The Top 20 NYC Rap Albums of All Time: The Complete List


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, the complete list.

20. 50 Cent
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)
The coin drop. You know the one. Right off the top, before tape clicks and cues the building beat of “What Up Gangsta,” 50 Cent makes his presence known–and it only takes a short seven second burst of sound. That’s what 50 Cent does: He makes himself known. And with his debut studio album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, released in 2003, the rapper said hello to the entire world. Under the direction of Dr. Dre and Eminem, the record–which sold just under 900,000 copies in four days and has since been certified six-times platinum–has become a blueprint in how to create success in the rap game. It’s also how 50 Cent became a name recognized by your grandpa. The lead singles “In da Club” and “21 Questions” are bouncy, radio-friendly jams, but tucked away are cuts that embody the attitude of the streets of 50’s Jamaica, Queens. “Many Men (Wish Death)” carries obstinacy. “If I Can’t” shows swag. “Heat” illustrates struggle. Get Rich‘s diversity of sound, combined with the rapper’s mass appeal, speaks to 50 Cent’s quality as a musician and a brand. — Eric Sundermann

19. LL Cool J
Radio (1985)
Bursting onto the scene like a guy who knew he was poised to become a hip-hop legend, Kangol-hat wearing, Queens native James Todd Smith (better known as Ladies Love Cool James) rocked every kind of bell when he dropped his debut album Radio on Def Jam in 1985. Using minimal beats and scratches that were infamously “reduced” by future producing guru Rick Rubin, the callow yet utterly confident Smith (who was just 17 at the time of the album’s release) injected the rap world with swag way before anyone knew what the hell that meant. Radio is littered with boombox anthems — “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” “Rock the Bells,” “I Can Give You More” – that showcased LL’s knack for witty, simplistic and effective rhymes. Ushering both Def Jam’s reign as the premier hip-hop label and Smith’s eternal rep as the genre’s studliest b-boy, Radio gave ghettoblasters all over this great land their own signature soundtrack. — Craig D. Lindsey

18. Run-DMC
Raising Hell (1986)
The first rap album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and arguably rap’s first full-length masterpiece, Raising Hell changed the way the world heard hip-hop. A mere seven years after the genre’s first single was committed to wax, Run-DMC proved what was still being written off as a “fad” had the potential to truly become the next greatest innovation of 20th century American music. While “Walk This Way” fully bridged the gap between rap and the pop-rock world by making an old standard new and exciting again (revitalizing Aerosmith’s career in the process), it also showed how memorable rapping at its most masterful could be. While rap will likely always remain a single-focused medium, Raising Hell proved not only could album-minded hip-hop be done, but could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the efforts of any genre. — Chaz Kangas

17. Slick Rick
The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (1988)
When well executed, rap music’s ability to tell stories has always been one of the genre’s most championed achievements. Perhaps the rap artist most synonymous with storytelling is MC Ricky D, better known as Slick Rick. On his landmark 1988 debut, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, “the eye-patched-one” delivers fable-after-fable, not solely for shock value or braggadocios purposes, but rather as a somewhat-subtle bit of edutainment from someone who’s seen enough to pass the wisdom on. From the cautionary (“Children’s Story”) to the wistful (“Teenage Love”) to the wise (“Hey Young World”) Rick offers quite the poignant guidance in-between a how-to guide of the New York dating scene. Rick became the Ali Baba of late-80s NYC, making The Great Adventures of Slick Rick a treasure-trove of all the emotions hip-hop was capable of resonating in a person alongside some of the most memorable productions of the era. While Rick’s follow-ups would sadly be compromised by subsequent prison time, Great Adventures remains the standard by which all rap storytelling is judged. — Chaz Kangas


16. The Beastie Boys
Licensed To Ill (1986)
Paul’s Boutique may be hailed as the Beastie’s hippest album, complete with its Lower East Side store title prank, but 1986’s Licensed To Ill was the attention-grabbing record that launched the disorderly trio of Ad Rock, Mike D, and MCA as cheap-beer-swilling rap menaces to the world. Overseen by bearded maestro Rick Rubin, the record is a brilliantly gruff experience as monstrous beats are paired with nods to rock riffs and punk ‘tude. Songs like “The New Style” and “Slow And Low” come off as winningly raw and prove that most times rap doesn’t need to be much more than some tough beats and a bunch of rappers trading rhymes and cock-sure flows. At times Licensed To Ill kicks things deliberately uncouth — “I grabbed two girlies and a beer that’s cold!” — but that’s part of the charm of an album that endures as a better late-night dive bar soundtrack than anything else on this list. — Phillip Mlynar

15. EPMD
Strictly Business (1988)
Eric Sermon raps like he looks, half asleep. Parrish too: smooth, but with palpable hints of undeniable anger. And it was often that odd combo that made EPMD (Eric and Parrish Makin’ Dollars) such a unique and exciting duo, the two finishing one another’s sentences in the Beastie mold, but with a finesse the trio lacked. On their 1988 debut, Strictly Business, they managed many a miracle, not the least of which was turning a sample of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” into the backbone of a viable rap track on “You’re a Customer.” But the whole album soars, and on top of the aforementioned “Customer,” “Strictly Business,” “You Gots To Chill,” and “Let the Funk Flow” are all break out songs. Even the silly would-be dance craze that never was, “The Steve Martin,” was unabashed fun, laying down the law for how Otis Redding samples should be utilized in hip-hop. “Time keeps on slippin’,” but Strictly Business remains vital. — Brian McManus

14. De La Soul
3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
A Tribe Called Quest may have gotten all the accolades over the years for being hip-hop’s jazziest innovators, but we shouldn’t forget that their fellow Native Tongues crew members De La Soul were the ones who initially broke free from rap’s ghettofied conventions. On their 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising, this trio of Long Island bohos – Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove (later just Dave) and DJ Maseo – laid down quirky rhymes (“Potholes in My Lawn,” anyone?) over beats provided by the great Prince Paul, who proved that songs from Hall & Oates, Steely Dan and the Turtles (who notoriously sued De La Soul for their song-jacking) had samples that were just as worthy as the average James Brown break. De La Soul may have been seen as hip-hop hippies, creating music for “the D.A.I.S.Y. age” (that’s “da inner sound, y’all”), but they were the first to think outside of the box in the hip-hop arena. — Craig D. Lindsey


13. Jay Z
Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Jay-Z’s debut album could have very well been ripped from the minds of Scorsese or De Palma with its gangster bravado and illicit chaos. As much a protégé of Biggie as he was his contemporary, Jay-Z had an uncanny ability to breathe dimension into gritty rhymes with his quick wit and lyrical dexterity. But real Gs move in silence and unlike his peers, Jay was markedly the quiet hustler, never quite removing the veil even on introspective tracks like “Regrets” and “Can I Live” (“It gets tedious / So I keep one eye open like, C-B-S/ Ya see me stressed right? Can I live?”). Amid a remarkably prolific career that has spanned nearly two decades, Reasonable Doubt is still considered Jay-Z’s magnum opus (and not even bringing the Nets to Brooklyn can top that). — Sowmya Krishnamurthy

12. Beastie Boys
Paul’s Boutique (1989)
While the Beastie Boys’ critically-lauded sophomore album Paul’s Boutique was recorded almost entirely in Los Angeles, the trio’s transplant into the City of Angels managed to flush out exactly what made them such definitively New York artists. The Boys’ abilities as MCs has been somewhat underrated in hip-hop circles. While they’ve never been the “lyrically lyrical spiritual miracle”-types, their styles fully took shape and excelled on Paul’s Boutique as an industrial-strength pop-culture web of every media they’d ever experienced, immaculately complimenting a similarly-minded groundbreaking sample-hodgepodge of a production. This newfound niche captured how New York-influenced they truly were, down to naming the album after a lower east side Manhattan clothing store. With all of its multi-textual references and obscenely layered production, Paul’s Boutique is the rare album that feels like its actually alive, pulsating with a vibrant energy whose relationship with the listener reveals something new with each listen. — Chaz Kangas

11. Ghostface Killah
Supreme Clientele (2000)
Conventional wisdom states that Supreme Clientele is far and above the gem of the second wave of Wu-Tang solo albums. And sometimes, conventional wisdom is such for a reason. Supreme Clientele indeed occupies a very specific space in the Wu-Tang discography. The album is front-to-back amazing and as bizarre as you could hope, from Ghost cutting the best song on the thing (“Saturday Nite”) off halfway through, to him copping to fucking his own fans on “Mighty Healthy” to RZA’s beat on “Stroke of Death,” which centers around a single ominous scratch being run continually back. Written largely during an extended trip to Africa by Ghost and Executive Producer RZA, the album was a lyrical turning point for Ghostface, menacing at times, silly and downright psychedelic at others. It was one of last battle cries from a dying empire, proving that even late in the game Wu-Tang still had one undefeated champion. — By Drew Millard


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

8. Cam’ron
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 10 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

3. Raekwon
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


1. Nas
Illmatic (1994)
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

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