2013 is a pretty monumental year in hip hop; it makes its mark as twenty years since some of the greatest hip hop albums of all time and, arguably, the end of the Golden Age of hip hop in some people’s eyes.
Since Illmatic, hundreds, if not thousands of debut albums have dropped in the mainstream and underground hip hop realm, but every rap listener can cite Illmatic as the top dog, if not, one of them. But there are certainly debut albums that were released post-Illmatic that deserve credit and praise for their originality, impact, greatness, or any combination of the these. That is why the HHSE team decided to tackle the subject of debut solo hip hop albums and make it clear which are the Top Ten Solo Debut Hip Hop Albums Since Illmatic.
9. Big Pun: Capital Punishment
“I gave you fair warning, BEWARE!” This is how a hip hop debut should begin. If anything, the late Big Punisher gets points for that alone. Luckily, the subsequent tracks and ferocious flow made this one of the more potent hip hop debuts ever. From the opening track, to “Super Lyrical”, featuring Black Thought, to “Glamour Life”, and all the dope skits in between…shit kills.
This album was released in 1998, which to me was the tail end of the golden era of hip hop. There were lots of dope records released at the time, and Fat Joe was poised to start a Puerto-Rican rap invasion with his collection of talent known as the Terror Squad. None in the crew was as talented or as imposing physically as Big Pun. Boasting production from legends such as Dr. Dre, RZA and The Beatnuts, this album bangs from front to back. I still have the mint condition CASSETTE TAPE to prove it. Who am I kidding? That tape has been played hundreds of times, and for damn good reason. RIP Pun. Truly one of the better lyricists I’ve ever heard, gone too soon.
8. Mos Def: Black On Both Sides
In 1999, Mos Def dropped Black On Both Sides, an album that followed the hype from Black Star’s recent success. Drawing from the styles propagated by Native Tongues, Mos Def chose to spit his politically conscious rhymes over jazz influenced tracks.
If it wasn’t already apparent in Black Star, Black on Both Sides made it clear that Mos Def is a master of tight, twisting rhymes. His infectious swing coupled with his singing showed the world that hip hop could keep the positive tip, be intellectual and fun at the same time. This style would ripple out to many followers over the years.
7. Blu: Below The Heavens
Two little known hip hop artists – a producer and an emcee – burst onto the hip hop scene in 2007 with their landmark debut, Below The Heavens. Blu is a poet, no doubt, and in my opinion (and many peoples for that matter), this album is a 10/10 easy.
The greatness of this album comes not so much from each individual song (they’re all awesome on their own), but when played together, something special happens. The album has a perfect flow to it; we gradually get to learn more and more about who Blu is as a person and what his philosophies on life are. Blu, and Exile of course, made a classic album and it continues to have an impact on rappers and producers trying to step up their own game when it comes to creativity and genuine heart.
– Copper Tony
6. Kanye West: The College Dropout
In 2004, Jay-Z’s hidden talent Kanye West stunned the music world with The College Dropout. Kanye’s debut album was important in many ways. For one, Kanye made it okay to not be from “the streets” so to say and gave hip hop a more glam image instead. One could argue that this paved the way for many rappers today who present themselves more as well-dressed professionals rather than a thug from the hood. Marketing and image aside, the music was phenomenal. Kanye brought us that chipmunk (sped up) vocal sampling style and created just an overall, very impressive debut album.
– Copper Tony
5. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city
The debut album in modern hip hop is completely different from what it once was. Nowadays, with mixtapes, EPs and an influx of blog posts, you can have upwards of 50 songs from a rapper before he/she even releases his/her debut LP. And with recent disappointing debuts from Big K.R.I.T. and J. Cole, I thought the era of great debut albums was over… Until last October, when Kendrick dropped his opus good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
GKMC is everything a debut album should be. It’s truly one of those “I’ve worked my whole life creating this album” types of records. He tells the story of his adolescence by painting a vivid picture of Compton in 2004. With a fury of hormones and violence abound, young Kendrick transitions from a brash and reckless boy into a man. Not only that, but the album has performed very well on the charts, setting a precedent for young artists that they don’t have to sacrifice their artistic vision to sell a record.
4. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
With the release of arguably one of the most prolific albums from a female emcee, L. Boogie shed her Fugees persona and created a new image with the release of her 1998 debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Or did she merely expand and elevate a skill set she already possessed while entrenched in the famous rap trio? Most within the realm of hip hop would suggest the latter.
This album may not have garnered the “girl power” attitude of say, Alanis Morisette a few years prior, but possibly did one better. The mass appeal of this album is what makes it stand out as an impressive debut; men and women alike were bumping this record, hip hop and non hip-hop fans were bumping it. Everyone and their mama had heard at least a few tracks.
The raw emotion, the rhyme skill, vocal ability, and the versatility of the production were all key ingredients in making this album a debut for the ages. Nobody was sure what to expect when this album came out. And the saddest part is that Lauryn left the public hungry for more as she slipped into obscurity as one of the most talented and star-crossed artists of a generation. At least we got this one.
3. Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt
As I look back at my life-long hip hop listening journey, I remember listening to a couple of hip hop debut albums. Among them was Jay-Z’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt.
Kool G Rap may be credited for creating mafioso rap, but Jay-Z carried the torch and ran with it. Reasonable Doubt is a classic hip hop masterpiece which was released back in 1996. The album paints a picture of a young hustler who is trying to overcome his obstacles in the hood. The album features amazing storytelling as well as strong lyricism. In addition to that, the album also features incredible production from Ski, Clark Kent, Irv Gotti, DJ Premier and more. The producers provided a unique combination of boom-bap and soulful sounds to the album. Despite the fact that Jay’s debut album charted low on the billboards, the album is clearly Jay’s best work.
2. The Notorious B.I.G.: Ready To Die
Biggie Smalls’ debut album Ready To Die was released in the last half of 1994. Many hip hop heads consider this album as a classic masterpiece, and it certainly is a classic debut, as well. The album was very successful, partially because of three singles – “Juicy”, “Big Poppa,” and “One More Chance” – that all received mainstream recognition, as well as radio airplay.
The album featured The Notorious B.I.G. showcasing his hardcore wordplay, flow, delivery and storytelling skills as he covered subject matters which included poverty, the street life and the club scenes. With production provided by Easy Mo Bee, DJ Premier, Lord Finesse, Diddy and more, this album is definitely a certified classic masterpiece which helped propel Biggie to stardom. Despite Biggie’s death, the Ready to Die album will live on forever as a notable hip hop debut.
1. Raekwon: Only Built 4 Cubin Linx
By August 1995, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man had already achieved great success in their respective solo ventures. It was Raekwon’s debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, however that marked a significant transition for not only the Wu-Tang Clan, but New York hip hop in general. RZA moved from a raw, stripped down production style on Tical and Return to the 36 Chambers to a more lush, cinematic sound on Cuban Linx.
Raekwon was the perfect emcee for RZA to debut his new sound with as he is one of the most vivid lyricists in the group. Bringing Ghostface Killah and Cappadonna along for the show, Rae was able to create one of hip hop’s first concept, narrative-driven albums. Cuban Linx is largely responsible for the Mafioso brand of gangster rap that was prominent during the mid-to-late 90s; a trend that was hopped on by greats such as The Notorious B.I.G. and Nas. This record is not only my favorite Wu-related record, but one of my favorite albums of all time. This is the perfect late summer, dog days of August album.