Hip-hop is nearly 40, but many still find this slightly-disorienting world of beats, rhymes and oversize personalities a bit daunting.
So consider this our hip-hop Cliff's notes; here are the albums you should know about if you don't want to look silly at cocktail parties. We're not saying these are necessarily the best rap albums of all time, but rather the most accessible. They're also great for dipping your toes into what has become, perhaps, the most influential genre of pop music of our time.
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The Fix (2002)
Houston rapper Scarface is one of the genre's most important figures, and with The Fix — his big budget Def Jam debut — he delivered an absolute classic. Along with his incredible storytelling and lyricism, he had the ear to select beats from The Neptunes and a young Kanye West as they were gaining momentum.
9) De La Soul
Buhloone Mindstate (1993)
While their debut invented the hip-hop skit and their follow-up was one of the most successful reinventions in music history, De La Soul's third album Buhloone Mindstate is what cemented their legend. The first visage of a group aging gracefully, it introduced the subtle nuances of adulthood without falling into bitter heavy-handedness.
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)
The album falling between Jay-Z's greatest album-length performance (Volume 3…The Life and Times of S. Carter) and his most critically acclaimed work (The Blueprint), The Dynasty: Roc La Familia is the first time where street Jay and songwriter critic darling Jay intersected, making for a great introductory outing.
While the east and west coasts dominated rap, the south was sharpening its creative edges. Atlanta's Outkast had been making quantum leaps with each release, eventually resulting in Aquemini, a bold tour-de-force from a rap duo who were different from each other, different from the mainstream, and uniquely southern.
Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. (1993)
Tupac went through several phases during his short life. While his other albums tend to be beloved by fans who prefer him either more philosophical or more thugged out, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. will allow a new listener to decide which Pac they like best.
5) A Tribe Called Quest
Midnight Marauders (1993)
One could make a case for any of the first three Tribe albums as their best, but the ideal place for new listeners to start is Midnight Marauders. With the group's chemistry at an all time high, everybody was playing off each other's strengths.
4) Wu-Tang Clan
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
With so many classic albums under the iconic Wu banner, it's probably best to start at the beginning. On Enter the Wu-Tang, we're given our first glimpse of Rza's brilliant vision — some of the best talents to ever pick up a mic, a barrage of grimy samples, and kung-fu soundbites.
Widely considered the genre's absolute pinnacle, Nas' vivid poetry here tells stories he saw unfold beneath his project window. The lyrics are powerful, the quotes are memorable, and it features a perfect storm of producer talent in DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock and Q-Tip.
2) The Notorious B.I.G.
Ready to Die (1994)
As short as Biggie's career was, just having Ready to Die in his catalog established him as one of the greats. A versatile flow, propelled by an off-the-charts charisma — all through the lens of Sean “Puffy” Combs' vision — resulted in a monumental album.
1) Dr. Dre
The Chronic (1992)
While there's a decade of important rap singles and albums that predate it, Dre's The Chronic is perhaps the best starting point for new listeners. Dre's re-interpolations of samples mixed with his gift for melody make for near-perfect '90s gangsta rap. Some might even say this is the best L.A. hip-hop album ever.