Any list of the Greatest New York Rap Albums of All Time is, essentially, a list of simply the Greatest Rap Albums of All Time. The genre was invented here, after all, and over the years — from early days to Golden Age and onward– the city’s hip-hop history has been an embarrassment of riches. Fashioning this list, then, was no easy task, and though some of the albums on it are of the “DUH” variety, a couple may surprise you. Here now, our list of the Top 20 NYC Rap Albums of All Time, 10 – 1.
Liquid Swords (1995)
GZA’s always had a way with words, and on 36 Chambers his wit and slurred, somewhat-muted delivery made him stand a bit taller than the other MCs in his Clan. That album served as an amuse bouche for Liquid Swords, GZA’s deft main course, which revealed in one fell swoop that most other rappers, comparatively, had lyrics as weak as clock radio speakers. How good is the album? So good it might even convince you that skits between songs don’t suck. Of course, it helps when said skits include Shoguns being decapitated and a Samurai imparting knowledge to his son while still an infant. (“Chooooose the ball…”) Add to them the unforgettable cover art–DC-Milestone Comics chief Denys Cowan packing every Wu-cliche (martial arts, chess, neck protecting and the lack thereof) into one stunning and brutal illo — and GZA’s always impeccable rhymes, and what you have is an instant classic, one the MC is now paid real American dollars to play live in its entirety. “Liquid Swords,” “Duel of the Iron Mic,” “Living in the World Today,” “Labels,” “Cold World”: The album seldom misses (we could do without “B.I.B.L.E.”), and when it hits, it kills. — Brian McManus
9. Jay Z
The Blueprint (2001)
Stuffed with swagger from the very second you hit Play, The Blueprint was a statement to anybody who might have been paying attention that the God MC did indeed run this rap shit on every tip, be it artistic or commercial, absolutely destroying his competition (“Takeover”), going confessional (“Song Cry,”), commercial (“Izzo”), or playful (“Girls, Girls, Girls”). The Blueprint offered a Jay-Z at the height of his powers, hitting a stride that never really went away. — Drew Millard
Purple Haze (2004)
After almost a year of delayed release dates, Purple Haze finally saw the light of day at the end of 2004. Though often written off as eccentric with an ego too massive to impart any noteworthy lyrics about self reflection and moments of vulnerability, Cam’ron does muster up some humility here and there (check “SDE” if you’re doubtful). It’s just enough to keep from appearing completely amoral, but still it feels genuine. It makes you realize that Cam’s smirking dexterity comes from actually being great at what he does. And though Purple Haze may be one of his more unapologetic and ostentatious works, it was also his least dark. Choosing to rely on the tried and true soul sampled Dip Set sound, he went with more upbeat fodder for loops and interpolations like “More Reasons” and “Soap Opera.” The content was still about flipping birds and getting fly, but Cam’s eye for detail is unquestionable, a trait only matched by Ghostface. On Haze Cam dropped the infectious “Get ‘Em Girls” and “Shake” to rock clubs all through the Midwest, plus “The Dope Man” for his California constituents. The lump sum of all those records left a New York City classic in it’s wake at a time when few New York rappers were finding it difficult to maintain any consistent relevance. — J. Pablo
7. A Tribe Called Quest
The Low End Theory (1991)
A Tribe Called Quest’s second album closes with “Scenario,” a rambunctious rhyme-for-all that’s powered by a ramped-up rowdy beat, features a show-stealing turn by Leaders Of The New School’s Busta Rhymes, and is in with a decent shout of claiming the spoils as rap’s greatest ever posse cut. Before that though, Q-Tip, Phife and Ali offered up 13 songs that dwell in a dark and dusky zone, with tracks crafted around the pared-down formula of deep bass loops and canny drum breaks. Over Tribe’s most seductive sonic concoction, the raps spew forth with an air of effortlessness: Stream-of-conscious tinged verses from the Abstract interplay lovely with Phife’s peppy sports-referential raps, while both MCs check their egos and personal problems at the door to rhyme back and forth in a voice of unison. And in “Check The Rhime,” Tribe coined a joyful rap anthem guaranteed to leave a perma-smile on the listener’s face, complete with a video that has them coming live from Linden Boulevard. — Phillip Mlynar
6. The Wu-Tang Clan
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
36 Chambers was, and still is, perhaps one of hip-hop’s most bizarre classic albums: A motley crew of nine emcees, including breakout solo stars Method Man, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, spitting free-associative lyrics about street life imbued with Kung-Fu references, eerie humor and some damn good rapping. Catalyzed by tracks like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Protect Ya Neck,” the landmark album redefined NY street rap while RZA’s menacing, soul-laden soundscapes indelibly changed the art of hip-hop beat-making, influencing generations of producers thereafter including Kanye West and Just Blaze. Wu-Tang itself has since become its own cottage culture, vastly spreading the gospel of Shaolin to the world at large. — Sowmya Krishnamurthy
5. Public Enemy
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
Chuck D once famously said rap music is “CNN for black people.” He just happens to be the guy who made the album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, that proved it. Nation of Millions is like graduate level course in black history, black nationalism and black revolution: Farrakhan, Chesimard, Garvey, and a host of other leaders (Barkley!) get name-checked from Chuck’s podium at the head of the class, over Hank Shocklee and Carl Ryder’s bold and innovative production. The album won our Pazz & Jop poll in ’88, and in the issue that year Robert Christgau wrote it’s “the bravest and most righteous experimental pop of the decade.” Turns out, that remains 100-percent correct. — Brian McManus
4. Eric B & Rakim
Paid in Full (1987)
Paid in Full is hip-hop’s essential document, the reason the rappers you already love began rapping in the first place, and rapped the way they did. It’s also the source of some of the most frequently quoted lyrics in all of hip-hop. With Eric. B providing a brilliantly sourced backdrop, Rakim transformed Paid in Full into a collection of indelible songs, with the most versatile rhymes ever spit, including what is still, arguably, the greatest line ever written in rap, on “My Melody.” Rap it with us: “I take seven MC’s put ’em in a line/ Add seven more brothers who think they can rhyme/ It’ll take seven more before I go for mine/ Now that’s 21 MC’s ate up at the same time.” From the snarling opener “I Ain’t No Joke” to the iconic opening lines and scratching tutorial of the title track, Paid in Full was the first golden age album that sounded fully formed, containing all the essential ingredients that came to define rap. — Jonah Bromwich
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)
The movie samples, the soulful production, even the interludes about dying Wallabees and dudes who emulate their styles: Every aspect of Raekwon’s solo debut was without flaw. Though ODB and Method Man had already released their debuts, the anticipation for Only Built 4 Cuban Linx unreal, and it stood up to the high expectations. The intro finds Ghost and Rae about to embark on a final attempt to reach “a pot of gold” by selling drugs. The cinematic lyrics and dark, haunting production that follow made for the perfect mobster movie aesthetics in song form. Cuts like “Rainy Dayz,” “Verbal Intercourse” and “Ice Water” illustrated the street life in such detail every notable New York rap album that followed OB4CL‘s summer of 1995 release took a page from Raekwon’s rhyme book. Even Nas, the only non Wu member to be invited to rap on a Wu project at the time, revamped his image the following year to suit the wave Rae and Ghost started by renaming himself Escobar and injecting more crime boss isms to the mix. Which makes sense, when you consider it’s the most influential New York rap album next to his own Illmatic. That kind of influence buys you a number three spot on the best NYC rap albums of all time list, no doubt. — J. Pablo
2. The Notorious B.I.G.
Ready to Die (1994)
The perfect rap bildungsroman, on Ready to Die The Notorious B.I.G. vividly wove poignant, funny and sometimes altogether horrifying tales of growing up in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn at the height of the crack epidemic, whilst still maintaining a commercial sheen thanks to the adept executive production of a young Sean “Diddy” Combs. The bleakness of “Things Done Changed” or “Suicidal Thoughts” was offset by the braggadocio and excess of “Big Poppa.” Lead by the seminal rags-to-riches anthem “Juicy”–which every bonafide rap fan is expected to be able to recite word-for-word– Ready to Die immediately anointed Biggie as the “King of New York” in hip-hop’s Pantheon; a title many fervently believe he still holds 16 years after his death. — Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Amongst the sins that Lupe Fiasco has committed (snubbing Tribe, releasing Lasers), one of the most unforgiveable was the subtitle of Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album. No one’s going to fault ambition or self-aggrandizement, particularly not in rap music. But we already have the great American rap album and we’ve had it for some time now. That album, the platonic ideal of any New York (and thus, any American) rap album is Illmatic.
The stats, quickly: 10 tracks. Thirty-eight minutes of flawless rapping, without a single wack line. A dream team of producers, all of them operating at their apex, contributing to a coherent, well-defined sound. Five mics.
“I don’t know how to start this shit,” Nas mutters, at the beginning of “New York State of Mind.” That’s the last time you’ll hear him hesitate. Over a divine Primo beat, he jets out, monkey-flipping other rappers, laying out his domain, baseheads near the corner, E&J brandy up in the stairway. It’s cinematic, vivid, an undeniably full portrait of Queensbridge in the early ’90’s, details so real you could scrape them off your shoes.
Eight songs follow, each as fully realized as the last. The Gap Band provides a lugubrious nostalgia to contrast with AZ’s snub-nosed nihilism. Large Professor sets the mood at “Halftime;” Nas wears Nikes and chains that excite the feds, in the streets with a ton of reefer, chilling with his fronts out, shouting out 40 side, John Jay high school, and all five boroughs.
Illmatic straddles two golden eras of Hip-Hop, marrying the late ’80s and mid-90s into an undeniable fusion of pitch-perfect rapping and timeless, evocative production. It’s the definitive rap classic because it defines how rich a rap album can be. It creates a world in which the specifics fill themselves in, an immaculate rendering of a one man’s everyday life that encompasses an entire universe, extant within six blocks of New York City pavement. — Jonah Bromwich