It’s no secret that hip-hop is in constant motion – it changes year to year. Emerging technologies combined with the fickle needs and wants of the industry, the artists, and the fans, all play a role in shaping our musical world. Some of the changes to the hip-hop scene have been, well, less than desirable (see: the decline of radio rap). However, the past ten years, 2000-2009, still held releases of some of the most creative and unique hip-hop albums of all time, with an ever-expanding range of sub-genres. Traditional hip-hop rooted in the golden age of the ’90s was certainly alive and well, but it was sharing chart space with newer, progressive styles. That said, we have compiled a list of our 25 favorite hip-hop albums from the past ten years, as a form of celebrating the musical diversity in hip-hop from the decade that was.
1 – Madvillain – Madvillainy
The concept of having one producer handle an album by one rapper is highly revered these days. And why not? Too often an album will get bogged down in its lack of cohesion, whether it’s because of too many guests or a smörgåsbord of producers. Sometimes an MC can be strong enough to hold down even the most varied record, but that’s the exception and not the rule. As such, the news that MF DOOM and Madlib would be creating a project together went beyond just their talents. This meant that two of hip-hop’s most whacked out geniuses would be working collaboratively across an entire album.
To say Madvillain simply delivered on the hype surrounding Madvillainy would be a massive understatement. This is a record that reaches far beyond the spectrum of underground hip-hop, even if that subgenre is clearly where the album dwells. The indie-kids latched onto it. Metal fans, many of whom were already acquainted with DOOM, also couldn’t get enough. Jazz-heads, of course, reveled in the depth of Madlib’s beats. It was like this strange confluence of music fans and critics, all of whom otherwise probably hate each other. Beyond the beats and rhymes, though, Madvillainy was, above all, an experience. Its tracks played out like some twisted TV show from the ’70s, on which everyone was on acid.
2 – Common – Like Water For Chocolate
Perhaps more than any other solo rapper, Common has been anointed to spread positivity, often using his lyrics to advocate peace, spirituality and women’s rights. After three albums that had already placed him in the upper echelon of underground rappers, Common unveiled what to this day stands as his masterpiece. Like Water for Chocolate is a powerful album, and not just because of Common’s verbal precision. Messages (both lyrical and musical) of Afrocentrism encompass the 16 tracks and give the album a definitive focal point. Equally notable for its bare, soulful production handled largely by J Dilla, ?uestlove, and the Soulquarians, Like Water for Chocolate can be as hard as it can be mellow. It’s a sprawling effort that forces Common to be at his best. Standout tracks “The Light”, and the DJ Premier produced “The 6th Sense” are quintessential Common, delivering enlightenment with every word. After just a few minutes of listening to Like Water for Chocolate it is evident that Common is onto something special. After all, “it don’t take a whole day to recognize sunshine.”
3 – Jay-Z – The Blueprint
The Blueprint, which dropped on one of America’s darkest days (Sept. 11, 2001), goes down for many as Jay-Z‘s finest effort. Others of course point to Reasonable Doubt, his nearly flawless debut, as his best. But The Blueprint, Jigga’s sixth record, made an equally important dent in the hip-hop world. It finds the Brooklyn MC at his most balanced. He re-introduced himself to the world on “The Ruler’s Back”, dissed then arch-nemesis Nas, and others, on “Takeover”, and cut a gigantic hit, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” in a span of three tracks. Sounds easy, right? It’s not. Few MCs other than Jay can pull that off so effortlessly. Not to mention he left a track, “Renegade”, on the album on which he was bested (or was he?) by the then-untouchable Eminem.
4 – Outkast – Stankonia
The always dynamic duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi is one of hip-hop’s most consistent acts. With nary a true weak album in their discography, these two ATLiens proved that Southern rappers could make music that wasn’t completely grounded in snap, crunk, or any other fads. Even in their strangest moments, Outkast remained both forward-thinking and accessible. Stankonia drives that point home in spades, particularly “B.O.B.”, which will go down as one of the greatest songs ever recorded. Then, of course, there were the more radio-friendly hits in “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Ms. Jackson”. But this album wasn’t all about Top 40 cuts. At 24 tracks deep, Stankonia takes and deserves time to digest. And once it does, you can fully understand just what Andre and Big Boi were capable of – an incredibly dense, intelligent, and progressive masterpiece.
5 – Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030
At the turn of the century, hip-hop heads and sci-fi geeks got an unlikely, futuristic treat from three of hip-hop’s most revered artists. Producer Dan the Automator teamed up with Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Kid Koala to craft a concept album about intergalactic rappers on a mission to save hip-hop in a world dominated by greedy corporations. The atmospheric and left-field production wizardry of Automator meshes perfectly with Del’s boundless vocabulary (he fills the astronomical role with tremendous accuracy). Through outer space rap battles, and unexpected diatribes against everything corrupt, Del molds a hip-hop galaxy where anything is possible. Yet, for all its imaginative brilliance and humor, Deltron 3030 is also every bit as important for its cautionary social commentary.
6 – Reflection Eternal – Train of Thought
As explained in the Madvillainy summary, albums of this breed are far and few between these days. While Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek were both established names by this point, Train of Thought took their popularity and acclaim to another level. For Kweli, it was a chance for him to shine on his own after dropped the seminal Black Star album with Mos Def. For Hi-Tek, it was yet another chance for him to display his producer chops. Both were clearly up to the task as Train of Thought remains their best work, respectively. Hi-Tek blends jazz, funk, and Afro-beat perfectly while Kweli litters the album with a plethora of content, from societal awareness to love to bravado. Like Madvilainy, Train of Thought is the record MC/producer combos look to for inspiration.
7 – Quasimoto – The Unseen
Who said hip-hop can’t be silly and fun? Madlib takes on the role of the uber-blunted, free-wheeling Quasimoto for 2000′s The Unseen. With his signature tuned-up voice, Quasimoto flows over some of most spaced out, psychedelic, jazzy, and just absolutely out-there production of Madlib’s career. Quas may very well have set the record for most mentions of the greenery on one single LP, all while finding space to name drop some of his favorite jazz and soul artists, including David Axelrod and David Ruffin, among others. Through all of his misadventures, Quasimoto vividly paints a wild and imaginative world in which The Unseen unfolds. Perhaps the most pleasant part of this record is that everything is laid out on the surface, and can be readily absorbed and processed. Quasimoto is not an attempt to be larger than life, and yet in some ways, it still is. With the creativity knob turned way past ten, Madlib cooked up what was at that point, the template for left-field hip-hop in the 21st century.
8 – Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein
With his Def Jux imprint fully functional, rapper/producer El-P set out to change the way we listen to hip-hop. Merging heavy layers of sound into dense sonic backdrops, El-P constructed some of the most menacing and innovative beats of his career for what would become Cannibal Ox’s debut, The Cold Vein. Emcees Vast Aire and Vordul Mega each pack a punch, while never straining to flex their lyrical muscle. With aggressive wordplay and witty one-liners Vast Aire and Vordul Mega at times drift into free-associative rambling, just for the sake of showing off the extent of their microphone prowess, but it’s all for a purpose. The Cold Vein is an abstract record. It thrives on its mystery, and it requires close attention to decipher all of its intricacies. Yet, those finite details are what place The Cold Vein as a landmark in hip-hop’s history.
9 – Binary Star – Masters of the Universe
The underground can be a dark and gritty place. For an example of that look no further than Binary Star’s seminal Masters of the Universe. It’s essentially a lesson in how to craft a lyrically driven record with no bullshit or flair. It’s just two MCs, Senim Silla and One Be Lo (then One Man Army), holding their own on the microphone with a handful of guests, including Elzhi. Listening to Masters of the Universe is like taking a walk through the wintry streets of Detroit. Everything about it is harsh, in-your-face, and, most importantly, real. This was truly the mark of when the Motor City began taking off, as this record gave birth to a deeper-underground movement.
10 – Blu & Exile – Below The Heavens
The underground has a tendency to latch onto certain albums and revere them to the point where they reach some sort of deified level. Sometimes the albums actually live up to their hype and warrant their cult followings, other times that’s just not the case. Thankfully the hype surrounding Blu & Exile‘s Below The Heavens is justified in every way. As Blu’s introduction to the hip-hop world (for most people; he released the Lifted EP in 2006), he sticks to a script that revolves generally around his personal musings, but with a reflective, never egotistical, voice. His modesty and spirituality are admirable, yet it is his supreme writing and delivery that won him such adoration. Not to be outdone, Exile’s production is superb. Flipping subtle jazz and soul samples, Exile creates complex compositions, yet keeps them simple enough to allow Blu to hold the spotlight. As entertaining as it is uplifting, Below The Heavens deserves all the credit that it has garnered. Believe it.
11 – Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele
Ghostface‘s career hit an immeasurable peak with 2000′s Supreme Clientele. This widely heralded record proved why he is Wu-Tang’s most consistent MC. Even with a slew of producers, including RZA and Mathematics, Tony Starks keeps things under control. Perhaps it’s his intense storytelling delivered through that crybaby flow. Or maybe it’s just that the beats on here complement Ghost so well. Whatever it is, Supreme Clientele succeeds and remains relevant 10 years later. There is just nothing like listening to Ghostface paint lyrical pictures on “Saturday Nite” and “Mighty Wealthy”, the latter being an instant classic. He was also able to hit the Billboard charts with the quotable-filled, sing-along jam “Cherchez LaGhost”.
12 – Slum Village – Fantastic Vol. 2
Slum Village. Detroit. The two are almost as synonymous in the hip-hop world as Boogie Down Productions and the South Bronx. Containing some reworked tracks from SV’s debut, as well as a generous serving of new material, Fantastic Vol. 2 ups the ante from the first volume. J Dilla, T3, and Baatin are focused, and stay within their bounds as emcees. Their ruminations on women, players, hustlers, and all other individuals of society may not be the most profound words ever uttered into a microphone, yet they fit their role. The true driving force behind this album is J Dilla’s raw, soulful work behind the boards. Already with an impressive catalogue to his name, Dilla firmly established himself and his signature sound with Fantastic Vol. 2. And although Slum Village’s roster would see additions and tragic losses, the importance of this album still holds strong to this day.
13 – The Roots – Phrenology
Never a group to shy away from new challenges, The Roots tackle their ambitious 2002 album, Phrenology, with full force. As the proper (yet delayed) full-length follow-up to the lauded, yet relatively mellow Things Fall Apart, Phrenology threw some listeners for a loop. It is an unapologetically loud, hard-hitting affair. Black Thought shreds any doubts about his status as one of the greatest rhymers of his time, tackling topics from drug abuse (“Water”) to pure motivation (“Quills”). Propelled by the singles “Break You Off” and “The Seed (2.0)”, The Roots saw moderate mainstream success with this album. Yes, they are experimenting, and sometimes to a fault, but more importantly, Phrenology saw The Roots maturing into the musical wonder that they are.
14 – El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
El-P‘s abrasive style can be alienating at first. Straight-up hip-hop is not his game, though his music is absolutely grounded by the genre’s roots. This Definitive Jux rapper-producer had his work cut out for him after dropping a classic with former group Company Flow and a very solid debut. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead took his worth to another level, though. He equally stepped up his production and rapping game to craft a sonically brilliant album full of hilarious punchlines (“Smithereens (Stop Cryin’)”) and off-kilter storytelling (“The Overly Dramatic Truth”). The pacing on here is also something special as I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead flows like the soundtrack to a documentary of a b-boy hopped up on hallucinogens.
15 – Jaylib – Champion Sound
There’s an old adage that states, “great minds think alike”. Well for 2003′s Champion Sound, producers Madlib and J Dilla were thinking on the same level – an incredibly high level (no pun intended). Both producers had already proven their worth as two of the most advanced and creative in the industry, equally capable of soaking a track in soul, or turning out a nasty left-field sound. Champion Sound marks their collaboration, with the two exchanging tapes and beats, remixing, twisting, and rapping over everything they shared. Madlib is the stronger rapper, technically speaking, but their raps carry no real weight (although features from Guilty Simpson and Percee P bring some nice fire to the album), and largely just serve as an added textural element. The instrumentals are just as rewarding as the original tracks, largely because the instrumentals are unquestionably the focal point of this project. Combining odd jazz breaks with a heavy Detroit thump, each track is submerged in rich, dense layers of sound. Jaylib‘s Champion Sound may be most notable for its growth with repeat listens. Each song reveals extra details buried in the depths of the loops and kicks, simply re-affirming the remarkable talents of Madlib and J Dilla.
16 – Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
Even with all the controversy, immaturity, and crassness, Eminem‘s skill as an MC is indisputable. His trademark syllable-bending flow is matched by few. And his knack for humor through wordplay or straightforward storytelling is enticing. But, like many rappers of his kind, he struggles when it comes to a complete album. His debut, The Slim Shady LP, was almost there. While The Marshall Mathers LP isn’t quite perfect, it’s comes damn close through variety and a minor sense of cohesion. Em gets down right frightening on one track (“Kim”) and then recedes to a tongue-in-cheek, smoked-out posse cut on the next (“Under the Influence”). He also proved he could continue making hits, with the annoying but catchy “The Real Slim Shady” and soul-baring “The Way I Am”. Most importantly, The Marshall Mathers LP brought us “Stan”, a track that’s equally genius and insane, just like Em himself.
17 – Kanye West – The College Dropout
The College Dropout is Kanye West before Auto-Tune, caps-lock rants, and outright selfishness. It was an album from an artist who sounded hungry and earnest. And after crafting beats and spitting verses for others, including Jay-Z, the then up-and-coming producer-rapper wanted to make his way with his own name. On this album, he did just that, even if he wasn’t the best MC in the traditional sense. Instead of tongue-twisting rhymes, Kanye’s bars were filled with confidence, humor, and honesty. He also proved to be one hell of a songwriter with catchy tunes such as “All Falls Down” and “Slow Jamz”. And he even kept up with more seasoned MCs including Mos Def and Freeway on “Two Words” and Talib Kweli and Common on “Get ‘em High”. If only Kanye had retained his sanity and shrugged off the limelight, instead of embracing it and falling apart in the public eye.
18 – Blackalicious – Blazing Arrow
By 2000, the west coast had made it well known that their brand of hip-hop did not solely revolve around the typical G-funk of the Dr. Dre era. In fact, many of the west coast’s best albums of the decade are of the alternative variety. The year 2000 showcased the skills of Blackalicious with their debut, Nia. However, it is their sophomore effort, Blazing Arrow, that vaulted the duo into hip-hop supremacy. Building on the warmth of their debut, Blazing Arrow is a sonically diverse album thanks in large part to the fantastic production of Chief Xcel. And at nearly 75 minutes in length, Xcel paces the album to near perfection, avoiding any dull moments and drags in the music. Emcee Gift of Gab is in rare form, tossing out tongue twisting bars with lightning-quick delivery, and then stopping to transition into groove-laden hooks with a seemingly impossible sense of ease. Gab’s verbal dexterity is what separates this album from the rest of the best; his alliteration, metaphors, and biting humor are simply on another level. As if that wasn’t enough, Blazing Arrow is made all the more entertaining by a host of eclectic guests including Ben Harper, Zack de la Rocha, Gil Scott-Heron, Latyrx, Jurassic 5, and Dilated Peoples.
19 – J Dilla – Donuts
The pure emotional impact of J Dilla‘s Donuts is remarkable, especially for an instrumental album, and unparalleled. One of the greatest producers of all time, Dilla needs no introduction – his work speaks for itself. Donuts is a moving memento to the life and death of James Yancey. Sure the instrumentals here are some of the finest of his career, but that’s beside the point. The soothing soul, which at first takes center stage, soon gives way to the haunting realization of what is taking place. Dilla is stockpiling Donuts with internal references to life and death. The metaphor of a donut resembling the circle of life, the fact that there are exactly 31 tracks (Dilla was expecting to die before his 32nd birthday), the reversal of the outro and intro (leaving one life, entering another), the harrowing call of “you’re gonna want me back in your arms, you’re gonna need me” in “Stop”, everything here touches upon the greater theme of life and death. It is the celebration and the lament of one of our generation’s musical masterminds.
20 – Common – Be
Sometimes, there is nothing better than brevity. And no other MC realized that better than Common. Be, his third greatest album, flies by at a mere 42 minutes. That might not sound short, especially considering many punk albums are closer to a half-hour. But Be is a breeze, one that is cool, calming, and reflective, from its amazing self-titled opener through the wise words of Pops on “It’s Your World (Part I & II)”. The album also remains accessible without being dumbed-down for the masses. Common struts his grittier side on “The Corner” without losing those who prefer his socially aware side on “Faithful” and “Real People”. None of this could have happened without the help of Kanye West, who was at the production helm and was a perfect complement to his fellow Windy City-native.
21 – Jay-Z – The Black Album
The ruse of Jay-Z‘s so-called “retirement album” would be frustrating if it didn’t end up being so damn good. Its tracks aptly carry a celebratory vibe (“Encore”) while providing moments of revelation (the autobiographical “December 4th”) and braggadocio (“Dirt Off Your Shoulder”). He also laced the album with some of the best tracks of his career, such as the undeniable smash “99 Problems” and the introspective “My First Song”. Also, no other MC has recorded an interlude quite as fierce or attention-grabbing as “Public Service Announcement”, which features one of Just Blaze’s finest beats. The weak moments on The Black Album are difficult to decipher, as even the most superficial of tracks, “Change Clothes”, is still fun for a crossover single.
22 Jurassic 5 – Quality Control
Three years after Jurassic 5 dropped their groundbreaking self-titled EP, the six-man crew treated hip-hop heads to their first full length. Aptly titled, Quality Control is in essence an ode to the golden era of rap. Replete with shout outs to their favorite hip-hoppers (MC Shan, Cold Crush Brothers, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five) and vicious turntable cuts from DJs Nu Mark and Cut Chemist, Quality Control was just what hip-hop needed, especially for all those who had tired of the jiggy-era. While not so much a creative leap forward, Jurassic 5 succeeds because they know exactly what they stand for. The funky beats bring all the fun and excitement, while the four emcees kick bars with impeccable flows. And with each member’s distinct cadence, especially Chali 2na’s deep voice, the verses never grow stale or trite. Tackling topics from materialism to adulthood, Jurassic 5 proves on Quality Control that hip-hop can be both enormously entertaining and uplifting simultaneously.
23 – Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury
This album is what happens when you piss off two of hip-hop’s best MCs. Clipse take their anger, hone it, and craft one of the most unsettling, unapologetic records of all time. Hell Hath No Fury gave way to a few minor singles, “Mr. Me Too” most notably. But on the whole, it was an album too dark and brooding to have hit-power. Yet, it remains more than just a giant middle-finger to the music industry, particularly the “crackers” at Jive. Pusha T and Malice wax poetic about selling cocaine in ways no one had really heard before, aside from members of the Wu-Tang Clan. What made Clipse’s stories stand out, though, was their sense of morality. You could hear it both in their voices and lyrics that it was about more than “Ridin’ Around Shining” and “Dirty Money”. These were two MCs rapping about the dope game with emotion and sensibility over some the best beats the Neptunes have ever crafted.
24 – Hieroglyphics – Full Circle
It may have taken a while – five years to be specific – for the Bay area collective to release their second album, but Full Circle was well worth the wait. As established solo artists and smaller groups, the members of Hieroglyphics are all skilled emcees/producers in their own respect. However, their talents merged into something tremendous for their sophomore effort. The emcees trade lines with each other with such ease, sometimes it can be easy to not even note the transitions from one rapper to the next. Full Circle was a breath of fresh air into the alternative rap scene of the west coast. Toying with funk and soul influences, the Hiero crew strikes a fine balance between their admiration for old(er)-school hip-hop, and the progressive sounds of the new era. Full Circle is a vital album, because in many ways it acts as a bridge between generations of hip-hoppers on the west coast.
25 – CunninLynguists – A Piece of Strange
Concept albums are a funny breed, especially when the storyline isn’t terribly clear or linear. Enter CunninLynguists‘ A Piece of Strange, a record some fans call an instant classic. It’s clearly a fantastic piece, with Kno’s beats being the center of attention. And that’s because he doesn’t merely make “beats” in the traditional sense. He uses layers upon layers of samples, many of which go unrecognizable when he is done. That being written, the MCs on here, including the guests, deserve equal recognition. Natti and Deacon weave incredibly intricate tales with their lyrics. They take storytelling to another level by applying it to the entire album, which, according to its insert, “follows the story of a man and those closest to him in their struggles with right and wrong, love and hate, faith and sin.” And special note must be made for Tonedeff’s performance on “The Gates”, one of the album’s top and most riveting tracks.
The following is a list of honorable mentions in no particular order.
Zach Cole’s Honorable Mentions:
Dilated Peoples – Expansion Team
Dead Prez – Let’s Get Free
Edan – Beauty And The Beat
Viktor Vaughn – Vaudeville Villain
Atmosphere – God Loves Ugly
Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor
De La Soul – The Grind Date
Q-Tip – The Renaissance
Y Society – Travel At Your Own Pace
k-os – Atlantis: Hymns For Disco
Andrew Martin’s Honorable Mentions:
Aesop Rock – None Shall Pass
Atmosphere – When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
Talib Kweli – Quality
The Foreign Exchange – Connected
De La Soul – The Grind Date
Non-Prophets – Hope
Ghostface Killah – Fishscale
The Roots – Game Theory
k-os – Atlantis: Hymns For Disco