini (1998)

At the end of the 90s, Outkast heralded the future. Their third record is Atlanta madness, live-band funk with the spit triplets of Big Boi and André 3000. The sound couldn’t be duplicated, but its tone and tempos would be borrowed by big acts and producers coming up for the next act of hip hop. None of them could match the acrobatics that Outkast delivered so effortlessly. 

9. Cypress Hill, Black Sunday (1993)

Black Sunday reads like a greatest hits record. ‘When the Shit Goes Down.’ ‘Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That.’ ‘Insane in the Brain,’ itself a phenomenon. The Dusty Springfield ‘Son of A Preacher Man’ guitar on ‘Hits From the Bong’ is a dynamite sample choice. Before them, the only production to challenge the dominance of New York was Dr. Dre. DJ Muggs’ West Coast beats buzzed with overdriven riffs and chopped up drums from Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’ ‘Tramp.’ B-Real’s nasal flow brought a truly unique voice to the game. Cypress Hill changed the game geographically and sonically.

8. Jay-Z, Reasonable Doubt (1996) 

90s rap albums

Photo by Mika Väisänen

Jay-Z will still tell you that the world slept on his first record, but this debut led hip hop in a new lyrical destination. Reasonable Doubt was the sound of the American Dream seen through the lens of the street hustler. ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’ pairs Jay-Z with the Notorious B.I.G. for big action and ‘Can’t Knock the Hustle’ features Mary J. Blige for finesse and power. ’22 Twos’ samples A Tribe Called Quest in the chorus, and its complex wordplay (the song includes contain 22 uses of “two, “too” and “to”) signaled the arrival of a contender for hip hop’s throne. Big Daddy Kane had put Jay-Z on records and in videos in the first half of the decade. This album, released on his own Roc-A-Fella Records, was the architecture that would bring Jay-Z’s empire into the next century.

7. Snoop Doggy Dogg, Doggystyle (1993)

90s rap

Photo by Mika Väisänen

It is no hyperbole to say Doggystyle was the most anticipated hip hop album of its era, and even less exaggeration to say that it made Snoop Doggy Dogg one of the most recognized artists on earth. He was a Number 1 pick from his first single, ‘Deep Cover’, and he became a superstar on The Chronic. Doggystyle made him a legend. Even with elements of Slick Rick, Special Ed, and Das Efx, Snoop Doggy Dogg established his own complete style of nursery-rhyme storytelling with flows both elegant and ruthless. Lyrics to skits, it is the kind of record that fans know word for word.

6. A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (1991)

A Tribe Called Quest are a lyrical and musical triumph on this record. ‘Scenario’ was deservedly gigantic. ‘Buggin’ Out’ has one of the most iconic bass intros on record; it is eclipsed only by one of the most iconic intros in hip hop, delivered seconds later by Phife Dawg: “Yo, microphone check / One two, what is this?” Everybody knows what it is. It’s The Low End Theory. This album is one of the most jubilant and uplifting 90s rap albums.

5. Beastie Boys, Check Your Head (1992)

best rap albums

Photo by Masao Nakagami

Every record from the Beastie Boys was a revelation and an innovation for hip hop and for popular culture at large. The sampling powerhouse Paul’s Boutique had been a commercial failure; after that, the Beasties holed up in the studio to transmogrify (again) before ascending into the American mainstream (again). For Check Your Head, the band set up equipment, ramps, and backboards in their makeshift studio, which they dubbed G-Son. Here, they jammed songs that incorporated their punk roots, salsa grooves, and raw hip hop beats. The resulting album is an inspired b-boy bouillabaisse, and ‘So What’cha Want’ just might be the band’s best song.

For more Beastie Boys history, listen to Beasties DJ Mix Master Mike on the Culture Creature podcast.

4. Dr. Dre, The Chronic (1992)

N.W.A introduced Dr. Dre to the nation. The Chronic introduced him to the planet. His virtuosic production took 1973’s synth supernova ‘Funky Worm’ – an Ohio Players song already sampled by Dre with N.W.A. – and made it the signature West Coast G-Funk buzz. The Chronic found the good doctor prescribing the green that made the songs levitate longer in your brain. This album is a blueprint for how to take a party record platinum and build an empire from it. 

3. Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die (1994)

“I love it when you call me Big Poppa.” The debut of Notorious B.I.G. is one of the most respected records in hip hop. The production by Easy Mo Bee is exceptional with harp-like piano arpeggios and crackling saxophones. On top of it, Biggie is a lover and a fighter, playing the cool heavies and psychos simultaneously on tracks like ‘Gimme the Loot.’ Every track is a hit. ‘Things Done Changed.’ ‘Machine Gun Funk.’ ‘Juicy.’ ‘Big Poppa.’ This masterpiece by the self-described King of New York assured that the notorious one lives forever.

2. Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) introduced a new language of hip hop. RZA’s eerie piano samples and murky 808s put dents in trunks. Fully-realized action hero MC’s leapt out of speakers like they’d been waiting on comic book splash pages. The group introduced its own lexicon that alluded to chess, shadowboxing, and the Five-Percent Nation. Shaolin films got spliced in to illustrate their Staten Island mythology. Even the MC’s names signified a break from the tradition that came before them: in the eighties, you could be ‘Kool’ this or ‘Grandmaster’ that, but those monikers seemed wildly passé after dudes named themselves Ghostface Killah and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. This is the album that changed it all.

1. Nas, Illmatic (1994)

90s rap albums

Photo by Mika Väisänen

Nasty Nas is a stone-cold street prophet on Illmatic. Here is an MC with Rakim’s instinct for storytelling and a cold voice that takes the listener inside the Queensbridge housing projects where many of Illmatic’s tales are set. The brilliant narrative conceit of ‘One Love’ – Nas’ letters to incarcerated friends – illustrates the harsh realities of street life with vivid nuance. Simply put, Nas’ narratives and lyrical gymnastics on Illmatic brought the art of MCing to new heights.

DJ Premier, Large Professor, and Pete Rock dial up the dopest drums and pianos to cast ghastly lights and shadows on Nas’ street corner verses. ‘The World is Yours,’ ‘Memory Lane,’ and ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’ are all built with soul samples and noir sounds. There is a gothic anguish that chimes in ‘Represent.’ This record simultaneously showed what the genre could do and where it was going. With Illmatic, Nas arrived at the top of the game.

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