The 90 Best Rap Albums of the 1990s

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Best Rap Albums of 1990

Public Enemy - Fear of A Black Planet
© Def Jam

9. EPMD - Business As Usual
Business as usual? EPMD's third entry was anything but. The classic soul production that blessed their first two had evolved into frenetic blasts of funk, the rhymes had grown increasingly confrontational.

8. Brand Nubian - One for All
On their debut album, Grand Puba, Sadat X, Lord Jamar, and DJ Alamo brought political commentary and spirituality to the forefront, excelling with sensible tunes like "Slow Down" and "Wake Up."

7. Gang Starr - Step in the Arena
Virtually fresh on the scene, Guru and DJ Premier quickly stood out from their peers by meshing thoughtful lyrics with snazzy, sample-heavy tracks.

6. LL Cool J - Mama Said Knock You Out
After dropping two mediocre albums back-to-back, Cool J decided to heed his grandmother's instruction to knock his critics straight to the curb.

5. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo - Wanted: Dead or Alive
G Rap diversified his rhymes to include a much-needed discussion on racial divisiveness and personal responsibility.

4. A Tribe Called Quest - People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
Through their honest and introspective rhymes, Tribe appealed to America's urban youth on their debut album.

3. Eric B. & Rakim - Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em
These two made plenty of classics together, but none ever matched the intricately stitched expressionism on Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em.

2. Ice Cube - AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted
Following a bitter split from N.W.A., Ice Cube filled his debut album with dark stories of manic frustration.

1. Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet
That Fear of a Black Planet was not PE's best work but still managed to eclipse 99% of everything out at the time is a testament to the group's impact on 90s hip-hop. Dark, incendiary, and inevitably brutal, Fear gave yield to classics like "911 Is a Joke" and "Who Stole the Soul."

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Best Rap Albums of 1991

Ice Cube - Death Certificate
Ice Cube - Death Certificate. © Priority Records

9. Del tha Funky Homosapien - I Wish My Brother George Was Here
While his cousin Ice Cube was busy stirring up the gangsta rap scene, Del was laying the foundation for what would become a healthy alternative-hip-hop landscape.

8. Cypress Hill - Cypress Hill
The year is '91. B-Real is one of the most recognizable voices in west coast hip-hop and DJ Muggs is arguably the greatest producer on the planet. That was all you needed.

7. Geto Boys - We Can't Be Stopped
Equal parts hilarious recitals and social obscenities, We Can't Be Stopped remains one of hip-hop's most audacious offerings ever.

6. Freestyle Fellowship - To Whom It May Concern...
Amidst the thugged-out reign of N.W.A. and Cypress Hill, Freestyle Fellowship countered with lyrical virtuosity.

5. De La Soul - De La Soul Is Dead
On their second go-round, De La Soul traded self-conscious for self-deprecation.

4. A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory
On their best album, A Tribe Called Quest (Ali Shaheed, Q-Tip, and Phife Dawg) trafficked in imaginative lyricism laced over jazz-rap layers.

3. Main Source - Breaking Atoms
This sample-heavy LP may not be the best rap album of '91, but it's one of the most influential ever, in that it helped launch the careers of Nas, Akinyele, and others. Not to mention a production technique that's still being emulated today.

2. N.W.A. - Efil4zaggin'
Despite Ice Cube's exit, N.W.A. remained vicious, unapologetic, and vividly outspoken.

1. Ice Cube - Death Certificate
On this groundbreaking album, Cube pulled out his laundry list of socio-political issues, tackling everyone from LAPD to white supremacists. But Cube didn't reserve the scathing indictment for non-Blacks only; he also held L.A. gangs responsible for the proliferation of crack cocaine in Black neighborhoods. An honest expression of Black rage like no other.

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Best Rap Albums of 1992

Dr. Dre - The Chronic
Dr. Dre - The Chronic. © Death Row

9. UGK - Too Hard to Swallow
Thanks to Pimp C's deft production and Bun B's technically sound MCing, UGK helped put Southern-fried rap on the hip-hop map.

8. Showbiz and AG - Runaway Slave
AG's lyricism was a big part of the success recipe, but the music -- a blend of high-tension drums and jazz-influenced loops made this an unforgettable CD.

7. Pete Rock & CL Smooth - Mecca & the Soul Brother
Before The Chronic and Ready to Die, Pete Rock and CL Smooth signaled a pivotal point in hip-hop with their mix of smooth, horn-heavy beats and sophisticated rhymes.

6. Diamond D - Stunts, Blunts, & Hip-Hop
A student of the Diggin' in the Crates (D.I.T.C.) crew, Diamond D showed that he was more than just a sound architect by flaunting his ill mic handles on "Best Kept Secret."

5. Redman - Whut? Thee Album
Redman's debut was engaging, funky, and absolutely hilarious for 52 minutes.

4. Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde
This L.A. group introduced the world to a form of hip-hop rooted in lacerating wit and devastating insight. The result was a cavalcade of excellent tunes, including "Yo Mama," "Otha Fish," and the woozy Summer staple "Passing Me By."

3. Brand Nubian - In God We Trust
It seems unusual that an album titled In God We Trust would include songs like "Pass Da Gat" and "Steal Ya Ho," but Brand Nubians helped steer hip-hop in an exciting new direction with their nearly flawless sophomore CD.

2. Gang Starr - Daily Operation
Guru and Premier, self-named ministers of the underground sound, constructed their 3rd LP around street-friendly beats and razor-sharp lyrics, yielding tons of memorable cuts.

1. Dr. Dre - The Chronic
Dre's combination of funky basslines and heavy synths revolutionized rap and made The Chronic a household name in hip-hop. Lyrical acrobatics from a young Snoop Dogg? Well, that's just the cherry on top.

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Best Rap Albums of 1993

A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders
A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders. © Jive

9. Fat Joe - Represent
While he wasn't exactly the 2nd coming of Kane, Joe showed flashes of brilliance on his debut album, including the energetic "Watch the Sound" and the brawny "Flow Joe."

8. Masta Ace - Slaughtahouse
From start to finish, Masta Ace's 2nd full-length album cuts with the precision of a machete and serves as an ode to east-coast grassroots hip-hop culture.

7. KRS-One - Return of the Boom Bap
KRS-One's brash response to critics who charged that he had deserted the gritty territory of his Boogie Down albums.

6. De La Soul - Buhloone Mindstate
Displaying some maturity and vulnerability that eclipsed the playful vibe on their first 2 albums, De La showed that they weren't allergic to change.

5. Souls of Mischief - 93 'til Infinity
Brandishing infinite levels of excitement and energy, Souls redefined West Coast underground with their first album.

4. Black Moon - Enta Da Stage
Unlike most hip-hop albums of its era, Enta Da Stage eschewed confrontational raps and opted for brooding, electrifying brand of hip-hop.

3. Snoop Dogg - Doggystyle
Snoop's glossy delivery, timely cadence, and haunting hooks were essential to Doggystyle's success. Gangsta rap never sounded so friendly.

2. A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders
Tribe's 3rd disc offered a brigade of melodic, Crisco-slick classics like "Electric Relaxation" and "Award Tour."

1. Wu-Tang Clan - 36 Chambers
36 Chambers served as a launching pad for Wu-Tang members, many of whom went on to drop platinum records. Much of its success can be attributed to: RZA's unparalleled beatsmithing, the lyrical triumvirate of GZA, Ghostface, and Raekwon, the eccentricity of ODB, as well as the charisma of Deck and Meth. 36 Chambers was so gloriously chaotic that no other crew dared to replicate the Wu recipe.

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Best Rap Albums of 1994

Nas - Illmatic
Nas - Illmatic. © Columbia

9. Organized Konfusion - Stress: The Extinction Agenda
Having arrived on the heels of Pharoahe Monch's father's death, Organized's 2nd album was shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty and introspection.

8. OutKast - Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
On their first LP, Big Boi and Dre redefined most people's perception of Southern Rap by drenching their witty rhymes in funk-soul instrumentation.

7. The Roots - Do You Want More?!!!??!
This production-driven album took listeners for an unforgettable ride that culminated with notable hits like "Proceed" and "Mellow My Man."

6. Gang Starr - Hard to Earn
Hard to Earn was a clean break from Gang Starr's previous albums: it was harsher, it was more claustrophobic, and it hinted at the duo's frustration with the rap scene.

5. Scarface - The Diary
On his 3rd foray as a solo MC, Scarface quickly established himself as the Rakim of the South with thoughtful and street-savvy rhymes.

4. Jeru the Damaja - The Sun Rises in the East
Fame proved elusive for the Brooklyn MC, but Jeru's edutainment and Premier's mind-blowing compositions made his debut one of the quintessential 90s hip-hop albums.

3. Common - Resurrection
Common released this undeniable masterpiece at a time when there was no shortage of great hip-hop albums, boasting such classics as "Resurrection" and "I Used to Love H.E.R."

2. Notorious B.I.G. - Ready to Die
Biggie's unique ability to mine comedy from the most serious topics was the real star of his classic debut.

1. Nas - Illmatic
Illmatic, the much ballyhooed hip-hop bible, lives up to every inch of the hype it's been associated with over the years. Nas crammed into 39 minutes more potent material than most rappers could muster in twice that time. An an all-star production cast that included DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Large Professor sealed the deal.

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Best Rap Albums of 1995

Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. © Loud Records

9. The Pharcyde - Labcabincalifornia
Labcabincalifornia wasn't as exciting as its more playful predecessor, but it represented a fully formed group eager to show their maturity.

8. Smif-n-Wessun - Dah Shinin'
Backed by lush soundscapes, courtesy of Da Beatminerz, Tek and Steele nudged New York crime rap forward with their thrilling debut.

7. Dogg Pound - Dogg Food
After the respective successes of The Chronic and Doggystyle, DPG followed with a casserole of gutter raps, synthetic rhythms, and g-funk basslines.

6. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - E 1999 Eternal
This dark and somber album silenced critics who previously dismissed Bone Thugs as a one-hit wonder.

5. KRS-One - KRS-One
Using mere words as weapons, KRS-One's selft-titled album not only dare you to think, it also dared you to blink.

4. Mobb Deep - The Infamous
A pinnacle of East Coast crime rap, this album features deep-in-the-crates beats courtesy of Havoc and unsettling lyrics from a young Prodigy.

3. GZA/Genius - Liquid Swords
New York crime rap and Cali g-funk weren't the only dominant themes that characterized 1995. There was also the lyrical wizardry of GZA on this certified hip-hop classic. Compare Prices

2. 2Pac - Me Against the World
Me Against The World was 2Pac at his very best: no excessive thug braggarts, no name-inscribed lyrical missiles aimed at New York rivals. In fact, he stops to pay homage to rap pioneers on "Old School," irrespective of region.

1. Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
Nas is not the first artist to drop the N-word from his album title. Raekwon's classic debut was initially titled Only Built 4 Cuban Linx N*ggas, but Rae excised the last six letters at the last minute. Provocative titles aside though, Cuban Linx was an extension of Enter the Wu-Tang's narration-anchored steez.

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Best Rap Albums of 1996

2Pac - All Eyez on Me
2Pac - All Eyez on Me. © Death Row/Interscope

9. Busta Rhymes - The Coming
Following the Leaders of the New School's breakup, Busta Rhymes reintroduced himself to the world with the mass of restless rap anthems on The Coming.

8. UGK - Ridin' Dirty
Ridin' Dirty is UGK's most commercially successful album to date. It captured the pure essence of the Texas duo through gems like the title track and "One Day."

7. Redman - Muddy Waters
By the time Redman's 3rd album rolled around, he'd already sealed his reputation as one of the brightest MCs of the 90s. Muddy Waters' brilliance was simply a bonus.

6. De La Soul - Stakes Is High
The theme here is De La's concern for the state of hip-hop. But rather than whine all day about rap's ailments, they offered innovative rhymes and great production as the cure.

5. The Fugees - The Score
Fugees' 2nd album The Score was so huge that everyone quickly forgot about their first. Indeed, it was a remarkable improvement on the lackluster Blunted on Reality.

4. Ghostface Killah - Ironman
Accompanied by RZA's dark, eccentric beats, Ghostface unleashed a combustive debut rife with thought-provoking tunes.

3. OutKast - ATLiens
WIth Organized Noize at the production helm once again, OutKast emerged with an album that rival its predecessor for greatness.

2. Jay-Z - Reasonable Doubt
Sprinkles of slick one-liners here, bits of braggadocio here, Reasonable Doubt established Jigga as a charismatic rapper.

1. 2Pac - All Eyez on Me
Most rappers hardly consider themselves role models, but if you asked kids what they wanted to be in '96, they'd tell you 2Pac was the man. Fresh out of jail, 'Pac released All Eyez on Me, an album that highlighted his brazenness. It embodied snapshots of his character: the celebratory ("No More Pain"), the sentimental ("Life Goes On"), the occasional wordsmith ("Got My Mind Up), and the vitriolic ("Can't C Me").

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Best Rap Albums of 1997

Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death
Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death. © Bad Boy Records

9. Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus
Smart, esoteric, funny, and utterly mind-blowing, Funcrusher Plus ushered in a new era in alternative hip-hop.

8. Missy Elliott - Supa Dupa Fly
Rather than follow a path already paved by other femcees, Missy carved out her own niche with this genre-bending masterpiece.

7. Busta Rhymes - When Disaster Strikes
Busta Rhymes avoided sophomore jinx on the follow-up to The Coming. The album's tone ranged from seriousness to everyman goofiness.

6. Capone-N-Noreaga(CNN) - The War Report
Gritty, hardcore aesthetics permeated Capone-N-Noreaga's sole great contribution to hip-hop.

5. Puff Daddy - No Way Out
Propelled by the sensational Biggie tribute "I'll Be Missing You," No Way Out quickly became a commercial success, shifting over 500,000 units in its first week of release.

4. Wu-Tang Clan - Wu-Tang Forever
After struggling to fit all their discordant personalities on Enter the Wu-Tang, RZA's clansmen finally had wide enough canvass to paint their mafioso tales: a double album.

3. Wyclef Jean - The Carnival
Expect the masterpiece this album suggests and you'll be disappointed. Expect a mess of an album and you'll be pleasantly surprised by Clef's ingenuity.

2. Rakim - The 18th Letter
A sprawling, brilliant comeback album that further affirmed Rakim's ability to hold down his crown even without his partner, Eric B.

1. Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death
West-coast hounds say it's 2Pac's All Eyez on Me, College kids say it's OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, hip-hop purists argue that it's Wu-Tang Forever, but the age-old question, "What's the best double album in hip-hop?" is never complete without mentioning Life After Death.

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Best Rap Albums of 1998

Lauryn Hill - Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill - Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. © Columbia

9. Noreaga - N.O.R.E.
His talent was evident on CNN albums, but Nore used the platform of his self-titled debut CD to show his range of rhyming capabilities.

8. Juvenile - 400 Degreez
A combination of Juvie's melodic flow and Cash Money's high-end production made 400 Degreez a Southern rap favorite in 1998.

7. DMX - Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood
Thanks in part to X's emotion-laden lyrics, Flesh debuted at No.1 on Billboard, making him only the 2nd rapper to top the chart twice in one year.

6. Big Pun - Capital Punishment
Pun dazzled with his larger-than-life debut, which boasts hits like "Still Not a Player" and "You Ain't a Killer."

5. Black Star - Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star
With a mic in one hand and The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey in the other, Mos and Kweli excelled with their consciousness revivalism form of hip-hop.

4. DMX - It's Dark & Hell Is Hot
DMX's recent run-ins with the law make it easy to take for granted his contributions to hip-hop. In retrospect, his vivid personal lyricism stands as remarkably precocious.

3. OutKast - Aquemini
Aquemini showed just how much Boi and Dre loved reinventing their sound. Laced by harmonica, acoustic guitar, and a splice of electro, Aquemini moved the OutKast sound forward.

2. Gang Starr - Moment of Truth
Fresh off a 4-year hiatus, Gang Starr fans were delighted to see the legendary duo deliver another epic album.

1. Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
On Miseducation, Lauryn offered the best fusion of rap and R&B hip-hop's ever known. Her stellar songwriting flourished from song to song, whether grappling with spirituality ("Final Hour," "Forgive Them, Father") or stroking sexuality without exploiting it ("Nothing Even Matters"). Like Lyte before her, Lauryn excelled without drawing unnecessary attention to her sexual ambiance.

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Best Rap Albums of 1999

Eminem - The Slim Shady LP
Eminem - The Slim Shady LP. © Aftermath/Interscope

9. Nas - I Am: The Autobiography
I Am marked a turning point in Nas' career, as it showcased his ability to soil the sheets and run the streets simultaneously.

8. Mos Def - Black On Both Sides
On his thought-provoking debut, Mos set the bar so high he spent the next 7 years trying to figure out how to top it.

7. MF Doom - Operations Doomsday
MF's off-kilter rhymes, scenic skits, and soul-inspired production made this a unique set.

6. Missy Elliott - Da Real World
Missy takes a stab at male gold diggers and pestering players on her re-up. She also holds her own on the production end, with little help from Timbaland.

5. Jay-Z - Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter
Jigga's ambivalent half-thug, half-gentleman personality is largely at play on this chart-topping opus, which offered hits like "It's Hot" and "Big Pimpin."

4. Method Man & Redman - Blackout
For the hardcore Redman fan, Blackout posed some of the freshest rhymes you'll ever hear. By contrast, Meth was more laid-back and flavorful. Together they made Black magic.

3. The Roots - Things Fall Apart
This mid-career success for the Roots was a huge step forward from the righteous fury of their first 3 LPs. They even bagged a Grammy for the Scott Storch-produced "You Got Me."

2. Dr. Dre - 2001
Drawn from the same well that spawned 1992's The Chronic, 2001 was a syncopated day-in-the-life of a G. Memorable cuts include: "The Next Episode" and "Still D.R.E."

1. Eminem - The Slim Shady LP
A white MC from Detroit? Unflinching paeans to drugs and violence? The task before Eminem seemed illogical at first, but he turned trials into Grammy trophies within a year. Complaints about his "evil" music failed to stifle the album's success, as The Slim Shady LP went on to sell over 5 million copies. This manic slice of dysfunction is also responsible for some of Eminem's best songs.