HNHH ranks the top 25 best hip-hop debut albums of the 21st century.
For most of the world overcome by the COVID-19 pandemic, it's not really "business as usual." Lives have been disrupted across the map, and there is a general air of uncertainty. Prior to this worldwide crisis, our writers were meeting weekly to debate, discuss and rank the best hip-hop debut albums of the 21st century - from January 1, 2001 til present day. This is our latest team effort, following our ranking of the Best Rapper Flows of All Time.
We're excited to share the final results with you this afternoon, hoping to spark some discussion on our site that is NON-Coronavirus related, for everyone who might need some relief from the 24/7 COVID news cycle (and the thoughts that go along with it). That all being said, this was no easy feat. A few caveats before we dive right in, we did consider certain albums that may soon be considered classics in the not-so-distant future, but that, ultimately we felt were still too fresh to our ears to evaluate properly -- such as Roddy Ricch's debut album, Please Excuse Me for Being Anti-Social. Thus, do not be surprised that you will find zero 2019 debut albums and 2020 debut albums on the below list. We do, however, have a few albums from 2018.
Check out the ranking and arguments for each album below, let us know what we're missing, what we got wrong, and what we got right in the comment section!
This was a group editorial effort, with contributions coming from:
25. Playboi Carti - Die Lit (2018)
The road to Playboi Carti’s debut album was so long and winding that by the time it arrived, people forgot it was his debut album. For those who are still confused, Die Lit qualifies as Carti’s first proper LP. The eponymous project that he released a year earlier falls in the category of commercial mixtape. Being one of the first great offspring of the “mumble rap” era, Carti was popularized through loosies dropped on SoundCloud. He acclimated us to this method of distribution, encouraging us to eschew our expectation that a full-length project be needed to properly evaluate an artist’s talent. Playboi Carti didn’t have to further prove his potential, but Playboi Carti did. It was a grab bag of screwy anthems and entrancing mantras. We discovered that Carti could repeat any bizarre phrase over any Pi’erre Bourne beat as many times as he wished and we would rage or melt. That’s why when Die Lit emerged like a surprise from space, we took no issue with Carti cashing in on his flawless formula. If I wrote anything else about this album, I would inevitably end up paraphrasing what Slowthai said about it when asked by Pitchfork to name his favorite album of the 2010s: “[Carti] took mumble rap and made a cohesive body of work, and not many other artists in his lane have managed to do the same. He has bangers but also has a sonic narrative from start to end. This is our generation’s hardcore music.”
24. Rae Sremmurd - Sremmlife (2015)
Perhaps it’s nostalgia talking but 2015 was a simpler time. It was only five years ago now that some of today’s biggest artists were beginning to make a name for themselves. Rae Sremmurd is a perfect example. Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi burst onto the scene in 2015 with their debut album Sremmlife which was packed with hits. “No Flex Zone,” “My X,” and “No Flex Zone” were some of the biggest songs of that year and resonated with those looking for new energetic artists who brought a youthful exuberance to the game. Swae’s ear for melodies was perfectly contrasted with Slim Jxmmi’s abrasive yet lively vocal delivery. This album was inescapable when it dropped and if you were at a party in 2015, you definitely heard some tracks blasting from the closest sound system. While Rae Sremmurd have evolved quite a bit since this album, there is no denying the impact Sremmlife had on the now melody-heavy party culture.
- Alex Cole
23. Azealia Banks - Broke with Expensive Taste (2014)
Before Azealia Banks breaks through with a subtly lethal verse on “Desperado,” a soundbite of radio personality Peter Rosenberg saying “I’ve been waiting for Azealia Banks” echoes into the distance. It has been six years since the release of her debut, Broke With Expensive Taste, and it can still feel like we’re waiting for her moment. Then we remember how generously monumental that album was and how it still holds up as a masterpiece. BWET still sounds like the future, like the true mish-mash of genres and cultures that was predicted to arise out of the unrestricted access to the history of recorded music. While Banks proved she could rap circles around anyone with her dizzying dialect of onomatopoeic gibberish, BWET also doubles as an electronic album. The cutting-edge production is given space to blister and rumble at the tailend of most tracks. However, Banks’ rapidfire rhymes remain the centrepiece and something at which to marvel to this day.
22. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels (2013)
It’s hard to believe that El-P and Killer Mike were once seen as an archetypical “Odd Couple” pairing. Yet prior to their blissful union on Mike’s creative reinvention that was 2012’s R.A.P. Music, the pair stood worlds apart. At least musically speaking. While Mike was coming up as an Atlanta-bred Outkast protege lacing localized cult favorites like solo debut Monster, El-P was blazing trails in the Brooklyn underground, a science-fiction inspired concoctor of spastic beats; in other words, a CHUD.
But now that they’ve come together so harmoniously it’s hard to imagine them apart, a true moment of hip-hop serendipity. Retaining many of El’s inherent inclinations toward dystopian fiction and Mike’s larger than life rambunctious swagger,the first installment of RTJ hits like a supercharged laser beam to the face. Clocking in at a respectable ten songs, the project fires banger after banger with highlights like “Banana Clipper,” “Sea Legs,” and instant holiday classic “A Christmas Fucking Miracle” bringing no shortage of imagination and character into the fold. “Producer gave me a beat, said it’s the beat of the year,” raps Mike, in “Banana Clipper.” “I said El-P didn’t do it, so get the fuck out of here.” Sounds about right.
21. Rapsody - Laila’s Wisdom (2017)
By the time she dropped Laila’s Wisdom in 2017, Rapsody had already established herself as a force to be reckoned with, but it became increasingly clear that an artist of her caliber needed an extensive body of work to fully flourish. With her debut, she was finally able to show off her incredible lyrical prowess to its fullest. Tapping some of the most notable wordsmiths in hip hop to accompany her—including her mentor, Kendrick Lamar, on the project’s highlight, “Power”—the practice of storytelling and offering social commentary are at the forefront of the self-identified “lyrical rapper”’s collection of textual genius.
In addition, Laila’s Wisdom was a cultural trailblazer, paving the way for the presence of an alternative type of “Femcee.” “I’m just another representation and another option of what you can be,” she said at the time. With Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody successfully carved out her own lane as a woman in hip hop, allowing other ladies to follow in her footsteps and no longer be limited to one look, one sound, one category.
20. Lloyd Banks - Hunger for More (2004)
Though 50 Cent quickly established himself as the defacto G-Unit capo, many were drawn to his consigliere: Lloyd Banks, the punchline King. Playing an integral role on G-Unit’s iconic mixtape run and various Shady-related features, Banks soon found himself building genuine momentum as a solo artist, culminating in the release of his classic debut The Hunger For More. Written and recorded while on the road, Banks’ first album proved his viability as a leading man with commercially successful singles like the Eminem-produced “On Fire” and the Timbaland-laced “I’m So Fly.”
While many had come for the punchlines, The Hunger For More provided a closer look into the man behind them. The somber “When The Chips Are Down” brought listeners into the darkest recesses of his memory bank, while the beautiful “Till The End” spoke to the futility of his optimism. “Warrior” found Banks back on his mixtape BS, while “Part 2” symbolized his ascent to rap-royalty. It’s no surprise that Lloyd Banks secured his first platinum plaque only a few months after the album’s release, a testament to his position as a fan-favorite. Even now, over fifteen years later, The Hunger For More remains an essential part of the Platinum Era’s canon.
19. Tierra Whack - Whack World (2018)
It’s difficult to put Tierra Whack’s debut into any kind of definitive box, as the very structure of and innovation behind Whack World essentially rejects this practice. Each of the 15 tracks roughly a minute long, Whack World’s brevity is pivotal to its genius, a bold choice serving only to amplify Tierra’s unique artistry rather than hindering it. Constantly shifting moods in both sound and subject matter from track to track, Whack World functions as a culmination of dramatically different moments, each of them ending before they’ve even really begun. For the duration of the 15-minute experience, Whack World never takes itself too seriously, all the while without sacrificing the quality of its contents. By disrupting seemingly unavoidable conventions of hip hop and establishing Ms. Whack as an innovative artist unlike any we’ve seen before, Whack World proves that some risks really do pay off.
18. Meek Mill - Dreams & Nightmares (2012)
Meek Mill is a rarity in the battle rap scene. Old YouTube clips show the rapper bodying his adversaries in the streets of Philly. Those videos are often used as a reference point for how far he’s come, but Dreams & Nightmares was the rapper’s official foray into the mainstream. A street rapper by trade, he painted an image of a young man from Philly on the brink of watching the so-called American dream come into fruition. His skill set as an MC wasn’t watered down by any means but he found a pocket that simultaneously met the needs of radio and hip-hop heads. “Intro” stands as one of the great hip-hop intros of all time while “Maybach Curtains” with John Legend, Nas, and Rick Ross extends itself as a cousin to Rozay’s “Maybach Music” series. But more than anything, the idea that an album is an artist’s full life work sums up Meek’s debut. He might have been able to enjoy the fruits of his labor on songs like “Amen” but moments before, he discusses the death of his father on “Traumatized.” Meek Mill’s debut album may have not “shifted the game” in terms of long-term influence but it was an important project that gave glimpses of what one of the greatest rappers of the 2010s was capable of.
17. Waka Flocka Flame - Flockaveli (2010)
Waka Flocka Flame’s debut has come to be appreciated and regarded as a trap darling largely in hindsight, despite its undeniable impact following its release. Without Flockaveli, we would not, arguably, have been introduced to the likes of Chief Keef, for example. A collection of unfaltering, high-energy bangers, the album most notably features the incomparably influential “Hard In Da Paint,” an emblem of Waka’s ever-demanding presence and aggressive demeanor. However, “Hard In Da Paint,” and Flockaveli as a whole, still maintains a certain focus and simplicity, achieving the intimidation and evoking the violence intended without becoming too uninhibited. The entire project is punctuated by ad-libs—forceful “BOW”s, verbalizations of gunshot sounds, and exclamations of the Gucci Mane-headed “Brick Squad”—delivered with equal conviction each and every time. With Lex Luger’s consistently threatening yet somewhat understated production, Flockaveli hits you like a ton of bricks, still eliciting an unwavering hype in its listeners a decade later.
16. Big Boi - Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty (2010)
When Big Boi dropped his official debut album Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty in the summer of 2010, he was already a distinguished artist with classics under his belt. Having already developed and honed his style through his time in Outkast, Big Boi’s first showing as a solo artist arrived when he was thirty-five years old. With that came a refreshing sort of artistic freedom, a place for Big Boi to pay homage to his Southern influences while continuing to chart out his intergalactic jaunt. It’s no wonder Sir Luscious feels simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic, the byproduct of our hero’s madcap vision.
Nowhere is the sonic pairing more evident than on the Scott Storch-produced lead-single “Shutterbug,” a song that might have sounded right at home in the eighties -- provided it didn’t scare the shit out of unsuspecting disco acolytes. Followed immediately by the incendiary “General Patton '' and the Andre 3000-laced “You Ain’t No DJ,” Sir Luscious delivers an unrelenting back-to-back-to-back assault bedazzling in its versatility. Songs like “Shine Blockas'' manage to permeate even the thickest clouds, save for those smoked by George Clinton on that dope on dope incarnate, “Fo Yo Sorrows.” As brilliant a summer soundtrack as one man can possibly concoct, Outkast fans should take solace in the comfort that one member blessed them with a bonafide (and still criminally underrated) solo classic.
15. Travis Scott - Rodeo (2015)
Travis Scott’s debut album had a lot riding on it. After two groundbreaking mixtapes in Owl Pharoah and Days Before Rodeo, fans were expecting an evolution of La Flame’s sound. With Rodeo, Scott exceeded expectations with a progressive trap masterpiece that still resonates with fans to this day. From T.I’s hovering narrations to Travis’ dark moody sound, the whole album feels like a movie being played out in Scott’s head. The album starts with a slow build on the track “Pornography” and then morphs into the dramatic introspective track “Oh My Dis Side” which sees Travis and Quavo exchanging melodies. Singles like “Antidote” and “90210” helped bring this album into the mainstream and helped set the tone for what eventually became Travis’ biggest moment in Astroworld. Fans still regard Rodeo as Travis’ best work and when you look at the tracklist, it’s easy to see why.
- Alex Cole
14. Rick Ross - Port Of Miami (2006)
The art of Coke rap has been mastered by very few over the years. Although rappers have detailed the drug trade over the years, the kingpin status that’s strived for and often mimicked in music was hardly carried in the way that Rick Ross managed on Port Of Miami. His baritone voice and larger-than-life persona told stories of cocaine transactions and the luxurious life that came with it. But at the same time, his debut album painted the underbelly of Miami and surely, it wasn’t entirely sunny in Florida. From a first-person perspective, Ross was a plug turned rap superstar that proved that his charisma and penmanship can take him further than the success of “Hustlin’. Although his credibility would be questioned down the line, Port Of Miami shifted hip-hop and the streets inevitably as Rozay began his ascent to rap royalty.
13. Jadakiss - Kiss the Game Goodbye (2001)
A Top 5 Dead Or Alive candidate oughta have at least one classic record under their belt. Though it may not be widely recognized as such (for better or worse), Jadakiss’ 2001 debut Kiss Tha Game Goodbye checks off all the right boxes. Arriving at the height of the Ruff Ryders movement, in which The Lox played a pivotal role, Jada’s first solo outing found him taking risks in his exploration of new sounds and thematic directions. Tethering him to his signature style were street classics like the back-and-forth “We Gon Make It” and the DJ Premier-laced “Ain’t None Of Y'all Better” (which features Primo’s spookiest beat of all time).
Duets with fellow elite lyricists like the Nas-assisted “Show Discipline” and fellow Double R affiliate DMX “Un-Hunh” kept his pen sharp. Geographical boundaries were blurred on the heavy Southern banger “What You Ride For” and the west-coast flavored Snoop Dogg collaboration “Cruisin’.” No matter the vibe, Jadakiss remains an inspired leading man, credible in both his street savoir-faire and his undeniable authorial qualities, exhibited on the Alchemist-produced autobiography “Feel Me.” It’s time we see Kiss Tha Game Goodbye sitting comfortably within the canon where it belongs.
12. Pusha T - My Name is My Name (2013)
It’s hard to not draw comparisons between Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name and Kanye West’s Yeezus. The most obvious reason for this association is that they both dropped in 2013, four months apart. Kanye serving as the executive producer of Push’s debut album also creates a tangible link between the two. But perhaps most importantly, both of these projects find brute power in brevity. There’s nothing superfluous in either of them and that could be attributed to the fact that Ye and Push were decorated veterans at this point in their careers. The minimalist covers mirrored the artistic restraint contained within the packaging. While the songs were often brash, the G.O.O.D Music masterminds sounded more in control than ever. Push especially honed his incisive lyricism, taking what he contributed to Clipse and letting it expand to encompass an entire stage. Since MNIMN, Pusha T has continued the trend of succinct projects, even reducing the tracklist length from twelve to seven on his latest. His pen has only gotten sharper and the coke raps have only gotten more potent.
11. Nipsey Hussle - Victory Lap (2018)
Los Angeles legend Nipsey Hussle may have made his name before the release of his debut studio album but Victory Lap is what opened him up to some much-deserved critical acclaim. Earning the late star his first-ever Grammy Award nomination for Best Rap Album, Hussle’s 2018 body of work was a decade in the making.
For years, Nipsey Hussle had toyed with the Victory Lap title, carefully plotting on when was the right time to unleash his life’s work on us. Much like a debut album is supposed to do, eyes were opened to Nip’s story through Victory Lap as the rapper described his entire being to newcomers and veteran listeners alike. Hussle calculated things perfectly with this release, which picked up in popularity in the months following its initial drop. With features from Kendrick Lamar, Puff Daddy, YG, and more, the LA native definitely had the right help to deliver an instant classic.
- Alex Zidel
10. Chief Keef - Finally Rich (2012)
Chief Keef was the face of the Chicago drill movement in the early 2010s and immediately made his mark with his debut album, Finally Rich. In the early stages of 2012, Chief Keef linked up with Lil Reese for the album’s lead single, “I Don’t Like.” The song was an immediate viral success and it got both fans and executives in the industry talking. Eventually, he followed up the success of this track with “Love Sosa” which was yet another huge hit that embedded itself in pop culture. With pressure mounting in regards to his debut album, Chief Keef delivered a classic that is revered by his contemporaries to this day. This body of work is credited for inspiring a whole new generation of artists. For years, artists that sounded like Chief Keef were referred to as his “child” as rap fans recognized that he was one of a kind at the time. Say what you will about his career since this album, there is no doubt that Chief Keef changed the game with Finally Rich.
- Alex Cole
9. YG - My Krazy Life (2014)
In 2014, after immeasurable success with his single “My N****” featuring Jeezy and Rich Homie Quan, YG dropped his debut studio album My Krazy Life. The rapper had been introducing us to his modern West Coast sound thanks to a series of mixtapes, which helped him bubble locally and then, across the globe. However My Krazy Life was YG’s most refined display of that West Coast bop. Working closely with producer DJ Mustard, YG took us along for a singular day in his (krazy) life. This is a day in his hood, and it starts brazenly with YG’s mom yelling at him: “I hope you not outside hanging with them gang banger,” she screeches at him before we hear the penetrating synth line. The song, which opens the album, also contains a nod to YG’s predecessor: Dr. Dre (“The Watcher”). “BPT” is simply setting the scene; much like in a movie, consider it the opening credits that pan an eerie and dark neighborhood. From there, we get into YG’s local antics. The storyline is continued through short interludes, which YG pulls off fantastically, in an era when skits were increasingly becoming a thing of the past (because, the internet/attention spans). DJ Mustard’s imitable bounce pervades many of the songs, a true homage to their coast, from “My N****” to “Bicken Back Being Bool” to “Who Do You Love?” with Drake-- the synth-y wobble is undeniable.
YG delivered an extremely special album with My Krazy Life. It did all the right things: introduced us properly to YG and his way of life; gave us catchy anthem after catchy anthem (look at that tracklist and recall just how many of those songs you were hearing in the club and on the radio, regardless of their status as an official single); it was a cohesive and well-curated body of work; it payed homage. Even the features were perfect-- each one more covet-able than the next, yet YG is still the main character in his music and his life.
8. Lupe Fiasco - Food & Liquor (2006)
Of all the included rappers to make this list, Lupe Fiasco stands proudly as one of the most esteemed lyricists. Though much has been made of his sophomore album The Cool, it was 2006’s Food & Liquor that laid the foundation. Boarded with a stacked production roster including Kanye West, The Neptunes, and the stalwart presence of Soundtrakk, Lu’s conceptual debut was put together under the watchful eye of Jay-Z himself.
Not only was Fiasco’s technical ability at once elite and effortless, but there was something refreshing about his idealism. Songs like “Kick Push” steered a new cultural movement into hip-hop, while the Grammy-Winning single “Daydreamin” served up candy-coated critiques with a subtle sense of satire. Not only did the album come together as one cohesive voyage through Lupe’s complex mind, but it did so while firing on a variety of cylinders. Thematic density did not come at the cost of hard-hitting punchlines; sometimes they arrived hand in hand.
7. Clipse - Lord Willin' (2002)
Pusha T has since become a household name, a widely respected rap titan prone to airing out secrets with a devilish grin. Long before the days of Daytona, however, Pusha T and his brother No Malice were sparking a new wave of post-mafioso coke rap. Where predecessors like Ghostface and Raekwon forged their path over golden-era production, The Clipse opted to look to the future, enlisting The Neptunes to score the entirety of their 2002 debut album Lord Willin. Off the bat, Skateboard P and Chad Hugo’s unique brand of production elevated Clipse to a different plane altogether, pairing booming percussion with ice-cold synth minimalism.
The perfect backdrops for Push and Malice’s brand of lyrical content, which found them effectively reviving a movement many wrote off as deceased. Songs like “Intro,” the Fabulous-assisted banger “Comedy Central,” and the timeless “Grindin” still entice to this day. When The Neptunes are in their bag, there is nothing quite like it; few producers can sound both playful and menacing in the same ten-second loop. Throw in some unapologetic and downright murderous bars from a young King Push and No Malice, and we’re looking at a classic hip-hop debut worthy of revisitation.
6. Kid Cudi - Man On The Moon: The End Of Day (2009)
If you’ve wondered what it’s like to travel to another universe through music, Kid Cudi’s Man On The Moon is the album for you. Released in 2009, MOTM is still considered almost unanimously to be Scott Mescudi’s best album of all-time. Without the use of psychedelic drugs, Cudder transports listeners to a new dimension, experiencing sounds we’ve never heard before while simultaneously delivering his life story in a clear, concise manner.
Considering the fact that an artist has their entire life to create their debut album, the end result should encapsulate your entire being by the time it’s out. Your debut should represent your soul. Man On The Moon perfectly describes who Kid Cudi is, marking it as one of the most impactful starting points ever. With “Soundtrack 2 My Life,” “Day ‘N’ Nite,” “Enter Galactic,” and “Pursuit of Happiness” all on the tracklist, there are enough bops to keep the casual listener entertained while Cudi dives deep into his background to appeal to the experienced fan who was seeking more after his initial mixtape releases.
- Alex Zidel
5. Young Jeezy - Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (2005)
Where would we be in rap music today if it wasn’t for Young Jeezy? Thug Motivation 101 marked a shift in hip-hop as the South affirmed Trap Music as the future of the genre. T.I. and Gucci Mane will likely continue to argue about the origins of the genre but there’s no doubt that Thug Motivation 101 was a milestone release in the history of Atlanta hip-hop. Jeezy’s portrayal of the trap was so vivid, you can smell wafts of cocaine bubbling in a pot.
Jeezy’s mixtape run prior to this album is what made the term “trapper turned rapper” official but TM101 was his welcoming party to the music industry. “Standing Ovation,” for example, perfectly summed up that this was all deeper than rap. “These are more than words/ This is more than rap/ This is the streets/ And I am the trap,” he declared. More than anything, Thug Motivation further solidified the South’s place in hip-hop, especially at a time when New York City’s platinum era began to fade out. It was gritty but still had enough commercial appeal. “My Hood” and the Akon-assisted, “Soul Survivor” were examples of how he took the gruff sound of the South and spread it across the United States, and eventually, the world.
4. The Game - The Documentary (2005)
Every decade, the West Coast has one or two artists that define it. And typically, it’s the approval of Dr. Dre that assures longevity. In the 80s, it was Ice-T and N.W.A while the 90s birthed the solo career of Ice Cube and brought us Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. The 2000s had a few rappers from the West Coast emerge but there was arguably no one bigger than The Game. He brought the West Coast back into the fold when there weren’t many rappers from the West actually doing it at such a magnitude. With the penmanship that was on par, and often exceeded his East Coast counterparts in G-Unit, The Documentary blended slick wordplay, gang banging, and the West Coast lifestyle all into one. A product of the greats that came before him, the rapper conveyed the weight that was on his shoulders as Compton’s prodigal son of the 2000s. Dr. Dre and 50 Cent oversaw the project, bringing hip-hop’s elite producers and artists into the fold. Just Blaze, Timbaland, Kanye West, Cool & Dre and more held down production while heavyweights like Eminem, Busta Rhymes, and of course, 50 Cent appeared throughout the tracklist. Mixed with the emotional vulnerability, the rapper delivered a tour of the Compton streets that raised him referencing landmarks that played a pivotal role in his life, in his ascent to national stardom.
3. Kanye West - The College Dropout (2004)
When people say they miss the old Kanye, this is the Kanye they’re talking about. These days, it’s become a farce to the revolutionary artist when someone reminisces over the good ‘ole days when the Chicago native was chopping soul samples, pulling hilarious skits on his albums, and spitting some real rap. The College Dropout, Kanye West’s debut studio album released in 2004, contains all of that and more.
The overall theme of The College Dropout is to make your own decisions and not allow society to dictate your life for you, which is something that West has preached to this day. It all begins with a skit introducing us to a fraternity-era West being influenced to create something “for the kids.” He goes right into “We Don’t Care,” which he describes as “the perfect song for the kids to sing.” The entire song and its carefree nature stands as the beginning of Ye's never-ending journey to becoming a free-thinker, uncensored by social norms.
Much of Mr. West’s production is highlighted on College Dropout, which is still viewed by many hip-hop heads as the best body of work in West’s extensive discography. With songs like “Jesus Walks,” “All Falls Down,” “Through The Wire,” and more included on the tracklist, those fans have a strong point. In theory, people came for the outstanding production and stuck around for the phenomenal story-telling that was laid out by the man they now call Yeezus. This is where it all started.
- Alex Zidel
2. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
Kendrick Lamar had the entirety of hip-hop waiting on the edge of their seats when he released good kid, m.A.A.d city. In 2011, he released Section.80 underneath Top Dawg Entertainment, a then-budding independent label to a few up-and-coming West Coast artists. The project was our first real glimpse into Kendrick Lamar, the artist, as he teetered somewhere between social activism and socializing. Section.80 gave both Kendrick and TDE enough momentum to ink a deal with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath and Interscope Records, through which Kendrick would release, one year later, his major label debut: good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Good kid, m.A.A.d city followed in the footsteps of Section.80. Section.80 was an album conceptualized around 1980s-era children, where GKMC was rooted in Kendrick’s own era. And while both albums are great, perhaps what makes GKMC even more impactful is that same fact; that Kendrick was able to double his luck with back-to-back “debuts,” the former laying formidable groundwork while the latter improved upon it, and added details to it.
GKMC is full of these little intricacies that make it so thrilling to listen to initially (but then again, and again), while its originality ensures it’s something unlike anything you’ve heard before, thus helping Kendrick earn his #2 spot on our list. Kendrick is the type of artist who appeases all fans, which is indeed why the entirety of hip-hop was waiting for this project. We were not disappointed either: going back to the idea that he balances social activism with socializing, Kendrick laces us with life lessons and hard-hitting facts, masked in banger format. A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, so to speak.
GKMC is also full of songs. Like real, fleshed out, multi-dimensional and complex songs, with hooks, bridges, skits and more. The songs average 4-6 minutes in length, a far cry from the 1-2 minute songs that make up a lot of our current releases. This added to the nostalgic punch that also pervaded GKMC, the fact that it really did feel like a more traditional hip-hop album/listening experience. And at just 13 songs, the album has quite literally a perfect tracklist. We'll leave it at that.
1. 50 Cent - Get Rich or Die Tryin (2003)
Get Rich or Die Tryin is one of those albums that has remained ageless, which is often the determining factor in a “classic” -- is it still just as good as it was when it first dropped, perhaps even better? Get Rich or Die Tryin was hot when it first dropped, clearly, debuting at #1 and selling close to 1 million copies in its first week out. However, if you play it right now, it’s still hot. To be clear, though, the album definitely sounds like it belongs in the early to mid 2000s (because it does)-- but even if you look at the album through that lens, through the context of the era in which it was released, it is not to the detriment of the album nor the music. It simply offers a fantastic sound-time-capsule into the Millenium era of music-- isn’t that what most classic albums are supposed to do, to some extent? If we’re talking about a classic Beatles record, to give an arbitrary and generally-agreed upon example, you expect it to offer a unique insight into the sounds that the Beatles were championing and revolutionizing/evolving at the time that particular album was released. Which is very much what 50 Cent has managed with Get Rich or Die Tryin. The music remains steadfastly unique, and it remains a true testament to the persona of 50 Cent and his musical impact on the rap game.
There are plenty of reasons why Get Rich or Die Tryin is the #1 best rapper debut of the century, beyond the simple conclusion offered above. The replay value and consistency are among them, and lending to that idea are the hooks: is there one bad hook on the album? Even if the song didn’t become a proper single, every song was blessed with a catchy, sing-along hook to juxtapose the hardened tracklist. Fif maintained a balance of his gritty, close-mouthed rhymes with his ability to hold a melody, before it became a given that every rapper should also be a singer. Fif’s pitched-up hook for “What Up Gangster” definitely has a melodic sensibility to it, an approach Fif employs again on the chorus for “Poor Lil Rich.” Elsewhere, “Many Men” gives us a more somber sing-song hook, while “Blood Hound”’s version of the melodic hook is much more aggressive, whereas “Back Down” is pure bark. We can talk about the beats too: banger after banger, with one soft spot for “21 Questions,” makes the adrenaline-fueled tracklist literally unskippable. While not yet in our current playlist-obsessed era, 50 managed to put out an album that still has a distinct playlist-esque flow; certain elements such as the piano keys and the drums recurring again and again throughout the album to create a cohesive body of work. The Shady-approved crew of producers, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Mr. Porter, Luis Resto and Mike Elizondo, ensured that no Coast would feel left out. There’s enough bounce to appease any West Coast dwelling fan, and there’s enough grit to satisfy the whole of New York. Thus it becomes quite clear how the album managed to make, not only the initial impact that it did, but a lasting impact. It was ahead of its time in certain ways, it remained grounded in its era in other ways; and in the process, we were given the most exciting debut album of the century.