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: 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin’; JAY-Z, The Black Album; T.I., Trap Muzik; OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Essential Projects: The Diplomats, Diplomatic Immunity; G-Unit, Beg for Mercy; Freeway, Philadelphia Freeway; Viktor Vaughn, Vaudeville Villain
Apex Rappers: JAY-Z, Eminem, 50 Cent
Breakout Stars: T.I., Freeway, Juelz Santana
Entering 2003, expectations surrounding the year’s three biggest releases bordered on hyperbole: 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was the most anticipated debut since Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle; JAY-Z’s The Black Album was being positioned as an instant classic as soon as it was announced as Jay’s retirement album; and OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below generated mass hysteria simply because it was set to be a double album (not to mention the duo’s first offering since 2000’s Stankonia).
Somehow, all three lived up to the hype, which cannot be overstated given the insurmountable expectations that accompanied each project’s release.
Heading into the year, all eyes were on 50 Cent. His come-up was mythical: After getting shot nine times outside of his grandmother’s home, he’s dropped from Columbia and blacklisted by the industry. He records song after song after song in a Queens basement and gets hot on the mixtape circuit. One tape lands in the hands of the biggest rapper alive, Eminem, who invites him to come to Los Angeles and meet Dr. Dre. He signs a million-dollar record deal, is prominently featured on the 8 Mile soundtrack, and watches his first single, “Wanksta,” climb to the No. 13 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
By the time “In Da Club”—released as the first single from Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that January—peaked at No. 1 on the Hot 100, it was already known the album would live up to the hype. Arriving in February, Get Rich debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold 872,000 copies to become the biggest opening-week hip-hop debut of all time (also the then-second biggest first-week sales for any rap album ever). It was 6x Platinum by the end of the year, with another No. 1 hit (“21 Questions”) and another top-three single (“P.I.M.P.”) to boot. More than anything, though, it was a landmark pop culture moment, making 50 both the best rapper and biggest pop star alive.
50’s rise served as the perfect opening act for JAY-Z’s curtain call. Despite 50’s dominant year, JAY Z still held the throne, with his impending retirement doubling as the ultimate torch-passing moment for hip-hop. That November, The Black Album instantly erased its predecessor (2002’s bomb, The Blueprint 2) from rap fans’ memories, positioning Jay as the rap game’s GOAT, now and forever. Though it didn’t match his best work (Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint), it was a near-masterpiece, highlighted by some of the best songs in his discography, “Public Service Announcement” and “99 Problems.”
Let’s not forget that the months leading up to JAY-Z’s victory lap were dominated by OutKast. Released that September, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below failed to live up to the duo’s previous three classics (2000’s Stankonia, 1998’s Aquemini, 1996’s ATLiens) but was still exceptional in its own right, giving both André 3000 and Big Boi a full-length’s worth of material to showcase their dueling talents. Even more, it became the duo’s first No. 1 album, debuting atop the Billboard 200 en route to becoming the best-selling album in rap history.
While those three albums are enough to cement 2003 as a banner year in hip-hop, three other releases helped make it one of the genre’s greatest years of all time: In February, The Diplomats’ released Diplomatic Immunity, an East Coast classic built on sped-up soul samples courtesy of Heatmakerz and Just Blaze, which made Juelz Santana a household name and made the Dipset movement a pop culture phenomenon; In August, T.I.’s sophomore album, Trap Muzik, cemented him as the King of the South and a mainstream star; and, finally, the year closed where it started, with 50’s heat-check paving the way for G-Unit’s Beg for Mercy, which introduced the world to potential stars Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, and Young Buck.
Certified Classics: A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory; De La Soul, De La Soul Is Dead; Ice Cube, Death Certificate; Geto Boys, We Can’t Be Stopped; Cypress Hill, Cypress Hill; Main Source, Breaking Atoms
Essential Projects: Gang Starr, Step in the Arena; N.W.A, Niggaz4Life; Scarface, Mr. Scarface Is Back; DJ Quik, Quik Is the Name; Naughty by Nature, Naughty by Nature; 2Pac, 2Pacalypse Now; Del the Funky Homosapien, I Wish My Brother George Was Here; Black Sheep, A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
Apex Rappers: Q-Tip, Ice Cube, Chuck D
Breakout Stars: Scarface, DJ Quik, Treach
The three-year stretch from 1990 to 1992 is often regarded as a transition period between hip-hop’s two golden eras: 1986 to 1989 and 1993 to 1996. As such, 1991 represents the true middle. Unlike 1990 (which was stuck in the past, soaking up the last moments of the militant rap style that dominated the late ’80s) and 1992 (which had its eyes on the future as Dr. Dre unveiled The Chronic that December), 1991 doesn’t quite belong to any era. If anything, '91 is an era in and of itself.
Let’s start with the Freshman Class of ‘91. No, it doesn’t match top-heavy years like ‘87 (Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Too $hort), ‘88 (Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, EPMD), or ‘94 (Nas, Biggie, OutKast). But when it comes to sheer depth, ‘91’s debuts are unmatched.
In ‘91, rookies emerged from all over the map: New Jersey’s Naughty by Nature released their self-titled debut, inserting Treach in the Best Rapper Alive conversation; Queens’ own Black Sheep made noise with A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing, introducing hip-hop to Dres’ slick-talking style; the future face of Death Row, 2Pac, showed promise with his debut studio album, 2Pacalypse Now; Scarface proved to be more than just the frontman for the Geto Boys on Mr. Scarface Is Back; Compton’s DJ Quik bridged the gap between N.W.A’s rise and Dr. Dre’s imminent explosion with Quik Is the Name; Main Source blessed the culture with their debut, Breaking Atoms, which gave the world its first taste of a then-unknown MC, Nas; and Cypress Hill gave the world a taste of their blunted reality on their classic self-titled debut.
Yet, the best material put out that year came from the game’s veterans. De La Soul followed-up their first masterpiece by killing off their flower-power public image on De La Soul Is Dead; Geto Boys established the South as a hip-hop region to be reckoned with on We Can’t Be Stopped, which featured iconic album artwork and one of the greatest rap songs ever, “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me;” Ice Cube topped his classic debut, 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, with his sophomore opus, Death Certificate; and A Tribe Called Quest crafted one of the greatest albums in hip-hop history, The Low End Theory, making Q-Tip the Best Rapper Alive and cementing the group as one of the greatest ever.
Certified Classics: Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded; Eric B. & Rakim, Paid in Full; LL Cool J, Bigger and Deffer; Too $hort, Born to Mack; Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show
Essential Projects: Kool Moe Dee, How Ya Like Me Now?; Schoolly D, Saturday Night! The Album
Apex Rappers: Rakim, KRS-One, LL Cool J
Breakout Stars: Too $hort, Chuck D, Schoolly D
Rap experts often cite 1988 as the year that changed hip-hop forever, but the revolution began one year earlier. 1987 was the most innovative year in hip-hop history, the first time the genre started to sound, look, and feel like it does today.
Nineteen-year-old Rakim was at the forefront of the movement. Leading up to 1987, hip-hop rhyme schemes were simple and straightforward, evidenced by the handful of MCs who claimed the Best Rapper Alive title belt over the first half of that decade (Melle Mel, Run, LL Cool J). But in the summer of ‘87, Rakim changed that forever. On Paid in Full, his and DJ/producer Eric B.’s debut album, Rakim advanced the art form of rapping itself by way of his writing, internal rhymes, and delivery, effectively signaling the dawn of modern-day rap and cementing his claim as the first consensus Best Rapper Alive.
By 1987, Def Jam founder Rick Rubin had dictated the overarching sound of hip-hop. His stripped-down, rock-heavy style made stars out of LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, before serving as the backdrop to Run-DMC’s magnum opus, 1986’s Raising Hell. But at the top of the year, hip-hop sonics moved in a new direction with the release of two groundbreaking debuts: Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, which introduced the culture to The Bomb Squad’s dense and atonal production style; and Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, which ushered in East Coast boom bap courtesy of Ced Gee’s hard-hitting, minimalistic beats.
Of course, Public Enemy and BDP’s impact on the culture went much deeper than production styles. Together, they brought social issues to the forefront of hip-hop, advancing conscious rap to new heights with a militant approach. Public Enemy doubled as political pundits, rapping about racism and social injustice with an inner-city aggression; on the flip side, BDP leaned more toward a Black Panthers mindset, preaching ghetto politics from a gritty street mentality. In short, both groups set the stage for the kind of subject matter that would be at the forefront of hip-hop over the next few years, paving the way for N.W.A and the explosion of gangsta rap.
Certified Classics: Nelly, Country Grammar; Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP; OutKast, Stankonia; Ghostface Killah, Supreme Clientele; Common, Like Water for Chocolate
Essential Projects: JAY-Z, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia; Ludacris, Back for the First Time; Beanie Sigel, The Truth; Slum Village, Fantastic, Vol. 2; dead prez, Let’s Get Free; Prodigy, H.N.I.C.; Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030
Apex Rappers: JAY-Z, Eminem, André 3000
Breakout Stars: Nelly, Ludacris, Beanie Sigel
By the turn of the century, hip-hop was no longer confined to coastal Meccas New York and Los Angeles. Over the second half of the ‘90s, a handful of other cities asserted themselves as regional hip-hop epicenters: Atlanta (became the Mecca of the South upon the arrival of OutKast in the mid-to-late ’90s), Houston (planted its flag in the early-90s on the backs of the Geto Boys), Chicago (made noise in the mid-’90s by way of Common, Crucial Conflict and Do or Die), and New Orleans (whose Cash Money Records had quickly become the hottest record label in the rap game with the emergence of the Hot Boys, Big Tymers, and Juvenile).
Still, during hip-hop’s first 20 years of existence, the genre’s overarching sound was always dictated by either coast: New York was the undisputed Mecca from 1980-1987 and 1994-1999; Los Angeles, from 1988-1993. But the first year of the new millennium bucked the trend, as three hip-hop scenes, in between both coasts, came forth to dominate the sound of mainstream hip-hop.
The year belonged to Detroit’s Eminem, who entered the 21st century as the hottest rapper alive on the heels of 1999’s The Slim Shady LP and his scene-stealing guest spots on Dr. Dre’s 2001. That May, Eminem delivered his sophomore album, The Marshall Mathers LP. At the peak of the Boy Band revolution, Em was the only rapper on the planet doing pop-star numbers: The album sold 1.76 million copies in its first week, which made it the fastest-selling rap album in history and the fastest selling album by a solo artist (topping Britney Spears’ then-record for biggest first week in music history). After the dust settled, Eminem was both the best rapper alive and biggest pop star alive.
Fresh off Eminem’s groundbreaking run, no one could have predicted that another rapper, let alone an unknown MC from St. Louis, would submit one of the biggest commercial success stories in recent memory that summer. Out of left field came Nelly, who displayed his crossover potential on his debut, Country Grammar, which saw its first two singles climb into the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 (“Country Grammar” and “Ride Wit Me”), en route to being certified 2x Platinum by August.
Further South, Atlanta was threatening to topple the coastal powers to gain sole control of hip-hop. In ‘00, five years after André 3000 foreshadowed Atlanta’s rise at the 1995 Source Awards, the city became a true hip-hop powerhouse. After dropping back-to-back classics (1996’s ATLiens and 1998’s Aquemini), OutKast finally gained wider recognition with their fourth album, Stankonia. Another hit with critics, the album gave the duo its first No. 1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100, “Ms. Jackson,” which catapulted them into the mainstream and inserted André into the Best Rapper Alive conversation. That fall, another rapper from Atlanta, Ludacris, made noise with his second album, Back For the First Time, highlighted by two hit singles (“What’s Your Fantasy” and “Southern Hospitality”). In hindsight, 2000 would mark the big bang of Atlanta’s rise from regional doormat to the most influential hip-hop scene in the country.
Certified Classics: Big L, Lifestyles ov da Poor & Dangerous; Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...; Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Return to the 36 Chambers; 2Pac, Me Against the World; GZA, Liquid Swords; Mobb Deep, The Infamous; Goodie Mobb, Soul Food; Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, E. 1999 Eternal; 8Ball & MJG, On Top of the World; E-40, In a Major Way
Essential Projects: AZ, Doe or Die; Tha Dogg Pound, Dogg Food; The Roots, Do You Want More?!!!??!; Three 6 Mafia, Mystic Stylez
Apex Rappers: The Notorious B.I.G., Raekwon, 2Pac
Breakout Stars: Prodigy, E-40, Big L
Wu-Tang Clan ushered in New York’s second hip-hop golden age with their 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), before Nas and Biggie made the East Coast renaissance complete in 1994 with their landmark LPs, Illmatic and Ready to Die, respectively. But 1995 is when New York officially took back ownership of as hip-hop's undisputed Mecca from Los Angeles.
Supplanted by Nas and Biggie as the central figures of New York’s revival, Wu-Tang envisioned ‘95 as the year when they’d return to the forefront of hardcore hip-hop, by way of group leader RZA’s five-year plan. Developed as a strategy that would launch Wu-Tang into superstardom, the plan laid out the Wu’s first two group albums and first five solo offerings, all of which were produced by RZA. Following ‘93’s Enter the Wu-Tang and Method Man’s ‘94 debut, Tical, ‘95 marked the year in which RZA’s vision was fully realized, as the group released its next three solo offerings within six months of each other: Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers, in March; Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, in August; and GZA’s Liquid Swords, in November.
Upon release, all three LPs were praised as instant classics, but Raekwon’s debut entered a class of its own. Along with cementing the Chef as one of the best rappers alive, and producer RZA as the genre’s master auteur, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... popularized Mafioso rap, paving the way for classics like JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Nas’ It Was Written, and Biggie’s Life After Death.
Almost exactly one year to the day that Nas introduced the world to the Queensbridge Housing Projects on his debut LP, Illmatic, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and Havoc delivered first-person accounts of their own with the release of their second album, The Infamous, in April ‘95. While the setting and themes were the same, the underlying mood of each project couldn’t have been more different. Whereas underneath Nas’ worldview there existed a sliver of hope, Mobb Deep’s narrative was purely nihilistic. Prodigy and Havoc laid out their bleak vision on the album’s first single, “Shook Ones Pt. II,” laced with arguably the greatest and most recognizable beat in hip-hop history. Then, on The Infamous, they painted a chilling picture of life from the gutter, reshaping New York’s hardcore hip-hop sound in the process.
Of course, the year’s most iconic moment came at the 1995 Source Awards, an August night in New York City that would change hip-hop forever. At Madison Square Garden, verbal shots were exchanged between Death Row’s Suge Knight (“To all you artists out there, who don't wanna be on a record label where the executive producer's...all up in the videos, all on the records, dancin'...then come to Death Row!”) and Bad Boy’s Puff Daddy (“I live in the East, and I’m gonna die in the East!”), planting the seeds for the East Coast-West Coast rivalry that would end in tragedy.