From its humble beginnings to total world domination, hip-hop has spawned countless arguments: Who is the GOAT? What is the greatest rap album of all time? Who is the best rapper alive?
Together, these questions form the foundation of a much larger debate: What is the best year in hip-hop history?
For some, the honor can only be bestowed upon a handful of historically significant years: 1986 (the genre’s commercial breakthrough, spearheaded by Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys), 1988 (the explosion of gangsta rap and N.W.A), 1993 (the West Coast takeover and rise of the G-funk sound, by way of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg), and 1994 (New York’s return to power, led by Nas and Biggie).
For others, it's reserved for those that saw the release of several universally deemed classic albums (i.e. 1989, 1996, and 2000), marked a changing of the guard (a la 1998, 2003, and 2011), or featured a watershed moment (notably, 2001, 2013, and 2015).
Nevertheless, in order to determine the greatest year in hip-hop history－as objectively as possible－we filtered through 45 years of the genre’s existence, picked out the 20 best, and ranked each one with regard to overall greatness. That greatness has been decided according to a few key guidelines. Among other factors, our contenders will be measured by five (mostly objective) categories:
- Certified Classics: The number of classic albums released that year. Since there’s no precise definition of what qualifies as a “classic,” we’ll focus on those projects that were either a) historically significant and/or influential, b) critically acclaimed, or c) an unprecedented commercial success.
- Essential Projects: The number of albums released that year which were great and/or significant, though not-quite classics. In other words, those that were memorable.
- Apex Rappers: The handful of all-time great MCs who were operating at the peak of their powers that year.
- Breakout Stars: The number of up-and-coming rappers who exploded (or were on the precipice of a career breakthrough) that year.
- Watershed Moments: What is the year’s defining moment? Landmark beef? Two rappers battling for the throne? A changing of the guard?
Let’s get to it.
Certified Classics: Eminem, The Eminem Show; Scarface, The Fix; Clipse, Lord Willin'
Essential Projects: Nas, The Lost Tapes; Talib Kweli, Quality; Cam’ron, Come Home with Me; Nelly, Nellyville; The Roots, Phrenology; Nas, God’s Son; Eminem, 8 Mile (Music from and Inspired By the Motion Picture); JAY-Z, The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse; 50 Cent, Guess Who’s Back?; 50 Cent, 50 Cent Is the Future; The Diplomats, Diplomats Vol. 1; Missy Elliott, Under Construction; El-P, Fantastic Damage; Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz, Kings of Crunk
Apex Rappers: Eminem, Nas, JAY-Z
Breakout Stars: 50 Cent, Cam’ron, Pusha T
There are plenty of reasons why 2002 was a forgettable year in hip-hop. So we might as well get ahead of any perceived shots at its top-20 placement by acknowledging the five blemishes on its resume:
- Not one 2002 album release cracks the 50 greatest hip-hop LPs of all-time rankings.
- The year’s best material came from a rapper who peaked eight years earlier (Scarface), the greatest hip-hop band of all time (The Roots), and an underground rapper better known as the Robin to Mos Def’s Batman (Talib Kweli).
- The best rapper alive, JAY-Z, went from winning his beef with Nas and releasing his magnum opus, The Blueprint, in 2001, to exhausting the feud on arguably the worst LP in his entire catalog, The Blueprint 2.
- The most popular rapper alive, Eminem, failed to match the critical success of his masterpiece, 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, with its follow-up, The Eminem Show.
- The year’s biggest rap acts—Nelly, Cam’ron, and Missy Elliott—haven’t aged well, regressing from A-list to cult-like status shortly after peaking in ‘02.
Even so, these flaws are incidental to the year's greatness. If anything, 2002 merely suffers from bad luck, as it caught three of the best rappers ever (JAY-Z, Nas, and Eminem) at the tail end of their primes, and the genre’s next superstar (50 Cent) on the cusp of his own. As a result, ‘02 is often overlooked, and with good reason. The year is bookended by two watershed moments: the JAY-Z-Nas beef, which closed out 2001, and 50 ascending the throne at the top of 2003. Still, the 12 months between were awesomely brilliant.
2002 was the last truly great year for New York hip-hop, as the Mecca dominated everything from the pop charts to the underground mixtape circuit. The first quarter of the year saw Ja Rule solidify his reputation as the best crossover star in the rap game, with three No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 (“Always on Time,” “Ain’t It Funny,” “I’m Real”). As spring turned to summer, Harlem native Cam’ron became the biggest rapper in all five boroughs thanks to a No. 1 album (Come Home with Me) and two top-five hits (“Oh Boy,” “Hey Ma”).
The year’s biggest story featured a rapper who went from being blacklisted by the industry to the center of bidding wars, as 50 Cent secured a $1 million record deal with Shady, Aftermath, and Interscope by flooding the mixtape market that summer with back-to-back classics, Guess Who’s Back? and 50 Cent Is the Future.
Yet the year truly belonged to two Midwest rappers who, together, reached a level of popularity previously reserved for pop stars. That summer, Eminem and Nelly set new standards for commercial success with the releases of their chart-topping albums The Eminem Show and Nellyville, respectively.
Assisted by top-five singles “Without Me” and “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” The Eminem Show debuted atop the Billboard 200 in June, en route to selling three million copies in its first four weeks. Three weeks later, Nelly topped the charts with Nellyville, before notching back-to-back No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Hot in Herre” and “Dilemma,” making him the first act since ‘95 to achieve the feat. “Dilemma” would be replaced as the number-one song in the country by—you guessed it—Eminem, as “Lose Yourself” from the 8 Mile soundtrack would become Em’s first chart-topper and cap off his dominant 2002.
Certified Classics: The Notorious B.I.G., Life After Death; Missy Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly; Puff Daddy & The Family, No Way Out; Wu-Tang Clan, Wu-Tang Forever
Essential Projects: JAY-Z, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1; Mase, Harlem World; Master P, Ghetto D; Twista, Adrenaline Rush; Camp Lo, Uptown Saturday Night; Capone-N-Noreaga, The War Report; Company Flow, Funcrusher Plus; Will Smith, Big Willie Style
Apex Rappers: The Notorious B.I.G., JAY-Z, Ghostface Killah
Breakout Stars: Missy Elliott, Mase, Twista
Bill Simmons established “The Ewing Theory” as a way to explain why teams inexplicably become better after their star player leaves, either due to injury or in a trade. Two elements must be present for a situation to be explained by The Ewing Theory: 1. The team has a star player who receives a lot of attention but never wins anything, and 2. The star player leaves the team and everybody writes off the rest of the players.
Bad Boy’s success in the immediate aftermath of Biggie’s death is hip-hop’s version of The Ewing Theory. In the weeks following his March 9 death, Biggie’s presence loomed large over hip-hop, as his second album, Life After Death, topped the Billboard 200, with lead single “Hypnotize” peaking at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Of course, a market correction remained inevitable. Surely, hip-hop and Bad Boy wouldn’t be able to ride Biggie’s coattails forever. At some point, Puffy would have to find a new MC to carry the label’s mantle, just as the culture would be forced to anoint a new king to fill the vacant seat atop the throne.
The Bad Boy Machine kept chugging along, however. Over the rest of 1997, Puff delivered hit after hit after hit thanks to his debut solo album, No Way Out. The project introduced the world to Bad Boy’s steady stable of stars, which featured the hottest rookie in the game, Mase, the best female rapper alive, Lil’ Kim, up-and-coming R&B singer Faith Evans, hip-hop trifecta The Lox, and two R&B powerhouse groups, 112 and Total.
The dominance of Bad Boy in ‘97: three No. 1 albums (Life After Death, No Way Out, Harlem World); four No. 1 singles (“Hypnotize,” “Mo Money Mo Problems,” “I’ll Be Missing You,” “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”); two No. 2 hits (“It’s All About the Benjamins,” “Been Around the World”); and three additional top-10 singles (“Feel So Good,” “What You Want,” “Lookin’ At Me”).
Of course, Bad Boy wasn’t the only thing popping off. 1997 also featured the return of the Wu-Tang Clan (Wu-Tang Forever, the group's sophomore album, became the first rap album to debut at No. 1 in both the US and UK mainstream charts), the breakthrough of Master P (who saw his sixth album, Ghetto D, go No. 1 off the strength of lead single “Make 'Em Say Uhh”) and the arrival of Missy Elliott (whose debut, Supa Dupa Fly, introduced the rap game to Timbaland’s spacey production). Granted, no rapper was affected more by Biggie’s death than JAY-Z. That November, the up-and-coming MC took advantage of his idol’s absence, cementing his claim as the Best Rapper Alive with his sophomore LP, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. More than anything, the album gave the world a sneak peek of the changing of the guard set to take place in a year’s time.
Certified Classics: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly; Vince Staples, Summertime ’06; Future, DS2
Essential Projects: Young Thug, Barter 6; Dr. Dre, Compton; A$AP Rocky, AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP; Travis Scott, Rodeo; Future, 56 Nights and Beast Mode; Rae Sremmurd, Sremmlife; Meek Mill, Dreams Worth More Than Money; Fetty Wap, Fetty Wap; Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late; Earl Sweatshirt, I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside
Apex Rappers: Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Future
Breakout Stars: Fetty Wap, Vince Staples, Travis Scott
Since hip-hop’s golden age, the rap game has been governed by one rule: there can only be one king. It’s why most battles for hip-hop’s heavyweight title end definitively, with one rapper emerging the new king of rap, and the other exiled from the throne. Once lost, rarely is the crown reclaimed.
An exception to this rule, of course, is the power struggle that’s defined hip-hop this decade. Unlike past battles, the Drake-Kendrick Cold War has been unrelenting, with both rappers contesting the title of Biggest Rapper Alive over the past seven years. As a result, they’ve become the first co-kings of the hip-hop kingdom.
Three years on, 2015 still remains the defining year of the rivalry, a point by which Drake and Kendrick had already spent three years fighting over hip-hop’s top spot.
While Drake had the upper hand entering 2015, all eyes were on Kendrick and the forthcoming release of his follow-up to good kid, m.A.A.d city. You know what happened next—the rap gods gifted us a four-week period featuring new material from both rappers: Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late in February and Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly in March. Together, the projects marked a rare moment when the two best rappers of a generation peaked at the same time. Within weeks, TPAB was being praised as Kendrick’s magnum opus, while IYRTITL was proof positive that, yes, when he wanted to, Drake could actually rap really well.
This narrative alone made 2015 a legendary year, but the ascent of a third hip-hop superstar cemented its place alongside the greatest in rap history. With all eyes on hip-hop’s two biggest stars, Future quietly became the hottest rapper alive. His career-defining run began with a trilogy of album-quality mixtapes, Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights (released between October 2014 and March 2015), peaked with his magnum opus, DS2, in July, and culminated with What a Time to Be Alive, his joint mixtape with Drake—a victory lap for both artists—in September.
Certified Classics: JAY-Z, The Blueprint; Nas, Stillmatic
Essential Projects: Ludacris, Word of Mouf; Jadakiss, Kiss the Game Goodbye; Ja Rule, Pain Is Love; Fabolous, Ghetto Fabolous; Missy Elliott, Miss E... So Addictive; Aesop Rock, Labor Days
Apex Rappers: JAY-Z, Nas, Eminem
Breakout Stars: Ja Rule, Jadakiss, Fabolous
2001 featured hip-hop’s last watershed moment, which found the two best rappers alive (JAY-Z and Nas) locked in the greatest rap beef of all time (yes, better than Pac/Biggie), culminating with two of the three best diss songs in rap history (“Takeover” and “Ether”), all to decide the most important title in hip-hop: King of New York.
By 2001, JAY-Z and Nas had circled one another for years. They had been exchanging subliminals as far back as 1996, when JAY-Z sampled Nas on “Dead Presidents” from his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, leading to Nas indirectly calling him out for copping a Lexus with TV sets (since Nas bought it first, of course) on “The Message,” the opening track to his sophomore LP, It Was Written. Biggie’s death the following year increased the underlying tension between both rappers, pitting them against one another in a battle for the vacant seat atop New York’s throne.
It didn’t take long, however, for JAY-Z to capture the crown by unanimous decision. After Jay became a full-blown pop star with ‘98’s Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, Nas followed with back-to-back flops in the same year, 1999’s I Am… and Nastradamus, then attempted to save face by dissing JAY-Z repeatedly until the calendar flipped to 2000. With Nas' verbal assault falling on deaf ears, JAY-Z seemingly ended the debate by letting the numbers do the talking, releasing his second consecutive No. 1 album, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter, in December ‘99.
Oddly enough, in the summer of 2001, JAY-Z decided to throw gasoline on the then-simmering fire with his performance at Hot 97’s Summer Jam. For the first time on record, JAY-Z put Nas on blast during the premiere of an unreleased track, the yet-to-be-titled “Takeover.” Two months later, a polished version of the record appeared on The Blueprint, seemingly crowning JAY-Z winner by TKO. Of course, JAY-Z’s victory lap lasted only three months before Nas returned with “Ether,” arguably the most electrifying diss track ever laid to wax. The song not only helped Nas save his public perception, if not win the beef outright, but single-handedly revived his career leading up to the release of Stillmatic, which would go on to become widely accepted as his best body of work since Illmatic.
With New York’s two alpha dogs leading the way, 2001 dawned a new golden era for the city’s hip-hop scene. Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc. became the hottest label in the game thanks to superstar Ja Rule (whose third album, Pain Is Love, debuted atop the Billboard 200 and generated two No. 1 singles, “Always On Time” and “I’m Real”); DMX continued his dominant commercial run with The Great Depression, his fourth consecutive album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200; The Lox’s Jadakiss released an impressive solo debut, Kiss tha Game Goodbye; and Fabolous cemented his case as a budding crossover star on his first album, Ghetto Fabolous, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200.
And yet, The Mecca wasn’t the only hip-hop epicenter amidst a hot-streak. Down South, Atlanta's Ludacris catapulted into the mainstream with his second album, Word of Mouf, which produced four top-30 hits; while Missy Elliott's acclaimed third album, Miss E... So Addictive, would spawn a GRAMMY-winning top-10 hit in "Get Ur Freak On."
Certified Classics: Kanye West & JAY-Z, Watch the Throne; Drake, Take Care; A$AP Rocky, LIVE.LOVE.A$AP; Danny Brown, XXX
Essential Projects: Kendrick Lamar, Section.80, Lil Wayne, Tha Carter IV; J. Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story; Meek Mill, Dreamchasers; Wiz Khalifa, Rolling Papers; Tyler, The Creator, Goblin; The Roots, Undun
Apex Rappers: Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Drake
Breakout Stars: Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, J. Cole
Every basketball fan remembers the four-year stretch from 2008 to 2011 when Kobe and LeBron battled for Best Basketball Player Alive status. LeBron, in his early-to-mid 20s, was at his athletic peak and, statistically, the better basketball player. Kobe, in his early 30s, had more experience, a higher basketball IQ, and a handful of rings. Most fans agreed that LeBron was better in the regular season, while Kobe was the guy you wanted leading your team in the postseason. Entering the 2010-11 NBA season, in spite of LeBron’s back-to-back league MVPs, Kobe maintained Best Player Alive status by winning back-to-back championships. It wasn’t until LeBron won the 2012 NBA Finals that the torch was passed.
From 2009 to 2011, the Kanye-Drake rivalry operated under similar conditions, with Drake cementing his status as the Hottest Rapper Alive by loading up on regular season awards (particularly, in rattling off No. 1 after No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart). Kanye, meanwhile, like Kobe, saved his best work for the postseason. In 2010, he reaffirmed his Best Rapper Alive status by one-upping Drake’s rap album of the year contender, Thank Me Later, with his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Entering 2011, the question was no longer if, but when, Drake would reign atop Mount Olympus, but an official coronation was postponed until he beat the incumbent king head-to-head. Unlike basketball fans, hip-hop heads were fortunate enough to see Kanye and Drake go toe-to-toe for the title, as both rappers announced their forthcoming projects (Watch the Throne and Take Care, respectively) at the start of the new year.
With the stakes set, Drake waited until May to throw down the gauntlet with his opening verse on DJ Khaled’s posse cut “I’m On One,” which saw the Boy take a direct shot at hip-hop’s top spot, rapping, “I’m just feeling like the throne is for the taking / Watch me take it.” Weeks later, he threw more subliminal barbs on “Dreams Money Can Buy,” rapping, "And I feel like lately it went from top five to remaining five / My favorite rappers either lost it or ain't alive." In June, he continued his hot streak with the instant classic, “Marvins Room.” At that point, it felt like the war was already decided before the battle had commenced. With Drake riding high and approaching the peak of his powers, Kanye and JAY-Z were in hibernation, having spent the past six months—since releasing Watch the Throne's underwhelming first single, “H.A.M.,” that January—without announcing so much as an album release date or follow-up single.
Alas, the passing of the torch would prove to be premature. That August, the arrival of Watch the Throne reminded hip-hop that Kanye (and JAY-Z) wouldn’t be relinquishing the rap game’s top spot anytime soon. The project lived up to its insurmountable hype, a grandiose body of work that featured some of the best production in Kanye’s career (“Otis”), the best bars JAY-Z had spit in years (“No Church in the Wild,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Why I Love You"), and two songs that will be included in both rappers’ greatest hits (“Otis” and “N***** In Paris”).
Ultimately, Drake wouldn't stay second fiddle for long. He waited out the rest of the game that fall, watching from the sidelines as his peers struggled to make noise on the heels of WTT—highlighted by notable debut albums from Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, The Creator, and J. Cole, groundbreaking mixtapes from A$AP Rocky and Danny Brown, and Lil Wayne’s heavily-anticipated Tha Carter IV. That November, Drake returned with his long-awaited sophomore album, Take Care. After the dust settled, it was clear that he made good on his word. Not only did he craft a classic, but the throne was, finally, his alone.
Correction: LeBron James won the 2012 NBA Finals, not the 2011 NBA Finals.