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The 25 Greatest Hip-Hop Debut Albums of All Time

on March 14, 2018, 12:14pm
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A great debut is no small task, especially in a genre as vibrant and progressive as rap. Trends come and go, with today’s hitmakers becoming tomorrow’s gossip fodder. Nowadays, most major labels are too shook to let a new rapper drop an album without proving him or herself with multiple singles and mixtapes.

Still, the proper full-length studio rap album remains the standard by which all rappers are judged. That conservative carryover has everything to do with the caliber of classics that hip-hop has produced in its more than four-decade history. Plenty of rappers have eventually released a good or great album, but it’s even rarer for one to do so out the gate. That’s what this list celebrates, 25 selections spanning generations.

In making this list, we took a hard look at the canon, at the so-called unimpeachable records, and artists that so frequently make and even top these roundups. We adjusted to include pivotal and underrated debuts that are often missed by other publications. The inclusiveness of this list and its rankings may cause some to bristle. Still, when it comes to rap music, there’s never an incentive to play it safe — so instead, we kept it real.

–Gary Suarez
Contributing Writer

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25. M.I.A. – Arular (2005)

mia arular The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Though she wouldn’t gain global fame until “Paper Planes” arrived on time in 2007 complete with children’s chorus and shooting gallery, 2005’s Arular introduced Maya Arulpragasam aka M.I.A. as an MC to be reckoned with. The British visual artist of Sri Lankan background brought a fiery flow, irresistible dance beats, and an uncompromising penchant for spitting truth to power on bangers like “Sunshowers” and “Galang”, no matter how much controversy she stirred in the process. –Matt Melis

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Sleng teng, that’s that M.I.A. thang/ I got the bombs to make you blow/ I got the beats to make you bang” — from “Pull Up the People”

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24. Gucci Mane – Trap House (2005)

gucci mane The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Plain and simple, Gucci Mane is the father of the Atlanta trap music sound that has allowed the likes of Migos, Future, Young Thug, and more to flourish in the national spotlight during the past couple of years. Perhaps the Zone 6 Berry Gordy knew what was coming when he bragged about little kids wanting to be like him when they grow up on his debut single, “Icy”. Whatever the case, Trap House was 10 years ahead of the curve as Gucci demonstrated his ear by helping Zaytoven and Shawty Redd get their start as architects of the sound while showing off deceptively uncomplicated lyrics that allowed his charismatic personality and surprising wit to shine through. –Eddie Fu

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “I’m icy, so motherfucking snowed up/ Little kids wanna be like Gucci when they grow up” — from “Icy”

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23. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris (2013)

earl sweatshirt reveals doris The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Earl Sweatshirt emerged from forced exile and the “Free Earl” chants floated by Odd Future to release his debut album, Doris, in 2013. Besting his self-titled 2010 mixtape, the project propelled by “Chum” and “Whoa” was an introspective, lo-fi-adjacent snapshot of the angst and genius fueling the prankster rap collective co-founded by Tyler, The Creator. Making good on the hype, Earl’s partially self-produced return ditched hooks and traditional song structure to litter the tape with florid imagery and sharp, nuanced statements on daily life that elevated the troubled kid with good weed and perpetual detention to the role of prophet. –Karas Lamb

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric:Pen? Naw, probably written with some used syringes/ From out the rubbish bin at your local loony clinic/ Watching movies in a room full of goons he rented. On the hunt for clues, more food, and some floozy women/ Bruising gimmicks with the broom he usually use for Quidditch/ Gooey writtens, scoot ’em to a ditch, chewed and booty scented/ Too pretentious, do pretend like he could lose with spitting/ Steaming tubes of poop and twisted doobies full of euphemism” — from “Whoa”

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22. MF Doom – Operation: Doomsday (1999)

mf doom The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Daniel Dumile’s transformation from KMD rhymer Zev Love X to the villainous wordsmith MF Doom took roughly a decade. Yet even those who appreciate the rapper’s younger self on 1991’s Mr. Hood recognize the progression of mic skills evident on his first solo venture. Almost entirely self-produced, the game-changing indie record rebooted Dumile’s career with overflowing, verbose bars spat over elite crate-digger beats. Doom’s voice was deeper than Zev’s, gnarled by tragedy to an extent that his adoption of a comic book baddie’s persona seemed credible. Operation: Doomsday showcased an abominable mic master, an indomitable emcee to tremble before. –Gary Suarez

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Classical slapstick rappers need Chapstick/ A lot of ’em sound like they in a talent show/ So I give ’em something to remember like the Alamo/ Tally-ho! A high Joker like a Spades game/ Came back from five years laying and stayed the same” — from “Rhymes like Dimes”

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21. Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday (2010)

nicki minaj The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Pink Friday was deemed “too pop” by many critics, but there was tremendous pressure for Nicki Minaj to deliver a commercial hit or risk dooming her career from the start — as well as those of future female MCs. As a result, the Young Money signee had the delicate task of showing she could hang with Eminem on “Roman’s Revenge” while also delivering hit singles like “Moment 4 Life” alongside her labelmate Drake. After making history by becoming the first solo artist to simultaneously have seven songs on the Billboard Hot 100, it’s clear she made the right decision and cleared the path for Cardi B to find her own success several years later. –Eddie Fu

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Put it on everything, that I will retire with the ring/ And I will retire with the crown, Yes!” — from “Moment 4 Life”

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20. N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton (1988)

 The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Though Straight Outta Compton starts to wane near its conclusion, that opening gangsta rap salvo of the title cut, “Fuck Tha Police”, and “Gangsta Gangsta” still hits as hard as ever three decades later. From the album cover holding the listener at gunpoint to the record’s no-holds barred depiction of harsh inner city life and brutal police relations in the black community, rarely, if ever, has an album felt more real, angry, and dangerous. Though N.W.A had already begun to fracture by the time Straight Outta Compton had dropped, the album caused enough ruckus to put the rap world, white suburbs, and even the FBI on notice. –Matt Melis

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Fuck the police! Comin’ straight from the underground/ A young nigga got it bad ’cause I’m brown/ And not the other color, so police think/ They have the authority to kill a minority” — from “Fuck Tha Police”

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19. Roxanne Shanté – Bad Sister (1989)

roxanne shante The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Educated as a teen in Marley Marl and the Queensbridge Juice Crew’s school of rap beefs, Roxanne Shanté had been sharpening her skills in the Roxanne Wars (most notably “Roxanne’s Revenge”) and against legendary MCs like KRS-One for more than half a decade before she laid down her debut, Bad Sister, at the not-so-tender age of 20. The result is a 14-track masterclass that leaves no doubt that Shanté is, well, one bad sister, who can dish it out better than almost anyone else. Though she all but retired by age 25, Shanté remains a rap battle legend, a mentor for generations of female MCs, and an early advocate in rap for female empowerment. –Matt Melis

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Some people call me Shanie, some people call me Rox/ And those who try to diss I just knocks them out the box/ ‘Cause I’m Shanti and why’all know the routine/ And here we go again, so all hail the queen” — from “Have a Nice Day”

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18. Scarface – Mr. Scarface Is Back (1991)

scarface is back The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Scarface is often overlooked in the discussion of the best MCs of all time, despite his equal skill for writing confessional songs about mental illness and vivid street tales of drug dealing and violence. The Houston rapper puts that versatility to full use on Mr. Scarface Is Back, unearthing his inner demons on “Diary of a Madman”, matter-of-factly stating his gangster bona fides on “Mr. Scarface”, and unfurling a story of revenge on “A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die”. Based on his work with Geto Boys and solo debut alone, Brad Jordan belongs with The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Ice Cube, JAY-Z, and Raekwon as one of the most influential gangsta rappers of all time. –Eddie Fu

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Dear diary, today I hit a nigga with the torch/ Shot him on his face and watched him die on his front porch” — from “Diary of a Madman”

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17. Clipse – Lord Willin’ (2002)

clipse The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Brothers Pusha T and No Malice made their debut with the poly-rhythmic street opus Lord Willin’ in 2002. The project followed their triumphant death march “The Funeral”, which flopped and shelved their original debut, Exclusive Audio Footage. Produced by The Neptunes, Lord Willin’ highlighted their rudiment and synth-dominant, post-New Jack Swing sound, which paired drum line cadences with heavy bass and quirky, futuristic melodies on singles like “Grindin” and “When the Last Time”. The rappers’ easy banter, throaty ad-libs, and Virginia Beach folklore rounded out the mix, priming all parties for success both on the pop charts and in the streets. –Karas Lamb

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric:Only big boys keep deuces on the ride/ Gucci Chuck Taylor with the dragon on the side/ Man, I make a buck, why scram?/ I’m trying to show y’all who the fuck I am/ The jewels is flirting, be damned if I’m hurting/ Legend in two games like I’m Pee Wee Kirkland.” — from “Grindin'”

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16. Foxy Brown – Ill Na Na (1996)

foxy brown The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Foxy Brown was just a teenager when recording her debut album, but her confident delivery and husky voice made it apparent why there was a bidding war for her signing. In addition to being adept at producing radio singles like “Get Me Home” and Mafioso rap tracks like “Letter to the Firm”, Foxy also had the charisma not to be outshined by Method Man. Ill Na Na will always be judged against Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core for many reasons, but the album deserves to be recognized for its own merits. –Eddie Fu

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Yo Na Na so Ill, first week out/ Shipped a half a mil, niggas freaked out/ She’s all about sex, pard-on, check your facts” — from “Ill Na Na”

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15. Black Star – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)

black star The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) and Talib Kweli exploded from Brooklyn’s freestyle scene to upend rap during the jiggy era of the late ’90s with a jazz- and dancehall-inflected, Pan-Africanist opus entitled Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Cinematic in nature, their 1998 debut was a snapshot of life in Brooklyn that catapulted the pair from their perch at Nkiru Books to cult stardom after lead single “Definition” made waves. Their post-Native Tongues aesthetic was reverential of rap’s park jam culture and appropriately gritty in its exploration of blackness according to the diasporic beauty and diversity in the Medina. –Karas Lamb

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric:Look in the skies for God, what you see besides the smog/ Is broken dreams flying away on the wings of the obscene/ Thoughts that people put in the air/ Places where you could get murdered over a glare/ But everything is fair…” — from “Respiration”

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14. Ultramagnetic MC’s – Critical Beatdown (1988)

ultramagnetic mcs critical beatdown The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s yielded a robust crop of group rap records, from 2 Live Crew to Main Source. But few crews captured the essence of the age quite like Ultramagnetic MC’s. Ced Gee’s dexterity for sampling made the beats on their relentless debut both familiar and unique. That latter characteristic found synergy with the lyrical content, with far-out metaphors and braggadocio dominating the space. Standout emcee Kool Keith had a long rap career ahead of him, something made abundantly clear from his wild rhymes on the title track and “Kool Keith Houses Things”. –Gary Suarez

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Haven’t you heard this change of rhyme/ Continuing the land of time/ For my incredible, highly elevated/ Smooth in the mind, more sophisticated/ Motivated, as I relate it verbal/ Dissing a mouse and smacking any gerbil/ I bought a Saab, a 1990 Turbo” — from “Ease Back”

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13. Young Jeezy – Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (2005)

jeezy tm101 1 c2cxbc The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

After Young Jeezy delivered his classic mixtape, Trap or Die, expectations for his debut studio album reached a fever pitch, but The Snowman came through with a series of dope boy anthems. While maintaining his street cred with street bangers like “Gangsta Music”, the Atlanta rapper also showed a more melodic side on “My Hood” and expanded his visibility beyond the South through collaborations with his label boss, JAY-Z, and the hottest feature singer of the time, Akon. Jeezy also used his newfound visibility to recruit legends like Trick Daddy, Mannie Fresh, and Bun B while stepping up his game to match. –Eddie Fu

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “We don’t talk on the phones ’cause it might stick/ Gotta play for the 7 call it Mike Vick/ Dirty birds nigga, we play wit them falcons” — from “Gangsta Music”

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12. Big Pun – Capital Punishment (1998)

big pun capital punishment front The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Despite their critical roles in both the dawning and endurance of hip-hop, Latinos somehow remain disproportionately underrepresented on the mic to this day. Affixing the menacing Punisher comic book ethos to credibly lived-in street realism, Capital Punishment set a high bar for gangsta rap regardless of ethnicity. The Terror Squad’s most imposing threat, Bronx-based Puerto Rican Big Pun repped his boro and his people throughout. Overweight lover anthem “Still Not a Player” made him a radio staple, but his raps proved noticeably deeper than many of the period’s hits. Pun’s choice of guests still resonates today, with infamous artists like Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, and Wyclef Jean. –Gary Suarez

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Ayo, my murderous rap verbal attack is actual fact/ Tactical tracks match perfectly with graphical stats/ Half of you lack the magical dap of tragical rap/ That tackles your back and shackles and laughs at you” — from “Super Lyrical”

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11. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

wu tang clan 36 chambers The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Armed with Ku-Fu movie skits, dusty samples, and gritty drums, Wu-Tang mastermind The RZA laid groundwork for the group to burst onto the scene with a seemingly endless series of MCs, each with their own personality and unique rhyming style. Although the charismatic Method Man, eccentric Ol’ Dirty Bastard, loquacious Raekwon, aggressive Ghostface Killah, and cerebral GZA proved to be the breakout stars of the group, each of the nine members brought out the best in each other on 36 Chambers. And in doing so, they gave an opening for fellow New York rappers Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, and JAY-Z to rise in response to the West Coast’s dominance. –Eddie Fu

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Gun to his neck now, react what?/ And that’s one in the chamber, Wu-Tang banger/ 36 styles of danger” — from “Bring Da Ruckus”
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10. 50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)

50 cent The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

With a reputation built from a series of ground-breaking mixtapes and a larger-than-life origin story, plus co-signs from Dr. Dre and Eminem, 50 Cent had a lot riding on the release of Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The Queens rapper had learned to weave his boastful rhymes with catchy hooks while flooding the streets with his freestyles, so when it came time to deliver full songs over top-shelf beats, 50 Cent was primed for the occasion. He balanced aggressive rhymes on songs like “Back Down” with R&B-tinged tracks “21 Questions”, showing he could make music for the gangstas and ladies alike. –Eddie Fu

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “They say I walk around like I got an S on my chest/ Nah, that’s a semi-auto, and a vest on my chest” — from “What Up Gangsta”

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09. Queen Latifah – All Hail the Queen (1989)

queen latifah The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Queen Latifah followed many female acts in blazing a trail for women in rap with the release of her 1989 debut, All Hail the Queen. Catapulted by “Wrath of My Madness” and the Monie Love-assisted feminist anthem “Ladies First”, the album produced in part by DJ Mark the 45 King tackled issues like gender disparity and domestic violence, which remained talking points throughout Latifah’s career. All Hail the Queen established “The La La La from Halstead” as the queen of rap’s Daisy Age – triggered by the Native Tongues – and a bona fide spitter equipped to go bar for bar with any male counterpart. –Karas Lamb

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric:Ladies first, there’s no time to rehearse/ I’m divine and my mind expands throughout the universe/ A female rapper with the message to send/ The Queen Latifah is a perfect specimen.” — from “Ladies First”

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08. Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)

the chronic 4ea687eb81068 The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

On The Chronic, Dr. Dre broke ground with a new G-Funk sound comprised of fat, rolling bass lines and trill, melodic synths. As he redefined West Coast hip-hop and gangsta rap as a whole, Dre proved he could succeed without the N.W.A while also launching the careers of his co-stars Snoop Dogg, Daz Dillinger, Kurupt, Nate Dogg, and Warren G. While the lyrics seem to be focused on partying on the surface, songs such as “Lil Ghetto Boy” detail the plight of growing up in a hopeless environment. –Eddie Fu

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “You never been on a ride like this befo’/ With a producer who can rap and control the maestro/ At the same time with the dope rhyme that I kick” — from “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”

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07. OutKast – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994)

outkast southernplayalisticadillacmuzik The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Big Boi and Andre 3000 became known to the world as Outkast – the otherworldly Atlanta-based rap duo from the depths of The Dungeon – with the release of their 1994 LaFace Records debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. The duo burst onto the scene with the repurposed Christmas jam “Player’s Ball”, which portended over 15 tracks of chicken grease and certified gangster. The album produced by Organized Noize would find them disrupting the East Coast/West Coast rivalry with a distinctive sound and futurist swagger that forced rap to put some respect on Southern hip-hop and put the world onto king shit. –Karas Lamb

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric:It goes, give me 10, and I’ll serve you then, now we bend/ The corner in my Cadillac. My heart does not go pitty-pat for no rat/ I’m leaning back, my elbow’s out the window/ Coke, rum, and indo fills my body, where’s the party?” — from “Player’s Ball”

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06. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994)

notorious big ready to die11 The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

The Notorious B.I.G. released his full-length debut, Ready to Die, to critical acclaim in 1994. Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Biggie delivered cinematic, intricately worded hustler’s tales that spoke to his lived experience in Brooklyn and cemented him as a legend without leaning into precious portrayals of street life. The self-proclaimed “rap phenomenon” got busy over bottom-heavy beats from The Hitmen, showcasing his charismatic flow and aptitude for balancing braggadocio with candor. Ready to Die would famously go on to sweep the 1995 Source Awards, eclipsing Nas’ seminal debut, Illmatic, and positioning Biggie as the king of New York. –Karas Lamb

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Who shot ya? Separate the weak from the obsolete/ Hard to creep them Brooklyn streets/ It’s on nigga, fuck all that bickering beef/ I can hear sweat trickling down your cheek/ Your heartbeat sound like Sasquatch feet.” — from “Who Shot Ya”

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05. Lil’ Kim – Hard Core (1996)

lil kim The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Few rappers past or present could hold their own on a track with The Notorious B.I.G. One of his fiercest allies, the unfiltered Lil’ Kim stood out on Junior M.A.F.I.A. classics “Get Money” and “Player’s Anthem”. With her subsequent full-length debut, she demonstrated that she could do what Biggie did, but somehow better. More explicit and unapologetically raw, she was the better half of their rap alliance, one fortified by an overt ride-or-die bond. While Biggie notably appears on four of its tracks, Hard Core belongs to Kim, her flow ferocious and her bars brazen. –Gary Suarez

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Lyrically I dust ’em off like Pledge/ Hit hard like sledge-hammers/ Bitch with that platinum grammar / I am a diamond cluster hustler/ Queen bitch, supreme bitch / Kill a nigga for my nigga by any means bitch” — from “Queen Bitch”

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04. Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full (1987)

paidinfull The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

When putting together this list, it became clear that many of the seminal hip-hop albums from the 1980s no longer hold up due to a combination of outdated production and/or lyrics. While Eric B.’s nuanced blend of scratches and samples paired with Rakim’s pioneering internal rhymes were very much of the time, their DNA still trickles down to the current state of hip-hop. Leading lyricists such as Kendrick Lamar are direct descendants of Rakim while “Paid in Full” still gets sampled to this day. –Eddie Fu

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “Thinking of a master plan/ Cause ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand” — from “Paid in Full”

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03. Missy Elliott – Supa Dupa Fly (1997)

 The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott made her formal entrance as a solo artist with the 1997 release of her full-length debut, Supa Dupa Fly. Buoyed by Timbaland’s futuristic beats and Elliott’s avant-garde presence as chief lyricist, Supa Dupa Fly was a coup for the Virginia-bred duo and Swing Mob alum — all recorded in a single week. Missy’s singular aesthetic and sonic footprint – from the creative direction of her videos to the live performances that became her calling card – established her as a force in rap (less restricted by gender than her female counterparts) and an extra-terrestrial pop star in her own right. –Karas Lamb

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric:Beep beep, who got the keys to the Jeep, vroom/ I’m driving to the beach. Top down, loud sounds, see my peeps/ Give them pounds, now look who it be/ It be me me me and Timothy” — from “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”

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02. Kanye West – The College Dropout (2004)

the college dropout The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

On The College Dropout, Kanye West had a big chip on his shoulder from only being seen as a producer. But after finally earning a record deal on the biggest label in the game, the Chicago native was either going to succeed on his own terms or fail in the process. After almost dying in a car accident, the Louis Vuitton Don was only more determined to deliver an album with his finest production and poured his soul into rhymes that addressed everyone who didn’t believe in him. In doing so, West inspired a generation of rappers led by Drake to follow his lead. –Eddie Fu

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “So here go my single dog, radio needs this/ They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/ But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?” — from “Jesus Walks”

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01. Nas – Illmatic (1994)

nas illmatic The 25 Greatest Hip Hop Debut Albums of All Time

Nurtured by hip-hop greats like Large Professor and MC Serch, Nasir Jones made the greatest full-length rap debut of all time. This is boom bap at its most beautiful and its most brutal, a groundbreaking work of honesty without a trace of gimmickry. DJ Premier, Q-Tip, and the aforementioned Professor honor Nas’ jazz heritage with brilliant samples that provide more than mere backdrop to street stories of violence and ambition. With his Queensbridge home emblazoned on the album’s cover, he brought listeners from far and wide through the infamous housing development’s hallways and stairwells, into its apartments and public spaces. –Gary Suarez

Standout Track:

Definitive Lyric: “I’ve taken rappers to a new plateau/ Through rap slow, my rhymin’ is a vitamin held without a capsule/ The smooth criminal on beat breaks/ Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes/ The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps/ That’s where I learned to do my hustle, had to scuffle with freaks” — from “N.Y. State of Mind”

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