This year we celebrate hip-hop's 50th anniversary. Over the past 50 years, artists from New York to Los Angeles (and everywhere in-between) have released albums that changed the landscape of not only hip-hop, but the entire music industry. This is the music we call "classic." Whether you're new to the genre or a hip-hop head looking to reminisce over the songs you've used as a soundtrack to your life, there's something for everybody here. Hope you enjoy!
There's a feeling I get listening to hip-hop that can't be replicated by anything else. It's been my favorite genre of music as far back as I can remember, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. Whether it was conscious rap, jazz-rap, g-funk, etc., I loved it all. The combination of pulsating drums, beautiful melodies, and expertly-crafted lyrics never get old. This short list covers a beautiful variety of styles and eras of hip-hop. For every album listed, I'll also include a standout track for those who want a go-to song they can listen to before diving into the entire album. Readers that are interested in the vinyl format of these albums but don't already have a record player can rent one from Richland Library's Library of Things collection for free! Now, on to the list:
Mos Def and Talib Kweli - Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star (1998)
In the year following the deaths of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., hip-hop was in an uncertain place. During this transitional period, "mainstream" artists like Jay-Z and DMX were becoming the torchbearers of a genre that some thought would fade away. While those rappers took the majority of public attention and notoriety, there was a scene of "underground" rappers like Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli making a name for themselves as well. Though both artists would go on to become extremely successful solo acts later in their careers, their collaboration album under the moniker "Black Star" became an underground classic due to the duo's dynamic lyrics and the brilliant beats of producer, Hi-Tek.
Standout Track: "Definition"
Tyler, the Creator - Igor (2019)
Since the release of his first album in 2009, Tyler, the Creator has been one of the most experimental hip-hop artists out there. On Igor, we see Tyler at perhaps his most experimental. There's obviously rapping, but Igor is also heavily influenced by jazz, punk, funk, and r&b music. Depending on the song you listen to, this might not even seem like a hip-hop album. The beauty of this project is how seamlessly Tyler can transition from one style to the next and make it all seem so cohesive.
Standout Track: "Puppet"
Dr. Dre - The Chronic (1991)
After leaving NWA, Dr. Dre was under a lot of pressure to prove himself as a solo artist. With The Chronic, he not only showed the world that he could hold his own as a solo producer/rapper, he also used this album to introduce the world future hip-hop legends like Snoop Dogg. This album laid the foundation for an entire subgenre of rap (G-Funk) and one of the most prominent record labels in hip-hop history (Death Row Records). As he would prove again with his second album, 2001, Dr. Dre is at his best when the stakes are the highest (pun-intended).
Standout Track: "Stranded on Death Row"
OutKast - ATLiens (1996)
"The south got something to say!" That's what Andre 3000 said at the 1995 Source Awards after a raucous crowd booed him and OutKast's other half, Big Boi, as they accepted the award for Best New Artist. At the time, hip-hop artists and fans were only used to rappers that were from Los Angeles and New York, or at least sounded like they were. It took a while for southern rap to be accepted. To Andre's credit, he trusted his gut and didn't care whether the music was accepted or not. OutKast would go on to become icons of the genre and southern rap would eventually influence countless artists in hip-hop and other forms of music.
Standout Track: "Elevators (Me & You)"
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Following the release of his 2010 mixtape Overly Dedicated, Kendrick Lamar became one of the most hyped artists in modern music. His album, Good kid, M.A.A.D. City, proved that he could live up to the hype. With his following effort, To Pimp a Butterfly, he exceeded it! This project was almost immediately named a classic because of its unique mix of lyricism, eclecticism, and social commentary. Producers like Thundercat, Sounwave, Knxledge, and Pharrell Williams helped Kendrick craft this piece of art that seemed to come exactly when we needed it. The seventh song from this album, "Alright," would go on to become an anthem for several social justice movements in the years following its release.
Standout Track: "Momma"
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Rising from the underground their 13 tracks explode on this superior, self-titled debut, Black Star. It illustrates that old-school rap still sounds surprisingly fresh. They display jazz-rooted rhythms that call out for awareness and freedom of the mind.