We’re about two months into 2016, and just about the only thing more unsettling than 2006 being a decade ago is 1996 being a full 20 years ago. That’s right, folks, time is a merciless conveyor belt.
For all the 20th-anniversary posts that 1994 and 1995 received, things have been surprisingly quiet on the ’96 nostalgia front. It was something of the awkward middle child of the decade; the game-changing classics of ’94/’95 and absurd commercial successes of ’97/’98 leave 1996 as a year mostly remembered for 2Pac's death and the Macarena.
Still, the year offered plenty of landmark albums to look back on, including these five classics that were made right here in Los Angeles.
2Pac, All Eyez on Me
The most influential rap album of 1996 is probably 2Pac’s fourth studio album and first for Death Row. The 27-track double disc set spanned numerous subjects and cemented the 2Pac persona for which most remember him today. From both glorifying and critiquing the “thug” lifestyle, to openly discussing his and Snoop Dogg’s very real legal troubles, to twice dissing rap critic C. Delores Tucker, All Eyez on Me is an undisputed masterpiece that the majority of Pac fans consider his magnum opus. With the album’s title being tentatively shared for the forthcoming 2Pac biopic, its place in the pop culture zeitgeist is firmly cemented.
Ras Kass, Soul on Ice
If you were a '90s hip-hop fan who was into the syllable-stacking, lyrically lyrical spiritual miracles, your favorite rapper was most likely Canibus, Chino XL or Ras Kass. The latter’s Soul on Ice has become something of a cult classic, and its limited production run has made the search for an original copy an underground hip-hop rite of passage. Ras' verses bounce back and forth between biting pop culture references and deep dives into conspiracy culture, including the nearly eight-minute “Nature of the Threat,” which became the blueprint for underground political rap going forward. Thanks to the album's esoteric nature, it peaked at No. 169 on the Billboard 200, but its legacy has likely influenced nearly all young listeners who purchased copies to become vocabulary-building, linguistically challenging emcees themselves.
Xzibit, At the Speed of Life
Years before he was pimping rides and co-starring in films with Nicolas Cage, Xzibit debuted with the standout release At the Speed of Life. An outlier among '90s Los Angeles rappers at the time, Mr. X-to-the-Z made waves with “Paparazzi,” a critique of image-and-fame-obsessed rappers, which seems more relevant than ever in today's social media-driven world. Xzibit also was part of short-lived West Coast supergroup Golden State Warriors with the aforementioned Ras Kass and fellow underrated rap innovator Saafir, and their debut collaboration here, “Plastic Surgery,” is an unforgettable glimpse into a great project that, sadly, never released an album. (Note: The video we’ve chosen is the original “Paparazzi” release, which, along with being one of the most underrated clips of its era, features one of the greatest clean-version releases of all time.)
Eazy-E, Str8 off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton
Arguably rap’s first major posthumous album, Eazy-E's second and final solo project came out in March 1996, 10 months after the N.W.A founder's death. Perhaps remembered more for its lottery scratch-off–style cover, which concealed the title's profanity, than for its actual music, the album's 14 tracks were far fewer than the 60-track double-disc Eazy was touting before his untimely death, making rumored shelved collaborations and vaulted songs among the most sought-after holy grails for rap completists. The video for the single “Just Tah Let U Know” would become the go-to example of how to make a memorial video when the artist is no longer around to participate.
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Delinquent Habits, Delinquent Habits
Finally, we have the self-titled 1996 debut from Cypress Hill proteges Delinquent Habits, which has aged far better than their contemporaries may have speculated. The perfect marriage of East Coast drums with traditionally West Coast samples gives the project a unique place in the '90s rap soundscape, especially as heard on “Tres Delinquentes,” which captures everything great about the group in one track, making it one of the best debut singles of all time. Even the album's Warriors-tribute cover art is underrated. It's a standout release in a year that, for many, didn't have many highlights.