25 Rap Albums From the Past Decade That Deserve Classic Status

Recordings from the past 10 years that will forever hold a spot in hip-hop history.

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Complex Original

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The last decade of hip-hop history is about the destruction of consensus. The neat, precise stories we once told about rap music in the '90s have unraveled to a degree, as regional histories and commercialization broke down assumptions and rules about the genre's boundaries.

In the 2000s, that intensified. First, Atlanta made its move, becoming a new center of gravity for hip-hop; regional movements shifted media attention to Houston, then the Bay Area. The Internet opened up the genre and flooding the listeners with content became the norm, with artists like Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane having huge, sustained discographies outside the release of any album. Many of hip-hop's greatest accomplishments in the latter half of the 2000s never saw light on a label at all, never mind a major.

A list of great rap albums from the last decade doesn't tell the entire story of rap. It misses some of what makes it the most fun: the one-off mixtapes, the one-hit-wonders, the random collaborations and viral videos. But the importance of the album, a crowning achievement for any hip-hop artist, still holds weight.

While hip-hop has changed in the past 10 years, and the output of official LPs has decreased greatly in favor of mixtapes and loose MP3s, the album is still an art form capable of producing capstone recordings. Here are the ones that transcended their moment.

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Eminem, The Eminem Show (2002)

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Label: Aftermath, Interscope, Shady

By 2002, Eminem was a full-blown superstar. Although he became a part of pop culture's psyche, he remained as insular as ever on this album, dealing with familiar issues; fame, family, and race. While his first two albums focused on turning the mirror on America-which he did, admittedly, do here with an inescapable post-9/11 outlook-this was in many ways Eminem's most personal album. He put a lot of the shock and humor aside and took a serious look at how he'd gotten to where he was ("Cleaning Out My Closet," "White America") and what it all meant ("'Till I Collapse," "Sing For The Moment").

Another hallmark of The Eminem Show is the beats. Produced largely by Em himself (with small assists from longtime collaborator Jeff Bass), the album found Em rapping over some of the most high-octane work of his career, and sounding comfortable as ever on his own beats. Even when Em wasn't behind the boards, on records like "Square Dance," he was pushing mentor Dr. Dre into new and unfamiliar territory. With his third massive album in a row, followed by an hugely successfully biopic and soundtrack later that year, Eminem cemented his place as one of the most important figures in rap history on The Eminem Show. - Insanul Ahmed

RELATED: The 100 Best Eminem Songs

Scarface, The Fix (2002)

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Label: Def Jam South, Island Def Jam, Universal Records

One of hip-hop's most revered legends received a mid-career boost via Def Jam in the early 2000s. With the aid of a few classic Kanye West production assists and a killer Nas verse, Scarface managed to release a record in the new millenium that stands with some of his greatest solo work of the early '90s. From the noir-like "In Cold Blood" to the Roberta Flack-sampling reminiscence "My Block," 'Face's gravitas seemed to only increase with age, his world-weary vocals a hard-fought sign of his wisdom. - David Drake

Nas, The Lost Tapes (2002)

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Label: Ill Will, Columbia

Too often, Nas albums get lambasted for either being bloated or littered with questionable production. So when The Lost Tapes-a collection of I Am... and Stillmatic leftovers—arrived in 2002 with a mere 11 tracks and choice beats from Alchemist, L.E.S., and others, fans and critics alike were excited. Sure enough, Nas delivered, and then some.

Ask any diehard fan of the Queensbridge spitter to name their favorite Nas albums and The Lost Tapes most certainly places in their top three. And why not? For a compilation, it's surprisingly cohesive and brimming with choice lyrical exercises and narratives. It's no wonder that so many fans are calling for a second installment, which may or may not ever surface. — Andrew Martin

RELATED: 50 Things You Didn't Know About Nas

50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2003)

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Label: Aftermath, Interscope, Shady

Get Rich or Die Tryin' wasn't just the most anticipated debut record since Doggystyle, it was also a major milestone in pop culture, breaking one of hip-hop's biggest stars, living up to the expectations, and transcending boundaries to become a truly climactic crossover moment for the genre.

The record managed to balance it all: There was its hero's mythos and the backstory that rendered him a kind of hip-hop superhero. There was the flawless production, thanks in part to legendary guiding light Dr. Dre. It was hip-hop without apology, helping to define the parameters of the genre and its widescreen, blockbuster largess.

It's nearly impossible, it seems, for artists to debut with this level of success anymore in a disintegrating industry; for that reason, Get Rich or Die Tryin' also represented the high water mark of hip-hop's domination of mainstream America. — DD

RELATED: The 25 Best 50 Cent Rants

The Diplomats, Diplomatic Immunity (2003)

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Label: Roc-A-Fella, Diplomat Records, Def Jam

Diplomatic Immunity was chaotic, and that's why it's so important. These days, we're used to New York rap pulling influence from all over the map, but the Diplomats were ahead of their time in this sense, meshing Southern and West Coast style with their East Coast flavor. New York can be a stubborn place when it comes to rap, but Dipset helped to broaden the city's sonic palette, making masterful use of Heatmakerz, Just Blaze, and their sped-up soul samples. The sound was highlighted by an uncanny wittiness in lyrics that found Cam'ron at his best, and solidified Jim Jones and Juelz Santana as stars. — Jacob Moore

RELATED: The 50 Greatest Dipset Songs

T.I., Trap Muzik (2003)

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Label: Grand Hustle, Atlantic

While King marked T.I.'s first major crossover, and Paper Trail his ultimate pop moment, his reputation was built upon the strength of his sophomore record, 2003's Trap Muzik. After a disappointing debut found him dropped from Arista, Tip returned to the mixtape circuit, building buzz in Atlanta before finally releasing his second LP on the back of major regional singles "24s" and "Rubberband Man."

Trap Muzik was the moment where T.I. was at his most complex; he was street but intellectual, he was tough and combative but reflective and thoughtful, an unapologetically Southern slur disguising dense, dexterous lyricism. He embodied a lot of contradictions, and it charged his best LP with an elusive power.

There was always the sense with Tip, more than with most rappers before or since, that although he was unafraid to do what was necessary to protect his family, he was also a genuinely moral person—or, at least, he was trying to be. Trap Muzik also marked his claim on the South's throne; "Kingofdasouth" seemed like a bold claim at the time, but within two years he'd be widely credited with ending Lil Flip's career and was well on his way to rap superstardom. - DD

OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)

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Label: LaFace, Arista

Just the idea of Outkast releasing a double LP with one disc starring Big Boi and the other starring Andre 3000 was classic. It was their fifth album, and their previous four efforts were all incredible, so why not change things up a bit? Plus, it was clear that they were each moving in different directions musically, so it was a chance to give us an Outkast album that represented each head attached to the monster.

What resulted was both Big Boi and Andre 3000 creating huge hit singles. Big Boi's "The Way You Move" was enormous in its own right, but Andre's smash "Hey Ya" was absolutely through the roof. It was the catchiest, most danceable song of the year. Both songs hit No. 1 on Billboard.

Beyond that, each album was overloaded with goodies, displaying every facet of their music-making talent, including 3 Stacks new knack for singing, which was most effective on "Roses" and "Prototype." It had pop appeal, but the gangsters could vibe with it, too, and it wound up winning the Grammy for Album of the Year—a landmark moment for hip-hop. - Daniel Isenberg

Jay-Z, The Black Album (2003)

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Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam

The Black Album positioned itself to be a classic album well before it was even released. Originally planned as 12 songs with production from 12 different legendary producers, that approach wouldn't stick (collaborations with artists like Dr. Dre and DJ Premier never happened), but the ardent nature of the recording did. The Black Album was to remain Jay-Z's last album before he retired from making music.

We know that Hov's retirement didn't last, but at the time, the gesture seemed sincere, and it added to the embellishment of the album, and with good reason—The Black Album is fantastic. For whatever regression fans believe they saw on The Blueprint 2, Jay's "last album" made up for that.

In a way, Jay-Z sounds insecure on this album, nervous that his legacy will be forgotten, rapping things like, "I'm supposed to be number one on everybody's list." And it's for the best. Jay-Z gives it all his all on The Black Album, rhyming and monitoring production with the insistence of an artist bent on proving something, and the record never falters because of that. Even the oft-lambasted "Change Clothes" altered hip-hop culture's entire perspective on fashion. There's no way that you can't rank this album's among Jay-Z's best. — Ernest Baker

RELATED: 50 Things You Didn't Know About Jay-Z

Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)

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Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam

With the right narrative, anything is possible, and on Kanye West's debut, one of the most enduring stories catapulted a barely-known beatmaker from soundtracking Jay-Z LPs to becoming an international superstar and one of the rap's heroes. Kanye wasn't anyone's idea of a major rapper when he first emerged; he didn't have dexterous lyrical skills required of the underground, but a consummate self-confidence reminiscent of gangster rap's biggest personalities that made up for it.

He transformed his self-awareness (and a potent sense of humor) intro strengths, humanizing himself on tracks that looked to his humble beginnings ("Spaceship") and personal hardships ("Through the Wire") in order to paint a picture of an artist with a singular perspective. Not only did it jumpstart a career of one of the art form's most significant artists, but it cleared a lane for so many others as well. — DD

RELATED: The 100 Best Kanye West Songs

Madvillain, Madvillainy (2004)

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Label: Stones Throw

One of the true eccentrics of modern hip-hop, MF Doom was one of the only rappers to attain subcultural, outsider hero status while maintaining a rap personality as strong and unique as any to achieve major mainstream success. His completely atypical, personalized rhyme patterns, his gift for clever turns of phrase, and his ear for anachronistic sayings and unexpected playfulness, set a high bar throughout his career. With the help of Madlib's fuzzy stoned sampling style, the result was a classic record that had a goofy cartoony unpredictability, balanced with moments of oddball sincerity. - DD

The Game, The Documentary (2005)

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Label: Aftermath, G-Unit, Interscope

The Game has consistently exceeded expectations, and never was this more true than on his debut. Of course, he had an assist from 50 Cent at the height of his songwriting talents; cocky as ever, the 50 gifted some of his strongest work to The Documentary, from his rare moment of vulnerability ("Hate It or Love It") to one of the truest Dr. Dre club bangers ("How We Do").

It wasn't all 50's generosity that made the album a smash, though. The bottomless pockets of Aftermath probably had a hand, gifting The Game some of the era's best production, including everyone from Timbaland to Kanye. It also helped that The Game was one of hip-hop's more interesting characters and one of the West Coast's only major players to emerge in the last decade of hip-hop. — DD

RELATED: The Making of The Game's The Documentary

Common, Be (2005)

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Label: G.O.O.D. Music, Geffen

From the opening strings of the intro, which slowly but surely built into another beautiful Kanye West production, you knew this was going to be something special. "I want to be as free as the spirit of those who left," said Common, on the album's first lines. "I'm talking Malcolm, Coltrane, my man Yusef." Be wasn't just a great album, it was a return to form for both Kanye and Common.

On previous effort, 2002's Electric Circus, the artist formerly known as Common Sense went too far left and made a critically-panned, commercial flop. Meanwhile, although he was riding high off the success of Late Registration, Kayne had simply gone too right in his quest to become the biggest pop star on the planet. Both 'Ye and Com' needed to return to their roots, they both needed to find the balance, they both needed to go back to Chicago.

They did just that on the masterful Be. Kanye whipped together some of his best work while going for a more subtle approach (and not the stadium status sounds that would later define his career), while Common provided soulful barbs and thoughtful asides in spades. And you say Chi City! - IA

Young Jeezy, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (2005)

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Label: CTE, Island Def Jam

If the early 2000s marked the emergence of Atlanta as one of, if not the most important, scenes in hip-hop, Thug Motivation 101 was its apotheosis—the moment when all of the energy on the streets and in clubs, the apocalyptic production of Shawty Redd and Drumma Boy, the totalizing rasp of Jeezy's voice became a region and generation's defining sound.

By the mid-2000s, the club-friendly Lil Jon bangers had given way to something more dilapidated, harsher. The trap house aesthetic pioneered on Jeezy's Trap or Die mixtape and this album sent shock waves throughout the South, reorienting everything to orbit around its totalitarian vision.

Uninterested in self-consciousness or moral ambiguities, Thug Motivation 101 was anthemic and unapologetically bombastic. There was no equivocating; either you hated it, or you were swept up in the grimy grandeur. - DD

Lupe Fiasco, Food & Liquor (2006)

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Label: 1st & 15th, Atlantic

Lupe's debut dropped at the perfect time. Chi-Town had solidified itself as a legitimate talent source with the arrival of Kanye West's solo career, and the continued success of Common and Twista. And Lupe stepped on the scene, co-signed by 'Ye and Jay-Z, with an album packed with smart lyrics and top-notch, mostly in-house production.

He was an old Chicago soul trapped in a skateboarder's body, who could pen radio-friendly hits like "Kick, Push" and "I Gotcha," and tackle deeper issues as well, using creative metaphors and a unique vernacular. He had a style all his own, prolific and exquisite, and the ability to spit stories with a non-conventional approach.

Check out "The Cool" if you need a refresher, where he tells the tale of a young man who digs himself out of his own grave to return to his block to find his killer, or the brilliant role-playing on "He Say She Say." No wonder the album scored him three Grammy nods. - DI

Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (2006)

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Label: Re-Up, Star Trak, Jive

The glamorous, gloating, dark side of Clipse was exemplified on Hell Hath No Fury, their second album, which was released after much delay. Their drama with Jive lead Malice and Pusha into one of the meanest lyrical displays throughout the an album backed by The Neptunes otherworldly production.

Hell Hath No Fury is an album riddled with paranoia and grit, but infiltrated with a certain focused rage. The album was hopeless, dark, and cold with heartbreaking rhymes like, "You don't have to love me, just be convincing," but Pusha and Malice embraced the callous nature better than anyone else could have. — Lauren Nostro

RELATED: Pusha T Breaks Down His 25 Most Essential Songs

Sean Price, Jesus Price Supastar (2007)

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Label: Duck Down

The late '90s and early Aughts were not kind to Sean Price. He was calling himself "the brokest rapper you know" and it wasn't just for comic effect, he was literally selling two-ways and pills just to get by. Worse yet, his crew Boot Camp Clik had fallen into irrelevancy and so did he. On his previous album, Monkey Bars, he found his footing as a solo act ,but it wasn't worth much—he rhymed, "Mad as hell, plus I'm frustrated/Last album came out, you motherfucks hate it/Rock solo, Ruck broke/Here's a hundred dollars, what a fucking joke."

After not getting the props he felt he deserved for Monkey Barz, Price hit Duck Down's president Dru Ha and told him to send him back down to Raleigh-Durham to record a new album. Down South, Price hooked up with producers like 9th Wonder and Khrysis and started banging out tracks. The end result took everyone by surprise; suddenly Sean Price was back from the dead and he had something to prove. "Even my friend was like, 'Damn son, who you mad at?'" said Sean. "I was like, 'Every-fucking-body, son. Everything. Fuck it.'"

The album's content really isn't about much, most of the songs deal with how Sean Price is basically going to beat you up and take your money or how rappers these days are too soft. Even though he was threatening, he never came across as unapproachable. If anything, he was that guy on the corner who was cool to talk to but you'd never, ever pick a fight with him.

Price's perspective struck a chord with rap heads and found the right balance between honesty and humor. Coupled with the support of blogs like NahRight, Price found a second life as an underground favorite. Or as he says on "Stop," "It's evident by the way that I act, way that I move/Sean Price ain't a gimmick or act, nothing to prove, BONK!" — IA

RELATED: Sean Price Breaks Down His 25 Most Essential Songs

Kanye West, Graduation (2007)

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Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam

Graduation was the first signal that Kanye West was more than a comic rapper with a gift for digging in the crates. It was the beginnings of his first major steps towards true auteur status, the moment of maturation that indicated there was a lot more to him than first met the eye.

He became increasingly ambitious, embracing more ambitious sonics ("Flashing Lights"), mastering pop songcraft ("Champion") and pushing the limits of his audience ("Can't Tell Me Nothing"). Kanye may have been concerned that he was moving too quickly at bridging audiences, leaving behind his core in the interests of crossing over, but now, in the wake of the cross-genre experimentalism of 808s & Heartbreak and the extravagant glossiness of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the idea seems quaint. Graduation's longevity proves the risks were worth it. — DD

RELATED: The 100 Best Kanye West Songs

Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III (2008)

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Label: Cash Money, Universal Motown

Hip-hop fans are torn over Tha Carter III. To some, it's the culmination of Lil Wayne's near-flawless run for a few years in the Aughts, and the million first-week copies sold are proof that it's Weezy's most essential release. To others, Tha Carter III represents the moment that Wayne became an oversaturated shell of his former self, and would rather reserve the highest praise for his mixtapes and the first two albums in the Carter series.

Listeners who stand on the latter side of the argument have their points. "Money On My Mind" and "Hustler Muzik" are on par with, if not better than, anything on Tha Carter III. But there's still something to be said for making a perfect pop album when the pressure is on, and Lil Wayne did that on this album.

Tha Carter III is a "classic" or "perfect" in the way that Get Rich or Die Tryin' is. Both are certainly great albums, but those designations aren't even entirely qualitative. Timing, anticipation, and atmosphere play such a huge role in how albums are received upon release and over the course of history, and that's something that shouldn't be forgotten when critiquing Tha Carter III.

Plus, the records are there. Perhaps there's some type of revisionist conspiracy at work here, but "3Peat," "A Milli," "Dr. Carter," and "Playin' With Fire" are Wayne at his technical peak. Is the rap community so collectively angry at Lil Wayne for skateboarding that we can't acknowledge that? And no one else on the planet can make a No. 1 song like "Lollipop."

Lil Wayne has a lot of excellent music, and most of it isn't on Tha Carter III, but for all intents and purposes, this is the album that matters. It matters to people who don't even listen to rap. It's a classic for so many reasons beyond how it sounds, even if it sounds pretty great, too. — EB

RELATED: The 100 Best Lil Wayne Songs

Rick Ross, Teflon Don (2010)

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Label: Maybach Music Group, Slip-n-Slide, Def Jam

Deeper Than Rap may have saved Rick Ross' career by proving that he was a quality rapper who could make a real body of work, but it was 2010's Teflon Don that saw him finally elevate to actual bawse status. His technical prowess and confidence weaved through and reached their peaks on hits like "B.M.F. (Blowin' Money Fast)" and "Live Fast, Die Young." He bared his soul on cuts like "Tears of Joy," and he also found himself excelling on R&B flavored cuts like "Aston Martin Music."

The growth that began on his previous effort came full circle on here; his flow went from a sluggish stream to an epic growl, his boasts went from flashy to luxurious, and his ear for beats went from riding trends to setting them. This is when Rick Ross became everything for which he's now known. - LN

Waka Flocka Flame, Flockaveli (2010)

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Label: 1017 Brick Squad, Asylum, Warner Bros.

Flockaveli was a furious, explosive record, definitive of both an era and an artist. Waka's energy, accompanied by an army of combative Brick Squad compatriots and framed by Lex Luger's incomparable sonic aggression, reoriented the sound of hip-hop, and Flockaveli was the signature moment.

Initially conceived as just a mixtape, it became a statement of purpose, a reinvigoration of gangster rap long since written off by hip-hop elites, and implacable proof that sometimes the most striking portraits are painted with primary colors. - DD

Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager (2010)

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Label: Dream On, G.O.O.D. Music, Universal Motown

Kid Cudi got famous in 2009, and it all of the attention turned the former lonely stoner into a monster by the next year. Themes of depression, drug abuse, and newfound insights on women and the world would make up the bulk of his sophomore album, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, which arrived in November 2010.

On "Maniac," Cudi raps, "I love the dark, maybe we can make it darker" and succeeded in just that. The album is more focused, cohesive, and frankly, disturbing than his debut—and we wouldn't have it any other way. What resulted from Cudi's lows was an album that's far more developed from a sonic perspective (there's still nothing in modern music that sounds like "Ghost!") and more engaging content wise (there are several songs that capture the pinpoint isolation of the original Man on the Moon's "Solo Dolo").

Cudi's ambitious five act structure actually works here, with a second attempt at narrative-driven sequencing that comes across as more effective and convincing. Reviews of the album were all over the place, from lauded to panned, and it only makes sense. Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager is a difficult, distorted look into the twisted mind of Scott Mescudi. The people who relate turned this album into a cult classic, and the people who don't only heightened the misunderstood aura that surrounds this album's legend. — EB

RELATED: The Making of Kid Cudi's Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager

Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

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Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam

Kanye West crafted what's arguably, and technically (if you look at reviews), his best solo album to date. We knew it would be special after hearing "Power" and "Runaway" and his ridiculously dope posse cuts "Monster" and "So Appalled," but little did we know that this album would be damn near perfect. With every G.O.O.D. Friday leak, rap listeners became more excited to hear the entire album, and once the full fantasy was presented, it was too good to be true.

From the witty lyricism on "Gorgeous" and "Devil In A New Dress," to uptempo masterpieces "All Of The Lights" and "Lost In The World" and the pornographic "Hell Of A Life," Kanye gave us everything we could have wanted from the album. Add in guest production by the RZA, Nicki Minaj's intro and show-stopping guest verse, and Chris Rock's comedic "Blame Game" rant, and you have yourself a five-star album that still sounds just as fresh as the day it dropped. — DI

RELATED: The 100 Best Kanye West Songs

Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch The Throne (2011)

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Label: Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation, Def Jam

The expectations were extremely high when Jay-Z and Kanye West announced they were dropping their collaborative album, Watch The Throne. And they delivered. Hov and 'Ye traded bars effortlessly on "Otis," unloading their super-swag over a perfect Otis Redding chop, and gave us the banger of 2011 with the Hit-Boy produced "Ni**as In Paris," a song so infectious that they started performing it literally a dozen times back-to-back during their tour gigs, with no complaints.

But Watch The Throne was more than just a couple of hit radio songs made by the two biggest rap stars on the planet. It was a new level of greatness, with production that pushed the envelope, and songwriting that tackled issues ranging from fatherhood to genocide. And with RZA, Pharrell, No I.D., Q-Tip, and Yeezy himself all playing their parts in the lab, it's hard to fail. Watch The Throne is nothing but king shit, from top to bottom. Daniel Isenberg

Drake, Take Care (2011)

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Label: Young Money, Cash Money, Universal Republic

Drake avoided the sophomore slump by once again seamlessly incorporating his rap and R&B talents into one project. With his homeboy Noah "40" Shebib manning the boards—along with Just Blaze, T-Minus, and Boi-1da—and the trappings of fame suffocating him, he made penning an album about the whoa and woes of rap life seem simple. Drake found his sound, settled into the mood—which was littered with weed, wine, and women—and gave us his all.

Take Care is a look behind the curtains of the VIP, where there's money to blow and all the women know your name, but you still have to deal with the pain inside. It's a superstar story filled with emotion and lust that only Drizzy can tell without coming off like a complete asshole, or a square, and he picked the perfect co-stars to help him share it with the world. Rihanna, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, Birdman, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, and Andre 3000 all make appearances, and they complement his sentiment perfectly, no matter the mood switch.

There are too many highlights to mention on this album. It's long as hell, but it's the ride of a lifetime, filled with braggadocious bars, sentimental memories, and even drunk dials. It's the pre-game, the party, the after-party, and the morning after, jammed gently into one rap/R&B LP. —Daniel Isenberg

Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)

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Label: Top Dawg, Aftermath, Interscope

What more is there to say about this record—one of the most-discussed hip-hop LPs in recent memory? It's an unusual record, self-critical, self-conscious, thoughtful, nuanced—and those aren't even the reasons it's become one of the most impressive records of the decade.

While many are enamored of the album's subtle charms, what makes it truly work is its interest in truth above trends, its fascination with genuinely complex, difficult problems, and its unwillingness to reach for easy answers. It's also a musically accomplished work, something that isn't just admired, but is enjoyed. David Drake

RELATED: The Making of Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city

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