The 8 Ball 04.04.14: Top 8 1990s Rap Albums
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 04.05.2014
From Dr. Dre's The Chronic and Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die to OutKast's Aquemini, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 1990s rap albums!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Welcome back to the Music Zone 8 Ball ladies and gentlemen! Jeremy Thomas as always and this week we're continuing our retrospective of rap through the decades. Last week we kicked it off with the 1980s, and so it's time for the era where rap really grew up and matured in the 1990s!
Caveat: To qualify for this list, an album had to be a rap LP (non-compilation or soundtrack) that was released between 1990 to 1999. That's all the criteria we have this week!
Just Missing The Cut
Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth - Mecca and the Soul Brother (1992)
Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)
Ice Cube - Death Certificate (1991)
2Pac - All Eyez On Me (1996)
Rakim - The 18th Letter (1997)
#8: OutKast - Aquemini (1998)
First on our list is the premiere album from the group that heralded the rise of Southern hip-hop. OutKast showed definite signs of greatness before 1998; Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and ATLiens both elevated their game and put them on the map. But it was Aquemini that saw them hit true brilliance, setting the bar for the emerging subgenre that has rarely (if ever) been equaled since. This is an album that for many (myself included) just gets better the more that you listen to it. As such, its reputation has only continued to grow throughout the years. The little skits scattered throughout the album aren't my favorite of all-time but they're short and effective and the full tracks are fantastic without question. "Rosa Parks" is a landmark track of the 1990s, with a Southern-fried funk laid out underneath Andre 3000 and Big Boi's energetic, rapid-fire flow. And this isn't a one-track wonder album either; "Skew It on the Bar-B" is a fast-paced track that showed the duo were certainly not lightweights and the laid-back mood of the title track was nicely contrasted by the hardcore lyrical content. This album came along at a perfect time when Southern rap was at a crossroads, pushing it in a positive direction thanks to the duo's unequalled chemistry on the mic. It's a true great.
#7: Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)
Get used to seeing the Wu Tang Clan members on here, because there are a few entries related to the group. I considered limiting that per my usual "one per artist" tendency, but that's more of a trend than a rule for me and besides, there's a reason the group is one of the most celebrated groups in rap. Many of the first solo albums from the group's members were fantastic, but there were a couple that just stood heads and tails above the rest. The first is Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which was a pseudo-concept album about two people getting sucked back into the drug game by the lure of one last score. The album is absolutely filmic in its tone and theme, with RZA "directing" the piece as Raekwon takes center stage to amazing effect. Raekwon's masterful flow weaves its way around the stories of the tracks while Ghostface Killah hops in as a guest star, delivering fantastic songs like "Incarcerated Scarfaces," "Gullotine (Swordz)" and "Heaven & Hell." Nas makes an appearance in the later track "Verbal Intercourse," one of the more inspired guest rhymes of any track I can remember. It's full of all the geeky film and musical influences that someone could possibly want but stands on its own just as strongly, making for an incredibly well-done LP.
#6: GZA - Liquid Swords (1995)
I could have honestly put Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx in the reverse positions and been just as satisfied; they are so close in terms of quality as to be interchangeable in terms of ranking. GZA's album gets the slightest of slight edge due to its tendency toward darker content than Raekwon's does, but they're both brilliant. The Genius is fantastic here, popping off rhyme after rhyme that assemble these intricate metaphors while RZA delivers a grim, moody tone throughout that just chills the blood. Starting with one of those great flip clips that RZA loves to use, it then melts into the powerful title track with a relentless but unhurried beat underneath. This album feels like the slow, inevitable descent toward doom and it sets the framework for GZA to cut loose. There's the lazy chill of "Cold World," the undeniably power of "Label's" invective and the heaviness of "Investigative Reports" punctuating an incredible collection of rap music. This is the greatest of the solo albums from the Wu in any decade, including of course the 1990s.
#5: A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory (1991)
While rap was moving toward the gangsta scene at the beginning of the decade, there was also a movement in another direction: alternative rap. Groups like De La Soul, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Arrested Development and other acts were taking the genre in experimental directions that fused unexpected sources with rhyme. The best of those groups was, without question, A Tribe Called Quest and The Low End Theory was a watershed album in that movement. This is the LP that made a case for a link between rap and jazz, taking these two genres that changed the course of popular music and merging them into one near-perfect mic. A Tribe Called Quest introduced an entirely new feel to hip-hop, giving it a very timeless feel that was just as potent as the contemporary urgency of their fellows in the game. Listen to tracks like "Excursions" or "Verses from The Abstract" and note how they are just as lyrically powerful as anything else in rap music at the time. The group released three more albums after this and Midnight Marauders is another 1990s classic, but none of them were quite as good as this one.
#4: Dr. Dre - The Chronic (1992)
All of the albums on this list are landmark albums, but now we are into the truly and undeniably iconic LPs. First up among those is one of the most well-known albums in hip-hop history. Dr. Dre had very acrimoniously split off from N.W.A. in 1989 over financial and other disputes and set out on his own. He didn't come back with his solo debut until 1992, but those three years were unbelievable well-spent as it produced this firestorm of an album. The Chronic was not only an incendiary album, with its unfettered shots at Dre's former N.W.A. compadres, but still stands today as perhaps one of the greatest albums ever from a production standpoint. This album has one of the all-time great diss tracks in "Fuck Wit Dre Day," which puts both barrels against Eazy-E and pulls the trigger, not to mention a gangsta rap anthem in "Nothin' But a G Thang." The album had an incredible impact on the scene, pushing West Coast rap fully into the forefront of the genre and pushing rap music itself into the forefront like it hadn't been before. The beats have influenced almost every rap album since and it still stands up as a genius creative achievement to this day.
#3: Notorious B.I.G. - Ready to Die (1994)
I have spoken about my appreciation of Notorious B.I.G. many a time; Biggie was the first rapper I personally heard that spoke to me in a way that made me treat rap like more than a fad. Christopher Wallace is recognized as one of the great rappers for his ability to tell a story and relate himself to a greater audience and of course he established that on his debut album Ready to Die. Biggie told stories with his rhymes, weaving skillfully in and out of metaphors left and right while he displayed both an unshakable bravado but also a certain sense of vulnerability. That's a rare combo, but he accomplishes it throughout the length of this album. Biggie combines comedy and drama on this LP in tracks like "Gimme The Loot," while "Juicy" is one of the greatest feel-good rap jams of the era. And speaking of jams, "Big Poppa" does the slow jam in rap better than any other track I can remember. The production work by Puffy, Easy Mo Bee, Chucky Thompson and DJ Premier is top-notch and as the album makes its way through track-by-track you just have an album that covers an incredible amount of ground emotionally while never feeling schizophrenic. It was a crowning achievement of an album and while it was the only album released during his life (Life After Death dropped three weeks after his death), it established his legacy in rap music for all-time.
#2: Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993)
How you could discuss great 1990s albums (rap or not) and not mention 36 Chambers is beyond me. It's a truly epic album in just about every sense of the word. The Wu-Tang Clan's ten members all bring their A game on this, their debut album and immediately changed the face of rap music. And it shouldn't have, to be honest. This is an album that was very different and was going entirely against the grain; it really shouldn't have been as successful as it was. But this was an album that was quite simply too good to ignore. It's not unfair to say that hip-hop wouldn't be recognizable to us without this album for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it launched the career for the various Wu-Tang members who have been incredibly influential within the industry. But influence and fame aren't the only reasons this is here. In fact, they're not even the main reasons, which are that the album is just so damned good. RZA's production, the staggering emotional range, the Shaolin stuff, the rhymes, the flows...everything combines to make a nearly flawless album.
#1: Nas - Illmatic (1994)
There wasn't even a moment's question in my mind. Why should there be? Nas' Illmatic is, quite frankly, one of the greatest hip-hop albums not just of the 1990s, but of all-time. And it's one of the greatest debut albums as well. It's an album so good that twenty years and many excellent albums later, many people still consider Nas a disappointment somehow because he never topped this album. Listen, if you grand slam it right out of the gate then where do you have to go from there. That shouldn't be the bar for success because really, it's an impossible bar. This is ten incredibly inspired tracks that threw Nas directly to the top of the peak and made him one of the greats in the genre. It means so many things to so many people, but I know very few people who don't listen to this album without being touched deeply in some way. It, like all the albums on this list, signaled a shift in the direction of hip-hop and instantly there were a ton of Nas imitators trying to be him and failing to come even close. I don't think there's much that even needs to be said about this one.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
This week's Music Video A-Go-Go is dedicated to one of the worst rap songs of the 1990s. Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only Rob Van Winkle, aka Vanilla Ice, with Ice Ice Baby":
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.