It's an extremely difficult task to create an album that's excellent, timeless and unforgettable. Trying to carry that magic over to multiple albums, all connected in one continuous series, is an even more monumental task. Many a classic album has had a sequel (or two) that just can't hold a candle to its predecessor: Illmatic to Stillmatic, Marshall Mathers LP to MMLP2, Tical to either of its follow-ups—the list goes on.
Of course, every so often we're blessed with a hip-hop album series that actually proves it's possible to craft a sequel or two that matches or exceeds the prototype. There are countless series that have offered hip-hop heads like myself years of enjoyment—Deltron 3030 and it’s successor, Guru’s four volumes of Jazzmatazz, Curren$y’s Pilot Talk trilogy—but after digging deep, we came up with five album series that are truly worthy of top five status.
Ladies and gentleman, here are the five best hip-hop album series, ranked.
5. Run The Jewels - RTJ Series (Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 2, Run The Jewels 3)
Standout Tracks: “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” ft. Zach de la Rocha, "Legend Has It"
The Hall of Fame-worthy run of Killer Mike and El-P was chosen despite its recency for the overwhelming quality of its content—that and because the production on Stillmatic is garbage, sorry Nas.
Aside from having some of the best song titles of all time and snagging two features from Rage Against The Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha, Jaime and Mike flipped the script on what a collaboration could become, reigniting both of their careers in the process. Killer Mike's social commentary is second to none in 2017, especially when placed in conjunction with his numerous fantastic TV appearances over the past few years, and El-P's production is legitimately ahead of its time.
These two are currently putting out some of the most relevant, seething, witty hip-hop the culture has seen in decades and considering they’re giving all their albums away for free, they’re not selling too bad, either.
4. Jay Z - Volumes Series (In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter)
Standout Tracks: “Intro: A Million And One Questions / Rhyme No More,” “Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)” / “Big Pimpin'”
Although The Blueprint is widely regarded as one of Hov’s best projects (if not the best), its successors failed to boast anywhere near the same level of quality that the original contains. The “Volumes” series, however, is Jay in his lyrical prime throughout, and also features some of his biggest commercial hits.
While Vol. 1—widely regarded as a near-classic brought down by the inclusion of an ill-advised track or two (Hov agrees)—found Jay Z switching up his sound in pursuit of a larger audience, by the release of Vol. 2, Hov had perfected the balance he'd been trying to achieve, producing some of the greatest songs and biggest hits in his catalog. While Vol. 3 may not quite live up to the standards the first two volumes set, it's still a great album, and it gave us "Big Pimpin'," which can still turn up any function nearly 20 years later.
We’re talking about a run of albums that not only featured some of the most lyrical hip-hop in the burgeoning mainstream but collectively the trio sold over 10 million copies, placing it just under Eminem’s Marshall Mathers series for the highest selling hip-hop album series of all-time.
3. Dr. Dre - Chronic Series (The Chronic, 2001)
Standout Tracks: “Nuthin' But A "G" Thang” / “Still D.R.E.”
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Though almost 10 years apart, The Chronic and 2001 both set new standards for hip-hop production upon release, as well as commercial performance, and he did both while keeping it a family affair.
A few exceptions aside, both albums sidestepped large profile collaborations outside of Dre’s camp in favor of repeat appearances from the Aftermath founder’s close circle of artists including Daz and Kurupt, Snoop Dogg, D.O.C. and Hittman among others. With The Chronic, Dre put West Coast G-Funk on the map as a legitimate contender to the East Coast's domination at the time, and also catapulted Snoop Dogg into stardom without so much as a single project to his name.
10 years later with 2001, Dre proved he was still capable of delivering a classic album, and having done the same thing for Eminem that he'd done for Snoop Dogg a decade earlier, seeing all three of them on this album was the ultimate summation of Dre's A&R abilities.
Given that Compton was average, and Detox isn't real, these two albums still have the ability to make any given person lose their shit, and they both have held up incredibly well.
2. Lil Wayne - Carter Series (Tha Carter I - IV)
Standout Tracks: “Go DJ” / “Hustler Musik” / “A Milli” / “6 Foot 7 Foot” ft. Cory Gunz
Good lord, this run by Lil Wayne has been ferocious, and with Tha Carter V still behind bars at the Cash Money offices, it’s not even over yet.
The first installment of the Carter series upgraded Wayne from New Orleans Hot Boy to a mainstream solo rap star, while Tha Carter II cemented Wayne's position as one of the best rappers in the game and kickstarted a mixtape/album reign that would dominate the next half-decade. Though Tha Carter IV didn't offer much in terms of artistic progression, Tha Carter III was one of the most hyped rap albums of all-time and confirmed Wayne's status as not only the biggest rapper but a bona fide superstar whose influence went well beyond hip-hop circles.
The Carter albums are Wayne at his most focused and lyrical, despite the multiple evolutions he underwent throughout the series' duration, which spans over seven years. Collectively, the Carter albums have sold over 9.5 million copies, and in their wake have produced one of the biggest rap stars in music history.
1. Kanye West - College Series (The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation)
Standout Tracks: “Through The Wire” / “Drive Slow” / “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
Long before the on-stage rants and his love/hate relationship with Donald Trump, Kanye West put out a trio of albums that will forever be regarded as some of the greatest of all time, all connected by a Dropout Bear mascot.
Kanye was able to bridge the gap between social awareness and braggadocio better than anyone in recent memory, and the production across all three albums set the tone for their surrounding eras. Much like Lil Wayne's Carter series, Kanye's classic album three-peat chronicles the rise of a legitimate superstar from the seed of a rapper that truly crafted his own lane in the midst of the streetwise, 50 Cent-dominated sound of the time. Without the increasing emotional vulnerability that was showcased throughout these releases, we might not have a Cudi, a Kendrick, a Chance or countless other emcees that grew up listening to Kanye tell them it was cool to have feelings.
From "Slow Jamz" to "Jesus Walks" to "Gold Digger" to "Stronger" and beyond, Ye dominated the mainstream with a slew of massive singles while also gifting hip-hop lovers with cohesive, fully realized albums stacked with gems from front to back. Kanye later proved that his talents went far beyond album series, but his opening trio of loosely-connected masterpieces will forever hold a special place in the hearts of many.
Considering Chance The Rapper has recently taken up the quest of reviving the long-hinted-at fourth album in this series, Good Ass Job, we could eventually see an official close to one of the greatest album series ever.
By Brent Bradley. Yell at him about Nas and Eminem's exclusion from this list on Twitter.