The 50 Greatest Sophomore Albums in Hip-Hop History

The second LP an artist releases determines the trajectory of their career, and it when it comes to rap, these are the very best.

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Image via Complex Original
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The sophomore slump is real, and for a long time, hip-hop had a reputation as a genre of one-album wonders, artists whose initial impact overshadowed their long-term contributions. It isn't tough to throw a rock and hit a rapper who switched it up a little too much for their sophomore project. If that wasn't the problem, it was the opposite: an artist would simply reheat their first release for the follow-up.

But the ultimate goal here to prove that hip-hop has a history of powerful follow-ups. Judging from the list, one could easily argue that a strong sophomore LP is more key to a long-term legacy than the debut. It's the moment an artist goes from a moment to a career.

50. Jay-Z, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)

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Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam

Jigga activated "I'm a business, man" mode after blessing us with Reasonable Doubt, bringing in Puffy's Hitmen to offset the Ski and DJ Premier material. The gamble works for the most part, since the hardcore material is so dope that it's easy to ignore the weaker tracks.

"A Million and One Questions," "Where I'm From," "Streets Is Watching," "Who You Wit II," "Friend or Foe '98" and "Rap Game/Crack Game" are all essential Shawn Carter burners. Just don't expect anyone to listen to "Sunshine" in 2013 with a straight face.

49. Ice-T, Power (1988)

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Label: Sire, Warner Bros.

Power was where Ice-T really refined his whole persona. Where much of Rhyme Pays was musically and conceptually primitive, despite Tracy's obvious enthusiasm, his second record presented a more sophisticated picture of the hustler lifestyle, set to more accomplished loops and tighter programming.

"I'm Your Pusher" was an early incarnation of the now cliché "Rap Game Is Like The Crack Game" comparison, while managing to sneak a shot in at his rival LL Cool J while he was at it. "High Rollers" was pure music to drive-by, as Ice established himself as the premier MC hustler and undisputed leader of the L.A. rap attack. He also took time out to rail against the lack of radio support for hardcore hip-hop, drop cautionary tales for young players without forgetting to tell the ladies "Let's Get Butt Naked and Fuck."

Let's not forget that the genius that was the front (and back!) cover design, as it showcased the many talents of Syndicate Queen Darlene to perfection.

48. The Beatnuts, Stone Crazy (1997)

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47. Cypress Hill, Black Sunday (1993)

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Label: Ruffhouse, Columbia

Having garnered a loyal following of stoners in the wake of their self-titled debut, Cypress struck gold with the "Insane In The Brain" single. With a little help from T-Ray, DJ Muggs brought the dope noise once again, constructing a landscape of blunted grooves and violent sonics. B-Real and Sen Dog continue spinning tales of smoking weed, beating down punks, smoking weed, gun talk, and smoking a little more weed. Black Sunday did everything that the first album did, but better.

46. Fat Joe, Jealous One's Envy (1995)

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Label: Terror Squad, Relativity

Joey Crack dropped "Da Gangsta" part of his stage name for the sequel to Represent, a record blessed with great D.I.T.C. beats and Joe's signature tough guy raps. This time around, Fat Joe had clearly benefitted from the time spent writing with his new crew, as he demonstrated a tighter flow, better writing, and a top-notch selection of instrumentals.

With cameos from heavyweights like KRS-One and Raekwon and whole lot of Bronx pride, Joe elevated himself from Diggin' In The Crates enforcer to respected artist, introducing the world to the phenomenal talents of his "twin" Big Punisher in the process on "Watch Out."

45. Bubba Sparxxx, Deliverance (2003)

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Label: Beatclub, Interscope

Eager to prove that he had more to offer than wrestling pigs over Timbaland beats, Bubba Sparxxx returned with more of a "country" sound. There's the harmonica break from "Sly Fox Chase" on "Jimmy Mathis" and washboard percussion and fiddle on "She Tried." He mixed the usual bragging and party tracks with some more personal subject matter as he continued his mission to rep the New South and break away from redneck stereotypes. Thanks to the efforts of Timbaland and Organized Noise, he created the best Southern White Boy Rap to date.

44. Sean Price, Jesus Price Supastar (2007)

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Label: Duck Down

Having re-invented himself as a soloist on Monkey Barz (seven years after his last release as half of Heltah Skeltah), P's second record lacked the element of surprise but was no less effective as a result, as he served jaded rap fans with more of the raw. Beat-wise, it had a more consistent sound thanks to Khysis and 9th Wonder handling the lion's share of production duties this time around, while P-Body had further sharpened his verbal attack to deliver an even stronger assault on "backward ass rappers." Throw in a more varied selection of guests (extending beyond the Boot Camp Click this time), Jesus Price Supastar did everything that the first album did, but bigger and better. P!

43. Organized Konfusion, Stress: The Extinction Agenda (1994)

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42. KMD, Black Bastards (2001)

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Label: ReadyRock

This album must have been cursed somewhere along the line. Before its release, Zev Love X lost his brother and DJ, Subroc, to a tragic accident. Then his record label decided that the cover artwork was "too controversial" to release in a post-"Cop Killa" landscape and dropped the group from their deal.

While these events would go on to shape Zev's creative rebirth as MF Doom four years later, Black Bastards showed remarkable growth from the group's first release, presenting a more cynical and defined worldview in much the same as A Tribe Called Quest matured between albums—the only difference being that KMD's transformation turned them into drunken, gun-toting weed heads.

Covering everything from blunted tour bus adventures to dissing the guy from Parker Lewis Can't Lose for trying to rap, Zev and Subroc created an album that could have been titled When Native Tongues MCs Attack.

41. M.O.P., Firing Squad (1996)

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40. Too $hort, Life is...Too $hort (1989)

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Label: Jive, RCA

This is Todd Shaw's fifth release, but since the first three are EPs, let's just call this LP No. 2. It covered more ground than Born To Mack in terms of subject matter, with "City of Dope" and "Oakland" mixed in with his standard talk of parties and pimping.

As $hort explained to Complex last year: "I had been getting reviews from the first album. They were like, 'This guy's pretty wack, he can't rap.' They were praising N.W.A and Eazy E and they were shitting on me in the media. You know, 'All he can do is curse.' So I made a song called 'Cusswords.' Just take it back to talking shit. I tried to say every cussword I could, in a row."

As $horty The Pimp's biggest selling album, Life is...Too $hort remains the definitive $hort Dog experience for many.

39. E-40, In a Major Way (1995)

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Label: Jive, Sik Wid It

After making a name for himself as a member of The Click and with his independent debut, E-40 landed a major label deal with Jive Records, inspiring the triumphant title to this album. With stronger production and an ever-improving delivery, it featured the popular "1 Luv," "Sprinkle Me," and "Dusted 'N' Disgusted" with 2Pac, Spice 1, and Mac Mall. In a Major Way helped spread 40 Water's catchy slang beyond the Bay, and set himself up for the success of Tha Hall of Game.

38. 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

In the wake of the success of his first album and the inevitable backlash that a hit single can often bring, Cudder explored the darker side of his personality and aired out some demons without losing his appealing blend of childlike wonder and anguished old soul that made the first Man On The Moon so compelling.

Continuing to push himself thematically, Cudi presents a bleaker worldview without losing himself to absolute cynicism. Recorded between L.A. and Hawaii, it delivered Cudi's familiar harmonious sound while introducing some new angles. As producer Emile told us in 2012: "I think 'Ghost!' could be the first step towards the next material we're gonna hear from Cudi. We were actually in the studio just listening to trippy psych records from the late '60s, early '70s, and that sample came up and he was like, 'Yo, that's ill right there, let's do it.' It's a lot more aggressive and harsh than records like 'All Along' or 'Solo Dolo' or 'Heaven At Night,' which all have that classic Cudi harmony. This is more of a new tone for him. It's a harsher feel, and I think it's a good beginning for his new sound."

Regardless of the obstacles that may lie ahead in the real world, we can rest assured that Kid Cudi will find a way to channel it into another dark, beautiful, twisted fantasy of an LP like this.

37. Slick Rick, The Ruler's Back (1991)

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36. The Roots, Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995)

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Label: DGC, Geffen

Most rap fans didn't catch on to The Roots until this major label release, since their first album, Organix, was originally only available at their live shows. Do You Want More?!!!??! showcases their unique brand of tight instrumentation, led by drummer ?uestlove and the sophisticated lyrical styles of Black Thought and Malik B, establishing the crew as something fresh and original in the increasingly formulaic hip-hop landscape.

"? Vs. Rahzel" introduced us to the talents of Rahzel's "Godfather of Noise" techniques, "The Unlocking" gave us Ursula Rucker and her intense poetry (a tradition they continued for the next two albums), "The Lesson Pt. 1" showcased a young Dice Raw, while "Distortion to Static" was an exercise in verbal warfare. Hip-hop's greatest band had officially arrived.

35. Del the Funky Homosapien, No Need for Alarm (1993)

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Label: Elektra

While Del snuck in some hints of what he had in store on the B-sides of his I Wish My Brother George Was Here singles, No Need for Alarm allowed him to showcase the complete Hieroglyphics sound, dropping in between Souls of Mischief's '93 Til Infinity and Casual's Fear Itself for a triple-pronged attack.

Utilizing obscure jazz and soul samples, Del returned with more venom as he decimated wack MCs ("Catch A Bad One"), let his crew get some shine ("No More Worries"), fired back at an unflattering Rolling Stone piece ("Check It Out"), and even created a mysterious alter-ego called Unicron ("Worldwide"). This is Unorthodox Oakland Rap at its finest.

34. Boogie Down Productions, By All Means Necessary (1988)

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Label: Jive, RCA

It's a testament to KRS-One's resilience that this album was even finished. Having just landed a major label deal with Jive/RCA following the funny money situation at B-Boy Records, DJ Scott La Rock was fatally shot while assisting BDP's youngest member D-Nice in a dispute over a girl.

With only some basic ideas laid down by Scott for "My Philosophy," "I'm Still #1," and "Stop the Violence," KRS and DJ Doc battled on to complete the project to honor the legacy of their friend and mentor. Where Criminal Minded had focused on crushing The Bridge and pioneering new styles of rhyme flows, the second LP introduced stronger social and political messages to compliment the state-of-the-art Brag Rap.

With its unmistakable Malcolm X inspired cover shot to the mighty Deep Purple guitar riff that drives "Ya Slippin'," everything about this LP was right on target. The mere fact that Tha Blatmasta managed to make a song promoting condoms sound good ("Jimmy") is proof that BDP could not be stopped.

33. T.I., Trap Muzik (2003)

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Label: Grand Hustle, Atlantic

Fresh off his appearance on Bone Crusher's "Never Scared," Tip signed a new deal with Atlantic and struck back hard following the underwhelming chart performance of his debut. Packed with winners ranging from "Be Easy" to "Rubber Band Man," this album can also claim responsibility for introducing the term "Trap" to the wider rap world. With top-notch production from accomplished beat-smiths such as DJ Toomp, Kanye West, and David Banner, T.I. had just the platform he needed to sling his musical product to the fiends and continue his mission to establish himself as "King of The South."

32. Brand Nubian, In God We Trust (1993)

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Label: Elektra

The odds were stacked against Sadat X and Lord Jamar when their former mentor Grand Puba jumped ship to begin a solo career following the popularity of their debut. Determined to prove to the world that they didn't need Tommy Hilfiger's unofficial spokesman to carry the weight, Brand Nubian delivered one of the rawest albums of the era.

They repped the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths to the fullest on tracks like "Allah U Akbar" (compete with Islamic chants), dissed bitch ass bootleggers ("Steady Bootleggin'") and cops ("Black and Blue"), and capped it off with the all-conquering "Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down," courtesy of Diamond D, far eclipsing the laidback Reel To Reel that Puba released in terms of intensity and focus.

31. Masta Ace, SlaughtaHouse (1993)

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30. Drake, Take Care (2011)

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Label: Young Money, Cash Money, Universal Republic

Drizzy took the time to refine his "emo player" persona following his debut. For this go-round, Drake meshed together arrogant declarations of superiority with confessions of vulnerability, straddling the fine line between suave ladies man and cocky asshole with the type of finesse not witnessed in rap since LL Cool J in his prime.

With better production, stronger features and more focused writing, this is the perfect soundtrack to drink away those "it's hard work being rich and famous" blues. Audrey reportedly wanted DJ Premier, Q-Tip, and The Neptunes to contribute beats to the project. In retrospect, it's best that they didn't, in terms of the flow of the record. The sublime "Over My Dead Body" sets the stage something lovely, a "fuck everybody" statement of intent over a melancholy musical backdrop.

By the time Take Care finishes with the upbeat YOLO-themed "The Motto" there's no doubt that Drake embodies everything that's good and bad about the new generation of rappers—call it narcissistic optimism, if you will—and, as a result, has produced the ideal soundtrack for the Twitter age.

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

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Label: Top Dawg, Aftermath, Interscope

Proving that a major label deal doesn't always result in compromising your sound, Kendrick was able to build on the creative foundation of Section.80 while delivering an entirely different concept, focusing on his childhood in Compton instead of the Tammy and Keisha characters.

Over the course of the album, we hear a teenage Kendrick navigate his way through the mean streets of the CPT, aided by a spaced-out cosmic slop of beats and cadences. Well-selected guest spots combine new school voices (Jay Rock, Drake) with seasoned veterans (Dr. Dre, MC Eiht), adding strong performances to the dusted cinematics that K-Dot delivers.

The simple fact that such an ambitious and well-executed release can still have a major impact in 2012 bodes well for the future of hip-hop.

28. Redman, Dare Iz a Darkside (1994)

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Label: Def Jam

Where Whut? The Album was very much a collaborative effort between Redman and Erick Sermon, the Funk Doctor Spock was really let off his leash for the follow-up, as he handled the lion's share of production duties and revealed the more disturbed aspects of his character.

As Reggie explained to HipHopDX in 2010: "I was doing a lot of drugs on Dare Iz A Darkside. I have chicks that come up to me and say, 'Yo, Dare Iz A Darkside is my favorite fuckin' album, ever.' I swear, I have not played Dare Iz A Darkside damn near since I did it. Seriously! I was so lost, I was so fucked up during that album."

With bangers like "Can't Wait" and "Green Island" on there, it's safe to say that Red's "drug period" yielded great results—musically, at least.

27. Nas, It Was Written (1996)

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Label: Columbia

Illmatic was an impossible act to follow, but Nas stubbornly forged his own way ahead by adopting a different strategy here. Moving on from the purist approach of his debut, Nas explored a slicker sound with The Trackmasters without compromising his verbal accuracy. That's not to say that he went pop by any means. "If I Ruled The World" was an old school dedication that interpolated hits from Kurtis Blow and Whodini, while "Street Dreams" was smooth without being soft.

His Queensbridge roots were also well represented, with Mobb Deep joining him for "Live Nigga Rap" and "Affirmative Action" introducing us to the original incarnation of The Firm. "Shoot Outs" and "I Gave You Power" demonstrated that his verbal sword was as sharp as ever, with the only real misstep being the overblown dramatics of Dr. Dre's "Nas Is Coming." Otherwise, It Was Written served as a blueprint for future Nas releases—everything done on his terms, for better or worse.

26. N.W.A, Niggaz4Life (1991)

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Label: Ruthless, Priority

The 100 Miles and Running EP had proven that NWA were still "the world's most dangerous group" without Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre managed to take them to new heights by delivering the most cutting-edge production of the day for their second full-length album. Gone were the frantic tempos of their earlier work, as Dre slowed things down for a more menacing atmosphere as he began developing his G-Funk sound, as well as adding a number of humorous skits, making it ideal fodder for drunken sing-a-longs.

MC Ren stepped up to fill the lyrical void left by Cube (who they continued to take shots at over the course of the record), while the good doctor replaced O'Shea's amusing "I Ain't Tha 1" material with the disturbing "One Less Bitch" in an effort to shock and titillate the fans. At the end of the day, though, the incredible beats were undeniable, and even lifetime N.W.A haters such as Tim Dog must have been nodding their heads uncontrollably when "Alwayz Into Somethin'" came on.

25. EPMD, Unfinished Business (1989)

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Label: Fresh, Sleeping Bag

Music critics were falling over themselves praising the Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique in 1989, but the streets were buzzing off the cutting edge production of the new EPMD release. "Say Wat Cha Sayin'" brought skin-tight programming with the devastating scratches of new recruit DJ Scratch, "Get The Bozack" and "The Big Payback" shut-down all naysayers, while "Please Listen To My Demo" presented an uncharacteristically humble description of the duo's early days in the music game over a dream-like Faze-O loop.

"Knick Knack Patty Wack" introduced K-Solo to the world (the first Hit Squad recruit) and "Jane II" continued the saga in fine style. Business As Usual may have perfected the EPMD formula, but Unfinished Business proved that these brothers from Brentwood, Long Island were in it to win it.

24. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Wanted: Dead or Alive (1990)

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23. Gang Starr, Step in the Arena (1991)

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Label: Chrysalis, EMI

Looking back at No More Mr. Nice Guy now, it compensated what it lacked in its sometimes awkward execution with youthful enthusiasm and potential of things to come. For the follow-up, DJ Premier and Guru returned with a new label, threw away the leather pants and stupid hats, and refined their craft. The duo ensured that none of the tracks outstay their welcome, cramming 18 cuts into its 50 minute running time.

Covering future Gang Starr mainstays such as relationships ("Lovesick," which became a top 10 hit in Europe thanks to an upbeat remix), politics ("Who's Gonna Take the Weight?"), cautionary tales ("Just to Get a Rep"), and skills ("Check The Technique"), Daily Operation laid the foundation for one of hip-hop's most reliable MC and DJ combinations, while Premier would go on to contribute some of the most powerful beats of the 90s for everyone from Biggie and Nas to Jay-Z.

22. Wu-Tang Clan, Wu-Tang Forever (1997)

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Label: Loud, RCA, BMG

In many ways, Forever is the antithesis of everything that made 36 Chambers so great. It's bloated, self-indulgent and slick. And yet, it's still incredible because it's the original Wu-Tang line-up all performing at their best. Ol Dirty Bastard is in top form, injecting just the right amount of insanity into proceedings, while Rae and Ghost hold down their spots like troopers and allow GZA and Inspectah Deck to get some well-deserved shine. Bolstered by some amazing individual performances, this was the last time that RZA's vision really connected with the rest of the crew on a musical level, and gave us a final example of the true power in numbers approach of the Shaolin soldiers.

21. Kanye West, Late Registration (2005)

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Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam

Never somebody to do things by halves, Kanye went all out in the creation of his second platter, recruiting a live string orchestra and an assist from Jon Brion, who had previously produced for Fiona Apple and composed the soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine For A Spotless Mind, amongst other projects.

Yeezy reportedly spent $2 million over the 12 months it took him to create Late Registration, but the gamble paid off in a major way when he landed his second No. 1 spot on Billboard and an international smash hit ("Gold Digger") in the process. With an all star guest list on board to assist the ever-developing MC skills of Mr. West, his ambition was finally matched by his resources for this triumphant celebration of success and hard work, all delivered with that trademark Kanye mixture of wide-eyed discovery and ridiculous arrogance that has endeared him to the world ever since he became a solo artist.

20. Common, Resurrection (1994)

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Label: Relativity

In his autobiography One Day It Will All Make Sense, Lonnie admits that he considered putting down the mic forever after his debut album sold a meager 2,000 copies when it was first released. Part of the reason for those lackluster sales might be due the annoying vocal technique he was using at the time, which saw him nearly ruin some great beats with his squeaky, high-pitched outbursts he incorporated into his delivery.

When he returned with "I Used To Love H.E.R." two years later, it was clear that Common had taken the time to refine his flow and stepped up from the amateur leagues into the majors with his newfound confidence. With No I.D. and YNot providing the rich musical tapestry of Resurrection, Com delivered a sincere and powerful statement of intent, capturing the imagination of jaded rap fanatics across the globe while ruffling the feathers of grumpy L.A. representative the Westside Connection in the process.

19. Big Daddy Kane, It's a Big Daddy Thing (1989)

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Label: Cold Chillin', Reprise, Warner Bros.

As with the rest of the Juice Crew, Big Daddy Kane had to fend for himself in the studio following the departure of Marley Marl from Cold Chillin'. Turns out there was no shortage of talented producers eager to assist one of the leading MCs of the era, as Prince Paul, Easy Moe Bee and Teddy Riley all lent their talents to It's a Big Daddy Thing. Kane even stepped behind the boards himself with solid results, resulting in classics like "Smooth Operator" and "Warm It Up, Kane." The highlight is a live recording of BDK performing "Wrath of Kane" as the Apollo crowd collectively loses their shit while Kane rips through his lyrics of fury.

18. UGK, Super Tight (1994)

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Label: Jive

The inclusion of the "Pocket Full of Stones" remix on the Menace II Society soundtrack helped spread the UGK word beyond their existing fanbase, and Pimp C and Bun B capitalized on the opportunity by making Super Tight a tighter package than Too Hard To Swallow, with slicker beats and colder raps. "Front, Back and Side To Side" is a classic Car Rap over Eazy-E's "Boyz-N-Tha-Hood" beat, "It's Supposed To Bubble" is a catchy dedication to popping Dom, "Protect and Serve" fires back at corrupt cops, while "Pussy Got Me Dizzy" is classic UGK Sex Rap.

17. Ghostface Killah, Supreme Clientele (2000)

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Label: Epic, Sony, Razor Sharp

The once mighty Wu-Tang name had lost some of it's shine as the 90s drew to a close. Following a dream run of solo LPs from Raekwon, GZA, ODB, Method Man, and Ghostface himself, the Clan spread their collective wings and expanded beyond The RZA's firm hand, with mixed results. Second and third tier "Wu Affilaites" diluted the name further, and the rap world had moved on to the stark minimalism of crews like the Ruff Ryders.

Leave it to Ironman to save the day, as Ghostface swung through with a giant golden eagle on his wrist and a slew of new slang technologies. With a fresh team of producers ranging from Mathematics to the Beatnuts adding on to the RZA's science, Ghost Deini reminded us of his razor-sharp techniques on "Nutmeg" (which he wrote without a beat while visiting Africa), while "Child's Play" presented the kind of innocent naivety that only Slick Rick in his prime could have pulled off.

The center-piece is clearly "Mighty Healthy," a magnificent collection of stream-of-consciousness observations that cement GFK as Wu-Tang's most enduring representative.

16. Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (2006)

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Label: Re-Up, Star Trak, Jive

Malice and Pusha T discovered exactly why R.A. The Rugged Man once recorded a track called "Every Record Label Sucks Dick" after they found themselves stuck in limbo over at Jive following Star Trak's move to Interscope. Finding themselves on the back-burner, it took four years and a lawsuit before Hell Hath No Fury hit the shelves, and by then they wanted blood ("I'm sorry to the fans but them crackers wasn't playing fair at Jive").

The Neptunes contrasted this hostility with their own take on minimalist 80s electro rap, which resulted in beats such as the supreme "Ride Around Shining" and "Mr. Me Too." The result is a tighter, more refined Clipse experience. Introspective, anti-social D-boy rap delivered correctly.

15. Ice Cube, Death Certificate (1991)

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Label: Priority, EMI

How do you follow up the revolutionary West meets East genius that was AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted? By pushing the envelope even further, of course. While Death Certificate may have lacked the sonic edge of his debut and the equally impressive Kill At Will EP with its more conventional P-Funk tracks, Cube delivered a double dose of verbal venom to compensate.

Taking shots at Korean shop-keepers, white girls,and his former N.W.A band mates with equal aplomb, the "Bitch Killa" hurt more feelings than the local pimp. Split into "Life" and "Death" sides, this record solidified O'Shea as the leading voice for the hip-hop nation—despite his polarizing views—and a master story teller.

While his subsequent musical output and film career may have diluted his legacy, the impact of Death Certificate was earth-shattering when it was released, and "No Vaseline" still makes both "Ether" and "Takeover" seem tame in comparison to the absolute brutality with which he shut down the Ruthless Records crew.

14. The Fugees, The Score (1996)

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Label: Ruffhouse, Columbia

Producer Salaam Remi delivered Pras, Wyclef and Lauren Hill a life boat when he delivered the "Nappy Heads" remix. The promise of their debut had been marred by ill-advised Shout Rap tactics and underwhelming production, but Remi's breezy, majestic reimagining of their second single made it all click together.

The trio abandoned the grimy delivery for a more natural, melodic vocal approach, L-Boogie flexed her impressive singing voice, and it all just clicked. Following this formula for The Score saw the group become superstars, as they delivered a confident collection of powerful songs, bolstered by the popularity of their cover version of Roberta Flack's torch song, "Killing Me Softly."

The group would go their separate ways after this project with mixed results (for Pras at least), but for a brief period following the release of this album, the world was theirs.

13. LL Cool J, Bigger and Deffer (1987)

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Label: Def Jam, Columbia, CBS

With Radio producer Rick Rubin busy on other projects, Def Jam assigned West Coast production crew L.A. Posse to handle the beats for Todd's next LP. Presenting a more conventional, sample-based sound than LL's previous effort, it also contained two of his most well-known songs; the "Theme From S.W.A.T"-based "I'm Bad," and the track that forever altered the sound of rap music, "I Need Love."

Uncle L was a couple of years older and 10 times as arrogant, delivering some of the most self-assured Brag Rap songs of the decade: "I'm only 18, making more than your pops!" The rap world later turn against LL's constant narcissism and flamboyance during the reign of Public Enemy, but Bigger and Deffer is music for a kid from Queens with the whole world at his feet, and loving every minute of it.

12. De La Soul, De La Soul Is Dead (1991)

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11. Run-D.M.C., King of Rock (1985)

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Label: Profile, Arista

Serving as the stop-gap between their debut and the all-conquering Raising Hell, the King of Rock album is often overlooked. While it has a couple of missteps ("Roots, Rap and Reggae," we're looking at you), there was no denying the impact of the title track and the accompanying video on MTV, while "Daryl and Joe (Krush Groove 3)" is an under appreciated gem of the era.

"Can You Rock It Like This" was written by new Def Jam recruit LL Cool J, proving that ghost writing is a time honored rap tradition. The trio also recorded "Slow and Low" during this period, but Russell Simmons decided to give it to the Beastie Boys to record for their debut instead. Let us not forget the unfortunate lyrical faux-pas on "King of Rock" which saw Run declaring that "There's three of us but we're not The Beatles." Guess he wasn't a Ringo Star fan.

10. Eric B. & Rakim, Follow the Leader (1988)

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Label: Uni, MCA

As a product of its environment, Paid In Full was a collection of great singles bundled together with equal measures of filler. Although Follow The Leader slows down for the second half, the opening three tracks present the most hard-hitting trio of songs since the start of N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton.

"Follow The Leader," "Lyrics of Fury," and "Microphone Fiend" are musically and lyrically impeccable, as Rakim rose above the Brag Rap constraints of his peers to unleash a new standard in MCing. The title track alone was unlike anything ever heard before, as The R took us on a journey into outer space as he pushed himself beyond the confines of the stage and challenged the listener to think beyond novelty dance steps and songs about skeezers over a cinematic collection of strings and horn hits.

Even accomplished MCs like Kool G Rap hurried back to the lab to sharpen their pen game in response to the intensity that The 7th Letter delivered. This album saw Rakim forever cement his position as a formidable force in the rap game.

9. Dr. Dre, 2001 (1999)

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Label: Aftermath, Interscope

Andre Young had a lot to prove when he released this sequel to his all-conquering solo triumph. It had been seven long years since The Chronic, and Suge Knight even attempted to steal his thunder by releasing a bunch of old Death Row songs called Chronic 2000. Despite that minor setback, it was a mixture of personal pride and an effort to silence the whispering naysayers that fueled Dr. Dre to return with defiant declarations of his supremacy, including "Still D.R.E." and "Forgot About Dre."

The G-Funk sound was played-out, so former Roots keyboardist Scott Storch and new Aftermath understudy Mel-Man combined forces with Dre to create a stripped-down, leaner (but no less menacing) new form of Gangsta Music. With a range of guests both new (Eminem, Hitman, and Knoc-turn'al) and old (Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, and MC Ren), the good doctor was able to silence the critics and reaffirm his position as the don of West Coast rap.

8. The Notorious B.I.G., Life After Death (1997)

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Label: Bad Boy

Having seized the throne as the King of New York with a killer run of singles from Ready To Die, B.I.G.'s second (and final) album allowed him to revel in his success and push himself to even greater heights.

While double albums are things of pure folly in the hands of lesser rap mortals, Biggie used the extended running time to experiment and diversify his portfolio. Embroiled in a series of real life dramas, and having to record the vocals for several tracks sitting down after his leg was broken in a car accident courtesy of his right-hand man Lil Cease, the Black Frank White battled through to deliver his crowning achievement.

Packed to the rim with subliminals for everyone from Jeru The Damaja, Raekwon, Nas, and Tupac, he rocked everything from hardcore ("Kick In The Door") to smooth ("Sky's The Limit") to double-time ("Notorious Thugs"), plus the club bangers such as "Hypnotize" and "Mo Money Mo Problems," proving that he was the undisputed master of the game.

7. GZA, Liquid Swords (1995)

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Label: Geffen, MCA

Not to be discouraged by the lukewarm reaction to his Cold Chillin' debut, the Genius transformed into The GZA and wrought a bloody revenge on the industry that had tried to steer his career off the rails for his verse on "Protect Ya Neck," in a manner not unlike one of the Wu-Tang's beloved Kung Fu flicks.

By the time he began work on Liquid Swords, GZA had blazed a trail of show-stopping verses that had lyric fiends salivating for his every finely-tuned line, while The RZA was in the midst of an unstoppable run fresh off the back of completing Only Built For Cuban Linx. The result was something of near alien beauty—beats that were as much sci-fi as Shaolin backed the dense, layered narratives that demanded repeated examination, yet flowed so effortlessly.

This album is the work of two master craftsmen with no regard for pleasing their audience, but such is their expertise that an album that on paper reads as too complex for the average listener turns out to be both accessible and addictive in practice. Liquid Swords stands tall as the hip-hop embodiment of "the perfect storm."

6. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)

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Label: Aftermath, Interscope

A common theme for sophomore albums is to focus on the artist's struggles with the pressures of fame and fortune following their newfound success. For Eminem, this went beyond the standard cliches of paparazzi and groupies—it was him against the world. The focal point is "Stan," the tragic tale of an obsessed fan that is taken to such extremes and so vividly described that it has become forever embedded into pop culture to the point where "Stan" is now a slang term itself.

The intensity of the vocal performances on tracks like "The Way I Am," the dizzying flows of "Criminal," and the disturbingly vivid anger of "Kim" all demonstrate what a powerful lyricist Marshall had developed into since his major label debut (we're ignoring Infinite for the purposes of this list, and we're sure Em wouldn't begrudge the fact). Based on the raw emotion and technique alone, this is Eminem's most complete body of work.

5. Outkast, ATLiens (1996)

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Label: LaFace

Eager to flex more creative control on their second album, Dre and Big Boi shared production duties with Organized Noize, resulting in the spaced-out sound of tracks like "Elevators (You and Me)," while "Wheelz of Steel" provided a dizzying display of lyrical gymnastics that even the most hardened New York elitist couldn't deny.

They also took the opportunity to expand their repertoire beyond the player talk and weed anthems that dominated their debut, as their confidence bloomed and they truly set themselves apart from the pack with unorthodox song concepts, honest introspection, and verbal dexterity rarely heard outside of the East Coast at the time. The gamble paid off, paving the way for one of rap's most influential and experimental duos.

4. Beastie Boys, Paul's Boutique (1989)

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Label: Capitol

Following a messy split with Russell Simmons and his burgeoning Def Jam empire, MCA, Ad Rock and Mike D headed to L.A. to break free of their Rap Brat Pack image and explore the endless possibilities of improved sampling technologies. Thanks to the expertise of production duo The Dust Brothers (who had previously found great commercial success with Tone Loc and Young MC), they were able to incorporate their varied musical tastes into a new sound far beyond the dated drum machines and guitar stab scratches of their debut.

The late MCA described the process to Clash magazine in 2009: "The Dust Brothers had a bunch of music together, before we arrived to work with them. As a result, a lot of the tracks come from songs they'd planned to release to clubs as instrumentals—"Shake Your Rump," for example. I think half of the tracks were written when we got there, and the other half we wrote together."

Featuring samples from 105 different sources, this is the kind of record that would be impossible to (legally) release today, but served as the ideal vehicle to showcase the humor and creativity that the Beastie Boys would become famous for. Who else could name a song "B-Boy Bouillabaisse"?

3. Mobb Deep, The Infamous (1995)

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Label: Loud, RCA, BMG

Coming off their "Unsigned Hype" appearance in The Source, the duo once known as the Poetical Prophets signed a deal with 4th & Broadway and released Juvenile Hell in 1993, which was actually a pretty good record that was underappreciated at the time for a number of reasons.

After getting dropped, they went back to the lab and hit back hard the following year with a remixed version of the promo-only "Shook Ones" single. "Shook Ones, Pt. II" went on to become their signature song, a hardcore Queensbridge anthem second only to "The Bridge" itself that set the Mobb at the forefront of a new wave of hardcore New York rap.

The Infamous was a soundtrack for a new era of anti-social, hardcore hip-hop, driven by Havoc's accomplished sampling techniques, tight drum programming and bleak moods, and the heartless microphone techniques of Prodigy at his most ruthless. Outstanding assists from Q-Tip, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, and Nas made it clear that this was "the realness" personified, in terms of cutting edge street music for 1995.

2. A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (1991)

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Label: Jive, RCA

What a difference an album can make! The maturation of Q-Tip and Phife between their enjoyable but patchy debut and The Low End Theory makes them the clear winners for the "Most Improved of All Time" trophy.

Where Phife Dawg previously played rudimentary sidekick to Tip on a handful of cuts, he now held his own tracks like "Check The Rime" with equal confidence, and even got his time to shine on for "delf" on "Butter." Q-Tip, meanwhile, really hit his stride both in terms of the beats he brought to the table and his own vocal styles, as the crew graduated from eccentric bohemians to certified B-Boys without skipping a beat. This wasn't "Jazz Rap," it was hip-hop that flipped stand-up bass and rare groove horns to perfection.

Tip later told MTV that, "It was listening to N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton that inspired us to make The Low End Theory, and years later I spoke to Dr. Dre and he told me that hearing The Low End Theory inspired him to make The Chronic. That's what music does." Meanwhile, "Show Business" coined the immortal quote "Industry Rule #4080: Record company people are shady," while "Skypager" is the best song about outdated technology since Sir Mix-A-Lot made "Beepers."

There was also a little posse cut called "Scenario" which you may be familiar with...

1. Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)

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Label: Def Jam, Columbia

By the time Public Enemy released their debut, many of the tracks sounded old hat in the rapidly developing rap scene. Boogie Down Productions and Rakim had upped the ante with fresh new styles and beats, sending the Strong Island collective back to the lab to create the legendary "Rebel Without A Pause."

Bringing together topical issues of the day and the chaotic "noise" of the Bomb Squad's beats, Public Enemy would go on to make most of the their peers sound lightweight in comparison. There's the frantic pace of "Night of the Living Baseheads," the condemnation of the American prison system on "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," and the mighty dedication to their DJ that is "Terminator X to the Edge of Panic."

Regarded by many as the greatest hip-hop album of all time, Chuck D and the crew changed the perception of what rap albums could be with this seminal release.

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