Most people improve at something the older that they get, but with emcees this is rarely the case. (There’s one exception to our sweeping generalization: LL Cool J’s Radio. We prefer Mama Said Knock You Out.) A number of factors might be at work here: loss of motivation, lack of material, the detested “selling out,” personal troubles (jail, death, etc.), loss of originality… and sometimes they just want to become a preacher. Whatever the reason, most rappers create their finest albums their first time in the studio. Don’t believe us? Ten albums that prove it’s true after the jump.
1. Slick Rick — The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
Slick Rick’s sly Brit raps and signature eye patch make us love him; dirty sexist tracks like “Treat Her Like a Prostitute,” “Indian Girl (An Adult Story)” and “Lick the Balls,” not so much. Ambivalence aside, his debut contains solid tracks like “Hey, Young World,” “A Teenaged Love,” and “Children’s Story,” which was later sampled by Montell Jordan on “This Is How We Do It.”
Random aside: Another of his songs, “La Di Da Di,” would later be covered verbatim by Snoop Dogg on his debut, Doggystyle.
2. De La Soul — 3 Feet High and Rising
In direct contrast to the angry invective spewed by N.W.A. during the same time period, these three Long Island emcees (Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove, and P.A. Pasemaster Mase) produced one of the most ground-breaking albums in hip-hop history. They were also one of the first groups to incorporate sketches into the album format, changing the way the genre could sound.
3. Dr. Dre — The Chronic
4. Snoop Doggy Dogg — Doggystyle
The first solo album from Dre heralded the advent of the G-Funk era, cementing the West Coast’s new equals status with NYC, which had dominated the rap scene up until that point. Everyone was listening to The Chronic when it first came out; the album helped make big beats and songs for outlaws accessible for mainstream listeners, as well as set the stage for our next artist.
Snoop Dogg was the sultry and charismatic star on The Chronic, but with Doggystyle he blew up even more. An album about dreams, pain, poverty, and paranoia, it was made all the more compelling thanks to his personal drama (a court murder case) at the time. Both Snoop and Dre have come out with great music since, but these two albums are what we remember them by, and rightfully so.
5. Wu-Tang Clan — Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers
This hip-hop juggernaut from Staten Island took over the scene in 1993. Some fans might say that their followup, Wu-Tang Forever, deserves more credit, but by that time they were all branching off and doing solo projects. Enter the Wu-Tang captures a time when they were still hungry and trying to out do each other as RZA’s grungy beats kicked listeners on their asses.
6. Nas — Illmatic
The lyrics for New York State of Mind are as recognizable to backpacking hip-hop snobs as anything else released in the Golden Age of Hip Hop. “Inhale deep like the words of my breath/ I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death/ I lay puzzle as I backtrack to earlier times/ Nothings equivalent to a New York State of Mind.” Released in 1994, the album solidified then 21-year-old Queensbridge native Nasir Jones’ status as New York’s next great hope.
7. Notorious B.I.G. — Ready to Die
What can you say about Brooklyn’s behemoth that hasn’t already been said? Sure, you can make the case that Life After Death is more prophetic and has better production, but in terms of street lyrics and overall flow, not even ‘Pac could contend with this masterpiece. With the possible exception of Nas and maybe Rakim, you can argue that Biggie was the finest lyricist of all time, and this freshman album is exhibit A.
8. Jay-Z — Reasonable Doubt
Back in 1996 this young protege of Biggie Smalls burst onto the scene with a cadence that was as smooth as his head. Lyrically, none of his other albums come close because he drastically slowed down his rhyme style. This is not to say that Hova’s followups are without merit, but in terms of sheer talent and lyrical dexterity, none of his more commercially-popular work features such mind blowing rhymes.
9. Mos Def and Talib Kweli — Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Blackstar
Two of Brooklyn’s finest came to prominence on the famous Rawkus label that produced the Lyricist Lounge albums and set the stage for New York’s underground hip-hop scene in the early ’90s. Both artists have gone on to critical success in their own right, but this self-titled debut melded them together as the finest tandem in hip-hop at the time, and they haven’t matched it since.
10. Kanye West — The College Dropout
This 2004 debut is one of our favorite albums of the decade, and we aren’t the only ones; it produced three top-ten singles and sold over 441,000 copies in the first week alone. Trend-setting yet accessible, College Dropout proved that certain hip-hop producers don’t need to stay away from the mic. While Kanye clearly learned a few tricks from big-name clients like Jay-Z and Talib Kweli, he turned it into a sound that was all his own.