In 1980, the first full-length hip hop album was released by Sugarhill Gang, and the genre hasn’t looked back since. Plenty of fantastic hip hop albums have filled the years from the old-school era to the gangsta rap era and the bling era to the SoundCloud scene.
Which ones stand out above all of the rest, though? Some rappers have contributed multiple entries into the list of best albums, while other names that have found massive success didn’t make the cut. Here are the 51 best hip hop albums of all time.
1. To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Many were left scratching their heads at the 2016 Grammy Awards when Kendrick Lamar, who had the most nominations and wins of the night, lost out on Album of the Year. Almost immediately upon its release, “To Pimp A Butterfly” was regarded as a classic. While the Recording Academy may not have seen it that way, most hip hop fans agree that Lamar’s third album is his best work and the genre’s best work as a whole.
A lot of producers came together to make this one of the best hip hop albums of all time, including Pharrell Williams, Thundercat. and Flying Lotus, to name a few. Lamar also said that the legendary Prince was almost part of the album, but time constraints made it impossible. Sadly, Prince would pass away just a month after the album’s release.
2. Illmatic – Nas
One probably becomes an instant legend when their debut album is considered to be one of the best in a genre’s history. That’s exactly what Nas accomplished in 1994 with the release of “Illmatic,” and although it didn’t achieve a lot of commercial success, critics and fans were over the moon.
With perfect scores across the board from the major music reviewers, this holds up as one of hip hop’s greatest. Though many will praise Nas for it, he finds the whole celebration of this one particular one a bit “corny.” No matter how he sees it, people still eat this album up after all these years.
3. Ready to Die – The Notorious B.I.G.
People always want to make a good first impression, which is why debut albums are so important. Regarded as one of the best debut albums of all time, “Ready To Die” immediately launched The Notorious B.I.G. into the stratosphere due to classics like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa.”
Sadly, it would be just one of two albums that Biggie released while still alive. Still, it remains on heavy rotation for personal use and the radio, thanks to its catchy hooks and deep tracks that showcased the mental ups and downs that one has in their life.
4. Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A.
If there were a list of the most important albums in hip hop history, “Straight Outta Compton” would likely be at the top spot since it changed the genre forever. Gangsta rap was thrust into the mainstream thanks to N.W.A., especially west coast-based rap. With songs like “F*ck Tha Police,” public opinion on them was obviously polarized, but there’s no doubt that the collective made a massive cultural impact.
Surprisingly, Dr. Dre said that he can’t stand the “Straight Outta Compton” album. He noted that the album took just six weeks from start to finish, saying that the group was just looking for a quick release so that they could sell it from their cars before it caught on nationwide.
5. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West
Kanye West fans can argue day and night about which one of his many classic albums is the best, though the consensus remains that “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is at the top of the list. The album, which was recorded mostly in Hawaii where West isolated himself, was highlighted by tracks including “Power” and “All Of The Lights,” which live on as mainstays of every sporting venue.
Just like Dr. Dre’s disdain for “Straight Outta Compton,” West actually says he doesn’t like the end result of this album. Instead, he prefers “808s & Heartbreak” and “Yeezus” much more than this one.
6. The Chronic – Dr. Dre
Many were left guessing what would become of the individual members of N.W.A. after the group split up, and Dr. Dre answered that question about himself quickly with the release of 1992’s “The Chronic.” He wasted no time in cementing himself as a solo success, thanks to the album’s iconic tracks “Dre Day” and “Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang.”
He put his heart and soul into this album, and it shows. At the time, he was rejected by several record companies before finally releasing this landmark album on his own record label.
7. The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem
Without Dr. Dre, there may not be an Eminem album that was released worldwide. Thankfully, the former was able to introduce Eminem to the world, and his best work so far came in 2000 with “The Marshall Mathers LP.” This album certainly contains some of Eminem’s greatest hits.
His third overall album contained poppier hits like “The Real Slim Shady” while also including classics like “Stan” and “The Way I Am.” To this day, Eminem feels like he’s “chasing” the feeling that he had with “The Marshall Mathers LP,” calling the album a time capsule to when life was simpler (albeit not easier).
8. All Eyez on Me – Tupac Shakur
The 1996 album “All Eyez On Me” perfectly encapsulated the era of hip hop, featuring some of the biggest names in the genre at the time and obviously headlined by Tupac Shakur. It was an instant hit with critics and fans, being certified diamond in the United States with nearly 6 million albums sold after being powered by songs like “How Do U Want It” and “California Love.”
For Tupac, he said that he wasn’t trying to chase the “perfect album” by the time “All Eyez On Me” was released. Instead, he just wanted to release an album that was simply “pure anger” that also touched on the entire range of emotions. Needless to say, he accomplished just that with this album.
9. Stankonia – Outkast
The first of multiple appearances by Outkast on the list, “Stankonia” was a bit more stripped down than what would follow afterward. This 2000 album had mainstream hits including “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh, So Clean,” with the first regarded by many to be the duo’s greatest single.
Big Boi described the album as being “the funkiest s*** ever,” and that it was more of a state of mind than it was a structured album. There’s a lot of freedom that Outkast had when recording the album, and it shines through from start to finish.
10. good kid, m.A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s other entry into the top 10 was his second studio album “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” which was released in 2012. Featuring some of the biggest names in hip hop history, this album tells the history of his upbringing, including hits such as “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Poetic Justice,” and “B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.”
Even the album cover tells a story of a young Lamar with his family in Compton. He details how it’s an image that shows how he saw things through innocent and childish eyes while the world around him wasn’t as innocent as he wished it would be.
11. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan
After gangsta rap had dominated the genre for years, there was a variant known as hardcore hip hop that started to take over during the middle of the 1990s. This was highlighted by the hip hop collective Wu-Tang Clan, with their top album being “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” released in late 1993. This album produced many memorable tracks, including the motto “C.R.E.A.M.,” which means cash rules everything around me.
12. The College Dropout – Kanye West
After years of being a producer, Kanye West decided to get on the other side of the microphone with the release of his debut album “The College Dropout” in early 2004. The lead single “Through The Wire” put him on the map, and he never looked back, adding in hits such as “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks.” It was one of the best debut albums of all time and looking back you can see how much West’s sound has changed over the years.
13. Madvillainy – Madvillain
For more than two years, the duo MF Doom and Madlib joined forces to create Madvillain, releasing their debut album “Madvillainy” in 2004. The two rappers wrote over 100 tracks for the album and had to whittle it down tremendously. The end result was 22 total tracks, including their most successful ones “Money Folder” and “All Caps.”
14. Doggystyle – Snoop Dogg
After first making a name for himself by appearing on Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,” Snoop Dogg found solo success with his debut album “Doggystyle” in 1993. Released on the Death Row Records label, it began an iconic career for him, thanks to songs like “Gin And Juice” and “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?).”
15. 3 Feet High and Rising – De La Soul
The trio De La Soul released their first album in 1989, “3 Feet High And Rising,” which ended up being their greatest work by far. Propelled by the mainstream hit “Me Myself And I,” this psychedelic hip hop album also had fan favorites such as “Potholes In My Lawn” and “Eye Know.” The album received recent attention after “The Magic Number” was featured in the blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
16. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ – 50 Cent
An album that would eventually get a movie detailing 50 Cent’s life of the same name, “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’” was also his first one after being discovered by Dr. Dre and Eminem. This obtained instant success thanks to the lead single “In Da Club” and produced several more hits including “21 Questions” and “P.I.M.P.”
17. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted – Ice Cube
Much like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube found success in the solo scene right away after parting ways with N.W.A. “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” was the debut album for him, though it was supposed to be a collaboration with Dr. Dre before it was nixed by studio executives. Regardless, both of them would have incredible solo careers, with this album being a major highlight.
18. The Blueprint – Jay-Z
There are a lot of Jay-Z albums to pick from, but “The Blueprint” stands out as the peak of his career. The release wasn’t a smooth one, though, as it was moved up to September 11, 2001, while Jay-Z was facing criminal charges. Still, it was released to critical success and helped to put Kanye West on the map as a producer.
19. Midnight Marauders – A Tribe Called Quest
Many people consider the mid-1990s to be one of the greatest eras of hip hop, and it’s due to groups like A Tribe Called Quest. “Midnight Marauders” only helped to spark those notions, thanks to tracks including “Electric Relaxation” and “Oh My God.” Featuring a lot of bass and old-school rhythm, this is definitely a throwback.
20. The Infamous Mobb Deep – Mobb Deep
Consisting of Havoc and the late Prodigy, Mobb Deep was at the forefront of the hardcore hip hop movement of the mid-1990s, highlighted by their album “The Infamous.” It was the second album for the duo, with the most successful track being “Give Up The Goods (Just Step),” Interestingly enough, it would take many years for this album to reach platinum status, doing so in 2020.
21. The Eminem Show – Eminem
After the success of “The Marshall Mathers LP,” there was a lot of pressure on Eminem’s follow-up album, and he didn’t disappoint with 2002’s “The Eminem Show.” The Grammy-winning album was a perfect blend of radio hits like “Without Me” and tracks straight from the soul like “Sing For The Moment” and “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.”
22. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – Public Enemy
The sophomore album for Public Enemy provided some of the group’s best work, having produced a new sound highlighted by tracks like “Don’t Believe The Hype” and “Bring The Noise.” The Rick Rubin-produced album is considered by some publications to be the greatest hip hop album ever made, and even at the time, received near-perfect scores from critics across the board.
23. 2001 – Dr. Dre
Many were wondering when Dr. Dre was going to release a true follow-up to “The Chronic,” and in 1999, they got their answer with “2001.” After seven years of waiting, he didn’t disappoint, with memorable tracks like “Still D.R.E.,” “The Next Episode,” and “Forgot About Dre.” Teaming up with his friends Snoop Dogg and Eminem, he was able to create another classic album.
24. Graduation – Kanye West
This isn’t the first or the last album on the list for Kanye West, and his third album “Graduation” in 2007 was another one of his releases that blended a lot of sounds together to make a complete catalog of hits. From “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger” to “Flashing Lights” and “Good Life,” there isn’t a break in the action from beginning to end.
25. Life After Death – The Notorious B.I.G.
The other album to be released while The Notorious B.I.G. was alive, “Life After Death” is a direct sequel to his debut album, and was released in 1997. Collaborating with some of the biggest names in hip hop at the time, this had radio hits like “Hypnotize” while also providing fan favorites like “Notorious Thugs” and “Ten Crack Commandments.”
26. Self-Titled Album – Run-D.M.C.
Hip hop would change forever when Run-D.M.C. came along with their debut self-titled album in 1984. Combining rap and rock, they had a unique sound that hit hard, starting off with the debut single “It’s Like That.” The hits just kept coming through the rest of the album with songs like “Rock Box” and “Hard Times.”
27. Tha Carter III – Lil’ Wayne
Out of the many albums that Lil’ Wayne released in the 2000s, “Tha Carter III” stood out at the top. Produced by the likes of Birdman and Ronald “Slim” Williams, this was anchored by mainstream hits like “Lollipop,” “A Milli,” and “Got Money.” The Grammy-winner for Best Rap Album still holds up more than a decade later.
28. Hard Core – Lil’ Kim
Following her success as part of Junior M.A.F.I.A., Lil’ Kim went solo in 1996 with the release of “Hard Core.” The debut album established her as one of the best female rappers of all time thanks to hits like “Crush On You” and “Not Tonight” and reached double platinum status in the process.
29. Paul’s Boutique – Beastie Boys
After bursting onto the scene with their 1986 album “Licensed To Ill” the trio of the Beastie Boys released their most critically acclaimed album three years later with “Paul’s Boutique.” Featuring tracks like “Hey Ladies” and “Shadrach,” this album received perfect ratings from the likes of Rolling Stone, Spin, and many others. Though not their most successful commercially, it would become the best Beastie Boys album ever.
30. Me Against the World – Tupac Shakur
Another entry onto the list from arguably the best overall rapper of all time, Tupac Shakur released “Me Against The World” in 1995 while still in prison. This was a heartfelt album with songs including “So Many Tears” and “Dear Mama.” Although it wasn’t his most revered album, it is still a top-tier one.
31. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
Following “To Pimp A Butterfly” wasn’t going to be easy, but Kendrick Lamar didn’t let people down with the release of “DAMN.” in 2017. Working with the likes of everyone from Rihanna to U2, this was the Grammy Awards’ pick for Best Rap Album and featured only one-word titles on the tracks including “HUMBLE.,” “FEAR.,” and “LOYALTY.”
32. It Was Written – Nas
Though it was going to be hard to top the quality of his debut album “Illmatic,” Nas did just fine with “It Was Written” in 1996, and even found more commercial success in his sophomore campaign. With songs like “Street Dreams” and “If I Ruled The World,” some claimed that Nas was “selling out,” but in the years that have passed, people have come to appreciate this album much more.
33. The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest
The second album from A Tribe Called Quest on the list is also their second studio album, “The Low End Theory,” which was released in 1991. “Scenario” remains the most iconic track on the album, though singles like “Check The Rhime” and “Jazz (We’ve Got)” contribute to making this some of their finest work.
34. Paid in Full – Eric B. & Rakim
The duo of Eric B. & Rakim came onto the scene in a big way with the release of their debut album “Paid In Full” in 1987 during hip hop’s ‘golden age.’ The first song, “Eric B. Is President,” was released before they had a record label. Once Russell Simmons took notice, they released this album, and the rest was history.
35. Fear of a Black Planet – Public Enemy
Following up on “It Takes A Nation…,” Public Enemy had their most commercially successful album in 1990 with “Fear Of A Black Planet.” The lead track “Fight The Power” sets the tone for the rest of the album, which also features the songs “Welcome To The Terrordome” and “911 Is A Joke.”
36. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Lauryn Hill
Following her success as a member of The Fugees, Lauryn Hill went solo in a big way, releasing her debut album “The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill” in 1998. To date, it’s also her lone studio album but remains a classic, thanks to songs like “Doo Wop (That Thing),” which helped the album win five Grammy Awards.
37. Boy in da Corner – Dizzee Rascal
The United Kingdom isn’t quite known for its hip hop scene compared to the United States, but Dizzee Rascal stands out as the top the country has to offer, thanks to albums like “Boy In Da Corner.” Headlined by catchy hits like “Fix Up, Look Sharp,” this album was a favorite for critics upon its release in 2003.
38. Miss E…So Addictive – Missy Elliott
The top album from the legendary Missy Elliott was a collaboration with producer Timbaland that resulted in hits like “Get Ur Freak On.” The multi-Grammy-winning album also featured the songs “One Minute Man,” “Take Away,” and “4 My People,” just to name a few. Surprisingly, “Miss E… So Addictive” didn’t reach the number-one spot on the Billboard 200.
39. Yeezus – Kanye West
“Yeezus” was a huge change of direction for Kanye West following his string of albums in the 2000s, but it seemed to work perfectly. From the highly publicized “Bound 2” and “Black Skinhead” to fan favorites like “Hold My Liquor,” everyone has their own version of how the tracks rank on “Yeezus.” For West, the entire album is a personal favorite of his, which is the same opinion as his ex-wife’s.
40. Aquemini – Outkast
Once “ATLiens” had put them on the map, Outkast continued their success in 1998 with “Aquemini.” Both parts of “Da Art Of Storytellin’” remain a favorite for critics, though for most fans the most memorable track on “Aquemini” is likely “Rosa Parks.”
41. The Black Album – Jay-Z
Going with a bass-heavy feature, Jay-Z released “The Black Album” in 2003 to a lot of fanfare, starting off with “Change Clothes.” The singles that followed would be even more successful, with “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “99 Problems” being unstoppable hits the following year. While some were critical that it wasn’t true to Jay-Z’s original sound, it was still a fan favorite immediately.
42. DS2 – Future
The third album from Future, “DS2” stands out as his best work, having been released in the summer of 2015. Recorded in both Hollywood and Atlanta, it contained commercially successful songs like “F*ck Up Some Commas” and “Where Ya At” while also being critically beloved.
43. Endtroducing… – DJ Shadow
The first album from DJ Shadow was a big one, with “Endtroducing…” released in 1996 after two years of work. Starting off with the first single “Midnight In A Perfect World,” this album doesn’t let up with its eclectic tracks that include “Stem” and “The Number Song.” It was enough to hold people over for quite some time, as DJ Shadow didn’t release another album for six more years.
44. Black on Both Sides – Mos Def
Following his work with Talib Kweli the year before, Mos Def went solo the next year with the release of “Black On Both Sides,” to much success. Highlighted by “Ms. Fat Booty/Mathematics,” this was a critical darling, but shockingly, didn’t pick up a single Grammy nomination upon release.
45. E. 1999 Eternal – Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
From tragedy comes triumph, which is the story of “E. 1999 Eternal” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. After rapper Eazy-E helped the group get their start, he would tragically pass away, prompting the breakout hit “Tha Crossroads” to catapult the album to fame. Overall, it’s a great album, containing songs like “1st Of Tha Month” and “East 1999.”
46. The Slim Shady LP – Eminem
The final Eminem album on the list was his first nationwide release, “The Slim Shady LP,” back in early 1999. Recorded in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale, he made his mark on the hip hop world with the release of “My Name Is.” The rest of the album was strong as well, including tracks like “Guilty Conscience,” “Role Model,” and “‘97 Bonnie & Clyde.”
47. Take Care – Drake
The lone entry on the list by Canadian rapper and former actor Drake, “Take Care” is his second solo album after “Thank Me Later.” It solidified his potential as a hip hop superstar, thanks to tracks including “The Motto” and “Headlines.” Those that were critical of him were quickly silenced after he won the Grammy for Rap Album of the Year.
48. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below – Outkast
The most commercially successful album by Outkast, “Speakerboxx/The Love Below” churned out massive radio hits like “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move.” There was little doubt that the duo would also take home some hardware, and they did just that by winning three of their six Grammy nominations—among them was Album of the Year.
49. Late Registration – Kanye West
While 2004’s “The College Dropout” remains one of the best debut albums of all time, the next year’s follow-up, “Late Registration,” is among the greatest sophomore albums. Kanye West went all out with it and had a little bit of something for everyone, including mainstream successes like “Gold Digger” and “Heard ‘Em Say.”
50. ATLiens – Outkast
After the success of their debut album, Outkast was able to convince LaFace Records to try out something new with their sound on the sophomore release “ATLiens.” The result was some of their greatest work, including the title track and hits such as “Elevators (Me & You)” and “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac).”
51. Pink Friday – Nicki Minaj
In 2010, Nicki Minaj crossed hip hop and pop music masterfully with the release of “Pink Friday,” an album that contained several hits and went platinum three times. From “Super Bass” to “Your Love,” this was loaded and ended up taking home the American Music Award for Favorite Rap/Hip Hop Album of the Year.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
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