The Twenty Best Hip-Hop Albums of The '90s: A Retrospective
So it's been a crazy ass summer for all involved at SB, and we return from a month and a half long hiatus with... a list, and not even taking aim at another publication's online poll-influenced pile of failure this time.
No, this time the reasons are somewhat more personal. I was asked recently by an online acquaintance as to why we have so little hip-hop represented here despite our general embrace of everything under the fucking Sun. After all it's not like we dislike the genre--we had several excellent entries in our Best of the '00s list, including Can Ox, El-P and Madvillain. It's just that as a collective we don't listen to a whole lot of it, particularly the more recent stuff which outside the depths of the underground (and even there, too) seems to be rather hit or miss in terms of overall quality. If someone can enlighten us as to what we're missing, some more records in the past eleven or twelve years that flew under our radar, I'm sure we'd give em a shot.
However as a jaded country kid that grew up in the '90s with indiscriminate tastes and rediscovered just how awesome that decade was for hip-hop about eight years after the fact, this list was a long time coming; and even though I'm enabling this blog's addiction with putting things in a numbered sequence (".... hi, my name is Chris, and I'm a listaholic") I also hope to raise awareness for some fucking prime rap here, even if the selections are somewhat obvious to more educated heads.
Before I get started, some biases are freely admitted in the form of, you guessed it, another goddamn list:
a) I'm an East Coast kid, always have been.
b) As such, G-Funk is generally not my preferred production style.
c) I'm basing my selections on release date, not the timeframe in which they were recorded, so a couple albums here may be questionable as representative of the '90s.
d) I'm 27, white, and male.
e) I hold no particular reverence for '80s rap as a whole. Sure, I will rock your copies of Paid In Full, Nation of Millions, Critical Beatdown and even Paul's Boutique (see d) all day and all night, but the backpacker fetishizing of that era and putting down most '90s rap as "gangsta shit without a message" is kinda perplexing to me. You don't have to identify with or like the subject matter to see the genius involved in any of these albums and besides, most of those '80s records were hardly wholesome and/or conscious even by today's standards. A play of any Slick Rick or Kool G Rap will set you straight on that.
f) Eminem can shampoo my area.
Anyway, without further ado:
20. Company Flow- Funcrusher Plus (Rawkus Records, July 28, 1997)
"Independent as fuck"--rapper Bigg Jus, DJ Mr. Len and producer/MC El-Producto lived and died by this credo, and Funcrusher Plus reflects their cutting-edge ethos both in production and topic matter. Serving up a dramatically different slice of hip-hop from their contemporaries on the Rawkus label (whom they later had a catastrophic falling out with), Company Flow dealt in sinister paranoia and bleak dystopian imagery, along with shout outs to graffiti artists and intense battle raps all backed by the futuristic beats of El-P establishing the group at the top of the underground game. "8 Steps to Perfection," "The Fire In Which You Burn" and "Krazy Kings" all set a high standard for the strains of indie rap that would follow Co Flow's example, and El-P himself would go on to establish the excellent Definitive Jux label and push the bounds of hip-hop production even further.
19. The Pharcyde- Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (Delicious Vinyl, November 24, 1992)
One of the few West Coast groups of the era that didn't embrace the gangsta image, Pharcyde's classic debut places them in the same league as their East Coast counterparts De La Soul as court jesters of hip-hop. Slimkid, Imani, Bootie Brown and Fatlip sound like the four smartass kids you probably knew back in high school, trading in gleefully obnoxious, hilarious rhymes and playing the dozens with each other on "Ya Mama." However there's introspection here too, with "Passing Me By" and "On The DL" sincerely revealing self-effacing aspects of their personal lives that most rappers would never dream of doing. But positivity is largely the order of the day here and J-Swift's bouncy production only adds to the street corner vibe.
18. The Roots- Things Fall Apart (MCA, February 23, 1999)
Philly's resident hip-hop/neo soul band expanded from hometown heroes to a movement with their fourth album Things Fall Apart, with appearances from Common, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Dice Raw and beatbox extraordinaire Scratch. Yet even with all the collaborators the album generally avoids feeling busy or top-heavy, with the live grooves of drummer ?uestlove underpinning the impressive wordplay and rhymes of Black Thought and Malik B. still being the central focus. The Grammy-winning "You Got Me" is one of hip-hop's few truly touching love songs, but head-spinning raps on "Double Trouble," "Step Into The Realm," "Adrenaline" and "Ain't Sayin' Nothin' New" prove that they haven't gotten too soft. Although Things Fall Apart has a fair amount of padding (including the obligatory middling spoken-word track), the album's highlights easily outweigh the cheese and live up to its reputation as the release that broke The Roots into the big time.
17. Jay Z- Reasonable Doubt (Roc-A-Fella, June 25, 1996)
Hova was always the consummate businessman and slick purveyor of mafioso rap even before the days he became a mogul, and his debut Reasonable Doubt reminds us of a time when he was hungry and rising to the top. Jay reflects back on both the good and bad times of criminal living with "Can't Knock The Hustle," "D'Evils," "Regrets" and "Dead Presidents II," while the Biggie-featuring "Brooklyn's Finest" and blistering "22 Two's" (my favorite on the album) prove that he was no slouch with a mic. With a slate of producers including Ski, Clark Kent and DJ Premier supplying excellent R&B and jazz-flavored production, this is Jay at both his most consistent and most musical, and the album everyone inevitably gravitates back to after listening to his less satisfying subsequent efforts.
16. Mobb Deep- The Infamous (Loud/RCA/BMG Records, April 25, 1995)
Unrepentantly brutal and nihilistic even by the standards of '90s gangsta rap, Havoc and Prodigy would have made it into the annals of hip-hop legend for only one track--the haunting "Shook Ones, Part II," the power of which needs little explanation. Even without that track, the rest of The Infamous lyrically paints grim pictures of an urban war zone, where no allegiances can be trusted and any day could be the one you're staring down a barrel of an enemy's nine. The Queensbridge duo make absolutely no apologies for their anti-life stances, and "Drink Away The Pain (Situations)" produced by and featuring a verse by Q-Tip may be the lightest they ever get. Not for weak stomachs, but unrelenting and masterful in its dark focus.
15. Common Sense- Resurrection (Relativity, October 25, 1994)
Common in the days before he dropped the Sense from his name and before he was tainted by lame neo-soul posturing and show business was Chi-Town's finest rapper, a thinking man's MC that preferred witty double entendre and metaphor through his smooth, sometimes half-sung delivery. "I Used to Love H.E.R.," an allegory of hip-hop's life from its humble beginnings through the Golden Age and the gangsta era is still one of the most widely admired and quoted tracks in all of hip-hop, and No I.D.'s piano-heavy gorgeous production on Resurrection lends a soulful vibe throughout. Even at the age of 22 Common had a maturity beyond his years, eschewing the usual hardcore posturing of the era for rap that attains the ideal of street poetry on a higher level than most of his contemporaries.
14. Big Punisher- Capital Punishment (Terror Squad/Loud Records, April 28, 1998)
Ok, so Capital Punishment suffers a bit from being skit-heavy and the production, despite a few hot beats dropped by big names like RZA and Dr. Dre, is more accomplished than impressive. But once the mightly Pun (R.I.P.), all 400+ pounds of him latched onto that beat, it was fucking over. Just listen to "Super Lyrical" (guest Black Thought of all people gets totally upstaged here), "Beware," "Deep Cover '98" and "The Dream Shatterer" where Big Pun's Bronx-bred, lightning fast battle rapping makes everyone else just sound lazy and sloppy. And when he turns his machine gun delivery down to suit slower club jams like "I'm Not A Player" ("... I just fuck a lot"), his humor and choice of phrase still comes through. With his Terror Squad mates and other guests like Wyclef, Inspectah Deck and Prodigy on board and all dropping in fine performances, this is one of the best Latino rap albums ever and a lyricist's treat.
13. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth- Mecca and the Soul Brother (Elektra, June 9, 1992)
While their works were widely slept on by listeners at the time, the Mount Vernon NY duo of producer wunderkind Pete Rock and silky MC C.L. Smooth were dropping brilliant jazz/soul raps that were philosophical without being particularly Afrocentric, and street without being thug (C.L. had a early Rakim-esque aversion to profanity). Mecca and the Soul Brother was the best embodiment of their style, embarking on sixteen 4-6 minute bangers that never wear out their welcome, and what it lacks in distinct highlights (barring the soulful dirge and future genre staple "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)") it makes up for in workmanlike consistency. There's not a single bad song or wack skit to be had, making this mandatory for fans of late Golden Age rap.
12. Cypress Hill- self titled (Ruffhouse/Columbia/SME Records, August 13, 1991)
Though they would later become West Coast hip-hop's resident Latino stoners, Cypress Hill's revolutionary debut is the only time they've managed to be hardcore and hilarious simultaneously. Bear witness to B-Real's adenoidal flow over the skronky guitar noise of "How I Could Just Kill A Man" and "Pigs" or the abrasive bump of "Hand On The Pump" which inspired hordes of copycats, while other tracks extolled the virtues of the good leaf with the deeply addled thump of "Stoned Is The Way of The Walk" and the more uptempo "Light Another" being highlights. It may sound a little dated now but Cypress Hill's debut still bangs with the best of them, and laid down a template for many West Coast groups to follow.
11. Outkast- Aquemini (LaFace/Arista, September 29, 1998)
As one of the founders of a nascent Southern hip-hop scene in the '90s, the duo of Andre and Big Boi brought something new and fresh to the table with their distinct ATL drawls, deep strains of instrumental blues, funk, reggae and soul meeting up in a huge melting pot and general rejection of the usual flossin' and shallow materialism that was legion among groups at the time. And with the third album Aquemini, they went from being regional heroes to one of the best groups in the country. While Outkast are no doubt nice with a mic and bring rhymes loaded with content and substance, they're less about the lyrics and more about verbally complementing the big, Southern fried grooves and varied beats as showcased perfectly by bangers "Rosa Parks" and "Skew It on The Bar-B." Along with the seven-minute slow funk centerpiece "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" and loud, wah-wah guitar heavy "Chonkyfire," Aquemini's earthy musical backdrop could speak for itself. Damn is this record beautiful.
10. Public Enemy- Fear of A Black Planet (Def Jam/Columbia, April 10, 1990)
After dropping one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time in It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Chuck D, Flavor Flav & Co. would suffer a long slide into irrelevance throughout the following decade as gangsta rap groups won acceptance over more socially conscious artists in the mainstream. But in 1990, P.E. were still at the top of the rap game and so was Fear of A Black Planet.
An angry, impassioned cry against racial inequality and the critics that began to take more shots at them after Minister of Information Professor Griff's antisemitic statements to the press, Fear of A Black Planet blasted myriad cultural enemies both new and old while cranking up the Bomb Squad's dissonant wall of sample-heavy noise to 11. Miscegenation (the title track, "Pollywanacracka"), Hollywood ("Burn Hollywood Burn"), record labels ("Who Stole The Soul?"), the media ("Welcome to the Terrordome") and even Elvis ("Fight The Power") all get hit by lyrical broadsides from Chuck, while Flav drops his most enduring track "9-1-1 Is A Joke" taking a lighter-hearted shot at the lack of police support in black neighborhoods. Amid the rage are calls for black unity like "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" and an urge to stop communities from cannibalizing themselves, making this a protest album that seeks to empower a staid and despondent black America as much as it targets the white status quo.
Unfortunately P.E. would never be this vital again, what with Flav clowning on reality shows and a lack of musical inspiration from the group they've become all but a pop culture joke in recent years. However albums like It Takes A Nation and Fear of A Black Planet make that reputation completely unwarranted and still sound visionary, urgent and powerful--the aural equivalent of a clenched, raised fist.
9. Ice Cube- Death Certificate (Priority/EMI Records, October 29, 1991)
Long before Ice Cube started showing up in cuddly family flicks like Are We There Yet?, he was one hostile motherfucker. Dropped less than a year prior to the Rodney King riots that ripped through L.A., Death Certificate is gangsta rap at both its most conscious and its angriest. Formerly the soul and brains of NWA, Cube's first two solo albums took on issues of race, poverty and government disenfranchisement from a street level perspective, facing down the white establishment with a uncompromising gaze. Switching from the hard beats of the Bomb Squad on Amerikkka's Most Wanted to a more West Coast-oriented, funk-intensive production, Death Certificate still loses absolutely nothing in terms of intensity or skill behind the mic.
The album is split into two sides--starting with the Death side, according to Cube a mirror image of where the black community was (and still is) and discussing inequality and depravity's ravages on the inner city, culminating in "Alive In Arrival," Cube narrating the story of a young man caught in a gang shootout and bleeding out in a hospital bed while being questioned by police. The Life side, "a vision of where we need to go," focuses on the racism of institutions ranging from the U.S. military to Korean shopkeepers and curing the black community through violent self-empowerment. And it's all capped with a scathing hit piece on NWA, "No Vaseline."
The source of much controversy upon release for its racial politics and brutal rejection of White America's social mores, Death Certificate is as pissed off as any punk or metal album and more focused than even Fear of a Black Planet, and whether you agree with Cube's fury or not it's hard to argue with the album's relevance as its targets persist even twenty years on.
8. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (Rawkus/Priority/EMI Records, August 26, 1998)
Named after Marcus Garvey's Black Star shipping line founded to repatriate blacks to Africa, seasoned conscious rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli created a real milestone together--behold, an Afrocentric album that isn't preachy, isn't overly PC or corny (the love jam "Brown Skin Lady" being a possible if well-intentioned exception), isn't trying to scare white people away, and is fully in touch with the basics of rap and sharp performances behind the mic that keep this far away from boring radio fodder. It's the perfect happy medium.
A huge celebration of hip-hop and black culture as a whole, Mos and Talib draw from two decades of the genre, from the early B-boy days to the East v. West feud and life in the streets of Brooklyn circa '99 for their observations, taking on the deaths of Biggie and 2Pac in the Boogie Down Productions-referencing "Definition," and the anti-culture of nihilism and conspicuous consumption in "Thieves In The Night" (still one of hip-hop's most eloquent and incisive tracks) along with a funny and smart Mos remake of Slick Rick's classic joint "Children's Story."
Of course this wouldn't be a Mos/Talib venture without some fiery spitting, and there's plenty on "Re: Definition," "Hater Players" and posse cut "Twice Inna Lifetime" with awesome guest verses by Wordsworth and Jane Doe along with Common on "Respiration" adding to the wealth of lyricism on the album. Add catchy-ass beats from producers Hi-Tek, J. Rawls and 88 Keys and you have a pre-millennial classic. We're overdue for a reunion.
7. Raekwon- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (Loud/RCA/BMG, August 1, 1995)
The first run of Wu solo albums was a watershed in hip-hop with RZA's stint in Gravediggaz and Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man and Ghostface all dropping classics. But only two releases enjoyed full RZA supervision behind the boards and rose to the level of masterpieces. Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was the first half of the pair, with Rae's intricate criminal narratives and Five Percenter knowledge accompanied by Ghostface Killah's stream of consciousness rapping and RZA's backdrop giving a big injection of life to the dying mafioso rap subgenre.
A loose concept album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is the tale of two gangsters returning to the drug game to make a quarter mil and get out before it kills them, and finding out it ain't so easy. Inspired by stellar source material like Once Upon A Time In America and John Woo's The Killer, "Incarcerated Scarfaces," "Gullotine (Swordz)," "Criminology," "Rainy Dayz" and "Heaven & Hell" feel like immaculately produced scenes from a crime film, and lighter cuts like "Ice Cream" and "Wu-Gambinos" (which started the group's trend of aliases) threw in defining performances from Method, Masta Killa and Cappadonna. Even Nas shows up and drops an epic verse on "Verbal Intercourse," which heads still often call his best performance on record. Ending with the closing credits roll of Popa Wu's "North Star," it all rounds up to one of the most complete experiences in hip-hop.
Yep, it's a Wu masterpiece, rivaled only by one other.
6. GZA- Liquid Swords (Geffen/MCA Records, November 7, 1995)
It's one of the hardest hip-hop debates of all time--Liquid Swords v. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx--and much ink has been spilled over the topic trying to figure out which of the two RZA-produced efforts is better. Here's my take: Raekwon's is a classic and undisputably equal to Liquid Swords in rapping and production, but GZA's has it all over Cuban Linx in one important category: Atmosphere.
This is by far the most consistently dark, somber album on the list and that quality along with The Genius' dominance on the mic makes it the perfect kingpin album, his thick Brooklyn baritone building elaborate and carefully constructed metaphors and tales of fucked up deals over icy strings and grim bass--all linked together by excerpts from Shogun Assassin. Even the other Clan members that show up seem completely attuned and sympathetic to the wavelength GZA and RZA are on, with Inspectah Deck's narrative verses on "Duel of the Iron Mic" and aptly titled "Cold World"; Ghostface's blast of free associating and religious imagery on "Investigative Reports" and "4th Chamber"; and Method Man's effortless boast-laden roll through "Shadowboxing."
In typical early Wu fashion, this is more of a group rallying around one member (and RZA) rather than a true solo effort, and yet GZA manages to put his own indelible stamp on the proceedings with tracks like "Labels," a vicious dissection of the record industry widely admired and imitated to this day (sample lyric: "TOMMY ain't my motherfuckin' BOY/When he fake moves on a nigga you employ/Well I'll EMIrge off ya set, now ya know God damn/I show LIVIN LARGE niggaz how to flip a DEF JAM"). For all the spectacular performances on here, there's no doubt Liquid Swords is GZA's show as the sharpest lyrical sword in the Clan.
5. Big L- Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (Columbia, March 28, 1995)
Big L is that "other Big" from NYC that seemed to get a lot less recognition outside serious hip-hop circles, and that's a damn shame as Lamont Coleman was easily one of the finest mic technicians in his generation, gifted with a cutting multisyllabic flow that runs circles around most rappers to this day. His unparalleled skills and nearly relentless barrage of over-the-top imagery lent him more to the world of hardcore battle rap than the relatively mellower (but just as violent) gangsta material of the day, which probably accounts for his profile under the mainstream radar.
One thing is certain, though: Big L is the undisputed master of punchlines, and he drops a treasure trove of them hilarious and hard hitting all over Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous. "So don't step to this, cause I got a live crew/You might be kinda big but they make coffins yo' size too" ("All Black"); "My rap's steady slammin, I keep a heavy cannon/It's a new sherriff in town, and it ain't Reggie Hammond" ("Put It On"); "I'm looking nothing like your poppa/I wouldn't give a chick 10 cent to put cheese on a whoppa" ("No Endz No Skinz")--it goes on and on and on. But L wasn't just bragaddocio and bluster, he also dropped the occasional conscious track like "Street Struck" and let his pretty talented friends get a turn--seven of them--on "8 Iz Enuff." Verse for verse, song for song, he was probably the finest MC going and Lord Finesse's lo-fi but solid beats make excellent wallpaper for L's unrivaled flow.
For all the horrorcore posturing L was a rapper, not a gangsta; which made his death from a shooting in 1999 right before he signed to Roc-A-Fella and dropped another album all the sadder. No doubt he should've been a household name. In any case, there may be better, more versatile hip-hop albums out there but I can think of precious few that speak to my musical sensibilities or that I've listened to more than Lifestylez, and that is high praise indeed.
4. Notorious B.I.G.- Ready to Die (Bad Boy, September 13, 1994)
Maybe it's just my personal regional slant talking, but what separated NYC gangsta rap of the era from its Western equivalent was a sense of doom and fatalist gravity amid the bullets, drugs and misogyny. 2Pac (for all his unquestionable talents) and other Death Row rappers made the outlaw life sound like an invincible and calculated pose, something you do to pass the time between fucking hoes and smoking weed, whereas Biggie could lace his quotably toxic rhymes with grim humor, world weary struggle, paranoia and even vulnerability--sometimes all in the same song. Even at his most vulgar and ridiculous, Biggie always sounded real. Like Hemingway, he wrote (and rapped) what he knew about.
And Ready to Die showed Biggie at his peak, narrating the life of a rising gangster from birth to suicidal death with cinematic and emotional breadth. Perhaps the only rapper that can lend full life to the thick-like-molasses, sample heavy production by Easy Mo Bee and Sean Combs (ugh) Biggie flexes his lyrical ability, preferring a clear yet complex storytelling style over the rapid flows of most of his contemporaries in the East. All the better to lay down threatening yet hilarious lines like "There gonna be a lot of slow singin' and flower bringin' if my burglar alarm start ringin" in that rough baritone. Biggie is probably the most bit-on MC of all time, and it's not hard to figure out why. Anyone who can sum up twenty years of social decay and the crack epidemic with one track, "Things Done Changed" ("Back in the days our parents used to take care of us/Look at em now, they even fuckin' scared of us!") without turning preachy is truly next level. A cameo by Method Man on "The What" is just icing.
It's too bad his second album Life After Death went fully down the overproduced, more radio-friendly road this album hinted at with tracks like "Juicy," because there was definitely more life in Ready to Die's rawer, bleaker vein. It makes you wonder how much better Biggie would've been without Puff Daddy. Either way the death of Christopher Wallace in '97 was truly a loss and even the necrophiliac post-mortem releases do nothing to change Ready To Die's nearly flawless depiction of a hustler's struggle.
3. A Tribe Called Quest- The Low End Theory (Jive, September 24, 1991)
You knew you were going to see this one eventually.
Exemplars of the Native Tongues school of hip-hop, Q-Tip/The Abstract, Phife Dawg and producer/DJ Ali Shaheed Mohammed weren't militant like Brand Nubian, weren't goofy like De La Soul and weren't hippies like Digable Planets or Arrested Development. What they were was better than all of them put together, combining low-key consciousness with a skeletal but thumpin' production designed to move rumps and none of their albums embodied that ideal better than The Low End Theory. Spread across fourteen tracks of buttery flow, witty and smart yet not preachy lyricism and an aura of pure class is a feeling of effortless accomplishment and expertise that belies that the group was only on their second album.
Marry this honed sense of purpose to slick jazzified beats and thick basslines sported by the likes of "Jazz (We Got The)," "Excursions," "Check The Rhime" and "Verses from The Abstract" and you have perfection. And even the guest appearances on "Show Business" (Brand Nubian) and the classic closer "Scenario" (Leaders of the New School) are highlights, including a hot verse from a young Busta Rhymes on the latter. One of the best things that can be said about The Low End Theory is that it's an all-purpose album with a universal appeal that will hook the most casual of hip-hop heads, and even people who otherwise spell rap with a "c." It's the Kind of Blue of its genre, and there are few compliments higher than that.
2. The Wu-Tang Clan- Enter the 36 Chambers (Loud, November 9, 1993)
You're staring at the genesis of one of hip-hop's most enduring and idolized franchises; at LEAST ten solo careers and Christ knows how many other affiliates; an entire school of rapping and production; many additions to the hip hop lexicon; and even a clothing line. When you listen to Enter the 36 Chambers it's like an audio time capsule from an older world--a world caught sleeping by nine hungry young men, each a deft MC in his own right, forming like Voltron and stomping their way out of Shaolin with their comic book aliases, crack stash and martial arts flicks in tow.
This album has close to zero emotional range from raucous and blustering (the cautionary tale "Tears" probably being the only exception) with almost every line either about the drug game, Five Percenter references, barely veiled threats of violence or hardcore braggadocio, and the low budget production values make this one of the rawest hip-hop albums ever to hit platinum. And herein lies its charm, as later outings as a group of seasoned professionals from Wu-Tang Forever onward haven't hit anywhere near as hard nor as consistently.
Excerpts of radio interviews with the group and violent street chatter along with scattered kung-fu and gritty soul samples paired to the hard thump of Clan leader RZA's landmark beatcrafting all tell of a ruthlessness and ambition that far outstrips its status as a debut. And the voices over this background, from Ol' Dirty Bastard's cracked-out soul man to Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and Ghostface's distinct and technical flows to Method Man's hazy drawl and GZA's calculating master delivery, peel off verse after shouted verse in their own indomitable fashion. Even U-God and Masta Killa's brief appearances on "The Mystery of Chessboxin" are lethal. For pure verbal dexterity and rugged street vibe along with that indescribable Clan X-factor, influence on the genre and even humor, this album still ain't nothin to fuck wit after nearly twenty years.
1. Nas- Illmatic (Columbia, April 19, 1994)
When Nasir Jones dropped his debut, he was barely in his twenties and was already being hailed as both a prodigy on a level with Rakim and the savior of the flagging Queensbridge, NY scene. He managed to net what is to this day a dream team of producers--DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Large Professor--supplying their finest beats and the result was a 10-track paradigm shift in the foundations of hip-hop.
There are so many things fucking remarkable about this album--how it synthesizes hardcore street rap with the conscious lyricism of alternative rap, both aware of the harsh realities and tragedy of crime and the projects on half of the album and then finding a fatalistic optimism with "The World Is Yours" and "Memory Lane" without seeming contradictory at all. How lean the album as a whole is--an intro, nine songs, only one guest rapper (the sorely underrated AZ on "Life's A Bitch"), no skits or filler whatsoever. The whole of "One Love"--a shoutout to locked up comrade Cormega and others wrapped up in a slick tale of age and experience meeting prison-bound youth, anchored by Q-Tip's smooth vocal hook and a plinking beat. How Nas' kaleidoscopic lyricism and razor-tongued flow almost singlehandly forced everyone in the industry to step up their game from the moment "It Ain't Hard to Tell" dropped. The overall vibrancy and love of hip-hop and the streets that bred it that still resonates over a decade after its release. Even the widely copied, iconic cover art (look at #4 and tell me you don't see a resemblance--Raekwon did). Hell there's an entire catalog of lesser classics, even on this list, that sample lines from this album. If you were a fan of hip-hop in '95, you were a fan of Illmatic.
The fact that Nas' consistency as a rapper fell while his star rose doesn't even seem to matter. There is still only one Illmatic and that's more than anyone else has.