Since its humble beginnings, the rap game has delivered an endless array of seminal debut albums, many of which fans consider among the greatest bodies of work the genre has ever seen. You know the titles: Illmatic. The Chronic. Ready to Die. Enter the Wu-Tang. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Doggystyle. Reasonable Doubt. Paid In Full. Straight Outta Compton. The list goes on and on and on…
Since the turn of the century, hip-hop has blessed us with many groundbreaking debuts, from early-aughts masterpieces like Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and The College Dropout to instant classics such as My Krazy Life and Summertime ‘06 in recent years. Having reached the midway point of the final year of the 2010s, let’s look back at the best hip-hop debut, every year since 2000.
2000: Nelly, Country Grammar
Notable Debuts: Beanie Sigel, The Truth; Black Rob, Life Story; dead prez, Let’s Get Free; Dilated Peoples, The Platform; Reflection Eternal, Train of Thought
This pick is partly due to Country Grammar’s commercial success—the LP is one of only eight rap albums to have sold more than 10 million copies—and partly due to its dominance on both pop and rap radio, as well as MTV’s TRL, where hit singles like “Country Grammar,” “E.I.,” and “Ride Wit Me” were included in the show’s daily rotation. More than anything, though, Country Grammar gets the belt because it’s aged better than any other debut released that year; and if you think the album was more pop than hip-hop, do yourself a favor and cue up “Greed Hate Envy,” which is arguably the best rappity rap song of Nelly’s career.
2001: Cannibal Ox, The Cold Vein
Notable Debuts: Cormega, The Realness; D12, Devil’s Night; Fabolous, Ghetto Fabolous; Immortal Technique, Revolutionary Vol. 1; Jadakiss, Kiss Tha Game Goodbye
Each of 2001’s notable debuts are underrated in their own way: Cormega’s The Realness is the most underrated Queensbridge album of all time; D12’s Devil’s Night is the most underrated crew album ever; Fabolous’ Ghetto Fabolous is the most underrated debut from a Brooklyn-bred rapper; Jadakiss’ Kiss Tha Game Goodbye is the most underrated fun debut LP ever; Immortal Technique’s Revolutionary Vol. 1 is the most underrated political rap debut of all-time. As for The Cold Vein? It’s merely the most underrated hip-hop debut period. As such, it’s easily the best hip-hop debut of 2001.
2002: Clipse, Lord Willin’
Notable Debuts: Birdman, Birdman; EI-P, Fantastic Damage; State Property, State Property OST; Styles P, A Gangster and a Gentleman; Talib Kweli, Quality
By 2002, JAY-Z had already swapped out dope deals for Mogul Talk, leaving a vacancy on the Hip-Hop From a Drug Dealer’s Perspective throne. Enter Clipse, two brothers from Virginia Beach whose tales of selling crack produced 2002’s best hip-hop debut, Lord Willin’. The Neptunes—who were scorching hot, having already crafted a handful of hit singles like JAY-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U,” Ludacris’ “Southern Hospitality,” and Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass”—created the soundscape for which No Malice and Pusha-T told mesmerizing stories about the crack game, highlighted by “Grindin',” one of the most important rap songs of the 2000s.
2003: 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin’
Notable Debuts: The Diplomats, Diplomatic Immunity; Freeway, Philadelphia Freeway; G-Unit, Beg For Mercy; Little Brother, The Listening; Obie Trice, Cheers
As soon as “In Da Club” dropped in December 2002, the music industry knew that 50’s Aftermath debut 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.
2004: Kanye West, The College Dropout
Notable Debuts: Jim Jones, On My Way to Church; Lloyd Banks, The Hunger For More; Madvillain, Madvillainy; Young Buck, Straight Outta Cashville; Young Gunz, Tough Luv
The College Dropout might not be the best rap debut released this century, but it certainly is the most influential—and it’s not particularly close. Fifteen years on, Kanye’s sped-up soul samples may have gone out of style, along with most of the rappers who are featured on the LP (e.g., Freeway, Twista, Consequence), but his witty perspective and everyman persona never will. Kanye’s socially conscious take on hip-hop shifted the genre away from gangsta rap, in favor of backpack rap, subsequently opening the door for a generation of average joe MCs like Drake, J. Cole, and Chance the Rapper.
2005: Young Jeezy, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101
Notable Debuts: Bun B, Trill; The Game, The Documentary; Gucci Mane, Trap House; Mike Jones, Who Is Mike Jones?; Tony Yayo, Thoughts of a Predicate Felon
Two thousand and five marks the year when rap’s new generation was officially established. In January, Compton’s The Game reenergized a then-dormant West Coast with The Documentary. That April, Houston’s hip-hop scene was revived thanks to Mike Jones’s debut, Who Is Mike Jones?. And, in July, Atlanta’s Young Jeezy dropped his long-awaited first offering, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. Let’s Get It is not only the best debut album of 2005, but its release marked the approaching dominance of trap music as a commercial force, and more importantly, cemented Atlanta as the genre’s new Mecca.
2006: Lupe Fiasco, Food & Liquor
Notable Debuts: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere; Pharrell, In My Mind; Remy Ma, There’s Something About Remy: Based on a True Story; Rick Ross, Port of Miami; Rhymefest, Blue Collar
Long before Chance the Rapper would be tapped to carry the flag for Chicago hip-hop, Kanye passed the torch to another backpack rapper, Lupe Fiasco. A year after making a name for himself with a scene-stealing guest spot on Late Registration standout, “Touch the Sky,” 24-year-old Lupe released his debut album, Food & Liquor, to critical acclaim in the fall of 2006. Full of breezy, infectious hits like “Kick, Push” and “Daydreamin’,” the LP proved the conscious torchbearer was as skilled a lyricist as his mentor, if not any MC in the rap game.
2007: Rich Boy, Rich Boy
Notable Debuts: Blu & Exile, Below The Heavens; Consequence, Don’t Quit Your Day Job!; Gorilla Zoe, Welcome to the Zoo; Joell Ortiz, The Brick: Bodega Chronicles
If you don’t think it’s possible for a single track to propel an album to otherwise unreachable levels of greatness, perhaps you forgot the power of Rich Boy’s glorious ode to rims, “Throw Some D’s.” One of 10 of the album’s 15 tracks to be produced by Polow Da Don, “Throw Some D’s” is the greatest piece of rap music released in 2007. In a year when hip-hop’s rookie class was exploding into stardom on the strength of Ringtone rap hits (e.g., “Laffy Taffy,” “This Is Why I’m Hot,” “Ay Bay Bay”), Polow laced the Alabama upstart with a trunkload full of timeless bangers, which in turn helped cement Rich Boy’s debut’s status as the best offering of 2007.
2008: Jake One, Jake One Presents White Van Music
Notable Debuts: Elzhi, The Preface; Guilty Simpson, Ode to the Ghetto; Ka, Iron Works; Shawty Lo, Units in the City; Torae, Daily Conversation
After polishing his production chops for nearly a decade, crafting soundscapes for everyone from De La Soul to 50 Cent, Jake One became a star in his own right with 2008’s White Van Music. Long before producers headlining their own albums would become the status quo, Jake One blurred the lines of underground and mainstream hip-hop on his debut, with a balanced combination of features from underrated lyricists (i.e. MF Doom, Brother Ali, Bishop Lamont, Elzhi) and commercial stars (Busta Rhymes, Prodigy, Freeway, Young Buck).
2009: Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of the Day
Notable Debuts: Curren$y, This Ain’t No Mixtape; Maino, If Tomorrow Comes; Slaughterhouse, Slaughterhouse; Triple C’s, Custom Cars & Cycles; Wale, Attention Deficit
Moneybagg Yo, Mick Jenkins & Bktherula: Best of the Week
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The “emoization” of rap begins here. While Kid Cudi’s breakthrough 2008 mixtape A Kid Named Cudi inspired both Kanye’s genre-shifting 808’s & Heartbreak and Drake’s earth-shattering So Far Gone, his proper debut album remains the single most influential hip-hop project of the last 10 years. Man on the Moon: The End of the Day brought mental health to the forefront of rap, touching on isolation, alienation, depression, and anger.
2010: Drake, Thank Me Later
Notable Debuts: Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty; B.o.B., B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray; Danny Brown, The Hybrid; Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday; Waka Flocka Flame, Flockaveli
There’s no shame in just barely living up to expectations when rap fans and industry heads tout your debut as the most anticipated in over a decade. Sure, after crafting a masterpiece with So Far Gone, Drake went through the major-label motions for Thank Me Later, even playing it safe to the extent that he tapped EIGHT A-list artists for features (Alicia, Nicki, Tip, Dream, Jeezy, Jay, and Wayne). And yet, Drake delivered a borderline classic on the strength of sumptuous beats and nuanced introspection which, in hindsight, was merely foreshadowing the greatness to come.
2011: Kendrick Lamar, Section.80
Notable Debuts: Big Sean, Finally Famous; The Cool Kids, When Fish Ride Bicycles, Jay Rock, Follow Me Home; J. Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story; Tyler, the Creator, Goblin
Entering the summer of 2011, J. Cole was firmly established as the premier lyricist of the rap game’s up-and-coming generation, having already released a pair of classic mixtapes (The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights). The conversation changed that July when Kendrick dropped his independent debut album and orchestrated a restructuring of hip-hop’s newest generation’s pecking order. Don’t let good kid, m.A.A.d city overshadow the legacy of Section.80, which remains the first classic offering from the best rapper of his generation.
2012: Chief Keef, Finally Rich
Notable Debuts: 2 Chainz, Based On A T.R.U. Story; Big K.R.I.T, Live From the Underground; Future, Pluto; Meek Mill, Dreams and Nightmares
Based On a T.R.U. Story was the most entertaining hip-hop album of the year; Dreams and Nightmares opened with one of the best intros in the genre’s history; Future’s Pluto was a genre-shifting masterpiece. However, no debut topped Chief Keef’s Finally Rich:
- It featured the two most electrifying rap singles of the year (“I Don’t Like” and “Love Sosa”), balancing nihilism with transcendent pop crossover tracks like “Kay Kay” and “Citgo.”
- It serves as an unrelenting portrait of the Black man—by way of Chicago.
- It was a paradigm shift that marked the arrival of a new generation.
2013: A$AP Rocky, LONG.LIVE.A$AP
Notable Debuts: A$AP Ferg, Trap Lord; Earl Sweatshirt, Doris; French Montana, Excuse My French; Pusha-T, My Name Is My Name; Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels
Are albums Doris, My Name Is My Name, and Run the Jewels all lyrically superior to LONG.LIVE.A$AP? Sure. But no rap debut in 2013 was as undeniably fun and deceptively catchy, or as promising and pleasing as A$AP Rocky’s 12-track debut studio album. So, yes, LONG.LIVE.A$AP is the best hip-hop debut of its class, particularly because it’s the only one that still resonates on the same level in 2019 as it did in 2013. If you aren’t convinced, play Doris, or My Name Is My Name, or Run the Jewels at a party, and see if anyone stays. Do the same with LONG.LIVE.A$AP and see if anyone leaves.
2014: YG, My Krazy Life
Notable Debuts: Anderson .Paak, Venice; Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste; Isaiah Rashad, Cilvia Demo; Logic, Under Pressure; PRhyme, PRhyme
To casual rap fans, YG came out of nowhere. But for anyone familiar with DatPiff downloads and rap blog relics like 2DopeBoyz and NahRight, YG’s ascension only seemed meteoric to mainstream hip-hop fans. Nevertheless, he owned a quiet 2014 rap calendar with the help of Los Angeleno superproducer DJ Mustard who, already amidst a career year himself, helped produce the majority of My Krazy Life, including its three hit singles, “My N****,” “Who Do You Love?,” and “Left, Right.”
2015: Vince Staples, Summertime ‘06
Notable Debuts: Action Bronson, Mr. Wonderful; Fetty Wap, Fetty Wap; Joey Bada$$, B4.Da.$$; Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife; Travis Scott, Rodeo
Everyone is aware Vince Staples' Summertime ‘06 is undisputedly superior—creatively, artistically, thematically, etc.—to every rap debut in 2015. But I want to take this time to shout out a project that, if only due to its pop appeal, defined much of that year: SremmLife. Released in the dead of winter, Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi’s first offering was the soundtrack to early 2015 and for good reason; across 11 tracks—clocking in at just over 45 minutes—the Atlanta duo came correct with banger after banger, from smash hits like “No Flex Zone,” “No Type,” “This Could Be Us,” and “Throw Some Mo,” to deep cuts such as “Come Get Her,” “Lit Like Bic,” and “Safe Sex Pay Checks.”
2016: Kevin Gates, Islah
Notable Debuts: DRAM, Big Baby DRAM; Kaytranada, 99.9%; Mick Jenkins, The Healing Component; Post Malone, Stoney; Westside Gunn, Flygod
Besides Nipsey Hussle, no rapper this century has outmaneuvered virtually all of the competition while amassing an obsessive following like Kevin Gates, who favors mixtapes over studio albums, independent deals over record labels. So when the Louisiana-bred rapper finally crashed the major release party in 2016, with his debut studio LP, Islah, it was hardly surprising that a bigger budget helped Gates score his first two top 10 rap singles (“Really Really,” “2 Phones”), not to mention the best full-length project of his career.
2017: Lil Uzi Vert, Luv Is Rage 2
Notable Debuts: 21 Savage, Issa Album; A Boogie wit da Hoodie, The Bigger Artist; BROCKHAMPTON, Saturation; Goldlink, At What Cost; JID, The Never Story
Uzi’s debut album, Luv Is Rage 2, is the moment emo rap transcended hip-hop and became a commercial force in pop music. The LP produced a top 10 hit (“XO Tour Llif3”), a pair of top 15 rap singles (“The Way Life Goes” and “Sauce It Up”), and a handful of fan favorites (“20 Min,” “Neon Guts,” “No Sleep Leak”). Even more, it not only made Uzi the hottest rookie in the game but also the face of the emo-rap revolution.
2018: Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
Notable Debuts: Lil Baby, Harder Than Ever; Nipsey Hussle, Victory Lap; NoName, Room 25; Playboi Carti, Die Lit; Rico Nasty, Nasty
When Cardi B took the summer of 2017 by storm with her debut single “Bodak Yellow,” it was easy to dismiss the stripper-turned-rapper as just another overnight celebrity benefitting from the power of social media. And even when Cardi proved to be more than a one-hit wonder with a run of follow-up singles and guest spots at the top of 2018, most hip-hop heads still weren’t buying her potential. Alas, she proved us wrong yet again last spring, delivering an album as polished as any rap debut in recent memory.
2019: DaBaby, Baby on Baby
Notable Debuts: Boogie, Everything’s For Sale; Gunna, Drip or Drown 2; Megan Thee Stallion, Fever; Offset, FATHER OF 4; Polo G, Die a Legend
I wouldn’t be surprised if we look back at 2019 as The Year of DaBaby. After generating buzz with his 2018 mixtape, Blank Blank, the Charlotte native leveled up earlier this month with Baby on Baby, his first full-length release under Interscope. Full of grit and charisma, it’s one of the most fun rap albums of the year, so far. Spanning 13 tracks with guest appearances from Offset (“Baby Sitter”), Rich the Kid (“Best Friend”), Rich Homie Quan (“Celebrate”), and frequent collaborator Stunna 4 Vegas (“Joggers”), Baby on Baby is a must-listen project from an exciting newcomer.
Correction: Cassidy's third studio album, B.A.R.S. The Barry Adrian Reese Story, was incorrectly listed as his debut album.