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Some albums sound best backed up by the nostalgic warmth of vinyl, and many hip-hop albums fit the bill. The genre began in New York block parties with twin record players, so it only makes sense that hip hop sounds its best when played on vinyl. The 90s are hip hop’s most iconic and transformative decade, during which we got a wide range of iconic albums.
The best 90s hip-hop albums to own on vinyl are All Eyez on Me by 2Pac and Ready to Die by Notorious B.I.G. These albums are not only of great quality and historical significance, but they also sound exceptional on vinyl.
The rest of this article will take you through eleven of the best hip-hop albums every serious record collector should own on vinyl. If you’re a hip-hop fan and want to grow your collection, keep reading! (All recommendations are available on Amazon.com)
Table of Contents
Best Overall: All Eyez on Me by 2Pac (1996) and Ready To Die by Notorious B.I.G. (1994)
All Eyez ON Me and Ready to Die are two of the most iconic albums in hip hop history, but beyond their historical significance, they are both incredible sound-wise.
All Eyez On Me is the fourth and final album released by Tupac Shakur, otherwise known as 2Pac, while he was alive. The album, the first double album released in hip hop, was released after 2Pac spent eleven months in jail and survived an assassination attempt; and opens with the chilling whisper, “You don’t wanna fuck with me.”
After Tupac was released from jail, he wrote and recorded extremely fast, contributing to the frenzied, non-stop tone of the album. However, the post-production and mixing help make this album cohesive and unified.
Tupac’s previous months in jail contributed to potent and aggressive lyricism, including the first track on the album, “Ambitionz Az A Ridah,” and the hit single “All Bout U.” The album also has several impressive features, including Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg.
This album isn’t all aggression, however. Tupac pays tribute to loved ones who have passed on in “Life Goes On,” and this track intimately reveals his tender side.
Ultimately, All Eyez On Me captures 2Pac as a whole being, including his fears and vulnerability. Tupac’s troubled history is scattered throughout the album’s lyrics and tone, making for a powerful listening experience. It is a classic and iconic album because it is 2Pac’s final album and because it is an impressive album lyrically and tonally.
The other best hip-hop album of the 90s is Ready to Die by Notorious B.I.G., a priceless piece of rap history. The overall feel of the album is laid-back, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some intense moments, including “Intro,” which details Biggie’s life up until the release of Ready to Die. There are also some pretty humorous moments, with his hit “One More Chance” being a prime example.
This album also has some notable features, including Method Man and Diana King. My personal favorite is the latter, as she makes “Respect” into a catchy reggae-style song that fits into the album’s tone but still sets itself apart from anything else in Biggie’s discography.
This is an incredible debut, and one reason is that he covers his life story, so listeners get an idea of who he is through his artistry. His bars are well-written and detailed throughout, and this is undoubtedly an album any hip-hop lover should have in their collection.
These two albums–All Eyez on Me and Ready to Die, are iconic on their own, but the hip-hop history behind them is part of the reason why I believe they are the best overall hip-hop albums of the 1990s. Tupac and Biggie’s rivalry is notorious (pun intended) for being one of the biggest rivalries in music history.
They were two of the most talented trailblazers in hip hop, and they both raised awareness about life on the streets and social injustice, and they both died while their careers were taking off. However, they were from different coasts, and this difference would ultimately overpower all of their similarities.
The two threw punches at each other using their music, with the first punch being thrown by Biggie on Ready to Die in “Who Shot Ya?” and Tupac responding with “Hit ‘Em Up.” The coastal beef resulted in the premature deaths of both artists.
When you listen to All Eyez On Me and Ready to Die, you’re not just listening to incredible hip hop; you’re listening to a unique moment in hip hop history.
Reasonable Doubt started the career of one of the greatest rappers of all time, who has since released some of the most influential and critically acclaimed albums in the genre. It is a blunt, to-the-point album, which was perfect for an artist coming onto the scene and declaring who he was.
The album is also a snapshot of the streets of Brooklyn, with the lines exploring the dark details of the city in an intimate way, especially in “Can’t Knock the Hustle.”
Not only are the lyrics and the rapping on point, but the production is also thoughtful and well-done throughout, specifically in “Dead Presidents 2” and “A Garden of Peace,” and the production is begging to be listened to on vinyl.
For being a debut, Reasonable Doubt has had impressive staying power and cultural significance; just think about how many remixes of “Dead Presidents” you’ve heard. It remains a relevant and beloved album to this day and has earned a spot in any collection.
Another impressive debut released in the 90s is Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly. Missy Elliott is a cultural fixture now, but she had to start somewhere, and boy did she start with a bang. She was a member of the quartet Sista and featured on many songs before the release of her debut, but Supa Dupa Fly proved that she intended to be more than just a cameo.
The album is a little corny, and at the time, many were concerned that it would mark the beginning of the end of “real” hip hop, but it’s also undeniably cool. Part of the cool factor is owed to her producer, Timbaland, who knew exactly how to accompany Missy’s vocals musically. Furthermore, the features on this album are a treat, especially Aaliyah on “Best Friends.”
What makes Supa Dupa Fly so great is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. While many other rappers on the scene in the 90s were trying to prove themselves as the greatest lyricists and rappers of all time, this album is simply fun and quirky, which makes it a breath of fresh air.
Best Lyrics: Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers by Wu-Tang Clan
The lyricism in this 1993 classic is clever, complex, and gritty. There are also great rhyme schemes to be found throughout with impressive wordplay and punchlines, so listening to this album never gets boring because you never know what’s coming next lyrically.
The rhyme styles were so iconic on this album that they inspired the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, and The Notorious BIG. The crew was all talented on their own, but as a collective, they revolutionized the sound and business of hip hop. Because they all had different experiences and humor, they could write different bars with unique styles.
Three tracks stand out lyrically: “Can’t It All Be So Simple,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” and “Tearz.” The storytelling in these tracks is detailed and thoughtful, especially the descriptions of the streets in “Tearz.”
Although the lyrics stand out on this album, the stellar production cannot and should not be ignored. Producer R.Z.A. was only twenty-three when he created the rugged and atmospheric soundscapes on the album, and in doing so, he created a unique style that would inspire many upcoming artists.
I also like the skits on this album, particularly “Torture Skit.” The often funny skits make for a unique and entertaining experience.
Best Storytelling: Illmatic by Nas
Illmatic is a hip-hop milestone that captures its cultural scene so completely that it is truly timeless. The storytelling here is impeccable, as Nas uses the stories of city life to create a piece of art that someone of any culture, race, or religion can relate to; it is a classic tale of a talented artist trying to break away from his troubled home, but also acknowledging that his past has defined his character in undeniable and significant ways.
The stories the album tells are so universal partially because Nas himself was so young but so wise; so he sounds youthful, but the words coming out of his mouth seem older. His accounts of city life are delivered with a gravity that seems beyond a twenty-one-year-old’s capability, yet Nas delivers again and again.
There are also no filler tracks on this album. Each of the ten tracks is listenable and can stand on its own, so there is no wasted space or skips on the album. It is the shortest album on this list, but it packs a punch, even with its short length.
Best Instrumentation: Black on Both Sides by Mos Def
In many ways, Black on Both Sides is a love letter to music itself, and one of my favorite elements about it is its focus on live instrumentation. I particularly love “U.M.I. Says,” in which Mos plays the bass, Weldon Irvine plays organ, and Will.I.Am plays keyboard.
The instrumentation makes this album stand out, but the rhyme construction and flow are equally impressive. The rapid-fire lines are well-constructed, especially in “Speed Law” and “Ms. Fat Booty.”
The features are also exceptional. A clear standout is “Do It Now,” in which Mos Def and Busta Rhymes take turns with verses over a catchy beat produced by Mr. Kahliyi.
Like many other albums on this list, this album celebrates the environment it was created in, and songs like “Brooklyn” provide a glimpse into the gritty glory of the borough. Mos Def is honest about the roughness of his home, but he also expresses his affection for it, especially in “Habitat.”
This is a brilliant album, and the live instrumentation utilized sounds even better on vinyl.
Best Genre Mixing: The Score by Fugees
The Score cemented Fugees’ iconic place in hip-hop history largely because it successfully infused many musical influences in the album, including R&B, pop, reggae, soul, and Caribbean melodies.
The themes of this album are also timeless, as the tracks discuss capitalism, identity, and masculinity in fascinating and thought-provoking ways. Fugees weren’t afraid to get overtly political, especially in “The Beast.” In this track, the group bashes Republican figures by name and highlights the ongoing issues of police brutality and racism in the United States.
My favorite track is “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” because Lauryn Hill gets to take center stage and show off her incredible range, and the song is a brilliant rendition of an already great track.
Best Sampling: Endtroducing….. by D.J. Shadow
This album was released in 1996, but it is so timeless it feels like something that could’ve been released yesterday. The sampled collage of audio clippings contributes to the album’s overall fragmented and chaotic quality, which feels very of the moment. This album proves that anything can be a source for good music, and even though it feels a little haphazard at times, the sampling is clever and intentional and contributes to a coherent piece.
Endtroducing is limitless in what it uses to create music: there are vocal samples, clipped keys, word snippets, dispersed sounds, and more throughout, which makes for a fascinating and textured listening experience that is never boring or predictable.
D.J. Shadow said it best himself: the “sampler is his instrument,” which is evident throughout this album that feels as modern today as it did back then.
Best Production: The Chronic by Dr. Dre
This is the classic debut of one of hip-hop’s most recognizable names. The Chronic redefined West Coast sound and made rap accessible to pop radio, bringing hip-hop to the suburbs. The album also features one of the biggest singles of the 90s: “Nuthin’ But a ‘G.”
Dr. Dre sampled from funk records, which created a groove that was more mellow than hip-hop was before but still carried the hints of danger that hip-hop listeners wanted. Sampling from funk wasn’t necessarily new to hip-hop and rap, but Dr. Dre fused the samples with his own instrumentation, which made for a sound that no one had heard before.
The production on this album is nuanced and interesting. One of my favorites is “Stranded on Death Row,” which uses the gothic organ solos and voices from a live performance of “Do Your Thing” by Isaac Hayes, as well as the guitar from “If It Doesn’t Turn You On” by B.T. express. The result is a soundscape that is as sinister as it is original.
Best Flow: O.G. by Ice-T
O.G. is Ice-T’s longest album, but it flows so well that you don’t even notice how long it is. He even incorporates “New Jack Hustler,” the theme song for New Jack City, into the album without disrupting the flow, which is an impressive feat, as including a track written for a soundtrack often doesn’t work.
Part of the reason this album flows so well is that the overall themes are fully realized and thought out, as he uses his artistry to question the American dream and capitalism.
The lyricism in O.G. is impressive. I always enjoy listening to “Midnight,” which paints an image of the violence on the streets of Los Angeles and a brush with death. Ice-T isn’t afraid to take his time, but he only does so when necessary, establishing trust between him and the listener. If a verse is long, listeners know it’s because Ice-T has something to say.
The more grim storytelling is juxtaposed with moments of refreshing humor, such as “Bitches 2” and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
If having this album on vinyl isn’t enough for you, you can try to track down the VHS tape that accompanied the album’s release. The tape features videos for all twenty-four tracks on the album, including the skits. Some videos are creative or funny, whereas others are just Ice-T standing in front of a black screen and rapping. It would certainly be a unique addition to a hip-hop collection, though.
Hip hop is made to be listened to on vinyl, and if you’re just starting with your collection, these eleven albums are an excellent place to start. This list features varied and high-quality albums and artists that will sound incredible playing in your home. If you can only choose a couple of albums to buy, however, I recommend All Eyez On Me by 2Pac and Ready to Die by The Notorious B.I.G.
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