There have been a lot of great hip-hop albums over the years. What makes these 5 special is that I believe that they belong in the same conversations as College Dropout, The Blueprint, and Ready To Die, but sadly most people have never heard of them.
So, here they are, in no particular order...
Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030 | Masters of the Universe – Binary Star | Soul Food – Goodie Mob
Quality – Talib Kweli | Donuts – J Dilla
For those of you who’ve never heard of Blackalicious, you’ve been missing out. The now defunct duo from Sacramento consists of producer/DJ Chief Xcel and rapper Gift of Gab, who is one of the most gifted MC’s ever. Blazing Arrow is the album that made these guys the talk of the underground ten years ago.
If you're a fan of music that’s intellectual and mentally stimulating, then you're in for a real treat. On paper, Gift of Gab’s lyrics are an English teacher’s dream: full of symbolism and metaphor. You could write a full paper on some of the songs on Blazing Arrow. In fact, I've done it. Moving past his lyricism, Gift of Gab’s flow is ill, and when I mean ill, I mean terminally ill. His delivery is a verbal assault on the mind. He shows every quality you want in an MC: control of cadence, precision, and expert timing. Few people have ever so skillfully lived up to their name like Gift of Gab.
Sonically, Blazing Arrow combines the richness and warmth of live instrumentation with some great sampling from Chief Xcel. The beats are definitely on the mellow side, so there isn’t really anything on this album that’s gonna get you pumped up. Chief Xcel’s isn’t the only one who leaves his mark, as Blazing Arrow features a good number of guest producers including DJ Shadow, Hi-Tek, and ?uestlove. Featured artists include Ben Harper, Chali 2na (of Jurassic 5), and the late, great Gil Scott-Heron.
“Intro: Bow & Fire” | “Blazing Arrow” | “First in Flight” (Featuring Gil Scott-Heron)
“Nowhere Fast” (Produced by ?uestlove) | “Make You Feel That Way”
Madvillain was one of rapper MF Doom’s several collaborations, this time with credited producer Madlib. The duo’s name, as well as the album’s name, is inspired MF Doom’s stage persona, a comic book-style super villain intent on taking over the world. Madvillainy proved to be not only his best collaboration with another musician, but the best work of his entire career. According to metacritic.com, it was the most critically acclaimed hip-hop album of 2004, even besting College Dropout.
For the most part, Madvillainy assumes the personality of MF Doom. He brings what he normally brings on all of his other albums: unique, and quite frankly, sometimes weird lyrics that range from funny to dark, and fantastic delivery. However, on Madvillainy, it seems that he’s exceptionally inspired. He keeps an even pace on every song that’s unfazed, no matter what the rhythm or tempo. Whenever I listen to the album, I find that his flow has an uncanny resemblance to Rakim. Madlib’s beats serve as the perfect compliment to MF Doom’s lyrics. He samples from a remarkably diverse palette of sounds that accentuate the dark undertones of the album without overpowering MF Doom’s rhymes. Also, if you have a short attention span, this is the perfect album for you. Most of the songs on Madvillainy are around 2 minutes long, with only 3 songs going over the 3-minute mark. It’s a shame that Madvillain’s work has gone unnoticed by some of the most knowledgeable hip-hop fans. An argument can be made that it’s the best album on this list.
“Raid” | “America’s Most Blunted” | “Curls” | "Great Day"
I won’t spend too much time on this one because there’s honestly not much to say about this album that hasn’t been already said about Q-Tip’s previous work. The Renaissance is his second album since A Tribe Called Quest split up and it shows why he is the legend that he is. Q-Tip is one of the greatest producers of all time and my personal favorite. However, on The Renaissance, he really steps his game up as an MC. His flow matches his production, which is phenomenal, as always. However, despite the fact that this record received a Grammy nomination for “Best Rap Album” it flew largely under the radar. This can be blamed on bad timing since The Renaissance was released in 2008, the year that, in my opinion, marked the beginning of the rapid decline of mainstream hip-hop. It was hard for Tip to get noticed when 808’s & Heartbreak and The Carter III were dominating the airwaves. Nonetheless, The Renaissance is an amazing album. The beats are on point. Q-Tip’s rhymes are on point. It is the personification of what hip-hop should be.
“Johnny Is Dead” | “Won’t Trade” | “Gettin’ Up” | “I Believe” (Featuring D’Angelo)
The Dilated Peoples have been part of the hip-hop underground for over 20 years and have emerged as the vanguard of the Los Angeles underground hip-hop scene. The trio consists of rapper Rakaa Iriscience, MC/producer Evidence, and DJ/producer DJ Babu. While their entire body of work is worth listening to, Expansion Team is their magnum opus. If someone came up to me and asked “What does underground hip-hop sound like?” I’d burn them a copy of Expansion Team. While Rakaa and Evidence are bomb MC’s in their own right, the album greatly benefits from guest appearances from the likes of Black Thought (of The Roots) and the late Guru (of Gang Starr). DJ Premier and ?uestlove are also among the producers who give Badu an assist on Expansion Team’s beats. Despite some help from a dope cast of supporting artists, make no mistake, Dilated Peoples are the ones who make this record great. The back and forth on the mic between Evidence and Rakaa is as good as it gets when it comes to how to spit rhymes. Take that and put it together with Badu’s beats and awesome scratching, a feature that’s sorely lacking it today’s hip-hop, and you get an record that’s a contender for greatest underground hip-hop album of all time.
“Live on Stage”* | “Worst Comes to Worst” (Featuring Guru) | “Hard Hitters”(Featuring Black Thought)
*Even though it doesn't appear on the album, the remix of this song, featuring Talib Kweli, is ill. You should definitely give it a listen.
Those who know me are probably rolling their eyes because I’ve included The Roots, my favorite hip-hop act, on this list. But the fact of the matter is that, after Low End Theory, Do You Want More?!!!??! is the quintessential jazz rap album. If you can name me another album where the MC scats just as much as he rhymes, please let me know. When The Roots first started out, they were basically a jazz band. The only difference was instead of having a singer, they had an MC, a damn good one at that.
Do You Want More?!!!??! is the pinnacle of the first phase of The Roots’ career. The beauty of ?uestlove’s production is that it’s so simple. The fact that The Roots use live instrumentation gives this record a unique sound that doesn’t have to be tinkered with too much in the studio. Black Thought combines scatting and some sing-songy choruses with the potent lyricism that’s still his calling card almost 20 years later. Former Roots member Malik B adds his own verses to form one of the most underrated rap 1-2 punches in hip-hop. And in the true spirit of jazz, a lot of the tracks on Do You Want More?!!!??! feature The Roots improvising, something that’s almost unheard of nowadays. The Roots have evolved with the times and are no longer the jazz band that they used to be. However, Do You Want More?!!!??! serves as a reminder of the magic that can happen when you combine the sound of a saxophone with drums, keyboard, bass, and 2 MC’s who can rock the mic.
“Proceed” | “Distortion to Static” | “Mellow My Man” | “I Remain Calm” | “Essaywhuman?!!!??!” | “Swept Away” | “Silent Treatment”