The 50 Greatest Debut Albums in Hip-Hop History

The first LP an artist releases means everything, and it when it comes to rap, these are the very best.

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Complex Original

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First impressions are everything and few have greater impact than a hip-hop artist's debut album. Part of the reason why rap debuts are so revered is because they present the first opportunity to judge an artist's singular body of work. But there's also an unspoken pressure here. Historically, so many rap debuts are so damn good, and anyone looking to make their first foray into a career within the genre has a lot to live up to.

Whether it's Dr. Dre changing the sound of hip-hop production with The Chronic or Clipse ushering in a new era of urgent lyricism on Lord Willin' two decades later, time has shown that many do, in fact, live up to these pressures. A rapper's initial offering can often have a massive influence on subsequent releases, and culture in general. Sometimes that first album is the most significant of an artist's career.

If it seems like the scales of appreciation are tipped in favor of debuts, it's because they are. There's a reason why Jay-Z calls Reasonable Doubt his "baby." There's a reason why Raekwon still can't escape the shadow of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Rappers essentially have their entire lives to make their first album, and it shows—in some releases more than others.

We decided to get to the bottom of the never-ending discussion about rap's greatest debuts. It was tough, like any list of this scope, but we got it down to 50 surefire classics, from past and present, and we've ranked them as well. Is Illmatic No. 1? Which artists who dropped their first LP in the past decade made the cut? Read on to find out all of that, and more. These are The 50 Greatest Debut Albums in Hip-Hop History.

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50. Young Jeezy, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101

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Label: CTE/Def Jam
Release Date: 7/26/2005

The early Aughts came with the emergence of Young Jeezy, a street wise trapper-turned-rapper who became the hottest commodity in hip-hop thanks to his killer mixtapes, like Trap or Die. His buzz scored him a deal with Def Jam and his album Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101debuted at No. 2, with over 170,000 copies sold. The album spawned several hits, most notably "Go Crazy" and "Soul Survivor."

The album spoke to the streets, featuring choice narcotics references throughout while providing some motivational talk on "Let's Get It/Sky's the Limit." Throw in the addictive "My Hood," along with production by Mannie Fresh, and it's easy to understand why Jeezy's debut album was a success. He connected with his street audience while giving radio songs that made the album a pop smash, at the same damn time.

49. Missy Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly

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Label: Elektra
Release Date: 7/15/1997

When Supa Dupa Fly arrived, it was immediately apparent that it was something different. Singles "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," "Hit Em Wit Da Hee," "Sock It 2 Me" and "Beep Me 911" introduced the world to an incomparable creative duo and helped push the record to platinum status; it debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.

The record, produced entirely by Timbaland, blended R&B and hip-hop, relying on Missy's songwriting talents and Timbo's unpredictable production that was more about creating experimental pop canvases than it was churning out rap beats. But for all its weirdness, it was a record that retained an accessible, human dimension. It wasn't the best record the duo would make together—that honor belongs to either Da Real World or Miss E...So Addictive—but it was a fantastic album in its own right, and its success gave them the creative freedom to push further as they moved forward.

48. The Game, The Documentary

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Label: Aftermath/G-Unit/Interscope
Release Date: 1/18/2005

Game understood the significance debuts hold in hip-hop. After all, we're talking about a guy who rhymed, "I'm Ready To Die without a Reasonable Doubt/Smoke Chronic and hit it Doggystyle before I go out." At this point, Game's debut is sometimes best remembered for the controversy that surrounded it at the time of its release. Namely, Game's highly publicised falling out with G-Unit and 50's claim that he wrote all of Game's hits.

But whether or not 50's claims are true are besides the point. The only thing that matters is that Game's debut had top-shelf production, catchy hooks, and effective rapping. Best of all, the singles were gangsta but glossy, built for the radio and for the streets. Game's arranged G-Unit marriage wasn't meant to last, but it's too bad because as his debut proved, it was a match made in heaven.

47. Mos Def, Black on Both Sides

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Label: Rawkus
Release Date: 8/26/1998

Black Star may have introduced the world to both Talib Kweli and Mos Def, but Black on Both Sides showed the ambit of Mos Def's talent. Black Star had established him as the Universal Magnetic-a rapper who could seamlessly appeal to a variety of crowds with his smooth style but one who was still whip-smart and outspoken. His debut didn't just feature his expertly crafted compositions, it expanded on it.

His forays into other genres like punk rock, soul, reggae, and even funk made him a more dynamic MC than anyone could have guessed. And to top it all off, Mos even sang rather well on several cuts and played instruments on many songs. It's an album that can accurately be described as a tour de force.

46. Too Short, Born to Mack

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Label: Dangerous Music/Jive/RCA
Release Date: 7/20/1987

Along with the paintings of Barnett Newman and the prose of Jim Thompson, Too Short's 1987 debut Born To Mackis one of the great minimalist expressions of American art. Although Todd Shaw had already produced and distributed a string of successful independent albums within the Bay Area, this full-length was his first introduction on the national stage. At 21, his aesthetic was more than fully formed-it was idealized.

The eight songs on Born To Mack present a duet between a young man and his drum machine. His rhymes are as insidiously catchy as they are unrepentantly filthy, and he makes that drum machine sing and groan and wheeze like an apocalyptic oracle. "Partytime," "Mack Attack" and "Dope Fiend Beat" are the subwoofer's aphrodisiac.

As much as it seems useless to isolate tracks from an album that is so sonically unified, "Freaky Tales" towers above the rest, a sparse epic within a sparse epic. In corporeal measurement, it runs for nine-and-a-half minutes, but really it is a vision of the infinite. Insane Clown Posse eventually released a 60-minute version in tribute and even that seemed insufficient. To listen to "Freaky Tales" is to picture its gaseous riff hurtling and uncurling through the space-time continuum, dispensing ever more obscene rhymes into eternity.

45. Scarface, Mr. Scarface is Back

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Label: Rap-A-Lot
Release Date: 10/3/1991

With his first album Scarface wanted only to honor his personal demons and create music that his boys would jam on the blocks of Houston's Fifth Ward. It was entirely accidental that Mr. Scarface Is Backinvented an entirely new approach to rap music, independent of either coast but informed by both.

Produced entirely by Scarface and Mr. C, the album's sound design is extraordinarily focused. Scarface knew exactly what he wanted: vintage funk records, the toughest he could find. No singing, no females, and no guest appearances whatsoever (although Willie D. and Bushwick Bill, his fellow Geto Boys, make a crucial appearance on the cover image). Rather than simply refer to criminal enterprises, Scarface expounded upon the grisly details of murder, misogyny, and the drug trade, as if to say: "If you want to know about it, you have to know all of it."

What made him unnerving as an MC was that his extreme brutality was matched by an equally extreme depth of heart. In the middle of his most vile imagery, Face takes stock of himself, and confesses to the listener his regrets and his fears: about his mom, his alienation, and his own unpreventable doom. The feeling of this album-sonically and lyrically-is so earthy and worn-in and true that falls into the blues tradition as much as it does the hip-hop tradition.

44. The D.O.C., No One Can Do It Better

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Label: Ruthless/Atlantic
Release Date: 6/16/1989

Even though Straight Outta Compton was a more explosive statement, No One Can Do It Betteris the point at which the West Coast conclusively disproved its inferiority to the East. Part of that had to do with the influence of New York on the album. Dr. Dre and the D.O.C. summoned the creative synergy of Marley Marl and Big Daddy Kane on songs like "D.O.C. and the Doctor," "Lend Me An Ear," and "Whirlwind Pyramid," all of which invoke the viciously percussive rhymes of the Cold Chillin' era. ("Beautiful But Deadly," meanwhile, is a brilliantly blatant rejoinder to Rick Rubin's heavy metal hip-hop.)

While those songs might have been the N.W.A. camp's way of telling New York "we can beat you at your own game," the other half of the album was a premonition of the new L.A. sound that would come to fruition on The Chronic. On "No One Can Do It Better," "Let the Bass Go," and "The Formula" the bass becomes more important than the drums, conjuring the post-apocalyptic Blaxploitation atmosphere that would soon be synonymous with the streets of South Central. Smack in the middle of these two styles is "It's Funky Enough," a classic single mean enough to convert New Yorkers but dank enough to intoxicate Los Angeles.

43. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

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Label: Ruffhouse/Columbia
Release Date: 8/25/1998

Everyone knew The Fugees were dope and Lauryn Hill was an essentlu key to their success, but no one was really ready for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Few albums featured such a broad scope of pure talent. Ms. Hill could do it all and do it so effortlessly. She could be smart, she should be tough, she could be sexy, she could be sweet, and she could switch up her style in a flash. She could rap, she could sing, she could produce (people forget, she produced every song on the album).

The album's greatest accomplishment might be what Rolling Stone described as it's ability to "filter hip-hop through a womanist lens." It's unfair to call it a pure "rap" album (songs like "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" feature no rapping at all), but then again, it's hard to find any genre that can encompass all of Ms. Hill's enormous gifts.

42. DMX, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot

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Label: Ruff Ryders/Def Jam
Release Date: 5/19/1998

Rap was getting awfully pretty in the late '90s. It seemed like every rapper was a jiggy player who only valued ice and money. Enter DMX, the born loser who didn't have a friend in the world but his dog. Dark Man X didn't care about wealth or fame, instead, he valued strength and wisdom. Better yet, he was as hard as a rock and had all the street credibility in the world, but made radio-ready music. Plus his rap style was unique, at times philosophical, without being overly technical, but always intense.

The album was mostly produced in-house, by PK and Dame Grease (Swizz Beatz is often wrongly credited with producing this album when in reality he only did "Ruff Ryders Anthem") and marked a shift to more synthesizer-based hip-hop sound. As X would rhyme on "Get At Me Dog," "Let my man and them stay pretty and I'mma stay shitty."

41. Goodie Mob, Soul Food

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Label: LaFace
Release Date: 11/17/1995

Before Cee-Lo was one of hip-hop's biggest crossover pop stars, he was one-fourth of one of the South's most important groups. Around the same time that Outkast was booed at the '95 Source Awards, a low-key record entitled Soul Food came out to some acclaim. Although under-appreciated at the time—and perhaps never fully appreciated to the extent it deserved—the record was a snapshot of a group that had a fully-established aesthetic, artists at the top of their game the moment they arrived.

Organized Noize, already one classic album deep with Outkast's debut, was making distinctly Southern records, redolent of the country blues feel that sounded traditional while pushing hip-hop into newer spaces. It's a record that finds spiritual truths in the context of sobering earthly realities.

40. Eminem, The Slim Shady LP

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Label: Interscope/Aftermath
Release Date: 2/23/1999

Yes, we know about Infinite. It was practically unavailable outside of the Detroit metro area, and ultimately stands as a demo. It's on his proper debut, The Slim Shady LP, that Eminem effortlessly created his own world in the trailer parks, suburban living rooms, and "laundry mats where all the white trashy blondes be at" that were, quiet as kept, the natural habitat of many rap fans. Shady lived in Shady's world.

What made the album so special was the way Marshall flipped both sides of the coin. He seamlessly mixed cartoonish violence with autobiographical detail, pop culture with drug culture, storytelling songs with battle raps. But this lead to a problem when the album first came out: Listeners had no way of knowing when Em was joking and when he wasn't. We never know which persona is speaking-we're stuck in the midst of a narrative without a reliable narrator.

Over the years we've learned how to parse the meaning in his intricately wrought rhymes. But nowhere was that through-the-looking-glass tension more potent than it was on The Slim Shady LP. And in 1999, everyone knew how to listen to rap, but we didn't know how to listen to Eminem. He was that original, and that's what made him so vital-then and now.

39. Smif N Wessun, Dah Shinin'

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Label: Wreck
Release Date: 1/10/1995

After a string of dope Black Moon remixes, Da Beatminerz really hit their stride with Dah Shinin', which no stands as their crowning achievement in terms of the Bucktown sound they introduced. Rumbling, filtered bass, neck-snapping drums and eerie samples make tracks like "Wontime" nothing short of ruthless. Tek and Steele play their position perfectly, expertly populating each song with the right mix of gun talk and survival stories while they rep the Boot Camp Clik.

With gems like "Sound Bwoy Buriell" and the Roy Ayres driven "Home Sweet Home" at their disposal, Smif N Wessun presents a portrait of the rugged "old" Brooklyn that's now disappearing in a sea of Whole Foods, craft beers, and fixed gear bikes. Long live Bucktown.

38. Souls of Mischief, 93 'til Infinity

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Label: Jive/BMG
Release Date: 9/28/1993

It's easy to cast Souls of Mischief as another '90s one-hit wonder. But don't you think the rhymes and that instrumental on "93 Til' Infinity" are too dope for it to be a case of accidental genius? 93 Til' Infinity proves that it wasn't. The album represents hip-hop chemistry at its peak, as the group seamlessly trade rhymes within verses for a classic display of technical prowess. "93 Til' Infinity" was the mainstream hit, but the album did much to give underground hip-hop life.

37. Capone-N-Noreaga, The War Report

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Label: Def Jam/Tommy Boy/Warner Bros.
Release Date: 6/17/1997

In many ways, this is Tragedy Khadafi's best album. As the mastermind of this project, the Intelligent Hoodlum helped Capone and his boy Noreaga develop into the new blueprint for Queens Thug Rap, channeling their youthful energy with military precision. After leading the charge against Snoop and the Dogg Pound's disrespectful "New York, New York" video, CNN represented a new street science revolving around the Middle East, even going as far as incorporating Arabic vocals into tracks like "Illegal Life."

Boasting some of the hardest beats of 1997, The War Report proved that hardcore hip-hop could still be relevant and revolutionary, and launched the career of NORE, one of hip-hop's most entertaining personalities.

36. Brand Nubian, One for All

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Label: Elektra
Release Date: 12/4/1990

Few albums captured the spirit of the Zulu Nation as accurately as One for All, a powerhouse of a debut that also serves as a aural document to life in New York at the beginning of a new decade. Rap veteran Grand Puba Maxwell was at the top of his game when he recruited Sadat X, Lord Jamar, and DJ Alamo to record this masterpiece. With the exception of the New Jack Swing-flavored "Try To Do Me," every track here hits the mark, as the Nubian's deftly combined B-Boy attitude with a sprinkling of Five Percenter mathematics.

Showcasing the entire spectrum of musical styles that hip-hop draws from, the crew kicked it over beats sourced from reggae, funk, go-go, and even Bohemian folk, dropping intricate slang and flawlessly mixing Brag Rap with street science. One for All also holds the dubious honor of being one of the most bootlegged albums ever in the pre-Internet era, proving that rap fiends would stop at nothing to cop this amazing project.

35. Kool G Rap, Road to the Riches

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34. Jungle Brothers, Straight Out the Jungle

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33. Redman, Whut? Thee Album

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Label: Def Jam
Release Date: 9/22/1992

Just when Slick Rick, Public Enemy, and the original wave of Def Jam personalities were fading into the distance, an unhinged voice from New Jersey swooped in to inaugurate a new era for the foundational label. Hailing proudly from the less-than-lovely streets of Newark, Redman was perfectly positioned between two generations of hip-hop innovation. He embodied the unapologetic goofiness of Biz Markie and the party-rocking ethos of Big Daddy Kane (to Redman, MC still meant "move the crowd), and at the same time he pushed rap culture towards a rambunctiousness that would soon align him with Wu-Tang Clan.

Whut? Thee Album was entirely self-produced by Redman in collaboration with Erick Sermon (with a little help from Pete Rock on "How To Roll A Blunt"). Redman knew exactly what beats would bring out his inner wild man.

Though he would become one of the most beloved of East Coast MCs, Whut? Thee Album is instilled with West Coast blood. The samples continually return to Zapp and Parliament, and there are vocal snippets from Cypress Hill, Ice Cube, and N.W.A. His inter-coast credentials proved that Redman was entirely his own man, hewing only to his individualized interpretation of the hip-hop tradition.

32. Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Mecca and the Soul Brother

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Label: Elektra
Release Date: 6/9/1992

"They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)"—a tribute to a fallen brother—is not just a great song, but a sacred moment in hip-hop. But is it a good enough reason for that one track to overshadow this whole album? Mecca & The Soul Brother's main strength is how it covers so much, but still manages to maintain its cool.

Pete Rock makes some of his best cuts as he switches from "Return of the Mecca"'s brooding percussion to the disillusioned jazz of "Ghettos of the Mind." All of these tracks still sound unified, though. Then CL Smooth mourns, speaks about life in the hood, and makes a love joint while remaining centered. "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)" is a classic, but the rest of these tracks hold up just fine on their own.

31. The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde

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Label: Delicious Vinyl
Release Date: 11/24/1992

Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde was kind of rebellious. The album embraced jazz influences instead of the popular West Coast G-Funk of the early '90s, and juxtaposed the social-consciousness of its contemporaries (think Public Enemy or Native Tongues) with odd lyricism.

There's a ridiculously over-the-top phone call on the solid "4 Better or 4 Worse," a plea to the ever-oppressive police on "Officer," and insane amounts of shit talk on "Ya Mama" and "I'm That Type of Nigga." The whole thing is bizarre, but not too absurd to alienate the listener. You'll be bobbing your head till the party ends on "Return of the B-Boy."

30. Clipse, Lord Willin'

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Label: Star Trak/Arista
Release Date: 8/20/2002

Hell hath no fury like the Thornton brothers and a microphone, with Lord Willin'solidifying their status as a tandem that was built for the long haul. From a fierce Virginian demeanor to wordplay that was as slick as it was vicious, Malice and Pusha T were resolute in their approach as they rarely strayed away from a formula that is present to this day. A heavy focus on drug references may have put a damper on their lyrical versatility, but songs like "Gangsta Lean" had enough clout to warrant universal appeal.

Not only did Lord Willin' introduce the rap world to Clipse, but it also established the "Neptunes sound," an eccentric fusion of stripped-down drums and synthesized melodies courtesy of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. It was a style they flirted with in the past (Noreaga, Jay-Z, Ludacris), but this album and its soundscapes proved to be a landmark for them. The Neptunes may have produced more successful tracks with other artists afterward, but "Grindin'" still remains their calling card.

29. Outkast, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik

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Label: LaFace
Release Date: 4/26/1994

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was an exceptional record from the jump. Few anticipated the heights the duo would climb to in the oncoming years, but it was evident from the beginning that a new voice had just hit the national stage, even if some people weren't ready for it.

Outkast was infamously booed at the 1995 Source Awards, unexpected winners to most in the audience. Listening today, the group's debut sounds ageless, a snapshot of a particular aesthetic, time, and place that nonetheless reached for something universal.

28. DJ Quik, Quik Is the Name

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Label: Profile
Release Date: 1/15/1991

DJ Quik would become one of the West Coast's most distinctive, talented and well-rounded producers, creating (and often ghost-producing) chart-topping hits and classic albums. His style evolved throughout his career, but in terms of his popular appeal as a solo artist, he would never top his debut record. Of "Born and Raised in Compton," Quik told us that sampling Isaac Hayes' "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" made him "feel like a god."

Quik was an expensive acquisition for Profile Records; his real underground debut was a mixtape from 1987 entitled The Red Tape, and it took three years before that led to his label deal. But the gamble paid off for Profile, as Quik is the Name went Gold within a year and platinum within five. Heavier on samples than he would be in later years-the entire genre was awash in a pre-Gilbert O'Sullivan lawsuit sampling obsession-Quik's debut spawned four singles: "Born and Raised in Compton," "Quik Is the Name," "Sweet Black Pussy," and by far his biggest crossover success, the Kleer-sampling "Tonite."

27. Ultramagnetic MCs, Critical Beatdown

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Label: Next Plateau
Release Date: 10/4/1998

Coming off an unstoppable run of hit singles like "Ego Trippin'" and "Funky," Ultramagnetic decided to take the pioneering step of remixing and remaking everything for their first album, resulting in an entire collection of brand new material for their fans. The result was an album that was so far ahead of its time that it still sounds advanced today.

DJ Moe Love and TR Love backed-up Ced Gee's brilliant SP-12 programming techniques in the Ultra Lab, unleashing a new style of chopping up drums and loops to create the sound of hip-hop's future. Kool Keith is the star of the show, pioneering advanced flow patterns and delivering so many subliminals to the competition that we're still decoding his bars in 2012.

Critical Beatdown is Space Rap via the Boogie Down Bronx, the final frontier for the journey George Clinton embarked on many years earlier, only this time the Mothership has been upgraded into a Space Shuttle. These are the real Rap Geniuses.

26. Big Pun, Capital Punishment

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Label: Terror Squad/Loud
Release Date: 4/28/1998

Big Pun was out to prove one thing on his debut: That he was a first-rate lyricist. Barely a minute into the first song on the album ("Beware"), he busts out the first of many tongue twisters, "Flawless victory, you niggas can't do shit to me/Physically, lyrically, hypothetically, realistically." Later, on club-friendly cuts like "Still Not A Player," he kept spewing syllables, "Come feel my heartbeat/We can park the Jeep, pump Mobb Deep, and just spark the leaf." Even the skits like "Pakinamac" were lyrical.

The album isn't without its flaws (for one, it runs too long) and Big Pun didn't break much new ground as an MC, but his debut wasn't about that. It was about composition and execution, and no one punished the mic quite like Big Pun.

25. Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C.

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Label: Profile
Release Date: 3/27/1984

Following up the one-two punch of their first single, 1983's "It's Like That"/"Sucker MCs," Run-D.M.C.'s self-titled debut album was a nine-track TKO for Profile Records, becoming the first rap album to go gold. As dated as the sparse drum machine production sounds today, the Hollis, Queens trio's debut marked the dividing line between hip-hop's old school and new school.

The groundbreaking track "Rock Box"-featuring beats by Jam Master Jay and guitar riffs by Eddie Martinez-would become the first rap video to be aired on MTV, premiering in 1984 and paving the way for countless rap crossover records to come.

24. Ghostface Killah, Ironman

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Label: Razor Sharp/Epic
Release Date: 10/26/1996

36 Chambers was just a sampler. Fans truly saw everything the Wu-Tang Clan was about on Ironman: its beliefs, ambitions, influences. The listener heard Ghostface Killah come into his own on his solo debut, as his abstract, schizophrenic delivery rode off RZA's hazed-out soul sampling. Tony Starks was at his most vulnerable, too. "All That I Got Is You" still remains one of rap's quintessential tribute songs, while the lyrical blitzkrieg midway in "The Soul Controller" engrosses. The more aggressive tracks also bang. "Daytona 500" is hard enough to chop diamonds.

23. The Beatnuts, The Beatnuts: Street Level

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22. Main Source, Breaking Atoms

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Label: Wild Pitch/EMI
Release Date: 7/23/1991

Although Large Professor and DJ brothers Sir Scratch and K-Kut had previously dropped a couple of independent singles, most rap fans were first exposed to the Main Source sound via the "Lookin' At The Front Door" single on Wild Pitch, the tale of a man fed-up with his girlfriend treating him "like a burnt piece of bacon." When Breaking Atoms hit the shelves, it proved to be packed to the brim with rich, original samples and innovative song concepts.

Large covered everything from questioning current slang ("Peace Is Not The Word To Play"), celebrating a friend's day job ("Watch Roger Do His Things"), to striking out racist cops ("Just A Friendly Game of Baseball"), set to some of the most cutting-edge crate-digging of the day. As if that wasn't enough, Main Source also blessed the world with the incredible "Live At The BBQ," which gave us our first exposure to both Nasty Nas and Akinyele. A true classic in every sense.

21. Black Sheep, A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

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Label: Mercury
Release Date: 10/22/1992

Adding an unexpected sophistication to the Native Tongues movement, Dres and Mista Lawnge delivered us a platter filled with previously undiscovered rare grooves, hilariously sleazy lyrics, and more sheep puns than a New Zealand farmer. Beyond the addictive "Choice Is Yours (Revisited)," the Sheep offered a varied selection of moods and textures, from the bounce of "Strobelight Honey," the majestic "Similak Child," to the hardcore parody of "You Mean I'm Not."

Dres flexed a witty technique, wielding an advanced vocabulary and was equally comfortable at roasting weak rappers as seducing broads, while the album's breaks and loops set a new standard in originality. A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing is also notable for getting Black Sheep's A&R fired after his ill-advised verse on "Pass The 40" where he complained that he spent most of his time in the office "listening to bullshit demos."

20. Kanye West, The College Dropout

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Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Release Date: 2/10/2004

In 2004, Kanye West broke the stereotypical image of the gangster rapper, inspired a new following of backpackers, paved the way for rappers like Lupe Fiasco and...fuck it. We know why this album is a masterpeice. Yes, The College Dropoutis great for those reasons, but what's even more interesting is just how Kanye was able to make those accomplishments. It takes a very specific type of confidence and focus to usher in a new era of cool.

Ye's debut saw his soul-inspired formula dominate the radio, the charts, and the playlists of hip-hop fans worldwide. It was socially-aware without being preachy, self-aware without being righteous, and catchy but never overly saccharine. Mr. West wasn't afraid to ruffle feathers either, as evident in his smash hit "Jesus Walks." The College Dropout was the blend of cojones and genius that helped define his career.

19. Cypress Hill, Cypress Hill

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Label: Ruffhouse/Columbia
Release Date: 8/13/1991

The rap world lost their collective shit when this album first dropped, as DJ Muggs slapped everyone in the face with loud, aggressive beats that abandoned the Zapp samples and focused on bringing the noise, not unlike if the Bomb Squad had set-up an L.A. chapter and forgot to tell anybody. Lead rapper B-Real took Rammellzee's nasal style from "Beat Bop" and transformed it into the maniacal ramblings of a blunted Westside hoodlum, while Sen Dog proved to be rap's greatest sidekick since Flavor Flav.

Cypress Hill brought a heavy metal mentality to hip-hop, minus the live guitars (that would come many albums later), and flaunted a fearless "fuck the world" attitude that meant they didn't think twice to make a song like "Pigs." Ultra-violence, loud drums, and a truck-load of weed? That's always a recipe for a great album.

18. Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

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Label: Def Jam
Release Date: 11/3/1988

Slick Rick first made waves as MC Ricky D on Doug E. Fresh's "The Show"/"La Di Da Di" 12-inch, one of the most beloved singles of the '80s. After a quick name change, Slick Rick released his debut LP on Def Jam. The record was an immediate success, peaking at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts, spawning three charting singles ("Teenage Love," "Hey Young World," and "Children's Story"), and garnering the Source's rare 5-mic rating.

Although Rick's storytelling abilities were the most heralded, it was his voice and a uniquely relaxed, behind-the-beat cadence that stand out most immediately and would prove as influential as his chops as a narrative artist. Not that the record was flawless; "Indian Girl (An Adult Story"), in particular, hasn't aged well. That moment aside, the production and approach of The Great Adventures of Slick Rick pushed hip-hop in a completely new direction and marked the arrival of a significant new voice.

17. Big Daddy Kane, Long Live the Kane

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Label: Cold Chillin'
Release Date: 6/21/1988

Antonio Hardy a.k.a. Dark Gable a.k.a. Big Daddy Kane got his start in the rap game by writing rhymes for his friend Biz Markie. By 1987, Kane dropped "Raw," his debut single on Cold Chillin' Records, which showcased his ability to flow rapidly over one of Marley Marl's most energetic beats. But it wasn't until his 1988 debut album, Long Live the Kane, that Kane would be acknowledged as King Asiatic Nobody's Equal, a rapper whose lyrical prowess and unique sense of style made an everlasting impression on the evolution of hip-hop.

From Billboard-charting hit singles like "Ain't No Half Steppin" and "I'll Take You There" to B-boy classics like "Set It Off," Kane was always ready to shoot the gift and make MCs stand stiff. Although his sophomore disc It's A Big Daddy Thing was more successful commercially, everything about his debut album-from its all-killer-no-filler 10-track lineup to its cover image of the Brooklyn MC draped in white robes and gold chains while being attended to by three fly girls-cemented his place in the hip-hop imagination.

16. EPMD, Strictly Business

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Label: Sleeping Bag/Fresh
Release Date: 8/20/1988

As their name suggested, the Brentwood, Long Island duo of Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith was always about making dollars. And when their debut album went gold in just four months, that's exactly what they did. "The story of us is unreal," Sermon told Complex earlier this year. "We blew. We blew fast. We popped. Once it got out the first time, it was over."

On the strength of tracks like "It's My Thing," "I'm Housing," "You're A Customer," and "You Gots to Chill," EPMD established a unique niche, marrying boastful party rhymes with Sermon's sample-driven East Coast funk sound. Their ongoing legacy-including Hit Squad members Redman, Keith Murray, K-Solo, and Das EFX-begins right here.

15. Ice Cube, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted

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Label: Priority
Release Date: 5/16/1990

What does one do after breaking up with one of the most notorious groups of all-time? You team up with one greatest production teams ever and create a classic album. Ice Cube and The Bomb Squad linked to make Amerikkka's Most Wanted, an album that is political, abrasive, and most importantly, brilliant. If it shocks you and strikes a nerve, good. That means the album has done its job.

14. De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising

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13. LL Cool J, Radio

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Label: Def Jam
Release Date: 11/18/1985

James Todd Smith was 17 years old when his debut became the first full-length release on Def Jam Records. Radio featured production by sonic visionary Rick Rubin plus a remix by Jazzy Jay, the DJ who introduced Rubin to Russell Simmons. Rap historian Dan Charnas summarized the impact of the single, "Rock The Bells," thus: "This DJ here? He's the new guitar god. This music here? This is the new rock and roll. And we didn't have to lighten the beat or play a guitar to do it. 'Rock The Bells' was the angry death knell of the old musical order, a call to arms from Rubin's new label, Def Jam."

Recorded in New York City at Chung King House of Metal, Radio was arguably the first cohesive rap album, sounding like nothing else before. Tracks like "I Need A Beat," "I Can't Live Without My Radio" and the freaky fave "Dear Yvette" helped the album go gold within a year of its release, despite limited radio play. Ironic? Sure. But cassette copies of LL's debut sure wore out a lot of boombox batteries.

12. N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton

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Label: Ruthless
Release Date: 8/8/1988

"You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge" were the opening words on N.W.A's debut album, and looking back 24 years after the release of Straight Outta Compton, it's fair to say that even Eazy E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella didn't know their own strength. Selling millions of copies with virtually no radio play, N.W.A changed the rap game forever with lyrics like "AK 47 is the tool/Don't make me act a motherfuckin' fool." They weren't called "the world's most dangerous group" for nothing.

Songs like "Fuck Tha Police" were so hardcore that an FBI agent wrote Priority Records a letter in 1989 urging them to stop distributing N.W.A's music. But three years later, when the streets of Los Angeles exploded into riots following the L.A.P.D.'s brutal beating of Rodney King, N.W.A's critique of police brutality was widely cited as a warning that had gone tragically unheeded.

11. Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded (1987)

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Label: B-Boy Records
Release Date: 3/3/1987

Many people credit N.W.A. as the creators of the "gangsta rap" blueprint. But while the L.A. rap crew was profoundly influential, they drew inspiration from many others who came before them. The Bronx duo BDP, for instance, dropped Criminal Minded over a year before Straight Outta Compton, just as crack was transforming entire sections of NYC into urban war zones. One glimpse of the cover art—with KRS-ONE and DJ Scott LaRock surrounded by enough firepower to stage a rap coup d'etat—left no doubt just how militant their mentality could be.

But it was the music—Kris' profoundly petulant poetry atop raw beats co-produced on the low by Ced Gee of Ultramagnetic MCs—that made an indelible impact. "The Bridge Is Over" was historic for its decisive role in the epic Queensbridge versus South Bronx rap wars, as well as its early fusion of rap and dancehall reggae. But the whole album was stacked with anthems like "9mm Goes Bang," "The P is Free" and "South Bronx" that can still rock any party. Scott LaRock was murdered just months after the album's release, but with such a powerful debut, the BDP movement would prove unstoppable for years to come.

10. Eric B. & Rakim, Paid in Full

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Label: 4th & Broadway/Island
Release Date: 7/7/1987

Ironically, the songs on Paid in Full aren't really about money, they're about rapping. For all his lyrical innovations-every rapper preceding Rakim sounds like a neanderthal prior to his walking human-the subject matter didn't vary much on his debut. Rakim is the king of rapping about rapping. And yet, more than two decades after the fact, Rakim's rhymes sound fresh as ever and just about every rapper under the sun is influenced by him, largely thanks to his incredible debut.

Additionally, the production was groundbreaking, and those beats are just as much of the reason why rap hasn't been the same since Paid in Full first hit shelves.

9. Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill

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Label: Def Jam
Release Date: 11/15/1986

Crass, reckless, and sometimes even misogynistic, Licensed to Ill wasn't winning over any conservatives. But in Beastie land, who honestly gives a shit? The Beastie Boys ditched the lame implications of being three white boys from Brooklyn and became the spokespeople for the thrill-seeking youth. They kicked off their legendary career with a manifesto that required massive amounts of fist pumps and badassery.

It was less about the technique (though those backward drums on "Paul Revere" are still pretty critical), but the feelings the Boys brought. Licensed to Ill also holds the distinction of being the first rap album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts. How can you not get ill to that?

8. 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin'

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Label: Interscope/Shady/Aftermath
Release Date: 2/6/2003

All eyes were on 50 Cent in 2003. After getting dropped from Columbia (who subsequently didn't release his previously completed debut, Power of The Dollar), revolutionizing the mixtape game, and teaming up with Eminem and Dr. Dre, Get Rich became the most anticipated hip-hop debut since Doggystyle. He had a lot to prove but from the opening sounds coins dropping and a gun cocking, you knew 50 Cent's major label debut would live up to the hype.

One of the hallmarks of Get Rich was that whether it was 50's flow or even Dre's beats, everything had a region-less feel. Plus, the album was so incredibility calculated, featuring one of nearly every type of rap record: The club song ("In Da Club"), the girl song ("21 Questions"), the weed song ("High All The Time"), etc. But what made those songs work-and made the album such a monster-was 50's songwriting skills. Like Eminem and DMX before him, 50 could take the most hardcore topics and craft the catchiest hooks around them. 50 didn't need R&B divas to sing hooks for him like his nemesis Ja Rule because he was mostly singing his own hooks thanks to his knack for melody.

Meanwhile, his rhymes took place in the streets and he was the main character of all his tales, never a casual observer. He traded in realness and everything he said sounded like it could be true because his life story was already like a comic book. The album would go on to tell over eight million copies in the US and not only did 50 get rich and avoid dying, but he became one of the few true new rap stars of the 2000s.

7. Jay-Z, Reasonable Doubt

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Label: Roc-A-Fella
Release Date: 6/25/1996

Chris Rock once said he both loved and hated Reasonable Doubt. "I love it 'cause it's Jay's best record-best beats, best flow," he said. "And I hate it 'cause since it came out every rap record is trying to copy it." Fair enough, but who can really blame them. The term "street-wise hustler" even become a cliche, especially in a time when mafioso rap was become so popular. But here, Jay-Z took the term and raised it to a whole other pedigree.

On his debut, Jay-Z displayed the signature Marcy Avenue-built confidence that would make him a star. Hov perfected this persona in the classic The Blueprint, but Reasonable Doubt trumped that album with its thematic and lyrical complexity. Jay-Z expertly displays the dichotomy of a hustler on some of the best tracks of his career. The album has quotables for days: "Murder is a tough thing to digest, it's a slow process/And I ain't got nothing but time" ("Dead Presidents II"), "They say sex is a weapon/So when I shoot, meet your death in less than 8 seconds" ("Ain't No Nigga"), and many more.

This was a young and hungry Jay-Z, and no one could knock his hustle.

6. Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle

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Label: Death Row/Interscope
Release Date: 11/23/1993

If The Chronic had one flaw, it was that there wasn't enough Snoop on it (he's largely absent in the second half). Lucky for us, there's Doggystyle. Along with Nas' Illmatic and 50's Get Rich, it was one of the most anticipated debuts ever. It didn't surpass Dre's debut in terms of production-it essentially expanded on what Dre established-but it had the most hypnotic rappers ever dominating the microphone.

Snoop never sounded like was phased by anything no matter how violent, offensive, or outrageous, and the album is an unstoppable force because of that.

5. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...

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Label: Loud/RCA
Release Date: 8/1/1995

Raekwon's debut was buoyed by the fact that RZA was at his artistic peak. The staccato guitar on "Guillotine (Swords)" will always inspire tension, and the horns and that Scarface sample on "Criminology" will make even the coolest heads ready for war.

The spaces RZA leaves are filled with incredibly tight verses and narratives from the Chef and Ghostface. The extra help is much appreciated, too. Nas lays an excellent verse on "Verbal Intercourse," while Method Man appears on the ridiculously sexual "Ice Cream." When everything is said and done, the cinematic arc of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx trumps some of the gangster movies it tries to emulate.

4. The Notorious B.I.G, Ready to Die

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Label: Bad Boy
Release Date: 9/13/1994

Ready to Die is a really, really excellent album, but you already knew that. After repeated listens, Biggie's rhymes are just as tough, the production feels just as dope, and those songs are still must-haves on any rap playlist. What sets this album apart from others, though, is how it blends the dreams of the Brooklyn dwellers-both empowering and destructive-into a 17-track epic that's held together by this untouchable, but humane giant.

For almost 70 minutes, we're on a ride that takes us from the slums to the bedroom to the Benzes, and it's all powered by vivid storytelling prowess and straight wit. "Warning" is about as detailed as it gets, "One More Chance" is absurd, but loveable, and "Unbelievable" is just unfuckwithable.

What makes Ready to Die such a classic is that it doesn't divide nostalgic '90s hip-hop diehards and today's listeners. It still resonates. "Juicy" isn't just the autobiography of a hip-hop heavyweight gone too soon, it's the story of the comeup of hip-hop itself-both the music and those it affected.

3. Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

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Label: Loud
Release Date: 5/2/1994

It's interesting to think about how left-field 36 Chambers must have sounded back in the day, especially for a record that seems so fundamentally hip-hop in retrospect. The Wu felt so far removed from the funky aesthetics of the West, the social consciousness of yheir East Coast contemporaries, or even the battle rap sensibilities of their competitors.

The slums of Shaolin didn't feel like just Staten Island, but this netherworld where only the rawest of rhymes survived, the sharpest of beats thrived, and where the grittiest reigned supreme. Listeners weren't repulsed by this, but rather thrilled. Wu Nation—the classic tracks, the ideology, and its ever-loyal fanbase—all begins here. With classics like "Protect Ya Neck" and life manifestos like "C.R.E.A.M," it's obvious that there was some gold to be found within the grime.

2. Dr. Dre, The Chronic

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1. Nas, Illmatic

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Label: Columbia
Release Date: 4/19/1994

Think about the question that pops into your head whenever a new rapper drops his first album: "Is it the next Illmatic?"

It's rare for an artist to live up to hype the way Nas did. The Queensbridge prodigy was hailed as The Second Coming, the heir to Rakim's throne. Years later, Illmatic stands as the definitive hip-hop record. On the boards, you have DJ Premier laying down the vitriolic "New York State of Mind," Pete Rock's wizardry on "The World is Yours," and timeless work from the likes of Large Professor, Q-Tip, and L.E.S.

Then you have this 20-year-old raw lyricist whose skills had surpassed tangible and reached prophetic. 40 minutes and nine songs doesn't even feel short because there's so much to digest here. Illmatic is the perfect rap album, the perfect debut album, and everyone knows it.

It's unlikely that it will ever be unseated as the genre's greatest opening statement from an artist.

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