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, 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: Young Jeezy, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101; Common, Be; Kanye West, Late Registration; The Game, The Documentary; Lil Wayne, Tha Carter II; Little Brother, The Minstrel Show
Essential Projects: Beanie Sigel, The B. Coming; 50 Cent, The Massacre; Mike Jones, Who Is Mike Jones?; Sean Price, Monkey Barz
Apex Rappers: 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Kanye West
Breakout Stars: Young Jeezy, The Game, Mike Jones
By the midpoint of the 2000s, hip-hop’s new class had already announced its arrival. 2002 saw Cam’ron supplant JAY-Z as the biggest rapper in New York on the back of hit singles “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma.” In 2003, 50 cemented his claim as the Hottest Rapper Alive with his debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and T.I. proclaimed himself King of the South on his classic second album, Trap Muzik. And in 2004, Lil Wayne made the leap to national star with Tha Carter, while Kanye West proved to be more than just a superstar producer with The College Dropout.
2005 marks the year when rap’s new generation was officially established, with three more rookies emerging to give hip-hop’s new class a talented rotation of all-stars. In January, Compton’s The Game re-energized a then-dormant West Coast with The Documentary. The album debuted atop the Billboard 200 and produced two top-five singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 (“How We Do” and “Hate It or Love It”). That April, Houston’s Mike Jones saw his debut, Who Is Mike Jones?, climb to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 thanks to two top-20 singles, “Back Then” and “Still Tippin’.” And, in July, Atlanta’s Young Jeezy dropped his long-awaited debut, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, marking the approaching dominance of trap music as a commercial force.
Of course, the year’s most-anticipated album belonged to 50 Cent, who was busy building buzz off of its first two singles, “Disco Inferno” and “Candy Shop,” and his scene-stealing guest verses on The Game’s album. The Massacre arrived in March, and once again, 50 achieved pop star numbers with the release, as the album sold 1.15 million copies in its first four days, giving him the third-largest opening week ever for a hip-hop album.
At that moment, it would’ve been difficult to believe that any rapper not named 50 Cent would not only occupy the throne but go down as the defining star of the post-JAY-Z era. But in the second half of 2005, two rappers forced us to reconsider. Kanye pleaded his case first, dropping his sophomore album, Late Registration, in August. From the jump, it supplanted his classic debut both commercially and critically, topping the Billboard 200 and generating the first No. 1 single of his career, “Gold Digger.” Then, in December, Lil Wayne struck gold with his fifth album, Tha Carter II. Along with introducing him to a mainstream audience thanks to the hit single “Fireman,” C2 served as the beginning of Wayne’s forthcoming, four-year reign atop hip-hop.
Certified Classics: Kanye West, Yeezus; Drake, Nothing Was the Same; Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap
Essential Projects: A$AP Rocky, LONG.LIVE.A$AP; J. Cole, Born Sinner; Pusha T, My Name Is My Name; Young Thug, 1017 Thug; Earl Sweatshirt, Doris; Danny Brown, Old; Mac Miller, Watching Movies with the Sound Off; Tyler, The Creator, WOLF; Action Bronson, Blue Chips 2; Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels; Childish Gambino, Because the Internet
Apex Rappers: Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole
Breakout Stars: Chance the Rapper, Young Thug, Action Bronson
Every hip-hop generation is made up of at least two micro-generations: smaller factions that sprout up every few years to form the larger unit that becomes attached to a decade and labeled a “generation.” For example, the 1990s can be divided into three regimes: Cube/Q-Tip/Snoop, in the early ’90s; Nas/Biggie/2Pac, in the mid-’90s; and JAY-Z/Eminem/DMX, in the late-’90s. Rarely, though, do all three mico-generations overlap, let alone peak at the same time. Which brings us to 2013.
If any year this decade could be considered a new golden age for hip-hop, it’s 2013. Although it can’t be confined to a single narrative like 2011 (which saw Kanye and JAY-Z pass the torch to Drake), lacks a watershed moment like 2015 (the Drake-Meek feud), and doesn’t have an album as good as 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, 2013 is the greatest year for hip-hop not only this decade, but in the last 15 years.
To start, the year featured high-profile releases from four distinct hip-hop generations, capturing a significant transition of power in real time: the forefathers had their victory lap (as JAY-Z and Eminem showed flashes of their peak selves on Magna Carta... Holy Grail and The Marshall Mathers LP 2); a weathered king gave forth his best chance at maintaining the crown (by way of Kanye’s Yeezus); the ruling class captured the throne for good (with Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, Kendrick’s verse on “Control,” and Cole’s Born Sinner); and the rookie class announced its arrival (with breakthrough mixtapes from Chance the Rapper and Young Thug: Acid Rap and 1017 Thug, respectively)
If that wasn’t enough, the year had superb offerings from your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper (Pusha T), your favorite nihilistic rapper (Earl Sweatshirt), your favorite eccentric rapper (Danny Brown), your favorite cynical rapper (Tyler, The Creator), your favorite meditative rapper (Mac Miller), and your favorite hipster rapper (Childish Gambino).
Certified Classics: De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising; Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique, Geto Boys, Grip It! On That Other Level; The D.O.C, No One Can Do It Better; EPMD, Unfinished Business; Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Road to the Riches, Queen Latifah, All Hail the Queen
Essential Projects: Big Daddy Kane, It’s a Big Daddy Thing; Jungle Brothers, Done by the Forces of Nature
Apex Rappers: Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick
Breakout Stars: The D.O.C., Kool G Rap, Queen Latifah
1989 was forced into the impossible position of following in the footsteps of the greatest and most influential year in hip-hop history to date. So, like any good-but-not-great sequel, it brought back the same cast, followed the same beats, introduced a few new characters, and road the coattails of a transcendent song. Sure, it wasn’t on the short list of sequels that topped the original (a la The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight), nor did it match the quality of its predecessor, but it was solid nonetheless, which, given the context, is a big win.
Here’s how 1989 marked each box on the ‘How to Make a Great Sequel’ manual:
1. Bring back the same cast
Four of 1989’s best LPs were follow-ups to a particular artist’s magnum opus: Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique; Big Daddy Kane, It’s a Big Daddy Thing; EPMD, Unfinished Business; Jungle Brothers, Done by the Forces of Nature. In all four cases, the ‘88 predecessor remained superior, though this doesn’t make its ‘89 successor a failure. If you need more convincing, here’s where Complex ranks each offering on its list of the best rap albums of the ‘80s.
- Beastie Boys: 1986’s Licensed to Ill (5), 1989’s Paul’s Boutique (17)
- Big Daddy Kane: 1988’s Long Live the Kane (8), 1989’s It’s a Big Daddy Thing (25)
- EPMD: 1988’s Strictly Business (10), 1989’s Unfinished Business (23)
- Jungle Brothers: 1988’s Straight Out the Jungle (16), 1989’s Done By the Forces of Nature (44)
In short, the second offerings only disappointed in light of their predecessors. On their own, though, they give ‘89 a solid catalog of all-time albums, and that’s before you take into account five more classic releases: 3 Feet High and Rising, No One Can Do It Better; Grip It! On That Other Level, Road to the Riches, and All Hail the Queen.
2. Introduce a few new characters
By ‘89, hip-hop’s ruling class had been firmly established for a few years. In need of fresh blood, the rap game received three unique MCs: Kool G Rap, The D.O.C., and Queen Latifah. While we credit Nas, Raekwon, JAY-Z, and Biggie for creating mafioso rap, Kool G Rap is the true forefather of the sub-genre. On his 1989 debut album with DJ Polo, Road to the Riches, Kool G Rap created a blueprint with his vivid storytelling and organized crime themes. You could make a great case that he was the best rapper alive in ‘89.
Backed by Dr. Dre’s production, 21-year-old Texas native The D.O.C. went from behind-the-scenes writer to star rapper on his 1989 debut, No One Can Do It Better. Only two months later, The D.O.C. was involved in a near-fatal car accident which resulted in the crushing of his larynx, permanently changing his voice, and in turn, making him one of the tragic figures of hip-hop’s golden age.
While she wasn't the first female rap star, Queen Latifah kicked down gender doors with her ‘89 debut album, All Hail the Queen. The Queen struck gold with a balance of black female empowerment and undeniable rap skill, becoming not only a crossover star but an influence for all women in rap to come.
3. Find a transcendent song
What do you do after making one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever? Make a song so big, so important, that it transcends the genre to become the political anthem of its time. In 1989, Public Enemy did just that. In late ‘88, shortly after releasing arguably the most influential album in the history of the genre—1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back—Public Enemy recorded “Fight the Power” for Spike Lee’s directorial film debut, Do the Right Thing. It was released in June ‘89 to instant acclaim, with rap critics praising Chuck D’s lyrics and The Bomb Squad’s production for matching the nation’s political fervor. In the 29 years since, its legend has only continued to grow, with the majority of music scholars citing it as not only one of the most important songs in hip-hop history, but in all of mainstream music.
Certified Classics: Dr. Dre, The Chronic; Redman, Whut? Thee Album; The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde; Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Mecca and the Soul Brother
Essential Projects: Arrested Development, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of...; Ice Cube, The Predator; Gang Starr, Daily Operation; Eric B & Rakim, Don’t Sweat the Technique; Compton’s Most Wanted, Music to Driveby; Das EFX, Dead Serious; UGK, Too Hard to Swallow
Apex Rappers: Ice Cube, Q-Tip, Scarface
Breakout Stars: Redman, Snoop Dogg, Arrested Development
Hip-hop’s golden age is not one continuous stretch that lasted from 1986 to 1996. Instead, it’s made up of two mini-golden eras (1986-1989 and 1993-1996) with a transition period (1990-1992) in between. And if any one year marks the true shift from one golden era to the next, it’s 1992, which served as the moment the torch was passed from New York to Los Angeles, as the West Coast would go on to dictate the genre’s overarching sound for the next two years.
1992 would mark the fall in relevance of late-’80s stars Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo and Eric B. & Rakim, while the best albums out of the Mecca that year came from rising superstar producers Pete Rock (who, with CL Smooth, released the debut album, Mecca and the Soul Brother) and DJ Premier (whose Gang Starr duo released their third studio album, Daily Operation).
Everything happening in and around hip-hop in 1992, though, simply exists as a footnote to what arrived that November, with the release of “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” the first single from Dr. Dre’s solo debut album, The Chronic. The historical impact of the song has been well-documented: climbing to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, “'G' Thang” made Dr. Dre the undisputed King of the West Coast and Snoop Doggy Dogg the hottest rapper alive; it introduced the world to the sound of G-funk, which would dominate the culture for the next two years; it single-handedly established gangsta rap as a mainstream commercial force; and it helped Los Angeles and the West Coast, by way of Compton and Long Beach, specifically, supplant New York and the East Coast as the epicenter of hip-hop relevance.
The best way to understand “'G' Thang,” and in turn, 1992’s importance on rap music, is to consider what all it ushered in. Without “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang,” The Chronic isn’t a watershed moment in rap history, Snoop Dogg doesn’t release the then-best-selling debut album of all-time (Doggystyle), and Death Row doesn’t become the most infamous record label of all time. As a result, you can forget about 2Pac reviving his career and reaching rarefied air in ‘96; the Bad Boy/Death Row rivalry spearheading rap's coastal feud and turning hip-hop into the most popular genre in the world; and Dr. Dre’s hot hand turning Eminem, 50 Cent, The Game, and Kendrick Lamar into household names. In other words, without 1992’s “Nuthin' but a ‘G’ Thang,” the last 26 years of rap history look completely different.
Certified Classics: Run-DMC, Raising Hell; Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill; Salt-n-Pepa, Hot, Cool & Vicious; 2 Live Crew, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are
Essential Projects: Doug E Fresh, Oh, My God!; Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, Planet Rock: The Album
Apex Rappers: Run, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys
Breakout Stars: Ice-T, KRS-One, Kool Moe Dee
When it comes to determining the most groundbreaking year in hip-hop history, you can make a strong case for several: 1979 (the first rap single ever recorded, “Rapper’s Delight”), 1980 (the first rapper signed to a record deal, Kurtis Blow), 1982 (the first classic rap song, “The Message”), 1985 (the first mainstream rap superstar, LL Cool J), 1987 (the first consensus Best Rapper Alive, Rakim), 1988 (the explosion of gangsta rap, via N.W.A), 1992 (the emergence of G-funk, by way of Dr. Dre), and 1994 (the first instant classic album, Illmatic).
Yet there’s one year that tops the rest: 1986. No disrespect to everything that happened between 1979 and 1985, but ‘86 was the first year of hip-hop’s golden age. It’s the most important/influential/impactful year—not the greatest, mind you—for three unassailable reasons.
- Marked hip-hop’s commercial breakthrough: After ushering in a new-school sound on their first two albums, 1984’s Run-D.M.C. and 1985’s King of Rock, Run-DMC exploded into the mainstream in ‘86. Released that May, their third album Raising Hell featured a handful of milestones: it was the first rap album to be certified Platinum by the RIAA, the first to top Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart, and the first to crack the top 10 of the Billboard 200 (climbing to No. 6). Meanwhile, its landmark single, “Walk This Way,” became the first rap song to enter the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 (peaking at No. 4 on the chart) and the first to be nominated for a GRAMMY (for Best R&B Performance). Yet the group's commercial success only served as an appetizer for the Beastie Boys, whose debut album, Licensed to Ill (released that November) became the first rap album to top the most prestigious of all charts: the Billboard 200.
- Planted the seeds for gangsta rap: Before Eazy-E catapulted into the zeitgeist with his 1987 debut single, “Boyz-n-the-hood,” and before N.W.A’s first LP, 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, made gangsta rap the most popular sub-genre in hip-hop, Ice-T was the first MC to introduce the world to the hardcore rap form, in 1986, on his single “6 in the Mornin’.” Sure, it was inspired by Schoolly D’s 1985 song “P.S.K.,” but Ice-T’s hit is widely accepted as the first official gangsta rap record, and is single-handedly responsible for implementing the West Coast sound that would prevail for the next five years.
- Laid the foundation for rap beef: The history books will tell you hip-hop beef started with Kool Moe Dee vs. Busy Bee in 1981, and Roxanne Shante vs. The Real Roxanne in 1984. But the first modern rap feud was 1986’s The Bridge Wars, involving The Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions, led by KRS-One, and Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, hailing from Queensbridge. Marley Marl and MC Shan kicked things off with 1985’s “The Bridge,” claiming their hometown Queens, specifically, the Queensbridge projects, as the birthplace of hip-hop. Taking exception to the track, KRS-One responded with “South Bronx,” asserting that the genre was born in the Bronx and thus igniting the first borough beef in rap history. Both groups would spend the next year throwing barbs across the Throgs Neck, but ‘86 remains the pinnacle, which paved the way for three decades worth of beefing between New York rappers: Rakim vs. Big Daddy Kane, Biggie vs. Wu-Tang, Nas vs. Mobb Deep, JAY-Z vs. Mobb Deep, Nas vs. JAY-Z, and 50 Cent vs. Ja Rule, among others.