Hip-Hop. The definition of positive change, and a form of music that transcended many a less-privileged soul from the smallest streets to the biggest suites! That’s what it’s all about!
Over the decades, this ever-evolving form of music has been the voice of the voiceless, and has done great things in the pursuit of equality and the enhancement of humanity. We list out and talk about 10 culturally impactful hip-hop albums that made a mark on the world today.
N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988)
N.W.A. consisted of a crew of rappers, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, rapper and producer Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and also disgruntled founding member Arabian Prince. ‘Straight Outta Compton’, the hugely acclaimed and influential debut by the pioneers of ‘Gangsta Rap’ – N.W.A., was probably the most aggressive in-your-face music that was not metal in nature. Post the release of the most popular song of the album, ‘Fuck Tha Police’, N.W.A. gained a following from all over the world for their courageous stance in speaking up against racially biased police brutality.
Equally, they gained a hell of a reputation with the local police everywhere they toured, especially in more conservative police states, and even got arrested during one particular tour. They’ve been an inspiration for the whole genre of Hip-Hop and Rap-affiliated music ever since, playing an important role for future artists like 2Pac, Kendrick Lamar, Run The Jewels, and other conscious hip-hop artists and rappers.
Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)
The man who was responsible for the laid-back yet bouncy production that rumbled everyone’s subwoofers, Dr. Dre’s 1992 album ‘The Chronic’ channeled both dimensions of his talent – his signature production and rapping. Apart from the beats and grooves that made this album legendary, a real milestone album for the West-Coast scene, the emergence of Death Row Records was emphasized by Dre and Snoop Dogg in their lyrics, while also giving shade to Dre’s former crew-mate Eazy-E’s label – Ruthless Records, which was handling, or rather mishandling N.W.A.’s operations and finances.
With all of that conspiring in the background, ‘The Chronic’ is still one of the albums to shape L.A.’s present and future. Dre’s exit from the inner city, transitioning to the person he is now, is just exactly what defines the magnanimity of the ripples created by this album.
Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)
In 1992, with the release of ‘The Chronic’, Dr. Dre was able to show off his hip, young protegé, Snoop Doggy Dogg, perpetually hungry for more rhymes after his contributions to such adored tracks as ‘Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang’ and ‘Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)’. A child of the 70s, Snoop Dogg infused this debut album with sounds of funk, soul, and psychedelia, crafting a biting cocktail of swirling sounds, unlike anything that preceded it.
The lack of specific beef or diss tracks gives ‘Doggystyle’ a timeless quality, a true sonic masterpiece, another feather in the hat for Dr. Dre. The most popular song off of this album has to be ‘Gin and Juice’ with great display of rhythm from Snoop Dogg and an insanely melodic hook.
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
At the time, one of the most maturely written albums that dropped has to be ‘Illmatic’ by Nas, an angry yet composed 20-year-old from Brooklyn, New York. ‘Illmatic’ is a genuine triumph, seasoned with jazz samples and sophisticated lyricism, assisted by music from some landmark producers like DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip and LES. Nas, through his words, paints a portrait of inner-city life that flits from frustration to optimism, introducing a fresh narrative of what it’s like to grow up hand-to-mouth in a poor part of the city while optimistically dreaming of escape.
The album has been studied by scholars and is a great legacy for the poet who is still belting out some amazing music with his recent releases such as ‘King’s Disease I, II’ and ‘Magic’.
The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994)
As real as it can get, straight from the horse’s mouth, Christopher Wallace a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. gives everyone a first-hand account about how his life runs hustling on the cruel streets of New York. Biggie dropped ‘Ready to Die’ through Sean “Diddy” Combs’ new record company at the time, Bad Boy Records. This was when the West Coast was showing some shine with banging releases like ‘The Chronic’ and ‘Doggystyle’, and ‘Ready to Die’ brought the attention back to the East Coast scene with B.I.G.’s amazing vocal delivery.
Not only that, but his lyrics were themed around his experiences, explaining his hardships, dealing with a criminal lifestyle, and the euphoric debauchery that came with the money around it all. Adding to Biggie’s talent was a list of amazing producers who worked on the album – Sean “Diddy” Combs, Easy Mo Bee, Bluez Brothers, DJ Premier and more.
2Pac – All Eyez On Me (1996)
Successfully bringing the attention back to the West Coast after The Notorious B.I.G. blew up all over the world, his (for the most part) brother-from-another-mother, the phenomenally talented conscious writer and rapper Tupac Shakur a.k.a. 2Pac released ‘All Eyez On Me’ through Deathrow Records in 1996. Living up to expectations in production quality and lyrical content, this fourth album by the West Coast’s poster-boy had reached number 1 on the Billboard 200 charts, his second number one album after ‘Me Against The World’ (1995).
It received critical acclaim and also achieved the milestone of being the first double-full-length solo studio album released for mass consumption worldwide. A flurry of guests on the album include Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Nate Dogg, The Dogg Pound, E-40, Redman, Method Man and more, as well as multiple producers such DJ Quik, Johnny “J”, Dr. Dre, DJ Bobcat, Dat N*gga Daz, DeVante Swing, and more.
Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Another real voice from the hustling streets of New York, now one of the richest music personalities in the world, artistically and financially, Jay-Z’s debut album ‘Reasonable Doubt’ was one of the most impactful introductions of all time in the world of rap. Loaded with real talk especially in songs like ‘D’evils’, Jay-Z explains how he’s trying to live while dealings drugs on the streets of New York. Topping out at 23 on the Billboard 200, ‘Reasonable Doubt’ is Jay-Z’s lowest charting album, probably attributing to the fact that it was a new sound and launched on a new record label altogether, his own Roc-A-Fella, which took some time to grow on people’s ears and musical sensibilities.
Pure gold it is, though, featuring artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige and others, as well as producers Ski, DJ Premier, Clark Kent, Dame Dash, and more. In a way, ‘Reasonable Doubt’ paved the way to Roc-A-Fella being one of the biggest dynasties of the hip-hop industry. And it still is, always churning out amazing music and quality artists.
Missy Elliott – Miss E… So Addictive (2001)
Backed by the innovative collaborative production, and songwriting from both Timbaland and Missy Elliott herself, the 2001 album ‘Miss E… So Addictive’ came in at the second spot on the Billboard 200 chart, becoming Missy’s third US top ten debut. It was one of the freshest sounding albums to drop at the turn of the century, dabbling sonically with exotic grooves like tabla samples, along with soundtrack-like strings and synths in the album’s top song ‘Get Ur Freak On’. Another notable song would be the catchy ‘One Minute Man‘ which features Ludacris.
It also retained a sort of acceptable pop sound using some dancehall and disco influences in songs like ‘Old School Joint’ and ‘4 My People’ as well, making many songs DJ-friendly, inevitably getting really popular in clubs around the world. Deservedly, ‘Miss E… So Addictive’ won Missy Elliott 2 Grammy Awards – Best Rap Solo Performance for ‘Get Ur Freak On’ and Best Female Solo Rap Performance for ‘Scream a.k.a. Itchin’’.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (2017)
Extremely distinct production! I mean, you can identify a Kendrick Lamar song at random because of the way he fuses a sort-of jazz inspired instrumentation with what modern hip-hop standards require, while still maintaining a completely original sonic signature. And when you add his lyrics and delivery to it, what you get is great flow from a well-read voice of reason, certainly one of the most important voices of rap and hip-hop today.
His fourth album ‘DAMN.’ showed that fame he had garnered till then had gotten him more introspective, digging deeper inside his own head, making him reflective about his place in the world – as a music personality, a Black man, and an American in 2017. The biggest songs from the album have to be ‘HUMBLE.’, which became an instant hit around the whole world, played in clubs; and of course, ‘DNA.’, with its avant-garde beat change is also a banger.
Run The Jewels – RTJ4 (2020)
2020 was a calamitous year for humanity, but it gave us one of the best politically-charged and contemporarily-connected albums ever – ‘RTJ4’ by Run The Jewels. This rap duo comprises of rapper Killer Mike from Atlanta and rapper + music producer El-P from New York. In particular, the song ‘Walking In The Snow’ made waves because of its relevance to the daylight murder of George Floyd by the police, captured by multiple onlookers, scared to interfere because of armed cops. The song tries to convey how the machinery of fascism and economic exploitation work. El-P, in his verses, is more existential and has a wider world view, whereas Killer Mike brings things down to a closer zoomed-in personal angle.
Run The Jewels wrote and completed ‘RTJ4’ in 2019 and released it on June 3, 2020, whilst the rioting and the protests escalated all across the USA and the world. People started tearing down statues and monuments of historical racist leaders during the riots that followed. And what’s more surprising is that the “I Can’t Breathe” line that is in Killer Mike’s verse is actually in the lyrics referring to previous incidents of police brutality like that of Eric Garner for example, who was asphyxiated by police in attempts to overpower him for a petty, fine-worthy crime. Other than that, the whole album from start to end topically addresses political and social issues on a macro and micro scale.
Apart from these gems listed above, yes, we know there are more than a few albums you think we might have missed or left out. Head down to the comments section below and tell us which album(s) you think should have been on this list. Who knows, maybe there’ll be a ’10 Culturally Impactful Hip-Hop Albums (#2)’!