As vinyl records make a comeback in the age of digital streaming and luxury smartphones, you want to make sure your collection has a nice variety.
One of the most prolific and experimental periods of music history happed in the 1990s. The music business grew bigger than ever, thanks to CDs and cassettes making music a portable experience. At the time, many people looked at hip-hop as a fading trend, like disco. The 1990s were a formative time for the genre that saw artists within it trying to carve out their own place in an evolving sonic landscape. Artists began to incorporate jazz and other musical forms into their work. Lyrics became more complex, more narrative, and focused on subjects both serious and mundane. It was a glorious time for hip-hop, so any serious music collection should feature the best 1990s hip-hop albums, and we’ve collected a list of 25 must-have best 1990s hip-hop albums for any collection.
One can determine what makes something “the best” by evaluating artistic quality, cultural impact, record sales, or any other metric. All of the albums listed below are well-done, and thus the best best 1990s hip-hop albums. Some choices are obvious; some choices are debatable. What you can be certain of is that these are the best 1990s hip-hop albums to have in a vinyl or CD collection. Whether these records are old favorites or new-to-you, trust us that these are 25 great additions to any music collection.
The Best 1990s Hip-Hop Albums for Your Record Collection
This was one of the most prolific and stunning periods of music ever, so this is by no means a comprehensive list. Still, if you want to add more of this genre to your physical music collection, these are the best 1990s hip-hop albums to start with.
1: 2Pac – Greatest Hits
Tupac Amaru Shakur lived for but a quarter-century, yet his art is immortal. Arguably every CD he released while alive belongs on this list. Yet, since this bright star of hip-hop and poetry was snuffed out so young, it seems more appropriate to include this record. Some musicians and bands that have been around for decades couldn’t put together a two-disc greatest hits album, but this isn’t even all of the best Tupac work out there. This album is one of only nine hip-hop records to sell 10 million copies, going “Diamond,” but the second one in Tupac’s discography to have that honor.
2: A Tribe Called Quest – Low End Theory
The hip-hop collective of Ali Shaheed Muhammed, Q-Tip, and the late Phife Dawg entered the scene in 1990. It wasn’t until this second album, however, that A Tribe Called Quest established themselves as a force majeure in hip-hop. This album is credited with expanding the sonic make-up of hip-hop (barely ten years old at this point). It also spread the “jazz rap” style into the mainstream. Yet, this wasn’t just a stylistic labeling. Music critics extolled this album for showing the connection between the two genres. Artists from Dr. Dre to Outkast to Kendrick Lamar to Jack White all have cited this album as being particularly influential.
3: Aaliyah - One in a Million
Aaliyah’s career and life were too short. Of the trio of the best 1990s hip-hop albums she released, this middle effort is both one of the greatest and a defining piece of R&B history. Coming off of her disastrous association with R. Kelly, Aaliyah’s sophomore album features the creative hands of producer Timbaland and Missy Elliott all over it, spawning the biggest hits of her career, and catapulting her into superstardom.
4: Beastie Boys – Ill Communication
The Beastie Boys straddled the line in the 1980s between punk rock and hip-hop. When this album debuted in 1994, the hit single “Sabotage” seemed more in line with the former style than the latter. While still occupying their own space musically, this record proved that the Beastie Boys were a force to be reckoned with in the cultural landscape. They headlined Lollapalooza the same year it was released, cementing their iconic status. Their next record, Hello Nasty, was a more old-school hip-hop effort, but showed that the Beastie Boys could make music in any era.
5: The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die
After causing a commotion on the underground scene, the Notorious B.I.G. finally released his first album. The record surprised many for its complexity and style. The album had a cohesive sound, but still many different flavors. There was the island-inspired “Respect.” Or the grimy, criminal stylings of “Gimme the Loot,” which many first-time listeners didn’t realize features Biggie doing two different voices. Finally, there were the pop sensibilities at play in “Juicy,” showing that for all the street talk Biggie could be a pop star.
6: Biggie – Life After Death
The second album, a two-disc magnum opus, is one of many back-to-back masterpieces from a single artist on this list. Tragically, the title of this record is apt since Biggie died a few weeks before its release. Still, this album served as a lasting testament to the roughly-hewn genius of the late Christopher Wallace. Showing growth as lyricist and musically, Biggie’s swan songs were all instant classics. Despite this morbidity, the album is full of bright, high-energy songs. Some are even meant to be funny, like “I’ve Got a Story to Tell” or his duet with R. Kelly. There is much more life than death on this record.
7: Busta Rhymes – When Disaster Strikes
As part of Leaders of a New School and on his first solo record, Busta Rhymes was seen as kind of an eccentric character in the shadow of A Tribe Called Quest. This record, however, featured none of those familiar collaborators. This allowed Busta to shine, focusing on his rapid-fire delivery and the apocalyptic themes that fascinate him. The three singles, especially “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” are classic, instantly-recognizable songs. Even if you can’t keep up with Busta enough to sing along, it’s exhilarating to listen to.
8: Busta Rhymes – Extinction Level Event
If the previous album marked a shift for Busta, this album firmly planted him in strange new territory. Again, exploring apocalyptic themes, this album actually has a lighter touch. In fact, the duet with Janet Jackson, “What’s It Gonna Be,” is a traditional Rap and R&B ballad, and it is also Busta Rhymes highest-charting single. The song “Iz They Wildin’ Wit Us” features Busta rapping at his fastest. He also did a song with Ozzy Osbourne, adding to the eclectic feel of this record. Still, it was a great album and perhaps Busta’s best work. It’s as fine as any coda to rap in the 1990s, and arguably accurately predicts the changes the music industry would face in the next decade.
9: Cypress Hill – Black Sunday
After becoming the first Latino hip-hop group to have a platinum album with their debut, this record sent them multi-platinum. The single “Insane in the Brain” performed well with rap audiences, but it also found a following with alternative and rock audiences as well. Sonically the album has roots in the rock tradition, especially Black Sabbath. You’ll want the physical copy of this one though, because the liner notes feature a booklet with facts about the positive benefits of marijuana usage. At the time of release, there was no such thing as medical marijuana or legalization, making this a nice souvenir of a bygone era.
10: DMX – It’s Dark and Hell is Hot
An underground rapper from Yonkers, DMX struggled to get a workable record deal. However, after some notable features on other rappers’ songs, he released his debut record with Def Jam. The lead single, “Ruff Ryders Anthem” became an instant hit. His songs and lyrics have a hardcore edge, but DMX’s first album is almost a concept album. Together the songs tell the story of people living the street life, facing death, getting arrested, and finding God. While later best-known for his party anthems, DMX started his career with a raw record that tells a compelling and, ultimately hopeful, story.
11: Dr. Dre. - The Chronic
For hip-hop fans, the collapse of N.W.A. was like when the Beatles broke up. Still, the first record from Dr. Dre on Deathrow Records didn’t just make him a star but kickstarted an entire genre of hip-hop. The lyrical stylings on the album are of varying quality, but the production is stunning throughout. For years, West Coast hip-hop all tried to emulate Dre’s signature sound. Unlike N.W.A. or some other East Coast acts, this style broke through to the suburbs and crossed over to the pop audience.
12: Dr. Dre – 2001
By the time Dre was ready to do a second album, he’d left Death Row records in a falling out with mogul Suge Knight. Originally to be titled the Chronic 2000, it was released in November of 1999 as simply 2001. While the production is just as good, if not more mature, the lyrical quality of the songs is also much better. The album heavily features the fingerprint of Dr. Dre’s protégé, a rapper from Michigan who called himself Eminem.
13: Eminem – Slim Shady LP
Evicted from his home, Marshall Mathers traveled to Los Angeles to compete in a rap competition. While there, he linked up with Dr. Dre who signed him. The result was this album that both defied the rules of rap and rewrote them. Eminem’s lyrical skill is on display, but this album also serves as time capsule of the culture. Eminem goes after the new pop stars, new rappers, and anyone who dared criticize him. However, unlike a lot of rap at the time, his songs were full of punchlines, though some very offensive ones.
14: Jay-Z – Vol. 2 …Hard Knock Life
Jay-Z went from being a promising hip-hop upstart to appearing to chase trends on his sophomore record. At the time, hip-hop was looking for a successor to the Notorious B.I.G., who was (at the very least) the king of New York hip-hop until his death. Jay-Z, who knew Biggie, felt this title was his, and this was the record where he went for it. With rougher production, more urgent and substantive rhymes, Vol. 2 is the record that made Jay-Z the biggest name in hip-hop music for nearly two decades.
15: Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
When this album debuted, Ms. Hill was “the girl” in the Fugees, but by the end of this record she was her own shining vision of greatness. A nearly perfect album, the blend of pop hits, sincere ballads, and overall positive tone is a classic that holds up 20 years later. Since its release, Lauryn Hill has not released a studio record. Rather she performs intermittently and released some live recordings. She’ll be back someday, but even if she never records another song, this album is all we really need.
16: Lil Wayne – Tha Block is Hot
At 17, young Dwayne Michael Carter was one of the youngest rappers to be taken seriously by the hardcore crowd. Almost like a mascot for the Cash Money Records crew, he was easily the only bright spot of talent in the bunch. This album features all of their stars at the time, but none out-rap Li’l Wayne. In fact, while the album is very explicit, Wayne’s lyrics aren’t at the behest of his mother. Still, even with that limitation, the young rapper shows why he’s the only one of that group we still talk about.
17: Missy Elliott – Supa Dupa Fly
Missy “Misdeamenor” Elliot’s real national introduction came via her work on Aaliyah’s album, listed above. So when it came time for her debut album, she and her producer Timbaland, sought to develop their signature sound. The production eschewed traditional samples, save for the sampling of the 1973 song “I Can’t Stand The Rain” for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” the lead single. Missy’s rhymes were intricate, telling a story about a woman’s search for respect both with herself and from the outside world. She went on to be the first female rapper to perform at Lilith Fair. She was also toured with Jay-Z, at the time the biggest rapper in the game.
18: Nas – Illmatic
The debut record from this young rapper from Queens was unlike other hardcore rap records. Yes, he detailed stories of violence, drugs, and despair, but from an observer’s perspective. Nas is more concerned about artistic integrity and musicality than his street cred on this record. Featuring samples from blues songs, jazz pieces, and also other hip-hop artists from Queens. The lyrical content is both intricate, containing multiple internal rhymes, while remaining rich with poetic substance. This isn’t just one of the best 1990s hip hop albums, it is one of the best albums of all time.
19: Outkast –ATLiens
After the success of their more traditional debut record, the Atlanta rap duo released this record that pushed boundaries. Centered around a psychedelic, alien theme, the album features no samples. Big Boi and André 3000 worked to produce their own songs, developing their signature sound. Organized Noize handled the rest of the production. Like André 3000 said while accepting an award, this record showed that “the south has something to say.”
20: Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
When the Wu-Tang Clan burst on to the scene, group-leader RZA had a plan. First their group album (listed below), followed by a series of solo projects. While some were sonically similar to their album, this record was different. Raekwon used Mafia symbolism to cast the urban crime world in a similar light. While he wasn’t the first to rap about the drug game, he was the most successful in imbuing it with the kind of gravitas associated with other fictional organized crime.
21: The Fugees – The Score
As “gangsta” rap became the hot new thing in hip-hop, a trio of M.C.’s wanted to go in another direction. Their first record underperformed, so when the Fugees released The Score, they had something to prove. It was an instant mega-hit. From the cover of “Killing Me Softly” to “Fugee-La” and its remixes, the whole album became a classic. It’s even more precious today because other than for a few songs on Wyclef Jean’s first solo album, it was the last studio recording from the group. Poised to move hip-hop away from gun talk and gold chains, the Fugees could have been the Led Zeppelin of hip-hop.
22: The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde
Despite the Roman numeral in the title, this is the debut album from the Los Angeles jazz rap collective. At the time N.W.A. was the biggest rap group from LA, so Pharcyde’s light subject matter and easygoing style was a stark contrast. The lead single, “Passin’ Me By” is an iconic, melancholy song about love lost. “Ya Mama,” conversely is a playful posse cut featuring humorous insults about the listener’s mother. If you were stuck on a cross-country drive and just had this record, you’d probably be fine.
23: TLC – CrazySexyCool
Straddling both the R&B and hip-hop genres, TLC’s second studio album was the one that defined their careers. From the classic “Waterfalls” to the side-piece celebrating “Creep,” CrazySexyCool saw the group mature with the hip-hop soul genre they were helping to define. Interestingly, this album remains the only one by an all-female group to be certified diamond.
24: Wu-Tang Clan – 36 Chambers
The Wu-Tang Clan changed hip-hop in so many ways, and it all began with this record. Eschewing popular music conventions of the time, this bare-bones, beat-driven, lyrically-complex album marked a shift for hip-hop as an art form. Thanks to the savvy thinking of various members, the Wu-Tang Clan also became the model for the business of turning a hip-hop group into a brand. Of all of their albums, this record made its mark on the times like no other.
25: Wyclef Jean - the Carnival
Last, but not least on the list of the best 1990s hip-hop albums, is (essentially) the last Fugees album ever recorded. Jean wanted to follow the Wu-Tang model for their releases. Group record, solo records, followed by another group record. They only got as far as this first solo record, before things fell apart. Still, there are a number of gems on here featuring Wyclef, Pras, and Lauryn Hill. These songs show that, had they stayed together, the best of the Fugees’ work was ahead of them. Still, this album is a fine epilogue to that era in hip-hop.
Whether you agree that these are the best 1990s hip-hop albums or not, these 25 records are a great choice for your music collection.
The best 1990s hip-hop albums listed above provide an accurate sampling of the evolution of hip-hop over the decade. Of course, it’s not a complete picture. To list all the influential artists or best 1990s hip-hop albums would take a much, much longer list. Still, if you are trying to curate a music collection featuring the right assortment of music from this era and genre, this is a great place to start.
Of course, what really makes an album “the best” is your relationship to it. Maybe it was listening to the cassette when you were on your paper route? Or you could remember blasting a CD as you and your friends skipped high school. It might not even be a specific memory, but instead it’s a feeling you get when you hear the needle hit the record and that familiar music play.
What do you think? Which of the best 1990s hip-hop albums are your favorites? Which best 1990s hip-hop albums did we leave off the list that you think should be on it? Tell us about it all in the comments below. Don’t forget to share the article online to get your friends in on the debate!