Hip-Hop is firmly entrenched into the American musical landscape, having emerged out of American politics and musical styles a mere 42 years ago. It can be a divisive genre, though, and those out there who claim not to really feel it perhaps have only ever been exposed to its mainstream radio braggadocio. In actuality, hip-hop’s roots stem from the much older works of jazz, funk, and soul, and extolling those roots may make certain records accessible to naked ears. With that in mind, we’ve selected 10 albums for the hip-hop skeptics and novices that show how the genre is dynamic, musical, unpredictable and compositionally rich. Think of ‘em as the gateway drugs to hip-hop and ch-check it out below (listed in chronological order of their releases). And when you’re ready to graduate to the next stage of hip-hop, take a listen to 12 Classic Hip-Hop Albums That Deserve More Attention.
1. Digable Planets, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)
This is one of the original breakthrough jazzy hip-hop albums and Digable Planets are just so effortlessly cool with it. The trio features the hip male vocals of Butterfly and deeper-voiced Doodlebug, contrasted with the confident flow of a female vocalist in Ladybug Mecca. Horns and stand-up bass lines abound on Reachin’, often blurring the line between jazz club and hip-hop show. The album shot up to the top of the U.S. Rap charts in ‘93, largely on the strength of their unique male/female chemistry and defining attention to jazz at just about every turn. Digable Planets forever immortalized what it meant to be “Cool Like Dat.”
2. Jurassic 5, Quality Control
Jurassic 5 has four MCs, all with completely different styles and voices, yet somehow, they manage to roll them all into one glorious harmony. The music is produced by DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark who quickly became leaders in the modern turntablism movement. Quality Control polished off the underground rap sound into something that touched mainstream radio and was just an all-around friendly listen. Chali 2na’s signature bass voice, makes it seem like the jolly green giant is rapping and singing along to tracks with jazz samples, as MCs Mark VII, Akil and Soup, back him up on the mic. As time wore on, Jurassic 5 transcended hip-hop and brought a new audience into the genre at the peak of it’s Golden Age.
3. Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030
Deltron 3030 serves as an introduction to the hip-hop concept album. Dexterous producer Dan the Automator ropes in an MC with a distinct quirk and whimsical personality in Del tha Funkee Homosapien (he’s Ice Cube’s cousin) and brings a turntablist in Kid Koala along for the ride. Deltron 3030 tells the story of Del, a rap cyborg, fighting against the tyranny of an intergalactic oligarch through hip-hop. It’s super sci-fi and Del’s flow is one of the zaniest and most complex string of bars you’ll ever hear. The album was a cult classic and still stands as a benchmark in the art of a concept album.
4. RJD2, Dead Ringer
One of the most accessible instrumental hip-hop albums, Dead Ringer followes in the mold of DJ Shadow’s landmark Endtroducing in being comprised entirely of samples. Sample-based music critics be damned, as RJD2’s music became a staple in everything from TV commercials to the opening credits of Mad Men. What RJD2 managed to do was to take music we never knew was timeless, and stitch it in a way that made it so. Dead Ringer is notable for its prowess in beat construction, and creating ballads out of instrumentals.
5. Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
The purpose of St. Elsewhere, was to capitalize on the enormity of hip-hop, pop, and soul audiences, and for that, it’s the perfect addition to this list. Producer Danger Mouse brings an eclectic music mix to the table, that paired fluidly with Goodie Mob MC, Cee-Lo Green. On the strength of the global-smash single “Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley and Cee-Lo himself, became household names. From a “Gone Daddy Gone” Violent Femmes cover, to the signature cymbals of “Just A Thought” and the happy-go-lucky “Smiley Faces,” St. Elsewhere extracted the Southern soul of Goodie Mob, and presented it in a package that welcomed new audiences to one of hip-hop’s most gregarious MCs and one of it’s most prolific producers.
6. Kid Cudi, Man on The Moon: The End of Day
Man on The Moon mobilized entire factions of millennials, but it’s beauty is in Kid Cudi’s simple, yet emotionally-packed rhymes. The beats skew towards the spacey, on tracks like “Soundtrack 2 My Lyfe”—a track that also has a pronounced guitar riff that never leaves the bars from the second it opens—to the funk rock explosion of “Enter Galactic (Love Connection Part 1).” Cudi is such a likable dude, that even when he’s musing in his own little incarnation of emo, he appeals to a broad spectrum of listeners. This is especially apparent on “Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare)”, featuring both MGMT & Ratatat, for an incredible result of hip-hop and rock fusing together.
7. The Roots, How I Got Over
This is the most genre-bending album of The Roots’ 11 LPs. The album opens with Dirty Projectors vocalists Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian humming along to a lush piano, before drummer Questlove sparks a fully-formed instrumental revue. It’s the live hip-hop formula that the Roots have done better than anyone, since the group’s inception in the late ‘80s. How I Got Over has features from Monsters of Folk, Joanna Newsom, John Legend, and more. It’s a comprehensive essay in the art of hip-hop as a legit musical endeavor. Questlove’s arrangements and the band behind him can go toe-to-toe with the best of ‘em, no matter what the genre. “Radio Daze” could be the album’s most accessible track, in incorporating background soul singers, live instrumentation, a jazz piano, Dice Raw’s silky hook and smooth flows from Blu and frontman Black Thought. This is just a flat out display of beautiful music.
8. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
MBDTF belongs on this list, for the sheer fact that Kanye West is on the tip of pop culture’s tongue. This is his most well-rounded endeavor, in which he proves with “Lost In The World” that he can pluck even the quaintest of indie rock vocalists (Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon) and weave them masterfully into his own hip-hop fabric. The whole album is wrought with expansive productions, ranging from the sparkle of “All of The Lights” featuring Rihanna, to the beautiful balladry of “Blame Game” featuring John Legend. Kanye West’s persona elicits strong reactions, but MBDTF flashes the musical genius of pop culture’s most polarizing figure.
9. Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap
At an event last week, a new friend told me how she had recently gotten into hip-hop. The first artist she mentioned was Chicago’s Chance the Rapper. It’s a testament to how quickly Chance has risen through the ranks and done it as a completely independent artist. No labels, just music. He has a unique voice and delivery, and a knack for curating a slew of up and coming producers who all share an intriguing musical ideology. Chance comes off as a young hopeful rapper, whose themes range from existential musings on “Acid Rain,” to just plain having fun on “Favorite Song”. And maybe that’s what makes Acid Rap such an engaging listen…that it makes you want to bounce with happiness and pride, rather than anger and angst. The many mood swings of Acid Rap, are a reflection of the dynamic, creative and wonderfully complicated people of millennial America.
10. Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 2
This is about as accessible as inaccessible hip-hop gets. Inadvertently, Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike and El-P became the voice of the voiceless. Their critically acclaimed sophomore album, touched on heavy political themes like police brutality and political corruption, just before names like Eric Garner and Mike Brown became important figures concerning those very issues. (Listen to “Early” and tell me it’s not the exact story of Eric Garner.) To be able to dissect an era of social strife, yet be able to straddle the line between seriousness and playfulness on an album, definitely represents the mark of fluent musicians.
Through the gravity of much of RTJ2, there’s still a permeating aura of two friends having an incredible amount of fun. Among the album’s features, Blink-182’s Travis Barker plays drums on “All Due Respect” and Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha makes a triumphant return to the mic on “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck.”) It’s an example of hip-hop and rock and roll finding common ground around certain themes and a release of like-minded energy. RTJ2 is the essence of what hip-hop has accomplished over time—bridging the gap between people from all walks of life, who belong to different subcultures, through their love of music and ability to express their minds within it.