1990: Ice Cube
Credentials: AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted
Soon after his acrimonious split with N.W.A., O'Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube, knew he had to make a solo album. At first he reached out to Dr. Dre, who reportedly wanted to work with him, but Eazy-E and Ruthless Records boss Jerry Heller nixed that idea. So Cube linked with The Bomb Squad—the production team behind Public Enemy—who delivered the high-energy funk while Cube dug deep into his lyric books and created a classic.
The rhymes on Amerikkka's Most Wanted went beyond gangster life and dug into the underbelly of American apartheid. This was the record that predicted the L.A. riots two years before they happened. There is also a lot of talk about "selling out" and a tension between mainstream pop culture and hip-hop that now feels anachronistic but was obviously a very real concern at the time. (Though the star of family-friendly flicks like Are We There Yet? appears to have made peace with those issues now.) The album received almost no radio play and still went platinum because Cube was talking that shit the streets needed to hear.
Hip-hop was going through labor pains. A rebirth was at hand, another quantum leap that would rewrite all the rules yet again. The '90s would see G-funk becoming pop music, Bad Boys wearing shiny suits, and rock dealers rising to become America's new Rockefellers. But on May 16, 1990, rap was still underground rebel music. And at this moment in time "The Nigga Ya Love To Hate" was the most important rapper on the planet.
Honorable Mentions: LL Cool J, Chuck D, Grand Puba
After the first misstep of his young career—an ill-advised album called Walking With A Panther—LL Cool J linked with Marley Marl and started rhyming like he had a chip on his shoulder. "Don't call it a comeback!" he roared on "Mama Said Knock You Out" and on "The Booming System" Cool J erased all doubts that he was still hard as hell.
Meanwhile Fear of A Black Planet saw Chuck D urging his audience to "Fight The Power" and even encouraging them with songs like "Brothers Gonna Work It Out." It was PE's last masterpiece, a glory to behind.
At the same time Brand Nubian brought Five Percent Nation mathematics back to the forefront of hip-hop, and none did it more effectively than the effervescently slick-tongued Grand Puba, who had also been the standout of his last group, Masters of Ceremony. After the triumphant album All For One, he parted company with Lord Jamar and Sadat X, but when they were together they were louder than a bomb. —Rob Kenner (@boomshots)