Why do so many rappers fall down when it comes to their sophomore album? Well, like they say, you have your whole life to write your first album and only a year or two to create your second.
It’s completely understandable though. After dropping their debut album, a rapper is usually thrust into a completely new world of touring, media, fame and riches that it can be hard to focus on just the music.
Having said that, there are plenty of hip hop acts throughout history who have managed to avoid the sophomore slump and release a superior album to their classic debut – such as OutKast, A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West and The Notorious B.I.G.
Then there are the ones who didn’t put out a highly revered album on their first go and they used their sophomore album to capture everyone’s attention – rappers like Mobb Deep, GZA, Common and Eminem.
So, let’s get into it. From Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury to Ice Cube’s Death Certificate to Drake’s Take Care, here are the 50 best hip hop sophomore albums of all time.
50. Kool Moe Dee – How Ya Like Me Now
Released: November 3, 1987
Preceded by: Kool Moe Dee
Better than the debut? Yes. Kool Moe Dee was one of the few old school rappers who managed to make a successful transition to the new era – “How Ya Like Me Now” and “Wild Wild West” both had success on the charts while the album was certified platinum. Moe Dee used the album as a platform to diss the scorching hot LL with the lethal title track and a not-so-subtle reference to the Queens rapper’s iconic Kangol under a car wheel on the album cover.
49. Kurupt – Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha
Released: November 16, 1999
Preceded by: Kuruption!
Better than the debut? Hell fucking yes. Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha is the perfect combination of dense East Coast wordplay and smooth G-Funk production. Kurupt is in battle mode for most of the album, dedicating an entire track to calling out rappers like DMX, 50 Cent, Foxy Brown, Ja Rule while maintaining his love for New York. As one of the best and most underrated rappers of the ’90s, Kurupt cemented his position with this album.
48. Westside Gunn – Supreme Blientele
Released: June 22, 2018
Preceded by: FLYGOD
Better than debut? This one is tough. FLYGOD is a goddamn masterpiece and the launching pad for the Griselda movement, which has taken over underground hip hop by now. It also features Westside’s best song ever in my opinion – “Mr. T.” But Supreme Blientele feels more expansive, with richer production, a more diverse roster of guest features and better rapping from Westside. Push come to shove, I’ll pick Supreme.
47. Jay-Z – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
Released: November 4, 1997
Preceded by: Reasonable Doubt
Better than the debut? After the lukewarm commercial reception to his debut, Jay-Z figured out a clear path to bigger numbers with his sophomore album. Working with Puffy and the Trackmasters with Babyface and Blackstreet hooks gave Hov his first platinum album, though it was clearly a step down from the pristine Reasonable Doubt.
Still, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 gets way too much hate, especially for an album that features some of the best Jay-Z songs of all time: “A Million And One Questions / Rhyme No More”, “Imaginary Player”, “Streets Is Watching”, “Friend or Foe ’98”, “Where I’m From” and “You Must Love Me.”
46. Cypress Hill, Black Sunday
Released: July 20, 1993
Preceded by: Cypress Hill
Better than the debut? Black Sunday is a monster album and one of Cypress Hill’s biggest albums to date, not to mention it features “Insane in the Brain.” But nothing’s topping their debut man, c’mon.
45. Geto Boys – Grip It! On That Other Level
Released: March 12, 1989
Preceded by: Making Trouble
Better than the debut? Definitely. While Grip It! On That Other Level isn’t the Geto Boys’ best album, it was a major improvement on their debut, an album that still had the Houston group floundering to find their lane and voice.
44. LL Cool J – Bigger and Deffer
Released: May 29, 1987
Preceded by: Radio
Better than the debut? Radio was a sparse masterpiece by a 16-year old LL Cool J and it helped launched Def Jam into the record label it is today, but Bigger and Deffer literally set the blueprint for modern rap albums using the formula of having specific songs tailored to specific audiences.
43. Ice-T – Power
Released: September 13, 1988
Preceded by: Rhyme Pays
Better than the debut? Yes, Ice-T is way more confident as a rapper and as a writer on his sophomore. Rhyme Pays set the tone and Power just doubled down on it. Plus the artwork is GOAT-level.
42. Schoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions
Released: January 14, 2012
Preceded by: Setbacks
Better than the debut? Without a doubt. You could make a pretty strong argument for Habits & Contradictions being Schoolboy Q’s best album to date, although I’d vote for Blank Face LP.
41. Reflection Eternal – Revolutions per Minute
Released: May 18, 2010
Preceded by: Train of Thought
Better than debut? No. The sequel is a worthy follow-up to a classic album, but Train of Thought captured a moment in underground hip hop that can never be replicated. Still dope though.
40. Young Jeezy – Thug Motivation 102: The Inspiration
Released: December 12, 2006
Preceded by: Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101
Better than the debut? No way. Thug Motivation 102: The Inspiration is bigger and helped cement Young Jeezy’s superstar status, but Thug Motivation 101 is a top five trap album of all time. There’s no debate about it.
39. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – Wanted: Dead or Alive
Released: August 14, 1990
Preceded by: Road to the Riches
Better than the debut? Absolutely. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo just kept getting better and better with each release. While Road to the Riches was 10-tracks of G Rap just eating up the mic, Wanted: Dead or Alive is thematically and sonically richer, with some classic storytelling raps sprinkled throughout.
38. N.W.A. – Niggaz4Life
Released: May 28, 1991
Preceded by: Straight Outta Compton
Better than the debut? No, but you can hear Dre’s production IQ really expanding on here and some the earliest seeds of what would become the G-funk movement.
37. KRS-One – KRS-One
Released: October 10, 1995
Preceded by: Return of the Boom Bap
Better than the debut? The Premo-laced “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” is arguably the most iconic KRS-One song ever (besides “South Bronx” and “The Bridge is Over”), but Return of the Boom Bap is his best solo album.
36. Common – Resurrection
Released: October 4, 1994
Preceded by: Can I Borrow a Dollar?
Better than the debut? 100%. Can I Borrow a Dollar? was street corner freestyles from a young Chicago rapper still finding his voice and sound. Released two years, Resurrection is a fully-formed LP that featured Common and his frequent collaborator No I.D. in top form.
35. A$AP Rocky – AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP
Released: May 26, 2015
Preceded by: LONG.LIVE.A$AP
Better than the debut? Yes. Rocky’s debut was incredible, but there were moments on there that felt forced. As dope as “Fuckin’ Problems”, “Wild for the Night” and “1 Train” are, they never truly felt like they belonged on the album. AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP is a much more realised version of Rocky and Yams’ vision for their music, and absolutely one of the best rap sophomore albums of all time.
34. EPMD – Unfinished Business
Released: August 1, 1989
Preceded by: Strictly Business
Better than debut? No but it’s still a classic. EPMD has one of the best album runs of any hip hop act in history.
33. Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique
Released: July 25, 1989
Preceded by: Licensed to Ill
Better than the debut? Super tough pick. I’ll never be able to say definitively which album is better, they’re both so different. It’s really a matter of which producer you prefer listening to the Beast Boys rhyme over – Rick Rubin or The Dust Brothers.
32. Gang Starr – Step in the Arena
Released: January 15, 1991
Preceded by: No More Mr. Nice Guy
Better than the debut? Absolutely. Guru’s rapping and Premo’s production levelled up on this album, resulting in a project leagues ahead of their debut.
31. Pete Rock & CL Smooth – The Main Ingredient
Released: October 8, 1994
Preceded by: Mecca and the Soul Brother
Better than the debut? Tough, tough one. I personally like The Main Ingredient more than Mecca and the Soul Brother, but their debut album has “Lots of Lovin'”, “Straighten It Out”, and of course, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” so I don’t know. The Main Ingredient feels more cohesive to me, as strange as that sounds, so I’ll go with that one.
30. Drake – Take Care
Released: November 15, 2011
Preceded by: Thank Me Later
Better than the debut? Definitely. Thank Me Later was a typical blockbuster debut for a breakout star with big-name features and super-producers onboard, but it lacked the qualities that made So Far Gone such an endearing Drake project. For Take Care, Drake’s long-time collaborator, 40, touches almost every song on the album, and it shows up in the project’s cohesiveness and running themes.
Drake: Thank Me Later was a rushed album. I didn’t get to take the time that I wanted to on that record. I rushed a lot of the songs and sonically I didn’t get to sit with the record and say, ‘OK, well maybe I should change this verse.’ Once it was done, it was done. That’s why my new album is called Take Care, because I get to take my time this go-round.Drake admits last album was “rushed” | Digital Spy
29. Redman – Dare Iz a Darkside
Released: November 22, 1994
Preceded by: Whut? Thee Album
Better than the debut? Yes! Redman is another rapper who managed to pump out 3-4 straight classics in a row. Dare Iz a Darkside is funkier, darker and more aggressive than his debut, and it’s a thrilling ride the whole way through.
28. The Roots – Do You Want More?!!!??!
Released: January 17, 1995
Preceded by: Organix
Better than the debut? Of course. It’s actually kinda unfair to compare Do You Want More?!!!??! and Organix, seeing as though the latter was more of a demo release The Roots created to sell during their European tour.
27. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Released: October 24, 2014
Preceded by: Run the Jewels
Better than the debut? Hell fucking yeah. If you thought Run the Jewels wouldn’t be able to match the energy of their debut, you were wrong. On their sophomore, it’s harder beats, harder rhymes, Zack de la Rocha shows up. And “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1” sounds like the apocalypse.
26. Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever
Released: June 3, 1997
Preceded by: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Better than the debut? If Wu-Tang Forever was trimmed down from a double album, then maybe it could have stood a chance against their debut. But with 27 tracks and nearly 2 hours runtime, there’s just too much bloat and filler.
Side note: here’s how I would have turned Wu-Tang Forever into a single album:
- “For Heavens Sake”
- “Cash Still Rules/Scary Hours”
- “As High As Wu-Tang Get”
- “Severe Punishment”
- “A Better Tomorrow”
- “It’s Yourz”
- “Deadly Melody”
- “The M.G.M.”
25. J Dilla – Donuts
Released: February 7, 2006
Preceded by: Welcome 2 Detroit
Better than the debut? The impact of J Dilla’s Donuts can never be overstated. Crafted during his last days, the album has gone on to influence producers and artists alike for the next decade and beyond. Is it better than Welcome 2 Detroit? I’m going to have to say yes.
24. Lupe Fiasco – The Cool
Released: December 18, 2007
Preceded by: Food & Liquor
Better than the debut? Food & Liquor is a classic, but The Cool is an even better follow-up that features Lupe’s signature wordplay and storytelling at its peak.
23. T.I. – Trap Muzik
Released: August 19, 2003
Preceded by: I’m Serious
Better than the debut? For sure. Trap Muzik is when T.I. really came into his own by refining his rapping and his chemistry with DJ Toomp. It’s one of the most influential Southern rap albums of all time.
22. Eminem – The Slim Shady LP
Released: February 23, 1999
Preceded by: Infinite
Better than the debut? Of course, but it feels unfair comparing Infinite – an independent album Eminem was making while he still trying to find his voice – with The Slim Shady LP – a major label debut with Dr. motherfucking Dre behind the boards. If anything, we should be comparing this album with The Marshall Mathers LP, in which case the latter wins.
21. DMX – Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood
Released: December 22, 1998
Preceded by: It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot
Better than the debut? It’s really a matter of preference with DMX’s first two albums. Dropped within 8 months of each other, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood turned DMX into a bonafide superstar and helped shift hip hop away from Puffy’s shiny suit era back to the streets.
20. The Pharcyde – Labcabincalifornia
Released: November 14, 1995
Preceded by: Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde
Better than the debut? Oh man, how do you pick between these two? Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is one of the best hip hop debut albums ever made and was an incredible showcase of the group’s absurd sense of aesthetics. Plus “Passin’ Me By” is one of the greatest rap songs of all time. But Labcabincalifornia features some of Dilla’s best work and was arguably the producer’s breakthrough album. I think “Runnin'” pushes their sophomore album up to the top spot, but just barely.
19. Eric B. & Rakim – Follow the Leader
Released: July 25, 1988
Preceded by: Paid in Full
Better than the debut? Sometimes it can be hard to separate an album’s impact vs. an album’s quality. Paid in Full is in the top five most influential rap albums of all time, having literally changed the craft of rhyming forever, but the sophomore is better in every way – the production is faster and darker, the rapping more fluid and complex. The best way to put it is: Paid in Full was revolutionary, while Follow the Leader is evolutionary.
18. Big Daddy Kane – It’s a Big Daddy Thing
Released: September 19, 1989
Preceded by: Long Live the Kane
Better than the debut? It’s weird, It’s a Big Daddy Thing is clearly the superior product with the rapping and the production, but I’ll also feel that Long Live the Kane is the best Big Daddy Kane album.
17. Nas – It Was Written
Released: July 2, 1996
Preceded by: Illmatic
Better than the debut? I mean, of course not, but what album could top Illmatic? The conversation should really be about the importance of It Was Written in Nas’ catalogue. Without the commercial success of his sophomore, there’s a very real chance that Nas’ career would have been panned out the way it did to cement him as one of the greatest rappers of all time.
16. Dr. Dre – 2001
Released: November 16, 1999
Preceded by: The Chronic
Better than the debut? How does an artist follow up a masterpiece like The Chronic? Well, with another masterpiece like 2001. The only thing is, where Dre’s debut album was filled with bangers front-to-back, 2001 suffers from a much weaker half, after a sensational first half that included tracks like “The Watcher”, “Fuck You”, “Still D.R.E.”, “Xxplosive”, “What’s the Difference”, “Forgot About Dre”, and “The Next Episode.” I find myself skipping a lot of songs on 2001, something I rarely do while listening to The Chronic.
15. De La Soul – De La Soul Is Dead
Released: May 14, 1991
Preceded by: 3 Feet High and Rising
Better than the debut? I’m going to say yes, only because of preference, but honestly De La Soul have never missed their albums.
14. Boogie Down Productions – By All Means Necessary
Released: May 31, 1988
Preceded by: Criminal Minded
Better than the debut? By All Means Necessary is an incredible evolution for KRS-One, who began transitioning from from his path as a confrontational 9mm-toting rhymeslinger towards being a teacher (even though he’s gripping an uzi on this album’s artwork). Criminal Minded is one of my favourite rap albums of all time so I’ll have to go with that.
13. UGK – Super Tight
Released: August 30, 1994
Preceded by: Too Hard to Swallow
Better than the debut? Super Tight is incredible, but it had the unfortunate fate of coming after UGK’s masterpiece debut, Too Hard to Swallow, and their third album, Ridin’ Dirty, the duo’s best work ever.
12. GZA – Liquid Swords
Released: November 7, 1995
Preceded by: Words from the Genius
Better than the debut? Released in 1991 via Cold Chillin’, GZA’s debut was the result of the record label trying to mould him in the shadow of Big Daddy Kane. It’s a complete flop but the failure of the album led to GZA linking up with the equally-disgruntled RZA to plot their takeover of the music industry. Short answer: yes 1000% Liquid Swords is better than GZA’s debut.
11. Fugees – The Score
Released: February 13, 1996
Preceded by: Blunted on Reality
Better than the debut? I think the fact that I forget the Fugees released an album before The Score answers this question.
10. Kanye West – Late Registration
Released: August 30, 2005
Preceded by: The College Dropout
Better than the debut? You can get into a good (heated) debate with any Kanye fan about their favourite album of his. For my money, I’ll go with Late Registration just because I feel like Kanye really stepped it up across the board, with his improved rapping and adding in the orchestral elements to the production. But I can definitely understand the strong feeling people have for The College Dropout.
9. Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele
Released: February 8, 2000
Preceded by: Ironman
Better than the debut? For sure. Ironman was a Wu-Tang album that featured Ghostface as the headliner, whereas Supreme Clientele is truly a Ghost album and represents everything we love about him.
8. The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death
Released: March 25, 1997
Preceded by: Ready to Die
Better than the debut? Absolutely. I honestly can’t understand why more people don’t feel this way. Ready to Die was one of the best rap debuts ever, but Life After Death is literally the reason why Big is considered one of the greatest rappers of all time, with only two albums. He proved that he could do everything better than every rapper in the game, whether it was storytelling, battle raps, radio smashes, introspection, rapping like Bone Thugs – Big became a GOAT on this album.
7. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Released: October 22, 2012
Preceded by: Section.80
Better than the debut? Yes. Section.80 did a great job introducing Kendrick Lamar to the world and positioning him as the next great rapper of his generation, but good kid, m.A.A.d city is a hip hop movie, in every sense of the word. It’s one of the greatest concept albums in rap history and certainly the best major label debut by any rapper in the past 10 years.
6. Mobb Deep – The Infamous
Released: April 25, 1995
Preceded by: Juvenile Hell
Better than the debut? Fuck yeah. It’s not even a question to asked: The Infamous vs. Juvenile Hell. Now if you wanted to make it messy, you would ask what’s the better album between The Infamous and Hell on Earth. Now that’s tough.
5. Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury
Released: November 28, 2006
Preceded by: Lord Willin’
Better than the debut? Absolutely. What Hell Hath No Fury lacked in a timeless anthem like “Grindin'” it more than made up for better rapping from the Clipse and superior production from The Neptunes. For what it’s worth, Pusha thinks this is the best album he’s ever released (we agree with him).
4. OutKast – ATLiens
Released: August 27, 1996
Preceded by: Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
Better than the debut? It depends. I’d be hard pressed to argue definitely for one OutKast album over another OutKast album. Personally I prefer Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik for its rich Southern palette, but ATLiens played a huge part in separating OutKast from their peers.
3. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Released: June 24, 1988
Preceded by: Yo! Bum Rush the Show
Better than the debut? A million times yes! According to Chuck D, shortly after dropping Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the group heard Eric B. & Rakim “I Know You Got Soul” and felt like their album instantly sounded dated. So they got back into the lab and created “Rebel Without A Pause.” It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the type of album that you hold up 20, 50, 100 years from its release as a watershed moment in hip hop history.
2. Ice Cube – Death Certificate
Released: October 29, 1991
Preceded by: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted
Better than the debut? Fuck this is the toughest pick on this entire list. On AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted you got Cube rhyming over the spine-rattling funk of the Bomb Squad but Death Certificate is so fucking good. I’ll go with this album, for today anyway.
1. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
Released: September 24, 1991
Preceded by: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
Better than the debut? Of course, and that’s not taking anything away from People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, but The Low End Theory was just that impactful. According to Tip, Dr. Dre was listening to this album to inspire him to create The Chronic. The best hip hop sophomore album of all time? You’re goddamn right!